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Our Illnesses

Susto and Ethnicity among Veracruzan Teenek Indians (Mexico)
Nos maladies : effroi et ethnicité chez les Indiens teenek veracruzains (Mexique)
Anath Ariel de Vidas


Au nord de l'État mexicain du Veracruz, les Indiens teenek croient qu'une certaine maladie ne frappe que les membres de leur propre groupe autochtone. Cette affirmation soulève la question de la relation qui s'établirait entre les idées emic sur l'affliction et l'identité ethnique d'un groupe donné. L'examen de la nosologie teenek, et en particulier des méthodes de divination que les guérisseurs teenek utilisent pour identifier l'origine de ce malheur particulier, nous permet non seulement de comprendre l'étiologie teenek, mais aussi d'analyser sa structure symbolique. À travers le mythe d'origine, cette structure établi un lien entre les conceptions de la maladie qui prévalent auprès de ce groupe et le contexte multiethnique et conflictuel régional. Ainsi, l'analyse de la pathologie teenek révèle non seulement une théorie de la causalité, mais également les tensions sociales intra et interethniques. Cette analyse contribue ainsi à l'élucidation d'un modèle ethnothéorique de l'ethnicité teenek.

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1In the northern part of the Mexican state of Veracruz, the Teenek Indians believe that jikltalaab (susto or espanto) afflicts only members of their own indigenous group. Far from presenting susto as an ethnographic noveltysince this category of illness, which affects the soul, is common among Indian and Latino societies throughout the American continentmy purpose in this paper is to explore a perspective on it that may be of broader interest precisely because susto is so common. The Teeneks claim that this illness is exclusive to them raises the question of the relationship between emic conceptions of affliction and ethnic identification. Choosing to examine Teenek notions of body and nosology in relation to other human and non-human existents allows us to not only to understand their etiology, but also analyze its symbolic structure. Through the Teenek myth of origin, this structure relates the concepts of disease prevalent in this group to their regional multiethnic context. Thus, Teenek pathology reveals not just a theory of causation but also expresses intra- and interethnic social tensions and shed light on the question of an ethnotheoretical model of ethnicity.

The Anthropology of Affliction

  • 1 For a critical discussion of these different approaches, see Augé, 1995.
  • 2 Foster and Anderson, 1978; Nichter, 1994; Young, 1982.

2Evans-Pritchards classic analysis of Azande witchcraft (1937) introduced the idea that etiology in this society simultaneously relies on physical, social and moral aspects, thus revealing its profound internal coherence. Later, Turner (1967) demonstrated that among the Ndembu, the connection between social relations and therapy implied social control. The medical anthropology that developed based on these assumptions is now centrally divided between empiricists and interpretivistsbetween those who seek a more practical agenda pursuing cultural and social knowledge of sickness and those who take a heuristic approach to human conceptions of physical misfortune.1 Despite this division, two assumptions are broadly shared by both groups and provide the basis for the present analysis: First, medical beliefs and practices are part of cultural systems; and, second, all curative systems are part of historically determined social systems.2 Just by classifying and defining illnesses and states of health, these different categories reflect social relations, among other things. Illness is not exclusively the concern of the individual affected. It also serves as an object of social interpretation, therefore implying social relations and more particularly, relations with the Other and within Others (Bird-David, 2004). This objective can be approached through the concept of the three bodies(Scheper-Hughes and Lock, 1987), namely the individual (individual body-self), the social (a natural symbol for thinking about relations among nature, society and culture), and the political (an artifact of social and political control) bodies. This therefore implies the need for a holistic approach to illnesses, patients, and healers in their broadest social and cultural context.

3In line with this perspective of illnessor what Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987) called the anthropology of affliction”—this article will examine the meaning that members of an ethnic group give to human suffering, rather than the medicalization of sickness. Accordingly, it will not directly analyze intersections between culture and biology, but will instead emphasize the symbolic and social significance that illness has for the person affected and for the society in which that person lives. Therefore, the focus here is not the therapeutic effectiveness of Teenek medicine, but rather the relationships between its social and symbolic dimensions. This approach will demonstrate how social change and especially social ethnic alterity are integral to Teenek concepts of illness. More particularly, I will show why the Teenek interpret a certain illness as exclusive to the members of this social group, and how being afflicted by it (and then hopefully healed) is one of the Teenek peoples essential means of regenerating their ethnic identification.

The Social Scenario

  • 3 The source of this data is the 1995 Mexican national census (Conteo de Población y Vivienda, Mexico (...)

4This paper is based on data from fieldwork (1991-1995) carried out in Loma Larga, a Teenek hamlet in the humid tropical zone of northeastern Mexico. With its 200 inhabitants (in 1995), Loma Larga, along with some 300 other tiny villages, forms part of the district of Tantoyuca in the northern part of the state of Veracruz. This district is inhabited by a multiethnic population which official agencies classify by language: Individuals who speak Teenek (or Huastecbelonging to the Mayan linguistic family) as their primary language (although the majority of the Teenek population is also fluent in Spanish) make up about half the population (46,500 in 1995), Nahuatl-speakers account for 6%, and the rest speak only Spanish.3 These Spanish-speakers, descendants of Spaniards and Indians, are locally known as mestizos in Spanish, ejek in Teenek, and koyotl in Nahuatl. The mestizos are concentrated mainly in the administrative center of the district, also called Tantoyuca, while the indigenous populations, mostly Teenek, live in outlying villages. Day-to-day relations between mestizos and Teenek (through market trading, administration, temporal migration and work relations) generally reflect the exploitation of the latter by the former, racism, and, at best, paternalism (Ariel de Vidas, 1993).

