Back to top

Indians into Mexicans

Indians into Mexicans
History and Identity in a Mexican Town

How the people of Mexquitic redefined their identity from "Indian" to "Mexican" over the last two centuries.

January 1996
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
268 pages | 6 x 9 | 13 halftones, 5 maps |

The people of Mexquitic, a town in the state of San Luis Potosí in rural northeastern Mexico, have redefined their sense of identity from "Indian" to "Mexican" over the last two centuries. In this ethnographic and historical study of Mexquitic, David Frye explores why and how this transformation occurred, thereby increasing our understanding of the cultural creation of "Indianness" throughout the Americas.

Frye focuses on the local embodiments of national and regional processes that have transformed rural "Indians" into modern "Mexicans": parish priests, who always arrive with personal agendas in addition to their common ideological baggage; local haciendas; and local and regional representatives of royal and later of national power and control. He looks especially at the people of Mexquitic themselves, letting their own words describe the struggles they have endured while constructing their particular corner of Mexican national identity.

This ethnography, the first for any town in northeastern Mexico, adds substantially to our knowledge of the forces that have rendered "Indians" almost invisible to European-origin peoples from the fifteenth century up to today. It will be important reading for a wide audience not only in anthropology and Latin American studies but also among the growing body of general readers interested in the multicultural heritage of the Americas.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. A World in Construction
  • 3. Founding Mexquitic
  • 4. Colonial Politics
  • 5. People and Priest
  • 6. Modern Politics
  • 7. Land, History, and Identity
  • Abbreviations
  • Appendix A. Population of Mexquitic
  • Appendix B. Will of Sebastian Martin, 1714
  • Appendix C. Summary of Merchant's Account, Mexquitic, 1798
  • Appendix D. Petition by Three Widows of Mexquitic, 1764
  • Appendix E. Petition by a Friar to the Viceroy of New Spain
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

David Frye is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan.


"¡Mira, un hombre blanco!"

A gang of young boys gathered around us, staring, grinning, on the dusty street that headed back to the highway and the bus that would deliver us from their attention and return us to the city of San Luis Potosi. "Look, a white man!" "¡El hombre blanco!"

Why their excitement? Why their delight? Why me? Were they expecting handouts of gum? Or, more likely, were they simply exhilarated to discover the ease with which, by pointing me out, they could intimidate and embarrass a gringo from Gringolandia—and a tall, blond one, at that?

Becoming the Other

It was the summer of 1980, and Ruth Behar and I were on our first trip to the state of San Luis Potosí in north-central Mexico, traveling by bus around the altiplano, the high, arid central plateau of the state, to scout out a likely site for future fieldwork. Today we had spent a fruitless afternoon trying to find the president of the ejido community of Enrique Estrada. And here, even before we had mounted the crowded market bus that would take us to Mexquitic—the town we would return to live and work in for nearly three years—I had already been taught something essential about Mexico, and about myself. I could, I suppose, think of it as a humbling experience—to be taught at the age of twenty-three, already a graduate student in anthropology, one of the basic facts of North American social life by a bunch of unruly eight-year-olds. But the truth is that, as a white male growing up in the United States, I had never before thought of myself as white. Race, to the white male in the United States (at least to one growing up in the white suburbs of Dallas in the 1960s), is something that other people have. By pointing out my own color to me, and quite insistently, the boys of Enrique Estrada put me on notice that I was the outsider here, the one who stood out, the one whose race would never be taken for granted.

It is a lesson that I have never forgotten, one that I carried with me throughout my experiences in Mexico and back with me to the United States.

Meanwhile our search for a fieldsite continued. We did not stay in Enrique Estrada; I admit that the raucous reception by the boys had crossed that village off our list. We were drawn instead to the more circumspect people of the town of Mexquitic, seat of the municipio (municipality, township, or county) of the same name, set high in the arid, dust-swept, starkly beautiful hills and plateaus of north-central Mexico. There, we knew, I was a gringo only when our backs were turned; to our faces, I was don David, and sometimes Señor Gringuito—a more comfortable relationship for all.

