- Land, Livelihood, and Civility in Southern Mexico: Oaxaca Valley Communities in History by Scott Cook
Although the production of ethnographies and village studies has reached industrial proportions, comparative studies are rare, and even more so is one that compares and contrasts so many as nine distinct communities. Nevertheless, many decades of fieldwork have equipped Scott Cook “to document and explain how nine communities in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico have endeavored over centuries to secure land, livelihood, and civility” (pp. xi, 277). Civility is defined as “shorthand for compliance with the duties or obligations of community citizenship,” which for these Oaxaca communities entails conforming to the demands of usos y costumbres (customs and traditions; p. 330), particularly of the cargo system and tequio (community labor).
Despite a few historical errors, one must applaud Cook’s painstaking research, which involved reading chronicles, scouring archives, and taking perhaps hundreds of oral histories. This enables him to reconstruct the history of each separate community, delivering many gems along the way: the juxtaposition of the oral history of 88-year-old Eduardo Mendoza detailing “exploitation, oppression, and violence” to hacendado Carlos Castro’s memoir of the ups and downs of the Hacienda Buena Vista (pp. 41–48), or his analysis of the destructive impact of the gangsters of “revolutionary” caudillo Juan Briton and his “defensas sociales” (regional militia) on neighboring towns (pp. 55–61, 205–206, 278–279). To explain the dialectic of change and continuity in the lives of artisans, sharecroppers, ejidatarios, and artisan/peasants in both indigenous and mestizo communities, Cook studies the Jaliezas pueblos (Santa Cecilia, Santo Domingo, and Santo Tomás), the Teitipac pueblos (San Juan and San Sebastián), and the haciendas of San Antonio Buenavista and Xaagá, as well as San Lorenzo Albarradas and Magdalena Ocotlán.
This anthropologist introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters whose life stories are revealed to us very often in their own words. Clearly, Cook has worked and played with many of his informants over the years; consequently, he is able to follow families through generations. The obstacles faced by these often multi-occupational plaiters of palm baskets and petates, weavers, woodcarvers, cane cutters, stonecutters, and storekeepers, many of whom also tilled small parcels, at times seem insurmountable. Relations with local haciendas and later the creation of ejidos and the unequal distribution of ejido lands have complicated daily survival further so it should come as no surprise that migration is also a part of this story.
Whether he is describing various pueblo/hacienda confrontations, narrating the “extraordinary career” of metatero (carver of flat stone bases and rolling pins for grinding)/storekeeper/harmonica player Inocencio Morales through his myriad of occupations and migrations (pp. 70–76), or recounting the unique story of weaver Félix Sibaja, innumerable tensions and difficulties arise along the way to complicate his subjects’ struggle for civility. Orphaned in Tlacolula and later a bracero in California, Sibaja opened his own workshop with six looms in the city of Oaxaca, only to lose it and relocate to Xaagá, where he established a weaving workshop cooperative on that ex-hacienda. After a year, local authorities closed it down on the charge that Morales was exploiting his workers (although no one else in the town could afford a workshop); [End Page 692] he then began sharecropping with his wife. Returning finally to the city of Oaxaca, he worked as a weaver for a daily wage (pp. 154-157). Another man, Porfirio Mateo Cruz, learned to make metates at age 12, but relocated to Tlacolula to escape the factionalism and violence in San Juan Teitipac. Later, he had to return to San Juan when it became very difficult to obtain stone due to ownership conflicts at the quarry between comuneros and private property owners.
The requirements of civility, of custom, particularly the requirement to be mayordomía of a village fiesta, can leave a family in debt for years, weigh heavily on these oaxaque...