Home 603 Mesoamerica Cultures

Book List

Week 1-2 Carmack

Week 3 Whisnat

Week 4 Whisnat

Week 5 Whisnat

Week 6 Nash

Week 6 Essay 1 Question

Week 6 Essay

Week 7 Nash

Week 8 Manz

Week 9 Manz

Week 10 Binford

Week 11 Binford

Week 12 Oppenheimer

Week 12 Quinones

Week 12 Essay 2 Question

Week 12 Essay 2

Week 13 Oppenheimer

Week 13 Quinones

Week 14 Dow

Week 15 Dow

Final Paper


Victoria Kline
Anthropology 582: Mesoamerican Cultures
November 23, 2004
Dr. Ramona Perez

Essay Two: Nash, Manz, and Binford

A comparison of Mesoamerican ethnographies are the focus of this essay: Mayan Visions by June Nash, Paradise in Ashes by Beatriz Manz, and The El Mozote Massacre by Leigh Binford. The areas of study for each author are: Nash in the Mayan village of Amatenango in Chiapas, Mexico; Manz with the Mayans in the highland and rain forest of Santa Maria Tzeja, Guetamala; and Binford’s study of the campesinos of El Mozote, El Salvador. There are similarities in the conditions of the people as the subjects of the three study areas. They are all of indigenous origin or impoverished ladinos, they are all campesinos, farmers, or artisans, they have all been marginalized and subjugated, mistreated, forgotten, and objects of genocide. They are the poor in poor countries, yet all have used some form of resistance to be able to survive and maintain ties to the old ways. In comparing and contrasting the three ethnographies I will cover the significance of the study areas from each authors viewpoint, how history is interpreted by each author as important or not, and the meaning of anthropology from each point of view. Author’s message, methodology, and connection to their area of study will be included within the text. 

In Mayan Visions, Nash seeks to understand what the Mayans envision for themselves and how they may be able to implement their visions in this time where there is less of a buffer between cultural groups or geographic locations. Isolation is no longer possible. Nash wonders how the Mayan culture will fit into the world economy. Will they fit in to the world system without being subsumed by the world system? Can they exist and thrive outside of the world of a global economy?

According to Nash, because of the present pressures to globalization of the economy, the autonomy that the Mayas desire will be difficult to achieve. Author, June Nash, did ethnographic fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico in the late 1950s, then returned to the same area in the late 1980s (2001:99). In the 1950s the Mayans, although marginalized, were able to practice subsistence-based agriculture, a basic necessity for maintaining their way of life. Fast forward to the 1980s and this subsistence-based practice is becoming less and less of a possibility. They have lost much of the use and ownership of land, and there is increased pressure to engage in wage labor (100-101). The resources of forest, mineral, oil, and waterpower have become objects of desire for others outside the Mayan world.

It is Nash’s contention that it is in the interest of globalization to allow indigenous forms of subsistence to survive. That there must be this peripheral activity of subsistence based livelihood in the global economy, or the global economy is in jeopardy (2001:119-120). This is part of an argument for retaining some quality in the landscape, that peripheral economies, such as subsistence farming, are far less devastating to the environment than what global interest would do to it such as oil drilling, deforestation, or automatization of agriculture and denuding the soil of vital minerals.

Most persistent and insidious is the attack on the root culture of the Maya, the desire to acculturate them into the national society, to have them give up their identity embedded in old values and belief systems and to become part of the Mexican national identity. To maintain their old beliefs and systems of value, the Mayans in the highlands of Chiapas increasingly turned to the guerilla army for support. 

Throughout the book Nash introduces the Zapatista guerilla army, and Sub-Commandante Marcos. The Radical Democratic Mobilization, 1994-1996 seems to pretty much follow the video we were able to view, The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising (1996). Subcomandante Marcos is a very smart man, and a great orator, and is the leader of the Zapatista rebellion. Changes in the laws regarding property that directly and negatively influenced the campasinos and others in the Chiapas highlands and Lacandon rainforest made such an impact as to bring the people together in revolt against the government that began on January 1, 2004 with the Zapatista’s seizures of town halls. The government of Chiapas immediately militarized the Chiapas highlands and Lacandon rainforest. Nash discusses the negotiation meetings between the government, and the Zapatistas representing the people. According to Nash, many promises were made by the government but never kept in regards to land claims, and autonomy.

