Academic journal article Ethnology

"Barrio" as a Metaphor for Zapotec Social Structure

Academic journal article Ethnology

"Barrio" as a Metaphor for Zapotec Social Structure

Article excerpt

The barrio divisions of the Villa of Santa Maria, a Zapotec town in the Valley of Oaxaca, are not corporate, nor are they endogamous. They do not form the basis for any regular mobilizations or other forms of collective action. Nonetheless, the division into upper and lower barrios figures in the discourse of conflict in the community. This article uses network analysis to examine the nature of the cleavage, and to argue that the townspeople use the term barrio as a metaphor for an emergent social structure.

Santa Maria exhibits a dual barrio organization, common in Mesoamerica, that divides the community into an upper barrio and a lower barrio, with the boundary crossing the central plaza. "Upper" (arriba) and "lower" (abajo) refer to the slightly higher physical elevation of the northern end of the town. The settlement as a whole is situated generally along a north-south axis, parallel to the highway that defines its western edge. Over the last decade or so, new construction on the west side of the highway added residences and a school. On the east, the town spreads toward the river. Although there are still some agricultural parcels remaining next to the river, each year the expansion of the town brings houses closer to the river's edge.

Santa Maria is both a parish center, with a priest in full-time residence, and the cabecera (head town) of a municipio that includes several dependent villages. Facing the large plaza in the town center are the municipal building, on the south side, and the parish church, on the east side. Two parallel streets lead from the plaza to the north and south. These streets run the length of the town, approximately 1.5 kilometers. Despite the recent expansion of housing sites to the east and west of the town center, Santa Maria is only a little more than a quarter-kilometer at its widest. The settlement pattern is much longer than it is wide, resembling the strip towns found along railways. In addition to many unnamed footpaths and gullies, the town has fifteen streets running east-west, but only a few actually intersect the highway.

The center of the town is laid out in relatively rectangular blocks. The streets at the town's north and south ends more closely reflect the topography, meandering and petering out at washes or at the river bank. Nothing physical marks the barrio divisions and the barrios are not associated with saints. The only street shrine is located a few blocks from the central plaza, technically in the lower barrio. Virtually the only physical distinction between the two barrios is the quality of the agricultural plots located between the current limits of the residential area and the river. The more valuable plots are on the north side of town, on lands with high water tables due to their proximity to the river. Corresponding plots on the south end of town are not as valuable because the land rises more abruptly from the river and the terrain is strewn with rocks.

Residents near the center of town, including some who technically live in the lower barrio, claim that people from the lower barrio are more Indio, speak more Zapotec, and are generally backward. Empirical evidence about the distribution of Zapotec speakers does not support these claims. Twenty years ago there were more jacales (straw huts) in the extreme southern parts of the town, perhaps reflecting the relatively poorer quality of agricultural land, but jacales were (and are) found in both barrios. A survey in the 1970s showed that the use of jacales as principal dwellings increases as one moves further away from the town center in either direction. Less robust fences, made of organo (organ cactus) and/or carrizo (bamboo), are likewise more common at greater distances from the town center. Today, sturdier dwellings have replaced many jacales in both barrios. Due to years of migrant laborers returning from California and Washington, Santa Maria has become alborotado (excited), as they say in the local vernacular. …

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