Still, the lesson of the boys of Enrique Estrada gave me an early insight into my own place, as a norteamericano, within the Mexican society that I was presuming to study. If the town's rumor mill debated whether we were CIA agents, as some would have it, or underground Protestant missionaries awaiting our chance to corrupt the youth of Mexquitic, as others affirmed, that seemed the price I had to pay (and a small one, too) for the deep inequalities between our countries and my own implication in them. At the same time my new, personal awareness of how racial and ethnic identities are constructed, and at times hidden from sight, by social conventions gave me a new and unexpected angle on Mexican society and history. As this book developed, it grew into an ethnographic and historical study of racial ideology and politics in Mexico and of the construction of social identity as seen from the vantage point of one small rural town.

To choose a town like Mexquitic, in a northern state such as San Luis Potosí, as a place to do anthropological research goes against the received wisdom that partitions and defines Mexico. The stereotypes held by anthropologists and guidebook authors, Mexican and North American alike, would confine Indians, long considered the most proper object for the anthropological as well as the touristic gaze, to the south, the center, and a few isolated mountain hideouts of the northwest. Blacks, Mexicans of African descent, if their presence or their past in Mexico is acknowledged at all, are known to live on the coasts of Guerrero or of Veracruz. The north, according to the same conventional views, is the land of haciendas and mines, mestizos and revolutionaries.

Indeed, when I first went to San Luis Potosí my plan was to study the social history o£ the haciendas, those enormous estates which had dominated rural life in the state and in most of northern Mexico until the land reform of the 1920s and 30s broke them up into community-governed, family-run parcels called ejidos. I would focus on the effects that the local agrarian struggle against the haciendas and the imposition of a statedefined agrarian reform had on the local society and culture, which, I assumed, could easily be characterized as a mestizo culture. With this choice of topic—land tenure as a cultural system, I called it—and of fieldsite, I expected to challenge the geographic and ethnic paradigms that circumscribed ethnographic research in Mexico and that have begun only slowly to crumble in the past decade. What I did not expect to find, in an apparently mestizo town, was four hundred years of history as a pueblo de indios, a colonial Indian town. I did not anticipate that its people would still construct their identities in terms of, against, and in the face of the colonial racial ideologies that defined "Indian," "mestizo," and "Spaniard." Nor did I expect to find haciendas whose workers, up until the end of the eighteenth century, were more often "black" than "white."

For the better part of three years I worked in and on Mexquitic, talking with people of the town and participating as well as an awkward gringo can in the life of a small Mexican community. Every week or two I would take a break from conversations and baptisms and drive the fifteen winding miles into San Luis to pass a few hours at the new State Historical Archive, where I would rummage through bundles of dusty documents scarcely touched in two hundred years, trying to read through them the late colonial history of this place that I had for the moment made my home. Talking with people and reading documents: it took me a long time and a good deal of thought before I could begin to puzzle together what I was hearing from these two, quite separate activities and see clearly what had been in front of me all along. Mexquitic's Indian past is vitally connected with the present of the town.

I was well aware of this past before we ever set foot in the town, yet it had scarcely figured in my research plan. The difficulty I had in recognizing the significance of the Indian past of Mexquitic is closely related to the difficulty others have in seeing the significance of Mexquitic itself, as an Indian town, to the general history of northern Mexico. In either case, the difficulty is rooted in an ideology that denies the presence of Native Americans in the north of Mexico—including those provinces of colonial Mexico now known by the names "Texas," "New Mexico," "Arizona," and "California." This semi-arid north was the land of the "Chichimecas," as Spanish colonizers followed Nahuas in naming the hunter-gatherers who roamed beyond the settled bounds of Mesoamerica. When the Spanish finally came north in search of gold and land, the Indians disappeared: killed by disease, killed in war, "reduced" to a few sad villages, or pushed into the harsh refuges of the Yaqui or Tarahumara. That is the common belief. But in fact, much of the nomadic north (San Luis Potosí, Nuevo León, Coahuila, to some degree even Texas) was subdued by Spain through the foundation of pueblos of transplanted Central Mexicans. Such was the case of the fifty families who trekked north in 1591 from the central province of Tlaxcala to found the Tlaxcalan town and build the Franciscan parish of Mexquitic. In so doing they helped begin a second chapter in the history of Native Americans in the north.

