Criticizing Decoloniality and Its Criticism

Receipt: March 13, 2023

Acceptance: July 17, 2023


The exercise of critique is one of the main ways of improving debates in the social sciences. In this sense, David Lehmann's text is welcome. However, I do not fully agree with several aspects of his criticisms. I highlight, in particular, his denial of the historically objective character of racism and its consequences, and his failure to consider the complexity of the articulations within and between which contemporary indigenous movements move. I also find his conceptions of universalism debatable. But I agree with his view that there is a simplification of Western thought and modernity by decolonials, a strong critique also made a few years ago by one of the founders of decolonial thought, Santiago Castro-Gómez, which I present in my text. Finally, I expose my disagreements with what I call the heuristic hypertrophy of colonialism made by decolonials and introduce, in addition to the coloniality of power, the notions of indigeneity, nationality, globality and imperiality of power.

Keywords: , , , , , ,

Criticizing Decoloniality and Its Criticism

The practice of criticism is one of the main ways of refining the debates in the social sciences. In this sense, David Lehmann's text is welcome. Nevertheless, I am not totally in agreement with various aspects of his criticism. I underscore, in particular, his negation of the historically objective character of racism and of its consequences and his lack of consideration for the complexity of the articulations within and between them that drive modern indigenous movements. His concepts about universalism also seem debatable. But I agree with his opinion that there is a simplification of Western thought and modernity by decolonialists, a strong criticism also made in recent years by one of the founders of decolonial thought, Santiago Castro-Gómez, which I present in my text. Finally, I show my disagreement with what I call the heuristic hypertrophy of colonialism made by decolonialists and introduce, in addition to the coloniality of power, the notions of indigeneity, nationality, globality, and imperiality of power.

Keywords: decoloniality, post-imperialism, modernity, indigeneity of power, coloniality of power, nationality of power, globality/imperiality of power.

There is no theory beyond the reach of criticism. This is due to advances in academic debates or changes in social, economic, cultural and political life, as well as in technologies. In fact, the exercise of criticism is one of the most fertile paths for the theoretical and methodological improvement of the social sciences. In this sense, the text written by David Lehmann about his book After the Decolonial: Ethnicity, Gender and Social Justice in Latin America (2022) that he kindly gave me prior to this timely initiative from Anthropological Inserts. But what follows is based exclusively on the "broad outline" summary now published in this journal. The invitation extended to me by Renée de la Torre to participate in this debate was also an excellent opportunity to revisit some of my writings and critical thoughts on decoloniality although, as will be seen, with different emphases from those of Lehmann.

Criticizing criticism

The initial general issue I want to address is that the text oscillates between a critique of decoloniality and, not explicitly, race-based identity politics, issues that are related but not necessarily the same thing. I suppose this is why Lehmann (2023) chose as one of his purposes "to distinguish between a social justice based on social class and gender as drivers of income and wealth redistribution, and one that prioritizes race and ethnicity as it relates to ancestral disadvantages and wounds that continue to affect individual performance." However, this problem is not really elucidated throughout his text and is also referred to a contrast between autonomist/non-universalist policies and universalist policies. I advance that I do not see an impossibility of linking demands for recognition to demands for redistribution, while admitting that the exclusive emphasis on recognition diminishes the importance of class inequalities in many of the scenarios of current progressive struggles.

But there is a problematic central point to the author's argument: the discussion on universalism cannot be reduced to public policy initiatives nor to thinking of universalism as "those reasonings that classify people according to impersonal and objective characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, income, age, gender, place of residence, or educational level". Based on the Brazilian experience, Lehmann (2023) posits this objectivity "in comparison with ethno-racial ones, which are defined by self-identification". It seems to me a perspective that denies the objectivity of racism as a form of oppression historically constructed by the imperialist-colonialist expansion of the world capitalist system. The lack of objectivity of racial identities (as if they could exist independent of racism) is something that would be demonstrated by the manipulation of social justice systems and the redressing of inequalities produced by racism, carried out in bad faith by mestizos. It is true that mestizaje has been put in the closet in the face of the advance of identity ideologies inspired by Anglo-Saxon ideologies of administration of interethnic systems. But racism exists and in Brazil, a country in which, as stated decades ago by Oracy Nogueira (1955), the "brand preconception" (basically phenotypical appearance) is notorious - it is one thing to be a light mestizo, the other to be totally dark or black mestizo. The fact that there is racism against blacks and native peoples is as objective as the poverty of whites and mestizos are phenomena structured by the historical expansion of capitalism (Wolf, 1982). At certain moments, Lehmann seems to want us to believe that identity, especially that of blacks and native peoples, does not affect their participation in the less privileged strata of our societies and that it is wrong to have them as a motivation for subaltern political agency.

