Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico

This essay is part of the photo essay, "Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico."

A singular visual scheme defines the precariousness of Tulum: abandoned yards, old tires, trash, a few chickens or dogs running around, and the smell of excrement. Blue, red, pink, purple, violet garments hang from clotheslines in the yards lending movement and structure to these apparently disordered scenes. Most of the homes consist of one room with a couple of hammocks, a fridge, a television, and a bed for the parents. The homes are often made of cardboard and plywood, of found debris. In the mornings and in late afternoons, people walk through their neighborhood on their way to work, to supermercado Willis, or to attend service at one of the many evangelical temples. They look into each other’s yards and salute friends and family. Women cook outdoors and use their washing machines installed in the yards. As we walk around with a camera, conveying the intent to photograph, we become one more element of this visual scheme. While the photographs capture moments of the interaction between the photographer and the subjects, the open flow of our writing purposely conveys the experience of walking around town engaging people in conversation. While the text does not explain, interpret, or draw ethnographic knowledge from the photographs, the photographs do not illustrate the text. We abstain from using captions to underscore the collective memory embedded in the narratives and the force inherent to the presents captured by the photographs.1

Until the mid-1970s, Tulum was a small, quiet town. On the Caribbean side of Mexico, close to Mayan ruins, few cabanas lined its broad, white beach, and these buildings drew mainly archaeologists. Targeted for tourist expansion, Tulum has become the head of a newly founded municipality and, now with a population of 20,000, is programmed to grow to 250,000 in the next decade. Over the years, it has seen spurts of growth: first, eco-chic small hotels along the beach; more recently the Aldea Zama, an artificial city that will allow those inside to commune with nature. The infrastructure needed to absorb this growth remains to be built. The planned exclusive city of Aldea Zama, El Corazón de Tulum in the promotional pamphlets, already has an infrastructure laid out, which includes a street called La Quinta Avenida reserved for luxury stores. On the other side of town, the Infonabit (the government-sponsored lending system for worker’s housing) has already traced the streets out for building pigeonhole apartments. The expectation of growth is visually manifest in the large, empty parking lot outside the recently inaugurated Chedrauri, a chain of megastores known for its disregard for the ecologically fragile terrain where many of the stores have been built. Four gas stations have been added. The population growth of Quintana Roo, the state where Tulum is located, has been fueled by immigration. It is said that thousands have been seduced (when not forced by riot police or paramilitaries) into fleeing from lands that belonged to their communities, often in the form of ejidos (communal lands distributed by the state). To date, the men and women who told us their stories have never returned to their rural homes in Tabasco, Veracruz, and Chiapas. They recalled these places with love and nostalgia. Women spoke of how they cried in the dark, terrified in their solitude, when they first arrived in Tulum. Others recalled the displacement from Cancun, first to Playa del Carmen and later to Tulum—places where they could swim at endless, deserted beaches and listen to the flocks of parrots in the forest—beaches from which they are now barred. Those are the lucky ones who have avoided alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. The index of suicide in Quintana Roo is the highest in Mexico. And yet people smiled when they talked to us.

We are conscious that the images will invite the viewers to wonder how is it possible that people can smile while living under poverty, pollution, and displacement—all consequences of modernization and the creation of spaces for our delight. Other viewers will not even be surprised by the banality of poverty. The aestheticization of poverty and suffering haunts the photography of precarious life. Capturing smiles and laughter carries the burden of trivialization: How can the poor laugh or smile back under the oppressive states in which they live? One cannot but offer an oblique response to the why of their smiles. It is as if in smiling they evoke centuries of oppression and rebellion, as if precarious life, the survival on a day-to-day basis, were grounds of collectivity. The shared present of the taking of the photographs, of the conversations, the exchange of smiles—for we also smiled—entailed communion, a commonality of purpose, hospitality. There was an opening that invited us to sit and converse. Theirs was a hospitality, perhaps an ethics and politics of friendship, that should not be confused with the charitable acceptance of the “other” by those in power; rather, the smiles were gifts with no expectation of reciprocity. For they were not dismissive grins, expressions of tolerance for our intrusion into their daily lives, into their intimate thoughts. The stories we invoke, however, were hardly a smiling matter.

