Behind the Mexican Mountains

[ Latin American Studies ]

Behind the Mexican Mountains

By Robert Zingg

This colorful account of an anthropologist's fieldwork among the Tarahumara in 1930 provides a compelling description of the landscape, people, traditions, language, and archaeology of the Tarahumara region.



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6 x 9 | 335 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-79809-0

In 1930, anthropologists Robert Zingg and Wendell Bennett spent nine months among the Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Mexico, one of the least acculturated indigenous societies in North America. Their fieldwork resulted in The Tarahumara: An Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico (1935), a classic ethnography still familiar to anthropologists. In addition to this formal work, Zingg also penned a personal, unvarnished travelogue of his sojourn among the Tarahumara. Unpublished in his lifetime, Behind the Mexican Mountains is now available in print for the first time.

This colorful account provides a compelling description of the landscape, people, traditions, language, and archaeology of the Tarahumara region. Abandoning the scientific detachment of the observer, Zingg frankly records his reactions to the people and their customs as he vividly evokes the daily experience of doing fieldwork. In the introduction, Howard Campbell examines Zingg's writing in light of current critiques of anthropology as literature. He makes a strong case that although earlier anthropological writing reveals unacceptable cultural biases, it also demonstrates the ongoing importance and vitality of field research.

  • Introduction, by Howard Campbell
  • Chapter 1. Railroads, Revolutions, and Schoolteachers
  • Chapter 2. Mexicans, Mines, and American Capitalists
  • Chapter 3. Personalities Emerge from Wooden Indians
  • Chapter 4. Tarahumara Men and Women at Home and at Work
  • Chapter 5. Tarahumara Children and Adults at Play
  • Chapter 6. Curing, Races, and Death Customs among the Tarahumaras
  • Chapter 7. More Drinking Bouts in the Celebrations of "Catholic" Christmas
  • Chapter 8. Officials, Government, and Politics among the Tarahumaras
  • Chapter 9. Liquor, Guns, and Religion in the Mexican Picture
  • Chapter 10. The Mexican Powers: Religious, Civil, and Military
  • Chapter 11. Ready-Made Archaeology, Trips, and Talks
  • Chapter 12. Ancient and Modern Cave-Dwellers in the Gorges
  • Chapter 13. The Catholic Mission
  • Chapter 14. Spring, Holy Week, and Archaeology
  • Chapter 15. Pagan Ceremonies and Peyote
  • Chapter 16. The "Genuine" and "Spurious" Values of Tarahumara Culture
  • Chapter 17. The Philistine Spirit of Tarahumara Culture
  • Chapter 18. Adiós Tarahumaras and Campfire Stories of Villa
  • Chapter 19. Miners, Mennonites, Militarism, and the Spirit of Mexico

This book is based on the University of Chicago Expedition of Tarahumara Ethnography to Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1930.1 The author, Robert Zingg, was trained at Chicago's famous anthropology department, where he completed his dissertation (1933) and worked with prominent professors such as Robert Redfield, Edward Sapir, and Fay Cooper-Cole. The University of Chicago also published his classic ethnography with Wendell Bennett, The Tarahumara: An Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico (1935). The current book, written in the 1930's and early 1940's, is Zingg's personal account of the Tarahumara2 fieldwork he engaged in with Bennett.

Robert Zingg was an ethnographer of the old school who relished meticulous data collection and the rustic life of the field. His passion for rural Mexican culture began during his childhood in the U.S. Southwest. Zingg was born in Colorado in 1900 and grew up in northern New Mexico speaking Spanish and English. His first exposure to living in Latin America occurred at the age of twenty-two when he taught English in Cárdenas, Cuba. This year abroad increased Zingg's appetite for travel and improved his Spanish (although it left a bit to be desired, as several errors in the text illustrate). From Cuba, he traveled to the Philippines, where Zingg lived for five years and worked as an English teacher and later as a salesman for the Goodyear Tire Company.

Except for a period between 1936 and 1937 in which he did research in German universities and museums, Zingg's major anthropological travels took him to Mexico, where he studied the Tarahumara and Huichol Indians. Zingg conducted about eighteen months of fieldwork among the Huichols between 1933 and 1935, the results of which were published in his 1938 book The Huichols: Primitive Artists. In addition to the previously mentioned books, his major publications were Report on the Archaeology of Southern Chihuahua (1940) and Wolf Children and Feral Man (Singh and Zingg 1942).

Zingg's first love, however, was his Tarahumara research. Indeed, Zingg was very fond of the Tarahumara people. In 1947 he brought a group of about ten Tarahumara runners to El Paso, Texas (where he lived), to perform at halftime of the annual Sun Bowl football game. The Tarahumara group then stayed for another week at the Zingg household in southeast El Paso. Emma Zingg, widow of the deceased anthropologist, told me in an interview in 1993 that she cooked breakfast and supper for the Tarahumaras, whom she described as "good houseguests." Dr. Zingg gave them clothing and other gifts before they returned to their homes in the Chihuahua canyon lands, Mrs. Zingg noted.

Zingg's original Tarahumara fieldwork required arduous travel by mule in remote areas of the Sierra Madre and challenging encounters with relatively unassimilated Indians. His publications about the Tarahumara are studded with "realistic" photographs, indigenous vocabulary, trait lists, informative appendices, and chapter titles such as "Natural Environment," "Agriculture and Food," "Government," "Birth," and "Death." In short, all the trappings of "scientific" anthropology of the period (Stocking 1992). Moreover, Zingg's work was done at a time in American anthropology when it was still possible to talk about "primitive," unstudied tribes and the salvaging of anthropological data before unsullied cultures were contaminated by civilization.

