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Performing History: A Case study from Mexico for World History Teachers

Angela Castañeda
DePauw University



     As a cultural anthropologist, the courses I teach utilize a wide range of examples from across the world. In particular, my upper-level Performing Cultures course focuses on the relationship between cultural performance and identity among Latin American communities. Specific case studies include ethnographic research from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Mexico. These examples illustrate the diversity in culture found in Latin America with an additional emphasis on the African Diaspora present in these communities.

     Of particular interest are the interconnected roles of power and politics in the performance of culture—how the two are performed in an attempt at re-forming and sometimes de-forming and mis-informing each other. The course addresses the formal aspects of performance, audience/performer relationships as well as social and contextual influences on cultural performance. One of the areas of study within this course utilizes my research on the performance of Mexican identity. World history students can gain an understanding of Mexico's complex history through an analysis of folkloric dance, which seeks to reflect various level of identity. Throughout history, performance based representations of identity have served powerful roles as markers of a country's past and present influencers. In Veracruz, performances illustrate the unique blend of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean and indigenous cultures that collided during Mexico's tumultuous history. By tracing the historical formation and subsequent use of the mestizaje concept within Mexico, this case study illustrates the power inherent in performance based examples. This case study has broader implications, however: indeed, I argue that understanding how performance works in the formation of Mexican identity can be useful both for comparative Latin American purposes as well as for gaining a deeper knowledge about the role of performance in identity formation all over the world.

A Case Study: Mexican Identity and the Mestizaje Concept

Historically, official notions of a national identity created by elites in Mexico, as well as in other Latin American countries, revolve around the process of mestizaje or race mixing. This process involves the 'whitening' (both racially and culturally) of all other groups—oftentimes highlighting indigenous contributions while negating African influences. Colonial governments frequently conveyed the complex racial ideologies surrounding mestizaje through paintings, which attempted to visually categorize each racial type or casta.

     To date, most historical scholarship has looked at mestizaje as a nation-building ideology. While this definition of mestizaje appears inclusive, scholars in the last few decades have been far more critical of the concept. In particular, the apparent inclusivity of the term was famously critiqued by Ronald Stutzman (1981) who redefined mestizaje as an "all-inclusive ideology of exclusion," appropriately making note of the term's exclusion of black and indigenous peoples.1

     More recently, scholars have begun to focus on the embodied and performative notion of the lived experience of mestizajeness. In particular, Peter Wade's work on Afro-Colombian communities argues that the concept of mestizaje should also be looked at as a lived process in which real people with racial-cultural mixture on a daily basis. Ultimately, Wade proposes an image of mestizaje to include a mosaic "made up of different elements and processes, which can be manifest within the body and the family, as well as the nation. Seen in this way, mestizaje has spaces for many different possible elements, including black and indigenous ones, which are more than merely possible candidates for future mixture."2

     In conjunction with Wade's approach, the work of Diana Taylor offers a performative interpretation of culture where performance is seen as a way of knowing rather than simply as an object of analysis. Viewed this way, performance itself has the ability to "transmit memories, make political claims, and manifest a group's sense of identity."3 By incorporating a performative interpretation to the mestizaje concept, it is possible to recognize other forms of knowing and knowledge than written culture. Indeed, Taylor notes that from its very conception, mestizaje dealt more with the body than text since "the primary site of mestizaje is the body, linked as it is to the mestizo/a, the child born of European and indigenous parents."4 Taylor also argues that even the casta paintings revolved around issues of performance, noting how both Spaniards and indigenous groups used these painting as visible markers for social classification. This discussion of the historical interpretation of the mestizaje concept can be further grounded in a particular case study focusing on national identity performed in Veracruz, Mexico. Through this analysis, world history students can discover how political interpretations were used to influence ideas about mestizaje, and how performance can be a crucial means of asserting and contesting identities.

