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Robert V. Kemper
Department of Anthropology
Southern Methodist University
Dallas, TX 75275
[Do not cite or quote from this manuscript without written permission from the authors.]
The issue of indigenismo has been a constant throughout Mexico’s long history. Although only ten percent of its population is considered indigenous, that is, speaking an indigenous language, the concern for defining these heirs to the great pre-Columbian civilizations as well as a role for them is disproportionate to their numbers. The Zapatista movement, which includes indigenous rights within its agenda, has catapulted the indigenismo debate to the global scene where it has become part of a much larger indigenous rights conversation.
In this essay, we will address the issue of who is an Indian in Mexico as well as the broader question of identity, indigenous and ethnic, by using the examples of the Purépecha of Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, and the Isthmus Zapotec of Juchitán, Oaxaca. These two communities provide clear contrasts in perception and performance while, more recently, they illustrate some common strategies. Each of us – Kemper in Tzintzuntzan and Royce in Juchitán – has more than thirty-two years of ethnographic research from which to draw. It is a time frame that allows us to speak about change and trends.
Identity is crafted and claimed in the give-and-take of mutual perceptions. The stuff of those perceptions, both self-perception and perception by others, takes it shape from the depth and intimacy of knowledge. The more shallow the knowledge, the more likely that perceptions will fall back upon stereotypes; the more intimate, the more subtle distinctions will be made. Perceptions and judgments about performance adequacy are made on the basis of both visible markers and underlying values although clearly visible markers are more immediately accessible where the knowledge base is slim.
Boundaries and Double Boundaries
Fredrik Barth (1969) shifted our discussion of identity from an almost exclusive focus on the contents of identities to the boundaries between groups. Boundaries, as he noted, were more or less permeable depending on the nature of interactions. While the contents, or the visible markers of identity, could and did change with circumstance, whether or not a collectivity of individuals maintained a sense of common identity could readily be assessed by the marked-off nature of their being in the world. Simon Harrison has proposed a refinement in his recent discussion of boundaries. In it, he distinguishes cultural boundaries, those boundaries that demarcate bodies of symbolic practices, from ethnic boundaries which demarcate ethnic collectivities (1999:10).
Barth’s was a significant contribution because it moved us from product to process. Royce’s concept of double boundaries (1982) lets us examine perception and performance as those affect the claims, counter-claims, and imposition of identity.
Every identity group functions in terms of two boundaries, an inner and an outer. The inner boundary encloses the community of individuals which has intimate knowledge of values, symbols, and behaviors that define an identity distinct from surrounding groups. Individuals within this boundary can and do make much finer and more discriminating judgements about the adequacy of performance of themselves and others.
The outer boundary is the membrane that divides communities who share a more or less token knowledge of each other. Subordinate groups generally have a more refined understanding of the dominant group because it is essential for situational adoption of a higher status identity (passing) or, in some instances, survival. Dominant groups enjoy the privilege of the majority which allows them to remain ignorant of subordinates. Because their perception of subordinate groups is based on stereotypic knowledge, judgments about performance are minimal and relegated to caricature. When subordinate groups step outside the stereotypes, dominant groups often do not "see" the departure from their notions about what should be or, if they do, they resent what they understand as inappropriate claims to identity. In this kind of interaction between unequal parties, subordinates’ claims to an identity may not be accepted; instead, they may be assigned an identity more consonant with the perceptions of the dominant group.
In all cultural groups for whom identity is, either from time to time or almost continuously, a salient issue, there are identify individuals whose role it is to articulate identity (cf. Royce 1993). These are individuals who are repositories of knowledge about symbolic and behavioral aspects of identity who share that knowledge either intentionally as agents of change or passively as models.
Table 1 sets out the roles and responsibilities of four types and defines their positions vis-à-vis the inner and outer boundaries. It is important to remember that the table and the classification of roles within it are heuristic devices. Not every situation will call forth all four kinds of specialists; the need for different roles will change with time and context; and finally, the same person may occupy more than one role at the same time or sequentially. The discussion that follows elaborates and gives examples drawn from Juchitán and Tzintzuntzan.
TABLE 1. IDENTITY PERSONNEL
1. Cultural stewards – these are individuals who belong to the group and who tell or show other members of that group what their identity is, or what some part of their identity is. How encompassing or limited their influence is will depend upon their expertise and role within the culture.
Isthmus Zapotec examples:
*binni guendabianni – "creators of light," wise ones, those who know how to live the values of Zapotec society – balance, community, wisdom.
*ritual specialists – xuanna’, a speechmaker, gusana gola, senior woman charged with the organization of a vela, binni rusiaanda, curers, prayer leaders.
*personnel of the Lidxi Guendabianni – stewards of Zapotec culture – archaeology, literature, history, visual and performance art, the Zapotec language.
*cargueros – persons responsible for maintaining the annual cycle of religious rituals and civil celebrations. Local events are memorialized and national/international events are reinterpreted within local frameworks of understanding. For example, the end of a local epidemic has spawned an elaborate four-day festival to honor a miraculous painting [known as the Señor del Rescate, Lord of Redemption] in the local church. Similarly, the founding of the municipio in the year 1930 has become the rationale behind a parade and festival every 2nd of October. Widely celebrated events have been given a local sense of identity. In the Advent season leading up to Christmas, neighborhood-based posadas reinforce local residents’ sense of membership in their community, while a community-wide re-enactment of Christ’s passion during Holy Week involves not only local residents but even those who have gone to work in the United States and schedule their vacations in order to return to Tzintzuntzan to participate in the annual rituals.
2. Cultural Entrepreneurs – these are knowledgeable insiders who have the ability or the command of a particular craft to communicate their culture to the outside world.
Isthmus Zapotec examples:
*elected politicians (state and national levels)
One important point about the Zapotec examples for these first two categories is that they are mediators in the most fundamental sense of the word, translating to the local scene, the national and international ideologies and serving as the "crystallizing center" (Emerson 1960:44) for the sometimes inchoate feelings of the Juchitecos. They are critical in a nation where the state, rather than being a promoter of equality, functions as a distributor of privilege and a promoter of uneven development among regions, classes, and ethnic groups (Brass 1985:3, Royce 1993:103).
*local storekeepers and workers in tourism promotion
Although a much smaller community than Juchitán, Tzintzuntzan has achieved considerable fame over the centuries as a production center for folk arts, especially pottery, straw figures, and, in recent decades, embroideries and colonial-style wood carvings. For instance, one potter (Manuel Morales) has had his work recognized in national and international shows and even featured in an article in Gourmet magazine. Several local musical groups have had success in concert tours and in recordings in Mexico and in the United States. And one journalist (Alberto Rendón Guillen) has published three books about Tzintzuntzan’s history and traditions. Finally, the numerous family-run stores (and the local office of the state tourist office) along Tzintzuntzan’s main street are important sources of communication between residents and outsiders. Informally through conversations and more formally through brochures, postcards, and T-shirts, tourists are given information about Tzintzuntzan’s glorious past and its present small-town circumstances.
3. Cultural Conservators – these are individuals from outside a group whose business it is to understand the nuances of identity of that group. Often, they are academics or bureaucrats employed with agencies charged with development or conservation. In Mexico, they would include personnel from the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI), the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, and other government-funded cultural organizations. Sometimes these agencies bring aid programs or money for cultural programming that encompass libraries, music and dance classes, exhibits, workshops on local history, and publications. In Michoacán, the UNESCO-affiliated training center known as CREFAL (Centro Regional para la Educación Fundamental en América Latina) has been connected in important ways to Tzintzuntzan. Especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when one of its leaders was the Colombian anthropologist Gabriel Ospina (who had worked in Tzintzuntzan with George Foster in 1945-1946), CREFAL’s development and training projects brought dozens of community development workers into direct contact with the people of Tzintzuntzan.
In the Isthmus area, personnel of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) have produced useful dictionaries and New Testament translations intended both for local use, as well as for more general linguistic scholarship. Some of the local scholars of the language have been able to use the material as they have created their own dictionaries, grammars, and other written materials.
In more general terms, Franz Boas and his students were classics of this genre, recording cultures and languages for posterity. Many contemporary anthropologists also produce work that allows people to reinvent, maintain, or change themselves.
In this sense, the publication in June 2000 of a Spanish translation of George Foster’s classic ethnography, Empire’s Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (originally issued by the Smithsonian Insitution in 1948) may offer an important historical and cultural revitalization for many people in Tzintzuntzan. At a ceremony held at El Colegio de Michoacán in Zamora, Michoacán, the well-known Mexican anthropologist Guillermo de la Peña recognized the important place of this monograph in the history of Mexican social anthropology and observed that it provided a benchmark for understanding history of the community of Tzintzuntzan. Arrangements have been made with the publisher so that copies of this substantial volume will be made available at no cost to interested Tzintzuntzeños.
