For several months in early 1987 it seemed as though my life was coming to an end, at age 32.
Image: Drawing of the Nahua Maize God, removed from the summit of the San Martin volcano and installed in the Museum of Anthropology, Jalapa, Veracruz.
For several months in early 1987 it seemed as though my life was coming to an end, at age 32. I was diagnosed with a Clark’s Level V malignant melanoma in the middle of my back, and a month afterwards with a metastatic tumour on my liver. The oncologist, a specialist in melanoma, called me on the phone with the news of the metastasis to say I needed to put things in order. He said I probably had three to four months to live. This news took my breath away, and shocked and frightened my parents, brothers, and friends.
What followed was a profoundly moving experience, shared in conversation with other cancer patients and circulated later in a short text called “Cancer and the Healing Mind.” Three things stood out, relevant to people and families when they hear of their own cancer threat.
The first is the value of sinking deeply into the experience of near death, and the terror this brings. As a strong young man, death seemed incomprehensible to me, a dissonance I resolved in part by sleeping on the floor and subjecting myself to other small gestures of mortification. My father fell apart in his own way, and my mother was paralyzed with fear. I had recently returned to Ottawa from Mexico to check in with my PhD committee at Carleton University, and was sleeping in the bedroom of my teenage years. I stopped talking, ate sparingly and occasionally harboured violent thoughts, including the wild notion that I would travel to Chile and murder Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator and perpetrator of Chile’s Caravan of Death. What proved to be vital to my later recovery was that I was fully present with my anger and anguish. I felt it deeply. Importantly, the people around me did not immediately launch into promises that everything would be alright. Friends and family were present and supportive, but did not try to force me out of the negativity of the experience I was living. I realized from this that there is wisdom in holding true to what is, and being held by others in place rather than rushed on to somewhere else.
The second insight, several weeks into the storm, came when a dream presented me with a choice between a black alligator and a green alligator. In the dream I moved away from the black abyss and towards something else more complex and inviting — a child, a window, a hillside, a green alligator. Soon after, I resolved to use my body and mind to heal, inspired by Bernie Siegal’s book Love, Medicine and Miracles. The book had just been published, breaking new ground in popular culture regarding the role the mind can play in fighting illness. I embraced the idea of visualization as a sharp instrument I could direct to excise the tumour on my liver and sweep aside any other rogue cells floating around in my bloodstream and lymphatic system. I also extended the metaphor and associated meditative practices in a deeply personal and creative direction. Imagery from dreams and elements in nature such as rain and wind became my friends and vehicles for visualizing my body’s own immune system at work. As I showered I imagined the water inside me, washing away cancer cells. When I walked, the breeze blew through me carrying away what was not needed. Sunlight coming through a window or noticed out of the corner of my eye connected me in my mind to the source of all things — the sun, stars and the space in between. By the time ultrasounds and biopsies determined that the growth on my liver was shrinking rather than spreading as the doctors expected, I took the good news as no great surprise. Of course, I thought, the body is wise and needs only be free of the turmoil of the mind to find healing. This interpretation did not require me to conclude that I cured myself through an act of mental will, but rather that I had created favourable conditions (meditation, food, visualization, light exercise) for my body’s own immune system to distinguish the cancer cells from healthy tissue and act accordingly. There was agency, but not control of the outcome.
A third insight came later, many months after the crisis was over. While I was changed by a daily four hour practice of meditation, a strict macro-biotic diet, Hatha yoga and a deeply personal visualization practice, I came to realize that the transmutation itself was mutable. Any wisdom and higher state I managed to wrest from the opportunity presented to me was fragile, subject to the ebb and flow of time, new circumstances and new challenges. In other words, while I had been lifted by the experience, even this “life changing” experience had not created a permanent change. The relationship to myself, others and my surroundings would need to be reaffirmed and reworked day-by-day and moment-by-moment. Impermanence applies to everything, even that which transforms and is transformed beyond earlier recognition. Rumi’s poem embraces the mystery I felt at the time and still feel today: “You must have shadow and light source both. Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.” I remain in awe of the fact that I did not die within months or even within the five year 95% probability window for people with a Clark’s Level V malignant melanoma. I also remain connected to the memory of the experience of deep inner peace that friends and even medical practitioners said they could sense in and around me at the time. I can call on this memory, but only through a new act of will that cuts through the fog of daily delusions.