Mexico's National Ballet Folklórico

In Mexico, the mestizaje concept was utilized as both an ideological and cultural movement, which was supported by the national government through the development of the arts. Following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921), Mexico's indigenous cultures became romanticized by intellectuals of the middle and upper class, and post-revolutionary leaders introduced socialist models of community building best illustrated in the creation of folkloric dance companies. This socialist thinking coincided well with Mexico's mestizaje ideology since both were intended to create a more unified community. In particular, dance was utilized to foster sentiments of national belonging.

     Today the original nation-building approach to mestizaje influenced by Vasconcelos is still being reinforced on a national level through the performances of the National Ballet Folklórico. Decades after the initial post-revolutionary nationalism, Amalia Hernandez founded the internationally recognized Mexican Ballet Folklórico. Since its creation in the 1950s, this national dance troupe has continued to serve as a symbol of the mestizaje process through its romantic presentation of regional folkloric traditions.

     Yet while the dances have origins in traditional Mexican customs, the performances of the Ballet Folklórico instead match European standards of choreography and are staged mainly for international audiences. Indeed, this world-renowned dance troupe presents choreographed pieces representing the different states and regions of the country. While a tribute to Mexico's indigenous population, such as the Zapotec of Oaxaca and the Yaqui of Sonora, is readily apparent in numerous sections, the troupe also includes in its finale one very popular piece on Veracruz in which a small glimpse into Mexico's African heritage is performed. With a lively carnival theme, this performance incorporates dancers wearing huge heads depicting exaggerated African phenotypes such as bulging white eyes contrasted with large red lips. These figures of smiling and dancing "negative Others" points to the power of this dance ensemble as a political institution with the ability to "reflect the political and social realities and national discourses of the nation."5 Despite the apparent recognition of the different elements which make-up Mexico's mestizo nation, the overall sentiment portrayed by the Ballet Folklórico is one of blending and not separation. Wade explains this recognition of "others" on a national level as necessary because "elites and middle classes want to re-establish the possibility of making hierarchical distinctions of race (and thus also class and region), distinctions which threaten to vanish if the process of mestizaje were really to reach its ideological goal of homogenization."6 Thus, while the overall race-mixing sentiment continues at the national level, a closer look at the Veracruz state level reveals a more complex interpretation of mestizaje being performed.

Festivals and State Imagery

In general, festivals serve as occasions for a community to reflect upon and define themselves. In particular, an analysis of the development of the annual International Afro-Caribbean Festival sponsored by the Veracruz Institute of Culture or IVEC, illustrates a different approach to the mestizaje concept based on a state level.7 Created in 1994, the original goals of this state-sponsored festival sought to revalorize, research, and share the rich history and culture of Afro-Caribbean communities. Specifically, IVEC leaders proposed to "go further than just a mere celebration in itself or a simple event, to a singular act of justice for a culture up until now marginalized."8 The festival format was originally organized into three main parts: artistic, academic and religious. The artistic portion of the festival consisted of live performances of music, dance and theatre, while the academic component included the presentation of books, videos and roundtable discussions bringing together academics and diplomats from around the Caribbean. Lastly, the section of the festival dedicated to religion enabled both local and visiting Caribbean communities to publicly share elements of their religious beliefs in the form of altars, rituals, and consultations.

     Over the years, however, this public space for regional expression fostered by the festival has slowly diminished. In fact, changes in IVEC leadership have altered fundamental initiatives on which the festival was originally founded. Most recently, we find a festival with dwindling community ties yet increased commercial connections. These festival changes began in 1998 when, after public protests over religious ritual performances, IVEC administrators eliminated the religious portion of the festival. The removal of this portion of the festival marked an obvious denial of the very important religious roots that permeate daily life in Veracruz and other Afro-Caribbean communities. Despite acknowledgement from both locals and IVEC employees that the religious portion of the festival was by far the most popular in both attendance and participation, it was ultimately cancelled in 1999.

