Interethnic history in Nahua identity. The war against the French, called Analtekos

Gabriela Coronado Suzán* Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS). English translation by Marianna Pool Westgaard, Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México.

The process of constructing identities necessarily involvesthe dynamics of social relations in which different groups have been involved throughout their history. In the case of the pueblos indios (Native American settlements), the history of intherethnic relations is a central theme in the definition a people’s own identity and the construction of the “other”. This process includes a reciprocal dialogue between social groups, which directly or indirectly embodies elements of the manifestation of this interrelationship in different moments in the history of the groups. In interethnic dialogue, identities and relational strategies are built up on the basis of previous experience; of ideological conditions on social contexts; of conjunctural social, economic and political conditions; and of the ends to be obtained from such interaction.

History is a fundamental element for the understanding of the nature of contemporary social identities. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman affirm, “Societies have history in the course of which specific identities arise, but these histories are written by men who [also] have specific identities”.1 However, throughout history the process of forming these identities is based not only on the facts themselves but also on narratives arising from these facts which are shared and socialized by the group. That is, experience is part of the process of building identites and that experience is later transmitted through the creation of different versions of the facts. These versions include interpretations which flow from the values and particular objectives of the different social groups which produce these narratives. The construction of an identity, in this case among the Nahua people of Cuetzalan, in the state of Puebla, involves a long series of interethnic relations which have been narrated in different ways from the perspective of each social group.

In this article, I will point out an alternate version of the facts long excluded from what is considered the “legitimate” version,2 that is, the one produced by groups whose voice is absent from the official public history which has been spread by such vehicles as official textbooks. As far as the formation of identities by means of discourse is concerned, I give priority to this alternate version of history, because I think it is the one which informs an important part of the identity of local social groups in daily life. That is, these are not the “true” facts, but rather the versions of these facts which circulate throughout the population which constitute the ideological reserve which has been internalized and put into practice in the manifestation of identity in social relationships. Within this perspective, I will take up anew certain narratives from the oral history of the Nahua groups living in the Northern Sierra of Puebla. Their version of historical facts both mesh and contrast with other versions produced by local mestizo groups, as well as by the national historical narrative. The conjunction and articulation of these different versions of history constitute an ideological framework from which identities are built up and manifested in interethnic relations

Private histories, different identities

The identity of the Nahua of Cuetzalan, in the Northern Sierra of Puebla, has been formed from an interethnic vision of history from which the features of group identification have been derived. This identity is built up through the tales which circulate in the indigenous communities about both local and national historical events. The facts have been transmitted through different media, among others, oral tradition. In the region of Cuetzalan, a group of “Nahua campesinos... [who work] at intellectual and agricultural activities”,3 members of the Taller de Tradición Oral (Workshop on Oral Tradition), decided to gather and publish narratives from the oral tradition, for the purpose of producing a text that summarizes their version of local history so that people outside the Nahua communities might learn about it. In this article, I will concentrate on an analysis of this oral history text, which appeared as a book entitled Tejuan Tikintenkakiliayaj in Toueyitatajuan. Les oímos contar a nuestros abuelos [‘We listen to our grandfathers tell [stories]’].4

In order to exemplify the process by which a group constructs its identities based on alternate, dissenting and/or complementary versions of history, I will look at the narratives included in the aforementioned book concerning the French intervention, as it is told in the region of Cuetzalan.

“La lucha contra los analtekos” [‘The struggle against the analtekos’] tells of the regional Indian peoples’ participation in the war against the French and Austrians in the XIXth century. There are several stories in this section of the book recounted by some of the ancients of the Nahua communities in the municipio of Cuetzalan, especially those from the community of San Miguel Tzinacapan, where the members of the Taller de Tradición Oral – the authors of this publication – come from. The participation of the Cuetzalan Nahua groups, from the district of Zacapoaxtla, in these events was so outstanding that they were recognized by official public history, especially with regard to the famous battle which took place on Cinco de Mayo.

The participation of the so-called Zacapoaxtla Indians in this battle against the French is perhaps one of the few historical facts in which official Mexican history has explicitly recognized the prominent role of the indigenous population as such in Mexican history. According to this version of history, the Zacapoaxtla participated heroically in defense of the country.5 This recognition, even though it is only part of the real story – a mistake due to ignorance of the local characteristics of the Nahua struggle during this historical period – represents an important ideological element, which has been used by both indigenous and mestizo groups in the region.

