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Smith College

A heritage of ambiguity:
The historical substrate of vernacular multiculturalism in
Yucatan, Mexico

A B S T R A C T n 2005, a group of Mexican citizensmost of them Yucatec Maya

Forms of official multiculturalism that many recent speaking residents of rural communitiesinvaded the archaeo-
scholars have characterized as a reflection of logical zone of Chichen Itza. There, they set up illegal posts from
postCold War social movements and emergent which they were still selling handicrafts to tourists at the time of
forms of neoliberal governmentality can be this writing. Amidst constant reports of their imminent removal
experienced locally in ways that reflect a greater by state and federal authorities, the representatives of this group have mo-
degree of continuity with older institutions and bilized the language of multiculturalism and ethnic rights to legitimate
styles of politics. In Yucatan, ambiguities in the their efforts to earn a livelihood from the ruins left by their ancient ances-
meaning of officially sanctioned categories such as tors. This was a marked contrast to previous peasant and municipal move-
Maya and indigenous have persisted even as ments in this part of the state of Yucatan, in which the explicit invocation of
local people and representatives of the state Mayan identity had played a minor role (see Breglia 2006; Castaneda 2003,
collaborate in the consolidation of official cultural 2004). This particular mobilization is also remarkable for the lack of public
institutions. The collective experience of several attention that it has garnered, despite being located in one of the most in-
generations of Maya speakers in negotiating this ternationally visible sites in Mexico. In the years since the initial occupation
ambiguous discursive space creates strong parallels of the archaeological zone, I have been struck by the frequency with which
between contemporary multiculturalism and older various personsboth Maya-speaking members of neighboring commu-
indigenist policies. [Maya, Mexico, Yucatan, nities and residents of nearby urban centershave cast doubt on the ven-
multiculturalism, indigenous policy, ambiguity] dors entitlement to profit from the archaeological remains. This is partic-
ularly striking given that the majority of those selling in the archaeological
zone do embody many of the features that contemporary multicultural dis-
course in Mexico ascribes to indigenous citizens.
The tensions between the mobilization of indigenous identity by mem-
bers of rural communities and the reigning climate of incredulity are more
than simply another example of the depoliticizing effects of a multicultur-
alism that has been appropriated and domesticated by the state. Much
contemporary scholarship has traced the trajectory of politicized indige-
nous identities from the emergence of new forms of postCold War ac-
tivism (Alvarez et al. 1998; Castaneda 1994; de la Pena 2002; Gow and
Rappaport 2002; Hale 1994; Nash 2001; Nelson 1999; Varese 1996; Yashar
2005) to their absorption into different practices of neoliberal governmen-
tality (Bartra 2002; Hale 2005; Warren and Jackson 2002). But, at least in the
case of rural Yucatec Maya speakers in the communities where I have con-
ducted research, some of the experiences that scholars have attributed to

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 300316, ISSN 0094-0496, online
ISSN 1548-1425. C 2009 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2009.01136.x
Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

political trends in the past two decades seem less like the members of local communities and representatives of the
emergence of radically new notions of ethnic citizenship state do not necessarily constitute a subversive space for
and more like a recent twist on ways of engaging the state the reassertion of locally meaningful ethnonyms or a self-
that emerged in tandem with the consolidation of a series consciously tactical means of manipulating official cate-
of corporatist institutions after the Mexican Revolution of gories (de Certeau 1984). Instead, these ambiguities are a di-
1910. Although the specific continuities that I discuss here mension of doing the politics of social categories that has
pertain to a local context, they represent a more broadly ap- a long history in the region precisely because they permit
plicable counterexample to literatures in political anthro- the consolidation of state institutions amidst continuities in
pology that have tended to focus on how neoliberalization local means of marking and performing identity. They are,
and the emergence of transnational indigenous movements in this sense, nondisruptive ambiguities that allow a great
represent a point of rupture with older forms of governance deal of flexibility in how representatives of the state or rural
or subaltern politics. A historical ethnography of the quotid- citizens understand the meanings of politically charged key
ian encounters through which rural Maya speakers experi- words without necessarily undermining the consolidation
ence these official cultural policies brings added complexity of state-sanctioned discourses or disrupting the continuity
to discussions of ethnic nationalisms that hinge on a polit- of native social categories.
ically laden dichotomy between traditional and emergent Its particular history of multicultural discourse makes
identities. Yucatan an ideal location for understanding the kinds of
Central to my arguments is the observation that en- continuity and ambiguity that can form an integral part
gagements between several generations of rural Maya of local engagements with the politics of ethnic iden-
speakers and state institutions that ascribe racial or eth- tity. Compared with better-studied cases in the Mexican
nic categories onto citizens are marked by the pervasive ex- states of Chiapas and Oaxaca (Collier and Quaratiello 2005;
perience of a form of semantic slippage that I refer to as Lopez Barcenas 2005; Lopez y Rivas 1995; Nash 2001;
nondisruptive ambiguity. Through this emphasis, I ad- Rubin 1997; Stephens 2002) or in other national con-
dress a kind of experience that can be difficult to recon- texts such as Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ecuador (Albo 2002;
cile with the themes of bureaucratic violence and tactical Black 1999; Fischer and Brown 1996; Korovkin 2001; Martin
subversion that have figuredat least, implicitlyin most 2003; Sawyer 2004; Warren 2001; Warren 1998), Yucatan
scholarly discussions of multiculturalism and indigenous is remarkable for a relative lack of grassroots mobiliza-
identity movements. Analyses of tensions between differ- tions based explicitly on indigenous ethnic identity (see
ent means of constituting or performing Mayanness have Castaneda 2003; Castillo Cocom 2005). This is particularly
a strong presence in Mayanist scholarship (Breglia 2006; striking when one considers the states large population
Castaneda 1996; Fischer 1999; Gabbert 2004; Hervik 1999; of indigenous-language speakers (as much as 52 percent
Montejo 2005) and often dovetail with broader discussions of the states entire population over five years of age; see
of the politicized essentialism of ethnic identity (Fischer Ramirez Carrillo 2002) and its prominent historical role in
1999; Spivak 1987; Warren 1998), of instrumental adoptions the development of Mayanist archaeology and anthropol-
of indigenous status (Warren 2001; Yashar 2005), and of ogy.2 Just as the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was imported
the appropriation of multicultural discourse by neoliberal to the peninsula from more central parts of the republic
states (Bartra 2002; Hale 2005). But something that rarely in 1915,3 contemporary Yucatan often seems like the re-
has been documented is how the ubiquity of tensions be- cipient of multicultural discourse that emerged from nego-
tween etic and emic paradigms for marking social cate- tiations between the Mexican state and grassroots groups
gories has contributed to the rise of a body of vernacu- in activist hot spots elsewhere in the republic. Ambi-
lar narratives and political practices in which certain forms guity about the exact nature of newer concepts of eth-
of ambiguity do little to disrupt the consolidation of offi- nic citizenship, and the difference between these identi-
cial projects or to undermine local forms of marking social ties and more traditional social categories that developed
categories. alongside early 20th-century agrarian and educational in-
These ambiguities have played out in fairly consis- stitutions, seems consistent with the history of a region
tent ways in the experience of several generations of ru- where struggles over the definition of ethnic citizenship
ral Maya speakers. The diversity of meanings that can be played a relatively minor role in the political and socioeco-
applied to terms such as Maya in rural Yucatan todayor nomic transitions that marked the last decades of the 20th
that marked the use of terms like indigenous person or peas- century.
ant in the same communities 50 years ago1 often seems This historical context, both in terms of the perva-
to confound bureaucratic and scientific practices that em- sive experience of nondisruptive ambiguity and the lack
ploy fixed categories to make citizens and territories leg- of explicitly oppositional indigenous movements, provides
ible (Scott 1998) to the state. However, the slippages and some insights into the reasons the artisans of Chichen Itza
incomprehensions that occur at sites of contact between felt that they qualified for participation in the officially

