*Lorena Martos

The presentation of indigenous women that is commonly found in history books in Latin America often reveals exclusivity in a so-called all-inclusive national history. A clue to this exclusion may be found in the subservient roles to which indigenous women are delegated, their representation as symbols of rusticity, passivity, and marginality, and the patterns of forgetfulness and omission that permeate the discourse about them. In Latin America, history books mention little about them. They name a few prominent Indian women--Mama Ocllo, la Malinche--but not a single ordinary one, referring to women instead in the most general terms and mentioning nothing of their contributions or their forms of knowledge. Only the barest references to the events that affected their lives are provided, neglecting the women's own perspective of those events. The sum total of these omissions tends to confirm that historical discourse has focused on the public arena and efforts at nation-building, in which there was no space for either indigenous men or women.

The theoretical framework of this chapter combines approaches in oral history, ethnography, and narrative analysis to examine the oral histories of a group of indigenous women in the context of two periods in the twentieth century during which discussions of nation-building took place in Mexico. In the first period, a model of racial and gender differences implicit in the 1920s discussions of indigenismo expressed in history textbooks is examined. The image of indigenous women which was popularized in this period was one selected and drawn from a particular complex reality of nation-building in Mexico. The second period focuses on more recent attempts of critical social scientists to renegotiate the national contract to include diversity.

I will first review the indigenista ideology in which history textbooks come into play, showing how the perspectives of indigenous women were excluded in the process of their representation as mere icons of national identity. Next, I will consider how the contemporary discourse of gender and ethnic difference, so prominent in discussions of "Indian education," also excludes the perspectives of indigenous women, as they are represented as passive objects of domination. Finally, I will review the oral histories of a group of Mayan women, showing how they powerfully highlight resistance to, while offering critical interpretations of, the nation that excludes them. This case study is intended to provide an initial comparative case for educational initiatives that bring to the forefront indigenous women's perspectives in other regions of Latin America.

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.

The Textbook Account

In the Southeastern portion of the state of Quintana Roo, there is a region inhabited by a Mayan subgroup known among themselves as the Macehualoob.5 These particular Macehualoob6 inhabit a tropical forest region in over one hundred dispersed settlements that cluster around the principal town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto. One million hectares of national park separates the heart of the Macehual region from the tourist spots of the northern Mexican Caribbean. In the Macehual region, it is common for children to hear contrasting accounts of their history in the written record they find at school and in the daily conversations of the senior Macehualoob, (hereafter, nohoch macoob, both men and women). Although teachers, the mass media, and the Museum of the Speaking Cross all play their part in teaching history, it is the nohoch macoob conversations and the textbook used in primary schools to teach Macehual history to children aged nine to twelve which will be explored.7 I attach so much importance to textbooks because they testify to the current inability of official histories to cope with the political challenge of cultural and gender diversity.

The three historical periods from the textbook that will be discussed correspond to those of Macehual oral histories. The first is the mid-nineteenth century Mayan rebellion commonly known as the Caste War, which took place after years of Mayan servitude on the plantations of the Yucatan. The second is the roughly fifty years of Macehual self-rule that followed the rebellion and during which the Macehualoob fended off all Mexican invasions. The third is the Mexican attack of 1901 and the gradual incorporation of Macehual territory into the Mexican nation.

The textbook describes the present as a time of advancement, and the past years of Mayan bondage on the haciendas as a time of abuse which has now been amended. It explains the abuses on the plantations--"punishment by lashes," "debt-peonage," along with "racism, political exclusion and the burdensome taxes the Mayan had to pay"--as the causes that led to the Mayan revolt of 1847, the "Caste War" (148-152). The dichotomy of "civilization" and "barbarism" is maintained throughout the textbook, basically taking out the form of essentializing categories. Thus, we are told that the Maya rebelled because of "inner hatred of whites and ignorance, defending principles they did not understand" (152). The textbook implies that this hatred led the Maya to seize arms from the Yucatan militias where they were enlisted, and "once the Maya were armed, they realized their own strength" and "took the first opportunity to declare themselves in open war against the white race" (152).

The textbook characterizes the period of Macehual autonomy (1847-1901) as a time of regional stagnation and separation. The Macehualoob are perceived as an obstacle to the economic development of the region and are represented as being torn by internal divisions and strife. They are also characterized as idolatrous, basing in their resistance to the Mexicans on their belief in a Speaking Cross, "idols with which the Maya were familiarized since colonial times" (65). The image presented of the Macehualoob is one of idolatrous savages, dominated by inner hatred. The underlying message is that they are incapable of ruling themselves.

