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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)

Categories and their usages in the social construction of a group of reference: “race”, “ethnicity” and “community” in the Americas.

Commentaries on David Robichaux’s “Defining the Indians: State definitions, perception of the other and community organization in South-western Tlaxcala and Mexico”
Anath Ariel de Vidas

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1David Robichaux takes up the theme of ethnic categories while at once disqualifying the usage of the terms “indian” and “mestizo” so general in Mexico in everyday and administrative language, quite like in studies on the question of ethnicity.  Current and binary opposition of these terms, founded on the presence or absence of certain visible cultural traits, cannot, according to the author, cover numerous cases of figure in which the process of acculturation imposed after several decades by the state has been successful from a certain point of view in erasing the ostensible differences between social groups, notably at the level of the usage of Indian languages.  However, does the fact of no longer speaking an indigenous language mark a break with the individual’s indigenous identity? This is the first broad question brought up in this text.  

2Another major problem underlined by Robichaux consists of the fact that analyses of Indian identity are attached most often to external identifying strategies as manifest expressions of ethnicity.  In other words, they essentially concern the ethno-political in the Indian milieu which places the question of reified or invented cultural / identity in first place in negotiation with actors external to the autochthonous collective, wherea the latter are on their own territory of origin or outside it.  This partial but dominant approach in studies on the question of indigenous identity creates a situation in which numerous studies on the subject most likely neglect the majority of ethnic groups throughout the world, since most of them are not implicated in movements of political re-vindication even if they are often found in unequal relations with dominant groups (cf. Gil-White 2005: 254). The relation to the “other” is, certainly, a constituent element in the makeup of any ethnic identity, but it is not always expressed exclusively in the field of political action.  It may also be revealed in more discreet domains in which the frontiers between social groups are constructed culturally and symbolically.  How then to analyze ethnicity in the face of groups that are non-militant and not re-vindicating specific rights? This is the second problem posed in this text.

3A third problem that traverses this presentation is more directly that for which we find ourselves here, that is the usage and the hither and yon between different levels of locution among ethnic categories.  For, if the terms of the categories remain the same most of the time, in the case of the binary pair: ‘Indian’ – ‘Mestizo’ their meanings do change according to the speakers who employ them, the interlocutors who hear them and the place and time of these talks, all finally depending on the logic of construction of the nation in question hence on the historical context in which they are expressed.

4David Robichaux tries to resolve these broad questions analyzing two typical cases, representative, according to him, of tens of millions of Mexicans.  He compares two neighbouring localities that, during the colonial period, were Republicas de Indios, and that due to their specific geographical locations experienced the effects of acculturation at different times. The inhabitants of one of these localities, more prosperous due to the fact of their strategic position, consider themselves and are considered by others to be mestizos, whereas the inhabitants of the other place, poorer and remaining for a long time relatively isolated from national circuits, are considered more easily by the others as ‘Indians’, although it is more than 30 years that the Nahua language is no longer transmitted to the younger generations and though the inhabitants of that locality have freed themselves of their indigenous identity.  In both cases, the Indian identity is neither claimed nor exhibited, and the general tendency is to adopt the Spanish-language and the modern mode of life as well as progressively abandoning agriculture in favour of paid labour in factories or in the tertiary sector.  

5The author, who is familiar with these locales after 30 odd years and is therefore able to follow their social and linguistic evolution, ponders what may remain of the Indian under these conditions.  His answer consists in showing that the collective identification of the inhabitants of these two apparently different locales, flows from the internal cohesion emanating from social communitarian organization based on the cargo system, of pre-Hispanic and colonial origin, still of great importance to members of these two societies.  Criteria of belonging to this type of community combine genealogical with social relations.  The principal affiliation is thus tightly superimposed on the right of access to community patrimony which therefore derives from an extra familial dimension and implies fulfilling a series of obligations toward the community.  The transmission of goods by affiliation therefore carries, in this context, equally that of a social pact required to be assumed and assured so as to be able to benefit from patrimony.  This social organization confers on the members of the groups studied by Robichaux a particular collective identity — henceforth non-Indian in the strict sense of the term, which is founded on objectivist characteristics such as language, myth of origin, clothing, traditions…— but rather a more subjectivist collective identity founded on the consciousness of belonging and identifying oneself with a collective different from that of the urban mestizo.  

6Thus, the categorical labels “mestizo” and “Indian” are not pertinent to these two cases, which are far from isolated.  It is a matter, according to the author, of institutional categories in fact reflecting the degree of material incorporation into national society. They do not reflect ethnic and/or cultural identity.  These essentialist categories rest, therefore, on false principles since they do not take into account socio-cultural formations broadly spread throughout Mexican society, issued from a process of acculturation from the point of view of diacritical traits (language, dress, customs…) but which have nevertheless made it possible to preserve a social organization constituted on the basis of relations of solidarity founded, in the cases studied, on kinship.  

