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Volume 61 / Social Sciences


Middle America

JEROME M. LEVI, Professor of Anthropology, Carleton College

SINCE THE PUBLICATION OF HLAS 59, major trends in research covering Middle American ethnology represent an intensification and amplification of themes that were already present, with the important difference that recent literature reflects an increase in both the empirical richness and theoretical sophistication of the topics discussed. It is a truism of contemporary Middle American ethnology that descriptions of "Indian" peoples and "peasant" communities are no longer represented as bounded or isolated cultural entities; instead they are conventionally contextualized within larger state, and indeed global, units of politico-economic power and process. Transnational flows of people, ideas, and commodities; struggles for indigenous rights in the face of structural violence; the redefinition of national and indigenous identities; critical engagement of anthropologists with "native" intellectuals in the coproduction of knowledge; and ethnographic advancements in the anthropology of women, law, cultural ecology, religion, and sociopolitical organization are hallmarks of recent topical research, together with a renewed emphasis on regional analyses, particularly Maya Studies. But whereas these subjects formerly emerged as groundbreaking examinations of, for example, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas and its aftermath, cultural implications of Mexico's electoral transition to democracy; the reconstruction of civil society in postwar Guatemala; and migration within, as well as between, nation-states, the most recent studies represent not so much a redirection of interests as a maturation of analyses regarding these and cognate topics. Nevertheless, advances in five broad categories of recent research merit special attention in this essay, namely 1) landmark reference works on Mesoamerican ethnology, 2) studies of connections between ethnic, national, and/or gender identity especially in relation to the discourse on rights and sociopolitical movements, 3) discussions of migration and ethnic diasporas, 4) studies in the anthropology of religion, and 5) examinations of interrelationships between ecology, economy, and culture.

Reference Works and Sourcebooks. The most important over-arching development is that for the first time in over 30 years there have appeared crucial reference volumes that summarize decades of research in Middle American ethnology. The last time Mesoamerican ethnology was treated in a systematic and comprehensive way was in 1969, when the University of Texas Press published Evon Vogt's two volumes on ethnology in its monumental 16-volume Handbook of Middle American Indians series (see HLAS 31:1860). It is therefore significant that the most recent addition to the Handbook is Supplement Volume six—Ethnology (see HLAS 59:759), and it is a masterful compendium. In his introductory essay, volume editor Monaghan stresses that recent ethnography integrates history not only from the preconquest and colonial epochs, but even more significantly from the 19th and early-20th centuries, which previously were often ignored. Second, there has been a shift from portraying indigenous peoples as victims of conquest and marginalization to increasingly seeing them "as active agents negotiating, synthesizing, adopting, and resisting" (p. 2). The volume has superb chapters on regional as well as topical syntheses. Dow offers an overview of regional research on the non-Nahua cultures of Central Mexico, Sandstrom on the Gulf Coast, and Good on Guerrero and the West Coast (the chapters covering Nahua ethnography), Monaghan and Cohen on Oaxaca, Köhler on Chiapas, Sullivan on the Yucatan, and Watanabe on highland Guatemala. Three chapters treat topics that crosscut the regional essays. Mulhare's chapter synthesizes the work on social organization and community, Monaghan reviews the literature on religion, and Campbell summarizes the research on politicized ethnic movements.

The other landmark reference work that appeared was The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures (item #bi2003005772#), the aim of which, as above, was to build on the foundation established by the Handbook of Middle American Indians. The Encyclopedia's editor-in-chief, Davíd Carrasco, drew together 617 entries in the three volumes of the Encyclopedia. There are articles on all the indigenous ethnic groups of Mesoamerica, including those of northwest Mexico, a valuable addition since these northern groups are not covered in the aforementioned new Ethnology volume of the Handbook. Furthermore, the Encyclopedia has a wide assortment of topical articles on social, political, religious, and economic phenomena with article titles ranging from "Shamanism" to "Gender Studies," from "Mestizaje" to the "Zapatista National Liberation Army." So too, Mexico's Instituto Nacional Indigenista published a valuable sourcebook in two large volumes covering many aspects of the country's indigenous peoples, with chapters on indigenous populations and languages, environment and sustainable development, and the indigenous movement's relation to democracy, cultural rights in the constitution, and representation in the media (item #bi2003006501#). Also of general interest is Romero Contreras' book on the history of anthropology and anthropologists in Mexico, including a reconsideration of the concept of Mesoamerica and fascinating chapters on Tylor, Redfield, Aguirre Beltrán, Wolf, Villa Rojas, and Palerm (item #bi2003006422#).

