Singing for the Dead: The Politics of Indigenous Revival in Mexico

Singing for the Dead: The Politics of Indigenous Revival in Mexico

by Paja Faudree

Paperback(New Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, August 23


Singing for the Dead chronicles ethnic revival in Oaxaca, Mexico, where new forms of singing and writing in the local Mazatec indigenous language are producing powerful, transformative political effects. Paja Faudree argues for the inclusion of singing as a necessary component in the polarized debates about indigenous orality and literacy, and she considers how the coupling of literacy and song has allowed people from the region to create texts of enduring social resonance. She examines how local young people are learning to read and write in Mazatec as a result of the region's new Day of the Dead song contest. Faudree also studies how tourist interest in local psychedelic mushrooms has led to their commodification, producing both opportunities and challenges for songwriters and others who represent Mazatec culture. She situates these revival movements within the contexts of Mexico and Latin America, as well as the broad, hemisphere-wide movement to create indigenous literatures. Singing for the Dead provides a new way to think about the politics of ethnicity, the success of social movements, and the limits of national belonging.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822354314
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/29/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paja Faudree is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

Read an Excerpt

Singing for the Dead


By Paja Faudree

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5416-1




A Political Geography and History of "Deep Mexico"

The grandfathers would tell this legend:

"When the god of places distributed the lands of the universe ... only the Mazatecs, who wanted to live free from everyone, accepted these far and inhospitable parts that no one else wanted, ... [choosing] to dwell, with Chikon Tokoxo as guide, in the lands of the huge carnivorous eagles....

The eagles hunted the new inhabitants, ... and fed them to their babies. But the Mazatecs found a way to fool the eagles by wearing chiquihuites [tortilla baskets] on their heads. Thus when they passed by the eagles' lair, the birds carried the baskets away instead, and as they did, the Mazatecs hunted the eagles in return, killing them."

The old people say that is why we wear our mecapales [tumplines] in front and always carry our heads erectly and with pride because the eagles could never carry away our heads. We are not like those Indians of other tribes who wear their mecapales on their chests because the eagles took off their ancestors' heads.

—Renato García Dorantes, indigenous intellectual from Huautla, from "Se acaba este año: Je tifeta no jebi" ("The Year Comes to an End")

Mapping Ethnic Landscapes

As some Mazatecs would have people believe, they are the only Indians left in Mexico yet to lose their heads. Yet whatever it is that unites people as Mazatecs—setting them apart from other groups while creating a place for them in the national imagination—is not nearly as heroic and primordial as the story suggests. Nevertheless, the attempt to draw such boundaries is itself illuminating, bringing to the fore contradictions born of adhering to political geographies in which such moves are meaningful. Delimiting cultural territory within such a national landscape—whose basic units are ethnic enclaves within a liberal and democratic but selectively heterogeneous collective—is fraught with ambivalence. It involves the simultaneous insistence on difference and belonging, on an identity at once dependent on the nation and yet distinct from it. Notwithstanding the assumptions made by Renato García Dorantes, quoted in the epigraph, his story raises questions about whether people labeled Mazatecs—or Zapotecs or other indigenous groups—are aligned behind so bright and binding a line. For Mazatecs also act as their neighbors do: they use mecapales and chiquihuites, they eat tortillas, they celebrate Day of the Dead. Yet many Mazatecs—writers like García Dorantes and other indigenous authors and activists hailing from across Mexico—insist on their difference, on their unique indigenous identities that simultaneously distinguish them from the unmarked Mexican citizenry and from other indigenous peoples. Their desire to carve out a place for themselves within such a geography, thus eliciting allegiance to its underlying logic, raises questions about why such a pursuit is valid and what consequences are entailed by doing so.

Of course, indigenous people have little choice about participating in the work of ethnic cartographies. García Dorantes and millions like him are routinely assigned to ethnic categories regardless of whether they find value in such taxonomic systems. Like blotches of color on linguistic maps, ethnic categorizations make some things visible while obscuring others, all the while creating new realities. Certain forms, performances, and scales of identity formation "are 'called out' by hegemonic structures of managed multiculturalism," yet at the same time these relatively new structures of identification "transform and translate ... local roots" (Clifford 2007: 211). Once indigenous intellectuals participate in ethnic identification terms that the state stipulates through its policies of "managed multiculturalism," they are constrained by those available forms yet participate in their destabilization once the officially licensed forms interact with local, unofficial forms of identification. In retelling a well-known story circulating throughout the Sierra, García Dorantes positions his category of "the Mazatecs" as an alternative to and critique of other versions. The view of Mazatec ethnicity he expresses contrasts sharply with other widely circulating representations of Mazatecs, turning them on their heads by making virtues of purported Mazatec vices.