Now, back in our new home in Michigan, we visit our friend Marta, who has also moved to this cold climate from Mexquitic, her home town. Introducing us to friends of hers, Marta turns to me. "And this is David. David is writing a history of my town, of Mexquitic." Then she adds, with cutting irony and a smile, "He can tell you what kind of Indians we are." …l los puede decir qué tipo de indios somos. When Marta arrived in the United States seven years ago, she has told us, her new brothers-in-law would insult her, calling her india, when she refused to drink beer. They, born of parents from Mexquitic and Saltillo but raised speaking English in Michigan, were not referring to her color—no different from their own—but to what they saw as her rural and female Mexican traditionalism, in contrast to their own cosmopolitan freedom from antiquated convention. The fact that they were able to throw out, and she was forced to feel, the word "Indian" as an insult shows that whatever the barriers of language, culture, and upbringing that may divide Marta from her brothers-in-law, a preoccupation with the meaning of Indianness still unites them. Indio: a colonial category, still dripping with malice, but of ever vaguer meaning. Indio: not quite race, not quite culture, more a stance of otherness—or simply a lack of cool.

Sitting in Marta's apartment in a suburb of Detroit, all these thoughts quickly pass once more through my mind, and as Marta's friends walk by me to greet her husband I envision my entire project crumbling into dust. Who am I, after all, to enter a Mexican town uninvited and, under the guise of objectivity and academic professionalism, rewrite local history? And then again, having entered, having stirred up the hornets' nest, who am I to back out now, to refuse, out of some mixture of politeness and timidity, to continue with this moral dialogue and lay out what I now see as the colonial origins of attitudes toward lo indio? And now, sitting at my desk and writing down this incident, I again face the dilemma, in a different form. I cannot help feeling that I am exploiting a friendship by taking a casual conversation and turning it into academic prose, yet I know it would be intellectually dishonest to pass over Marta's subtle criticism in silence.

Indeed, I presumed to know "what kind of Indians" the people of Mexquitic are. In my dissertation on Mexquitic, which Marta read, I wrote a narrative history of the town based on archival evidence, which I presented as an unproblematic statement of who the people of the town are today. This was a presumptuous move, founded on my insufficient understanding of what it meant, and still means, to be Indian in rural Mexico. My archival research showed without room for doubt that almost everyone in Mexquitic descends from the Tlaxcalans who settled the town in 1591. Most people in Mexquitic, on the other hand, now trace their heritage back to the nomadic, warlike Chichimecas who predated the Tlaxcalans and the rule of Spain in the region. (I will examine these conflicting origin stories in chapter 3.) More to the point, townspeople invariably phrase their connection to Native America in the past tense. "We were Chichimecas here," they tell us, or they speak of the distant past "when we were Indians." In my dissertation, I phrased the connection in the present tense. "What kind of Indians we are." My history was based on, a research agenda, which included the intention of showing the continuity in the native history of northern Mexico. The brief tales of townspeople about their origins reflect an ongoing struggle to define their own and their town's identity in the face of colonial ideologies of Indianness. I had delved into the "dead" past to address an academic topic and had found that topic to be still very much alive.

Yet it would be false and pointless now to suppress the version of Mexquitic that I have pieced together from documents and fieldwork. Doing so would only obscure rather than solve the ethical dilemma that arises from my use of their history for academic purposes. In writing this book I have come to the conclusion that the Indian presence in Mexquitic is denied precisely because the people of the town are forced to define their own identity in terms of a racial ideology that is ultimately colonial in origin. If I am right, then the people of the town would be well served by a history that brings that oppressive idéology into the open and thus potentially provides an opening for rethinking and redefining the bases for evaluating their identity.

By the same token, to suppress this history out of a sense that I have no right to interfere in the local process of constructing the past of Mexquitic would be to ignore the fact that some of my histories, published years ago in San Luis Potosí, have already become part of the local written record. Even more, it would exaggerate the impact that my version of Mexquitic will have in the future. For in the end I have been but one more in a series of strangers—priests, doctors, teachers, merchants—who have entered Mexquitic unbidden and have made small marks on the stories of self and past that the people of Mexquitic construct both from their own memories and life experiences and from what they choose to include of the histories written or told by others.