  • 4 Indicadores Socioeconómicos e índice de Marginación Municipal 1990, Mexico City, CONAPO, 1993.

5According to official data and in spite of the fact that the Huasteca region is famous for its fertility, the Tantoyuca district ranks among the top 25% poorest Mexican localities.4 Wide economic and social disparities dating from the colonial period separate the Teenek population from the mestizos (Ariel de Vidas, 1994a). Most mestizos keep large cattle ranches on the regions flatlands, whereas the Teenek live and work on small, fragmented plots scattered among the big estates and in the hills. There they raise subsistence crops such as corn and beans, as well as agave, which is used for local crafts. The Teenek populations survival has been affected not only by colonial and present-day seizure of their lands (Ariel de Vidas, 1994b), but also by the deforestation caused by extensive cattle ranching, which leads to land erosion and an ecological imbalance that threatens their natural environment. Moreover, since farmland is scarce and overworked, its productivity declines over time. Meanwhile, population growth in recent decades has forced the Teenek to look for casual labour or seasonal work in the region, increasing their contact with the non-indigenous society that exploits them and, consequently, with the inexorable realization of their own marginal status (Ariel de Vidas, 1997, 2002).

  • 5 A more complete analysis of the Teenek medical system was developed in Ariel de Vidas, [2002] 2004.

6Loma Larga is a three-hour trek from Tantoyuca, in the middle of a dense wood. In 1995, like most Teenek settlements in the region, it had no drinking water or electricity, or even an access road. This situation tends to spatially isolate Teenek villagers from the main town where the regions political and economic life is concentrated (controlled by mestizos). On the other hand, it gives them a certain cultural autonomy (which should not be understood necessarily as cultural resistance) that allows them to apply common law in some spheres, observe various pagan customs combined with Catholic rites, etc. As for healing practices, the ethnic plurality represented by the village healer on one hand and the city doctor on the other makes a range of therapeutic resources available, which can be used in the quest for physical and mental health. However, as my analysis will show, Teenek illness classification and treatment selection obey a specific logic that reflects a principal aspect of the Teenek theory of identity and social and religious alterity.5

Teenek plural medical system

7My Teenek informants made a distinction between illnesses that arenatural (those of the body) andspiritual(those of the soul). Thus, in this local system, just as ailments of the mind differ from those of the body, the treatment recommended for each is radically different. Physical (or natural) illnesses are treated by self-medication (using plants applied as poultices or ingested as decoctions) or, in more serious cases, by doctorsmedicine, with ointments, medications and injections. Illnesses of the soul are the domain of Teenek curanderos (healers), because according to local beliefs, only Teenek people can catch them. I will begin with a short description of naturalillnesses and later return to this connection between spiritualillness and ethnic affiliation.

Physical illnesses

  • 6 For an analysis of this concept in other societies around the world, see Logan, 1977.

8According to the Teenek (and many other Amerindian groups), numerous physical illnesses can be attributed to an internal imbalance between cold and hot. These kinds of illnesses can be cured by plants or objects endowed with the opposite qualities. For example, a plant considered cold will restore balance to a body disturbed by high fever.6 However, it should be stressed that an items classification has nothing to do with its observable thermal characteristics. This classification is exclusively based on the effects the items may have on the body, as reported by the society in question. In other words, although the classification of plants as hot or cold is a practice that seems to exist in all Latin American indigenous groups, the specific characteristics attributed to each plant vary somewhat from one group to the next. Foster (1953, 1988) identifies this as a classic humoral pathology introduced by the Spanishhence its prevalence throughout the continent. However, it is not certain that this classification system was imported, since in the Mesoamerican indigenous environment, at least, humorism was current even before the Conquest (López Austin, 1989; Ortiz de Montellano, 1990). Furthermore, in this cultural area, it is not applied solely to the etiological sphere of illness (and, by extension, the body, medicinal plants, foods, and remedies). Essentially, it governs all natural objects and is inherent to the Mesoamerican worldview.

  • 7 For a concise description of Mesoamerican cosmology, see Gossen, 1986.
  • 8 Cf. Descola, 2005.

9The Mesoamerican cosmological universe is organized around binary relationships between up and down, hot and cold, masculine and feminine, constructive and destructive, etc. This universe is constituted by the combination of these asymmetrical but complementary opposing elements, like the trajectories and different characteristics of the sun and the moon.7 These elements of the cosmological system are not conceived in a Manichean or dualistic way, but rather dyadically. As López Austin (1989: 303-318) notes, the indigenous conception of nosological elements is integrated into a more general taxonomy that classifies the different components of the Mesoamerican cosmological system according to their characteristics rather than their temperature.The effects and qualities of some of these elements may vary from one place to another, and tend to be organized on the basis of analogies, but they are always part of this classification.8

10This type of classification can be seen in Loma Larga when the weather is very hot and children are customarily cooled off by being bathed in water mixed with what is known as old womans knee(Piper amalago, of the Piperaceae family; kwalaal pulek in Teenek), a plant with a stem that resembles a human kneecap, used because it is thought to be cold like old women. Leaves of the albahaca, of the same species as the sweet basil plant (Ocimum micranthum, of the Lamiaceae family; dhutsuub in Teenek), are frequently used for hotcoughs (the biomedical term is productive cough), in which case it is chewed raw (the plant is considered to becold in this state). If the problem is a coldcough (or dry cough), the albahaca is taken in a decoction (the plant is considered hot in this form). To soothe a fever or emotional upset, the usual treatment is therapeutic purification (peedhox), commonly called limpias in Spanish, or cleansing.This technique consists in lightly brushing the body of the patient from head to foot with (depending on the symptoms) leaves, an egg, a chicken, a coin, a candle, a handkerchief, a bottle of brandy, or other items. Depending on the context, it can be used to purify and calm, to rid the patient of an ailment, or to determine the cause of a disease.

