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Delirio—the Fantastic, the Demonic, and the Réel

Delirio—the Fantastic, the Demonic, and the Réel
The Buried History of Nuevo León

How the folktales of Nuevo León encode aspects of Nuevolenese identity that have been lost, repressed, or fetishized in "legitimate" histories of the region.

August 2002
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
320 pages | 6 x 9 | 27 photos, 1 figure, 1 map |

Striking, inexplicable stories circulate among the people of Nuevo León in northern Mexico. Stories of conversos (converted Jews) who fled the Inquisition in Spain and became fabulously wealthy in Mexico. Stories of women and children buried in walls and under houses. Stories of an entire, secret city hidden under modern-day Monterrey. All these stories have no place or corroboration in the official histories of Nuevo León.

In this pioneering ethnography, Marie Theresa Hernández explores how the folktales of Nuevo León encode aspects of Nuevolenese identity that have been lost, repressed, or fetishized in "legitimate" histories of the region. She focuses particularly on stories regarding three groups: the Sephardic Jews said to be the "original" settlers of the region, the "disappeared" indigenous population, and the supposed "barbaric" society that persists in modern Nuevo León. Hernández's explorations into these stories uncover the region's complicated history, as well as the problematic and often fascinating relationship between history and folklore, between officially accepted "facts" and "fictions" that many Nuevoleneses believe as truth.

  • Introduction
  • Part One. History
    • Chapter I. Don Gregorio Tijerina
    • Chapter II. Before and after History
  • Part Two. Landscape and Narrative
    • Chapter III. Finding Alvarado
    • Chapter IV. Spaces In-between
  • Part Three. Ethnographic Imaginaries
    • Chapter V. A Place of Origins
    • Chapter VI. The Mystic and the Fantastic
  • Part Four. Locations of the Réel
    • Chapter VII. The Discourse of Illusion
    • Chapter VIII. Inquisition
    • Chapter IX. La Sultana
    • Chapter X. La Joya: The House on Arreola
  • Conclusion. Delirio: The Finality of Pragmatics
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Marie Theresa Hernández is Associate Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Houston.



Modern Western history revolves around a deep split in the secret in which truth's dependence on untruth is ethnically and geographically divided between north and south. (Taussig 1999: 78)

While the center of Mexican power and government are in Mexico City to the south, the economic force of Mexico is in the northern city of Monterrey, Nuevo León. When regios (residents of Monterrey) learned that I was writing on Nuevo León, they quickly told me that the north was very different from the south. They told me that people in the south do not have a work ethic and expect the benefits of nature to fall from the trees. They do not work hard because their land is so abundant. In contrast, the northern landscape gives little to the norteño; the fruit on the tree limb often dries before maturity, due to the extreme temperatures and limited rainfall characteristic of the north. Norteños have to work for everything they have. Within these descriptions are allusions to a north that produces a more responsible and resourceful individual. In Mexico, the divisions between north and south have become conduits of the production of history.

Nuevo León encompasses 65,000 square kilometers of territory in northeastern Mexico. It is bordered by the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. The original territory of El Nuevo Reino de León (the new kingdom of León) is a portion of the original expanse of land that was given in a concession from Felipe II of Spain to Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva in 1579. Local narratives describe the Nuevo Reino as a separate sovereignty from Spain. Carvajal had also been given the right of naming his own successor. This sense of separation became a constant in the history of Nuevo León. Its geographic distance from the nation's capital created a schism that led to a polemic regarding nuevoleneses' (residents of Nuevo León) lack of identification as citizens of la patria (the Mexican nation). Given their distance, could they really be considered Mexicans? Paradoxically, this gap provided a space of freedom for norteños to create a world that became strikingly different and prosperous compared to the rest of Mexico. This trend was facilitated by the realignment of the U.S.-Mexico boundary after the War of 1846-1848. Further pushed to the margin, now that the United States was only 200 kilometers north of Monterrey, it also allowed for the migration of American cultural practices (and capitalism) into Nuevo León, creating a world that in many ways appropriated a quasi-Protestant way of life inside of a loosely held Catholicism.

The broad expanse of desert and mountain range that encompasses the Mexican state of Nuevo León has a complex existence. In my fieldwork I found many avenues that facilitated a broader and possibly more understanding view of the region. There are numerous possibilities for explanation using geographic and cultural landmarks or minutiae of popular culture to describe the lives of the nuevoleneses. Such complexity created a dilemma in the development of a focus or central argument with regard to this project. Ultimately, the common thread located in the work appeared to be the concept of the hidden narrative. Although the idea of secrecy and the idea of the occulted were present from the beginning of my fieldwork, the idea of the "hidden" did not appear as salient until I encountered the stories of la ciudad subterránea (the underground city), which I describe in Chapter X, "La Sultana." This impressive "urban legend" evoked narratives of numerous events in Nuevo León's history. From the Indian raids to the revolution to the "malignant" role of the church, the stories evoked the issue of hiding either people or bodies. Stories told to me regarding occulted activities in the present day speculate that tunnels used for narcotics traffic, such as the tunnels in San Diego, California, and Nogales, Arizona, have been used in this manner. These numerous stories formed a larger trajectory about the "repressed."

There have been many texts published regarding Nuevo León, all produced within the Mexican academy. As of this writing, there has been no ethnography written by an American anthropologist on Nuevo León. In addition, with the exception of Eugenio de Hoyo's Historia de Nuevo León and the brief but concise work of Abraham Nuncio in Visión de Monterrey, existing works have often focused on information presented with the flavor of government propaganda. Most of the texts are written more like pronouncements than descriptions.


