The Department of State, Safety, and Archives: Research in a Conflict Zone

Rainy day at Parícutin Volcano

“Don’t travel at night, don’t travel by car, and don’t travel out of the city,” the words of the Department of State (DoS) repeated over and over in my head as we zipped along the small highway in darkness. “It’s fine,” reassured the friend of a friend driving the car. She was from the area and promised that it was safe. And it had been. We spent an entire day in Uruapan, Angahuan, and Patzcuaro—all in the red “Do Not Travel” zone of Michoacán, Mexico according to the DoS. I knew this as I scheduled my trip, but how could I tell the environmental and cultural history of a volcano without seeing it? I had to experience the landscape and the volcano for myself.

Unfortunately, I had glanced at the local news headlines before leaving Morelia, a large city in Michoacán to which the DoS allowed travel. The headlines showed grim stories about murder and gang activity throughout the state. Rattled by DoS restrictions and alarming news articles, I felt apprehensive. When we reached Parícutin, the small volcano that constitutes the topic of my dissertation, I finally felt at ease. Climbing over huge lava rocks at the volcano was the only place I could let go of DoS warnings. My elation at walking the same ground as the locals, scientists, and tourists that I study supplanted all other feelings.

Parícutin volcano
The hills surrounding the Parícutin volcano are all extinct cinder cones disguised by plant growth. Photo by author.
[Image description: a volcano in the middle of trees and clouds.]

The drive to the volcano welcome center was enlightening. I noticed old cinder cones disguised by vegetation covering the landscape. I had seen aerial photos of the area, but to observe one after another in the distance with my own eyes impressed upon me their true abundance. The foliage had not yet reached Parícutin, the newest cinder cone that emerged in 1943. Walking along the path through the pine forest gave me a new perspective. I passed a tapped tree, reminding me of the importance of sap collection during the 1940s in these highland communities. When we came to the edge of an old lava flow, it astounded me how tall it was. In my research, I had found pictures of the black lava rocks towering over humans, but to stand next to it and crawl over the boulders showed me how much impact this volcano really had on the landscape.

Tree sap
In the 1940s, highland villagers collected sap for turpentine production. Photo by author.
[Image description: A tree with bark removed, and sap dripping into a container.]

Our detour to see a local festival was the second highlight of the trip. In Angahuan, which is one of the small villages that was impacted by Parícutin in the 1940s, we decided to stop at the crowded church courtyard. Music, banners, a procession, and the celebratory atmosphere drew us into the annual festival for Santiago Apóstol. Someone brought us kurundas, a typical party food similar to tamales. We also sampled soup and atole, a warm beverage made from corn. It did not matter to those celebrating that we were clearly outsiders. They welcomed us just the same and offered us their food and hospitality. Apart from the styrofoam dishes and digital cameras, I imagined the celebration was similar to those before the volcano erupted and displaced several communities in the early 1940s.

Soup at festival
Warm soup was thoroughly satisfying on this cold rainy day, especially in this festive atmosphere. Photo by Cristina Urias.
[Image description: a group of people crowded on a church courtyard under an array of colorful strings of flags; a woman stands with a cup of warm beverage in front, smiling at the camera.]

It’s been several years since I climbed the volcano and enjoyed atole in Angahuan, and the potential to visit the volcano has changed since then. Violence has increased exponentially. Gangs hung nineteen bodies from an overpass in Uruapan to make a statement in August 2019. Even locals like the friend of my friend wouldn’t make the same trip anymore, or at least she would do it with much more caution. The bodies that were strung up on the overpass made international news but local unrest is evident in the national newspapers. Recently the headlines highlighted drug cartel murders and police opposition. I have always found the news about Michoacán alarming, most likely because horrific murders are often front-page news. These stories are not always reflective of what’s happening on the ground. To get a sense for the current climate, you need to ask the people with family connections living there. Are they visiting their family members in Uruapan? In Angahuan? Of course, those people cannot vouch for your safety for the grant funding—it has to be someone affiliated with the University—but they are often the best judges of safety.

What I learned is that DoS warnings are just that, warnings. Local impressions of the area are a much more accurate measure of safety. Despite what the DoS and newspapers suggest, I ask people who have ties to the area if it is safe to travel there. Their knowledge and instincts are more reliable than any government assumptions.

Smiling on volcano
There’s nothing like experiencing the landscape first hand, as my wide smile attests. The church tower behind me is the only partially remaining building from a town covered by lava in 1944. The significance grows once you see how consuming the lava was. Photo by Cristina Urias.
[Image description: a smiling woman in raingear standing on lava with her arms wide open. There’s a church tower in the background.]

Unfortunately, DoS restrictions make federally funded research trips to the area almost impossible. Special permissions are required. In my case, for the day trip, it was easier to self-fund the trip. Financing my own archival visit would be harder to justify economically, because it would require at least a week. My project seeks to include many of the unheard stories about the volcano, most of which have never been written down or recorded by outside observers. The scientists and tourists hardly noticed the local people, yet the photographic record shows that they were there. The municipal and parish archives would offer a gold mine of information that would help me include those unheard voices that I so desperately try to extract from the sources I have access to.

Historians, like me, frequently deal with a lack of sources. This is how we shape and define our research parameters. The frustration, in this case, lies in the knowledge that the sources are out there, just not within my reach. Today, scholars from many disciplines are dealing with this same issue, especially now, in the context of the global pandemic which prevents us from traveling widely to collect information. Knowing that the data or archives are out there but beyond reach challenges us to reconcile our research questions in other ways. This is not a new struggle for historians; in fact, it defines our field and pushes us to look for different approaches, such as metadata photo analysis, which is my methodology. My hope is that the current shared inability to access brick and mortar archives expands our approaches and opens a collective conversation about source analysis.


*Cover image credit: A typical rainy day at Parícutin Volcano in the highlands of Michoacán, Mexico. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: Maguey plants in foreground, lava flow with some vegetation in mid-ground and cinder cone volcano in background. Rainy, cloudy weather.]