From documents found in local archives and from stories circulating in both indigenous and mestizo communities, it is obvious that the Zacapoaxtlas were not the only Nahua participants in these events. For example, in the Cuetzalan Archives there is a list of Cuetzaltecan citizens who were also involved in the struggle against the French.6 About this, Thompson says,

Pala Agustín [a Cuetzaltecan leader] fought in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the day on which the Liberal Army of General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the French expeditionary forces. Later he organized a company of 100 indigenous people from Cuetzalan to fight under Juan N. Méndez in the patriotic resistance against the successive attempts of French and Austrian troops to occupy the sierra”.7

The Eastern Army included Nahua groups from different districts of the Sierra Oriental: Tetela, Tlatlauqui and Zacapoaxtla.8 Cuetzalan had belonged first to Tlatlauqui and later to Zacapoaxtla, but even though administratively it belonged to the district of Zacapoaxtla, they identified themselves as residents of their own municipio, Cuetzalan. For the Cuetzaltecans, the Zacapoaxtla were the inhabitants of the town of San Pedro Zacapoaxtla, who called themselves by that name and who attibuted to themselves all the glory for the heroic events mentioned in the official version. At the moment, the population is mostly mestizo and, since they accept the official version, would barely recognize their indigenous origin outside the context that cries out their participation in that war. And, of course, the city government of Zacapoaxtla continues to back that version of history. This much is evident in the public manifestations on the part of the municipal authorities, as, for example, in the murals found within the City Hall and in the sculptures that decorate the garden in the town’s public plaza. The heroism of the Zacapoaxtlas against the French is a source of pride for the inhabitants of the town. A mestizo from Cuetzalan says:

There are documents that clearly show that those who fought [in this war] were natives from all along the Sierra, but Zacapoaxtla authorities maintain the version that suits them best, although their predecessors were all mestizos who did not fight.9

The Nahua elders’ version of events is different from the public version in many respects, and even differs from that of historians who have researched the local archives. In the first place, for native groups, history is much more than simple events. What stands out for them is the social significance of the events and, thus, the version they tell includes elements which are essential for reinforcing the “ideal” characteristics of their maseual identity.10 That is, their history is a history where symbolism acquires relevancy, reinforcing in past events the basic elements of behavior for Nahua people today.

The explicit objective of this effort, the presentation of their own vision of history, clearly shows the role assigned to narratives for the present day:

By using retrieval, critical reflection and the spread of the Oral Tradition, we are attempting to favor ethnic-cultural development in the area of Cuetzalan…11 Narratives take us by the hand and show us how to live in the Nahua culture. They tell us what our people were like, what daily life was like among the maseualmej and we see that our culture is still alive, that some of our cultures seem to die out, but later they are reborn. Traditional narratives tell of this central core, into which changes have been inserted.12

The different version presented by Nahua authors in this text allows us to understand, not the “truth” of the matter within the local perspective, but rather the cultural value of history as a part of the construction of identities. By retelling their vision of historical events, they emphasize the relevant elements of self-definition vis-a-vis the other social group, the mestizos, whom they call koyomej,13 and with whom they have been in conflict since the mestizo’s arrival in the Sierra in the mid-19th century. Thus, their participation in regional and even national events is viewed as part of a long-standing process in which interethnic confrontation was, and still is, essential for their development as an ethnic group, in relation to other sectors of Mexican society.

Constructing identities

A review of the narratives collected and published in Tejuan Tikintenkakiliayaj in Toueyitatajuan. Les oímos contar a nuestros abuelos helps us define the historical vision of these groups. From their creation myths, which they call narratives,((Calling these well-known creation myths narratives implies to me a clear position taken by the authors which tends to legitimize their version of history as the “true” one.)) to their descriptions of daily life, the stories reproduce a sort of historical memory, sometimes very specific and other times somewhat diffuse, which mixes elements from different time periods in the past with present conditions, constructing messages that crystalize the experience of successive generations. The historical narrative contained in the oral tradition is material for a complex process of transformation, in which each generation reinterprets the past and uses it to define action in the present. This vision of history as a cyclical continuum is explicitly expressed by an elder from Tzinacapan, who says:

Until now, the Spanish have never wanted to come back. But some say that they will want to return eventually. This will be for those who are alive then to see. This story will end as it began. ¿How to begin again? Because this will begin again.14

Although in this case refer only to those narratives from the Nahua region of Cuetzalan, and specifically to the texts published by this group of young people, it is possible to find similar elements in the oral tradition of other native groups. An example of this is found in the texts produced by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapata National Liberation Army),15 in which past historical events are brought up to date, as a central element of support in the present-day struggle:

Our forefathers were pushed up against the banks of the Grijalva and were given an ultimatum to surrender politically and spiritually by the Spanish troops. They preferred to throw themselves into the waters of the river than to betray themselves. We who have inherited the struggle for dignity of our Chiapanecan forefathers can do nothing less than honor that lesson in dignity.16

History is presented in Nahua narratives as focusing on the basic elements of maseual behavior, among which the characteristics of their social organization and the values that allow them to construct their identity stand out, in contrast to the values of other groups. For them, this is not a question of isolated events or exceptional facts. The important thing is the reproduction of the socio-cultural unit in daily life. Importance is given, not so much to concrete events, but rather to the manifestation of behaviors that favor the reproduction of the social group, which is also reproduced in the continual interethnic relationship. That is, the history of native peoples has been the history of the struggles which the maseuales have sustained against other social groups, whether these be indigenous, Spanish, mestizo/koyomej, analtekos, or villistas [followers of Pancho Villa].17

Besides coming across as a cyclical history, oral history reproduces a specific version of events which questions the official version, because it brings the particulars of local social relations to the fore as central elements regarding participation of indigenous people in national events.

In the particular case of the war against the French, public history perceives the participation of native peoples, without taking into account either the ethnic nature of their involvement or the regional conditions into which their actions are inserted, but rather as part of a homogeneous unit. This characteristic of official history is pointed out by Luis González, when he distinguishes between what he calls la historia patria [‘the history of the fatherland’] and la historia matria [‘the history of the motherland’]: “the first abounds in the creation of heroes and the glorification of the powerful, while the second, which is recounted more often than it is written about, places value on the specific and the daily and distrusts discourses of unity, which many times justify oppression”.18 Thus, the historia patria, or official history, emphasizes the participation of native groups, assuming that these groups share the general interests of the nation. According to this version, in the event we are examining here, native groups share the interests of the liberal group against foreign intervention and so in favor of national sovereignty.

In their narratives, however, the Nahua speak of their participation in these events in the context of regional dynamics involving interethnic conflict. In this framework, the French or Austrians represent one more group that came to the region to impose their laws which were detrimental to the living conditions of the native population. The war against the Analtekos in the Sierra started as a war against the mestizos koyomej, which was just one more confrontation in the interethnic struggle. For the maseuales, the French and the mestizos were all koyomej; they were all the same:

…they came to see what we have. They weighed the cobs and the corn and they took it all away on beasts of burden and the owner could say nothing because the [Analteko] president had his soldiers. That is the way the war started.19

In this sense, they see their participation not only as an alliance with the Liberal government, but as an alliance of the native peoples of the Sierra against their oppressors, whether they were Analtekos, mestizos or koyomej.

The Analtekos were already there [in Mexico City] and from there they came and tried to run everyone off… [the maseuales] did not fight against people from the same country, but did make the koyomej [French] leave. Because they were bad for them. They obliged each neighborhood or village to tithe…20 The rich people there [mestizos] were on the French side in hopes that the French would exterminate the maseuales.21

Although the mestizos from Zacapoaxtla supported the French, the Nahua’s reasons for participating in the war were not to be derived from the national perspective of the struggle against foreign intervention and the defense of national sovereignty. For the Nahua in the area, the Spanish gachupines, the koyomej, and the Analtekos were all equally dangerous, since they all came from outside to benefit from their exploitation of the Nahua population and their resources. There is a reason why the term koyomej is used to refer to the French in the preceding quotation.

The relevance of these narratives about the war against the Analtekos is that they show the Nahuas being recognized as winners and brave warriors, not only in the local view but in the national one as well. In this sense, these narratives are ones in which values significant for the development of native communities in the context of interethnic struggle are reinforced. These values represent behavior patterns that have identified the group from the past to the present. The main thing is not, in and of itself, what their motives were or whether their participation was important to Liberal groups. The most important thing for them is to reinforce the values that must be upheld and reproduced in the present, in light of contemporary interethnic relations.

Different pasts in the present

Since there are different versions of history, it is important to consider different political and social situations for the region and within each group when interpreting events. Although the influence of the national context is undeniable, its effect on the region was delayed, since the area was fairly isolated:

Yes, the same struggles took place here, but when they were fighting here they had no idea that there was already peace there. For example, they heard of the caste war and blamed every problem on the caste war.22

On the other hand, the specific situation of each group is not homogeneous. For the maseuales, the 19th century was not a time of national post-Independence construction, as it was in other regions. For the Nahuas of Cuetzalan, this was rather a period of late conquest and colonization in which the “conquerors” were Mexican mestizos or Analtekos, that is, koyomej, instead of Spaniards.

