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Volume 63 / Social Sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY: ETHNOLOGY: Middle America


DUNCAN EARLE, Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University

THE 21st CENTURY has ushered in a congeries of perspectives on Middle American ethnography, many of them continuing the trajectory first laid out in HLAS 59 by Michael Duke (see p. 87). These views include complicated and evolving relationships between the indigenous people and social movements, complexities of relationships with the state, as well as ethnic revitalization movements and many issues associated with identity. To these foreground topics, I would add a continued concern for understanding the role of religion and its relationship to power, social organization, ritual, symbolism, and psychology, as well as the aforementioned subject areas. Happily, we are also witnessing an increase in indigenous voices, both as rendered by ethnography and as authors in their own right. These voices speak of traditional subjects of myth, tales, belief and practice, but also give testimony to cultural, social, and political transformation and struggle.

It is to these indigenous voices I turn first, for anthropology, as I would envision it for this new century, must always be the first to be alert to the voices of those ostensibly under the gaze of social science. The cultural position of indigenous peoples and their critiques of power and society add to the understanding of Mesoamerica and its neighbors, and point to the evolution of the field, with voices no longer exclusively mediated by others. As the current editor for this section, a Mesoamerican-focused anthropologist who has tried to be an occasional scribe for Maya voices, the publishing of a growing corpus of indigenous voices is cause for celebration. The round of publications reviewed here includes many examples of indigenous voices, from Panama stories, myths, chants, and women's songs in Kuna and English (item #bi2004003889#) in the south to the delightful Spanish-Raramuri (Tarahumara) ethnographic description of social organization, myths and legends, written by an indigenous member of that community (item #bi2006000883#). Critiques of rural development, identity formation and/or reformulation through alienation, struggle, dislocation, migration, and resistance, the importance of gender dynamics in all social fields, discussions of indigenous autonomy and governance, democracy and rights, all are represented topics. Even the humble taco and the miniature craft figurine become forms of social and cultural critique.

Social movements of an indigenous character have had a significant political impact on Latin America of late, to a degree unprecedented since their political and military conquest five centuries ago. To take just the most obvious cases of the region one can see a continuing cultural revitalization movement in Guatemala, and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as the more recent social movement processes and state responses in neighboring Oaxaca, two areas with an extensive ethnographic corpus of work, and from which new jewels continually stream. Chiapas continues to generate local, national, and international analysis, and the Zapatistas continue to be a touchstone for discussing indigenous rights, community autonomy, local control of community development, pluri-ethnic solidarity, and relations to and with the state. While it is still the case that few indigenous people have the opportunity to gain a social science degree and publish their writings, many have been able to work with sympathetic outsiders to get their perspectives and sometimes their direct quotations into print. One excellent example of this is Christine Eber and Christine Kovic's, Women in Chiapas: Making History in Times of Struggle and Hope (item #bi2005000043#). In the foreward, June Nash says, "the editors of this anthology go beyond the critique (that indigenous people use essentializing language) to include women speaking for themselves not only about their problems, but also about finding dignity as they overcome the fear and self- repression related to their former subjugation at home and in public life of 'traditional communities'" (p. xiv). She also notes that far from a methodology of disinterested science, the authors and editors are active in the movement for the better conditions of women in Chiapas, and view the subject from a perspective of support for their cause. But I would add that such works as these undo their own narrative authority by the inclusion not just of diverse indigenous personal testimony, but the voices of other ethnographic viewpoints, as well as diverse expressive cultural material—from prayers to plays. What is best of the recent offerings finds this hybrid mix of voices, perspectives, and interests—and are electrified by a current theme, championing a silenced voice, and giving space to that voice and its multiple interpretations.

What is also very evident in the corpus of texts by both outsiders and insiders is that the precontact world, while never what it was before, is always in some form still present, resisting variously the transmogrifying efforts at cultural denigration, unilateral incorporation, and progressive ethnocide. Far from dying out as cultures—or preserved as mere artifacts of ethnographic interest—the indigenous cultures of Middle America, along with their South American and North American counterparts, are experiencing winds of revitalization, taking their claims to difference, cultural autonomy and self-determination into the national and global arena. These events and movements strengthen indigenous identity and empower their efforts, in Middle America and across much of the rest of Latin America. Many groups now frame this effort in pluri-ethnic nationalist terms. The Zapatista slogan, "No More Mexico Without Us" typifies this trend, proclaiming that there should be no more national denial of indigenous heritage, dignity, and rights, and for that matter, some form of political voice. This subject area of emerging indigenous voices resides in many contributions here, in one or another form, as I have said. But that "us"—indigenous identity and sense of self—has become a complex and contested subject, impacted by the changing world and diverse indigenous strategies in response to regional, national, and global changes.

The internal ethnic distinctions between indigenous and other categories of identities continue to be explored and debated, within frameworks willing to situate ethnicity in an ethnographic time and place, and to embrace creativity and innovation. The subtle ways that identities shift in the transactions of daily life replace simple and stable social labels across large social spaces, as many combinations of indigenous cultures, as well as elements from Hispanic and Mestizo- Ladino cultural practices, continue being profoundly Mesoamerican in character—unstable, changing, even surprising, yet still largely familiar.

The culture area of Middle America follows roughly the outlines of the city-states and empires Mesoamericans constructed and maintained for millennia before the arrival of conquering Europeans. Conquest saw it reduced increasingly to villages and remote regions. Ironically, after more than a century of ethnographic research emerging from indigenous regions of Mexico and Central America, huge new ethnographic opportunities are opening up just across the border and within the US, as many indigenous groups establish footholds in US cities and towns following recent migration trends. The conflating of border security concerns related to post-9/11 security policy with immigration policy defects and the perception of a border "out of control" means that these peripheral Mesoamerican subjects remain in high public profile. Little public awareness exists about the cultures of Mesoamerican migrant populations that may live next door. A growing body of scholarship connects Mesoamerica with North America in this way, and delivers new, close-to-home insights on cultural maintenance and change, and ties the region to our own. Mixtecs in California and Mayas as refugees in Florida have been documented for some time, but more of this type of study is in the offing, as Middle America meets the other Middle America in all manner of interesting ways. This parallels a growing scholarship addressing prehistoric and historic connections across the borders of Middle America, research that has eroded the boundaries of essential distinction by placing emphasis on connections and inter-influences, making our understanding of Middle American peoples more relational as well as more proximal.


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