Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kirstin C. Erickson - Lonely Ranchers, Solitary Students, and Angry Governors: Personal Vulnerability and Community Conflict in Yaqui Emotion Talk

Film homage, "The Yaqui," 1916, Pascola dancer, New  Pascua, Arizona by David Lee Guss.
This is a Yaqui Pascola dancer taking part in a ritualized dance at New Pascua village, south of Tucson, Arizona. This is a very rare image of a Yaqui in costume. They now ban cameras during their ceremonies.

My learning team had to choose a local minority culture to study for our class on multicultural counseling. One of the local tribes is the Pascua Yaqui, a group related to the Yaqui of Mexico (they were forced into Arizona by the Mexican government in one of their many wars, during which - they remember with pride - they were never defeated and never surrendered) that Carlos Castaneda pretended to study in his faked Ph.D. paper and continued to write about in his many books of fiction - see this Salon article for an overview of Castaneda's fraud.

Anyway, in researching the Yaqui views on psychology, emotions, and spirituality, I came across this excellent, long article about their emotional lives. It also includes a good bit of history and culture information of this fascinating people.

What strikes me is how emotionally intelligent they are, both intrapersonally and interpersonally. We could learn a lot from them in this regard. Anger and sadness are very central and very important - people exhibiting strong anger are a danger to the tribe and those expressing extreme sadness are a danger to themselves. What we see in the Yaqui is how emotions are intersubjectively constructed - an idea only now gaining currency in Western psychology.

On the other hand, they tend to label people as to their dominant emotion - a way to track them and also to serve as a warning to those who do not know that person. For example, someone quick to anger is corajudo.

One other thing also strikes me - they have an extremely integrated approach to mental health (which we are only now discovering and implementing in any real sense) that includes the family, the elders, actual medicine, and often a Curandera (a female medicine person).

This article focuses on the Yaqui culture in Mexico.

Lonely Ranchers, Solitary Students, and Angry Governors: Personal Vulnerability and Community Conflict in Yaqui Emotion Talk

Western Folklore, Winter 2009 by Erickson, Kirstin C


This article explores emotion discourses in a northern Mexican community. For Yaqui Indians, extreme emotional states are considered perilous: "anger" and "sadness" threaten community and jeopardize the self. The folklore of emotion - verbal acts and cautionary tales - reveals Yaqui emotion-talk to be an intersubjective, deeply significant commentary on humanness itself.

KEYWORDS: folk belief, Indian, Yaqui, emotion, cautionary tales

In the spring of 2002, I returned to Potam, the desert town in which I had lived for fourteen months in the late 1990s while conducting ethnographic research on narrative and identity formation among the Yaquis, a Mexican indigenous tribe. Located in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, Potam is one of eight towns originally founded on Yaqui aboriginal territory in the early 1600s at the behest of Jesuit missionaries determined to consolidate and Christianize the indigenous inhabitants on the northwestern cusp of New Spain. Today, Potam remains one of more than a dozen culturally vibrant, yet economically challenged, Yaqui communities, and home to Yaqui families still farming and ranching along the banks of the Yaqui River. On a bright May morning, I balanced myself on the best of the wobbly wooden chairs beneath Julia's palm-thatched kitchen ramada, swatting flies and trying to keep cool as I soaked up the news about events and happenings that had impacted acquaintances since my previous visit.1

One of the first stories Julia recounted was about her cousin Dora, who had recently been abandoned by her husband. Ernesto, an agricultural engineer, had moved out of the family compound and was currently living with a woman in Vicam Pueblo. "He hardly ever returns to visit his sons," Julia scolded, "and have you seen her? She is really suffering." I had not yet seen Dora, but that night, Julia's sister elaborated, "She has lost a lot of weight because she is sad. It's been months since she's seen him." Even Benito, now in his late teens, exclaimed that his cousin Dora had become "so thin, so thin. We're worried about her; she is too sad." Throughout my visit, friends and members of Dora's family called my attention to her condition, to the sadness in her eyes and how her body had diminished in appearance, the bony silhouette of a once sturdy figure.

Their talk reminded me of a story that my key consultant Alejandra had shared in 1997 about a Yaqui widow whose excessive mourning and unrelenting sadness had caused her intestines to dry up and her body to waste away, resulting in her premature death and the orphaning of her young children. In more general terms, the family's worries about Dora's condition brought to the surface my own distinct memories of fieldwork with the Yaquis and the intensity of their focus on the emotions of anger, sadness, and loneliness.

