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La Educación
Número: (122) III
Año: 1995

National Histories

The relation of history textbooks to indigenous peoples and their histories is part of a larger issue involving the formation of national attitudes and practices toward these populations. Such attitudes and practices are embedded in the educational policies of integration that are rooted in the notion of a homogeneous sense of nationality, in which ethnic diversity is seen as an obstacle to progress. What is striking about textbooks from our educational perspective is that the stereotypes of indigenous people as ignorant and backward are still predominant. Nowhere is this more evident than in the history textbook that children study in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan Peninsula.1 The intention of this textbook is to celebrate the victory of the nation. As the textbook moves from period to period, it tells a story of steady progress that culminates in the Mayan integration into “civilization.” Because its narrative is primarily concerned with the construction of the nation, and the nation is defined as a fraternal enterprise, it contains no discussion of women. The textbook responds to a definition of ethnicity and gender shaped by an ideology of nationalism. In the nineteenth century, nationalism gave rise to the notion of a homogeneous sense of Mexicanness, in which ethnic diversity was seen as an obstacle to progress. Indigenous people were welcomed into the nation as peons who could theoretically vote, but who had no political participation or legal rights.

In the twentieth century, the Mexican Revolution set in motion a concept of the nation and, hence a national history that sought to integrate the indigenous population in the name of modernization. Here we have a period in Mexican history, indigenismo (1916-1934), when class inequities based on race were apparently going to be resolved by a redistribution of material and cultural wealth. Very much like the textbook’s story of progress mentioned herein, “painters spread public buildings with murals that depicted the Indian’s oppression through the centuries in the manner of stations of Calvary leading toward chiliastic redemption” (Morse 1989, 125).

The Mexican Revolution celebrated “Indian” culture as a symbol of Mexican identity in murals that covered museums, plazas, and government offices. This celebration of the Indian in public forums made it possible to define the ideal of culture as open to all while actually keeping indigenous people excluded politically and socio-economically from the national culture. The culture that was being promoted as an educational goal in indigenista policies was western culture, and in that definition the forms of knowledge of indigenous people had no voice. Educational policies were devices to find out whether indigenous people were inherently capable of acquiring western education. Representatives of different ethnic groups were brought to Mexico City, but once they proved that they were able to learn, indigenous people were defined as inadequate for full citizenship because of their ethnicity and cultural background.2 The effort to “correct” their ethnic “inadequacies” was articulated through a process of assimilation that sought to replace their culture and intellectual legacies with that of the Mexican citizen. Teachers went to remote Indian villages as “missionaries,” teaching the Spanish language and “the contributions of western culture.” The implication of such educational policies was that indigenous people could only aspire to equality within the nation if they became westernized linguistically and culturally.3

The nationalism that gave rise to the concept of a homogeneous sense of Mexicanness constitutes a barrier not only to the inclusion of ethnic diversity but also of gender. Women were portrayed in the narratives of nation-building, which were enacted by the policies of indigenismo, as ignorant people, inseparably connected to rural areas4 or as mothers of the mestizo, the symbol of Mexican identity, exemplified in the fusion of the Indian and Spanish race. In these narratives, sexual appropriation seems to have been favored as a means of expressing the amalgamation of the two races. A representation that Pratt sees as an enduring one,
One of the oldest and most durable myths of self-definition in Spanish America is that of the sexual appropriation of the indigenous woman by the European invader. It is a true narrative of origins dating back to the tale of Cortés and the princess la Malinche (or, in North America, to Pocahontas and Captain John Smith). Endless repetitions and variants have mythified this figure, simultaneously victim and traitor, as the mother of the American mestizo peoples. (1990, 59)
In one such variant, the muralist José Clemente Orozco depicted the birth of the mestizo as the union of la Malinche and Hernán Cortés. In this painting, la Malinche is distinguished by her passivity and defeat. Her eyes are downcast and her hands rest quietly in an attitude of utter submission. Cortés has his arm in front of her in an attitude of appropriation, while on the floor, an Indian man lies beaten up. In this image, unlike most versions of the story, la Malinche is not the willing traitor of her people who collaborates with the Spanish, but the symbol of all anonymous indigenous women, submissive, non-contesting. These myths of nationalism appear in Mexican art and in history textbooks only after the Revolution.