At the same time, there are debatable statements in the text. I will give two examples. First, and related to the alleged lack of objectivity of racial identity, to take as a sign of failure of the quota policies for blacks and indigenous people in Brazilian federal universities the bad faith manipulation by some mestizos or "whites" (or those so considered in the Brazilian classification system). It would be the same as believing that income redistribution policies to reduce class differences are a failure because there are middle-class people who claim to receive compensatory benefits. Second, the generalized statement that "indigenous movements [...] are condemned to be minority, and without an urban base" can only be understood if we think that the author underestimates the characteristics of contemporary indigenous resistances and policies that articulate heteroclite networks, located in different parts of the world. loci, with various levels of centralization and easily transiting between different levels of local, national and global agency (Albuquerque de Moraes, 2019).

Lehmann's conception of universalism confuses the existence of characteristics shared by all and/or verifiable in all places as a sensible certainty, with the universal; while, as our own author perceives, what is at stake in decolonial critique are the universalisms constructed by the powerful and transformed, by the effects of historical hegemonic games, into global discourses and models that are made to believe that they exist in all humanity or are equally desired by it. Moreover, and reasoning in another direction, decoloniality, inadvertently, constructed its own universalisms, by substituting imperialist/colonialist universality for diversality (Mignolo, 2000) or transmodernity, in a perspective that assumes, as political objectives, the search for equality and diversity and their correlated meta-relations.

Likewise, it is impossible to ignore that epistemicide was an explicit or implicit part of colonialism in the Americas, except when native knowledge was useful to the European invaders, as evidenced by the rapid acceptance of so many important edible plants, such as corn and potatoes, for example. In this case, the native peoples were the object of what I called ideopiracy. However, there were complete epistemicides when this violence coincided with the genocide or ethnocide of an entire people, as exemplified by the disappearance of many indigenous languages. There were also partial epistemicides, as evidenced by the behavioral, linguistic and worldview fusions, present to a greater or lesser degree in the different scenarios resulting from secular and differentiated interethnic conflicts between indigenous peoples, descendants of enslaved African peoples and Europeans. In any case, it is not possible to forget the inequality of power inherent to the colonial encounter, something perceptible where hybridizations occur, once it is clear that the indigenous people are westernized much more than vice versa. Moreover, this is a process that has not yet ended and continues to be implemented by the internal colonialism of nation states.

It is more productive to avoid conceptions of universalism anchored in historical simplifications that do not perceive, to paraphrase a saying of linguists, that universalism is a particularism with an army behind it. In fact, to go beyond philosophical and anthropological discussions on the universalism/particularism relationship that can often reach levels of abstraction and complexity too far removed from their supposed pragmatic objectives, here we should discriminate between two types of universalisms. One type could be called logical-universalisms, which I will exemplify with the following statement: human beings, independently of their cultures, are social animals that use sophisticated systems of language and symbols. The other type I will call ideological-universalisms, which in reality are, I repeat, particularisms with an army behind them. These are more common than one might think and are clearly based, as the military metaphor indicates, on strong disparities of power and processes of centralization within the Eurocentric world system. A clear example of ideological universalism is the development discourse, founded on the Western conception of progress, deployed after World War II, which assumes that all humanity shares the same notion of nature and desirable destiny.

It should be recognized that, in a world where ideologies and utopias of diversity, multiculturalism, interculturalism and plurality abound, ideological-universalisms are no longer indisputable discourses and the tensions between particularisms and universalisms are critically redesigned. As I wrote before:

Criticism is especially directed towards ethnocentric Western formulations which, given their hegemonic positions, have stifled other perspectives. Enrique Dussel (1993), for example, argues that it was European centrality in the world system that allowed modern Eurocentrism to appear to be universal. The Eurocentrism of modernity has thus confused abstract universality with concrete globality, hegemonized by Europe as "center" (Lins Ribeiro, 2018: 276).

