In the last forty years, central Chiapas has become one of the better-known areas of the New World if the exuberance and diversity of scholarly reporting mean anything. No fewer than thirty major monographs and hundreds of articles attest to this. Robert Wasserstrom’s book emerges from this tradition, and from the Harvard Chiapas Project in particular. The book, however, sets out consciously to transcend and correct what has been an ahistorical bent to Chiapas studies. Wasserstrom is slaying a familiar dragon with well-known heads. Against isolated community studies, he advocates a regional, macro-approach. Against naive notions about continuity from the Ancient Maya past, he mounts an aggressive and extremely well informed case for colonial institutions and nineteenth-century land and labor factors as the crucible of the “really real” for interpreting contemporary society in the area. He argues that cultural diversity, which most modern observers identify as an important feature of the social landscape of modern Chiapas, is an epiphenomenon and illusion—even a cynical obfuscation—created by the class structure of Chiapas agrarian society, aided and abetted by two generations of naive anthropologists.
If Wasserstrom’s scholarly agenda and ideological baggage seem familiar, they are—elsewhere and with other subject matter. In the context of Chiapas studies, however, the book constitutes a major contribution, for his assertions regarding the ahistorical bias of previous scholarship are largely true. If one edits out the ideological harangues (“since 1936, at least, ethnic differences throughout the region have become submerged beneath more fundamental differences of wealth, property and power.” p. 215), there can be little doubt that this book contains an invaluable major synthesis of the colonial and modern documents pertaining to Indian-Ladino relations in Chiapas. All of us stand in his debt for adding a meticulously researched historical anchor to our work in the area.
It is important, however, to underscore that this history of class relations is consistently written from the point of view of an omniscient historical narrator whose ideology leads him to believe that he sees the big picture of events through a more objective lens than that which has been available to the participants or their descendants. This leads to dozens of sweeping pronouncements. For example, of the post-Cardenas agrarian reforms (1940s), ostensibly designed to help Indian communities revitalize their productive base, Wasserstrom writes “All in all, then, agrarian reform in the region served to surround large landholdings with a protective buffer of unproductive and undercapitalized ejidos which contributed to the prosperity of private growers” (p. 164). This is surely but a partial picture of events. What did the Indians make of the ejido law?
Since Wasserstrom is a fluent Tzotzil speaker and also an able anthropological fieldworker, I find it hard to understand his obliviousness to native peoples’ own interpretation of their historical circumstances. I know from my own work in Chiapas that their oral traditions chronicle in moving and highly detailed fashion their own interpretation of Indian-white relations. These traditions recognize protagonists and antagonists who are not unlike Wasserstrom’s cast of characters. Yet consistently, through all their historical adversity, they note, in addition to economic factors, the moral importance and fundamental superiority of Indian identity over that of their oppressors. The ejido law receives such a reading in most Indian accounts of agrarian reform: it contributed to Indian community identity and moral autonomy. This quiet chauvinism is not inaccessible; religious ritual, humor, and the oral tradition are full of it. It therefore seems to be an act of remarkable scholarly dogmatism, myopia, and condescension to relegate native peoples’ own interpretation of their origins and history to the status of illusion and naïveté. Of some of his colleagues in Chiapas studies, he writes of our “naive faith . . . in the ability of native theory to explain a range of complex phenomena” (p. 5). It should be remembered that native people are also actors in history, and their own theories of historical process and cosmos, whatever their epistemological status, do influence their concrete action in history. It is not that they do not hear or understand the large drummer leading the more powerful army; they listen to a different drummer, whose signals and cadences exist in numerous variants of Tzotzil and Tzeltal thought.
In Wasserstrom’s rather mellow concluding remarks, he writes: “Surely the time has come to accord Indian history the same respect with which we treat our own; anthropology may then take its place as the history of the Indian present—not as a substitute for historical inquiry” (p. 249). Perhaps Wasserstrom will act on this admonition in his future research; he has not done so in this book. It is a Western reading of Western history, albeit a very good one.