Xóchitl Flores-Marcial, Associate Professor of Chicana/o studies at California State University, Northridge, examined 16eCourt documents from the last century of a lawsuit brought by members of the indigenous Zapotec community against their governor, in an area that is now the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The testimony included a detailed description of a then centuries-old tradition in which members of the community shared their goods or skills, knowing that in the future the beneficiaries would repay them.
“The testimony provided hard evidence,” said Flores-Marcial, “that indigenous peoples of the Americas for centuries before colonization had a system of collaboration, exchange, and sharing, which scholars now call social networks. and the shared economy”.
Flores-Marcial is one of a handful of scholars around the world who study the Zapotec practice of giving known as “guelaguetza.” She received a prestigious Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship to complete her book, “Zapotec Gift: Guelaguetza, Mesoamerican Social Networks 1330-2020”, which will be the first of its kind to document the Zapotec tradition.
“It’s a way of life, a code of conduct, and the reason I recognized it in the testimony is because that tradition continues today in Indigenous communities, in my community, and in my own family,” said Flores-Marcial, who is Zapotec. and one of 24 American scholars to be awarded a Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship for the 2022-23 academic year.
With the support of the scholarship, Flores-Marcial will spend much of the next academic year in Mexico, studying pre-Hispanic stone registers and colonial paper registers and other rare documents in the archives of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and to collaborate with Zapotec community leaders and Mexican historians to research Guelaguetza traditions.
She said she hopes her research will “shed light on the particular role that Zapotec women have played in managing the crucial economic powers and social bonds necessary to sustain Guelaguetza through the trauma of 300 years of colonialism.”
Flores-Marcial plans to use contemporary oral testimonies to “link this longer historical experience to the current use of the Guelaguetza by immigrants from Oaxaca,” she said, “and as the basis for the annual – and now monetized and performative – transethnic and multilingual celebrations that form the basis of Oaxaca’s international tourism campaigns.
She said Western historians have only recently begun to recognize the impact of these traditions on the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca.
“Because it’s not part of their traditions, it’s harder for them to recognize it,” she said. “I’m Zapotec, so I immediately recognized what the testimony was about. Guelaguetza is part of my own story. I recognized him in this document, and continued to see him as I did further research. This experience made it easier for me to recognize something that other historians have overlooked.
Ideas of community and social networks, even transactional relationships, are done differently in the Western world, she explained.
“In the Western world, if I want that cut, I give you money for the cut and the deal is done,” she said.
“With Guelaguetza,” Flores-Marcial said, “you may need the cup now, and at some point you will pay me back for giving you this cup. I need food, and you will repay me that way. It’s not an individual transactional experience. It’s more about being part of a community in which the members of that community recognize that you are part of their community – their family, if you want – and will take care of you when you need help.
These transactions are recorded in a stock exchange in Guelaguetza, from which the tradition takes its name, she said.
She noted that pre-Hispanic material culture, like the stone genealogical records she analyzed, place the Guelaguetza system at over 2,500 years old.
“It’s only recently that historians have begun to understand what these written records mean,” Flores-Marcial said. “The evidence demands that indigenous societies like the Zapotec be rightfully recognized for their social, economic, and cultural and intellectual developments over two millennia.
“The Zapotec example provides a clear and consistent record of social responsibility and a sustainable sharing economy that we can emulate at the 21st century,” she said.