For the marginalized peoples of the Chiapas highlands and Lacandon rainforest, the idea of autonomy is central. Nash gives her view of how this marginalized culture of the Mayans has begun to be assimilated into the global economy, how they can be a part of the larger Mexican culture yet still retain their unique identity, language, and religious beliefs, and also change the parts that need to be changed such as the repression of women.

My opinion overall Nash gives a very dry descriptive narrative of mostly generalized facts and citation upon citation of a scholar, rather than specifics. The book could use some life, some movement, some humanness and character infused to be a more likeable and readable work. As an ethnographic researcher, Nash must have kept copious notes of all observations and interview. She was placed in Amatenango, Chiapas with training in ethnographic fieldwork. I do not recall reading about how the fieldwork was carried out, but I can infer that whatever she did was regular, scheduled, orderly, and with great doses of library perusal. She retains some detachment from her objects of study, and when she does wax pathetic, it seems forced or mechanical as in these examples “ On election day I visited San Andres and Ocosingo. In San Andres campesinos had”…. (Nash 2001:186). And “I joined a Mexico City contingent of civil society activists in the peace camp organized by CONPAZ in Patihuitz in May 1995 that included a university professor”…(191). And “A small celebration of Mother’s Day that occurred while I was staying in the peace hut demonstrated…” (191). She wants us to see her involved with the fieldwork yet she distances herself from it. She tells the facts rather that showing us a story. This is a huge contrast to how the other two authors approach their study subjects. Manz immerses herself in her study subjects and has much direct and personal contact. Binford tells us that that is how we must do our anthropological studies; his own fieldwork was close and direct and took him into the zone. Both their writing styles resort to personal narratives and descriptive language to show the story they wish to indulge us in.

Returning to Nash, the institution is a self-protecting entity. “The way it has always been,” or tradition, is one of the great arguments for why things are as they are. To change the status quo requires a great deal of courage, sacrifice, and determination. This is what Nash wished to show and I think she does a good job of covering many areas of inquiry. Nash intellectually grasps the concept that there are wrongs occurring in her study area and does wish the situations to improve. However, her writing style will not reach many readers.

Compared to Mayan Visions, Beatriz Manz’s approach is of seeing the individual in the narrative. Rather than observations of what is happening, Manz does her entire ethnography through interviews. There is a fairly long introduction for this book, which covers the reasons and backing that Beatriz Manz had as she left for her research in Guatemala. At the onset of her fieldwork Manz was research assistant to the author of our first textbook, Robert Carmack, and is also a native of Chile, a country that was having its own set of problems in the 1970s when she departed from a university in New York for Guatemala (2004:4,35).

To introduce her subject, Manz describes the highlands that the Mayan Guatemalans called home before the exodus to the rainforest to establish a new life, one of hope for a better future. The problems of diminishing lands, lands that had become depleted by over use, too little land for subsistence, and those with no lands created the need of Mayan peasants to find outside work, which was satisfied by laboring seasonally on the fincas (Manz 2004:33-34). However, work on the fincas was also difficult physically, living conditions were at best unsanitary and over crowded. The catalyst for this venture was the Catholic Church and the new liberation theology they were teaching. The new liberation theology gave the peasants hope, organized them, taught them about the skills they would need for life in the rainforest as an interdependent group cooperative (2004:50-57).

