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G o ~ ~ i p a8 Compelilioll III Zi,wcanl an

A group of Zlnacanteco men (including some ciyll officials) discusses a public eyent
constantly scrutinizing one another' 5 dealings-in the next Reid, up the moun-
tainside, just wi thin earshot at the stanupipe or the mil!, or staring unabashedly
in front of the townhall. Yet in spite of t his proximi t y, physi cal and social,
Zinacantecos have a morbid sense of privacy. While being fascinated wit h
events across t he fence, the y strive to k cp other prying eyes and ears away from
t heir own affairs.
Zinacantecos li ve in 1I0usehoids that st'em to perce ive themselves as com-
peting, llot in solidarity with ot her t ndiam and peasants against all economic
and political system cont rolled by non-I ndia ns, but agai nst one another- for
access to land, tl la bor, to social ascendancy. In t he midst of a vi ll age wbere
everyone Ii les on top of everyone el e, there is great maneuvering for self-
prote otion and isolation. Tht, corollary is intense curiosity about other people.
Gossip is a powerful and dangerous weapon withill the larger set of behav-
iors that li mit intimacy and promote evasion. Bad words are like physical blows :
they violate pC'("sonal space, and t heir heatcd cxcha nge leads to colder Gut
barder legal and social repercussions- tearing apart kin, friends, and n ighbors .
Zinacantecos enjoy gossiping about disclos ures and slips in ot her people' s Ji ve,
~ hu t they guard themselves carefull y both agains t gossip turned agai nst them,
and against t he charge of spreading gossip.
The bound, of (;onRdenli ality generall y coincide with household boundaries.
Neighbors, even brothers, wi th contiguous houses and local cornfi elds. may
farm together, rent lowland com fi elds or hire trucks in common, but will not
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Journal of ComrnulliClllioll, Wirl ter 1977
ordinari ly share confidences across the fence. A son who takes his bride with him
from his father's house will begin to maintain a separate corn supply and to keep
his busine to hi mself. A new brid , int rod uced into her husband' s household,
r presents as ri OIlS potent ial breach of confide nti ality; her in- laws b grudge her
evcn occasi onal visits to her own mot her, where she can leak out fami ly secrets
and goss ip about ber new household to an outsider.
Gossip trades, then, on a separat ion between publi c and private informat ion;
it cel ebrates lea kage from one domain into the otber, brought about at the
townhall, by child spies, or by empassioned but incauti ous disclosures.
"Is it true that old Maria divorced Manuel?"
" Yes. She complained that she awoke every morning wit h a wet skirt.
Old Man uel used to piss himself ever night, just like a child."
"when he was d runk, y LJ man?"
"No, even when he was sober. 'How it stinks!' she said."
"Ha ha ha. She spoke right out at t he townhalL "
Zinacantecos know that there are natural obstacles to the transmission of
information. Even wit hin the small vi ll age where we lived, scandals on one side
of th ' vill age often fail ed to penetrate to our heart h or yard Bits of overheard
conversations, names dropped, events percei ved only indist inctl y or from afar,
all fuel inci pient gossip. And speculation is only encouraged by the knowledge
thal people hide whatever they can about what t hey are doing. In fad , a morbid
de!.ire for pri vacy, the tendency to evade prying q uestions and inquiring looks,
bri ngs with it a concomitant conviction that one' s neighbors are always getting
away with things, hidi ng damaging ~ e c r e t s or planning mischief or worse.
"Today he is a ritual advisor."
" He is a Holy Elder now, but he gave injections to w()men in his time.
Ha ha ha. "
" H c made a ' hol y' chil d under the pine t rees. Ha ha ha."
" But that is the only story we have heard ah() ut him. "
" Yes, but he has doubtless behaved foolishly on other occas ions. Maybe
he has gotten ot her women pregnant, wit hout the affairs coming to light. "
" Aft er all, he doesn't go around publicl y talking about such things."
