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Des catégories et de leurs usages dans la construction sociale d’un groupe de référence : "race", "ethnie" et "communauté" aux Amériques (Mascipo)

Defining the Indian: State definitions, perception of the other and community organization in southwestern Tlaxcala and Mexico

David Robichaux


Les habitants de deux communautés d’origine Nahua, dans le sud-ouest du Tlaxcala (au centre du Mexique), perçoivent leur identité et celle des autres selon des modalités qui se heurtent à leur catégorisation comme villages « indigènes » ou « mestizo ». Dans l’aire culturelle mésoaméricaine en général, de telles situations sont majoritaires, par contraste avec la région du Chiapas où les distinctions ethniques apparaissent clairement. Cette situation est due en partie à la transformation linguistique massive et rapide qui a affectée des dizaines de milliers de communauté mésoaméricaines qui étaient repúblicas de indios pendant la période coloniale, à la suite d’un processus de construction de l’Etat-Nation fondé sur le monolinguisme espagnol. Dans cet article, je porte un regard critique sur la façon dont les anthropologues ont utilisé les termes « indigènes » et « mestizo ». Au lieu de se concentrer sur la manière dont cette politique a bouleversé les catégories d’identifications, les études sur l’ethnicité sont assimilées à des politiques identitaires. En portant leur attention aux catégories qui émanent de l’Etat plus qu’aux catégories locales, les anthropologues ont occulté des processus sociaux déterminants et ont contribué au projet politique de l’Etat méxicain et au changement d’identité forcé qu’il génère. Le rôle des systèmes cargo apparaît fondamental dans le sentiment d’appartenance à ces communautés.

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Notes de l’auteur

Portions of this paper are based on Robichaux 1994 and 2005a. I wish to express my thanks to the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City) for having provided me with a number of small grants since 1977 to do most of the research on which this paper is based. The current grant is through the project “El Destino de la Comunidad Campesino Indígena Mesoamericana” which I share with Roger Magazine at the Posgrado en Antropología Social. The research was carried out in Acoxtla del Monte from 1974 through 2000 during several periods ranging from six weeks to four months in addition to four-day periods over several six-month periods. Initial fieldwork was done under the supervision of Hugo Nutini in 1974 as part of the Universidad Iberoamericana’s maestría curriculum. Knowledge of communities in Tlaxcala comes from an extensive area reconnaissance in 1976 in a project financed by CISINAH (now CIESAS) under the direction of Alba González with which I worked between in 1975 and 1976. Further knowledge was gained in supervision of the fieldwork of graduate anthropology students from the Universidad Iberoamericana between 1989 and 2001. Fieldwork in Tepeyanco was carried out mainly between 1986 and 1988. My knowledge of the Texcoco area comes from fieldwork supervision of graduate students in 2003-2006 in the Universidad Iberoamericana’s José de Acosta Field School in Tepetlaoxtoc, Estado de México.

Texte intégral


1Different patterns of inter-ethnic and dominance relations, social stratification and mestizaje processes have emerged in Mesoamerica since 1519. This has depended on a combination specific regional physiographic characteristics and pre-Hispanic economic systems that shaped the economic and political systems developed by the Spaniards and those emerging in the postcolonial period. The case of the ethnic divide in the Chiapas Highlands is well-known, and in some regions of Guatemala and the Sierra Norte de Puebla, a dichotomy persists between Indians and ladinos or mestizos in notable continuity with the caste system that was legally abolished when Mexico achieved Independence (see Aguirre Beltrán 1967for a general model for such regions; see Nutini e Isaac1974 for the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Taggart 1983 and Chamoux 1981 for the region of Huauchinango; Adams 1956, Colby and Van den Berghe 1961 and 1969; Gillin1958 and Tumin 1952, for Guatemalan cases).

2But in vaster, more populous areas of rural Mexico, including important expanses of the southern part of the country’s capital, processes of what used to be known as “acculturation” -notably language loss- have occurred: Tens of millions of people were affected in the twentieth century; entire populations of former pueblos de indios -colonial institutions that confirmed the existence of pre-Columbian social units or groups- have become redefined as Amestizos@. AMestizo@ in this sense refers to the inhabitants of such towns who speak Spanish, language being the most notable trait defining “mestizo” in contemporary Mexican usage. This process of identity shift, though never phrased in those terms, is neither new nor has it gone unnoticed by anthropologists. Robert Redfield (1941) provided a description of the process in Dzitás in Yucatán. Ralph Beals, Robert Redfield y Sol Tax (1943) noted that the presence of regions that were culturally Indian but where Spanish was spoken. Julio de la Fuente (1947), while director of Mexico’s director of Instituto Nacional Indigenista, referred to this process in an article with the suggestive title ADefinición, passage and disappearance of the Indian in Mexico@. Manuel Gamio (1952), the ideologue of Mexican indigenismo, used the term Aindomestizo@ while Richard N. Adams (1956) used the term Atransitional Indian@ to refer to the same phenomenon in Central America.

3Guillermo Bonfil (1987) is responsible for the AMexico profundo@ term to refer to the fact that in may of the country’s regions, rural communities have a very recent Indian past. He contrasts Mexican history as a struggle between the Mesoamerican and the Western traditions, respectively represented by “México profundo” and “México imaginario”. He also used the word “dis-Indianization” (desindianización) to denote the process of the imposition of Western civilization with forced identity change as part of the Mexican state’s nation building project. To conceptualize the acculturation process of change in Tlaxcala, Hugo Nutini and Barry Isaac (1974) proposed the idea of the AIndian-mestizo continuum@ and placed the onus of change on the separation of the civil from the religious hierarchy, which they called “secularization”. Eileen Mulhare (2003) recently coined the term Apost-nahua@ to describe a community on the outskirts of Puebla that, despite having lost the Nahuatl language, has a community organization similar to that described in the classic literature on cargo systems. Bonfil (1976) had already described a similar situation in the nearby but more industralized Cholula where both the AIndian@ and Amestizo@ fit unconfortably; more will be said about Bonfil’s work later.

4Despite this early and widespread knowledge of what today might be called “identity shift” or “assimilation” or “ethnocide”, some researchers insist on classifying people as “Indigenous” (or Indian) or “Mestizo” forgetting that many of the people they categorize as “mestizo” are the “success stories” of the Mexican state’s nation building project based on de-Indienization. During the twentieth century the principle criterion for identifying Indian population of the Mexican government has been language, complemented by early twentieth-century census questions regarding material culture, specifically whether the dwelling had a dirt floor, whether people consumed milk or bread, etc. Indians were by definition poor and these indicators provided the basis for specific government programs aimed at rural development (Hewitt de Alcántara 1984)The plan was to incorporate the Indian population and lift it out of its poverty, all the while creating a unified nation such as ethnically uniform European countries.

5But in the final analysis, both the term “indigenous” -a euphemism and originally less derogatory term for “Indian”- and “mestizo” -in current usage a way to identify a person who does not speak an indigenous language- are state categories. They were designed to indicate progress in the direction of “modernization” and ethnic and cultural homogenization. They are not really accurate ethnic or identity categories but, rather, serve to mask both the Mexican state’s language and ethnic policy and specific local histories and identities. They group the different in the same category and divide sameness into different. They also fail to take into account self perception of the people studied and their perception of the other. A notable example is a paper by Scott Cook and Jong-Taick Joo’s on Oaxaca. It illustrates some of the problems in Mexican contexts with the concepts of ethnicity and identity that I propose to develop in this paper. I will devote some attention to Cook and Joo’s work as it serves as a convenient point to departure to undertake a discussion regarding the type of issues the current interest in ethnicity and identity has yet to seriously address. It also provides the basis for a criticism of conventional notions of culture and anthropologists’ forgetfulness of history and failure to take into account specific types of social units and relations in defining sameness and difference.

6With the stated purpose of relating “ethnicity” to the economy and, based on the proportions of Zapotec-speaking heads of household, Cook and Joo Aobjectively@ classify twenty towns in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca as AZapotec@, Atransitional@ and Amestizo@(Cook and Joo, 1995: 39-46). Cook and Joo are cognizant of the fact that these categories are in flux, as they establish the “transitional” category based on the proportion of Zapotec-speaking heads of household. They are well aware of Mexico’s twentieth-century de-Indianization nation-state building project, the “culturization” of mestizaje, “the lower, less valued locations” of indígena identity on the “ethno-class hierarchy” (Cook and Joo, 1995: 33). They also state that certain people reject the “indigenous” label while at the same time not accepting that of “mestizo” and vice versa. They consequently note that these categories –with mexicano some times replacing mestizo- cannot be viewed as “mutually exclusive or negating”(Cook and Joo, 1995: 35).

7Cook and Joo’s research was motivated in part by the then recent ethnic and identity movements that had become prominent on the Mexican scene at the time of the writing. Cook and Joo question the bases for such movements and note that the imposition of such categories fails to take into account “petty commodity production and small-scale capitalist accumulation” that “crosscut the ethnic divide between mestizo and indígena (Cook and Joo, 1995:34). Using the “Zapotec”, “transitional” and “mestizo” categories, they set out to show that that economic relations are more important than ethnic and cast doubt on the objective reasons for such movements. One reason is that the categories are not fixed, as noted above. But, following Alan Knight, they also develop an argument that there exists a “great gulf” between the past and the present and “any notion of a collective psychological inheritance” is pure “metaphysics” Accordingly, there is no basis for “any general claim to collective cultural continuity between sixteenth-century Mexican Indians and rural Mexicans today” (Cook and Joo, 1995:35).

