The Culture of Marginality: The Teenek Portrayal of Social Difference (1)

Article excerpt

The marginality of the Teenek Indians of Mexico gives rise to discourses among this group that serve to justify its relegation to the fringes of modern life. Those discourses reflect a concrete, inexorable, social, economic, and political situation that is reformulated in the Teenek system of representation. This article explores the problem of constructing an ethnic identity as it is reflected in the realities and world views of the indigenous microcosm facing national society. (Mexico, Teenek [Huastec] Indians, ethnicity, world view)


The Teenek Indians in northeastern Mexico are notable for a peculiar attitude that combines a state of apparent deculturation with a particularly self-deprecating discourse: "We are less than nothing," "stinking," "dirty Indians," "ugly idiots," "cowards," etc. These rather unexpected opinions were collected during my fieldwork in several Teenek villages, particularly the village of Loma Larga-San Lorenzo, near the town of Tantoyuca, in the northern part of the State of Veracruz. (2) Two and a half years' residence in the area, from March 1991 to September 1993, was augmented by shorter visits up to November 1995. Teenek self-denigrating indigenous discourses are recurrent and common to people of both sexes, different ages, and in different places. The startling contrast they offer to the assertions of ethnic identity and the search for roots so prevalent today around the world invites analysis of the discursive construction of the social categories they express. Indeed, as Levine (1999) suggests, ethnicity stems above all from a cognitive method of classifying human beings. Accordingly, my research explores the elaboration of a disconcerting ethnic identity by examining the realities and conceptions of the indigenous microcosm vis-a-vis national society (Ariel de Vidas 2002).

The self-denigrating remarks such as those mentioned tend to justify the social and spatial marginality of the Teenek with respect to their mestizo neighbors. Most of these non-Indians, whom the Teenek consider to be better off than themselves, live in the town nearby, and represent for the Indian population both the positive aspects (modernity, power, money, etc.) and negative aspects (betrayal of tradition, immorality, greed, etc.) of Western culture. Although the Teenek lack such emblematic Indian traits as traditional clothing, agricultural rituals, distinctive ceremonies, and a system of religious offices (the cargo system), their situation is not one of anomie, since as a group they have preserved their language and a cosmology rooted in the Mesoamerican tradition. Thus, while the Teenek are primarily negative in their remarks about themselves, this discourse does not imply a weak sense of belonging. In a way, these autochthonous comments justify the group's marginal position and reflect a cultural construction of Teenek identity in which the disparities between social groups, which in the Teenek view arise from ontological differences, are negotiated. Thus, the Teenek possess a strong ethnic identity that does not appear, a priori, to be based on any validating, reclaimed heritage, but which, on the contrary, seems to derive from negatively perceived values.

The construction of an ethnic identity has long been dominated in the anthropological literature by the essentialist point of view, which emphasized self-definition and ethnogenesis as the factors that demarcated a specific culture, language, and customs (Geertz 1963; Shils 1957; Francis 1976). With Barth's critical revision (1969) of the ways ethnic groups maintain their ascription, the subject took on a perspective that permits an analysis of ethnification (Pitt-Rivers 1965, 1967; Casagrande 1974). In this approach, the formation of ethnic groups was seen to be a function of the political, economic, or ideological domination of one group by another, and a constantly renewed codification of cultural differences between distinct social groups (Cardoso De Oliveira 1992). …