As often happens in the plan for one's research, there have been turns, stops, and regroupings within this project. Initially, my interest was in the Imaginary as Michael Taussig treated it in Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987) or as Stefania Pandolfo treated it in Impasse of the Angels (1997). Taussig and Pandolfo write of the Imaginary as a space for the location of the unexplained and the uncanny. It is the place of the réel, which can be slightly disorienting to the observer if he or she is not acquainted with these types of events or experiences, the réel being the moment or space between the symbol and the conceptualization of what has been seen or heard. For Taussig the Imaginary is the spiritual dimension of healing and witchcraft. For Pandolfo it is the space of the demonic and the ethereal presence of death in the everyday life of the people in the Qsar. The quotidian use of the Imaginary and the reél serves as a vehicle for entering the space of the unexplained. There is a certain aspect to Taussig's and Pandolfo's narratives that places the ethnographer and the reader into the space of the story, yet decreases the sense of the exotic. Theirs is a trope that tugs at the space between subject and object, reality and unreality, reason and the fantastic.

For my own work, using the locus of Nuevo León, I saw the Imaginary as experienced through regional practices of folk healing. Many of the first stories I heard when I began traveling to Nuevo León were about folklore and magic. This search led to the television program Reportajes de Alvarado, which focused on the particular folklore of the north and its history. It was produced and directed by Horacio Alvarado Ortiz, whom I met through a series of contacts that began in Texas. Licienciado Ortiz was the first television announcer in Nuevo León. He had worked in television for over forty years. Through his television program on the history and culture of Nuevo León, he introduced me to the landscape and topography of the state. From Alvarado, I learned about the region from a certain panoramic perspective. I also learned about local norms of communication and comportment. He advised me on how to pursue certain issues and how to "de-code" the information I subsequently obtained. He assisted me in meeting many people from Monterrey and surrounding communities who were instrumental in providing information about the history and practices of the north. I came to know Alvarado as an icon of power in northern Mexico. I see my collaboration with him as a nexus that created numerous avenues of study. These interactions proved to be of significant assistance and support during the three years I traveled in Nuevo León.

The first year of my fieldwork was in a sense a transition. It became more than a quest for stories. A sense of history pervaded the search. During this year of traveling with Alvarado, I found that the stories of folkloric practices were inexplicably tied to an ambivalently experienced historical space that lurked inside the persona of the north. Narratives of "primitive" rural people, "barbarous" Indians, and the "first" Jews fell into many of the conversations I had with nuevoleneses. Narratives relate that the rural man/woman from Nuevo León fought the "barbaric Indian" under the most impossible of conditions and preserved the traditions and hard work of the region. It was also (in the fantasy of the illusion) the rural nuevoleneses who had once been Jews escaping from the dangers of the Inquisition and who had hidden the "original" story of a Jewish heritage.

While the stories I heard of witches and spells were fascinating and exotic, the history of the region became even more compelling as I learned of the narratives of Luis Carvajal, Diego Montemayor, and the other Portuguese who founded the Nuevo Reino de León. With regard to these stories, meeting Aquiles Sepúlveda was pivotal in the development of my project. His constant noting of traces still alive from the era of Carvajal and Montemayor made me aware of the unfathomable depth of narrative and memory that lurked behind the facade of the new industrial city that believes itself to be an active member of the First World. The exotic stories have not disappeared. In fact they remain in this text. Yet they are not central to the work. I show them as an integral part of a world that has chosen not to erase them completely and/or maintain them merely as superstition. They are ingredients still active in a place that has moved swiftly into modernity, yet has chosen not to occlude all of its past life. In a symbolic sense, these practices are used as methods of imaginative travel, allowing the nuevoleneses to move between the alternating identities and moments that characterize their world.

Thus what began as a view into the exotic ultimately cast this ethnography into the hidden recess of history that attached itself to these stories and practices. The work of Michel de Certeau provides a grounding for the intersection between the fantastic stories and the receding or hidden histories. Two concepts of interest to de Certeau are used as beacons in this work. I begin with the idea of a "Scriptural Economy." In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau writes of the modern disparity between the idea of the "Word" and of the "Text." This disparity is related to the uneven circulation of narratives. The mechanisms of the Scriptural Economy are used by sources of power to enhance, occlude, or diminish narratives that describe the history and personality of a place. What is diminished is ambivalently referenced in texts. What is occluded is vehemently denied in "official texts" and "official pronouncements" by government-sponsored academics and historians. In Nuevo León, the "Word" that did not become "Text" was lost to "formal history." This loss encompassed what is described in this book as the Jewish narratives. In addition, what was diminished was the presence of an indigenous population. These "reductions" of the "Word" have been transformed into phantasmic stories. The Scriptural Economy of Nuevo León has allocated a certain hidden corner (or underground tomb) for them. The narratives that have been displaced by the Scriptural Economy are no longer considered valid. They are now fiction and ancient legends.

The surviving narratives are legitimated and controlled by governmental and ecclesiastic powers. This exertion of control solidifies the current hegemonic narrative in Nuevo León. The "legitimate" stories assist in creating and maintaining the official identity of the nuevolenese, which is that of the fervent Catholic who in the first three centuries of Nuevo León's history "valiantly" battled the "barbarous" Indians. In contrast, the stories that continue to circulate in oral narratives or folktales exist on the fringe of Nuevo León's Scriptural Economy. As my descriptions of conversations with Aquiles Sepúlveda will attest, these oral snippets of history are generally located in private conversations, with some secrecy and intrigue associated with their circulation. While I do not agree with de Certeau that oral narratives and everyday stories are necessarily indications of "resistance," I believe the stories that are told among the nuevoleneses are a way of saying, "This is our history, this is who we are, regardless of what the government and the church decree." The telling of these stories may be a resistance to the official Scriptural Economy, yet it is also the expectable counter-circulation of narratives. The choice to voice the narratives is conscious and determined. There are no imagined phantasms or pathology associated with the telling of these stories. They are simply part of a stream of information that has traveled through generations. They coalesce along with the framework of history provided by the government and the church.

