Notes on the Text of “The Tree of Knowledge”

This film is meant to be seen several times. There is too much information to pick up in one viewing. This is deliberate. The film should be regarded as a text in itself (Expressive Culture 101!). There is a large amount of symbolic, nonverbal, information in the film, to which the and these notes text provide an outline. Study of the film itself will enrich the verbal information below.

In addition to the version told by Manuel Lecona, the same story was repeated separately by the Huehue violinist, Agustin Aparicio, who concluded with the additional statement found at the end of the film.

1- Manuel, the informant, is mestizo, but establishes his bona fides by noting his source. Manuel is totally bilingual in Spanish and Totonac. He is the only mestizo I have met who has participated in the Huehues dance, and also in the Voladores.

2- In Huehuetla, and indeed throughout Totonacapan (the Totonac region of Vera Cruz and Puebla states), the Totonacs generally do not live in town. Rather, it is the mestizos who live in town while most Totonacs live in the countryside and come to town only for church and market. This curious role reversal is the first signal that the danza has been adapted to fit changed circumstances – i.e., that there is another level to the story. Note also that it is the puppets who call the Indians.

3- Clothing is a mark of ethnic identity for the Totonacs, and this is the first of a series of references to the importance of ‘transvestitism’ in the dance and in daily life. Since this is an Indian dance, and the Indian Bernabe told the story, the people in the house must be mestizos. Thus this insistence on “cross-dressing” can be seen as a characterization by the Indians of mestizo behavior: the mestizos are willing to teach the Indians their customs, but they insist that the Indians adopt them – and abandon their own culture

Technically, a mestizo is someone of mixed genetic parentage – specifically Spanish and Indian. However, in Mexico the term generally means someone who is a native Spanish speaker of Mexican descent – i.e., what Americans think of as a “Mexican”.

In fact, Mexican society is a genetic pyramid, in which social class is negatively correlated with mestizaje – the higher you are in the pyramid, the more European and the less Indian or African ancestry. Conversely, the lower you are, the more genetically Native American (or African) you are likely to be.

4- While Manuel identifies, ‘Luhuan’ as a (native) Spanish-speaker – i.e., as a synonym for mestizo, in fact this is not quite accurate. A Luhuan is someone of ethnic European background – normally a Mexican “mestizo”, but I have observed that the term not only includes criollos (Mexican nationals of pure European origin), but also Spanish nationals, French-speaking Canadians, Germans, and North American native English speakers. All are called Luhuanan (plural) by the Totonacs. Hence “white” or “European” might be more inclusive terms, except that by American racial standards the mestizos don’t “look white”.

The problem comes in the confusion between genetics and ethnicity. Whereas in American (and most European) culture, race is the defining characteristic – anyone with identifiably negroid physical characteristics is “black” regardless of how “white” he behaves, for example – in Latin America culture plays a more important role. In Mexico, it is possible to pass from “indigena” to “mestizo” by changing one’s culture. While this requires abandoning traditional indigenous costume in favor of store clothing, learning to speak Spanish without an identifiably “Indian” accent, and, especially, moving to a new community where you are not known to be Indian, it removes the strong genetic boundaries of Anglo-American culture. In part because it is so easy to “pass”, clothing is still an important mark of ethnicity for many Mexican Indian groups.

5- The smallness of the house ‘explains’ why the dance is performed ‘around the house’ – which is represented in the dance by a screen around the base of the bamboo pole. Again, the Indians are learning from the Luhuans, who they have accepted as teachers. However, in addition, they decide to establish blood and/or fictive kinship ties with the mestizos.

6- The name of the dance, in Totonac, is ‘the intermingling of children’ – that is, the dance offers a prescriptive behavior for dealing with the Luhuans: learn from them, and establish blood ties by intermarriage. In fact, this does not often occur; mestizo men may have Totonac mistresses, but seldom marry them. The formal ties, as shown in the baptism sequence, are the ties of compadrazgo (“co-parenthood”).

Normally, the Totonac couple will initiate the relationship by asking the mestizo(s) to be baptismal godparent(s) to one of their children. In addition to compadrazgo de bautizo, however, any ritual event involving an expenditure of money is motive for establishing a compadrazgo: school graduation, weddings, etc. Teen-age Totonac children also approach mestizo adults to become their padrino or madrina (godfather or godmother). While the compadre or padrino is expected to pay some or all of the expenses of the event, the ahijado (godchild) owes fealty and service, and the compadres assume reciprocal (if unequal) obligations towards each other.