How I got into the pickle of serious skin cancer corresponds to a period in my life when I was running full speed along the path of anthropology. After finishing my Masters Degree in Canadian Studies at Carleton, I won an internship in the Canada-Mexico exchange program organized by the Canadian government’s Department of External Affairs. A small number of recent Canadian graduates, and a similar number of Mexicans, were provided with a one year grant and letters of introduction allowing them to offer their skills and services, free of charge, to prospective employers. It was an internship program, with an international twist. In my group there was a recently graduated doctor, a few engineers, and myself, an anthropologist. We rarely saw each other after the introductory session, and government supervision was virtually absent, so I know nothing of their experiences. I did, however, manage to turn the letter, my Spanish language skills and general knowledge of fishing cultures into an agreement to do research for the Museum of Anthropology in Jalapa, Veracruz. Happenstance took me to Jalapa, and I was charmed by the architecture and artistic culture of the small state capitol.
The agreement with the museum allowed me to spend nearly a year on beaches and in fishing boats along the Gulf of Mexico. On many mornings I would rise before dawn and join the crew of a 25 foot lancha making its way out to sea to check nets and baited long-lines set the night before. Depending on the catch, the crew might decide to stay out and still-fish for red snapper, a catch more lucrative than the small sharks, grouper, flounder, rays and other fish they might find on the end of the night hooks. Anchored above a shoal a mile from shore, the four person crew would fish with several baited hooks on a single line wrapped around a tin can, and make small talk using the colourful idiom made famous throughout Mexico by the fishers of the port of Alvarado. Considered extremely crude anywhere else in Mexico, much of the joking revolves around sexually charged innuendo. Among fishing crews, a common form of the banter is to make the other person seem to be submitting to anal sex. I had to learn to avoid being jockeyed, figuratively or physically, into a compromising position, something hard to do in a small boat. Relief would come when the crew decided the fishing was done and make haste for the shore and a late breakfast. Meanwhile, as the son of an Irish red-head, my pale skin frequently got burned to a crisp. With no protection from the sun’s rays, an exposed mole on my back developed into a malignant melanoma several years later.
Photo: My fishing companions, Chachalacas, Veracruz.
A few months after learning how to defend myself in a Veracruz fishing boat, I met Yvan Breton, a university of Laval anthropology professor doing fisheries research in Veracruz and the state of Campeche. I heard about him through happenstance and tracked him down at the Mocambo Hotel outside the port of Veracruz. There we talked about the culture, politics and economics of coastal fishing. When his wife and two kids arrived for a visit, we played cards into the night. He hired me after my internship was complete to do interviews in Alvarado, the heart of the fishing culture of Veracruz and most famous source of colourful language. The port had everything: independent lancha fishers like the ones I had been working with, fleets of shrimp boats organized into cooperatives, and large tuna fishing boats equipped with freezers and plans to ply the Gulf for several weeks. Artisanal fishers trapped crabs and fished for the native species of Tilapia in the nearby lagoon.
