CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

El Río

Smithsonian Institution, Arts and Industries Building, Washington, DC. Project Directors: Olivia Cadaval and Cynthia Vidaurri

February 14-April 30, 2003


How are cultural identity, traditional knowledge, and sustainable development related in a particular place at a particular time? This is the main question explored by El Río, an exhibit created through the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The material culture, interactive vignettes, music, photographs, and films that comprise the exhibit prompt the viewer to question the multiple and often complex relationships among its main themes.

By focusing on a particular place—the Río Grande/Río Bravo basin on the border of the United States and Mexico—and how the people there live, a series of questions are raised: How are identities created and maintained? How does place affect culture? What is the relationship of the communities of the United States and Mexico to the Río Grande/Río Bravo basin, and how do the people who live there perceive themselves as carriers of traditional knowledge about culture and the environment? How do they perceive themselves as communities, individuals, or even nations? What is the compatibility of environmental and cultural projects?

A strong point of El Río is that many of these related questions are answered in the exhibit through current scholarship, particularly in border studies. Border studies have long been an important perspective in understanding American history.(1) During the past decade, however, scholarship has expanded beyond the borders themselves to examine identity politics and transnational projects.(2) This exhibit highlights these trends and serves as a effective storytelling space based on current methodological and theoretical perspectives.

The exhibit itself is comprised of several areas, separated by physical gaps rather than by titles. Each area tells several different stories emphasizing various aspects of culture and environment in places along the Río Grande/Río Bravo basin and highlighting relationships among the three main themes: traditional knowledge, cultural identity, and sustainable development. The exhibit is in both English and Spanish, with the English presented first at times, and the Spanish first at other times. This subtle but deliberate manipulation of the text allows the power of language to be shared, making it a truly bilingual as well as binational space.

The Río Grande/Río Bravo basin and its people are illustrated through a display map of the region that highlights particular places surrounding the basin, such as small towns. Without reference to Mexican versus American citizenship, the people are presented as a mix of Native American and Spanish descendants, as well as first generation inhabitants. A few direct references are made to specific tribal names or ethnic or racial groups with whom the people in the exhibit are affiliated. This lack of specificity regarding who these people are makes the viewer think about and question identity and how it is created and maintained. Rather than focus on nationality, or individual or group identities, the focus is on culture and traditional knowledge.

The second half of El Río raises questions about the maintenance of culture in the face of disparate environmental and political policies. Headphones are traded among visitors as they listen to ceremonial, social, and topical traditional music, and a discussion of how water policies conflict with traditional values, and watch videos of the corn dance. Power issues are emphasized through oral histories and artifacts related to religious cycles versus forced seasonal migrations, small local businesses versus corporations, and affordable housing for migrant communities. Artifacts associated with those isses include photographs and material culture from local businesses—barber chairs, meat market interiors, traditional herbs in a drug store, and adobe houses. This portion of the exhibit hints more openly at a primary concern with the emerging global relations of capital, the relationship between power and hegemonic constructions of culture and practice, and the position and outlook of the viewers themselves.

A series of questions concludes the exhibit: What are your environments? Is there traditional knowledge in your community? Can that knowledge maintain and improve the environment? Considering these questions places the visitor in the same position as the people of the Río Grande/Río Bravo basin, prompting the viewer to think about the extent to which globalization changes the techniques of social resistance.

Taking a page from border and transnational studies, El Río focuses on the complex social relations that link the people of the basin with both the United States and Mexico, with the environment and culture, and with modern technologies and traditional practices. The multiple relationships among the people who live in the Río Grande/Río Bravo basin are reflected in the development of familial, economic, social, religious, and political ties that span borders.

Erika K. Martin Seibert
National Park Service



1. For detailed discussions on border studies, see Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera 2nd Edition (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1999); Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 1989); Héctor Calderon and José David Saldívar, Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

2. Frances R. Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman, Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, University Press of New England, 1997); Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Politics, Postcolonial Predicaments and Deterritorialized Nation-States (London: Gordon and Breach, 1994); Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, eds., The Cultures of Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, eds., The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Donald E. Pease, ed., National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).