Religion, conspiracy theories and pandemic in southern Mexico

Receipt: July 28, 2022

Acceptance: February 12, 2023

Reptilians and other beliefs in covid-19 times: a written ethnography in Chiapas.

Enriqueta Lerma RodríguezCoordinación de Humanidades, Dirección General de Divulgación de las Humanidades, Centro de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias sobre Chiapas y la Frontera Sur, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico, 289 pp.

Enriqueta Lerma Rodríguez's book is part of Correo Certificado, a series of the collection Cartas desde una Pandemia: a commendable editorial effort of the Coordinación de Humanidades of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (unam) in the context of the global health emergency caused by covid-19. The titles in this collection are a select compilation of the academic reflection that has emerged in Mexico to understand the diverse effects of this disease on society and culture. Thus, Reptilians is an ethnographic study that explores in detail how the pandemic intensified the circulation of explanations based on complex narratives that either distanced or articulated religious beliefs, scientific information and intergalactic conspiracies, all seen from the crucible of contemporary global culture, which mobilizes multiple symbolic goods through digital communication channels.

Before detailing the contributions made by ReptiliansIt is necessary to mention the fortunate "Presentation" with which the book opens. Written by Citlali Quecha (Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, unam), the overture is a fine theoretical-methodological reflection on contemporary ethnography and the ways in which the transformations of this method are expressed in Lerma's record, especially in the effort to carry out ethnographic observations in sanitary "seclusion" and through autoethnographic and "multi-situational" forms, as the author calls them in Reptilians. Although the contribution of this first element of the book can be read separately, the truth is that Quecha's text strengthens two questions that are not very well developed by the author of ReptiliansIn this book, the reader will learn: what kind of ethnography is appropriate in the context of the dizzying socio-cultural changes of modern societies and what methodological adjustments ethnography and anthropological inquiry need to make in order to maintain their intellectual and political viability. In other words, this work offers a valuable practical example that responds to the above concerns, and the "Presentation" is its complementary theoretical expression.

The book consists of fourteen chapters written with an agile pen and without theoretical excesses, but especially acute in the reconstruction of the spaces and actors that Lerma recognizes as of anthropological interest to understand the experience of the neighbors with whom she shared the months of confinement by covid-19. The first chapter briefly presents the theoretical-methodological scaffolding of autoethnography and multisituation ethnography developed by the author: writing the space-time of everyday life that she herself constructed, together with her family and neighbors, using communication devices and digital social networks. Thus, although circumscribed to the observation of a micro-space due to worldwide preventive isolation measures (a neighborhood of seven houses located a short distance from the urban center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas), the ethnography contained in Reptilians explores all the "sites" accessible to the author to globally contextualize the views of her neighbors: "the websites, the memes and pictures on virtual social networks, following the news, watching the propaganda and advertisements about the virus, taking note of calls from my relatives and my contacts" (p. 33). In this way, the eventual reduction of the ethnographic space was amplified both by the digital media and by the networks of friendship and family, both of the author herself and of the inhabitants of the neighborhood: all of them migrants by lifestyle; that is, subjects with relatively high purchasing power and global mobility, especially towards Europe and the United States.

The second chapter contains an accurate overview of the sociocultural logics that construct everyday relations in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Nevertheless, Lerma's ethnographic reconstruction of village/citadine life in San Cristóbal is accurate in situating it within historically conflicting fields of power. The author points out that San Cristóbal is inhabited and disputed by indigenous Tsotsil and Tseltal people, mainly settled in the city or in nearby towns; by "coletos" (mestizos born in San Cristóbal and in many cases ideologically conservative); by state and national outsiders, some of whom have lived in the city for decades; and by national and foreign tourists who are the most mediatized face of this town that received in 2003 the official appellation of "pueblo mágico" (magic town). This typology is an important contribution of Lerma to the group of works that take San Cristóbal as a place of anthropological research.

In contrast to the classic monographs of the last century on Chiapas, which concentrated on indigenous villages, ethnographic interest in San Cristóbal has begun to increase to show the complexity of this small city and to face the challenge of transcending the dichotomous ladino versus indigenous narrative that dominated the anthropological explanation of Chiapas in the last century. xx. This is not minor, since it is at the heart of Chiapas anthropology and, despite the recognition of actors beyond this binomial made by several authors (including Lerma), the ethnographic reconstruction that can be read in many current works -including the one made by the author of Reptilians- at times seems to reduce daily life to the cultural and political mismatch between mestizos (whether coletos or outsiders) and indigenous people. All in all, Reptilians is an excellent entry to problematize the city of San Cristobal.

In the third chapter, Lerma methodologically constructs the "colloquial neighborhood": a living space that was atypically closed by the pandemic, forcing the neighbors to make decisions for the mutual surveillance of the entrance to the common space and for the other sanitary measures that were massified during the first months of isolation by covid-19 in Mexico. Here the reader will learn about the intimacy of the neighborhood from the description of the organization and composition of the houses, the daily activities during the quarantine and, most importantly, the portrait of the sociocultural profile of the author's neighbors as migrants by lifestyle: Luz, Rosa, Nicolas, Ted, Vilma, Yiyari, Fabiana, Jade, Julia, Mael, Thai, Malinali, Chaac, Maria and Eduardo. This part of the book is a rich sample of the cosmopolitan networks imprinted by these migrants residing in San Cristobal. A clear example is found in the story of Luz (pp. 57-58), who is a native of San Cristobal and the daughter of a Mexican anthropologist and an art historian of French-Moroccan descent. Luz teaches yoga and lives in apartment two with her eight-year-old daughter Rosa and her partner Ted, a non-Spanish-speaking German. Because Rosa is not Ted's daughter, but the daughter of Nicolas, another German living in Poland, Luz and Rosa travel continuously to Europe to respect the annual cohabitation agreement they established with Nicolas. On the other hand, Luz and Ted live every six months in California, United States, to join the legal marijuana harvest. Thus, the residential triad of this family consists of Mexico, the United States and Poland.