Within this framework, the narratives of the Nahua war against the French underline the events of the whole war in the local context and not only of the historical battle of May 5th, which is the one regarded as significant for the historia patria. The narratives concerning this battle in the oral history book under review relate information which was recounted to the authors (“According to what we were told, this is what we know, what they told us”)23 to information from school texts and the systematic reference to it made nowadays in the town of Zacapoaxtla, where the event is celebrated in one of the town’s most important annual festivities.

In Cuetzalan, participation in this battle is accepted, but in the oral history narratives the action of the maseuales is emphasized, so that the values assigned to each group are quite different. As may be seen from the following quotation, they are the ones who confront the enemy with valor, while the rest of the army, better armed and possessed of horses, sits by and waits. Those who are recognized as heroes are the maseuales and not the generals or the Mexican army:

And what is known from [oral] tradition is about the battle of Cinco de Mayo in 1862 in Puebla, when Benito Juárez was President. And he named the Eastern Army head of the defensive forces… Many generals and [other] people participated… among them Porfirio Díaz and the three Juanes… It was the three Juanes who led the people, the people recruited by the three of them in the three regions. These were the ones who were sent ahead, to appear before the enemy, and after them went the army’s infantry and after them the cavallary… According to what we were told by those who went and returned, they sent the rancheros ahead in the encounter with the French… They went in like tigers”.24

In this narrative there are certain elements which also appear in other accounts of battles against the French. In all of them, the leadership of Juan Francisco Lucas, considered to be the one who started the war, is mentioned: “The war was begun by Juan Francisco’s father… they came to run off the Analtekos who were in Zacapoaxtla”.25 When Juan Francisco is spoken of, he is almost always identified as maseual. The authors of this book make this idea explicit in their introduction to this chapter:

In the narratives, people speak of general Juan Francisco Lucas, maseual from Xochiapulco. He is remembered in the region not only because he was a good general, but because all his life he considered himself a maseual and he helped his people.

In these narratives, it is important not only that the general was maseual in origin, but particularly that his commitment was assumed as a maseual, reinforcing the identification of a distinct ethnic group in the region. Along with the importance given to participants in these events as maseuales or koyomej, their participation in the war – not as allies of the Mexican army, but of another maseual who led the uprising of the maseuales of the Sierra against their enemies, at that time the French, but at others mestizos – is significant. This fact also shows how important the identification of native groups was at the regional level. The most important thing was not their place of origin, whether it was Cuetzalan or Xochiapulco, but rather the fact that they shared an ethnic identity in contrast to the non-ma¬seuales. The importance of this ethnic identification of the native movement, later against koyomej, was interpreted as a caste war, reinforced by the maseual slogan “Muerte a la gente de razón” (‘Death to people of reason’).26

Other narratives included in this history refer to battles in which the maseuales defeated the French in the Sierra and in the city of Puebla. The battle of Puebla (April 2) is mentioned, as well as the taking of the Fort of Zacapoaxtla, the battle of Apulco and several smaller skirmishes in the Sierra, which blocked the passage of the French to San Miguel Tzinacapan, “on the hill of Tasalolpan, up there where a stone corral which the French built for their defense still exists”.27

The importance of the narratives on these battles has to do with how they are recounted, emphasizing values fundamental to the struggle of the native villages in the area. They emphasize the form of communal organization and, especially, the participation of women, the effectiveness of intercommunal links, the ability of the maseuales to overcome the lack of arms and the strategic importance of local knowledge. These elements shine in the texts, bringing out the defference between them and the public version of history, which mentions only the feats of the great generals, but not the participation of common people in these events. In the Nahua version,

Not only the great men are remembered, those who led others in war, but also and especially our forefathers. In history books, only the generals appear, not many remember a maseual.28

Different versions of the motives for their participation also appear. For example, in the official history of the battle against French intervention, the factions identify themselves as liberals (against intervention) or conservatives (for intervention). Each group seems to be internally homogeneous, sharing the same principles and fighting for the same objectives. Even in academic studies based on local archives, the native peoples are said to be involved in the struggle for national sovereignty. This is explicitly stated in the work of Florencia Mallon, who emphasizes the participation of native groups based on supposedly common ideals.29

