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Remembering Victoria

Remembering Victoria
A Tragic Nahuat Love Story

An anthropological account of a Nahuat Mexican community that broke down into violence and fratricide following the destruction of its property by the Mexican army, told in the words of a Nahuat husband grieving for his murdered wife.

December 2007
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154 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w illus., 1 tables |

On October 15, 1983, a young mother of six was murdered while walking across her village of Huitzilan de Serdán, Mexico, with her infant son and one of her daughters. This woman, Victoria Bonilla, was among more than one hundred villagers who perished in violence that broke out soon after the Mexican army chopped down a cornfield that had been planted on an unused cattle pasture by forty Nahuat villagers.

In this anthropological account, based on years of fieldwork in Huitzilan, James M. Taggart turns to Victoria's husband, Nacho Angel Hernández, to try to understand how a community based on respect and cooperation descended into horrific violence and fratricide. When the army chopped down the cornfield at Talcuaco, the war that broke out resulted in the complete breakdown of the social and moral order of the community.

At its heart, this is a tragic love story, chronicling Nacho's feelings for Victoria spanning their courtship, marriage, family life, and her death. Nacho delivered his testimonio to the author in Nahuat, making it one of the few autobiographical love stories told in an Amerindian language, and a very rare account of love among the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. There is almost nothing in the literature on how a man develops and changes his feelings for his wife over his lifetime. This study contributes to the anthropology of emotion by focusing on how the Nahuat attempt to express love through language and ritual.

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Tragedy
  • Chapter 3. Talcuaco
  • Chapter 4. Fratricide
  • Chapter 5. "Rabbit and Coyote"
  • Chapter 6. Human Goodness
  • Chapter 7. Nahueh
  • Chapter 8. Love as Desire
  • Chapter 9. Wife as Sister
  • Chapter 10. Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

James M. Taggart is the Lewis Audenreid Professor of History and Archaeology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


On October 15, 1983, Victoria picked up her infant son and walked with her daughter across Huitzilan to pay her mother a visit. The next day, villagers found her body lying in a pool of blood, with her son attempting to nurse from his dead mother's breast. Victoria perished in the violence that broke out in 1977 when forty Nahuat men invaded and planted a cornfield on a cattle pasture known as Talcuaco. The word Talcuaco means in Nahuat "land above the community" and refers to a locality on the steep slopes above Huitzilan. It was a visible reminder that, a century before, Spanish-speaking mestizos had come into this predominantly indigenous community and converted cornfields into cattle pastures, sugarcane fields, and coffee orchards. It became the object of a dispute involving mestizos, and, after 1977, it turned into the symbol of a bloody war that left hundreds dead and forced many others to flee Huitzilan for good.

These events were beginning to unfold during the last year of a long-term fieldwork project on oral narratives that I began in 1968 and continued until 1978. I learned of Victoria's death after I had left Huitzilan. In 2003 I returned to find out how and why Victoria had died and what had happened to her husband, Nacho Angel. Nacho told his story in 2004; it is both a political and a personal chronicle of the events that began when mestizo leaders of the UCI appeared in Huitzilan in 1977. The UCI is an acronym for the Union of Independent Farmers, or Unión Campesina Independiente. The leaders reputedly came from the neighboring state of Veracruz to organize Nahuat and Totonac villagers in the northern sierra of Puebla into cooperatives that invaded uncultivated land, as in the episode in Huitzilan.

Nacho described how a deep political conflict erupted when the UCI leader Felipe Reyes appeared in his community. Felipe Reyes organized forty Nahuat men from Huitzilan into an armed cooperative that invaded both Talcuaco and Taltempan, another plot at the southern end of town. The later deliberate destruction of the UCI's cornfield caused them to attack and kill their enemies, and Nacho called their reaction the rage, or "cualayot." Nacho and Victoria were caught in the middle of the rage because her father and some of her brothers had joined the UCI, while Nacho had served in the town hall as justice of the peace when the violence was reaching its peak (1979-1981). The town hall president, a Nahuat, allegedly had collaborated with the mestizo who had humiliated the Nahuat in the UCI, by orchestrating the destruction of the Talcuaco cornfield; consequently Nacho found he was on the UCI's hit list.

