A Conversation with Pacho Lane

By Tom Stephens *


Bruce “Pacho” Lane is an alumnus of the Texas-Chilean Exchange Program, class of 1960. He graduated from UT in 1963 with a BA in political science. After obtaining a Master’s in Economics from Michigan, he studied abroad in Europe and later returned to UT to do doctoral level work in visual anthropology. His educational experience includes work in Germany and France as well as Portugal. He served in the Peace Corps as a member of the program from its inception in 1961 until 1963.

Pacho has had a varied professional career, serving both the academic community and the business world. He has taught, as well as practiced, the visual arts at numerous institutions, including the renowned Rochester Institute of Technology. Currently he is an associate professor in the Departamento de Antropologia at the Universidad AutonimA del Estado de Morelos in Cuernavaca. There he is developing a visual anthropology program as well as teaching anthropology and continuing his award winning production of videos which capture the life and culture of various indigenous groups in Mexico.

has produced a wide range of video-based studies of human life. Among his subjects have been tattooing, famous Texas blues artists and life along the Erie Canal. However, he is best known for his trilogy of films on the Indians of Huehuetla in the state of Puebla. His first film, “The Tree of Life,” was produced in 1975. It was followed by “The Tree of Knowledge” in 1981 and “Democracia Indigena” in 1999. Those completed works together with four other videos in progress and related written works are part of Totonacapan, a long- term collaborative project he shares with his friend and co-worker, anthropologist Al Wahrhaftig, whom he has known since their Peace Corps days.

When a person’s work is also his or her passion, that work often transcends the discipline in which it was created, and becomes something lasting that technical talent alone could not produce. Pacho’s work falls into that category, and has been recognized as such by his peers. He has won prizes at the American Film Festival, the International Festival of Culture & Psychiatry and the Festival de Cine de Pueblos Indigenas. He was awarded the Special Merit Award at the Latin American Studies Film Festival, and his works have been screened at numerous festivals and museums all over the U.S. and Mexico.

I had the following telephone conversation with Pacho on April 17th, 2000.

TOM: I will begin with the most obvious question, Pacho. When I started tracking you down on the internet I started with the name Bruce but that name does not appear with the name Lane much anymore. Who gave you the name Pacho?

PACHO: That just happened. Actually it was not too much after the Chilean exchange program. A year later, I went to Colombia in the first Peace Corps group, Kennedy shook my hand and LBJ put his arm around me. There was a slight difference between those two events as you may guess.(Laughs)

TOM: Right.

PACHO: Anyway, when I was in Colombia I discovered that Bruce was not a Catholic name; in fact, it’s actually a last name. I got real tired of being called Brucey, so I decided I would change to a Catholic first name and I picked Francisco, St. Francis obviously, and the nickname for that in Colombia is Pacho.So that’s where it started, and then when I came back to the states my then girlfriend started calling me Pacho and pretty soon it was pretty close to 50/50. I got real schizophrenic and I thought about it and I decided that really Pacho was a name that had some significance in terms of being a name given to me as an adult and what I have come to think of as my bi-cultural, you know, bent or nature. Besides, I like the connection with St. Francis, whose ideals have been an abiding influence in my life and work. So I decided I would go with that. I try to keep the Bruce in the closet now.(Laughs)

TOM: From your bio and some of the things you have said, obviously you are interested in international learning and had had some international experience before the Chilean program. Was the Chilean Exchange Program really more of a symptom for you than a cause as far as what it meant to your career?

PACHO: I think what it did in my case was to redirect my interest a little bit. I mean, I was already at that point planning to be a diplomat in the Foreign Service and I had already spent a year studying Russianand Marxism in Germany. Even though I studied Spanish in high school, the year in Europe had certainly redirected my interest much more to Europe to Latin America. In fact, I was planning to become a Sovietologist, Kremlinologist, or whatever you want to call it, after having spent some time in East Berlin and so on.Anyway, going to Chile redirected my interest to Latin America and it also made me fluent in Spanish. Our group went to the Instituto Pedagogico. At that time the Instituto was the place for leftwing activists. So here I am dropped into this place and already interested in Marxism and that kind of stuff and all these kids jumped on me and said how come you gringos are stealing our copper and our phosphates and blah, blah, blah. So basically I spent the entire month locked in intellectual discussions with the leftwing Chilean students and absolutely loved it – and loved them. I won’t say it was that alone, but certainly that was part of the reason that I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps and focus on Latin America more than Europe.

