Matthew O’Hara

The History of the Future in Mexico

Associate Professor of History
University of California, Santa Cruz, Department of History
Santa Cruz, California; United States of America

Capstone Conference Talk

SUNDAY (8/6) 1:20-1:40PM

The History of the Future in Mexico

Historians and other humanists have spent a great deal of energy studying historical legacies. The notion that “the past weighs heavily on the present” is now a standard mode of analysis in the humanities. In this project I turn our attention to the more common, but overlooked historical practices of “futuremaking.“ Placing time experience at the center of analysis forces us to rethink our interpretation of Mexico‘s past, where tradition and religious resources created opportunities for innovation. It also demands we rethink standard models of historical change. Colonial Mexico developed a culture of innovation, human aspiration, and futuremaking that was subsequently forgotten, in part because we now view modernity and innovation as secular conditions with few links to the past.


Capstone Conference Research Laboratory

SATURDAY (8/5) 4:00-5:10PM

Transcending Limits of Spaces and Times

The objective of this Research Laboratory is to explore the role of temporal and spatial boundaries for the enhancement of life. While refuge migration provides an example of how the crossing of spatial boundaries might save or enhance life, patience or enduring and embracing vulnerability of finite, temporal life point to the acceptance or cultivation of boundaries as modes of the enhancement of life. In addition to engaging the philosophical and sociological meanings of time and space for enhancing life, often in paradoxical ways, we also turn to the resources of the religions. In religious traditions, the ‚boundary management‘ between present and future and between (finite) time and eternity offer tools to discuss the topic of enhancing life in an differentiated way.

Research Laboratories allow audience members to interact with a panel of ELP Scholars and Interlocutors in addressing a problem of public relevance. We invite active participation from audience members in the creation of new knowledge.

Academic Biography

Matthew O'Hara is Associate Professor of History and Faculty Director of Undergraduate Honors Programs at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Spain’s Ministry of Culture, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

O'Hara is a historian of colonial and nineteenth-century Latin America, with a research focus on Mexico. His most recent book, A Flock Divided (Duke University Press, 2010), examined the invention of the term "Indian" in early Mexico and its implications for the country's politics and religious life. He previously co-edited, Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America  (Duke University Press, 2009).

He is currently working on a history of "futuremaking" in colonial Mexico, a book project that focuses on the ways that early modern Christianity shaped how colonial subjects imagined and manipulated the future. 

Project Executive Summary

Historians and other scholars have spent a great deal of energy studying historical legacies. The notion that "the past weighs heavily on the present" is now a standard mode of analysis.

Moving beyond this paradigm, my project turns our attention to the understudied practices of "futuremaking" and their relationship to the religious and cultural traditions of Christianity. Using colonial Mexico as a case study, my book examines how historical subjects thought about, planned for, and manipulated a future full of risk and uncertainty. Based primarily on archival materials, I consider a range of practices, from topics that we usually associate with religious studies (prayer, divination, preaching) to others that are typically the domain of economic historians (credit, futures markets, price theory).

Bringing together these diverse cases, which have never been grouped in one monograph, is meant to demonstrate the utility of organizing research around the problem of time experience, future imaginaries, and the human urge to enhance life, rather than the methods or concerns of traditional historical subfields. While my research is ongoing, the early findings are intriguing: colonial Mexico developed a culture of innovation and futuremaking that was subsequently forgotten, in part because it did not fit with later definitions of modernity and innovation as secular phenomena.

Through its methodology and case studies, this work speaks directly to the project goal of examining "religious and cultural traditions [that] provide rich repositories of ideas about the enhancement of life, theories of transformation over time and visions of the future."