Royce’s 1975 monograph, Prestigio y afiliación en una comunidad urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca, has had a significant impact on the people of Juchitán. Throughout a number of printings, it has been used as a primary text for students in the local secondary schools and in the Tecnológica.
4. Cultural documentors – these are outsiders whose orientation is toward the outside. Social scientists interpret one culture for another and may stop with interpretation. Most applied work falls into this fourth category. Agencies hire individuals to explore particular problems and recommend programs of action. In this case, they are the interface between the agency and the local population.
In his numerous publications on applied anthropology and community development, Foster (1969, 1973) often used examples drawn from his field experiences in Tzintzuntzan to illustrate key points about the importance of culture and social organization. His target audience for these books and articles was the farflung community of professionals concerned with carrying out change projects throughout the world.
Journalists, filmakers, and photographers also engage in re-presenting one culture to another. When this process focuses on the "exotic other" nature of the culture, it is an example of Edward Said’s "Orientalism." Some cultures, the Isthmus Zapotec, for example, are more likely to be the subject of such efforts. They are considered "exotic;" they have spectacular costumes and customs; they have a large and visible third gender population. They have been sensationalized, essentialized by Elle magazine, US newspapers, and most recently, a Japanese film project.
If we look at different cultures, we will see these categories shift in saliency depending upon the context and the culture, not to mention the goals of all parties in the relationships. Further, when power and status are primary motivators, distortion of images is likely to follow.
History of Diversity in Mexico
At the end of the fifteenth century, Spanish explorers encountered a land characterized by over 300 languages and cultures. The process of mestizaje or blending of indigenous and European, created a national Mexican identity which today outstrips any other. The original 300 groups are now reduced to sixty-five who comprise some ten percent of the total population. Other national groups have immigrated to Mexico but they make up an even smaller percent than the country’s indigenous peoples. In the 1990 census, the most recent available, foreign born made up 0.42%, or 340,824, of Mexico’s eighty-one million people. Of that 0.42%, over half, 194,619, came from the United States (Salazar Anaya 1996). Furthermore, there is no way to distinguish between those who are workers in Mexico and those who are permanent residents. Given this extremely small number of foreign nationals and the implicit incorporation of the indigenous groups into Mexican identity, it is not surprising that Mexico’s policy-makers and intellectuals do not speak in terms of "ethnic" groups. The Mexican Constitution does make an important statement about the composition of Mexico in Article #4: "La nación mexicana tiene una composición pluricultural sustentada originalmente en sus pueblos indígenas" ("The Mexican nation has a multi-cultural composition, sustained originally in its indigenous communities/peoples") (cited in Ambriz et al. 1999:3).
The attitudes of the majority mestizo population toward minorities, especially the indigenous peoples, have changed over time and vary depending on the position and experience of the perceivers. For example, perceptions of scholars and personnel of institutions dedicated to indigenous affairs typically are quite different from those of non-specialists (for the former, see Barre 1985 , Bonfil Batalla 1987, and Nahmad Sitton 1995) . Both are different from the perceptions of indigenous peoples themselves (see the articles by indigenous scholars in Warman and Argueta 1993, especially that by Jaime Martínez Luna). Indigenous peoples have been regarded variously as the symbols of a proud heritage, as stubborn bearers of an atavistic tradition; as the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy whose existence imperils the progress of the nation as a whole; and even as a fractious and demanding voice for revolution and reform.
The questions we are posing arise from these different, often conflicting images of indigenous peoples and, more specifically, as they affect the two peoples with whom we have spent most of our professional careers. Why is one people defined as indigenous and the other not? What clout do indigenous claims to identity have in the face of dominant stereotypes? Do national policies and attitudes change in the confrontation with local circumstances? Who has the right to articulate or to contest identity? What are effective strategies in the playing out of identity politics?
THE CASE OF TZINTZUNTZAN
The highland community of Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, located along the northeastern shoreline of Lake Pátzcuaro some 400 kms. west of Mexico City, was the capital of the Tarascan (Purépecha) empire at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1520s. After the Aztecs, the Tarascans were arguably the largest and most powerful force in Mesoamerica until their rapid conquest by the Spaniards and their subsequent incorporation into the colonial political and religious system of New Spain. Where once prospered an emperor and his court, surrounded by as many as 40,000 subjects living within a few miles of the royal yácatas, today we find a modest town of some 3,000 residents and a half dozen dependent hamlets hugging the shoreline of Lake Pátzcuaro.
Briefly, from 1527-1529, the personal property of the conqueror Hernán Cortés, Tzintzuntzan otherwise was directly under the Spanish Crown, with local Indian chiefs remaining in charge as governors, and with the land conferred by royal title to all members of the community with the result that local residents were spared the worst consequences of the widespread encomienda system.
Although the arrival of Spaniards to the area began early after the Conquest, with Tzintzuntzan the focus of Franciscan efforts to Christianize the region, the site was not deemed appropriate for significant development by the first Bishop Don Vasco de Quiroga, who in 1540 moved the bishopric and its cathedral south about 15 kms. to Pátzcuaro (on the open hills above the south shore of the lake which now bears its name rather than that of Tzintzuntzan). Consequently, Tzintzuntzan dwindled in population and in power, although its residents finally succeeded (in 1593) in their petition to the King of Spain to have Tzintzuntzan granted the title of Ciudad Primitiva de Tzintzuntzan to replace their lost claim to being the Ciudad de Michoacán.
Despite more than four centuries of being classified as a city, it is still so categorized by the Mexican government statistics office, although it may be the smallest in the nation! Tzintzuntzan has done little to distinguish itself since its days of glory before the Conquest. Thus, it is no surprise that Tzintzuntzan’s official coat of arms still reflects its three-fold ties to its ancient kings, the Spanish conquerors, and sixteenth-century religious leaders.
And, when George Foster contemplated a title for his now classic monograph about Tzintzuntzan, he chose Empire’s Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (1948).
What few anthropologists realize is that Foster and his team of two other professors and some six students from the National School of Anthropology (Mexico City) originally did not plan to study Tzintzuntzan at all. Instead, they had planned to work in the Tarascan town of Ihuatzio located on the other side of the large hill which separates it from Tzintzuntzan. As an immediate reaction to the team’s "futile efforts to establish ourselves [in Ihuatzio], withdrawal from the village seemed desirable, with the result that he and two students settled in Tzintzuntzan to study the ethnology of the town itself, basically Mestizo, and the neighboring Tarascan hamlets [of Ojo de Agua immediately to the east and Ichupio just to the west]" (1948:1; emphasis added).
The physical appearance of the local population ranges from "apparently pure Indian to pure Caucasoid types," although "both extremes are fairly rare," so that most Tzintzuntzeños "clearly show Indian admixture, but few show the pronounced mongoloid facial expression characteristic of the inhabitants of Tarascan-speaking villages" (Foster 1948:30-31).
This leads to the second feature of ethnic identity: the ability to speak the Tarascan language, spoken in the 1990s by more than 80,000 persons in a region focused on west-central Michoacán, including the Lake Pátzcuaro area as its eastern edge.
The third element of ethnic identity in Tzintzuntzan involves the possibility that those identified (or self-identifying) as Tarascans live a different way of life from that of their mestizo neighbors. Writing more than fifty years ago, and aware of urban Mexican perceptions of what Tzintzuntzan ought to have been like, Foster declared,
Using these criteria, Tzintzuntzan cannot be called an Indian village. When we first arrived we were convinced that, except for the language, we would find life in Tzintzuntzan to be basically Tarascan. Longer acquaintance showed the errors in this supposition. . . . In short, considering physical, linguistic, and cultural evidence, it is apparent that the people of Tzintzuntzan are well removed from the Indian base. . . . and it is probable that within a few year the language will be dead in Tzintzuntzan (1948:31).
Today, ethnic identity in Tzintzuntzan manifests the arbitrary and changing boundaries of cultural perception, both among local residents and between insiders and outsiders. Many Tzintzuntzeños are ambivalent, at best, about being identified or self-identifying as indigenous. While they do celebrate their heritage when the community gathers to celebrate religious and civil festivals, they also will denounce the poor and the rude among their neighbors for being indios. When outsiders, especially members of the Mexican middle and upper classes, national and international tourists, and even anthropologists, foreign and domestic, come to Tzintzuntzan, they often bring preconceived notions of this place and its people (both captured by the single Spanish term población) as being the logical and necessary indigenous legacy of the once-great Tarascan (Purépecha) empire.
