Журнал научных разысканий о биографии, теоретическом наследии и эпохе М. М. Бахтина

ISSN 0136-0132   

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Josй Alejos Garcнa

Identity and Ethnic Conflict
in Chiapas*

The insufficiency, the impossibility of the existence of one consciousness alone. I know myself and get to be myself only by showing myself to the other, through the other and with the help of the other. The most important acts that conform self consciousness are determined by the relation to the other consciousness … To be means to be for the other, and through the other be for myself. Man does not have an internal souvereign territory, but instead, he is totally and forever on the frontier; looking inside of him, man finds the eyes of the other, or sees with the eyes of the other.


Ethnic movements are sprouting up throughout the world. They are charged with energy and support, shaking the foundations of national states, questioning radically the legitimacy of official cultures over native peoples. In the face of an aggresive process of globalization, and of neoliberal western thought, ethnic groups are taking strong measures in their struggle for survival, for their right to exist and prosper. It is a social process which is happening in the world at large, whose importance is evident in the ethnic issues present on a variety of discursive arenas; in the academic world as well as in politics.

  The problem of identity is certainly an important issue of our times. The fact of my non-alibi in being2, the here and now bakhtinian world, engenders a growing awareness of the ethic responsibility of being, of the sense of identity, of the need to recognize in time and space the self, the other, and their intrinsic relations.

  The notion of ethnic identity is undergoing deep changes these days. Modern society had the tendency to make people uniform, and so, to have a specific ethnicity meant to be anachronistic, retarded, backward. Ethnicity seemed like a burden that a person should hide or get rid of in order to live in good terms within society. But now,
ethnic identity is being regarded as an elemental human right, and is turning into a distinction, a privilege to those that are not merely undifferenciated citizens. This is in contrast with the recent past, when ethnic traits used to be an object of discrimination, they are now becoming an important topic of human and political rights, a source of social identity and a major claim in favor of la diffйrence.

  This ethnic movement has its own dynamics in America. The Indian peoples of this continent for instance have taken 1992, the year of the quintcentennial celebration of discovery for western society, in quite a different sense. For them it is also a chronotope, but one which refers to invasion, and which ought to mark the beginning of a new era. It is a chronotope with the power of ethnic interpretations of history and with the ideological force to unite the native people.

  Indian actions show how they are breaking the silence and the traditional barriers which had kept them separate; they now have their own leaders and representatives in government, organize their own meetings to share and discuss their own problems, views, and strategies. There is an increased self awareness, and a commmitment to rescue and enrich native cultures. An expression of this is the flowering of Indian literature which is creating, as in the Maya movement3, a critical reevaluation of the self in its expanding relations with the other.

  Certainly Indians are not alone in their contemporary ethnic movements, as there are others who, within their own ways and horizons, identifies with their cause. There are other people, institutions and nations that work on their side, and give them help and solidarity. One must realize that it is a movement taking place in a cybernetic world, with the means of communication that it provides, with the power to transform traditional identities and to create a new consciousness, new encounters of Indians with other selfs and with different others. It is indeed a complex new phenomenon of ethnic identity which is going on between Indians and the other cultural entities with which they interact.

  From the other side, from the perspective of the dominant western groups of society, the Indian movement is creating diverse reactions, an outstanding one being an adverse attitude, a sense of danger to their status quo and to their construct of society. The traditional dominant others are worried about the rise of Indian consciousness, their own self is being questioned, and instead of ope

* Доклад, прочитанный на VIII Международной Бахтинской конференции в Калгари

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ning themselves to allow the Indian voices to be heard, they are again returning to violence, and thus closing the possibility of a mutual understanding. Therefore, what could have been the beginning of a new and more equitable relationship, of a firm base for a better communication, is now turning into an arena of confrontation, struggle and monologue between the parties involved. The complex ethnic dimension of the self and the other, of Amerindians and the West may be said to be in a collision.