Yvan was a delight to work with and provided me with a great example of how to be incisive, humble and practical as a researcher. He paid particular attention to producing meticulous field notes and to publishing initial findings in the local language as quickly as possible. His jet black hair, deep gentle voice and calm wit was disarming and at the same time completely authentic. I thought of him as the epitome of the character “Columbo,” a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department played by Peter Falk. Yvan, like Columbo, could draw anyone into a conversation that revealed much more than they initially wanted to, and then validate the result with a striking summary of his own. There was no malicious intent in Yvan’s art, except perhaps when dealing with nefarious characters leading some of the Alvarado fishing cooperatives and fish marketing kingpins. His work was not naïve and he was intent on defending the interests of small and vulnerable fishing communities and workers. This commitment sent me into tiny hamlets built on stilts deep in the mangrove forests surrounding the Laguna de Alvarado, as well as onto the shrimp vessels plying the night waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
By then I had also spent several months in the fishing community of Jicacal in southern Veracruz where Jacques Chevalier and I first worked together, and where I met my son Daniel’s mother, Amelia. She was a working woman from the oil refinery town of Minatitlán, on a holiday with her cousin in a nearby village on the beach. We dated for a few months while I was doing research in Jicacal. When she got pregnant, she decided it was for the best even if we did not marry. When Daniel was born, I was not prepared to marry but I made a commitment to stay connected so he would know who I was and always have access to me if he wanted it. Eventually, he came to Canada to study, following in the footsteps of my two pilot brothers by becoming a helicopter engineer.
The various threads of my professional life in Veracruz, described in this chapter and the next, culminated in my PhD dissertation, a book published with Jacques, and critical groundwork for Mexican researchers that went on to create the Sierra de Santa Marta biosphere reserve once inhabited by Nahau gods. The situation tested me personally, and burned off the vestiges of my Yukon youth. It also supplanted my pursuit of an artist’s life with ambitions on the path of anthropology.
Photo: Baseball in Minatitlan, Veracruz.
Photo: Baseball in Minatitlan, Veracruz.
In Search of the Fourth World
Jacques was a member of my thesis committee at Canadian Studies, along with Wally Clement, my supervisor and the author of the ground breaking book “The Canadian Corporate Elite: An analysis of economic power.” Only six years my senior, Jacques was the youngest professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and a rising star. He had converted his PhD thesis on capital, kin and cult in eastern Peru into a critically acclaimed book published by the University of Toronto Press. Ernest Laclau, the Argentinean philosopher who is often credited with inventing post-Marxist political theory, wrote the forward. Jacques also quickly published the requisite peer-reviewed journal article, and demonstrated great skill as a lecturer and debater that could enthral students and cut down to size any theoretically minded critics. As a francophone, he brought a Quebec nationalist perspective to an anglophone Canadian department of sociology and anthropology seeking to attract students and project a progressive character. Jacques’ welcome into the department was warm and, not surprisingly, he earned his first sabbatical in record time. In the fall of 1983 he turned his attention away from teaching and administrative duties to do new anthropological research.
Jacques contacted me in Mexico and suggested we work together. From his point of view, Mexico was a close option for field work and I provided him with local knowledge. At the time of his arrival I had not yet decided to return to university for a PhD. I felt that to do so I first needed to have some idea about what I wanted to say and what I had to offer as a PhD student and eventual graduate. Yvan had been encouraging me to join his department at Laval University, but I had made no decision.
We met up in Jalapa where I was living in the home of Doña Teresa Blanco Rosas, the wife of a long dead leader of the 1920s and 1930s Veracruz agrarian reform movement. When they married in the late 1950s, Sostenes Blanco was already an old man and the peasant organizations had been crushed by “the Black Hand,” a violent Veracruz-based network of thugs organized by large landowners and supported by national political leaders. Doña Teresa, a teenager from a peasant family, bore two children with Sostenes Blanco in the second of his marriages. When he died, she inherited a sturdy, tall building in the middle of the city she converted into a home for herself and her children, and rooms for students at the Universidad Veracruzana. I rented one of them, and paid extra for breakfast and dinner each day I was in town writing reports and checking in with the Museum of Anthropology.
Doña Teresa, a short, round woman with bright eyes and a big smile, was an amazing cook, and well versed in the medicinal properties of food. I adopted her recipe for treating and preventing Moctezuma’s revenge: a daily concoction of three cloves of garlic crushed with lemon juice and knocked back on an empty stomach. When used as a full treatment, the recipe involved a daily increase in the number of cloves up to ten, and a daily decrease back down to three. I have been a life-long experimenter with food as medicine, so had no difficulties following her instructions.
