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  • The Diffuse Line:Ethnography and Literature in Mexican Anthropology
  • Andrés Medina Hernández

In these days of steamrolling globalization, the transition into the third millennium has been marked by the florescence of cultural diversity, a vital response to the powerful and homogenizing inertia coming from the great centers of transnational financial capital. Alongside this transition, and with all of the intensity and subtlety of new communications technology, comes a discourse saturated with the strident colors of Western postmodernity.

Mexico is diverse in its origins, in its history and contemporary cultural composition, and in its geographic contrasts and biological richness. Its history is a rich interweaving of ethnic and racial components. Nonetheless, moving against the grain of these underlying historical processes, the Mexican state that emerged from the colonial period has worked to superimpose an impossible cultural, racial, and linguistic homogeneity, as well as a political centralization that is more archaic than democratic, and that has demonstrated, in the face of such obvious cultural diversity, a kind of balkanization “syndrome”; that is, an unfounded fear of territorial and political fragmentation. It has responded with an institutional rigidity that takes it from political regression to suicide.

Our diversity is therefore not simply of the present; it is an inherent part of our national history and culture. We live it every day, we breathe it, but we are only just beginning to study and come to terms with it as an alternative to the constant beatings we take at the hands of globalization, both virtual and real. In fact, reflecting on our diversity -- in terms of its significance for defining a national identity -- has been a constant part of our literary and cultural traditions. Such has been the case from the earliest attempts to break free on the part of New Spain’s criollos, trapped between the discrimination of the peninsulares and their own disgust for Indians, whom they rejected as compatriots. It runs through the populism of the Mexican Revolution, when we began to ponder the idea of a “Mexican psyche,” its “mestizo” character, and the need for “integrating” the most important source of our diversity, the Indian population.

In the framework of the new revolutionary nationalism, anthropology appeared, from the hands of Manuel Gamio, as a scientific instrument [End Page 378] to understand racial and cultural diversity, and to transform it within the homogenizing model represented in the figure of the “mestizo.” The professional anthropologist also emerged as a specialist with academic and technical training that would equip him for carrying out the tasks required to confront a cultural diversity portrayed as one of the greatest obstacles to Mexico’s modernization.

But the work of the anthropologist is not at all easy, for to go deep into the interethnic regions with indigenous populations, more than a contrasting otherness, one is faced with conditions of poverty, exploitation, injustice, and institutional violence against which it is impossible to remain insensitive. At the same time, one has to remain faithful to the task of investigating that reality and to share the knowledge that will allow both for the possibility of creating policy solutions and for contributing to a larger conversation about theory and politics.

Surviving these professional and ethical exigencies is an adventure that each one of us resolves in our own way, as it implies a fortuitous combination of personal capacity and favorable institutional resources. Yet we know little of this, as it is not something that is openly discussed, despite its implications for defining an adequate methodology and professional profile. Nevertheless, we are beginning to see signs of a response to Estéban Krotz’s assertion that in matters of methodology, Mexican anthropologists are “at ground zero.”

Knowledge of social and cultural conditions in Indian populations, of their history, now forms a rich store from which Mexican ethnography may draw, though overall the balance is somewhere between successes and gaps. The central importance of Mesoamerican cultural traditions for the configuration of regional cultures has concentrated ethnographic investigation in those places that bear ancient projects of civilization. In studying them, anthropologists have constructed national, scientific traditions. These have been largely expressed in the complexity, amplitude, and profundity of Maya ethnographies, such as...


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pp. 378-403
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