In the native version, on the other hand, local identities are built on the assumption of internal diversity, where there are “good people” and “bad people” in each group. The important thing, then, is not so much the fact of belonging to one group or another, but whether a person is in favor of, or against, the maseuales as an ethnic group. In this sense, the alliance with the liberals in the history of Cuetzalan depends not on the acceptation of the principles and goals of the group, but on the simple fact of their being friends or enemies of the maseuales. At the time of these events, the koyomej were allied with the French, and in order to confront them, the maseuales united with other mestizos who were against those who supported the French. This position, expressed in the narratives, has occasionally been called oportunistic.30 It coincides with other facts reported in local official documents. Thompson31 mentions the Cuetzaltecan leader, Pala Agustín Dieguillo, for example, captain of the National Guards who, after having fought at the side of liberals, used his arms and position of power – obtained from the army through his participation in the anti-interventionist movement – for his own ends. As a reward for services in support of Porfirio Díaz, other generals who fought in the Sierra, especially Juan Francisco Lucas, supported him against the koyomej of Cuetzalan.

In the same way, the mestizos of Cuetzalan allied themselves with one or another group, depending on their interests. First they had identified themselves as conservatives and later as liberals to obtain the benefits of the Lerdo Law (1856), which facilitated the appropriation of communal land, which were rented by the koyomej or unoccupied at that time.32 The alliance between the mestizos and the Mexican army was seen, not as an alliance with a historical enemy, but as an alliance of one group of mestizos with another which, besides the immediate benefits it brought, created commitments of reciprocity for the future.

The Nahua narratives include specifics about group participation that make up a history in which there are not only struggles among factions for power at times and for the defense of national sovereignty at others, but a daily relationship of conflict which implies negotiations, confrontations and concessions among the different sectors of society. Although at certain times internal divisions within the communitiy stood out, during the time in which all the maseuales in the region were fighting against the French, they showed themselves as a group united against them, reinforcing regional native identity.

In the references I have mentioned here, there are examples of the motives behind their participation in the war, including support for national groups when events went beyond the local level, but the meaning of their participation at the national level cannot be interpreted solely from that perspective. From a regional perspective, for the Nahua, it was a matter of defending their territory and their autonomy, as evidenced in local documents, from which Thompson constructs the story of the Cuetzaltecan leader:

For Civilian Captain Francisco Agustín Dieguillo, to serve the liberal patriotic cause was the means to a simple but logical end: to keep non-natives – known as gente de razón in the Sierra – from taking over communal lands in the municipio of Cuetzalan and thus to keep any foreigner from presenting a substantial claim on that land […]33 At the level of district and state politics, Pala Agustín and his followers consistently offered material and military support to the Liberal Party in the Sierra in exchange for success in their political objectives. At the neighborhood and municipal level… they organized an armed movement to expel the non-native population from their land.34

The war of intervention in no way implied the beginning and end of the armed conflict in the Sierra, but it did constitute a fundamental element in the reinforcement of the alliances among different leaders, thus contributing to the construction of a regional identity that reproduced the conflictive identities between the Nahuas and the mestizos, deepening the existing division.

Values in maseual identity

It is difficult to know whether the particular interethnic experience at one moment in history or another is present in the actions and the manifestation of present-day identities. For example, the extent of the influence of present-day alliances is not fully known, where the maseuales have been supported by mestizo groups from outside the region in their opposition to economic and political control on the part of the koyomej (as in the case of the regional cooperative known as Tosepan Titataniske). Neither is it known how much remains in the collective memory of the mestizos of the need to avoid interethnic conflict when native and mestizo communities supposedly collaborate on events involving tourism and politics.35 What is evident is the fact that interethnic history, as spoken of by members of these communities, reinforces a complex construction of interethnic relations in which, depending on the political juncture, the maseuales relate to the koyomej, or amongst themselves against the koyomej, using different strategies for negotiation or confrontation already attempted at other times, and they form alliances with other mestizos, taking advantage of their knowledge of the “outside world” to gain their objectives.

The importance of these past events for the present shows up in the description of historical events in the narratives, where certain elements which might be said to characterize the maseual self-image stand out. This characterization is centered basically around conflictive interethnic relationships. In this case, the message has to do with the forefathers’ behavior as an example for the young, who today find themselves in conflictive situations when they have to fight like their forefathers against the abuse of “invaders”, now mestizos, koyomej, government officials and even national and foreign researchers.

