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The Grimace of Macho Ratón: Artisans, Identity, and Nation in Late-Twentieth-Century Western Nicaragua / Edition 1

The Grimace of Macho Ratón: Artisans, Identity, and Nation in Late-Twentieth-Century Western Nicaragua / Edition 1

by Les W. Field
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In this creative ethnography Les W. Field challenges a post-Sandinista national conception of identity, one that threatens to constrict the future of subaltern Nicaraguans. Drawing on the works and words of artisans and artisanas, Indians, and mestizos, Field critiques the national ideology of ethnic homogeneity and analyzes the new forms of social movement that have distinguished late-twentieth-century Nicaragua. As a framework for these analytic discussions, Field uses the colonial-era play El Güegüence o Macho Ratón and the literature relating to it.
Elite appropriations of El Güegüence construe it as an allegory of mestizo national identity in which mestizaje is defined as the production of a national majority of ethnically bounded non-Indians in active collaboration with the state. By contrast, Field interprets the play as a parable of cultural history and not a declaration of cultural identity, a scatological reflection on power and the state, and an evocation of collective loss and humor broadly associated with the national experience of disempowered social groups. By engaging with those most intimately involved in the performance of the play—and by including essays by some of these artisans—Field shows how El Güegüence tells a story about the passing of time, the absurdity of authority, and the contradictions of coping with inheritances of the past. Refusing essentialist notions of what it means to be Indian or artisan, Field explains the reemergence of politicized indigenous identity in western Nicaragua and relates this to the longer history of artisan political organization. Parting ways with many scholars who associate the notion of mestizaje with identity loss and hegemony, Field emphasizes its creative,
productive, and insightful meanings. With an emphasis on the particular struggles of women artisans, he explores the reasons why forms of collective identity have posed various kinds of predicaments for this marginalized class of western Nicaraguans.
This book will appeal to readers beyond the field of Latin American anthropology, including students and scholars of literature, intellectual history, women’s studies, and the politics of ethnicity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822322887
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/04/1999
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.16(w) x 9.27(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

Les W. Field is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

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The Grimace of Macho Ratón

Artisans, Identity, and Nation in Late-Twentieth-Century Western Nicaragua

By Les W. Field

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9835-6


A Class Project

El Güegüence, Masaya-Carazo, and Nicaraguan National Identity

National Identity, National Literatures, and the Foreign Eye: Theoretical Tools and the Nicaraguan Case

This chapter's roving description of the interpretations of El Güegüence is shaped by three analytic positionings: the exegesis of national identity as a social construction; the link between national identities, national literatures, and literary discourses, as shaped by state systems of power; and the legitimization of intellectual discourses in subaltern countries, such as Nicaragua, by metropolitan authorities. Below, I discuss these positionings as they apply to the Nicaraguan case at hand.

Benedict Anderson's (1983) characterization of nation-states as social constructions, imagined into existence through nationalist ideologies, now pervades the anthropological literature concerned with national and local identities. Since the mid-1980s many anthropologists have grafted Anderson's insights to the analysis of class and ethnicity in nation-states, leaning heavily on:

the Gramscian concept of hegemony, which describes systems of class domination as reproduced and confirmed through incomplete, contested processes of socialization and enculturation that all individuals within a given society experience; and

Foucauldian linkage between systems of power and bodies of knowledge that further elaborates the naturalization and internalization of domination and subordination in individual and social bodies.

Brackette Williams (1989) describes nation-building projects as explicitly class projects, in which national identities, embedded in nationalist ideologies, are deployed by dominant classes. Utilizing the language of ethnicity to mark subordinate groups leaves elite domination ethnically unmarked and valorized by nationalist ideology: "ethnicity labels the visibility of that aspect of the identity formation process that is produced by and subordinated to nationalist programs and plans–plans intent on creating putative homogeneity out of heterogeneity through the appropriative process of a transformist hegemony" (439).

