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Reviewed by:
  • Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico by Vania Smith-Oka
  • Sylvia Morin
Vania Smith-Oka. Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013. 264 pp. ISBN: 978-0826519184. $28.45.

Importantly, Smith-Oka immediately discloses her Mexican nationality and middle-class background, adding legitimacy to the study. Amatlán’s inhabitants perceive her as an outsider even though she embodies the qualities of mexicanidad Mexican public policy promotes in rural villages. Mexicanidad embraces a cultural mestizo heritage, while also espousing Western ideals of modernity. However, Smith-Oka clarifies that this unifying national identity is an “illusion” if one accounts for Mexico’s culturally diverse populations. Amatlán, situated in northern Veracruz’s sparsely populated Huasteca region, exists, physically and culturally, in the periphery, and its remoteness contributes to romantic or exotic depictions, which of late has generated interest among ecotourists. [End Page 205]

Notwithstanding geographical isolation and Amatlán’s adherence to some traditional ways, outside trends have altered village life. Amatlán’s inhabitants, linguistic descendants of the Aztecs, still place great importance on their food staple, maize, but it is equally common to observe children snacking on junk food and infants drinking cola from baby bottles. Recently, Pentecostal missionaries have succeeded in converting many formerly Catholic villagers. Most important, however, is the shifting paradigm of maternity and motherhood for Amatlán’s women.

Smith-Oka discusses the inextricable links between national identity and motherhood reminiscent of Western imperial ideologies at the turn of the twentieth century. Unlike Western imperial powers, Mexico has had to shed its colonial ties to Spain and develop an identity distinct from the mother country and in contrast to its northern neighbor. The monolithic identity cultivated in prerevolutionary Mexico that emulated a European model crumbled with the start of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), which was in fact three different revolutions with very distinct factions. These differences did not dissolve in its aftermath, so the only realistic solution for a country with a diverse ethnic and racial population and an extremely hierarchical society was to embrace a mestizo identity, which theoretically embraces indigenous elements. The inclusion of the indigenous did not and still does not signify an acceptance of the actual autochthonous groups, given that they have mostly been ignored or seen as an obstacle to modernization. The indigenismo ideology sought to “know” these marginalized populations and then to effectively reeducate them so as to “de-Indianize” them (32–33). The native culture was reinvented and exoticized, and Mexicans were reimagined as middle class and Spanish speaking. To achieve cultural homogenization, surveillance over indigenous women’s bodies became critical, and as the author notes, it continues to play a crucial role in Mexico’s discourse.

From these circumstances, Oportunidades, a conditional cash-transfer program to aid women, arose, acting as a neoliberal vehicle that seeks to modernize Mexicans. In order to receive monetary aid, the program makes women co-responsible for their family’s well-being by “combating risky behaviors” and encouraging women to “invest enough in basic necessities” such as proper nutrition and education (47). Achieving “modernity” is done through two basic methods: one is the reframing of maternity itself, while the other has to do with how women mother. Smith-Oka primarily focuses on the physical aspects of women’s biopotentiality surrounding reproduction and maternity. As Oportunidades beneficiaries, they are not only responsible for producing modern citizens, but they must willingly submit to being reshaped. The supposed modernization of these women presents a series of paradoxes that reveals the persistence of internal colonialism counteracting individual freedom. Moreover, women’s innate indigenousness is then linked to excessive fertility even when this is not the case. If women [End Page 206] opt to give birth at a clinic and participate in family planning, the state perceives them as modern citizens. Ironically, it is only through submissive compliance that Amatlán’s women are considered empowered, since the newly adopted values mimic middle-class standards. Although Mexico’s natal policy shifted dramatically throughout the twentieth century due first to population loss resulting from the Mexican Revolution and then to the growing poverty problem in the latter half, white and mestizo...


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