Even relative to the various indigenous populations surrounding them, Mazatecs are frequently represented as difficult, stubborn, and extremely hostile to outsiders. Such popular characterizations include reports written by spelunkers. For more than thirty years—it is probably not coincidental that spelunking in the region began when hippies first arrived in search of "magic mushrooms"—cavers have come to northern Oaxaca to investigate its vast systems of caves, among the deepest and most extensive in the world. The caves lie under the mountains on both sides of the massive Santo Domingo Canyon, which, at more than six thousand feet deep, is deeper than the Grand Canyon. The northern cave, Sistema Huautla, extends underneath most of the Sierra Mazateca, while the other, Sistema Cheve, lies in an adjacent area to the south inhabited by Cuicatec speakers. As told by the well-known caver Bill Stone, who has led numerous explorations of both systems, "the difference between the north and the south sides are [sic] momentous in terms of the politics." He and others report that Mazatecs were (and are) openly hostile to the cavers, constituting a human obstacle the explorers must surmount alongside floods, cave-ins, falls, hypothermia, and oxygen depletion. Stone claims that Mazatecs view caves as "portals to the underworld," and, labeling the spelunkers brujos, claimed the explorers "had come to their land for the purpose of communing with the devil." Stone continues, "It was not uncommon for us to have our ropes cut by machetes." Such actions at least once nearly killed a caver, an event that continues to figure in stories about caving that circulate internationally as well as in regional Serrano discourse. The human terrain of the southern cave system, however, is characterized quite differently: "On the other side of the Santo Domingo canyon is the Cuicatec Indian tribe, and that particular group was less hostile [historically] to outsiders than were the Mazatecs.... Because of that, number one, they all speak very good Spanish, the amount of Cuicatec that is spoken indigenously today is much, much less than is spoken on the Mazatec side, and as such [the Cuicatecs] don't have the mysticism associated with caves that they do on the northern side."

Such ideas are by no means limited to cavers. Ben Feinberg (2003: 192) quotes a Mexico City resident who had visited Huautla: "'The people are just creepy,' he said. 'I mean, they're real Indians, scary ones. Not your happy, smiling Maya Indians in Yucatán but real Indians who just don't like you!'" I heard similar statements—often from other indigenous people—whenever I mentioned my research in the region. In the early days of my work there, when I solicited advice from knowledgeable outsiders about working in the Sierra, people often spoke of Mazatecs as "cerrado (closed)"—that is, difficult to work with and not welcoming to outsiders.

In the story about the man-eating eagles, however, echoes of these negative characteristics are transformed into evidence of valor: Mazatecs alone display the wisdom and courage that status as "real" Indians would demand. A broadly symbolic reading of the story, which the author seems to invite, would equate the eagle—a common symbol for both the Aztec Empire and the postrevolutionary Mexican nation—with state domination, suggesting not only that the powerful survive by devouring the weak but also that Mazatecs are unrivaled in their ability to resist, to fight back against "the great eagles, symbol of Mexico power" (Neiburg 1988: 14). While all of this could be chalked up to a common rhetorical move within the paradigm of identity politics, it also has a parallel in the Sierra's paradoxical location at Mexico's geographic heart and yet at its psychic and material periphery. Such a situation is not atypical of indigenous Mexican communities, but it means that a place like Nda Xo is both similar to indigenous and other rural communities throughout the region and yet also singular.