In describing the structure of circulation of the narratives, I continue to use the concept of Scriptural Economy. This explanation as a map of telling is a structural diagram of where the indigenous, Jewish, and "barbaric" narratives have traveled; who has pushed them; and who has silenced them. After this phase of explanation, I go further into the reasoning and meaning of the narratives. The use of the psychoanalytic position intensifies the power of the subject. The emphasis on the "unconscious" betrays the limitations set by Freud and his peers. It could be argued that there is no connection between Freud and the "bald mountains" of Nuevo León (referred to in Chapter II). Yet there is something that is "not quite there" that provides an intriguing connection to Freud's concept, "the return of the repressed." The stories are repressed, erased, put aside, yet they continuously erupt. The confusion between fact and fiction lies in every chapter of this ethnography. The title of this text, which lists the fantastic, the demonic, and the réel, is a corollary to Jacques Lacan's three concepts, the imaginary, the symbolic, and the réel. The imaginary is the fantastic, the symbolic is demonic (the evil church and state that occlude popular narratives that people believe are True), and the réel is somewhere between what is imagined and what is proscribed. The appearance of theoretical inconsistency may be placed in the level of analysis. Scriptural Economy is about behavior, and the Return of the Repressed is about the réel, which in actuality cannot be defined.

In using the word Imaginary I am working within a continuum. The definition varies according to the context of my narrative. The Imaginary is associated with illusions, which Lacan tells us are the only way to understand the symbolic (Gallop 1985). We must fall into the illusion, travel with it, in order to understand how the symbolic (the power, the government, those in control) has determined the "register of language and social exchange" (ibid. 59).

The less dramatic use of imaginary is simply how the narrator/interlocutor envisions the way "things are." The movement of these visions provides informative insights into how a group of people perceive their universe, and how they believe those in power see the universe. The spaces between these two thoughts, greater or smaller, produce intriguing evidence regarding their quotidian existence.

As I traveled to Nuevo León, I concurrently searched and analyzed the literature and periodicals published on northern Mexico. The parallel study of oral and written practices assisted me in tracing the circulation of historical events, religious beliefs, and the everyday occurrence of what I came to see as delirio in the north. I rarely scheduled formal interviews, which were done only in the initial stages of contact. I often did not ask questions, unless it was to clarify a narrative I had heard from another person. The information, therefore, took on a quality and a flow that led itself into areas that I had not expected to explore.

My first encounters confronted "stories" I had heard "back home in Texas." I began my fieldwork in Nuevo León with many preconceived notions that emanated from what my relatives had told me. There was a fear (that continues) in my family that I was putting myself in danger by traveling in Mexico. I was told that most of the information given to me by nuevoleneses would be inaccurate because of their supposed penchant for telling untruths. While there are perhaps some risks, I found myself generally "safe" while in Nuevo León, though cautious about traveling anywhere else in Mexico, which I avoided during the project. I also found that the issue of "the lie" was not a lie in the American sense. The idea was best described by José Cárdenas (Televisa cameraman). He told me it was related to the use of a "different code." People do not lie—they only tell things in a different way, with different meanings for different concepts, in what is perceived as different from the American way of communicating verbally. Ultimately, these warnings appear as indicators of a fluctuating tension and ambivalence between those who have immigrated to the United States and those who have stayed behind.

I encountered numerous surprises while doing this work. One was the possibility of maneuvering so easily in Nuevo León among varying social groups and institutions. Such facility I can only believe is a result of the familial connection of my parents, who were from the Texas-Mexican border and were from families that cherished the presence of a person who is educado. Being educado is a form of social practice, a set of social skills that promote respect towards anyone at any time, regardless of the other person's social class or status. One who is educado is expected to indicate a sincere interest in "listening to the stories" of those who are generous enough to offer their time and energy to explain something about life or the space in which they live. A person who is not educado is a pelado, an offensive term discussed by Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1986). According to Paz, a pelado is common and vulgar. The class designations associated with these terms lead me to believe that presenting oneself as educado is not necessarily an altruistic practice. However, within what was "expected," there was an enjoyable "making do," to use de Certeau's term (1988), in which people find a way to create their own satisfying environment even as they are "conforming" to the rules of society. When I recall my aunts and grandmothers interacting with others, there seemed to be a quality of talking "for enjoyment." What may have seemed like altruism might really have been a desire to interact and live among people for the mere enjoyment of "talking." On my father's side of the family, the Hernández-Nietos, the women were (and still are) notorious for staying up half the night having interesting (and funny) conversations. On my mother's side, the Hernández-Paredes family would not stay up so late, but I do recall that every evening, after the work was done and the sun had just set, my grandmother Petra Paredes Hernández would sit in her green metal rocking chair on her porch and talk to her neighbor, Cecilia Ramírez, and my mother about whatever seemed interesting at the moment. It was the late 1950s. The grandchildren ran all over the neighborhood chasing fireflies and what we thought were ghosts while the adult women talked on Petra's porch.

The beauty of this practice lends itself perfectly to the development of a field project and a readable (and perhaps interesting) ethnography. It is about talking, conversing, listening, and relating to another person's story.

The other surprise was truly unexpected. I was adopted as an infant. Through my association with the Sepúlvedas I came to meet the family of my biological maternal grandfather, Felipe Vásquez Guzmán. The connection to the Vásquezes of Potrero added an interesting dimension to my definition of kinship under the most unusual of circumstances. The revelation of this connection (I did not know the Vásquez family before this time) provided an imaginary connection between myself and the Sepúlvedas. Aquiles Sepúlveda, my most significant informant, often told me that I looked like I was from Nuevo León.


