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

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

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

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


A significant work by one of anthropology's most important scholars, this book provides an introduction to the Chiapas Mayan community of Mexico, better known for their role in the Zapatista Rebellion.


Each year as I return to old field sites I experience the reality of radical change in the worlds. Transformations in the way local populations relate to their nation and their world are shaking up the ways of life in Chiapas, in the mining centers of Bolivia, and in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I have done ethnographic studies. the most radical changes are those that have occurred in the settings that were in the past the most marginal to the centers of power.

Marginality was characteristic of highland Chiapas when I began fieldwork in the Mayan community of Amatenango del Valle in the late 1950s. Small-plot cultivators—whom I shall designate with their own term as campesinos—and artisans could conceive of their town center as the umbilicus of the world and that whatever happened there defined their destiny and that of the cosmos. Although men worked in coastal plantations to supplement their needs for cash and women sold artisan products in regional markets, their sense of security and order was defined in relation to the ancestors who watched over them from the hill in the eastern perimeter of the township.

In the 1970s, the tin miners in the Bolivian highland mining center were aware of how their fate was affected by the prices of tin in world markets. At the same time these cholos—a term relating to the partial integration of indigenous peoples generations removed from the rural Quechua- and Aymara-speaking communities of the highlands from which they were recruited to work in the mines—maintained a sense of historical agency in collective actions mediated through the Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers Unions (FSTMB) and the nation-state.

General Electric workers in Pittsfield lived in fear of the layoffs that decimated the workforce in power transformer production throughout the 1980s, when I did most of my research. the search for cheap labor production sites overseas had already eliminated the assembly workforce in electrical appliances when I first began my investigation in 1982. High-tech production for the Defense Department during the cold war absorbed a few hundred of the seven thousand employees, but by the end of the decade fewer than a thousand were left. in contrast to the tin miners, whose protests against decapitalization of the mines were inspired by a Marxist vision of the historic agency of the proletariat, Pittsfield’s aging workforce lamented the past and accepted the “golden handshake” of early retirement.

Returning to these field sites throughout the decades, I have tried to understand the impact of changes in the lives of people who are differentially situated in global circuits. As an anthropologist trained in the empirical tradition of the 1950s, I was well aware of the need to take into account a variety of sources of information, not only what is said in

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