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Totonac Cultural Revitalization: An Alternative to the Zapatistas

By Albert L. Wahrhaftig, Sonoma State University and Bruce (Pacho) Lane, Rochester Institute of Technology

Annual Meeting of the Western Social Science Association, American Indian Studies Section, Oakland, California. April 29, 1995


Little known, a significant movement of cultural revitalization among the Totonac Indians of Huehuetla in the state of Puebla, Mexico, celebrated its fifth anniversary last year. The OIT (Independent Totonac Organization), supported on the one hand by alliance with the liberal PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) and on the other by local clergy committed to teologia india (a pan-American movement to "Indianize" Catholic liturgy) has nonviolently seized control of the municipal government, schools, and church. Differences in tactics between the OIT and the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas will be discussed.

Si con el nombre de 'indios' nos han explotado y humillado, con el nombre de 'indios' nos sublevaremos y liberaremos OIT 1994

The abrupt and surprising emergence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas captured international attention and focused debate on the poverty and oppression of Mexico's rural and indigenous poor. The celebrity of the Zapatistas, however, has also detracted attention from significant indigenous movements elsewhere in Mexico. One development which has so far passed un-noticed is the emergence of an Independent Totonac Organization (OIT) among the highland Totonacs in the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla, a revitalistic movement which contrasts sharply in its aims and its tactics with the EZNL.

This is a first and very preliminary report on the OIT among the Totonacs and is based on observations which are, at this point, admittedly sketchy, for the OIT was a "surprise" which greeted the authors who had traveled to Totonac country with an entirely different project in mind.

Film maker Pacho Lane has worked among the Totonac since 1969 completing two films in the municipality of Huehuetla. The first, The Tree of Life, (Lane 1976) deals with the ritual of the voladores, (1) (2) a core ceremony in the ritual cycle of the highlands and a major symbol of Totonac identity but whichnevertheless was not performed in the years following 1972. The second, The Tree of Knowledge (Lane 1981) contrasts the Totonac Dance of the Huehues with the rituals and the ceremonies of the national public school, the two taken together constituting a dialogue between constituencies with opposing views about assimilation. In 1984, Lane and Wahrhaftig joined forces with the intention of making a third film about an adolescent Totonac boy dealing with the contradictory pressures to remain Indian and to turn mestizo. The filming project took them to Huehuetla twice in that year and then was suspended until two short trips in 1993 and 1994 when, returning to Huehuetla to resume work on this film, the authors discovered the OIT. Before proceeding to the OIT, some background on Huehuetla is in order.

In the 1960's, Huehuetla was typical of the marginal areas in which enclaves of traditional Indians exist in Mexico. Isolated in the mountainous Sierra Norte of the State of Puebla, the municipality was nine hours by foot path from the nearest vehicular road.(3) According to the 1970 census1, there were some 53,000 Totonac speakers in the State of Puebla, over 7,000 of whom (tht is, 80% of the municipal population) lived in the municipality of Huehuetla (Barbosa Cano 1980: 25, 63, and apendice 2, cuadro #13). The Totonac. a predominantly monolingual and virtually uneducated population, were largely subsistence farmers (4) living dispersed along mountain trails. Their culture, as depicted in Lane's two films, was largely integrated by a complex calendrical round of danzas performed within a typical Mesoamerican cargo system by societies of devotees. The town center and its political and economic institutions was dominated by a core of locally powerful mestizos. (5)(6)

By 1985, much had changed. Huehueta was reachable by road. The educational system was expanding and Totonacs were entering schools whose administrators and teachers were, as a matter of explicit policy, dedicated to making Totonacs ashamed to speak their own language and wear native clothes as a means of encouraging them to enter the national culture. Subsistence agriculture had given way to the cultivation of coffee as a cash crop, a change largely attributable to the successful efforts of young extension agronomists who, in this post-Tlateloco era, were also dedicated to organizing the Indians into the PST, the Socialist Workers Party (Democracy Backgrounder 1995:np).

2 The previously rich ceremonial activity was abandoned, and there is much to suggest that alcoholism and familial dysfunction intensified. When we visited Huehuetla in 1984 in the company of a young Totonac who had settled in the State of Veracruz and was living as a mestizo there, he was greeted by former schoolmates who were envious of his transition and would have done the same had they not been intimidated by their lack of Spanish and ability to find their way in the national society. Given this trajectory, there was no reason to expect anything other than continuing deculturation and intensifying domination of Indians by mestizos.

Accordingly, the changes we witnessed during brief visits in 1993 and 1994 were a complete surprise. In front of the Catholic church, a new palo volador had been erected. (7) The ceremony had been revived3 and, in fact, the elements of it were now being taught in the primary school.