These ideological-universalisms are, in reality, particular-local, whose supposedly universal pretensions were transformed into global discourses by force of powerful imperialist processes and, in this sense, rightly deserve to be the subject of contemporary sociological, anthropological and philosophical critiques (for an exploration of what I called local particularisms, translocal particularisms and cosmopolitan particularisms, see Lins Ribeiro, 2018, especially the chapter "Cultural diversity, cosmopolitics and global fraternal discourses".

Criticism of decolonials

One problem, and here I agree with Lehmann, is that decolonialists often make reductionist and biased readings of certain theories, of the work of certain authors, of the West and of modernity itself. It is frequent, as in the case of the critique of Marxism considered as a Eurocentric discourse, that the subtleties, contradictions and paradoxes of certain currents are crushed and homogenized. Exactly in the case of Marxism, there are visible contradictions in the existing positions among the members of the decolonial "school". In the first place, the influence of Marxism is obvious in a central author of decolonial thought, Aníbal Quijano, especially in a seminal text he published in 1993 on the coloniality of power (Quijano, 1993). There is also the strong relationship of decolonials with Immanuel Wallerstein, the respected American Marxist sociologist and originator of capitalist world system theory. This indicates that, in reality, despite sharing general presuppositions, the composition of the decolonial collective is plural, not all authors fully coincide in their perspectives.

In any case, the contradictions, paradoxes and aporias of the subject positions of the authors of decoloniality in the face of Eurocentrism are not problematized or at least consistently raised, something that, one would expect, would result in an interesting and productive exercise of double consciousness and heuristic and epistemological self-criticism. Indeed, they self-attribute to themselves a subject position that erroneously leads one to believe that they constructed a perspective immune to Eurocentrism and modernity. At least among the best known founding leadership, most, if not all, with the notable exception of Catherine Walsh, in Ecuador, are white men, writing in imperialist languages (English and Spanish), working in apparatuses central to the reproduction of the hegemony of Eurocentric Western knowledge; that is, in universities, among which are some of the most important in the United States. Is it possible to think that, at least in part, the capacity of dissemination of decoloniality in the last 20 or 30 years is due to these sociological factors typical of the inequalities inherent to the production of visibility within the world system of knowledge production? Why do we not see the protagonism of indigenous and Afro-American intellectuals in the paradigmatic publications of the group?

I have nothing against the fact that they are male and white; my argument is not identitarian, but epistemological. These criticisms do not disavow decoloniality; indeed, the presence of white or mixed-race allied intellectuals in anti-racist struggles, and also of Eurocentrists to varying degrees, can be an asset with political consequences in several ways. But my criticisms problematize the foundationalist claim to have inaugurated another completely and radically new way of thinking. Here another issue also arises, which is a certain simplification of European thought that does not consider its spaces of struggle and its contributions to libertarian postulations, anti-oppression and pro-equalities of race, gender, class, etc., which is an error that Chakrabarty (2000) criticizes. For him, it is important to rescue what is progressive in European thought and not to throw it away as if it were all conservative and reactionary. Positions of this type also mean, paradoxically, denying pluriversality, the ecology of knowledge and transmodernity as the source of new epistemic scenarios and horizons.

In summary: criticism of Eurocentrism and the hegemony of North Atlantic thought should not mean (especially when it is made by university professors) ignoring its positive qualities nor its character of intercultural historical construction. A significant part of European thought, especially its political philosophies, has been the result of cross-fertilization coming from the experiences of the original peoples of the so-called New World, at least since Thomas More published UtopiaMichel de Montaigne wrote about cannibals in 1516; Michel de Montaigne wrote about cannibals in 1580, and Jean Jacques-Rousseau developed his essays influenced by propositions and experiences from the native peoples of the Americas.

This disdain for the "mixture" is common among the colonials, as Lehmann rightly points out. Perhaps due to a lack of ethnographic knowledge, they have difficulty perceiving the impact and transformations that 500 years of colonialism provoked in the cultures of native peoples. Interculturality is a fact in many colonial situations created by the advances of capitalism over native peoples. Likewise, the alliances of native peoples' political movements with non-indigenous political agents working in civil society (in NGOs, for example), in universities and in political parties cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, as Lehmann states, many influential indigenous movements, such as Zapatismo, were influenced by Marxism and the liberation theology of the Catholic Church.