According to the "rules" of the academic discipline of anthropology, what appears to be the necessary mode for fieldwork is one to two years in a foreign country that has little connection with the background of the ethnographer in training. Such has happened in the past, as George Marcus traveled to Tonga, Renato Rosaldo to the Philippines, Michael Taussig to Colombia, and Margaret Mead to Samoa. I chose to make alterations to my project in this respect. I did not carve out the block of two or three years consecutively. I began traveling to Nuevo León in January 1997. The reality of my familial obligations provided a plan that included numerous trips of varying duration, including two summers, to an area that is considered "somewhat" close geographically, and significantly close culturally, to my home in Houston. The area of Monterrey, Nuevo León, in northern Mexico has considerable cultural, economic, and migratory ties to Houston. These links actually provided an additional frame for understanding Nuevo León and how it relates and is connected to the United States, Texas, and the First World. Late twentieth-century developments in technology allowed for very frequent contact by telephone and Internet with the people I worked with in Nuevo León, whether I was in Mexico or in Houston. When I ultimately stayed there for a longer period (eight months in 1999), the relationships were solid and fairly intimate. I learned about the daily lives of my interlocutors and also learned of the greater social world that hovers around them as Monterrey becomes an international city.


The concept and feeling of migration/moving is constant in this ethnography. Like the narratives told to me by people in Nuevo León and the texts that I read on the past, my experiences while passing through the international border heavily influenced my perspectives and my writing. Highway 59 from Houston to Laredo; the stops at my aunt's before crossing the border; the encounter with the Mexican Federales as I crossed the bridge; the Aduana Checkpoint, which is fifty kilometers inside Mexico—all of these experiences are part of this ethnography. As are the return, again dealing with the Aduana, the occasional search for drugs inside my car, the U.S. Border Patrol officer at the bridge who checked my license plate number, the questions about the purpose of my research and my destination in Texas, and the doubt that at moments registered clearly in the officer's voice. Most impressive was the time Yolanda González was not allowed to enter the United States while she was traveling with me in my car. The Border Guards said she lacked documentation certifying she was gainfully employed in Mexico. Or the time that my cousin Citlalli was almost not allowed into the United States. The officers demanded documentation regarding her husband's employment. All Citlalli had was his business card and a photo. The demand was comical since Jesús is an attorney, who was employed at the time by the office of the Governor of the State of Nuevo León. One officer purposefully called Citlalli retardada (retarded) when she indicated retirada (retired). She is a retired schoolteacher. She and I both knew better than to confront him regarding his vulgarity. The movie Born in East L.A. kept coming to my mind. I could imagine both of us getting thrown back to Mexico.

These and other experiences while passing through the U.S.-Mexican border assisted me in understanding the world of the norteño who goes back and forth, as so many do. The border feels like a war zone.

In this position as migrant, my role of ethnographer perhaps closely assumes the position of the modern-day, turn-of-the-millennium traveler, either Mexican or American, who travels from Nuevo León to Texas to Nuevo León, thus crossing the border repeatedly in search of connection to family, tradition, and identity. Perhaps if a sense of "unevenness" appears, it is a reflection of the ebb and flow of migration that creates an undulation of culture and practice between Texas and northern Mexico.

A Map of Writing

What we have here, therefore, is not only the makings of a theory of corruption, but one which emphasizes the power of fiction in the makeup of social reality. Indeed, why not see these as one and the same, reality itself being always honored "in the breach," a corruption of itself? (Taussig 1999: 61)

The focus of this text is the "making of history." De Certeau uses this phrase in explaining the premise for his work in The Writing of History (1988). The phrase is not necessarily about history as it occurs but about the process by which certain events are laboriously embedded in the story of a region or nation, in this case the Mexican state of Nuevo León. It also concerns how other events or narratives become phantasms that only surface at disparate moments when the text and the "argument" are not finely tuned. For the sake of establishing and maintaining the identity and ideology of a place, these phantasms are moved "in the direction of fiction or of silence through the law of 'scientific' writing" (ibid. xxvii). The materials chosen by the historian for documentation and their subsequent "scientific writing" are decided upon by the dogma that "our words are adequate to the real" (ibid. xxvii). De Certeau writes of this as an illusion of the veracity of written words.

The work of Michel Foucault is also relevant to this project. In Foucault's History of Sexuality (1990) the discourse on sexuality and its relation to power has a strong connection with the narratives I have found in Nuevo León. These include his focus on sex as a political issue, politics as another form of war, the regulation of populations, surveillance, the rigid ordering of space, the improvement of blood lines, and, most importantly for Nuevo León, the protection of the purity of blood.

The politics of "breeding" enters into almost every aspect of the discourse surrounding the history of Nuevo León. The separation of the "whites" and the Indians became a war that produced thousands of deaths, while keeping alive the myth of separation. The space was marked for the white settlers through regulation, which meant the elimination of the indigenous population. Separation, which prohibited marriage and formal social interaction, was severely enforced in these spaces in that a transgression produced a disappearance into a wall or an underground tunnel or into the Inquisition. The transgressor in such discourse is usually a "white woman" or an indigenous man. The discourse has continuously been about the "purity of blood," limpieza de sangre.

In this study on Nuevo León I go a step further than de Certeau and Foucault and focus on those phantasms that have been pushed to the margin. If the scriptural creates a scientific history, what is the economy of the fantastic text? How do allegories of writing and oral narrative that exist in the liminal region of the réel explain history? De Certeau writes that the "return of the repressed," narratives pushed aside for political reasons, are later manifested in "mystical expression." The stories described in this ethnography border on the mystical and the fantastic. It is quite possible that the surreal quality of what was told to me is related to the lack of structured, documented history regarding certain strategic aspects of Nuevo León's history. What is left is delirium. Yet this is not the delirium defined by the First World as related to madness or the actual loss of lucidity. It is about the de-centering and de-territorializing of the person inside a particular space. The ambiguity about identity and safety in Nuevo León has left a residual delirium. This is not as much manifested in confusion on the part of the nuevoleneses. It is located more intensely in the attitude of those outside of northern Mexico who speak or write about the north.

