I spent my “gap year” between a Master of Arts degree in Canadian Studies and an anthropology PhD program on beaches and in fishing boats along the Gulf of Mexico. I would rise before dawn and join the crew of a 25 foot open fibreglass _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 more lucrative species 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 or five person crew would fish with baited hooks on a single nylon line wrapped around a tin can, and joke using the sexually charged and vulgar idiom made famous throughout Mexico by the fishers of Veracruz. I had to learn to protect myself from the barbs, including verbal play to turn the tables from a position of sexual submission to sexual dominance. This was hard to do while leaning over the edge of a small boat to pull in a fish. 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. The disregard for the sun would later come back to haunt me.
Image: My fishing companions, Chachalacas, Veracruz.
I had arrived on the coast of Veracruz in the summer of 1983 through happenstance, after winning an internship in a 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 a paid internship program, with an international twist. After graduating with my MA I had no reason — partner or financial need — to simply get a job and settle down. Chance, and an eye for things Mexican, meant that I saw on campus a poster for the exchange program, applied successfully, and away I went.
In my group there was a recently graduated doctor, a few engineers, and myself, an anthropologist. Canadian government guidance was minimal, leaving us free to explore and find our own employers. I ended up in Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz. It had a good university, a thriving arts scene, and a world class museum of anthropology only an hour from the gulf coast. My Spanish language skills and letter of introduction got me an interview with the head of the museum, leveraged into an agreement for the museum to host an internship focused on fisheries of the gulf coast. Fishing was still top of mind for me after finishing my thesis on the Yukon salmon fishery, and boats and beaches fine subjects for art and pleasure.
I found a room to rent in the home of Doña Teresa Blanco Rosas, a short, round woman with bright eyes and a big smile. She was 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 of the post-revolutionary period 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 the sturdy, tall building in the middle of the city she converted into a home for herself and her children, and rooms for rent. I was near the roof top, and paid extra for breakfast and dinner each day I was in town writing reports on my experiences and checking in with my internship supervisor at the museum.
Doña Teresa 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, followed by a daily decrease back down to three. I had long been an experimenter with food as medicine, so had no difficulties following her instructions. I could eat almost anything, at least once. Also, I had no permanent girl friend to complain about the smell of garlic.
A few months after learning how to defend myself on 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 a mutual friend and tracked him down at the Mocambo Hotel outside the port of Veracruz. The salt air pitted the walls and archways of the hotel, giving it the same rundown look of many buildings near the sea. There we drank _mescal_ , Mexico’s true hard liquor, and ate seafood soup sharply spiced with chiles while talking about the culture, politics and economics of coastal fishing. When his wife and two kids arrived for a visit, we played cards late into the night. He hired me after my internship at the museum was complete to do interviews in the Port of Alvarado, the heart of the fishing culture of Veracruz. The port had everything in the world of commercial fishing: 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 from dugout canoes 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 verdict. 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. Prior to working in Veracruz, he had spent years with cod fishers on Canada’s eastern lower north shore, among coastal fishers in Venezuela and studying Mayan fishers in the Yucatan. He also knew how to open doors into worlds blocked to most socially critical researchers. A personal connection to Quebec’s diplomatic representative in Mexico, who lived next to the Mexico City home of the governor of the state of Veracruz, translated into an introduction to the fishing union power bosses. This sent me onto the shrimp vessels plying the night waters in the Gulf of Mexico as well as tiny hamlets built on stilts deep in the mangrove forests surrounding the Laguna de Alvarado. I took copious notes, got sea sick far from shore, and had a close call with a poisonous water snake while checking crap traps in the lagoon. I must have felt invincible.
In Search of the Fourth World
Part way through my internship, Jacques Chevalier, a member of my Masters thesis committee at Carleton, contacted me in Mexico. Only six years my senior, he was the youngest professor in the history of 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. Ernesto 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 seeking to attract students and project a progressive character. Jacques’ welcome into the department was genuine 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 consider new anthropological research.