TOM: What led you specifically to the Totonacs?

PACHO: Well, after two years in the Peace Corps from 61 to 63, I became a sort of perpetual grad student. I studied Economic Development and the Soviet economic model at the University of Michigan and got involved with SDS and the student protests against our involvement inViet Nam. Then in ‘65, I got an invitation to go to Viet Nam with AID to see for myself how we were saving the world for democracy. Afterwards I did a lecture tour with USIA in Japan on American student reactions to the war in Viet Nam. I discovered that, as a result of these experiences, I really couldn’t imagine working for the American government since I could not accept what we were doing in Vietnam. So my life sort of collapsed along with my career goals. I didn’t know what to do with myself.So I went off to Europe for 18 months, and learned more French – I had started in Viet Nam – and went to the Univsidade de Lisboa for a year to learn Portuguese. In August, 1967 I came back at Austin and discovered that in my absence the Revolution was starting – “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” psychedelics, and those other things. I got involved, tuned in, turned on, but didn’t quite drop out. Instead, I discovered filmmaking – the psychedelics really opened up the visual side of my brain – and was immediately hooked. On film, that is! I felt like I had at last found a way I could express myself without having to comprise my ideals. I started taking courses in the University of Texas Film Dept.Meanwhile, my sister was in the UT Folklore Department she arranged to get a little grant to go shoot a Super-8 film in Mexico over the Easter break. We asked a Mexican professor who was up there for a year, named Gabriel Moedano, where we should go. He suggested this village, Huehuetla, because he had heard they had a good Easter celebration. So we just trucked down there and fell in love with the village, particularly me. Then over the years I’ve just kept going back down there. So that’s how we discovered the Totonacs.

TOM: Well, your website the “Totonacopan” project – is that a viable project and is it under the auspices of that project that you are doing your work now?

PACHO: Certainly, it is a viable project as long as I don’t need any money for it! We have not been able to raise funds so far. That is actually one of the reasons that I moved to Mexico. I felt if I were closer I could work more on the project, and on other Mexican films. Actually, as soon as I finish my IRS tax return I am going to write the next grant proposal for the next film in that series, which is going to be called “Teologia India”, Indian theology.

TOM: Oh, okay, that would be a sequel to the three you have done already, I guess.

PACHO: Yes, right. The Totonacopan project is sort of a dual prong thing because on the one hand, personally I think I am much more interested in following the life in the village itself. My colleague, Al Wahrhaftig who was in the Peace Corps with me, and is an anthropologist in California, is more interested in the family that we have been involved in which is described on the website. But they are obviously related because the family is from the village. Sort of a macro and micro view of the same community.

TOM: Now, I know you finished “The Tree of Life,” and “The Tree of Knowledge,” Is “Democracia Indigena” finished also?

PACHO: Oh yes. “Democracia Indigena” actually has already on 2 awards in the states, which is rather surprising, considering the subject. It won best documentary at a Latino Film Festival in California. And it just won a Special Merit Award from LASA, the Latin American Studies Association, which is to me a lot more meaningful. That’s a sort of academic recognition.

TOM: Right. I learned a lot just reading about the making of that video and the very unique progression that occurred in that movement. It was unique to me because it was so different from what most people read about “movements,” particularly in Latin America. It is almost stereotypical, when you say something like that people think of death squads and armed communes and that sort of thing and it’s obvious that this group of people took things into their own hands and did it in a peaceful way. In fact, that prompted me to think of another question. In doing the study, you distinguished between the self-started democracy movement that the Totonacs embarked on and other indigenous groups such as the Zapatistas. Is the model that the Totonacs had developed, is that anything like democracy the way we know it in the United States?

PACHO: This comes with a whole history. First of all, the Zapatistas in a sense are an off-shoot of this movement. What really happened – I am going to give you a lot of history.

TOM: Okay.