     In addition to the format change excluding Afro-Caribbean religions, 1999 also marked the introduction of overarching festival themes, which included sugar, tobacco, and coffee, while exotic African images were utilized in festival publicity. By highlighting products directly linked to the Veracruz state economy, the IVEC further solidified its concern with utilizing the festival as a tool for marketing local products to visiting tourists and increasing trade with neighboring Caribbean communities.9 It is also important to note that the products chosen reflect areas in which the local Veracruz economy had been faltering. In fact, the 2001 festival theme of coffee corresponded to one of the worst periods of economic decline for coffee producers in Veracruz. With the price of coffee dropping, festival organizers made sure to reinforce the importance of supporting local coffee growers. In this way, the festival also served local political leaders and elites as a stage from which to support cultural themes that paralleled the political platforms basic to their advocacy.

     These thematic changes to the festival format also included the creation of symbols which misrepresented Afro-Caribbean influences in Veracruz. Of particular interest is the design for the 2001 coffee festival. This included a large coffee cup overflowing with coffee and out of which a black man and woman sprang up dancing. Their only accessories included a pair of maracas and rumbero sleeves on the man and a red bandana with white polka dots on the woman's head, accentuating her large breasts and buttocks. Looking back at previous festival symbols, I found the 1998 design included the same black outline of a woman wearing nothing more than the red and white bandana. These symbols illustrate an overemphasis on the sexualized female body as well as her domestic sphere symbolized by the bandana on her head, reminiscent of a "mammy" role. The symbols demonstrate how the IVEC sponsored festival presented romanticized images of the African ancestry linked to Veracruz. As Cadaval notes, "Cultural performances manipulate collective symbolic expressive forms to reflect, interpret, and influence society."10 The combination of themes, symbols, and festival material all work together in providing strong messages about the relationship between performance and identity to the public. The IVEC sponsored Afro-Caribbean festival is such a cultural performance where relationships are established and identities crafted and communicated. These depictions emphasize the overly exotic and sexual representations of Afro-Caribbean identities in Mexico.

     While the festival was apparently "whitened" via its exclusion of an Afro-Caribbean presence in 1999 and the removal of the religious portion of the festival, the 2002 festival activities were marked by the reincorporation of select symbols representative of Afro-Caribbean religion and culture. Included in the 2002 festival publicity materials was the depiction of a man with exaggerated and stereotypical African features very different from locals in Veracruz, standing with his hands flat against a wall displaying the logo and name of the festival. In this photograph, the man is shirtless and wearing multiple necklaces made from beads of various colors. This is of particular importance due to the fact that the beads represented in the photograph are distinctly symbolic of religions of the African Diaspora—in particular Santería. The beaded necklaces or collares signify a person's level of participation and initiation into the religion of Santería. Utilizing particular religious symbolism in this way, festival organizers re-framed the connection with an African past for their own ends—with particular attention to how this correlation might increase the tourist-based economy.

     Ultimately, by highlighting an exotic Afro-Caribbean identity in Veracruz, the IVEC was able to market their festival to a wider audience and distinguish it from festivals found in other Mexican states. In addition, the IVEC attempted to capitalize on its historical links to construct new relationships with other Caribbean communities. While traditionally performances which support conventional mestizo identity categories receive larger financial subsidies from patrons and governmental agencies, the case involving Veracruz points to an emphasis on African influences, which challenges the historically accepted notions of mestizaje. This Afro-Caribbean link was re-imagined or re-created to serve the needs of those in power. In effect, Veracruz was transformed into a "cultural battlefield" where popular cultural forms were threatened by appropriation and commodification by a state government in need of unifying symbols.11 The removal of Afro-Caribbean religious elements from the festival only later to be re-inscribed without any contextual support from the local community illustrates the imbalance of power behind representation in the IVEC festival. This example also demonstrates the ways in which mestizaje becomes, as Wade points out, "a space of struggle and contest…It is a site of struggle to see what and who is going to be included and excluded, and in what way."12 Indeed, the misrepresentation and stereotypical imagery found in this example as well as in national dance troupes further illustrate the disconnect between national, state, and local notions of Veracruz identity performed.

     The Santería related performances represent a key component in Mexico's history. They represent the presence of African-derived culture, which points to the presence of the slave trade in Mexico during colonial times. Small in number compared to other Latin American countries, this connection between Mexico and Cuba via Veracruz state, for the importation of both slaves and workers of African descent, is a lesser known part of Mexico's history. The initial Veracruz festivals recognized this gap in the historical record, which they tried to alleviate through their specific inclusion of Santería performances. While these initial festivals served to promote Afro-Caribbean culture in Veracruz, the more recent trend has been towards promoting economic and political gain.