Manz relates some of the long history of events leading up to the destruction of the cooperative settlement at Santa Maria Tzeja. Many things were happening simultaneously in different places. There are similarities in the stories of Chiapas and Guatemala, they share a border, and the Lacandon rainforest is located in both areas. Highland Mayas live in both areas. The guerillas in the Guatemalan rainforest, moving through these isolated cooperatives, seem to start out in a spirit of friendly optimistic cooperatism, but as the war escalates, they become more authoritarian themselves. Some critics have said that entry into the guerilla army, or aiding the guerillas, became mandatory, at fear of harm or death. Manz does a series of interviews with surviving guerilla soldiers, asking why they joined, were they coerced, what was the situation at the time etc. All of these men and women say they made their own conscious decision based on persuasive talks (Manz 2004:98-108).

The Mayan population was targeted by the Guatemalan military with murders and “disappearances”. This was one reason the Mayan peasants and colonists sought out the guerilla insurgents. Santa Maria Tzeja was partially razed by the Guatemalan army, those villagers who were located at the time of the invasion, eliminated. Chapter 3 ends with the story of Edwin Canil, a Mayan boy of six, who was witness to the massacre of his entire family to the military invasion of Santa Maria Tzeja (Manz 2004:121-123). When Manz appeals to the pathetic you really feel it in your solar plexus.

The military used the necessity of protecting the people from Communism as its reason for destruction, and killing (those acts they were now trying to put off on the guerillas). The government denial of the indiscriminate killings in the Guatemalan highlands and rainforest were finally made public when forensic teams were allowed to go in and excavate areas alleged to be mass graves. The proof was then in the open for the military involved slaying of citizens so aptly portrayed in an in class viewing of a video documentary, Against Forgetting: Moments of Truth (1996), with footage of some of the excavations and what was found.

From another video viewing we got a picture of what it was like for villagers in the model villages to be part of civil patrols informing on their own people (Under the Gun: Democracy in Guatemala 1987). This pitting of villager against villager was well covered in Manz’s Paradise. Men and boys who were captured by the military were soon forced to hunt for those who held out in the rainforest, searching for and destroying milpas, the lifeblood of these families holed up there. The fact that peoples from the same village were turning against one another was devastating to those involved and created a rift between the people that facilitated military control (Manz 2004:127). “…the cooperative spirit they had nurtured so long was shattered” (133).
Description, characters, action, stories and story lines, individuals: good readable, memorable writing. You want the readers awake after all, not snoozing like with Nash.  

Author Leigh Binford, in The El Mozote Massacre, has a different approach. He rivets your attention in the opening paragraph (1996:3). In this extremely well written chapter (truly impressive lead ins and word choice), Binford inadvertently points out what may be a mechanism of humans to repress information that they cannot deal with, that is too negative, goes against what they believe to be true, or just plain will not fit into a busy schedule that requires juggling of priorities so that individuals can maintain their own lives.

The events in El Salvador, says Binford, were not reported with the frequency they should have in our (US) news media. That which was reported was met with a measure of disbelief. That which was believed was soon forgotten. And we are to blame for our own shortcomings in ability to focus on something that we (in the United States) should have been able to do something to intervene. Binford requires that we be actively involved in changing the system of repression and genocide in El Salvador beginning with the way events are reported. He objects to the distancing of the reporting of events through objectifying and classifying humans in portraying incidents in a way that eviscerates reaction or emotion. That is Binford’s main motivation, to tell the truth about El Mozote and get people to do something about it. What good is it just to read or talk about it? We, the audience, are urged to do something to intervene in some way, to write letters of protest, to be indignant about the events, something, anything.  

Binford gives a brief history of events leading to the massacre at El Mozote, and a succinct account of the three-day massacre. The peasants of the Morozan region of El Salvador, where El Mozote is located, was, at the time of the massacre, heavily influenced by the liberation theology of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Father Miguel Ventura (Binford 1996:13-14). Through discussion groups held by members of the church at that time (through the 1970s and early 1980s) the peasant community became aware of the unjustness of the class structure and how it affected them in poverty and repression. This knowledge in turn led them (oppressed peasants) to join with guerilla forces that expressed the same determination to raise the standards of living for those marginalized peoples of El Salvador living in abject poverty. The guerilla base operating throughout Morozan was the People’s Liberation Army (ERP), finally joining with four other guerilla organizations in October of 1980 “to form the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)” (Binford 1996:15). The same month, the El Salvadoran military attacked northern Morozan, a prelude to the El Mozote Massacre in December of 1981.