  This situation of ethnicity and lack of intercultural dialogue is evident in Latin American countries like Peru, Mexico and Guatemala, whose Indian populations are very significant. The recent conflicts and wars in those countries are clear testimonies of this.

  In the remainder of this paper I will discuss the ethnic movement in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, in the light of the context described above. I will focus on the ethnological aspects of the changes Maya Indian identity is undergoing as a result of the current armed and political strife.

  I argue that these transformations in ethnic identities may be better understood in the light of Bakhtin's theoretical framework, as it is stated in the first quotation of this paper. In this perspective, identity is regarded as a relational phenomenon, a complex of relations between the self and the other, a dynamic process of mutual interaction. Bakhtin proposes an ontology in which the self is constructed precisely in relation to the other, and where both are complementary entities, more than mere otherness. The world, Bakhtin says, is a space of ethic acts, because they are produced for the other, under the gaze of the other4. By the same token, an identity changes as a response to the events of the world. Being is an ongoing event (Bakhtin).

A dominated Indian self

A dialogic understanding of the contemporary ethnic movement in Chiapas must consider in depth the impacts of European presence in America. That is, the broad cultural context in which the voices of the Maya Indians ought to be heard. The ways in which Westerners have related historically with the former has created over time a system of ethnic differentiations and relations. This is, in a sense, similar to a caste society, based on a cultural hierarchy made up of ideas, rules, and powers, that places people within an established social order: in brief, the white Westerners on top,
the dark Indians on the bottom, and the mйtis, mestizos or Ladinos as they are called regionally, in the middle.

  A historical chronotope of the cultural relations in question is the conquest of America. It has turned into a major discursive issue and represents for the groups involved the beginning of a whole new era of universal cultural encounters, although with contrasting evaluations from each side. In Middle America in particular, such encounters took place in a land of highly civilized societies. Tragically they occured in the form of a war, of a military and ideological confrontation lead by the conquering posture of the Spaniards and their drive towards economic gain, that marked definitly the character of the encounter. Indian texts from those times reveal the scale of the loss and destruction produced by such conquest5. Situated on a dialogical perspective, Todorov has discussed semiotic aspects of the conquest of Mexico, examining the contrasting horizons held by the historic protagonists, as well as their obvious difficulties in communication. A superiority in the means of human communication was, according to Todorov, an important factor for the victory of western civilization in America, but such a superiority was established at the expense of a communication with the world6.

  The violent encounters between Spaniards and Middle American Indians cancelled the possibility of a dialogical understanding, as the material and cultural world of the latter was destroyed, and whatever remained was subordinated to the dominion of western thought. From then on, Spanish has been the language of communication, leaving the Indian languages on the margins, with the prejudiced status of «dialects», and destined to disappear. Under such conditions, the Indian voices have been silenced and a continuous monologic speech from their counterpart has prevailed.

  For centuries, the West has sustained a discourse on the Indian that conceptualizes him as «primitive», «premodern», «underdeveloped», in relation to the modern western world. Such a discourse has functioned as an ideology to justify economic exploitation and political domination.

  Levinas has stated a strong philosophical critic to the totalitarian mode of western thought. For him, western philosophy has often been an ontology, an «ontologic imperialism» that reduces the Other to the Same. «Knowledge comes to be an apprehension of the Being… [a] taking of its otherness»7 . Levinas stresses the necessity to break away with that mode of thought, by the recogni

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tion of the exteriorness of the other, its absolute otherness, in order to restore the level of symetry needed to achieve a real communication. For Levinas, there is an ontology in western philosophy, specifically in the one developed by Heidegger, that is essentially egoistic, tyrannical.

The relation with Being, which functions as an ontology, consists in neutralizing the Being in order to comprehend or apprehend it. Thus, it is not a relation with the Other as such, but a reduction of the Other to the Same. That is the definition of liberty: to maintain oneself against the Other in spite of the relation with the Other, assuring the autarchy of an I8.

