Friedlander on Being Indian in Central Mexico

Judith Friedlander reports on her fieldwork in a Nahuatl & Spanish-speaking community in a fine 1975 book: Being Indian in Hueyapan: A Study of Forced Identity in Contemporary Mexico. I recommend the book. Here, I've excerpted some summary comments from a chapter entitled "What it Means to be Indian in Hueyapan." For general context, I'll mention only that one outcome of the 1910-20 Revolution was a political/symbolic identification of Indians as among the founding peoples (as it's put in Canada) of Modern Mexico. That is, the existence of "Indians" became part of the rhetoric of self-imagining of the Mexican state.

    To be Indian in Hueyapan is to have a primarily negative identity. Indian-ness is more a measure of what the villagers are not or do not have vis-a-vis the hispanic elite than it is of what they are or have. To complicate matters, the standard by which the Hueyapenos are evaluated is always changing. For over 400 years, while Hueyapenos have been filling in the "void" of their Indian-ness by accumulating symbols identified with the hispanic elite, the Mexican upper classes have been continuously acquiring new symbols and rejecting many of the old ones. As the elite redefines its own identity, it demotes characteristics previously associated with its prestigious high status to the low level of nonculture or Indian-ness. Consequently, despite the fact that the "content" of Hueyapan culture is always changing, the "structural" relationship of Indian to hispanic remains the same. The villagers are still Indians by virtue of the fact that they continue to lack what the elite continues to acquire.
    The villagers view their Indian identity in an ahistorical way, which reflects the static nature of their social position in the larger society but does not reflect the culture or the historical process responsible for creating this stasis. Having internalized the hispanic elite's view of their own Indian-ness, Hueyapenos do not make the distinction between their "culture," which has been changing, and their "class," which has remained virtually the same. Hueyapenos see their indigenous identity in terms of a concept of the Indian that was constructed during early colonial times when it was valid to describe the villagers as culturally distinct and when it was decided that the Indians were culturally inferior. Although the Spanish subsequently destroyed the Hueyapenos' culture in the name of saving their Indian souls, the original perception of the villagers as culturally different and inferior beings did not change. As a result there is little left of indigenous culture in Hueyapan today, but there remains a considerable sense of Indian inferiority.
    Early in my stay I learned that villagers were embarrassed about their Indian identity. To call a Hueyapeno indio was as insulting and humiliating as it was to call an American Black "nigger." Even the official euphemism indigena (indigenous person) was not much more flattering. Knowing how the villagers felt, I found it difficult to ask them directly about their Indian-ness. Thus while I lived in Hueyapan in 1969-1970 I simply waited for villagers to volunteer information and limited myself to asking only oblique questions that touched on the subject. When I returned to the pueblo in December 1971, however, I was more straightforward and asked Hueyapenos specifically about their Indian identity. By this time, I felt, people trusted me enough so that we could discuss such a sensitive matter openly without being too uncomfortable. As I had expected, the answers I received to my direct questions did not change my previous interpretation but reinforced it. What follows, then, is a summary of the contexts in which I observed Hueyapenos expressing their attitudes about what it means to be Indian and the responses I received to direct questioning. I interviewed formally and informally several hundred villagers.
    A salient characteristic of the Hueyapenos' definition of Indian-ness is the comparative nature of the concept. A person is more or less Indian in relation to somebody else. Since I was a rich North American, almost everybody felt Indian next to me. Therefore, when I visited the homes of people in the village, from the wealthier to the more impoverished, I was often greeted with, "Please excuse us, we are only poor (little) Indians here." The apology functioned as both an explanation for their poverty and a warning to me that my hosts might unknowingly commit a social blunder. By admitting beforehand that they were Indians, the villagers believed that they could no longer be held responsible for their indigenous and "uncultured" demeanor. Nobody; they assumed, expected an Indian to have either the economic means or the good manners to treat an honored guest properly.
    The image of the Indian is so negative for most Hueyapenos that one peasant woman, Dona Gregoria, felt free to use the word indio to mean a "bad" person. Defending the pueblo, Dona Gregoria said that although outsiders believed that Hueyapenos were indios, actually the villagers were "very good people." Then she qualified her statement, admitting that the Hueyapenos had been much more Indian several years ago. Now, however, largely thanks to the efforts of the Cultural Missions, the villagers are becoming more "civilized."
    When I asked villagers what it meant to be Indian, many said that they did not know. I could only be sure to elicit a more complete answer when I rephrased the question in terms of one of the contexts in which I had observed the villagers themselves using the word. Thus I asked, "What did Hueyapenos mean when they said to me, 'Please excuse us, we are only poor (little) Indians here'?" People then explained that villagers felt inferior next to me. Why? Because they did not speak good Spanish and they were poor. After I had broken the ice in this way, many Hueyapenos were then willing to discuss the matter in greater detail.