Entering Tzintzuntzan on the narrow highway that winds its way along the eastern side of Lake Pátzcuaro from Quiroga to the north or from Pátzcuaro to the south, travelers cannot miss the large blue metalic signs boldly proclaiming Tzintzuntzan: Encuentro con la Cultura Purépecha y Colonial, a phrase whose meaning can be grasped even by foreign tourists with minimal Spanish. These signs were not placed by local residents, nor by the municipal authorities. On the contrary, they were installed in the early 1990s by the State of Michoacán’s Department of Tourism. As part of its campaign to develop regional tourism, the Department selected fewer than twenty locales in the state for special promotion. Each site not only has its own local sign and distinctive logo to encourage travelers to stop and see its special qualities, but also is listed on great blue billboards along major highways throughout Michoacán.
Tzintzuntzan is a significant place to encounter a few tidbits of colonial history. Just a block south of the town’s main plaza, tourists can park next to the government-built, colonial-style, open-air crafts market and then walk through the always-open iron gates into the vast adobe-walled church yard known locally as el atrio. After crossing the atrio, with its stations of the cross and legendary sixteenth-century olive trees, the tourists encounter a complex of three substantial stone-faced and white-washed buildings: a sixteenth-century Franciscan monastery-convent connected to the south side of the main parish church, a separate chapel with bell tower about fifty meters to the north, and an adjacent open-air chapel with its own walled grounds. Visitors who arrive by tour buses or in family cars typically spend an hour or so in the monastery-convent, church, and chapels, where they can see remnants (and reconstructions) of colonial-era murals and sculptures, as well present-day representations of Tzintzuntzan’s zeal for celebrating religion. Many tourists never discover, unless their guide tells the story of the reputed Titian painting that used to grace the church’s south wall, that the main church structure was destroyed by fire in 1944 and only the façade of the original colonial structure remains today. And even fewer are told that, by Mexican federal law, these historical structures form part of the patrimonio nacional and, therefore, fall under the responsibility of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which only from time to time attends to their restoration and maintenance. But, as if the available monuments were not enough, the municipal government in the 1990s carried out a refurbishing project along the main highway through town, with the object of giving a more uniformly colonial aspect to the tourist zone. As part of their efforts, workers installed fake tile roofs and false wooden beams on houses lacking these essential colonial features.
The Tarascan Empire
The pre-conquest elements of Purépecha culture are obvious to visitors from a considerable distance. On the east side of the highway which cuts through the heart of the community and across the road from the atrio gates, stand a pair of 4 m.-tall, Tula-like wooden sculptures intended to evoke images of the ancient Tarascan kings who once resided at the pyramids visible a hundred yards up the hill to the east. These yácatas, a mixture of round and rectangular structures rising from massive platforms, also are controlled officially by the INAH. Within the 4 km.2 designated as an archaeological zone, the area around the Great Platform is now fenced off from nearby fields and homes by a six-foot high chain-link fence. Until the mid-1990s, local soccer teams played their weekend contests on a dirt field they had laid out atop the flat platform, but now they play on new fields located almost two kms. south of town.
After walking up the expansive stone stairway from the municipal plaza or driving up the hill on a paved road which branches off the main highway just south of town, visitors go through a guarded entrance after paying an admission fee equivalent to a dollar (except on Sundays, when admission is free). When it is open, a small stone-walled museum has a few archaeological items on display. In 1990, the INAH produced a small color tourist-oriented brochure about Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, available for purchase in Spanish, English, and French for the equivalent of another dollar.
Colonial buildings and pre-conquest pyramids are clear markers of Tzintzuntzan’s indigenous heritage and source of identity for the place and its people. The present-day features of Purépecha culture in Tzintzuntzan are much more problematic, for visitors as well as for local residents. Before we can appreciate the content of identity as we move into the twenty-first century, we need to consider further the historical context of ethnicity in Tzintzuntzan.
In 1940, the Mexican national census reported a total of 52,637 Tarascan speakers in Michoacán state (4.5% of the state’s total population). At that time, the 18 municipios of the Tarascan core area had a total population of 226,429 persons of whom 51,086 (22.6%) were either bilingual or monolingual Tarascan speakers. By 1990, the total number of Tarascan speakers in the state had climbed to 87,088 (only 2.5% of the state’s 3.5 million residents). Meanwhile, the 18 municipios in the Tarascan core area had reached a total population of 720,081 of whom 83,542 (11.6%) were classified as Tarascan speakers.
In the municipio of Tzintzuntzan, the 5,429 residents of 1940 included a total of 2,030 Tarascan speakers ( 37.4%), nearly all of whom were bilingual. By 1990, the municipio had more than doubled in size to 11,439 inhabitants while the Tarascan speakers had barely increased to 2,209 (only 19.3% of the municipal population). The small hamlets and ranchos beyond the town of Tzintzuntzan represent the primary social units for the maintenance of Tarascan in the municipal speech community and without these sources of Tarascan speakers, the language would not have remained on the cultural landscape in the community of Tzintzuntzan itself. However, precisely because of the continuing flow of in-migrants from such hamlets as Ojo de Agua, Ichupio, and other nearby settlements, the Tarascan-speaking population in Tzintzuntzan is being sustained.
In 1945, some 144 (12%) of a total Tzintzuntzan population of 1,231 spoke Tarascan. Tarascan speakers could be found in 58 out of 239 households (24.3%), and the number of speakers ranged from one to eight in these households. By 1990, the number of Tarascan speakers in Tzintzuntzan had increased to 199 persons, who resided in 113 out of 580 households (19.5%), a slight percentage decline from the situation in 1945 – even though the absolute number of households with Tarascan speakers almost doubled (Kemper 1998:39).
Contemporary Tarascan speakers throughout Michoacán are overwhelmingly bilingual rather than monolingual. Defined in terms of ethnic identity rather than language use, the Tarascan population is certainly larger and, perhaps, growing in response to increasing local awareness and pride in the Tarascan heritage (Roth-Senneff and Kemper 1995:243). This general rule certainly fits the Tzintzuntzan case.
Local Cultural Practices
In its annual cycle of religious festivals, the music always is provided by bands contracted from the Tarascan towns west of the lake where traditional songs (known as pirekuas) are still performed. In significant civil observances, especially the anniversary of the municipio each October 2nd, indigenous dancers and musicians perform against a backdrop of the yácatas in the distance. In its wide variety of native craft production, ranging from pottery to straw popote figures to embroideries, the vendors in the Tzintzuntzan marketplace and in house-front stores up and down the main highway emphasize items that might appeal to tourists interested in indigenous themes.
Especially through the organization known as the Comunidad Indígena, Tzintzuntzan gives recognition to its Tarascan heritage. Unlike the municipal government, which, though located in Tzintzuntzan, is responsible for the administration of all the towns, hamlets, and ranchos in the municipio (equivalent to a U. S. county), the comunidad indígena represents administratively only the community of Tzintzuntzan. As members of the comunidad indígena, they perceive this organization as "being theirs and theirs alone. They think of it as the organizational manifestation of the popular will" (Brandes 1988:21). With an elected president and a formal and informal committee structure, its most important functions include regulating the distribution and use of communal lands and other resources (such as clay mines for pottery), helping to organize and getting the people to fund several fiestas each year, and arguing Tzintzuntzan’s side when land disputes arise with other nearby towns, especially with long-time rival Ihuatzio.
As Brandes (1988:21-22) has observed, the comunidad indígena is also known colloquially as El Pueblo, a term (like población) which means both people and place. Thus, it "indicates the special sentiments associated with that administrative body" and "symbolizes both the village as a territorial unit and the villagers themselves. . . . [it is] an extension of themselves, eternal in duration and a logical outgrowth of nucleated community residence."
Of course, Tzintzuntzan’s largely mestizo, non-Tarascan-speaking population is able to have a comunidad indígena only because its indigenous heritage is duly recognized by state and federal governments, which permit the existence of such organizations only in designated indigenous localities. The irony in the continuing disputes between the people of Tzintzuntzan and those of nearby Ihuatzio is that Ihuatzio surely has the better claim to being indigenous, for it not only has its own pyramids and archaeological zone but also has a larger population with a much higher number and proportion of Tarascan speakers.
Local Practices and External Relations
Aside from the comunidad indígena, the other formal organizations which connect Tzintzuntzan to the larger world are the municipio and the parroquia, representing the state and the church, respectively. Both of these administrative systems recognize important symbolic indigenous elements of Tzintzuntzan’s character.
The municipio of Tzintzuntzan is not of ancient origin. It was established by then governor and later Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas on October 2nd, 1930. Before then, Tzintzuntzan had been a dependency of the larger town of Quiroga for more than a century. According to Foster,
The reason for the creation of the new entity appears to have been largely sentimental; General Cárdenas was anxious, even if only in a symbolic way, to restore some of the vanished grandeur of the former seat of the Tarascan Empire (1948:176).