8The idea of total or near-total destruction of pre-Hispanic culture has been around a long time in anthropology. In the discussions of the Viking Heritage of Conquest Seminar Kirchhoff expressed that between 90 and 99 per cent of Mesoamerican culture had been destroyed (see comments by Paul Kirchhoff, Sol Tax, Ralph Beals y Wigberto Jiménez Moreno en Tax 1968:254-256) This idea also led Julian Steward to claim that the monolingual purepecha inhabitants of Cherán in Michoacán in the 1940s to have had much more in common with sixteenth-century Spanish peasants than with native Americans, an assertion he makes on the basis of supposed Spanish kin and family organization and material culture(1945:ix). In the same line, in different writings George Foster classified Tzintzuntzan peasants, some of whom still spoke Purépecha at the time as “mestizos”, part of the Mediterranean culture or sharing much with mestizo peasant populations throughout Latin America (1961:1178). It is also is found in Judith Friedlander’s (1977) work on Indian identity. This idea of little or no continuity with the past in the above cited texts is linked to different considerations and ideas concerning culture. In Kirchhoff’s case, culture seems to be high culture, urban culture as he says that the conquest was the equivalent of destroying New York and Chicago with an atom bomb. Friedlander bases her assertions on material and ideological factors. Cook and Joo seem to stress the “psychological” which seems to be a way to refer to culture in the sense of the ideological.

9One of the most serious consequences of approaches such as Foster’s, Friedlander’s and Cook and Joo’s is a fallacious blurring of difference and an illusion of sameness. It is perhaps related to American anthropology’s poor concept of culture that tends to separate out social relations or social structure as a distinct, unconnected entity. It is also possibly related to a specific type of Anglo-Saxon prejudices, common in American culture at the time of pioneer Mesoamerican studies, regarding the Black Legend revolving around the Spanish colonial experience. The final reason Cook and Joo find to cast doubt on objective reasons for “ethnopopulist movements” is the lack of “cultural practices or socially reproductive institutionsqa operating exclusively among one ethnic group in pluri-ethnic regional populations” (Cook and Joo, 1995:35). This same argument of shared material culture and meanings with urban mestizo populations was used by Friedlander (1975) to minimize the Indianness of the Hueyapeños, as Cook and Joo do with this argument. They thereby dismiss cultural distinctiveness, based on real differences between indígenas and mestizos as basis for claims to identity in a political movement. Although they mention recent trends that emphasize subjectivity (Cook and Joo, 1995:36), Cook and Joo pursue their analysis, using state categories, as if they were ethnic or identity categories, which they argue are really unimportant.

10I fully agree that these state categories are unimportant as indicators of identity or ethnicity, or as accurate indicators of sameness and difference. The reason is that they are constructed on notions of culture that ignore specificities of social organization and group membership. From my perspective, the risk in applying state categories involves missing the real divide and real questions of ethnicity and identity lived by tens of millions of Mexicans and Central Americans in the twentieth century. This involves a type of identity, often denied or minimized, but experienced individually and by groups at a deeper level than often seen in the identity movements that have captured the current interest of anthropologists. In effect, in pursuing their attempt to deny sameness and blur real differences, after imposing the indígena and mestizo state categories on towns in the Valley of Oaxaca, they note that the same institutions involving ritual-kin, celebration of life cycle celebrations, cargos -what Lynn Stephen calls “kin based institutions of solidarity and social reproduction” (quoted by Cook and Joo exist in communities classified as mestizo and indígena. In both the same degree of loyalty or sense of community is found and inhabitants tend not to refer to each other in direct ethnic terms (mestizo, indio, indígena or Zapoteco), although “mestizo urbanites” use “indio” to refer to the rural peasants and working class. The Zapotec speakers have a sense of continuity with their indigenous ancestors (Cook and Joo, 1995: 36-37).

11In my view, the information Cook and Joo present as evidence to support their argument for the unimportance of the differences is result of the imposition of contrived, state categories. These were designed to indicate degrees of success in incorporation of people into Mexico’s state “nationalization” project and they do not reflect identity or ethnicity as they conspire to blur differences and create divides. In large part, they ignore history and the specificity of certain types of social groups involving structured social relations that serve as the real basis for constructing sameness and difference. In this I refer to both the anthropologist’s and the local point of view. If we view Oaxaca from the standpoint of specific types of social groups with a territorial base, characterized by a specific type of social exchange relations, a more important and deeper ethnic divide can be placed between the “mestizo urbanites” and the whole of the inhabitants of the rural communities Cook and Joo classify as either “mestizo”, “transitional” and “Zapotec”. Perhaps, without having to identify themselves with a state label, the inhabitants of the rural towns in the Valley of Oaxaca recognize their origins, not so much as people sharing in a collective psychological heritage from the Pre-Hispanic period that Cook and Joo deny, but in a collective recognition that they are all belong to specific towns with a long history and that this involves a specific “mode of sociality”. This is perhaps the reason, as Cook and Joo note, that among themselves they do not refer to each other in ethnic terms. I would venture that, independently of language use, they recognize that their social relations are different from those of the mestizo urbanites who may categorize rural dweller, Spanish-speaking or not, as “indios”.

12The fact that Cook and Joo miss the divide, as have other anthropologists -I will argue- is directly related to their failure to recognize the specificity of social institutions and social relations of towns that historically were repúblicas de indios. My argument is that despite any “great gulf” between the present and the sixteenth-century, members of Zapotec, mestizo or transitional towns, share distinct social institutions, distinguishing them from other Mexican populations such as the Oaxcan “mestizo urbanites”. Although this division is based on Mexico’s specific history and ethnosocial divisions, I am reluctant to term this “ethnicity”. In my reasoning, although the phenomenon shares some of the characteristics pointed out by Frederick Barth (1969), conflation with class and even caste makes the Mexican situation of identity shift somewhat resistant to being addressed in usual terms of ethnicity; however, identity in terms of clear identification with real bounded social groups appears is left out Cook and Joo’s picture. They reject the presence of the religious cargo system and the lavish celebrations of life cycle rituals – involving what Lynn Stephen (cited by Cook and Joo) dubbed “kin based institutions of solidarity and social reproduction- involving reciprocity as definitive or unambiguous indicators of ethnic identity (Cook and Joo, 1995: 36). Of course if ethnic identity is reduced to acceptance of a wider Zapotec identity above the village level and then this is true. But if Oaxaca is similar to Tlaxcala where Nahuatl has been recently lost, members of the different towns identify with each other as people sharing similar social systems involving specific forms of exchange and group membership and histories as having been pueblos de indios. They also have and use categories to express otherness among themselves and between them and the equivalent of “mestizo urbanites”.

13From the perspective of their categories Cook and Joo reject participation in the cargo system as an ethnic marker and dispute the notion of an association of Indianness with poverty when they state that the better off sectors are those who participate the most in the cargo systems. When people were questioned as to why they participated the response was Athe custom of the town is the law@ (Cook y Joo, 1995:45). Of course, the cargo system cannot be used as a diacritical mark to set an ethnic boundary. Practically all the towns in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca are of Zapotec origin, were historically repúblicas de indios or pueblos de indios and all have cargo systems. In fact, throughout Mexico and Central America (and the Andes, as well), variants of cargo systems exist wherever the Spanish found and organized indigenous peasant populations that formed part of pre-Hispanic states. Instead of an indicator of ethnicity, speaking Zapotec should be taken as an indicator of bilingualism. And the presence of a cargo system is an unequivocal indicator of a specific form of group membership and cultural mode of sociability, forged in the historical experience of pueblos de indios that also forges identity and identification of a social group with a specific territory. This is reinforced through specific relations with the supernatural, the patron saint or other entities who, in conjunction with the temporal power of local authorities, can be punitive in case of non-compliance.

14Cook and Joo maintain that any Aanalytically meaningful concept of ethnicity must also be identifiable with a distinctive and objective cultural content that is meaningful to and practiced by insiders, as well as observable by outsiders” and note that the content of certain cultural forms has historically varied (Cook and Joo, 1995:52). Certainly cargo systems structuring community life are not exclusive of any particular linguistic groups and members of such communities may well reject being categorized as Aindígena@, Indian, Zapotec, Nahua, etc. However, the persistence of and importance that these Astructuring structures@ play in community life are objective indicators of social groups with specific Indian origins in the colonial and possibly the pre-Hispanic period (see Carrasco 1961 on pre-Hispanic antecedents of cargo system).

15By stressing history, it has not my intention is to idealize, romanticize or freeze in time an unchanging Indian past. On the contrary, the presence of a healthy community organization based on the religious cargo system places emphasis on a vigorous and dominating sociological reality, grounded in a specific history of a social group’s relationship with a particular territory. And while they are objective, the habitus that have taken the shape over centuries around forms of cooperation and self-governance in these relatively closed territorial- based social groups at the same time constitute the raw material in the construction of local Asubjective@ identities and identification with religious symbol and territory.

16In their proposed solutions to overcome the problems inherent in discussions of ethnicity and identity in Mexico, Cook and Joo maintain that “external observer-analysts should cease to designate a population as indígena (or Zapotec, Mixtec or so on) unless they are prepared to empirically demonstrate fulfillment of the following criteria”: the presence of a language in addition to Aother cultural elements and practices that are representative of a particular indigenous”, as well as Aproof that the persons so designated consider the designation meaningful”. They go on to insist on the importance of the “economic, social, culture, and political conditions involved in determining its meaningfulness to them”, the “situationality of indígena identity vis-à-vis other social identities, including mestizo and Mexican” and the “conjuncturality of the claimed identities and social projects organized around them”. They emphasize the fact that in the best cases it can be Aanalytically meaningless@ or Aanalytically counterproductive@ to attribute an AIndigenous@ identity to a group based solely on the Aobjective linguistic indicator@ or Aunproven subjective claims@, especially when Aother situational or fundamental identities are ignored@ (Cook y Joo, 1995:54).

