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
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
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
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
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
Once I was back in the United States I saw variations
of the Hueyapenos' doubly binding conflict everywhere....