Within this historical framework, war is characterized as the push through which these conflicts came to a halt as the Maya gradually became integrated into "civilization." The drive to recapture the "primitive" region and develop it economically makes up the heroic action. The heroes who contributed to this drive are officers and soldiers, depicted in a swamp, struggling with the climate and the insects, in contrast to the Maya who are represented as comfortable in the rainforest. The soldiers' efforts to recapture this region for the nation-state are depicted as successful at the end. Hence, the present is represented as embodying the triumph of "civilization" over "barbarism," as expressed in the creation of the state of Quintana Roo and its incorporation into the Mexican nation-state (190-275).

Macehual Oral Accounts8

There are striking differences in the ways the textbook and the oral historical accounts describe the narrative themes and the central actions of the stories. The predominant theme in the textbook is the legitimation of power in the Mexican quest to "civilize" the eastern zone. In the nohoch macoob's oral accounts, on the other hand, a different theme emerges: the need to resist Mexican oppression. Their oral histories are closely related in that they are articulated from the standpoint of their current situation of socio-economic and political marginalization. Thus, they intend to expose Mexican (hereafter Dzul, foreigner) domination of the Macehualoob over time, and to produce an ethnic consciousness of the need to resist it. In presenting the nohoch macoob's accounts, I intend to emphasize women's perspectives. oral accounts, on the other hand, a different theme emerges: the need to resist Mexican oppression. Their oral histories are closely related in that they are articulated from the standpoint of their current situation of socio-economic and political marginalization. Thus, they intend to expose Mexican (hereafter Dzul, foreigner) domination of the Macehualoob over time, and to produce an ethnic consciousness of the need to resist it. In presenting the nohoch macoob's accounts, I intend to emphasize women's perspectives.

The oral accounts of the nohoch macoob construct change from a rather different perspective of time than the official textbook account. In contrast to the textbook which portrays the flow of historical time as having a beginning, middle and end, the nohoch macoob's histories do not follow a chronological sequence in the western sense, but make connections with the present and the future. Their oral narratives are inserted in the historical genre of the Chilam Balam.9 The books of the Chilam Balam are documents written by the colonial Mayan elite which were hidden from Spanish view and were copied and recopied with additions and modifications (Farriss 1984). The content of these books has been transmitted orally to this date. It is this influence which gives the nohoch macoob's histories their distinct quality. The influence of this historical genre is seen in the themes of the nohoch macoob's narratives as a cycle of rising up from Dzul bondage to emancipation during their past war with the Mexicans, a period of social decline that culminates in the current period of Dzul (Mexican) rule, and a prophesied return to Macehual self-rule. I will discuss how their examination of these themes contrasts with those of the indigenista discourses, as exemplified in the history textbook used in the state of Quintana Roo. In so doing, I focus on the way in which women's histories take up the theme of resistance through different periods, and thus subvert other discourses that define them as passive or as mere objects of domination.

The Ancient Slavery (1547-1847)

In the narratives of the "ancient slavery," women articulate resistance through an indictment of Mexican moral authority that pivots on the urgency of emancipation. Their narratives show how nineteenth-century nationalism expressed itself in the commercial expansion of sugar and henequen (sisal fiber) and an intense exploitation of the Maya in the export-producing estates. While the Mexican nation celebrated private property, indigenous people were stripped of their land. In the Yucatan, the export-producing estates gradually appropriated the Mayan communities' land, water, and labor. Without access to these basic resources, the Maya were forced to move to the estates and become dependent on the hacienda owner. The nohoch macoob suggest the usurpation of their land with the term Dzul (foreigner). Moreover, by referring to this experience as slavery, they draw attention to how the Dzul harnessed Mayan labor in a property relationship in which their foreparents were caught, bought, and sold as "beasts of burden."

In contrast to indigenista discourses, women represent their experiences during this era of nation-building as being radically affected by Dzul power, not abstractly by listing the social practices of "debt peonage," "racism," or "political exclusion" (148-152), but concretely in how these practices manifested themselves in the Macehual as pain. Thus, they allude to the sadness of the Mayan condition through powerful metaphors such as the deadening of the Mayan spirit (Doña Marta: 2-13-91).

Women's histories expose not only how the nineteenth-century nationalist enterprise capitalized Mayan labor, but also how it tied them to the haciendas and made them dependent on the hacienda owner.10

Los costales donde venía el azúcar 
son mantas. 
[El Dzul] viene, 
te lo tira 
para que hagas tu ropa. 
Esa bolsa quién sabe cuanto tiempo 
vas a terminar de pagarlo 
con tu trabajo. 

(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)


The sacks in which sugar came 
were made of cotton. 
[The Dzul] comes, 
throws them at you 
for you to make your clothing. 
That bag who knows for how  
long you will finish paying for it  
with your work. 