Indigenous Identity, Rights, and Sociopolitical Movements. The second category of research, constituting by far the largest number of works, are studies of ethnic, and to a lesser extent, gender identity in relation to sociopolitical struggles and the discourse on rights within the context of nation-states and globalization. These works fall into four main subcategories. The first are studies of the relationship between ethnicity and nationhood at the broadest level. Stavenhagen masterfully analyzes relations between ethnicity, nation, and economic development throughout Latin America (item #bi2003006441#). Several outstanding edited volumes make similar contributions; all have excellent chapters on Mexico and/or Guatemala. Maybury-Lewis' book, The Politics of Ethnicity, examines indigenous peoples in Latin American states in terms of the politics of ethnicity (see item #bi2005001949# for a review of a chapter from this work). Warren and Jackson's work discusses Latin American indigenous movements focusing on the politics of self-representation (see item #bi2005003704# for a review of a chapter from this work), while Dean and Levi's volume, At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States, situates these debates within the context of indigenous movements worldwide (see item #bi2005003724# for a review of a chapter from this work—anno to come from Dean). Other books focus specifically on how Mexico's recent national indigenist movement and the question of rights brought about a heightening of political consciousness and a force for democratic reform (items #bi2003006504#, #bi2003006446#, #bi2003006447#, and #bi2003006521#; also see HLAS 59:769). These works are linked to a second group of studies that scrutinize national implications of politicized ethnic movements in Oaxaca and Chiapas (items #bi2003006445#, #bi2003006449#, and #bi2003006415#). Via a close analysis of how the Mexican government, Zapatistas, and indigenous communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas each deploy the Mexican Revolution and Emiliano Zapata for their various interpretations of history and contemporary cultural politics, Stephen's book, Zapata Lives! History and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico, is an enduring contribution (item #bi2002005747#). Similarly, Campbell's passionate ethnography, Mexican Memoir, presents a rare personal account of radical Zapotec politics and grassroots organizations in Oaxaca's Isthmus of Tehuatepec (item #bi2004000065#). Other works are comparative, contrasting indigenous struggles in northern and southern Mexico (items #bi2003006528# and #bi2005003703#—anno to come from Dean, ` 2002).

A third related subcategory of studies explores the politics of identity among specific peoples and ethnic groups. Besides several works on Huastec (Teenek) (items #bi2003006519#, #bi2004003638#, and #bi2003006519#), Tarahumara (Rarámuri) (items #bi2004003649#, #bi2005003724#—anno to come from Dean, Levi 2003, and #bi2005001947#) and Yuman identities (item #bi2005001948#), the vast majority of these diverse studies are synchronic and/or diachronic perspectives on various Maya peoples and predicaments. Some works examine human rights, history, and cultural resilience throughout the Maya world (items #bi2003006448# and #bi2003006414#), whereas others have regional foci on Chiapas (items #bi2003006432#, #bi2005001942#, and #bi2005001945#), Yucatan (items #bi2003006247# and #bi2003006538#) or Guatemala (items #bi2003000588#, #bi2004002900#, #bi2004003642#, #bi2005001950#, and #bi2005003705#). Two excellent issues of the Journal of Latin American Anthropology were devoted to Maya ethnicity and history; one grappled with "Rethinking Polarized Ethnicities: Power and Identity in Guatemala" (vol. 6, no. 2, 2001), the other scrutinized "The Maya Identity of the Yucatan: 1500–1935" (vol. 9, no.1, 2004). Three exceptional books on Maya ethnology also merit special comment. Taking its cue from contemporary Maya activists, Watanabe and Fischer's edited volume, Pluralizing Ethnography: Comparison and Representation in Maya Cultures, Histories, and Identities (item #bi2005001946#) draws together insights from leading Maya specialists (Bricker, Fischer, Gossen, Kray, Montejo, Nash, Rus, Watanabe) and a renowned anthropological theorist (Fox) to evaluate the cultural futures emerging from an enduring sense of Maya-ness in Mexico and Guatemala rooted in historical consciousness. A similar invaluable contribution is Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization, wherein Nash argues powerfully that indigenous cultures and organizations in Chiapas, particularly Zapatismo and related social movements, represent alternative approaches to national participation and economic development (item #bi2003006540#). Another first-rate book on globalization and identity politics among Maya in Guatemala is Fischer's Cultural Logics and Global Economies: Maya Identity in Thought and Practice (item #bi2003006518#), which describes how divergent norms in two Kaqchikel towns lead each to construct different expressions of Maya-ness while still sharing basic similarities, enabling both to participate in the national pan-Maya movement.