Jacques stayed in the house for a few days as we explored options. I was by then deeply involved in the study of Mexican fishing communities, and felt obliged to follow through with my commitment to the Museum of Anthropology. Jacques wanted to continue his work with indigenous communities. I knew that despite the long coastlines of Mexico, few indigenous groups specialize in fishing. Most are agrarian cultures, with maize as the common origin story. The Seris of coastal Sonora are one exception, having developed a remarkably detailed knowledge of the sea and its resources integrated into their cultural beliefs. The Lacandon Maya located near Yaxchilán, Chiapas where I had worked as an archaeological illustrator, are also an exception to the rule. However, they take their cultural cues from the Lacandon Jungle, not the sea. Even the Maya of the Yucatan where Yvan Breton had conducted fisheries related research of his own are farmers first. Fishing is an optional livelihood only partly connected to their core cultural stories and practices.
Faced with few options to combine fishing with indigenous culture we turned first to Catemaco, Veracruz, a place known for its indigenous sorcerers and location beside a large inland lake fished by the local population. So we set out in search of the indigenous “fourth world,” only to find in Catemaco the features of a pleasant tourist destination. It is an attractive town with colonial architecture and boat tours of a lake set in the environs of the humid tropics and the foothills of the Sierra de Santa Marta coastal volcanic mountains. We moved on quickly, approaching the region instead from the coastal side where we knew Nahuatl was still spoken as a first language and where J. Stewart, an American anthropologist, had done his own PhD studies in 1978 on the subsistence ecology of the indigenous population. We followed his path to Peña Hermosa, a hamlet so small our presence almost doubled the local population. We only stayed a few days, but the journey there and back on horseback provided several lasting impressions.
The first is a story Jacques tells anthropology students to illustrate three approaches to the study of myths. One approach is to examine the functions myths serve in the society. Another is to explore their underlying cultural meaning. The third is to determine what truth there is behind the myth. Troy and the Trojan War, for example, was thought to be simply a legend, until the historical city was found in modern day Turkey. Jacques’ example of this approach from Peña Hermosa (Spanish for “Beautiful Cliff”) concerns the Nahua legend of serpents protecting the secrets of a cave below the surf breaking on the cliff face. We went to see the beach and rocky outcrop during our stay in the hamlet, but without performing the cleansing rituals we later learned were part of the culture. On our way back from the cliff, I noticed a venomous coral snake at Jacques’ feet, and shouted at him to jump away. He did, safely, proving the myth was not entirely true nor entirely false.
The second impression from our journey to Peña Hermosa is a pair of photographs showing each of us on horseback, hats set jauntily on our heads and windswept views of the Gulf of Mexico behind. Tales of Indiana Jones had only recently swept the world with the release in 1981 of Raiders of the Lost Ark. For Jacques’ children, the photo of a tall man wearing a Planter’s hat and a thin beard on a white horse conveyed an image no father could resist, prompting Jacques to later frame the photo for his office wall. The picture of me, on what could be mistaken for a donkey, remained an unprinted negative. When paired with Jacques’ photo, it reminded me more of Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza than the dashing figure of Harrison Ford. What the photos don’t say is that Jacques is allergic to horse hair and suffered greatly from the reaction throughout the trip. I sat comfortably enough on the horse, but soon developed intense irritation in my groin from both Chiggers (Trombiculidae) and Cattle Ticks picked up along the way.