(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

In describing the system of debt peonage, doña Marta subverts the textbook's view that the Maya rebelled out of "ignorance, in the defense of `principles they did not understand'" (152). Along with most Macehualoob, her examination of the ancient slavery reflects an acute understanding of the means through which the Dzul exploited them. In her description, the plantation owner did not initially advance them money by which the Maya found themselves in debt, but actually imposed this debt by throwing the sugar sack, and the Macehual had no control over wether to accept it or over its price.

The nohoch macoob expose another theme that is analogous with the configuration of nineteenth-century nationalism: the additional "tasks" that the Dzul required of them. Men raise a particular issue of their experience: their compulsory conscription in the Dzul armies and the coercive killing of fellow Maya. Women, in turn, emphasize a distinct form of sexual violence.

Cuando llevan los esposos
 a las haciendas,
si al señor le gusta ella,
regresa el Dzul
y no puedes evitarlo.
Hasta tu hija.
Hasta que ya la usó
tantas veces como quiere, 
le pone esposo.


Hasta lo llora cuando le pasa. 
A ella le pasó. 
Aunque no te guste el hombre Dzul  
no puedes evitarlo. 
Eres esclava. 
Se levantó la gente. (Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

When they take their husbands 
to the haciendas, 
if the Dzul likes her 
he comes back 
and you cannot avoid it. 
Even your daughter. 
Until he has used her 
as many times as he wants, 
[and then] assigns her a husband.

She even cries when it happens. 
It happened to her. 
Although you don't like the Dzul man 
you cannot avoid it. 
You are a slave. 
People rose up. 

(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

Like doña Marta, most senior Macehual women reveal that the Dzul appropriated not only their land and labor, but also their sexuality. Unlike their representations in mural painting, indigenous women are not submissive, non-contesting, or passive when confronted with sexual violence. Instead, they depict sexual appropriation as a form of creative resistance that is based on an awareness of Dzul immorality. They do not see themselves as mere objects of sexual abuse but reveal the violence and the feelings of pain that it caused in order to create empathy and to strongly suggest a transgression of power that makes separation imperative.

Doña Marta, like most nohoch macoob, also suggests a transgression of power by drawing a connection between these injustices and their coercive nature. This relationship is presented through the figure of the whip that went along with the enforcement of strenuous work routines and sexual abuse of Mayan women.

¿Qué le platicaba su
abuelita de cuando los
Dzuloob las obligaban?
Doña Marta:
Después de que duerme
no te dejó dormir toda la
te levanta a hacer hax
y a regar.
[El Dzul] no te deja dormir
ni de día ni de noche.
Con henequén
Lo ponen en la candela
para que se suavize.
Si no quieres tener.
relación con ellos,
te pegan
con esas pencas de henequén.


Dice mi abuelita
que si quieres a tu esposo
y no lo quieres traicionar,
no había forma de evitarlo.
Lloraba mi abuelita:
"Sufrimiento antigüo,

(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)


What did your grandmother
tell you about their being
forced [to have sexual
intercourse] by the Dzul
Doña Marta:
After he sleeps with you, he
doesn't let you sleep all
night long.
He wakes you to weave hax
[henequen rope]
and to water [plants]
[The Dzul] won't let you
during the day or night.
They hit [the women]
with henequen.
They put it over the fire
so it gets softened.
If you don't want to have
sexual intercourse with
them, they hit you with those
henequen leaves.
My grandmother says
that if you love your husband
and do not want to betray him,
there was no way to avoid it.
My grandmother used to cry:
"Ancient suffering,

(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)


From the dominant masculine perspective, the relationship of indigenous women and white men has been expressed in images that embody fantasies of rape. When this relationship is shown from the perspective of indigenous women, they do not represent themselves as passive objects of sexual appropriation but powerfully expose it as a transgression of authority that considers women's sentiments of betrayal and strategies of discipline. Here, doña Marta makes women's coercion explicit through her detailed description. The Dzuloob hit them with softened sisal fiber, the same fiber to whose production they were enslaved. What bewilders women is not the imposition of discipline from above but the intention behind it: the Dzul aim to use the Macehualoob for his or her own profit or pleasure. In the development of Macehual awareness of Dzul immorality, women add a new element to the long lists of transgressions: the "punishment without culpability" that their foremothers suffered through the myriad absurd tasks that the Dzul forced them to perform. Women recount that the Dzuloob would force women to use green wood to make their cooking fire so they wouldn't be able to light it, and that Dzuloob' wives would throw beans coated with lard to the floor and order Mayan women to pick them up.

