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Week 8 Manz

Week 9 Manz

Week 10 Binford

Week 11 Binford

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Week 13 Oppenheimer

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Final Paper


Victoria Kline
Anthropology 582: Mesoamerican Cultures
October 6, 2004
Dr. Ramona Perez

Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization, Part I

From the title I expect that I will find out what the Mayan visions are and how they may be able to implement them in this time where the world is getting smaller, where there is less of a buffer between cultural groups or geographic locations. Isolation is no longer possible given the extent of human reproductive capacity to fill its niche, which covers almost any area regardless of its attributes. How will Mayan culture 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 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 (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, there is increased pressure to engage in wage labor, and the wage labor does not seem to pay any substantial amount, barely enough to survive, no extras, kind of a forced subservience to the jefe. It is the influx of “others” that is a problem. The resources of forest, mineral, oil, and water power have all become the object of desire of the other. Humans look for a way to make a living, if they can make it on the backs of others, all the easier for them. In this case those backs are Mayan indigenes. So, in nationalizing the Maya communities, the resources and man power available from them becomes part of the Mexican community, leaving little for the indigenous ways to survive on. They become part of the national and global economy however peripheral and marginalized this may be.

In the first chapter, “Indigenous Counterplots to Globalization,” I expected to find out how the Mayans are protecting themselves from the influx of foreign interests. Can they protect themselves from the influx of foreign interests? Is the influx of foreign interests inevitable? Can the Mayan culture survive with some semblance of autonomy? That seems to be the major desire of the Mayan community, to become autonomous as they once were. Nash says 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. 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.

And in chapter two, I expected a description of the present indigenous communities. Nash starts out with the concept of habitus (from Pierre Bourdieu) and how the Maya recreate the habitus of their lived in world. She brings up the Maya belief in witchcraft and envy that leads to suppression of individual success, and shows how this belief system leads to homicides in cases of suspected witchcraft. The idea that goods are limited is a prevalent thought pattern, and it would seem to be that if there are needs for the community that are not being met such as adequate food or with the knowledge of new foreign goods, lack of ability to obtain them, there would be a persistent reason to believe goods are limited. The Mayans have had to readjust to the influx of new peoples, new governments, new rules, in a never ending cycle that seems to improve their situation ever so slightly, then to take a turn for the worse in terms of loss of land, ability to use subsistence agriculture as a way of life (even partially), the need to live on less and less money as part of the bigger economic system. 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.

I don’t know that I have a clear picture of what is going on down in Chiapas from Nash’s words. Maybe I should be asking: What is going on down in the Mexican state of Chiapas? And, how does it differ from what has happened in Nicaragua that we have been reading about?
That Mayans are leaving their communities seemed evident from the title of chapter three, “Exodus from the Communities.”  Nash begins by examining the problem of community elder positions being usurped by young literates. This in itself is a change in the balance of power from the old social structure of age equating to position.

The government tries to help the Mayans with programs of welfare to infuse money into the system. But, welfare systems do harm. They create a dependency on government handouts at a loss of the survival skills that are allowed to go dormant. Then when laws and policies change, and the moneys are withdrawn, the people are even in greater crisis than before. Does it not seem to be that land is the key to all this? It seems that before land was taken from them whatever the reason for it, that the Mayans were able to remain somewhat autonomous even if life seemed marginalized from the outside (as it was not in the western notion or ideal). Why can this happen in Mexico? Does this happen in the United States? My own bias – whenever I think of Mexico, I think of corruption and bribery.

Government intervention is not the friend of Mayan culture. The country of Mexico realized a huge debt in the 1980s and in order to meet the debt crisis, more reforms that ultimately involved the Chiapas Mayans were put into place. These involved the restriction on land entitlements, the ending of the “government’s role in redistribution policies” (81), and the implementation of NAFTA, all of which led to increased pressure on indigenous communities.
From within the indigenous communities there is this problem of use of a high position for personal gain. I refer to the caciques, the leaders of Mayan communities, monopolizing for instance liquor and soft drink sales. Problems are not always caused by outside forces! The indigenous cacique covets that which is western?

The age of marriage has increased. Women’s pottery cooperative gives more autonomy to women in the community to the extent that some say they will not get married. Confrontation and rebellion of the indigenous campesino population against the ladinos actually did cause movement of ladinos away from town centers in the 1970s. Nash says, “What was happening in the 1970s and 1980s was a concerted takeover of the spaces occupied by ladino populations in mixed ethnic municipalities” (99).

In her most recent visit to Chaipas, Nash sees the signs of modernization everywhere. From the addition of women to what were once all men assemblies, to the tourist busses that arrive in town, to the television antennas and the open display of material wealth. I guess that means no more belief in witchcraft and envy as part of the cultural whole and a sign of the integration of the community into the world market. So this is quite a different perspective I was getting from chapter one. At the end of the chapter three cannot decide whose exodus she is referring to. The leaving of the old culture behind in the adoption of capitalism? Could it be the exodus caused by the expulsion of Indians by caciques for changing religions or some other breech of tradition?

Could also be the natural resources leaving the land forever and irreplaceable. Did I miss something – entirely possible – as the narrative seems to keep turning back on itself. Kind of confusing. A good part of chapter three is devoted to showing how the government made promises and then reneged on the promises. That happened over and over again until a breaking point came in the 1990s in the Zapatista Rebellion.  

Impressions from within the middle of the book: Nash gives a very dry descriptive narrative of mostly generalized facts and citation upon citation of a scholar, rather than the specifics of Whisnant. The book could use some life, some movement, some humanness and character infused to be a more likeable and readable work. Whisnant was able to this in his book; it’s all in the style. 


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

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