7The author enjoys the merit of taking up the matter of identity and ethnic categories under one heading, that of the cargo system ---- generally less treated in this aspect. But, in a way, this leads to an essentialist criterion. Indians are those who take part in a cargo system the origin of which is Indian, and from this fact it is of little import that the social actors identify themselves or not as such. Or further, those who identify themselves as mestizo in this context are all in fact Indian… In searching for what remains of the autochthonous in a population of indigenous origin and presently highly acculturated, Robichaux applies in his analysis the category of Indian to a population that neither claims it, nor is assigned thereto, hence his analysis is caught in the same binary categorical schema as mestizo vis-a-vis Indian. This leads us simultaneously to several problems: first, the authority of the definition. Can the researcher affiliate a group to a social category, in this case one that is devalued, if the social actors concerned do not identify themselves with that group? Next, can the exercise of a traditional practice of colonial and eventually pre-Hispanic origin in itself serve as a criterion of Indian-ness, or would that more likely be a criterion of mestizo-ness?  Finally, how then to categorize those societies that observe practices that differentiate them from other social groups, without them thereby claiming descent of an autochthonous origin.

8What to do, for example, in the case of the Indian community where I presently work, which was constituted less than a hundred years ago hence it is not issued from a República de Indios, where Nahuatl is not spoken anymore to the children at the same time that the people there affirm that they are indigenous, and although the community’s members are characterized by a strong cohesion and social organization they do not practice the cargo system.  Or, an opposite case, the neighbourhood in which I live in Mexico City, in which the parishioners of the old local church, practice the cargo system without thereby claiming Indian identity.  Or further, the case in Guatemala described by Petrich (2006) of a Maya (tzutujil) community burst by migration and religious pluralism, however its members get together once a year on the day of the patron saint, transformed into a civil celebration so as to integrate the non-Catholic members of the village.  In this case, the feeling of identity is based neither on effective residence at a given place, nor on native language, nor even on a shared religion and veneration of a common patron saint.

9It is a matter of contextualizing this problematic in space and time. If in the past, diacritics could have become a feature of monolingualism, group enclosure and immobility, today the practice of an indigenous language, in itself, can only indicate the existence of bilingualism and from this fact the interdependence of multiple cultural memberships.  Social cohesion indicates nothing more than the existence of a communitarian structure, not necessarily Indian.  And residence outside the place of origin does not undermine inevitably the communitarian participation.  Different cases of figure and different combinations of identity abound and it would be vain to try to establish a list of them and to try to draw categories from it.  These should be raised to a more abstract level.  The notion of ethnicity, that is to say socio-cultural construction of belonging to a group based on the subjective belief in a shared blood relationship (Weber 1968: 385-398) is not unique in its definition nor in its diverse uses but never allows itself to be approached separately from the usages made of it (Policar 2004: 124).

10As a way out of these impasses, one might pose another question, which implicitly covers Robichaux’ s text, that is: what is it to be an Indian today?  And more precisely, to what extent or in what case is this category pertinent?

11Let us first recall a truism: the category of “Indian” is rarely used by the social actors concerned, who, to name their collective most often have recourse to their own ethnonym. The far more common term of “Indian” or in Mexico more likely “Inidigenous” (indígena) is more often employed by natives when it has to do with their relations with the government, for example through specific policies that make it possible for them to benefit from certain services. Otherwise, the general term of Indians to categorize the whole autochthonous populations of the country — that is the indigenous groups pre-existing the national entity in which they now find themselves included (fourth world group)—, has its counterpart among the indigenous groups in question where the term “mestizo” — declined among numerous indigenous languages — generally denotes individuals who do not form a part of the naming group and who are distinguished from members of other locally known indigenous groups.  These categories are thus used and are therefore pertinent for both parties though they remain vague.  They denote a sense of differentiation between the categories of “We” and “Others”, which are variable according to both speakers and interlocutors, time and space, and the degree of knowledge of otherness in question.  

12Let us also remember the historical context of the pair of terms: Indians and mestizos, born in the 19th century in Mexico around thought on the subject of social diversity. The Indians with their archaic practice and their languages were perceived as different from other members of society and therefore as an obstacle to social homogenization which would guarantee the formation of a nation. Thus the juridical statute particular to Indians, established at the beginning of the colonial period was officially annulled on the occasion of independence, but the differences and the differentiations remained permanent for they were reproduced and actualized through discrimination (Viqueira 206: 52).  Actually, the diferenciated institutional treatment toward the indigenous population persisted in most Mexican regions or where only abolished at the end of the Porfiriat (end of the 19th century) and the post-revolutionary era which reestablished them, mostly in the agrarian domains.