" N 0 , it's just that in this case we all heard about it. If therc were other
times, they remained secret. "
Propriety demands that one cover on 's tracks. My wife and I were
critici zed by others in our compound for having a small wUldow-little more
than a peephole-on the side of our house facing the pa th. People would, we
were told, peek inside to examine our possessions, to watch us . According to
Zinacan tecos, only ladinos-Spanish-speaking non-Indians- enjoy sitt ing down
to eat t heir meals in fro nt of a window where everyone can watch. (And in fact
never did a day pass without some inquisitive set of eyes plasteri ng itself against
the tiny wi ndow pane in q ues tion.)
TherE' are f'laborate con vE' rsational devices by which people protect t hem-
sel ves against being dragged to court for slander. For example, the Tzotzi l
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Cl)sip Competit ion in Zill uCWI/r/tl
emploY5 a q uotat ivl' partick , II! which fl ags a sc ntl' ncp as hearsay:
/'i ,laj la [" he got ,ick, or so I hear"] But caution is oft e n not ell ough. [ was
prese/lt at a cou rt case invol ving alleged hy a man agains t his son-in-
la\\ The son- in-law had been accused of having prompted civi l authorities to
build a road across his fnlhcr-in-Ia\\"s propPrty. The son-in- law t hought hi s
b ther-ill -Iaw had startcd the storY- \lhich he maint ained was a fabrica hon-
and sought an ;,ino a reconciliati on . The fa ther-in-law t ried various
defenses " No. I didn' t aCCI1se my son- in- law. Well, perhaps I rcpt' atcd
harge, but someonE' told 111(, . WI"II , maybe no one else told me, but
c ('[vone agn' cd when I slIggcstl'd it" and so on. What should haw be(' n a
di spute a bout th responsibili ty for damage to thi s man' s propert y was th lls
trall sfornwd in to a dispute about who fal e or un ubstant iated rumors
avout that responsibility. The father-in- law ultimately had t o pay a nne for his
Ilnrestrai ned tonglle ; and he \\'as too ashamed to press t he fo r recovering
tbmagps for his lost p roperty.
Zil111cantecos hare a deep ambivalence ahout
their eX(lggerated sense of prit'acy
with it a fascinatioll It'itl, alld a curiosity
about others' private affairs.
Gossip is part of a syndrome of behaviors that at once isol ate Zi ll aeant eco
household from one another and- in seemi ng contradi ction- encourage mu-
tll al spying hetween households. Common verbal etiq uette ill Zlnacant an is
evasive and banal" Where are you going?" .. For a walk." But deliberately
uninformati ve replies do not necessarily stop the How of mo re and more pOinted
questions. "For a walk, eh') Whom are YOll planning to vis it ?"
j\. l orc than this, where words fail, spie ' are often employed to ferre t out ot her
peoples' Si t ti ng in our house compound yard, we were cons tant ly aware
of the comings a mI goi ngs of our neighbors, of commotion in t he ceIlter, of
t rucks on t he road. ;""l e miJers of the listE'lleJ and watched, identifyi ng
people aIlJ spI' c,tialing about til ir precis erra ds. Any untoward dist ur bance
was eXCUSf> enough to dispatch a yo ung boy-a social non-person-to get a first-
hand view of fre:.h scandal.
On the other hand, elaborate precautiolls were taken to plu)!: information
leaks from within the compound. Members of the fa mily took care to avoid
encoun ters which wou ld lead to drin king or unguarded conve rsation. My wife
and 1, as particularly clumsy members of t he household, were often coached
expli citl y a hout what to say and what not to say wit h outsiders . A drunken son
would bc careful ly escorted home lest hi s conduct provoke unfavorable com-
ment. Conversation ceaseJ ent Irely in painfull y public sit uati ons at the corn
. 1 mil l, at the weekly market, before visitors, or on the buses .
Wit hi n this pllttern of espionage and counterespionage gossip cuts both
ways. Gossip is a potent tool of t he spy but a fearful threat to the counterspy.
Tru t h may hurt , bllt Zinacant('co ta lk that goss ip, true or not, can hurt
more. Su da nge rous do Zinucantecos reckon un fa vorable gossip tl lat t hey will on
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Journal of Commll llication, Winter 1977
occasion break normal rules of confidentiality to head off some particularly
damaging tidbi t. (I iere is the ploy, fami liar to all of us, of admittillg freely to a
tra nsgression, les t the offended part y hear about it indi r elly.) One particularly
rocky court ship in our vill age was characterized by well-timed disclosures, on
the part of t he groom-t -be, about his past affa irs .
