Combine-ism: They Are the Gods Who Never Left. Spiritual Ethnography in Veracruz’s Huasteca Region

Receipt: December 20, 2022

Acceptance: December 22, 2022

Combinar para convivir: Etnografía de un pueblo nahua de la Huasteca veracruzana en tiempos de modernización

Anath Ariel de VidasCentro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos/Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social/El Colegio de San Luis, Mexico, 500 pp.

Anath Ariel de Vidas is an anthropologist who has provided us with two invaluable ethnographic works on the Teenek and Nahua people of the Huasteca region of Veracruz, El trueno ya no vive aquí (2003) y Combinar para convivir (2021), as well as about twenty articles that show a constant and systematic reflection on identity, culture, ethnicity, rituality and different related topics. Her writings have turned her into a huastecologist with a fine sensitivity to recognize the details of cultural change and to open theoretical-methodological paths that, from the Mesoamerican issue, point to the contemporary condition of ethnic minorities in our country. Her findings outline a series of debates that disturb and offer solutions to the discussions that for so long have constituted the basis of indigenist anthropological thought and which, in this review, will be alluded to in relation to her most recent book Combinar para convivir. Etnografía de un pueblo nahua de la Huasteca veracruzana en tiempos de la modernización.

This book is a proposal for an analysis of ethnicity understood as the socio-cultural, historical and political condition in which large sectors of the Mexican population find themselves, whose ancestors are counted as the original inhabitants upon the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Inhabitants bearers of a culture whose central characteristic has been its persistence, the ability to resist and reinvent themselves as collectivities throughout five centuries and the years that have passed in the 21st. From this fact, the author puts on the table a polemic argumentation that distances itself from the predominant essentialisms in what was called the indigenous question, mainly anchored to the issues of the formation of the State and the construction of a national project in countries characterized by their colonial ballast. National states such as Mexico's incurred in a type of historical particularism by conceiving cultures as self-contained realities. For essentialism, recourse to dichotomous categories such as tradition/modernity, development/underdevelopment, rational/irrational, etc., become fundamental to assign values to the degrees of acculturation, assimilation or integration and, consequently, it disregards the mechanisms and strategies that allow us to understand interculturality or cultural contact as creative and innovative capacities that make possible the existence of these groups, despite all the types of dispossession and violence exercised against their people, territories and belief systems.

In this sense, the author is not interested in demonstrating the origin of knowledge and practices by appealing to ethnohistory, but rather, in an inverse sense, to corroborate and attest to the type of resonances that modernity and the contemporary condition of these peoples recovers and puts into circulation, through the use of heterogeneous elements that, when combined in ritual practice, generate a type of temporality different from historicity as a linear narrative.

In this approach we observe parallels with other theoretical proposals that can be included in the so-called ontological turn, although in reality they assume different anthropological horizons. We refer to decolonial studies, perspectivism, certain currents of ecofeminism, political ecology and cosmopolitics -in the version of Isabelle Stengers, Marisol de la Cadena, Mario Blasser-, who have in common an interest in dismantling or disabling the duality between culture and nature, questioning the objectual presence of non-humans and, consequently, recognizing the agentive nature of sociotechnical and socio-natural relations and mediations.

Such a seemingly innocent title, Combinar para convivir presents the native ontology of a village settled under the communal property regime called La Esperanza (154 inhabitants integrated in 46 families), which lacks primordial titles, its formation is very recent and it is so small that its intense ritual life is astonishing. Combinism, the category used by the author, would have an analogous relationship with perspectivism, in the sense that it is not a category invented by the anthropologist, but an order of correspondence from which the locals affirm the necessary associations of humans and non-humans. I will elaborate on this later, suffice it to say that, for Anath, combinism is to be found in the vortex of modernity and not in the hard core of culture. Since his work maintains a constant dialogue with the Mesoamericanist approach, Alfredo López Austin's work is implicated in traces, but without a predominant self-organizing culturalist logic.

Combinar para convivir... is an intensely ethnographic book. Of the eight chapters, plus the introduction and conclusions, the first six are ethnographic, even though the detailed descriptions refer to a refined consignment of analytical categories or debates that the author comments on both in the body of the text itself and throughout her footnotes. The last two, vii and viii are presented with an evident exegetic outline, from which he weighs his materials, prefigures his conclusions and brings us back to the pragmatic foundations of the indigenous peasantry that survives while coexisting with global warming, migratory processes and the updated mechanisms of political-religious cooptation. There are almost 500 pages that include a brief glossary of Mexicanisms, nahuatlisms and acronyms, bibliography, annexes and thematic index; in addition to a good amount of black and white photos and an intermediate section with color photographs.

