South of the Border
San Cristobal las Casas, a mountain town in Southern Mexico, supplies the Indians of the surrounding hills with hardware, priests, guns and other essentials. Among the town's small traders and farmers, few are envied as much as Domingo de la Torre Perez, who serves as a paid informer for Harvard University.
This friendly young man of 27 is one of several persons hired by an anthropological outpost to help explain the social and economic structure of his native municipio, Zinacantan. Domingo's special taste, however, is for matters political, and he has been sending sporadic letters to Professor Evon Vogt's Bow Street office describing the great power struggle in his part of the world.
As they accumulate, the letters tell of the life and hard times of Mariano Zarate, a small-time Carmine DeSapio, jailed earlier this year for sanctioning the lynching of several witches. A contented politician who controls jobs and favors, Mariano has consistently opposed the schools, medical centers, and agricultural improvements sponsored by the federal government. His political opponent, Antonio Lopes, not only argues for the modern reforms but proved instrumental in sending Mariano to jail.
Domingo, meanwhile, not transmitted the grisly details back to Cambridge but spent much of this summer discussing the Zinacantan scene with a group of undergraduates in San Cristobal. The students, most of whom came from Harvard, we sponsored by a joint summer field studies program, designed in 1959 to train college students at anthropological centers in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, as well as in Mexico.
This past summer, incidentally, none of the students were anthropology concentrators. Susan E. Carey '64, a Psychology concentrator, studied the relations between Indians and latinos (Indians who have adopted Mexican dress and language). Nicholas H. Acheson '63 analyzed the distinctions Zinacantacans use in classifying animals and birds (harmless/harmful; running/slithering; omening well/omening ill...). Matthew B Edel '62 undertook a history of the ejido land reform, and Allen Young, a senior at Columbia, studied the economics of corn marketing in San Cristobal.
Last year's participants consider the program remarkably flexible and exciting. They point out that many student, even those who travel, overlook the advantages of a detailed and disciplined study in a specific area. It is a further credit to the program that the students are quite well liked in San Cristobal. Coming to learn, they have developed a capacity for give-and-take that Americans rarely achieve when they come to teach or proselytize.
The problems existing in San Cristobal and the neighboring villages are important and dramatic ones. Can progress be imposed on a community that senses no alternative to poverty, illiteracy and superstition? Can economic and social reform be achieved amongst people who have not yet articulated the need for it?
The field studies program meets such questions with intelligence and humility. And perhaps one of Professor Vogt's new applicants (applications are due at 8 Bow Street by the end of the month) will be able to explain the latest narrative in Dominago's wondrous narrative: Mariano Zarate, recently released, has returned to power in the Zinacantan municipio.