Back to the future

In his 2018 book, The History of the Future in Colonial Mexico, professor of history Matt O’Hara explores a wide range of the period’s economic, political, and cultural practices to reveal “how colonial subjects used the resources of tradition and Catholicism to craft new futures.” Credit: Yale University Press (public domain).

Historians typically write about how the past has shaped the present. Professor Matt O’Hara contends it’s valuable to also consider how the past shaped the future. In his latest book, The History of the Future in Colonial Mexico (Yale University Press, 2018), O’Hara explores the world of colonial Mexico by asking questions about how people’s perceptions of the future prompted their actions.

“Sometimes we forget that the people we study, most of the time, were thinking about tomorrow or three weeks from then, or slightly more long-term,” O’Hara said. “How am I going to get through the year, or leave something to my kids?” O’Hara’s analysis of a broad range of archival materials, from legal documents to Inquisition records, shows how people living in 18th- and 19th-century Mexico—regardless of their education or social status—understood complex legal and theological issues. In addition to governing people’s daily activities with regards to finances, health, and the natural world, these dogmas also fashioned the future.

These woodcut illustrations, with printed labels in Spanish (left) and the Mayan language Huastec (right), prompted colonials—including Native peoples—to remember the Ten Commandments during confession, a practice that doggedly pressed penitents to relate past events to future actions. The church’s broad influence strongly affected how all people living in “New Spain” saw their own futures—this present, according to O’Hara, shaped that future. Credit: Juan de la Cruz, Doctrina christiana en la lengua Guasteca con la lengua castellana, 1571, John Carter Brown Library (CC BY-SA 4.0).

It’s become clear to O’Hara that critical thinking about what’s to come is essential to better understand both the past and present. “This last year proved the importance of thinking about the future,” he said, “because we all saw our futures change radically.”

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