13Social stratification in Mexico is founded on inequality and is not based on ethnicity.  To forget this is to overlook a stage and thus to distort the problem which consists of the fact that the category of Indian in Mexico emanates from a principle that considers the indigenous populations as different and meriting different treatment. The categories imposed may evidently also serve as a tool for those who have long been discriminated against to acquire political advantage and demand resources to ameliorate living conditions. Thus the ethnic compatibility of bureaucrats, researchers and militants begins to be activated to judge the eventual instrumentation of these imposed and reified identities/ categories.

14As Levine (1999), suggests, ethnicity arises principally from a cognitive method of classifying human beings. It is thus presented as an object for analysis at the same time that it is a conceptual subject, the two levels of apprehension emanate from specific historical configurations that are simultaneously structural and cultural (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 50). To take up the ethnicity of a group, it is therefore necessary to analyse not only the complex processes of cultural, historic and economic construction of the group in question but also the internal significances given to these constructions.  To grasp the categories in play, it is important to distinguish analytically between two processes of categorical attribution: identification of the group that is established within the collective in question and the social categorization constructed outside and through it (Jenkins 1997: 23).

15There is then a level of analysis possible of these categorizations which is that of their causal processes, in other words the study of the differentiating dimension that generates, on one side and another, the radical separation between “Us” and the “Others”, and in the case discussed by Robichaux, between ‘mestizos’ and ‘indians’. Another level of analysis possible is that of the reified sense of that differentiation as it is often employed by those same actors and where the pertinence should be taken into consideration in order to understand the social interaction. In that case, the categories employed should be recognized as consciousness of the difference rather than as the result of an institutional imposition (Cohen 1994: 69).

16Let us return to the categories applied in the cases discussed by Robichaux, characterized by the break in the tangible chain of cultural transmission.  If neither the category of indian nor that of mestizo is applicable in these cases, it is because these categories are endowed with particularly rigid social meaning and connotation. The fact of practicing a custom that may have Indian origins does not forcibly carry with it identification with an indigenous culture and the fact of speaking only Spanish and living a certain kind of urban life does not necessarily imply a feeling of belonging to a hegemonic culture with western traits. The categorical attribution could thus be nuanced, in the first place in our studies, via a more fluid notion of alterity by detaching itself from exclusivist notions and instead privileging the simultaneity of belongings, of origins and cultural substrates. The concept of métissage (hybridization) should therefore be accepted not exclusively in terms of acculturation (unambiguously leading to western and hegemonic culture) of loss of original traits, but better, as an identity or re-identification which assumes the historical and social processes which transformed the present populations of Mexico and moreover acted as the carrier of traditions and practices of diverse origins (cf. French 2004).

17I shall close with an anecdote recently drawn from my fieldwork in a village in northeast Mexico where the inhabitants are attached to indian cultural origins at the same time as they experience processes of accelerated change. Presently, the Náhuatl language is spoken only by people more than 40 years of age and is no longer transmitted to the younger generations. Traditional costume had been abandoned for over 50 years. Thus the consciousness of belonging to a cultural group different from the dominant one is highly tangible. Not only through certain individuals’ knowledge of the indian language, but most importantly through the exercise of ritual practices still very much followed by all generations. This ethnic consciousness is not exteriorized and does not therefore translate into ethno-political re-vindication. Otherwise, there is no running water in the village and numerous requests for support in this matter have been made by the authorities to governmental agencies, but so far, without great success. Several months ago, after a meeting I had with a French hydraulic engineer who directs an NGO, a new project to bring water was drawn up and we are now, at the moment, seeking financing from international charitable organizations. In the text which presents the project, written by the engineer, the terms of Nahua indians, indigenous autochthonous carriers of ancestral culture, etc., were often put forward so as to promote the project to these organizations.  Personally, these categories bothered me since they are absolutely not employed by the members of the communities.  In the version that I brought back to the village, I allowed myself to erase a number of these attributions, and even so, three men, members of the committee in charge of this project, expressed their astonishment at the connection made between a demand for water supply, and the praise of their cultural origins. In this village, cultural identification is an internal matter that is not pertinent (for the moment) to instrumentalize.

18If, in the 19th century cultural diversity was seen as an obstacle to Nation-formation, at the beginning of the 21st century it is considered, at least officially, as an advantage. Furthermore, members of groups who claim autochthonous origins are not to be found in the same social and contextual position as their ancestors of a hundred years ago. There is, therefore, room to think of renewing the attempt to annul the static ethnic categories, which are ultimately discriminatory, by instating a single one: that of shared citizenship and of egalitarian and equitable distribution of resources and services.

19I shall end by raising a final question, that of the interests we choose to represent in our work and research, of organizations with which we choose to collaborate and the institutions to which we are accountable (cf. Hodgson 2002: 1045). A self-critical reflection based on these questions will doubtless allow the nuanced usage of the ethnic categories here analyzed.

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Anath Ariel de Vidas, « Categories and their usages in the social construction of a group of reference: “race”, “ethnicity” and “community” in the Americas. »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 25 août 2009, consulté le 07 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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