De Certeau supports Lacan's thesis that a "lack" of something is remedied by an overflow of something else, something perhaps fantastic or unexplainable. I agree in part with this explanation, yet I believe that the stories of the fantastic that I heard repeated in Nuevo León have several sources. The emptiness of the archival narratives leads to projections of all sorts. The storyteller can conjure whatever comes to mind, whatever may have a faint connection with the original issue.

In the numerous conversations I had with nuevolenese historian Cristóbal López, we discussed the idea that Nuevo León does not have a story of origin. Before I proceed further, I need to clarify that my presenting this question does not intimate that I believe in "stories of origin." Foucault, in The Order of Things (1974), proposes that the search for origins is futile, in that it is an endless pursuit that cannot be resolved. However, in a surviving rationale that speaks of the purity of blood and the genealogy of nobility, the issue of origins, especially the "correct" origin, continues to be strikingly salient at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In Mexico, the ideology of the mestizo is central to the conceptualization of the nation-state. This discourse is rarely disputed publicly, although anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz Adler (1996) writes of the farcicality of the mestizo ideology within Mexico. Lomnitz Adler's statement is that the Mexican elite is still "white" and the value of the mestizo is in name only. Such a statement is rare in stories about the origin of the Mexican people that detail the first union between Spanish and Indian, the colossal pre-conquest culture of the Aztecs, the relationship between Hernán Cortez and Malintzin, and the ever-present image of the mestiza Virgin of Guadalupe. All these stories attest to the living intensity of this ideology. In a brilliant political move, Mexican national leaders promoted this historical production, which made mestizos, who are the majority of the national population, the symbol for the authentic Mexican.

The narratives of origin circulated in the rest of Mexico, however, do not fit Nuevo León. In the north, there was no spectacular indigenous culture: the Indians lived more like the Apache and Comanche in the United States. They were nomadic and moved about in small bands. There is no certainty to their numbers, but the intense thrust of genocide that was authorized and promoted by the state of Nuevo León in the latter part of the nineteenth century left a narrative of a "miniscule" Indian population that did not "mix" with the "white" settlers.

In addition, in the north, there is no story of a "blending" of the conqueror and the conquered. The stories circulating about the first Spanish settlers tell of converted Jews, an overactive Spanish Inquisition, and a deposed first governor. The "Jewish" families were known for their endogamy; therefore, the assumption of "mixing" with the Indians is not contained in the narratives. According to official documentation, the "Jewish" settlers disappeared after Governor Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva died in the Inquisition's prison.

The narratives that were pressed out as "fiction" and given the status of wild or impossible stories became the expression of the "lack." An illicit explanation is given for an origin that cannot be traced. The elite proudly tell their clandestine stories of Jews in order to accentuate their present economic success. These stories also negate the possibility of being "mixed." This emphasis separates them from other Mexican stories by suggesting that Nuevo León is a First World region. What mixing occurs is forced and violent. The stories unfold as accounts of kidnappings, rapes, murders, or threats of cannibalism. It is against the will of the "white" nuevoleneses to become mestizo.

Ultimately, the illicit and hidden stories join together in an underground economy of the fantastic. Denied legitimacy by textual history, they are embedded in walls, tunnels, and under the foundations of houses. Stories of people buried alive (perhaps holding secrets) erupt repeatedly in my conversations with regiomontanos. It is possible that the "origins" of Nuevo León have been narrated into spaces that cannot be accessed, leaving the imagination to produce a réel that assists the nuevoleneses in formulating the beginnings of their existence using whatever fantastic means are available.

Finally, although Nuevo León is strikingly different from the rest of Mexico, it is not totally separated. It is still part of the nation-state. It is a center of industry and commerce, containing a spectacular wealth that cannot be imagined in the rest of the country. There is frequent movement between the center of the nation and this periphery. People are constantly traveling or migrating to this rich area. This phenomenon is not new. Even when Nuevo León was seen as a desert wasteland, people came from southern México to settle in the northern region of the country. This history has allowed a semblance of practices and conceptions of the réel to transport themselves into Nuevo León. The stories and explanations of the fantastic are related not only to a history that has been lost but also to a history that has moved north. The myths and legends that proliferate in Latin American culture exist in Nuevo León. Perhaps their influence lacks the intensity that is seen in the south, yet they remain alive. This live movement of the phantasmic has joined with the empty space of nuevolenese history to create multiple narratives of other worlds that coalesce, intermingle, and perhaps collaborate with modern Monterrey and its surroundings. It is in these mythical environs that Nuevo León remains tightly joined with la patria.

Time, Narrative and Trope

Instead of proceeding with a chronological reconstruction overly obedient to the fiction of a linearity of time..., it seemed preferable to bring into view the present site in which this investigation took its form. (de Certeau 1988: xxvi)

This story is told in a nonlinear manner, in keeping with its subject—the hauntings and differences related to history, blood, and purity located in northern Mexico that make themselves known in ways that do not follow linear time. The expected correspondence of nonlinear to "circular time" is not in this book. I do not use the term "circular time" because the time that I refer to does not return neatly to its beginning. Rather, I refer to "nonlinear time" in order to convey the sense of spiraling time, which may return but not to the point of origin.