Behind the Mexican Mountains is a free-flowing description of nine months of travel and residence in Tarahumara country. It is a swashbuckling account of perilous treks through rugged terrain and delicate interactions with inscrutable "natives." The text is colorful and unvarnished. In spite of Zingg's avowed love for the Tarahumaras, it is replete with often negative comments about "half-castes," "wooden Indians," "Tarahumaritos," and "our man Friday." Additionally, Zingg's references to women are almost invariably derogatory, emphasizing their supposed ugliness and crabby characters. Indeed, Behind the Mexican Mountains is reminiscent of Bronislaw Malinowski's controversial diary (1967) in its letting-one's-hair-down candidness, nonprofessional soul-baring, and crude criticism of "the natives."

Zingg's travel narrative emerged from an anthropology that was new and enthralled with the native peoples of the American West and northern Mexico. In the 1880's Adolf Bandelier recorded his travels through the region as a diary filled with the raw and unedited material from his daily studies (1966-1976). He translated Spanish archives, searched for the last of the Manso Indians, drew native pottery in watercolors, and recorded archaeological sites. In his multidisciplinary and multi-sited anthropology in the nineteenth century, he grasped the region and its people like no one before. He set a standard for observation and documentation that prevailed well into the twentieth century. Others, like Carl Lumholtz, emphasized the natural landscape, day-by-day descriptions, and outback adventure in northern Mexico (1973 [1902]). The diary or travelogue genre of many of these books provokes a sense of adventure and immediacy, which makes them invaluable documents of their time, as well as appealing discovery narratives. Behind the Mexican Mountains is a fine addition to the travel literature of the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico.

Dr. Zingg submitted the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, the University of Oklahoma Press, and other prominent publishers in the early 1940's. These presses expressed some interest, but ultimately the project languished because of the economic hardships of the Second World War. The manuscript may also have received less than complete acceptance by reviewers because it was written in a nonscientific, travelogue style rather than the standard ethnographic format of the time. It was an adventure tale, not an anthropological monograph.

Today's anthropological fascination with literary forms and constructions, and the reappraisal of earlier ethnography and travel writing, increase the relevance of Zingg's Tarahumara trips (Clifford 1992). Ironically, Zingg's work is also of interest because of ways in which it illustrates styles of anthropological writing and commentary (e.g., Zingg's marked sexism and seemingly crude ethnocentrism) now deemed verboten. The Zingg travelogue, then, is an ideal venue for examining U.S. anthropology in a formative period and exploring the embeddedness of colonial and misogynist discourses and relationships in ethnographic fieldwork.

Writing and the Future of Ethnography

The publication of Malinowski's diary3 in 1967 and the expanding interpretive and literary turn in American anthropology in the 1970's culminated in 1986 with the publication of Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by Clifford and Marcus (1986). Writing Culture celebrated anthropologists' role as writers and heralded a new focus on the ethnographic text. In the words of James Clifford:

No longer a marginal, or occulted, dimension, writing has emerged as central to what anthropologists do both in the field and thereafter. The fact that it has not until recently been portrayed or seriously discussed reflects the persistence of an ideology claiming transparency of representation and immediacy of experience.... The essays in this volume do not claim ethnography is "only literature." They do insist it is always writing. (Clifford 1986: 2, 26)

Anthropologists began to view their work as texts, and a flurry of books emerged that evaluated the literary bases of earlier ethnographies, while others encouraged or engaged in literary experiments (Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford 1988; Crapanzano 1985; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Tedlock 1991; Behar and Gordon 1995). The buzzwords of literary theory became commonplace in anthropological discourse, and a new postmodern era was saluted (or bitterly lamented). One of the most useful interventions in these discussions was Clifford Geertz's Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988). According to Geertz, an ethnographer's success with the reading (mainly anthropological) public is based not so much on the weightiness or sophistication of his or her theoretical arsenal or collection of "facts" as on his or her ability to convince us that she or he has "been there." The condition of "being there" (i.e., that the ethnographer has spent an extended period in the place under study and will guide the reader through the terrain) is evoked through sheer literary talent and the skillful wielding of standard anthropological gambits such as the "arrival scene." In the process, the anthropologist puts his or her "signature" or identity on the work and creates an indelible style that has ranged from the powerfully "realistic" descriptions of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard to Claude Lévi-Strauss's highly abstract and literary structuralism.

At its best, the focus on the "anthropologist as author" has made us more aware of the hidden assumptions (and possibilities) of the language and texts of anthropology. It has caused us yet again to question our ancestors in the field, deconstruct our methodologies and theories, and search our souls for a political justification for doing anthropology at all. At its worst, however, the new textual emphasis has degenerated into word games, political-correctness one-upmanship contests, and a nihilistic outlook that denies ethnography any relevance while exalting the navel-gazing author (Polier and Roseberry 1989). Ironically, at the same time that imperialistic wars have continued, indigenous peoples' lands have been destroyed, and human rights abuses have been committed, stylish anthropologists have gathered in posh hotels to debate—not the politics of human rights or cultural survival—but the "politics of representations" of "the Other" (Moore, ed. 1996). But here I concur with John Watanabe (1995: 28), who argues that

post-modern poetics fares no better than artless positivism in resolving the inherent political asymmetries in ethnography's problematic—indeed, inescapable—appropriation of its subjects' lives for purposes beyond the living of those lives. Like all anthropologists, whatever their rhetoric, post-modernists pursue an agenda distinct from that of their subjects: the more they imagine others (or themselves) into their texts, the more they reveal their overriding concern with how ethnography gets read by a largely Western (or Westernised) audience, not with how ethnography might actually empower the "real people" it represents. Contending with the crisis of representation in Western intellectual circles may make "writing culture" more deliberate, but this changes neither the status nor the power of those so represented—even vis-à-vis anthropologists.4

