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La Saya: Afro-Bolivian Performance

Danielle M. Roper, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, Romance Languages and Literatures

The drumming gets louder as I walk through the doors of the popular night club Malegría in La Paz, Bolivia. A carnivalesque beat, it is the type of rhythm that makes you want to sway your hips, throw your hands in the air and march down a street. Boom ba da boom ba da boom. You cannot escape that beat of the drum.

But Malegría is too small for marching. Instead, I dance my way through the thick crowd of tourists and patrons to the front of the circle they have formed around the group of black drummers and singers performing the “Saya.” The Saya is the signature dance and musical genre of Bolivia’s black populace. The word ‘saya’ is the name of the music and dance form, the term for the cyclical call-and-response in the music, and it also refers to an ensemble of musicians who perform the genre. This performance troupe is the Movimiento Cultural Saya Afro-Boliviana (MOCUSABOL)—the most important troupe in Bolivia.

When the lead singer sings, the drummers respond in unison. A dark-skinned black man with long dreadlocks bangs the tambor mayor (large drum). Another man with tightly braided corn rows grins and chuckles. Suddenly, he starts to rapidly scrape the cuancha—a long wooden instrument that he holds on his shoulder. It sounds like a record scratching against the booming of the drums. The lead singer suddenly belts out a high-pitched tune and the chorus responds loudly. My friend Coral—a member of MOCUSABOL—turns on the light of her phone to help me record the performance. But upon seeing the performers up close, I am confused. Why are these black performers dressed in traditional indigenous clothing?

I am a performance theorist whose research focuses on the relationship between racial formation and performance in Latin America and the Caribbean. I came to the Saya through my work on racial impersonation in Bolivia and Peru. In my investigation of blackface in the Andes, I examine imitations of blackness by indigenous and mestizo subjects in two neo-folkloric dances: the “Tundiki and the “danza de caporales.” Many of the performers I have interviewed have erroneously claimed that these dances emerge from or are based on the Afro-Bolivian Saya. In acts of impersonation, the Saya functions as a stand-in for blackness itself. Such distortions of the genre and of blackness have sparked bitter controversy. When the Saya emerged in the 1980s, it became a crucial counterpoint to stereotypical representations of blacks and a central platform for black activism. Its popularity also indexes the role of performance in the articulation of black racial projects in the Bolivian context.

The Saya surfaced after Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform in 1953, when many black cultural practices and forms had disappeared as blacks migrated to the capital. In 1976, a group of elders from Coroico—a town in Nor Yungas—re-constructed the Saya for a coffee festival. Six years later, under the guidance of the elders, a set of Afro-Bolivian high school students decided to perform the Saya for the annual patron saint fiesta dedicated to the Virgin de la Candelaria.  When they danced in the town’s parade, the Saya was reborn. These students would found Movimiento Negro which would later become MOCUSABOL.

At Malegría, the lead singer of MOCUSABOL is a young light-skinned black girl wearing a pollera (a traditional indigenous skirt) and she has two long trenzas (plaits) in her hair. The men wear sandals, traditional pants and a large belt.  Coral explains to me that these are Aymara (indigenous) impositions on the black community. The Saya is from Nor Yungas—a province of La Paz whose population is largely comprised of descendants of enslaved blacks and indigenous people. Through its fusion of Aymara and black cultural forms, the dance encapsulates the fraught relationship between black and indigenous subjects in the region and in the broader nation-state.  The lead singer’s mother is indigenous and her father is black. For many mixed-race people of African descent, like the lead singer, to perform the Saya is not only to embrace one’s black heritage, but it is also a means of publicly declaring one’s blackness. In sites where racial categories are nebulous, performance can function as a device of racialization and of racial differentiation.

Given Bolivia’s celebration of a mixed white and indigenous polity, the Saya became a crucial mechanism for countering the erasure of blackness in the national imaginary. The lyrics of many of the songs invite black Bolivians to join in and dance the Saya, and to publicly embrace their own blackness. As more blacks joined and formed dance troupes, the Saya facilitated the formation of black publics and black collectives. Today, there are several Saya ensembles across Bolivia including Saya Mauchi, Tambor Mayor, Orisabol, and others.  These groups offer support and resources to Afro-Bolivians particularly black migrants to large cities. They typically use the income from performances at night clubs and fiestas to fund anti-racist organizing, cultural education, and programs geared towards black empowerment.

Their performances operate as sources of transmission linking the historical and contemporary struggles of black Bolivians.

One song says:

Ahora ya no es el tiempo de la esclavitud

¿Por qué tratas a mi gente con tanto rancor?

 Now is no longer the time of slavery

Why do you treat my people with so much hatred?

Songs often recount the story of black liberation and will offer praise to Manuel Isidoro Belzu—the Bolivian president who freed enslaved blacks in the nineteenth century.

MOCUSABOL shouts Belzu’s name tonight and suddenly, the lead singer dances the pracan[1] —a set of fast circular turns marking the end of the performance. Its circularity is an apt metaphor for the cyclical nature of the Saya itself, the back and forth of cries against racial oppression and celebrations of black liberation, and the temporal shifts that seem to merge the past with the present as performers tell the stories of black experience.

[1] The turn is also danced at the beginning of the performance and is also referred to as the ‘praca.’

Templeman, Robert. “We Are People of the Yungas, We Are the Saya Race.” In Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean: Social Dynamics and Cultural Transformations, by Norman E. Whitten and Arlene Torres. Indiana University Press, 1998.





A New System of Imperial Government for Spanish America

Fidel J. Tavárez, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

The eighteenth century was an age of imperial reform throughout the Atlantic world but especially in the Spanish Empire. Indeed, during this period, Spanish ministers made a concerted effort to transform Spain’s far-flung composite monarchy into a modern commercial empire capable of competing with Britain and France. Where did this interest in creating a Spanish commercial empire come from? What were its intellectual origins? These are some of the central questions that my research addresses and that I would like to explore very briefly in the paragraphs that follow.

I will begin by defining what I mean by “modern commercial empire.” The term does not simply refer to an empire that engaged in trade. What empire hasn’t? Rather, a modern commercial empire was a kind of polity that first took shape at the turn of the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment statesmen began to distinguish “empires of conquest,” which were almost exclusively focused on hoarding silver, from modern “empires of commerce,” which focused on promoting economic improvement through labor and trade. While British and French thinkers initially developed this modern ideology of empire, it was Spain that carried out the largest experiment of the eighteenth century with modern commercial imperialism.

In spite of its far-reaching nature, this new vision of empire had inauspicious beginnings in Spanish administrative circles. Its origins are to be found in the 1740s, when a manuscript titled Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América circulated in the court among Spain’s most important statesmen. Indeed, the Nuevo sistema contained a basic blueprint of reform, which ministers of the second half of the century followed almost to the letter. It is surprising, to say the least, that few historians have attempted to reconstruct the intellectual context in which this relatively unpretentious but essential manuscript was written.

To understand the intellectual context that gave birth to the Nuevo sistema, it is necessary to provide a brief inventory of the most important versions of the text. While the first printed version of the Nuevo sistema dates to 1789, the most important manuscript versions allegedly date to 1743. There are at least two known versions of this 1743 manuscript, one at the Biblioteca Nacional de España and another at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real in Madrid. Additionally, portions of the Nuevo sistema appeared in the second half of Bernardo Ward’s Proyecto económico. There is a manuscript version of Ward’s Proyecto at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real, and a printed version appeared in 1779.

Scholars have assumed that the author of the Nuevo sistema was José del Campillo y Cossío, who is listed as the author in the manuscript versions of 1743. Given Campillo’s reputation as a respectable, hardworking, and learned minister, the attribution is not entirely unwarranted. However, upon close inspection, Campillo’s authorship becomes increasingly implausible. In particular, a passage within the Nuevo sistema alludes to a report written by Antonio de Ulloa, which likely refers to the celebrated Noticias secretas. This report was written in 1747 or 1748, which means that the Nuevo sistema could not have been written in 1743 and consequently that Campillo could not have written the text, especially considering that he had died in 1743.

