Matthew O’Hara

Research Project Title: 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

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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. 

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."