On New Year’s Day of 1994, guerrilla rebels from a south-eastern district called Chiapas captured several key municipalities, declaring armed resistance and the desire for an autonomous region from the Mexican government (Mertes, 2004, p. viii). This date coincided with the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would allow for the removal of tariffs and the opportunity for American corporations to buy large sections of land across Mexico. The potential impact of this agreement meant that local farmers and indigenous communities would have to compete with new ‘cash crops’ and this would have a direct impact on the traditional farming of Mexico’s most important staple food maize. The aim of this essay is to explore how maize is connected to the production and reproduction of national identity in Mexico, specifically how this is reproduced in the local area of Chiapas, and its influence on the Chiapas uprising. Through first outlining the theories of Bourdieu and then applying these to the situation in Chiapas, it will be shown that maize is directly tied to national identity and that national identity is closely linked to both class and ethnic identities in the region of Chiapas. It is concluded that the effects of both class and ethnic division, in relation to maize production and consumption, played an important role in precipitating the Chiapas uprising and changing local identity.
Pierre Bourdieu was a French anthropologist, sociologist, and philosopher who applied a dialectical approach to analysing the interaction between individuals and groups within society (Harker et al, 1990, pp. 1-8). His work entitled “The theory of practice” is useful when applying an anthropological framework to the connection between maize and Mexican identities, as it provides a cultural interpretation of how identities are constructed. Specifically this theory accounts for how identities are related to ‘outside’ factors, how they are produced and reproduced, and the way that power, and concurrently social inequalities, are manifested over time.
In the theory of practice Bourdieu outlines three main concepts to explain identity formation – these are habitus, field, and capital (Power, 1999). Habitus is the subconscious process through which individuals acquire an identity, character, and personality. It is largely formed throughout the earlier years, however it is always open to develop and change at any point of life. The key influence in establishing a habitus is the existing social system that an individual is born into. It is the place within this system, specifically in terms of the field and amount of capital that are available, along with the influence of family and schools in the formative years, that chiefly mould an individual’s habitus.