Telling His Story

Nacho told his story in Nahuat and in three stages over three days. On the first day he described the circumstances leading up to Victoria's death, their last days together, and his effort to get his children out of Huitzilan. On the second day, Nacho told the story of his life from his earliest memories to his courtship of and marriage with Victoria. I asked him to tell me about his earlier life to fill in the pieces of his family's history missing from the account I had gathered many years earlier.

The third day took a surprising turn, as Nacho took it upon himself to describe the meaning of a ritual involving a flower tree, or "xochicuahuit," that I had described the Nahuat using in family ceremonies of baptism and marriage during the earlier fieldwork (1968-1978). He told how the Nahuat could take action to restore the love and respect that temporarily disappeared from their community by carrying out these rituals. The flower tree is an adornment that may have a historical relationship to the mythic account of a pre-Hispanic goddess who picked a flower from the tree in the celestial realm of the gods, descended to earth, and gave birth to the corn plant. When Nacho explained the contemporary meaning of the flower tree, he emphasized its role in spreading ties of human goodness (cualtacayot), or love (tazohtaliz) and respect (icnoyot).

His discussion of love on the last day of our three-day interview caused me to ponder what he and other Nahuat meant by love, or tazohtaliz. Nacho and other narrators had used this word in their oral narratives, and I had heard it in conversations, but it had not become a focus of my earlier studies. After listening to all three parts of his story, it became apparent to me that love, or tazohtaliz, was an important but overlooked concept in his culture. I wanted to know what he meant by love and understand his grief caused by the rage that tore through Huitzilan.

Narrative and Memory

Nacho said his story of what happened to Victoria and his love of and grief for her are a lesson, or neixcuitil, the word he had used earlier for all of the stories he and other Nahuat had told about the past. Many of those stories were about other people who lived in different times and places than the storyteller. Nacho's story of what happened to Victoria is his personal memory of what happened to him, and that makes his neixcuitil more like a testimony than a myth or a folktale. To emphasize that his story is his personal memory, he ended his three-day narration by saying: "I always remember." ("Siempre niquelnamiqui.) So his testimony is both a narrative (neixcuitil) and a memory (telnamiquiliz).

I shall attempt in this book to pin down Nacho's narrative of past events by anchoring his memory in what I know of him and his community since starting fieldwork in Huitzilan in 1968. Ricoeur reminds us, in his tour through Western philosophy, that the memory of past events is not the same thing as actually experiencing them when they happened. Holocaust scholars such as Primo Levi are distrustful of testimonies for many reasons: survivors express a particular point of view; memories change; chronologies become confused; witnesses cannot see everything; and survivors are unusual because they lived while so many others died.

Nacho's memories of anger and love are deeply entwined in his narrative, and I shall use different methods to pin them down. When dealing with the anger (Chapters 2 through 5), I shall draw on the testimonies of other survivors of the Talcuaco conflict. They include Nacho's oldest daughter and members of the family of the mestizo who took a conspicuous role in driving the UCI out of Huitzilan. Also included are witnesses who saw and heard things in Huitzilan that Nacho could not have seen because of his problems with the UCI, which forced him to go into exile shortly before Victoria died. These witnesses not only saw different events, they experienced and interpreted some of the same events differently. Their testimonies coincided with many of Nacho's recollections but also revealed how his memory of the rage was filtered through his particular position in his community and in accord with his personal history.

For interpreting Nacho's memory of loving and grieving for Victoria (Chapters 6 through 9), I shall draw on the Orpheus stories that he had told earlier, first when courting Victoria and later after they had been married for several years and were raising their children. The Orpheus stories anticipated his experience of loving and then grieving for Victoria. They are from the Native American Orpheus tradition, and they describe the loss a man feels when the woman he loves goes to the land of the dead. Set against his 2004 reminiscences, the tales provide a glimpse into a Nahuat marriage over a period of thirty-four years.

In the first Orpheus, he described a man loving a woman with an intense desire much like that of a young man who is about to marry the woman he is courting. In the second Orpheus, he represented a man loving a woman as a sister, much as a man and woman may become like a brother and sister after several years of marriage. His recollection of Victoria in 2004 reflects the more idealized love that a man has for a woman about whom he feels an intense grief. It also bears the stamp of experiences that took place between 1978 and her death in 1983. During those five years, Nacho and Victoria grew even closer as the conflict became more violent.