The oral histories of Macehual women bring to light the despicable practices that went along with the formation of Mexican nationhood: the use of indigenous labor, the system of debt peonage that tied them to the land, the appropriation of Mayan land, labor, and sexuality, the disciplinary strategies of separation of families, and "punishment without culpability." Thus, their histories discredit the civilizing ideology of nineteenth-century nationalism which justified these practices.

In their histories, Macehual women put forth two very different, gender-related experiences of resistance. On the one hand the pain of the lack of sleep, of sexual assault, of unintended "betrayal," of "punishment without culpability," and the melancholy of a symbolic deadening of the spirit were used as a critique of Dzul moral authority. On the other hand, the representation of these experiences as pain and melancholy engender radical social transformation. Their narratives explain implicitly that they were subjected to the Dzul injustices because their eyes were closed, and, explicitly, that they withstood them to the furthest extent possible until they became "exhausted." It was that awareness of and exhaustion from Dzul abuse in view of their own downtrodden humanity which made them "rise" and carry them through the dangerous journey eastward. There, the creation of a new space, physically separated from the Dzuloob, was essential for life. Thus, the move toward emancipation is projected not as an "inner hatred of whites," or as an opportunistic move "to declare themselves in open war against the white race" (152), as the textbook argues, but as a redemptive alternative to the abusive authority of the Dzuloob.

Time of Macehual Regional Autonomy (1847-1901)

The Maya arrived in the eastern rain forest of the Yucatan Peninsula in small fugitive bands where they were later joined by African slaves and Chinese indentured servants who had fled the plantations of British Honduras (present-day Belize). These three groups of people intermarried and formed the Macehual. For a half century, from 1847 to 1901, the Macehualoob were able to fend off all Mexican invasions. Macehual oral histories of this period concur with the textbook that Macehual power was different from Dzul power, but whereas the textbook identifies this rule as uncivilized, idolatrous, and primitive, women, along with men, characterize it as righteous and morally exemplary. It did not use and rob the Macehualoob, it did not deaden the Macehual spirit. Even though its punishment was "harsh," it was based on the principle of "punishment with culpability," and on advancing the well-being of the Macehualoob. The colonial and imperial character of Britain's past is woven into the contours of men's and women's histories of this period. For men, the Macehual relationship with the British has been passed on through stories of the long walks their forefathers undertook to Belize to get weapons. Women, on the other hand, memorialize this relationship through the food that their mothers prepared for these walks, and through the fugitives from the British plantations of Asian and African descent with whom they intermarried and bore children.

The Decline to Dzul Rule (1901-1915)

The contrast between the textbook and Macehual histories is also evident in the recounting of the period after the Dzul successful invasion of the Macehual territory in 1901. In the textbook, this invasion marks the beginning of steady progress that culminates with Macehual integration into the "civilizing" influence of the nation-state. Women, along with men, subvert this description by presenting a notion of progress up to the time of Macehual self-rule. Afterwards, the sequence of the stories reveals the process of social decline by which they came to live again under Dzul domination: The Dzuloob entered the territory and they immediately started to survey the area looking for the Macehual enemy. Decline is a main theme in the histories of this period of calamitous years of flight in which the Macehualoob scattered and searched for sanctuary in the forests. This theme of deterioration is also prevalent in the smallpox epidemic that decimated them. None of these events are presented in the textbook.

Women elaborate on the theme of decline by presenting the disease and hunger they experienced in the forest, but in their accounts they portray this decline as a process of survival. They speak of Macehual hunger in the Chilam Balam style, by simultaneously listing the ways of countering it or eradicating it. Thus, they transform the threat of dying into a description of survival. For instance, when women recount the efforts to keep babies alive during these years of flight, they would usually describe in detail the specific strategies they used.


Los zapotes
maduran en las matas
y se caen.
Entran bichitos
y el zapote se queda seco
y viejo.
Agarraban ese zapote caído,
sacaban el polvito zapote,
y lo echaban dentro del agua
y se lo tomaban.

(Doña Francisca: 6-23-91)


The zapotes
[fruit of the zapodilla tree]
ripen in the trees
and fall.
Bugs get in
and the zapote is left dry
and old.
They would grab that fallen
zapote, take out the
powder, and put it in the
water and drink it.

(Doña Francisca: 6-23-91)


At every turn of the narratives, women teach us that the Macehualoob find a way to overcome the barriers that threaten to destroy them. They fight hunger by eating roots and honey by and drinking water from the cane. They save babies by feeding them water with honey and the powder of the ripe zapodilla fruit. In so doing, they speak in detail of survival procedures, such as combating the cold by dressing with xaan, guano leaves, and treating smallpox by laying the sick over banana leaves. Similarly, the nohoch macoob mention the remedies for treating smallpox, such as drinking ground squash seeds dissolved in water, or bathing in the juice of young corn, xmehen-nal.