The narratives are not temporal in the sense that they can be located in a specific moment in time. They seem to travel through lives, centuries, and settlements. This discourse is outside of time. It is about "time" inside of "memory." De Certeau writes that memory "has no general and abstract formulation, no proper place" (1984: 82). It "designates a presence to the plurality of times and thus is not limited to the past" (218). While I present the stories with the designated times (assigned by their authors), I do not seek to question the validity or discredit the chronological time associated with the events described. Instead, I seek to study how different events form a hierarchy of knowledge. In his chapter "History: Science and Fiction" in Heterologies, de Certeau explains that the place of the event as maintained by the subject/storyteller introduces "an experience of time" (1986: 217). The "nonlinear" approach to time presented in this project creates a doublet of exegesis and experience. The back-and-forth, fragmentary presentation of the narratives (and their analysis) is an attempt at re-creating the particular experience of time at the moment the story was told, or read, or written.

The stories link themselves together by themes, remembrances, and places that subtly correspond to the past and to the present. The archaeological field contains events and narratives from numerous epochs. The pieces of the past come together and form a "tableau," to use the words of Foucault (1972). In the traditional ethnographic text, chronology and text become a place of "ordering" related to the Scriptural Economy, which is where stories have been put in a certain order, written according to the wishes of those in power (de Certeau 1984). Temporal chronology reorganizes these, providing the subject with what is seen as a more rational and logical understanding of "when" things happened. In such reorganization, the narratives emanating from the interstices between each piece are occluded, leaving time as primary. The tableau would be bare, no longer having narratives to tell of the different moments, spaces, pieces, and stories that have fallen onto its broad mass of existence. In contrast, the tableau of this ethnography has become time as "memory," a counter-narrative to the normalized sequence expected by most readers of ethnographic documents.

Manners of Speaking: The Temporality of Meaning

These turns of phrase . . . later "museographied" in dictionaries, but also gathered and carried (like old battle scars?) within the tireless memory that is any language itself, are primarily the effects of operations that connect historical circumstances to linguistic practices. (de Certeau 1992: 114)

Irony—A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt. (Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition)

The spiral of time that moves along the past of Nuevo León also presents a trope of irony. This choice is related to the discrepancy between the narrative flavor concerning stories regarding the barbarians and the Jews and my actual objective in making apparent the inconsistency in the stories. Their circulation orchestrated by the "Scriptural Economy" of Nuevo León and the reasoning behind the normalizing factor inherent in these stories are what I seek to reveal. Narratives of "barbaric Indians" and "rich Jews" are presented with mimetic flavor, reminiscent of how these words may have been expressed by historians and other interested and curious nuevoleneses. The repetition of these words belies the reality of the phantom Indian, who is represented as barbaric in texts that are crumbling in the poorly maintained libraries of Nuevo León. My use of the words barbarous and diabolic in this book represents an ironic attempt to present the impossible nature of the offensive terms. There is no way of knowing who may have been barbarous or diabolic. The difficulty of dealing with this "manner of speaking" is that presenting the narratives "as they are repeated" produces a flavor of believing. Perhaps the narrators who told me the stories believe that there is indeed an "essential" Jew for whom making money becomes an obsession. It certainly became an issue as I continued my conversations with Aquiles Sepúlveda regarding what he believed to be a "Jewish Conspiracy." It is my hope that the repetition of what Americans perhaps would describe as "old" and "obsolete" descriptive terms leaves the reader with the notion that mimesis embeds its traces within the structure of power.

The use of these "archaic" descriptors indicates the presence of explanations that are continuously juxtaposed with the designated identity of modern-day norteños. This form of mimesis leaves polluted traces of past narratives. What remain to be studied are these leftover words inside the texts and the soft murmurs of an embarrassed past that eliminated the stories and the existence of entire groups of people.


The modernist ethnography recognizing such properties of discourses as dominance, residualness and emergence (or possibility), would map the relationships of these properties in any site of enquiry . . . by exposing, to the extent possible, the quality of voices by means of metalinguistic categories (such as narrative, trope, etc.). (Marcus 1998: 66)

Following the trajectory of George E. Marcus, the voices in this ethnography are not "seen as products of local structure...alone, or as privileged sources of perspective" (ibid.). The voices emanate from a web of relationships, history, and purpose. Even in this post-"writing culture" era, this approach continues to be contrary to the ongoing norms of ethnographic writing. While structured methodology continues to reign in the academic world of anthropology, I have chosen to risk a deviation.

While I met the goals of acquiring knowledge and establishing relationships with people from my field site, these tasks were, as previously mentioned, accomplished in a manner that varied from the usual plan of fieldwork. Although I had familial obligations that limited my geographic movement, this fact was not the solitary determining factor in my choice of approach. Placing this ethnography in the realm of "voice/discourse" as described by Marcus (1998), I delimit the traditional boundaries of anthropological description and exegesis. This book is an indication of the permeability of thought and practices within the region of northern Mexico, which are parallel to the blurring boundaries of early twenty-first century world systems. Just as Marcus writes of "transcultural process and historical perspective" (ibid.), I find that this ethnography weaves itself through both history and practice. As I traveled through different parts of Nuevo León's culture, I became very aware of the intermingling of the American with the Mexican. Perhaps a striking example of this intermingling occurred the day I was sitting on the front porch of the home of curandera Fela Hernández in the Acapulco subdivision of General Escobedo, a working class suburb of Monterrey. As I waited for Fela I was eating some Lay's Potato Chips. Inside the bag I found a two-by-three-inch sticker of Pope John Paul II. The sticker was a commemoration of his 1999 visit to Mexico, a most profoundly Catholic country. Yet the type of food and brand of chips was American. This experience reminded me that the issue of historical perspective is naturally embedded in the transcultural process. The role of the church has been central to the formation of Mexico as a nation. Nuevo León's embattled attitude towards the church, as will be detailed here, is symbolized in the photograph of the Pope, which has been affixed to a sticker, then hidden in a bag of potato chips, as if it were a Pokémon or some similar child's toy.