It should not be an easy task for any anthropologist to organize the materials collected over 13-15 years (2004-2019). What Anath has proposed is a systematization of ethnographic materials that are significant from a comparative perspective of the recent past and present of two peoples that cohabit the region known as the Veracruz Huasteca. The Teenek of El trueno ya no vive aquí and the Nahua people of Combinar para convivir are projected as antagonistic theoretical models. Or is it the fortuitous encounter of this otherness or the cultural path that guides the anthropologist's steps to recognize the effective plurality of ethnicity?

The central question that guides the presentation and review of this book is the following: in what sense does this research commits and invites us to think and experience a different type of ethnography, of anthropological narrative? Different because it seeks to transcend the discourse of tradition as a moralizing example of an immaculate world and also because it does not bet on tradition as a patrimonialist narrative. It accepts, therefore, that the classical categories of anthropology have expired and seeks its own keys in order not to fall into the abuse of epistemological fashions.

Ontological turn without perspectivism

The permanent tension throughout the work is the presence of non-humans assumed as central elements of cultural revitalization. The Nahua of the Veracruz Huasteca are not Eduardo Viveiros de Castro's Amazonians, but they recognize, respect and celebrate those others as an essential part of a cosmopolitical conviviality. Perspectivism postulates spiritual similarity and corporeal divergence, bodies are wrappings that conceal humanity. In La Esperanza what distinguishes this relationship is analogism: non-humans are different in terms of their physicality and their interiority -their essence- "and from there arises the need to congregate this universe through a specific relational system" (p. 38) -the socialized animism in Alfredo López Austin that is closer to a rhizomatic mobilization (Deluze) than to perspectivism-.

The author does not question the belief system, nor is she interested in highlighting the contradictions that derive from plural versions resulting from recompositions and mixtures. Perspectivism demands a kind of ontological purity and that is precisely what does not happen in La Esperanza. Rather, there is a combinism, a model suggested to him by the actors themselves, which is not an assemblage, syncretism, or hybridization of elements or systems of knowledge and practices, but "to give the heteroclite world an acceptable form and thus face adversities, assuring in a certain way its control" (p. 265). To put it another way, combinism refers us to the enchantment and the art of improvisation that does not fight with a kind of formalism: "[...] but, above all, it is a matter of 'putting in manifest relation', in a single integrative space, universes explicitly conceived as ontologically distinct and distinguished on the temporal plane, in order to activate coexistence" (p. 257). This issue is relevant because La Esperanza is a community (agrarian regime of communal goods) formed at the beginning of the 20th century and its construction process is registered on the basis of its own decolonial narratives and an agrarian struggle wielded as recent history. In this sense, modernity is not the opposite of tradition, but the space-time of revitalization, of a rituality that expresses in the smallest details the ethnogenetic capacity of the territories and of the relationality between humans and others more than humans. If the ancestors, the owners of the mountain, the tepas, listen when the prayers are in Nahuatl as when they are in Spanish, it is because beyond the form what is important is the heart and the heart is in the songs, the dance, the pilgrimage and the daily work. The work force which is the sweat, the offering, the sleeplessness and the intention that are at the heart of belief. For combinism to be possible, it must be recognized in the heart of all things. And this is typically Mesoamerican thinking.

Is it a post-humanist ethnography?

Humanism in anthropology became evident through various mechanisms, strategies and discourses. Here we situate the evangelizing mission, development and modernization. In its extremes, humanism affirms that the human project is the truth and what matters, from which derive the excluding dichotomies: objective/subjective, rational/irrational, culture/nature. In its liberal projection, humanism has promoted individualism, autonomy, responsibility and self-determination. In its radical aspect it has promoted solidarity, community bonds, social justice and the principle of equality. According to Rosi Braidotti, it is impossible, both intellectually and ethically, to separate the positive elements of humanism from its negative counterparts - individualism: egoism, self-centeredness; self-determination: arrogance, domination and dogmatic tendencies in science - (Braidotti, 2015: 43).

From my perspective, post-humanism in anthropology would engage in a dismantling (deconstruction) of humanism as an intellectual tradition, normative context and institutionalized practice. Thus, a feature of the new ways of doing ethnography consists in situating communitarianism (as a praxis), far from a duty to be based on the ethnohistorical narrative, on the essence or on a type of transhistorical ethos. Anath points out that "The way of organizing humans and non-humans -these peculiar cohabitants- in a single social field, and therefore the modes of cultic relationship with them, indicates that it is not a religion of salvation but an ethos of action through the concept of labor force" (p. 259). If I transfer this concept to other contexts, we have what Marcel Mauss's theory of the gift was most native, rooted in a relational perspective that recognizes the agentive capacities of others as humans. What I notice here is that natives have always been situated in a pos that can be post-apocalyptic, post-colonial, post-modern and post-human, and that anthropologists are slowing down to understand that formal discordances and differences are as combinable as the similarities and resemblances that operate in the processes of movement, inhabiting, perceiving and describing. This reminds me of the work of Tim Ingold (2018).