Love, or Tazohtaliz

Reports of fear and anger abound in accounts of the many large and small wars that have raged in Mexico and Central America. Far fewer are the accounts of love and affection, which presumably are the emotions holding us together in our marriages, our families, and our communities. The Nahuat word for love, tazohtaliz, has many meanings, which will become apparent from a close examination of Nacho's narrative of remembering Victoria, his earlier Orpheus stories, and his explication of their meaning to him. The contemporary Nahuat word for love, tazohtaliz, is closely related to the ancient Nahuatl term tlazo(h)tlaliz, which appeared in Alonso de Molina's 1571 dictionary. Molina said that tazo(h)tlaliz meant amor, the Spanish word for love, and gave no other definition.

Alfredo López Austin explained that the ancient Nahuas associated feelings such as tazohtaliz with the bodily centers of vital substances or animistic forces. The most important center was and continues to be the heart, or "yollo," which was the location of "vitality, knowledge, inclination, and feeling." Another center was the liver, or "elli," which was involved with love, desire, and cupidity, as well as anger and hate.

Nacho added to López Austin's model by revealing how Nahuat talk about emotions also has a social referent. He told how the emotions associated with the animistic centers of the liver and the heart arose in particular social situations. During my earlier fieldwork (1968-1978), Nacho and many other Nahuat in Huitzilan described in their stories specific examples of behavior that is inconsiderate, or "ilihuiz," which came from the liver. Ilihuiz refers to strong emotions, which, if acted upon, always ended badly. When remembering Victoria in 2004, however, Nacho, spoke more about the heart when talking about anger as well as love. When recollecting how the violence arose leading to Victoria's death, he said that with anger "we make our hearts cold." When explaining how he knew he loved Victoria, he said: "I felt I loved her because I felt it in my inside, in my heart." He brought up the heart again when he described his grief after Victoria's death as "a great big wound to the heart."

On these occasions, Nacho was remembering his feelings, and, as Wendy James reminds us, remembrance is where one can find an emotion expressed as a concept. Nacho's concept of tazohtaliz was different from romantic love as expressed in the narratives I recorded in Spain. The Spanish term for romantic love is "the illusion," or "la ilusión," and refers to the aura one feels as the most wonderful person in the eyes of another.

Nacho and other Nahuat spoke differently about love and marriage than the Spaniards I had known in Spain. While Nahuat spoke of marrying for love, they also told cautionary tales warning men to control their desire lest they love women obsessively, leading them to a bad end. They spoke of the need for a man to moderate desire, an unruly form of tazohtaliz, with respect. All of Nacho's narratives—his tales of Orpheus and his memory of Victoria—reveal how he moderated his desire from the time of his courtship through his marriage and after his wife's death.

That Nacho would have a different notion about love and marriage than Spaniards should come as no surprise, given the very different historical antecedents of Nahua and Spanish culture. Noemí Quezada hypothesized that the sixteenth-century Nahuatl concept of tlazohtlaliz and the Spanish notion of amor were bound to be different because of the respective ideas about women in the two cultural traditions. Nahuatl ideas about love were related to respect for the procreative powers of women, which the goddess Xochiquetzal personified in the myth of Tamoanchan. In that myth, Xochiquetzal picked a flower, representing sex, from a tree in the celestial realm of Tamoanchan, fell to earth, and gave birth to Cinteotl, from whose body sprouted many edible plants. Several contemporary meanings of the word tlazohtlaliz (Nahuatl) or tazohtaliz (Nahuat) appear related to the symbolism in this myth. One is the tendency to associate women and food. The other is respect for the procreative powers of women who give birth to children who work to fill the family granary and turn raw ingredients into delicious meals. During my earlier fieldwork, many Nahuat in the northern sierra of Puebla told stories about feminine characters producing vast quantities of edible food from a single bean or kernel of corn.

Nacho's Culture

Nacho's ideas about love and anger are the product of his communalistic culture, which has mixed Native Mesoamerican and Spanish antecedents. While few believe that today's Mesoamericans have retained their pre-Columbian culture in pure form, some scholars have recognized and described the continuities between the ancient cultures and contemporary Mesoamericans like Nacho. One continuity is that the Nahuat, like other Mesoamericans, continue to grow corn communally in their extended families, pooling the fruits of their labor in a granary from which women may draw according to need. Nacho grew up in one of the most stable extended families in Huitzilan, in which he and his brothers worked for more years pooling the fruits of their labor than other groups of brothers I had known during my earlier fieldwork (1968-1978). One sign of having grown up in this family is his style of narration, in which he presented himself as acted upon rather than as taking action, when describing the events leading up to Victoria's death. His narrative style is consistent with his notion of personhood, according to which acting autonomously is inconsistent with the communal organization of work in the extended family, where men pool the fruits of their labor to fill a common granary, which women use to feed their families. Nacho's notion of personhood is like that of many other Mesoamericans because he sees himself not as an independent individual but as one who, to borrow from Gary Gossen, is "subject to the agency and will of others, both human and supernatural."

