The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1999, Volume 45, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Scattered Round Stones: A Mayo Village in Sonora, Mexico.

By David Yetman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. Photos, maps, appendices, bibliography, notes. xi + 352 pp. $40.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Philip J. Greenfeld, Professor of Anthropology, San Diego State University, author of various articles in Ethos, American Anthropologist, Anthropological Linguistics, and International Journal of American Linguistics.

This is an ethnography of the Mayo village of Teachive, lit. “Scattered Round Stones,” which is located in southern Sonora, Mexico. It consists of eight chapters and four appendices. The appendices deal with: 1.) A list of one consultant’s views as to the benefits of living in the community; 2.) A list of native plants used by households in the community; 3.) These plants by scientific name; and 4.) A glossary of Spanish and Mayo terms.

Teachive is technically defined by the Mexican government as a being part of la comunidad ind’gena de Masiaca. This is a legal status somewhat different and more restrictive in membership than an ejido another form of land holding peasant group in Mexico. The distinction is crucial and Yetman goes to some length in Chapter 4 to explain the differences.

As with so many contemporary ethnographies the operant word in discussing these Mayo residents of Southern Sonora would seem to be “ethnicity.” What distinguishes being a Mayo from being a Mestizo? Although much of the difference is to be found in participation in the fiesta system, the use of the Mayo language, and the style of house, perhaps the most important feature is in terms of relationship to the land, the monte. A second major focus of the book is on ethnobotany and the importance of native plants in the everyday life of the people in the community.

The life of this community is characterized by paradox and irony. As part of a comunidad they own the land which surrounds them, yet the land itself is not productive enough to sustain them. This land ownership is a great source of pride, yet many individuals in the village make a living by working for the large farms in the area where they are paid poorly, if at all. The presence of readily available local work has resulted in little migration from this region to the United States, unlike the situation in other parts of Mexico. Those who do try and make a living from the land end up destroying their major asset which makes them who and what they are. If they mine sand and gravel they end up contributing to the further erosion of the water course which supplies the village with water. If they run cows on the land they overgraze, further threatening the monte. If they cut fire wood they continue to destroy their only resource.

Besides being members of a comunidad, other sources of ethnic identity are their knowledge of the Cahitan language and the fiesta system. The language, like so many native American languages, seems to be dying, with fewer and fewer young people speaking it. The fiesta system in Teachive is also becoming weaker and, as another example of irony in the life of this community, has been co-opted by the commercial beer companies. Teachive celebrates three fiestas. These are now irregularly attended, and no one from Teachive has become a pascola (ritual dancer) or venado (deer dancer) for some time. Where at one time people who pledged themselves to sponsor a fiesta for one of the saints would build brush ramadas for the dancers to use, now Tecate Beer and other firms build metal ones with much of the focus of the fiesta being on the drinking and sale of commercially produced beer. They also erect beer tents whose loud norte-o music drowns out the traditional music associated with the pascolas and venados. Within Teachive there is still great prestige associated with being a fiesta sponsor (a fistero) but in some of the neighboring villages where Mestizo values have replaced Mayo ones sponsoring a fiesta is considered a waste of time and money.

Yetman’s next to last chapter paints a glum picture for the future. Unresponsiveness and insensitivity of the Mexican government, persistent racism, the negative effects of North American Free Trade Agreement, and overpopulation all work against this community. Yetman’s comments on NAFTA (pp. 230-235) have particular relevance for San Diego as a border community which has benefitted from increased trade because of NAFTA. The economic policies forced on Mexico because of NAFTA have effected prices for subsistence items. Peasants such as those of Teachive have been particularly hard hit, which has resulted in even further ecological degradation of the monte as they have had to turn to their one source of resources in order to survive.

The book is a well written, with detailed description of the community and their situation. Perhaps the one problem with the book is in the somewhat schizophrenic approach of the author trying to describe the community generally, and then secondarily attempting to include detailed ethnobotanical information. More important is the author’s assessment of the future of remnant indigenous groups in Mexico and his assessment of the Mexican peasantry. This view from the bottom is not particularly encouraging.