Potam is one of nearly two-dozen indigenous communities that constitute the backbone of today's Yaqui Reserve, sometimes referred to as the Zona Indegena (Indigenous Zone). The reserve, encompassing less than half of the Yaquis' aboriginal territory, was granted to the Yaqui people by presidential decree in 1937 (Hu-DeHart 1984; Lutes 1987; Spicer 1980), only after they had endured decades of political repression, displacement from their land by military-supported Mexican settlers, and, for thousands of Yaquis, exile and forced labor in the henequen fields of the Yucaton peninsula (Hu-DeHart 1984; PadillaRamos 1995). This history of conflict and struggle remains a significant factor in the narrative construction of Yaqui ethnic identity (Erickson 2008). As one of Mexico's indigenous minorities who have fought to retain their land and have chosen to maintain their indigenous identity and their religious traditions, the Yaquis find themselves culturally marginalized within the broader Mexican society. As small-scale farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, the Yaquis find it difficult to compete in the highly mechanized world of Sonoran agribusiness. The Yaqui Reserve lacks infrastructure, unemployment is pervasive, and those who venture to nearby cities face the subtle racism of ethnic stereotyping. Not surprisingly, many Yaquis (who strongly identify with their land and cultural traditions) prefer to stay in their home pueblos and villages. There, they can depend on a network of family and ritual kin; when necessary, they can rely upon the economic safety net generated through the Yaqui ceremonial complex and its accompanying system of reciprocity and mutual obligation.

Yaquis with whom I have worked portray emotional states as being inseparable from mental stability, physical well-being, and community accord. Everyday narratives reveal (and at the same time construct) a striking concern with emotionality as Yaqui women and men closely monitor the emotional health of family members, ritual kin, and neighbors. Most Yaqui villages and towns are small, face-to-face communities in which people are well aware of one another's family histories, personal successes, failed relationships, and daily habits. So it may not be surprising that even in larger pueblos such as Potam (with a population of over 5,000) talk about emotion figures, to some degree, is the constitution of local knowledge; emotional well-being is often foregrounded as an important component of the stability of both self and community. States of anger and sadness are considered especially risky: anger catalyzes social discord, while sadness (tristeza) - caused by loss or loneliness and often characterized by withdrawal or pensiveness - endangers the self. Discourses about social conflict are peppered with references to "anger," and cautionary tales are employed to expose the vulnerabilities precipitated by solitude. Such discourses circulate widely, serving to warn those who exhibit dangerous emotions. Sad or lonely people are carefully observed for signs of deepening and perilous tristeza; they are cared for and distracted, in order that the effects of an emotional spike might be fleeting, or at least contained. In this article, I explore those everyday Yaqui comments and stories that trace political conflict and individual illness to underlying, potentially hazardous emotions. I argue that such talk, and the emotional troubleshooting that typically follows, expose Yaqui concepts of the self, embodiment, and relationality, demonstrating an intersubjectivity that is considered foundational to both community and individual well-being.


I am not the first anthropologist to notice the proliferation of emotion-talk among the Yaquis. In 1978, Jane Holden Kelley published the life history narratives of four Yaqui women, entitled Yaqui Women: Contemporary Life Histories. In her introduction to that volume, Kelley describes the Yaqui lexical system for discerning personality types and emotional dispositions. These "behavioral constellations," as she calls them, include the "happy" (alegre) person and the "sad" (triste), the "hard," the quick to anger (corajudo); while adult females were also sometimes singled out as "good" (buena) or "bad" (mala) (Kelley [1978] 199L64-68).2 According to Kelley,

Yaquis recognize several behavioral constellations as non-unique, recurrent phenomena constituting an expectable range of behavioral variation in Yaqui society. Some are named, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that certain Spanish terms in common usage are a kind of verbal shorthand for conveying information about an individual's behavior or personality. ([1978] 1991:64)

I had read Yaqui Women long before going into the field but had forgotten about Kelley's descriptions of Yaqui emotion and personality terms, as they had seemed peripheral to my research goals. In the field over a quarter-century after Kelley had conducted her research, however, I found many of these same lexical categories to be ubiquitous in my consultants' depictions of the dispositions of family members, friends, and acquaintances.3 Certain individuals were regularly and fairly consistently portrayed as "alegre," "bueno," or "corajudo," as if such single-word descriptors were capable of conveying significant information about a person's temperament or revealing a key component of one's personality.