The parroquia, based in the church of San Francisco de Asis at Tzintzuntzan, serves many of the same hamlets and ranchos in the municipio, with the important exception of Ihuatzio which now has its own parish. The residents of these localities, many of which have retained Tarascan language use and traditional cultural practices far more than has been true in Tzintzuntzan itself, must come to the church in Tzintzuntzan for worship services, for baptisms, marriages, and burials. Furthermore, to meet their needs, the priest who serves the parish must memorize enough Tarascan to do the Mass in that language when he travels to the chapels in Ojo de Agua, Ichupio, and other hamlets where Tarascan still is the preferred language of the older generation.
Foster (1967:34) has suggested that "Tzintzuntzan, to the casual visitor, looks much more Indian than it actually is, for Tarascans nearly always can be found in the churchyard, in the plaza waiting for buses, and in stores making their purchases. At Sunday Masses, Indians are always conspicuous by their numbers, distinguished by a style of dress which has been abandoned in Tzintzuntzan itself. This continual but temporary presence of Tarascans in Tzintzuntzan is one reason the village is often described in guide books and Mexican Government publications as an Indian pueblo." Nor is the presence of Tarascan-speaking residents from nearby hamlets lost on the people of Tzintzuntzan itself, who must define themselves in the broader context of the surrounding Tarascan-speaking population. The sense of identity is especially obvious during major fiestas which bring thousands of visitors to town.
The main festival of the year honors the painting known as the Señor del Rescate (Lord of Redemption). Hundreds of emigrants return to Tzintzuntzan and thousands of tourists join them to celebrate what began as a purely local religious affair in the early 1900s and now has become a major three-day event. It is important on religious grounds because it is the appointed time each year when the Bishop comes from Morelia to confirm children in the parish church. It also is significant that the largely Tarascan hamlets of Ojo de Agua, Ichupio, Tarerio, and El Espiritu compete with Tzintzuntzan’s own Comunidad Indígena in the climactic fireworks productions at this annual February fiesta. In her analysis of this event, Mary Foster notes that this event is "extremely ‘hot’, both actually and symbolically. The provision of this heat by the Tarascans, the most indigenous members of the population, and the Comunidad Indigena, associated with the least Hispanic rituals, would seem to indicate that the most productive potency of Tzintzuntzan derives from the Tarascan heritage" (1985:630).
Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead), celebrated on November 1st and 2nd has become internationally famous as an Indian celebration of the syncretism of pre-conquest and Roman Catholic religious practices. For instance, in 1996, the principal article on the front page (and most of two inside pages, as well) of the Dallas Morning News featured the celebration of the Night of the Day in Tzintzuntzan. Since the early 1970s, this observance has become well-established in the minds of national and now international tourists – and even the community’s own emigrants – as a reason to visit the Lake Pátzcuaro region. Brandes (1988:96ff) has provided a detailed description of how several state government agencies worked together in 1971 to develop this fiesta as a regional attraction. Since funds for the project were limited, the agencies focused on the most propitious locales, including Tzintzuntzan. As Brandes (1988:97) has reported,
Tzintzuntzan, with its ancient heritage and colonial monuments, was a perfect candidate. As the former capital of the Tarascan Empire, Tzintzuntzan already had a prominent place in the large Tarascan display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, so the governmental agencies responsible for tourist promotion were aware of Tzintzuntzan’s reputation and potential.
He quite correctly reaches the conclusion that . . . "it was the image, not the reality of indigenous culture that the Ministry of Tourism aimed to convey."
Manipulating Tarascan Identity
State agencies are not the only ones willing to manipulate Tzintzuntzan’s ethnic identity. In 1978-1979, about fifty families from Tzintzuntzan decided to carry out an invasion of communal lands held by the Comunidad Indígena about two kms. south of town on the west side of the highway to Pátzcuaro. They sought to gain control of this small strip of highway frontage so that they could sell their crafts directly to the traveling public, thus bypassing the middlemen who controlled the market in Tzintzuntzan itself. They argued their case with their friends and neighbors at meetings of the Comunidad Indígena and eventually gained individual titles to the property. They also had the political wisdom to name their new settlement after General Lázaro Cárdenas, who had established the municipio some fifty years earlier and whose son was then the state governor.
When the founders of the Colonia recognized their need for a school in the early 1980s, they got no help from the regular educational authorities in the state capital. However, when they went to the regional office of the Instituto Nacional Indígenista (INI) in Pátzcuaro to ask for help with building a school room and getting a teacher, they used their ethnic identity as Tarascans to aid their cause. Although only a handful of the Colonia’s residents could speak Tarascan, their affiliation with Tzintzuntzan – cradle of the Tarascan empire – made it possible for the INI to send school construction materials and a bilingual (!) teacher to serve the children of the Colonia. And, in 1999, a similar bilingual pre-school was started by some concerned parents and teachers in the poor west-side of Tzintzuntzan.
Even in the face of a fragile linguistic environment, the people of Tzintzuntzan and the surrounding hamlets in its municipio demonstrate to themselves – and to the visitors who come to see their fiestas or to purchase arts and crafts – that their community still has a Tarascan soul to offset the continuing onslaught by Spanish-dominated Mexican urban culture and, increasingly, English-dominated North American culture. Even for emigrants and their children returning from the U. S. to what some of them have identified as Tzintzun-landia (a play on Disneyland, of course), their natal community is both home and a tourist site where they, like other tourists, can encounter Purépecha and Spanish colonial culture in late 20th century dress being transformed before their eyes.
But, this transformation goes on. As we enter the new century, a group of Tzintzuntzeños living and working in the region of Tacoma, WA, are committed to carrying the message of Tarascan identity far beyond the Empire’s ancient borders. These six men, who once formed a local band called El Emperador, now find themselves in the U. S. northwest, where they have established a new band called Raza India. They have self-published two compact discs containing not only the usual compositions popular with rural Mexicans but also traditional pirekuas in the Tarascan language. Notably, the leader of the band is not originally from Tzintzuntzan but from Pátzcuaro. He married into the community and now considers it to be home. Even though he has learned to speak competent English, he also has been studying Tarascan for several years. He is passionately devoted to the idea that Tarascan culture and language should be sustained and promoted. And he is not alone.
Another emigrant from Tzintzuntzan, working as a journalist in the state capital Morelia, has published three monographs about his home community. Each makes an effort to connect the contemporary situation to the glories of the Tarascan past. During the early 1990s, he also tried to generate local enthusiasm for such a perspective by publishing a small weekly newspaper focused on Tzintzuntzan. However, the small size of the community, and the even smaller number of persons willing to subscribe to any newspaper, made the effort impossible to sustain.
Similarly, other Tzintzuntzeños with education and experience beyond the community have tried various schemes to heighten awareness of Tzintzuntzan’s significance in regional and national life as a living legacy of its Tarascan heritage. In the 1980s, a group of self-proclaimed intellectuals petitioned the prestigious Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística to establish in Tzintzuntzan an affiliate branch which would bring together persons in the Lake Pátzcuaro area with interests in Tarascan culture. After some effort, the group gained their status as an affiliate chapter, but it did not flourish. The only visible evidence of its existence was a notice and mural painted on a wall next to the open-air arts and crafts market on the main highway. After a year or so, the mural was whitewashed over and, just so, the group disappeared from view.
The arena for ethnicity also extends beyond the boundaries of the local town defined in narrow and official geographical terms. This sense of extended community is played out at the local level in the interaction of the people of Tzintzuntzan, their neighbors in nearby Ojo de Agua and Ichupio, their neighbors in the Colonia Lázaro Cárdenas (founded in 1978-1979) and its more recently established stepchild, Colonia Tzintzuntzita (built across the highway in 1991), and the broader set of relations with other places in the municipio and the parroquia. The extended community is also realized among the emigrants, whether in Morelia, Mexico City, Tijuana, southern California, Washington state, Chicago, or elsewhere. People from all places (with the exception of Ihuatzio, a long-time enemy) in the municipio and parroquia identify with Tzintzuntzan once they are beyond its geopolitical-religious boundaries. So, in Tacoma, WA, the large migrant enclave from Tzintzuntzan actually includes persons from the town as well as from adjacent hamlets and ranchos. Since a higher proportion of these outlying communities sustain Tarascan speech and related cultural practices, members of the emigrant population are more inclusive in claiming a Tarascan identity than if they were back in Tzintzuntzan itself.
