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«Indigenous Embroidery in the Construction of Ethnic Identity: The Case of Huichol Women Sarah Corona Berkin, Universidad de Guadalajara The article ...»

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Intercultural Communication Studies XVIII: 1 2009 Berkin

Indigenous Embroidery in the Construction of Ethnic Identity:

The Case of Huichol Women

Sarah Corona Berkin, Universidad de Guadalajara

The article discusses the embroidery and the backstrap loom weavings of the

indigenous Huichol women of the Sierra Madre Occidental (Jalisco, Mexico). It

proposes that contact with tourism has played an important role in the themes, materials, and the forms of production of this genre of handicrafts. The main interest is in the impact contact with tourism has on clothing, accessories, spiritual and secular objects, embroidery and weavings produced by the Huichol for themselves and for an external market. Through these objects, the embroidery and weaving produced by the indigenous peoples in Mexico can be considered elements in the construction of their ethnic identity in dialogue with the hegemonic use of the same embroidery.

The author asks the following questions: a) How is embroidery used by Mexican public policy name who is an indigenous individual or group? b) What other tourism discourses on ethnicity is embroidery linked to as an ethnic name or label? c) How does embroidery (from the point of view of the indigenous people) enter into dialogue with, or distance itself from, the national discourse to name themselves?

The corpus analyzed has two sections: The illustrations and photographs published in school textbooks and tourism magazines, and the embroidery and weaving in bags Huichol women make for their own use and for sale.

I begin with a quote from a Huichol 1 needlewoman: “These decorations are what the gods sent us so that they can recognize us. Through the designs they know where we belong… Thus we cannot escape from them. I dream about the gods even when I am not sleeping in my own home, I still dream about them. That’s what these designs are actually for, but the artisans sell them as if they were part of our handicrafts” (Corona, 2007, p. 11).

This reference reveals that the gods, dreams, identity and commerce, are all woven into the profession of the needlewoman embroiderer. However, the indigenous peoples do not only embroider to be recognized by their gods or the rest of society. They also embroider to adorn themselves, to distinguish themselves from other communities, to express their generational differences, to communicate stories and feelings, or simply to make a living.

Embroidery is an integral part of their bags and garments, their votive objects, and other articles used daily in the home.

On the other hand, in much of mainstream Mexico, indigenous embroidery publicly substitutes for the indigenous identity. Like a synecdoche or rhetoric device for suppression, attention is drawn to the embroidery, which may even be presented alone totally replacing an I will be speaking of the Huicholes (they call themselves Wixárika or Wixaritári in the plural form) who, with a population of 45,000 that speak their own language, are one of the 64 indigenous groups of Mexico. They live in the Sierra Madre Occidental in the northern part of the state of Jalisco, in Nayarit and Durango. They have maintained their own pre-Christian religion and many pre-Hispanic cultural practices. The indigenous speaking population of Mexico is 10% of the 100 million inhabitants.

Intercultural Communication Studies XVIII: 1 2009 Berkin actual indigenous person. Their embroidery is the detail that political discourse has selected for use in publicity, tourism, official government functions, the press, and even at the Ministry of Public Education, to say “indigenous.” Perhaps it is a euphemism that was contrived to fill a void.

My research in this area is how the embroidery and weaving produced by the indigenous peoples in Mexico can be considered elements in the construction of their ethnic identity. I am especially interested in the impact contact with tourism has on the clothing, accessories, and spiritual and secular objects embroidered and woven by the Huicholes for themselves and for an external market, which I will call “tourism,” as it is for the national and international outsider consumer.

My analysis here aims first to denaturalize the concept of an indigenous identity, both biologically and culturally, putting it instead into a historical and discursive context.

In the process, I particularly want to observe how indigenous embroidery and weaving are employed as determining components of identity when referring to a third party, or oneself, as “indigenous.” This is my starting point for posing the following questions:

1) How is embroidery used by Mexican public policy to name who is an indigenous individual or group?

2) What other tourism discourses on ethnicity is embroidery linked to as an ethnic name or label?

3) How does embroidery (from the point of view of the indigenous people) enter into dialogue with, or distance itself from, the national discourse to name themselves?

This article is based on the analysis of two corpora:

1. The historical corpus of set textbooks (obligatory for all Mexican school children) issued for basic education between 1921 and 2002 2. This first corpus comprised the illustrations and photos of indigenous people and their embroidery appearing in these textbooks. As the analysis reveals not only how the indigenous peoples are referred to, but also how Mexico itself is described, one can observe how ethnic groups have served as an axis around which to construct the idea of the Mexican nation. The second group of publications consisted of all the in-flight magazines published in 2007 by Mexico’s two biggest airlines, Mexicana and AeroMexico. It also covered the images on billboards, in beauty competitions, soap operas, and tourist exhibitions.





2. My second corpus was the embroidery and weaving on bags the Huichol people make for their own use and for sale. This body of material evidences changes and transformations in production, and how those changes have been influenced by commerce, the advent of formal education, and the prevailing discourse on ethnicity generally. I studied a collection of 35 bags produced between 1970 and the present day.

In studying the images of indigenous people in set textbooks, official tourist material and the press, I was searching for the iconic name, or label these publications apply to the Out of the 624 books encountered, only 190 had at least one pictorial allusion to any indigenous people. A total of 575 illustrations and photos featuring indigenous people were furnished in these.

–  –  –

indigenous peoples. In the embroidery made by the Huicholes for sale and personal use, I was searching for their own ethnic identity marker.

I complement the discursive analysis with bibliographical information on Huichol ethnography, art, and culture, and with the information recorded in 10 years of work in San Miguel Huaixtita and San Andrés Cohamiata, both Huichol communities (Corona, 2002, 2007).