Indeed, Kelley's descriptions of the ways in which Yaquis verbally categorized "personality types" ([1987] 1991:64) in the 1970s held true in the late 1990s. She explains, for example, that "'[h]appy' people are positive, talk a lot, and tend to interact with an above-average number of individuals. . . . 'Happy' people attract more ritual kin affiliates; they may be the people who uphold the largest number of obligations . . . and they tend to be the individuals who attract deep emotional investments on the part of others." Importantly, "'Happy' people cannot be socially or supernaturally dangerous to those who classify them in this way" (Kelley [1987] 1991:65). 4 While "[a]nyone can have his happy moments," Kelley found that elder women were most often categorized as "alegre" and that they tended to be "among the most admired in Yaqui society" due to their fulfillment of ritual roles or socially significant obligations ( [1987] 1991:65). I, too, heard "alegre" used in descriptions of a few older, highly respected, well-connected, and ceremonially active women. Ultimately, these women are perceived as less vulnerable, as persons to be emulated.5

Like the sparingly used description of persons as "happy," I found the characterization of a woman as "good" was also used in a selective manner. Once in a while, Alejandra would pointedly remark that Pilar, her recently deceased mother-in-law, had been "good." Alejandra missed her terribly, but more than that, Pilar had been a mentor to Alejandra and a model to other women in the community. In one moment of quiet reflection, Alejandra commented, "Estaba bien buena, la senora [That woman was so good] ." As if emerging from her thoughts to realize I was there, she explained, "Whenever anyone came to the house, she (Pilar) would soon be in the kitchen making something for them to eat." Among the Yaquis, offering a guest the best chair, providing food and drink (no matter how modest) to an unannounced visitor, and engaging that person in conversation for as long as he or she chooses to stay are the hallmarks of appropriate hospitality. In turn, hospitality remains an important way in which adult women create gendered identity while simultaneously asserting what they deem to be a cultural ethic. Alejandra's mother-in-law had been someone who fed her large family and took good care of her home despite the family's persistent financial difficulties; she was a capable and efficient host to her guests and maintained a vast network of relationships.6

"Corajudo" (short-tempered) was also a typification that I frequently heard. In the 1970s Kelley observed, "Impatience, verbal attacks, and unfair punishment of children by either men or women are also examples of corajudo behavior" ([1987] 1991:67-68). Early in my own field study, several Yaqui informants inquired about Felipa, someone with whom I had spent a substantial amount of time (a woman with whom they were less well acquainted). "Isn't she muy corajudo [very short-tempered]?" they asked. "Be careful," another friend warned, "She is quickly angered." Indeed, Felipa often yelled at and berated her 12-year-old niece in front of me and in the presence of others. I was never comfortable with Felipa's manner, and I quietly curtailed my visits to her house, effectively ending our relationship.

The consistent and continued use of such lexical categories in Yaqui parlance spanning over a quarter-century merits a study in its own right. What concerns me here, however, is not the identification of Yaqui personality types and temperament categories. Rather, I am interested in how Yaquis describe what they consider to be unusual, heightened emotional states of anger and sadness, in individuals who are not normally categorized as being "short-tempered" or "sad." In contrast to those generalized and relatively stable personality dispositions described by Kelley, the temporary states (of anger or sadness) upon which this article is focused are believed to be intense, triggered by specific events, and potentially disastrous.7

In the past two decades, scholars have posited that emotion is highly constructed and culturally specific, as opposed to being exclusively biological, natural and interior (Lutz and White 1986; Lutz and AbuLughod 1990; Rosaldo 1980; Scheper-Hughes 1992). As Abu-Lughod and Lutz argue, the idea that emotions are universal, and that they are "internal, irrational, and natural" entities wholly separable from culture is an absurd assumption, an essentialism no longer acceptable in the anthropology of emotion (1990:2). In the introduction to their edited volume Language and the Politics of Emotion (1990), these ethnographers contend that contemporary studies in the anthropology of emotion have retreated from the essentializing claims of the past, turning instead to culturally relativist, historicized, and thoroughly contextualized understandings of emotion (1990:1-7).

To this end, Abu-Lughod and Lutz (1990) promote a discursive approach to the anthropological study of emotion. As Laura Ahearn puts it, "[E] motions do not exist as fully formed feelings, identical across all cultures and time periods. Rather, emotions are constructed in and through linguistic and social interactions. They are inherently cultural and linguistic in their manifestations" (2001:48). While it has often been argued that emotions are conveyed through language, Abu-Lughod, Lutz, Ahearn and others take a more post-structural view, contending that emotions are actually produced as they are expressed. Abu-Lughod and Lutz write,

Emotion should not be viewed, as our quotidian perspective might suggest, as a substance carried by the vehicle of discourse, expressed by means of discourse, or "squeezed through," and thereby perhaps distorted in, the shapes of language or speech. Rather, we should view emotional discourse as a form of social action that creates effects in the world, effects that are read in a culturally informed way by the audience for emotion talk. Emotion can be said to be created in, rather than shaped by, speech in the sense that it is postulated as an entity in language where its meaning to social actors is also elaborated. (1990:12; emphasis in original).