PACHO: So anyway, basically the Catholic Church in Mexico, and elsewhere, has been under a lot of threat from evangelicals. At the same time there was this whole liberation theology movement which influenced a lot of priests, nuns, and lay people. I guess starting in the 70’s, a lot of young priests who may have been influenced by liberation theology and who were looking for a more activist role started working in indigenous communities throughout Mexico. They focused on Chiapas and the Sierra Norte de Puebla, two of the poorest and most traditional areas in Mexico.In both cases they discovered that the Indians were not simply passive but very articulate in their desires and interests. And out of this realization came a dialogue between the church, or at least elements of the church, and indigenous communities. One of the main figures in this was Bishop Samuel Ruiz, until recently the Bishop in San Cristobal. He was very active in mediating between the Zapatistas and the government. Anyway, this movement has gotten the name of Indian Theology, Teologia India. Samuel Ruiz summarized its basic recognition very well: Columbus did not bring God to the New World in his three caravelles. God was already here in the Indian religion. Now that may be obvious to you and me, but for active Christians that’s a stunning statement.

TOM: It is.

PACHO: Because the whole message of the church, of course, certainly at the time of the conquest was, you guys are worshipping the Devil and you are heathens who must be converted to the One True God, which just happens to the god of the Europeans. And there are certainly many, many Christians in the world who are still totally convinced of this.Embracing Teologia India does not mean that the Catholic Church has abandoned Jesus, but it does mean that they were willing to look at other religious traditions as having, in theological terms, the seeds of God already in them. Instead of saying, “Ok, you’re wrong, we’re right so shut up and listen to us,” these priests began to conduct a dialogue within the communities and to realize that they had legitimate aspirations and theological values.I think Teologia India could turn out to be the most important movement that has happened in Latin American in this century. While the Zapatistas got all the glory out of it, really what they did was come into communities where the church had been working for a couple of decades essentially along this line.

So that’s where the Totonacs are and were and that is what the movement is behind the film “Democracia Indigena”. The film is involved in showing where the Totonac revitalization movement came from. And by the way, on the Democracia Indigena page is sort of the symbol of this whole movement. It is the image of Jesus. If you go back and look at it you may not have noticed this but you will see it is Jesus the risen Savior – the reborn Jesus – and he has hanging from one of his hands the Volador flute and drum.

TOM: Right. I saw that..

PACHO:  And he has behind him the image of the voladores flying with him sort of standing there as the tree himself. In fact there’s a tree behind him but you cannot see it. So that’s the incredible, bizarre blend of Christianity of Christian symbols and non-Christian symbols that create a new hope. And that’s exactly what has happened. Anyway, this whole movement brought dignity and a sense of self-worth to the indigenous community.But it was not able yet at least to achieve the kind of political goals the Indians have been demanding increasingly, so the Zapatistas come in and say, “Hey, you are never going to do anything without guns. It is only by espousing a creed for armed revolution and broad changes in the whole country that you guys will be able to reach anything.” Therefore there has been a split between those Indians in Chiapas and elsewhere who followed the Zapatistas and those who continued with the essentially pacifist line of the Catholic Church.So the Indians in Chiapas or many of them at least, went with the Zapatistas on January 1, 1994 and occupied San Cristobal and all the rest of that. Then of course we have got all this incredible armed confrontation that has been going on ever since. At the start, the Zapatistas were just an update version of the armed revolution thing, which we all know is not going to go anywhere. I mean, it is very gorgeous and extremely romantic but you know, give me a break. The Mexican army and upper class, and the American government and its ruling class behind them, are never going to let this happen, so it’s a dead end. But meanwhile this whole other movement, the Indian Theology Movement, is still continuing. It is organizing indigenous groups all over the Americas and elsewhere – all based on the recognition that traditional religion can provide an ideology and a space for indigenous groups to recapture their identity and so to assert their poliical power.

That’s the background. Your question is, is this democracy?

TOM:  Yes.

PACHO: Well, yes and no. There is a problem. I think the church or the people who are involved in this are sort of romantic idealists – which obviously I can share very much. They would really like to go back to the golden age, the first age of conversion just after the conquest. The mendicant orders came and said, “Oh well, we screwed up in Europe and Europe is a mess of sin and corruption, but here are these wonderful gentle people in this new world and we can turn them into the real kingdom of God.” They tried to do that for about 50 years.