The absortion, the conceptual explanation of the other in terms of the self is an act of violation that engenders a silence, a refusal to talk and express the self, an introjection and even hatred towards the self and the other9.

Mayas, Ladinos and Westerners

But, how is this domination of western thought exercised in the arena of ethnic identities in Chiapas? Who are the identities confronted, the social actors involved in this complex interplay between the self and the other in contemporary Chiapas? So far I have shown a general opposition between Indians and Westerners in which both entities appear as protagonists of a cultural drama. But it happens that in local contexts, the West is percieved at a distance. In the small communities studied by anthropologists, the strong neighbor may not be the gringo, but the mйtis, mestizo or Ladino, that individual of a double personality: part Indian and part Western. Ladino is the mixture of bloods and cultures, the one that historically has played the role of a mediator between both worlds, and the one too that now feels identified with the West, that despises his Indian heritage. He is a sort of pretender who avoids the responsibility of his being10.

  For over one century western anthropologists have done intensive research on the Maya, and in the impressive volume of literature they have produced, there is a constant view about Indian identity, which is conceived as a set of distinctive cultural traits, those that have seemed as the most pure and exotic to the investigators. In brief, it has prevailed a positivistic image of culture based on the idea of Being as an isolated object, a system composed of ordered elements, transcendental traits, that research is supposed to uncover.
The Indian identity has been the center of interest, and it has been described in terms of the Indian self, of the «essence of the Maya people», while the supposed other, the «non-Indian» Ladino is left in the background, as unproblematic. This has lead to conceptually separate Indian and Ladino, to see them as two unrelated identities. The Ladino is taken as the other opposed to the Indian.

  According to this model, Indians and Ladinos form the two parts of a dyadic society. Thus, the anthropological discourse has oscillated between these two categories; social and cultural reality has been explained in terms of «them», and in this manner, the West has remainded off-stage, excluding itself as an actor11. In fact, until recently western anthropologists in Middle America have not seen themselves, nor their own people, as a part of the world described. The influence of western groups and their culture has been practically ignored in their accounts12. Their interest in «the natives» has produced in them a sort of nearsightedness, a cultural bias that contributes to the formation of what Latour has named a Great Divide between us and them. Their ethnographic books are reports to the West, written accounts about the other from the horizon of a cognoscent I, an I that observes, aware of its being there, but that for the same reason, does not appear in the text, does not see himself13.

The Zapatista Movement

The present day conflict in Chiapas shows the prevalence of this anthropological discourse on the other. The same theoretical model used to explain the war in Guatemala, that is, a conflict among «the natives», or «the nationals» Indians and Ladinos14, is now being applied to the knowledge of the Zapatista uprising. Current literature stresses the conflicts between these two ethnic groups, or the Indian confrontations among themselves. Anthropological research, which is supposed to work at a grass roots level, continues viewing the Indian as a cultural entity, apart and opposed only to a «Ladino world». External influences are considered to be in the background, and although the religious institutions and international Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are sometimes mentioned, they do not appear as main protagonists of the ongoing drama. At most, national political parties are given a place, as conforming a particular arena of power. Yet, among western scholars working in the area, there is a shared opinion according to which, the Maya Indians are the main actor of the Zapatista movement.

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They are the ones that are breaking the long silence, and making their word be heard. They are up in arms in defense of their ethnic identity and their dignity15. In short, the Zapatista movement is just a new Indian rebellion against Ladino domination.

  It is a simple, even elegant model, based on a structural dyad with direct empirical referrents. In fact, Indians and Ladinos do have conflictive relations and severe crises in their respective ethnic identities, but such problematic situations must be seen in different terms, historical as well as cultural, as an aspect of a major sociocultural process whose boundaries are of a global scope.

