Doctor María Teresa Rodríguez spent over 20 years working with the Nahuas of the Zongolica mountains who have kept Aztec traditions alive to this day. In this conversation, she shares her research and personal experiences with this community.
The main theme of her research has been the social organization and ritual processes in different interethnic regions of Mexico, especially among the Nahuas of Central Veracruz and currently in Mazatec localities in Southern Veracruz.
She is a member of the Academy of Rural Processes, Identity, Culture and of the Society of the Institute of Historical-Social Research at the University of Veracruz (Universidad Veracruzana). She has participated in various conferences organized by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
Dr. María Teresa Rodríguez was interviewed by Magali Delgado on March 22, 2021 on a Zoom Video Conference. The interview was conducted in Spanish. The transcript has been translated to English and edited for clarity.
Magali: Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this project. The questions that I am going to ask you are closely related to your article “Rituals of death and relationship in the tradition of the Sierra Nahua Zongolica.” I would like to start by asking, can we consider the Nahua community of the Sierra Zongolica as descendants of the Aztecs from pre-colonial times? Alternately, how would you describe that relationship?
Dr. Rodriguez: No, the Nahua community’s Aztec origin cannot be considered linear. The Aztecs are an ethnic group from Aztlán, hence their name Azteca. They settled in central Mexico where other ethnic groups were also formed. The central component of these groups are people known as Mexicas. So, the Nahuas of Zongolica have a cultural heritage that is pre-Hispanic, of course, it is closely linked to the Mexica history because the Nahuas colonized other pre-Hispanic ethnic groups that had other languages. So, the Nahuas of the Sierra de Zongolica do not originally come from central Mexico, but rather from Tula, which is a site that is located in what is now the State of Hidalgo. So, the Nahua community is not a direct linear descendant, but there is a very narrow cultural influence that has its origin in archaic migrations that give rise to the formation of the Mexicas in central Mexico and, from there, to the formation of other ethnic groups that are linked to this cultural heritage. So, the Nahuas of the Sierra de Zongolica are rather from Tula, from an ethnic group called Nonoalca-Chichimeca. That group comes from the center of the country as well, but not exactly from the Mexican capital. The Nahuas of Zongolica were, let us say, subordinated to the Mexica in some way because the Mexica controlled much of the Mesoamerican territory and imposed their language. Their original language was perhaps Chocho-Popoloca before the Mexica arrived to colonize and impose their dominion over the lands of this area of eastern Mexico. Today, they speak a language that is certainly very similar to the one used by the Mexicas; it is a Nahuatl language that preserves many linguistic elements of the original Mexican from central Mexico.
“They recognize themselves as Mexicans, as part of the Mexican nation; as Mexicaneros, as speakers of Mexican or Nahuatl; and as Macehuales, that is, poor peasants.”
Magali: Based on your experience, how do the members of the Nahua community identify themselves? What is their national identity?
Dr. Rodriguez: They consider themselves Mexicans in two ways. On one hand, in reference to their Mexican nationalism. That is, people know that they belong to the Mexican nation. On the other hand, because of their language, they are known as Mexican speakers. In other words, they consider Nahuatl as Mexican. Náhuatl is a category more linked to the anthropological tradition, with this ethnohistorical research that places them as speakers of a Nahua language. Many times, they also call themselves Mexicaneros because they speak that language. There is another self-denomination called Macehuales, which means something like “poor peasant”.
The macehuales are also the peasant people of the traditional indigenous culture and who are conceived as heirs of this Mexican tradition in the most original sense of the language. Macehual was also a word used in pre-Hispanic Mexico to speak of the lowest category of Mexican social organization. The Macehuales were, certainly, the poor peasants who were, very often, subordinated to compulsory labor by the higher classes. That is also an interesting cultural heritage, it is a term that comes from the pre-Hispanic social organization and that is preserved until today to designate the lowest group of the socioeconomic hierarchy. The Macehual is the poor peasant.
“It is important to clarify that all this is a dynamic process and we cannot say that all the inhabitants of this indigenous region have a consciousness, a self-description, and a homogeneous knowledge about themselves and about their culture and their own history.”
In short, they recognize themselves as Mexicans, as part of the Mexican nation; as Mexicaneros, as speakers of Mexican or Nahuatl; and as Macehuales, that is, poor peasants.
It is important to clarify that all this is a dynamic process and we cannot say that all the inhabitants of this indigenous region have a consciousness, a self-description, and a homogeneous knowledge about themselves and about their culture and their own history. There is a great social and cultural diversity, a heterogeneity in which young people, for example, have another type of awareness of themselves and of their place in the Mexican nation.
So, it is very difficult to speak in general terms about what an indigenous group is because it is heterogeneous, and it is a continuous process of change and acculturation. Many young people are no longer fluent in the language like their parents and grandparents. There is a linguistic displacement and there is also a displacement of certain cultural knowledge and practices. I do not want to give the impression that everything is static and homogeneous in these communities. The changes are derived from globalization, education, transnational migration, internal migration, and other multiple processes that are continuously changing the practices and ways of thinking of indigenous groups.
Magali: True, it is very important to highlight the dynamics and diversity of these groups. Do you think that the dissemination of the cultural richness of these groups through cultural institutions, for example through museums and universities, could bring some benefit to the life of these communities? Could cultural institutions benefit from knowledge of these uses and customs?
Dr. Rodriguez: Certainly, it is very important to know other ways of thinking and other ways of living in the world. It is what anthropology calls a worldview. There are visions of the cosmos that contribute a lot to our own lives as inhabitants of a multicultural society. For these traditions, I think it is super important to keep them, know them, value them, and claim them because they are alive. As I said before, although there are processes of change and displacement of some practices, there is also a persistence, a hard core. The work of the historian Alfredo López Austin is very important to our knowledge of Mesoamerican ideology. He talks about the fact that there is a hard core of this pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican religious thought that remains. It remains reworked, re-signified, transformed in some elements, but finally it is a central base of beliefs and practices that persist. It is exciting and very surprising that after so many centuries it remains alive. For example, it is what motivates your research project. I believe that it is very important to value and recognize their persistence and, that is why, anthropologists have the task of understanding these permanencies, not only as static elements but also incorporated into current related dynamics and as part of daily life.
“[T]hese pre-Hispanic elements around death are closely linked with elements of the Catholic-Christian religion, which these cultures have adapted and made permanent. These are syncretic processes where some elements remain and others are added. That, in the end, makes space for new forms. That is why they are called “Mesoamerican religions.”
In addition, as written about in the article that you kindly read, these pre-Hispanic elements around death are closely linked with elements of the Catholic-Christian religion, which these cultures have adapted and made permanent. These are syncretic processes where some elements remain and others are added. That, in the end, makes space for new forms. That is why they are called “Mesoamerican religions” which means that they are not intact and that they contain Christian elements. That is to say, they are syncretized and that they make up their own belief system. A belief system that is not fully accepted by the Catholic Church because there are many things that it does not share with these practices.
I consider that it is vital to continue knowing and spreading this knowledge. That the people, both those who are part of these peoples and the wider society, the mestizo society, value the importance of having a multicultural society. That is why I think what you are doing is important because it is an opportunity to show those connections and those links.
Magali: Thank you. From the first days of this work, I have had in mind that part of my audience will be people who have Mexican origins, but who are born outside of Mexico and do not have a way to connect directly with their culture. My next question is: In your opinion, what is the fundamental reason that allowed these rituals and all these traditions to be perpetuated since pre-Hispanic times? What is the main reason why they have not been lost?
Dr. Rodríguez: Well, there are several causes. One of them, in the case of the Sierra de Zongolica, where I have worked and other indigenous regions of the country and the continent, has a lot to do with geographic isolation. This area was very isolated for a long time. Even though since colonial times this area was evangelized, it is a mountainous area in which access was difficult. The names of the places, the toponyms, show an early colonization because they are preceded with the names of patron saints. For example, Teshuacan is called San Juan Teshuacan. The indigenous municipality of Tequila is called San Pedro Tequila. So, they respected part of the toponymy, but they named it after an evidently Catholic patron saint as an imposition of the Franciscans who were the first to evangelize the area. However, it was not an in-depth evangelization process. There was, perhaps, a parish priest who did not have the means to do the deeper work of evangelization and, even if he had done so, the people would have continued to do a process of symbolic re-elaboration of these elements.
On the other hand, there was physical distancing from the mestizo society. During the colony, republics of Indians were organized. It was a colonial institution that allowed a continuity of cultural elements and social organization. It allowed the development of religious beliefs and practices, and of course Spanish external elements, organizational, symbolic, religious, social and economic elements were imposed. But that did not prevent the existence of a much deeper cultural substrate that could continue to be reworked and adapted to changing conditions.
Another very important and closely related element is the maintenance of the language. As you know, language is a profound expression through which the basic notions of thought and culture are transmitted. By keeping the language alive, basic elements of Mesoamerican culture and religious thoughts are also maintained.
“By keeping the language alive, basic elements of Mesoamerican culture and religious thoughts are also maintained.”
Magali: Your comments on the language are very interesting.
Dr. Rodríguez: Yes, because language is the vehicle through which we transmit concepts of the world that are, sometimes, untranslatable into a different language. If the language remains alive, the thought systems will also remain. However, it must be clarified that there has been a process of religious diversification that has a much deeper impact on the processes of change of beliefs, especially religious practices. The new religions in the mountain area are still not very significant as in the state of Chiapas, for example. In any case, there is a religious diversity, which ends up prohibiting certain ritual practices related to death. As I said in one section of the article, for the evangelicals of the municipalities where I was, the days of the dead are moments in which they are required to pray to counteract the intense activity of traditionalist Catholic people. For them, death is something else and they have other types of practices. They are openly rejecting the older beliefs and ritual practices around death. And there is a deeper process of change in terms of worldview and rituality.
Magali: The next question might feel more personal. Your work describes these traditions in detail. Other works contain more statistics and demographic questions, but do not offer details of the rituals as you do. What are the most significant experiences you had during living with these groups? What was it that most impressed you, moved you?
Dr. Rodríguez: That is a very good question. This has been a work of several years, and there have been very intense experiences. Especially in the form of the knowledge of people with another way of thinking and being in the world. This work gave me a lot of personal growth. It was also very enriching to be able to build lasting and deep relationships with the people of the area. I made very good friends. I even became a comadre because I was godmother at the baptism of two children from the mountains. I had very strong ties with some families there. In addition, the experience of being with them in the mountains, of walking in the mist, of doing many interviews. Anthropology offers us the possibility of getting closer to the others and of detaching ourselves from our notions, from our assumptions which we sometimes do not question at all. It helps us question all those assumptions we have about ourselves, the meaning of life and death, what human relationships are. Well, now that you ask me, the most beautiful thing is walking through the mountains with people, with great security, with great tranquility. I never felt any danger. Today things have changed. As you know, here in Mexico it is already more difficult to do that type of work, especially for women. I got to enjoy a time when it was very safe to walk through those mountains.
In general, learning to accept the other as s/he is, building, as I said, deep friendships. The smells of firewood, of the forest, of the countryside.
Magali: How long did your research take?
Dr. Rodríguez: Well, I did field work in the mountains for my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. It was not a continuous period but several periods over many years, like 20 years. That allowed me to have a deep approach because I worked in different municipalities and not in a single locality. That allowed me to have a more general vision and not to be micro-located in a small town. I had a regional vision. This also allowed me to do a little more extensive work on different aspects of the culture. I specialized more in the ritual practices but migration and domestic organization also interested me a lot. The most significant experience of my professional life has been this field work in the mountains.
Magali: Is there any learning from your life in the mountains that is still part of your personal life? Any tradition, an idea that has marked your life or that you have adopted for your own life?
Dr. Rodríguez: Well yes, I believe I gained an increased respect for the other, respect for nature, and acceptance of the other. The people of the mountains have a very respectful way of being. It is a very ritualized type of behavior, very parsimonious, and with a very particular modulation. People are discreet, they are reserved, and they have these notions of respecting the other, of not disrupting the environment. You must ask permission from the natural elements before picking a flower or collecting firewood. You also must ask for permission to enter a house and to speak. That notion of respect is rooted in culture.
“The Tlalocan was for the Mexicas of pre-Hispanic times, an underground space where animal and plant species lived. There were water deposits that supported life. For the Nahuas, the Tlalocan has the same meaning. So, you must be respectful of those conduits that are below the earth because they have an owner in the supernatural terrain. That is a pre-Hispanic notion that today is very much alive. Not only among the Nahuas of the Sierra de Zongolica but in almost all of Mesoamerica.”
Magali: Could we say that this notion of respect comes from pre-Hispanic antecedents?
Dr. Rodríguez: You make me think about it right now. Yes, pre-Hispanic religion was extremely demanding, with a lot of sacrifice. Always making offerings to nature and deities. For these people, natural elements have life, they have an owner. The earth is a living and sacred entity, the water also has an owner. So, it seems that these notions come from before. The Tlalocan was for the Mexicas of pre-Hispanic times, an underground space where animal and plant species lived. There were water deposits that supported life For the Nahuas, the Tlalocan has the same meaning. So, you must be respectful of those conduits that are below the earth because they have a supernatural owner. That is a pre-Hispanic notion that today is very much alive. Not only among the Nahuas of the Sierra de Zongolica but in almost all of Mesoamerica.
In Mesoamerican literature there are many works that talk about the owners of animals and places. They are the deities that are under the earth or in the sky. It is a very complex concept related to deities.
Magali: Thank you very much for your time and for this wonderful opportunity to chat with you.