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Volume 53 / Social Sciences


Middle America

PAUL SULLIVAN, Lecturer in Anthropology, Yale University

IN A PROVOCATIVE AND TIMELY ESSAY Tracy Ehlers documents and decries the overall lack of relevant published anthropological research on Central America (outside of Mexico and Guatemala) during the decade of crisis just passed (item bi 91004816). The relative dearth of publications on Central America in the discipline's major journals appears to have worsened during the last several years. Ehlers also notes that anthropologists, compared to other social scientists, have published strikingly little that has any clear or immediate policy implications or applications. The new decade finds our discipline still sticking to its traditional, at times arcane, roster of topics, despite the pressing need for anthropologically informed analysis of social, economic, and political problems in Central America. If the last several years are any indication, anthropology in the 1990s will not differ radically from anthropology in the 1980s. Nevertheless, while still working within the traditional confines of ethnology as we know it, ethnologists have at least inched towards research that takes cognizance of radical change, acute struggle, and continuing, profound injustice in the region.

Most noteworthy in this regard, ethnologists working throughout Mexico and Central America have published much in the last several years on the formation, perpetuation, and transformation of collective identities. Popular themes include the effects that loss of land, economic development, State intervention, and war have had upon the people's allegiance to community or to their indigenous group. Two major ethnographies - Sandstrom's Corn is our blood concerning the Sierra Nahuat of Puebla (item bi 93004520) and John Watanabe's Maya saints and souls in a changing world on the Mam Maya of highland Guatemala (item bi 93004652) - explore in depth the puzzling persistence of such identities under the radically changing social, economic, political conditions of 20th-century Latin America.

Many shorter works explore expressions of ethnicity, and the advantages or disadvantages of such expression, in the context of repression, war, and flight. Such articles deal with Maya refugees in Florida (item bi 91005153), migrant Mixtec in the western US and along the US-Mexican border (item bi 93004370), indigenous peoples of the Mexican Huasteca (item bi 93004037), Chatino communities of Oaxaca (item bi 93004151), Kekchis in Guatemala (item bi 93004654), the hidden Indian population of El Salvador (item bi 93004664), and the politically-charged kaleidoscope of ethnic alliances in opposition to Nicaragua's Sandinistas (item bi 91005151). Of course, Guatemala has in recent years offered the most severe cases for the study of such issues, and recent important studies, in addition to those already mentioned above, include vol. 3 of the diaries of Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán (item bi 92002807), an important Guatemalan survey of resettlement communities (item bi 92005856), and Guatemalan Indians and the State, a major collection of ethnological and ethnographic essays (item bi 91008898).

Major steps have been taken over the last several years with regard to the study of women in Mexico and Central America. Articles by Ehlers (item bi 91006897), Martin (item bi 91006718), and Nash and Casey (item bi 93004670), and books by Stephen (item bi 92005508) and Ehlers (item bi 93004058) powerfully demonstrate the future possibilities of such research, and incidentally challenge the very foundations of Mesoamerican research that has yet to seriously address the changing roles of women throughout Mexico and Central America.

An unusually large number of major ethnographies based upon several years to three decades of research have appeared during this biennium, and a number of these are destined to be of special importance even to non-Latin Americanists. Scott Cook and Leigh Binford's Obliging need (item bi 93003960) provides the most detailed and tightly argued discussion available of the role and history of commodity and craft production in rural communities of the region. Richard Wilk's Household ecology (item bi 93004653) thoroughly analyzes household-level economic decision-making among the Kekchi of Belize, making a persuasive case for the centrality of household history in ethnohistorical research. Laura Nader's Harmony ideology is a masterpiece on legal process and the ideology of village unity in Oaxaca (item bi 910010968), while Murphy and Stepick explore somewhat analogous but contrary issues in their major study of the history of social inequality in Oaxaca City (item bi 92013266). Books by Enge and Scott (item bi 89014711), Lipp (item bi 91019330), and Slade (item bi 93004567) round out the list of major contributions to ethnography in these recent and very productive years.

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