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Mesoamerican Ethnology: Modernity and Tradition in Indigenous Lives

(This guest post in recognition of National Native American Heritage Month is a version of a bibliographic essay by Duncan Earle, Professor of Global Studies, Marymount California University, which previously appeared in the Mesoamerican Ethnology section of Volume 71 (2016) of the Handbook of Latin American Studies.)

This post explores recent publications in the field of Mesoamerican ethnology, that is, publications on the lives, traditions, and cultures of Indigenous peoples of the Borderlands, Mexico and Central America. Publications discussed here (and in the original essay in Volume 71 of the “Handbook of Latin American Studies”) reveal a growing diversity of perspectives, approaches and ways of framing inquiries, with cultural work from Mexican scholars better known for socioeconomics and Anglo scholars providing excellent socioeconomic and political studies, without losing sight of the characteristics that hold Mesoamerican Studies together as a holistic field. There is more hybridity, a kind of mestizaje among studies, and new ways of approaching old subjects abound. Novel combinations have yielded more historically grounded community studies and better contextualization and reflection about including native voices and interpreting primary texts. Scholars of Mesoamerica are broadening their areas of interest and experimenting with methodologies (see, for example, these relevant publications: Barragán Solís (ed.); Münch Galindo; Nahmad Sitton, Dalton, and Nahón (eds.); and Palka).

Among recent publications, there is an ever-growing presentation of Indigenous voices all across the Americas. We see the continued use of traditional forms of theoretical ethnographic practice with and by Indigenous peoples from the very objectifying, almost naturalistic and quantitative studies, to those with explicit agendas in advocacy or solidarity, reflexivity and even romantic remembrances (see, for example: Argueta, Corona M., and Hersch Martínez (eds.); Baeza Espejel, Gómez Guerrero, and Ramón Silva (eds.); Cerero, Mendoza Martínez, and Serrato Cruz; Corral Sandoval; Dary; Domínguez Rueda; Laughlin; López Santillán; Tirel; Toledo Chávarri; Worley; and Wortham). Today all these voices and approaches are alive and well in less predictable combinations, if often coming from seemingly different worlds, and we must celebrate that the field can encompass a broad range of perspectives while also acknowledging critiques.

According to many studies of the Indigenous worldview or what is sometimes called “cosmovision” – a view or cultural “map” of reality and humans’ place in it, Mesoamericans live in a double world: the chronological world of the sun, daily life, and the senses; and a second world of dreams, trance states, visions, ancestors and spirits, saints and demons, the dead and the yet unborn; the landscapes of dreams and visions where shamans, healers, and witches provide guidance (several books talk about these topics: Aedo; Amador Bech; Gallardo Arias; Garza; Núñez Rodríguez; Palka; Rocha Valverde, Tomo I; Rocha Valverde, Tomo II; and Schaefer). This dual world is a consistent theme across time and cultures and plays a part of every cosmovision scheme described in recent studies. Publications based on a wide and varying set of primary resources, including textiles, petroglyphs, stelas, ancient frescos, modern drawings, as well as beliefs about saints, myths and oral traditions all reveal different aspects of the duality of the Indigenous worldview.

The world faces environmental challenges. Indigenous cultures have traditionally seen the importance of their relationship with the environment more clearly than urban societies. The long-standing proximity of Indigenous cultures to nature and sustainable management of the environment is a potential avenue for appreciation across ethnicities. By revisiting historical accounts and archeological data, scholars are gaining an understanding of how Indigenous Mesoamericans think about and see the world. This Indigenous knowledge might reasonably be applied to a range of fields—environmental history, urban development and others. New studies offer alternative, historically and culturally contingent ways of looking at the same world. (See, for example, publications by these authors: Argueta, Corona M., and Hersch Martínez (eds.); Cook and Offit; Grandia, Liffman, Lorente y Fernández; Mantilla (ed.); Martínez Gracián and Ochoa Serrano (eds.); and Olson.)

View of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, within Navajo tribal lands in northeastern AZ, near Chinle. Credit: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

As we see more understanding of native worldviews by non-Indigenous scholars, we also see a complementary rising tide of Indigenous voices (and studies of Indigenous voices) within the fields of public policy, Indigenous rights (from political and legal perspectives), and an increasing Indigenous perspective within the professional world. We also see socioeconomic studies showing Indigenous economic and educational conditions, as well as gender dynamics, adaptation to urbanism, and empowerment using video, radio and television. The authors that address these topics are: Bartra, Dary, Faba Zuleta, Flores Hernández, Hernández Castillo, López Santillán, Pitarch Ramón and Orobitg (eds.), and Wortham. The 1994 Zapatista uprising brought about a greater awareness of the needs and concerns of Indigenous communities, and three books talk about this topic: Álvarez Álvarez, Baronnet, and Millán. The revolt unleashed a wave of Indigenous social movements through the entire hemisphere. Some of this activity has translated into legislative action to legally enshrine (some) Indigenous rights (as these authors describe: García Babini; Gómez Isa (ed.); Liffman; Ochoa García; Sierra Camacho, Hernández Castillo, and Sieder (eds.); and Villeda Santana (ed.)). These movements both seek and constitute some form of (re-)vindication of the Indigenous way of life and a critique of a worldview that did not include the perspectives of minority populations. Said another way, the voices of the Indigenous themselves, first captured by authoritative and collaborative authors, and then in their own right, are laying claim to authority and a right to be heard. Two compiled volumes consider this issue: Bortoluzzi and Jacorzynski (eds.) and Mantilla (ed.).

