Reinventing the Lacandón: Subaltern Representations in the Rain Forest of Chiapas External linkalt

Brian Gollnick


University of Arizona Press


The history and indigenous people of present-day southern Mexico and northern Guatemala have had a long and complex intersection with colonial and imperial forces. Ever since the Spanish first landed on the shores of Central America and began exploring inland during the 16th century, the indigenous peoples of the region have been impacted by a continuing array of diseases, policies, and discourses. Within this larger area, the southern Mexican state of Chiapas including the Lacandon External link rain forest has been of particular focus and interest. Although Chiapas has a long and rich tradition within the larger arena of indigenous issues, it has been decades since academia in the United States has examined this tradition with some specificity.



Teobert Maler (1842-1917) traveled through the region in the late nineteenth century to photograph Maya ruins, capturing the first known images of the Lacandones. Not long after Maler, Alfred Tozzer (1877-1954) published his A Comparative Study of the Mayas and the Lacandones External linkalt (1907), which is essentially a study of Lacandon religion. More recently, Didier Boremanse’s work Hach Winik: The Lacandon Maya of Southern Mexico (Latin American Monograph Series) (IMS Monograph) External linkalt (1999) and R. Jon McGee’s book Watching Lacandon Maya Lives External linkalt (2001) have contributed to a modern understanding of the Lacandon region and it’s indigenous peoples. However, until now there has been a general hole in scholarship concerning the Lacandon and its indigenous peoples within a broader context. In an exciting new book, Reinventing the Lacandón: Subaltern Representations in the Rain Forest of Chiapas, External linkalt Brian Gollnick attempts to remedy this dearth of focus, by bringing into view and discussion the indigenous peoples and their history.

Rather than addressing cultural production from Chiapas in all of its breadth, however, Gollnick agues that Chiapas and the Lacandon rain forest are best understood not as a Central American backwater but as one focal point within a global field of struggle around culture and politics. This is particularly true as local, national, and international activist scholars, NGOs, and others look to hot spots such as Chiapas for signs of hope in the continuing struggle of indigenous people’s rights and justice.


In rejecting the conviction that Central American indigenous subaltern studies should be primarily a critique of academic discourse itself, Gollnick asserts that an attempt to understand how indigenous popular and elite cultures have engaged each other in Central America is necessary. Specifically, he argues for what he calls the “oral trace,” a term which he uses to rethink how subaltern study can address Central American culture. Drawing on the concept of the oral trace from Divergent Modernities: Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America, External linkaltJulio Ramos’s influential book on the cultural sphere in nineteenth-century Spanish America, Gollnick argues that the moment in which a belief system surfaces that is identifiably alien to the dominant intellectual tradition – and yet crucial to that tradition’s efforts to define itself – is the oral trace. The oral trace thus deconstructs a form of Central American intellectual authority rooted in the ability to shuttle between cosmopolitan and local forms of knowledge. The oral trace appears when an element in an elite text generates enough dissonance for careful readers to sense the functioning of a belief system that remains intact outside the limiting parameters of a work’s dominant project.


Using Spanish colonial reports, Zapatista communiqués, literature, and other sources from the region, Gollnick discusses how the Lacandon rain forest appeared in the first European discourse of a modern global project: the historiography of Spain’s overseas sixteenth century empire. He next examines the shift from this early modern historiography to the construction of the Lacandon rain forest as an archaeological site that opened a window into the distant past. Following this, Gollnick addresses the first aesthetic appreciations of the Lacandon rainforest as a place for spiritual contemplation, including representations of the small and elusive population of Lacandon Maya, once considered Mexico’s most isolated and primitive indigenous people. Contrasting that conservationist view to the logging enclave economy that flourished in the region from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Gollnick discusses how the Lacandon area changed as a result of the rapid settlement of the rain forest from the 1950s onward. Exploring both the ecological movement that sought to preserve the rainforest and the efforts to help organize new communities and document their experiences through oral histories and testimonial narrative, Reinventing the Lacandon concludes with an examination of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional External link (EZLN) and the struggle to redefine the rain forest and its indigenous people in terms of the armed insurgency.


A key objective in the critique of colonial culture is to recuperate trace images of indigenous subaltern agency that have been marginalized or sublimated in established understandings of the past. Where colonization has exterminated entire indigenous groups, this contestatory rereading is in many cases the only means of recuperating the efforts of indigenous peoples to resist conquest. Within the academic field of history, this effort has often been called reviosionist history. Here, Gollnick uses this method to recuperate trace images of the indigenous Cholan Lacandones, whose role in the history of Chiapas can be reconstructed only through careful analysis of highly mediated texts written about them – often by outsiders, anthropologists, and colonial agents.


Today’s indigenous Lacandones speak a dialect of Yucatecan Maya and are believed to descend from indigenous refugees who fled south in the late seventeenth century. Along with the Lacandon name, the Yucatecan refugees inherited a fierce reputation from their Cholan antecedents, who were feared in the early colonial period. Even today, some highland Maya rituals include fearsome depictions of the Lacandones, and their idealization as Mexico’s purest indigenous people arose partially in response to this reputation for primitivism and violence.


However, this is not at all how present-day indigenous Lacandones are understood on the world stage. Rather, they are most often depicted in news media and popular literature as spiritually pure and especially connected to the land and cosmos. The combination of this older image of savagery and the newer image of the indigenous Lacandones as spiritually pure is captured and eloquently deconstructed in a careful reading of relevant literature by Gollnick.


Gollnick does so through the use of an “oral trace.” Gollnick argues that the space orality holds within a culture is the mechanism by which one can claim legitimacy. The spoken word – not speaking per se – is where authority can be drawn from in the case of the Lacandones. Likewise, this is where many indigenous peoples have successfully gained legitimacy in terms of the dominant Western culture – via text. Even in Western culture the spoken word holds a sacred space.


Reinventing the Lacandón: Subaltern Representations in the Rain Forest of Chiapas External linkalt is a rigorous work, successfully deconstructing the various representations and images the indigenous peoples of Chiapas and the Lacandon rain forest have embodied. Through this work, Gollnick should be congratulated for bringing into question just who the indigenous people of the Lacandon rain forest are. So far, all representations have been incorrectly imposed from the outside. Now that Reinventing the Lacandón: Subaltern Representations in the Rain Forest of Chiapas External linkalt has been published, we are ready for one more final representation – one fully projected and constructed by the indigenous peoples themselves.


peterjones.jpg Reviewed by Peter N. Jones, Bauu Institute and Press.

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