Homogeneous modernity? Castro-Gómez's critique

The question of the homogenized reading and the differences internal to the decolonials appears strongly when the issue is European modernity. In fact, the divergence internal to the group here translated into a radical critique. Santiago Castro-Gómez, the Colombian political philosopher, who was one of the creators and most active members of the decolonial "multidisciplinary network", in a "critical balance" speaks of their positions that interpreted modernity without reducing it to coloniality, to a "colonial, monolithic and totalizing phenomenon", admitting that it has a dark and a luminous side (Castro-Gómez, 2019: 9).

An important moment in the discussion internal to the "network" occurred with the shift to the left in South American countries in the early 2000s:

Those who chose to support the progressive cycle drew on the critical thinking of modernity (Latin American and European) to better understand the situation. Those who, on the contrary, chose to reject it (en bloc or only in specific cases), developed with increasing emphasis an anti-modern vision that took Zapatista communitarianism as a model, sometimes falling back on anarchist and subalternist positions. It was from that moment on that some stopped feeling part of the network and began to walk alone. This evolution anti-modern of some decolonial theorists seemed to me not only a serious political mistake, but also an obvious step backward with respect to the initial proposal of the network. It was as if decolonial theory were repeating the same colonial gesture of "radical exteriority" in the face of modernity that I had criticized in my first book. [...] The "decolonial turn" is transformed into a moralizing preaching against everything modern, defended by beautiful and sentimental souls, but lacking a political horizon (Castro Gómez, 2019: 9-10).

Contrary to his peers, Castro-Gómez (2019: 11) argues that it is "through the legacy of modernity" that it will be possible to "combat the colonial legacies" that it itself generated, a vision that is based on his understanding of modernity "as a set of rationalities in permanent conflict," as transmodern. It is necessary to operate through and not from the modern legacy, traversing modernity in order to:

de-Europeanize the legacy of modernity through modernity's own normative criteria, rather than one that seeks to escape of modernity to retreat into the "epistemologies" proper to those peoples who were not entirely co-opted by it (Castro Gómez, 2019: 11).

Castro-Gómez proposes to move away from "abyayalism" (which he calls a "variant of decolonial thought") and criticizes the use of "other epistemologies" of native peoples as an alternative, since it amounts to an "epistemic-political exodus" resulting from the abandonment of disputes over "the distribution of public goods within modern institutions [...] to withdraw into the organic microcosm of community life". And he concludes that:

the biggest mistake that decolonial theory can make is to renounce the political and critical resources offered by modernity itself, under the assumption that these resources are in themselves an extension of the logic of capitalism (Castro Gómez, 2019: 12).

The fact that I agree with the problems that come from the simplifications present in decolonial thinking about the meanings, conflicts and potentialities of Western modernity does not mean that I believe we can disregard the positive role that the critique of the permanence of colonialist structures - through unequal interracial relations, continued territorial dispossessions or epistemological violence and exclusions - has as a discourse in all the countries of the Americas (and beyond) with democratizing and reparative consequences, especially when it has democratizing and reparative consequences, of continued territorial dispossessions or epistemological violence and exclusions - has as a discourse in all countries of the Americas (and beyond) with democratizing and reparative consequences, especially when articulated with political movements of indigenous peoples, Afro-Americans and their allies. However, there is another angle related to colonialism that I will address in the following section.

Critique of decolonials 2: The heuristic hypertrophy of colonialism.

It is almost a truism to recognize the strength of the permanence of colonial structures in nation-states that have been formed as a consequence of European expansion in the sixteenth century and later in the nineteenth century (themes explored before decolonials by discussions of neocolonialism and internal colonialism, for example). But to see colonialism and coloniality as a single causal factor is a misunderstanding popularized by the reception of decoloniality. A clear indication of what I have just said is the transformation of decolonial into an adjective necessary to indicate that an author is part of the progressive academic field in Latin America.

At a seminar we organized in 2010 with colleagues from Goldsmiths College, University of London, to compare postcolonialism with decoloniality, I presented the first version of a text that was to be published in 2011 by the magazine Postcolonial Studies (Lins Ribeiro, 2011) and would later be published in Spanish as a chapter in the book Otras globalizacionesentitled "Why (post)colonialism and (de)coloniality of power are not enough: a post-imperialist perspective" (Lins Ribeiro, 2018: 311-327). I will mention just an important part of my arguments for the purposes of this article. The exclusive emphasis on the structuring power of colonialism disregards what Heyman and Campbell (2009) called "causal hierarchies." For me, one cannot think of the structural power of colonialism "as an enduring force that always passes over others" (Lins Ribeiro, 2018: 317). This kind of monocausality suffers from an understanding of the complexity of the exercise of hegemony and its struggles in different contexts. It also seems to me contradictory to the choice, by decolonials, of native peoples as the gateway out of the Eurocentric "colonial wound," as it does not take seriously the long histories of indigenous resistance in different scenarios. In other words: if colonialism had had a totalizing power of devastation, we could not explain the persistence of contemporary native peoples as important political actors. Moreover, as I wrote earlier:

The permanence of indigenous populations in the present is proof that it is possible to resist the destructive movement of Eurocentric capitalist expansionism that has lasted more than 500 years. Many indigenous peoples represent an imaginary even more subversive than the post-capitalist imaginary, because they provide a non-capitalist experience that exists and is present. Indigenous people preserve, in concrete ways, in forms that are idealized by others or in their own practices, the eternal return of other experiences and knowledge and thus, a memory and a testimony of communal, communist and enchanted times that are, in fact, contemporary. The indigenous presence demonstrates not only that other worlds are possible, but that in fact other worlds exist embedded in capitalist modernity (Lins Ribeiro, 2018: 333).

Let me put it another way. By hypertrophying the structuring power of colonialism, decolonial thinking does not consider what I called indigeneity of power, a force that is differentiated in the Americas according to the characteristics of the various colonial situations (Balandier, 1951) historically constructed. It is one thing, for example, to find the Aztec or Inca empires, another to find peoples without a state, such as the Tupinambás, in the coastal lowlands of South America. Nor do decolonialists consider the nationality of power, the globality of power and the imperiality of power. In Latin American scenarios, it is not possible to ignore the structuring power of the national state, even if it is commanded by comprador bourgeoisies or part of dependent economies. In my aforementioned text I exemplify the nationality of power with a clear case: the construction of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil inaugurated in 1960, a national project aimed at intervening in the structuring power of the regional systems left by colonialism, for economic or geopolitical reasons, almost exclusively in the coast of the country. In any case, the processes of nation building and the establishment of national elites have their own dynamics and generate subjects, institutions, circuits of power circulation, alliances and interests, in different scenarios, which cannot be reduced to metropolis/colony relations. The globality of power refers to the different ways in which global and transnational forces and the position of each national state, within the world system, influence the conditions for the reproduction of life in concrete situations. For example, it is not the same thing to be part of the Mexico-United States-Canada Treaty (the current name of the naphtha) or Mercosur.

Finally, Luciana Ballestrin (2017), in debate with what David Slater (2011) called imperiality of power, criticizes decolonials for an absence of consistent interpretation of imperialism. In fact, it is a phenomenon without which neither colonialism nor contemporary capitalism can be understood, a fact to which I have been calling attention since my book Post-imperialism (Lins Ribeiro, 2003). Ballestrin (2017: 507) asks, "If, even after the formal process of decolonization, coloniality is the logic of colonialism, such reasoning cannot be applied to imperiality, as the transcendent logic of imperialism?" In addition to positing the impossibility of thinking colonialism without thinking imperialism, Ballestrin concludes that "strategies of decolonization must be much more directed at 'imperiality' than at modernity itself. The informality, invisibility and nebulousness of contemporary mechanisms of imperiality reproduce imperialism without empire through governance without government in the global context" (Ballestrin, 2017: 540).

We could conclude by affirming that the great absentee from the decolonialists' explanatory universe is contemporary capitalism and its current forms of (re)production of political and economic power. For this reason, and I believe this is one of the non-explicit targets of David Lehmann's critique, decolonials inspire communitarian solutions, widely accepted in various circuits of the intellectualized left. Such solutions seem to me insufficient to counteract centralized systems (though often spread across different loci and invisible to the vast majority) in the hands of powerful imperialist elites, state and private, who enjoy an increasingly concentrated power, generating new inter-imperialist conflicts between the new and old empires of our world.


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Gustavo Lins Ribeiro D. in Anthropology (cuny -1988). Professor of the Department of Cultural Studies, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Lerma and Emeritus Researcher of the National System of Researchers (Conacyt), Mexico. Professor Emeritus of the University of Brasilia. He was president of the Associação Brasileira de Antropologia, first president of the World Council of Anthropological Associations, vice-president of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences and is its honorary member. In 2021, he won the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Contributions to Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association. He wrote and edited 28 volumes (including translations) published in nine countries, as well as more than 180 articles and chapters in seven languages on all continents. His latest book is Otras globalizaciones (2018).

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