In recent years, the role of literature–plays, novels, poetry, and criticism–in the construction and representation of national culture and identities has been greatly emphasized, in some disciplines perhaps even more than in anthropology; my discussion in chapter 5 of the culture critics who have written about Nicaragua in the past fifteen or twenty years amply demonstrates this. Much of this interpretive discourse, notwithstanding substantive differences among authors, is imbued with a cultural nationalism that Aijaz Ahmad's (1992) succinct characterizations of post-World War II literary theory and its relationship to world-historical events critique. In doing so, his analysis distinguishes "progressive and retrograde forms of nationalism with reference to particular histories ... [and] the even more vexed question of how progressive and retrograde elements may be (and often are) combined within particular nationalist trajectories" (38). Ahmad's commentary helps to distinguish the role played by elite intellectuals in demarcating and enforcing hegemonic knowledge among Nicaraguan elites about class, ethnic, and national identities from the cultural politics of Sandinista Nicaragua, and how El Güegüence has been used in both discourses before, during, and since the revolutionary period. Doris Sommer (1991) has also underscored the construction of national identities through deployments of national literatures by Latin American states, working with feminist, Gramscian, and Foucauldian theories. Sommer links the romantic love between individuals of different classes and ethnic groups in important Latin American novels to state-led nation-building projects. Such novels, canonized as national literatures, establish "a metonymic association between romantic love that needs the state's blessing and a political legitimacy that needs to be founded on love" (41). Heterosexual romantic love thus becomes a cornerstone of the state and the nation, and intermarriage between social sectors weaves together a national identity sanctioned by the state.

Although I agree with Sommer's insights, it is then curious indeed that elite Nicaraguan intellectuals focused on El Güegüence, in which interethnic, interclass miscegenation between the governor's daughter Suche-Malinche and Güegüence's son Don Forsico is neither romantic nor necessarily (re)productive, but rather the result of chicanery and farce. Moreover, whereas Sommer understands the metonym between heterosexual romance, interclass and interethnic miscegenation, and the building of nation-states as allegorical, I understand El Güegüence as a parable. Yet Sommer's work constitutes a reminder to attend to the specifics of how novels and literary discourses become a part of national power structures. In the Nicaraguan case, although important elite literary intellectuals such as Pablo Antonio Cuadra and José Coronel Urtecho might have held only minor bureaucratic jobs under Somocismo, their published work performed enormously important roles in legitimizing the hegemony of Somocismo as a state and a social system, and thus the particular forms of knowledge about Nicaraguan culture and identity shaped by Somocismo.

This chapter consequently focuses on authors who best illustrate the way literature and its discourses, about El Güegüence in particular, build national culture and identity. I do not pretend to discuss all authors, Nicaraguan or foreign, who have written about El Güegüence; and I am hardly the first writer, by any means, to attempt a historiographical treatment of the El Güegüence literature. The principal contemporary historiographer of El Güegüence, Jorge Eduardo Arellano, a distinguished Nicaraguan man of letters through several decades of political and intellectual upheaval, has used his authority to elegantly and comprehensively reify the dominant interpretations of El Güegüence. I both use Arellano's work and turn around and analyze his work, for he offers a prime example of the relationship between an intellectual and the nation-building projects of successive states. By tracing the demarcation of Nicaraguan culture through the discourse about El Güegüence in a more or less chronological sequence of selected authors' treatments of the play, I show that the textual appearance of El Güegüence at the end of the nineteenth century was followed by the authoring of an interpretive literature composed of dominant and alternative modes of constructing cultural identity in Nicaragua, both of which contributed to the politics of culture and national identity during the twentieth century.