The author of the Nuevo sistema probably was Melchor Rafael de Macanaz, a prolific writer and adviser to Philip V, the king of Spain until 1746. Among other reasons, Macanaz’s authorship can be proven by the existence of two manuscripts signed by the aforementioned adviser: 1) Discurso sobre la America española, held at the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, and 2) Nuevo sixtema para el perfecto gobierno de la América, which currently sits in the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan in Madrid. Both texts coincide almost to the letter with the manuscripts signed by Campillo. It is likely that Macanaz wrote the text earlier in century and continued to update it until the late 1740s. At that point, someone else, whose identity we may never recover, circulated the text as if Campillo were its author.

The fact that Macanaz was the original author of the Nuevo sistema provides a rich context from which to reconstruct the main ideas of the text. Although Macanaz was a faithful adviser to Philip V, he lived in exile in France from 1715 until 1748. In France, he experienced firsthand what contemporaries called the “John Law system,” an innovative scheme of administrative reform for the French Monarchy designed by the Scottish projector John Law. Law’s system included a national bank, a credit-based circulating currency, and a commercial company.  Although Macanaz did not agree with everything the Scottish projector proposed, the fact that he used the concept of a “new system” clearly shows that the experience in France inspired him to design a project for a Spanish commercial empire. The notion of a “new system” allowed him to rethink the very foundations of the Spanish Monarchy, while portraying the king as a political engineer and his ministers as scientific advisers.

The key idea proposed in the Nuevo sistema was that Spain had to abandon the “spirit of conquest,” associated with the pursuit of mines and territories in Spanish America, and adopt the “spirit of trade and industry,” which was concerned with stimulating economic improvement by creating synergy between the colonies and the metropole. The reason behind this proposal was simple. “Real wealth,” the Nuevo sistema suggested, “consists in the products of the land and the industry of men,” not in hoarding bullion.[1] And the most efficient way to stimulate work was to promote commerce, “for it [commerce] revitalizes agriculture, the arts, factories and the manufactures of industry.”[2] Macanaz had a specific kind of trade in mind: comercio libre (free trade within the bounds of the empire). In fact, he continued, it was important “to think of liberty as the soul of commerce, without which it [commerce] could not prosper nor live.”[3] Commercial liberty, he concluded, “is the soul of all the improvements which we argued will occur in Spain’s agriculture, manufactures and other significant matters.”[4]

Macanaz’s new system had many more dimensions, among which we can cite the institution of a new administrative apparatus for the New World. However, for our purposes here, we should keep in mind a few of the tenets of commercial empire that Macanaz put forward in the 1740s: 1) that to become powerful Spain had to acquire markets, not bullion, 2) that Spain had an abundant source of markets in the colonies, and 3) that the best way to control colonial markets was to implement comercio libre between the metropole and the colonies. According to Macanaz, what would come about as a result of instituting comercio libre was a highly integrated imperial economic system in which the colonies and the metropole worked in concert to stimulate economic growth. This new vision of empire is what subsequent ministers had in mind when they issued and implemented decrees or charters of comercio libre in 1765, 1778, and 1789. As an exiled intellectual who lived in France during the first half of the eighteenth century, little could Macanaz have suspected that his advice paper, the Nuevo sistema, would transform the political culture, the administrative system, and the economy of Spain’s vast empire for the rest of the century.


[1] José del Campillo y Cossío, Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América (Mérida, Venezuela: Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Humanidades y Educación, 1971 [1789]), p. 209.

[2] Ibid., p. 95.

[3] Ibid., p. 94.

[4] Ibid., p. 146.

The Confession of an Indigenous Witch in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

The Confession of an Indigenous Witch in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Daniela Gutiérrez Flores, PhD Student, Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Studies 

During the first half of the sixteenth century and before the establishment of the Inquisition in New Spain, idolatrous practices carried out by indigenous people were punished with extreme severity. This sparked a religious debate on how to deal with the newly converted subjects. American Indians, because they were considered ignorant new Christians, would be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, whose operations pertained only to mestizos, Africans, creoles and Spaniards. Instead, a tribunal was specifically created to attend to the indigenous population: the Provisorato de Indios.[1] 

Among the activities of this institution was the vigilance and extirpation of idolatry among indigenous peoples. The processes carried out by the Provisorato were commonly initiated by accusations made by individuals to fellow members of their community and, if grave, ended in an auto de fe. There were some cases, however, in which people turned themselves in. Such is the case of an indigenous woman who confessed to being a witch before Juan Ignacio Castorena y Ursúa, head of the Provisorato de Indios from 1709 to 1728.

The eighteenth century saw big changes in the configuration of Mexican cities. Indigenous people had formerly occupied the margins of urban spaces, but gradually, many of these villages were integrated into bigger cities. This resulted in the introduction of syncretic unorthodox religious practices into urban life, a situation that certainly troubled religious authorities. The Provisorato was a key institution in the attempt to suppress the heterodox religiosity of the “rustic” groups that suddenly erupted in the cities. This is the context surrounding this indigenous woman’s confession.

The confession is preserved in a 1736 manuscript I have recently begun to examine. Because it is a testimony in the first person, it serves as a fascinating window into colonial religious practices and the process of self-fashioning before ecclesiastic authority.

The woman begins by narrating her childhood. She was born, we are told, in a family with a long tradition in sorcery and witchcraft. While she was still a baby, her parents gave her away to Lucifer, who became her “nagual.” This syncretic representation of the devil takes us back to the first contact between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples, when practices such as nahualismo were amalgamated under Catholicism as evidence of the devil’s presence in the Americas. In the religion of the Ancient Mexicans, the term nahualli designates the spiritual companion or “alter ego” of a person, which usually takes the form of an animal.[2] From the beginning of her confession, the woman represents herself through duality. The devil is certainly an intrinsic part of who she is, but reason—and with it, the possibility of redemption—still lies within her.

She then goes on to tell us how Lucifer raised her: he taught her to walk, to dress, to make her bed. He gave her baby animals to play with and took her on walks through the maize fields. The devil is portrayed as a maternal loving figure, a “chichigua” (wet nurse) who nurtured her with knowledge about witchcraft, but also with practical everyday-life skills. Perhaps one of the most interesting characteristics of this testimony is precisely the connection drawn between the fantastic world of flying shape-shifting witches and the mundane life of common individuals. The devil and the witch, far from being esoteric figures, are placed here in the concrete, familiar contexts of colonial life.

When the woman grows older, she marries Lucifer in a big celebration in which guests danced to the dance of the Moors and the Christians (a traditional Spanish dance that enacts Christian domination over the Moors, but that in the Americas was adapted to dramatize the process of colonization). In this dance, our witch plays la Malinche—Hernán Cortés’s famous interpreter and mistress—and, thus, the devil plays the conquistador. Through this dramatization, both Cortés and La Malinche emerge as demonical figures. Her union to Lucifer mirrors that between Spaniards and Mexicans, symbolically making mestizos the offspring of a diabolical alliance.

As a wife, the witch gains deeper knowledge about demonic customs, acquiring higher powers and ascending in satanic hierarchy thanks to her superior talent. She recounts explicit tales about raping sleeping nuns, eating babies in tamales, using their blood to knead tortillas and even murdering her own mother at her father’s request (he had grown bored of her). She becomes the new head of her family and a sort of “First Lady” of the Satanic Church, accompanying Lucifer in his travels around the world.

Out of this document emerges a strong female voice that freely brags about her power and talent with deep pride. Her association with Lucifer allows her to occupy a position in society that is not typically reserved for women: she replaces patriarchal authority in her own family, annuls her maternity by eating her children, satisfies her sexual desires unrestrictedly and even challenges the authority of Lucifer himself. When demanded to sacrifice the only son she has ever been fond of, she protects the baby by offering him to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Reciprocally, the devil does not act according to “traditional” masculine roles. He helps women in domestic tasks—such as grinding nixtamal to make tortillas—so that they do not exhaust themselves with too much housework. At Lucifer’s side, the woman has radical liberties that she does not find in her earthly Christian marriage to an Indian cacique. With her human husband, who ignores her true identity, she says the “worm” of her desire has died and she feels condemned to die “dumb.”

How were all of these tales received by the authorities in the Provisorato de Indios? The final whereabouts of this witch are a question I have yet to answer. She may have been processed, or perhaps the gravity of her crimes was lessened by the fact that she confessed. Indeed, her insisting reiteration about her demonic lineage, along with her representation of confession as an act of rebellion against Satan, seems to constitute a strategy for attenuating her culpability. In representing herself as an ignorant, irrational woman who was “fooled” into worshiping the devil by her family, she would have been able to protect herself while simultaneously talking extensively about her past. Regardless of her final destiny, this unique document shows how colonial subjects manipulated existing religious discourse to negotiate their position in an ever-changing society.

[1] See Gerardo Lara Cisneros, ¿Ignorancia invencible?: superstición e idolatría ante el Provisorato de Indios y Chinos del Arzobispado de México en el siglo XVIII, UNAM: México D.F., 2014.

[2] See Roberto Martínez González, “Bruja y nahualli: versiones y perversiones en el proceso colonial,” Cyber Humanitatis, Universidad de Chile, Nº48 (Primavera 2008).

Earthquakes, Protests, and the Challenges of Archival Research in Oaxaca, Mexico

Earthquakes, Protests, and the Challenges of Archival Research in Oaxaca, Mexico

Chris Gatto, PhD Candidate, History

     On Thursday, September 7, 2017, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Mexico, killing over 100 individuals and damaging thousands of homes in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Tobasco.1 This was the strongest earthquake the country had experienced since 1787. While earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence in Mexico, this particular event caused more alarm and destruction than could have ever been anticipated.

     The earthquake struck at approximately 11:30 pm, and I acutely remember standing in the bathroom of my Airbnb in Oaxaca City, brushing my teeth and getting ready to go to bed. I was concluding nearly two months of archival research in Oaxaca for my dissertation, entitled “From Cochineal to Coffee: The Making of a New Rural Society in Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, 1780–1880.” The door to my small apartment began to shake violently, and my initial thought was that someone was trying to break in. As I walked over to see what was happening, I immediately fell to the ground, as the floor beneath me began to shake. The power in the city then went out, and in complete darkness it became all too clear to me and everyone else in the city what was occurring.

     While my first thought was to text my anxious mother (before she uncovered the news of the earthquake on her own), I then began to consider how this would affect the work I still needed to get done. I was finishing nearly six weeks of research in the Archivo Histórico de Notarías, a vast archive inside the Church of Santo Domingo right in the heart of Oaxaca City. This archive is home to nearly 2,000 volumes of notarial documents from the early 17th century all the way up until the 20th century, including land purchases and rentals, wills, contracts, and inventories. Needless to say, this archive plays an essential role in my dissertation, which explores the dramatic agricultural transformation that occurred in the southern part of the state from cochineal to coffee cultivation over the course of the 19th century.

      The Archivo Histórico de Notarías is now fully digitalized, but researchers still need to spend considerable amounts of time with the original documents, identifying book and page numbers before proceeding to the Dirección General de Notarías, an office located in the Ciudad Administrativa about 15 minutes outside of the city, to begin a complicated process (trámite) of requesting digital copies. While I knew the Archivo itself would be closed for several days (as it was, although thankfully with limited damage), I was also concerned about the Ciudad Administrativa, where I needed to travel with a flash drive to collect all the images I had been identifying over the past month.

The first image above depicts the main square of the Ciudad Administrativa on an average day, while the next two images reflect the damage suffered following the earthquake. Suffice it to say, these offices would not reopen for quite some time, as government workers refused to return to the campus until proper working conditions had been restored. I remember visiting the Ciudad Administrativa during that week, hoping I could find someone, anyone, that could help me gain access to the hard drive and expedite the transfer of images. However, I was promptly turned away, as they insisted I would have to return the following week. Unfortunately, I did not have another week, and I flew back to Chicago on September 16 with the sick feeling that so much time and effort had been expended for nothing. While I was determined to return to Oaxaca soon to complete my research, I knew there were further challenges I would eventually have to overcome…

The Ciudad Administrativa, along with the Ciudad Judicial, are the two largest government offices in Oaxaca. However, on any given day, access to these offices is severely restricted, since they become the site for a range of protests from different social organizations and unions across the region, including taxi drivers (taxistas), teachers’ unions (maestros), and indigenous rights activists. These groups block access to the Ciudad Administrativa in different and often inventive ways (as shown in the images above), and when this happens, nobody can enter or leave the campus until the groups disassemble. These protests have become so routine that the public has become accustomed to the disruptions and adjust their schedules accordingly. Whatever one thinks of the validity of these protests (I happen to be quite sympathetic), they cause significant disturbances in the life of ordinary residents in the city, and you will often hear people expressing sympathy for the causes but not necessarily the tactics.

     In organizing my trip back to Oaxaca, I knew I would have to allow several days for a procedure that should only take a couple hours. On the week of October 23, 2017, I flew back to Oaxaca, allowing five days (Monday through Friday) to get my work completed. I anxiously checked my Twitter feed on an hourly basis to identify reports of potential blockades (bloqueos) at the government campus. As it turns out, I was able find a small window early Tuesday morning to enter the Ciudad Administrativa and complete the process of acquiring nearly 1,000 images that will hopefully form an important part of my dissertation. Shortly after I entered, the campus was closed off, and we could not leave until 6pm that evening. The campus experienced similar protests on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week, and thus I was incredibly fortunate to find the small window that I did to get my work completed.

     Researchers in Mexico and across Latin America face these types of logistical challenges on a regular basis, and I do not mean to suggest that what I have faced is unique or atypical in any way. But my work in Oaxaca does show how precarious the work of historians can be, given that we are forced to rely on documents that readily become available or unavailable according to shifting circumstances beyond our control. I hope my dissertation can make good use of the materials I have been lucky enough to uncover, and shed light on historical processes that help us better understand such a dynamic and important region of Mexico.

  1. This should not be confused with the second earthquake that occurred near Mexico City on September 19, 2017, with a magnitude 7.1 that killed nearly 400.

The Aesthetics of Communal Survival: Recasting the Relation between Santa Muerte and Violence

 Agnes Mondragon Celis Ochoa, PhD student, Anthropology 

Photo by Toni François

Santa Muerte, a folk saint so little known before the turn of the century—in a religious landscape mostly populated by centuries-old figures—has become widely present in the Mexican public sphere in the past few years and, just as quickly, has been associated with criminality and drug violence in the media. This association has depicted Santa Muerte’s followers not only as criminals themselves, 1 but also as engaging in illegitimate, even blasphemous, 2 devotional practices. While this mass-mediated association resonates with old, Porfirian-age and ultimately colonial discourses linking Mexican lower classes to criminality 3—which of course, says more about class hierarchies in Mexican society than about Santa Muerte devotees themselves—I consider there to be, indeed, a relation between this saint and violence that remains unexplored. By examining a collective ritual that takes place in Santa Muerte’s main shrine in the downtown slum of Tepito, Mexico City, I wish to explore one of the ways in which such a relation plays out.

Tepito is a neighborhood best known for its massive informal market—where, allegedly, one can buy commodities of all imaginable kinds—but is also remarkable for its strong communal identity, which claims a pre-Hispanic past and which was able to resist gentrification efforts by the local government 4. It seems to have harshly felt the well-known effects of neoliberalism: unprecedented flows of money (especially of illegal trades), greater inequality, harsher capitalist competition, and the violence this brings about. The practices surrounding Santa Muerte, I argue, are means through which this violence is collectively acknowledged, evaluated and addressed, while offering a space by which the community of devotees reminds itself of such a fact and (ritually) reconstructs social bonds, which are crucial for both collective and individual survival.

Photo by Saúl Ruiz

On the first day of the month, devotees gather around the Santa Muerte shrine well before the main ceremony. Many are seen close to their Santa Muerte icons, either because they are holding them in their arms [image 1] or because they have placed them over a piece of cloth on the floor, like small, improvised shrines [image 2]. All sorts of small objects—candies, toy bills, beaded bracelets—can be seen in people’s hands or adorning their statuettes. The objects are gifts brought and distributed by devotees in return for miracles granted by Santa Muerte. As has become customary, devotees bring many such objects, which indicates the magnitude of the intended repayment. Devotees will offer them as gifts to several of the numerous Santa Muerte statuettes gathered on that day—insofar as all are equally indexes of the same Santa Muerte. While offering the saint her gratitude, however, it becomes unclear whether the recipient of the gift is Santa Muerte or (also) the devotee carrying the icon. Moreover, the gift is usually accompanied by a que te cuide y te proteja, “may she look after and protect you”, whose target is clearly a fellow devotee. In this way, the gift giver is demonstrating Santa Muerte’s efficacy to the recipient and encouraging others to engage in or maintain relations with her. As anthropologist Timothy Knowlton shows for a similar ritual, [5. Timothy Knowlton, “Inscribing the Miraculous Place: Writing and Ritual Communication in the Chapel of a Guatemalan Popular Saint”, Linguistic Anthropology, 25(3), December 2015] these individual communicative acts, superimposed on each other—as can be seen in the accumulation of gifts adorning the statuettes [image 1]—constitute and help sustain this collective devotion overtime.

But there is more to this. Gift giving, one of the classical concerns in anthropology, has been found to be at the very foundation of sociality, as acts that inaugurate (or, in our case, reestablish) social bonds and that carry the obligation to reciprocate. Following Nancy Munn, 5 a gift may initiate a reciprocal transaction, and thus a social bond—a connection between the two persons involved where the gift giver is constituted and remembered as a generous person and her action reciprocated through a return gift sometime in the future.

This logic of reciprocity, although inverted, appears in devotional practices through which Santa Muerte followers attempt to harm others, to retaliate against others’ abuses of power or to counteract a competitor’s conspicuous economic success, situations that have become increasingly common, as mentioned, in recent years. The possibility to engage in these harmful practices, however, comes with a warning: Santa Muerte takes a loved one if a devotee fails to repay a favor. In other words, Santa Muerte takes revenge by mirroring the devotee’s harmful act, and thus breaking this devotee’s network of social bonds in the same way that she mirrors a devotee’s thankful repayment by creating a new social bond through gift giving, as the ritual above describes.

Knowledge about Santa Muerte’s revengefulness, for devotees, is thus a recurrent reminder about the perils of destroying social relations. Communal ritual practices not only result from the collective acknowledgment that a network of friends and kin is fundamental for everyday survival—especially in communities that have faced the hardships of poverty 6—but also that violence is ultimately unsustainable for social life. Santa Muerte followers then gather once a month in order to ritually suture back these severed bonds. In this way, the community becomes an agent that sustains itself into the future.

  3. See Ricardo Pérez Montfort, coord., Hábitos, normas y escándalo: prensa, criminalidad y drogas durante el porfiriato tardío, Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 1997
  4. See Alfonso Hernández and Laura Roush, “The Vita-migas of Tepito”, Ethnology, 47 (2/3), Spring/Summer 2008: 89-93; Diane E. Davis, “Zero-Tolerance Policing, Stealth Real Estate Development, and the Transformation of Public Space: Evidence from Mexico City”, Latin American Perspectives, March 2013: 53-76
  5. Nancy Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, Durham: Duke University Press, 1992
  6. See Mercedes González de la Rocha, The Resources of Poverty: Women and Survival in a Mexican City, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994; Hernández and Roush, op. cit.

Exploring Mexican Chicago through Soccer

Franco Bavoni Escobedo, MAPSS AM’16

Chicago hosts the second largest Mexican community in the United States after Los Angeles. Between 2010–2014, 669,000 Mexican migrants resided in the metropolitan area, representing 7% of the total population and 40% of the foreign-born population. Unsurprisingly, scholars and observers alike adopted the idea of a “Mexican Chicago.” Contrary to what some might think, however, Mexican Chicago is more than the mere presence of Mexicans in Chicago. As Nicholas De Genova argues, Mexican Chicago is produced through migrants’ everyday-life practices, which tie this space irreversibly to Mexico and, at the same time, render it irretrievable for the US nation-state. This is not to say that Mexican Chicago pertains to the Mexican nation-state. Rather, says De Genova, it is the result of migrants’ particular social situation through which the meaning of “Mexican” itself comes to be reconfigured. Thus, Mexican Chicago has to be constantly reworked and reproduced through social interaction.

Few spaces are as emblematic of Mexican Chicago as the numerous Hispanic soccer leagues that exist in the city. A steady stream of new Mexican migrants after World War II, combined with soccer’s dramatic expansion south of the border, led in the 1970s to what David Trouille calls the “Latinization” of the game. The foundation of the Chicago Latin American Soccer Association (CLASA) in 1973 was followed by the exponential growth of Mexican soccer in the next decades. According to Raúl Dorantes and Febronio Zatarain, the main four leagues average 7,000 members each, but the total number of registered players in the Chicago metropolitan area is close to a quarter million.

So how does one experience Mexican Chicago through soccer? The answer is not straightforward. My fieldwork with San Rafael, a Chicago-based team founded by migrants from a rural town of the same name in Michoacán, reveals how varying sets of relationships and situational factors can alter the meaning of “Mexican” in Mexican Chicago. A very brief comparison between the summer and winter seasons proves illuminating in this regard.

Summer Season

An atmosphere largely reminiscent of rural Michoacán characterizes the summer season games. Although many players are of the 1.5 and second generations, 1 most supporters are first-generation migrants who have lived several years in the United States. As Luis Escala-Rabadán points out, participants “reconstruct their place of origin” through the soccer experience despite being far away from it. For example, since the heat in both San Rafael and Chicago is usually intense, attendees north and south of the border congregate under the trees to seek refuge from the sun and chat. In both locations, Mexican snacks, chicharrones, are available for purchase on the sidelines of the field. Whether in Chicago or San Rafael, most participants also enjoy a few beers while watching the game, and drinking continues for hours afterwards. Moreover, soccer games in both sites pit teams that represent specific towns against each other, which reinforces a sense of pride among participants. Finally, in both Mexico and the United States conversations are in Spanish.

Besides the similarities between both sites, attendees in Chicago intensify their sense of proximity to San Rafael by talking about the town and using certain idiosyncratic references that only someone from the pueblo would understand. For instance, they often talk about belonging to los de arriba or los de abajo (those from above or from below). The dividing line is the village’s church. Those whose homes are located before it are from abajo, while those who live after it are from arriba. In Chicago the distinction is mostly used to joke around: Rodrigo, without hesitating, teasingly refused to give Óscar a ride because he was from arriba. Thus, during the summer season, “Mexican” acquires a very specific meaning for first-generation supporters: as one of them put it, “it’s all about meeting with the people from the pueblo.”

Winter Season

At la Pershing, the facilities where the San Rafael indoor soccer games take place, things are different. The first-generation supporters from the town are mostly absent, and players are predominantly of the 1.5 and second generations. Still, the space is filled with Mexican features. As one enters the premises, the booming Mexican music can be immediately heard. The majority of players wear Mexican teams’ jerseys, and the multiple screens show the Mexican soccer league on Univision, a Spanish-language television network. Next to a cash register there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, another conspicuous symbol of Mexicanness.


However, instead of vendors selling chicharrones, there is a fast food restaurant where customers can buy American food such as hot dogs, popcorn, and nachos. Whereas the use of English is extremely limited in the summer, the norm at la Pershing is a combination of both languages. On and off the soccer field, continuous code switching between Spanish and English soon becomes apparent. There is also a store where people can acquire sports equipment. When I walk in and ask for shin guards in Spanish, the clerk asks me to please repeat my question in English, as she cannot understand. It then dawns on me: this is just another face of Mexican Chicago, no less Mexican than the one that emerges during summer season games. As a 1.5-generation player told me, this is an opportunity to feel “more Mexican” as opposed to feeling “more American” while at work.

In sum, although the San Rafael soccer team is doubtlessly embedded in Mexican Chicago, its meaning varies significantly in different settings and according to the actors involved. However, this is just the first step of the analysis. As Lisa Wedeen argues, the importance of these practices does not reside simply in what they mean to their practitioners, but also in the ways in which they produce specific logics and generate observable political effects. That is, precisely, the goal of my research.


  • De Genova, Nicholas. 1998. “Race, Space, and the Reinvention of Latin America in Mexican Chicago,” Latin American Perspectives, 25: 87–116.
  • Dorantes, Raúl and Febronio Zatarain. 2007. …Y nos vinimos de mojados: cultura mexicana en Chicago. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México.
  • Escala-Rabadán, Luis. 2012. “Migración, redes sociales y clubes de futbol de los migrantes hidalguenses en Estados Unidos.” In Offside/Fuera de lugar: futbol y migraciones en el mundo contemporáneo, edited by Guillermo Alonso Meneses and Luis Escala-Rabadán, 133–150. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
  • Trouille, David. 2008. “Association Football to Fútbol: Ethnic Succession and the History of Chicago-Area Soccer since 1920,” Soccer & Society, 10: 795–822.
  • Wedeen, Lisa. 2008. Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  1. “First-generation” refers to migrants who arrived in the United States as adults; the “1.5-generation” grouping consists of individuals who arrived as children under the age of eighteen; and “second-generation” designates persons born in the United States to Mexican parents

‘As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live’: Black mothers and the struggle for Black life in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Alysia Mann Carey, PhD Student, Political Science 

“To be a mother is a gift from God. A child is inside you and there is pain when they are born, but you are happy and you kiss their arms and legs. But when this happens, when you lose your child in such a tragic way, it is a pain and sadness that is unexplainable. You carry it with you. And more so when it is like my case, or Ana’s case, which is about a people and about security and those people that are supposed to give security are creating more misery and death for human beings, it is hard. When I heard pa-pa-pa-pa I looked around for my son. Where is My Son! It was then that I felt the hand of the government in my womb. And it is still there.” (Dona. Santana, Mother of one of the victims/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)

“The pilgrimage from the Police Station-Hospital-morgue, or Police Station-Hospital-morgue-Child and Adolescent Foundation (FUNDAC), or Police Station-Hospital-Morgue-Cemetery, has been the routine for Black families headed by Black women.” (Andreia Beatriz dos Santos, Coordinator/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)

The above quotes from Dona. Santana (pseudonym), a mother-activist who lost her son in what has come to be known as the Cabula Massacre, and Andreia Beatriz, coordinator/militant for the React or Die Campaign, represent important starting points for theorizing state violence against Black women. This is a theme that my research directly engages. Both of these women’s narratives demonstrate that state violence penetrates intimate spaces for Black women: the body (through the womb, through the cries over the death of a child, through walking to and from various sites that signify death and violence) and the family (through no longer being able to mother a child, or young children growing up without a loved one). It is in this context that my research takes a Black feminist approach (i.) to understanding how state violence impacts Black women in intimate ways. Thus, using ethnographic approaches, I examine how Black women describe, understand, and navigate state violence, and other forms of violence in their daily lives. Further, I investigate how Black women also lead movements that connect and confront different forms of violence in their lives and communities.

Five months after the Cabula massacre, I traveled to Salvador, Bahia for the second time to conduct pre-dissertation fieldwork in June 2015. During this time, I met with organizers from the React or Die Campaign as well as the mothers or partners of those who were killed in the massacre. On Friday, February 6, 2015 military police officers from RONDESP (Special Military Operations Forces (ii) raided the working class, majority Black neighborhood of Cabula in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. The officers maintained that they entered into a gun battle with 30 men who were hoarding arms and criminal paraphernalia. However, witnesses claimed that they were unarmed.  In the end, police killed 12 Black boys and young men between the ages of 16 and 27. A separate investigation found that the police entered the community, rounded up the boys on a small plot of land, used as a soccer field by neighborhood youth, and executed them one by one (iii).

On Monday, August 24, 2015, React or Die held its 3rd Annual (Inter)National March against the Genocide of Black People. The March represented a culmination of yearlong organizing efforts, community work, and familial support for victims killed by state violence. The march was scheduled to commence in front of the Public Security Building downtown, but early on that Monday morning, around 9 a.m. I watched over 200 people gather outside of the State University of Bahia, located in Cabula. Organizers, supporters, mothers, family members, and loved ones were to walk through the streets of Cabula, to the community of Villa Moisés, where a memorial service was held for the victims of the Cabula Massacre, on the very plot of land that their lives were taken.

Preparations for the memorial stone in Villa Moisés, August 24, 2015. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.

Forming two lines, organizers, mothers, friends, and other family members walked through the street chanting, “Against the Genocide of Black People, no step back” and “We want Justice.” Upon arrival in Villa Moisés, we stopped just before descending into the community. Around us, there were many two-story townhome-like structures. Hearing the chants for Black life and the demands for justice, an older woman came out and stood on her patio, looking over the rail. At that time, one of the coordinators of the React or Die Campaign took the megaphone to greet the community members: “Good Morning Villa Moisés. We are here in memory of the dead. We are marching today for our lives. Villa Moisés will not be forgotten.” The woman who stood out on her patio responded by raising her fist in support, giving us a blessing to enter.

The procession proceeded down into Villa Moisés. Upon arriving at the site where the 12 boys and young men were killed, four straight lines were formed. Mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, supporters, organizers came to the front to present themselves and to speak the names of those killed. After each person was named the galera (crowd) in unison yelled “presente (present):

Ricardo Matos, Presente! Júnior, Presente! Anjos, Presente! Adailton, Presente! Alessandra, Presente ! Fatima, Presente! Amarildo, Presente! Maria Vitoria, Presente!

One by one, family members, mothers, partners spoke up about their fight

“As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live. We have become the voices for our sons and daughters, and we won’t allow the continued murder of young Blacks to destroy our lives. Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.”

“We cannot go one step back! We can’t let this tragedy continue. Every single day, we encounter another mother grieving, another body laying dead in the street — we will not let this happen any longer. We have to fight, we have to react…While there is even one little voice screaming deep down there, in the end, that voice will be representing all of our dead. (Ana Paula)

The words of Ana Paula resonated with me, and reminded me of the first time I read Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany of Survival” in Lyndon Gill’s course on Erotic Subjectivities. As a Black Caribbean Feminist, Lorde tells Black women throughout the diaspora that we must speak, “remembering we were never meant to survive.” The words of Ana Paula and Audre Lorde speak to the transnational dimension of Black women’s power: Ana Paula’s words were a response to the poem, a continuation of a conversation across space and time. Andreia echoed the same conversation: “Our pain is transnational. Our fight is transnationalJoquielson, Presente! Jonathan, Presente! Rakia Boyd, Presente! Tony Robinson, Presente! Aiyana Jones, Presente! Everson, Presente! Kaique, Presente! Sandra Bland, Presente! Jackson Cavalho, Presente! Trayvon Martin, Presente! Mike Brown, Presente!”

The mothers and family members who spoke are experts in their own right—they have searched for children when they were disappeared, unidentified in city morgues, or located in clandestine graves in the outskirts of the city. These Black mother activists vocalized their criticisms of governmental impunity and necropolitics throughout Brazil. They exposed the particular experiences of Black mothers, a theme explored in the literature on gendered racial violence in the Americas (v.).

For me, it became clear that even in the face of government indifference and attacks, these women created a network of support and autonomous organizing, creating a grassroots organization fighting against a genocidal state responsible for the deaths of their children and thousands of others.  At the end of the memorial, people gathered around a plaque in memory of victims of state violence. The memorial stone read “’We continue to live and fight for Black people in the diaspora’ Campaign React or Die!” This inscription reminded me of Patricia Hill Collins’ words: “motherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting [themselves], the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment.” (vi).

As the memorial came to an end, everyone walked to Engomadeira, a nearby community where some of the surviving family members of the Cabula massacre lived, to have lunch.  Around two o’clock in the afternoon, we made our way to the headquarters of the Military Police, where the march itself would commence. More than 5,000 people gathered on the street. The march would end outside of the Office of the Secretary of Public Security for the State of Bahia. The beginning and end of this march were significant for many reasons. The women of Reaja directly confronted the state and the “official story,” not only of Cabula, but of other cases of anti-Black violence across Brazil, and throughout the African diaspora. Their physical presence in front of the Military Police Headquarters and the Public Security office was a practice of unveiling the intimate violence and suffering perpetrated against them, their families, their sisters, and their communities. Their presence highlights the central place that Black women occupy in the history of organizing, (vii.) making visible the pain, suffering, and violence that the state, reporting, and news media ridiculed and made to be a spectacle. Mothers were holding large signs depicting their slain children. Women spoke the names that the state tried to erase. Shouts erupted from the crowd, such as “They try to deny our humanity,” and “the dead too have a voice.”

Mothers marching in front of the Military Police Headquarters, August 24, 2015

Just like the land upon which the young people were killed in Cabula, the streets in front of the buildings were transformed into spaces of resistance against genocide. Through occupation of the streets, the courtrooms, government offices, Black women disrupted these spaces, reconfiguring them as sites for collective grieving. Their activism disrupts a narrative of “what (whose) life is worth, a narrative that says that Black life is worth less and that life itself can be valued based on race, economic status, gender, etc. (viii.) During the memorial ceremony, one of the family members said, “Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.” “As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live.” The acts of re-membering their loved ones, collective grieving and making public the pain and suffering at the hands of the state, provide a language (whether verbal, emotional, or embodied) for these women to articulate their experiences and to take political action. Organizing, activism, re/memory and grief are engaged as central, pivotal, and diasporic sites for theorizing Black politics and liberation (ix.).



i. This approach draws on and contributes to scholarship that situates Black women’s organizing as key sites for the production of theory and knowledge. See for example, Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. “Amefricanizando o feminismo: o pensamento de Lélia Gonzalez.” Revista Estudos Feministas 22, no. 3 (2014): 965-986; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab. University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon: Black Mothering, Sequelae, and Gendered Necropolitics in the Americas.” Transforming Anthropology 24, no. 1 (2016): 31-48; Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’. na, 1982.

ii. Similar to S.W.A.T in the US.

iii. Data released by the prosecutors in an interview to the press, published on May 12, 2015. (  Also see; According to Bahia’s Government article ( Information released exclusively by El Pais newspaper   (

iv. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.

v. Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Outraged mothering: black women, racial violence, and the power of emotions in Rio de Janeiro’s African Diaspora.” PhD diss., 2014; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Black mothers’ experiences of violence in Rio de Janeiro.” Cultural Dynamics 24, no. 1 (2012): 59-73; Smith, Christen A. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. University of Illinois Press, 2016.; Also see the Transforming Anthropology special edition (24, no. 1) “Sorrow as Artifact: Radical Black Mothering in Times of Terror.

vi. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

vii. James, Joy. Shadowboxing: Representations of Black feminist politics. St. Martin’s Press, 1999; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab;

viii. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996.” PhD diss., Duke University, 2010, 50

ix. Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. Amefricanizando o feminismo; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon; Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Outraged mothering”

On May 25, CLAS will cosponsor “Grief as Resistance: Racialized State Violence and the Politics of Black Motherhood in the Americas,” a transnational conversation with Black mothers who have lost children to state violence. Mother-activists from the US, Brazil, and Colombia share their struggles and strategies of resistance against police violence, mass incarceration, and the unrelenting injustices facing Black communities around the world.

For more information please visit:


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

The Emergence of Signs in Interaction: Shared Homesign Systems in Nebaj, Guatemala

Laura Horton, PhD Candidate, Comparative Human Development and Linguistics

As I make my way down the precipitously steep hill from the parque central towards the Xolacul neighborhood, I am grateful that the municipial government of Nebaj has seen fit to extend the concrete pavement this far. I jump out of the street, over the deep gutter, to avoid the tuk-tuks that race around a large truck unloading cases of Guatemala’s signature beer, “El Gallo,” at a local cantina. I hurry on, past where the pavement ends, to a deeply rutted gravel and dirt street up the hill and further away from the center of town.

I pass tiendas and tortilleras, opening up for business, as kids make their way to school in matching uniforms. I arrive at La Escuela Oficial para Educacion Especiál de Nebaj (EOEE), the local school for special education, around 8:30. The early-arriving students are sweeping up the courtyard and classrooms, sprinkling water on the covered porch to keep the dust down, and picking up trash from the road in front of the school. Older students lean on the front gate, catching up on yesterday’s news—their hands waving and pointing and gesturing fluidly, occasionally punctuated by headshakes, pushing, shoving and chasing. These students are deaf, and while some have deaf relatives at home, others only interact with other deaf people when they are at school, with other deaf peers.

The school enrolls students from the age of three with a wide range of disabilities including physical handicaps, learning disabilities and Downs syndrome. There are also 5–8 deaf students who attend, depending on the year. None of the deaf students at the school has enough residual hearing to learn Ixhil, the Mayan language spoken in the community, or Spanish, the language children learn when they begin attending school. None of the teachers at the school knows LENSEGUA, the official sign language of Guatemala, used primarily in Guatemala City, nine hours south of Nebaj.

The deaf students thus invent their own gestural systems to communicate—with their hearing family members, with their teachers and with each other. These gestural systems, called homesign systems 1 , have been studied in many countries around the world where, like Nebaj, there are deaf children and adults who cannot hear the spoken language in their environment, and who are not part of a community that uses a national sign language 2. These studies have established that homesign systems created by individual deaf children and adults are often internally consistent and share many properties with established languages 3. When individual deaf homesigners are brought together in a community or institutional setting, like a school, they can converge on a shared sign language within a few age-cohort “generations.” The daily contact between homesigners, combined with transmission of the manual communication system to a new age-cohort generation of deaf children who enter into the community, gives rise to a new sign language, significantly insulated from contact with the surrounding spoken language(s) 4.

After school finishes for the day, I go to Ana and Emilio’s house to try a new elicitation task with them. I arrive with my video cameras, tripod and backpack full of toys and books. I chat briefly with their mom, who is headed out to the market, and then set up the cameras opposite to three plastic chairs dragged out onto the covered porch from inside the house. Ana sits at a table across from Emilio with a book of photos of familiar objects and places, including animals, vehicles, tools and food. Emilio sits next to his younger brother, Marco, who is hearing. They are facing Ana and Emilio holds a paper with a grid of 16 pictures. Ana describes each photo to Emilio and he then tries to select the correct picture from his array of photos.

This game helps me document and understand Ana and Emilio’s homesign systems in two ways. First, I am recording the signs that Ana uses to describe everyday things in her world. I will take this data back to Chicago and code it for features like handshape and movement to understand how his signs are similar or different from other homesigners in Nebaj, as well as other established and emergent sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL) or Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). Second, this “matcher” task allows me to observe Ana and Emilio interacting with each other, to observe how they resolve miscommunications and negotiate their homesign systems when there is confusion.

Ana turns to a page with a photo of a horse. She uses a gesture that many hearing people employ when talking about animals across Latin America, a flat hand extended from her body, with the palm facing inwards. She then gestures with her hands at her shoulders, a common description of a person or animal carrying a heavy load. Emilio looks up from the array, having missed this sequence, and Ana repeats only the carry gesture. Emilio points out a photo of a pile of firewood, often carried in the way that Ana demonstrated. She looks down, indicating that he has not selected the correct photo based on her description so he searches the array again. His little brother Marco taps him on the shoulder and gestures to indicate large ears, similar to a horse, then waves his hand in front of his mouth, a common gestural emblem to mean “eating” used by both hearing people and the deaf homesigners in Nebaj. Emilio looks back at the array of photos and points out a photo of a dog. Ana, frustrated, turns her book around to show Emilio the photo of the horse. He finds the matching picture in his array and points to it repeatedly.

This missed communicative exchange is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, not least because Ana had trouble picking out the same photo of a horse from the same array, moments earlier when Emilio was the one describing the photos to her. It may seem surprising that these siblings, the only two deaf children in a family of eight, do not share the same sign for an animal that they see every day in the roads and fields around their home. It is possible that, had Emilio seen Ana make the animal gesture before the carry gesture, he could have selected the correct photo from his array. It is also interesting that, when Emilio did not select the correct photo on the first try, Marco, his brother who is not deaf, recognizes the structure of the task and the fact that he must sign to Emilio to communicate a piece of missing information to him. Even when Marco supplies the information that Emilio missed when Ana described the horse the first time (that it was an animal and that it was eating) Emilio chooses a different animal from the array. Ana does not attempt to clarify for Emilio, instead showing him her photo of the horse after he has incorrectly chosen photos of firewood and a dog.

View of one of the main roads through Nebaj, Guatemala

This brief interaction illustrates the fragility and contingent nature of communication for homesigners in Nebaj. They navigate their world trying to communicate with a variety of people who do not share their modality of communicating (visual-manual homesign versus oral-aural spoken language), much less their particular communicative system. Sometimes, it seems that even a sibling who is also deaf, and also a homesigner, does not automatically entail comprehension between homesigners. The question I seek to answer with my data is how these kinds of interaction, between siblings who are both homesigners, between siblings who are deaf and hearing, between homesigning children and their homesigning parents, and between homesigning peers at school, affect the structure and stability of emergent communication systems.

The front gate of the Escuela Oficial para Educación Especial (Official School for Special Education, Nebaj)

Students play a game in the courtyard of the Official School for Special Education, Nebaj, Guatemala



Coppola, M. & Newport, E. (2005). Grammatical Subjects in home sign: Abstract linguistic structure in adult primary gesture systems without linguistic input. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(52), 19249-19253.

Frishberg, N. (1987). Home sign. In J. Van Cleve (ed.), Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness (Vol. 3) New York: McGraw Hill. 128–131.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.

Goldin-Meadow, S., Özyürek, A., Sancar, B., & Mylander, C. (2009). Making language around the globe: A cross-linguistic study of homesign in the United States, China, and Turkey. In J. Guo, E. Lieven, N. Budwig & S. Ervin-Tripp (eds.), Crosslinguistic approaches to the psychology of language: Research in the tradition of Dan Isaac Slobin. N.Y.: Taylor & Francis, 27-39.

Kegl, J., Senghas, A., Coppola, M. (1999) Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. In M. DeGraff (ed.), Language creation and language change: Creolization diachrony, and development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 179–237.

Kegl, J. & Iwata, G. (1989). Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense: A Pidgin Sheds Light on the “Creole?” ASL. In Carlson, R., S. DeLancey, S. Gildea, D. Payne, and A. Saxena, (eds.). Proceedings of the Fourth Meetings of the Pacific Linguistics Conference. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon, pp. 266–294.

Polich, L. (2005). The Emergence of the deaf community in Nicaragua: “With sign language you can learn so much.” Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Senghas, R., Senghas, A., & Pyers, J. (2004). The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution. In S. T. Parker, J. Langer, & C. Milbrath (Eds.), Biology and Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to psychogenesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 287-306.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

  1. Frishberg (1987); Goldin-Meadow (2003)
  2. Researchers distinguish “national” sign languages from local, village, and indigenous sign languages based on the number of users, the length of time the language has been in use, and the resources (use in schools, access to interpreting services) available to signers who use the language. In some communities, for example, there is a high prevalence of hereditary deafness and both hearing and deaf individuals are thus exposed to a shared sign language; these systems are often referred to as “village” sign languages
  3. Goldin-Meadow et al (2009); Coppola & Newport (2005)
  4. A recent example is Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), a sign language that started just 50 years ago with the first state-supported schools for special education in Managua. NSL has been extensively documented: Kegl & Iwata (1985); Senghas, Senghas & Pyers (2004); Polich (2005)

Fighting the Good Fight: Keeping the Literary Fire Alive After Academia

Alexander Slater Johnson, LACS MA’14

When I stepped onto the University of Chicago campus back in the fall of 2013, I was ready to greet it and its atmosphere as if it were an old friend.  The well-trimmed gardens, the tree-lined paths; all of the UC campus immediately reminded me of my years at the University of Oregon.  The similarities, however, ended there.  I had returned to Academia after a three-year absence; an indulgent sabbatical where I worked and traveled around Spain, teaching the English language while improving my own knowledge of Spanish.  I decided to accept the University of Chicago’s offer to do a one-year Master’s program through the Center for Latin American Studies, otherwise known as CLAS, to continue my research interests in Latin American history.  I had completed my undergraduate thesis under professor Carlos Aguirre, who helped me in my writing on the role declassification has had on the official histories of the tumultuous and violent decades of authoritarianism in the Southern Cone.

When you spend time outside of the walls of the academy, its realities begin to take on a rather different, even romanticized look.  The razor-sharp, competitive edges are smoothed-over into a warm, inviting bear hug where everyone dives into their intellectual passions and research in an environment of a collaborative love of knowledge.  Or maybe that was just the University of Oregon.  The truth is, the University of Chicago was a different beast altogether.  The initial nine months (which invariably extended into my first sweltering Chicago summer), saw incredible mental stress, a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree shift in my research interests, and a game I played with the undergraduates rest of the master’s students called “catch up.”

I entered the CLAS Master’s program with a History degree and left one year later with an unbridled passion for Literature.  Indeed, it was Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The War of the End of the World and subsequently Brazilian history at the turn of the twentieth century that motivated me to apply in the first place.  I was hesitant to focus on literature, however, due to my undergraduate background and a lack of confidence in my ability to assimilate into the world of literary studies.  But all of that fades away on a campus, and here is where that cold intellectual bubble began to warm up a bit.  It was post-doctoral lecturer Rosario Granados-Salinas as well as historian Dain Borges who encouraged my interest in literature, and supported what would become my rather arabesque thesis project.

   Studying the Humanities is a daunting proposition these days.  Unless you are sure about that PhD, about entering the tenure-track race, about conference circuits, and about the viability of your research interests, studying literature can raise not a few eyebrows —especially if you’re footing most of the bill for that Master’s degree.  Nevertheless, literature became my new field of study, and (as with any discipline) there are centuries of writers, theorists and academics you must have read or at least “know” in some ambiguous, head-nodding way.  This is when “catch up” began in earnest.  I took a variety of courses and checked out piles of books from the library.  And I had to learn Portuguese. It wasn’t my best idea.

Immediately the difficulty set in.  I felt inferior in almost every sense of the word, and while such a feeling is as isolating as it gets, the staff and professors associated with Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as a few generous souls in the English department, helped me settle in.  With their encouragement, I discovered new avenues of research and slowly gained confidence in working in the Humanities, a field constantly battling the forces of darkness, otherwise known as the social and hard sciences.

My research eventually led me to a small field called Inter-American Studies, which studies connections across all disciplines between the North, Central and South America.  Vargas Llosa’s novel introduced me to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, whose monumental text Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) is a generic anomaly on the War of Canudos.  As chance would have it, I took a course called “Marx and Melville in the Global Nineteenth Century,” and to this day I am not sure if it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or my love of Moby-Dick, but before I knew it I was finding connections between these two works and the historical moments that drew Euclides da Cunha and Herman Melville to write their “Great Pan-American Novels.”  That was what I said, at least, to my adviser, whose response will stay in my mind forever: “Far out.”

   A Melville and da Cunha enthusiast himself, my adviser’s encouragement and his willingness to talk about role Herm and Euclides for hours in his office were invaluable to my year at University of Chicago and to my life outside of academia.  The excitement I felt and the inhuman amount of stress I put upon myself in writing my thesis are things I will never forget.  From within higher education, the passionate research you do seems like the most important thing you could possibly be doing.  Advisors and professors take issue for every argument you make and challenge you to articulate, research and think like you never have before.  The minute you step beyond those walls, however, the rigors of your daily life can easily relegate what was once so important to the backburner of your mind.


   But it doesn’t have to be that way.  What might seem opaque in the moment becomes lucid in hindsight.  Although I still teach during the day, at night I put on my academic spandex and fight the criminal banality of daily life.  I have started a podcast called “The Casual Academic.”  At first, it was very challenging to put a show together from scratch and discuss literature for a wider audience.  But preparing each episode is a chance for me to do what rigorous research Google permits me, articulate my ideas both verbally and on paper, and feel more and more that my master’s was worth it.  There is an incredible amount of academic literature available on authors like Umberto Eco, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald, and those discussions are always fruitful.  When we do episodes on authors that are not household names (Venedikt Erofeev, Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector), I hear the voice of my adviser telling me to remember my training, and I get to work.  Will I someday go back and pursue my dreams of a PhD?  An open question, up for interpretation and discussion.  For now, there are many ways to follow my interests, and I have my year at the University of Chicago to thank for showing me how.

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

Language and the Ancient History of a New World

Valeria López FadulProvost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

There was once in Mexico City a painter named Baltasar de Echave. It was a time (the early seventeenth century) when the city’s Basque community was thriving. Echave, a man of distinction, grew increasingly concerned with what he believed to be the demise of the Basque language. The New World and its promises of gold and never-ending wealth lured many young people into perpetual exile from their ancestral homelands in the Iberian Peninsula, causing them to abandon their ancient estates. When these men and women reached the Indies their descendants adopted Castilian for convenience and abandoned Basque. In the same way that the disappearance of the Taínos of Hispaniola brought about a formal end to their spoken tongues, Echave feared that Basque too would fade away.[i]

The languages of the Caribbean were declining, their only vestiges the islands’ place names. But the situation of Basque could still be reversed. This compelled Echave to publish a treatise entitled the Discursos de la antigüedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada in 1607In it he celebrated his language’s nobility and expressive qualities.

Above all, however, Echave’s treatise stressed the antiquity of Basque. Like many other early modern thinkers, Echave believed that Basque had been the primordial and most widespread tongue of Spain and that it held a special place amongst the languages of mankind, including those spoken in the Americas. Furthermore, Echave trusted that the rapidly changing linguistic situation of the Indies could illuminate many of the forces that had acted upon Basque before histories were recorded. It could help show how this once general tongue was now spoken only by a few.

In other words, an understanding of the history and development of ancient indigenous societies like those of Mesoamerica or the Andes region together with the many demographic, political, economic, and environmental transformations brought about by one hundred years of Spanish rule could serve scholars like Echave “as examples and live portraits of what it was once like in the Old World.” Language and its transformations represented a way to stream back to the unrecorded past, to gain insight into the experiences of previous generations, to learn about people’s origins and the histories of the regions they inhabited. Language was an archive of knowledge.

The early modern Hispanic territories, like all pre-modern societies, were multilingual. The Spanish king viewed this polyglossia as a necessary corollary of ruling over the wide array of lands, climates, and natures that made up his vast composite realms. Writers of all genres were invested in studying languages and considered the knowledge that words contained as central to resolving a great variety of questions. Etymology, or the study of names, had the capacity to reveal great amounts of information about the objects that words signified and could be approached in diverse ways. These ranged from the exegetical to the mystical, to the historical, to the philosophical. Place names contained traces of their founders. The names of plants and animals revealed traces of those who had named them. The words used to designate objects and rituals betrayed clues about their purposes and functions.

Pages upon pages of etymological discussions abound in the writings of the first chroniclers of the Indies. Throughout the course of my research on the philosophy of language in early Latin America I came to appreciate the significance of these extensive linguistic digressions. They offer a window into the ways in which native authorities explained the foundation of their towns, their genealogies, and the order of the flora and fauna that surrounded them.

The island of Hispaniola, only recently known by its Hispanic appellation, was actually, and more meaningfully, called Haití. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1457–1526), like most sixteenth-century chroniclers of the Indies, began his history of the Caribbean by presenting the etymology of the words that the natives used to designate their homeland. He distinguished between their ancient language and their current one and attempted to explain the reasoning behind the toponyms. The primitive inhabitants of those islands had given first the name of Quizqueia and then Haití to Hispaniola. These denominations, he warned, “were not the children of fickleness, but of the meaning that they had.” Quizqueia is “a big thing that does not have an equal.” This word signified “vastness, universe, everything.” Martire compared this name to the word Pan (all) that the Greeks used to refer to their islands, since, like the Caribbean Indians, they believed that their “magnitude was the whole orb, and that the sun does not warm anything else [but theirs] and the neighboring islands.”

Haití was equally expressive. It signified, in the ancient language of the islanders, roughness. The natives of Haití applied the designation to the whole territory, through metonymy. In many parts of Haití “expanses of steep mounts can be found, thick and terrifying jungles, and fearful and dark valleys given the altitude of its mounts, and in other parts it is very pleasant.” In their use of metonymy, Martire reflected that the Indians resembled the poets that sometimes referred to all of Italy as Lazio (Latium), which was formally the name of one central region. Quizqueia contained clues as to the native’s worldview and Haití information about the physical landscape of the island.[ii]

Martire’s intellectual rival Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478–1557) used the study of names to convey his authoritative eyewitness status when describing countless plants and animals previously unknown to Europeans. The iguanas that lived throughout the islands and on the mainland were not, as Martire had claimed, similar to the crocodiles of the Egyptian Nile. These new world “dragons” were much smaller than those creatures. It was unclear to Oviedo whether they were aquatic or terrestrial and whether they could be consumed during Lent. That was best for each to decide.

Despite his uncertainties, Oviedo could attest to their size, since he had seen many of them and even kept a few in his home. The “yuana,” he explained meticulously, “is pronounced and after a short interval u and then the three subsequent letters ana are uttered together, and in this way in the whole name [one] makes two stops in the manner in which it has been described.”[iii] Oviedo went to great pains to replicate the sounds of the animal’s native name.

When Echave published his book 50 years after the death of Oviedo, his friend Fernándo de Ojeda composed a short prologue to exalt the treatise’s accomplishments.  Thinking about the linguistic change that had ensued since the arrival of the first Spaniards as a consequence of conquest and population demise, Ojeda challenged the notion that the spread of empire is always accompanied by the complete linguistic assimilation of those defeated. “Even though it is true,” Ojeda conceded, “that, as it has always been said, conquerors and their languages consume the speeches of vanquished peoples: This does not apply to the names of provinces, mountains, rivers, and springs, even if they are a bit altered, as we experience in the infinite provinces of these Indies, which still conserve with little variation its ancient names, because even though we renamed many of them in the Spanish fashion: these have been forgotten or have fallen out of use altogether and the old names of the Indians prevail, even after all of them have died-out in some parts.” Ojeda presented the case of the Caribbean islands and other regions in the mainland, like “Cuba, which the Spaniards named in the beginning Fernandina,” and also “in HabanaBayamoJamayca, Yucatan, ChapultepecCampeche, Mexico, Mechuacan, Tezcuco, Tlaxcala and Cholula, which are all Indian words.”[iv] The omnipresence of long-winded and excruciatingly detailed etymological discussions, despite seeming fantastical and naive to a modern reader, reveals just how central they were to the early modern scholar in ascertaining and presenting to a distant audience reliable and authoritative local knowledge.

 Plantin Press, 1598). Original in the Jonh Carter Brown Library at Brown University.Detail from Abraham Ortelius’ map of Cuba and surrounding islands showing the names Hispaniola and “Ayti.” Abraham Ortelius, “Hispaniolae, Cubae, aliarumque insularum circumiacientium, delineatio,” Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: Plantin Press, 1598). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.


Detail from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Historia general y natural de las Indias. 1a. parte (Sevilla: En la emprenta de Juana Cromberg, 1535). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



[i] Baltasar de Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada compuestos por Balthasar de Echave, natural de la Villa de Çumaya en la Provincia de Guipuzcoa, y vezino de Mexico.(Mexico : Henrrico Martínez, 1607), 83r.-84v.

[ii] Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, Décadas del Nuevo Mundo, trans. by Edmundo O’Gorman (México: J. Porrúa, 1964), 2 vols., Decade III, Book VII, p. 351.

[iii] Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo, Historia General de las Indias, islas y tierra firme del mar océano (Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, 1851), Book XII, Cap. VII, pp. 392-396, p. 393.

[iv]  Fray Hernando de Ojeda, “ Fray Hernando de Ojeda de la orden de Santo Domingo a su amigo, Balthasar de Echave en loor de esta obra,” in Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.