Cultures and Histories

Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders is our reality still. One day the inner struggle will cease and a true integration will take place.
—Gloria Anzaldúa (1987:63)

It now seems impossible to imagine doing any kind of ethnography without a concept of the borderlands or of border crossings.
—Ruth Behar (1993:13)

More than half a century ago Simpson signaled the importance of Mexican regions in the title of his history of the country, Many Mexicos. Over the past two decades the new conceptualization of Mexican history promised in that title has become a reality, as Mexican historians have focused on the distinctiveness of Mexican regions and the difference they make. When history is written "from the bottom up" and the people of Mexico are viewed as actors and protagonists in their own right, it becomes clear that a global history written from the center is insufficient to describe how the country as a whole became what it is today. One necessary step in this rewriting of history has been to recognize that particular groups, not abstractions, are the movers of history. The hacienda did not become a major force in the shaping of Mexican history as a generalization, but rather as this particular hacienda, exploiting the land in this particular way, coveting the fields of those pueblos and small cultivators, under this burden of debt and ruled over by that administrator. The colonial pueblo de indios was not an abstraction; it was this group of people, existing as a community through their everyday interactions, cooperations, quarrels—all understood through their own sense of self and of their history. As more localities have been studied, the deep and persistent regionalism of Mexican history has become clear. The crucial events of Mexican history, from the experience of the rural population under Spanish colonial rule to their participation in (or opposition to) the violent reforms of the Revolution, were carried out by people reacting to very specific local and regional conditions. Studying regional history in all its particularity is one key to understanding the dynamics of Mexican national history.

Anthropologists have become similarly wary in recent years of the objectivized style of ethnographic writing that once served to produce timeless portraits of such abstractions as "the Mexican peasant" and "his culture." Anthropologists work with particular people in a particular time, under specific conditions of social and gender relations between fieldworker and informant. In most cases these are relations of social inequality, which in the case of a North American fieldworker in Mexico are embedded in larger patterns of political and economic inequality, all laced with differing notions of respect and of gender. An ethnography, as a social product, inevitably reflects the specific social and personal relations that went into its creation; anthropologists are now called on to reflect on those relations themselves.

It is no accident that some of the most incisive critiques of objectivist anthropology have been penned by ethnographers of mixed background, with one foot in Western academia and the other in the "native" society that they are studying. Over the past decade, Chicana and Chicano cultural critics have also called into question some of the certainties that underlay earlier anthropological treatments of cultures. Writing from the Borderland, or Nepantla, the Land in the Middle, as Mora calls the terrain of the insider/ outsider, these poet-critics have insisted on the unresolved duality of their sense of self and of culture and in so doing have called into question the concept of culture as a largely unconscious whole. "We don't identify with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don't totally identify with the Mexican cultural values. We are a synergy of two cultures with various degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness." This concept of a fluid borderland identity is important for conceptualizing the meaning of Mexicanness as well, for Mexico itself comprises a vast Nepantla lying between many cultures and identities.

For my part, I did not go in search of a town that was statistically typical of Mexico—or one that was, in the Spanish sense, típico (picturesque, unspoiled, exotic, far from civilization)—as a privileged position from which to pronounce on Mexican culture generally. The particular and moving histories of the people who comprise Mexquitic make the town entirely one of a kind. (I hope I will be forgiven for thinking that if Mexquitic is not typical of anything, this fact alone makes it as Mexican as any town could be.) I did however go to Mexquitic with preconceived notions of history, which I would only come to reflect on many years later, in the course of writing what I at first assumed would be "the" history of the town.

One of the most widely noted and criticized hallmarks of the objectivist style in ethnographic description was the convention of the ethnographic present. Of all the universalizing modes of ethnographic writing, this convention was singled out for attack at the time that I was studying anthropology in graduate school in the late 1970s. By ignoring history in the imaginary timelessness of their ethnographies, we graduate students reasoned, anthropologists seemed to imply that the cultures they described were somehow impervious to change and hence to politics. The gravest problems of ethnographic description could then be resolved by a turn to history. Seen now with more perspective, the historical turn in anthropology is actually a re-turn to history. Anthropology has long had a tormented (and not always reciprocated) relation with the discipline of history. The determinedly ahistorical turn of symbolic anthropology in the z96os, now corrected by the latest turn to history, was but one phase of this relation. The historical turn can also be seen as a reconceptualization of history by anthropologists, for the convention of the ethnographic present was itself based on a theory of history. The object of anthropological study had been taken to be timeless tradition, to which was opposed modernity and change or, if you will, history. The rejection of this conception of history was part of the same rethinking that, from the historians' side, brought in anthropology ("history from below") and that in Mexico brought regional history into its own.