Nowadays the focus is on the writing and the representing (Domínguez 1994). This, above all, appears to be the issue for many anthropologists. Not whether the Lacandóns or Garifuna are in danger of extinction. Not how to fight the Guatemalan government's genocidal war against Mayan people. Not questions of fact or data, but issues of interpretation and style, of how to represent cultures textually or how to deconstruct such textual representations (Sacks 1995). One unfortunate consequence of this in many ways healthy and necessary turn in recent American anthropology is a downgrading or even retreat from ethnographic fieldwork (Manganaro 1990). For many anthropologists, today, it is more comfortable and safe, as well as in vogue, to study mass media representations or written texts than to do fieldwork (e.g., Marcus 1998: 21-25). While this trend may reflect a broadening and enriching of anthropological subject matter and theory, it may also indicate a weakening of anthropologists' claim to uniqueness and relevance. And it may take anthropologists away from what is our primary source of strength and originality: ethnography (cf. Ortner 1999).

Ethnography remains the main area that distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines, and the retreat from fieldwork in recent years is highly problematic. With the rise of Foucauldian, antipositivist, postmodern, and deconstructive approaches has also emerged a problematic smugness and ironic attitude (Ahmed and Shore, eds. 1995). According to this new style, previous ethnographic works must be picked apart—in a predictable fashion—to reveal that, in fact, the author was a racist, sexist colonialist (Sacks 1995: 104).5 In the meantime, the contemporary anthropologist shields him- or herself from the messy contradictions of fieldwork by holing up in the archives or engaging in a kind of ivory tower literary criticism that leaves no room for refutation, comparison with "data" (an outmoded term that if mentioned with seriousness provokes scorn), or actual contact or dialogue with living people who might force political engagement rather than literary distancing (Ahmed and Shore, eds. 1995).

I still believe that anthropological fieldwork can produce something resembling reliable information about a group of people in a particular time and place rather than merely sophisticated postmodern critiques of representations (Sahlins 1999). In this regard I agree with Virginia Domínguez and others "who refuse to believe that in this post-Said, post-Foucault, post-Clifford era, the only valid anthropological work is the textual critique of canonized scholarship produced by privileged European and North American scholars" (Domínguez 1994: 1280).6 I say this, not with the intention of returning to an antebellum anthropological status quo, but because I feel that a progressive anthropological agenda (Marxist, feminist, and/or poststructuralist) can also and should include empirically driven fieldwork. Indeed, the escape from fieldwork into expectable critiques of representations, rather than transcending the tremendous power of racial, sexual, and class hierarchies and discourses, may have the counterproductive effect of rendering anthropology irrelevant and unread by other than a cult of esoteric sophisticates (cf. Knauft 1994: 129).

Watanabe has nicely summarized the continued value of anthropological writing and fieldwork:

Given the inescapable hubris of authorship, the anthropologist's need to write about otherness,7 and the inadequacies of a Cliffordian poetics in dealing with either—let alone with the emerging agendas of anthropologised peoples—anthropologists can perhaps best serve their varied constituencies by writing as forthrightly as possible about what they think might be going on "elsewhere" and why. By this, I do not mean reverting to some unreflective, imperious empiricism—or imitating the encyclopedias or chronicles other people might write about themselves. Instead, I mean attempting to widen anthropology's readership beyond the privileged scientific or literary few by writing as if one's subjects might some day read what one has written with anthropological concerns of their own—as pan-Mayanists have already begun to do. While by no means guaranteeing anthropology's relevance—or even acceptability—to these others, such a "reimagining" of colleagues might at least make it more accessible. (Watanabe 1995: 40-41)

Moreover, fieldwork is precisely the means by which anthropologists can expose their vulnerability and shed their burden of intellectual "authority" through contact with those who promote or resist hegemonic processes and discourses. In other words, the personal experience (through fieldwork) of, or contact with, sexual, racial, and class hierarchies and an empirically informed anthropological practice must be emphasized in order for the contemporary fascination with representations, irony, and text to remain relevant to the lives of the people we profess to care so much about (Ortner 1999).

In fact, the postmodern focus on deconstruction of past ethnographies and on the ethnographer's own experience gets the anthropologist off the hook of the spiny dilemma of writing about modern culture and addressing the dilemmas (poverty, repression, racism, sexism) of contemporary people while living among them (Hubinger, ed. 1996). Instead of doing something really radical and risky,8 such as working with the people of South-Central L.A., researching the killing fields of Guatemala, or doing fieldwork in the favelas of Rio, the postmodernists take their risks on the battle front of the word processor—put a word in quotes here, a hyphen and parenthesis there.

Granted, it is important to deconstruct the anthropological corpus, to expose the hidden assumptions of colonialist Victorian anthropology. But if anthropology is to have any claim to originality or relevance, the next step must also be taken: we must continue to do fieldwork and write ethnographies. Cute, wordy language games and sophisticated dissections of the old masters will not resolve the challenge of ethnography. Nor will efforts to share authorship, authority, and voice, although these initiatives are surely welcome and vital. We (i.e., the writers of monographs, dialogical texts, or autoethnographies) still must attempt to present, evoke, or represent cultural worlds in original ways—based on fieldwork, "being there"—or else anthropology may as well become a minor branch of English departments or Cultural Studies programs. We have to be cognizant and reflexive about the ethnographer's role in the construction of knowledge, but an obsession with this issue will not resolve the dilemma. Like it or not, ethnography is our primary contribution to modern intellectual life and our best hope for contributing to the very vital public debates about culture today. It is with these ideas in mind that I read Zingg's writings, and it is with these concepts that I feel that we can salvage something of value from Zingg's fieldwork.