The last set of studies in this general category consider the nexus between indigenous and gender identities, with an emphasis on women's roles in production and reproduction in both natural and cultural domains. Martínez Corona's book is a theoretically sophisticated analysis of women and the artisan market in Cuetzalan, Puebla, showing how women's organizations create new social subjects (item #bi2003006436#). Huckert presents a fascinating article linking distinctive textile motifs made by Otomí women in San Juan Ixtenco with a "female" mountain known as La Malintze. The meanings and symbolism of these patterns date back to preconquest times (item #bi2004002903#). Most other works deal with Maya women, either in terms of practices surrounding birth and pregnancy (item #bi2003006513#) or feminist critiques of the restricted sociopolitical identities of women in "traditional" Maya cultures of Yucatan, Chiapas, and Guatemala (items #bi2003006508# and #bi2003006444#). An important yet disturbing account of Mesoamerican gender relations is revealed in McClusky's book, "Here, Our Life is Hard ": Stories of Domestic Violence from a Mayan Community in Belize (item #bi2003006532#).

Migration. The third major area of significant contributions deals with discussions of migration both within and between national borders. An exceptionally useful work is that of Rubio, Millan, and Gutiérrez insofar as they offer general analyses of the phenomena in Mexico, as well as specific case studies (item #bi2003006512#). Hiernaux-Nicolas' detailed book provides a fresh perspective in his examination of how indigenous immigrants to Mexico City construct new hybrid identities in the face of racism and the deprecation of indigenous languages and cultures (item #bi2003006522#). Several notable works concern the migration of indigenous peoples of Oaxaca (item #bi2003006524# and #bi2003006510#). In Cohen's important article, he argues that transnational migration among Oaxaca's Zapotec cannot be interpreted adequately either in terms of economic dependency or development (item #bi2004002912#), but rather the positive and negative economic effects of migration are caused by changing patterns of migration, household decision-making, alterations in domestic groups, and community participation. There have also been new studies of migration among Maya peoples to Guatemala City (item #bi2003006412#), of the Mam to eastern Chiapas in the 19th and 20th centuries (item #bi2003006433#), and of the recent Maya diaspora throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, and Central America (item #bi2004001586#).