A tension between centrality and marginality, between what is locally distinct and what is typical nationally, animates myriad aspects of daily life in Nda Xo, including the dynamics of indigenous revival movements. While heavily in dialogue with regional, national, even international social movements, the Sierra's revival movements are also unique, above all in how literacy is tied to singing. In this chapter, I tie that tension between the Sierra's national centrality and its marginality to a history of Mexico's ethnic politics, viewed through the prism of language and literacy policies as they have shaped relations between indigenous groups and the state. These include antecedents of modern indigenous revival, which prefigure recent indigenous writing. State educational and language policies have shifted dramatically over Mexican history, changes that color the contemporary landscape of national identity politics. This gives linkages between political representation and linguistic affiliation special salience for indigenous Mexicans, residents of that submerged country within a country that the anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla described as "Deep Mexico" in his groundbreaking but controversial book (Bonfil Batalla 1987). I locate the social movements from Nda Xo within the constellation of indigenous social movements in Mexico and beyond by outlining the general historical and cultural trends that shape language and ethnic politics across the region. I further contextualize the Sierra's social movements within the region's particular historical, ethnographic, and scholarly context, outlining how the region is both nationally representative and yet distinct—an ambivalence echoed in the nature of the Sierra's revival movements.

The Birth of the "Indian Problem": A History of Language and Literacy in Mexico


Mesoamerica was the seat of many mutually influencing societies prior to the conquest. Some civilizations exhibited social stratification and centralization that rivaled the leading cities of Europe and, indeed, the globe. However, one quality that distinguished Mesoamerica from the rest of the New World—and that has attracted centuries of academic and popular attention, from Spanish colonizers through present-day scholars—was the existence of indigenous writing systems.

These writing systems—from Mayan and Zapotec glyphic writing to Mixtec and Nahua pictography and painted codices—differed. Each had ethnically, linguistically, and historically unique characteristics. Yet they were united in their great social importance, being fully infused with cultural meaning and value (Boone and Urton 2011). Pre-Columbian writing was heavily aligned with elite and noble classes (Monaghan 2002; Urcid 2005). As Stephen Houston (2011: 21, 23) writes of the Maya case, while the sculptors and scribes who produced glyphic texts were mostly nonroyal, "the practice of glyphic writing" was a tradition deployed "as a diglossic device for consolidating elite bonds across a conflictive political landscape." Furthermore, the differences among Mesoamerican scripts pale compared with their collective variance from European alphabetic writing. The phonetic basis of Old World literacy was markedly different from the pictorial basis of New World literacy, as was the centrality of oral performance to the process of gaining access to meanings encoded in Mesoamerican writings.

Differences between Old World and New World writing had far-reaching implications for European colonization and indigenous responses to it. Spanish colonizers were keenly aware of the existence of Mesoamerican writing and the power of controlling written expression; the political potential and apparently idolatrous content of pre-Columbian texts often led the Spanish to view them with deep ambivalence. Thus, colonizers often responded to Mesoamerican texts by destroying them, razing existing urban centers—including their glyphic texts—and burning Mesoamerican codices while torturing those who harbored them. The famous idolatry trials of 1562 overseen by Fray Diego de Landa involved "the wholesale destruction of Maya codices ... [resulting in] the gradual extinction of a priestly class who could interpret them, and the general decline in literacy after the Conquest (including a total loss of the ability to decipher the pre-Columbian glyphs)" (Farriss 1984: 291, 313). While that particular reaction to indigenous writing was especially severe, it represents an established response to indigenous writing.

However, colonizers also reacted in opposite fashion, with respect for Mesoamerican literacy and its potential utility for evangelization and secular rule. Among the first Europeans to live for extended periods in the Americas, colonial priests were the first Westerners with deep knowledge of indigenous languages, social practices, and cultural knowledge. The first efforts to record native languages and native literatures in Western alphabetic scripts stemmed from the evangelization mission, as Spanish priests educated themselves about the customs and languages of the native peoples whose souls they were charged with saving. The prior existence of writing systems in Mesoamerica was of great interest as a potential evangelization tool. Beginning in the 1520s, friars in Central Mexico began rendering Nahuatl in alphabetic script alongside pictographic writing; by the 1540s, documents in various styles were being produced (Restall et al. 2005: 12–13). While pictorial literacy was eventually replaced with alphabetic literacy, there was significant regional variation in friars' early responses to native pictography. In places such as Oaxaca's Mixtec region, pictorial traditions persisted well into the colonial era, even meriting use in court cases (Boone 2007; Monaghan 2002). Nevertheless, it "proved difficult to reconcile the primarily pictorial writing with the exacting requirements of the Spanish legal system," so that eventually, as stated by leading ethnohistorians of Mesoamerica, "alphabetic literacy in Nahuatl ... [became] the dominant form of expression" across the Americas (Restall et al. 2005: 12–14). Today "the vast majority of native-language manuscripts and imprints are in Nahuatl" (Restall et al. 2005: 14), notwithstanding thousands of documents in other languages. The larger corpuses have been of special scholarly interest and include those in Yucatec Maya (Chuchiak 2010; Hanks 2010; Restall 1997b), Mixtec (Romero Frizzi 2003a; Terraciano 2004), and Zapotec (Chance 2001; Farriss, personal communication, 2012; Romero Frizzi 2003b; Távarez 2010).