Zingg and the Tarahumaras

Robert Zingg's arrival in the Tarahumara country is characteristically colorful. Riding on the Porfirian train that will bring "progress" and "civilization" to rural Mexico, he ponders tales of the Mexican Revolution and the "bandit" Pancho Villa, and the creative engineering feats of Mexican railroad men. At the end of the first chapter Zingg says good-bye to the last vestiges of "civilization," such as the Chihuahuan schoolteachers and their cosmetics, and heads down the Continental Divide to the town of Creel on the edge of Tarahumara territory. As the rickety train lumbers through rugged sierras and gorges, Zingg's mind peruses the state of postrevolutionary Mexico while he prepares to explore the rugged, untamed land of the Sierra Madre.

Zingg and his anthropological colleague, Wendell Bennett, quickly leave behind the non-Indian town of Creel, "with nothing to interest us," in search of "native" settlements. The anthropologists hire servants from the local population, including their "man Friday" (note the colonialist reference to Robinson Crusoe's devoted servant) and a muleteer Zingg nicknames "Pancho Villa." This picturesque, but lightly equipped, crew sets off into the mountains and canyons of the Sierra Madre. Lest Zingg be branded as an unregenerate colonialist, it should be noted that he praises the abilities of his muleteers, as he does the skills of various Mexican teachers and working people throughout the book. He also goes out of his way to compliment the Mexican people for their grace and dignity. Although, as we will see, he is also quite quick to criticize what he views as major flaws in Tarahumara culture.

True to his training as an all-around anthropologist, Zingg carefully describes the physical landscape and flora of his ethnographic area. At this point Zingg confidently assumes the role of the fieldworker recording his daily observations and entries into his field notebook, although the flowing travelogue of his prose continues. Along the way he describes the various American entrepreneurs who ventured into the Chihuahua backcountry. His comments are somewhat negative, although he does point out that the capital the North Americans infused was much needed and he lauds the hanging bridge built by a U.S. engineer named Shepherd.

First encounter scene: Zingg meets two Tarahumara men and one woman trying to saddle a donkey. But the Tarahumaras were unsuccessful: "Their efforts to master even so lethargic a beast as the Mexican burro were ludicrous, bespeaking the slight use of domestic animals among the tribe." Yet "they moved with that unconscious grace and dignity that contribute so much to the impression of nobility noted by all observers." They were, says Zingg, "Indians in a state of nature." This mixture of admiration and scorn colors Zingg's depictions of Tarahumara culture throughout the book (although he is equally critical of other groups, as well as his own culture). Elated by this first meeting with Tarahumara people and his subsequent arrival at the Indian town of Samachique, Zingg, à la Malinowski, exclaims: "At last we had the elusive Tarahumara right under our noses for observation."

Chapter 3, with the embarrassing title of "Personalities Emerge from Wooden Indians," heralds Zingg's penetration into "the field," his entree into Tarahumara society and homes. Not surprisingly, Zingg used trade goods to encourage the reticent Tarahumaras to provide him with cultural information and submit to the gaze of his motion-picture camera. Eventually, Zingg states that he and Bennett "were so popular in this community and were asked to so many feasts that we had to leave." Obviously Zingg participated with great gusto in the Tarahumara drinking parties, which gave him "a feeling of contentment and oneness with the Indians."9 He even became the server of tesgüino (corn beer) at one of the events and eventually passed out from excessive consumption of the beverage.

Mutual misunderstandings between anthropologists and Indians occurred, however, as when the Tarahumaras thought that Zingg was killing and skinning local birds in order to take them back to the United States where he would bring them back to life (instead of using them as zoological samples as was his intention). These confusions were ultimately overcome, says Zingg, and the anthropologists established tight bonds with the Indians, including key informants like Lorenzo. What follows are rich ethnographic descriptions of Tarahumara life in 1930 and 1931. Zingg's field observations are interspersed with comments on Mexican politics and society, descriptions of the lives of Catholic missionaries stationed in the Sierra, and musings about similarities between Tarahumara lifeways and cultural practices in other anthropologically studied places such as the Philippines. Additionally, very much in the mode of the four-field anthropologist, he conducted extensive archaeological excavations of Tarahumara caves and burials, during which he collected mummies and artifacts.

Zingg pays special attention to the Tarahumara beer parties (tesgüinadas) and exults that the Indians' willingness to let him attend the parties was a high point of his fieldwork. At one of these drinking bouts, Lorenzo announced to the group of Tarahumaras gathered there that the anthropologist had been granted permission to study them by Don Porfirio Díaz himself (who was by 1930 quite dead). At another, Zingg's sore neck was cured by a shaman. As his relationships with the Tarahumaras deepened, Zingg became a doctor to Patricio, who was beset with a spiritually based illness. Although Patricio finally died, his willingness to take on Zingg as his physician indicates the trust the anthropologist had gained among many local people. This trust allowed him to sketch out the main features of a Tarahumara culture that in the 1930's retained a considerable degree of separateness and independence from life in urban Mexico. Zingg even went so far as to say that "The Tarahumaras . . . have fared admirably well on the whole, and still rule almost the entirety of the great mountainous chain of southern Chihuahua, a region embracing one-third of this largest state of the Mexican union."