The explanations that I provide of narratives I heard as I met people, waited for them, ate their food, shopped with them, and lived with them do not necessarily present an examination of "how they live" in the strict ethnographic sense. What is reported here is the quality and subtlety of the interaction between them, nuevoleneses who happen to be my informants, and myself, the ethnographer who is (for the most part) awkwardly trying to live in their world for a specified period of time. The encounter between the two of us is a transnational process in itself. Historical perspective, also, undoubtedly affects how we view each other, how we interact, and what we do not say to each other. The comical and the uncanny enter into the exegesis with this mode of study. The story of a sticker with an image of the Pope inside of a bag of potato chips becomes important in the overall project that looks at the microcosms of practice that exist in the interchange between the insider and the outsider, namely my informants and myself.

In my fieldwork, I moved from city to village to city and from family to family just as the narratives circulated between these places and people. My descriptions follow the movement of the stories, representing the "traveling discourse" which may seem at first glance fragmented and inconsistent. Yet, as Foucault speaks of history as a series of ruptures (1974), stories are also full of ruptures, inconsistencies, stops and starts. In this manner, as with other issues (such as the concept of time), this book seeks to be descriptive and analytic, while simultaneously creating a mimetic moment that attempts to reproduce the experience of a traveling discourse that has appropriated words along the way, and has stopped abruptly in shock or in awe of the stories that it comes to hear.


My work was conducted in a manner that allowed daily interaction with my interlocutors, whether I was in Nuevo León or Houston. My connection with the González Villagómez family in Monterrey provided an ongoing circuit of communication. In addition to my staying in their home during much of my fieldwork in Nuevo León, their twenty-two-year-old granddaughter, Ana Sáenz González, came to live in my home in Houston for fifteen months. During this time (May 1998-August 1999) she studied English at the University of Houston. Ana has since returned to Monterrey and is now employed by a subsidiary of El Grupo Monterrey, Nuevo León's conglomerate of Fortune 500 companies.

My association with Ana helped me in understanding the position of the young educated people of Monterrey, their issues of "independence" regarding their families, their ambition in the face of an overwhelming American culture that continuously influences their lives in Mexico, seductively pulling them toward the United States, yet creating boundaries that can be crossed only if one is wealthy or willing to enter into a state of "non-legality" (becoming an illegal alien). While I do not refer specifically to Ana elsewhere in this book, the influence of our conversations can be found in every chapter.


The geography described in this ethnography is that of four municipalities, two rural, one suburban, and one urban: General Bravo, Potrero, Villa de Santiago, and Monterrey, Nuevo León.

In the middle of the twentieth century, General Bravo became known as a modern-day Wild West in which men killed each other for minor transgressions. The town is only fifty kilometers from the Texas border. The mythology of the town incorporated stories of violence and revenge that are still circulating throughout Nuevo León.

San Isidro del Potrero is much older than Bravo. Potrero is a village in the northwest section of the state. It is actually considered a part of the municipality of Villaldama, eight kilometers to the north. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Potrero was maintained as an hacienda that produced foodstuffs that supported nearby mining settlements. It now has few inhabitants, little farming, and no industry.

Villa de Santiago is a city south of Monterrey that was fairly isolated until affluent corporate executives discovered its spectacular scenery and cheap real estate prices in the last part of the twentieth century. Among las quintas (the estates of the rich) is the sanctuary of the Medalla Milagrosa, which for over thirty years has served as a religious site for Nuevo León's poor and working class.

Monterrey, "la Sultana del Norte," is presently considered the wealthiest industrial city in Latin America. Horacio Alvarado Ortiz, the first newscaster in Monterrey, describes the city: "la Capital Industrial de Mexico, la ciudad ejemplar que ha llevado tantas veces el nombre de nuestro pais en plan de triunfo por todos los ámbitos del mundo, con sus productos industriales, comerciales" (the industrial capital of Mexico, the model city, that has placed the name of Mexico in triumph throughout the world, with its industrial and commercial products) (1994: 207; my translation).


This book is divided into four parts. Part One focuses on three issues that are discussed in three chapters. The first is my own family history, which provided the impetus for this project. The first stories I heard of Nuevo León were about the area where my father-in-law was born. Dramatic narratives resembling those of Appalachia's Hatfield-McCoy wars sparked my interest. The second chapter deals with the indigenous history or, rather, non-history. This chapter traces out the demarcation created by the "whites" in El Nuevo Reino as they encircled and eliminated the indigenous population in a war so fierce and bloody it can hardly be compared to any other conflict between the colonizers and the colonized in Mexico. The third chapter concerns the story of Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, the ill-fated first governor of El Nuevo Reino de León.

Part Two, "Landscape and Narrative," is a quasi-topography, an account of my preliminary work in Nuevo León and my first year of working with television producer Horacio Alvarado Ortiz, who provided me with an introduction to the region. This section has the semblance of a travel narrative in that I recount the film crew's travels from town to town as we were in pursuit of the Nuevo León that Alvarado believed was disappearing. The next chapter, titled "Spaces In-between," is about a group of Dominican nuns from Mina, whom I met while filming with Alvarado and his crew. My later work with Alvarado and my visits to Mina comprise an ethnographic in-between, not indicating the beginning of my study, yet not at the core of my thematic.

Part Three, "Ethnographic Imaginaries," consists of ethnographic accounts of my work in Potrero, Nuevo León, and Villa de Santiago, Nuevo León. The title "Imaginaries" emanates from the stories and legends that I was told in these places, the interplay between the ethnographic search, and the actual "evidence" found. The surreal quality I encountered was often conflated with the imaginary that contained the history and everyday life of Potrero and Santiago.