Mexico was a close option for Jacques, and I provided him with local knowledge. We met up in Jalapa, spending several days together in Doña Teresa’s house discussing ways to combine my interest in fisheries with his interest in studies of Indigenous Peoples. 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 agrarian 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 and foremost. Fishing is a supplementary livelihood only partly connected to their core cultural stories and community 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. 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 cobblestoned streets and boat tours of a lake set in the environs of the humid tropics against a backdrop of volcanic mountains. We moved on, later approaching the region from the coastal side where we knew the Indigenous language _Nahuat_ was still spoken and where J. Stewart, an American anthropologist, had done in 1978 his own PhD studies on their subsistence economy. We followed his path to Peña Hermosa, a hamlet so small our presence there almost doubled the number of locals. 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 society. Another is to explore the underlying cultural meaning of myths. A third is to determine what truth there really is behind the myth. Troy and the Trojan War provide an example of the later. For centuries, Troy was thought to be a mythical setting for Homer’s 8th century BC poems The Iliad and the Odyssey. Troy was a myth up until the late 19th century when archaeologists found the remains of the city in modern day Turkey. Jacques used a personal example from Peña Hermosa (Spanish for “Beautiful Cliff”) to illustrate for his students the search for truth behind myth. “The _Nahua_ told us of powerful serpent spirits protecting the secrets of a cave deep below the surf breaking on the cliff face,” he would say. “When Daniel and I went to see the beach and rocky outcrop during our stay in the hamlet we hadn’t performed the cleansing rituals required. This meant trouble.” Lo and behold, “when we made our way back from the cliff, Daniel noticed a venomous coral snake at my feet, and shouted a warning.” He would ask his students, “Is the serpent legend true or 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.
Image: Jacques on a white horse sporting a planter hat.
Image: Me with a pouch draped over the saddle, and floppy hat.
Once recovered from our injuries we went to Jicacal, a satellite hamlet to the Nahuat 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.
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 engaging in the rituals and activities of daily life. For me, this included collecting oysters growing on mangrove roots and learning 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. I was also terrified of the ocean waters. As a child of two or three I fell off a dock at Lake Temagami, unnoticed during a party neighbours were hosting. Someone spied me at the bottom and my father quickly snatched me out. I later learned to swim but never felt completely comfortable in the water, a skill my youngest son Ryan developed from his own, entirely positive experiences in the water at Temagami.
Spear fishing in the ocean was not possible for me, but I could manage the shallow lagoon. 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 came to the fishing spot and surrounded it with a net weighed down to the bottom with lead and held at the surface by floats. I would then slip out of the canoe and into the water, making my way slowly into the middle of the encircled area with a short spear made from heavy wire. A thick elastic band fastened to the spear, pulled back and held in one hand, provided the propulsion. Fish scattered as I entered the water, encountered the net and then slowly returned to see what new creature had come to their shelter. My task was to hold my breath and hold 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 show its broadside — release, pierce the flesh and thrust the point into the sand until the fish no longer struggles to break free. My successes were rare, but at least enough to be able to describe the activity to the standard expected by the British tradition of social anthropology.
Image: Simon, with Snook speared 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 Trobriand 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 really 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. We even received Nahuat nicknames from Gustavo, a friend in Jicacal: totol texis (turkey egg) to refer to my freckled skin and ikstak chagalin (white shrimp) for Jacques’ pale body. It was a unique experience, 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. We came to understand that experiential learning, a principle of participant observation, can be a lot more efficient 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’.
Image: Sisters caring for each other, Pajapan, Veracruz, Mexico (entertaining the youngest, and grinding corn for the family tortillas).
The experience of living and working together on the Jicacal beach cemented a relationship now forty years on and counting. We became fast friends, turning to each other for support during critical moments in our personal lives. For Jacques, it was a time when his marriage was drifting away, ending definitively a few years later. For me, it was the first time I had to confront the consequences of unmarried sex. While in Jicacal I met Amelia, a working woman from the oil refinery town of Minatitlán on a day-trip to the beach at Jicacal with her cousin. We dated for several months, dancing in Minatitlán and walking along the waterfront malecón in the commercial port city of Coatzacoalcos, named after the Aztec “plumed serpent” god. She got pregnant, and decided immediately that having a child was exactly what she wanted even if we did not marry. I was not committed to the relationship, and struggled with how else I could meet my responsibilities. Talk therapy with a psychiatrist at Carleton University eventually helped me arrive at a resolution I felt comfortable with: I would stay connected to Amelia so my son would know who I was and always have access to me if he wanted it. I would also establish an education fund, something my future wife also supported. In his late teens, my son Daniel came to Canada to study, and soon after followed in the footsteps of my father and two helicopter pilot brothers by becoming a successful helicopter engineer. Having Daniel in my life has been a blessing and great source of pride.
From the Simple to the Complex
The title of our book on the Gulf Nahua, “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 Martín 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 PhD 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 by doing a drawing from the original of the statue in the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, and seting it in jungle vegetation on fire. The image expressed the view, documented by Jacques through interviews and an analysis of the local version of the corn god myth, that the land and the people on it were no longer protected by spirits and gods. According to some, they had hidden themselves, and the animals under their protection, in the underworld Talogan. Other people 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 possible 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 burned down and animals in tears fled from the despoiled land.
Photo: A Pajapan woman and her grandaughter carrying firewood from secondary forests on the slopes of the San Martin volcano.
