Postcolonial Sites and Markets: Indigenous Organizations in Chiapas, Mexico
This article discusses different forms of misrecognition regarding indigenous people in Chiapas. It is based on the author's extensive fieldwork with Chiapas organizations between 1995 and 1999, and questions the idea that postcolonials' participation in the geography (the writing of the world) could transform current power structures. Indigenous organizations have to adjust their everyday operations to those perceptions from which indigenous people are 'others' who live in a realm different from non-indigenous everyday life. The paper calls attention to the ways in which misrecognition affects the markets and the long-term viability of indigenous organizations in Chiapas.
In 1997 a woman from San Cristobal de las Casas began a project to promote the creation of cooperatives and collectives in the municipalities of Las Margaritas and Altamirano, in the state of Chiapas. These two municipalities are part of the region where the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion (EZLN) has its widest base among the indigenous population. To get her project going, this woman sought funds from the Chiapas government and from international foundations. Soon, a minor constellation of indigenous cooperatives had sprung across the Chiapas jungle. This woman does not charge for her services as the organizations' consultant; her only income comes from the sales of crafts she makes, which she markets along with the crafts produced by the indigenous people in the cooperatives, making them pass for indigenous products.
Why do people from many countries want to work for free for indigenous people in Chiapas? Why do the indigenous communities accept this type of help? And, why is it so difficult for a nonindigenous person to sell crafts, while it is so much easier for those people seen as indigenous? Is the crafts market the only specialty market indigenous people have an advantage in? Could an indigenous organization sell, say, electrical appliances, directing them to the "indigenous" niche markets? These questions seem not to make much sense, because we already "know" the answers. However, the very fact that we have "natural" answers for them should make us stop and think hard about our preconceived notions of "indigenous peoples" and their place in the contemporary world. This paper, based on six years of research in Chiapas, between 1995 and 1999, reflects on issues concerning indigenousness, the publicly imagined Chiapas, and the market as they affect actual indigenous organizations in that state of Mexico. Here I argue that there are multiple misperceptions of who or what indigenous people are, and these misperceptions, in turn, increasingly affect the everyday operations of indigenous organizations in Chiapas.
Gayatri Spivak (1999: 30) says that the only way postcolonials are ever going to stand on equal footing with those from colonial nations is through their participation in the geography, the writing of the world. I want to speak to this notion, and suggest that having the possibility of writing the world is not enough in itself. The conditions of that -or any- writing continue to be colonial environments and colonized relationships. The case of indigenous organizations in Chiapas is paradigmatic in this respect, as they have both limitations and advantages when entering the national and international markets, precisely because of their subordinate position in contemporary Mexican society.
As the mythical legend goes, Christopher Columbus arrived in the beaches of what we now call the Americas believing he had reached Asia. Because of this confusion, the people living there came to be called Indians. Subsequent explorations and discoveries led to the realization, which Columbus apparently never quite accepted (O'Gorman, 1993), that these lands were previously unknown to European geographers and to the public at large. …