Zingg is at his best in straightforward descriptions of Tarahumara social practices and the natural environment of the Sierra Madre. For example, in this passage he portrays a cactus plant of great importance to the Tarahumaras:

The maguey has several leaves five or six feet long and as tough as rhinoceros hide. The tip of each leaf is armed with a stiff, thornlike point as sharp as a needle. Only so grim and arid a country as Mexico can produce such a plant. It is not surprising, furthermore, that the maguey should die from the final effort of bursting into flower. It sends out a flower spine from twenty to thirty feet long, which is held upright on a strong skeletal structure. This spine is covered with thousands of small yellow-white flowers, the fragrance of which attracts dozens of hummingbirds. To suck the honey out of flowers these graceful little birds hover in the air by beating their wings so fast that all one sees is a blur on either side of them.

The skeleton of the enormous flower spine of these century plants sustains a fresh and succulent flesh. The Indians utilize this for food, as they do other plants of the sierra. It is roasted in the ashes of a large fire. The result, when eaten with sugar, is a delicious food, as I myself can attest.

Reading Zingg we get a good feel for the basic lifestyle and adaptation to the environment of specific Tarahumara groups in the 1930's. His descriptions of Tarahumara farming methods, technology, dwellings, social organization, and fiestas are compelling. He also has a knack for chronicling his fieldwork in exuberant lyrical tones, as in this paragraph:

But in other adventures the wilds of Mexico are singularly replete. I shall never forget nights spent before blazing campfires, the fellow travelers met along the way, the toil of long hot days and the cool freshness of evenings climaxed by sunsets that blazoned.

In other passages, such as this description of a Tarahumara race, Zingg displays a gift for vivid evocations of local life:

It is at night that the scene is the most spectacular of any other in Tarahumaraland. Torches of pitch pine, which burns like oil, are lighted all along the course. Hundreds of these blaze across the sierra, and flicker in the distance like a myriad of fireflies. And through this weird illumination, watched over by the dim outlines of the towering pines, dart the glistening figures of the runners followed by the frenzied, encouraging shouts of the half-naked spectators.

Excitement mounts as the race progresses. The runners begin to show signs of fatigue; for sometimes these trying competitions have lasted as long as seventy-two hours, continuing on into the following days. The wives or female relatives of the runners prepare pinole, and the runners stop and hastily gulp this down for strength, and then catch up with their teammates a little farther on. Despite these aids the runners one by one begin to fall out of the race exhausted, until finally only the strongest are left.

The human side of Zingg's writing is one of his major strengths, as University of Texas student Suzan Kern (pers. comm.) noted when she helped edit the manuscript:

Zingg is arrogant and paternalistic when reporting about the Tarahumaras' lives and customs to an implicitly elite in-the-know audience. Yet, when he records his own feelings and reactions to particular individuals and incidents, Zingg's writing takes on the quality of a personal journal. His loneliness, his grudging respect for many of the Tarahumaras' skills, his growing friendship with several native informants, his joy at being able to carouse with his subjects during tesgüinadas, his humor at their (and his own) human weakness, his nostalgia on taking leave of the Tarahumaras and their valley: all these emotions reveal the man behind the anthropologist and keep the modern reader interested.

Zingg is at his worst when he defines "the primitive" and philosophizes about the differences between "primitive" Tarahumara culture and civilization. Indeed, at times Zingg's use of expressions like "personalities emerge from wooden Indians," "the philistine spirit of Tarahumara culture," "cigar-store Indians," and "the little savages" almost seems like a bizarre parody of anthropology. Consider these passages: "Primitive man is always an uncertain creature when he is nonplussed and afraid." "This unquestioning adherence to traditional patterns is the essence of the primitive." "Life is simple for the Tarahumaras, and from the day of birth is practically one glorified camping trip." "Lorenzo had a curious monkeylike face, and was dressed in tatterdemalion overalls and a shirt. Some scamp of a culturally bastardized Indian." The apotheosis of his arrogance comes in Chapters 16 and 17, where Zingg identifies what he considers the "spurious" aspects of Tarahumara culture and its "philistine spirit."

These chapters soar off into new heights of ethnocentrism, essentialism, and just plain wacky logic. As if imitating Ed Wood's cinematic technique, the two chapters are such bad anthropology they almost become classics of a genre—in this case, a genre of mediocre, kitschy, Indiana Jones-style adventures among non-Western primitives. For example, in Chapter 16 Zingg lists those elements of Tarahumara culture that are spurious in the sense that "they thwart and defeat the individuals who participate in them." Hence the Tarahumaras' need to migrate from the mountains to the canyons is a "cultural defect." Another supposed failure of the Tarahumaras is their aesthetic culture, which "is greatly inhibited." A further area of "cultural paucity" is that related to character because "very meager are the organizations, devices, and methods set up in Tarahumara culture for the adjustment of its individuals to one another and for their conditioning into secure and well-rounded personalities." Tarahumara social organization is also weak (according to Zingg), and sheep-herding is problematic because the "constant association with animals in the isolation of rocks and forest seems to be the most important factor underlying the wooden personalities and manners of the tribe." The result is a "lack of normal personality."

Zingg continues the parade of perceived Tarahumara cultural errors, which include the absence of literature and plastic arts as well as the existence of "pagan ceremonies" which "utterly lack color, romance, drama, and pageantry." According to Zingg, the Tarahumaras' only escape from this extremely spurious culture is drinking. And the anthropologist concludes his frenzy of essentialist, self-righteous moralizing with this rhetorical flourish:

The case for the "spurious" quality of the Tarahumara articulation of their culture around drunkenness lies in the bleak, drab tone of Tarahumara life with its starkness of cultural simplicity utterly primitive in all its features. It is a vicious cycle: the drabness encourages the escape through drunkenness; the drunkenness encourages the drabness.

