[00:00:00] I grew up with a strong sense of connection to the earth, given that my parents both came from rural, farming cultures—on my mother’s side from Finnish farmers, and on my father’s side, from Mexican farmers. My grandmother was born and raised in Oaxaca and felt an incredible love for her land. She spoke of Oaxaca with such nostalgia and fondness that it affected me deeply and contributed to the fact that, years later, I would view Oaxaca as the place of my roots. When I was eleven years old, I found a book in a bookstore in Mexico City that fascinated me. It was a book by a Soviet author, and, at that time, Soviet literature was quite influential in Mexico. This one was an introduction to anthropology. I read the whole thing, and it fascinated me. I decided that I wanted to study anthropology. My father supported me generously so that I was able to come to the United States to study. I went to the University of Tulane in New Orleans and specialized in anthropology, in Mesoamerican studies. I ended up with enough courses to complete a double major in anthropology and behavioral biology, and this led me to the University of [California at] Berkeley for postgraduate work. Finally I received an invitation from a colleague, who was establishing a research center in Oaxaca focused on regional development and who was looking for personnel with interdisciplinary training in biology and the social sciences. I left everything I had here [in Berkeley], and since then I’ve lived in Oaxaca. I’ve been there for almost fifteen years. The experience has been the existential confirmation of the fact that the training we receive in the ivory tower can really make a difference for people by influencing local processes in some small way. To me, this is fundamental.
[2:06:50] For the past fifteen years I have been working in ethnobiology. The focus of my work has been traditional knowledge of the environment, the uses of plants and animals and the identification of these according to Western taxonomy. This is a particularly difficult job to do as one wanders the mountains and countryside with the locals. I have been documenting Mixtec knowledge, and I have also done some work in Nahuatl-speaking communities, classifying plants, animals, and mushrooms. The Mixtec people do not classify according to phylogeny. That is to say, they do not base it on the morphology or behavior of organisms, but, instead the ways in which they use the organisms become their fundamental criteria. Plants that are used in the same way are placed in the same category, like plants that are edible, whose leaves can be eaten. There are other categories such as fruits, flowers, those that are used in rituals, woody plants that can be used as kindling because they burn well. Mixtec classification of plants represents a theoretical problem in the sense that it contradicts the universal principles that we have long proposed for the classification of organisms.
[3:30:50] Being the founder of a non-governmental organization that studies the environment and human ecology in Oaxaca has been extremely satisfying for me. This organization is called SERBO: The Society for the Study of Biological Resources in Oaxaca. We have been working for ten years and have been successful in forming an interdisciplinary work team. Part of my work has been to document the nutritional value of wild plants, which are very important because they complement the vitamins and minerals that are present in only limited quantities in the traditional corn-and-bean diet. The region where I have done the majority of my work is considered the most marginalized area of Mexico. The municipalities of Cocoyán and Metlatonoc and the neighboring regions on the outskirts of Oaxaca and Guerrero show the highest levels of marginalization in Mexico. In this region the gathering of foods in the wild is very important. Part of our work seeks to validate traditional knowledge of species that are an important source of nutrients. Another part of our work has used new technology, especially satellite images, and infrastructure that we have created in order to interpret this information and translate it onto maps. By doing this, the information can be used by communities for their internal processes of self-management, their plans for local development and the development of strategies for sustainable use of forest resources and agricultural lands, as well as for their development and planning on the micro-level.
[5:24:50] In the Mixtec codices there is a scene in which a tree gives birth to the first human being, or to one of the first human beings. This tree has been shot by a deity’s arrow. It is not just any tree, but an ahuehuete from Apoala. Ahuehuetes are trees with a great tradition of ritual importance in Mesoamerica, and in Mixtec regions in particular, where they signify the mother tree, a womb-like tree and the tree of origins. In my work, I have not found any narration about the ahuehuete, although it is still known by its Mixtec name and it is recognized throughout the region of Cocoyán where I work. I understand that in the 1950’s a very interesting myth was recorded that seems to echo the scene from the codices. In this modern narration, a man finds a tree with an opening that resembles a vagina. The man copulates with the opening and later the tree becomes pregnant and gives birth. To me, this is a very nice myth that makes us think about the persistence of myths over time, demonstrated by its appearance in the marvelous manuscripts, which surprise us with their pictographic richness and leave us to imagine the wealth of our ancestors’ lives.
[7:05:50] My great-grandmother was a weaver in San Luis Potosí. She used the backstrap loom to make extremely high-quality textiles, tablecloths, and napkins, along with the gauze-crepe technique, a delicate technique for intricate designs. My family saved the pieces my great-grandmother had woven in San Luis Potosí. I have been interested in this since I was very young, because I was always familiar with textiles. Textiles were a symbol of womanhood because, before marrying, women had to produce very, very high-quality textiles to demonstrate their value and in order to merit a husband. They would weave silk sashes for their husbands much like the one I have here. They also used very complex techniques and extraordinary designs to weave them knapsacks for tortillas. I wanted to combine textiles with my interest in ethnobiology and, a few years ago, I organized a workshop in Santiago La Chopa. The women of Santiago La Chopa, which is a Zapotec community, traditionally weave wool, silk, and also “ixtle,” a fiber from the agave plant, and fiber from the maguey plant. But the knowledge of how to create these fibers had been lost. They knew that their grandmothers had used plants and the great cochineal bug, which is an insect [used for color], as well as minerals for mordants. But all this knowledge had been lost, and they wanted to recover it. They invited me to do this workshop, and so a group of colleagues and I explored the local plants with the weavers themselves. We also brought cochineal bugs and indigo. We literally began to experiment, and the results were amazing.
[8:55:00] In some of the areas where I have worked, I have spoken with women who are weavers and have had the good fortune to record the extremely interesting ways in which their thinking relates to ancient design symbolism, and I would like to give an example. The image, which I show here, is of an eagle with two heads. It is a Mixtec design by the name of “titeaca” and it is a very important design because it has a unique history. This design was derived from—or at least influenced by—the bicephalous (two-headed) eagle of the Hapsburg House, the Hapsburg emblem. The Hapsburgs were the ruling family in Spain during the conquest of Mexico. This symbol appeared throughout the colonial world. It was on the coins, on the flags, on the fronts of churches, public buildings and documents. The indigenous people were bombarded with two-headed eagles. What is fascinating to me is that, to an extent, they subverted this symbol. They reinterpreted it and used it towards their own ends. What I have documented is that, in the region of Cocoyán, where I have done some of my work in ethnobiology, the name of this design, “titeaca,” appears in myths as the monster who was conquered by twins. The twins took its eyes out and two of the eyes became the sun and the moon. This myth has many parallels with the Popol Vuh [Maya creation story], on the one hand, and, on the other, the Legend of the Suns, which was documented in Nahuatl in the sixteenth century.