Religion. Fourth, there have been significant contributions to the study of Mesoamerican religions. Several books of general interest are Bierhorst's compendium of Mesoamerican mythology (item #bi2004002913#), León-Portilla's translation of a colonial Nahuatl text about the Virgin of Guadalupe (item #bi2003006420#), and Zarauz López's discussion of the rituals and symbols associated with the Day of the Dead in diverse regions of Mexico, including their ancient and colonial precursors (item #bi2001002597#, see also item #bi2003006426#). New theoretical examinations of shamanism and curing advance Mesoamerican medical anthropology (items #bi2003006514#, #bi2003006523#, and #bi2004003647#). An interesting complement to González Rubio's personal account of Mazatec shamanism (item #bi2003006541#) is Feinberg's engaging book on the impact that outsiders seeking transcendence through the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms with Mazatec shamans have had on Mazatec culture and history (item #bi2003006350#). In the Maya region, Christenson offers a brilliant analysis of the central altarpiece in the church of Santiago Atitlán, (item #bi2003006517#), while Falla examines the conversion from traditional Maya folk Catholicism to the Catholic Action movement (item #bi2003006534#). Gossen's stunning epic—spanning four cycles of Tzotzil creation, destruction, and restoration—gives readers a uniquely Maya commentary on subjects ranging from the birth of the cosmos to modern history (item #bi2004002910#). Another book on Maya oral history is Carey's richly textured account of the Kaqchikel version of the last fifty years in Guatemala (item #bi2003003762#). Understanding that Maya lightening symbolism is thought to break open the hard exterior of objects thus liberating an inner spiritual essence (item #bi2003006246#) adds another dimension to Montejo's poetic book on the Jakaltec Man of Lightning legend (item #bi2004003642#). In northwestern Mesoamerica, a number of superb studies have appeared on Cora and Huichol myth, ritual, symbolism, cosmology, and shamanism (items #bi2003006438#, #bi2003006440#, #bi2003006530#, and #bi2004003644#). Noteworthy monographs here are Fresán Jiménez's sustained analysis of Huichol nierika symbolism (item #bi2005001943#) Knab's spellbinding account of a Huichol messiah (item #bi2005001944#), and Coyle's argument that the spread of violence and drug trafficking among the Cora (Náyari) is due to interference by municipal and national bureaucracies with the religious practices that legitimized traditional authority (item #bi2003003769#).

Ecology, Culture, and Economy. Finally, a number of studies have analyzed connections among ecology, culture, and economy—especially regarding the interplay between local, regional, and global forces. Meticulous analyses of environmental management have examined intergenerational losses in ecological knowledge among the Lacandon (item #bi2004003640#), factors contributing to the loss of milpa maize production in Yucatan (item #bi2003005422#), and how, despite utilizing the same habitat in lowland Guatemala, native Itza', local Ladinos, and immigrant Q'eqchi' each demonstrate respectively decreasing levels of ecological awareness (item #bi2004002914#). In his innovative book on Zapotec agriculture, González argues that practice-based cultural models represent a valid local science despite being distinct from the models employed by agronomists and botanists (item #bi2003006541#). Against a backdrop of critical anthropological theory, resource management laws, and customary practices, Burguete Cal y Mayor offers a landmark case study of water disputes between the Mexican government and Tzotzil communities in the Chiapas highlands (item #bi2003006443#).

Other works on resource management in Maya areas have attempted to ground sustainable development in Maya philosophy (item #bi2003006427#), analyze the altering market for henequen (sisal) and transformations in the land tenure system (item #bi2003006537#), or, through a presentation of Tzotzil and Tzeltal ethnozoology to a general public, help a new generation of Chiapas peasants esteem and preserve the natural environment (item #bi2003006507#). With his exquisite ethnography, Dennis paints a vibrant picture of Miskitu village life and livelihood in eastern Nicaragua (item #bi2004003884#). His discussions of the local economy in terms of the balance between starchy vegetables and fresh meat, turtle fishing, plantation work, community development, health and curing complement other articles on the Miskitu that deal with related topics (items #bi2004002902#, #bi2004002901#, and #bi2004003641#). Representing the other end of Middle America, Yetman's sensitive portrayal of the Guarijio of southeastern Sonora not only provides a thorough ethnobotany of one of the least known indigenous peoples in Mexico, but also considers their culture and history in the context of the global economy (item #bi2003002441#). Other works theorize globalization more directly, arguing that nongovernmental craft and artist cooperatives, as well as agro-ecological organizations, cannot be understood simply as local attempts to promote equality and cultural survival, but must be interpreted within the context of migration, changing gender roles, the transformation of tradition, and structural changes caused by globalization (items #bi2003006434# and #bi2003006520#).

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