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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) – Paris, EHESS, 13-15 décembre 2006
Joëlle Rostkowski

Comments on « Defining the Indian: State Definitions, Perception of the Other and Community Organization in Southwestern Tlaxcala and Mexico » (David Robichaux)


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1This article deals with two communities of Nahua origin located in Central Mexico and reconsiders what the author calls "reified categories".The author's analysis is based upon his field study in two neighboring towns called respectively Teyepanco and Acxolta del Monte. Although the two communities are geographically close, their characteristics are quite different, socially and economically. David Robichaux's study in Acxolta del Monte was carried out over an extensive period, mostly from 1974 through 2000, during several stays, measured in weeks or months. His work in Teyepanco took place mainly during a span of time of two years, from 1986 to 1988.

2The two communities have a certain number of common characteristics : they are both "ex-pueblos de Indios" and located in Southern Tlaxcala .The author criticizes both the use of the terms "indigenous" and "mestizos" by most anthropologists and the national policy based upon the process of "dis-Indianization" as part of the Mexican state's nation building project.

3According to the author, the identity shift from Indigenous (or Indian) to Mestizo has been perceived by the government as a success story because many Indians speak Spanish and have changed their way of life. Development programs have been geared towards the eradication of poverty but also, unfortunately, the eradication of native language and traditional culture. The goals of national rural development programs have been to favour wage labor, modernization, "secularizacion", separation of the civil and religious cargos into two different systems.

4Politics have influenced the drawing of categories and the reinforcement of stereotypes. David Robichaux is very critical of state categories, designed to indicate degrees of success in incorporation of people into Mexico's state "nationalization" project. He considers that such categories have failed to reflect or respect feelings of ethnicity and sense of continuity among the local population of both Teyepanco and Acxolta.

5The author presents the history and evolution of both communities -Teyepanco and Acxolta- and puts in evidence their similarities and their differences. Tepeyanco, with a diversified agriculture and university graduates working in nearby urban areas, women who have entered the job market, is more modern and rather prosperous.The language generally used in Tepeyanco is Spanish, the population identifies with the national culture and marks a social distance with more ostensibly Indian communities such as Acxolta. But its inhabitants "spend lavisly on the celebration of the fiestas of the cargo system".

6Looked upon as more Indian, Acxolta has, over the years, and under the pressure of Spanish teachers, stopped transmitting the nahuatl language (the most visible marker of Indianness) to the younger generations. But, unlike Tepeyanco, Acxolta has remained more isolated and is still rather poor. Its population migrates to nearby towns, selling its working force- mostly as servants- or in less rewarding or prestigious activities than in Teyepanco; some people even emigrate to the United States.

7In both communities, in spite of their differences, David Robichaux observes the subsistence of common customs. He points out that traditional organization of the cycle of religious feasts still exist, even in Teyepanco. In his view, in terms of community organization the traditional cargo system pays a key role in "shaping identity and defining the community". He notes that increase in standard of living, even in Acxotla, is partly channeled into ceremonial spending in "life cycle and community religious and civic celebrations". The cargo sytem strenghtens kinship relations and promotes compadrezo relations. Hence it preserves ethnicity, even though the native language has been lost and the way of life has evolved considerably. The author argues convincingly that it is through such centuries-old occupations and relationships that group identities and a sense of continuity are preserved. And his article, through its criticism of "reified" terminology, also calls upon a more general discussion of constantly reconsidered terms, in particular indigenous (a "euphemism, originally less derogatory term for Indian"), mestizo (generally used for someone someone who doesn't speak an indigenous language) but also acculturation, assimilation, development, and ethnocide.

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Joëlle Rostkowski, « Comments on « Defining the Indian: State Definitions, Perception of the Other and Community Organization in Southwestern Tlaxcala and Mexico » (David Robichaux) », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2009, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.56681

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Joëlle Rostkowski


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