Apprentice and philosopher: Juan Negrín's Wixárika heritage

Received: May 29, 2017

Acceptance: June 03, 2017

In 1982, a French writer, Jean-Paul Ribes, traveled to Mexico to write an article for the magazine Actuel1 on shamanism and psychotropics, taking the Wixaritari (Huichol) as an example of one of the last living shamanic peoples. At that time, my father, Juan Negrín Fetter, was one of the main students of Wixárika culture and art, for which he received requests from academics, civil servants and psychonauts in the hope that he could facilitate a bond with them. with the Wixaritari communities. My father had only been working with Wixaritari artists in Jalisco and Nayarit for about ten years, but in that period of time he had managed to create close friendships with several families, briefly advised the National Indigenous Institute and had joined his interest in art with the territorial defense of the Wixaritari in the face of deforestation and other threats against the autonomy of this indigenous people.

Photo by Juan Negrín, taken at the blanket workshop he coordinated in Tuapurie (Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán), 1993.

By September 1982, Ribes's chronicle was published, in which he accompanies Negrín to the Sierra Madre Occidental, to the community of Tuapurie (Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán) with the hope of learning something about the spiritual practices of the Wixaritari. True to his early politicization as a result of the Spanish Republican exile into which he was born, my father did not miss the opportunity to speak to the French visitor about regional politics, before turning to more esoteric topics:

—Things are very bad, you know; the Huichols are threatened. That is why I agreed to see you. For you to talk about it in France.

-What? I come to meet shamans and they talk to me about politics ... (Ribes, 1982: 135)

Negrín was captivated by Wixárika art and he was convinced that this medium could serve the purpose of bringing a national and global public closer to the Wixárika culture, with the aim of raising awareness about the political and social state in which this original people found themselves .

Juan sleeps little. He falls asleep at six in the morning. We spent the night talking.

The more he explains to me, the more complicated it becomes. I can't follow the Huichol world map. Everything is doubled, tripled, quadrupled; the Huichol language itself — never seriously studied — is a reflection. The same words mean five or six different things, and I counted up to twenty-four ways to identify a single object. To defuse the atmosphere, Juan tells me about the stumbling blocks of those who have wanted to study the Huichols. What if those creations of anthropologists in the books seemed serious to me? "I don't think so!": The pilgrimages continued by car, and when the moment of ritual consumption of peyote arrived, they gave the pretext of a severe headache to be able to withdraw (Ribes, 1982: 135).

Over the course of 44 years, Juan dedicated his efforts to compiling data on the language, oral history, sacred and contemporary art, as well as the rituals of the Wixárika people. Starting with art and continuing with territorial defense through autonomous productive projects, this work has bequeathed a unique heritage on the Wixárika culture. Negrín's writings include notebooks, diaries, multiple handwritten and typewritten drafts, but he also left hundreds of audios, mainly conversations with artists and the elderly. kawiterutsiri,2 where core concepts of the Wixárika worldview are deepened.

His writings and thoughts are expressed with the same versatility in Spanish, English and French, languages that he had learned intimately as a result of the diaspora into which he was born as the son of a Spanish refugee and an American. His biography allowed him the privilege as well as the challenge of living without a nation. However, he always longed to take root, and Mexico was not only the country of his birth but, specifically, the Sierra Madre Occidental, the sea to his west and the desert to his east gave him a singular root in an entire region of the country.

In a 1993 interview for an art magazine in California, The Secret Alameda (tsa), Juan recounts how his interest in yarn paintings made by young Wixaritari artists from the 1960s led to an accompaniment of the artists that was linked to his own philosophical discovery.

tsa: There is something about the Huichols that marked you deeply and that you felt was of great importance to the world ... and I wonder if you can describe to me what you have seen that you have valued so deeply.

jn: Well, I think it was obvious to me from the beginning in his art ... especially seeing how little consideration and little interest he was given, seeing how despised and undervalued he was. I began to see that they were doing things in art that were extremely striking and that impressed people all over the world. I realized, being myself an artist, that the forms and meanings of these forms as symbols, as a kind of personalized ideography by each artist had somehow not reached an international forum. And it was a new expression of art for the Huichols themselves. They had adopted a new medium like the colored yarn that was available ... and used sacred symbols to create works that were desecrated in the process. [The works] would be sold to unknown persons or through the Franciscans themselves, the missionaries who tried so hard to evangelize the Huichol. So even though the Huichols were facing so many barriers, they were still producing work that was visually extraordinary. So I dedicated myself to having direct contact and sharing with those people who showed strong artistic potential. They were constantly creating new shapes and had an intuitive sense of what is aesthetically beautiful in a universal sense. In addition, they used, curiously, to be in greater contact with their own culture despite being exiled from the mountains. They felt an uneasiness about the religious nexus of their culture that they had left behind. And so it became clear to me that we also had a sociological issue here, or a psychological issue, in which these Huichols were creating art that to some extent justified their place, or to specify their place in the world. They did not feel at home in the Mexican environment, but they had adapted to it so much that they did not feel at home in the Huichol sierra either. Their art was a language that was peculiar to them. The meaning behind the yarn paintings ... as I got to know the artists more ... I began to see that there was a mythology that was extraordinary in its width, and also in its depth. I was able to understand this better and better as I participated with the artists in the exploration of their land and in the search for their culture. I did this, to some extent, with them ... because some of them returned for the first time to places in the mountains, to holy places, for the first time since preadolescence ... and often accompanied them (interview with Richard Whittaker for The Secret Alameda, August 24, 1993. Oakland, California, translated from English by D. Negrín).