In sum, the notion of Tarascan identity is not a fixed category for the people of Tzintzuntzan as they enter the twenty-first century. On the contrary, it is a contested arena in which internal and external interests compete for the loyalty of the residents. At times, being Tarascan is the right choice; at others, being a member of the Tzintzuntzan community is the more appropriate choice. At times, the government and other external agencies wish to elevate the importance of this small town beyond what its mere size would dictate. In such circumstances, reflection on the Tarascan and colonial past justifies such special treatment. This view applies even to anthropological work carried out in Tzintzuntzan. The publications of Foster (1948, 1967), Kemper (1977), and Brandes (1988) about Tzintzuntzan are listed prominently in reviews of Tarascan culture published in Michoacán and elsewhere in Mexico, including references in an important sourcebook, Bibliografía sobre el Pueblo y el Area P’urhépecha (Argueta et al. 1984). It seems that no matter how often the community is proclaimed to be mestizo in our studies, the perception is merely reinforced that is a Tarascan community. And, beyond that, our long-term research there is more revered because it is perceived to be contributing to a better understanding of the historical development of Tarascan culture.
THE CASE OF THE ISTHMUS ZAPOTEC OF OAXACA
Fifteen summers ago, in Juchitán, I was surprised to see an office of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) in a store front on Av. Cinco de Mayo. I went in to pay my respects. The gentleman in charge and I spoke for about twenty minutes. He knew my book (1975) which had been published in Mexico by SepSetentas under the auspices of INI and talked about how important it was in understanding the Isthmus Zapotec, especially those in Juchitán. I said I looked forward to visiting with him and other staff on subsequent trips to Juchitán. He replied that they were moving the office. Where? Laollaga, he said, a very small community northeast of Juchitán. When I inquired about the reason, he said "Porque no hay indígenas aquí ("Because there are no Indians here")."
My first reaction was one of total shock and confusion – hadn’t we just been talking about the Zapotec of Juchitán? Then I realized that, from INI’s point of view, the Juchitecos were not indigenous peoples – they had TVs, cars, took vacations to Paris, Rome, London, Athens, kept their beer cold in refrigerators, and sent their children to school in D.F. or the US. They certainly did not fit the definition proposed by Alfonso Caso (1948:246) of "una comunidad indígena" that possessed "el sentido social de comunidad aislada dentro de las otras comunidades que la rodean, que la hace distinguirse asimismo de los pueblos de blancos y mestizos," ("an indigenous community [that possessed] the social sense of being an isolated community surrounded by other communities and which distinsguished itself from white and mestizo communities").
This definition did meet with opposition from other Mexican scholars, Rodolfo Stavenhagen (1968) foremost among them, who wanted people to recognize that this feeling of isolation and difference stemmed, not from some mystical sense of indigenismo but rather from the dire social and economic position in which indigenous and other marginalized communities found themselves. Nonetheless, it continued to color perceptions of persons associated with INI programs. Even today, that notion of marginalization can be found from time to time in conversations about definitions of indigenous peoples.
There were other problems with defining Juchitán as an indigenous community – its size, at the time INI established its office there, the municipio population was approaching 60,000. Equally important was the self-definition given to any who asked – "somos Juchitecos". De la Fuente noted this in 1947: "un caso destacado es el de los zapotecos de Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, que comunmente rechazen el ser llamados indios y se designan como tehuanos en general, juchitecos, etc." (1947:68, footnote 14: "an outstanding example is that of the Zapotecs of the area of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, who routinely reject being called Indians and label themselves as Tehuanos in general, Juchitecos, etc."). In my own field experience, now more than thirty years in Juchitán, when Juchitecos use the Spanish term "indio," they use it to refer to the Mixe or Huave, nearby groups whom they perceive to be socially and economically disadvantaged. When they speak of themselves in Zapotec as opposed to Spanish, they say they are binni didxazaa, ("people of the cloud speech," or of the Zapotec language), binniza ("people of the water"), or sometimes binni xabizende, ("people of San Vicente" or Juchitán). It is well to remember Bonfil Batalla’s point that there were no "indios" until the coming of the Europeans (1991:74).
Indigenismo in Mexico has always been a topic about which everyone has an opinion – from government agencies and bureaucrats to social scientists to artists and writers to los indígenas to el pueblo. There is even now the beginning of a dialogue, or foro de discusión, about the "indigenous question" on the Mexico-based web site of the highly regarded Mexico City-based journal, Nexos. Indigenism is affected by changing politics, the global scene, and class-based movements. It takes different shapes and engages in different dialogues – local, regional, national and international .
The Isthmus Zapotec have always appeared larger-than-life to outsiders. They appear in Eisenstein’s "Viva México;" they have been made famous in the paintings of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; they gave Mexico statesmen like Benito Juarez (actually not an istmeño although a Zapotec) and revolutionary heroes like General Heliodoro Charis, intellectuals like Rosendo Pineda, a científico of the porfiriato, and more recently Andres Henestrosa and Gabriel Lopez Chiñas (see especially the latter’s 1988 article on being Zapotec); they produced painters like Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo. Their cuisine was the focus of a recent essay in Saveur, a very up-scale, glossy gourmet magazine, and magazines have run features on the so-called matriarchy of the Tehuanas. The latest incursion was a team of Japanese filmakers in November 1999 who had heard of the famous third gender, muxe, of Juchitán and came to make a film of the muxe fiesta.
While being commented on and often standing for the exotic Other, the Isthmus Zapotec have created, maintained, shifted and used their own notions of what it is to be binni didxazaa, on the one hand, and global citizens, on the other. Their identity is grounded in two fundamental notions. The first is guendalisaa, literally, creating community through relatedness. Two qualities are central: one is the quality of action – one is not entitled by birth or relationship to be a Juchiteco; one has to make that commitment and work at it; the second is the understanding that there are many ways to contribute to community – this introduces much-needed flexibility in defining membership. It has allowed individuals to pursue modern careers while remaining rooted in their community; it has allowed the introduction of customs and commodities that make people’s lives more interesting and easier. This openness to many ways of being Zapotec stems from the second core value, that of guendabianni or wisdom ("created light"). People who are recognized as possessing this wisdom come from all social classes, all levels of schooling, all occupations. They include healers, potters, soldiers, poets, painters, prayer leaders and on and on. They all share certain qualities – a willingness to be transformed and to continue learning, a willingness to share their wisdom, self-confidence and acceptance, and a discipline about what they do.
If guendalisaa and guendabianni are the warp of identity, then the weft is composed of language, music, dance, visual art, dress, fiestas, and food. The importance of these does not seem to have diminished over the past thirty years; indeed, in some areas there is more activity – language and visual arts in particular.
There are a number of institutions and programs in Juchitán that promote these symbolic manifestations of ethnicity. They realize their work locally but maintain connections regionally and nationally.
1. La Casa de la Cultura – Lidxi Guendabianni. This is an institution founded in 1972 by painter Francisco Toledo and other intellectuals. Its level of activity and the nature of those activities varies considerably depending upon who is the director. The immediately past director, Vicente Marcial Cerqueda, is a Juchiteco trained as a linguist. Much of his efforts have been directed toward literacy programs in Zapotec for the many Zapotec-speakers who cannot read or write their language. The Zapotec dictionary he created together with Enedino Jimenez Jimenez, Neza Diidxa’, came out of the work of an interdisciplinary group of members of Juchitán’s Casa de la Cultura and el Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas de la UNAM. The actual printing was facilitated by a grant from the German Association for Adult Education and carried out by the local Centro de Investigacion y Desarollo "Binniza." This brings to three the number of dictionaries of Isthmus Zapotec: The Summer Institute of Linguistics’ dictionary was the first contemporary work and it was done by Velma Pickett. The second, chronologically, is that done by Eustachio Jimenez Girón, another Juchiteco.
For a number of years, the Lidxi Guendabianni has had an active publishing program. It has reproduced major historical works, printed books of local stories and legends, and has facilitated the publication of the journal Gucaci Reza, now into #57 as well as the journal Neza Cubi which had begun in the 1930s in Mexico City. Another large format newspaper-type publication, Berendxinga, began in 1998. The most recent publication, Generación, was received locally in a lavish evening presentation in October of 1999. The Casa de la Cultura has reproduced historic photographs as postcards and posters, and has recently hired a photographer to take pictures of local color which are now sold as postcards.
There is always at least one art exhibit – paintings, pen and ink, photographs mostly done by local artists, many of whom have become well-known on the national and international scene. This explosion of creativity in the visual arts is attributable in large measure to the Juchiteco Francisco Toledo who has founded an art school in Oaxaca to which Juchiteco students may go without paying tuition. Toledo also helps these young painters get their work shown. Rufino Tamayo was certainly a role model but Toledo actually makes it possible to realize dreams.
