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México Profundo

México Profundo
Reclaiming a Civilization
Translated by Philip A. Dennis

This translation of a major work in Mexican anthropology argues that Mesoamerican civilization is an ongoing and undeniable force in contemporary Mexican life.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies University of Texas at Austin
August 1996
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224 pages | 6 x 9 |

This translation of a major work in Mexican anthropology argues that Mesoamerican civilization is an ongoing and undeniable force in contemporary Mexican life.

For Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, the remaining Indian communities, the "de-Indianized" rural mestizo communities, and vast sectors of the poor urban population constitute the México profundo. Their lives and ways of understanding the world continue to be rooted in Mesoamerican civilization. An ancient agricultural complex provides their food supply, and work is understood as a way of maintaining a harmonious relationship with the natural world. Health is related to human conduct, and community service is often part of each individual's life obligation. Time is circular, and humans fulfill their own cycle in relation to other cycles of the universe.

Since the Conquest, Bonfil argues, the peoples of the México profundo have been dominated by an "imaginary México" imposed by the West. It is imaginary not because it does not exist, but because it denies the cultural reality lived daily by most Mexicans.

Within the México profundo there exists an enormous body of accumulated knowledge, as well as successful patterns for living together and adapting to the natural world. To face the future successfully, argues Bonfil, Mexico must build on these strengths of Mesoamerican civilization, "one of the few original civilizations that humanity has created throughout all its history."

  • Translator's Foreword
  • Preface to the Second Edition
  • Introduction
  • Part I. A Civilization Denied
    • 1. A Land of Millenarian Civilization
    • 2. The Indian Recognized
    • 3. De-Indianizing That Which Is Indian
  • Part II. How We Came to Be Where We Are
    • 4. The Problem of National Culture
    • 5. The Colonial Order
    • 6. Forging a Nation
    • 7. Our (Revolutionized) Modern Times
    • 8. The Paths of Indian Survival
  • Part III. The National Program and the Civilizational Project
    • 9. The Nation We Have Today
    • 10. Civilization and Alternatives
  • References Cited
  • Bibliographic Appendix
  • Index

Translator Philip A. Dennis is Professor of Anthropology at Texas Tech University.


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This book has two purposes. On the one hand, it attempts to present a panoramic vision of the constant and multiform presence of that which is Indian in Mexico. "The Indian" refers to the persistence of Mesoamerican civilization today among specific indigenous peoples. It is also expressed in diverse ways in larger sectors of the national society that form, together with the Indian communities, what I have called the México profundo. Based on the recognition of this México profundo, the second purpose of the book is to present arguments for broader analysis, which all Mexicans should take into account. What does the coexistence of two civilizations, Mesoamerican and Western, mean in our history, our present, and, above all, our future?


It might seem that reflecting on the problem of civilization is inopportune at a time when the country is going through difficult circumstances and faces economic, political, and social problems that demand immediate solutions. What sense does it make to think about civilization? I think that it makes a profound kind of sense. I suggest that the immediate problems that besiege us with their simultaneous and growing presence will be only partially and incompletely understood, and only partially and incompletely solved in the best of cases, if they are not placed in the context of the unresolved dilemma of the presence of two civilizations. Two civilizations mean two civilizational programs, two ideal models for the society sought after, two different possible futures. Whatever decision is made about reorienting the country, whatever path is chosen to escape from the current crisis, implies a choice for one of those civilizational projects and against the other.


The recent history of Mexico, that of the last five hundred years, is the story of permanent confrontation between those attempting to direct the country toward the path of Western civilization and those, rooted in Mesoamerican ways of life, who resist. The first plan arrived with the European invaders but was not abandoned with independence. The new groups in power, first the creoles and later the mestizos, never renounced the westernization plan. They still have not renounced it. Their differences and the struggles that divide them express only disagreement over the best way of carrying out the same program. The adoption of that model has meant the creation within Mexican society of a minority country organized according to the norms, aspirations, and goals of Western civilization. They are not shared, or are shared from a different perspective, by the rest of the national population. To the sector that represents and gives impetus to our country's dominant civilizational program, I have given the name "the imaginary Mexico."


The relations between the México profundo and the imaginary Mexico have been conflictive during the five centuries of their confrontation. Imaginary Mexico's westernization plan has been exclusionary and has denied the validity of Mesoamerican civilization. No room has been allowed for a convergence of civilizations through a slow fusion that gives rise to a new civilizational plan, different from the two original ones but arising from them. On the contrary, the groups embodying the two civilizations have permanently confronted each other, sometimes violently. They constantly confront each other in the activities of daily life, which put into practice the deeper principles of their respective cultural matrices.


This confrontation does not happen between cultural elements but between the social groups that bear them, use them, and develop them. It is those social groups that participate in two different civilizations that over the period of half a millennium have maintained a constant opposition. The colonial origin of Mexican society has meant that the dominant groups and classes are also those who foment the project of westernization, the creators of the imaginary Mexico. At the base of the social pyramid are the peoples resisting, those who embody Mesoamerican civilization, who sustain the México profundo. Power and Western civilization coincide, on one pole, and subjugation and Mesoamerican civilization coincide on the other.