Particularly relevant for understanding Nacho's story of love and anger is June Nash's interpretation of ancient and contemporary Mesoamerica, important because she focused on the continuities as well as the changes in both Nahua and Mayan images of women. As Noemí Quezada reminds us, those images are important for understanding how a Nahuat man might love a woman. Nash begins with the observation that the religion of the ancient ceremonial center and city of Teotihuacan (A.D. 150-675) was based on the worship of a creator goddess similar to the spider woman of the Hopi. The creative powers of that goddess were undoubtedly related to her powers of procreation.

Nash notes that gender hierarchy increased among the pre-Columbian Nahuas, or Mexica, as they expanded their empire and became more militaristic in the middle 1400s. The trend toward gender hierarchy continued after the Spanish Conquest of 1521, but the importance of goddesses and their role in creation also continued and, in some cases, actually increased relative to what existed in the pre-Conquest Mexica empire.

Historical Context

Nevertheless, the Nahuat of Huitzilan have faced a number of serious problems threatening their way of life. My earlier fieldwork during the ten years leading up to the arrival of the UCI in Huitzilan had revealed that the Nahuat were living under very great pressures—landlessness and ethnic domination—that had taken a toll on human relations. The lack of cheap land had made it very difficult for the Nahuat to produce the corn they needed for their granaries, and it had exacerbated old tensions and created new ones. I saw considerable anger, or cualayot, particularly among men who were drinking. Nahuat gender relations seemed strained, measured by the images that men painted of women in their oral narratives. Their images were more negative than those in men's narratives I had recorded in Yaonáhuac, another Nahuat community in the northern sierra of Puebla. In Yaonáhuac, the distribution of land was more equitable, and the Nahuat were not under the direct domination of mestizos in their community.

The differences between the images of women in the Huitzilan and the Yaonáhuac stories accord with a widespread pattern of domination bleeding the love out of the marriages in the dominated group. The tension in marriage that showed up in the stories that men told about women was a symptom of splintering among the Nahuat that came to a head in the violence that surged when the UCI appeared and organized the invasion of the Talcuaco and Taltempan pastures.

The invasion of Talcuaco and Taltempan was part of a pattern that developed earlier in the Huasteca of Hidalgo in 1971 and spread south along the Gulf Coast to Huitzilan in the northern sierra of Puebla. The UCI was one of many groups with a Maoist ideology that attempted to address class inequalities by invading uncultivated land. The press reported that 250 land invasions throughout Mexico had taken place in 1977 and 1978 alone. The UCI came to the northern sierra from Veracruz with the intention of organizing Nahuat, Nahuatl, and Totonac villagers to take over land without a title, as happened in Huitzilan. Its organizers first appeared in the neighboring community of Pahuatla, a one-hour walk from Huitzilan. After orchestrating a land invasion in that community, they came to Huitzilan, where a few UCI leaders organized about forty Nahuat men into a cooperative, and helped them arm and carry out the land invasions on two plots that were the objects of a dispute between two Spanish-speaking, or mestizo, families.

To understand what happened next in Huitzilan, it will help to realize that the UCI turned into a group of armed men who acted differently than some other groups of insurgents in Mexico and Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the EZLN of southeastern Mexico, also known as the Zapatistas, the UCI began with noble agrarian aims, invoking the memory of Emiliano Zapata by declaring in slogans and speeches that land belongs to those who work it. The UCI invasion of Talcuaco and Taltempan aimed to relieve landlessness, which had become a big problem by 1977. However, the UCI abandoned its agrarian aims after the destruction of the Talcuaco cornfield. The insurgents turned their anger on other Nahuat and a few mestizos whom they considered to be against them. Nacho said the Nahuat in the UCI were committing fratricide because they were killing other Nahuat. The fratricidal conflict was the complete collapse of a moral order that the Nahuat socialized into their children and tried to create through rituals.