"When they were fi ghting about his misbehavior, he said at the townhall :
' Well, I told the m openly that I had talked to this other woman Maria ; 1 told
them that I had given injections.' Ha ha ha."
.. He spoke right out? He confessed?"
.. Y('5 . The father-i n-law coulcln' t complai n . . Yes. I have heard about that .
I don't cl aim 1 haven' t hpard about it. 1 am not angry about that,' said t he
father-in-l aw. He had b n told plainl J about this affair with Maria."
"It was fortunate that he had told them openly from the firsl. rf onl
aft 'rwards the, had heard about the affair, then they would have been angry
and upset. Someone else migh t have told th m. That is why he told them
directly- so his pa rents-i n-law could not critici ze him or become angry with
him. "
Blunted truth may he rende red innocuous, but the best strategy in
Zinacall tan seems to be to crect a wall around on self, to keep one' s busi ness
totally private. A common theme tn go sip about shady deal ings and intri gue in
the woods is the (obviously futile) at t mp! by protagonists to protect them-
e! ves fro m the gossip' s tongue. I n one account, a man arranges to take over
anot her man' s obligations to perform ritual service. lie takes pai ns to insure that
t he matter is kept quiet.
" This is what I told him: Allright, [' 11 see how deepl y 1 must go into febt to
take this office. But I don' t want you to start complaining about it later. 1 I
hear that you have been ridi culi ng me, saying thi ngs like : . Boy, he is just
pretending to be a man ; he is j ust pretending to have t he money to do ri tual
service. He stole my ofRce, he took it from me. '
.. If you say such things, please excuse me, but I' ll drag you to jail. I' ll
come looking for YOll myself. I don' t want you to tell stories about me,
because you have freely gi vpll me your ritual offi ce. If there is n o dispute,
then 1 too will beha e t he same way. I won' t gossip about you. I won't
ridicule you. I won' t say, for example, . Hah, I am replacing him; he has no
shame, acting like a man, aski ng for reli gious offi ce when he has no money.'
I won' t tal k like t hat .. He wanted to ('rve Our Lord, but he ran away. I had
to take over for him.' I won' t sa y things like that , if we agree to keep sit nt
about it.
Zinacantecos have a cl ear theory of gossip. The theory involves t he
separation b tween informati on in the publ ic domain and private information,
and t he abil ity of gossip to pull bits from the pri vate into the publ ic real m. And
the theory reflects a deep ambivalence about the ethics of telli ng tales.
190
ip n. Cumpl'l i l i oll ill Zi.JaCfm /,1ll
The for Zinaeantecos deep sense of privacy go deeply into the
aud political con tmints on village li ff' , and t he resulting cultural traditions.
Among linacanlcco, with many other peasants, has taken the hostil -
ity ant.! mistrust that might legitimately be directed agains t controll ing and
e.l(pl oitative outsiders, and has turned it inwards : vi ll ager a)!;aimt vil -
lager, their communality of illterests. In Zinacantan gossip is
Itot merd" " . ocial c(lntrol"-l'nfor<.:ing certain behavior or insuring that people
observe or cultural norms. In Zinac<lntan, as elsewhere, gossip is one sort
of behavior by \\hich people manage their social faces keepi ng an eye out while
limiting other people' s view of oneself.
(;ossip, like espionage. is ass),lTIct ric : gathering in more thall it bestows.
gossips are not locked in a social vhose ru les til,)' 'an only,
pett ily, enforcl' Instead lb'y neate social by invoking them- in outraged
to I)c tire- in i\nd if priva<.:y feeds On competition betwe,11 social
unils, gossip lhat invades that privacy may be exp('ctf'd to be a weapon of
competition. lIoll,;'hold gossips against household for advantage ' brother
ders "wtller for land, and on. But since rew peopk manage all the informa-
tion tllt'y walll to manage sille(> go'>sip ofteJl backfires or goes too far, Zinacan-
tecos like nlally of lIS, enj oy out worry about g()ssip.
Zinacanteco women sort beans in their house yard
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