7- the priest’s remarks, illustrated by the market scenes, underline the exploitative nature of the relationship between mestizos and Totonacs. Of course, the “advantages” are mutual: a compadrazgo involves mutual, even though unequal, obligatons. The priest spells out the advantage to the mestizo. For the Totonac, the compadrazgo offers financial aid and a more powerful person to turn to in case of need.

8- The principal points out clearly that the school system uses learning Spanish is a tool in the process of acculturation through education. Totonac language and culture are presented to the pupil as inferior to Mexican national culture, so that by the 6th grade the pupil is ‘insulted’ – has learned to be ashamed – to speak his native language.

9- By teaching the pupils to ‘like’ school, the principal expects them to ‘integrate’ – i.e., lose their Totonac ethnicity. In any case, Totonac land ownership was declining as mestizos bought or took over land, frequently through chicanery – loans at high interest, loans against coffee harvests, etc. At the period when this film was shot (1978), bank loans were not available to Huehuetla Totonacs, since they did not know how to get them. This has since changed. In any case, because of the high birthrate and limited land base, there is continuous outmigration from Huehuetla and other rural communities. Most pupils indeed have no choice but to ‘work in the cities’.

10- That is, the school deliberately encourages Indian children are to reject Indian clothing, a major mark of ethnic identity.

11- In Guatemala, ladino replaces mestizo to refer to native Spanish-speakers of Indian or mixed genetic origin. However, in medieval Spain ladino originally referred to Spanish-speaking, acculturated Jews. Indeed, Sephardic Jews still speak a dialect of Spanish called Ladino. Thus, the use of the term here for Indians in the process of acculturation is entirely consistent with the original meaning of the word.

Again, the Totonac word “tapalajnat” focuses on dress as a mark of ethnicity.

12- Integration’, however, is not a real option, in spite of the rhetoric of the school. The ladinos are not really admitted to mestizo society – even though the definition of ‘mestizo’ is elastic enough to include Americans. As implied in Democracia Indigena, filmed 20 years later in 1998, it was the ladinos – i.e., hispanicized Totonacs who stayed in Huehuetla rather than migrating to the cities – who became active in the Independent Totonac Organization (OIT) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and so provided leadership for the more traditional Totonacs which led to the rule of a (ladino) Totonac government from 1990 to 1999. A major reason for their activism was precisely that they were in limbo: no longer fully traditional Totonacs, yet unable to gain acceptance into the mestizo community.

13- That is, the traditional Totonacs reject ladinos for changing their clothes (i.e., adopting a non-Indian identity). Hence the Huehues dance is used as a sanction against improper behavior – as well as an opportunity to “parody” becoming a mestizo. Thus a.) the ladinos face powerful upward and downward barriers to integration with either of the other groups, and b.) the message of the Huehues dance is not ‘integration’, but separate ethnic identity while learning from the Luhuanan and cementing social relations through compadrazgo.

14- In line with Mexican government policy, the principal sees the school as having a mission to implant the official Mexican National symbol system – in this case, the cult to Father Hidalgo. The film shows how the school dominates the celebration, and how this symbol system – including a Colombian Cumbia and an American disco dance! – is presented as an alternative to traditional customs to the schoolchildren. Note the Indian girls dressed in “fake” Indian clothes! That is, the Totonacs are invited to abandon their own identity as the price of “dancing” with the mestizos.

15- This whole sequence is incredibly rich. In fact, there are three different “discourses” present in this story. On the surface, the story is about learning from the mestizos, who teach the Indians about the European 12-month calendar and even the seasons. Then they teach them how to hunt! Of course, the Totonacs had a perfectly good calendar (better, in fact!), knew about the seasons, and needed no training in hunting. So what’s going on here?

16- I contrast the Huehues visually with the Voladores, in which traditional symbolism is much more nearly intact. The danzas (ritual dramas) parallel, even parody each other; indeed, they are probably closely related. But each danza has been reworked to deal with the impact of the Spanish conquest in a different way. While the Voladores offers a cosmic vision integrating the Old Religion and Christianity, the Huehue symbolism has reworked to teach how to deal with the mestizos.