The narrative selections of the nohoch macoob are in great part motivated by their concern with the end of the world. According to the Chilam Balam, "three times it has happened this way and three times it has been necessary to make bread with the cup-root because of the famine" (Craine and Reindrop 1979, 85). Likewise, their prophecies tell the nohoch macoob that the end of Dzul rule will be characterized by disease and flight. Through the detailed listing of numerous roots, fruits, and honeys, as well as of remedies to combat smallpox, the nohoch macoob tell of the importance of learning: the strategies that will enable them to have access to food, fight the cold, or cure the sick when the Macehualoob are faced again with such a predicament. Thus, the nohoch macoob elaborate on the theme of decline, disease and hunger during those years of flight; but in their accounts, they portray this decline as a process of survival.

The action of the narratives also centers on the Macehual efforts to resist by becoming imperceptible. The Macehualoob hid in caves and trees, and tiptoed from stone to stone. As don Ramiro told me:


En ese tiempo,
los Macehualoob caminaban mucho.
Pero no dejan huellas.
No se van a ver huellas,

 Esas huellas no existen.
La gente sabe por donde ir.
Cuando van los soldados Mayas,
brinquitos solo sobre piedras.



During that time,
the Macehauloob walked a lot.
But they do not leave prints.
The prints are not going to be
Those prints do not exist.
People know where to walk.
When the Mayan soldiers go,
they jump onto the stones.



Women's stories emphasize that they erased all sound by cutting the throats of roosters and by putting muzzles over dogs' snouts. They recount that they silenced children by putting cotton and cloth in their mouths and by hiding them in caves and wells. Moreover, consistent with the view that they might need this knowledge again in the future war, they passed on these procedures. For instance, they explained that "parents would lower their children inside a well using a wood that is called ch'oy chun," and proceeded to explain the process used to make the bucket. "They take away the hair, they roast it in the fire, peel it, cut it to make a bucket, a basket. The child is put inside and is left there. They close the well and one cannot hear them when they cry."

In women's narratives, resistance acts as a warning against Macehual betrayal and separation. Women's histories often center on the experiences of mothers with little children who walked by themselves because no one wanted to join them for fear of being discovered by the children's cries. These mothers are presented heroically. They speak of women having children by themselves, silencing them with their breasts, and succeeding in surviving. In contrast, those women who refused to join them were invariably discovered and raped or killed by the soldiers as punishment for their betrayal. The following passage from doña Anita is a case in point.

My grandmother walked for about six months in the forest. When she fled to the forest, she had a baby boy and was pregnant with another one. There were five girls that were going with her. But these girls were only with her for a little while because they were afraid to be discovered by the baby's cries. `Let's part from this grandmother,' they said among themselves, `because with her child, the huachoob [Mexican soldiers] are going to discover us soon.' They left her and started to walk by themselves. She [the grandmother] felt very sad when the girls left her with her son. You know the big trees that have a hole. That is where she hid. She hid inside caves and in the low part of the forest [kom]. In all these places, she was hiding with her son. When the boy was hungry, she would fetch the powder of the zapote in a can of milk. She would heat the water, put in the powder, and give it to the boy to drink. Then, after a while, she heard the huachoob pass. When the huachoob would hear the cries of the boy, they would think it was a bird. `Oh that is a bird,' she would hear them say. In their conversations, she would also hear them name people such as Juan, Pedro, and Juana. The girls who separated from her were seized by the huachoob. She heard them crying near where she was because the huachoob passed over [raped] them. They made them [the girls] evil [meta ola tioob] (3-28-91).

In this story, doña Anita explores the theme of resistance in the most adverse situation: a pregnant woman living with a child in the forest. This vulnerability condemned her to walking alone, as younger women refused to walk with her for fear that her child would attract the Mexican soldiers' attention. The story exemplifies resistance in the strategies of survival that are conveyed, including where one hides in the forest ("inside caves and in the low part of the forest"), what one feeds a baby ("the powder of the zapote"), and how to cook. It also teaches that women's power is able to neutralize the danger of the Dzuloob.11 Although the huach enemy passes by so near that she even hears them say "names such as Juan, Pedro, and Juana," doña Anita's grandmother expresses her power magically, making the soldiers, "hear bird songs when her child cries." The story then warns against Macehual betrayal, directing attention to the fate of the young women who are raped ("passed over") and possibly killed, ("made evil") by the soldiers.

The narratives emphasize that concealment is forced upon them by the Dzuloob, while simultaneously stressing that they are resisting. In men's narratives, concealment becomes an important component of defense allowing them to make traps and weapons, while in women's narratives it is expressed only through hiding in trees, in the low forest, and in the importance of mutual help.