Once back in civilization we went to Jicacal, a satellite hamlet to the Nahuatl speaking municipality of Pajapan on the shores of the nearby Laguna del Ostión. Mangrove trees lined the shore of the lagoon, and most inhabitants lived from fishing, collecting oysters and growing watermelons on the sandy beach soils. We stayed there for three months, sharing a rented corrugated tin shack with two cots. While not as comfortable as Catemaco, or as isolated as Peña Hermosa, Jicacal proved to be the perfect location for us to do what anthropologists are supposed to do, that is, to listen for the stories of people living lives rooted in non-western traditions and challenged by encounters with outside dominant cultures. Our book on the Gulf Nahua, supplemented later by a second round of field work together in Pajapan, the municipal capital, cemented a working relationship now forty years on and counting. We became friends, turning to each other for support during critical moments in our personal lives. We also became partners, challenging each other professionally and jointly creating numerous academic and consulting products, an experience explored in a later chapter.
The title of our first book together, “A Land Without Gods,” is a reference to “El Señor del Cerro,” an Olmec statue of a god grinding maize carved from volcanic stone. In 1962 the state government had removed the statue from the top of the San Martin volcano above the town of Pajapan and taken it to the Museum of Anthropology in Jalapa in exchange for a promise to build a road into the community and set up a primary school. This happened at a time when the maize fields and secondary forests of Pajapan were rapidly being converted into large cattle ranches controlled by a powerful few. My own dissertation title, “Cattle, Corn and Conflict in the Mexican Tropics,” captured the political-economic dimension of the story, involving international linkages between industrial food production and environmental decline. The phenomenon was first framed by the British environmentalist Norman Myers as “the hamburger connection,” referring to the unequal exchange in beef between North American fast food chains such as McDonald’s and the tropical forests and people of Central America and Mexico.
I created the frontispiece drawing for our book from the original of the statue in the Jalapa museum, and set it in jungle vegetation on fire. It symbolized the view, documented by Jacques through interviews and a deep analysis of the local version of the corn god myth, that the land and the people on it were no longer protected by the gods. According to some, the gods had hidden themselves, and the animals under their protection, in the underworld Talogan. Others blamed the caciques (local bosses) who used their control of local politics to concentrate land and wealth in their own hands. Instead of thanking the gods for what they received, the caciques let their cattle “move into and eat the forest,” as one local person put it. The worst mythical scenario had come true, with most of the population pushed out of agriculture into marginal livelihoods such as fishing. The chaneques, legendary creatures in Mexican folklore, were reduced to hiding and crying in holes in the earth while forests were burned down and animals in tears fled from the despoiled land.
For Jacques, the book on the Nahua of Pajapan closed a chapter in his professional development that had begun with studies in Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. He had been trained in the British tradition of anthropology that sought to portray the complex whole of society including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, politics, custom and any other capabilities and habits of the culture. Our book was described on the back cover by James C. Scott, an American political scientist and anthropologist at Yale University, as “a model of comprehensive, synthetic anthropology, historically deep, ecologically subtle and symbolically rich while never slighting the key role of political economy.” Chapters in our book examine everything from national politics and the role of the state to rain forest ecology, underdevelopment, kinship and gender relations and native semiotics, all integrated through an interdisciplinary approach to social phenomena and a novel theoretical framework Jacques called “Process Theory.”
Photo: Playing with a niece, and grinding corn for tortilla masa. For the Gulf Nahua, corn is not only a staple food but also the cultural centre of their lives.
The particulars of life and history in Pajapan described in the book try to make a contribution to Mexican anthropology and to the post-Marxist modes of production literature of the time. They do so, in 9 point font over 374 pages, by showing how everything in the Gulf Nahua society that seems to be anthropologically different is the result of interactions between Western institutions and pre-hispanic modes of production, the local and the global, patrimonial kinship and capitalist economics. This active “interpenetration” of modes of production and the resulting hybrid forms suggests that indigenous people are neither frozen in some ancient time nor passive victims of modern history. There is exploitation but also resistance. Overall, however, the balance of power is skewed. We show in the book that the unfolding of social history in Pajapan reflects the imposition of a ruling capitalist order, an unequal distribution of the proceeds of society and the confrontation of classes and parties, genders and age-groups, spirits and humans all struggling for power. It is a critical perspective on the complexity of power and the destructive nature of capitalism, uncommon when first published and, in my view, still valid on the whole.