Mexican woman (between 1908 and 1919) Credit: National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 

Fortino Domínguez Rueda, for example, discusses the nuanced transformations of Zoque identity in an urban context – which is his identity too. I see in these voices a maturing and growing of the spaces for the Mesoamerican voice amidst the din of other scholars, Mexican and otherwise. I predict (and hope) that in another few years there will be many more of these voices, so that the diversity of Indigenous voices is reflected in future studies. At the same time, the traditional borders between cultural and social studies, material conditions and cosmovision, historical studies and current ethnographies, archeological and ethnographic studies, are steadily dissolving. New and refreshing disciplinary combinations have arisen, along with movement across cultural boundaries as Indigenousness re-emerges in Mesoamerica today. This movement includes robust studies of legal jurisprudence as laws delineate Indigenous rights and autonomous governance. People are asking questions from a legal standpoint: Who is Indigenous? How are multiple, disparate claims to traditional authority managed? Is it possible to keep this transformation from being coopted by outside political forces? There is much more to be heard on this score in the future.

Many recent publications cross fields of study. Gender plays a major role in many of the studies and is a central focus of a number of recent publications (such as: Brondo; Domínguez Rueda; Flores Hernández; Kistler; Millán; Münch Galindo; Murillo Licea et al.; Nahmad Sitton, Dalton, and Nahón (eds.); Tirel; and Villeda Santana (ed.) Another recent trend is the discussion of the interaction between traditional medicine and the Western biomedical model, as in the following works: Hendrickson, Incháustegui, Peña Sánchez and Hernández Albarrán, and Quintero Soto. Migration has been a staple of Mesoamerican studies and continues to be well represented, both within local and regional contexts as well as abroad (see, for example: D’Aubeterre Buznego and Rivermar Pérez (eds.); Domínguez Rueda; Grandia; Idiáquez; Nolasco Armas and Rubio (eds.), Vol. 1; Nolasco Armas and Rubio (eds.), Vol. 2; Oliver Ruvalcaba and Torres Robles; París Pombo (ed.); and Toledo Chávarri). Indigenous languages and education and its connection or disconnection with national education and culture continues to be a concern (see these relevant publications: Baronnet, Gómez Lara, and Rojas Cortés). What we find and can celebrate as we move further into this new century is a crossing of disciplinary boundaries, the hybridization of essentialized categories (rural-urban, campesino-laborer-professional, medicines, cosmovisions/religions, law/custom, and more), and the willingness of scholars to work together across these former conceptual, ethnic, temporal, and spatial borders. This border crossing speaks well of the future of the discipline of Mesoamerican Ethnology.

The Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS) is a gateway to the Library’s Latin American collections. Search HLAS for descriptions of books, articles, conference papers and more with links to related web content. Credit: Hispanic Division, Library of Congress.

Additional Resources

  • Webcast: “And Wheat Completed the Cycle: Flour Mills, Social Memory, and Industrial Culture in Sonora, Mexico.” April 21, 2010, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
  • For more books and articles that reflect the Indigenous lived experience throughout Latin America and the Caribbean – and in the US borderlands (including Texas, Florida, and New Mexico), visit the Handbook of Latin American Studies web site. You can search for publications by keyword, author, title, subject, etc. You can also limit your search to a specific language of the publication (many books and articles are in English), place of publication (the database includes materials from all over the world), type of publication (book, journal article, etc.), and/or date (publication dates range from the 1970s to the present; we add new works all the time!).
  • To read Professor Earle’s original essay and his complete annotated bibliography, take a look at the print version of HLAS Volume 71 (p. 48-72), available at the Library of Congress and at many libraries around the world. You can also see a listing of all of the publications that were included in that section. Tip: search using the topic code “sel3000” to see over 2,000 publications that have appeared in the Mesoamerican Ethnology section for the past 50 years.
  • Stolen: An Indigenous Messenger’s Own Account of the Aztec Conquest, by Maria Guadalupe Partida, 2020 Junior Fellow, Hispanic Division. In this exercise of creative writing, an imaginary Indigenous narrator explores the triumphs, downfall, and history of the Aztec civilization. Collection items from the Library of Congress, such as Mesoamerican codices, images, and audio clips, highlight the rise and fall of the Aztecs. This downloadable CSV file provides the mapped data in this Story Map.

Portrait of the Artist as Rain(bow) Maker: Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden

In 2017, the Hebraic Section acquired a miniature Hebrew prayer-book of exceptional beauty and detail, handwritten and illustrated by one Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden in Mainz, Germany in or around 1745. With its brightly painted images and exquisite detail, this miniature is one of the loveliest examples of a genre which enjoyed something of a renaissance in 18th century Central Europe. This blog places special emphasis on the life of the largely unknown artist who created this beautiful piece, and examines the connection between his signature and the rainbow with which he illuminated one of its pages.

Myths and Realities of the Pre- and Post-Conquest Indigenous World: New Avenues of Mesoamerican Ethnohistory

In recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, this bibliographic essay on Mesoamerican ethnohistory by Bradley Benton and Peter Villella for the Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS) explores Indigenous life and cultures, particularly Aztec and Maya, before, during, and after the Spanish conquest.