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

sanctioned politics of ethnic rights, even as broad support newspapers of the many poorer vendors who also occupied
failed to materialize either locally or globally. This latest the archaeological zoneexperienced the latest invasion
invasion of Chichen Itza differed from previous attempts of Chichen Itza as an unintelligible middle-class Maya
by locals to occupy and sell handicrafts inside the archae- paradox. For many Mexicans who do not self-identify
ological zone (Castaneda 1996) and from other grassroots as indigenous, multiculturalism is a means of reforming
mobilizations in the surrounding communities (Castaneda government institutions that sought to assimilate Indian
2003) in that it took place after the widely publicized rat- peasants into a racially homogeneous, modern national
ification in 2001 of a national antidiscrimination law that society (see Bartra 1987; Bonfil-Batalla 1987; Dawson 1994;
protected some cultural rights for indigenous groups.4 The Gamio 1916; Lomnitz 2001; Miller 2004; Warman 1967).
leaders and legal representatives of the organizations that Although the celebration of the diversity of a pluricultural
formed among the artisans made careful use of this dis- Mexico has made significant inroads into vernacular
course in their publications, even drawing explicit connec- speech, some popular assumptions of who should be
tions between their own agenda and that of the highly suc- considered an indigenous person remain conservative.
cessful neo-Zapatista movement in Chiapas. This quest for For most urban Mexicans, bearers of indigenous culture
legitimacy culminated in late 2005 with a visit by Zapatista are still imagined as members of a rural underclass who
leader Subcomandante Marcos to the archaeological zone.5 practice traditional agriculture. Indigenous language and
In the end, however, this positive publicity could barely culture might have been granted new kinds of validity
counteract a press campaign that many locals attributed to in the newly pluricultural and pluriethnic nation, but
the owners of a local hotel chain, which dismissed the in- Mexican history has few parallels to the African American
vaders as persons from other regions of Mexico or Yucatan, elite that W. E. B. Du Bois (2003) imagined as a talented
or as opportunistic vendors of mass-produced handicrafts tenth in his famous 1903 essay. In contrast to the binary
rather than the products of their own artisan labor. The Zap- model of racial difference in the United States, educated
atista connection seems to have floundered, and as of 2007 and wealthy indigenous people in Mexico have historically
I had heard of no additional media events or formal visits been assumed to have assimilated into the culturally
between the artisans at Chichen Itza and the charismatic and racially hybrid national society and simply stopped
rebels from the jungles of Chiapas. being Indian. By extension, real Maya are members
More than anything else, it was the willing participa- of a fundamentally homogeneous group of rural people
tion of the vendors in a modern tourist economy, and the marked as much by poverty and precapitalist subsistence
apparent success with which it had allowed some of them to as by the use of indigenous language (see Guttmann 2002:
make a transition into the middle class, that inspired doubt 143157).
among their critics. The irony here is that the majority of the When I spoke to Maya speakers from the rural commu-
persons selling illegally in the archaeological zone are na- nities that neighbor the archaeological zone, I found that
tives of rural communities that neighbor the ruins. Most are many were generally sympathetic with the desire to reclaim
from families with Mayan surnames, and many speak the a piece of local territory that had become a regional cash
Yucatec Maya language better than they do Spanishthey cow and parts of which had once been land traditionally
are, in effect, people who most scholars from Mexico City used by local communities for agriculture. Others raised
or the United States would classify as indigenous. The ex- eyebrows at the newly purchased cars and slick clothes of
clusion of certain communities or economic practices from some of the more prosperous vendors. Recalling a political
the category of authentic Maya culture has been widely culture in which indigenist (Sp. indigenista) policies had
discussed in the anthropological literature (Castaneda 1996; traditionally been geared toward bettering the economic
Gabbert 2004; Warren 1998). But what was especially telling conditions of the rural underclass, they spoke of a need
in this case were the differences that could be perceived in to distinguish legitimate artisans (Sp. artesanos legtimos)
how people in the regions cities and in the communities from members of the local middle class who cynically ex-
that neighbored the ruins interpreted the invasion and ploited Mayan identity.
its aftermath. These disjunctures reflect the ways in which Even so, the collective experiences and historical mem-
occupying different spaces in the regional landscape can ories of Maya speakers in the communities that border
make certain social and ethnic markers more or less per- Chichen Itza made the condition of the illegitimate ar-
ceptible, a phenomenon that has been one of the major tisans6 into somewhat less of an ideological scandal there
forces behind the nondisruptive ambiguities that I discuss than in the city. In fact, locals critiques of the more prosper-
at length below and that has shaped the ultimate course fol- ous artisanry vendors tended to be tinged with more than
lowed by this particular engagement with the politics of of- a little bemused irony and self-parody. Insofar as speak-
ficial multiculturalism. ing the Maya language is currently one of the principal
People in Merida and other urban centers in Yucatan features that defines someone as a member of the Maya
who would have found little mention in the regional ethnic group, they knew that most of the invaders could

Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

make at least a linguistic claim to multicultural authenticity. Everyday experiences of class and ethnic
Generations of rural Maya speakers from all levels of the so- categories in rural Maya communities
cioeconomic hierarchy had participated in government in-
stitutions that used language, surname, and phenotype to Descriptive and critical studies written by several gener-
slot people who might inhabit a range of locally relevant so- ations of anthropologists (Castaneda 2004; Gabbert 2004;
cial categories into homogeneous Indian or peasant sta- Hervik 1999; Re Cruz 1996; Redfield 1941, 1962; Redfield and
tuses. People also take for granted that the social category Villa Rojas 1934; Thompson 1974) have documented how
that one assumes before neighbors and the one assumed rural Maya speakers refer to different categories of people in
before outsiders to the community can be very different, regional society. Here, I place special emphasis on the term
just as certain markers of class or ethnicity take on very dif- de pueblo (Sp. from a town). Although this particular cate-
ferent meanings in village and city. Thus, although some lo- gory has received little attention in anthropological writing
cals may have questioned the real economic need of many on Yucatan, I have found it to be one of the most common
of the invaders, the vendors positioning within the am- ethnic and class labels used in the region. It is also the term
biguous terrain of officially sanctioned indigeneity was not, that best captures the ways in which the performance of dif-
in and of itself, a radically new way of doing politics. Nor ferent social identities emerges in what are often highly anx-
was it necessarily inconsistent with traditional ways of ex- ious engagements between people from rural communities
periencing social identity. and city dwellers, representatives of different state agencies,
In the following sections, I demonstrate how the or anthropologists. But before entering into a discussion of
disjunctures that marked this most recent invasion of the de pueblo label, I outline some of the other social or
Chichen Itza are consistent with a much longer history of ethnic categories that have been salient in my own research
social and political interactions in which nondisruptive am- and that of other anthropologists.
biguity has permitted rural citizens to think of cultural poli- A common observation in ethnographic studies of Yu-
tics in terms of their own distinct social nomenclature while catan is that rural Yucatecans themselves rarely use the
it has actively contributed to the continuity of official insti- term Maya to refer to anything but the Yucatec Maya lan-
tutions and discourses. I begin by outlining a series of ways guage (Gabbert 2004; Hervik 1999). In my own experience,
of performing and interpreting different markers of social this term is most commonly used as a means of self-labeling
status in rural, Maya-speaking communities. This is a body by persons under 40 years of age who have lived their for-
of local knowledge and practice that I refer to as a vernac- mative years amidst the development of both a booming
ular anthropology. In the succeeding sections, I contrast tourist industry and the incorporation of official multicul-
this vernacular anthropology to some of the core assump- tural discourse into public school curricula. The terms In-
tions that have characterized official knowledge of eth- dian (Sp. indio) and indigenous person (Sp. indgena) also
nicity in modern Mexico. I argue that a sequence of often- have a local relevance quite distinct from meanings they
ambiguous dialogues between vernacular and academic or might connote to anthropologists from Mexico City or the
official anthropologies constitutes a store of collective ex- United States. The term indio is almost universally pejora-
periences that continue to play a fundamental role in local tive in Yucatan, alluding as much to ignorance, poverty, and
engagements with the state-sanctioned multiculturalism in willful backwardness as to the use of ethnic dress or lan-
the present day. guage (see also Hervik 1999; Thompson 1974). Although less
Most of the specific examples that I draw on here show explicitly derogatory, the term ndigena also seems to be un-
people doing the opposite of what the illegitimate artisans derstood by most rural Yucatecans as a reference to poverty,
at Chichen Itza attempted to do, that is, using censuses and lack of education, and backwardness.
other forms of generating official data as a means to claim Rather than being dictated in strictly genealogical, eth-
non-Indian identities that would offer them some advan- nic, or biological terms, social categories in the vernacu-
tages in a regional society marked by sharp ethnic hierar- lar anthropologies of rural Yucatan are usually based on a
chies. However, I argue that some of the same ambiguous combination of dress, language, occupation, and surname.
dialogues with bureaucratic and anthropological practices In the Yucatec language, this categorization is expressed
are also at the core of the process by which persons are of- as a distinction between maasewaloob (sing. maasewal),
ficially coded as indigenous. Viewed within a longer histor- persons who practice peasant agriculture, speak Maya, and
ical context, these ambiguities offer new ways of thinking wear traditional clothes, and a broad category of those des-
about how emergent fields of formal political participation ignated tsuuloob or xunamoob (these are masculine and
can be experienced as instances of older and more localized feminine plural forms, respectively; see also Redfield and
bodies of practice, casting a new light on debates regarding Villa Rojas 1934). The term tsuul or xunam is applied to
the nature of essentialism in contemporary indigenous foreigners of European descent, to Spanish-speaking peo-
movements. ple with urban manners, to people with Spanish surnames,