Frans Schryer described earlier land invasions in the Huasteca of Hidalgo, not far from the northern sierra of Puebla, and provided a very thorough view of how they fit into the context of local and national politics of that period. He spent "a fair amount of time in the city of Huejutla in order to get slice-of-time snapshots of what was happening in the political headquarters of peasant organizations or in the homes of peasant leaders or local landowners who were influential on the regional or state level." This book presents Nacho's story to complement Schryer's study by providing a personal perspective on the events that took place in Huitzilan.

The Value of Personal History

I turned to Nacho to find out what had happened in Huitzilan because we had worked together for a long time, and he knew me well and was willing to speak frankly about the events affecting him and his feelings about them. I had befriended both Nacho and Victoria in 1968, before they started courting each other in 1970. Victoria was a regular visitor in my home because she had befriended my former wife, Sharon, and she stopped by frequently on her way to visit her grandfather who lived just up the street. I had made Nacho's family an important case in my study of the family during the first stage of the earlier fieldwork. Nacho taught me Nahuat; he told me many stories; and years later he helped me correct my transcriptions of Nahuat stories I had recorded from him and from nine other narrators in Huitzilan between 1970 and 1978. I made regular, daily visits to Nacho and Victoria between 1973 and 1978 when doing fieldwork in Huitzilan, and enjoyed their warm hospitality, ate many of Victoria's delicious meals, and played with their children, Epifania and Alfonso.

Nacho's story is his personal history of the Nahuat struggle to hold onto their culture, which is largely invisible to all but a few specialists. Judith Zur and Linda Green make a case for why personal histories are important for understanding how and why communities splinter in a small war, such as the one that broke out in Huitzilan. Linda Green believes that anthropologists have maintained "a silence on suffering" by not focusing on particular individuals caught up in those wars, and this silence has prevented the understanding of "why internal violence happened in some communities and not in others." Judith Zur adds that personal histories can reveal the "long-existing animosities and rivalry" that can break out into internal violence with some "locally significant event or change." Nacho's story of the tragedy (Chapter 2) and the testimonies of other Nahuat and mestizos (Chapters 3 and 4) reveal just how Huitzilan splintered along the lines of conflict rooted in the past, long before the UCI leader Felipe Reyes appeared in the northern sierra of Puebla in 1977.

As a war widower, Nacho complements the picture Zur and Green present of the suffering of war widows in Guatemala. He not only provides a masculine perspective on suffering, but he was also willing to talk openly about feelings of love and grief. To have feelings and to tell a story about them are two marks of Nacho's humanity, and, in presenting his story, I hope readers can identify with his experiences. I am following the lead of Renato Rosaldo and Ruth Behar, who have urged anthropologists to write about feelings of grief to round out our picture of the human condition. Nancy Chodorow has stressed the importance of personal histories because they help us understand more fully just what feelings are, how they are linked to specific experience, and how we give them meaning. She is looking for the middle ground between the psychoanalytic view that feelings are drives and the constructionist view that they are created through language and ritual. Nacho provided that kind of historical perspective on his own personal history as well as on that of his community during our association, which spans thirty-eight years. Nacho's story shows how, to borrow from Miles Richardson, we are cruel, we are magnificent, and we are loving in a particular Nahuat way.

Writing Remembering Victoria

Nacho and I had many conversations between 2003 and 2006, in which he provided most of the information on which I base this book. I then embarked on writing in a way that would not put Nacho in a vulnerable position. The conflict involving the UCI is not over in Huitzilan. Newspaper articles and Internet sites continued to mention deaths attributable to that conflict in the year that Nacho decided to tell his tragic story of love and loss. We did not want anything potentially troublesome for him to appear in print, particularly in Mexico. So I wrote a first draft in English and translated it into Spanish, with the help of Irene Aco Cortés, a native of Huitzilan, and read it to Nacho. On that first reading, we decided to disguise the names of some of the people who took an important role in the Talcuaco conflict, and he suggested that I remove other portions for fear that they would come back to haunt him. I revised the manuscript with the changes he suggested and translated it into Spanish a second time with Irene Aco Cortés's help, and then read it to him a few months later. He suggested a few more changes and seemed satisfied with the result. In the chapters that follow, I describe the setting, and present Nacho's words and those of others in Huitzilan in the hope that you, the reader, will understand what happened in a beautiful but troubled community in the northern sierra of Puebla.


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