  Historically, the Indian resistance has not been towards the mйtis or Ladino as such, but it has been opposed in general to an alien system of domination started with the conquest, that is exercised by Ladinos only at local or regional levels. Until a few decades ago, foreign western investors were in control of the economy of Chiapas, and made their profits exploiting the precious woods of the tropical forests, or from their rubber, banana and coffee plantations that employed thousands of Indian and Ladino workers. These foreign enterprises radically transformed local identities, turning peasant Indians into plantation peons, and rural Ladinos into muleteers, labor contractors and supervisors of Indians16.. More recently, the presence of the West has adopted other forms and contents, such as coffee markets and the tourist industry in the economy, the mass media, the churches, the scholars and the activists in the ideological, politic and cultural fields. In fact, the involvement of the West in local affairs may be said to have increased throughout the years. The participation and solidarity of Europeans in particular in the Zapatista movement is an interesting expression of a Western identity towards the Maya and in a negative sense towards Ladinos and other non-Indian nationals17.

  The expansion of the Mexican State in Chiapas is another important factor that intervenes in the ongoing regional process. Both Indians and Ladinos have changed deeply in face of the ever increasing government powers and agencies. The presence of Mexican people from all over the country certainly has an impact on local identities, as they enter into an already deep architectonic of the self and the other in Chiapanecan society. Let us remember that the devaluations of the Mexican currency, the neoliberal policies as well as the NAFTA agreement are said to be key factors that triggered the Zapatista rebellion18.


A man that reflects in his own personality the myriad of ethnic and social actors participating in the ongoing conflict in Chiapas is the insurgent Marcos. The life of this «white» leader among the Mayas in the jungle was an intense experience that allowed a close contact and united his mexican followers with the Indians in a common revolutionary cause.

  An aura of a warrior, of a hero, has been created around Marcos. Indians, Ladinos, nationals and foreigners, all share this newly created mythical hero, although each with their own idea of heroism. In his ability to communicate with the Indians, even though he does not properly speaks any Mayan language, and also in his skills to talk and deal with the powers abroad, Marcos is a real cultural mediator, a translator for the voices of distinct ethnic peoples. In this, he continues an old tradition of other white or mйtis heroes that have organized Indian rebellions in the past19.

  Besides the Indian loyalty and the emphathy he has inspired among democratic Mexicans, the effect Marcos has produced in the West has been outstanding. On the one side, because of his representation of the Maya people, and on the other, because he is seen after all like «one of us», Marcos presents himself as a sub-commander, with a military rank that puts him under the orders of an Indian army committee. He is also the translator, and the speaker of the Mayas up in arms. But at the same time, he is a writer, a poet, an intellectual, with the ethic power to interpellate the people and the State of Mexico, but also the people abroad. Cybernetics are on his side, giving him and his revolutionaries the means of instant communication and powers to act in this global world in which we live.

  Yet, Marcos protagonism ought to be seen in a politically correct perspective, not merely as a personal endeavor, but essentially as an Indian act in its own right. It is the Maya Indians of Chiapas who are the ones that after all are suffering and taking the responsibility of their actions and dreams, the ones who are up in arms to change their lot, and in the process, the face of a whole nation.


I ought to feel that other, ought to see his world from within, evaluating it as he does, I ought to put myself on his place, and then, going back to my own place, complete his horizon through that

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excedent of my vision that opens up from my own place, that is outside his own.


Much more could be said about the ongoing Indian uprising in Chiapas, but rather my intention here has been to understand it in terms of its dialogic nature, of the struggle of an Indian self in his contemporary confrontation with a multiplicity of others, in his profound wish to overcome the burden of his present life, invoking for that the help of those others that identify with his cause. And it is precisely there, in the unity of two and more distinct peoples, joining their voices in a common ethic answerable utterance, that lays the possibility of overcoming this ancient ethnic struggle. The Zapatista movement comes to show how this may be possible, through the construction of a consciousness of the self face-to-face with the other, a construction in which the self may be able, on an equitable basis, to keep what is proper to him, and at the same time, give to and take from the other.