The dominant mode has functioned through the constant inter-weaving of elites' and outsiders' demarcations of Nicaraguan culture with a special focus on what all agreed was the heartland of cultural identity in the country: the Masaya-Carazo region. As twentieth-century Nicaraguan authors built cultural identity around El Güegüence, they legitimized each others' respective authority to demarcate Nicaraguan culture and cultural history in a reciprocally confirming manner, relying on the authority of metropolitan and colonial authors as the final word. The connection between Masaya as a cultural heartland, ceramics artisans, andEl Güegüence provides an excellent illustration of this interconnection. In Pottery of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (1926), distinguished North American archaeologist Samuel K. Lothrop described pottery as a central, if not the central status commodity among the pre-Columbian civilizations of western Nicaragua, and the Masaya-Carazo region in particular, using two main sources: actual archaeological remains of pre-Hispanic pots found in these two countries, and the early archives written by sixteenth-century Spanish explorer-scholars, predominantly those left by Captain Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, as well as Gil Gonzales Dávila and others. Focusing on the two pottery-producing indigenous civilizations in areas of what became western Nicaragua–the Mangue-speaking chiefdoms of Masaya-Carazo-Granada and of the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, whom the Spaniards called the Chorotegas, and the Nahuatl-speaking Nicarao chiefdoms that occupied the Rivas isthmus, a narrow stretch of land between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua – Oviedo became the foundational authority not only for Lothrop but for subsequent authors whose writings demarcated Nicaraguan culture through the interpretation of El Güegüence. Lothrop mentioned El Güegüence in his description of Chorotega and Nicarao dance and drama, even if in a highly unflattering vein, as part of describing the cultural attributes of these peoples. In turn, Lothrop was subsequently cited by elite Nicaraguan authors in essays concerning pre-Hispanic cultures of western Nicaragua. Eduardo Zepeda-Henríquez's (1987) exposition of the Nicarao's supreme deity, Tamagastad , used Lothrop as an authority. Lothrop also appeared as a key citation in interpretive work concerning El Güegüence's significance for Nicaraguan cultural identity and the essential role of the Masaya-Carazo region as the repository of that identity, which featured prominently in Pablo Antonio Cuadra's literary journal El Pez y el Serpiente. In the tightly bound in-group ex-changes of mutually acknowledged authority in this journal, which featured prestigiously credentialed Nicaraguan and international authors, some key texts are almost entirely known through other texts, and the uses to which the latter put the former.

As previously noted, the dominant interpretation of El Güegüence elaborated by elite Nicaraguan authors, almost all of whom were either born or socialized into the elite intellectual circles of León and Granada, contended that it crystallizes the essential mestizo character of Nicaraguan national identity. For the mainstream circle of twentieth-century Nicaraguan intellectuals, including Cuadra, Francisco Pérez Estrada, and Jorge Eduardo Arellano, among others, certain unquestioned assumptions about the character of indigenous peoples in Nicaragua lay behind their contention that Nicaragua was and had been for a long time a nation whose character was inherently and overwhelmingly mestizo. Indigenous identities, for these authors, depend on certain unchanging and enduring traits that when present mark individuals and social groups as Indians. These traits cannot change, because the quality of Indianness is inextricably tied to the outmoded, the antiquated, the anachronistic holdovers of the pre-Hispanic era. Denning Indianness as equivalent to resisting change and innovation means that Indians are always tragic and doomed. These intellectuals' comprehension of indigenous identity denied Indians the possibility of dynamism after the Spaniards arrived. Change of any substantive nature spelled death for indigenous cultural identities. By contrast, twentieth- century Nicaraguan intellectuals ascribed precisely these qualities of cultural and technological dynamism to the mestizos, whose identity they viewed as still in formation, still acquiring traits and generating new and unique ones, and irrevocably linked to the rise of Nicaraguan national identity.

This narrative of national identity was legitimized by the authority of foreign scholarship, with the minor intervention of anthropology. After the heyday of Lothrop, the German linguists Berendt and Lehmann, North American linguist Marshall Elliott, the ethno-adventurers Squier and Brinton (all discussed below), and occasional archaeological nibblers (e.g., John Bransford, Doris Stone), serious ethnographic research in western Nicaragua no longer occurred. Richard Adams's chapter about Nicaragua in his Cultural Surveys of Panama-Nicaragua- Guatemala-El Salvador-Honduras (1957), discussed in the introduction, constituted an important exception to that generalization. Both Adams and Nicaraguan intellectuals understood mestizaje as triumphant or nearly so. The latter celebrated that inevitability; the former did not. Yet Adams, like most U.S. anthropologists of that era, probably did not take note of the local elite intellectual discourses, whose writing anthropologists at that time did not consider relevant to their work. During the 1950s, Adams likely would not have read Pablo Antonio Cuadra's El Nicaragüense; on the other hand, Nicaraguan intellectuals did not quote Adams to legitimize their views of mestizaje. The intertwining of dominant Nicaraguan intellectual interpretations of national culture and of El Güegüence with the authority of foreign scholarship therefore relied on quite old sources.