17Cook and Joo’s proposals constitute an important warning for those who have fallen into the traps of the essentialist categories of AIndian@ and AMestizo@, as well as for research emphasizing self-identification guided by the concepts of Aethnicity@ and Aidentity@ in Mexican contexts. Cook and Joo are decisively influenced by the sudden surge in “ethnopopulist” identity movements and discourse, but they have equated these with ethnic identity. This position even dismisses language as a sure indicator of “identity” and “ethnicity” and practically reduces these topics to the situational and conjunctural. As other anthropologists before them, their approach keeps the focus shifted off the process of forced identity change in Mexico’s state formation process. In fact, the way Cook and Joo and many other anthropologists apply “indigenous” and “mestizo” are meaningless as “ethnic categories” as the thrust of identity is in the anthropologists’ identification of groups and the categories they use divide sociological sameness into superficially different categories.

18In this article I will focus on two towns of Nahua origin in Tlaxcala in central Mexico. To different extents, they have achieved the objective that Julio de la Fuente (1947) had noted was the desire of Indians and non-Indians alike: that the Indians become non-Indians. If this statement sounds like what is known today as ethnocide, it should not be forgotten that this was also de la Fuente’s way of expressing part of the goals of a national rural development program (see Hewlitt de Alcántara 1984). Given that being Indian was associated with poverty and the people defined as Indians lived in rural areas, such a program in that context cannot be easily be separated from broad development policy goals of the Mexican government. As Bonfil has pointed out, the forced assimilation of AMéxico profundo@ into national mestizo society was usually couched in terms of development (Bonfil 1987)

19The towns I will deal with here are part of a region where the Aindigenous-mestizo@ dichotomy does not exist, at least to the degree described in the Arefuge@ type regions as posited by Aguirre Beltrán (1967). In the Malinche region, in the southwest of the state of Tlaxcala, the acculturation process, discernible at least by the loss of Nahuatl, has been relatively recent. The process has not been homogeneous and important inter-town differences are observed (see Nutini and Isaac 1974).In light of the local historical, economic and cultural transformations of the two towns in question, I will briefly discuss how essentialist categories such as AIndian@ and AMestizo@ has clouded the view, masking important processes and social systems in which tens of millions of Mexicans are involved who do not easily fit into these usual categories. After pointing out some of the problems in the use of concepts such as Aethnicity@ and Aidentity@ in Mesoamerican contexts similar to those of Southwestern Tlaxcala, I conclude with some ideas as to how to address similar processes in other regions of Mexico, stressing the presence of distinctive forms of social units and social organization and the need to take into account local histories of inter-community relations and forced language change.

Southwestern Tlaxcala: An ethnic region in transition.

20Lying within a triangle formed by the cities of Puebla, San Martín Texmelucan and Apizaco are a large of number of rural communities, practically all of which predate the Conquest, that were Apueblos de indios@ during the colonial period. Nahuatl was spoken in these towns in the latter part of the nineteenth century and even more recently (Nutini and Isaac, 1974:405-406). Despite the recent presence of the prime trait that defines Indianness in Mexico, the Arefuge region@ model proposed by Aguirre Beltrán (1967) does not easily describe southwestern Tlaxcala, unless we take the city of Puebla as a sort of “macro-mestizo” centro rector. The proximity to Puebla, Mexico’s second largest city from early colonial times and most important manufacturing center in the New World until the late eighteenth century, certainly makes this region distinctive. Puebla was also the site of the development of the first mechanized textile industry prior to 1840 and until at least 1910 the Puebla-Tlaxcala region was Mexico’s number one textile center. This process was facilitated by the harnessing of water power to move the machinery and a rail connection beginning in 1871 (Robichaux 1995). Beginning the nineteenth century and continuing through much of the twentieth century, wage labor through a weekly migration pattern to the factories came to dominate the economies of many of the Nahuatl-speaking communties of the area. Beginning in the 1970s, new industries located in the area, providing local sources of jobs. By the 1990s, despite this growth, low wages and insufficent jobs in industry spurred mass migration the United States. The communities analyzed here are less than 20 kilometers away from some of what were Puebla’s most important factories since the early part of the nineteenth century.

21Hugo Nutini and Barry Isaac develop a model to address the changing identity of the hundreds of former repúblicas de indios in southwestern Tlaxcala and neighboring areas in the state of Puebla, from the perspective of an AIndian-mestizo@ continuum, a situation contrasting with the Indian-mestizo dichotomy as observed in the Sierra de Puebla (Nutini and Isaac 1974: 386-390). Their model describes how communities as a whole become Amestizo”. Briefly, the first step is “modernization”, a series of transformations in material cultural consequent to the introduction of wage labor, a process that began at different dates in different communities in Southwestern Tlaxcala. The next step in Nutini and Isaac’s continuum model is “secularizacion”, the key process through which communities move toward the mestizo pole; this involves the separation of the civil and religious cargos into two different systems. As this occurs the tiaxcas -men advanced in the life course who have done all the cargos, and formerly ruled behind the scenes- lose their power and, finally, the religious cargo systems disappear altogether (Nutini e Isaac, 1974:432-444).

22Since the 1970s, modernization, in Nutini and Isaac’s terms, has made impressive headway: new roads have been constructed and existing roads have been paved; wage labor has become general and the labor market has diversified; educational levels have greatly increased; health standards have improved with a consequent improvement in life expectancy, and, in general, material culture and services have become increasingly like that in urban areas. Regarding the secularization process in Nutini and Isaac’s model, at least in one of its aspects has been achieved, as the role of the tiaxcas in community decision making has practically disappeared. Even so, the separation between civil and religious offices in the traditional cargo system seems more apparent than real and, far from weakening, my data from Acxotla del Monte and observations in other towns in the region show that the cargo system is expanding. New sources of employment from weekly migration to Mexico City and the progressive industrialization in the region have resulted in an increase of the number of cargos and increased spending in the celebration of the feasts of the saints. This shows that the traditional form of community organization, at least in terms of community membership and participation, remains vigorous. In any case, thinking in terms of a continuum –as inhabitants of the towns of southwestern Tlaxcala do- avoids the reification of the mestizo and Indian categories and captures some of the subtleties and complexity of the subjective categories grounded in local history.

Perceptions of sameness and difference in southwestern Tlaxcala

23How people in Tepeyanco and Acxotla del Monte, two communities in southwestern Tlaxcala that in a sixteenth-century census appeared as social units, identify and perceive themselves and the other, show how limited the Indian and mestizo categories are and how they mask important social processes. Only 8 kilometers apart, these two towns show marked differences. In terms of language and the presence of visible elements of the pre-Columbian cosmovision (ver Robichaux, 1997a), Acxotla would have to be classified as more “Indian”, to use a continuum model, but not necessarily in Nutini and Isaac’s terms. In both, however, the cargo system plays a key role in community organization and, despite its relative prosperity and loss of Spanish, in some senses Tepeyanco seems even father away than Acxotla from the secularization model proposed by Nutini and Isaac.

24Significant differences in wealth are also observed. San Francisco Tepeyanco, lying at approximately 2,150 meters above sea level, is characterized by its orchards and irrigation, which has afforded its inhabitants a diversified agriculture, access to occupations in trade and transportation of agricultural produce in regional markets, and even as wholesalers in the Puebla and Mexico City produce markets, dealing in goods produced elsewhere. Tepeyanco is in a relatively advantageous position in comparison with its neighbors and has been highly successful in forging ties with broader Mexican society and, by conventional standards, in becoming “mestizo”. For example, unlike the neighboring community of San Luis Teolocholco, in Tepeyanco there are few textile workers. On the contrary, an important contingent of sons and daughters of peasants and produce dealers from Tepeyanco have university studies and have migrated permanently to Puebla and Mexico City where they exercise more prestigious professions in medicine, accountancy and engineering, among others. In the 1980s I observed a strong tendency in Tepeyanco to provide sons and daughters with university or specialized education and place them in urban areas, apparently as a strategy to avoid excessive land division. More recently, as the regional labor market has diversified, many with university preparation have found employment in the region and remained in the town. A good number of women have also entered the professions and embarked upon new types of life courses, unrelated to the rural economy

25In contrast, Acxotla del Monte, whose town center is located at nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, has undertaken a very different process of incorporation into Mexico’s modern economy and national life. With a rural economy based on charcoal production and sale in the 1940s, by 1976 there was at least one wage earner -the majority of which worked in the textile industry or in construction in Mexico City- in 75 percent of the town’s domestic groups. Beginning in the 1990s, consequent to the crisis in the textile industry and the dearth of well paid jobs, the informal sector and emigration to the United States had become the mainstay of the local economy. At the same time, wet-season agriculture continue to be an important factor in the local domestic economy and many of the domestic groups with wage earners, at least until recently, were self-sufficient in maize production (see Robichaux, in press). Although beginning in the last two decades of the twentieth century some young people from the community have had access to higher education, the proportion is small in comparison to that observed in Tepeyanco (see Robichaux and Méndez, in press).

26The identity and “ethnic” self-perception of the two communities are markedly different. While Tepeyanco sees itself as Amodern@ and Acampesino@ -as opposed to Indian- and its habitants consider themselves as Apoor@ despite their relatively privileged economic situation, Acxotla del Monte is moving away from its self-perception as an Indian community and beginning to see itself as a community inhabited by « Aworkers”, “peasants” and “Mexicans ». While Tepeyanco is seen by its neighbors as prosperous community -and prosperity in Mexico is generally not associated with Indianness- Acxotla del Monte continues to be viewed by neighboring communities such as Tepeyanco -visibly more acculturated and located at lower elevations of the Malinche- as a town inhabited by AIndians@. Furthermore, Tepeyanco is perceived as wealthy by its neighbors, not only because the economic success of its inhabitants as produce merchants and in the professions, but because its habitants spend lavishly on the celebration of the fiestas of the cargo system (“son muy fiesteros”). Language, geographic location and economic factors are undoubtedly the main causes that explain at least part of these differences. While Tepeyanco is located on the highway that has connected the cities of Tlaxcala and Puebla since the 1500s, it was not until the 1990s that Acxotla was connected to the local highway system by a paved road. However, other, more complex factors, in addition to the economic, geographical and communication factors, should be taken into account to explain these differences. Let us examine in greater detail some data from these two communities.