In Macehual history, the overwhelming deterioration of their lives is represented by the tremendous sufferings they experienced as a result of the Dzul. Hunger, disease, and violence are all variations on that broad and continuous stream of suffering. Yet, women teach that the Macehualoob refused to capitulate to the Dzuloob on any front. Neither hunger, disease nor violence made them yield. They devised strategies of silence and invisibility, hiding in caves, wells, and the low forest, slitting roosters' throats, muzzling their dogs, and silencing their children. Thus, women present their audience with an inspirational vision of courage in the face of adversity by enumerating the virtues of endurance and cunning which are fundamental to Macehual survival.

The Time of Dzul Rule (1915- present)

The present constitutes an especially interesting period of comparison between the indigenista discourses, as exemplified in the textbook, and the nohoch macoob's oral histories. The textbook characterizes the present as a time of cultural and socio-economic development which contrasts sharply with the abuses of the ancient slavery. Women, however, do not see the present as a time in which the injustices of the ancient slavery are amended, but as a time in which they are being replicated. This view is informed by the low position the Macehualoob have within the nation-state. Their narratives about the present reflect a situation in which increased resource scarcities have forced the Macehualoob to sell the products of their subsistence agriculture in order to buy food and other consumer goods, and in that transaction, they give away more than they receive.

In alluding to their disadvantaged position with regard to the market, they invariably mention the rapidly rising price of food, and the government regulated prices of the maize, train ties, and chicle that they produce.12 Their poverty is evidenced by the fact that 74 percent of the people working in agricultural production in the municipality of Carrillo Puerto earn less than the minimum wage.13

What makes women's historical examination particularly interesting and relevant in the present context of resistance is its dual nature: their examination indicts both Mexican power and its implications as it developed during the ancient slavery and as it persists in the present. For them, in both time periods, which are seemingly opposed in indigenista discourses, there is a shared notion of Dzul power and illegitimate authority. Women along with men disclose that the paternalistic indigenista policies continue to reproduce the nineteenth century ideology of slavery in the specific government practices of regulating prices and interest rates. They intend to make the audience aware that, like debt peonage, these new forms of unequal exchange also serve to deplete the Macehual of their income. Moreover, they reveal that the new form of Dzul authority is bureaucratic, yet recreates the repressive discipline of the ancient slavery--in fines and agricultural restrictions--which, like before, serves to enforce a situation of unequal exchange.14 In drawing this comparison, women attempt to persuade us that the power that emanates from the Mexicans is socially and morally destructive and that the Macehualoob need to oppose it. They encourage the belief that Mexican rule will end and that, just like their foreparents, the Macehualoob will "rise" and fight the Dzuloob before the world awakens to a fully emancipated Macehualoob.

A Gesture Toward Inclusion

I have tried to examine the voices which speak of indigenous women from three distinct discourses: that of indigenismo which claims to strive for national integration, and yet rules out indigenous womens' perspectives; the critical discourse of "Indian education," which succeeds in explaining indigenous womens' patterns of subordination and yet omits the empowering way in which these women deal with oppression; and the voices of indigenous women themselves.

When read in juxtaposition with indigenista discourses, the voices of indigenous women subvert the images of ignorance and simple rusticity which have been created for them. In contrast, they show the complexity of their understanding of the forest, as well as how their forms of knowledge are situated within a sophisticated historical-prophetic tradition that dates back to the pre-Columbian period. Moreover, indigenous women provide critical representations of the nation that excludes them. First, women invert the view of progress advanced by indigenista discourse, thus demonstrating the fiasco of the policies that have tried to "integrate" them into the nation on an equal basis. Their histories reveal the dehumanizing nature of Mexican rule during the ancient slavery and its evident connection to current forms of oppression embedded in paternalistic state policies. From the standpoint of indigenous women, the possibilities of their citizenship within the framework of the nation-state has been limited to their enfranchisement as third-class citizens, as slaves, as peons, as "beasts of burden," which in turn has been linked to a "deadening of the spirit." The ideological function of indigenista discourses in speech and art consists of bypassing these circumstances of oppression without acknowledging their existence in the present. Indigenous women expose in their narratives the distorted indigenista view of the present as a time in which conflict has been smoothed over.

The voices of indigenous women also contrast with portrayals of them as mere victims and bring to light their efforts to fight oppression through creative strategies of resistance which have ranged from flight to tactics of silence and survival. These strategies are transmitted through a scathing critique of Mexican moral authority.