From the fourth chapter until the end of the book, Lerma focuses on analyzing how the pandemic was gradually incorporated into their daily lives, both individual, family and neighborhood, starting with "rumors" about the Sars-Cov-2 virus, until the total reorganization of each of their activities in accordance with the recommendations issued by the Ministry of Health. Facing the social prevention of the pandemic, as the author shows, was not easy. The neighborhood decisions were at all times strained by ambivalent positions towards the certainty of the pandemic event: "Yes, it exists, a pandemic is approaching [...] are you going to believe that stupidity of covid-19? [...] I will not lock myself in here [...] Why don't we wait a bit and then make decisions?" (pp. 78 and 80-81). Beyond the distrust in the national and international information about the virus (an understandable aspect due to the halo of "manipulation" that floated in the air since the beginning of the pandemic), incorporation of fear or uncertainty in the ethnographic writing; however, what should be highlighted is the way in which the author evidences the capacity of covid-19 to influence human actions at very different scales. That is, all governments on all continents reacted in some way. Likewise, in the micro-space of the neighborhood, the virus also triggered dilemmas and choices in various dimensions of life. For example, in addition to the obvious health care (whether or not to expose oneself to contagion), there were also decisions regarding residence (where to spend the quarantine), affection (with whom or with whom to isolate oneself), economics (how to survive) and even leisure (what to do during the quarantine).

The agreements to organize life that Lerma and her neighbors made represent the heart of the social experience of covid-19 in this microcosm in southern Mexico. The way in which the author captures that experience can be seen as one of the great contributions of the book: the ethnographic detail that Reptilians offers to understand each family life challenged by the pandemic.

Thus, the collective anxiety provoked by covid-19 can be read perfectly in Lerma's writing. And, together with what has already been commented on the social disjunctions, of special importance in the book is the relationship that the author observes between science, politics, religion and health, in the explanations of her neighbors about the origin of the virus, its social mode of operation (a sort of social etiology of covid-19) and the macro-sociological conditions of propagation. For many of the author's neighbors, the virus attacked more strongly in regions with 5G antennas: "the radiation produced by the antennas affected the immune system [...] as it dried out the bodies from the inside" (p. 153).

On the other hand, the global spread of the virus was due to a "plot" to overthrow Donald Trump, who, unlike previous U.S. presidents, was not reptilian: "a species not entirely human that has inhabited the Earth for millennia, feeds on children and even profits from them through pedophilia" (p. 154). According to Lerma's neighbors, Trump had done enough to seek to exterminate them, so "the virus has been invented by the reptilian powers to produce a major world crisis, capable of toppling the U.S. banking and commercial system" (p. 154). As the author points out, the geopolitics of the virus elaborated by its neighbors was not only in the earthly dispute (with emphasis on the United States), but now included the intergalactic reality, in addition to mobilizing ways of understanding the world that are based on non-human conspiracies and terra-planning ideas.

The quality of Reptilians The author's approach to this diversity of interpretations lies in showing in detail how the author's neighbors articulate these ideas with scientific data on the virus and the global socio-political reality, which become valid explanations to make sense of the critical reality of the pandemic. In this way, Lerma provides a valuable local ethnographic record of the itinerant global "conspiracy theorists". Nevertheless, Reptilians also provides examples from other cultural and religious registers and the way in which they responded to the pandemic. Among them, the Catholic liberationist pastoral and some religious forms of indigenous localities of Chiapas stand out, elements that give the book a corpus of beliefs that should be considered in a linked way, relating social spheres that are not very evident.

Finally, the author's account ends in June 2020, when the "new normality" was announced in Mexico, a moment which, although it did not mean the end of the pandemic, at least socially began to construct solutions to the virus, such as the relaxation of isolation measures or the announcement of a vaccine against covid-19. Overall, then, the ethnography of Lerma is an excellent window to observe the intimacy of one of the most important events of recent times, an event that we are just beginning to study and understand.


Alejandro Rodríguez López is a sociologist from the Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas (unach). D. in Anthropology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (unam). She has done research stays at the Department of Anthropology of the Complutense University of Madrid, at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities of the University of Madrid, at the University of Madrid and at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. unamat the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the unamand at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México. During his doctoral studies, the Fideicomiso Teixidor and the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas de la Universidad Autónoma de Estado de México, and the Fideicomiso Teixidor and the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas de la Universidad de México. unam was awarded a grant on the study of health crises for the project "Typhus, morbidity and heterodox religiosity in the Franciscan guardianship of Almolonga, Guatemala. Century xvii". He is the author of the book Liquid subjects and pleasures in the dark: homoerotic experiences in porn cinema in Tuxtla Gutiérreza text that resulted from his bachelor's thesis and published in 2017 by the unach. Among his research topics is the historical and ethnographic analysis of Christianity in Latin America from a global, non-Eurocentric and post-colonial perspective.

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