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Constructing, destroying, and reconstructing difference: the Mexican nation and cultural difference.

Anthropological studies of Mexico in the twentieth century (like anthropology elsewhere) began with a heavy emphasis on fieldwork that usually lasted a year in a single community. By the late 1960s, under the influence especially of Eric Wolf in the US and Mexican anthropologists such as Guillermo Bonfil Batalla and Arturo Warman, anthropology's community studies had begun taking into account the larger national and international political economy as well as the historical context. Many of the community studies of the 1970s and early 1980s (such as those by June Nash, Guillermo de la Pena, and Frances Rothstein) looked also at what Wolf called "extra-local relations" and used a diachronic perspective.

In the 1980s anthropology took a postmodern turn. Much that had been written before was strongly criticized for being static descriptions of supposedly self-contained communities. While the 1980s postmodernists often ignored earlier critiques of colonialism and dependent development and exaggerated the extent to which anthropologists had treated communities as isolated in space and fixed in time, they brought attention to the limitations of earlier approaches. Especially as the communities anthropologists usually studied continued to change, the postmodernist highlighting of difference and power in a broader context was important.

Changes in capitalism, the continued efforts of "modernist" anthropologists such as Wolf, Nash, and William Roseberry, and the postmodern critique have contributed to a variety of new approaches in anthropology. Some, influenced especially by Foucault, place a heavier emphasis on discourse and difference; political economy remains in the background. Others, influenced more by Wolf or Raymond Williams and historical materialism, foreground political economy; discourse and difference are somewhat less important. Regardless of their different emphases, however, contemporary studies share some important characteristics that represent significant changes in anthropological description and analysis. The three books reviewed here are excellent examples of the best of contemporary anthropology; individually and collectively they demonstrate the richness that is possible when some of the old strengths of anthropology are combined with new approaches.

The three books share concern with global economic and political forces and uneven development, discourse and power, and history. All, not surprisingly given these concerns, include description and analysis of actors in different places and at different times and all rely on a wider variety of sources than did the anthropology of the past. Newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, political publications (including those of the government, various parties, and dissident groups), as well as historical records, supplement fieldwork which now figures much less prominently than it did in most twentieth century anthropology.

Although they vary in the attention devoted to the local, national, and global, all three works focus on relations between the state (Mexico) and various actors. Lomnitz's book, which paints the nation with a broad brush over time and place, is a collection of essays all concerned with a single project, an "historical sociology of Mexican national space" (p. xix). The twelve essays, most of which were published in Mexico as part of a volume entitled Modernidad indiana: nacion y mediacion en Mexico and/or in English in various journals, are grouped into three parts. In the first section, "Making the Nation," the essays range from the Aztecs, through the Colonial Period and Independence to the post-Revolutionary period. Commentaries on nationalism (with a critique of Benedict Anderson's assertion that nationalism emerged in Spanish America), communitarian ideologies, citizenship, construction of the presidency and the contemporary crisis in the politics of nationalism raise provocative questions. In all these essays the approach is comparative (usually over time, occasionally over space) and, except for the initial essay on Anderson and nationalism, all the essays in this section conclude (usually very pessimistically) with contemporary dilemmas and problems.

One wonders whether Lomnitz's pessimism derives from his heavy focus on the powerful, the more general ("the nation"), and the written word (especially of those in or near power). In two of the three essays in Part II, "Geographies of the Public Sphere," Lomnitz focuses on the local level. Although here, too, the dominance of nonlocal power centres is always present, the power of the state is seen as contested. In Chapter 7 Lomnitz shows how rumour and ritual are used when more overt forms of critical expression are restricted. In Chapter 8, on Tepoztlan, the central Mexican town where Lomnitz carried out fieldwork, he shows how Tepoztecans manipulate and rework the notion of centrality to make local society, not Mexico City or the nation, the centre.

In the third part of the volume, "Knowing the Nation," Lomnitz returns again to the power of the more powerful and proposes various ways in which intellectuals serve the Mexican state. In a critique of anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil's widely read book, Mexico Profundo, Lomnitz argues that by using the image of a deep, agrarian Indian Mexico versus an imaginary and invented capitalist Mexico, Bonfil reproduces the older tradition-versus-modernity notions of modernist anthropology. For Lomnitz, as indicated by the title of his book, it is the muting or silencing and exclusion of many Mexicans from the national public sphere that is important.

