MASKED METAPHORS: Voices of Rebellion in the Global Market

By Sharon M. Scott

I. Tragedy of the Indigenous Doll Metaphor

Potentially unrealized by their makers, the Zapatista dolls work on First World audiences through the desire to possess the “noble savage” which dates back to the discovery period. Columbus himself participated in the foundation of this activity, which continues in the present. In his accounts of his first American journey, Columbus remembers arriving in the Canary Islands, planting the Spanish flag in the ground and claiming its inhabitants for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella:

And there I found very many islands filled with
people innumerable, and all of them I have taken
possession form their highnesses, by proclaimation
made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no
opposition was offered me.

(Greenblatt 52)

The final line is sadly laughable. It was impossible, of course, for the Arawak people of the Canaries to oppose their possess-ability because they did not understand the Spanish tongue in which it was proclaimed. Even so, their unresponsiveness to the foreign proclamation was read by Columbus as consent, and even willingness, to become objects owned by the Spanish Crown (Mantovani 21).

The absolute and understandable unwillingness of the Native American people to be possessed by the Europeans has been virtually unheard. In Mexico it was stifled by the Inquisition, in the United States it was silenced by genocide. Contrary to the English speaking Americas who considered the native “heathens” to be a threat that had to be eliminated, the Latin nations saw the indigenous as resources as valuable as the land they populated. Contrary to Columbus’ desire, Queen Isabella’s royal law prohibited the sale of native peoples. The Throne, however, could not quell the colonist’s desire to possess the countries indigenous inhabitants. Token amounts of food, money, and prayer were offered to the natives as justification for the intense labor that built New Spain. In Mexico, converting the “savages” to Catholicism became a means for personal and national salvation. Through virtual ownership of the natives the Spain extended wealth of the territory though forced labor and expounded the divinity of the throne through forced worship.

Colonization and beyond, the ownership of the indigenous populations in Mexico has functioned as a symbol power for the wealthier classes. Today it is common for middle and upper class Mestizos to employ indigenous maids, nannies, cooks, and gardeners for substandard wages. The number and character of indigenous housekeepers is a gauge of household prosperity.

Paintings during the Colonial period set the course for visual ownership of natives that continues presently. Offering images of smiling natives, artists reflect and endorse the utility of native possession. Whether shipped back to the royal courts of Spain or sold by contemporary galleries in New York, the colorful images of natives objectify the subject people rendering them as passive, beautiful, and un-human landscapes - - the pride of the Conquest.

The tradition of capturing and claiming native people plays itself out in contemporary Mexico where every few minutes an international traveler snaps a photo of the beautifully adorned Maya, Aztec, and Huichol. The indigenous are captured by the camera. Their images become show and tell objects of global domination for the First World.

Since the arrival of the Europeans to America, native people have come to understand the marketability of their “otherness”. In the most depressed economic conditions, they have discovered some economic benefit in the Western desire to “possess” native culture. Traditional arts and crafts have developed an excellent market with international visitors since tourism to exotic lands became popular in the late 1800’s. It did not take long for impoverished native craftspeople to adapt their goods to suit the taste of wealthy travelers. Items that were popular souvenirs to travelers a century ago now benefit from Internet distribution and import store resale. Examples of crafts who have forged self-perpetuating markets include Oaxacaian Wood Carvings and Huichol string paintings (Davies and Fini 27-31). Profiting from the sale of crafts to tourists seems a liberating alternative to servitude in Ladino households. Indeed, virtually all-remaining indigenous populations in Mexico have a particular craft that caters to and grows with the demands of the international consumer.

In the struggle for economic survival and the influx of visitors to the city of San Christobal in the 1970’s, Chamula women began selling tourists dolls of themselves. Chamulitas. The popularity of these dolls amongst tourist is justified by the above principles of colonialism and proven by the frequency by which they continue to be sold. Thanks to the longstanding law of Queen Isabella, the Chamula people cannot be sold and shipped overseas. The indigenous dolls, identical to their maker in dress and expression, serve as a surrogate for the possession-desire inherited by Westerners from their imperialist ancestors. The Chumalitas continue to be sold in Chiapaneca markets. They cost about 35 pesos (approximately $3.50 US), depending upon the size and detail. Along side them -- on blankets and in baskets-- are the Zapatistas. The two dolls look identical with the exception of a black ski mask.

The doll makers of Chamula visually and audibly condone the use of the indigenous doll metaphor. Or, as Columbus would say, “no opposition was offered”. When the Chamula doll makers refer to their creations “as Zapatistas”, “as Chamulita” it is not yet clear as to wither or not they are speaking metaphorically. It is possible in a Mayan world-view that dolls are imbibed with the chol or life-force through which inanimate objects live. It is assumed by Western sensibility that they, like us are implying that the dolls are representations of villagers and rebels.

II. The Pasaje Montana Input

The mask of the Zapatista doll hides the face of the indigenous person it is said to represent. English director Peter Brooks states, “the mask makes it unnecessary for you to hide. Because there you can take great risks; and because here it is not you, and therefore everything about you is hidden, you cannot let yourself appear” (231). The mask protects the identity of the Chamula person from the possession desire of Western tourists. “It is possible for you to own this doll”, the mask articulates, “but you cannot own a Chamulita”. The mask hides and protects native culture. By covering the face, and therefore identity, with a ski mask the Chamula doll makers are liberating themselves from roles (as playthings) imposed upon them by global society.