Key Concepts

Ethnic identity can be analyzed from different theoretical perspectives: from the naturalization of collective identities (Geertz, 1973); Marxist traditions that relate ethnicity and class or social subject and social conscience (Balibar, 1995); ideological production in relation to subjectivities processes (Hall & Du Gay, 1996); or as political strategies (Zizek, 1992), among others.

Grounded on a cultural-discursive reflection 3, I assume the ethnic identity is always the provisional outcome of a process that takes place between the members of the ethnic group and the hegemonic discourses which give name to the national subjects. The indigenous create their own “name” in dialogue with the name by which the society knows them by (Rancière, 1995; Scott, 1995). Against the correct name of hegemonic relations, the indigenous negotiate their own name, in practical circumstances. It would be a mistake to think that the identity of the indigenous peoples is a complete and homogenous one because it would ignore the power relations that inhere in their existence.

Public policy defines individuals, and this notion allots each person his or her place in the hierarchical social order. It is clear, therefore, that giving a name to ethnic differences is a political act with a consequent political impact, because ascribing a name or label to others, together with the social value the name implies, will also determine that person’s participation in the public arena.

In Mexico, on the occasion of the “meeting of the two worlds” when the Spanish conquerors began ascribing the name “Indians” to all local people who were not Spaniards, they actually created an artificial subject without any cultural specificity or political presence.

Being lumped together under the generic “Indian,” which is a social conglomerate devoid of shared culture and traditions, is different from describing oneself as Rarámuri, Yoreme, Hñahñú or any of the other 200 names (with different languages and culture) that existed at the time of the Spanish Conquest. And in their embroidery and weaving, we witness a similar phenomenon where images are used to determine or “name correctly” those whom the policy deems the “genuine Indian.” Through the historic course of the Mexican Nation all of those who are not Mestizos have been called Indians. Mestizo is a complex concept in at least three uses: a) It can be Based mainly on the theories proposed by Bajtín (2003). This author provides a lens to understand the dialogic relations in any text. This means that the iconic texts I analyze contain the presence of other discourses and are supported by them. In this sense, the corpus shows an interpretation of the cultural code constructed within the cultural context. In other words, what we can observe in the embroidery and its photographic representations are shared iconic ethnic identities.

Intercultural Communication Studies XVIII: 1 2009 Berkin derogative like in half blood vs. purity. b) It can serve political interests as in México, where Mestizo conceals the existing national diversity and the indigenous population, to homogenize the project of a Nation 4. A social formation acquires its definition as a nation when it converts an individual subject into a national subject. In other words, a national community—Mexican in our case—is constituted when the individual subject is projected within a common narrative of “nation” that, despite having been fabricated in the recent past, appears to inherit a “natural” past dating from time immemorial. In Mexico, the indigenous peoples—more than 10 million—have an ambivalent presence within this narration of nation. In their role as ancestors of the “cosmic race,” 5 their mythical origin is valued and even glorified; yet as modern-day Mexican citizens or native nations, they have become invisible. c) My use here

of “Mestizo” is limited to the indigenous sense, meaning everyone who is not indigenous:

Mexicans, Germans, Norwegians, French, etc. I do not discuss problems associated with the derogative sense sometimes implied; nor the ideological use in Mexico that hides the imposition of a homogeneous social, economic, and political system.

Therefore, embroidery and weaving are “names” or labels used to classify the indigenous peoples and to name themselves. The practice dates from colonial times when an edict from the conqueror assigned native dress and colors according to race or caste, distinguishing the indigenous peoples by ethnic group, and defining their place in society. In those days, the indigenous peoples followed the code on pain of death. Today the indigenous peoples have taken back the “name” imposed on them, investing it with a new signification and putting it to their own use as a political and commercial strategy.

Public policy is thereby doing a wrong to Mexico’s 64 indigenous tribes, all of whom are uniquely different from one another and different from the western world. Some of these tribes embroider and some do not. Each of the 64 tribes has its own language; each has its own political and historical knowledge. The indigenous peoples, to construct their own identity, have had to negotiate, redefine and reintroduce their own version of what indigenous identity is.

Embroidery in Cultural Research

Indigenous communities are privileged places for the analysis of cultural diversity. The concept of indigenous culture, and in my case, indigenous embroidery as a cultural production, can be found in at least three categories: a) When it characterizes a process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; b) When it indicates a given way of life of a people; and c) When it describes the products and practices of intellectual and artistic activity.

Benedict Anderson questions the origin and expansion of nationalisms. He shows that nations are not a product of pre-constructed conditions like language, race or religion. The existence of nations has been imagined (Anderson, 1983). But Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” cannot be transposed directly to colonial situations (Chaterjee, 2008). In our case, we will find different imagined communities: the hegemonic project and the innumerable fragments imagined by resistance to the first.

The indigenous ethnic identity is not an exception to the hegemonic nation, but as I show in this place, it is more complex, diverse and differentiated from the universal idea of a homogenous nation.

Metaphor created by Vasconcelos, first Secretary of Education in the post-revolutionary period, who defined “Mestizo,” to imply the descendants “of a race forged out of the treasure of all the foregoing races, the final race, the cosmic race” (Vasconcelos, 1983).

–  –  –

Culture as Intellectual, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Development The concept of culture is considered here a synonym of civilization. It refers to human groups regarding their progresses and accumulations. Classic expressions of this idea of culture are the reports of travelers in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th (Lumholtz, 1902). The modern projects for social development owe a lot to this concept of culture. Some diagnosis and evaluations about marginalization and poverty, with Western culture standards as their canon, consider the indigenous’ goals and aspirations as backward.



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