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

and to persons of maasewal extraction who have made a ble to people from the city, for whom rural people are often
transition into a middle class of rural capitalists who do not coded as homogeneously Indian. This assumption, which
rely on subsistence agriculture. The Spanish-language term plays a central role in the discourse of ruralurban hierar-
mestizo, which, in Yucatan, does not refer to a person of chies and racism in Yucatan, has also figured in anthropo-
mixed indigenous and European heritage, is roughly anal- logical discourse that has historically sought to constitute
ogous to the Maya term maasewal. Today, it refers primar- typically Mayan objects of analysis. The disjunctures be-
ily to the use of traditional clothes. Because of this, the tween this homogenizing discourse and the proliferation of
category is essentially gendered female, as the only men categories that inhabit the vernacular anthropology of ru-
who continue to wear traditional clothes today are octoge- ral Yucatecans have been among the principal factors that
narians living in very isolated agricultural hamlets. Women motivate nondisruptive ambiguity in the practices that in-
who wear Western clothes are referred to as catrinas (and, stantiate official cultural institutions.
formerly, men who did so were catrines; see, especially, The anxieties and genuine bewilderment that can mark
Thompson 1974). the experience of these ambiguous dialogues became evi-
These broad social categories tend to be further com- dent to me during my first few seasons of fieldwork. Many
plicated by a set of more fine-grained, and often quite am- of my informants and friends in the town of Piste come from
biguous, terms that refer to such issues as language choice middle-class families with Mayan surnames who proudly
and phenotype. The term mayero is a label for persons who identify with the ancient builders of Chichen Itza and
use the Maya language extensively in their everyday lives whose adult members speak Yucatec Maya. But when I re-
and encompasses persons who might be referred to as a ferred to members of these families as indigenous people
tsuul or xunam as well as those identified as maasewal or (ndigenas), many would bristle or look at me with amused
mestizamestizo. Guiro is a pejorative term that could be condescension. Why this innocentif fairly ignorantfaux
translated roughly as hick. Although not explicitly racial- pas elicited the reactions that it did was not evident to me
izing, the term mirrors many of the stereotypes of the term until I realized that the word indigenous did not refer to
indio. A range of terms also denotes phenotype, among culture for most local people and that being thus labeled
them, chaparro (Sp. shorty), moreno (Sp. dark skinned), by an educated foreigner might be particularly anxiety pro-
mulix (Ma. kinky haired), boox (Ma. dark skinned), guero voking for those who identify as middle class. Greater fi-
(Sp. light skinned), and chel (Ma. light skinned). Although nancial resourceslike the desire to attain greater social
these phenotype terms carry strong racial overtones, they prestigeprompt middle-class people de pueblo to estab-
do not in and of themselves constitute definitive racial lish bonds with urban areas that involve activities rang-
markers, as black and white do in the United States. So, ing from shopping for clothes that are unavailable in rural
for example, being guera or chel would not preclude a communities to sending their children to more prestigious
womans characterization as a maasewal or mestiza. schools in the city. However, this very movement outside of
Whereas these terms denote language use, clothing their home community exposes them to forms of urban dis-
choice, education, class, and phenotype, reference to a crimination that tend to characterize people from the pueb-
persons being de pueblo evokes a more general set of as- los as homogeneously poor and uneducated indigenous
sumptions about personal origin and mobility between the people.
hierarchized poles of village and city. Although this term is I saw an eloquent testament to the relationship be-
commonly used throughout Mexico to refer to people born tween movement between village and country, class anx-
and raised outside of major urban centers, it has some par- ieties, and urban racism in a bit of hate graffiti scrawled
ticularly salient implications for ethnicity and local iden- on the seat of a second-class bus that passed through a
tity in Yucatan. Recent scholarship has emphasized the de- dozen or more pueblos on its route from Cancun to Merida.
gree to which the strong identification of individuals with The text was written in Spanish sprinkled with some Maya-
specific communities (Ma. kajoob) and microregions runs language curses that are familiar to most Spanish-speaking
counter to assumptions of a homogeneous ethnic identity Yucatecans. The Maya-language portions are transcribed in
that encompasses all Yucatec-speaking people (see Gabbert bold: To all the dudes from the pueblos, fuck your mother,
2004; Restall 1997). In this sense, being de pueblo tends you are dirty vaginas of your mothers. And those who do
to imply that an individual has deep roots in a traditional not understand [Spanish] fuck your mother, faggot Mayas.
kaj community, versus the more explicitly modern form of Sincerely, X.7
membership that characterizes cities. The de pueblo cate- The intended audience of this text, the passengers who
gory can encompass a range of social classes and categories, board the bus in the rural communities between the three
including persons who could be identified as indios, ind- urban stops, is a diverse body that includes unskilled labor-
genas, maasewaloob, catrines, or tsuuloobxunamoob. ers, peasants who travel to sell their produce or buy farm-
The fine-grained class distinctions that occur within ing equipment, well-off members of the rural middle class
the broad de pueblo category tend to be far less percepti- who travel to Merida to shop or enjoy the nightlife, and

Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

university students who return to their home communities politics would be read by many of his urban colleagues as
for vacation. Some aspects of this graffiti might be particu- linking him to a homogeneous peasant mass that inhab-
larly offensive to members of the rural bourgeoisie. Whereas ited a world that was external to spaces of educated his-
older and less educated rural people would be familiar with panophone culture.
traditional racial slurs like guiro and indio, the phrase Discrimination notwithstanding, the relative
faggot Mayas is probably more intelligible to persons for anonymity afforded by urban spaces can offer rural
whom being Maya offers an ethnic label without the pejo- Maya speakers the opportunity to assert identities that
rative connotations of being indigenous. Even if they did would be more difficult to maintain in their own commu-
not self-identify as Maya, middle-class students and shop- nities. Note, for example, how Robert Redfield and Alfonso
pers could read this message in terms of the traditional cor- Villa Rojas described early 20th-century attitudes toward
respondence between being de pueblo and negatively con- people known in rural communities as kas tsuul, a Maya
strued Indianness. term that is still used to describe persons of undeniably
This sort of discrimination takes placealbeit in more rural origins who have adopted some elements of urban
subtle formsin the spaces in which many self-identified culture:
Mayan intellectuals and businesspersons attain the special-
ized knowledge and cultural capital that serve them as lead- The term dzul [sic] is one implying respect. It recog-
ers in politicized cultural movements. I recall participating nizes the social superiority of Spanish name, white skin
in a particularly poignant conversation with Sebastian and color and education. A man may be a genuine dzul
even though his skin is dark, provided he lives the life
Martina, two undergraduate anthropology students at the
of the city and is well educated and authoritative. . . .
regional university. Sebastian is a native speaker of Yucatec
and a self-identified Maya from a village of a thousand peo-
There is, probably, a slight disposition to mix the su-
ple. Martina was born and raised in a blue-collar district of periority accorded the kaz-dzul [half-tsuul] with a
the city of Merida. When Martina complained about the dif- modicum of contempt, he is neither one thing or the
ficulty of the mandatory course in Yucatec Maya, Sebastian other. [1934:101102]
laughed and said, Thats the only exam that I dont have
to study for. Annoyed, Martina waved her hand dismis- This modicum of contempt is nicely exemplified in
sively and replied, Well, its easy for you because youre de a story, probably apocryphal, that I have heard in Piste
pueblo. and neighboring communities. It concerns a boy named
Something that I found particularly telling in this in- Juan Puc.9 Like all boys and young men named Juan, he
cident was that, although the young man from the pueblo was affectionately addressed with the nickname Tuul (Ma.
was a fluent speaker of Maya and a proud cultural activist, Rabbit) by most of his neighbors. Tuul was a very dedi-
he came from a prosperous and very respected family in cated student in the primary school of his home village, and
a community where most people under 30 are more flu- as he grew into a young man who spoke excellent Span-
ent in Spanish than in Maya. In effect, his own fluency in ish, he chafed against his nickname and insisted on be-
an indigenous language reflected his and some of his fam- ing called Juan. Having earned a government scholarship,
ily members conscious choice to preserve certain elements he traveled to Merida for his secondary and preparatory
of traditional culture despite the success that might have school training. When he returned to visit his home village,
allowed them to pass as hispanophone urbanites. Still, he refused to answer to his old surname, claiming that he
these details of Sebastians biography are not necessarily was now Juan Sierra (puc is the Maya word for hill, and
perceptible to a student born and raised in the urban world, Sierra is a common Spanish surname that means moun-
who assumedjust as I had in my first research trips as an tain range; this homonymy is one of the most common
undergraduatethat the pueblos were peopled by homo- means of hispanicizing Mayan surnames). Always an ex-
geneously Indian bearers of a Maya culture. Although I cellent student, Juan Sierra earned an additional scholar-
doubt that this was her intention, Martinas response dis- ship to study in the United States, from whence he returned
missed Sebastians prowess in Maya as a result of his eth- as the monolingual English speaker Johnny Mountain. This
nic origins and as a kind of innate knowledge that is dis- story is essentially humorous, poking fun both at the anxi-
tinct from and of lesser value than the kinds of book learn- eties of upwardly mobile rural people who struggle to adapt
ing through which typical anthropology students learned to their new surroundings and at the pretensions of a self-
Maya as a second or third language.8 By extension, I felt an made tsuul who denies his past before fellow villagers who
even greater appreciation for the complexity of Sebastians remember him as a boy named Rabbit. What is particularly
situation. Although his potential as a leader in his own com- significant here is that the memory of Johnny Mountains
munity is a function of his education and cultural capi- humble origins is betrayed by the communitys knowledge
tal, the same linguistic and cultural features that consti- of his background, not by any real failure on his part to per-
tute him as an authentic subject of official multicultural form the Spanish or English languages and urban manners.