Indigenista initiatives, educational and otherwise, have been based on the premise of a homogeneous culture which has excluded differences, and which has been stripped of relevance for indigenous women and men. What would happen if we favored the assumption, so well-stated by Rosaldo (1992), that there is the possibility of both being different and belonging in a democratic participatory sense. Rosaldo shows, quite convincingly, that an education that tries to include this kind of participation must, on the one hand, strive to "override the systemic forces that are producing inequality," and on the other, "attend with care to the specific aspirations of local communities and groups." This second point, Rosaldo says, would involve understanding and grasping each groups' specific understanding of belonging, dignity, and respect so that we will not speak for them but will be able to attend to the articulation of their own concerns and aspirations. initiatives, educational and otherwise, have been based on the premise of a homogeneous culture which has excluded differences, and which has been stripped of relevance for indigenous women and men. What would happen if we favored the assumption, so well-stated by Rosaldo (1992), that there is the possibility of both being different and belonging in a democratic participatory sense. Rosaldo shows, quite convincingly, that an education that tries to include this kind of participation must, on the one hand, strive to "override the systemic forces that are producing inequality," and on the other, "attend with care to the specific aspirations of local communities and groups." This second point, Rosaldo says, would involve understanding and grasping each groups' specific understanding of belonging, dignity, and respect so that we will not speak for them but will be able to attend to the articulation of their own concerns and aspirations.

What would an inclusionary education of this sort look like? I will mention five important features in the context of Macehual women's histories, which although pertaining to their specific situation, can be used as a guideline for other initiatives of indigenous education in Latin America.

First, a more pluralistic history would become the norm. In the case of Macehual women, this would mean giving voice to an indigenous history portrayed in a prophetic genre which emphasizes metaphors, poetry, and a particular sense of time. This history would encourage recognition of the complexity of indigenous peoples' forms of knowledge, and contribute to the dispelling of ideas about them as "inferior," and "without culture."

Second, the inclusion of women would make salient the experiences too often ignored in mainstream history. For Macehual women, these would include the smallpox epidemic, the pain of the ancient slavery, the experiences of women in the times of flight through the forest, and the different ethnic mixtures of the Macehualoob. Including Macehual histories would encourage teachers and students to acquire new knowledge, a deeper sense of the political character of history and new explanatory frameworks.

Third, including indigenous women's histories would highlight not only the existence of inequalities, but the existence of a long tradition of struggle against them as well. Analogous to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, which nearly everyone now agrees ought to be part of the curricula of schools in the United States, the Caste War could be approached as one instance of the Macehual's long tradition of struggle to produce social change through separation, not because of an intrinsic "inner hatred" of whites, but because of the constant failure of the nation-state to enfranchise the Maya as full citizens. Women's histories expose how nineteenth-century nationalism turned them into instruments of labor and objects of pleasure subject to "punishment without culpability." Their histories of the twentieth century reveal the suffering they underwent in the forest as a result of the arrival of "civilization." Moreover, women expose the bankruptcy of the revolutionary project of Mexican nationhood which pays lip service to integration while it pursues its own economic development in spite of the obstacles of internal colonialism.

Fourth, including indigenous women's perspectives would challenge the stereotypes of them as "passive" and "non-contesting" victims. Macehual women's histories lay bare their awareness of the sufferings that emanated from Mexican rule, and how this awareness feeds resistance, exemplified in their strategies of survival, silence and invisibility, as well as in their critique of legitimate authority.

Finally, educational initiatives for indigenous women have been dictated from the government. It is my fundamental contention that any education that is relevant to indigenous women cannot be conceptualized from high up in the government, but needs to emerge from them. This education could be formed through a process of dialogue in which instead of trying to "see" indigenous women, as the critical discourses of "Indian education" advise, we attend with care to the articulation of their own concerns and aspirations.

Only when we address these issues can we properly speak of a multicultural education that is relevant to the needs of indigenous women. Otherwise, we will continue to have coexisting discourses that do not talk to one another: most notably, an indigenista discourse which idealizes indigenous women as icons of national identity while masking their oppression, and an indigenous one, which portrays the deceptive forms of this oppression over time. I would venture to say that if real initiatives were made to make indigenous people such as the Macehualoob full citizens, they would engage in social change not through initiatives of separation, but within the parameters of the nation-state. The decision to implement these initiatives is a choice that depends on what we want from indigenous education--the perpetuation of symbolic representations that do not correspond to reality, or the inclusion of indigenous women and men as full citizens.


*Lorena Martos is acting assistant professor and director of the M.A. program in social sciences in education in the School of Education at Stanford University. Her research interests center on race relations, popular culture, and multicultural education.


