Comer y dar de comer a los dioses : conocimiento, el costumbre y la nutricion en La Sierra Huichola, Mexico

H. Fajardo Santana

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    This thesis derives from a four-year period of anthropological research and practice as a medical doctor among the Huichol indigenous people in the western Sierra Madre of Mexico.</p><p>The main focus is an analysis of contrasting (and often conflicting) knowledge and belief systems, as represented on the one hand by government health and rural development expertise and practice, and on the other, by the ways in which the Huicholes themselves set about managing questions of sickness and health on the basis of existing cultural understandings and social practice. Linked to this is the study of the organisation of a government intervention programme designed to solve problems relating to malnutrition and to introduce improved health practices. Given the 'expert role' assigned to the anthropologist or doctor employed to work within the programme, a third important strand of the thesis addresses how such a practitioner (the author) comes to terms with the incongruities and conflicting interests and beliefs embedded in the task of helping such rural peoples to improve their life circumstances and health status. As the thesis argues, the reflexivity entailed in the latter becomes a central methodological and experiential strategy for developing close contact with and thus sharing the Huichol people's lifeworlds and health predicaments.</p><p>The thesis opens with the case of a sick child suffering from what appears to be malnutrition. This helps to open up the discussion of how sickness is defined or diagnosed by the Huicholes as against western medical practice. This situates health problems within a framework that takes account of living conditions, knowledge and beliefs, human agency and government practice. The following chapter presents the arguments and objectives for the government programme, giving close attention to how images of hunger and vulnerability implicit in the outsider view are not shared by the Huichol people. This takes us to the heart of the problem and anticipates the need for a thoroughgoing cultural analysis of local knowledge and beliefs surrounding life events that centre on both propitious situations and misfortune.</p><p>In the third chapter the parameters and methods used by bio-medical science are examined and shown to be at odds with the ways in which parents conceptualise and explain matters of size, weight, and the normal functioning of the body. In this way the chapter provides a detailed critique of the fundamentals of bio-medical explanation. Several events, biographies and personal dilemmas are analysed to reveal the nature of the underlying beliefs held by Huicholes and are termed 'E/ <em>Costumbre',</em> that is, customary beliefs and orientations to knowledge creation and production.</p><p>The fourth chapter presents how local healers or doctors <em>(terapeutas locales)</em> go about diagnosis and curing certain illnesses, or, what might be more broadly called, 'disorders'. These local doctors undergo training, which varies in terms of length of time, but in the end results in their being recognised and assuming the joint role of healers and chanters <em>(cantadores)</em> of the mythology and ceremonies of the Huichol. The cultural paradigm that they work with and reproduce serves to emphasize the significance of 'Fl <em>Costumbre'</em> in the ongoing everyday lives of people. Huichol social life is shot through with detailed rules and procedures that govern almost every aspect of life. Indeed as the chapter shows, different social domains (economic, political, religious and familial) are all regulated in this way through specific customs and rituals, under the guidance of Huichol 'priests'.</p><p>The fifth chapter ties the diagnosis of sickness with the organisation of certain ceremonies and the agricultural cycle. Here we see the healer as a mediator between the earthly or secular Huichol and certain 'entities' that order, regulate, punish, or protect. The demands of the <em>terapeuta's</em> training both in its normative and more esoteric aspects requires being put under microscopic scrutiny by secular authority, though the <em>terapeuta</em> maintains - not without conflict- his 'spiritual' authority, since both share the same explanatory paradigm. Also, like secular authority, the orders of the <em>terapeuta</em> may be obeyed, ignored or delayed, depending upon the personal doubts, pragmatism, routines and hopes of clients.</p><p>The sixth chapter is a detailed analysis of conversations with the father of one of the children interned at the clinic for malnutrition. The narrative refers, on the one hand, to how El <em>Costumbre is</em> a mark of identity for Huicholes, and on the other hand, to the story of relations with foreigners which have influenced their eating and other habits. Through this we are able to observe the many contacts they have with other groups, the content of this interaction and its repercussions. The chapter recounts how a great number of children develop malnutrition, in a zone where there is increasing competition for land with their <em>mestizo</em> (persons of mixed/ Spanish descent) neighbours. This emphasises that the Huichol people are not an isolated or closed group, nor are they dependent on specific intervention programmes. In fact they have incorporated practices from diverse experiences of outside contact. And the evidence suggests that the different ways of diagnosing and explaining sickness does not necessarily create conflict for them since they are, in part, able to absorb these into their own beliefs and practice.</p><p>The last chapter provides a chronological synthesis of planned intervention programmes relating to food and health matters among the Huichol. Some of these programmes were oriented to improving education, and others food production and dietary practice. Some led to new habits being taken up, others to the disruption of old practices. A case is used to illustrate the disastrous consequences that such action can have for the livelihoods and culture of an indigenous people.</p><p>Each chapter of the thesis reveals certain tensions or problematic situations that actors must confront. Sometimes these are solved by returning to the secure terrain of existing customs and habits. On other occasions, they venture a bit further afield to explore other possibilities, and in others, answers are postponed in awaiting new events that are expected to generate a new chain of opportunities. The combination of sarcasm, pragmatism, creativity, doubts, desperation, hopes, fantasies and dreams that lie behind people's decision making is thus made evident in the detailed study of actor-situations. Human agency, always relational, is exercised within the ambiguities and vagueness of social life that allow for the maintenance, destruction and transformation of categories and <em>perceptions. In</em> this way 'real' worlds are made possible and reproduced.</p>
    Original languageSpanish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    • Arce, A., Promotor, External person
    Award date12 Dec 2000
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058083548
    Publication statusPublished - 2000


    • social anthropology
    • religion
    • public health
    • health care
    • nutrition
    • government
    • intervention
    • mexico

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