What you find on the actual — not virtual — book shelf: Richard Orlandini of Mitla.

I have not been able to engage in discussions about the merits of non-paper “books.” I admit to being a late-adapter (and there surely is an updated term for that in the marketing world, but as I said. . .)  Don’t tell me they’re better for the environment unless you’ve got some good numbers about how the worldwide rare-metal mining industry is going lately for the miners, not the corporate owners, or about all the bestsellers you can download in a nanosecond with your credit card.  Thank you.


One of the first books I picked up at the Oaxaca Lending Library confirms for me why Amazon.com and those Kindle things are not all that.  Someone has published – that is, printed up a stack of pages and melded them together within a cover of heavier paper – a marvelous thing that I’m reading, The Oaxaca Letters of Richard Orlandini (2004-2008).  You would not find this volume, or the titles near it on the “local history” shelf, to purchase, rent or read online.  And what a joy.

This is a load of email dispatches that this US/Canadian archaeologist has sent over those years to a group of professional and personal friends from his rooms at Mitla, an archaeological site and small village about 44 km from this city of Oaxaca.

An early entry states, “If I had had to do it all over again, I would have done the archaeology but would have also specialized in the ethnography of food.”  But you could substitute for the word “food,” textiles, linguistics, bargaining strategies for the mercado – anything.  There’s a longish paragraph on the rationale for wearing a beret instead of a typical straw hat, and a description of the stratigraphy viewable in the road cuts in a then-new highway that he calls “a geologist’s wet dream.” Several fascinating pages discuss conflicting theories on the domestication of corn and a few more lay out a discovery about the proportions of built structures in Mitla (later “greatly modified” that is, trashed, but insightful nonetheless).  This is a street-level report on the build-up to and aftermath of violent teacher actions in 2006 from an unapologetic Marxist. Mexican baseball?  It’s in here.

Part way through the book comes the hope that readers will forgive a break in his dispatches – the reason:  a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  He says his energy is sapped, but I don’t notice – he treks on, reading and rereading more than most educated people I know would even contemplate, and remains just as gruff and opinionated.  Indeed, I think his pages on “some of life’s little ironies” late in the book have some of the most accessible and poignant words on dying that I have read, with anger at “this cancer bullshit” and gratitude for the liberation that comes from dispensing with youthful fears of being wrong.

I notice that lots of friends far and distant appear in the book, though no life partner.  Living with the polymath would not be easy.  But what a fabulous guide!  Dinner partner!  Drinking pal!  The conversation would never end.   I was sorry I would never have the chance.

But here’s the thing.  I said how much I enjoyed the book and asked about him at the lending library, where expatriates hang out devotedly, and a place mentioned a lot in the emails.  “How long has he been gone?” I asked sadly.

My personal mourning ended when Jay said, “Oh he’s been dying for years, but hasn’t done it yet.”

Ron said, “But he’s going to tell you he’s sick. It’s all he talks about. “

“He’s coming in Monday to return his books,” Allen told me. “Let me get him on the phone.” He did.

So, Monday, I’ll meet this still-living wonder.


7 responses to “What you find on the actual — not virtual — book shelf: Richard Orlandini of Mitla.

  1. and… what happened? did you meet him?

  2. yes, did you? i met him while doing archaeology in Mitla in 2008 and 2010, and then on a visit in 2013. just wondering how he is doing…

  3. December 19, 2014
    Richard is still ‘hobbling along’ in Mitla and as full of life and opinionated as ever. Good days and bad days, he says. An amazing man.

    • whistleandblaster

      I thank Sheila for this update. I thought I would have been back in Oaxaca before this, and this bit makes me nostalgic.

  4. I have had the pleasure drinking beer with him, eating at his table, attending blue jays games, as well as briefly working for him when he owned “The Means of Production”, a company that produced high quality wood working benches. Richard is all that and a bag of chips too!

  5. It is with a heavy heart that I tell you that friends of Richard’s report his passing yesterday. I’m sure that anyone who has shared some time with this remarkable man will join with us in celebrating a life well lived.

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