My research plan for Mexquitic, then, was decidedly historical, and this book, though it has become progressively more ethnographic, remains historical in outlook and methods. But in writing the book I had to face the irony that in my search for a panacea for an uncritically generalized concept of Culture, I had embraced a concept of History that itself was abstract and overgeneralized. What affects and molds people in their actions and interactions is not History, or even the Past, as abstract forms, but what remains of the past in people's lives. This past is to be found above all in concrete histories—the stories that people think, hear, and tell of their past, and the stories that are thrown in their face by the politically or economically powerful.

A culture, like a history, is similarly not an abstraction but something concrete. Like a history, a culture (as opposed to Culture) is a story, a description, a narrative, a thought, a piece of writing. Cultures are webs of conventions and habit that we, in dialogue with others, discern and describe as such." In this sense, each of us is constantly reinventing and reassimilating our cultures, the stories we tell about our conventions and habits, through innumerable individual interactions. The construction of culture occurs at every social level and across borders of all kinds—between individuals, between groups and communities, between those imagined communities known as nations. The continual construction of culture is particularly evident, and important, in a place such as Mexquitic, where two macrocultures, first brought together by colonialism and later kept together by nationalism, are in constant contact. In the colonial era these two cultures were known as Indian and Spanish. Today (and even then) it would perhaps be more accurate to speak instead of rural and urban cultures. In a provocative study, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla refers to these cultures as el México profundo, "the deep Mexico," the Mexico in touch with its roots in Mesoamerican civilization; and el México imaginario, "the imaginary Mexico," the Mexico that denies its connection to the pre-Hispanic world and that segregates itself from the Indian world.

Indian cultures, in Mexico as in the United States, are granted two historical paths, according to our different but at times converging historical ideologies. They can continue unchanged (in fact or in essence) or they can disappear, be "lost." Mexquitic, which was considered a pueblo de indios for two and a half centuries, from its foundation until the midnineteenth century, is now a mestizo town. Therefore, the logic goes, it must have lost its Indian culture to the influence of the dominant culture of San Luis. When we think with this contemporary colonial logic (and, I suggest, we all do so, in the United States as in Mexico), we seldom concern ourselves with the obvious fact that the non-Indian (Spanish, I suppose), urban culture of San Luis has no more remained unchanged than the rural culture of Mexquitic. Life in San Luis today is not the equivalent of life in sixteenth-century Seville; nor, for that matter, is life in Boston or Dallas a replica of life in seventeenth-century Bristol. But change in these cities is a given: according to our common perceptions, progress (hence change of any sort) is by definition "European" or, if you prefer, modern; "Indian" is equally identified with tradition. If an Indian pueblo has changed, we think, it can no longer be entirely Indian, since by changing it must have lost something: a sad fact, perhaps, but inevitable, as Indian peoples are ever doomed to losing their cultures under the powerful influence of mestizo/modern culture. The "Spanish" culture of urban Mexico, on the other hand, change as it will, cannot be lost to any outside influence—unless, of course, it is to that of the more powerful North American culture (again, always, the vocabulary of power).

The logic of this colonial ideology is pervasive, insidious. It is inside us, inside me. Here is the opening of the 1965 World Book article on the United States, a work that I read again and again throughout my childhood:

America was largely a wilderness three hundred years ago. The story is that a squirrel might have scampered through the trees halfway across the country without touching the ground. No wheel or plow had yet touched most of America's wide, fertile prairies. Nor had a miner's pick tapped its mountains, rich in ore. Only a few American Indians, Eskimos, and Hawaiians lived here. In this great, almost empty land, western civilization won an opportunity to begin all over again.

The immaculate conception. Echoes of this thinking are everywhere, even in the words of a prominent Puerto Rican historian, as quoted by a journalist for the New York Times: "'We weren't Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, or New Mexico,' Ricardo E. Alegria says. 'We weren't some sparsely settled frontier. We were a nation when the United States arrived.'"