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

This is an accurateif humorousrepresentation of the ous knowledge of the national territory was equated with
ironic reality that the same urban spaces that expose ru- the lack of rational government that contributed to the na-
ral Yucatecans to discriminatory acts and attitudes can of- tions ills. For Mexican ethnologists and applied social sci-
fer opportunities for inhabiting prestigious identities that entists, maps that clearly delineated the different territories
might be more difficult for them to maintain in their home occupied by peoples such as the Otomis, Mayas, or Tepe-
communities. huanes represented an important first step in understand-
The general terminologies and specific vignettes that I ing the particular problems of these different groups and,
have outlined above provide a sketch of some of the quo- ultimately, facilitating their incorporation into a homoge-
tidian experiences that mark the collective memories of ru- neous, hispanophone national culture (Bonfil Batalla 1987;
ral Yucatecans and of the repertoire of narratives and styles Cifuentes 2002; Gamio 1916; Lomnitz 2001; Tenorio Trillo
of performance that they bring to engagements with older 1999).
state institutions and contemporary multicultural politics. It is important to recall here that these ethnological
In particular, the same opportunities and anxieties that ac- maps were not simply ideas or images but functional arti-
company movement to and from the city also emerge in facts that were produced and circulated amidst other prac-
bureaucratic procedures and ethnological studies through tices of writing that were deeply complicit with technolo-
which members of local communities experience the in- gies of governance and citizen participation. A sense of how
scription of officially legible class and ethnic status. These some of these more mundane procedures played an early
encounters are the focus of the next sections. role in the formulation of canonical knowledge about the
national population emerges in the notes of Manuel Orozco
y Berra, who drew an especially influential map of Mexico in
Maps and metropolitan anthropologies
The discourses on social categories that were employed
by anthropologists and representatives of the Mexican My manner of working was the following. With the plan
state were rooted in a very different relationship between of a given [administrative] Department in sight, I stud-
ethnicity and geography, something that was instantiated ied and compared the materials that I had compiled re-
garding that political unit. Once I was confident that I
through a series of specially drawn ethnological maps. By
had interpreted them properly, and felt that I had re-
the beginning of the 20th century, anthropology, sociology,
solved all the questions that presented themselves, I
cartography, and other scientific means of generating proceeded to mark one by one all of the towns of a
and applying knowledge of the national population were single language. I distinguished one language from the
well established within the logic of governance and citizen other by diverse colors. I then drew the lines separating
participation in Mexico. Local experiences with these them. [1864:12]
institutionalized practices became even more prominent
when agrarian institutions and rural schools that emerged Significantly, here the minimal unit of language usage
after the revolution of the 1910s established a series of is not the individual speaker but the pueblo. This choice
new and more intimate contacts between the state and was, in part, an issue of scale, given that the pueblo was
the rural population. Encounters between these official probably the smallest unit available on the maps onto
ethnic cartographies and the vernacular anthropology that which Orozco y Berra transposed his linguistic territories.
I described in the previous section were marked, from fairly But this emphasis on political entities also hints at the so-
early on, with the ambiguities that figured in the drama of cially and ethnically heterogeneous networks of urban bu-
the illegitimate artisans at Chichen Itza. reaucrats, parish priests, and peasants on whom he re-
By the beginning of the 20th century, revolutionary lied for reports. In this sense, one distinctive feature of his
teachers and anthropologists who engaged members of ru- linguistic cartography is the erasure of these networksa
ral communities were armed with an official ethnologi- process familiar from Bruno Latours (1999) discussions of
cal knowledge that fragmented the national territory into black boxes in the creation of science. Most of the politi-
bounded language groups that were often assumed to cal entities and social structures that operated within these
share a similar cultural and biological substance. Contem- different linguistic regions, and that furnished the data that
porary critical literatures have demonstrated how this sort were essential for Orozco y Berras ethnocartography, are
of ethnic cartography has tended to obscure the fluid so- erased in the gesture of drawing the lines separating them.
cial and cultural processes that accompany the movement This is particularly evident in the linguistic maps included
of people, things, and ideas through time and space (see in many popular textsnear or distant cousins of the origi-
Appadurai 1996; Malkki 1992; Marcus 1998). In modern nal 19th-century drawingsin which the national territory
Mexico, such maps were drawn within a broader context in is divided into spaces filled by a single bit of text nam-
which, as the historian Raymond Craib (2004) has argued, ing a particular language group. Emptied of other political
cartography became a state fixation. The lack of rigor- and economic divisions, the areas populated by speakers of

Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

Nahuatl, Zapotec, or Triqui are filled with a single layer of blooded Maya was based more on the similarity between
homogeneous content: language. his tables of average measurements and the averages pro-
Although the invention of discretely bounded language duced by Starr (1902) and George Dee Williams (1931) than
communities might seem like a fairly innocuous act of sci- on any definitive correlation between his notions of pure
entific pragmatism, the authority of these linguistic maps bloodedness and the autobiographical narratives of his re-
became entrenched through their frequent use as guides search subjects. Just as the ethnic geography established by
for generating additional bodies of anthropological or de- the linguistic studies of Orozco y Berra was taken as a matter
mographic knowledge.10 Foreign and Mexican physical an- of faith by early anthropometrists, congruity with the writ-
thropologists like Frederick Starr, who entered the field ten text-artifacts that emerged from earlier anthropomet-
without maps that situated the location of different physi- ric studies seems to be the primary means through which
cal types, had little choice but to derive bounded popula- Steggerda validated his own work.
tions from the earlier linguistic maps (see Starr 1902). Mea- The successful compilation of Steggerdas record still
surements of people selected through this sort of sampling leaves space for a great deal of ambiguity in how the peo-
were often compiled and averaged into tables that consti- ple of Piste understood and experienced the process be-
tuted a biologically normative individual or physical type hind its creation. When local people identified themselves
whose range might appear to be contiguous with the ter- to Steggerda as pure Maya, were they using the terms
ritories that had already been defined by linguistic or philo- mayero and maasewal or referring to their use of the Maya
logical research.11 language? In the statement the interpreter was instructed
The kinds of nondisruptive ambiguities that played as to the genetic meaning of the word mestizo one gets the
into the drama of the illegitimate artisans in 2005 are fairly sense that Steggerda was aware that most Yucatecans un-
evident in the records of earlier moments, when these eth- derstood this term to mean something other than a biolog-
nological maps and the writing practices that they facili- ical hybrid between indigenous and European blood.12 But
tated were brought into direct contact with the vernacular how exactly might Steggerda and his interpreter have artic-
anthropologies of rural communities in Yucatan. Note, for ulated the idea of a Spanish grandparent to people liv-
example, a narrative by Morris Steggerda, a North American ing over a century after Mexicos independence from Spain?
anthropologist who conducted anthropometric research in Were the Spanish grandparents people with Spanish sur-
Yucatan in the 1920s and 1930s: names, people identified as tsuul or xunam, or persons
who had particularly light skin or hair?
Naturally, one questions the genetic purity of the race Just as these ambiguities ultimately did little to hin-
studied. Judging from the comparison of the measure- der Steggerdas ability to produce an intelligible body of an-
ments, it is the authors opinion that the Maya studied thropometric data, the process of creating an ethnological
by Starr and the groups A and B of Williams, and those document did not necessarily undermine the ability of the
constituting this study are relatively pure Maya Indians. people that he measured to identify themselves in terms
It would be impossible to say with assurance of any in-
of locally relevant categories. Quite likely, the many infor-
dividual in the State of Yucatan that he is a genetically
mants who identified themselves as pure Maya did so as
pure Maya Indian. No doubt there are such individuals,
but to distinguish them from persons who have a trace mayeros who knew that this label was something that was
of white blood is impossible. Certainly this can not be being sought by Steggerda and that it would earn them the
discovered with certainty from the individual, for they payment being offered to research subjects. It is also likely
all say that they are pure Maya, even though upon fur- that the production of a Spanish grandparent might have
ther questioning one learns of a remote Spanish an- served others as a means of evading a pejorative indio la-
cestor. An earnest effort was made to secure relatively bel. In this sense, the creation of this piece of anthropomet-
pure Maya. The interpreter was instructed as to the ric knowledge is not simply a case of dialogue between
genetic meaning of the word mestizo, and told that native and anthropological perspectives (Castaneda 1996;
we did not want such individuals for this study. Then, Tedlock and Mannheim 1995) but an interaction in which
too, most of the individuals constituting this series
the people of Piste could quite literally participate in their
were thoroughly questioned in regard to their ances-
own terms. What is more, they could do so without the
tors, and a pedigree of at least three generations was
made, showing all family relationships. It was all deter- particularities of their emic understanding of ethnic cate-
mined whether or not any of the four grandparents was gories becoming relevant or even perceptible to Steggerda
Spanish. It is estimated that none of our subjects has (see Rosaldo 1989:4647) and without significantly altering
more that one-eighth to three-sixteenth white blood, the final arguments and presentation of his text.
and all are relatively pure Maya. [1932:34] The central drama of this vignettethe tsuul re-
searcher and the rural Maya speakers talking past each
From the beginning of this passage, it is evident that other with a shared set of wordswas repeated again
Steggerdas satisfaction that his sample consisted of full- and again over the course of the 20th century and forms