Acxotla del Monte

27When I began field research in Acxotla del Monte in 1974 everyone spoke Nahuatl, although in a sample I took of 40 domestic groups (slightly over 20 percent of the total) where there were school-age children, more than half of those interviewed stated that they spoke Spanish with their children. Nearly everyone, with the exception of a handful of elderly monolingual inhabitants were bilingual. Furthermore, most inhabitants spoke Spanish with numerous grammatical and syntactical errors and with an accent that revealed that they did not master Spanish phonetics. Several people explained that they made great efforts for their children to learn Spanish well and that, although they acknowledged that they did not speak the language well, at the urging of local teachers they spoke to them in this language. Despite following the teachers’ advice they stated that their children continued to speak Nahuatl or AMexicano@ as they termed their language, because, despite their efforts, their children used it with their playmates. Several people older than age 50 commented that the Nahuatl spoke by their children and grandchildren was mixed - Aentreverado@- with Spanish and they noted that they did not speak their language as well as their parents did (see Hill and Hill, 1986).

28By the 1980s and in the early twenty-first century, a drastic linguistic shift had occurred. Practically none of the couples over age 40 continued to speak to their children in Nahuatl; older people used the language in family situations only, but it was no longer heard in the street as in 1974 when everyone addressed me in AMexicano@ and encouraged me to learn their language. Furthermore, some people now referred to the language as ANahuatl@ and not as AMexicano@ as it was invariably designated in the 1970s (see, also, Hill y Hill, 1986). It thus seems that the inhabitants of Acxotla del Monte had assiduously followed the recommendations of the teachers to such an extent that Spanish had replaced Nahuatl as the effective language in Acxotla. Since the late 1980s the town has had a bilingual kindergarten purportedly to preserve Nahuatl. However, the teachers are hard pressed to find pupils who speak even a few words of the language. What is called Abilingual education@ really amounts to is teaching a few phrases and songs in Nahuatl, the entire learning process being in Spanish. When adolescents hear older people speak Nahuatl, when references are made to that language, or if asked whether they know some Nahuatl, they shrug their shoulders, put a puzzled look on their faces, and claim that they do not even understand it. Their claims of not understanding are subject to debate, as people in their twenties were probably sufficiently exposed to the language to have some level of competence but not performance. But what is clear evidence of the success of state policy is that Nahuatl is no longer being transmitted to the younger generation and that the latter is determined to deny it.

29In 1974 I had the opportunity to interview several teachers at Acxotla del Monte’s primary school. According to my recent observations their attitudes then also represent those of Acxotla’s younger generations regarding Nahuatl and the Indianess. These attitudes explain, at least partially, the rapid loss of the language in the region and Mexico’s success in nation-state building. In addition to confirming that they impressed upon parents the importance of speaking to their children in Spanish, the teachers complained of the difficulty of their task. They wrongly assumed that most parents were not heeding their recommendations when, in fact, the contrary was true. As an added measure to Aencourage@ learning Spanish, use of Nahuatl was banned in the school, even during recess, and teachers punished -often, corporally- those students who spoke the local language.

30An interview with one of the teachers was especially telling; it revealed an attitude toward Nahuatl and Spanish-Nahuatl bilingualism, I later found in informal interviews to be generalized among the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants. This teacher looked upon his students with a mixture of pity and contempt. He explained that he was a native of Tizatlán near the city of Tlaxcala, where Cortés and his band of conquerors arrived in 1519. Thanks to that event, he considered himself to be fortunate, since from that time on Spanish was spoken in the community. In contrast, the inhabitants of Acxotla del Monte had not been so blessed as they still remained Apoor, ignorant Indians@. It should be noted that his ideas regarding the use of Spanish in Tizatlán does not coincide with Nutini and Isaac’s statement to the effect that 70 percent of the inhabitants of rural Tlaxcala did not speak Spanish in 1890 (Nutini e Isaac, 1974:277). Furthermore, in 1974, Nahuatl was still spoken by some elderly inhabitants of Tizatlán. Thus, this teacher rejected the language his grandparents or great-grandparents spoke -and that was possibly understood by his parents- and relegated this visible sign of Indianness to a much more distant past that was the case in reality. Nahuatl and Indians were alien to him. The Indians were the inhabitants of Acxotla and not the members of his own community; although he did recognize a connection with an Indian past, he situated it at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

31Such an attitude toward Nahuatl seems much at odds with that of tolerance shown by the teachers in the town’s school prior to the 1910 Revolution. According to a man born in 1890 who I interviewed in 1975 and who had studied in Acxotla’s school before 1900, the teachers explained school subjects in Nahuatl and thus facilitated the mastery of Spanish. His Spanish was good and he had used it when he traveled to towns on the outskirts of Puebla in the early twentieth century to sell charcoal. His case, as well as the fact that more than half the males over age 15 signed their names in the town’s agrarian reform application in 1929, is revealing to an early success in introducing Spanish, without the degree of aggression against the local language observed in the latter part of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the 1929 census taken of the town in the Agrarian Reform process, indicates that 40 percent of the males of school age prior to 1910 could read and write, while the younger men could not. This suggests that schooling was interrupted as a consequence of the revolutionary turbulence after 1910 (see Robichaux y Méndez, in press).

32The post-revolutionary rebuilding of the school system, as a federal national program that espoused the “mestizo-filia” outlook of new nationalization project that had bred and took shape among Mexican intellectuals prior to the 1910 Revolution (see, for example, (Basave1992: 28, 30; Gamio 1987; Heath 1986:111-126) By the 1950s the role of the school in Acxotla del Monte had undergone a radical change with regard to the pre-1910 period. A letter in Acxotla’s files in the National Agrarian Registry archives provides us with a look at the town’s educational system in the middle of the twentieth century and its role in the Mexican State’s nationalization process. Dated 1956, the letter is a request on the part of the town authorities to reopen the school, accompanied by a census of school-age children. Primary instruction had been suspended in response to parents’ complaints to the educational authorities that the teachers beat children to discourage them from speaking Nahuatl. In the same files, I found a letter of support for this request from the Instituto Nacional Indigenista addressed to the Tlaxcala State Department of Public Education in which Acxotla del Monte was termed an Indian community.

33The Agrarian Reform archives were my first indication of this incident, an example of how force was used in suppressing the Nahuatl in the schooled generations. When discussing the school closure with some of the town’s inhabitants, they stated that this had occurred in reprisal for parents’s protests of mistreatment inflicted on their children. Following nearly two years of waiting, with the support of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the town was successful in getting the school reopened. The condition was that parents cooperate with teachers and speak to their children in Spanish. This was possible in the case of those families where the fathers had learned the language as factory or construction workers or in school, or where mothers who had worked as servants, a common activity for adolescent women prior to marriage until the 1970s. As best they could, parents in Acxotla del Monte did their part for Mexico’s state building project by breaking the chain of transmission of the Nahuatl language, the most visible marker of Indianness. It appears to me that the attitude of the younger parents was probably more that of willingness than begrudgingly, as their own exposure to the urban world made them confident that this was the only path to modernity and a better life, in which progress would triumph over backwardness.

34One possible interpretation of the hostilities that culminated in the described incident is at the level of an Aethnic struggle@ in which those who had undertaken the path of Mestizo modernity (the teachers) acted as instruments of hegemonic national culture, assisting in taking the light of civilization to their Apoor little Indian brothers@. Accordingly, the scheme for modernization and incorporation of Mexico’s Indians that Manuel Gamio (1987:34-35) began shaping prior to the 1910 Revolution, was being reproduced -thanks in part to corporal punishment- at the local level. What cannot be doubted in the settlement for the reopening of the school is that parents had clearly understood the message of the educational authorities: the language was Spanish and, even though blows had to be used, it had to enter the heads of their children.

35This message was not new, as its history of development goes back to ideas of intellectuals seeking to create a national identity prior to the 1910 revolution. This project, as envisioned by Justo Sierra, Mexico’s Education Minister in the first decade of the twentieth century, involved the destruction of indigenous languages (see Heath 1986:125). The message of Mexico’s nation building ideologues was not lost upon the inhabitants of Acxotla del Monte. In the 1970s, a man born in the 1930s told me that, in the 1940s, he and another member of the community had spent some time in the boarding school (Internado) operated by the Instituto Nacional Indígenista in San Pablo Apetatitlán, Tlaxcala. Summing up his experience there he said: AThey tried to civilize us; they taught us Spanish and how to eat with a spoon and shit in a toilet; they tried to get the Indian out of us” [“nos trataron de civilizaron; nos enseñaron hablar español, cómo comer con cuchara y cómo cagar en excusado: nos trataron de quitar lo indio”]. I attempted to interview this man again in 2000 and questioned him on his experience in the boarding school. He had had a few drinks and he broke out in tears and said that “it had been very hard” [Aeso fue muy duro@] and he had suffered a lot [A había sufrido mucho@].

  • 1 According to Judith Friedlander (1975:119), in Hueyapan in Morelos, teachers at the local school ma (...)
  • 2  Electrification came to Acxotla del Monte in 1972. When I first began research in 1974 about forty (...)

