The Culture of Marginality: The Teenek Portrayal of Social Difference (1)
de Vidas, Anath Ariel, Ethnology
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). However, through the operation of a dialectical effect, ethnic groups defined as such by external circumstances often take up an ethnic identity in order to press political or economic claims, while stressing essential traits as the basis for that identity (see Wolf 1994; Fischer 1999). This phenomenon raises the problem of whether the claimed ethnicity is different in nature from the one imposed by various external processes (Boege 1988; Warren 1992). Is it a manipulated new archaism or a new ideological alternative? As a way out of this dilemma, the current approach to ethnicity presumes that an ethnic group exists only inasmuch as it is a factor in the thinking and actions of both the group's members and outsiders (Auge 1987; Taylor 1991). Despite a certain return to substantivism to explain ethnic configuration (Fischer 1999; Gil-White 2001; Mahmood and Armstrong 1992), essentialist and constructivist approaches are now combined to some degree to understand the process of elaborating an ethnic identity (Field 1994; Jenkins 1997).
With the Teenek, this processual approach is indeed necessary, as their ethnic identity is not expressed in political claims but rather in strong negative descriptions of themselves, which are presented as the only basis for their collective cultural identity. Accordingly, this essay explores the Teenek ethnotheoretical model of identity through the realities and world view of the indigenous microcosm that faces national society from its margin. Based on a "cultural logic" (Fischer 1999), defining themselves as marginal is more a way of situating themselves in a multiethnic social universe than it is a subordination to the Other.
CHICKENS VERSUS TURKEYS
As this article deals particularly with the question of social marginality and how marginalized people deal with their situation, how should marginality be defined? In the social sciences, a cultural minority group's economic and social marginality is usually viewed as the result of a deviation from the norm and an instance of nonintegration into the majority society or as the result of deracination. Moreover, since marginality is defined in relation to a normative center, studies of the subject often focus on situations of urban poverty and social maladjustment. In such studies, marginality may be analyzed in terms of maintaining minority subcultures and traditional solidarities, in accordance with Lewis's (1959, 1966) concept of the culture of poverty, or else as a phenomenon "structurally linked to the capitalist system" (Marie 1981; Leacock 1971).
Beyond the perception of a minority group's marginality as deviance or as a consequence of historical processes and social stratification (based on inequality, not ethnicity), the fringes of the majority society can also be viewed as a place for the cultural construction of difference. The Teenek Indians' discourse that justifies for them their exclusion from the adjacent modern society reflects a situation that is resemanticized in the Teenek system of representation. Thus we take the perspective of the indigenous group and approach its history through the prism of its own world view.
For example, the following instance of Teenek self-denigration manifested in their language shows how the group's subordinate position is internalized by its members. The Teenek term for mestizos is ejek (Spaniard), the same word they use for turkeys; whereas they call chickens teenek, the name they use for themselves. Since turkeys are autochthonous birds, it would seem more logical to give them the name of the indigenous people, and to …
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Publication information: Article title: The Culture of Marginality: The Teenek Portrayal of Social Difference (1). Contributors: de Vidas, Anath Ariel - Author. Journal title: Ethnology. Volume: 41. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2002. Page number: 209+. © 1998 University of Pittsburgh. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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