What remains compelling for me in the scholarship of the book are two stories with surprising features. The first is how caciques used the indigenous legal concept of “communal land” to protect themselves from external critics, even as they used the local system to increase their own power and control over land. Coming to understand the dynamic was for me the study of legend, both its truth and its falsehood. It began with a confidence shown to me by an elderly and informal member of the Comisariado de Bienes Communales, the management committee recognized in Mexican law as the administrative body responsible for implementing agreements of the general assembly of comuneros. Basilio Martín had not been elected to one of the three formal positions in the Comisariado , which every three years drew from members of the general assembly. Rather, he was an elder responsible for keeping the ancient archives of the Comisariado, stored in his home in a large wooden box. Every three years, when elections occurred, the box would be taken around the village from home to home, much like religious statues were when celebrating the day of particular saints. Inside the box were copies made in the mid-1880s of Pajapan’s primordial titles, some of which dated back to 1605. I did not dare photograph the contents, for fear of offending Basilio and perhaps the gods, but now wish I had if only to preserve a copy of the records. The experience nevertheless inspired me to travel to Mexico City and spend hours in the Lands Branch of the National Archives looking for evidence of Pajapan’s earliest recorded history. I found it, and another copy of an original map from 1611, in Volume 3030.
To study in an archive, especially one as storied as the Mexican National Archive, is the particular joy of historians and one which I took to rather easily. I felt like a detective on the trail of something special, and thrilled at every small discovery. I did not have to play dumb like Colombo to get people to tell all, but instead stay focused, notice details and pursue leads in the documents. Jacques, while not an archivist, taught me some of those skills, and recently described me as the most persistent person he knows. I certainly showed this quality when diving deep into the historical record of land and politics in southern Veracruz, amply documented in our book. I later produced a brochure in Spanish summarizing the land history, and made multiple copies for Pajapan’s school library and interested members of the community. Sharing results in the local language was important to me, and an early expression of my commitment to an activist approach to research.
The Bienes Comunales of Pajapan are a legal form of land tenure different from and much rarer than the better known and widespread Ejido system in Mexico. Ejidos, created by the Mexican state after the Mexican Revolution, have vestiges of the pre-conquest Aztec calpulli and the medieval Spanish ejido but their function in society is to distribute individual parcels of land owned collectively. Ejidos also serves as a means for government control of peasant communities. The distinct legal form of Bienes Comunales, found only in indigenous communities with documented land title going back to the Spanish colonial period, proved to be useful to the caciques of Pajapan who claimed that all community lands were open to all. With no assigned individual parcels, and no right to permanently fence off land, farmer crops were at the mercy of free range cattle. So too were the acahuales, fallow fields gradually recovering the vegetative biomass needed to restore soil fertility in a shifting cultivation system. With cattle everywhere, and ranchers claiming they were using former croplands as pasture for grazing animals, farmers could no longer confidently plan for future crops.
Photo: A Pajapan woman and her grandaughter bringing fuel for cooking from secondary forests on the slopes of the San Martin volcano.
By the late 1970s, forty ranching families living in Pajapan and neighbouring hamlets (3% of the population) effectively controlled 50% of the arable land, more than 9,000 hectares in all according to my review of the Comisariado documents and our own household survey. These families also occupied many of the political and religious positions of authority in the municipality, including the mayor’s office, the Comisariado de Bienes Comunales and sponsorship of festivals for important saints such as San Martín. Access to the authority of political and religious office enabled these indigenous families to convert their political power into the possession of land and the expansion of wealth in cattle. One source of power created another, providing advantage over other members of the same indigenous community. Local protest over the abuses, even when taken to state level institutions, was deflected by caciques asserting the legal protections and autonomy afford to indigenous communities. The ruse worked, and over a decade or so almost two thirds of the local population lost direct access to any land at all. They became dependent on wage work or exchanges with ranchers willing to let them use their “pastures” for crops. Many permanently migrated to nearby cities, loosing contact with their language, culture and history. Some became artisanal fishers in hamlets such as Jicacal where we had started our research.