36It would seem that Gamio’s (1987) idea that Spanish should be the vehicle for access to western civilization in Mexico was imposed to such an extent that in the school system in the last half of the twentieth century and in the view of educational personal, Nahuatl had no place whatsoever, not even in recess, and much less to provide explanations to their lessons in that language for those children with comprehension difficulties1. This can also be seen as one of the consequences of the centralization of Mexico’s school system. If, in addition, we consider that beginning in the mid-1970s television became generalized in Acxotla del Monte, then the acceptance and deepening of a value system identified with modern, urban mestizo Mexico -considered superior to the local culture- are understandable. In a wider national context of a growing devaluation of rural activities with Mexico’s industrialization policy, the new direction became clear for all involved. All these messages implied a rejection of the most visible signs of Indianness and, of course, adoption of the hegemonic language that was the most evident avenue available to leave Indianness behind and enter the trainer’s hoop of modernity, such as conceived by the Mexican State2.

  • 3  In her discussion of the negative association with AIndian@, Friedlander notes similar experiences (...)

37The Mexican State’s success in creating a national mestizo identity is reflected in the attempt on the part of the teacher from Tizatlán to put a distance of nearly five centuries between himself and any association with Indianness. As a native of the region he was undoubtedly aware that identification as an Indian was only good for chastisement by teachers and others and suffering insults as was the case of Acxotla’s charcoal makers when they traveled through the region to sell their wares. It was better to take on a different identity to any extent possible and being monolingual in Spanish was a sure sign that this objective had been or was being achieved3. The motivation to pursue a change in ethnic label and a generalized process in this same direction that was deepening in the region in the late twentieth century was cogently expressed in an exchange I observed in Acxotla del Monte en 1975. A man approximately 50 years old, referring to himself and the inhabitants of the community in general, declared: ASomos inditos@. Another man, approximately 30 years old immediately corrected him: “(No! Ya somos mexicanos@ (“No! Now we are Mexicans!”).

38Inhabitants of Acxotla also classify the “other” with the most important divide between themselves -together with inhabitants of neighboring towns whom they recognize as campesinos- and urbanites. One of my key informants, when referring to other people of his same origin he encounters in places of pilgrimage and Mexico City, often uses the words “campesinos como nosotros” to describe people of indigenous origin. When I accompanied him once on a local pilgrimage, when observing women from San Isidro Buen Suceso where Nahuatl is still widely spoke, he described the way they wore their braids with a rebozo attached to the top of the head as “muy extravagante”. When I inquired whether women in Acxotla had once worn this type of headdress he replied affirmatively

39Early in my fieldwork I was told that the girls in San Isidro Buen Suceso were like me, “gente decente”. When I asked for an explanation I was told they were white like me, but they wore their hair in braids and knew how to make tortillas. In other words, although they were phenotypically “white”, they were Indians because of what they did. On another occasion, I was told by a man in his thirties whom I had just met that he had always liked “whites”. (“A mí, siempre me han caído bien los blancos”). This contrasts with Jane and Kenneth Hill’s (1987) findings that inhabitants of the region (fieldwork was done in Acxotla and other communities) did not use this category. The difference in findings is probably due to the type of interviews they used in their linguistic research in the 1970s and 1980s. On another occasion, in the early 1990s, a man inquired about agroup of my students I had taken to visit the town, “¿Cómo los ve Ud.?” [literally, “how do you see them”]. When I asked him to explain what he meant, the first thing he said was, “I see them as mestizos”. On other occasions, urban Mexican fair-skinned “mestizos” whom I took to visit, when responding that they were Mexicans to questions regarding their origin, were told: “you are mixed”, “we speak mexicano” (Nahuatl).

40Another, I heard a few years later in Acxotla del Monte underscored in no uncertain terms the perception of identity shift noted in the conversation contrasting “indito” and “Mexicano” identities and the regional values associated with Indianness. In referring to the electricity, running water and new schools that had been introduced in the town since the 1970s, thanks to the organizing capacity of the town’s inhabitants and their negotiations with different Mexican federal agencies, a man in his forties expressed his satisfaction with and pride in these innovations. He noted: “Y nos dicen xoletes”[AAnd they call us xoletes@]. A xolete is a variety of edible mushroom that grows in the forests in the upper region of the Malinche during the rainy season. It is also a deprecatory term, an identity marker used by the inhabitants of southwestern Tlaxcala to identify the inhabitants of the upper elevations of the mountain. To call a person Axolete@ is simply another way of calling him an Indian.

41In my reading of his comment, this man was expressing the idea that, although in the eyes of the inhabitants of neighboring communities, the people of Acxotla were still Indians –or still more Indians than most- they had nonetheless figured out how to gain access to the economic benefits of Mexico’s modern Spanish-speaking mestizo world. Despite their relative poverty and their greater degree of Indianness in comparison to that of neighboring towns, they had been capable of organizing themselves to take the necessary steps to obtain modern services and pay for them. They had attained important changes in their material culture, their children attended school, and Nahuatl had all but disappeared from the community. Consequently, they were well on their way to leaving behind the characteristics that defined Indianness in twentieth-century Mexico and this implied leaving behind ignorance and backwardness, as perceived by the hegemonic national culture. They were no longer poor Indian charcoal makers despised by those who practiced Acleaner@ trades and spoke Spanish. And, although their neighbors might think of them as xoletes, in their own eyes they had made important strides out of their past poverty and Indianness and were well on their way to becoming Mexicans. In fact, with growing mass emigration to the United States, even more complex identities can be imagined for the future.


42In contrast with Acxotla del Monte, at least in terms of language, material culture and standard of living, Tepeyanco is an emblematic example of what “mestizo” is according to the state and most anthropologists. Curiously, despite the abolition of ethnic-racial categories from the time of Mexican Independence, in the 1940s public birth records reveal that children were classified as Ade raza indígena@ or Ade raza mezclada@. More people in Tepeyanco than in Acxotla have European somatic features such as lighter skin and hair color. Parish registries from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show that greater proportions of Spaniards and mestizos lived in Tepeyanco than in Acxotla where during this period only one mulata and one mestiza married into an entirely Indian population. It is not clear how the mentioned categories in the civil records were constructed and to what extent they reflected local operational categories.

43Some, if not most, of Tepeyanco’s inhabitants exhibit a marked attitude of contempt for those they classify as AIndians@ and consider Auncivilized@. One telling example was the comment made in 1988 by a man in his seventies upon learning of the custom of cremation in India. He exclaimed: “(Con razón, si son indios!” (“No wonder! They’re Indians”). He was placing the people of India who practiced what for him was obviously a barbaric custom in the same category as the inhabitants of the towns of the Malinche such as San Luis Teolocholco, Acxotla del Monte and San Francisco Tetlanohca, whom in other conversations he had described as Indians or uncivilized. He claimed to know what he was talking about since when he was younger he regularly made incursions to buy potatoes for resale.

44Although he never used the term AXolete@, he did refer to the inhabitants of these towns as gente cerrada (literally Aclosed people@) or muy cerrada (very closed), another term also current in the region to express high degrees of Indianness. In fact, the inhabitants of Acxotla del Monte would say that the inhabitants of San Francisco Tetlanohca were muy cerrados, a way of expressing that they considered them even Amore Indian@ than themselves. According to this man from Tepeyanco, the inhabitants of all the towns of the upper elevations of the Malinche were cerrados. Although cerrado is etymologically different from cerro, the Spanish word meaning mountain or hill and often used by inhabitants of the upper slopes of the Malinche to refer to this mountain, I believe that for persons who lived in towns inhabited by persons whose parents and grandparents spoke Nahuatl and who learned Spanish as a second language, there is an association between Acerrado@ and Acerro@. To say that someone Aviene del cerro@ (comes from the mountain) is a common way in Mexico is saying that he is Acerrado@, i.e., an euphemism for saying that he is an Indian. The association between cerro and the rustic is widespread in Mexican Spanish and appears to go back to classical Nahuatl. For example, the prefix tepe -from tepetl (hill or mount)- transforms an animal or vegetable species into a wild or nondomesticated species as in tepescuintle or tepetómatl, the latter being a plant producing a fruit resembling a tomatothat comes up wild in cultivated fields in Tlaxcala and elsewhere. For the man from Tepeyanco, those from the cerro, the Indians, were others, distinct from himself, those who were not civilized.

  • 4  For a description of these customs in Acxotla del Monte and a short bibliographical review of simi (...)

45On another occasion a field assistant from Acoxtla came to look for me at this same man’s house in Tepeyanco. The man from Tepeyanco treated him as an inferior and was not forthcoming in allowing him to enter the patio, keeping him waiting at the door, thus reflecting his attitude toward gente cerrada. But his daughter-in-law soon arrived and, showing much more hospitality than he, had the man from Acxotla enter and invited him to sit at the table and accompany us in a meal. I took advantage of the encounter to direct the conversation toward the topic of marriage and postmarital residence customs. As it turned out the customs involving the formal asking of the bride’s hand in marriage and details such as the entrance of the bride into the groom’s house revealed the same structure and were very similar to those described in a number of monographs on numerous Mesoamerican Indian groups4. Considering this type of practices, it was evident that both Tepeyanco and Acxotla del Monte, together with Nahuas and other linguistic groups of the Mesoamerican cultural tradition categorized as Indians, shared an important number of common customs, even though for Tepeyanco’s inhabitants the Indians were others.

  • 5  According to Bonfil (1976: 285-286), although the fiesta in Cholula also includes collective enter (...)

46The importance of the cargo system in Tepeyanco should be pointed out. It is widely considered throughout the region that people from Tepeyanco are muy fiesteros. Although describing an individual in these terms in urban Mexico is usually understood as an indication that he/she Ais party-loving@ or Alikes to party@, in local terms the connotation is that in Tepeyanco the religious festivities organized by the mayordomos are numerous, costly and are celebrated lavishly.5 Tepeyanco’s notable prosperity and the success of many of its inhabitants in the produce trade and in other professions, instead of diminishing the traditional organization of the cycle of religious feasts, has in fact resulted in its increased importance, much in the same way as Catharine Good (1988) has found for income from sale of crafts in her study of Nahua artisans in Guerrero, or Michael Schnegg (2003)in the case of Belén in Tlaxcala.

