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Volume 59 / Social Sciences


Middle America

MICHAEL R. DUKE, Social Anthropologist/Program Director, Hispanic Health Council, Inc.

MESOAMERICA HAS EXPERIENCED PROFOUND social and environmental changes since the publication of HLAS 57, the previous social science volume. Hurricane Mitch, which careened through Central America in October 1998, left large swaths of Honduras, and to a lesser extent, Nicaragua, in tatters. In Guatemala, the peace agreement signed in December 1996 brought to an end the longest civil war in the region. Guatemala's struggle to forge a new postwar society has been accompanied by a good deal of soul-searching regarding the status of its indigenous population. Meanwhile, the tumultuousness that has characterized Mexican civil society during much of the 1990s continues unabated. While Mexico's transformation into a true multiparty democracy following the presidential election in 2000 offered cause for guarded optimism, the federal government's refusal to ratify the San Andrés Accords (which promise greater autonomy for indigenous communities), coupled with a dramatic increase in the militarization of Chiapas, reflects a disturbing tendency by the government to trivialize the structural oppression suffered by Mexico's autochthonous peoples. Furthermore, the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in September 2001 resulted in dramatically increased surveillance along the US-Mexico border, and Mexico's efforts to negotiate with its Northern neighbor regarding immigration reform has largely been sidetracked in the name of US national security.

Ethnographic studies of the region have tended toward three broad trends. The first of these, largely specific to the Guatemalan context, is a rethinking of the dichotomy between Indian and ladino that has characterized Guatemalan ethnography since at least the 1940s. Many of these commentaries appear in an extraordinary special issue of Cultura de Guatemala (Vol. 18, No. 1, 1997). Rodas (item #bi 99003822#) and Dary (item #bi 99003821#), for example, call into question the fact that ladinos have typically been portrayed in the ethnographic literature as homogeneous, as lacking any identifiable cultural attributes, and as seemingly bent—both individually and as a class—on oppressing the indigenous population. Alejos García points out that it is not ladinos per se, but global capitalism that has oppressed indigenous communities (item #bi 98004578#). In that same issue, González Ponciano examines the historical roots of the Indian/ladino dichotomy, tracing it to US anthropologists mainly associated with the University of Chicago, such as Robert Redfield and Sol Tax (item #bi 99003827#). González Ponciano argues, in my view persuasively, that the construction of Indians and ladinos as distinct, nondialectical social categories had repercussions well beyond academic debates about culture and ethnicity, having become incorporated into the hegemonic discourses of the state. As a result, Indians came to be seen as "problems" (in that they were conceived as culturally traditional but socially backward), and that possible linkages between Indians and ladinos were weakened or made untenable due to the seeming antinomies between the two groups.

While Guatemala provides the most obvious example of the ways in which Indian and non-Indian become dichotomized, these kinds of questions need to be addressed within other geopolitical contexts within the region. To one extent or another, most of the Central American nations share this dichotomizing impulse, including those countries where the indigenous population is relatively small (e.g., Nicaragua). Even in Mexico, despite ideological appeals to the "raza cósmica" that resulted from the blending of indigenous and European blood and culture, structural discrimination against indigenous peoples persists. This is particularly the case in Chiapas, where the orientation towards race is in many respects more similar to Guatemala than the rest of Mexico. Given the continuing ethnic, social, and political tensions within the state, it would be of critical importance to tease out the ways in which these categories have been constituted in the Chiapan context, as well as in the rest of the Republic.

On a more theoretical level, I would encourage a dialogue between those who are grappling with issues of ladino identity and scholars working in the area of White Studies. The latter is focused (largely in the contexts of the US and the United Kingdom) on the construction, circulation, and internalization of white as an (often unmarked) racial category. A comparison between the Mesoamerican and Anglo-American contexts would provide valuable insights into the ways in which racial or ethnic privilege is constituted in different national contexts.

A second fruitful area of activity during the biennium is the exploration of social movements and cultural politics. Among the most insightful of these are documents produced by indigenous people themselves, often collectively. For example, the published proceedings of a conference for indigenous women in Oaxaca, Mexico offers a number of cogent, politically astute observations on discrimination against indigenous women in the society at large, as well as within indigenous communities themselves (item #bi 98006522#). Likewise, Saramiento Silvio's useful compendium of position papers written during the 1990s by (mainly Mexican) indigenous organizations shows the increasing political and theoretical sophistication of these groups. A good deal of the ethnographic work in this area focuses on the dialectical relationship between outside institutions and social forces (other ethnic groups, the education system, global mass media) and local communities in shaping cultural production. Hernández Diaz and Lizama Quijano's superb ethnography of ideology and cultural politics among the Huave shows the important (and sometimes contradictory) role played by indigenous intellectuals in revitalizing Huave culture and society (item #bi 98006586#). Taking a poststructuralist approach, Nelson's groundbreaking work on Guatemalan Maya indigenous movements maps out the ways in which these organizations in particular, and Maya culture in general, articulate with a dizzying array of national and transnational forces (item #bi 99004062#), an approach also taken in Feinberg's interesting account of shamanism and subjectivity among the Mazatecs (item #bi2001004109#).

The last area that has been particularly fruitful during the biennium focuses on the relationship between ethnicity and nationhood. Many of the major works in this area have been carried out by Guatemalan scholars, reflecting the notable political opening of the postwar era, coupled with a deep desire on the part of both academics and activists to create a more just and inclusive civil society. A notable contribution to the advancement of theory in this area can be found in the final three volumes of an analytically sophisticated four-volume set (Vol. 1 was not available for review) called Historia Moderna de la Etnicidad en Guatemala by Cifuentes Herrera (item #bi 99005508#), Dávila (item #bi 99004634#), and Salazar (item #bi 99005507#), respectively. Another interesting work in this area is a posthumous volume of essays by Payeras (item #bi 98014743#). Himself a former member of the armed resistance, Payeras argues, among other points, that the guerrilla movement's fatal flaw was its inability to recognize that Guatemala's "ethnic-national character" cannot easily be reduced to class analysis. Turning to Mexico, Stephan provides an interesting analysis of the seeming contradiction of ruling party supporters in rural Oaxaca who support the Zapatista movement, which is due in large measure to claims of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Zapatistas over the legacy of Emiliano Zapata (item #bi 97006445#).

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