The Sense of Tranquility: Bodily Practice and Ethnic Classes in Yucatan

By Kray, Christine A. | Ethnology, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Sense of Tranquility: Bodily Practice and Ethnic Classes in Yucatan


Kray, Christine A., Ethnology


While bodily practice has become a major area of investigation in cultural anthropology, its connection to ethnicity remains to be explored. Among the Yucatec Maya, however, one cultural value, tranquility, is enacted through bodily practices and also serves as an axis for ethnic distinction. Moreover, a specific logic associating tranquility with morality serves as an incisive critique of wealthier Others, all the more important as the Maya are incorporated into the global economy at the bottom of the class hierarchy. An understanding of ethnicity is incomplete without an ethnography of bodily practice and an investigation into how ethnic identity emerges daily in relation to embodied experiences. (Mexico, Maya, ethnicity, social class, embodiment)

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Visitors to the Mayan village of Dzitnup, in Yucatan, Mexico, are told by virtually everyone they meet that Dzitnup is a wonderful place because it is "tranquil," and that "everyone gets along here." These repeated assertions are puzzling in view of the fact that the village has two political factions, people argue over the national political parties, and Catholics and Protestants accuse each other that their ways are contrary to the will of God. This article explores the ways these Yucatecans talk about tranquility, which involves its demonstration in bodily practice, and its importance for ethnic and class identities. It concludes with a call for a wider investigation into relationships between bodily practice and ethnicity, particularly the behavioral correlates of ethnic identities.

After three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, and arguably two centuries of neocolonialism, how Maya-speaking people configure social identity and difference has aroused scholarly interest. Concern in these matters intensified in the 1980s and 1990s during the civil war that pitted a Guatemalan army against Maya villagers, and again with the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 in Mexico and the military occupation of Chiapas that continues to this day. Some ethnographers suggest that romanticism about the Maya--involving tourists, archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and National Geographic magazine illustrations--has placed constraints on how Mayan people assert their ethnic identity (Castaneda 1996; Hervik 1999). Others have stressed the creative articulation of ethnicity in the context of struggles for indigenous rights under state military power (Alonso Caamal 1993; Fischer 1999, 2001; Fischer and McKenna 1996; Hale 1994; Nash 1995, 1997, 2001; Warren 1992, 1998; Watanabe 1995; Wilson 1995). Still others focus on the correspondence between ethnic identities and class realities (Gabbert 2004), or examine how identities emerged in relationship to colonial and state administrative procedures (Castaneda 2004:42; Eiss 2004; Fallaw 2004; Restall 2004; Watanabe 2000). Berkley (1998) points to the relationship between language ideology and ethnic identity, as does Castaneda (2004:41), who cautions against eliding the realities of cultural and ethnic diversity because "the terms 'Indian,' 'ladino,' 'mestizo,' 'indigenous' are not equivalent across the Maya world [and] do not have any stable meaning" (emphasis in original). Attention in this essay is given to a relatively neglected area: the relationship between identity and bodily experience.

In Santiago Chimaltenango, Guatemala, Watanabe (1992) found that a sense of community emerged through the experience of collective action, and argued for a study of the relationship between identity and experience (Watanabe 1995; see also Fischer 1999). How bodily practice (as distinguished from body adornment [cf. Turner 1995]) relates to perception and identity has become an area of anthropological concern (Bourdieu 1984; Csordas 1990; Farnell 1999; Lock 1993; Martin Alcoff 1999; Merleau-Ponty 1962; Van Wolputte 2004). It is useful to understand how perceptions and feelings that emerge with bodily experience relate to how Maya think about themselves and others. …

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