In other parts of the Americas, this relationship of indigenous women and white men has been recreated in male literature in scenes that embody fantasies of rape. In an essay that addresses this theme in the context of Peruvian literature of the 1920s, Pratt shows how indigenous women are displayed fearful of, yet submissive to, the advances of the dominant male that pursues them in accordance with the pattern established by the male norms of conquest.
Me encerré, despedí al chino aterrado, y la indiecita fue mía, sollozando palabras que yo no acertaba a comprender. Estaba primorosa con su alucinado temor y su respeto servil al hombre blanco. Me alentaba por vez primera esa alegría de los abuelos españoles que derribaban a las mujeres en los caminos para solaz de una hora y se alejaban ufanos a caballo, sin remordimiento y sin amor. La linda niña me miraba sumisa como a su dueño. (1990, 59)

[I shut myself in, dismissed the terrified mestizo, and the Indian girl was mine, sobbing words that I could not understand. She was exquisite in her hallucinated fear and her servile respect for the white man. For the first time I was animated by the joy of the Spanish forefathers who would knock over the women on the road for the pleasure of an hour and ride off proudly, feeling neither love nor remorse. The lovely girl looked up at me submissively as if at her master.]
These stereotypes of indigenous women as passive, subservient, and ignorant show not indigenous women, but man’s image of them. These stereotypes, which raise issues of sexism and racism, are not only restricted to art and literature, but are also active in educational practices in which indigenous women’s perspectives are completely omitted. These practices have attempted to integrate indigenous women into the nation, not through their knowledge or their entitlement to full citizenship, but as rustics who ought to be “modernized,” or “westernized.” What has been continually omitted in these practices is the inclusion of indigenous women’s self-representations.

More recent efforts to achieve pluralism, as seen in “Indian education,” recognize the need for diversity, but neglect the more urgent issue of addressing the absence of participation by indigenous women themselves (Velásquez 1989). Proponents of these efforts have condemned indigenista policies, arguing that homogeneity ought to be linked to nationhood and should draw attention to the need to “see” indigenous women. These scholars understand the task of education primarily as the need to “understand and examine who are indigenous women, how do they participate and what are the main factors that determine their present situation” (Velásquez 1989, 256). They seek to know “their contributions as mothers and food providers for ‘the social reproduction’ of their group,” and “their situation within the most pauperized group in society at large and within the society with the pressures of immigration and overwork that it entails.” This task requires that they address indigenous women as “members of specific ethnic groups who along with men, suffer from lack of recognition and respect and discrimination as people who are ‘inferior,’ ‘without culture,’ and ‘without possibilities of progressing’ unless they incorporate the dominant cultural, economic political and social pattern” (Velásquez 1989, 256-257).

From the perspective of indigenous women, the procedures of this group are flawed because they stop at the elucidation of the patterns of domination and do not highlight the empowering way in which indigenous women have coped with it. Consequently, they are recycling many of the same stereotypes about indigenous women as passive victims who this time are objects not of the project of national identity, but to use Morse’s term, “of explicable schemes of domination.” What their project omits is that indigenous women have not only been victimized, but that they have challenged the nation-state in their own terms, and with the resources of their own forms of knowledge and rationality. The weakness is not just that this approach sees indigenous women as objects of domination; it is also that in the process of educational planning, it does not include their concerns, aspirations, and forms of knowledge.

In the next section, I consider the Mexican representation of the changes of a particular Mayan group as it is expressed in the Quintana Roo history textbook. I then show how a group of Mayan women undermine these representations of themselves through their oral tradition. I will demonstrate how these women effectively turn the tables on the models of racial and gender difference which define them as passive by bringing the occluded questions of resistance to center stage. They use their oral tradition to respond to the constraints of their own position by providing critical representations of the nation that excludes them. These representations indict the sense of legitimate authority in which the discourses and practices of the nation-state are based. Moreover, they demonstrate that their forms of knowledge are legacies rooted in correspondent intellectual traditions.