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Volume 57 / Social Sciences


Middle America

JEFFREY H. COHEN, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Penn State University

THERE WAS A TIME when ethnographers could portray Mesoamerican communities as populations isolated from the influence of global economics, national politics, and the rapid rate of contemporary social change, and expect little argument or disagreement from fellow academicians. Certainly there was little regard for the opinions of the "natives," nor much desire to place village studies into frameworks that might account for unanticipated events like the Zapatista uprising. Recently, however, anthropologists, sociologists, and activists have begun to grapple with, and report upon, the revolutionary changes taking place among the populations with whom they work. This growing trend can be linked to several watershed events including: 1) the Zapatista uprising in Mexico; 2) the signing of peace treaties in Guatemala and El Salvador; 3) open elections in Nicaragua; and 4) transnational migration. Much of the work cited here suggests a rethinking of basic assumptions concerning the awareness that indigenous and peasant communities have of their place and role in global economics.

Some of the most important work of the biennium can be found in two multidisciplinary volumes that outline the historical antecedents to the Zapatista movement in Chiapas (items bi 97009557 and bi 96013083). An important innovation found in El arreglo de los pueblos indios is the translation of each chapter into an indigenous language, fostering a dialogue between local leaders and academics (item bi 97009557). Gossen adds a further dimension to our knowledge of the Zapatistas by defining the movement's roots according to Mayan thought and worldview (item bi 98013360). Moving the discussion of human rights from Mexico to Guatemala is Maya cultural activism which brings together essays by Maya and non-Maya activists and anthropologists (item bi 97002299). A trend that I would hope to see continue is the current movement towards a passionate, involved ethnography that not only reports on the struggle for justice in Mesoamerica, but takes an activist role in calling for change. Most outstanding in this respect is Binford's sensitive and thoughtful analysis of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador (item bi 97009560).

The study of ethnic identity has been perhaps the most active area of research during the biennium and a majority of the articles reviewed for this volume (and many that could not be included) touch upon this issue. Much of the work moves beyond a discussion of the definition of identity to an examination of the politics of ethnicity and the responses of indigenous peoples to ongoing change (see Wilson, item bi 95025142 and Carmack, item bi 96000707 on Mayan resistance and Campbell's outstanding volume on the Isthmus Zapotec, item bi 97009565). Article-length pieces examine the construction of ethnicity in ethnographic research. Cook and Joo argue that scholars must carefully explain the use of the term Indian, taking into account that ethnography's historical assumptions may cloud analysis (item bi 95013635). Watanabe examines how ethnographic constructions inform academic and popular debates (particularly in terms of pan-Mayanism) (item bi 95006499). Finally, Nash suggests that scholars need to account for the ways that glosses of ethnicity may obscure local debates of ethnic meaning and identity (item bi 96001495).

A third important area of growth in the field concerns the study of transnational migration and its profound impact on both sending and receiving communities, as well as on national policies. Altamirano and Hirabayashi's important collection of essays demonstrates the influence of rural to urban migration on identity, politics, and the economy (item bi 97009552). Descriptions of different populations continue to provide important ethnographic data and add to our understanding of migration as a social process chosen by a growing number of Mexicans and Central Americans (items bi 95025132, bi 98013226, and bi 95025650).

Exceptional ethnography continues to be written on the region. Much of this work concentrates on gender issues, relations of power, cultural change, and the environment. Alonso and Frye provided community studies that place contemporary populations into rich webs of history (items bi 96007749 and bi 96013089 respectively). Eber (item bi 95018641) and Gutmann (item bi 98013362) authored strong works on gender and its ties to politics, cultural movements, and development concerns. The outstanding analysis of Kuna plant knowledge by Ventocilla et al. stands as an example of the benefits that multidisciplinary, cooperative research projects can offer to both scholars and natives (item bi 95025145). Finally, the three volumes on indigenous medical knowledge and practices by Virginia Mellado-Campos et al. are a monumental addition to our basic understanding of the continued role of traditional medical practices among Mexico's native communities (item bi 96003600).

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