More or less Indian: History and identity

47The conversation on post-marital residence and marriage customs between people who have different perceptions of their ethnicity and that of the other is a type of encounter between people Acxotla and Tepeyanco that occurs only exceptionally. Indeed, dealings between persons from the two towns are almost nonexistent. Although contacts between them seem to have been more frequent in the past, they appear to have been always brief, rarely or not at all in terms of socializing among equals, as in the somewhat forced encounter described above. Men from Acxotla would arrive in Tepeyanco to sell chacoal and firewood and, possibly more frequently, women would come down from the mountain (cerro) to barter firewood or charcoal for avocados and other raw materials used to prepare sauces so essential in Mexican cooking such as tomatillo, tomatoes, coriander, hot peppers and onions. Thanks to its ancient irrigation system, all these crops had long been grown in Tepeyanco and had constituted the basis for the town’s success in the produce trade.

48Before the installment of its public water system in 1972, women from Acxotla would walk the 8 kilometers to wash clothes in Tepeyanco’s irrigation canals, the closest source of abundant water at the end of the dry season (March-May) when wells and springs nearer Acxotla would usually dry out. These were the only spaces of contact, aside from encounters in regional markets. Despite the short distance between the two, in the approximately twelve thousand marriages, the total celebrated between the middle of the seventeenth century and 1925 in the two parishes to which Tepeyanco and Acoxtla belong or have belonged, only one marriage was recorded between an inhabitant from Tepeyanco and a partner from Acxotla del Monte. In the case of San Luis Teolocholco, the municipal seat of the municipio to which Acxotla belongs, some 3 km from Tepeyanco, there were less than 10 marriages with partners from Tepeyanco in the same period. In contrast, the same parish registers reveal that people from Tepeyanco frequently married with inhabitants of other neighboring communities whose inhabitants were considered less cerrados, as well as with partners from more distant towns with which they engaged in trade.

  • 6 I refer here to “Tlaxcalan culture”, implying a regional identity forged in the pre-Columbian perio (...)

49Prior to fieldwork there in 1986, I believed that Tepeyanco was a community far removed from the regional Indian culture, a mestizo island, different from its neighbors in a sea of recently Indian towns6 and the social distance just described fit will with this hypothesis. Among the other elements in support of this view, the following could be mentioned: the town’s relatively high standard of living for the Mexican countryside, as evidenced by the existence of 30 houses with telephone service in the 1980s, then highly unusual in rural Mexico; the prominent presence of Tepeyanco’s inhabitants as small-scale farm-produce vendors in a number of regional and extraregional markets and as large-scale produce wholesalers in the Mexico City and Puebla wholesale produce markets; the fact that many children and grandchildren of persons I knew had university degrees and held good positions in Mexico City and Puebla; and the fact that since the sixteenth century many Spaniards lived in the town (see Gibson, 1967: 383-384). But, the importance of the religious cargo system in Tepeyanco’s social life, post-marital residence and marriage customs and, in general terms, the family system, with certain variations, shows that the town has much in common with countless towns throughout much of the Mesoamerican cultural area, usually classified as Indian (see Robichaux 1997, 2002 and 2004; Robichaux y Magazine 2003). At the same time, Tepeyanco has a broad repertory of Indian surnames, many, many more than found in Acxotla.

50Although the Spanish spoken in Tepeyanco is spiced with a much greater number of Nahuatl terms than that spoken in urban Mexico and the pronunciation of those terms is closer to the Nahuatl than the Spanish phonetic system, I assumed -somewhat like the teacher from Tizatlán in Acxotla del Monte- that Nahuatl had disappeared centuries earlier. Consequently, I was surprised when a woman from Acxotla who knew I was engaged in fieldwork in Tepeyanco asked me whether “they still spoke Nahuatl there”. Thinking of all the reasons listed above that had led me to assume Tepeyanco’s mestizo identity I naturally replied that for a long time nobody had spoken Nahuatl in Tepeyanco. Knowingly -and speaking from an awareness of how people in the region sought to hide their Indian origins and shed their Indian identity- she corrected me. She explained that in the early 1970s when she and other women from Acxotla would go to Tepeyanco to wash clothes or to barter charcoal and firewood for avocados and Asauce ingredients@ (el recaudo) they would exchange a few words in Nahuatl with some people in Tepeyanco. Later, when questioning some people in Tepeyanco on the subject, some finally acknowledged that they understood a little or spoke Aa few words@. The men who associated cremation in India with uncivilized AIndians@ in some of the towns in the region, also acknowledged that he knew a few words in Nahuatl but insisted that he had had to learn it for commercial dealings in with the gente cerrada of the towns of the higher slopes of the Malinche. Some people, over age forty reluctantly recognized and exhibited embarassment that their parents had spoken Nahuatl. I later learned that, despite the rejection of Indianness, in the 1990s it was a highly valued practice for elderly women to give their blessing in Nahuatl to brides (see Castañeda, 2001).

  • 7  For example, in their analysis of the Padrones de Tlaxcala en el siglo XVI, a documented dated un (...)
  • 8 This privilege literally dried up in the last decades of the twentieth century when the constructio (...)

51For centuries Tepeyanco has enjoyed a position of domination and privilege in Tlaxcala’s southwestern region. In the sixteenth century, it had one of the highest proportions of Indian nobility among the towns in the region, concomitant with its position as a cabecera (chief town) hierarchically placed above several subject towns7. This position undoubtedly explains why Tepeyanco was the site of one of the first Franciscan monasteries established in Tlaxcala in the Evangelization process and why, according to at least one source (Bernal Díaz del Castillo, quoted by Gibson, 1967:12), it was considered the fifth señorío of Tlaxcala. Its condition as a town with specialized agricultural production based on irrigation favored itinerant produce trade from early times and in the twentieth century allowed some of its habitants to become produce wholesalers (see, also, Roldán,1979 and Castañeda, in press). Its privileged role as a dominant center in the past is exemplified by the fact that until the middle of the twentieth century, Tepeyanco was alone among its neighbors in possessing springs to feed its irrigation system, and also had the exclusive right to tap water from the Laguna de Acuitlapilco to irrigate.8

52Tepeyanco’s particular history has been a history of maintainance of its position of dominance over the centuries, from one of political ascendance and control in the early colonial period, to a dominance characterized by an important economic advantage over the more ostensibly AIndian@ towns higher up the Malinche. Today, the generalized use of Spanish, an identification with Mexico’s national culture and the high standard of living observed in Tepeyanco continue to mark social distance between the town and the more ostensibly Indian towns in the region. In the past, most of the inhabitants of some of these towns belonged to an estate ranked below that of Tepeyanco’s early colonial Indian nobility; today they are still considered to be inferior hierarchically and they are looked upon as Indians by the people of Tepeyanco, although further research could reveal greater identification with inhabitants of the Malinche towns among the town’s lower strata, although, as noted above, the lack of intermarriage does not suggest this.

53Thus, the process of regional transformation, characterized by modern infrastructure, urban services such as schooling and frequent transportation and a growing dependence on employment in industry and services, has been far from being homogeneous. Not only did the communities described here begin to benefit from this process at different moments in time, but they have also established evolving links with wider Mexican society, determined by previous attributes that apparently go back to the pre-Columbian period. Tepeyanco enjoyed and still enjoys much greater advantages that afforded its entrance to modernity through the front door. Its position of regional dominance in pre-Hispanic times, its numerous nobility during the colonial period, the wealth of its irrigation agricultural resources and the presence of a some inhabitants with a lighter skin color than that found in other regional communities, were all features that weighed heavy and still do so when the time arrived for incorporation in Mexico’s hegemonic mestizo national culture in the twentieth century. The going and coming of relatives between the town and the urban world of trade and the professions furnished Tepeyanco’s inhabitants with a clear model to emulate with regards to identity. Evidently, given the shape of Mexico’s class structure, built from the colonial caste system, there was little incentive for people like those from Tepeyanco with all their advantages for assuming a non-Indian identity to show off their Indianness.

54However, although their self-perception is increasingly distant from the last enclaves of visible Indian culture that have survived in the region, in terms of community organization the cargo system plays a key role in shaping identity and defining the community, just as in more emblematic Indian communities. My close observations in 1986 and 1987 of a mayordomo who had strong aspiration for an important political position cast doubt upon how separate the civil hierarchy is from the religious ladder system. This man looked upon his service in an important and costly mayordomía as an attribute that would ensure his election to office, because his good service would be looked upon as proof of his command of social relations and organizational skills; it was a way of ensuring supernatural favor in his endeavor. Due to the great expense involved, it was usually the wealthiest in financial and social capital who held the top offices in the hierarchy, although all were required to make weekly or monthly payments and/or provide work for both community public works and ritual activities. Not only are community payments made by a large number of natives of Tepeyanco residing outside the town, but one wealthy wholesale produce dealer in Puebla, who was taken there at age two held the highest office in the religious cargo system in 1986. He was assisted in this task and trained in the intricacies of his ritual duty by a vast network of relatives who still lived in the town.

55In contrast, Acxotla del Monte where the main occupation was the making and sale of charcoal, a Adirty@ occupation in purely physical terms, whose inhabitants were more Acerrados@ and Amore Indian@ than those of other communities, undertook its twentieth-century transformation process later than and in relative disadvantage with Tepeyanco. Acxotla’s articulation with the modern wider society is fundamentally structured on the sale of labor, less rewarding and less prestigious than the trading activities and professions of Tepeyanco’s inhabitants. Awareness of this disadvantage is an important factor in the recent abandonment of Nahuatl. Although Acxotla’s inhabitants know their neighbors classify them as Axoletes@, they also know that in a world hostile to their original culture, transformation into mestizos is the only possible path.