11This theory of hot and cold is applied not only to healing practices, but also to food that may affect a sick body. Damian, who was suffering from a gash in his foot after a mishap with a machete, could not drink the turkey broth (taktsiil) served at his sisters wedding because one of its ingredients, sesame, is considered cold, and the wound was hot. Very hot drinks might harm the internal balance of the body, so they cannot be ingested. Similarly, cold water or sodas from a refrigerator in the city are not drunk because they can cause illness when the body and heart are still hot from being out on the streets. In this system, men are considered hot and women cold. Consequently, a woman whose milk is intended for a female child should not breastfeed a male, since the difference in temperature might give him diarrhea. When a woman is menstruating her body heats up, and she must not drink cold water in case her blood coagulates from the shock of contrasting temperatures; nor should she eat (hot) chilli, since her blood might heat up excessively. Local people say that the loss of a child, or more generally any state of sadness, pain, or angerthat is, states of conflict and emotiondisrupt the bodys temperature and heat the blood. A person who is in one of these states must avoid houses with children, since they are particularly vulnerable to catching an illness from this type of heat. Anyone found flouting this rule must pay a fine to the village authorities. The same goes for travelers from far away, even if they are not drunk or ill, because they transmit an excess of heat that may cause harm to children. For this reason, before entering a house, they must announce their arrival and greet the inhabitants from a distance, to give the children time to get out of the way.

12I mention these examples of complementary opposites as evidence of a certain perception of illness, not as a complete analysis of the subject. As I have argued elsewhere, the hot-cold conception implies above all an idea of balance and moderation, a basic operating principle that says excess must be avoided in every area of life, neither too much nor too little,and this idea is one of the rules of conduct governing various spheres of everyday life (Ariel de Vidas, 2007). Nevertheless, when plants, therapeutic cleansing, and decoctions do not produce the desired results, patients visit the doctor of the ejek (mestizos). The cures have to be sought in this order, since taking medicine (considered hot) before taking plant decoctions (considered cold) would swell the belly and cause gastric problems.

The Teenek and biomedicine

13There is a rural clinic in a village about an hour and a halfs walk from Loma Larga. The resident doctor and two nurses are pasantesthat is, they are performing the mandatory community service required of Mexican students after they complete their professional training. The staff is therefore constantly changing, and this hinders the development of a relationship of familiarity and trust between doctors and patients. Once a week, the doctor and one of the nurses travel around the villages in the area to register and attend to pregnant women and sick people. However, for various reasons, the doctor does not visit Loma Larga. Several people from Loma Larga noticed that when an inhabitant of the hamlet visits the dispensary, the doctor always prescribes the same medications. This is mainly due to the institutional abandonment of rural and indigenous outlying areas, and serious shortfalls in the supply of medicines to rural clinics. Consequently, when Loma Larga residents finally decide to consult an allopathic doctor, they go directly to Tantoyuca (a three-hour hike), either to the Red Cross clinic where waiting times are long, or to a private (and expensive) doctors office. This logistical difficulty means that in serious cases, necessary treatment could be tragically delayed. When Teenek patients finally reach the hospital, it is usually too late, and this is why the Teenek often say that no one comes out of the hospital alive. This was the case with Wenceslaos mother. According to the local story, the greedy doctors saw that she was too poor to pay for hospitalization, so they first gave her bad medicine, and finally injected her with poison. The doctors got what they wanted, since money must be paid to remove a corpse from the hospital, whereas a patient who recovers is discharged without having to pay a fee. This is the emic viewpoint of the Teenek with whom I was in contact; however from the etic perspective, the charge for removing the body reflected the cost of transporting it and registering the death, expenses from which the Teenek were obviously exempted if the death occurred within the village. This intercultural encounter reflects the suspicion that the Teenek people have developed towards mestizo medical institutions.

14From time to time, nurses go to Loma Larga as part of national immunization campaigns. The villagers are divided between those who accept this preventive measure and those who avoid it because they fear that the vaccinations will sterilize their children. Mysterious terms spoken to Teenek patients in Spanish such as tos ferina (whooping cough), difteria (diphtheria), sarampión (measles), tétanos (tetanus) or poliomielitis (poliomyelitis) do not have the power to overcome the mistrust inherent in relations between Teenek and mestizos. Nevertheless, the Teenek reserve the option to consult a conventional doctor, despite their emotional attachment to a very different view of the causes of illness. Naturalillnessesthose which the Teenek see as illnesses of the bodyencompass an array of physical ailments for which the Teenek seek a remedy that conforms to their view of what is afflicted, that is the best of the many medical treatments, and that they can afford. Their search for wellbeing does not involve existential questions, and they consider their sicknesses to be the same as those of their non-Teenek neighbors. Illnesses of the soul are altogether different. For my Teenek informants, these sicknesses are exclusive to the Teenek, and are directly related to the presence of supernatural beings. Anastacio, one of my key informants (in his late thirties) accurately summed up the basic difference between the two medical cultures and competing etiological theories:

Doctors only treat the body, not the soul. Healers treat both. With doctors it’s only the body, they don’t do spiritual things like cleansing, they don’t ask why. They just give ointments or injections. The healers aren’t like that, they want to know why. Through cleansings they find out the reason for the sickness and in this way they confront the sickness directly. Through consultations [divination practices, author’s note] they can know. Doctors do not ask for the ancestors’ forgiveness.