This is not a fortuitous coincidence, but, rather, the necessary result of a colonial history that until now has not been superseded inside Mexican society. A basic characteristic of every colonial society is that the invading group, with a different culture from the dominated, ideologically affirms its immanent superiority in all areas of life and denies and excludes the culture of those colonized. The decolonization of Mexico was incomplete. Independence from Spain was achieved, but the internal colonial structure was not eliminated. The groups that have held power since 1821 have never abandoned the civilizational project of the West and have never overcome the distorted view of the country that is the essence of the colonizers' viewpoint. Thus, the diverse national visions used to organize Mexican society during different periods since independence have all been created within a Western framework. In none of them has the reality of the México profundo had a place. Instead, it has been viewed only as a symbol of backwardness and an obstacle to be overcome.


The México profundo, meanwhile, keeps resisting, appealing to diverse strategies, depending on the scheme of domination to which it is subjected. It is not a passive, static world, but, rather, one that lives in permanent tension. The peoples of the México profundo continually create and re-create their culture, adjust it to changing pressures, and reinforce their own, private sphere of control. They take foreign cultural elements and put them at their service; they cyclically perform the collective acts that are a way of expressing and renewing their own identity. They remain silent or they rebel, according to strategies refined by centuries of resistance.


At present, when the plans of the imaginary Mexico are falling apart, we must rethink our country and its trajectory. It would be irresponsible and suicidal to pretend to find solutions to the crisis without taking into account what we really are and what resources we really have to move ahead. We cannot continue to close our eyes to the México profundo. We cannot continue to ignore and deny the potential represented by the living presence of Mesoamerican civilization. We should not continue wasting energy and resources in an effort to substitute another reality for that which the majority of the population experiences. Instead, we should create conditions in which the existing reality can be transformed using its own potential. Its creative force has been unable to extend itself in other areas because colonial domination has denied it and forced it to take refuge in resistance in order to survive.


When we discuss the dilemma of civilization in Mexico, we are really considering the necessity of formulating a new vision or plan for the country in which all the patrimony that we Mexicans have inherited can be incorporated as active capital. This includes not only natural resources, but also various ways of understanding and making use of them through knowledge and technology that are inherited from the diverse peoples composing the nation. We mean not only the work force composed of millions of countrymen, but also the ways of organizing production and consumption that persist in the México profundo and that have made its survival possible. We refer not only to the Western knowledge that with so much effort has been accumulated (more than developed) in Mexico, but also to the rich gamut of knowledge that is the product of millenarian experience. Thus, what is needed is to find the ways in which the enormous cultural potential that has been negated in Mexico can flourish. It is with that civilization, and not in opposition to it, that we can construct our own, authentic plans for the country and displace forever the imaginary Mexico, the proof of whose invalidity is now being shown.


This book is divided into three parts. In the first part, I try to present a general picture of Mesoamerican civilization in modern Mexico. Its presence is undeniable in the countryside and in the names and the faces of the people throughout the length and breadth of the country. In order to give that presence its true historical depth, I briefly trace the origin and development of Mesoamerican civilization up to the moment of the European invasion. Much of what we have, and that will be indispensable in building the future, has behind it thousands of years of history.


Next, our attention will be centered on a brief and synthetic description of Mesoamerican civilization as it is lived in Indian communities today. My design is to draw a single picture, in spite of the particularities that express the individual character of each cultural group. I try to show the internal coherence of the cultures of Mesoamerican origin, a coherence explained by the worldview they conserve. Implicit in this worldview are the deepest values of Mesoamerican civilization, values that form the matrix that gives meaning to all its acts.


In the first part I also explore the presence of Mesoamerican civilization in other groups within Mexican society that do not recognize themselves as Indian. Here we find evidence of de-Indianization, that is, the loss of these groups' original collective identity as a result of the process of colonial domination. Nevertheless, the change of identity does not necessarily imply the loss of Indian culture. This is indicated by the cultural reality of the traditional rural communities that identify themselves as mestizo. Even in the cities, old bastions of colonial power, it is possible to find the presence of Indian culture manifested in various forms. Some, such as Indian barrios, result from historical processes, and others result from more recent social processes, such as emigration from the countryside to the city.


The first part concludes with a rapid look at what happens in other sectors of Mexican society, those that embody the imaginary Mexico, the proponent of the Western civilizational program. Here I can represent only a few cultural traits of those groups, particularly those that reveal a contradictory relationship with the México profundo. My emphasis is really on exposing the hidden face of the great mass of the population whose lives are organized around a Mesoamerican cultural matrix.