Student Engagement

While the performance topic attracts much student interest, it also proves to be a difficult concept to teach. In order to facilitate this process, I have created objectives and activities that foster the active participation of all class members. The readings and themes for this course utilize the different set of experiences and perspectives that each student brings to the course, thereby creating a community of learning from which to deconstruct notions of performance.

Understanding performance as a process is one of the central themes highlighted in this course. Students engage in multiple writing assignments that gradually move them through various stages of the performance process. These include papers that require students to observe a performance and interview a performer. The assignments ask students to test their own skills as anthropologists by having them conduct formal observations of a performance or an interview with a performer, document their findings, and write an insightful response paper critically exploring issues of performance.

     The final assignment notes that one of the ways we come to understand performance is to engage in it actively. It requires that either as an individual or as part of a group, each student must plan, rehearse, and present a performance to the class. The performance must illustrate a central component, idea, or theme covered in class. Examples include but are not limited to the samba, tango, corrido, or broader topics of reflexivity, identity formation, cultural hybridity, and nationalism. The performance itself can take the form of a song, dance, play, skit, poem, or narrative, with the main objective to embody the text being presented as a performance. In addition to the performance, each student must write a paper describing both the goals of their performance and how their performance integrates class material. This written portion of the assignment functions as the text that their performance embodies.

     Through these assignments, students are able to actively engage in key anthropological methods of research such as participant observation and interviewing skills, advance their performative understanding of power, identify the multiple meanings in the decoding and deconstruction of cultural performances, and gain a broader appreciation of the cultural diversity in Latin America.

Concluding Thoughts on the Performance of Identity

At the heart of this case study is the principle that identities are performed in multiple contexts such as local, regional, national, and transnational dimensions. This performance of cultural identities includes a consideration of the fluctuating political, economic, and social processes in which they are embedded:

     Identities, whatever they may be, cannot be defined once and for all, in fixed or essentialist terms, as if they were unchanging, frozen, as it were, in time and space. The premise here is that if identities are more fluid, or much less fixed, than previously thought, it is because they are constantly enacted and reenacted, performed and performed anew, within specific situations, and within changing socioeconomic and political contexts that provide sites for their negotiations and renegotiations, their definitions and redefinitions.13

     Like music, performance has no borders, which makes it an important tool to highlight changes in world history. Performance examples can be a marker of national and ethnic difference as well as a place of resistance, and tracing these changes in performance illustrates the flexible nature of performance to be used both by and for "others" as a marker of identity on multiple levels—national, regional and local.

     This "performance" of identities is aptly demonstrated through the use of the mestizaje concept in Mexico. As Mexicans negotiate definitions of themselves, they simultaneously are forced to readdress the boundaries and spaces in which their performances occur. Indeed, these participants are "constantly re-defining insider-outsider boundaries, negotiating cultural space, and collaborating with each other and with the audience in the creation of identity."14

     Through this specific case study, students of world history will grasp a major component central to the Latin American experience, which is the role of the mestizaje process in nation-building ideologies. Students can use the example in Mexico and compare it with other Latin American countries to highlight the ways in which European, indigenous and African peoples collided in different forms to produce unique mixtures in each country. While the mestizaje process unites the Latin American experience, a deeper look within each country produces a more varied reaction to its outcome over history. For example, tango is well known as the national dance of Argentina. However, tango's roots in African influences have not always been recognized. An analysis of tango performances throughout Argentina's history will illustrate changes in the political ideology and interpretation of the mestizaje concept.

     In particular, this research illustrates how in Mexico both the national and state levels of cultural performance utilize the mestizaje concept, but with different intentions. Ultimately, while the national level seeks to blend any cultural or ethnic differences into one united population, the Veracruz state embraces this mestizaje ideology by concentrating on the Afro-Caribbean component used to distinguish this state from others. Further complicating this analysis is the incorporation of local understandings of Veracruz identity that do not coincide with state representations. Indeed, this disconnect in dialogue between national, state, and local levels is the cause for misrepresentation and misinterpretation surrounding Veracruz identity. And since representation itself implies a kind of power to both describe and define, the performative use of culture sponsored and organized by national and state institutions exhibits their power over the performances and the people they seek to represent.