Friars initially passed the technology of alphabetic literacy in indigenous languages to indigenous elites. As they developed orthographies, vocabularies, and grammars in indigenous languages, friars also collected native texts and elicited linguistic and cultural information from native informants. While such work was always linked to "the extirpation of idolatry" (Chuchiak 2005), the priests' desire to understand and document such practices stimulated the production of a range of native-language texts through extensive collaboration with native speakers. Though not so credited, these indigenous elites "were at least contributing authors, usually produced the final versions of texts, and often participated in every level of production and printing" (Restall et al. 2005: 14). This process imparted literacy skills to key indigenous people. Indigenous scribes became critically important to the colonial bureaucracy, producing the official documents on which local administration depended—and on which the entire structure of colonial rule rested, given that indigenous people heavily outnumbered European colonizers.

The wealth of indigenous-language documents in colonial Mesoamerica has facilitated vibrant research into what light they shed on indigenous perspectives of colonial rule. Scholars generally classify these documents into two types. The first are those James Lockhart terms "mundane," which include official notarial texts of indigenous community cabildos (town councils); they make up "the vast majority of extant documentation" (Restall et al. 2005: 15). The second type are nonnotarial documents spanning many genres that are sometimes termed "Classical Nahuatl texts" (when they come from central Mexico) and have been the primary focus of belletristic approaches. Examples include descriptive linguistic materials (dictionaries, grammars, pedagogical materials); religious texts (confessional manuals, doctrinas [catechisms]); historical accounts (annales organized around the Mesoamerican calendar); ethnographic compilations such as the massive Florentine Codex; literary texts such as songs, speeches, and plays; and heterogeneous texts that are "virtually unclassifiable" within Western genres (Farriss 1984: 247), such as the Books of Chilam Balam, the titulos primordiales (primordial titles), and the Popol Vuh (Durston 2008: 42–43; Restall et al. 2005: 13–15; see also Edmonson 1982, 1986; D. Tedlock 1985). The abundance of resources in indigenous languages in Mesoamerica has given rise to the New Philology, an approach to ethnohistorical research that advocates privileging indigenous-language resources.

Excerpted from Singing for the Dead by Paja Faudree. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Orthographic and Linguistic Conventions xiii

Introduction. Leaving the Pueblo 1

1. From Revolution to Renaissance: A Political Geography and History of "Deep Mexico" 30

2. Revival in the "Land of the Magic Mushroom": A Recent History of Ethnic Relations in the Sierra Mazateca 75

3. Singing for the Spirits: The Annual Day of the Dead Song Contest 105

4. Scenes from a Nativist Reformation: The Mazatec Indigenous Church 141

5. Meeting at the Family Crypt: Social Fault Lines and the Fragility of Community 174

6. Seeing Double: Indigenous Authors, Readers, and the Paradox of Revival 197

Conclusion. Singing for the Dead and the Living: Revival, Indigenous Publics, and the National Afterlife 236

Notes 251

References 277

Index 297

What People are Saying About This

Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon - Lynn Stephen

"Singing for the Dead makes major theoretical and ethnographic contributions to studies of indigenous literacy, ethnic revival movements, and the ways in which politics functions through cultural forms. The book is historically and theoretically rich, situating the different examples of ethnic revival—the Day of the Dead song contest, the Mazatec Indigenous Church, and the work of indigenous Mazatec writers—in a wonderfully vibrant context."

Death and the Idea of Mexico - Claudio Lomnitz

"Singing for the Dead is an unusual work that brings a sophisticated analysis of language and song into dialogue with the contemporary history of factions and the politics of identification in the Mazatec region of Oaxaca. Paja Faudree deftly unpacks the intellectual and institutional infrastructure that has made a culturally innovative process of native revivalism possible."

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews