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Cultural Visibility and the Cora
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Cultural Visibility and the Cora
Thomas B. Hinton
Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona


In a world where national states are actively encouraging the
integration of their minority peoples, submerged ethnic enclaves
that have been ignored or otherwise permitted to lead nearly
independent cultural existences are finding it necessary to work out
new adjustments with the larger societies in which the accidents of
geography and history have enmeshed them. Characteristically, these
groups seek to retain, as much as is possible, a continuing sense of
cultural identity even when incorporation into the national
minorities, such as the Kurds, the Basques, or the Tamils, with
numbers running into millions, continue to exist with some success
within larger political units, most small tribal groups and other
minor societies find cultural survival ever more difficult. Apart
from increasing political and economic pressure, another factor has
emerged in that any suggestion of the colorful, the "primitive," or
the hallucinogenic anywhere in the world tends to attract a wide
range of outsiders who come to exploit or patronize picturesque and
highly visible cultures. This attention, which reflect modern
industrial world's thirst for rapidly disappearing opportunities for
exploration and romantic adventure, has pulled many of the less
acculturated native peoples into the limelight. The growing number
of photographers, writers, anthropologists, and adventurers who are
drawn to such groups serves to bring them to the attention of more
far-reaching forces for change such as missionaries and government
planners (who also appear to be attracted in disproportionate
numbers to the exotic). Publicity is reshaping the lives of tribal
peoples throughout the world: in northern Mexico the Seri, the
Tarahumara, and the Huichol, all "exotic" to outsiders, are now
experiencing this phenomenon, as did many southwestern Indians
earlier.

Minority ethnic groups undergoing pressure from other peoples tend
to set up social boundaries between themselves and others as a
defense against their own acculturation. Phenomena of this sort
have been termed boundary-maintaining mechanism by social
scientists, and they include a wide range of attitudes, practices,
and structures aimed at the prevention of too close a contact
between the groups involved. This paper discusses a survival
technique of this general nature. Specifically, it deals with those
patterns through which the Cora Indians of Nayarit have been able to
distract attention from themselves so as to present a low profile to
the outside world. This effort toward cultural invisibility has
become one of this group's most effective methods in avoiding too
intense an involvement in the larger system.

The Cora live in eight communities in the southern Sierra Madre
Occidental. The villages are semiautonomous societies and are
structurally similar to many other Indian communities of Middle
America. Social interaction above the family level takes place
around a tightly organized village religious cargo system. This
institution has been a major factor in the continuation of the Cora
identity. Isolation has been an influenced as well. But in
addition, the Cora display a strong tendency toward secrecy and a
great reluctance to become a focus of attention from non-Cora. This
almost institutional secrecy is a trait commented on by nearly all
previous writers who have dealt with these Indians (Lumholtz 1902;
Preuss 1912; Vogt 1955; Ibarra 1943), and it apparently goes back to
colonial days when it was deplored by the missionary priests who
worked in this area. Vogt (1955) aptly terms the Cora "muy
cerrado" (very closed), using a term applied by local mestizos to
the Indians.

An atmosphere of concealment is evident almost immediately on
contact with the Cora villager. A typical Cora never volunteers
information, and questions beyond a few superficial are parried,
ignored, or answered with an absolute minimum of data. Mestizo
folklore has it that the first words in Spanish a Cora child is
taught are "pues, sabe" [i.e., pues quien sabe] (well, who knows)—
the expected response to any questioning. So close-mouthed are they
that it is usual for an outsider—that is, a non-Cora—to learn of
major happenings in the community, even some of the most important
annual ceremonies, only if he stumbles on them by accident. Preuss,
who worked among the Cora in 1906, narrates some of the difficulties
in approaching these people:

I wandered in vain from one hut to the next trying to learn just a
few of the songs and myths. They did not even want to give me the
name of the singer and they denied the names that the Mexican
villagers had given me were the names of the singers, they were
constantly sick or had just gone to their ranches, . . . they had
gone shopping in Tepic or somewhere. I had the same response when I
went to the village called Mesa del Nayarit. [1912, p. XVI]

It is a common belief of these people that to furnish outsiders with
esoteric information exposes one to illness or death due to the
displeasure of the deities. Benitiz (1970: 415-17) relates how his
Cora informant, a respected curandero, was ever fearful of divine
retribution, and how a shaman's subsequent untimely death was
attributed by the other Indians to his unaccustomed break with the
tradition of secrecy. I have heard of many other such occurrences
among the Cora, these being a common explanation for the general
reluctance to serve as an informant.