Even as we view emotional states as culturally specific and discursively constructed, the examples in this paper suggest a further possibility: that emotions are sometimes constituted intersubjectively. Emotional states are typically understood as isolable, subjective, and produced by or within individuals. Yaqui ethnography shows that such states are not always constituted by a singular individual. Rather, some emotions have a significant intersubjective component. In other words, Yaqui emotional health has a relational quality. This intersubjective construction of personal feeling and sentiment is an intriguing extension of currently accepted theories in the anthropology of emotion and merits further study8

While I do not pretend to be able to read the emotions of Yaqui consultants and acquaintances or to interpret how descriptors such as tristeza or enojado (angered) interface with inner feelings, Yaqui understandings of emotion are, at least partially, accessible when they are articulated. As verbal performance, Yaqui emotion talk (whether in the form of single-word referents or legend-like narratives) is communicative, agentive (Kapchan 2003:135), emergent (Bauman 1977), targeted at a specific audience, and observable. Here, I turn to Yaqui discourse about troublesome emotional states, because such concerns are prominently featured in both folklore and everyday talk, in Potam and the surrounding pueblos. My primary intention is to describe how the emotional states of anger and sadness surface in ordinary conversation, as words of warning and as more fully elaborated legends. I then ask: what does such attention to emotion signify, in terms of Yaqui concepts of the self, notions of danger, and community cohesiveness? Moreover, how is emotion talk deployed in the assertion of a position or critique? How do actors negotiate the "politics of culture" through folklore (Shuman and Briggs 1993:115)?


When I began fieldwork in Potam in 1996, the pueblo's political situation was tense. Long-standing differences among Yaquis as to the best way to approach politics, the pueblo's governance, and Mexican influences and interference in tribal affairs (at both the state and national levels) - differences that had existed since the days of the Mexican Revolution - had flared again in the early 1990s. Many informants gave me a glimpse of the political milieu, but only obliquely: they alluded to this conflict by describing local leadership as "angry," and told me to beware. I was confused about what was going on and by the use of an emotion term as a political descriptor, but since I was a newcomer to Potam and a relatively unknown entity, their refusal in those first few months to say anything more was understandable. Here, a discussion of the Yaquis' employment of "anger" as a folk idiom in reference to tribal tensions must be prefaced; a brief history of the conflict as well as a discussion of the cultural expectations of sociability and integrated leadership are necessary to fully contextualize the discourse I heard in my first days and weeks in Potam.

Sonoran Yaquis are increasingly faced with pressures to enact the democratic election of their officials and to separate tribal governance from ceremonial concerns. They continue to confront the demand that they assimilate to mainstream Mexican social norms and the dilemma of how to distribute government funds and manage social programs. Yet a complete separation of pueblo leadership from church authorities would entail a break with the Jesuit-introduced governing traditions that were established in their early form by the 1700s (Spicer 1980:26) and are now strongly associated with Yaqui identity: the preselection of new governors by consensus, the involvement of ritual leaders at all levels of local politics, and the integration of civil, military, and ceremonial leadership.

According to a system that has been in place for centuries, each Yaqui pueblo has a governor and a set of four deputies who are preselected by the tribal authority of that particular pueblo.9 The governors, although the most visible representatives of the Yaqui government to outsiders (Spicer 1980:180), are actually only one of five equivalent branches of what are known as the Yaqui ya'uram (leadership). These five "realms of authority," as Edward Spicer called them (1954:55), include the Church Council, the Military Authorities, the Fiesteros (fiesta hosts), the Kohtumbre or "customs authority" (individuals with significant ceremonial roles), and the Civil Authority that include the governor, his deputies, and the pueblo elders (Spicer 1980:179-204; 1954:73). It is important to note, then, that the governors are part of a system of "closely interlocked authorities, which may take the lead in certain important matters, but whose decisions are always subject to review by and adjustment with the other authorities" (Spicer 1954:96). When traditional protocol is followed, a new governor and his deputies are selected once a year by a complex process that begins with a carefully deliberated recommendation of the church authority's maestros (ritual leaders) and eventually culminates in a consensus-based decision involving all members of the ya'uram.

Read the whole article.

1 comment:

LeninaSola said...

Hola, tengo cinco aƱos conviviendo con la tribu yaqui, me interesa su blog, gracias por agregar tantas cosas. Un abrazo, keta