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Calixta in Chiapas

By Graziella Pogolotti

Translation: Julián López


Calixta Guiteras HolmesTony and Calixta Guiteras Holmes inherited from their parents a precious legacy, which involved the entire lives of both brother and sister. From their father, they received testimonies of the Mambisa traditions. Their mother transmitted legendary tales about the heroes of the Irish struggle for independence. Those sources nourished them before they began their formal schooling.

Just after his adolescence, Tony devoted himself fully to the cause which drove him to fight, first, against Machado, later, against Batista. The repressive dictatorial regime had to be brought down, that was the starting point toward gaining the country´s full sovereignty, based on genuine social justice.

A legend conserved in the people´s memory, Guiteras became a paradigm. Calixta was by his side in the revolutionary struggle. When the hero finally fell, she went into exile. She returned to live permanently to Cuba after the triumph of the Revolution.

Fragile in appearance, with an unbreakable will to serve, refined in her movements, tastes and manners, Calixta owed those qualities to her family, a very poor one in monetary terms. Tony had to work at a very young age as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman for his own survival and to help his family.

Exiled in Mexico, the work of Calixta Guiteras constitutes, along with that of Alberto Ruiz, Cuba´s contribution to the development of that country´s anthropology. She had access to the most advanced bibliography of her times and she, especially, carried out fieldwork under very difficult conditions, in places where the neglect of the representatives of our continent´s ancient civilizations was the greatest.

Today, Chiapas is known internationally, although quickly covered up by ulterior events—the economic crisis, the wars in the Middle East, the violence of the drug cartels, the Murdoch scandal—its  protagonism would be brief. From the depths of underdevelopment, by efficiently using contemporary forms of communication, the MZLN, inspired by Ernesto Che Guevara, employed a somewhat postmodern speech, capable of drawing attention to an otherwise unknown place called San Cristóbal de las Casas and to its unprotected Indian population.

Long before that, in the 1940s, Calixta Guiteras had already been there. Due to her professional formation and background, her view was not stained, as often happens, by colonialist science. She studied its origins and described aspects of the existing transculturization, which by the way were very superficial. To her, it was more important to observe the clash between the cultures of the mestizos, assimilated to the urban context, owners of the small trade business, tied to money and profit, eager to exploit the others, those descendants of the original inhabitants, loyal to their traditions and settled in their community lands. Objective facts prove to the clever reader that the first ones would devour the weaker ones if the proper steps were not taken to protect them with a legal system which recognized the values of a civilization about to succumb, so frail was it in Mexico´s borders.

The solution is not to apply protectionist measures to guarantee a reserve for exotic human groups. The answer must be born out of an analysis that combines the information pertaining to anthropology with that of sociology and economy. Cultural multiplicity is as necessary for the conservation of the species as is biodiversity, constantly talked about in the world, in spite of the fact that its rhetoric does not coincide with the ever more urgent and unavoidable necessary actions.

In a novel whose title slips my mind, which is holding on to modernity, Mario Vargas Llosa predicted the inevitable death of marginalized civilizations due to progress. However, the challenges of contemporary society move us to another perspective. The present value system in the Chiapas imagination sustains a harmonic relationship between Man and Nature, centered on respect for the dictates of Mother Earth. That conviction is based on a philosophy of life. The use of one´s land becomes part of the preservation of the common good in the community´s territory. The social structure imposed by colonialism favored the development of practices which turned into the contaminating germs of conflicts between mestizos and Indians, as Calixta Guiteras then observed, adding that they would lead to the violent execution of economic power and would configure an ever more explosive scenario.

It’s good to read Calixta Guiteras once again. That is why the recent edition of several of her essays, entitled México indígena, published by the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, is so useful. It is one way of paying homage to this unique woman and it also becomes a necessary step toward taking on the urgent deed of rescuing the history of Cuban anthropological thought. The role this science has come to play in the academic world of the big power centers is well known. But, we should not, nevertheless, discard it. From another perspective, its instruments contribute to a better knowledge of ourselves. As it occurs in social sciences, interdisciplinary ties imply the indispensable exchange of knowledge. Born without the baptismal faith which named it, the mother cell of an anthropological point of view begins to express itself among us in the 19th century. Then, José Martí arose and would later grow in the interstices of ethnic studies.

It took shape in the corresponding institute of the Science Academy. But, it is lacking the necessary formalization in the University sphere. It is urgent that we value our own tradition, start a conceptual debate and publicize the results of contemporary research in this field.

Calixta Guiteras Holmes

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