The image of Mexico that is derived from this schematic x-ray view is of a plural and heterogeneous country with a variety of cultures that do not form a continuous sequence. That is, we do not have societies with different levels of development on a common scale. Far from it. What is clearly profiled is a division into cultural forms belonging to two different civilizations that have never fused, although they interpenetrate. The ties between these two cultural universes are those that correspond to a situation of colonial domination in which the imaginary Mexico tries to subordinate the rest of the population to its plans. This is the dilemma of Mexican culture that introduces Part II.


In the second part we try to understand how our current situation came about. We look at important parts of the historical process that have led Mexican society to deny its substance and repeatedly to undertake a program of substitution instead of development. I do not attempt a detailed summary of the history of the last five centuries. I try only to highlight general tendencies and key moments that help explain the persistence of an external, colonial program brought up to the present without substantial change since the Spanish creoles began imagining independence. This selective account also allows us to understand the diverse ways in which the peoples of Mesoamerican origin and their culture have been attacked in an age-old effort to deny them and subject them to the cultural order proposed by successive dominant groups.


In concluding Part II, I briefly summarize the México profundo's response to colonial domination. The forms of resistance have varied, from armed defense and rebellion to the apparently conservative attachment to traditional practices. I attempt to demonstrate that all these forms of resistance are really facets of the same permanent, tenacious struggle. Each community and all of them in conjunction have fought to continue being themselves, not to give up being the protagonists of their own history.


Part III, based on the previous chapters, reflects on the current and future situation of Mexico. My intent is to present the country we have inherited on two planes. One is the collapse of the development model that has been promulgated, with its disastrous consequences and the dangers implied in trying to promote it once again. The other is the resources we actually have, and with which we should construct our own authentic future. Based on these considerations I suggest possible options for constructing a new national program, which should be framed in a civilizational project that makes explicit our reality instead of hiding it. I consider these ideas as notes for an inescapable and urgent debate in which the question of democracy must take first place. This is not the formal, docile, and awkwardly traced democracy of the West, but a real democracy derived from our history and responding to the rich and varied composition of Mexican society. This too is a civilizational problem.


I wrote this book between May 1985 and April 1987, and its preparation was my principal task during that period as an investigator in the Center for Research and Advanced Study in Social Anthropology (CIESAS ). During the first year my time was devoted to building an analytical model that would allow me to approach the main theme with clarity and that would serve as a unifying guide for a work that touches so many and such varied aspects of the historical and present reality of Mexico. The analytical model was formulated in an essay, "La teoría del control cultural en el estudio de procesos étnicos," whose first draft served as a framework for the seminar I directed in the doctoral program of CIESAS between January and October 1986. The contributions and criticisms of the participants were taken into account in producing the final version of that essay.


The reader will encounter references to a theory of cultural control in various sections of the book. I included only such references as were necessary to clarify the meaning of important terms employed. Such terms include our own culture and foreign culture, cultural control, resistance processes, appropriation, innovation, imposition, alienation, and suppression, as well as the meanings I give to ethnic group and ethnic identity. Apart from those clarifying paragraphs, I opted not to expound the theory of cultural control, although it is implicit in the general focus of the book. I made that decision while thinking of the general reader of the book, for whom a theoretical and methodological discussion might be confusing. Neither would its exposition contribute anything substantial to my purpose in writing the book.


For the same reason I eliminated from the text the footnotes and exact bibliographic references that we tend to assume demonstrate seriousness and rigor in an academic work. [Trans. note: Wherever possible, references have been added for the English-language edition.] I decided to write freely, less constrained by the daily habits of research in the social sciences, with the aim of reaching, in a simple, clear, and direct way, a larger reading public than that accustomed to reading academic books. The reader interested in pursuing in depth any of the themes discussed here will encounter in the Bibliographic Appendix some suggestions for further reading. The Appendix also gives credit to the principal sources from which I have taken the data upon which this vision of Mexico is based. I list only the principal sources and perhaps those most recently consulted, because a work like this represents, in the final analysis, an attempt to synthesize many things learned from many sources over the years. It would have been inappropriate and even useless to try to specify in detail the source of the data for making this or that statement or generalization. Specialists will easily be able to find specific ways in which my global analysis is inexact. I hope, however, that the broad lines of argument will not be seen as invalid because of an inexactness that would have been difficult to avoid.


In another area, that of ideas, I realize that this book is not an individual effort, although I appear as the author. In two senses it is a collective work. First, there are a number of us who, for many years, have felt the need to explore the México profundo from an academic and political perspective. We have been certain that in it exist the keys and indispensable answers for finding the path to a better future. I have used with no pangs of conscience the reflections, data, and intuitions of many colleagues and friends who have thought in similar ways. This book is also theirs, although without any responsibility for the limitations and errors it may contain. The second sense, even richer and more solid, resides in the millions of Mexicans who experience the México prof undo in their daily lives. In their thought and their hopes, they constantly renew the fundamentals that make possible the conviction that they are the bearers of a civilizational project that might also be ours. I have wanted to learn from them. This stammering attempt to translate what I have learned can only be dedicated to them, the indigenous people of Mexico.


Guillermo Bonfil Batalla
Avándaro and Mexico City, 1985-1987




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