According to my Teenek informants, it is in the nature of things that when a disease is resistant to decoctions and chemical medicines, there can no longer be any doubt: it is the soul that is sick. Like the Teenek healer and his patients, who are concerned about the profound reason for this kind of misfortune, we too can ask how and why the mythical ancestors affect the Teenek soul. But before visiting the curandero, we need to understand the Teenek concept of soul.

Spiritual Illnesses

  • 9 On the different types of soul, see also López Austin, 1989.

15The Veracruz Teenek attribute a subjectivity to every body or object. In addition to its material aspect, they believe everything has a “soul” that is its animating force. The soul of corn—or its “force” as some informants call it—is what makes the plant grow and flourish or if its soul is weak, this is what causes malformation of the ear and attracts rodents. Similarly, a house, hill, or tree has a soul.9 This belief leads the Teenek to personify objects. A machete might be evil if it cuts someone; a radio is resting when it is switched off, and so on. To understand this “animistic” perception of things in Descola’s terms (1996), López Austin (1992: 183) suggests a distinction between “light” and “heavy”—a figurative distinction that does not refer to an indigenous category but reflects a specific view of the dual nature of matter. From this one can understand that treatment with plants may not necessarily only be “physicalsince it can be the plants soul or quality that is treating the illness. As we will see, the spiritual aspect of things and beings is only manifested in certain situations that involve spiritual communication between the respective lightaspects of man and matter.

16Thus according to the Teenek conception, the human body is, in addition to its material aspect, endowed with two spiritual principles. However, contrary to the Western Descartes-inspired conception of the mind and the body as deriving from two different substancesone pure thought, the other extendedthe Teenek consider mind and body as both dependent on these two substances. In other words, both mind and body are simultaneously thinking and extended substances. Human beings, according to Teenek theory, are endowed with two souls: on one hand, the ejattal (ejat = aliveor awake), the soul of the heart; and on the other hand, the chichiin, the soul of thought,which is the spirit of an individual. Obviously, as I am using them, souland spiritare translations that are not intended to connote religious concepts but rather, as will be shown, to assimilate ontological principles of life, thought, and feeling.

17The ejattal is located in the heart (itsiich) and is the principle of life, or the engine of the body,as one informant expressed it. It is invisible, but is imagined as a little angel. The chichiin, on the other hand, is likened to a bird (chichin) and is found inside the top of the head, where persons thinking and intelligence (chalap) are located. The organs of the heart and brain are thus conceived as the receptacles of two incorporeal components that are part of every living being: respectively the ejattal (the vital spiritual principle) and the chichiin (the soul of thought).

  • 10 The same conception of two souls, one in the heart and the other in the head, is found among the Te (...)
  • 11 According to Alcorn (1984: 67), among the Teenek of San Luis Potosí the ehatal (literal transcripti (...)

18The chichiin is the soul of thought (chalap), which gives the orders, whereas the ejattal is the soul of the heart, which carries them out; or, to use the words of an informant, the ejattal is the feet of the chichiin.10 There is no life without the ejattal, so it cannot disappear into thin air like the chichiin; without the ejattal a person ceases to exist. When it is lost, life is lost. By contrast, a person can lose the chichiin and continue living, although he or she loses the ability to think, speak clearly, understand or feel. A person who loses the chichiin lives solely on the power of the ejattal, but no one can live in this way for long. It is a sudden fright (jikltalaab), known in Spanish as susto or espanto, that causes the loss of spiritual strength (the chichiin), depriving victims of some of their internal heat, that is, part of their animating force. Susto manifests itself in a lack of appetite, dizziness, anxiety, listlessness, fainting, the inability to concentrate, and other symptoms of loss of balance. It is a weakness, because part of ones thinking is absent.11 Concretely, people who have lost their chichiin are not considered insane or unconscious, but are said to no longer know what they are doing.

  • 12 For the meaning of the word iik among the Yucatec Mayas, see Hanks, 1993: 325-326.
  • 13 Cf. Kearney, 1972.

19The idea of illnesses of the soul is based on the indigenous conception of body and space. Like in many Mayan languages, the term ik in Teenek designates not just blowing winds, but also spiritual winds; it can also refer to enthusiasm, liveliness, personal vitality, mobility, and lucidity, as well as breathing and the force that circulates blood through the veins.12 These all express the same meaning in different terms and contexts. Spirit, wind and air are all locally considered vital forces, either external or internal. So it is not surprising that Teenek people consider the loss of the soul in the broad sense to be very dangerous, and that the preoccupation with avoiding illness of the soulor in any case treating itis central to their lives.13 However, to understand how a soul can be lost and what needs to be done to recover it, we must look to this groups myth of origin, which provides insight into how the Teenek concept of spiritual illness is literally and metaphorically incorporated into Teenek cosmology and ethnic identification.

The myth of origin and the illnesses of the soul

20One of the formal requirements for full-fledged membership in a Teenek community is direct patrilineal descent. As Weber (1968: 385-398) points out, unlike other forms of collective identity, ethnic identity is essentially based on the subjective belief in a shared blood relationship. The assumed common descent of an ethnic group implies the development of a collective historyeither invented or experienced. The invocation of some of its seminal event molds the group and validates the sense of belonging. Hence the Veracruz Teenek identification with a myth of origin that explains, among other things, the cause of certain illnesses that are in fact ethnic illnesses, as we will see.