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

part of the historical substrate for the experience of the to all of the members of rural communities, even as they
Maya artisans of Chichen Itza. The ambiguities that marked made a formal public record of the Spanish surnames of
Steggerdas interaction with the people of Piste were an- some of them.15 In the next section, I look more closely
ticipated by a long tradition of engagements between ru- at one case in which tensions between the vernacular an-
ral Maya speakers and writing practices that inscribed a thropology of rural Yucatecans and the official categories
fixed ethnic or social status onto individuals. The rich cor- promoted by this earlier generation of cultural and peasant
pus of colonial-period documents attests to the extent that institutions bears especially striking parallels to the more
censuses, land titles, and baptismal records figured into recent experience of the artisans of Chichen Itza.
the lives of rural Yucatecans in the 16th century (Gabbert
2004; Restall 1997). And, probably from early on, ambiguity
Being a real Maya before multiculturalism
played a role in how these documents recorded the social
category of rural people.13 Thus far, most of the cases that I have discussed are situa-
One means through which rural Maya speakers could tions in which the ambiguous dialogue between official and
self-consciously use bureaucracy to alter their social cate- vernacular discourses on ethnicity became a space in which
gory was through the hispanization of Mayan surnames, the rural Maya speakers hoped to assert prestigious non-Indian
act of social climbing mocked in the story of Johnny Moun- identities. Although situations in which it became advanta-
tain. Formalizing the hispanization of a surname through a geous to assume officially recognized markers of indigene-
bureaucratic transaction is still quite common. A good ex- ity were considerably scarcer in the early 20th century, they
ample is the case of a prominent man from one of the com- did exist. The experiences of rural people whose success
munities where I conducted research, who hispanicized his was contingent on their ability to pass particular tests of
surname in the 1940s. When his children were born, he bap- Indianness provide a particularly rich perspective on the
tized and registered them under the hispanicized surname deep historical precedents of incidents like the most recent
in the civil registry in the nearby city of Valladolid. His chil- invasion of Chichen Itza. One such individual was a rural
dren were raised in his home village, where many other fam- teacher named Alvaro Noh, whose career I have been able
ilies saw the name change as a silly pretension and referred to document through texts housed in the historical archive
to the family as people who had purchased a surname. of the SEP.
But, for all intents and purposes, the man and his children Between 1926 and 1929, Alvaro Noh was one of seven
appeared in the bureaucracy of the Mexican state as per- Yucatec Mayaspeaking students at the Casa del Estudiante
sons with Spanish surnames born in a city. Indgena (CEI; House of the Indigenous Student), a special-
Other instances of bureaucratic practice, however, pro- ized school in Mexico City that was designed to train stu-
vided far less clear-cut means for individuals to select a dents representing over 20 different indigenous language
given social category. After the Mexican Revolution was groups as teachers and cultural ambassadors who would re-
imported into Yucatan in 1915, institutions such as the turn home to civilize their native communities. For Noh, a
agrarian reform and rural schools turned the recording of teenager from the village of Tibolon, whose occupation was
censuses and other demographic or ethnographic data into listed as agriculturalist (read: peasant), this represented
a far more common aspect of the life of rural people. They an unusual opportunity. The CEI offered a cutting-edge ed-
also added more layers of meaning and ambiguity to the ucational experience, and successful completion of the pro-
kinds of interaction that marked Steggerdas anthropomet- gram all but guaranteed a teaching job and some degree of
ric studies and the purchasing of surnames. In the archive of social mobility. But, in what may have seemed like an ironic
Mexicos Secretara de Educacion Publica (SEP; Secretariat twist, this mobility was conditioned on Nohs ability to in-
of Public Education), I have seen records of dozens of cen- habit precisely the kind of indigenous identity that many
suses conducted to determine if communities had enough upwardly mobile Yucatecans sought to avoid by adopting
young children to justify the construction of a school. Most Spanish surnames and other markers of urbanity.
of them recorded the languages spoken by students and Imagined as a microcosm of the diversity of indige-
their parents and often included questionnaires in which nous Mexico, the student body of the CEI was a living man-
teachers noted the race that predominated in the com- ifestation of the linguistic and ethnological maps that had
munity. Although race was a less common category in developed since the mid-19th century. It was also an in-
the censuses used to determine the allocation of agricul- stitution that transformed the conflation of race, language,
tural land, its use in that context was not unknown. I have and culture embodied by this ethnological map into a ped-
read several texts in which the assignment of white sta- agogical philosophy. The directors of the CEI assumed that
tus to persons with Spanish patronymics shows the kind pure-blooded Indians would possess linguistic skills, cul-
of manipulation that was used elsewhere to purchase sur- tural background, and biological features that made them
names.14 Other cases, however, show teachers or census uniquely suited to serve as missionaries of culture to
takers indiscriminately ascribing a Maya ethnic category members of the indigenous populations of the bounded

Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

regions from which they were recruited. Purity was a cen- sort of appearance is today considered to be highly desir-
tral concern for the CEI, and whole cohorts of students were able and is often associated with tsuul parentage and high
rejected and repatriated to their native regions when they social status. This association might have been especially
were revealed as mestizos who had been admitted to the strong in Nohs case. Although he himself was a peasant
school through the influence of relatives or political pa- agriculturalist, other documents in his dossier suggest that
trons (Britton 1976; Dawson 2001; Loyo 2003). At the time he was closely related by either blood or patronage to a lo-
of their admission into the institution, students were issued cal family with the Spanish surname Pereira.16 As I discuss
an anthropological certificate (Sp. cedula antropologica) below, this association would figure more strongly in Nohs
that recorded the results of an anthropometric examina- self-crafting later in life. What is important to note here is
tion, a medical and family history, and details about the en- that his movement from his home community and into an
vironment, industries, and vernacular customs of their na- institutional space in Mexico City might have allowed him
tive region. Just as the students were themselves metonyms to assume an indigenous identity that would have seemed
for whole regions of Indian Mexico, such features as their less congruous in a village where he might well have been
first language, their folk dress, and the shape of their crania seen as a kas tsuul.
became metonyms for a more generalized authenticity that Differences between the Indianness documented by
constituted them as pure-blooded representatives of their the anthropological certificate written at the CEI and the
respective peoples. range of other social categories into which Noh could have
How the students, natives of diverse regions of the been placed in his home community suggest that his partic-
republic and representatives of an equally diverse set of ipation in the CEI involved many of the anxieties and ambi-
class and ethnic positions, interpreted or internalized these guities that characterized other encounters between rural
racializing discourses is a more complicated question. Most Yucatecans and official anthropologies. These are, to a cer-
historical treatments of the CEI suggest that the institu- tain extent, evident in texts that Noh wrote as a student. In
tion was ultimately too successful in inculcating its students 1928, at the behest of his teachers, he penned a short essay
with the values of modern hispanophone society, to the de- in which he detailed the specific benefits that his training
gree that few of them were inclined to return to their native would bring to his home community:
communities (Britton 1976:5762; Dawson 2001). Still, the
experience of Noh, like that of some of the students who
I have thought about the easiest way to help the com-
were expelled as inauthentic mestizos, implies that their
munity of my town [Sp. la comunidad de mi pueblo],
survival in the institution was motivated by some degree and I became aware that what they need to learn
of complicity in the substantiation of the CEIs ethnological most is how to read and write, and after learning this,
map. which is the first thing that they must learn, show them
Nohs anthropological certificate described him as some small industries, such as mechanics. I have there-
being brachycephalic (wide headed) with light yellow fore thought that when I arrive in my town the first
skin, yellow eyes, brown, straight and thin hair, a straight thing that I will do is to found a small school to show
nose, and thin lips. Most of these features conformed to them how to read, write and at the same time show
the Mayan physical type described in 1902 by Starr, whose them something about soap making and afterwards
findings would have formed part of the base of anthropo- give them some classes regarding mechanics and at the
same time give them practice.17
metric knowledge available to the experts who measured
Noh for the purposes of the CEI. Noh was also apparently a
fluent speaker of the Yucatec Maya language, which, along Given the stated mission of the CEI, Nohs short es-
with the anthropometrists assessment of his physical pro- say is remarkable for what it does not mention. Just as he
portions and skin tone, sufficed for his race and language does not use terms like indigenous people, Indians, or Maya,
group to be listed as Maya. Through this gesture, he was he makes no reference to the fact that literacy training in
transformed into a linguistic, cultural, and biological ana- rural Yucatan also tended to entail teaching the Spanish
log for the entirety of the Indian population of a discretely language to monolingual Maya speakers. Noh frames the
bounded region on the national map and as an appropriate task of bringing modern industries and knowledge to his
agent for its modernization. pueblo in ethnically neutral terms, stressing projects that
As with Steggerdas description of his field methods, el- would have been as central to the modernization of a his-
ements of Nohs anthropological certificate can be read as a panophone community as they would have been to an
record of features whose significance would have been fun- indigenous one. This is, in effect, the narration of a teach-
damentally ambiguous in a dialogue between vernacular ing project that would have been as relevant for an ethni-
and official anthropologies. Born with light skin and eyes, cally unmarked working-class barrio in Mexico City as for
Noh was someone who would likely have been character- the Indian communities whose particular characteristics
ized as chel, or light skinned, in his home community. This were the focus of CEI pedagogy.

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

Some aspects of this letter, such as the unusual phrase it is well known that the Indian [Sp. indio] is distrustful
the community of my town, lend themselves to a range by nature, bashful and of few words. These defects im-
of readings. By referring to his pueblo, Noh assumed a pede his ability to speak Spanish in front of strangers,
de pueblo identity that would have been as appropriate for particularly if the stranger knows this language bet-
a member of the rural middle class as for a self-identified ter than he does. Therefore, he will not try to learn
[Spanish] for fear of being mocked. Because of this, the
maasewal. But given the context of early 20th-century an-
teacher should offer him all of his confidence, without
thropology, the term mi pueblo could also be translated
sacrificing his authority, in order to then develop the la-
as my people, a reference to the geographically bounded bor of castillianization.20
ethnic group that Noh represented at the school and on the
ethnological map. The term community in this narrative is
The use of the normally pejorative word Indian, refer-
just as polyvalent. In 1928, it could be read as a reference
ences to common stereotypes of indigenous bashfulness
to the gemeinshaft that early 20th-century social science
and distrust, and an emphasis on authority seem to re-
ascribed to folk societies or to the idea of forging a sense
flect a markedly condescending attitude toward the peo-
of community. Today, community is sometimes used as a
ple of Xcanteil. Although Xcanteil was not quite the wilder-
euphemism for indigenous by persons who wish to refrain
ness of Quintana Roo, it was still a very small community in
from denoting an explicitly Indian identity. For example,
the economically marginal maize zone (Ramirez Carrillo
I have heard educated, middle-class Maya speakers refer to
2002:6475; Warman 1985) that has traditionally been con-
the discrimination that they experience in urban areas as
sidered far less civilized than Nohs native microregion.
the result of their being from a community (Sp. de una
Whatever he may have considered the people of his own
comunidad). Although it is impossible to know how exactly
pueblo to be, it is possible that, before his integration into
Noh and his teachers understood these terms, these seman-
the federal school system or his admission into the CEI, Noh
tic ambiguities meant that the 1928 essay might have been
would have thought of the people of Xcanteil as indios.
successful both as an expression of a not-explicitly-Indian
Nohs attitudes toward the use of the Maya language by
identity sought by Noh and as an expression of some-
the schoolteacher also seem to run counter to ideas about
thing similar to the ethnically marked scholar sought by his
racial and cultural affinity that prevailed within the CEI:
The pressures for Noh to conform to the image of the
full-blooded Maya seem to have diminished outside of The stranger who does not speak Maya and arrives in
an Indigenous Community receives what he needs and
the doors of the CEI. In 1929, he left Mexico City and the
converses with the residents. They speak in Maya and
CEI to return to Tibolon. In 1930, his former teachers tried
he in Spanish, but they understand each other with
to induce him to teach in isolated Maya-speaking commu- more or less regularity. When the friendship between
nities in the frontier region of Quintana Roo, a post that them expands, the Indian will begin to say a few things
Noh declined after citing the relatively low pay and the in Spanish so that the teacher can understand better.
high cost of living in that territory.18 Later that same year, That is, as long as he ignores the fact that the teacher
incomplete credits on his transcripts hindered his official knows or understands the Maya language, for other-
posting as the teacher in his home community of Tibolon, wise, [the students] would be incapable of speaking it
despite very positive reference letters from instructors [Spanish], even knowing it partially.21
at the CEI.19
In 1935 Noh was working as the teacher at the commu- Several useful insights can be gleaned from tracing the
nity school of Xcanteil, a peasant village in the southeastern course of Nohs writing from Tibolon to Mexico City to
municipality of Peto. By then, he had been integrated into Xcanteil and from 1928 to 1935. As I note above, contem-
the system of federally employed rural teachers and does porary accounts of the CEI emphasized that many of the
not appear to have been specially marked as an alumnus students became too accustomed to urban life and man-
of the CEI. In his letters from 1935, he also appears to have ners to want to return to their home communities, some-
been far more comfortable in an explicitly nonindigenous thing that would seem to be supported by Nohs attitude
identity. He signs these letters Alvaro Noh Pereira, partially toward his students in Xcanteil. But it seems that Noh him-
hispanicizing his own name by annexing the surname of his self had every intention of returning to Tibolon. At the CEI,
kin or benefactors from Tibolon. His letters from Xcanteil the assumption was that knowledge of the Maya language,
are also far more consistent with the image of the ethnically along with the possession of a certain phenotype, would in-
unmarked, urban schoolteacher than with the cultural am- duce Noh to feel a degree of ethnic solidarity with indios
bassadors imagined at the CEI. In his response to a survey in from a village in a microregion that was both geographically
which rural teachers were asked to discuss the best method and socially distant from his native soil. But, quite likely,
for teaching Spanish to monolingual Maya speakers, Noh the larger ethnological abstractions that made sense to the
observes that planners of the CEI would have been far less tangible in the

Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

quotidian life of rural society in the 1920s and incompatible nancial assistance. I have spoken to more than a few ru-
with Nohs wishes to return to his pueblo. ral Yucatecans who are engaging the ambiguous seman-
In the end, the outcomes of this particular experiment tic terrain of Mayanness primarily through their status as
in indigenous education were as disappointing for Mexicos mayeros (Maya speakers). A friend of mine, whose family
educational planners as they were for many of the students, had worked in the tourist sector for decades and who par-
something evident by the closure of the CEI in 1932. But ticipated extensively in the invasion of the archaeological
during its brief period of operation, the school left a record zone, noted that multicultural discourse and touristic de-
of an instance in which representatives of official institu- sires have lifted much of the shame that had been instilled
tions and rural people who were identified as indigenous by the prejudiced schoolteachers of an earlier generation:
engaged in a dialogue over the exact meaning of the indige- And thanks to what the anthropologists say, we know that
nous social category. This was a conversation in which Noh Maya is important. Now we know that it is important and
and his teachers in Mexico City actively collaborated in the that it has grammar. Not like before, when it was said that it
production and maintenance of the CEI, even if they were was a dialect. We know now that it is important to preserve,
speaking and writing past each other the whole time. As because Maya is being lost. The way we speak it has become
I argue below, striking parallels and continuities exist be- very mixed.23
tween these incidents and the dialogue between vernacular But if language seems like a fairly secure route through
anthropologies and official cultural projects that continues which to assert Mayanness, the ambiguities that still exist
over half a century later. in the working definition of indigenous identity leave am-
ple space for deeply rooted assumptions about the socioe-
conomic status for Indians to reappear in the practice of
Ambiguity and its constraints
multicultural politics. In 2001, I interviewed the director of
What light can Nohs experience in the CEI shed on the a state-level organization that sponsors the production
experience of the illegitimate Maya artisans at Chichen of ethnic handicrafts. The director mentioned having met
Itza? In very general terms, his experiences in Mexico City an artisan and handicrafts merchant whom I know from
and Xcanteil demonstrate that the nondisruptive ambigu- the town Piste. I knew that the artisan in question was the
ity of categories such as Maya or indigenous person has Maya-speaking son of peasants, someone that any foreign
a history that predates the emergence of indigenous move- anthropologist would likely consider to be an ethnic Maya.
ments and official multiculturalisms after the 1980s. Like But he was also a successful entrepreneur who invested his
the experiences of todays illegitimate artisans, Nohs en- substantial capital in a prosperous business that employed
gagement with official discourses of indigeneity was moti- over a hundred local artisans and vendors. It was precisely
vated by interpretations of Mayanness that were initially this status as a rural entrepreneur that led the state-level or-
compatible with the function of an official cultural institu- ganization to reject his funding proposal, seeing it as having
tion (the CEI) but that ultimately clashed with the dominant come from a wealthy merchant without clear organic links
logic of state-sponsored indigenous education. Just as Noh to a traditional community.
and the teachers at the CEI wrote past each other using a Whether the exclusion of Mayan capitalists is a strate-
shared vocabulary of communities and pueblos, many of gic power play by members of government agencies who
the Maya-speaking vendors who currently occupy the ruins seek to cultivate dependent rural constituencies or simply
of Chichen Itza have interpreted and employed elements a result of unreflexive assumptions about indigeneity is a
of the discourse of official multiculturalism in ways that complicated question. But, in any case, this particular script
seem to be quite consistent with the formal goals of this pol- for engagements between illegitimate Maya and multicul-
icy, only to find that theirs was not necessarily the same kind tural institutions creates the somewhat tragic situation in
of Mayanness that more dominant segments of national which some rural Yucatecans begin to revalorize elements
society had in mind. of traditional culture only to find that a new sense of eth-
Nowhere are these new twists on older ambiguities nic pride offers few of the benefits that their parents and
more evident than in the role given to the Maya language grandparents enjoyed by participating in older peasant in-
in multicultural policies. The equation of being Maya with stitutions. This particular experience seems to be consis-
speaking Maya is one aspect of Nohs ethnological certifi- tent with both the distinction that is often made between
cate that would seem familiar to rural Yucatecans today and the redistributive politics and the politics of recognition
that plays an important role in generating official figures that emerged in the last decades of the millennium (Fraser
on the indigenous population of this part of Mexico.22 1997) and with some recent assessments of neoliberal mul-
All of my informants who have completed their prepara- ticulturalisms. Referring to parts of Central America that
tory and university studies on scholarships intended for were characterized by far more extensive grassroots orga-
indigenous students recall being tested on their fluency nizing than was evident in Yucatan, Charles Hale notes
in Maya as one of the prerequisites for securing such fi- that the nightmare settles in as indigenous organizations

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

win important battles of cultural rights only to find them- ries that fill headlines with authentic subalterns and ille-
selves mired in the painstaking, technical administrative gitimate artisans. Just as importantly, this approach helps
and highly inequitable negotiations for resources and po- to ground analyses of the successes or failures of the poli-
litical power that follow (2005:13; see also Hale 1999b). tics of diversity within a more rigorous understanding of the
The situation of the illegitimate artisans at Chichen historical and cultural precedents that shape how specific
Itza offers a somewhat different insight in that the artisans policies are made relevant to communities on the ground.
engagement with the contemporary politics of authentic
Mayanness cannot be reduced to an effect of emergent ne-
oliberal institutions. Taking part in negotiations on the ob- Notes
tuse semantic turf of institutions that determine who is
and who is not Mayan is hardly an unprecedented night- Acknowledgments. The research represented in this article would
not have been possible without a great deal of help from friends
mare for a society that still recalls the bad dreams of Noh or and colleagues. Besides numerous people in various communities
other anxious dialogues with bureaucrats, schoolteachers, who have been consultants, friends, and gracious hosts over the
and anthropologists. Indigenous identity politics and offi- years, my fieldwork was greatly enriched by dialogue with my col-
cial multiculturalisms might be phenomena that unfolded leagues Julio Hoil Gutierrez, Lisa Breglia, Quetzil Castaneda, and
on a regional scale in tandem with the neoliberalization and Juan Castillo Cocom. Renato Rosaldo, Paulla Ebron, Miyako Inoue,
and other faculty mentors at Stanford University also gave me in-
the increasing globalization of national economies. How- valuable feedback and support. I am especially grateful to Elliot
ever, the tangible basis through which these political forma- Fratkin, Donald Joralemon, Suzanne Gottschang, Ann Zulawski,
tions are experienced locally is derived from a repertoire of Maria Helena Rueda, and Jocelyn Chua, all of whom gave me feed-
narratives and symbols that rural Maya speakers developed back on earlier drafts of this article.
through generations of interactions with official institutions 1. For a discussion of the consolidation of a distinctly peasant, or
campesino, identity in a different region of Mexico during the first
that inscribe social categories onto individuals. decades after the revolution, see Boyer 2003.
The deep historical roots of these ambiguities can re- 2. For an interesting discussion of a similar contradiction be-
cast the dichotomy that is often seen between traditional tween a high population of indigenous peoples and a lack of active
ways of experiencing social categories and forms of essen- ethnic mobilizations, see Garcia 2005 on the case of Peru.
tialism imposed by social movements or official cultural 3. For a classic study of the arrival of the Mexican Revolution
in Yucatan, see Joseph 1985. Although the state of Yucatan made
policies. This dichotomy has been an especially thorny ter- nominal political transitions that brought it into line with the vari-
rain for Mayanist anthropologists who have struggled to ex- ous factions that struggled for control of central Mexico, it was not
press solidarity with indigenous social movements, even as itself the site of the kind of extensive armed conflicts that under-
these movements employ a discourse of cultural continu- mined the hegemony of the traditional planter oligarchy and its
ity that clashes with more constructivist anthropological supporters in the United States. The state was not pulled firmly into
the revolutionary fold until 1915, when the governorship was ceded
perspectives on indigenous culture (Montejo 2003; Warren to Salvador Alvarado, a general from the northern state of Sinaloa,
1998). The broader ramifications of this tension have be- who entered the peninsula with an army composed largely of sol-
come evident in cases in which anthropological analyses diers from other states.
of how contemporary indigenous movements are formu- 4. Here, I use the term antidiscrimination law to mirror ob-
lating new kinds of identity have fed into the very politi- servations by George A. Collier and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello
(2005:167) regarding the degree to which the law excluded many
cal argument that dismisses mobilization such as occurred of the issues of resource rights and autonomy that had figured in a
at Chichen Itza as opportunistic or instrumental (Hale more radical agenda proposed by the Chiapanec Zapatista move-
1999a; Hernandez 2002; Yashar 2005). ment.
By better understanding the history of quotidian expe- 5. Several independent online media sources circulated a Dec-
riences that have made cultural policies tangible in the lives laration from Chichen Itza at 158 Years from the Caste War, dated
July 30, 2005, which bears language that resonates strongly with
of rural Yucatecans, one can move beyond the simple bi- neo-Zapatista rhetoric. Other declarations by representatives of the
nary of essentialism and authenticity to recognize identity artisans of Chichen Itza were published in the left-leaning regional
politics as a phenomenon that is marked as much by ambi- newspaper Por Esto!, particularly between 2005 and late 2006 (see
guity and incomprehension as it is by bureaucratic violence Mis Coba 2005, 2006a, 2006b). For one account of Marcoss visit to
and self-conscious subversion. Such ambiguity has been a Chichen Itza, see Giordano 2006.
6. Lisa Breglia (2006) uses the term illegitimate heirs in her own
recurrent theme in the lives of generations of rural Maya discussion how questions of cultural continuity enter into the pol-
speakers, who are often actively complicit in the consolida- itics of archaeological heritage. My informants use of the idea of
tion of official institutions even when their understanding legitimacy in this case, and my own use of the terms legitimacy
of key social categories remains consistent with distinct and and illegitimacy throughout this article, are more pertinent to the
locally relevant paradigms. Paying closer attention to his- history of a different set of institutions that served as a link between
living indigenous communities and the Mexican state.
torical continuities in ways of engaging ambiguity reframes 7. In the original Spanish: Todos los vatos de los pueblos
the analyses of politicized ethnic identity within a historical ke chinguen su madre, son unos sucios pealanaes, y los k-
and social context that allows one to see beyond the bina- noentiended, zizanah putos mayas. Atte, X.