     Performances can be used to represent a diverse range of identities. In this case, the performances in state sponsored festivals and national dance troupes represent the power to define and describe what it means to be Mexican on both regional and national levels. More specifically, this ethnographic example illustrates the power of elites to manipulate the Other, whether of African or indigenous origin, in an attempt to promote their own political and economic interests.

     Both the history of festivals in Veracruz and the development of Mexico's national dance troupe illustrate the political agenda inherent in defining identity. Their development coincides with the integration of the mestizaje concept, which students of world history can compare not only within Mexico, but also with the use of the mestizaje ideology throughout Latin America. A closer look at the National Ballet Folklorico reveals its tendency to highlight European performance standards, thus mimicking the traditional view of mestizajeness as a mixture which ultimately privileges all things of European descent. The performances included in state sponsored Veracruz festivals also represent certain notions of local identity, which tend to highlight Afro-Caribbean rhythms and movements. Students of world history can utilize ethnographic accounts rich in detail and description to broaden their interpretation of history.

     Ultimately, this Veracruz model shows several representational strategies at work.  It demonstrates how performances represent Mexican national, state, and local identity. Performances are always influenced by changing political, social and economic conditions, which make them a unique lens to through which to view examples in world history.

Biographical Note: Angela Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at DePauw University.  Dr. Castañeda finished her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Indiana University in April of 2004. Her research interests focus on issues of identity, festivals, religion, and expressive culture among communities of the African Diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. Her courses examine how people view themselves and how our identities are continually crafted into new understandings of who we are. Currently, Dr. Castañeda is working on the commercialization of Afro-Brazilian religious traditions.





1 Ronald Stutzman, "El Mestizaje: An All-Inclusive Ideology of Exclusion," in Normal E. Whitten (ed.) Cultural Transformation and Ethnicity in Modern Ecuador (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

2 Peter Wade, "Rethinking Mestizaje: Ideology and Lived Experience." Journal of Latin

American Studies 37, 239-257 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 254.

3 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the

Americas. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), xvii.

4 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire, 94.

5 Anthony Shay, Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 83, 225.

6 Peter Wade, "Rethinking Mestizaje: Ideology and Lived Experience." Journal of Latin

American Studies 37, 239-257 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 245.

7 El Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura or Veracruz Institute of Culture is referred to as the IVEC. The IVEC itself is a state-funded cultural institute whose director is appointed by the governor. In addition to state funding, the IVEC also receives support and grants from the federal cultural institute known as CONACULTA or the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.

8 Rafael Arias Hernández, Festival Internacional Afro-Caribeño (Xalapa, Veracruz: Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura, 1997), 12.

9 With such an emphasis on tourism to the success of the local economy, the overlapping of festival dates with summer months like August, when over 80% of hotel rooms are occupied, further solidified the importance of tourism to the IVEC's agenda. Indeed, according to the 2000 census, the tourism and hotel sector is the fourth largest employer in the port city of Veracruz.

10 Olivia Cadaval, Creating a Latino Identity in the Nation's Capital: The Latino Festival (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998), 10.

11 Stuart Hall, "Notes on Deconstructing 'the Popular.'" People's History and Socialist Theory, edited by Raphael Samuel (Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 1981), 237.

12 Peter Wade, "Rethinking Mestizaje: Ideology and Lived Experience." Journal of Latin

American Studies 37, 239-257.

13 Jean Muteba Rahier, "Presence of Blackness and Representations of Jewishness in the Afro-Esmeraldian Celebrations of the Semana Santa (Ecuador)." Representations of Blackness and the Performance of Identities, edited by Jean Muteba Rahier. (Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1999), xv.

14 Olivia Cadaval, Creating a Latino Identity in the Nation's Capital: The Latino Festival, 189.



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