In thinking about history in Mexquitic, I return, again and again, to Herskovitz's analysis of the pernicious "myth of the Negro past, which validates the concept of Negro inferiority." Underlying this myth, Herskovitz wrote, is the core belief that "the Negro is thus a man without a past." This keystone belief of colonial racial ideology would cut off African Americans from a history that, despite the myth, is nevertheless all around us and that has made America, both North and South, what it is. There is also a myth of Indian history, an inverted version of the "Negro myth," but with the same consequences: that the Indian has no present. May this work be one small step in the dismantling of that myth.

Many Mexicos, Many Mexquitics

>Mexico is made up of highly contrasting social groups and categories.... One often finds towns which are physically quite close to one another but which present markedly diverse lifestyles.
Guillermo de la Peña (1980:13)

Mexquitic is a town of stone and adobe, brick and cement block, set along streets paved in the 1940s with striking reddish-brown flagstones. Its streets huddle between the slopes of dry, rocky hills covered with cactus, thorny mesquite, and huizache trees, alongside a massive dam built by the national government in the 1920s and a small irrigation stream, the Rio de Mexquitic, that issues from the dam when the floodgates are opened. This town of 750 inhabitants is also the county seat (cabecera municipal) of the municipality of Mexquitic, which covers 913 square kilometers and some one hundred communities, each with its own name, personality, and history. From the vantage point of the town, the other communities are known, collectively and with a certain urban disdain, as ranchos, though at least a half dozen of them are larger than the town. (Some are in fact large enough to count, rather ironically, as "urbanized" in official Mexican statistics; note that in this usage rancho is not the equivalent of "ranch.") But only the county seat is called a pueblo, in tribute to its place at the political, economic, and religious, as well as geographic, center of the municipality.

In spite of its relatively small population, the town derives a certain urban quality from the diversity of occupations and offices that it houses. It is the home of the municipal government buildings, the massive parish church and adjoining friary built under the Franciscans in the 1600s, and the municipal cemetery. It also boasts an enclosed marketplace, a good two dozen shops and offices, and a full set of schools that now can take students from kindergarten through high school. The buses that stop in the town every half hour of the day on their way to San Luis, forty-five minutes away on the highway blasted through the hills in the early 1960s, also give Mexquitic an urban feel. Though they are blamed for taking away business from the local shops, the buses also bring people from other communities into the town, and they have allowed Mexquitic to become a kind of bedroom community for the students and workers who spend their days in the city. More recently, a professional couple from San Luis with no prior connection to Mexquitic has settled into a large country house built to their own design, and an engineer with ties to a San Luis political family has built a vacation home and opened a small public zoo just across the dam. Whether these latest urbanizations presage a gentrified future for the town remains to be seen.

As large as the ranchos may be, they are by contrast made up of more homogeneous populations of agricultural workers and day laborers, who live in uniform adobe houses along unpaved roads. Though the ranchos are slowly being electrified, and even more slowly equipped with telephone service, most are still without running water or sewers. One or two small shops, a school that might not continue past the fifth grade, and perhaps a local shrine, chapel, or even a Baptist prayer-house, round out the social amenities of the rancho. From the vantage point of townspeople, the ranchos appear rather rough and rustic; from the point of view of the communities, in turn, the town of Mexquitic can appear overbearing, overprivileged, and arrogant.

As the administrative center, the town has long been the scene of political struggles between rival elite factions within the municipality, and between the priest and the parishioners. It was also, in the centuries leading up to the Mexican Revolution, the political locus of the economic and territorial rivalry and symbiosis between the ranchos and the neighboring haciendas. I have taken these struggles—over politics, over land, and between priest and parishioners—as the defining social and historical topics of this book. This would have been a different book if I had researched it from another community in the municipality, such as Cerro Prieto to the east, Picacho to the south, or Corte to the north, just as surely as if I had worked in another Mexican region, such as the Bajio, the Huasteca, or Michoacán.

