The role of violence and the importance of cultural identity in the struggles between indigenous communities and the nation-state are the subjects of Ana María Alonso’s monograph, Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico’s Northern Frontier (1995). This anthropological history of machismo in the culturally-mestizo Namiquipa community in Chihuahua looks at how violence, gender, and cultural tools were used to weaken indigenous communities who resisted the expansion of agrarian capitalism on their lands.
Alonso examines the formation of the community’s collective identity and their political alliances, which were derived from their violent history as a presidio garrison fighting the Apache peoples of the region. Although originally supported by the colonial state with large land concessions and favorable commercial terms for settlement, the Namiquipa community came under threat from the modernizing state after independence with the expansion of commercial agriculture.
Because of the presence of violence in the frontier region, even after independence, many indigenous communities sought safety in Hispanicized communities, like Namiquipa. According to Alonso, one of the ways these groups, as well as mixed-race mestizos, tried to ethnically “bleach” themselves and assimilate into white Mexican society was through displays of valor against other Indians (71). By tracing how the community used violence against Apaches who still lived outside state law, she argues that conflict between indigenous groups was often driven as much by cultural factors as it was by economic or political ones (54-55). She shows how a local honor culture underpinned serrano masculinity, turning violent acts, such as castrating Apache men, into adolescent initiation rites. It also reinforced patriarchal domination, rendering sexual purity the paramount virtue of women and rape an offensive tool of war (73, 85, 89).
By the end, the author ties this colonial and early-republican history of gendered violence to Pancho Villa’s “rape of Namiquipa” during the Mexican Revolution. While her discussion of sexual relations is perhaps more pessimistic than necessary, the inclusion of cultural identity and gender, as well as how collective memories of an idealized past can inspire subaltern resistance in an analysis of Mexico’s northern frontier was innovative (86).
Alonso’s book shows that Latin America’s political elite understood that communities with strong cultural identities were a threat and could organize effectively against land encroachment or at least resist longer. While the region was dominated by the Conservative and Liberal parties, indigenous communities often functioned as political kingmakers, negotiating alliances that allowed them to wield greater influence in regional and national politics.
By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, June 1, 2019
Photo: Namiquipa, Mexico