In the battle of Apulco, for exmaple, the maseuales, armed with nothing but ample knowledge of the Sierra, were able to strategically place themselves so as to detain the enemy with nothing but stones, and then to recover arms from the bodies of the casualties they found on the side of the mountain:

They had won because they made women carry the stones; they took them to the top of the hill and, when the enemy approached, they moved only one stone and many died at once, not just one”.36

In the same way, the defeat of the French at the Fort of Zacapoaxtla is described as the result of ingenuity on the part of the maseuales and the effectiveness of communal organization:

The soldiers captured some women from there and took them to the fort. But the women had been forewarned, they had instructions, so they did not resist and told the soldiers to do with them what they would. While the French soldiers drank, the women said that they were going to the plaza to buy something to prepare for the meal and they went, but they only bought a large load of chilpocle [peppers] and a few bottles of turpentine. They returned to the fort, laid the peppers on the ground and wet it down with the turpentine and set fire to it and left. A little later, the soldiers could not breathe and ran from the fort coughing and looking for air. The maseualmej were waiting for them and killed them all with machetes.37

In the same text the authors say, “Even today, chipotle peppers are burned to get rats to come out of their nests”.38

In both narratives, the role of women in war stands out. As a part of communal organization, they are a basic element in the success of group struggle. The individual role of heroines is not important, as it is in official versions of history. In this case, maseual women are not people who act in an exceptional way, but rather stand out as a group, in that they are part of a communal organization in which men and women, whether they be children, young adults or elderly people, play important roles in reaching common goals.

Given the cyclical nature of native history, it is difficult to tell whether it was precisely the events of the 19th century or of any other time period which determined the way in which modern identities and social practices came to be. The 19th century, however, is fundamental in that it was the time when groups arrived from outside to establish themselves in native territories. In this sense, the 19th century, especially the last half of it, produced a profound change in social relations in the area of Cuetzalan. Before that, given that access to the area was difficult, the presence of outsiders was sporadic. The owners of the encomiendas were never there and religous action was limited to the presence of a priest who looked after his parish.39 But in the 19th century, mestizo families arrived in the area and they expanded, taking maseual lands by force.40 The modification of social relations produced a continual conflict into which the French presence inserted itself, these latter being considered as part of the group of koyomej, in that they allied themselves with them and acted like them.

Another important aspect in the transformation of Cuetzalan, beginning in the 19th century and ending at the start of the 20th, was a change in the distribution of inhabitation, with the displacement of the native population from the modern-day municipal seat. The takeover of Cuetzalan by the mestizos led to the destruction of a Nahua village, including buildings which were the products of collective labor by the native communities. Cuetzalan was transformed into a mestizo village (spatially and demographically), surrounded by native communities that were slowly displaced father from the town, due to loss of their lands, either by law or by force.

Teachings of the past

The message to be derived from the narratives about the behavior patterns of the maseuales is heard by the group and continues to be taken explicitly as a model for group behavior. The maseuales are, and have always been, communally organized groups who have always defended themselves against the abuse of the mestizos and have created intercommunal allinces to confront the economical, political and military power of koyomej. They have collaborated with them for reciprocal benefits and they have accepted the collaboration of other mestizos who support them in exchange for new knowledge which might enrich their culture and economy in the context as they become more integrated into national society.

It is possible to find present-day references to the values which are held up as ideal in the narratives in this oral history text. These references are not always explicitly associated with one period or another of interethnic history in the region, but are mentioned generally as part of the interethnic knowledge stored in historic memory and transmitted in the narratives.41 For exmaple, one theme that comes up constantly in the narratives on war, the participation of women in the war effort, is taken up anew in the legitimation of the action of a group of women who decided to form a handcraft co-operative for women only, which benefited families and the community as a whole. These women justified their action, which in a way could be seen as going against tradition, as the recovery of “traditional” participation of women in the general struggle for survival at the side of the men, as part of the communal organization which had been corrupted by external domination.

…I think we used to be organized, we supported each other; there was a sisterhood among women as there was a brotherhood among men, for example in the sowing season… women always fought in support of men, but this got lost among the new customs which were imposed upon us… but necessity has made us rethink how we organize ourselves and we see that [traditional cooperation] is the way to achieve more.42

In the same way, the need for some kind of regional ethnic organization is being reinforced, as well, which will allow Nahua communities in the area to become stronger so that they may keep the mestizos from excessive abuse against them. This becomes clear with respect to the formation of the Tosepan Titataniske regional production co-operative, which has based its strength and continuity on the reproduction of communal forms of organization, reinforcing inter-communal links and collaborating with mestizos from outside the area.