In the matter of personal visibility a similar attitude is
expressed. Although Cora culture is almost as distinct from mestizo
culture as that of the Huichol, Cora individuals are often difficult
to distinguish from mestizos even in their own villages. Dress is
drab and shows little distinction except that in some areas it is
old fashioned, being the traditional Calzones and Guaraches of rural
Mexico. While exotic and colorfully garbed Huichol Indians attract
great attention on the roads and in the cities of western Mexico,
Cora Indians are often present in the same area but are seldom
noticed. The Huichol tend to exploit this attention by begging,
securing gifts, and selling handicrafts. The Cora greatly dislike
being singled out for special notice, so that making themselves
conspicuous in the cities is out of the question and begging unheard
of. Even in Tepic, the city nearest the Cora area, few of the
inhabitants are able to distinguish Cora people from rural
peasants. While most Indians in coastal Nayarit are commonly
termed "Coritas," it is usually the Huichol who are so identified.

The desire for low visibility appears to be of long duration among
the Cora. In 1673 Antonia Arias de Saavedra, a Franciscan padre
stationed at Acaponeta near the north-western frontier of the Cora,
described the still unsubjected Indians of the Sierra dressing well
in their own rancherias but as wearing poor clothing when they came
into the Spanish-controlled areas of trade; . . . ellos andan
bien vestidos, y para salir afuera se visten pobremente (Arias
1673). In Cora folktales the hero is often poorly dressed and
unassuming and goes unnoticed by his enemies, but he is strong,
alert, and self-sufficient beneath his drab exterior—an apt
expression of a Cora's strongly positive image of himself. At the
same time the Cora are neither timid, subservient, nor easily
deceived, and a few can take advantage of them (Lumholtz 1902;
Hinton 1964).

A minor manifestation of this desire for a low profile is reflected
in the attitude toward selling articles of the Cora manufactured in
the attitude toward selling articles of Cora manufacture to
outsiders—artifacts that would be classed as ethnic and art
objects. Such sales are generally made with great reluctance.
While making an ethnographic collection in the area, it is common
for the collector to hear that the object in question should not be
sold, that it does not want to leave the area, that it should remain
hidden from foreign eyes. Just the opposite attitude seems to
prevail among the Huichol, with their growing industry in art
objects made for sale, including copies and elaborations of
ceremonial material.

Modern Cora culture as a distinctive lifeway focuses on religious
activity. Not surprisingly, the whole immense body of Cora
religious practices is only peripherally visible to the non-Indian.
Cora group religion today consists of two extensive complexes—one
folk Catholic and one predominantly native Indian. The two are
considered two sides of the same coin by the Indians, since each
major deity has its Christian or "baptized" image represented by a
Santo in the church as well as its non-Christian or unbaptized
manifestation represented by native deities and spirits. And each
complex has a great mass of Costumbre or religious practice. The
non-church observances are seldom seen even by local mestizos and
they are almost never mentioned to outsiders. Except for the very
visible public parts of the fiestas such as the dance groups and
certain activities connected with Eastern week, even the Christian-
derived Costumbre is carried primarily in secret. Most religious
ceremony takes place at night or out of view of the Mestizos. Aware
of disapproval by the church of much of their religious Costumbre,
the Cora do not encourage priests to attend ceremonies not directly
involving them. Non-Cora are seldom invited to Cora events; at best
they are tolerated, for the most part they are ignored. No
accommodation is made for visitors and no attempt is made to welcome
those who appear.

The Indians have developed an effective and simple method to divert
attention of non-Cora from their full ceremonial activities. A Cora
can explain his religious views in Spanish, using Christian names of
the major religious figures. The outsider will learn that the Cora
does indeed believe in God, the Holy virgin in several
manifestations, Jesus, San Miguel, San Francisco, San Antonio, and
so on, and in sin, Heaven and Hell. The explanation would differ
little from that which could be obtained from a mestizo peasant in
the same area. Indeed, it would follow as closely as possible what
the Cora considers conventional mestizo belief. Non-Christians
practices would be minimized or explained away as adoration for or
of a particular Santo. An explanation by the same informant in his
own language to another Cora would give an entirely different view
of the universe. A native cosmology and concepts reminiscent of Pre-
colombian Mexico would emerge, and little overt Christian influence
would be evident. The true Cora conception of their deities would
appear. Tayao, "our father;" Tayasu, "our grandfather" (the sun and
the fire); Tati, "our mother" (who is the maize); Tati tetewa, "our
mother who dwell in the underworld"; tahas, "our elder brother" (who
appears as the morning star); Muchitana, lord of the dead; and the
hundreds of Taquats, minor gods, and spirits of the earth and the
hills and the waters, would come forth as still existing and
meaningful in the Indian pantheon (Hinton 1971; Preuss 1912).