56Furthermore, they are also proud of their transformation. Their contacts in the world of the textile industry and compadrazgo relations with union leaders may not seem like much to the people in Tepeyanco. But for the inhabitants of Acxotla, the improvement of community services, increasing standards living and rising educational levels -that includes some young men and women who have completed university studies- are all motives of pride (see Robichaux and Méndez, in press). From their perspective, all these changes distance them from the image that they know the region’s inhabitants have of gente cerrada and xoletes. Consequently, regardless of what their neighbors may think, it is only natural that people in Acxotla del Monte argue: AWe are no longer Indians. Now we are Mexicans@.

57But, despite difficult times triggered by Mexico’s financial and economic crisis of the 1980s and massive migration to the United States beginning in the 1990s, Acxotla’s standard of living has continued to rise. The new wealth, following the pattern described by Catharine Good (1988), and Michael Schnegg(2003), has in part been channeled into increased ceremonial spending in life cycle and community religious and civic celebrations. Seven new mayordomías have been created since 1976, bringing the total to 16. In addition, cargos in the fiscalía have been elevated in rank and new ones have been created. Sponsorship of religious festivities involves greater expense than in the 1970s, reversing a trend then observed. At this level, inhabitants of Acxotla surely believe that their lot has greatly improved, as they can afford to organize lavish celebrations, more like those of their once wealthier neighbors.

Final remarks: Defining the Indigenous, a sociological approach

58The notion of acculturation applied in Mexico referred to the presence or absence of certain traits, mainly language and certain artifacts of material culture that acted as indicators to determine who was AIndian@ and who was not. This was necessary to target government programs designed to promote the Adevelopment@ of this population, in other words their transformation into Amestizos@ (Bonfil, 1987). In this regard, Guillermo Bonfil’s (1976) research on Cholula provides a legacy of several important ideas that can help overcome the penchant for categorizing that has distracting our attention from important pervasive forms of social organization alive and well among large sectors of Mexico’s population today, despite widespread language loss and consequent reclassification as “mestizos”. Instead of centering on the presence or absence of certain culture traits such as language, Bonfil stresses the importance of the relational and social organization as the spheres where we should look for the AIndian@ or Aindigenous@. The relational is in regard to the relations of domination that obtained -and in many cases still obtain because historically they have reproduced themselves- between the Indian community and the enveloping dominant society (Bonfil, 1976:262-263). The sphere of organization refers to the cargo system, characteristic of communities readily identifiable as AIndian@ (Bonfil, 1976:252, 263, 280 y 282).

59Considering that similar processes have occurred in vast areas of the country, in this regard, Guillermo Bonfil’s (1976) research on Cholula provides a legacy of several important ideas that can help overcome the penchant for simplistic categories that has distracted our attention from important pervasive forms of social organization alive and well among large sectors of Mexico’s population today, despite widespread language loss. Instead of centering on the presence or absence of certain culture traits such as language, Bonfil stresses the importance of the relational and social organization as the spheres where we should look for the AIndian@ or Aindigenous@. The relational is in regard to the relations of domination that obtained -and in many cases still obtain because historically they have reproduced themselves- between the Indian community and the enveloping dominant society (Bonfil, 1976:262-263). The sphere of organization refers to cargo system, characteristic of communities readily identifiable as AIndian@ (Bonfil, 1976:252, 263, 280 y 282).

60Bonfil develops these ideas and discusses the problems with categories based on binary oppositions in the final chapter of his book suggestively entitled ACholula problema@ (1976:249-290). For Bonfil, Cholula’s population is no longer Indian, least in the terms commonly understood by that category (1976:256); Cholula is a Asmall industrialized city with a predominantly mestizo culture (language, dress, literacy, etc.) with a capitalist economy, but with a complex of traditional religious institutions of a corporate character that, according to commonly held ideas, should have been the first to disappear in the historical process of the city@ [my translation] (1976:257). However, Bonfil’s (1976:255) questioning of Abinary and simplistic thought@ also leads him to assert that ACholula remains Indian@ (1976: 263) because of its subordinate position in its connection to the outside world through historical relations of domination and its religious cargo system which, as he explains, are not exclusive of Cholula but are found in countless Indian communities in Mexico (Bonfil, 1976:252).

  • 9 By 'culture changes', it is clear in the text that the author is referring to traits such as the ma (...)

61Bonfil also points out the importance that the cargo system has in strengthening kinship relations and promoting compadrazgo relations since both play key roles in the functioning of the system and the consolidation of a group identity (Bonfil, 1976:247). For these reasons Bonfil (1976:271) underscores that his study of Cholula shows that Redfield’s idea of secularization and the consequent displacement of religion and ritual in the urbanization and modernization process do not hold. As Bonfil cogently points out, modernization Adoes not involve merely a set of cultural changes; it is a process that implies profound transformations in the structure of social relations@9 [my translation] (Bonfil, 1976:289). It is in this regard that Cholula is a problem since, despite its close contact with the broader society, it does not fit the theory and, in terms of its social organization it remains AIndian@ since in the realm of social relations, it still awaits the transformations defining modernization.

62The persistence of similar forms of social organization in the ex repúblicas de indios in much of Mesoamerica, within the very gates of the country’s capital, points to a large-scale phenomenon in Mexico (see Portal, 1995 and 1997). This particular type of community organization differentiates members- a more apt term than residents- of ex repúblicas de indios from other Mexicans. In many municipalities of southwestern Tlaxcala and in the municipio of Tepetlaoxtoc in the Estado de México, membership in communities with this origin can be described in terms of a peculiar type of “local citizenship”. Several empirical studies indicate that, in the local conception, citizens are generally men married or living in common-law marriage and unwed mothers who have the obligation to pay the community assessments, aimed at financing civic and religious celebrations and public works. In some communities in southwestern Tlaxcala the embargo, a practice consistingof confiscating an object of value has been reported when these assessments are not paid. Cutting off the connection from public water, “losing” the key on the part of the church portero –the priest does not have a copy-, on the day a son is to marry or a daughter is having her fifteenth-birthday celebration mass, denial of use of the town cemetery (civil) for burial or, as seen in Acxotla, the disinterment of the body of a Protestant whose family had gone to the municipal authorities to force local officials to allow the interment. Usually, religious beliefs make little difference, as long as those professing to be non-Catholics pay the assessment, which many usually do, or compensate by additional contribution in the civil sphere (personal communications, Vera Regeher, Hugo Rojas. Guillermo Carrasco; see also Davinson and Sam, 2002).

63Ex-repúblicas de indios, the unit on which Eric Wolf built his closed corporate community model, appear as tightly controlled, rather closed, social groups, not without internal differentiation (see discussion in Dehouve 2001: 17;26), with a territorial base. Membership is primarily through kinship –mainly, but by no means exclusively patrilineal, because of the virilocal residence pattern- and membership rights are maintained by keeping up with assessment payments; delinquent members can be denied services or even expelled, and the well-known case of Chamula is not exceptional. Obligations can transcend physical presence which is why towns with this history are best seen as a social group with a territorial base. These principles are illustrated in the following ethnographic examples.

64In June 2006, a woman, approximately 70 years old, in La Purificación Tepetitla in the Texcoco region, explained to me that she was born in the Federal District and that her father, born in the town, had moved to the city prior to 1920 to work in a textile factory. During all this time, he visited the town on the occasion of religious and family festivities and continued to pay the different civil and religious assessments. She stated that had the family not been assiduous in these payments, they would have had problems, as had occurred to others, in reassuming control of the property she had inherited. Michael Ennis Mc-Millan (2001), in his work on the town water system, has shown that these same principles of obligations of membership and rights are operating in Tepetitla as in other towns.

65The example of Doña Julia and her husband, natives of a town of Zapotec origin in the Mitla arm of the Oaxaca Central Valles suggest the widespread presences of the same group membership principles . They arrived separately, both in their teens in Mexico City in the 1960s. A cousin placed her in domestic service while her future husband got a job through one of his cousin in the offices of a private company. Since they married in their late teens they have paid their assessments in their town where both inherited land. Each year they return to the town for about two weeks to celebrate the patron saint festivity with their relatives. In the last few years after the company where he had worked for years closed and he received his severance pay, Doña Julia’s husband began receiving pressure to accept an office in the town. Finally in 2004 he was appointed president of the town’s water commission for 2005. He complied with this by paying a substitute but, in reality, acceptance of this office had just been a way of buying time: in 2005 he had to accept a cargo in the fiscalía, one of the highest and most costly. Since fulfilling this obligation is to complex to pay a substitute, at this writing he was living in the town and planning to stay there until the end of the year. This couple is aware that refusing to accept this offices and failure to pay the different assessments would mean putting their land rights in risk. They wish to avoid the fate of others who did not fulfill their duties since they have put money into a house and plan to retire there. In a situation where people often possess, without legal title, plots that prior to the 1857 were held in communal tenure by the town, they usually follow the town “law”, to use the expression one of Cook and Joo’s informants offered regarding the cargo system.

66In an example from San Juan Totolapan, an ex república de indios in the Texcoco region near Mexico City, Hugo Rojas (2005) has described how the community controls access to membership and local citizenship rights. In 2004 a man in his forties sought to buy a lot from a resident of the town to build a house. The authorities told him that he would have to pay the sum of 20 000 pesos (US$ 1 800, approx.) to be connected to the water system, arguing that, unlike the town residents and their descendents who had pooled their resources to install the system, he had not been there and had not made the regular maintenance payments. He recurred to the afinal kinship principle by alleging that his mother-in-law had rented a house in the town, but this was rejected because she had never paid the town assessments. He not only had to accept this payment requested but was also required to serve in a minor cargo in the religious system.