1. The textbook employed is Quintana Roo. Entre la selva y el mar. Monografía Estatal. México: Secretaría de Educación Pública. 1992. It was written by Lorena Careaga and is based solely on documentary sources. Although the textbook includes some first-hand material in the historical accounts of nineteenth-century Yucatecan historians, it is based primarily on second-hand accounts such as those of Reed (1964) and Villa Rojas (1987). All further mention of textbooks refers to this source. Quotes from the textbook will simply be indicated by page number.

2. The process of integrating indigenous people into the nation-state became a continental goal with the birth of the Latin American indigenista movement in 1940. It has, to this date, articulated policies from an understanding of the Indian as "an economically and socially weak individual," with the goal of integrating them to the national culture by incorporating those aspects of their culture which are "positive, and by promoting their community development within the nation." Policy-makers have allowed no room for the participation of indigenous peoples. "Acta Final del Primer Congreso Indigenista Interamericano" (Pátzcuaro, abril de 1940), LII: Situación social de los grupos indígenas. En Actas Finales de los Tres Primeros Congresos Indigenistas Interamericanos, Guatemala, Comité Organizador del IV Congreso Indigenista Interamericano, 1959, 52.

3. For further reading on this episode, see La casa del estudiante indígena: diesiseis meses de labor de un experimento psicológico colectivo con indios. Febrero de 1926 a junio de 1927 (México: Talleres Gráficos de la Nación, 1927).

4. In the paintings of this period, one of the visual-metaphors is of indigenous women, who are always located in the center of nature scenes. I have in mind the Diego Rivera paintings, in which women are depicted placidly selling flowers or watermelons.

5. Maya Macehual "commoner, peasant, farmer" (borrowed from Nahuatl Macehual-li "commoner") + -ob/-oob [plural]. Roys defines Macehual to mean working person. In this study, I will refer to the so-called Cruzob Maya as Macehual (sing.) and Macehualoob (plural). The Macehualoob use the term Dzul (sing.) and Dzuloob (plural) to refer to the foreigner, Spanish, Mexican, European, landowner, creole, ladino or other non-Maya. I will employ both of these terms throughout this paper.

6. It should be noted that the rest of the Maya of the Yucatan peninsula also refer to themselves as Macehualoob, but I will use this term here only to mean the Maya of southern Quintana Roo.

7. The history textbook is primarily used for 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, although some teachers sometimes read excerpts to younger children. Teachers customarily follow the official story described in it because they have no other materials on Macehual history.

8. The nohoch macoob historical understanding emerges from a Mayan cultural tradition which survived three hundred years of Spanish rule, as exemplified in the colonial books of the Chilam Balam. According to Farriss (1984, 402), these are texts which have roots in the pre-Hispanic period but were written during the colonial period by anonymous literate members of the Mayan elite, most likely priestly intellectuals. These books were written in the Yucatec Mayan language using the Latin script and were deliberately hidden from Spanish view. They were read and consulted secretly by notables, principales.

9. The following interpretation of Macehual histories is the result of a study based on 16 months of fieldwork in which I examined the historical narratives of 30 older Macehualoob.

10. Debt peonage refers to the nineteenth-century practice of tying indigenous laborers to the hacienda land. The hacendados made an initial money advance and kept a running account with the laborers who found themselves perpetually in debt.

11. Doña Anita had explained to me that her grandmother had magic powers (3-28-91).

12. The government agency Conasupo buys maize from the Macehualoob and transfers it to other regions and sells it back to them at a higher price in times of need. Government agencies have the power to regulate not only the prices of food (Comisión Nacional de Subsistencia Popular: Conasupo) that the Macehualoob buy and sell, but also the prices of railroad ties (National Railways of Mexico), chicle (Federation of Chicle cooperatives of Quintana Roo), and timber. Between 1990-1991, I witnessed the deterioration of their purchasing power as the price of railroad ties stagnated while the prices of basic foods continued to rise. Moreover, the volume of train ties requested by FerroMex decreased because of the economic crisis of this government agency. In addition, the price of timber decreased in real terms in spite of a retail price increase (Sociedad Civil Forestal).

13. I calculated this figure from the Inegi Census, 1990. The minimum salary in Mexico amounts to approximately US $4.00 per day. Other poverty indicators that Inegi collected include services. Fourty-three percent of the people in the municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto do not have toilets, and only 13 percent have running water inside their homes. With regard to education, the census identified 26 percent of the adults as illiterate.

14. Although the actual work takes place in people's own homes and fields, government control comes through regulations on where to plant, provisions where and when to burn, the delivery of agricultural insurance, as well as provisions on agricultural input through a series of credit arrangements through the agricultural bank. The narratives of the older Macehualoob indict the corrupt practices of offices like the agricultural insurance agency (Anagsa), which often does not recognize disaster zones in order to avoid paying the insurance that is due.


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