Whereas Lomnitz concentrates on the powerful and stresses the silence of the dominated, Nash and Hernandez Castillo listen carefully to the voices of the oppressed. In part, this is due to the fact that they both worked in Chiapas where the Zapatista uprising in January 1994 made those voices heard around the world. It is clear, however, that both Nash and Hernandez Castillo had been listening to the voices of the "silenced" for some time.

Nash has been listening to Mayan voices since 1957 when she did her initial fieldwork in Amatenango del Valle in highland Chiapas. She returned to Chiapas in 1988 and, with a number of students, has followed the indigenous "quest for autonomy" since then. One of the many strengths of Nash's work is that while Mayan voices (with their alternative logic to that of international capitalism) are the strongest in her description and analysis, she integrates material from a wide range of sources at various levels, including the local, national, and global. Not only does she continue to listen to people in Amatengo but she visits multiple sites throughout the region and relies on a wide range of accounts and comments by scholars, journalists, and political figures.

Her book begins in Chapter 1, "Indigenous Counterplots to Globalization Processes," by placing her subject of indigenous social movements in their broader global context. Her discussion of globalization documents the growing integration of the world economy, especially in terms of direct foreign investment, the shift from industrial to finance capital, the decline in subsistence production, and growing food and debt dependency. But, in what is the theme of the book, she insists that global economic integration is stimulating a global social response which emerges from indigenous values on collective work.

Before proceeding to contemporary events, Nash discusses the nature of indigenous communities and anthropologists' traditional "community study." Like the centering described by Lomnitz among Tepoztecos, Nash points out that when she went to Amatenango in the late 1950s, indigenous people perceived their local world as the centre of the universe. She notes also, however, that when she "tried to fix the community in time and place, the apparent integrity of the world the Amatenangueros constructed ... collapsed. Their life as impoverished cultivators and artisans, superexploited in the markets where they sold their goods and labor, emerged" (p. 37). Earlier in the book she criticizes those postmodernists whose exclusive concern with identity "was often achieved by jettisoning the ballast of structural representation" (p. 17). Here, again, the necessity of interweaving culture and structure reappears when she argues convincingly that the critique of community studies "failed to assess how community studies often captured the informants' construction of harmony" (p. 40).

With the help of her own and other "community studies," Nash describes indigenous communities in Chiapas, focusing primarily on the last fifty years. This approach allows her to show how the rebellion slowly emerged. She traces the differentiation in wealth, religion, and politics that developed as government resources and missionaries increasingly entered the area. She is insistent that "the eruption of violence cannot be explained in terms of external pressures alone" (p. 59). The long history of domination and "internalization of nonindigenous behaviours and beliefs" (p. 59) must be taken into account. She also argues that the debt crisis and neoliberalism have worsened earlier contradictions. Nash shows how the corporatist strategies, including land redistribution, that had helped keep the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government in power and allowed for collective control of local land, were curtailed with the 1992 reform of Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution. While this and other neo-liberal policies under Salinas meant that the future for the majority looked bleak, the discovery of vast reserves of oil in the Lacandon rain forest (where residents of the highlands and the Sierra had been taking advantage of government colonization programs since the 1970s) held possibilities for capitalist investment and accumulation for the few. Nash goes on to describe how the negative consequences for the majority prompted not silence, but massive protests by campesinos (agricultural smallerholders and/or workers) to which the government responded with increased militarization.

She weaves together the complex threads that eventually brought thousands of campesinos and indigenous people together and describes the religious and secular organizations, meetings, networks, and processes through which their demands for autonomy have been expressed. She analyzes in very rich detail their demands not only for land but "the right to determine its distribution within self-regulating regional bases" (p. 123). With similar attention to detail, she analyzes the responses of the Mexican government, paramilitaries, secular NGOS, and Protestant and Catholic organizations in Chiapas, Mexico, and elsewhere.

Although such comprehensive coverage of material on a diverse array of relevant events, policies, conditions, and actors might confuse readers, in this book that is not the case. Nash carefully pulls the threads together and makes very clear the significant themes and patterns underlying the process of mobilization and the transformative vision of the participants.

A similar picture of the gradual development of the Zapatista uprising emerges in Hernandez Castillo's Histories and Stories. Nash and Hernandez Castillo find similar causes and describe some similar processes. But the books offer complementary, not repetitious pictures. Hernandez Castillo's account focuses more narrowly on the Mexican Mam in the southern border region of Chiapas. These people had come from Guatemala in the late nineteenth century to work on coffee plantations in the Soconusco region near the Sierra Madre. During the 1970s and 1980s, like segments of the highland population described by Nash, many immigrated to the Lacandon rain forest when the Mexican government encouraged colonization there.