  So far, that is still an ongoing project, more than an achieved reality. Racism and discrimination of all sorts prevail and permeate the Indian world. The ideological image of western identity, a fictitious one at that, still weighs just too much and too heavily in the spirits of «the natives», particulary in the imaginary identity of Ladinos. In this sense, the figure of Marcos, as a multicultural hero, a mediator between two worlds, has a lot to say, not just to the mйtis, but to the Indians and westerners alike.

  Bakhtin said that the identity is always created on the frontier, on the threshold of two consciousness. The transformation of Maya identity that we are witnessing here as an ungoing event is taking place precisely on the frontier where the Indian is facing himself and the other, in a new space where dialogue is getting to be a possibility, a new encounter, a new discovery of the self in the face of the other. Let us not miss this chance.

Universidad Nacional Autуnoma de Mйxico

1 Bajtнn, Mijaнl, Estйtica de la creaciуn verbal, Tatiana Bubnova (translation). Mexico, Siglo XXI Editores, 1982, p.327. The translation is mine.

2 Cf.: Bakhtin, Mikhail, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, M.Holquist & V. Liapunov (editors), Austin, University of Texas Press, 1993, in particular pp.40ss.

3 See as an example, Judith Thorn's bakhtinian essay on the literatures of Rigoberta Menchъ and Victor Montejo, both Mayan Indian intellectuals and activists. Thorn considers this literature as an important step from oral tradition to the written text that is allowing Indians to communicate with the world, as well as to develop «a canon of national literature for the Mayan people… characterized by both individual author and collective consciousness» (Thorn, Judith, The lived Horizon of My Being. The Substantiation of the Self & the Discourse of Resistance in Rigoberta Menchъ, MM Bakhtin and Vнctor Montejo. Tempe, Arizona State University Center for Latin American Studies Press, 1996, p.119).

4 According to Bakhtin, there is a concrete architectonic of the actual world of the performed act, composed of three basic moments: I-for-myself, the-other-for-me, and I-for-the-other (Bakthin, Mikhail, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, M. Holquist & V. Liapunov (editors), Austin, University of Texas Press, 1993, p.54). See also Bubnova, Tatiana, «El lugar de la filosofнa del acto йtico en la filosofнa del lenguaje de Bajtнn», A. Gimate-Welsh (editor) Escritos. Semiуtica de la cultura, Oaxaca, Mexico, Universidad Autуnoma Benito Juбrez, pp. 173-184.

5 Cf.: Maya Indian texts as the Popol Vuh, The Cakchiquel Annals, The Books of Chilam Balam, among the most important.

6 Todorov, Tzvetan, La conquista de Amйrica. La cuestiуn del otro, Mexico, Siglo XXI Editores, 1987, p.261.

7 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totalidad e infinito. Ensayo sobre la exterioridad, Barcelona, Ediciones Sнgueme, 1977, p.67. The translation is mine.

8 Ibid., p.69.

9 These are Maya Indian attitudes strongly expressed in the testimonial of Rigoberta Menchъ (Burgos, Elizabeth, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchъ y asн me naciу la conciencia, Mexico, Siglo XXI Editores, 1988).

10 For a Bakthin discussion of the notion of pretender, see Bakhtin, Mikhail, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, M. Holquist & V. Liapunov (editors), Austin, University of Texas Press, 1993, p.42.

11 See a detailed critic to Maya cultural anthropology in Alejos Garcнa, Josй, «Dominio extranjero en Chiapas. El desarrollo cafetalero en la Sierra Norte», Mesoamйrica, (32), 1996, pp. 283-298.

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12 An exception to the rule is the book of Sullivan, where the author explicitly acknowledges the intense and historical relationship between the Mayas of Yucatan and their western visitors. Sullivan's discourse is overtly addressed to the West, in order to create an awareness of the cultural and political importance of such relationship (Sullivan, Paul, Unfinished conversations. Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).

13 In his critic to the western idea of modernity, Latour identifies an ideological construction that he calls a Great Divide that has separated «them -all the other cultures- and us -the westerners … We westerners are absolutely different from others! -such in the modern's victory cry, or protracted lament… In Westerners' eyes the West, and the West alone, is not a culture, not merely a culture… we also mobilize nature… invented science» (Latour, Bruno, We have never been modern, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1993, p.97).