At this point, the reader might wonder if, with friends like Robert Zingg, the Tarahumara needed enemies. And the diatribe continues in Chapter 17, where Zingg discusses the Tarahumaras' supposed philistinism. This chapter is not good anthropology. Yet there are still many redeeming features of the book, some of which will be discussed below. But first, a few words about the "philistine spirit" of the Tarahumaras epitomized by their philosophy (according to Zingg) of "work hard and get drunk."

Like the U.S. middle class of Matthew Arnold, the Tarahumaras, per Zingg, are "realistic" and "materialistic." They have no aesthetic appreciation of flowers, sunsets, and other natural beauty, and "the animal world is productive of no mystical meanings and connotations." These Indians are obsessed with thriftiness and wealth, and men are judged by the number of cattle they possess. Not only are the Tarahumara collectively philistine in their tawdry beer-drinking ceremonies, but on an individual and family level as well, their lives are (supposedly) strictly utilitarian and materialistic. Even Tarahumara religion is inauthentic and spurious: "Its mysticism is so crude as to be scarcely rationalized into simple intelligibility." Art, soul, and spirituality are all lacking, and the void is filled by drinking. Or at least that is Zingg's interpretation.

Zingg's depiction of women is equally bleak and prone to the worst kind of essentialism and misogyny. Some examples: "Lorenzo's woman was a paragon—of ugliness and surliness, a termagant of the strongest vintage"; "Lorenzo's hag of a wife"; "One [Mexican woman] was about twenty-five and already spinsterish, the good wine having turned slightly to vinegar in that dismal isolation"; and "their [Tarahumara women's] nagging and general surliness." The Tarahumara women, invariably unnamed, who appear in these pages are uniformly drab, unpleasant, and hostile. Zingg seems to revel in the most blatant sexism. And, unlike most contemporary male anthropologists, he is not shy about revealing his sexual desire for certain women he encountered during his fieldwork: "The younger girl was about sixteen, so that with her the wine had not yet begun to turn. What we two anthropologists wouldn't have given to take the younger girl along with us to grind our tortillas!"

What is perhaps even more alarming than the content of these comments is the ease with which they were made and inserted into a text that Zingg hoped would gain him greater renown as an anthropologist. Yet in spite of the Archie Bunker-level sexism that colors sections of the text, there are moments in which Zingg tries to come to grips with women's lives in a less demeaning fashion. For example, in Chapter 4 he notes that "the woman is no chattel among the Tarahumaras" and goes on to describe women's important productive activities, such as weaving, pottery-making, child-rearing, animal-herding, and food preparation. Zingg observes that women have control of what they weave, veto power over commercial transactions, and the high esteem of their families. Indeed, he states that the Tarahumara women enjoyed "high status" in their society and that each sex was wholly dependent on the other. And Zingg concludes that Indian women have more freedom than do mestizo women in Mexico. As he put it: "The patriarchal system of Catholic Spain does not exist among the Tarahumaras; and among them the women may be as surly and as independent as they please, thus gaining a relatively high status."

Surprisingly also, in the last chapter, Zingg criticizes the negative impact of religious conservatism on Mennonite and Mexican women, which he said forced them "to be servants of men" and caused the efforts of "half the human race [to be] wasted in ministering to the other half"! He questions what "all their saintly virtue gained these Mennonite women" and defends the more liberated modern Mexican women ("the Jezebels"), who were "cocky" and "ostentatiously enjoyed their new freedom." However groping and embarrassing some of this may seem today, it was, at least, Zingg's attempt at a kind of cultural understanding and relativism that permeates the text.

Zingg's relationships with his informants, servants, and helpers are, likewise, tinged with a mixture of sympathy, paternalism, and ethnocentrism. For instance, Zingg repeatedly refers to "our mozo," "my muleteer," "our man Friday," etc., indicating a possessive, master-servant attitude about the people who helped him do his fieldwork. Moreover, in patronizing fashion Zingg named "his" muleteer "Pancho Villa," a label he uses throughout the book instead of the man's real name. Yet, in fairness to Zingg, he does express considerable respect for the backwoods abilities of his helpers, and he praises the intelligence of his key informant, Lorenzo. And, like many fieldworkers, Zingg recounts that "Generally I was most kindly treated."

Also familiar is Zingg's use of tobacco, money, old clothing, and other trade goods to obtain artifacts, plant and animal samples, and cultural information from the Tarahumaras. Eventually, Zingg claims, "we were so popular in this community [Samachique] and were asked to so many feasts that we had to leave." At the same time, he also mentions several individuals, such as Lorenzo's wife and Patricio, who were openly hostile to the anthropologists.

What can one say about the ethics of Zingg trading boxes of matches for lizards, toads, and snakes? Perhaps no harm was done by this (except to the reptilian and amphibian population of the sierra), and Zingg notes that the skinned carcasses of animal skeletons were returned to the Indians for food. Of more concern is Zingg's extensive harvesting of Tarahumara graves and burial sites, although he claims the local people were not particularly interested in them and he did have the permission of the Mexican government. Also highly questionable is Bennett's taking advantage of the Tarahumaras' poverty and lack of food to purchase some of their best blankets at dirt cheap prices.