TOM: Yes, they did.

PACHO: Until the church said forget this stuff. Anyway, I get the feeling that behind Teologia India is this idea that yeah, the Indian community is still pure and wonderful and what we need to do is go back to Indian Democracy, which is the name of the film. The reason for that is that the priest in the film talks about the conflict between political parties which are essentially looking for power and individual and the traditional Indian democracy in which decisions are made by consensus under the guidance of the elders.And so in one sense, yes, this is democracy. But it is not the democracy, the political democracy, that we tend to think of in the European or the American society. It’s a democracy based on the idea of consensus and of tradition. That’s the fantasy of this movement, and one which, as a Quaker, I share and deeply believe in. But while it would certainly be great if the Kingdom of God suddenly showed up in Mexico, I don’t think that’s really really going to happen. What hopefully will happen is a great increase in Indian autonomy in Mexico and throughout Latin America and the United States, and that’s where the real push is coming. So I hope that answers your question.

TOM: Yes, it does. That’s a good background too. I really am glad you made that distinction between what most people think of up here as democracy and what’s going on down there. On this notion of revolution theology…

PACHO: Indian theology.

TOM: Yes, but I am going back to the church’s terminology.

PACHO: That is the Catholic Church’s terminology: Indian theology. I think you are referring more to the other one: Liberation theology. There is a big distinction between the two.

TOM: I’m sorry, I used revolution, but I meant liberation theology which sounded to me like what they started out thinking in terms of and they realized it was Indian theology that…

PACHO: Well, let me try and explain that. A lot of the priests who started working in rural areas and marginal communities obviously were the ones who had been influenced by liberation theology and they were looking for a chance to put their beliefs into action. But Indian theology is not liberation theology and it is actually in many ways opposed to it, because liberation theology is essentially a western European Marxist interpretation. In other words, it’s still white man’s culture.

TOM: Right.

PACHO: Okay, It says, “we’re gonna save the poor for the revolution.’’ What Indian theology is saying is, “Hey, the Indians have got their own beliefs, let’s listen to them for a change instead of trying to impose, you know, whatever our current European ideology happens to be on them.”

TOM: Right. Okay. I was sort of wrestling with the concept, but that is what it sounds like to me. The young priests came in with this set of ideas based on their training in Western-based theology, and decided they were going to do another round of liberation theology. But either through the influence of the people they were working with or through their own gradual realization, they discovered that that did not work. That Indian theology is what was called for. And to me that’s an important distinction, because when you say – at least in the United States when I read the phrase “liberation theology” I think of a young Catholic priest running through the jungles with Marxist guerillas setting fire to villages in the name of the revolution or something.

PACHO: This is not that at all.

TOM: Well, that kind of thing tends to put some people off. They think that no church has any business involving itself in that type of thing. But obviously Indian theology is a much different concept

PACHO: I think that’s the distinction between the Zapatistas who would be on the liberation theology side and the Indian theology movement, which is opposed to violence. You know, that’s basically the difference more than anything else. In the community of Huehuetla there was exactly one death, I mean violent death, after the Indian theology folks took power. And that was the result of the mestizos killing an Indian. But it was not any kind of violence campaign – no ski masks, no guns, no revolutionary rhetoric.

TOM: Right. Have any Huehuetlans moved into politics at the regional or state level yet or is that still a local phenomenon?

PACHO: No, not yet. What’s happening in Huehuetla is significant and probably unique in many ways, but it is also a part of, you know, similar things going on in dozens, maybe hundreds, of communities in Mexico and increasingly in other parts of Latin America and the world. I mean, of people taking power over their own lives and using the trappings of religion to do this. A similar thing is happening in Tepoztlan, the community I currently live in. So, there are congresses of Indian theology, with lay people and priests and religious whatever going on all the time in Mexico and elsewhere. There is also a Latin America Conference, so people from these communities will go to those conferences and meet up with other folks from other places. But there is no single organized political movement.

TOM: That leads to another question. How has life balanced out in Huehuetla between those that want to stay traditional and those that have decided they are going to follow the mestizo way of life? Has the autonomy movement caused much tension in that regard?