Part Four, "Locations of the réel," concerns narratives emanating from the city of Monterrey. Chapters VII and VIII detail the "unsubstantiated" stories of Jews who settled in northern Mexico and the current polemic regarding the authenticity of these stories. In Chapter IX are set the multiple stories of people being underground and in walls, of a fantastic underground city, and of tunnels that have been actually seen and filmed. Chapter X is about the Sepúlveda home near the Alameda in downtown Monterrey.

I conclude with a chapter titled "Delirio," which is also the title of the book, which argues that the instability of the ambivalent and ambiguous narratives creates a delirium that places the nuevoleneses in a réel that is never secure and is constantly transposing itself to suit the current rule of history.

The People

There are many people whom I describe in this ethnography. In this book I choose against anonymity for my informants. I realize this anonymity is a standard aspect of anthropological convention. However, I favor using their real names for several reasons. I believe that if I use pseudonyms and write about issues they would not want published, there is still a significant possibility that they could be recognized. From the beginning, the Sepúlvedas stressed to me their need for privacy. Therefore, I give their names while at the same time omitting any information that I believe would compromise my agreement with them. I find it possible to write an ethnography about these families without divulging intimate details of their personal lives. For me to provide more information than they wish would damage not only our collaborative relationship but also would furnish the reader information that would exoticize and sensationalize the stories and further objectify my informants. Thus they remain real people with their true names and true stories. Their "dirty laundry," so to speak, is kept out of view. The "dirty laundry" of Monterrey and Nuevo León should suffice .

I offer here a brief description of the people I came to know well, how I met them, and how the relationships developed.

Horacio Alvarado Ortiz is a television producer from Nuevo León. He is in his seventies, lives near El Cerro de la Silla, and works in downtown Monterrey. Yolanda González facilitated the meeting. I worked with him in 1997 and the early part of 1998, accompanying his film crew to various locations in northern Nuevo León.

Juanera Domínguez, a widow from Potrero, is a sobadora (healer) in her mid-sixties. She is my second cousin, whom I did not know before doing my fieldwork. She lives several houses away from my great-aunt, Elena Vásquez. I would often visit Juanera while I was in Potrero because her wise conversation seemed to contain everything I wanted to know about the place.

Yolanda González Villagómez, a single woman in her fifties, originally from General Terán, is part owner of a small café. She introduced me to Alvarado and many others who were very helpful in my fieldwork. I stayed in her home which sits on el Cerro de la Silla. She lives and works in Guadalupe. She is first cousin to Artemio Villagómez and Heriberto Villagómez, my childhood friend. She has continued to be a good friend and fabulous collaborator. Several times per year she travels to Houston. I have maintained contact with her in Monterrey and in Texas.

Citalli Hernández Rosales, my second cousin, is a retired schoolteacher, whom I used to visit in Monterrey in the late 1960s.

Cristóbal López, a young scholar in his early thirties, is a historian and lecturer at the Universidad de Monterrey. His particular interest is in Nuevo León's indigenous history and folklore. Cristóbal lives in General Escobedo and works in Santa Catarina. When I am not in Monterrey, we communicate frequently by email. He has been of great help when I have had questions regarding Nuevo León, its people, and its politics.

Don J. Aquiles Sepúlveda González was an artist and collector of antiquities in his sixties. Born in Potrero, Don Aquiles lived in downtown Monterrey. Aquiles, Irma, Pepita, and Ofelia Sepúlveda are siblings. I worked most closely with Don Aquiles. While I was in Houston, we had long telephone conversations every few weeks. When I traveled to Monterrey in 1999, I either met with him or spoke with him daily. He died in January 2000.

Irma Sabina Sepúlveda was a nationally recognized writer and dramatist. Born in Potrero, she lived in downtown Monterrey. I never met Irma. Yet her family spoke of her so often and there was so much of her life still present in the Sepúlveda home that I believe I came to know her. She was in her mid-fifties when she died in 1988.

Doña Josefa (Pepita) Sepúlveda, founder of the sanctuary of the Medalla Milagrosa in Villa de Santiago, Nuevo León, is possibly in her mid-seventies. Born in Potrero, Nuevo León, she now lives in Villa de Santiago. I met with her continuously (four or five times per week) in 1998. She took a strong interest in our association and viewed herself as my mentor.

Rosie Vásquez is a Certified Public Accountant in her twenties. She lives in General Escobedo, works in Monterrey, and returns to visit her parents every weekend in Potrero, where she was born. She is my third cousin. I often gave Rosie a ride to and from Potrero. We talked on the telephone regularly while I was in Monterrey.

Artemio Villagómez Lozano, librarian for Preparatoria 15, is a first cousin of Yolanda González Villagómez. Originally from General Terán, he lives and works in Monterrey. He is the librarian at the school my daughter attended while we lived in Monterrey. We came to be good friends and spoke every day for the months I was in Monterrey (in 1999). I often visited him in the library at school.

Heriberto Villagómez González is a computer systems supervisor. Born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, he lives in Houston. A double cousin of Yolanda González, Heriberto is a childhood friend of mine. He accompanied me on my first field site visit to Nuevo León and kindly introduced me to his family. His initial assistance was fundamental to the success of my fieldwork.

Doña Soledad (Chole) Villagómez de González is a housewife, originally from General Terán. She lives in a house on the famous Cerro de la Silla in Guadalupe. I lived in her home during most of my fieldwork in Nuevo León. I spent scores of hours conversing with Doña Chole. Through our association I learned of the role "older" women have in northern Nuevo León and of marital relationships. We watched many old movies together. She taught me the most about telenovelas, on which she is quite an expert.


“This book is sui generis. In thirty-five years as a scholar, I have read nothing like it.... [We] will study it for years to come as a possible model for new ways of approaching and telling the past.”
Robert A. Rosenstone, Professor of History, California Institute of Technology


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