21This myth dates back to a distant time when the earth was flat and soft, and the sun did not yet exist. When the sun finally did appear, believing that it would lead to destruction, the ancient inhabitants rejected its light, burying themselves in the earth head-first, thereby creating the hills and ravines. However, this attempt to block daylight failed, and in the end they remained in the subterranean shadows, angry with the other inhabitants of earth for not fighting against the sun. At the beginning of the new solar era, these beings resented the universes new configuration into two worlds, one subterranean and the other above ground, and they started kidnapping people and animals (donkeys, cows, horses, chickens and pigs) from the upper world, imprisoning them in the subterranean world. This situation finally came to an end when a certain Marcos liberated all the prisoners and locked up the place. From that moment on, the chthonian beingswho turned into whirlwinds since the ancestors kept swinging their heads upside down, and are therefore called Baatsik(baat =twisted; ik =wind)could no longer steal material things, but only spiritual ones, namely the souls of the Teenek.

  • 14 Cf. Tousignant, 1979: 356.

22Nowadays, encounters with the Baatsik are inevitable and generally occur on the roads, near wells, or in gullies, hollow trees or caves. In particular, the Baatsikare found in places where the earths crust is uneven, that is to say in the hills and ditches that they themselves created by burying their heads in the ground. In other words, they are found in any cavity, crevice, or topographical protuberance that permits communication with the underworld.14 These chthonian beings appear in the lives of the Teenek in the form of whirlwinds or visions of wild animals. This wind enters the body and extracts part of the chichiin, the soul of thought. As explained by my Teenek informants, this happens when someone has disrespected the territory of the Baatsikor has hunted forbidden animals and is consequently attacked by the ancestors, or when someone sees a terrible vision, which usually appears through an act of witchcraft. In fact, according to the diagnosis of the healer that has been mentioned, whenever Teenek people behave reprehensibly towards a member of their community or transgress a social norm, or behave ostentatiously and provoke envy among their neighbors, these beings of the underworld appear in their lives in the form of whirlwinds. This encounter causes people fright (susto or espanto), distress, terror, in other words a shock or strong emotion that causes the loss of part of the soul, giving rise to an illness of the soul. In every case, this conception of afflictionwhich implies an element of social control with its attendant divination and healing proceduresultimately reasserts the Teenek myth of origin and each individuals relation to his or her autochthonous past and social-ethnic body.

23Every case of illness of the soul reflects a state of weakness and vulnerability related to the idea of losing vital forces. To recover these vital forces, it is necessary to find out where they were lost (since the effects of espanto are not always immediate), and to this end, different kinds of therapeutic cleansing and divination are carried out. Once the origin of the ailment has been found, the Baatsikmust be soothed; a series of actions must be performed to redeem the soul captured by the Baatsikand restore matters to their original state, that is to say restoring a symbolic balance between humans and supernatural beings. In their invocations, which are made exclusively in Teenek, the healers recall the myth of origin explaining why the Baatsikare today inside the earth while humans are on the surface, and pleading with them to understand that their patient did not wish to have a confrontation with them (an example of the reinforcement of ethnic identification through language, which enables exclusive communication with ancestors). These actionsalways carried out in the presence of members of the patients family (collective therapy)also include the placing of special food offerings (not edible by humans) at the base of certain trees. In exchange, the Baatsikreturn the captive spiritual force to the Teenek. Healers know how to talk to the spirits of the earth and are aware of the conditions that must be met before those spirits will reestablish the disrupted balance. They particularize elements of the mythical universe, enabling the patient to articulate some aspects of his or her emotional life through ritual symbols. Treatment effectiveness is facilitated when these transactional symbols(Dow, 1986) are manipulated during healing rituals, metaphorically applying the Teenek individuals connection with his or her cultural heritage. Balance is finally restored when the healer accompanies the patients family members home with the liberated soul, which is reincorporated into the patients body before the household altar, the healer incensing it with copal and saying prayers to the Catholic saintsthis time exclusively in Spanish.

Illnesses, cosmology and ethnic identification

24The division of the cosmos between forms of worship introduced in the myth of origin (in which two universes are defined: the chthonian-pagan and the earthly-Catholic) is reenacted in the ritual for treating illnesses of the soul. This is also perceived in the following poignant words (which almost sound like a lament) on the relationships between present-day Teenek and the Baatsik, spoken by Dionisio, Loma Largas healer (in his seventies at the time of this statement). This account, which completes the Teenek myth of origin, is very detailed and sums up the practices described earlier:

  • 15 An analysis on the role of Jonah as Baatsik’ is found in Ariel de Vidas, [2002] 2004: 257-259.