The church was transformed. By 1984 a 15 foot high replica of the main pyramid at El Tajin, reputed to be the "birthplace" of the Totonacs, had been erected over the altar atop a base which served as a reliquary for Totonac ceremonial objects, (8) and the images of Jesus and the Saints had all been "Totonacized" by providing them with the flutes, drums, and adornments used in Totonac danzas, (9) (10) (11) (12) By 1985 the altar base was covered with a frieze of pre-Hispanic symbols (13) and the altar was surmounted by a mural conflating Christ, the Cross, the Tree of Life, and the palo volador bracketed by corn gods.(14) (15) (16) The mass was said in Totonac by a Nahuatl-speaking priest and nuns who had learned Totonac. (17)

Nearby, a building occupied by the OIT housed a co-op store, tortilleria, administrative office, and herbarium. (18( Most surprising of all, the entire corps of elected municipal officials were now Totonacs and the office of the municipal president displayed two bilingual posters (19) exhorting Totonacs to maintain their language, respect the traditions of their elders, participate in traditional cargos, utilize indigenous medicines, and so forth.

Given that our fieldwork was in the months preceding the Mexican presidential elections, it was reasonable to suppose that Cuahtemoc Cardenes's liberal PRD was underwriting organizations such as this in order to consolidate its strength in areas where the ruling PRI was relatively inattentive. Indeed, during our 1983 visit, when both the priest and the president of the OIT were out of town, I supposed that Huehuetla was a local branch of a regional organization directed from an urban center - Jalapa, perhaps, or Papantla.

In 1984, the municipal president and the president of the OIT(20) stated firmly that independent meant just that, and that although they did receive support from the PRD they had a written pact defining the OIT as independent but allied and, further, that Huehuetla is the center where OIT originated and from which it is spreading to neighboring municipalities, in three of which the OIT expected to capture the municipal government in the next round of elections.

These elected officials were not the semi-assimilated marginal men who so often show up in these circumstances. They were traditionally oriented country folk. The comandante of the municipal police, for example, had been consecrated as a volador.

In a written program produced in connection with the celebration of its fifth anniversary, the OIT, which claims 4,000 members, proposed broad goals including self-determination and autonomy, enhancement of culture, health and nutrition, development of organic and sustainable agriculture, democratization of government through a People's General Council, and the restoration of traditional religion and customs (Organizaci97n Independiente Totonaca 1994). Between the activities of the OIT and the church, change was manifest in every sector of municipal life.

Vehicular roads were being extended into the Indian peripheries (21) and a program of rural electrification was well under way.

4 Plans were afoot to revise several traditional danzas with subsidy from the church and the municipal government, and new ritual artifacts were being produced. (22) (23) (24)

The OIT and the Totonac population generally had flexed political muscles on more than one occasion. Surmounting the town is a large extension facility run byINI, the National Indigenous Institute, the director of which was firmly allied with the nationally dominant PRI and was providing services only to political cronies. When persuasion failed, 2500 Totonacs marched on the INI center and occupied its headquarters, leaving the director isolated in his office, phoning Mexico City for reinforcements to save the Indian Institute from the Indians! INI responded by sending an investigative team and, in the kind of instance that is rare in Mexico, ruled that the director had acted out of favoritism and replaced him that very night with one sympathetic to the Totonac community.

When the national school system proved unable to transcend its assimilative prejudices, the OIT secured a startup loan from the municipal treasury and established its own bilingual school and bilingual texts. (25)In the country ceremonial sodalities continued their rites at rural altars,(26) but brought these into relationship with the church in the town center. (27)

As well as refurbishing traditional institutions, Totonacs developed new ones. Civic festivals with a Queen representing the local product are common in the Sierra, and Huehuetla, like other municipalities, annually elected a Queen of Coffee, predictably a maiden form the mestizo elite. To this, the Totonac-dominated municipal government has added a Queen of the Ribbons (28) (the list97nes, traditionally wrapped into the braids of Totonac girls) and a parade and disco celebration honoring the parity of the co-Queens.5 (29)Needless to say, the mestizos, bereft of power, are far from happy about their situation. >From their point of view, Indians are being cynically manipulated by the Church and to the detriment of all.6. "The priests have destroyed the town," said one. "They are snakes and traitors. ...As a Mexican patriot and Catholic, I hate them." Beyond such talk, they manoeuver where possible to undermine the growing power of the OIT, managing, for example, to persuade the Secretariat of Public Education to withdraw accreditation from the OIT's bilingual school ( which responded by reestablishing itself as an "open preparatory school" accredited through the Autonomous University of Puebla.

The mestizo critique does bring up the question whether the OIT is the creation of manipulative outsiders or is autochthonous. That it is at least in part a product of a branch of liberation theology called teologia india is certain. Priests associated with teologia india claim that the OIT is the outgrowth of pastoral work which has proceeded since the beginning of the 1980s under a Pastoral Plan for the Sierra Norte.7. Included in this plan was a spiritual retreat within the ruins of Tajin to explore Indian tradition as seed of the Word, that is, manifestations of the same religiosity which has inspired the Roman Christian tradition. Among related activities were a gathering of danza captains in the Huehuetla mission house in 1990 to discover in the ritual of the danza "God's revelation as present in the medium of the Totonac people" (Primer Encuentro 1991:234-236). Adding some credence to the theory of pastoral manipulation was the response of the President of the OIT when asked about the meaning of the symbols graved on the altar. He said th at the priest took them from a copy of a codex he has and he hasn't explained them yet.