    According to one farmer, Indians "don't know anything." Dona Zeferina's daughter-in-law, Juana, added that "Indians don't know anything; they are foolish." When I asked Dona Juana to explain what she meant by "foolish," she said that we should take her as an example: she did not know how to read and write. A seventy-three-year-old woman explained that to be Indian meant that you ate ordinary food, nothing delicious. Unlike city people, who enjoyed good-tasting delicacies preserved in tin cans, Indians ate only common things like tortillas, beans and chiles, she said. Another old woman claimed that Hueyapenos were Indians because they did not know how to speak Spanish well and this was embarrassing to them....
    The weaver Dona Epifania added that indios do not know any better. Since they do not understand how to act properly, it is not their fault when they do something wrong, and consequently they should not be blamed for their mistakes. Only people with education should be held responsible for what they do. As an illiterate farmer explained, Hueyapenos have "squashes" for heads; how could they be expected to amount to very much?
    The overwhelming majority of the people I interviewed defined Indian-ness in terms of what the villagers did not have or could not do. Few people actually cited tangible customs or qualities defining Indian-ness. Only one person referred to the fact that the villagers spoke a different language; all the others simply said that Hueyapenos did not speak grammatically acceptable Spanish. Furthermore, only one individual mentioned the villagers' traditional costume. I certainly do not mean to suggest that the villagers were unaware of the fact that their language and dress were Indian. I only propose that for the villagers the significance of their Indian-ness could be expressed better by listing what they lacked than by pointing to what they had. To be Indian, in other words, signified primarily that you were poor.
    Where responses varied was not in the general perception of what it meant to be Indian, but in the elaborateness of the answers given. Villagers who were better educated and/or had had more contact with urban people went into greater detail. They were less shy. These more sophisticated villagers usually characterized what was Indian about the Hueyapenos with the following expression: it was the villagers' "lack of culture" that made them Indians. A person with "culture," they explained, had education as well as money. Thus, in contrast to an Indian, an individual who had "culture" possessed specific personal traits such as the ability to read and write, the ability to speak with "respect" (in flowery prose), the ability and confidence to speak before a large group and to use a microphone. Also, non-Indians owned and used beds, tables, radios, televisions, trucks and store-bought clothing, to name just a few of the items mentioned.
    Most villagers responded to their Indian-ness in one of three ways, all of them negative. Some people, mostly the old and the illiterate, were fatalistic: such was their unfortunate lot, they said, and nothing could be done about it. Their only defense was to project childlike innocence: who, they felt, could expect anything more of them? Other villagers believed that although they were Indians, they could at least try to hide their impoverished cultural condition. Dona Zeferina, for example, would frequently say that the family should keep its home and yard clean so that things would appear "less sad, less poor, less Indian." A native school teacher, interested in minimizing the Indian status of his pueblo, instructed the villagers to mark down on the 1970 census forms that Hueyapenos had modern bathroom facilities. Actually, nobody, with the exception of this particular maestro and his family, had anything but an adobe steam bath.
    A third response, common among the more upwardly mobile villagers, was to try to lose their Indian identity. For example, to prove how successful a transition he had made from Indian to Mestizo, Maestro Rafael, who was well known for his ability to speak eloquently --a non-Indian trait-- liked to tell me about the reaction he often received from school teachers at statewide functions. When the other maestros learned that Rafael was from Hueyapan, they would ask in disbelief, "But aren't they very Indian up there?"
    When villagers used the word "Indian" it was almost always to insult another or to make a self-deprecating comment or joke. For example, when I asked one Hueyapeno whether another villager was going to participate in a particular project to modernize the pueblo the former retorted, "That guy? He's too Indian."...
    I was interested to see that when I asked people to define what it meant to be Indian in Hueyapan, nobody said that the villagers belonged to a distinct race. Although some, like Dona Zeferina, noted that their ancestors came from another race, the villagers did not seem to consider racial variation a prominent feature in their own Indian identity today. There appear to be at least two reasons for this lack of interest in race as a fundamental criterion. First, the villagers knew that they did not look very different physically from most non-Indian peasants in the area. Second, Hueyapenos were undoubtedly influenced by the post-Revolutionary official view that the contemporary Indian is defined primarily by cultural and not genetic standards.
    All the same, the villagers were well aware of the fact that rich Mexicans as well as Americans were usually fair in contrast to their own brown complexions. Furthermore, Hueyapenos believed that "White was beautiful." Villagers openly expressed their preference for light skin, blue eyes, curly and/or blond hair. Among themselves, families almost always favored their more Caucasian-looking children....
    ...I went to Hueyapan, hoping to find "real" Indians with a sense of pride in their indigenous culture and heritage. I discovered, instead, a community of people who had been forced to give up virtually all their indigenous culture hundreds of years ago, but who were still being discriminated against for being Indian. Far from proud, these villagers were embarrassed to be Indian and many saw that they had but one option: to lose their Indian-ness, a task made difficult for them by government representatives and cultural extremists who have been trying to entice the villagers to "play" Indian for the sake of glorifying Mexico's indigenous heritage.
    Once I was back in the United States I saw variations of the Hueyapenos' doubly binding conflict everywhere....
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