25The inside of the earth is inhabited by the wicked because those inside the earth are against us, because that’s how it happened. But when we have to find the ch’ichiin we go to talk with those we have to see. The spirits listen to us, they are with us. The earth, too, is an evil spirit. Those beneath the earth are evil friends, evil brothers, evil ancestors. That is why we must also talk to the earth, because they are living under the earth, that is where you find the dead who went beneath the earth. The spirits of those dead people are below, that is where their life stayed—inside the earth. That is why we have to go see our spirits when we need to ask their forgiveness. First here with God, above, because we belong to this place, and then we must also speak with the earth because that is where the spirits are. But we go there because the earth works differently, it has other powers. The earth doesn’t want to see crosses, it doesn’t want to hear prayers, the earth doesn’t want us to cross ourselves, praise God, or pray. No, the earth never wants to see that, that is why we never say prayers to the earth, only when we’re seeking God. With the Holy Cross, orisons, we say prayers about our beliefs in God, but with the earth, never. It doesn’t like that, it doesn’t want to see you with the cross, saying prayers, it doesn’t want that. If you pray, it will not receive you, it will not give you back your ch’ichiin. If you go to see the earth you must not pray because the earth doesn’t want prayers, it doesn’t want any candles, no copal, nothing, because they are evil, they want evil, awful treatment. What they want is Satan because they have never wanted to see God. They’ve never wanted to see the image of God, they’ve never wanted to see good things, that is why they dove beneath the earth. The Baatsik’ want nothing, they don’t want to hear hymns, they don’t want to hear what pleases us here, they don’t want to see dances with violins, nothing; they are angry, then they take a part of our chalap [thought] under the ground, where they live. It pleased them to go underground, and we who don’t like to go underground, we remained above because we are going to pray at baptism, because we go with Christ, with God. Those who didn’t want to follow God, they were not baptized, they don’t go to church, they don’t learn to pray, they remain with the Baatsik’. He who doesn’t want to follow God is not baptized, does not learn to pray, to sing, and when the time comes he goes directly to them, he does not go to heaven because he is not baptized, he doesn’t know how to pray, doesn’t know how to sing, he goes directly to the Baatsik’. But us, when we are baptized we know that we are Christianized, that we must pray, we must know, believe, praise God. That is the way we are. The ancestors, some remained under the earth, others above. That is why there are two places, one here with this one and the other over there with that one. They say there are two Gods, one is called Jonah,15 he is the one who rules the earth, he is under the earth. The one above is Jesus Christ. The father God is in heaven, the father Satan is in the earth, he is the great thief [of souls]. If you stumble on the path or have a vision of an animal, or if you go to a place where you encounter bad things or you see bad people, it comes from them, from Satan.

  • 16 See among others: Aguirre Beltrán, 1947, 1987; Currier, 1966; Foster, 1953; López Austin, 1989; Rub (...)
  • 17 See among others: Rubel, 1964; Fabrega, 1970; Klein, 1978 and Sal y Rosas quoted by Tousignant, 197 (...)
  • 18 See, in particular, Yzunza Ogazón (1984), on the Huastec region of Hidalgo, a neighboring state.
  • 19 Cf. Bernand, 1992; Crandon, 1983.

26Conceptions of illness of the soul linked to the existence of underworld beings are common through Hispanic America and have been extensively analyzed by various authors.16 In the literature of medical anthropology, Espanto, or susto, is considered a culture-bound syndromeor a folk illness typical of indigenous rural societies of Latin America (but not exclusively). However, the symptoms of this ailment are diverse, and do not always repeat themselves or necessarily appear in the same order. Consequently, the susto phenomenon has been approached from different perspectives in the anthropological literature. The epidemiological, psychological, and biomedical approaches17 seek to understand the meaning of espanto by exploring its causes and effects. Social maladjustment, emotional disturbances, and lack of energy have all been proposed as explanations for this syndrome. With respect to the treatment of espanto, some authors have tried to reconcile indigenous healing methods with scientific logic, seeking specific properties of the medicinal plants used that would correspond to the observed symptoms.18 This is because, in many cases, treatments for espanto are ethnopharmacological rather than magical-religious (Trotter, 1982). By contrast, Signorini (1981)finding that espanto was treated differently depending on the patients socio-ethnic status in a village made up of both mestizos and Nahuasadopted an epistemological focus in his analysis of the illness, considering it a reflection of sociocultural identity.19 In a complementary manner, for Tousignant (1979), who studied this issue among the Mayan Tzeltales of Chiapas, the symptoms of espanto are not significant in themselves, and therefore, espanto cannot be considered a syndrome. The consistency of the phenomenon, according to this author, stems from symbolic discourse about the illness, which inscribes the message of cosmological forces on the body of the patient. However, as implied by Dionisios account on the particular ethnic illness that afflicts the Teenek, the symbolic approach to clarifying it cannot be separated from the social one. This emic explanation is supported by an internal logic and worldview closely tied to Teenek history and social identity.

Susto as an embodiment of history

  • 20 This is not an allusion to comandante Marcos’s Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Chiapas, as the myth o (...)

27This emic explanation stresses the cataclysm that occurred in the distant past and that is still experienced painfully, in the literal and figurative sense, by contemporary Teenek, who are subject to extreme marginalization in their multiethnic social context. It also reflects the conception of the universe that explains the Teeneks curative and religious practices. It can thus be deduced that the myth of the Baatsikis in fact a metaphor for the major crisis that Teenek people and indigenous societies throughout the Americas suffered as a result of the sixteenth-century Spanish Conquest and the imposition of Christianity. The cultural world of the local populations disintegrated under the pressure of this physical and spiritual upheaval. Today, after 500 years of the European presence, most indigenous groups have been integrated into the Christian world, but many of themincluding the Teenekstill maintain their old beliefs to some extent. The myth summarized above and Dionisios statement evoke the duality that still exists between the indigenous and Christian worlds, and by extension between the Indian and non-Indian worlds. For example, analysis of the kinds of animals stolen by the Baatsikshows that these were exclusively new animal species imported into America by the Spanish (chickens, donkeys, cows, pigs, etc.). In all of the versions of the myth I was told, none of them mentioned turkeys, the quintessential American animal, which can be found in every Teenek barnyard. Moreover, Marcos, the hero who saved the people in the myth,20 could represent the apostle Markknown locally through his representation in popular calendars, which show him in the mouth of a cave with a wild animal. Remember that the Baatsikdwell in cavities and holes, and that they often take the form of terrifying felines. Marcos deed could be interpreted as the act that defined the present-day cultural and social division between the Christian faith (on the surface of the earth) and the ancient religion (below the surface of the earth).