Binford’s Chapter Two contains blow-by-blow accounts of the military operation carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion to systematically invade and massacre all inhabitants of several hamlets in Northern Morozan including El Mozote, in the name of anti-communism and under the direct control of the El Salvadoran government.

Those few families that form the economically controlled agricultural core in El Salvador insulate themselves from the rest of the social system according to Binford, in a tightly knit and ideologically fused social system intended to protect their status, wealth, and power from displacement. In other words, it has become a self-protecting entity that retains its position through the calculated dispensing of wealth. National security became security for the elite plantation owners against the “communists” – anyone wishing to challenge the status quo. The military is in charge of national security. Army training is rigorous and meant to reward those capable of completion.

The response of the US government on hearing and reading stories of the atrocities in El Salvador, was to cover them up for reasons of “national security” rather than revealing to the public the incredibly bad judgment the US used in doling out tax dollars to the El Salvadoran government. However, the pro-capitalist El Salvadoran government also lied and covered up its involvement, as they did not want to loose out on free money from the US. The US Embassy to El Salvador essentially put blinders on, as did the State Department in their press release concerning the alleged massacre in El Salvador (Binford 1996:49-55).

Leigh Binford thinks anthropology should not be necessary (he is an archaeologist). People should be able to speak for themselves. However, since anthropology is still a legitimate career he says that anthropologists must cease being apolitical, neutral illustrators of culture. The anthropologist must become aligned with the people he elucidates, learn to defend and aid them in making improvements in their lives, and not just describe them for the purposes of publication. Binford seems to be a proponent of liberation theology, and desires anthropologists and others working with marginalized persons, to side generously on the side of the poor in all correspondences in order to bring more equality into their lives. Binford is no fan of capitalism and pretty much blames the rise of global capitalism as the force behind the greater and greater gap in access to resources between well to do or not.

In summary, Binford and Manz use the interview extensively in their fieldwork, while Nash uses some interview but mainly detailed observation and library research. Nash’s book is a scholarly treatise, although she is not so detached that she cannot see the wrongs being inflicted upon the Mayan people in her study area. Manz immersed herself in the interview, a very personal way of doing fieldwork. She maintains connections with some of the people she had contact with, even to helping an illegal immigrant that was detained at the border. She went and helped him out. Now, that is getting involved. Manz was trying to get people to focus some attention on the problems that were occurring down in Guatemala for some years before this book came out. 

Binford is frustrated with the way we (in the protected world of the US) avoid taking part in demonstrations against injustices that are happening in other parts of the world. At the end of chapter three Binford accuses us all of being oblivious to human rights violations (Binford 1996:36-48), and it is true that we wish to maintain our blissful ignorance without which we may have to “do something” like get uncomfortably involved in other countries affairs. His book is a call to action to DO something. What exactly to do he does not say. It reminds me of the end of Nash’s book where I expected to be made aware of how the Mayas could retain their small farming lifestyle and participate in the global economy. But, she really did not say how that might be possible. Nash’s book will attract the smallest readership; Binford and Manz probably share broader and thus larger reading public because of the style they have chosen to write in. All three authors are scholars with positions in academia, with June Nash probably at the most influential University and having the most tenure and connections in academic circles. All authors have succeeded in contributing first-rate ethnographies to the growing body of literature of Mesoamerican subject and all are to be commended for their excellent work no matter what style they decided to employ.


Sources Cited

Against Forgetting: Monuments to Truth
1996    Videocassette. Sun Productions.

Binford, Leigh
1996    The El Mozote Massacre. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Manz, Beatriz
2004    Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Nash, June C.
2001    Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization. New York: Routledge.

The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising
1996    Videocassette.

Under the Gun: Democracy in Guatemala.
1987    Videocassette. Patricia Goudvis & Robert Richter.

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