Corte, a large community on the northern border of the municipality abutting the huge hacienda of La Parada, has also been caught up in the question of territorial rivalry for at least the last two centuries, but for geographic and economic rather than administrative reasons. The location of Corte on the border between municipality and hacienda made dealing with La Parada an urgent economic and community matter, whether that meant providing the hacienda with labor and produce, defending local land against encroachment by the great estate, or, ultimately, taking the lead in the fight for agrarian reform. The centuries-long tension with the hacienda pushed the people of Corte more deeply into municipal and regional politics than any other community in Mexquitic. More agrarístas from Corte than from any other community fought in the Revolution, and in the decades since zgio Corte has produced more municipal presidents than any other community in this century-at least a dozen all told. This political involvement has also led to deep conflicts within Corte, including a deadly rivalry between the twin barrios of Corte Primero and Corte Segundo. Writing from Corte, I probably would have produced a more focused, more political, perhaps a more passionate account, with a greater emphasis on factionalism and on the relation between Mexquitic and La Parada than the present study has.

Cerro Prieto, on the other hand, had an entirely different history from that of Corte. Before agrarian reform Cerro Prieto was itself a small hacienda, the only one located entirely within the municipal boundaries of Mexquitic. It was also one of the few haciendas in the region not involved in territorial disputes with adjoining communities. Unlike La Parada, which depended on labor from Corte and other communities in Mexquitic for planting and harvesting its corn and wheat, Cerro Prieto was an almost self-contained industrial hacienda by the late nineteenth century. The principal crop of the hacienda was the maguey (century plant), and its one commercial product was mescal, a spirit distilled from the trunk and root of the maguey in a massive, coal-fired factory at the heart of the hacienda. The workers of Cerro Prieto—descendants of the multiracial work force that migrated to the estates around Mexquitic over the centuries—lived, as they still do, in neatly ordered adobe houses surrounding the central factory, great house, and chapel of the hacienda.

In the 1920s, when the people of Corte, Mexquitic, and other communities of the municipality were taking up arms as agraristas and petitioning for the haciendas to be carved into ejidos, the workers of Cerro Prieto refused to ask for land. "Why do we need land if we have jobs?" Crispina remembers asking. They only joined the agrarian movement in the late 1930s, when it became clear that petitioners from rival communities within Mexquitic would put an end to the hacienda and the mescal factory that employed them, in spite of their wishes. In a history written from Cerro Prieto, conflicts with the haciendas would have seemed more muted, more a matter for political rhetoric than a lived experience. The key topics, instead, would have been rural proletarianization and perhaps the discord between nationally imposed political agendas and local realities.

Picacho, too, has had relations with the regional economy different from any of these communities. This community of dispersed houses, many built in the traditional regional form with peaked roofs thatched with maguey leaves, spreads out over the dry hills between the town of Mexquitic and the city of San Luis, not far from the highway but far from the haciendas. Without access to irrigated land, Picacho has been isolated from the political struggles that come with territorial disputes-though not, of course, immune to the micropolitics of everyday disputes over family patrimonies. Yet their isolation from local resources and local struggles has forced many in Picacho to become, if anything, more involved personally in the wider Mexican economy than those of Corte or Cerro Prieto.

Many people in Picacho, hard-pressed to make a living from the products of an unforgiving landscape, have turned to producing handicrafts, such as small baskets, wooden objects, toys, and some pottery. They sell these crafts in San Luis and other cities across northern Mexico, commuting now by bus or truck, and in earlier years on foot and donkey, sometimes on journeys of hundreds of miles that last for months. In spite of their closeness to the city of San Luis, and perhaps because of their relative economic independence, the people of Picacho are thought of in Mexquitic as the "most Indian" in the municipality. A view from Picacho would have provided a more distant, detached perspective on the political struggles against haciendas, priests, and government officials, and on the establishment of the far-off ejidos of the municipality, but a more intimate perspective on questions of community, identity, and the meaning of being Indian.