Is modernity an ethnographic fact or a quality of the Nahua world?

I ask this question to find out if modernity is a socio-technical whole, a process of permanent socio-cultural change and certain power relations under which indigenous communities in Mexico find themselves subjected or, simply, linked to the world. In this respect, it seems to me that Anath is not very interested in defining modernity as the paradigmatic, hegemonic narrative that deconstructs and creates another type of relations between men, men and nature; but as the scenario from which the revitalization of ritual practices among the Nahua of La Esperanza takes place. In this case, like her, I understand that modernity is the form that best fits to define the processes of change of the ethnographic present. Modernity is evoked, never defined, because when focusing on the cultic world, the combinist model must have functioned in the same way in the colonial era, the independent Republic and in the post-revolutionary period.

In his introduction he notes the following:

following Osborne, it is necessary to distinguish the sense of modernity as a chronological category, from its sense as a qualitative, ideological category, that is to say a form of social experience to which not all those involved in the processes of modernization adhere [...] which allows the deployment of various ways of living the processes of contemporary change, including through traditional or (ideologically) non-modern ethics (p. 39).

Modernity is "lurking" and is noticeable in the phenomena of migration, in the reluctant attitude of young people to continue working in the fields, the changes in clothing and the importance given to soft drinks (Coca Cola) in the offerings, and is probably assimilated with the admonitions that the community is dying out. However, these aspects are tangential for the author, she can even find extensions of ritualism in the city, community ties that are not lost; on the contrary, the city is the topos where future adhesions to the cult, seed and germ of identity, are macerated.

What is important is the ritual device (cultic world) of the three layers that I summarize as the articulation of the devotional spheres that occur between the family space, the kube (community) and the animistic or tepa or sacred beings of ambivalent nature. The three layers also refer to the social or earthly world: the mestizo as devil, the subway populated by the tepas and the world of the Catholic saints (p. 141). (According to López Austin's view it would correspond to the idea of anecumen: divine space-time and ecumen: worldly and perceptible space. The offering as a communicative bridge with the gods and to establish bonds and social-moral distinctions between humans).

This question seems relevant to me because the mechanisms of knowledge transmission may be localized and refer to "traditional" practices, which, however, may obtain their status as such through processes embedded in the invention of tradition or the retraditionalization constitutive of modernity, such as the use of mobile devices, social networks and the consultation of books and magazines. Would we call neo-Indians the children of migrants who lost their mother tongue in Reynosa and after some time decide to return to their roots? What inter-textual referentiality will provoke the publication of Combinar para convivir in the following decades?

The close and the close together: work and its fruits

It goes without saying that with a certain methodological rigor, perspectivism does not fit in the Mesoamerican context, and one observation offered by the work we are commenting on is the notion of work linked to that of chikawalistli: strength, effort, firmness, fortitude, courage. Work is the relational dimension and the inheritance that is transmitted in the form of differential gifts that make up the set of possibilities of indigenous agricultural cultures. Through prayers, dances and the whole series of propitiatory rituals, the Nahua of La Esperanza add to the cluster of intentionalities that, in its most pragmatic form, defines the relations of commensality, distinct from the predatory relations of
hunting cultures.

The notion of local labor pools and creates relationships of co-dependence and collaboration. "Coexistence is understood as a joint way of circulating forces through work" (p. 148). While affirming territorial identity, rituals, prayers, and offerings are characterized by opening spaces of domesticity to forces operating in persistent ambiguity. Managing that ambiguity is the device for obtaining the fruit, the food. Domesticity is at the same time a type of agrarian territorialization and the affective production of places, that is to say, it operates under a dual contest: bureaucratic and symbolic, interethnic and cosmopolitical at the same time.

In hunting cultures this condition defines ontological positions, in sedentary cultures there are some similarities, but then everything seems to become different when domesticity is added. The outside is sequenced in a series of repetitions and expulsions, of appropriations and mimetizations, it is the idea of evil as constancy and permanent exposure that must be agenticulated, treated and negotiated to keep it at bay (Dehouve, 2016). The domestic altar is transformed into a miniature version of the macrocosm and ritual labor is then conceived as a consequent phase of labor as force.