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 describes, in 9 point font over 374 pages, everything from national politics and the role of the state to rain forest ecology, underdevelopment, kinship, gender relations, and native semiotics, all integrated through an interdisciplinary approach to social phenomena and a novel theoretical framework we called “Process Theory.” It shows that Indigenous people are neither frozen in some ancient time nor passive victims of modern history. There is exploitation but also resistance. Overall, it is a critical account of the complexity of power and the destructive nature of capitalism, uncommon when first published and, in my view, still valid on the whole. James C. Scott, an American political scientist and anthropologist at Yale University who wrote a review, described the book as “a model of comprehensive, synthetic anthropology, historically deep, ecologically subtle and symbolically rich while never slighting the key role of political economy.”
What remains compelling for me in the scholarship of our book on the Gulf _Nahua_ are two stories with surprising features. The first is how some Indigenous people used the legal construct of “Indigenous communal land” to protect themselves from external critics, even as they used the local system to increase their personal power and control over land. Coming to understand the dynamic was for me the study of myth, both its truth and its falsehood. It began with a confidence shown to me by an elderly member of the Comisariado de Bienes Communales, the local land administration body. He was an elder responsible for protecting the archives of the community stored in a large wooden box in his home. 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 land titles, some of which dated back to 1605. I did not dare photograph the contents, for fear of offending him 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 days in the Lands Branch of the National Archives looking for evidence of Pajapan’s earliest recorded history. I found it, and an old copy of a 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, noticed details and pursued leads in the documents. The historical record of land and politics in southern Veracruz was 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.
The Bienes Comunales of Pajapan are a 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 serve as a means for government control of peasant communities. Bienes Comunales are only found in handful of Indigenous communities with documented land title going back to the Spanish colonial period, proved to be useful to the Indigenous cattle _caciques_ of Pajapan. With no assigned individual parcels, and no right to permanently fence off land, they could claim that all community lands were open to all members all the time. Peasant crops were conveniently 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, farmers could no longer confidently protect their own parcels or plan for future crops.
By the late 1970s, forty Indigenous families effectively controlled half of the arable land in Pajapan, 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, the name of the volcano overlooking the community. The authority of political and religious office helped _caciques_ convert one kind of power into another — control over communal land and the expansion of wealth in cattle. It also helped the local powers that be keep external arbitrators out by asserting the independence and autonomy of local Indigenous institutions and decision-making.
Jacques and I witnessed the process directly, sometimes getting drunk along the way. I recall funeral rites sponsored by an aspiring Indigenous cattle rancher who had switched from his Protestant congregation to the more popular Catholic Church in order to capture both religious and political posts. He told us his plan unabashedly as we drank mescal with other mourners, eventually collapsing into our cots in a mud walled building we rented nearby. I felt anger in the morning, and refused to engage with him again. The poverty of artisanal fishers in Jicacal, and their palm huts, dugout canoes and bow and arrow fishing technologies, took on another meaning. They were effects of the the greed and the raw power being exercised by the few over the life and livelihoods of the many.
The nefarious use of Indigenous institutions and traditions 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 societies. Hybridity, not purity, was the norm, as we put it in our book. Our search for the “fourth world” had come full circle, taking us to Pajapan, the largest and least isolated of the Nahua communities, where traditions were strongest and also most at risk from the machinations of a “glocal” 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 provided natural features for 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 resistance, protest and negotiations detailed in our book.
I took pictures of the early stages of port construction, including some with burning oil fires in the background. One day I was detained by the Mexican navy patrolling the expropriated area. They questioned me for over an hour, called higher ranking officers, and took all the film canisters from my camera and camera bag. Fortunately, I was not arrested and kicked out of the country.
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 Mexican government.
Image: Baseball on the back streets of Mintatitlan, Veracruz, Mexico.
Expropriation of Pajapan’s 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. The Indigenous _caciques_ used their connections to regional cattle barons and control over local indigenous institutions 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, however. The ensuing negotiations pushed the port project ahead while also lifting the veil covering local exploitation and injustice. The dispossessed Indigenous peasant farmers of Pajapan fought back, mobilizing thousands and eventually gaining the support of PEMEX for expropriation payments and conversion of the remaining territory into a conventional ejido. Peasants won their land back but they also lost centuries old traditions and institutions, irredeemably.
The outline of these stories did not emerge whole from our initial field work in Jicacal, and was only fleshed out a few years later, after a longer period of field work in Pajapan and university-based study. The “gap year” in Jicacal and among fishers along the gulf coast of Mexico did, however, burn off the vestiges of my Yukon youth and definitively supplant my pursuit of an artist’s life with firm ambitions on the path of anthropology. It also helped me clarify the question that had been holding me back from committing to a PhD program and longer period of study: Did I have anything to say about what I was witnessing? I needed a compelling response. Paradoxically, if I was to find an answer I first needed to comply with the university requirements of **studying** anthropology before actually **doing** it as I had been.