One of the authors of the book under consideration interprets more explicitly the prominent role of his community in the modern struggle to better living conditions as a result of what has been learned in war. According to him, in San Miguel Tzinacapan, leadership in the fight against abuse by wholesalers and of economic and political control by the mestizos is the result of the fighting spirit of the forefathers:

It must be because people from San Miguel have a reputation for being rebellious. From the time of the French occupation, every time someone tries to impose something on us from outside, we have resisted, we have never let them do it. Everyone knows that people from San Miguel are ready for a fight.43

In this case, the town’s reputation, which has existed at least since the war against the Analtekos, has been reinforced by continuous confrontation between Cuetzalan and Tzinacapan at different times. The collective memory, in the form of interethnic knowledge, has melded different events throughout their history into one big memory and, even if specific historical events are not remembered in detail, the values that inform actions in different times and places are never lost. For the Nahuas of Cuetzalan, details of the war against the French, the struggle of Tzinacapan to free itself from mestizo-ruled Cuetzalan, the fight to retain the image of Saint Michael (their patron saint) or their takeover of Cuetzalan in the so-called “caste war” are not as important as maintaining and transmitting the facts that maseuales are brave, they organize themselves into communes and regional groups, and especially that they will not allow themselves to be taken advantage of.


The influence of the French on the area cannot be viewed as an event in itself, but as part of a process of transformation in the area in which interethnic struggle was decisive within the construction of regional and communal identities. History as narrated by the maseuales – as a succession of interethnic conflicts – defines their identity at the regional level as an ethnic group with an effective form of communal and regional organization and as warriors who will always fight against domination. For their part, the work done by the authors of the oral history text under discussion builds up a view of the maseuales of San Miguel Tzinacapan as a prominent group in the area’s struggles. The recognition which official history gives the natives of Zacapoaxtla also reinforces the legitimacy of their story about relationships to the mestizos of the area. That version of history recognizes them as valiant, just as their own version of history does. Imprecise historical memory is a reinforcement of positive identity and of its transformation into actions in the struggle of present-day maseualmej.

Oral history, including these narratives published by young maseualmej and the continuity of their actions into the present, is an example of how complex the construction and reproduction of group identity is. The multitude of histories coming from oral tradition, from textbooks and from academic studies of the region represent the base upon which the social construction of interethnic identities is built and from which patterns of self-identification and identification of others arises. These things flow into the present, providing models, attitudes and patterns for the construction of the collective image present in each individual’s self-construction in every act of interethnic communication and which, in its turn, will become the oral history of the future.


Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckman, La construcción social de la realidad, Buenos Aires, Amorrortu, 1976.

Coronado, Gabriela, “Interethnic dialogue in Mexican Culture: A fractal Approach”, paper presented at the colloquium Latin America, Spain and Portugal: Old and new visions, Association of Iberian and Latin American Studies of Australasia, Melbourne, Australia, July 8-10, 1999.

____________, “Silenced Voices of Mexican Culture, Identity, resistance and creativity in the Interethnic Dialogue”, doctoral dissertation, Universidad de Western Sydney, 2000.

De la Peña, Guillermo, “Territorio y ciudadanía étnica en la nación globalizada”, in Desacatos. Revista de Antropología Social, México, CIESAS, spring 1999, pp. 18-27.

EZLN, Documentos y comunicados I, México, ERA, 1994.

EZLN, Documentos y comunicados II, México, ERA, 1995.

García Martínez, Bernardo, Los pueblos de la Sierra. El poder y el espacio entre los indios del norte de Puebla hasta 1700, México, El Colegio de México, 1987.

Goodal, H., “The whole truth and nothing but”, in B. Attwood and J. Arnold, Special edition of Journal of Australian Studies, 1992, pp. 104-109.

Jenkins K., Rethinking history, London, Routledge, 1991.

Mallon, Florencia E., Peasant and Nation. The Making of Post colonial México and Perú, California, University of California Press, 1995.

SEP, Historia. Cuarto Grado, México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1996.

Taller de Tradición Oral, Tejuan Tikintenkakiliayaj Toueyitatajuan. Les oímos contar a nuestros abuelos, México, INAH, 1994.

Thompson, Guy P.C., Francisco Agustín Dieguillo. Un liberal cuetzalteco decimonónico: 1861-1894, México, Gobierno del Estado de Puebla/Secretaría de Cultura, 1995.

____________, “Agrarian conflict in the municipality of Cuetzalan (Sierra de Puebla): The rise and fall of ‘Pala’ Agustín Dieguillo, 1861-1894”, in Hispanic American Historical Review, 71:2, 1991, pp. 205-258.