The use of traditional indigenous institutions for personal gain had transformed Pajapan’s political economy by the time of our study, resulting in extreme inequality in the distribution of community resources and poverty for the majority. This was an unexpected discovery for us, but one which reinforced the theoretical position we eventually adopted to explain the two-way influence of indigenous and Western capitalist social institutions. Hybridity, not purity, was the norm. It also gave a new perspective on our initial research in Jicacal, which we realized was not a traditional indigenous fishing community at all but rather the result of the growth of the cattle industry and displacement of populations into fishing. Our search for the “fourth world” had come full circle, taking us to the town of Pajapan, the largest and least isolated of the Nahua communities, where traditions were strongest and also most at risk from the modern world.
A second surprising story central to our book was the unfolding of a David and Goliath battle between locally and regionally powerful cattle ranchers and the nationally-owned oil industry located nearby in the port of Coatzacoalcos and the refinery town of Minatitlán where 16% of Mexico’s crude oil was processed. A few years before our arrival, PEMEX, the national oil company, had decided to build a new port to receive crude oil from wells in the Gulf of Mexico and export petrochemical products from the refineries of Minatitlán. The lowlands surrounding Pajapan’s coastal Laguna del Ostion was a natural feature favouring construction of a port easily connected to Minatitlán by pipeline. Roughly a third of the communal lands of Pajapan, including the hamlet of Jicacal, was expropriated in 1980 by the Mexican government, setting off several years of protest and negotiations detailed in our book.
Mexico is a complex society, with a long history not only of agrarian struggles but also a labour movement revolving around various industries including oil and gas. Like Texas, Veracruz is a cattle state and an oil state. Historically, it was at the centre of Mexico’s national oil industry, which from 1910 to the late 1920s made it the largest oil producer in the world after the United States. American oil companies, but also Royal Dutch Shell, acquired rights to massive oil reserves in Veracruz and southwards in the states of Tabasco and Campeche, rights expropriated by the Mexican government in 1938 largely as a result of the exploitative labor practices of the industry. PEMEX became the power house for the national economy and still accounts for a third of all tax revenues collected by the government.
Photo: A dead sea turtle on the beach near Jicacal. The oil tankers entering and leaving the port of Coatzacoalcos routinely dump contaminated bilge water into the Gulf as they approach or leave port, leaving black paddies of oil on the beach.
Expropriation of land to build an industrial port was a straight forward undertaking for PEMEX, but nevertheless politically sensitive in the context of state level politics where cattle is king and in light of public sympathies for traditional indigenous culture, religion and language. The caciques of Pajapan used these levers to protest against the expropriation, mobilizing support from state officials and framing the conflict in ethnic and geopolitical terms: the native people of Pajapan versus the government of Mexico. This strategy could only distract the vastly more powerful interests of PEMEX for a while, but the ensuing negotiations also offered the dispossessed indigenous peasant farmers of Pajapan an opportunity to fight back against the caciques. They did, mobilizing hundreds and resisting intimidation until state level and local authorities, pressured by PEMEX, agreed to a settlement. In exchange for community consent to the expropriation, all parties agreed to the distribution of individual parcels of land and shares in the promised financial compensation to all registered members of the community. The indigenous Bienes Comunales, with their unique rules and history dating back to the 1600s, were in effect converted into an Ejido subject to individual rights within the context of collective ownership. This was an unintended and unexpected outcome of the exercise of national power by PEMEX, and illustrates the complexity of power relations in Mexican society.
Jacques and I documented and wrote about these dynamics, supported with additional field research by Dominique Caouette, another student of Jacques’ who did his Masters thesis in the region and co-authored a chapter in our book. Dominique went on to do his PhD studies in the Philippines, and is now a Full Professor of Political Science at the University of Montreal. What we learned together came from conventional research methods, including many interviews, surveys, and detailed archival research. We also put into practice anthropology’s core method, participant observation, by living in communities (Jicacal and Pajapan) for sustained periods of time and participating in the rituals and activities of daily life.