14 The model has a long history in the cultural anthropology carried out in Mexico and Guatemala. Recent works that illustrate the present uses of it in the analysis of the latter country are: Adams, Richard, Etnias en evoluciуn social, Mexico, Universidad Autуnoma Metropolitana, 1995; Carmack, Robert (editor), Harvest of violence: The Mayan Indians and the Guatemalan crisis, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988; Le Bot, Yvon, La guerra en tierras mayas, Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Econуmica, 1995; Smith, Carol (editor) Guatemalan Indians and the State, 1540 to 1988, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990; Stoll, David, Between Two Armies. In the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993.

15 Cf.: Collier, George, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. Oakland, California, Food First Books, Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1994; Le Bot, Yvon, Subcomandante Marcos. El sueсo zapatista. Barcelona, Plaza & Janйs Editores S.A., 1997; Monod, Aurore, Feu Maya: Le Soulevement au Chiapas, Ethnies, (9:16-17), 1994.

16 Cf.: Alejos Garcнa, Josй, Mosojдntel. Etnografнa del discurso agrarista entre los ch'oles de Chiapas, Mexico, Universidad Nacional Autуnoma de Mйxico (UNAM), 1994; Alejos Garcнa, Josй, «Dominio extranjero en Chiapas. El desarrollo cafetalero en la Sierra Norte», Mesoamйrica, (32), 1996, pp. 283-298; Benjamin, Thomas, A Rich Land, a Poor People. Politics and Society in Mo
dern Chiapas
, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1989; De Vos, Jan, Oro verde. La conquista de la Selva Lacandona por los madereros tabasque¤os, 1822-1949, Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Econуmica, 1988.

17 Henry Favre has published an interesting critic on Indian identity transformations in Latin America. He indicates the urban and western roots behind the Indian movements, as well as the active interventions of anthropologists in the same. They «provide cientific legitimacy to the discourse of Indianism… and certificate the authenticity of Indian identity» (Favre, Henry, «¿En quй se han convertido los indios? Las metamorfosis de la identidad india en Amйrica Latina» Cuicuilco, Mexico, (1:1), 1994, p.82. Translation is mine).

18 See among other literature, the documents and messages of the Zapatista Army in EZLN. Documentos y comunicados, Mexico, Ediciones Era, 1994.

19 According to a recent interview, Marcos, the «only white, or mйtis, among the Zapatista army.. [that] has gained a confidence among Indian communities thanks to his respectful distance, …. he can function as a window or bridge between both worlds» (Le Bot, Yvon, Subcomandante Marcos. El sueсo zapatista. Barcelona, Plaza & Janйs Editores S.A., 1997, p.17).

20 Bajtнn, Mijaнl, Estйtica de la creaciуn verbal, Tatiana Bubnova (translation). Mexico, Siglo XXI Editores, 1982, p.30. Translation is mine.

Восстание сапатистов в Чьяпасе (Мексика) — это движение индейцев майя, ярко высветившее межэтническую напряженность в современной Америке. Это, помимо всего прочего, социальный конфликт, который позволяет поднять важные теоретические вопросы в сферах антропологии и культурологии, особенно в том, что касается проблемы этнической идентичности в нынешнем мире. Автор доклада, основываясь на концепциях Бахтина, критически рассматривает традиционные антропологические представления об индейцах майя. По его мнению, бахтинские работы обогащают наши взгляды и помогают найти новые подходы к лучшему пониманию современных этнических движений, подобных сапатистскому. Автор раскрывает путь, которым «другой» проникает в сердцевину индейской культуры в рассматриваемом конфликте, подчеркивая, что осознание этого может способствовать установлению реального диалога между вовлеченными в конфликт сторонами.

Identity and Ethnic Conflict in Chiapas


Главный редактор: Николай Паньков
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