Dancing spirits. Towards a Masewal ecology of interdependence in the northern highlands of Puebla, Mexico

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-0110-0762
Questa Rebolledo, Alessandro, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Danziger, Eve, Anthropology, University of Virginia

Doctoral Dissertation in Anthropology:
Dancing spirits. Towards a Masewal ecology of interdependence in the northern highlands of Puebla, Mexico.

Alessandro Questa

My doctoral research in cultural anthropology was based on 36 months of fieldwork carried out over almost a decade. It followed Masewal collective dances and how these have resurfaced in recent times. Indeed, by the end of the last century these dances, as well as many other Masewal practices, were deemed by dominant Mestizo society as well as by many Masewal people as colorful if meaningless folklore: traditions that somehow impeded the arrival of modernity. Today, surprisingly perhaps, young people are getting involved in one or more of the several local dance groups, and dance groups in general, are booming. What happened?
Masewal dances are organizations that include at least a dozen (and sometimes up to fifty) dancers of different age groups, ordered in a clear hierarchy. Each dance involves specific garments, costumes, and masks. The characters portrayed by dancers are always ancestral nonhuman entities that are otherwise invisible members of the local human-spirit society. Dancers are not allowed to speak while dancing and lack a detailed knowledge of what the dance they perform is ‘about’ as there is no script for these dances. Each dancer is however expected to learn the steps, and to know exactly what are the relations between each of the characters. The anticipated outcome of their performance has to do with favorable weather, fertility and overall prosperity.
My research explains how dances have reemerged as nuanced devices helping local people visualize and understand the relations of interdependence between humans, spirits, and landscape in a time of crisis. Dances have become venues by which Masewal people express today their disenchantment with urban modernity, their fear of disastrous climatic events, and their mistrust of extractive enterprises or megaproyectos making their way into their territory. By dancing, Masewal farmers “remember” ancient forms of negotiation with the itekomej, “owners” of the land, as an alternative power structure that favors them against the abusive and neglectful actions of state agencies and corporations.
The local rekindling of dances started in the aftermath of Hurricane Pauline in 1997, an event that took several human lives and many homes, farm animals, and crops, forcing countless people to migrate to cities. After Pauline, other storms and hurricanes have followed, while government agencies continue to fail in delivering adequate information or effective relief.
Today, disappointed with the inability of the state to provide much-needed assistance in the face of escalating natural disaster, Masewal people are ascending again to mountaintops to leave offerings, visiting caves and, crucially, dancing in order to reconnect with their spiritual overlords as alternative sources of support. In doing so, they challenge and rebuke both government and corporate powers. Along with the resumption of these traditional activities, Masewal people have organized a number of protests, and have found allies in NGOs, political activists, environmentalists and scientists. Together, they have blocked roads, produced countless press releases and organized informative assemblies in every town and village in the highlands. This larger political discourse of resistance and territorial awareness is effectively bridging cultural differences between Masewal, Totonaku and Mestizo rural highlanders.
Dances are nowadays part of the resistance as they express the connections between people and land in a visual and powerfully communicative way. Dances show how Masewal people live in an animated world full of life forms that includes mountains, winds and ancestral spirits who exist in close interdependence with one another, a concept expressed as tlatikipanolistl or “co-sustenance.” Such co-sustenance requires to be constantly activated by acts of “remembrance” or kilnamitl. This remembered interdependence allows for the constant transformation of beings, based on the capacity to “change face/vision” or kixpatla; a skill that allows dancers to produce collective transformations using masks and other artifacts, letting them not only to “look like” but also to “see like” the spirits they embody. When dancers become spirits they also, to some degree, domesticate them, compelling them to accept food offerings and to enter into exchange relations with humans, specifically regarding favorable weather conditions, fertility and protection from climatic disasters, which now include mines and dams.
My research demonstrates how Masewal dances are not ancient folklore but, in fact, cultural resources for active knowledge about the modern world. Instead of disappearing, dances become more relevant in times of distress in their role as effective visualizations of ecological relations. To dance, in Masewal terms, implies publicly committing to pre-existing relations with landscape spirits; it implies ‘remembering’ these relationships. Such public remembrance entails a political posture, tacitly acknowledging the preeminence of mountain beings against invading corporations or governmental interests. Ultimately, dances evidence the operating principles of a contemporary non-anthropocentric and multispecies Masewal society.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Indigenous dances, Mexico, environmental anthropology, climate change

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