For me, these included spear fishing and learning (badly) to use a throw net while standing in a dugout canoe. I was fascinated with fishing techniques, and in awe of the ocean spear fishermen that dove deep with flippers and a mask to find Northern red snapper, the Common snook and other fish hiding in underwater reefs. Fishing in the shallow lagoon was more accessible for me. Fisherman had created micro-environments in the lagoon by anchoring on the sandy bottom large branches cut from the shoreline mangrove forest. Fish would congregate there, as though it were a natural reef. Once a day we would come to the fishing spot and surround it with a net weighed down to the bottom with lead and held at the surface by floats. One of us would then slip out of the canoe and into the water, making our way slowly into the middle of the encircled area with a short spear of heavy wire. A heavy elastic band fastened to the spear, pulled back and held in one hand, provided the propulsion. Fish would scatter as we entered the water, encounter the net and then slowly return to see what new creature had come to their shelter. Our task was to hold our breath and hold ourselves still by grabbing an anchoring branch until a fish came close enough to spear. The secret was to time the release of the elastic to when the fish approached to satisfy its own curiosity and then turned to its broadside — release, pierce the flesh and thrust the point into the sand until the fish no longer struggles to break free. While I could not possibly have done this day after day, I caught enough fish to at least be able to describe the activity to the standard expected by the British tradition of social anthropology.
Photo: Simon with a Common Snook and another fish speared on a shoal offshore.
Jacques did much the same, although in a different field from mine. He established a relationship with a neighbouring village curandero, or healer, which required him to show his own abilities as well as the respect due the knowledge acquired. I remember Jacques returning to our shack one day to report that he may have made a major mistake by performing for the curandero a parlour trick involving a disappearing coin. We were both fans of simple tricks, and entertained children and adults in Jicacal, a hamlet with no electricity and plenty of idle moments. The trick backfired, however, when the curandero, who was similar in age to Jacques, became spooked by Jacques’ power and decided not to continue the training.
Much is made in anthropological lore of Bronislaw Malinowski, the Austro-Hungarian who pioneered participant observation in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia where he stayed for several years studying the indigenous culture. While time in the field and participant observation are foundational and powerful anthropological practices, John Cove, one of my teachers at Carleton University, was fond of pointing out that Malinowski did this pivotal field work during the First World War. He was in fact trapped on the islands by the impossibility of travelling through British and Australian territory as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire. John’s punch line for this story was that when Malinowski settled in England after the war and launched a career as an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, he made every anthropology student since spend much more time in remote places and with the people studied than they needed to accomplish the task at hand.
Jacques and I did not quibble over the need to spend time with the Gulf _Nahua_ and learn from them by participating in their daily activities, but in later years we did not return to this way of working. We became more focused on doing research to address topics and needs of pressing interest to the people involved. This was more in keeping with an ethics of social research that places the needs of the many ahead of curiosity based research driven by disciplinary and personal considerations alone. We also shifted from taking a lot of time to learn as much as we could about local ways, the hallmark of anthropological participant observation, to being more flexible and strategic with time and timing. This has meant testing solutions to problems even when research on the topic has not considered every contingency. Learning by doing, while also a principle of participant observation, can be a lot more efficient and pragmatic when action oriented and not tied to an arbitrary minimum year in the life of communities. The shift away from monumental monographs to strategic and action-oriented study gradually became central to my professional development and Jacques’.
But first I had to actually have a profession to develop, something that was not in place during my first extensive field experience in Jicacal and Pajapan. I was simply the recipient of an internship grant with an interdisciplinary Masters degree in Canadian studies. Paradoxically, if I was to have a career as a researcher I needed to move from doing anthropology to studying anthropology. The next chapter examines that experience.