Concepción and Tania first came to the magical Riviera Maya in 1973 to work on the construction of the mega-touristic complex of Cancun. In the history of Cancun, one reads that it was one of five ideal places that were officially approved for development in 1969 by the Bank of Mexico (the other four were Ixtapa, Loreto, Los Cabos, and Huatulco). The first INFRATUR (Trust for the Promotion of Tourism Infrastructure) technicians arrived in 1970. Concepción and Tania were among the first imported laborers. Concepción was part of the work crews that were brought from Tabasco, Chiapas, and Veracruz under the auspices of a trabajo y techo—work-and-roof—contracts. He recalls dynamiting the forest. Tania remembers living in fear of rape, hiding at night in an environment plagued by femicide. She cooked for the workers in temporary kitchens set up in the camps. Other women were less fortunate, having been forced into prostitution. In 2006, Concepción and Tania moved to Tulum from Playa del Carmen in pursuit of the quiet of nature that was once enjoyed in Playa. We later learned that they had returned to Playa, apparently after being fired from the hotel where they worked. Hotels use short contracts of eighty-eight days to avoid the law that requires granting benefits after three months of employment. These work conditions are not unique to Tulum—or Mexico for that matter.

To understand the temporality of the smile we captured photographically and in conversation, we may benefit from François Hartog’s (2012) reference to the French sociologist Robert Castel’s use of the term précariat, a composite of precarious and proletariat. It is in this state of vulnerability that the distinction between a past, a future, and a present disappears in what Hartog has named présentisme. The concept of the precariat enables Hartog to draw a distinction according to the place one occupies in society. Presentism implies two modalities in the experience of time. On the one hand, one finds acceleration in the neoliberal belief of inexhaustible expansion, while on the other, one finds a decelerating present without past as lived by the precariat: the immigrant, the exiled, and the displaced (Hartog 2012, 17). This partial list conveys the wide range of experiences of presentism, of a closed future among the precariat in Tulum. And yet the possibility of radical politics, of a utopian impulse, may also come into being in a present, in terms of a temporality that Walter Benjamin (1969, 263) defined in contradistinction to historical progress as the jetztzeit, “‘the time of the now’ which is shot through with the chips of Messianic time.” The smiles and laughter captured by the photographs and the voices invoked in the written component of this photo essay, seek to convey the potential for insurrection, the joy of rebellion. Our conception of the precariat differs radically from Guy Standing’s (2011, 1) warning: “They are becoming a dangerous class. They are prone to listen to ugly voices, and to use their votes and money to give those voices a political platform of increasing influence.”

If for Hartog the precariat is a consequence of neoliberal, market-oriented policies, in Tulum, and, we would add in the third world in general, the condition pre-exists the financial and political crisis often cited as marking the beginnings of neoliberalism. This does not mean that neoliberal policies have not affected deeply regions of the world where Fordism, just to mention one model, was never implemented or generalized to the majority of the population. Precarious life is not a recent condition that can be dated by the financial crises in the first world. The photography of Nacho López, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and Hector García, to limit ourselves to the most well known, documented precarious life in the ciudades perdidas, the slums of Mexico City in the first half of the twentieth century, when there were the first massive migrations from the countryside. This is not to say that neoliberal policies have not exacerbated the plight of the precariat. We cannot underscore this more.

We may mention the modification of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution during Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s presidency (1988–1994), which opened the legal channels for the sale of ejido lands in 1992. The establishment of ejidos was first conceived for land distribution in Mexico after the revolution of 1910. Under the ejido, families control the plots while the land is legally held by the community. Thousands of petitions of ejido lands remained pending when Salinas reformed Article 27. Salinas’s modification constituted an affront to indigenous people throughout Mexico. It is often listed as one of the main factors leading to the Zapatista uprising in 1994, on the eve of the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This was one of the many changes that completed the turn to neoliberalism characterized by the privatization of state-owned industries and the encouragement of foreign investors that had been initiated by his predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988). Low productivity of farmlands, which actually means the disregard for profit, figures as one of the main justifications for the reform, for easing the sale of ejido lands. This argument completely disregards indigenous forms of life, particularly the Mesoamerican culture of maize now threatened by NAFTA, which stipulated a timetable for opening the border to the importation of inexpensive corn grown in the U.S. The desirability of the lands for development geared towards the tourist industry underlies the sale of ejido land in Tulum. After the reform of Article 27, rule by consensus gave place to majority rule; attaining fifty-one percent eased the legal channels for the sale of land and the recognition of the buyer as an ejidatario. Arriving at consensus could always be manipulated; however, it was much more difficult than attaining the mere majority now in place. If we single out the destruction of el campo, a shorthand for the self-sufficiency of the ejido and communal lands, it is not to limit the effects of neoliberal policies on land ownership.

Among the people we spoke with, there is the temporality of the ill with limited access to health services, of those in jail without recourse to justice, of political actors crushed by insurmountable corruption, of indigenous people dwelling in elsewheres to modernity. Consider a twenty-nine-year-old mother without a source of income caring for five children, a son fighting to liberate his unjustly imprisoned mother, an old couple preparing pozol on a daily basis in a isolated backyard to sell in the evenings, a lawyer defending an innocent man accused of murder lacking the resources to file a recurso de amparo (an instrument for protecting constitutional rights), a young man reading a newspaper in a makeshift bicycle shop, an evangelical minister who heals the community of the vulnerable, a Maya priest recollecting the nineteenth-century insurrection of Chan Santa Cruz, the so-called war of the Castes.