The choice of the coatimundi and the woodpecker is explained by the logic of the dance. Since the pole is (evidently) central to the dance, the animals must fit the nature of the pole and not vice versa. However, both Manuel and Agustin Aparicio, as well as the visual symbolism of the painted screen, make clear that the coatimundi is a stand-in for the much more symbolically potent deer and jaguar. Note that the screen shows a jaguar actually climbing a tree! Similary, while the woodpecker now pecks open a bud to release red white and green streamers to symbolize the (mestizo) Mexican flag, Manuel points out that it used to peck open a sunflower, called chichinaxanat (lierally sun-flower). So there has been a transformation of these older symbols to fit the new purpose of the danza – and Manuel says as much. Finally, note the connection between hunting and chastity.

17- The Huehue dancers (and all other masked dancers in Huehuetla) use their masks to change their personas. They become, in the dance, Luhuanan. Obviously this offers an element of freedom to young Totonacs not ready to abandon their traditional ethnic identity, yet attracted by the ladino alternative. Note that the dressers are all younq adults, and that, in the earlier scene, they speak both Spanish and Totonac. Most of the Huehues dancers are in fact transitional, not quite ready to leave Totonac identity. In the danza, they can become mestizos on a trial basis. However, the dance not only exemplifies the pressures on them.

18-Here the Totonac violinist, Agustin Aparicio, went beyond what the mestizo, Manuel Lecona, knew about the Huehues. There is a third level to the danza, besides dealing with the mestizos and the pre-conquest symbol system of the flower and the deer/jaguar. Where the dance really began was with the trees, who live and are intelligent (‘have hearts and can speak’) just like humans. The dancers are controlled by their wooden masks, who are the real dancers – i.e., at a deeper level, the dancers become vehicles for the wood of the masks. This explains why the Indians went to the wild woods (monte) to find the house. In Huehuetla, it is the Indians who live in the countryside and the mestizos who live in the towns. So it makes no sense to find a house of mestizos in the woods! But the Luhuanan are really trees. Again, it appears that this danza and the Voladores are deeply related.

The Huehue violinist went on to explain to me that what the Indians saw in the woods were trees who had died, but whose hearts were still good, who had stood up and were dancing. The puppets are these trees – as are the 12 posts, the masks, and, most of all, the central pole.

One of the most important things about this film, I think, is how it shows the use of ritual drama as a dramatic teaching device – a way of transmitting beliefs and values in a non-verbal, intuitive manner. The story of the Huehues danza is instructive, but both viewers and dancers can experience the important messages of the story even if they don’t know it in words. It is especially important because we can see how the danza has been reworked to deal with two and perhaps three different layers of meaning. It seems possible to me that the original danza was about trees as animate beings, and that the story of the sunflower was added on later, as the Totonacs adopted and adapted the general Mesoamerican cosmology. In any case, this original drama was reworked to fit the need to deal with the mestizos, but without losing its “backstory”. Of course, Europeans and Americans are familiar with similar reworking in the Bible, notably in Genesis.

I wrote in 1980 that – The solution the danza offers – learning from the mestizos, relating via compadrazgo, acting out individual fantasies while not overstepping the real boundary between the two identities is a failure, not only because of the efforts of the mestizos, but because it leaves the Totonacs open to ‘integration’. Unlike, say, the Huicholes, who reject the mestizos as inferior, the Totonacs admit the value of what the mestizos have to teach – and so they send their children to the schools designed to make the children deny their parents’ culture. And that, of course, is why the introduction ends with shots of a young Totonac child compared to a trapped bird.

As of this writing (1999), the Huehuetla Totonacs have proved far more reslient than I dared hope. Not just in spite of, but because of, the pressures to “integrate” and “modernize”, they are finding creative, positive ways of maintaing their cultural identity. In fact, as documented in Democracia Indigena, they are experiencing a renaissance. The Council of Elders has assumed a new, more public role. There are more danzas than there have been in 30 years, the cargo system is fluorishing, and there is an air of quiet self-confidence and pride in being Totonac that is truly impressive.

Return to The Tree of Knowledge