Another point worth mentioning is Zingg's less than perfect Spanish. In spite of his comment that "Spanish . . . is so much mine that when I am speaking it, I am almost blood-brother to the Spaniard," a number of obvious errors appear in his use of the language. Some examples: "Que bueno que papá mató un venado por [should be para] el Americano," "Fue un viaje espantosa [should be espantoso]," "Tarahumara women are very bronco [bronca]; but drunk they are manso [mansa]," and "mucho gente [mucha]." It also bears mentioning that Zingg makes many deprecatory remarks about the poverty of Tarahumara religion, beliefs, and mentalities even though he did not himself speak or understand much of the Tarahumara language. One wonders, then, how much he really knew about these matters.

Historical mistakes enter the picture as well, such as a joke about the Villa assassination which actually referred to the Obregón killing, according to Mexican political scientist Samuel Schmidt (pers. comm.). Also, Lázaro Cárdenas was not Plutarco Elías Calles's successor, and President "Rubio" should be called "Ortíz Rubio" per Mexican usage.


Clearly, Robert Zingg's research was not flawless. Worse yet, his work is tinged with ethnocentrism and sexism not acceptable today. Why, then, read Zingg? There are two main reasons. The most important reason for reading Zingg's travelogue is for what his work tells us about the lives of Tarahumara people in the 1930's. In spite of Zingg's unfortunate biases, he was a solid fieldworker when it came to most basic cultural descriptions, and his writing gives us a good feel for community life in the Sierra Madre at the time. He also provides a wealth of anecdotes about various others, priests, soldiers, politicians, and mestizos, whose actions greatly affected the Tarahumara. The book, then, provides valuable information about Chihuahua history and especially about one of the largest groups of still relatively unassimilated indigenous people in Mexico.

The second reason for reading Zingg is to evaluate anthropology's own complicity in the construction of colonial discourses and political structures that have impinged on the lives of non-Western people. While Zingg is not responsible for the systems of power that have kept Tarahumara people poor and excluded from most of the economic, political, and social benefits available in Mexican society, he is responsible for painting a picture of them as "philistine" primitives. But we must also recognize the fact that Zingg was not alone in this regard and that the sexist and essentialist ethnic discourses he wielded were commonplace in the anthropology of the times and U.S. society at large.

For me, at least, the lesson of Zingg's work is not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." Like it or not, Zingg is one of our "primitive ancestors" in anthropology. This is our history as anthropologists, and we must come to grips with it. Politically correct critiques of such writings and a retreat into arcane literary approaches will not do away with the dilemma of studying and writing about cultural processes in a world of structures of vastly unequal power and privilege. Contemporary Tarahumara people face dire threats from drought, famine, environmental degradation, violent drug traffickers, and corrupt politicians.10 Anthropologists could play a major role in supporting this beleaguered people, but not if they retreat further into the confines of the ivory tower.

If anthropology is to have any relevance to contemporary world problems, we must continue to do fieldwork and write about it (Grimshaw and Hart 1994: 258-259). Postmodernism, poststructuralism, cultural studies, and literary theory—all can be mobilized as weapons in struggles over meaning, representation, discourse, and power. They can be used to make our work sharper, more aware of its limitations and possibilities, and more politically sophisticated—but they cannot become a replacement for fieldwork. Anthropology's strength has always been our ability to interact closely in relatively small groups of people in order to portray the richness and textures of cultural life.

Today fieldwork may occur in multiple, transnational venues in a cyberspace, postmodern world (Clifford 1992). But I would argue that the fieldworker's task remains much the same. In this respect Zingg's work, in addition to providing information about Tarahumara life historically, can help us understand where anthropology has come from as we continue to carry on the only task which we can claim to perform in a unique and relevant way: fieldwork.11