It is predictable that mestizos who have traditionally thought of Indian as a servile and genetically inferior lot would fail to credit them with any hand in theirown development, however, the case is that a new generation of Totonacs are crucial to the changes that have taken place. If anything, it is they who manipulate the resources of the church on one side and the PRD on the other. The most conspicuous example is the directress of the OIT bilingual school. (30)

One of the four Totonacs who were the first to graduate from secondary school, she went on to earn her law degree at the Autonomous University of Puebla with a thesis which examined the legislation protecting Indian right in the Sierra stemming from the 1991 amendment of the Mexican Constitution (Tirado Evangelio 1994). Her analysis provided the basis for educating Totonacs to their rights to local enfranchisement. As the priest said about this, "the caciques didn't know the law. All they knew about was money, drinking, and buying votes. When the Totonac confronted them with the law, they didn't know what to do." Thus, Totonacs took over the municipal government. As the priest said on another occasion, "teologia india went further than we thought it would."

Stavenhagen in an article on "The Indian Resurgence in Mexico" (1944:80) describes such situations well:

....the emerging Indian intelligentsia will play a crucial role, aided by pro-Indian advocates from the social sciences, the progressive elements of the Catholic church and a number of political organizations. In earlier years, the Indian intelligentsia would have been siphoned off and assimilated into the dominant society. While this still happens, indigenous professional people..are increasingly...displacing the more traditional kind of community authority which has played such a fundamental role in the period of passive resistance and retrenchment....

If the revitalization of Totonac culture is as thoroughgoing as our preliminary research seems to indicate, and if it is indeed a movement of their own doing, how did they get so far so fast? That question awaits further research, but two factors seem likely. One is that there has been considerable continuity of leadership among the Totonac. Persons who were Captains of ritual organizations (31) became involved in socialist politics at the hands of agricultural extension workers and thereby learned grassroots organizing skills (an oral history of this period would be well worthwhile) which were waiting to connect with the assistance offered by the church and the PRD8.. The other is that, unlike the ladinos of Chiapas, a wealthy, politically powerful, and deeply entrenched cadre of landowners, the mestizos of Huehuetla arrived only in the 19th century, do not own large tracts of land, are not wealthy, and can wield little in the way of either political clout or economic sanctions. Anderson (1994) rightly notes that "The Zapatistas' leftist rhetoric should not be the prism through which all indigenous activism is evaluated....At the most fundamental level, the indigenous agenda is one of political and economic empowerment and, to a certain degree, of cultural sovereignty." The Totonac OIT and the Chiapas EZLN are poles apart. Where the EZLN is militaristic, the OIT is pacifistic. Where the EZLN is polemical and aims its efforts at the reform ofMexican society in general, the interests of the OIT are low key and primarily local.

Where the EZLN seems to welcome an expansion of its efforts, with branches cropping up elsewhere in Mexico and supporters throughout the world, the OIT seems to operate on the presumption that if persons from other municipalities and even other indigenous groups care to study and replicate what has been accomplished in Huehuetla, they are welcome, but at most a confederacy of autonomous communities is all they care to see. Where the EZLN has depended since its first day of public emergence on international communication of its aims and priorities as a means of escalating the costs of exterminating, the OIT has deliberately maintained a low profile. So far as I know, our work will be its first exposure outside the boundaries of Huehuetla.


1.Barbosa Cano indicates that there were 7900 Totonac speakers (monolingual+ bilingual) in Huehuetla in 1950 (p.19), 5330 monolinguals in 1960 (p. 21; no figure for monolinguals +bilinguals is given) and, in 1970, 3910 monolinguals (1763 male, 2147 female) and 3143 bilinguals (1945 male and 1198 female) (p . 63). The OIT claims that 50,000 Totonacs live in the region (Organizac92 on Independiente Totonaca 1994:3)

2.One of our principal informants, co-captain of the Voladores became an activist in the party, traveling to regional and national conferences and meetings.

3. The palo volador was rigged with inadequate ropes which parted causing one volador to fall to his death during the ceremony. The ceremony is therefore once again in suspension.

4.How these developments were financed remains to be researched.

5.The 1994 celebration was a study in discourse commencing with a live trio playing huastecas, the region's traditional musical form to cheers of "Viva la huasteca" extorted in Spanish by the master of ceremonies and then segueing into ear splitting disco replete with amplification through huge speakers and flashing laser-like lights. Attended only, it appeared, by both ethnic Queens, their consorts, the municipal president, and persons directly tied to the OIT-municipal government, the event, intended to celebrate the unity of Indians and mestizos within one community was conspicuously boycotted by the latter.

Source: Chiapas95 List

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