As someone who had lived among various cultures, Juan became aware of the existential condition in which the Wixaritari artists found themselves who had been “exiled” from the mountain communities. Together they visited sacred sites from the coast of Nayarit to the semi-desert of the Potosino high plateau and closely observed the immense mountain geography that Fernando Benítez had described a few years earlier in The magical land of peyote (1968):

The forests and the abysses are dark spots and crevices, the hills and ports, straw textures, the rivers at the bottom of the ravines have stopped flowing and on this peñolería, on this labyrinth of rocks, there are imposed, far away, pearly tones, transparent blues and liquid violets from distant mountains (Benítez, 1968: 15).

In collaboration with these masters of Wixárika art, Juan sought to describe and understand how geography was the background of an oral history and of a mythology anchored in ancestors that represent the different coordinates of the territory itself. These walks were made as adventures between compadres and sometimes in the company of their families. With his camera, Negrín captured “the transparent blues and liquid violets” of the Sierra Madre Occidental, as well as the radiant reds, blues and yellows of clothing and ceremonies. At times, he also photographed government planes, Franciscans on a fleeting visit, or trees marked for logging by outsiders.

During the first years of this meeting, the Wixaritari communities were being incorporated into the machinery of the National Indigenous Institute (ini) and regional development projects. By 1960, the Cora-Huichol Indigenous Coordinating Center was established with the objectives of cultural, economic and political assimilation (Reed, 1972: 54) and during the 1960s and 1970s the Huicot Plan began unevenly as part of the the infrastructure projects of the Lerma Plan. The Huicot Plan would operate in the region huichola (wixárika), cora (náayeri) and tepehuana (o'dam ñi'ok) based on the notion that these communities "have remained on the margins of all human progress, and live under primitive levels" (Lerma Plan, 1966: 9).

A few years after beginning his work on Wixárika art and culture, Juan was invited as one of several experts to be consulted by the ini, but soon decided not to continue providing his services in a series of projects that were based on the disregard of indigenous knowledge and practices. It was precisely at this crossroads that the Tuapurie community appointed Juan as a non-Wixárika representative of the community (1979-1984) and thus began his advocacy work for Wixárika territorial and cultural autonomy. In a presentation presented on December 12, 1987 in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, his criticism of government projects is appreciated:

All of this is too subtle and complex to be summed up in one presentation. More than anything we must know the reality in depth, before deciding how we are going to improve it. If we start from a mentality that classifies the Huichol as a minor, an ignorant individual and a half-savage man, without culture, we will only destroy him through our contempt, which is based on our own puffed-up ignorance. If we used to call the Huichol “Huicholito”, it is because we suffer from an inferiority complex and the worst thing is that we threaten to hit it on our Huichol brothers who still respect each other. We consider that in a community as marginalized as Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, municipality of Mezquitic, a system of consensual and representative democracy clearly works that seems utopian alongside modern democracies. There, consultations with the people can last days and nights, the ruler knows that the people are on the lookout for his "moves" to see if they do not take advantage of power to enrich themselves, they can lose honor and power in full exercise of their position . The caciquismo is not known and the power of all, even the priests, is always exposed to the judgment of others. We are not going to impose authorities at our will, genetically Huichol but without the heart, without the culture of its people. Let us not help turn into a circus and spectacle what is important and profound for the Huichol. Nor do we set ourselves up as modern inquisitors, offering alcohol and forbidding peyote and ritual hunting. Let us update our knowledge of its ecosystem before turning fauna and flora reserves into great deserts, to satisfy the appetite of a handful of parasites and to turn the Huichols into modern dependent proletarians. Let us work to improve their self-sufficiency and reinforce their millennial self-determination (excerpt from a presentation entitled “Impact of development on the culture and ecology of the Huichols”, December 12, 1987).

After decades of half-hearted state interventions and a clear decline in the ecology and natural resources of the Wixárika area, Juan plunged into the agrarian courts and the fight against deforestation. He was also able to empirically understand the close relationship between political and economic self-determination and cultural reproduction. By 1986 Juan and Yvonne Negrín established the Association for the Ecological Development of the Sierra Madre Occidental (adesmo), a civil association dedicated to the co-creation of productive projects with the Wixaritari communities. With the support of an American civil association, Friends of Huichol Culture, adesmo was able to obtain funds from the United States, Mexico and several European countries to build carpentry workshops with solar ovens in three communities and blanket looms (built by the carpenters) in two communities. The objective was to promote autonomy through sustainable projects that also nurtured the unique craft work among the Wixaritari. In 1987, Juan was accused by a high-profile Wixárika cacique before the government of the state of Jalisco of cutting down the forest, but in the absence of evidence and with the support of the Wixaritari communities, Juan won the trial, but not before being publicly defended by Fernando Benítez in an opinion published in The Day on March 16, 1988. Unfortunately, despite the success of these projects, the ini rejected the competition from a civil association and the workshops were dismantled by the mid-1990s.

Despite tough political battles and efforts to provide services to fellow Wixaritari who came to his home in Guadalajara, Juan never stopped studying the Wixárika worldview, language, and culture. Interestingly, Juan's interest in comparative religions and philosophies from an early age was stimulated by his long study of Wixárika religious philosophy. The experience of sacrifice required to know the walk of the mara'akate (shamans) and kawiterutsiri They served to strengthen the intellectual dialogue that he maintained in his various writings on the parallels and differences between Wixaritari religious precepts and those derived from Christianity and Buddhism, among other philosophies.

Any student of religion will remember here the concept of "Ying-Yang", where God is the equal union of the two sexes. We also read in the first chapter of Genesis that God manifested himself among us as a man and as a woman, although we are used to portraying him as an immortal man. What is striking is that for the Huichols the actions of men in the exercise of religion attract very concrete consequences in the short term. They are reflected in the cycle of rains and the production of the field, in the hunting and the welfare in general. It is a religion that is both existential and empirical.

This is particularly evident in his traditional political system and in the pilgrimage to the east, although both are losing sharpness or clarity and are closely related. The degree of knowledge acquired by pilgrims who have successfully fulfilled their goals soon becomes a burden. They end up gaining prestige and power among their peers, but they have to recite songs that can last for days and nights without interruption. These songs develop a whole sacred story related to the corresponding event. According to the Huichols, this can only be done after carefully walking the paths that connect the sacred places. Such knowledge cannot be achieved by memorizing and repeating school-type teachings. Those who appear to have achieved the most knowledge are eventually chosen, in secret meetings, by the more established shamans to serve for a year without pay as traditional governors, "Tatoani." This position was considered so painful that many candidates preferred to flee their community if information reached them than to be forced to accept it. Remember the precepts of Jesus (Saint Mark X, 43 and 44): "whoever wants to be great among you must serve others, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of others" (unpublished version " Reflections of a culture: the Huichol custom ”, March 11, 1995)

The thought that Negrín cultivated throughout his more than forty years of dialogue with the Wixárika culture materialized not only in his collection of paintings, sculptures, and recordings, but was also expressed through his strong conviction of service to the Wixárika communities. in the mountains, on the coast and in the cities. Following the teachings of the elders, Negrín launched himself with courage and passion on a path forged by sacrifice and the fortunes that would germinate from this same sacrifice.


Benítez, Fernando (1968). In the magical land of peyote. Mexico: Era, Popular Series.

United Mexican States, Federal Executive Power (1966). Lerma Technical Assistance Plan: Huicot Operation.

Reed, Karen (1972). The ini and the Huichols. Mexico: Secretariat of Public Education; National Indigenous Institute.

Ribes, Jean-Paul (1982). "8 Jours de marche pour retrouver le debut du monde", in Actuel, no. 35, September, pp. 128-138.

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Alejandro Aguerre
2 years ago

What a good story, thanks for sharing it. I imagine your father's struggle, and how difficult it must have been. We talked a bit by messages, a long time ago. I live far away, in Uruguay, but since I was a child I learned about the Huichol culture through magazines such as El Correo de la Unesco (a brilliant article by Juan), National Geographic, etc; and that engendered a strong desire in me to go and meet them in person. I was able to go three times in 1991, 1998 and in 2001, invited by Andrés Carrillo in his elected year as governor of Tatei kie, San Andrés Cohamiata. Precious experience. Now I am in contact with... Read more "

Antonio Vilches
Antonio Vilches placeholder image
1 year ago

Thanks, Diana. Simply wonderful. Thanks Yvonne. Thanks Catarina and Marina.


[…] Which was shared in 1973 by the Wixárika artist, Juan Ríos, during an interview with my father, Juan Negrín, about the labor scene experienced by Wixaritari (Huichol) artists. Recognized in Nayarit […]


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