Tag Archives: cultural stereotypes

Among the Zapotecs of Mexico, National Geographic 1927

We bought National Geographic DVDs from the 1920’s to the 1960’s at a garage sale a couple of years ago and just got around to looking at the table of contents, to discover there was an article written by Herbert Covey in 1927 with photos of Teotitlan del Valle, our village.  I was eager to read it.

Herbert Covey’s view of Mexico was not unlike many of his adventurous contemporaries who were exploring indigenous Africa, Asia, and Central and South America at the same time.  In April 1927, National Geographic magazine published a rather lengthy first person account of his train trip from Puebla to Oaxaca and his travels around the villages, accompanied by black and white photos.

The travelogue, viewed through today’s lens, is appalling.  Covey reflects that era of colonial arrogance that we have associated more with Great Britain, France and other paternalistic colonizers who are determined to either remake the indigenous culture in its own image or to stereotype it into the “noble savage” ideation that sells exotic armchair travel.  It is a foretelling of the neocolonial relationship that the U.S. has had with Mexico since WWII, and is a retrospective of U.S-Mexican political relationship of dominance and weakness.  Moreover, it emphasizes the social, cultural and political superiority held by “more advanced” societies who look down upon the poor “other.”

The first paragraphs reveal the tone of the article.  Covey writes that there were only two eras in Mexican history that were civilized, the three hundred year period of Spanish colonization and the seventy year presidency of Porfirio Diaz (“affectionately” known as the Porfiriata)!  The Spanish conquest is only spoken about in the most glowing terms, and the populist Benito Juarez is referred to as the little brown Zapotec.  Other stereotypes abound and the language includes racist innuendos that made my stomach turn.

I read the entire article because these images are ingrained in our world view as a nation, and it is important to know how we are acculturated to accept (or reject) our Mexican neighbors.  These writings of almost one hundred years ago influence how we treat the immigration issue today and our economic relationship with Mexico around oil and other natural resources.

Wikipedia:  Paternalistic neocolonialism

The term paternalistic neocolonialism involves the belief held by a neo-colonial power that their colonial subjects benefit from their occupation. Critics of neocolonialism, arguing that this is both exploitive and racist, contend this is merely a justification for continued political hegemony and economic exploitation of past colonies, and that such justifications are the modern reformulation of the Civilizing mission concepts of the 19th century.

The Mexican Sombrero Stereotype

Yesterday, I walked two miles to my friend Annie’s house located on a hillside outside the village center.  It was one o’clock in the afternoon and the walk took me over thirty minutes as I hugged the sides of buildings and sought shelter from the midday sun under the shade of hundred year-old trees lining the river bed path.   Every several hundred steps I needed to stop to catch my breath at this altitude of almost six thousand feet.  The sun beat down, strong and constant.  I wear a wide brimmed hat here that extends far down the back of my neck and  over my face.  As I walk, I imagine the photos and films I’ve seen of Mexican men curled up in a corner with sombrero pulled far down to cover faces.  I remember seeing only the curl of a mustache and a mouth in repose.  This is the stereotype of the sleepy or lazy Mexican that has been presented to us over the centuries.  Yet all I wanted to do yesterday afternoon was to seek the shelter of some shade and protect myself from this fierce sun that makes one so tired, hot, wet and saps energy.  So, as I walked and pulled the brim of my hat down to completely cover my face, tilting my head forward and keeping my eyes down to watch the path as I walked over cobblestone streets and rutted dirt roads, I wondered why we don’t understand the culture and environment of our hardworking Mexican neighbors who through sheer force of energy are able to create a vibrant life among the cactus and inhospitable soil.

More About Braids and Ribbons: Cultural Awakening

I asked Janet (Yah-nette) Chavez Santiago if she knew the significance of the color of ribbons the abuelas use in their braids.  I didn’t hear from her for a few days and when she reported back, I thought, wow, I was really trying to read something more into this than what was really there!  How culturally naive of me, and then I thought, how many of us do this when we travel and even when we think we know a place very well, wanting to find meaning in really small, insignificant practices?

The answer Janet gave me was  simple.  She asked her grandmother, Soledad, who is in her late 70’s and wears traditional Zapotec dress as her daily habit.  Soledad replied that ladies wind their hair in braids using colorful ribbons to keep unruly hair tidy while they are cooking and cleaning, but especially cooking.  Ribbons as a useful tool for hygiene was the underlying meaning communicated.  I asked Janet to ask again about the color of the ribbons, which I notice can be blue, green, red, yellow, and many women from distinct villages choose to use the same color of ribbon.  The answer that came back was that it was personal preference having no grander significance than that.  Peer influence is powerful the world over as to wanting to wear similar costumes.  Why am I not surprised?