It has often been argued that the time of photography is the present. And yet what is meant by this use of presentism varies widely: from Roland Barthes’s (1981, 77) claim that photographs incessantly assert that-has-been, “the irrefutably present, and yet already deferred”; to John Berger’s (1991, 51) reading of Paul Strand’s unique sense of duration as capturing the “historic” moment, never more manifest than in the willingness of the subject to say I am as you see me, wherein the “the exposure time is the lifetime.” The photographs of Tulum differ from the historic of Berger’s reading of Strand and the phenomenological instantiation of Barthes’s reflections on photography in that they seek to evoke a precarious present that conveys the fragility of lives without past and future. The recorded stories do not necessarily correspond to the people participating in the making of the images, and yet these recounted lives compose collective memories irreducible to the individuals. The men and women we spoke with and who opened up to the photographer made their vulnerable and precarious existence manifest. For one becomes vulnerable while telling one’s intimate stories and lending one’s face without asking for anything in return, fully conscious of participating in the making of a photograph.

We used a Nikon F2 and a Hasselblad 500/C camera. Whereas the Nikon was readily identified, leading subjects to salute, the Hasselblad appeared a strange artifact leading subjects to ask what it was or to tell stories about uncles who used cameras with winding cranks. These cameras became agents that defined the situation and depth of conversation. In the exchange of gazes, we found a tacit acceptance that nonetheless involved surprise and fluidity. The Hasselblad, with a waist-level viewfinder, enabled us to make portraits at a slow pace that allowed for intimacy. The subjects were full participants in the composition of the pictures. We played with their spontaneous posing, from stiff postures to playful leanings on windowsills, to mothers herding children into the frame. Little would be gained from looking for data—if any is found the viewer should consider it the result of the photographic optical unconscious (Benjamin 1999). The Hasselblad lends itself to making static, dense images, but even in the fluid wide-angled photographs using the Nikon, the objective was not to record information but to explore worlds of affect—states of joy, desire, melancholy, ennui that the photographs may invoke with the aid of the recorded stories.

The precariat and the presentism of the smiles—invoked in the juxtaposition of stories of oppression and photographs of seemingly unaffected subjects—encompass a wide range of actors. In the implementation of imagining precarious life in Tulum, we have conceived ourselves as forming part of this precariat. The people we engaged in conversation were never conceived as an Other to be documented but as actors in a shared political field. Even when we have assumed the role of writers and photographers, the recorded voices and imprinted light testify to the subjects’ agency. The stories invoke a collective memory for imagining the lifetime of the subjects with whom the photographs were made. The precariat’s experience of presentism conveys the burden of a time with a closed future, and a past filled with nostalgia and the recollection of fear and apprehension. The future is blocked, and yet the smiling and laughing subjects convey the potential for insurgency.


1. We have drawn from wide range of writings in our project of photographing and writing about precarious life in Tulum. In Walker Evans and James Agee’s (2010) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, we found an instance in which photography and writing create parallel independent texts based on a common experience. In our reflection on ordinary affect, we have benefitted from Kathleen Stewart’s (2007) experimental ethnography in Ordinary Affects. Like Stewart, we do not pretend to represent voices, but rather to evoke the many conversations we held with people we spontaneously engaged in the streets while photographing. Jane Bennet’s (2010) Vibrant Matter has offered a way to conceptualize the agency of inert objects. From Michel Serres (2008), The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, we learned how to understand writing and photography as involved in transitions from hard to soft and from soft to hard. Writing does not merely produce information, but carries an echo of our voices and the voices we invoke. On the other hand, photography turns hardness (light, bodies, situations, movement, etc.) into softness (the image, representation) not intended to record information but to create hard objects with a life of their own, vibrant agents in se. Michael Taussig’s writings, most recently What Color Is the Sacred? (2009), has inspired us to tell theoretically informed stories that remain unburdened by theory.


Agee, James, and Walker Evans. 2010. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction. Edition includes photographs by Walker Evans. New York: The Library of America. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men originally published in 1939.

Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999 (1931). “Little History of Photography.” In Selected Writings, Vol. 2, pt. 2, 1931–1934. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, 508–30. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.

Benjamin, Walter. 1968 (1940). “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn, 253–64. New York: Schocken Books.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Berger, John. 1991. About Looking. New York: Vintage International.

Hartog, François. 2012. Régimes d’historicité: Présentisme et experiences de temps. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Serres, Michel. 2008. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. New York: Continuum.

Standing, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Taussig, Michael. 2009. What Color Is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.