Like Nash, Hernandez Castillo relies on a number of different voices: written and oral testimonies of Mam peasants, as well as anthropologists, historians, government officials, and politicians, and like Nash she is attentive to the voices of women as well as men. But she relies most heavily on interviews and discourse rather than observation as the basis for her analysis.

Hernandez Castillo, like Nash and Lomnitz, pays close attention to state policies, especially with regard to ethnic identity, her central concern. She describes how Mexican government polices first tried to erase Mam ethnic identity through a policy of Hispanicization and how the government then "softened" its policy and began allowing and later encouraging indigenous identity. Like Nash and Lomnitz, Hernandez Castillo also discusses the role of anthropologists, especially the role various Mexican anthropologists played in the state's shifting approaches to ethnicity. In a very interesting analysis of anthropology in Chiapas and the role of various anthropologists in the preparation of exhibits for the National Museum of Anthropology, she shows the complexity of the relationship between intellectuals, the state, and the indigenous peoples the anthropologists were sent to study. Whereas the state's interest was to display the national heritage in the Ethnographic Hall of the Museum, anthropologists, such as Pozas and Medina, were concerned more with the processes and inequalities that made up the nation and structured the lives of the indigenous peoples. As Hernandez Castillo notes, however, while these anthropologists questioned the unequal nature of the Mexican nation, "the need to construct 'one' Mexico is not questioned" (p. 72). She also notes that in the "zealous search" to rescue "material objects," "cultural traits," and "indigenous languages," the anthropologists silenced the voices of the indigenous actors (p. 66) and probably erased the indigenous identity of many.

Much of the book is devoted to showing how Mam identity was maintained and reinvented despite the efforts of the state to homogenize the nation. Many Mam converted to Protestantism. Because Presbyterian missionaries were against the Hispanicization campaigns and encouraged the use of the Mam language and folk religion, conversion served as a countervailing force to the homogenization policy of the government. More recently, with a new state discourse about a multicultural Mexico and several government initiatives encouraging indigenous cultures, Mam people have been able to take advantage of some new government initiatives. Hernandez Castillo reveals how identity has been "rescued" through dance groups and a Mam radio program featuring Mam stories and song. She points out that increasingly, especially among young people, land rights began to figure more prominently and that as others mobilized after 1 January 1994, many Mam also began to exert pressure on the state. Although Mam in the rain forest did not participate in the uprising, many participated in an organization called Peaceful Civil Resistance and Mam in the highlands have participated in a variety of protests and conferences.

Both Nash and Hernandez Castillo stress the complexity of indigenous identity; both accounts are far from the kinds of idealizations to which anthropologists sometimes fall victim. Nash stresses differentiation and conflict within indigenous populations with regard to wealth, political contacts, religion, and gender. Hernandez Castillo points to differences among Mam by gender and religion. Because she focuses less on economic differentiation, one is left to wonder about such differentiation. For example, she says that the organic agricultural movement has benefited an "important segment" of the Sierra Madre population (p. 186) but it is not clear who has benefited or how widespread the benefits have been. Despite overlooking some complexity, however, Hernandez Castillo gives readers a strong sense of the rich variation that must be taken into account in any discussion of indigenous people. Like Nash, she also stresses that it is this variation and richness that the Zapatistas have expressed in their call for a multicultural existence. And like Nash, Lomnitz, and the Zapatistas, she also points out that cultural difference cannot be considered without also considering power--local, national, and global.

In sum, the three books focus on difference but, unlike much anthropology of the past, how and by whom difference is constructed, used, deconstructed, destroyed, and reinvented are as much a focus of analysis as is difference itself. The attention to difference, however, does not mean that comparison and concern with patterns are absent. All three books provide important ideas and frameworks for broader comparisons. In doing so they suggest that one of anthropology's continuing strengths is its sensitivity to different voices and diverse experiences.

* This article reviews the following titles: R. Aida Hernandez Castillo, Histories and Stories from Chiapas: Border Identities in Southern Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 295 pp.; Claudio Lomnitz, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 353 pp.; June C. Nash, Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2001), 303 pp.


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Title Annotation:R. Aida Hernandez Castillo, Histories and Stories from Chiapas: Border Identities in Southern Mexico; Claudio Lomnitz, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism; June C. Nash, Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization
Author:Rothstein, Frances A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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