28We are dealing with an indigenous theory that links a certain illness with history and cosmology through the myth of origin. Jikltalaab only afflicts the Teenek people when they encounter their mythical ancestors the Baatsik, resulting in a functional change in the body. Accordingly, healing methods inevitably involve a supernatural aspect, and this calls for a consideration of the specific relationship between the Teenek and the chthonian beings.

29In day-to-day life, the Teenek are very preoccupied by the presence of the Baatsikin places that constantly remind them of their origins. They are conscious of occupying a land that is not their own, and they know that encounters with these always malevolent beings are inevitable. Consequently, they try to preserve a certain balance between human beings and chthonian beings, and have organized a complete distribution of space between themselves and the Baatsik, that is, between the domestic, cultural space of the present, sanctified by images of Catholic saints, and the wild, natural space of the distant past, the domain of the pagan divinities, creating a specific ethnic space (Ariel de Vidas, 2008). As Gutiérrez Estévez (2009) has emphasized, the salvation of the body, depends on this credo ambivalence or dual loyalty, which is also characteristic of many other Amerindians groups.

30The etiological quest is thus part of the logic of social, cultural, and historical misfortune sustained by the myth of origin. This Teenek myth reflects the struggle between the different forces making up the universe, forces that stem from the organization of the wild sphere and the domestic sphere, past and present: a struggle that affects the health of the Teenek.

The indigenous body

31Among the Teenek, illnesses of the soul seem to offer an exclusive way to communicate with their autochthonous past and reassert their ethnic identification. Susto is available to be manipulated as a way of imposing control over social situations and definitions, and there is a constant negotiation and symbolization of identity among various alternatives presented by a multicultural environment(Trotter, 1982: 224). The belief in the reality of the Baatsik(and everything this implies) serves as a referent of Teenek ethnic identity. Being afflicted by an illness of the soul sent by mythical ancestors means being Teenek and taking on this problematic social position in its multiethnic and multi-religious setting. The specific conception of the world that the Teenek share as a sociocultural group plays a prominent role in the search for a solution to the pathology in question. Moreover, effective healing methods are also a means of social control, which is a matter of establishing harmony through reciprocity, something the people need to survive in a natural and ethnic environment that is constantly challenged by acculturating social alterity. These indigenous concepts of illness reflect a certain ethnic identification through which individual body identity is integrated, through the particular ailment, into the collective identity opposing non-Teenek peoples.

  • 21 Cf. Comaroff, 1985.

32The indigenous body thus became an institutionalized space for the expression of cultural persistence.21 To paraphrase Turner (1986) we could call this process an embodied ethnicity. Contact with other medical traditions introduced by the Spanish Conquest at the beginning of the sixteenth century had an impact on indigenous curative practices and the perception of sicknesses. Nevertheless, Teenek concepts of illness are not necessary or exclusively either pre- or post-conquest. They do reflect a watershed in their history. As we saw in both the Teenek myth of origin and Dionisios account, the history of contacts with the Spanish and their descendants is represented as a drastic turning-point in autochthonous life. The myth of the Baatsikis a key metaphor for understanding how the Teenek view their history, as well as how they conceive of the present, which integrates social and religious alterity and adapts to it in a very particular way.

  • 22 Gillin (1948) and Lincoln (2001) also emphasize how the multiethnic configuration and the unequal r (...)

33In other words, the presence of the Spanish and their descendants, followed by extremely unequal relations as well as economic and political tensions between the Teenek and the mestizo world, reinforced the special relationship between the Teenek soul and the chthonian spirits and forged a culture of marginality(Ariel de Vidas, 2002). Life in a village located between the zone of nature and the zone of a mestizo town, both zones belonging to the realm of otherness, could indeed cause a permanent state of anxiety, both in individuals and in the group as a whole. Sharing limited space and resources is a source of tremendous stress and psychosomatic disorders. The present is painful and the future, given the extreme shortage of available land, is very uncertain.22 Any attempt at improving ones personal fate by adopting foreign attributes provokes envy and evil spells that involve the mythical ancestors (Ariel de Vidas, 2007). Nevertheless, the cosmological balance can be only maintained by a personal and social balance. This is the reason why the affliction of one individual is of concern to all the collectivitys members. Most of the approaches mentioned earlier concerning the interpretation of the susto phenomenon seem to deal with only one specific aspect or stage of the problem: its organic or psychological origin, its relation to the patients worldview, its social status or sociocultural identity. The patient, however, does not make this clear cognitive distinction; his or her ailment incorporates all these elements.

  • 23 On a similar aspect of Senoufo medicine, see Sindzingre and Zempléni, 1981.