I understand, therefore, that the combinist ritual logic would agencitate discursive realities in a kind of radicalized chronotope. Myth and recent history intertwine to make the agrarian conflict a rich source of reinterpretations, whose channeling is the affirmation of identity in coexistence. Thus, the tepas, spirits and owners of the mountains acquire updated consistency. Herein lies the exercise of integrating an apparently homogeneous group into the group of singularities. La Esperanza would be, in this sense, a singularity within its regional framework.

Ontological logic versus the logic of accumulation

"The being does not borrow, it is content with what it is and never lacks anything because it is always giving and receiving". I kept thinking about this phrase that inspired me to read the last two chapters of Anath Ariel's book Vidas: "The most important thing are the flowers" and "The earth unites us and custom brings us together", vii and viii respectively. In these we find the most vehement confirmations of the communitarian values that underlie the exchange and coexistence between people, families and between humans and non-humans. Nominally, when starting from indigenous cosmologies, the self dissolves and the collectivity assumes a generic condition; the group, the community is shown as a homogeneous entity with peculiarities. Now, modernity is presented to us as a qualitative dimension that paradoxically provokes distancing and closeness. The self becomes a stranger and a project to be explored for those who enter and leave the community, but for the ritual specialists themselves the game is played in the interconnection, migration is not a mere fact of marginalization, it is part of the game of cultural recreation.

Similarly, the anthropologist, as a stranger and specialist, collects a bouquet of impressions to remind us of the centrality of flowers:

Thus, by their specific characteristics when opening and closing the offerings, the flowers seem endowed with an agentivity that sets in motion the whole ritual assemblage [...] The setting in motion of labor-force through the flowery aspect of the offerings -confirming the whole of the symbolic connotations associated with the flowers-, thus allows us to extend and apply this fundamental social notion of labor-force to the realm of non-humans and to understand a central aspect of the Mesoamerican ritual operation (p. 350). 

Flowers are omnipresent and all-encompassing, they are not Mesoamerican ritual heritage, they instigate different moods, they are the bud and they are the seed, the metamorphosis (Coccia, 2021). "Transcendental dimension of local religion. They allow the activation and circulation of regenerating and multiplying forces between the three layers [...]" (p. 356). 

Custom and patrimonialization seem to be in different syntonies

To close this minimal commentary, I assume and share with Anath the concern caused by the patrimonialization of custom. We moderns feel safer simplifying radical conceptions, we like to submit difference to the multicultural discourse of relativistic respect for otherness. If tradition is a construct of anthropology at the service of coloniality, we must persist in increasing the coloratura of the voices that refuse to enter the tourist itineraries that used to be museum catalogs. In that the custom is not tradition, but contemporary narrative.

In other words, the external designation of these practices as traditional or as indigenous heritage was appropriated by ritual specialists under a form of reflexive distancing imposed by the process of patrimonialization. With these processes, the custom becomes, therefore, culture and a marker of visibilization and vindication of its own (p. 397).

The custom is the ritual obligation that few want to assume because it implies many sacrifices; it is the nexus with the land and the way to establish the ethical link with the environment. The heritage that is not so named knows how to navigate in the waves of commodification, it enters and leaves, it remains still, that is to say, flower, song and dance with heart. I sincerely believe that Combinar para convivir will be read attentively by the Nahua people of the Huasteca. Thanks to Anath.


Ariel de Vidas, Anath (2003). El trueno ya no vive aquí. Representaciones de la marginalidad y construcción de la identidad teenek (Huasteca veracruzana, México). México: ciesas-cemca-ird-colsan.

Braidotti, Rosi (2015). Lo poshumano. Barcelona: Gedisa.

Coccia, Emanuele (2021). Metamorfosis. Buenos Aires: Cactus.

Dehouve, Daniele (2016). Antropología de lo nefasto en comunidades indígenas. San Luis Potosí: El Colegio de San Luis.

Ingold, Tim (2018). Estar vivo. Ensaios sobre movimento, conhecimento e descrição. Petrópolis: Vozes.

Mauricio Genet Guzmán Chávez is a tenured research professor b of the Anthropological Studies Program, El Colegio de San Luis, A. C. He is a member of the National System of Researchers, level ii. D. in Political Sociology from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (ufsc), Brazil. He is interested in various topics on the relationship between society and the environment: ecotourism, socio-environmental conflicts, conservation and management of protected natural areas and the ritual use of psychoactive substances. He is the author of two books: The nature that never died. A political ecology essay on biodiversity conservation in the Mexican humid tropics and the Brazilian Amazon. (2019) and Conservation and regulated use of peyote in Mexico. Prospective study of the legal, cultural and environmental dynamics. (2021).

Inline Feedbacks
See all comments


ISSN: 2594-2999.

Unless expressly mentioned, all content on this site is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Download legal provisions complete

EncartesVol. 5, No. 10, September 2022-February 2023, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 22, 2022.