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  • Memorias de Mestizaje: Cultura política en Centroamérica de 1920 al presente
  • Steven Palmer
Memorias de Mestizaje: Cultura política en Centroamérica de 1920 al presente. Edited by Darío A. Euraque, Jeffrey L. Gould, and Charles R. Hale. Guatemala: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, 2006. Pp. 625. Maps. Tables. Notes.

Befitting a major scholarly intervention on the historical process of mestizaje, this collection is vital, exuberant, filled with unexpected turns, and characterized by a welcome baroque excess and intriguing contradictions. We are treated to 15 case studies (five on Guatemala, four on Honduras, and three each on El Salvador and Nicaragua), two theoretical reflections (one by Hale in an anthropological vein, and one by Gould with a historical horizon), and a pointed "final reflection" by Carol A. Smith. The authors include many of the leading Central Americanist historians and anthropologists, from those already mentioned to Marvin Barahona, Arturo Taracena, Patricia Alvarenga, and Rocío Tábora, as well as some newer voices. And we should emphasize that the collection is a rare joint venture between anthropologists and historians (usually each discipline poaches on the other without really engaging).

The collection responds to a crisis in ethnic identities in Central America, the result above all of the seismic social shifts brought on by revolution, economic [End Page 681] catastrophe, violence and dispossession. The emergence of a Mayan intellectual movement marked the beginning of a very different discourse of identity politics in Guatemala, if nothing else because it forced people to face up publicly to the lie of the teleology implicit in mestizaje as official national identity—that Indian societies, at one speed or another, were all destined to dissolve eventually into a Hispanized future through a process of inter-marriage and acculturation. Movements based on a modern embrace of identity politics—whether Afro-Hondurans or Miskitu Indians—also began to organize throughout Central America, challenging state ideologies whose intellectual producers were suspiciously quick to agree that their nations were, in fact, multi-cultural after all, something state officials had also been hearing from tourism developers, NGOs and international behemoths like the World Bank.

The collection understands mestizaje not as biological or cultural process, but as a political project that can be located primarily in official and dominant group discourse. The over-arching editorial argument of the collection, upon which there is considerable agreement among contributing authors, is that the social and political meaning of mestizaje in the three middle Central American countries—Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras—was distinct from that of Guatemala. The former were countries where, starting in the early 1900s, mestizaje was championed as official nation-building ideology by the state and local bureaucratic-intellectuals who played key mediating roles in the context of a destruction of indigenous societies and economies (combined, in Honduras, with debilitating discrimination against the populations of African descent). Here the important work of Jeff Gould on mestizaje in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and that of Euraque on the weight of African ancestry in Honduras, set the tone and the bar. In contrast to this, in Guatemala ladino identity, rather than connoting racial mixture, was a social and political category of repudiation of the still very present Indian, and indeed could accommodate within it distinct racial identities (most importantly, that of white criollos). The Guatemalan ladino was the "not Indian." Two of the anthropological chapters, in showing that this way of understanding the ladino category is not valid in contemporary Guatemala, force us to ask whether historians need to re-think this claim of Guatemalan exceptionalism.

The contributions here have a freshness and a verve that are a testament to the new generation of critical scholarship that has emerged in the region: exemplary in this regard are the work of Gould and Alvarenga on the Matanza period of Salvadoran history, and Hale's provocative essay on the mestizos and cholos of Chimaltenango. The editors did themselves out of some historical real estate by deciding on 1920 as the beginning date for the title, since many of the articles discuss issues of mestizaje and nationhood whose formative period was in the nineteenth century, while Taracena's perceptive essay...


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