Valderrama Rouy, Pablo and Carolina Ramírez Suárez, “Resistencia étnica y defensa del territorio en el Totonacapan serrano: Cuetzalan en el siglo XIX”, in A. Escobar (coord.), Indios, Etnia y Nación, México, CIESAS, 1994, pp. 189-205.

Translator’s Note

Gente de razón is a term once used by the gentry in Mexico to refer to themselves.
An encomienda was a group of native people under the care of a non-native, called an encomendero.

  1. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, La construcción social de la realidad, 1976. []
  2. K. Jenkins, Rethinking history, 1991. []
  3. Taller de Tradición Oral, Tejuan Tikintenkakiliayaj Toueyitatajuan, Les oímos cantar a nuestros abuelos, 1994. []
  4. Idem. []
  5. SEP, Historia. Cuarto Grado, 1996. []
  6. Interview with the person in charge of the Municipal Archives, in 1997. See also Florencia E. Mallón, Peasant and Nation. The Making of Post colonial Mexico and Peru, 1995, as well as Pablo Valderrama Rouy and Carolina Ramírez Suárez, “Resistencia étnica y defensa del territorio en el Totonacapan serrano: Cuetzalan en el siglo XIX”, in A. Escobar (coord.), Indios, Etnia y Nación, 1994. []
  7. Guy P.C. Thompson, Francisco Agustín Dieguillo. Un liberal cuetzalteco decimonónico: 1861-1894; 1995, pp. 7-8. []
  8. Taller de Tradición Oral,op. cit., p. 104. []
  9. Interview…, 1997. []
  10. Maseual is the term that the Nahua use for self-identification. Although the term literally means “one who works”, they translate it simply as “indigenous person”. Maseualmej is the plural form. []
  11. Taller de Tradición Oral, op. cit., p. 28. []
  12. Ibid., p. 31. []
  13. Koyomej or coyotes in Spanish or English, is the term commonly used by the Nahua to refer to mestizos, especially those with whom they have established a conflictive relationship: tradespeople, coffee hoarders, producers of cane whisky or authorities in the seat of the municipio. As we will see later, the term is also extended to other outside non-mestizo groups, who enterinto the same type of conflictive relationships. []
  14. Taller de Tradición Oral, op. cit., p. 88. []
  15. EZLN, Documentos y comunicados II, 1995. []
  16. EZLN, Documentos y comunicados I, 1994. []
  17. In this case, during the Revolution, the koyomej allied themselves with Villa and, for this reason the maseuales supported Carranza. []
  18. Guillermo de la Peña, “Territorio y ciudadanía étnica en la nación globalizada”, in Desacatos. Revista de Antropología Social, Spring 1999, p. 18. []
  19. Taller de Tradición Oral, op. cit., p. 102. []
  20. Ibid., p. 103. []
  21. Ibid., p. 109. []
  22. Interview…, 1997. []
  23. Taller de Tradición Oral, op. cit., p. 104. []
  24. Idem. []
  25. Ibid., p. 109. []
  26. Pablo Valderrama Rouy and Carolina Ramírez Suárez, op. cit., p. 202. []
  27. Taller de Tradición Oral, op. cit., 108. []
  28. Ibid., p. 30. []
  29. Florencia E. Mallón, op. cit., p. 44. []
  30. This negative assessment of the flexibility of alliances depending on political conjuncture is frequently used by the mestizos, especially with respect to the links of the Native American cooperativists to different political parties, according to what behooves them in a given situation. []
  31. Guy P.C. Thompson, op. cit. []
  32. Idem. []
  33. Ibid., p. 8. []
  34. Ibid., p. 9. []
  35. Gabriela Coronado, “Interethnic dialogue in Mexican Culture: A fractal Approach”, paper presented at the colloquium Latin American, Spain and Portugal. Old and new visions, 1999, and Silenced Voices of Mexican Culture, Identity, resistance and creativity in the Interethnic Dialogue, doctoral dissertation, 2000. []
  36. Taller de Tradición Oral, op. cit., p. 106. []
  37. Ibid., pp. 109-110. []
  38. Ibid., p. 110. []
  39. Bernardo García Martínez, Los pueblos de la Sierra. El poder y el espacio entre los indios del norte de Puebla hasta 1700, 1987. []
  40. In the mestizo version, this process was not imposed, but the result of “normal” displacement, produced by migration and the purchase of land. []
  41. These are now also reinforced in some of the local indigenous radio stations. []
  42. Interview with a member of the women’s cooperative, 1997. []
  43. Idem. []

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