Continuities in cultural politics in Yucatan  American Ethnologist

8. For a discussion of parallel attitudes that undervalue the na- tour guide at the archaeological zone of Chichen Itza (Castaneda
tive skills of Spanish-speaking Latinos in the United States against 1996). His privileged access to Steggerda, as well as[?] the local
linguistic expertise that can be developed through special educa- knowledge through which he was familiar with the history of the
tion courses, see Rosaldo 1994. Tuul Puc behind every Johnny Mountain, would have transformed
9. I have heard several versions of the story of Juan Puc and him into a sort of gatekeeper for the kinds of identities that could
other similar characters over the years that I have conducted field- be assumed through dialogue with the curious foreigner.
work in Yucatan. I am also indebted to Quetzil Castaneda for 13. For a detailed discussion of how nuances in the use of the
sharing a version of this story with which he was familiar as I was Maya language and Spanish borrowings may have been manipu-
beginning research in Yucatan in 1997. lated by members of the colonial-era indigenous elite, see Hanks
10. For succeeding generations of ethnologists and philologists, 1986.
Orozco y Berras map would represent a canonical artifact, to be 14. The census recorded in 1932 in the small rural town of Yax-
consulted, edited, and fine-tuned. Thus, for example, the author caba shows what may have been a process analogous to the pur-
of one of the earliest Anglo-American catalogs of indigenous lan- chase of surnames. A column marked race classified persons as
guages of Mesoamerica noted that Orozco y Berras map has been White or as Maya, a clear dichotomy reminiscent of Steggerdas
used as a basis from which there has been occasion but for distinction between pure blooded and mixed-blood Maya. In
few and comparatively slight changes (Thomas 1911:1). Over the the case of the census of Yaxcaba, the deciding criterion for race
course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the specific out- seems to have been surname, as all persons with Spanish sur-
lines of this map were adjusted several times, but the basic assump- names were classed as White and all those with Maya surnames
tion of these bounded communities, like the boundaries ascribed as Maya. In a community like the Yaxcaba of the 1930s, the peo-
to most of them, was a matter of canon. ple listed as Mayas and Whites would all have been speakers of
11. This phenomenon is evident in the relationship of early the Yucatec Maya language, and the majority of them would also
anthropometric studies to previous works in linguistics and have practiced peasant agriculture. The neat racial dichotomy of
ethnology, to the measurements compiled by their respective the census simplified a series of ethnic and class categories as com-
authors, and to vernacular notions of race and ethnicity among plex as those of any Yucatecan community, as well as the detailed
the people whose bodies were the objects of research. At the turn collective memory of how different individuals and families moved
of the 19th century, the Anglo American Frederick Starr toured through these categories. Even for persons whose Spanish sur-
Mexico and Central America collecting anthropometric measure- names were not recently purchased, elite status would have been
ments from representatives of 23 indigenous tribes. He noted that locally relevant through labels such as tsuulxunam or catrn
catrna rather than through a clear-cut whiteMaya dichotomy.
the only basis of classification of Mexican Indians has been Similarly, it is unclear how low-status people in the community,
linguistic. We have naturally been interested in seeing how far who might be identified locally as maasewaloob, indios, or mes-
the relationships indicated by language harmonized with the tizos, would have understood the label of Maya. Still, those fortu-
evidence of physical characters. The agreement was hardly so nate enough to possess Spanish surnamesor to adopt one on the
strong as was anticipated. Where results of interest seem to spot during the recording of the censusnow existed in the agrar-
be brought out, we tabulate the data regarding linguistically ian bureaucracy as members in a prestigious and explicitly racial
related tribes. [Starr 1902:45, emphasis added] category (Registro Agrario Nacional [RAN], Merida, Yucatan, Expe-
diente YAXCABA).
The weak correlation that Starr observed between anthropomet- 15. The ascription of a single racial categoryphrased as the
ric types and the affinities that philologists have posited between race that predominatesto all of the members of a community
different groups seems to support the emergent tendency in mod- was a common feature of reports sent to the Direccion de Escue-
ernist anthropology to segregate race, language, and culture as las Federales by rural teachers or by school inspectors. See Archivo
distinct and mutually independent aspects of the human species. Historco de la Secretara de Educacion Publica (AHSEP), Mexico
However, his use of the tribea term that has virtually no signifi- City, Fondo Escuelas Federales.
cance in the political or ethnic geography of rural Mexicobetrays 16. His anthropological certificate lists him as an hijo natural,
his debt to the older linguistic studies. In the writing of philologists the son of a single mother. Other records in his file document the
and ethnologists at the turn of the 20th century, tribe referred to a brief ceremony through which the municipal government of Sotuta
series of human groupings that were roughly contiguous to the lin- certified Nohs identity, during which he was accompanied not by
guistic territories defined by Orozco y Berra and other philologists. his mother but by a Celestino Pereira. See Miguel Carrillo, Official
If linguistic affinity correlated weakly with morphological similar- del Registro Civil de Sotuta, November 8, 1925. AHSEP Direccion de
ities, there was little reason to assume that speakers of the same Escuelas Rurales, 9526. Later in life, Noh would append Pereira to
language would necessarily belong to the same race. But for an- his own name.
thropometrists such as Starr, the pragmatic necessity of finding ge- 17. Noh to the director of the Ciudad del Estudiante Indgena,
ographically bounded populations was legitimated by an a priori June 3, 1928. AHSEP Direccion de Escuelas Rurales, 9526.
assumption about the physical homogeneity of indigenous people 18. Ismael Cabrera to the director de Educacion Federal, Payo
living within these language regions. For a better sense of how lan- Obispo, QR., February 7, 1930. AHSEP Direccion de Escuelas Ru-
guage came to be privileged as a means of studying the prehistory rales, 9526.
of indigenous groups, see Brinton 1901. 19. Enrique Corona, September 19, 1930. AHSEP Direccion de
12. A second, equally important form of translation was imposed Escuelas Rurales, 9526.
by the fact that Steggerda was essentially monolingual in English, 20. Alvaro Noh Pereira, April 28, 1935. AHSEP Direccion de Es-
and his research relied particularly heavily on his translator and cuelas Rurales, Cursos de Mejoramiento, Instituto de Maestros.
chief informant. Quetzil Castaneda has documented the life of this 21. Alvaro Noh Pereira, April 28, 1935. AHSEP Direccion de Es-
individual, a man named Martiniano Dzib. Dzib was a native of cuelas Rurales, Cursos de Mejoramiento, Instituto de Maestros.
Piste who had learned English during several years of residence in 22. For example, a plan for multicultural social and economic
the United States and had then returned home to become the first development published by the state government of Yucatan in

American Ethnologist  Volume 36 Number 2 May 2009

2004 draws figures on the Mayan population from sources based Castillo Cocom, Juan
mostly on linguistic criteria. Thus, the Maya people (Sp. el pueblo 2005 It Was Simply Their Word: Yucatec Maya PRInces in
maya) who were the beneficiaries of multicultural legislation in Yu- YucaPAN and the Politics of Respect. Critique of Anthropology
catan counted adults who speak the Yucatec Maya language and 25(131):132155.
their young children. See Gobierno del Estado de Yucatan 2004. Cifuentes, Barbara
23. Spanish: Y gracias a lo que dicen los antropologos, sabemos 2002 Lenguas para un pasado, huellas de una nacion: Los es-
que es importante que es el Maya. Ya sabemos que es un idioma tudios sobre las lenguas indgenas de Mexico en el siglo XIX.
y que tiene gramatica. De antes no, se deca que era un dialecto. Mexico City: CONACULTA-INAH.
Sabemos ahora que es importante que se preserve, porque ya se Collier, George, and Elizabeth Lowery Quartiello
esta perdiendo el Maya, ya esta muy revuelto como lo hablamos. 2005 Basta: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas.
Oakland, CA: Food First Books.
Craib, Raymond
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