The alternative mode of interpretation among Nicaraguan intellectuals does not feature a single theme like the dominant mode. The dissenting and original interpretive approaches, those of Carlos Mántica Abaunza and Alejandro Dávila Bolaños, have had (and may yet have) important political implications, although they differ from one another in important ways. Both took the same verses and phrases from the play, and found different meanings therein. Mántica and Dávila Bolaños emphasized characters in the play, and different voices, phrases, and persona other than those in the purview of the dominant interpretation. In neither case, however, did their interpretations receive the stamp of legitimacy from prestigious foreign authors. The interpretations of Mántica and Dávila Bolaños thus remain confined and organic to intellectual discourses within Nicaragua, while their ideas, at least about El Güegüence, have been widely circulated within the country by the ultimate cultural bibliographer and arbiter, Jorge Eduardo Arellano, whose own political predilections are discussed later in this chapter.

One final analytic positioning may offer insight into the relationships among nation-building, national literatures, and metropolitan authority, given the radically different interpretations of El Güegüence and their ultimately diverging roles in constructing Nicaraguan national identity. Bakhtin (1953), who focused on novels and epics, elaborated the concepts of polyphony and heteroglossia, both of which describe written or oral narratives populated by multiple, nonhomogeneous, unintegrated voices. Many anthropologists have received his ideas via Clifford (1988: 46-47), who has understood Bakhtin's concepts as constructing a "utopian textual space" of multiple possibilities and imaginaries. In the case of the dominant interpretation of El Güegüence, the play became not a Utopian space but a part of the conceptual cage in which elite intellectuals confined discourse about ethnic and national identity. On the other hand, alternative interpretations did create a rebellious space for double entendre and the resignification of indigenous words and names in the case of Mántica's work, and insurrectionary rebellion against colonialism, the Church, and whiteness in the work of Dávila Bolaños. All performances of this play do indeed foster a carnivalesque atmosphere, which is another application of Bakhtin's ideas by Clifford. My own vantage on El Güegüence sees the play as a carnival not of play but of power, and of the history of social and individual identities that dispute themselves and are disputed by others across time. As Verdery (1991: 320) suggests, it is impossible to understand Bakhtin's intentions except as construed through the brutalities of power's effects on language, performance, and interpretation in the nation-state, as he himself experienced those effects. Thus, we are brought back to the consideration of the lived subordination and domination of social groups under specific historical circumstances, which shape the performance and interpretation of nation-building narratives. In that light, this chapter lays out the parameters of an intellectual field in which Sandinista cultural policies formed, making clear the underlying complex assumptions, Utopian or dystopian, depending on the social position of individuals and groups, that have sustained elite politics about Nicaraguan national culture and identity before and during Sandinismo. In a laconic sense, the interpretative literature about El Güegüence, and everything that went along with it, formed the soil out of which the Sandinista Ministry of Culture grew.


Excerpted from The Grimace of Macho Ratón by Les W. Field. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Introduction: Regarding Macho Raton

I. A Class Project: El Gueguence, Masay-Carazo, and Nicaraguan National Identity

2. Nobody as to give me permission for this, Lord Governor Tastuanes, or, Why the Artisans Did Not Become a Revolutionary Class 1979-1990

3. Breaking the Silence: Suche-Malinche, Artisan Women, and Nicaraguan Feminism

4. The Time of the Blue Thread: Knowledge and Truth about Ethnicity in Western Nicaragua

5. Whither the Grimace? Reimagining Nation, State, and Culture




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