PACHO:  No, not really. The pressures on the Totonacs are huge. The biggest pressure is simply the population. I mean, the area is already densely populated. I would guess 50% of the children are pretty much forced to leave because there simply is not enough work and so they have to move into the Mexican mainstream. And that’s what happened to the children that we have been following in the other half of the Totonacapan project. The ones that are in the photographs on the web page.So there’s this constant out-migration from the area. It is sort of like Sicilians who come to the states and they talk about, “Oh one day I’ll go back to the old country, and – like the godfather – I will die on my family estate.” But, of course most of the Totonacs never do go back just like they don’t in the States. So there is this part of the problem that’s insoluble in terms of Indian Theology. Within the community of those who stay within Huehuetla there are certainly lots of conflicts just like in any community.At one level there is a big conflict between those who have decided they really need political parties – i.e., between the Indians who either favor the PRD or the PRI. So far as I can tell, the local leadership of the PRD are mostly bilingual schoolteachers, while those who are going with the PRI are also either more educated Totonacs or rival traditional leaders who don’t feel their interests are represented by the PRD.

A second split is between the “politicos” and those Totonacs who are opting for this more, shall we say, utopian solution of Indian democracy. They tend to be more the cathechists and others close to the church. They are organized in the Organizacion Independependiente Totonaca, or OIT

But there is also a more subtle split between the leaders of all these groups – the PRD, the PRI, and the OIT – and the more traditional Totonacs. The leadership of all three groups tends to come from Totonacs who are various ways more in touch with mestizo, or Mexican national, society and culture.

So within the Totonac community what we are really talking about is a distinction between ladinos– in the original meaning of the word – and traditional Totonacs. In Huehuetla, ladinos are not what is meant in Guatemala, which is what they call in Mexico mestizos, but rather what the word ladino meant in medieval Spain, i.e., people who were hispanicized but retained a different ethic identity – specifically Jews or Arabs. Neither were totally accepted as Spanish. I am going back to the 15th century, you know.

TOM: Right.

PACHO: And so what you have in Huehuetla is a class of ladinos in that sense, who are not accepted into mestizo society but are really no longer traditional Totonacs. And it is these folks who are really spearheading both the Indian Theology and the PRD or PRI within the Totonac community. People who are sort of marginal to the traditional Totonacs. You know, it’s the same guys who are in AIM in the states.

TOM: Okay.

PACHO: Indians who have been through the white man’s schools – American or Mexican – and don’t really totally feel Indian. They are lost between the two societies. And of course looking for a way of increasing their own personal power by claiming a leadership role as intermediaries between the mestizos and traditional Totoncas. I mean that’s my opinion, at least, of the process.TOM: I was fascinated that one of the things you have done is the study of famous Texas blues artists. What other projects have you got going right now?PACHO: Well, last fall I finished shooting two videos in Mexico, one on a fiesta in an Amusgo village. The Amusgo are a small tribe on the west coast on the border between Guerrero and Oaxaca states. We filmed a Danza de la Conquista and a Danza del Tigre at the festival in their village. The Danza Del Tigre is pre-Colombian. It dates back to the Olmecs, and their jaguar god. The dancers who portrayed the jaguars did a wonderful highly sexually charged burlesque – went around biting all the spectators in the crotch, things like that. I was really in stitches as i was filming. So I have a feeling that’s what the video is going to be about. And then I also shot a film on a wonderful Mexican violinist named Juan Reynoso who is called the Paganinni of the Tierra Caliente. It’s hotter than hell – like Texas. The guy is a genius. He’s an extraordinary musician. So I’m real excited about those two films.

TOM: Well, obviously you focus a lot on the arts as part of the theme or in the work you do. Or at least you discovered that these various art forms really lead the life or guide the life of the people you’re looking at.

PACHO: Really what I am most interested in is folklore – in what anthropologists call expressive culture: poetry, dance, ritual, drama, stuff that you can see and hear. Obviously that is the best thing for film makers. You know, expressive culture and film sort of go together. So I tend to end up doing that kind of thing.

TOM: Well, mi amigo nuevo, I have greatly enjoyed this discussion and I appreciate your patience and willingness to talk about your work.

PACHO: Any time, Tom! Thanks for asking!


* B.A., J.D. University of Texas at Austin

Member, 1965 Texas-Chile Exchange Program