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The Americas 57.2 (2000) 304-306

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The Grimace of Macho Ratón: Artisans, Identity, and Nation in Late-Twentieth-Century Western Nicaragua. By Les W. Field. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 282. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $49.95 cloth; $17.95 paper.

During the 1980s, Sandinista Nicaragua attracted "internationalist" activists and researchers in solidarity with the revolutionary government, some of whom stayed or returned over the course of the decade. After a surprising upset in 1990 when an opposition coalition was elected, many internationalists left the country and the brief flurry of research subsided. Les W. Field was one of a small number of researchers who continued to visit Nicaragua into the postrevolutionary period and the book he has written draws on material collected and observations made between 1980 and 1995.

As Field points out, most anthropological research has concentrated on the Atlantic Coast where the best-known indigenous populations as well as the Afro-Nicaraguan Creole people are located. Fewer ethnographic studies have been based in the Pacific region where the greatest concentration of both urban and rural residents live, though more scholarship from other disciplines has focused on the capital city of Managua and elsewhere in Western Nicaragua. Field argues that earlier pronouncements of the absence of indigenous people in the region and the myth of "mestiza Nicaragua" were in large measure responsible for this inattention to the Pacific area.

The Grimace of Macho Ratón is a critical exploration of ongoing contestations over national identity and its formation in Nicaragua, with particular consideration of the way that ethnicity and gender figure in these contestations. In this interesting and compelling study, Field examines various tropes of the traditional drama El Güegüence, performed by masked dancers in small towns of Western Nicaragua for over two centuries. While the creator of the foundational work will doubtless remain unknown, contemporary analysts range from those who insist that the author must necessarily have been Spanish to those who argue for the likely indigenous roots of the classic work. Nicaraguan elites have long cleaved to an interpretation of the parable as an account of the defeat of indigenous identity to mestizo cultural dominance, thus making it a morality tale for modern class and ethnic relations. When the Sandinistas rose to power, they reconstructed the parable as an anti-imperialist struggle, but one that still served to account for a present-day mestizo nation.

Field shows that the dominant reading of the parable serves to mask the survival of indigenous-identified people now living in Western Nicaragua. Although concentrated in just a few communities, some groups have publicly embraced their identity as a point of pride as participants in the Sandinista revolution (in contrast to most indigenous communities in the Atlantic Coast region) or as potter-artisans using techniques which, they claim, date to the pre-Columbian period. Others, like the group of artisans with whom Field spent most of his time, did not actively identify with their indigenous past, though they sought out ceramic designs that evoked that past as a way of attracting a market. [End Page 304]

In many respects, this study is an intellectual and cultural history as much as an ethnographic project. The first chapter traces the role of literature, in this case the theatrical piece El Güegüence, in the formation and representation of national culture and identity. Field reviews the interpretive writing on the drama, then shows how such work influenced the orientation of the Sandinista Ministry of Culture. While he is highly critical of the self-serving elite uses of El Güegüence and he rejects a purely textual analysis, he engages in a productive critique of ideological constructions of the parable. Field suggests his own interpretation of the regional tale and performance as a celebration of subversion that disrupts any monolithic conception of the nation, rather than the triumph of one cultural identity over another. In later chapters, he traces the political tensions that arose over cultural policy, particularly regarding artisans...


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