The crucial role of artists and intellectuals in promoting Juchitán’s sense of itself is noted in this statement by Carlos Monsiváis writing about the inauguration of Cesar Augusto Carrasco Gómez as municipal president in 1983: "Se inicia el mitin. Se pasa lista a los miembros del presidium: el escritor Fernando Benítez, la señora Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, del Frente Nacional contra la Represión, el Rector de la Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero, Enrique González Ruiz, el antropólogo Arturo Warman, los pintores Francisco Toledo y Felipe Ehrenberg, el poeta Oscar Oliva. Por primera vez en mucho tiempo, se oye gritar en una plaza pública ‘Vivan los intelectuales! Vivan los artistas!’" ("The meeting begins. A list of the members of the head table is passed around. It includes the writer Fernando Benítez, Mrs. Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, representing the National Front Against Represion; Enrique González Ruiz, rector of the Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero; Enrique González Ruiz; the anthropologist Arturo Warman; the artists Francisco Toledo y Felipe Ehrenberg, and the poet Oscar Oliva. For the first time in years, shouts are heard in a public plaza, ‘Long live the intellectuals! Long live the artists!’")
While the programs, exhibits, and connections of the Lidxi Guendabianni are important for these young artists, there is as much or more activity going on outside the institutional framework in the community itself. Victor Chaca was a carpenter until he turned forty and decided that he needed to be a sculptor. He began to sculpt dead trees, asking permission of the homeowners. He was commissioned by the municipio to carve four dead trees at the entrance to the city. He does smaller sculptures and now has begun to work in other two dimensional media. He is exhibiting in the Distrito Federal and in the United States. Also at the entrance to the city is a new sculpture – an abstract expressionist representation by Moises Cabrera of a guie’ xuba [a kind of jasmine] with names of local heroes and heroines carved into the base. A child’s painting of the same flower appeared on a wall, part of a program to let children decorate buildings and walls with images meaningful to them as Juchitecos. Murals appear everywhere, with pre-columbian and contemporary symbols of a Zapotec identity. A new young artist, Jesús David Gomez, won the city-wide competition and painted three large murals depicting Isthmus scenes for the brand-new bus station.
Just as visual art flourishes everywhere, so does the elaboration and use of the Zapotec language. There are now two radio stations that broadcast in Zapotec as well as Spanish. On one, you may call in birthday or anniversary greetings for a friend but you have to do it in Zapotec. The local paper regularly prints songs and poems of local intellectuals. Poems and other sayings appear on walls, businesses, and, from time to time, on the central bandstand. To celebrate Easter in 1999, the local television station broadcast a dramatic reading of the gospel of St.Luke in perfect Isthmus Zapotec. Stations of the Cross, which are re-enacted every Friday in Lent, are read in Zapotec as well as Spanish. Any politician who hopes to gain the support of his paisanos in Juchitán had better be able to speak eloquently and well in Zapotec. Speaking well extends beyond politicians and those who can do it are regarded as binni nuspianni. One of these, for example, would be the xuaana who gives the blessing homily at weddings and is highly respected for his or her eloquence in Zapotec.
The epitome of guendalisaa, the warp of Zapotec identity, as well as the occasion for the display of all its tangible symbols is the cycle of velas, the major fiestas. These – some thirty or more of them, are a year in preparation and culminate in four days of religious observances, parades, daytime fiestas and an all-night dance. Hermandades, divided into male and female groups each with different tasks, do the work of the vela. Mayordomos "sponsor" the vela but, in fact, are no more important than the gusana and the gusana gola, the female directive body. A successful vela is the result of everyone working together, each contributing as they are able, in fact, the best illustration of guendalisaa.
How does the state view the Zapotec of Juchitán? Ambivalent is probably the best term to describe the feelings of state politicians and bureaucrats. Historically, the Juchitecos have often been a thorn in the side of the Priistas. For example, in 1971, the city ran and, by their count, elected a Partido Popular Socialista (PPS) municipal president. Throughout my thirty years of involvement, I have seen the presence of the army and state police many times, and the Juchitecos have had their share of desaparecidos. Juchitán was also the center of the COCEI (Coalición de Campesinos y Estudiantes del Istmo) party, which had a spectacular rise, then lost popularity and now is active once more. I will return to COCEI and to national-level politics.
The state tourism office, however, relies on such colorful communities as Juchitán to attract visitors. Every July, the state hosts the Guelaguetza, two Mondays of music and dance from all the indigenous groups in the state and culmintaing with the Danza de la Pluma done by a professional group. Thousands of people come for these two days and stay, of course, to see more of the state – past and present. The delegation from Juchitán to the Guelaguetza is always one of the most impressive. The major Isthmus archaeological site, Guie’ngola, is still too undeveloped for much tourism but it is listed as a point of interest on the maps. Francisco Toledo’s museum in Oaxaca City has raised the profile of Juchitán as has his school of fine arts.
At the national level, Juchitán is regarded with the same ambivalence in some quarters. Politically, it is seen as being difficult and virtually impossible to coopt. On the other hand, most candidates for the presidency make a stop in Juchitán, partake of some of the local delicacies, and get photographed with local politicians and tecas in traditional dress. For example, in the 2000 campaigning for Mexico’s presidency, all three of the candidates made an appearance in Juchitán. With its current estimated population of 78,000, it is the second largest city in the state of Oaxaca and therefore a political plum. It did not support Vicente Fox, the newly chosen President-elect who ran on the PAN ticket, but rather chose to support Labastida, the PRI candidate.
One of the more observant of Juchitán’s politicians, Cesar Agusto Carrasco Gómez, noted Juchitán’s reputation: "en efecto Juchitán se ha caracterizado en la historia como pueblo rebelde, como un pueblo inconforme. Y en esta inconformidad, participan de igual manera hombres como mujeres" (interview, 1989: "Juchitán has been characterized throughout its history as a rebellious city, as a city which does not conform. And in this nonconformity, women participate equally with men").
In cultural matters, there has always been an active exchange and collaboration between Juchiteco scholars and artists and colleagues at the national level. Collaboration between the UNAM and Juchitán has resulted in a number of studies and publications; Salomon Nahmad, when director of the INI, faciltated programs and studies in the Isthmus – Arturo Warman did one of the economic studies of the Isthmus. Elena Poniatowska and Graciela Iturbide have immportalized Juchitán in several photo/essays. These collaborations have gone beyond the surface image of colorful indigenous peoples, while still acknowledging the richness and vibrancy of the Zapotec tradition. Many of the local writers have been quite vocal about political matters (for an excellent example, see Victor de la Cruz’ 1988 essay).
Beyond the cultural collaboration, there continues to be the appropriation of Zapotec cultural repertoires. To give just one example, in the 1988 Miss Universe pageant, Miss Mexico, who was from Yucatan, appeared in the "native dress" competition wearing a full Isthmus Zapotec outfit even though her "native" heritage was Maya. Why? Isthmus Zapotec dress is not only distinctive, it can compete in a global context with the most expensive one might imagine.
Returning to the political, it is interesting to see the impact of a political movement such as COCEI on questions of identity. The COCEI is a populist party which interprets its constituency broadly to include all peoples who are oppressed politically and deprived of full participation in the economy of the nation. This class-based allegiance crosscuts ethnic or patria chica boundaries so the COCEI has been sympathetic to the Zapatista movement for example. This puts it at odds with those Juchitecos, probably two-thirds of the city, who are not its followers, for whom politics has historically been a question of local nationalism in part based on a sense of Zapotec identity. Community takes on a very different meaning for these two groups. Traditionally, responsibility for the economically deprived in the community has rested with the better-off members of the large extended family – lisaa. Better economic circumstances bring greater obligations, not necessarily greater power. The poor have to have names; there has been little or no sense of generalized altruism and no sense of a common identity with the marginalized, even when those marginalized happen to be other indigenous peoples. The most recent national political event, sponsored by the COCEI, was the Juchitán visit in March of 1999 of a delegation of about twenty-five Zapatistas from Chiapas. They were part of a program to solicit support for a plebescite on indigenous rights. Because both the municipal government and the Casa de la Cultura are headed by people from COCEI, the delegation was given many forums for the week preceeding the vote. They stayed at the Casa de la Cultura but were quite visible around the city, especially striking in their ski masks and Tzotzil hats and dress. On the Sunday after their arrival, the local priest talked about them in his sermon and invited the congregation to meet with them afterward in the patio. That same day, municipal president Leopoldo de Gyves spoke about them in a radio broadcast, reminding us that we were all brothers in poverty and in our indigenous status. Although Juchitán was one of the only municipalities to vote affirmatively in any numbers in the plebescite, it was a very small turn-out, primarily youths and COCEIstas.