  1. Permission to publish this book was granted by Zingg's widow, Emma, to the Centennial Museum of the University of Texas at El Paso. Florence Schwein, director of the museum, kindly allowed the editors to prepare the book for publication. The editors gratefully acknowledge the careful and insightful assistance of David Kisela in the preparation of the manuscript.
  2. Rarámuri is the term the "Tarahumara" use to refer to themselves. Zingg used the word "Tarahumara," as do most non-Rarámuri. In order to avoid confusion, I will conform to Zingg's usage.
  3. Bronislaw Malinowski is often considered the "father" of the fieldwork method of research in anthropology. Malinowski, a British-educated scholar, and Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology, promoted an empirically based, positivistic approach that attempted to rescue the study of culture from "armchair" theorists and nonscientific, unsystematic researchers. The Malinowski/Boas fieldwork paradigm was, and still is, immensely influential in American anthropology.
    After Malinowski's death, his widow authorized the publication of his fieldwork diary (1967). The candid revelations—including vulgar, racist, and sexist opinions about informants—contained in Malinowski's diary were shocking and contributed to a reevaluation of the empirical, positivistic ethnographic method. The Malinowski diary had a profound impact on anthropology because it showed that, not only was one of our greatest fieldworkers far from objective and unbiased, but the whole notion of value-free, scientific ethnography must be revised. By the 1980's, the "textual" or literary dimension of ethnography took center stage in debates as scholars began to investigate how anthropological studies were permeated with personal and political biases and how ethnographers created "their people" and field sites through literary tropes and evocative writing.
  4. My personal impression, and I mean this quite literally, is that anthropologists could do much more for indigenous people and marginalized groups if they would simply donate the royalties of their books to such peoples rather than endlessly fulminating about the paradoxes of representation. Although the revenues from any given monograph may be small, the collected royalties from tens of thousands of anthropological books could really make a difference in the lives of the people described in those books.
  5. An example of this kind of limiting literary critique is contained in the conclusion of the much-acclaimed book Imperial Eyes by Mary Louise Pratt (not herself an anthropologist, although her writings are very influential in anthropological circles). In the last few pages of the book Pratt (1992: 225-227) criticizes Joan Didion's Salvador. According to Pratt, Didion should be reproached for presenting a picture of El Salvador that emphasized confusion, murkiness, and lack of clarity. I must point out that this view of Didion's book is not uncommon among researchers who work in El Salvador, as Leigh Binford (pers. comm.) has informed me. Like Binford I also feel that the El Salvadoran right and the U.S. administration were responsible for the vast majority of killing and suffering of the Salvadoran people at the time. In this respect, I agree with critics who point to Didion's failure to direct more blame onto the U.S. government and Salvadoran regime. What I am concerned about, however, is the constraining uniformity of Pratt's critique of travel writing: i.e., Western travel writers are inherently colonialist and racist, and usually also sexist. End of story.
    This critique of "Orientalism" has now been applied with some success to a wide range of travel-writing genres and ethnographies (Said 1978; Thomas 1994; Suleri 1992; Behdad 1994; Starn 1991; Castañeda 1995; Spurr 1993; Bhabha 1994). The strength of such work is the way it upends and deconstructs the epistemological applecart of the Western "seeing man's" dominant role in the representation of non-Western others. However, if taken to extremes—in which the possibility of writing about anyone other than one's self is denied—this critique would lead to the demise of anthropology. This might please many poststructuralist critics such as Pedro Bustos-Aguilar (1995: 150), who deplores "the anthropological imperial industry." Yet I, for one, still see value in the ethnographic fieldwork enterprise, in spite of its intellectual roots in colonial power. Even Bustos-Aguilar (1995: 164) concludes that "There are no panaceas to ethnography, in literature or elsewhere." Our best hope is to learn from the mistakes of the anthropological and travel-writing past so astutely identified by Pratt, not give up in despair.
    According to Pratt, Didion's worst mistake in Salvador was to describe the Salvadoran situation of the time as a "noche obscura," which Pratt argues is a decidedly Western analysis, hence flawed. In Pratt's analysis (Pratt, a Westerner), Joan Didion (a Westerner) should be rebuked for using Western concepts to understand El Salvador (a Western country). It seems to me that this kind of criticism, bordering on "Occidentalism," may lead to theoretical dead ends. It is emblematic of a kind of facile critique—which is becoming increasingly popular in anthropology—in which there is little room for the ambiguous details of fieldwork or first-person experience (unless that experience comes from particular authorized voices). Today, rather than criticize the observations of an ethnographer with other observations, it is enough to pick apart the words used by the ethnographer to reveal his or her hidden sexism, racism, classism, etc.
    But Didion's comments precisely illustrate the value of empirical observation that reveals the messiness and contradictoriness of social life as opposed to the neat abstractions of theory. Latin American revolutions may seem to be clear-cut, unambiguous phenomena at solidarity meetings in Madison, Ann Arbor, and Berkeley. But on the ground in San Salvador, Managua, Juchitán, or Port-au-Prince, things may seem a bit more confusing—perhaps the left not so pure, the government's actions not always purely evil (although probably most of the time), and the general populace a bit confused about what to do. More like a "noche obscura" than an Instamatic snapshot (cf. Stoll 1998).
  6. The lack of originality in recent studies of "colonial discourse" has also been lamented by Karen Sacks (1995: 104): "What attracted me to anthropology long ago was its vision of social alternatives, its insistence that the way things were wasn't the only way humans had done it. I was inspired by Benedict's great arc of human possibilities; I still am. But I don't see that same vision in progressive anthropology today. Instead, I see critique: of early ethnographies for being colonialist, cultural critiques of bourgeois culture, of each other, of our own thoughts (this is called being reflexive). It never seems to stop; it fills the journals, classrooms and conferences. The work isn't all bad or ill-intentioned, but we've been knowing that for at least 25 years; it's not new."
  7. While I presume that Watanabe is referring to members of other cultures, I would prefer to state it as the anthropologist's "need" to study people other than him- or herself. The "Other" could just as well be a member of one's "own" culture as a member of a "foreign" culture. That is, I see no particular reason why the study of foreign cultures should be privileged over autoethnography.
  8. I am reminded of William Burroughs's desire to write in a way that would put him in "real danger" (Harris 1994: xxxvii). Burroughs's relentless rebellion against literary canons and constant challenging of social and political norms—as well as the boldly iconoclastic lifestyle he led—make the anthropological postmodernists' textual experimentation seem rather insipid by comparison.
    For this reason, I feel that anthropological forays into the postmodern that do maintain their roots in the fieldwork experience are likely to be more fruitful than those that do not. "Being there," as Geertz puts it, may be overrated, but it remains a necessary evil for anthropologists.
  9. This statement could be tempered by the fact that Zingg confides that he carried a loaded automatic pistol on his belt during his fieldwork.
  10. According to a report in the El Paso Herald-Post (October 18, 1994, p. A-4), at least forty-five Tarahumara children died of malnutrition during a two-month period and at least sixty others were confined to a hospital in Chihuahua. These deaths and illnesses were a result of famine and the spread of tuberculosis and other serious diseases in the Sierra Madre.
  11. Portions of this introduction originally appeared in Sociological Imagination 35, issue 2/3 (1998). I am grateful to the editors of that journal for granting permission to publish this material here.


This volume was edited for publication by Howard Campbell, John Peterson, and David Carmichael, who are members of the anthropology faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso.

"This is one of the more fascinating travel works I have read on Mexico, and I have read many. It provides an important addition to the scanty literature on the Tarahumara and enriches the material available on this important group. I would also think this book would be fascinating to the general reader."

—Joseph W. Whitecotton, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma