To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965. – Review

To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965. – Review – book review

Julie A. Charlip

To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965. By Jeffrey L. Gould (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. xiv plus 305 pp. $18.95/paperback $54.95/cloth).

A few years ago, a Brazilianist casually mentioned to me that there were no indigenous people in Nicaragua outside the Atlantic Coast. Jeffrey L. Gould shows that to be a common misunderstanding even within Nicaragua, and one that generations of leaders and intellectuals actively sought to construct.

In To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965, Gould sets out to describe “the tensions and ambiguities that characterized the relationship between the highlands indigenous communities and the forces of assimilation throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” (p. 10) He succeeds ably at his goal in this well-written and wonderfully researched but certainly not unproblematic work. It is in those very tensions and ambiguities that Gould raises questions that are not easily answered.

To Die in This Way brings to life long-lost stories of indigenous struggle, survival and transformation. The Indians who supposedly disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, according to the oft-quoted Jaime Wheelock, are alive, if not well, and using a variety of strategies to improve their lot. The indigenous of Matagalpa joined Conservative forces to wrest changes in land and labor laws from Jose Santos Zelaya, a detour not usually seen in literature that discusses Zelaya’s steady march to “progress.” Indigenous struggle was so pronounced that the government sought not to eliminate but to coopt and control the population, for example, creating Comunidades Indigenas in Boaco and Camoapa in the early twentieth century–communities that as outside creations did not correspond to real community interests and were dominated by ladinos.

The struggles often had mixed results: While the indigenous of Sutiaba were unable stop annexation by Leon in 1902, they won approval of statutes of a Comunidad Indigena in 1918, along with the right to tax palm leaf shelters at Poneloya Beach. Squashed again with the Liberal revolution of 1926, the community united in the 193Os to halt removal of a tree that shaded mourners in a cemetery, which was in the path of a planned airstrip, until a building could be constructed to take its place. Even in the 1950s, the Sutiabans–who for at least a decade seemed no different from the lower class in general, rose up to elect a new governing board of the long-dormant Comunidad Indigena and protest the fencing off of land during the cotton boom.

Why have these stories disappeared? Gould offers several explanations. One is that the government and intellectuals consciously created a myth of mestizaje, partly to eliminate indigenous land claims and partly to create a supposedly homogeneous, “civilized” nation–a common Latin American concern of the era. This myth was elaborated and generalized via the discourse on Nicaragua, and while Gould devotes much of his attention to discourse and the power of language, his examination is rooted in the very real material circumstances of what happened to these communities.

And what happened was complex: Indigenous communities were far from united. For example, some indigenous landholders in Sutiaba welcomed annexation, using it to buy more property, increasing inequality in the community. Memories of complicity are uncomfortable for indigenous descendants and certainly wouldn’t be embraced by Sandinistas looking for heroic images of unity in their construction of a new Nicaragua born of the old.

In other cases, repression was so severe that the community abandoned its ethnicity, as in the aftermath of 1954 events in Camoapa, when mayor Hugo Cerna Baca stole the community’s original colonial deed and was assassinated, leading to a wave of repression that included imprisonment and torture.

The results are an incomplete mestizaje: one in which some communities chose or were forced to assimilate; in which self-proclaimed indigenous are not seen as authentic if they have become educated enough to press their claims; in which differences between and among indigenous groups makes it impossible to easily characterize them.

In his introduction, Gould raises the most provocative of questions: “If the children of the indigenas did not care about the history of the Comunidades, why should I bother attempting to reconstruct their history? Worse, wasn’t I potentially attributing identities to them that derive from Western categories soaked in nostalgia? Who was I, then, to devise ethnic identities around the stories of people who rejected those identities as irrelevant?” (p. 2)

In the end, the answers are by no means clear. The definition of what it means to be indigenous remains vague. Gould concludes: “The analysis of an ensemble of ethnic markers and traits in terms of retention or loss … does very little to aid our understanding of the history or reality of indigenous communities.” (p. 288) But if language, dress, land, political and religious organization are gone as markers, what is left?

Gould’s answer is that the definition of ethnicity lies in “the people’s collective memory of specific forms of oppression and conflict rather than in language and material culture.” (p. 3) That approach contributes to his view that, in the last analysis, it does not matter that the ethnic discourse of the indigenous is weak, since under Sandinista leadership it has been replaced with a “universal language of justice and human rights.” (p. 292)

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