67The temporal power exercised by the authorities in the above cases of obligatory participation is reinforced by the central role played by a patron and other saints, as a vehicle of expression of all the nodes of social networks that are mobilized throughout the year with the cooperation of all –or nearly all- citizens. Combined with the supernatural power of the saint or saints and fear of divine or human chastisement, a strong, bounded group based on ordered social relations is produced with a distinct identity. The social relations within this closed group are reinforced through systems of exchanges of goods and labor in the celebration of life cycle and community festivities that commit broad networks of kin (see Barrabas 2006, Carrasco and Robichaux, 2005; Good, 2005). Such forms of organization not only are widespread throughout the Mesoamerican area but seem to go back a long way in time. Jorge Klor de Alba (1993:178) pointed to the importance of the tlaquimilolli or “sacred bundles” of the calpulli of the ancient Mexicans that pertained to the tutelary deity of units that in many areas currently exist as barrios or towns. In his early encounter with the peculiarities of Mesoamerican social organization, Robert Redfield (1928) described the barrios of Tepoztlán and considered them to be a continuation of the Aztec barrio. Although formally, the mayordomías and cargo system are Spanish colonial, the similarities pointed out by Pedro Carrasco (1961)between pre-Hispanic and colonial community institutions suggest organizational continuities in social units for which we know their are continuities (see Hill and Monaghan, 1987).

68The importance of social organization in the shaping of ethnic groups was pointed out by Fredrik Barth in the introduction to his classic edited volume on ethnicity when he stresses that the subject should be broached through ethnic boundaries. The maintenance of boundaries over time is one of the notable characteristics of ethnic groups (Barth, 1969: 13-16). Acxotla del Monte and Tepeyanco, along with tens of thousands of communities in the Mesoamerican area have maintained their boundaries over the centuries through a cargo system that defines community membership. The cargo system and obligatory cooperation in it and other town undertakings mould social relations and create identities through constant social exchange. Despite the loss of the most ostensible signs of Indianness, a specific form of organization has persisted and continues to define group membership in the successor of the colonial repúblicas de indios. In the twentieth century and earlier, millions of Mexicans, native of and participant in communities of the type described here, have taken a path carrying them from AIndian@ to Amestizo@, basically because of language shift. Consequently, according to the usual indicators, they do not easily fit in the AIndian@ category. And for that very reason they are not included in the usual discussions of ethnicity and identity. On the other hand, because of their ongoing participation in community organizations such as those found in Acxotla, Tepeyanco and Cholula, communities of this type fit uncomfortably in the Amestizo@ category.

69Nonetheless, if we consider the 1989 wording of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, both Acxotla del Monte, Tepeyanco and thousands upon thousands of the successors of the repúblicas de indios qualify as indigenous. They descend from populations inhabiting a region at the time of the conquest, appear to conserve part of their social, economic, cultural and political institutions (Article 1, paragraph 1b). The other condition, involving consciousness of Indian or tribal identity, is somewhat trickier if we look for this at a supra-community level. However, almost anyone in Tepeyanco knows where “the eagle lighted”. It is common knowledge that, had the eagle that lighted on a cactus with a serpent in his beak not been scared away, Tepeyanco would have been México City (Tenochtitlán). For their part, people in Acxotla point to the ruins where the gentiles once lived and this term is fairly frequent as mention of the times before Christianity occur in their conversation. Other most recent ruins are said to have housed a king. They also say that their patron saint, the Virgen del Pilar, had once lived in Spain, and the town was founded on the site she appeared.

70Surely, similar narrations tie people to their local territory all over the Mesoamerican area. But going back to a supra-community level, although their views of each other are complex, people from Tepeyanco are also aware of their sameness with people from Acxotla and vice versa. They are aware that, along with the inhabitants of neighboring towns, people from Acxotla celebrate life cycle rituals and community religious festivities in much the same way they do. As members of relatively closed, bounded groups, they share the same type of commitment to their respective communities and their ritual obligations are discharged with the support of complex kin and fictive-kin based relations.

71As David Frye has shown in Indians into Mexicans, ethnic identity is couched in terms that are not apparent at first gaze. What Frye describes with regard to people in San Miguel Mexquitic in the environs of San Luis Potosí expresses a pattern often described elsewhere. First, theiris a clear consciousness among the natives that “Indianness” is a matter of degree, as they recognize of greater Indianness of their ancestors. Indian is used as a condition and not an essence, indicated by its use with the verb “estar” as when they referred to their ancestors in the following terms “estaban más indiados verdad, así más indios así”[translated as “Indian-like” and “more Indian”] (Frye,1996:62). Mexquitic holds a subordinate position with regard to urban San Luis Potosí because of its Indian past and an association with poverty; the difference is historical and recognized by those both upper and lower strata positions (Frye, 1996:63). Subordinate positions as part of Indianness was pointed out by Bonfil (1976) in the case of Cholula. From my own fieldwork in Tlaxcala, it is evident that Indian is a condition and not an essence and this was also pointed out by Friedlander in Hueyapan (1976)

72To conclude, in my view, the confounding of identity with identity politics and ethnicity with ethnopopulist movements has been unfortunate as it has obscured the view of anthropologists, distracting their attention from more subtle identities and ethnic relations in Mexican contexts. These group identities are constructed from centuries-old occupation by social groups in specific territories in much of Mexico which, regardless of whether categorized as Indian or Mestizo, have a history as repúblicas de indios. In such contexts, specific forms of governance of bounded groups have developed based on exchange and obligatory community assessment and, historically, they have served to defend the group’s territorial integrity. As Robert Hill and John Monaghan (1987) have shown in their anthropological and ethnohistorical study of Sacapulas in Guatemala, the same social units have been operating on the local scene since before the Conquest. Peter Worsely pointed out that Mexican ethnicity should be approached “operationally and analytically at the level of small organized communities in civil society where it is “existentially grounded in ...everyday life” Worsely 1984:287) [quoted by Cook and Joo 1995:52).

73In second place, by equating identity with identity politics, the forgotten in the identity and ethnicity debates are the millions of people who succumbed to threats and violence and began to speak to their children in a foreign language. The real victims of forced identity in the application of Mexico’s twentieth century nation state project were not people who were prevented abandoning an Indian identity as Judith Friedlander (1977) has asserted. They were, instead, the “success stories”, like Acxotla del Monte and Tepeyanco in the Mexican state’s dis-Indianization project. Continued, uncontested application of state categories such as mestizo and indígena only serve to obscure the consequences of a major state ethnic project and important questions of identity and ethnicity that have affected tens of millions of Mexicans and their families.

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1 According to Judith Friedlander (1975:119), in Hueyapan in Morelos, teachers at the local school made the parents believe that their children spoke poor Spanish for the simple reason that they also spoke Nahuatl.

2  Electrification came to Acxotla del Monte in 1972. When I first began research in 1974 about forty percent of the houses had televison sets; today nearly all houses do. Before the installation of the electric grid, some people had batter-powered radios. But with no radio or television broadcasts in Nahuatl, a strong message regarding the worthlessness of the language was sent, while at the same time serving as an aid in providing greater access to Spanish and improving its mastery among the town’s people. Jane y Kenneth Hill (1986), who carried out research on the use of Nahuatl in Acxotla and the region point to economic transformation, school and electronic media as the main causes of the displacment of the language by Spanish.

3  In her discussion of the negative association with AIndian@, Friedlander notes similar experiences by the inhabitants of Hueyapan in their incursions into Mexico City: they avoided speeking Spanish since they spoke it poorly making it evident they were Indians (1975: 104-105). Friedlander presents the case of the son of her host who took delight in telling how his fellow teachers were surprised to learn that he was from Hueyapan, known throughout the region as indigenous. His ability to change his identity was a move of pride.

4  For a description of these customs in Acxotla del Monte and a short bibliographical review of similar practices, see Robichaux 1997c, 2000 y 2003. Observation and censuses in the two communites confirm that, in general terms, the family system is the same that has been reported throughout the Mesoamerican area. (ver Robichaux 1997b, 2002 and 2005).

5  According to Bonfil (1976: 285-286), although the fiesta in Cholula also includes collective entertainment, to be a Afiestero@ is a value held in high regard and an important figure contributing to group maintenance.

6 I refer here to “Tlaxcalan culture”, implying a regional identity forged in the pre-Columbian period in its resistance to Tenochcan hegemony and during the colonial period during which Tlaxcalan leadership defended Tlaxcala´s privileges against the European sectors of New Spain’s society, reminding the Crown of services rendered to Cortés in his defeat of Tenochtitlán. Despite economic domination, these were the bases of the identity that probably contributed to Tlaxcala’s existence as a political entity independent of Puebla during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see Gibson, 1967).

7  For example, in their analysis of the Padrones de Tlaxcala en el siglo XVI, a documented dated un ca. 1556-1557, Marina Anguiano y Matilde Chapa note that 12 percent of Tepeyanco's population were pipiltzin (nobles), contrasting with neighboring San Luis Teolocholco (cabecera of the municipio to which Acxotla del Monte belongs) that had only 3 percent (Anguiano y Chapa, 1976: 133).

8 This privilege literally dried up in the last decades of the twentieth century when the construction of local water systems led to a drastic drop in the level of the lake.

9 By 'culture changes', it is clear in the text that the author is referring to traits such as the material culture and language, those usually taken into account to define a Indian.

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David Robichaux, « Defining the Indian: State definitions, perception of the other and community organization in southwestern Tlaxcala and Mexico »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2009, consulté le 23 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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David Robichaux

Posgrado en Antropología Social
Universidad Iberoamericana México, D. F.

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