COCEI has seen its greatest success, not surprisingly, among members of the lower classes, especially those who have only tenuous family connections. The difficulty, acknowledged by local leaders of COCEI (interviews 1989), has been in gaining support from those old families who not only have the economic wherewithal to help the party and the city but who also have been the guardians of those subjective and objective markers of Zapotec identity. For better or for worse, ethnic politics has always been a political strong suit for Juchitán. COCEI finds itself in the awkward in-between position of trying to define a new politics, based less on Zapotec identity than on common cause with the oppressed. At the same time, the national political culture has changed. It is a new bureaucracy in which force of personality and personalismo are increasingly less effective in a system that distributes the power of leadership among elites trained in technical specialities in settings far removed from the experience of most of Mexico’s people.
The visit of the Zapatistas and COCEI’s support of the indigenous/poor cause is but one example of trying to define a different base of identification. The current municipal president Polo de Gyves, and the director of the Casa de la Cultura, Desiderio de Gyves, are both members of one of the oldest families – the Pineda-De Gyves, and they are COCEIstas. Relationships are cordial between them and the families but there is little or no support for their political agendas. The one exception are those programs that have to do with strengthening a sense of Zapotec identity – language training, publications, sponsoring schoolchildren’s contests about Zapotec traditions, classes in art and ceramics, building up the library, art exhibits, and adding to the archaeological collections and exhibits.
Juchitán has always been a community distinguished by its internal diversity and tolerance for difference even while presenting a more monolihic and intentional image to the outside. It may well be that this traditional sense of community will find ways to incorporate or at least co-exist with other ways of seeing community.
What can we learn about indigenismo in Mexico and identity more broadly speaking from these two case studies? Perhaps the first lesson is that there is no monolithic notion of who is an Indian, either on the part of Mexican nationals and policymakers or on the part of indigenous peoples themselves. While perceptions on both parts shape and color identifications, there is much room for strategizing and playing the system. Conformational hegemony may be desirable on the part of governments and social institutions because it is tidy and makes governance simpler but it is a desire virtually impossible to realize except in isolated instances. At the same time, it is equally unlikely that there will be a successful move toward forced common indigenous identity initiated by indigenous peoples. While the Zapatistas have been successful beyond anyone’s initial imagining, they have not created a pan-Indian movement. Why this hegemony, or that on the part of the state for that matter, fails in Mexico is important in understanding how it succeeds or fails in other parts of the world. What are the processes at work?
In 1990, Mexico became the second country, after Norway, to ratify Pact 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Workers’ Union. In 1991, the accord became part of the Mexican Constitution in Article 133. The language is of great significance for what it says about perceptions of indigenous populations. For example, Article 1 establishes that the pact applies to "communities/peoples...whose social, cultural, and economic conditions distinguish them from other sectors of the national collectivity, and that they may be governed wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions" (Centro de Derechos Humanos Tepeyac del Istmo de Tehuantepec 1999:9). It continues saying that "they are considered indigenous by the fact of their descent from communities that belonged to the country during the time of the Conquest and the colonial period, and that, whatever their legal position, they maintain their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions or some of them" (ibid.:10). Further and importantly, the agreement stipulates that "the recognition of their indigenous identity...ought to be considered a fundamental criterion in determining which groups fit the definition" (ibid.:10). In some ways, this is a rather forward-thinking document, both in its definitions and in its guarantees of human rights and liberty, including the right to be educated in one’s native language. Sadly, we learn from this summary article published in 1999 in the Isthmus that, as far as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is concerned, the pact is virtually unknown and certainly unimplemented.
Many other Latin American countries have now ratified the agreement. It would be useful to compare the implementation process across these countries. In the doing, we would learn more about Mexican perceptions and the fate of policies such as those suggested in the agreement.
Certainly, the particular character of Mexico’s nationalism is essential to our analysis. The land that today is Mexico has seen 2500 years of civilizations, beginning with the great pre-Columbian sweep of cultures – Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, Aztec. That is the source of the indigenous contribution to mestizaje, a process which began with the arrival of Europeans at the beginning of the sixteenth century and which has continued until the present day when less than eleven per cent of the population consider themselves indigenous rather than mestizo. For three hundred years, Mexico was a colony of Spain and so joins the ranks of all those other nations that have sprung out of the remnants of colonial empire. One notable difference in the Mexican break with colonial authority is its essentially conservative nature. In the years just preceding Mexican independence in 1820, Spain came under the Bourbon reign. The liberal nature of Bourbon political philosophy threatened the wealth and power of the aristocracy of New Spain who stood to lose land, labor, and political control. The Church was part of this endangered aristocracy. The move for independence was born of their unwillingness to relinquish power and material well-being.
In the almost one hundred years that followed, Mexico’s growth as a nation was characterized by the increasing entrenchment of the elite. As a new sovereign country, Mexico was vulnerable to attacks on its border, losing massive tracts of land to the United States, its large neighbor to the north. The short-lived reign of Maximilian and Carlotta in the 1860s made possible some of the redistribution of land and wealth under the presidency of Benito Juarez. In particular, the Church suffered under the laws breaking up the largest landholdings. The momentum toward reform was halted by the thirty year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Finally, the excesses of the tiny elite became too much and revolution flamed across the country. The cry was for land and land reform, as it had been in the past. The most current "rebellion," that of the Zapatistas, true to its use of the name of the great revolutionary advocate Emiliano Zapata, has land at the center of its demands. Not forgotten as part of their credo are claims to basic human rights for indigenous peoples (cf. Wolf 1959; Kemper and Royce 1983).
The phenomenon of internal colonialism or refuge regions (cf. Aguirre Beltran 1979, González Casanova 1971, van den Berghe 1974, and Wade 1997) was yet another device for maintaining privilege in the hands of an elite landowning and industrial class. It was an example of capitalist exploitation in which the internal colony or production unit was often coterminous with an indigenous region.
In this brief history lesson, we see the elements of Mexican nationalism, which some have described as similar both to French nationalism with its emphasis on institutions and to German with its notion of the Volksgeist (peoplehood) (cf. Royce 1982). Mexican writers have spoken of the three "races" which have contributed to Mexico as a nation – the Indian, the European, and the mestizo. In terms of numbers, the mestizo is predominant in any definition of Mexican. And in its struggle as a new nation confronted with more established countries such as the United States and France, Mexico has consistently defined itself as a mestizo nation, a homogeneous state. This external face has been challenged internally throughout its history – the Zapatistas are simply the most recent example. Jacques Lafaye, in a 1994 article on Mexican national identity, makes the following perceptive comment: "Los ‘mexicanos’ se definen claramente frente a los extranjeros y con dificultad frente a sí mismos" ("‘Mexicans’ define themselves clearly to outsiders and with difficulty to themselves"). Finally, not to be overlooked is the reality that Mexico has the United States as its northern neighbor, a country which wrested away a third of the territory once regarded as Mexico’s, and a country with economic and territorial resources that lead it to see Mexico as a very unequal player on the global scene. This assumption on the part of many US policymakers that Mexico is a Third World country has contributed to the absence of any full and effective partnership between the two nations. Indeed, Mexico has been much more effective in establishing productive partnerships with other countries than with its closest neighbor. Much of former President Salinas de Gortari’s economic strategies which included massive privatization and widely diverse global trade partners had to do, we might speculate, with this unfavorable set of perceptions.
If it is true that one’s identity is adopted and adapted in the contrast with strangers, then the US has played a major role in Mexico’s sense of who it is and how it takes its place among the nations of the world. It will be very interesting to see how the economic and social strategies articulated by President-elect Vicente Fox are received and acted upon by the United States. Certainly Fox has made it clear that he envisions a relationship between equals.
Patria Chica and Indigenous Identity
Patria chica or the notion of a home community as one’s small country is certainly widespread throughout Mexico (cf. González 1974). It is a level of association that lies between an extended kin group and a state.
So, for example, in Juchitán, the Pineda or López families are significant webs of association, and, by extension, all family members living outside of Juchitán. Powerful at the next level is Juchitán itself, which, interestingly enough, defines itself in Zapotec in terms of a particular people – binniza (Cloud People), or landscape – binni guidxaguié (people of the place of flowers). At the next political level would be the state of Oaxaca, then finally, the nation of Mexico.
Even for a small community like Tzintzuntzan, individuals and their families are connected not only in local networks but find themselves woven into larger social networks extending throughout Michoacán state, to Mexico City, and even into different regions of the United States, especially California, Washington, and Illinois. For these Tzintzuntzeños, their sense of patria chica or "home" always is connected to Tzintzuntzan. It is the core of their sense of being, it is their heartland wherever they may be living, working, or studying.
This idea of a socially and politically independent community goes back to the very beginning of the Spanish reign. The colonial government could not maintain direct control over all these new entities and limited itself, for the most part, to collecting tribute and baptizing the indigenous people. Strong political leaders, caciques, flourished under this kind of rule and led their communities as little fiefdoms. The church reinforced community identity by instituting patronal feasts. Both the independence and the identity persist to this day.