The amazing accomplishment of the Chamula doll makers lies in their ability to simultaneously oppose the cultural metaphor of the indigenous person as tourist doll through the functioning of its language. Knowing the conceptual and cultural functioning of the indigenous doll is imperative to understanding how the insertion of the ski mask (pasaje montana) attempts to rectify global understanding of local culture.

To Western society, the ski mask is not considered a symbol of warmth. On the contrary it is something to be feared. Such a mask is hardly, if ever, though of in relation to the sport after which it is named. It might be more appropriately called a robber’s mask. It is inextricably linked with violence and criminal activity. It is the obligatory dress of thieves and rapists. It is the very symbol for crime. The attraction of the ski mask to the criminal is obvious. It is a compact and facil means for identity disguise. The increased presence of video surveillance has made the use of the mask increasingly important and visible. Pictures of ski-masked robbers do appear in the papers and TV news. Hollywood promotes the ski mask/ criminal link in the regular costuming of the “bad guy”. It is important to notice that the Mayans have incorporated a specifically contemporary (media oriented) symbol of the Western criminal into their line of tourist dolls.

The incorporation of such symbolism is not necessarily surprising to those who have studied Tzotzil culture. Understanding that new things are different manifestations of the eternal, Chamulans have little difficulty incorporating the global culture (tourism, etc.) that confronts them daily into their ancient worldview. Upon his many years living with the Tzotzil in Chamula, Gary H. Gossen says he discovered, “an ancient Maya world of perpetual change” and “a modern Maya world that lives as much in global culture as we do” (2002 p. xxx). There is little doubt that the Chamula doll makers understand the symbolic value of the ski mask as criminal with in Western Worldview. An anonymous writer for www.invisible states the ski mask “ruptured visual history in 1994 and constructed a new indigenous face, one linked to aggression, organization, noise, fused with complicated economic and political critiques, and a vicious sense of humor”. Their conscious insertion of it upon the indigenous tourist doll makes a bold statement that cannot be mistaken as unintentional.

According to the Fauconnier/Turner model, the Zapatista dolls visually blend Input 1) the ski mask (i.e. the criminal) with Input 2) tourist doll (the doll/indigenous person blend). Implications of the tourist-doll metaphor (input 2) are upset by the supposition of the mask metaphor. The innocent, playful, friendly qualities of indigenous culture promoted by travel agencies and souvenirs are denied during the ski mask blend. To understand the meaning of the visual metaphor, generic space (culture, experience) links commonalities between the two visible inputs. The inputs simultaneously cross-map to discover (invent) characteristics they share. The unidentifiable robber, rapist, villain is seen in terms of the friendly, peaceful, posess-able tourist doll. The reciprocal is also true. Compromising these distinct entities and allowing the metaphor to work requires as shift in the generic space of its recipient. Either the villain must be seen as friendly and peaceful like the indigenous doll or the doll must be understood as violent and threatening like the villain. Even in terms of target and source domain, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to reconcile this metaphor in terms of Western values.

Because of the incapacity to link the input “ski mask villain” with the input “indigenous doll”, the consciousness is forced to look for links between the new blend and that of the original metaphor. Upon reopening the tourist doll metaphor, we already understand that it is impossible to link the qualities of the ski mask with those of a doll. The final solution is to link the ski mask with the indigenous person input of metaphor 1.

The imposition of a mask and a criminal identity to the native peoples is possible metaphorically but not without some objection from moral consciousness. The quality of aliveness that the villain and the indigenous person share make the link possible. It also acknowledges that the connection is problematic. In our culture, overt prejudice against social and racial groups is no longer openly tolerated. By imposing the mask upon the indigenous person, the metaphor distastefully implies, ‘The indigenous person is a criminal’. To accept the metaphor, the recipient must break the strict non-discrimination code imbedded in generic space. It is more likely that contemporary Western audiences will reject this over implication of the metaphor.

III. New Input Disrupts Old Blend

If the links within the metaphor cannot be reconciled within the structure of the generic space, the perceiver is forced to “look beyond the given information” to discover deeper implications. If neither the doll nor the indigenous person can be comfortably villianized, what remaining links make the metaphor work? Looking again at the 2 step metaphorical process as described by Fauconnier and Turner it is possible to conceive that the fearful and criminal associations of the ski mask are aimed not at the doll nor at the indigenous person, but at the metaphorical process through with they are united.

Finally the receiver of the visual metaphor has reached a satisfactory conclusion. The Chamula women are not condemning dolls, nor are they calling themselves villains. The are however, relating the criminal activity a tourist market that demands native people present themselves as dolls --beautiful and passive objects of adoration and possession.

IV: Conclusion

Within the mapping of the visual metaphor “the doll is a Zapatista”, the receiver is asked to reassess the tourist doll metaphor that informs it. During this process the viewer’s gaze is forced back upon his/her generic space in order to discover why the indigenous doll is simultaneously popular with First World tourists and dangerous for native populations.

Through doll making, Chamula women transmit a characteristically Zapatista statement that effectively escapes official censorship through the cloak of the indigenous doll metaphor. Effectively, “the doll is a Zapatista” statement agrees with government and global opinion while critiquing it. The visual metaphor profits from playing into the tourist market it resents. When international tourist see the Chamula dolls, it is no longer possible to say “how cute”, without wondering about the identity, the ideas, the mask is hiding. Marcos reminds his followers, “take care and do not forget ideas are also weapons” (315). With the birth of the Zapatista dolls, Tzotzil-Chamulans assert that the other is not a plaything for First World nations. The dolls are metaphorical weapons that prove modern Maya are intellectual warriors who can intelligently subvert the domination and dehumanization of Western metaphors.