Olin Moctezuma-Burns speaks about her PhD and community work and how it explores the process of making history
I’m interested in how we can use the present to interpret gaps in the past and in how we make history.Olin Moctezuma-Burns
Olin Moctezuma-Burns  is keen not to repeat the patterns of some past researchers and to give back to the communities she studies. For that reason she recently co-organised an international gathering of Imagining Futures projects on archiving indigenous and traditional knowledges in Sotuta, Yucatan.
The meeting brought together people from Colombia, Peru, Kenya, Tanzania, Australia, England, USA, Canada, Mexico and others, to take part in workshops with the aim of creating a manifesto advocating for egalitarian archival practices. The meeting came about as a result of a grant Olin won to create a community archive in Sotuta. The archive builds on the work Olin has done in her PhD on kitchen archives in Mexico and England.
Olin was born in central Mexico and grew up in a forest outside the small town of Poxtla, known as Mexico’s cheese factory. Her parents are environmental activists and built their own eco-house. Olin’s father is Mexican and her mother is from the US, which she says means she has one foot inside Mexico and one outside. Olin, who has three siblings, was able to see the contrasts between the different worlds she grew up in – a small, marginalised town in Mexico and family vacations in the US, plus extensive travel around South America and Europe. “It really shaped me,” she states.
As a young child she attended the small schools in her area, but the quality of education offered was not high so she opted to go to Mexico City – a three-hour trip each way – for high school. Even so, she says the standard of education was not good and she studied a lot on her own. Nevertheless, she loved education and was interested in a broad range of subjects. However, because she lacked the basic foundations in science, she lacked confidence in science and leaned more towards the humanities, but was later able to integrate the humanities with her interest in science when she discovered the history of science.
She describes herself as very independent and she would spend long hours exploring the river beds and walking outdoors. Her parents were always very busy and she attended a lot of protests and training workshops for activists. One of the focuses of protest was the building of a highway which destroyed trees and an archaeological site and essentially converted the town into a suburb of Mexico City. “People were bombarded daily with positive messages about the highway bringing progress, but it was a radical change which erased a lot of the identity of the place and the building of a Walmart and other chain stores destroyed small businesses,” says Olin.
She moved to Mexico City and worked as a waitress and selling cakes to earn enough money to be able to support her living expenses through a university degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Through university she did translation work and proofreading. Olin’s degree was in English. She found her first two years difficult as many of the other students were from private school and had had a better education. She and her fellow public school students struggled to catch up. “I had no idea what an essay was or how to write it and there was no support,” says Olin. Being very independent, she took a proactive approach to her studies.
At the end of her course, she had to do a dissertation. She chose to focus on devotional poetry in England. This came about after health problems led to Olin being diagnosed with epilepsy which got worse with stress, causing hallucinations. On reading the devotional poets she felt their poems were describing what she was experiencing.
Olin finished her degree in 2017 and spent a year travelling and working. She wanted to do a master’s, but didn’t want to stay studying literature so she applied to do a master’s at University College London. It was an interdisciplinary degree which spanned everything from literature to science and meant she could learn different disciplinary methodologies. Olin’s studies focused on the period from 1450 to 1777. During her studies, which were partially funded by a scholarship, she had to combine her studies with childcare and house renovation jobs to pay her way. “It was intense,” she says, “as the master’s was very demanding.”
After her master’s, Olin took a year off before she began her PhD at Cambridge in 2020. She had applied very late, not thinking she would qualify, but encouraged by a friend who was studying there. She originally sent her PhD proposal to the Faculty of English, but they said it was more suited to History of Science. She arrived in Cambridge two months late due to Covid visa problems and found the archives were closed for several months due to the pandemic. She had to change the focus on her thesis twice as a result of lack of access to material.
The original focus was due to be on receipts for seeds and plants in the early modern period. “I wanted to study how plants moved across the world, but I realised I would not have time to get access to the inventories I needed because of Covid,” she says. She discovered that there were a lot of digitised recipe books and decided she could study how knowledge is constructed through writing and how it translates from one country to another. However, she started questioning this focus in 2022 because all the recipe books she was accessing were from elite households and therefore only showed the past from a very privileged perspective. So instead her thesis compares and contrasts how English and Mexican recipe books in the early modern period came to be written and how historians approach the two different contexts of buildi
ng botanic knowledge. “It became a reflection on how we build archives and histories,” she says.
The region in Mexico she studies, Yucatan, had only around 10 local recipe books compared with the hundreds in England due to its history. “I’m interested in how we can use the present to interpret gaps in the past and in how we make history,” says Olin.
Alongside her PhD, Olin began doing community work in Mexico. She felt the need to give something back and to ensure she didn’t repeat the pattern of western scholars going into Mexican towns and drawing on their history purely for their own purposes. So instead she developed a project to help local people build a community archive, for instance, looking at the history of food – from harvesting to processing and using it in celebrations, with kitchen gardens and their layout occupying a central space as a way of understanding that history. She has been working with Cultiva and other local grassroots organisations and hopes to continue to build the archives after finishing her PhD.
Olin says she has benefited greatly from the Gates Cambridge community. “Other scholars pushed me and helped me put things into context when I was questioning the relevance of my research,” she says. “They helped me test my ideas.”