Whether one identifies oneself in terms of patria chica – "soy Juchiteca" (I am a woman of Juchitán) or ethnicity – naa nga binni diidxaza (I am a Zapotec, person of the cloud speech), will be a matter of context and situation. And often, the two categories are the same, at least for the eighty per cent of the city who are Isthmus Zapotec. This holds true, by the way, for those Zapotec living outside the city of Juchitán.
Even for the people of Tzintzuntzan, who more readily identify themselves as members of their community – "somos tzintzuntzeños" (we are people of Tzintzuntzan) – than as Purepecha or Tarascans, occasionally one still hears declarations that honor (or criticize!) someone as "un indio de tzintzuntzan" (an Indian of Tzintzuntzan), depending on whether the person has done domething worthy of praise or scorn.
Where identification and patria chica seems to have become more problematic is in the realm of politics. Caciquismo as a political strategy no longer is effective. Successful political leaders at the state and national levels are those who can transcend their own communities. To a certain extent, this is even true of local leaders who still have to get political favors for their communities from the higher levels. It has taken a while to develop a new style of leader, especially in cases like Juchitán where both patria chica and ethnicity are powerful sources of identity. Politicians have to be perceived as being of the people, on the one hand, and being effective national team players on the other. It is often a difficult line to walk.
In light of this discussion, the 2000 presidential elections present interesting material on voting behavior and interests. The PAN candidate, Vicente Fox, carried most of the states. The five southern states, including Oaxaca , Chiapas, and Yucatan, who voted PRI rather than PAN are precisely the states that have the least to gain from the economic policies of Fox. They are also the most "Indian" states and have undoubtedly worked out successful strategies for gaining what they need from PRI. The state of Michoacan, where Tzintzuntzan is located, was another of the non-Fox states, voting instead for its favorite son and former governor Cuahtemoc Cárdenas, whose father, Lázaro, also had been governor before becoming President of Mexico in 1934.
Globalization and the Media
One of the reasons that identity remains such a salient an issue surely must be the instantaneous transmission of information in our media-saturated global environment. Without such communications, we could never have celebrated the "Year of Indigenous Peoples" all throughout the Americas as a counter to the quincentennial. The same communications have linked native peoples in the Americas so that they can share experiences and strategies for everyone’s advantage. Globally, the same process is at work so that ethnic movements are no longer contained in the regions in which they occur but are the subject of commentary on nightly news programs. It may be that there are no more ethnic conflicts than previously but we are very much aware of them in today’s communications environment. One powerful example is the Zapatistas’ extremely effective use of the internet to get their messages across to the broadest possible constituency. And the majority of separatist and ethnic movements have their own web sites where you can go for the latest information.
The media play a significant role today in shaping perceptions of identity. Their coverage of media-important situations is extensive and potentially determines what public perceptions will be. Liisa Malkki, in her extraordinary book (1996) on Hutu refugees from genocidal warfare, argues that the media has created a kind of universal and anonymous refugee by its choice of whom to depict – women in scarves carrying children in long lines for food or water, tent cities in rain and mud, and so forth. It relieves us of seeing them as individuals and as human beings and so diminishes our feelings of responsibility.
Media, by its nature and driving economics, reduces human complexity to a few features, usually the most exotic, shocking, or adorable. Minorities suffer most from this treatment because they are the least known to begin with and now they become caricatures of themselves. A kind of Arcadianism characterizes media depictions of minorities. We applaud their quaint traditions and want to keep them frozen in this supposed timelessness. It is self-congratulatory paternalism practiced by those who pride themselves on progress and change in their own lives while denying it to others.
Who Writes the Script?
As we have seen, many voices contribute to the framing of identity, no matter whose it is. At its most fundamental, identity belongs to the individual. Every individual has a multiplicity of identities, some ascribed, some achieved, from which selections are made depending on the context and notions of appropriateness. Individuals are also embedded in relationships from family and extended kin groups to local community to region, nation, and global networks. Implicit in the choosing of any identity is a community or set of relationships that will lend support to the identity and the claim. When we use "community" or "set of relationships," we understand them to represent entities that are fluid and porous. At times they may seem relatively structured; at other times they may appear to have little tangible about them (cf. Spicer 1971). Similarly, they may at one time impose rather rigid standards for membership while at other times not.
In the case of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, one set of arbiters of indigenous identity has been those institutions and professionals charged with indigenous affairs – national-level organizations such as INI and INAH and professionals such as anthropologists and sociologists. Because of the nature of community and identity discussed above, definitions of what and who constitute indigenous peoples have shifted throughout Mexico’s history. The 1991 incorporation of Article 133 into the Mexican Constitution seems to be a positive step toward acknowledging the complexity of the indigenous situation and it lays the groundwork for positive action. It remains to be seen when and in what manner it will lead to programs and policies. What role indigenous peoples themselves will play in definitions, policies and programs is also open to speculation.
One important factor in determining how strongly Mexico will support indigenous populations has to do with tourism which makes up a significant percentage of Mexico’s economy. Many tourists are attracted by the beautiful beaches and resorts but just as many come to see the vestiges of the great civilizations preserved at archaeological sites and in museums. They also come to see contemporary descendants of those civilizations, walk through their villages, and buy crafts in their markets. Arcadianism, yes, but vital to Mexico’s economic well-being.
This brings us to the role of international tourism and the global media. Tourists and media have voices that are part of the indigenous script. There are hundreds of examples we could offer about tourist preferences shaping everything from native crafts to fiesta cycles to gender roles. And while thousands experience Mexico first hand each year, many, many more see it through representations in the media.
All of those individuals and institutions that we suggested comprise the personnel of identity (see above) are engaged in the shaping, creating, and dissemination of identity. A goodly number of them define themselves and are accepted as indigenous peoples and they speak to and for their own people just as they are heard by outsiders.
Both Tzintzuntzan and Juchitán have been successful in defining themselves to their advantage although the degree of success varies with the particular audience. For example, there will always be those, like the INI personnel in the Isthmus, who will not recognize the Zapotec of Juchitán as indigenous because they are urban and economically advantaged. And there will always be those, like the INI personnel in the Lake Pátzcuaro area of Michoacán, who will insist on recognizing the people of Tzintzuntzan as indigenous because of their history.
To different degrees, both communities have taken charge of the public relations of being Purépecha and Zapotec.. Juchitán, for example, has claimed one of its most famous native sons, the painter Francisco Toledo, with a video about his life and work. They have produced videos as well about the well-known velas and some of the historically most important battles. The city’s numerous publications bring recognition far beyond the city limits. Cassettes and now CDs carry Zapotec music to all corners of Mexico and beyond.
Neither community controls all of its representations, some of which do rely heavily on the perceptions and representations of outsiders. For Juchitán, the "exotic Other" is still a powerful image for outsiders. Throughout Mexico and Latin America, however, the balance is shifting from external definitions toward local self-definition of identity. Whether the people in the communities of Juchitán and Tzintzuntzan will continue to define their primary identity (or have it defined by outsiders) as Zapotec and Purépecha is impossible to predict. What does matter is their continued ability to articulate their own identities for themselves. Both the historical record and their contemporary strategies argue in favor of their abilities to write their own scripts.
It should be obvious that both of us owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people of Juchitán and Tzintzuntzan for welcoming us as family and as professionals for more than thirty years. In Juchitán, Royce especially wants to thank her Zapotec mother, Sra. Rosinda Fuentes vda de Ramirez, and her Zapotec sister, Profa. Delia Ramirez Fuentes for their love and wisdom. In Tzintzuntzan, Kemper has parallel debts to his "family:" Doña Micaela González, her two daughters Lola and Virginia, and a long-time household friend, María Flores.
This debt includes all those Juchitecos and Tzintzuntzenos who live outside their patria chicas and who have also extended us hospitality over the years. Equally obvious from the references we have cited is our debt to Mexican scholars whose careful work over the decades has shaped and contributed to our and others’ understanding of the thorny issue of indigenismo.
For Royce, Zapotec scholars and intellectuals, binni nuspianni, through their work and lively conversation have shaped her thinking about what it means to be Zapotec and about indigenismo in general.
We presented an early draft of this essay to a graduate seminar on ethnicity at Indiana University and have benefited from the continuing commentary of seminar participants.
Colleagues and mentors whose long-term field research has continued to prove insightful include Elizabeth Colson, George and Mary Foster, and Stanley Brandes. As important, their work is a model of ethnography at its best.
In conversations corporate and casual, Ronald R. Royce has made suggestions that have taken our work in new directions. In the case of the Isthmus Zapotec, his own knowledge always provides an antidote to over-eager generalizations.
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