This double treatment of religion, whether always conscious or not,
appears to have been effective for centuries; even those who have
spent long periods of time with the Cora seem to have received only
a vague idea of the esoteric side of their religion. For instance,
the astute and scholarly Jesuit Ortega, who spent twenty years as a
missionary here in the eighteenth century, was evidently aware that
native religious practices had survived to a substantial degree
(Ortega 1754: 30).

Cora patterns of concealment can probably be traced to a long period
of conditioning to missionary pressures that took place after their
final defeat in the early eighteenth century. Never given to
cooperation with their conquerors, they seem to have developed a
type of underground resistance in which Catholic practices were
accepted, but what was essentially the old religion continued
underground in conjunction with Christianity. A tendency toward
secrecy has since reinforced by historical events and by generations
of economic competition with non-Indians in the Sierra.

Another mechanism has been developed in dealing with official
bodies, both religious and political, that try to introduce programs
in which Indians may not wish to become involved. Recognizing that
they have no real political power and that direct opposition merely
intensifies the pressure on themselves, the Cora accept outside
directives. Thereafter, the directives are set aside and
essentially ignored. In those cases in which the Cora recognize
real advantage to themselves, such as campaigns against cattle
disease or professional legal advice, the cooperation is genuine.

From an early age, Cora children are admonished not to push
themselves ahead of others or to attract individual attention.
Chief access to prestige is through the religious Cargo system, in
which the ideal is to carry out one's duties adequately—no more, no
less. Personal aggression and individual display are discouraged.
These values extend to many phases of life. Especially fine clothes
are not worn by a traditional Cora even though he may be well-to-do,
and there is little in the way of adornment or personal display.
For a Cora to transgress in this respect is to invite the negative
comment that he is acting like a vecino (mestizo) or that he would
like to become a vecino. The average Cora is content to remain in
the background, secure in his feelings of spiritual superiority.
Conspicuous display is considered not only socially undesirable but
a positive danger as well. Young people are advise not to boast of
their livestock or productive milpas and to conceal their money,
since a good field or ranch will interest mestizos and money or
other property will attract borrowers, thieves, and other exploiters.

Much of this attitude can be summed up in the statement of and
elderly Cora who volunteered the following:

The Huichol is like a Guacamayo, a parrot with brilliant plumage who
makes a loud squawk and attracts the attention of all. The Cora is
like a little sparrow hawk, with dull feathers and little sound, and
is seldom noticed. It is a simple matter for a hunter to spot a
Guacamayo, kill him, and take his pretty feathers; no one bothers
the sparrow hawk. The mestizo will take the best land from the
Huichol and the priests will snatch away his Costumbres like the
hunter plucks the guacamayo. The Cora is poor and ugly and few are
tempted by his possessions. We know that in time our race will
disappear. But by then the Huicholes will have been long extinct.

Today the Cora are obsessed with the fear of losing their lands to
mestizo settlers and with the loss of their costumbres, which they
believe will finally result in the extinction of their identity.
With a sense of their essential helplessness in the face of an all-
pervasive alternate system of life, they have developed the tactics
of secrecy and low visibility as one of the few possible means of
retaining their cherished traditions, which they consider the true
Mexican Customs.

In the last few years there have been indications that methods aimed
at achieving cultural invisibility are less effective than in former
times. This is primarily a consequence of increased communication.
The outside world is gradually pushing into the Sierra, and there
are fewer places to hide. A few Cora have been prevailed upon to
lower their protective walls for personal gain, and the past several
years have seen the development of conflict among some of the
communities (Gonzales Ramos 1972; 72-75). Once during each year the
Cora become a tourist attraction—Eastern week rites held in some of
the villages have been the subject of photographic coverage and this
has developed some tourist interest and attendance. In spite of
these developments, however, the phenomena discussed in this paper
are still strong influences in Cora life.

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