Soldiers, Saints and Shamans: Three Decades of Revolution in the Mountains of Western Mexico

In 1910, the first of the twentieth century’s great social revolutions broke out in Mexico. Popular heroes like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata led rebel armies of peasants and cowboys across desert plains and tropical mountains, in a quest to create a fairer and more equal country. Their successful overthrow of ageing dictator Porfirio Díaz set the stage for thirty years of war, reconstruction, and cultural, political and religious upheaval from which no part of Mexico would emerge unscathed. But until now, no-one has ever thought to ask how the country’s least ‘assimilated’ Indigenous peoples – the Huichols, Coras, Tepehuanos, and Mexicaneros – helped to shape the Mexican Revolution, and were themselves changed forever by the events of this tumultuous era.

The Huichols, Coras, Tepehuanos and Mexicaneros (or, in their own languages, the Wixáritari, Náayarite, O’dam and Mexicaneros) inhabit a 20,000 km2 expanse of mountains and canyons known as the ‘Gran Nayar.’ The region spans parts of the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Durango and Zacatecas, and constitutes one of Mexico’s most ethnically diverse areas.

Drawing on a decade of intensive ethnological fieldwork in the communities of the Gran Nayar, plus research in archives across Mexico, ‘Soldiers, Saints and Shamans’ is the first study of the participation of the Gran Nayar’s inhabitants – famed as amongst the least ‘assimilated’ indigenous groups in the Americas – in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940).

That no other such studies exist is somewhat surprising, given a recent boom in regionally-grounded studies of Mexican history, and the long-standing popularity of the Gran Nayar as a site for anthropological research. But hey, that’s just how it is! So, if the prospect of reading a truly one-of-a-kind, epic history of war, revolution, banditry, magic, witchcraft and unprecedented social, political and economic change, why not buy yourself a copy here?

And in case you really just can’t get enough of the story of the Revolution in the Gran Nayar, you can read more about it in other pieces I’ve previously published in The Journal of Latin American Studies and (in Spanish) Relaciones: Estudios de Historia y Sociedad, as well as a short book published to celebrate the centenary of Nayarit’s foundation as a Mexican state (all downloadable at the links below).

The book itself shows that the Revolution in the Gran Nayar entailed a violent confrontation between an expansionist state and the region’s highly autonomous Indian peasant communities: a clash between practitioners of subsistence agriculture and promoters of capitalist development, rival Indian generations and political factions, and rival visions of the world, of religion, and of daily life. These clashes produced some of the most severe defeats that the Mexican government’s state- and nation-building programmes suffered during this period, with sometimes counter-intuitive consequences.

Thus members of ‘traditionalist’ Indian factions, who upheld a resolutely pagan religious tradition and defined themselves in opposition to local mestizos, became an important force within the Catholic-inspired, mestizo-dominated Cristero rebel movements of the 1920s and 30s.

Similarly, the Federal educational programmes so often lauded for bringing literacy and ‘progress’ to rural Mexico, instead precipitated violent opposition in the Gran Nayar, which involved the burning of schools, and even the murder of several teachers. And the radical land reforms of left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), which proclaimed the liberation of the Mexican peasantry from social and economic oppression, caused violent territorial conflicts between local communities, some of which continue to define life in the region today. (You can hear me chatting about these and other such ‘unintended consequences’ of the Revolution on the Radical Americas Podcast – click here to listen.)

In order to unpick these historical anomalies, and in so doing shed light on the inner contradictions of the Revolution, I explore the ways in which divergent local responses to the key developments of this period were linked to the actions of the soldiers, teachers, priests, rebels and agronomists who interacted with the Indian communities; to the agendas and personalities of Indian leaders; and to the political, ritual and territorial alliances/rivalries that affected Indian clans, factions and communities – some of them dating back hundreds of years, some forged in the tumult of the Revolution itself. I show that national policies were enacted locally in very different ways, thanks to variances in the political and military conditions in each of the four states in which the Huichols, Coras, Tepehuanos and Mexicaneros lived. Meanwhile, the responses of each people (and, indeed, each of the communities between which they were divided) to the same events often differed, in line with their distinct cultures, histories, and religious practices. Thus the support of different groups for either the Cristeros or the state was influenced not just by the actions and relative local strength of either rebel or government forces; but also by the cult of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus, belief in the miraculous powers of particular local saints and in the shamanic abilities of Indian leaders (including a Cristero chief who was, ironically enough, known to be in league with the Devil himself), and by collective memories of previous regional mobilisations, such as mid-nineteenth century rebellion of the bandit-turned-revolutionary chieftain Manuel Lozada.

As well as exploring how, and why, the Huichols, Coras, Tepehuanos and Mexicaneros participated in the coups, rebellions and civil wars, the state-building programmes, cultural projects and economic transitions that affected Mexico – often in profound ways – between 1910 and 1940, my book will demonstrate the varied ways in which this participation reshaped Indian ethno-cultural and political identities, religious practices and economic activities. Thus local responses to the pressures and opportunities offered by the Revolution led to the emergence of young, ‘bicultural’ caciques (political ‘bosses’), whose power eventually eclipsed that of the previously dominant elders and shamans; the rise of new communal power structures, such as agrarian committees, in place of the old ritually-defined hierarchies of indigenous ‘cargo systems’; and the integration of new gods, saints and ceremonies into older politico-religious systems. Violent factional feuds led some communities to split apart, while others amalgamated together into huge new political-territorial units; and in a few cases, a shift from subsistence agriculture to extractive industry accelerated complex processes through which Indians transformed into mestizos, or shifted from one Indian identity to another.

The communal territories of the Gran Nayar, colour-coded by ethnic identity

Crucially, however, in most of the communities of the Gran Nayar, these changes failed to fundamentally alter local peoples’ identities as Coras, Huichols, Tepehuanos or Mexicaneros, and this book therefore stresses the often overlooked flexibility of indigenous societies. Rather, their dual response – resistance and accommodation – to the expansion of the Mexican state, enabled many of them to obtain outside support for their political, territorial and cultural struggles, and taught a new generation of Indian leaders to manipulate revolutionary discourses of ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationhood’ in defence of their lands and cultures, which they have doggedly maintained down to the present. Thus Cora, Huichol, Tepehuano and Mexicanero participation in the events of this tempestuous period influenced the course of the armed Revolution, and subsequent agrarian reforms, educational policies, and Church-state relations, across western Mexico, but above all gave them the means to shape the post-revolutionary settlement within their homeland, and to preserve their distinct indigenous identities.

Such processes of resistance and accommodation to caciquismo (boss politics), Catholic evangelisation, factional violence, assimilatory pressures and counter-insurgency operations, have their counterparts elsewhere in the Global South. My book thus offers insights into the causes and nature of clashes between indigenous groups and national political movements in Latin American countries such as Peru, Nicaragua and Colombia, and beyond as far as Vietnam; insights that are all the more relevant today given the importance of minority peoples – including Kurds, Druze and Tuareg – in so many of the conflicts that still wrack the ‘decolonised world’.