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Singing for the Dead: The Politics of Indigenous Revival in Mexico by Paja Faudree (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 578-580 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0026

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Oaxaca continues to be a world center of tourism and anthropological research. Besides the state’s abundant natural beauty, what attracts so many travelers and scholars to the state are the many indigenous cultures, past and present. Generations of ethnographers have lived there and studied the peoples of the region. The central intellectual questions of research have hovered around the complex relationship between tradition and the present—the connection, or lack thereof, between ancient civilizations at Mitla and Monte Albán and the contemporary inhabitants of rural and urban Oaxaca.

As Foucault and many others have taught us, power and politics are pervasive elements of social life and are embodied in ethnic, class, gender, and other dynamics and range from the decisions made at state-level institutions to quotidian interactions. Oaxaca is an ideal laboratory for the study of such issues because of its bitterly contested political history and the Balkanization of its intricate geography and ethno-cultural diversity as well. Paja Faudree’s ambitious new study of ethnic politics among Mazatec people combines a rich understanding of Oaxaca’s unique histories and a sophisticated knowledge of recent social theory.

Faudree focuses on one of Mexico’s reputedly most ancient traditions, the Day of the Dead, and how it has been revived and reinvigorated in the present through song. She also analyzes the emergence of a controversial nativist religious movement incorporating the use of one of the most exotic and mythologized aspects of Oaxacan tradition, ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms in spiritual ceremonies. Faudree states that the former movement had much greater appeal within the native community than did the latter. The author is especially interested in the roles of indigenous intellectuals as cultural brokers between community members and national actors and the ways in which reviving cultural elements takes on political significance. Faudree sees the Mazatec cultural revitalization as a “success story” with important lessons for scholars of indigenous revivals across the globe.

The anthropologist skillfully situates song and language revival within various literatures and the polarities these traditions of scholarship create: studies of ethnic politics that emphasize conflict or unity; research on political leadership and its relatively strong or weak connections to the grassroots; and work on indigenous texts, literary and otherwise that privilege production vs. reception, text vs. context or belletristic vs. sociological concerns. She argues that her approach, which examines singing as a third element of literature, beside speaking and writing, can resolve the various contradictions and binary oppositions in the scholarly literature she ably summarizes and reviews. Furthermore, she claims that the different kinds of indigenous intellectuals she studied and their varied relationships to the indigenous Mazatec community (from outside and above vs. from within and below) are ultimately “complementary as they work in tandem to forge new possibilities of inclusion for indigenous peoples in modern Mexico” (p. 23). The “harmony” that results produces “a revival that is both innovation and restoration, a critique of the nation that preserves the possibility of national imagining” (p. 29).

Perhaps I have become a curmudgeon but these claims seem a bit too utopian in a Mexico marked by rampant violence(often drug-related), massive out-migration from indigenous population zones, impending ecological catastrophes, failed political reforms, and a rocky transition to democracy. In any case, the author does a magnificent job of historicizing and ethnographically detailing the unique cultural revival occurring in the Mazatec region. She also makes a novel contribution with her emphasis on how seemingly nonpolitical elements of culture take on political importance. Yet, as I read the book I longed for much more discussion of the mainstream politics de carne y hueso—the endless internecine disputes between priístas, panístas, perredístas, and the members of other myriad interest groups and coalitions around which economic and political power in Oaxaca interminably oscillate. Perhaps, it is, above all, these fights that determine whether local indigenous revivals, such as that studied by Faudree, will fail or succeed. However, that is a question with which future scholars will have to wrestle.

Copyright © 2014 Academy of American Franciscan History
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Howard Campbell. "Singing for the Dead: The Politics of Indigenous Revival in...

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