This brief sketch of four communities, some of the "many Mexquitics" with their own microregional dynamics inside the reduced geographic space of the municipality of Mexquitic, is meant as a reminder that my findings are not to be read as applying wholesale to all of Mexico. Everywhere there are eddies and sidestreams in the broad sweep of Mexican history, and even adjacent communities can have quite different historical experiences and memories. The reminder is particularly apt in cases where the history of Mexquitic, as I present it, flows along lines that agree with preconceived notions of Mexican history; along the way I try to point out local cases that go against the grain of my narrative and of those preconceptions. The parish priest of Mexquitic became an ally of the hacienda owners in the late eighteenth century, fulfilling his preordained role in the class struggle then brewing, according to one common interpretation of colonial history. Yet a contemporary of his in the nearby parish of Valle de San Francisco pointed to the hacendados as the main enemies of his parishioners, and in the same years another, more famous, priest not far to the south, Miguel Hidalgo of the parish of Dolores, led his parishioners into insurrection. And again, while haciendas such as La Parada expanded into Mexquitic, usurping municipal land in the nineteenth century, other, smaller haciendas were contracting, their land bought up by prosperous small farmers from the municipality; all the local haciendas, La Parada included, depended not only on the labor but also on the produce of the small farmers of communities such as Corte for their economic survival.

What makes local studies relevant to the understanding of a national history or culture is that in their very particularity, in their eddies, their departures from and coincidences with those broader streams, they can reveal decisive forces at play that could be obscured by an overly generalized account. The political struggle over identity, in particular, occurs at a very personal level, and it is with a close focus on one community that I have come to understand something of that struggle.

In the next chapter, which forms the ethnographic introduction to this book, I draw brief portraits of some of the people of contemporary Mexquitic, in order to give a sense of how this diversity of viewpoints and historical experiences plays out on a personal level. The image of "the house as a work in progress" is introduced as a metaphor for the continual construction of the social and cultural world by the people of Mexquitic; here I raise the question of social stratification within Mexquitic and the links between economic and political power, ideology, and social identity. In the third chapter, which can stand as the historical introduction to the book, I relate the history of the founding of Mexquitic and then discuss four different historical and mythical foundation narratives as examples of the political uses of historical tales.

In chapter 4 I focus on the local political world of the late colonial Indian pueblo of Mexquitic (1764-1814). Chapter 5 deals with the elaboration of images of Indianness in the context of sometimes bitter political and social conflicts between the people of Mexquitic and their parish priest at the end of the colonial era, and the reverberations of those conflicts today. In chapter 6 the political struggles within twentiethcentury Mexquitic are recounted; here I take up the theme of the local eddies in the stream of national history through an exploration of the connections and incongruities among the multiple layers of local, state, and national history. The book concludes with a chapter on the struggles over the definition and control of land from the eighteenth century to the present—conflicts that, I argue, are at the heart of the continual process of constructing local history and local identity. With the stories the people of Mexquitic tell about these efforts today, they are creating a form of discourse critical of the elite ideology that attempts to univocally set the terms of their identity.

I have modeled the title of this book, the last chosen in a long series of possible titles, after Eugen Weber's treatment of the modernization of rural France, Peasants into Frenchmen. The choice was based on the number of parallels between the nation-building projects in both countries. The rural majorities in both countries were made in one way or another to accommodate to national identities defined by urban minorities. In both cases, fully accepting the newly minted national identity has meant giving up something of the older local identity: a language, a regional mode of dress, a regional ethnic identity. And in both cases, people who have "passed" from one identity to the other may continue to hold their former identity, while at the same time being forced to deal with it in the terms set by a national elite. In France this was the class term "peasant," and in Mexico the racial term "Indian," but both are key terms of an imposed discourse meant to supplant specific local and regional identities.

Weber looked at the national processes, forces, and actors involved in promoting and effecting the transformation of rural "peasants," mired (as the cliché goes) in the obscurity of local customs and concerns, into "Frenchmen," active members in the modern French nation. In this book I focus more closely on the local embodiments of such national and regional processes: the parish priests, with all their personal idiosyncrasies and agendas; the local haciendas; the representatives of royal and later of national power and control. I look especially at the people of Mexquitic themselves and their own crucial part in constructing this particular corner of Mexican national identity: the struggles they endured and the struggles they initiated and carried through as they redefined their own identity, from "Indian" into Mexican.


“Frye used extensive colonial era archival data to document the transformation of the Indians of Mexquitic, a town in northeastern Mexico, into Mexicans. His research combined ethnographic data with the history of the people and region. The book reflects an impressive scholarship invaluable to anyone interested in Mexican history.”