34The Teenek understanding of illness and, by extension, of the human body, stems from a theory that correlates the three elements involved (pathology, physical and ethnic identification, and environment) in an internal logical whole that can offer some certainty. In fact, the constant dialogue with the Baatsik, malevolent though they are, gives the Teenek a link to a past that, however inglorious or unappreciated, does have the advantage of being familiar and consistent. Paradoxically, the etiology of the ailment may provide a certain sense of security. Among the Veracruz Teenek, both the symbolic discourse concerning the illness and the treatment methods connected with the Baatsikoffer plausible explanations for the illnesses of the soul, explanations that correspond to the notion of personhood in that society. In fact, somatization among the Teenek produces an entire symbolic language that stems from their cosmological outlook. As masters of the earth, the Baatsik are the guardians of Teenek territory in its broadest sense: morally, politically and ethnically.23



35Though they are beings of the past, the Baatsikstill express their vitality among the Teenek through whirlwinds. In their terrestrial encounters with the Teenek they capture Teenek souls and carry them down into the depths of the earth, binding them to their ancestral land in the most direct way possible. The dramatic encounter with the Baatsikis ultimately an encounter between present and past based on an exchange of souls (the source of vitality) that links the individual body and its soul to the social body and the collective ethos of the ethnic group. Through the Baatsikand the ethnic illnesses they convey, the history of the group is remembered and Teenek ethnic identification is defined in relation to others. Due to the special link that susto establishes between the sick person and the ancient heritage of the community (the Baatsik), the Teenek conceive of this illness as a spiritual ailment that only they catch. In this case, the illness operates as a particular kind of autochthony to which non-Teenek do not have access. Although the misfortune and illness that follow an excess in relations between humans or between the Teenek and their ancestors imply a kind of punishment, they also evoke the groups origins and collective memory.

  • 24 See also Kleinman, 1990.

36Teenek identification is shaped by the multiethnic situation in which the group lives, and the concepts surrounding the specific illness from which the Teenek suffer intersect with ancient religious beliefs regulated by the historical and social processes that defined todays power relations.24 As Levine (1999) suggests, ethnicity derives above all from a cognitive method of classifying human beings. In the Teenek case, this kind of classification separates those who can be afflicted by the illness of the soul from those who cannot.

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1 For a critical discussion of these different approaches, see Augé, 1995.

2 Foster and Anderson, 1978; Nichter, 1994; Young, 1982.

3 The source of this data is the 1995 Mexican national census (Conteo de Población y Vivienda, Mexico City: INEGI, 1995) which is based on an ethnolinguistic classification: the percentage of people living in households in which the head speaks any Indian language (“lengua indígena”) and the percentage of people in households in which the head speaks only Spanish. The Indian-language-speaking population is further broken down by language, providing a picture of the ethnic configuration in Mexico. This classification is of course problematic (as all census systems are), but it is the official one, and at least provides some basis for evaluating the ethnic composition of the population. Thus, according to the last national census (INEGI, 2010), there are 89 Mexican ethnic groups, which consist of about 6 million people. The Veracruzan Teenek (about 60,000 individuals) are part of the Teenek or Huastec ethnic group (150,000), but are differentiated from their Teenek neighbors in San Luis Potosí’s State as both groups have undergone distinct historical, agrarian and linguistic processes (see also Alcorn, 1984).

4 Indicadores Socioeconómicos e índice de Marginación Municipal 1990, Mexico City, CONAPO, 1993.

5 A more complete analysis of the Teenek medical system was developed in Ariel de Vidas, [2002] 2004.

6 For an analysis of this concept in other societies around the world, see Logan, 1977.

7 For a concise description of Mesoamerican cosmology, see Gossen, 1986.

8 Cf. Descola, 2005.

9 On the different types of soul, see also López Austin, 1989.

10 The same conception of two souls, one in the heart and the other in the head, is found among the Teenek of the neighboring state of San Luis Potosí (Alcorn, 1984: 67) and among the Tzotziles (Mayas) of Chiapas (Guiteras Holmes, 1965: 246-247).

11 According to Alcorn (1984: 67), among the Teenek of San Luis Potosí the ehatal (literal transcription) gives the gift of words, while the tsitsiin (literal transcription) represents the instrument of the will. Unlike the Veracruzan Teenek, those of San Luis Potosí can lose the ehatal, but under those circumstances, they can no longer talk or leave their house. On the other hand, like the Veracruzan Teenek, when they lose the tsitsiin, they no longer know what they are doing. Among the Teenek of San Luis Potosí, it is possible to lose both souls without losing one’s life as a result.

12 For the meaning of the word iik among the Yucatec Mayas, see Hanks, 1993: 325-326.

13 Cf. Kearney, 1972.

14 Cf. Tousignant, 1979: 356.

15 An analysis on the role of Jonah as Baatsik’ is found in Ariel de Vidas, [2002] 2004: 257-259.

16 See among others: Aguirre Beltrán, 1947, 1987; Currier, 1966; Foster, 1953; López Austin, 1989; Rubel, 1964.

17 See among others: Rubel, 1964; Fabrega, 1970; Klein, 1978 and Sal y Rosas quoted by Tousignant, 1979: 349; Bolton, 1981.

18 See, in particular, Yzunza Ogazón (1984), on the Huastec region of Hidalgo, a neighboring state.

19 Cf. Bernand, 1992; Crandon, 1983.

20 This is not an allusion to comandante Marcos’s Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Chiapas, as the myth of the Baatsik’ was told to me earlier.

21 Cf. Comaroff, 1985.

22 Gillin (1948) and Lincoln (2001) also emphasize how the multiethnic configuration and the unequal relations between natives and ladinos (mestizos) in Guatemala (loss of land, way of life, dignity, security, etc.) permeate the indigenous concepts of illness and healing practices.

23 On a similar aspect of Senoufo medicine, see Sindzingre and Zempléni, 1981.

24 See also Kleinman, 1990.

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Anath Ariel de Vidas, « Our Illnesses », Ateliers d'anthropologie [En ligne], 40 | 2014, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2014, consulté le 26 septembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ateliers.9624

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Anath Ariel de Vidas

Chargée de recherche CNRS, Mondes américains–UMR 8168, EHESS/université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense/université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne/CNRS

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