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La restitution ethnographique à l’épreuve des enfants

Première partie : Ce que la restitution apporte à l’anthropologie. Mondes de l’enfance et mondes politiques en question – First Part: What Restitution Brings to Anthropology. Questioning the Worlds of Childhood and Politics

Chapter 6. Between “Devils” and Spears: Ethnographic Reflections on the Restitution Process with the Pames Children of Ciudad del Maíz, San Luis Potosí (Mexico)

León García Lam


Au Mexique, la loi exige des projets à but lucratif de compenser ou de restaurer les dommages causés aux ressources environnementales, tandis que les projets de recherche incluent rarement un processus de restitution dans leurs protocoles. Dans la recherche avec des enfants, le défi est encore plus grand et plus complexe, nécessitant la mobilisation de méthodes, de techniques, d’outils et de réflexions qui tiennent compte de leur point de vue. Le droit à la consultation des peuples autochtones est susceptible de modifier la manière dont les projets de recherche sont construits. Des notions telles que le risque, le droit à la consultation et la restitution mettent en évidence les différences entre les projets à but lucratif, de recherche ou d’intervention. Dans une perspective anthropologique, la restitution est déterminée par l’observation participante, car elle contraint le chercheur à changer son statut vis-à-vis des personnes qui collaborent au projet. En ce qui concerne la recherche sur les enfants, le processus de restitution peut devenir beaucoup plus complexe, car les moyens par lesquels les enfants donnent leur avis sont discrets ou cachés et il n’existe pas de moyens institutionnalisés pour les consulter. Ces moyens doivent donc être élaborés au fur et à mesure.

Texte intégral

  • 68 The Archaeology Council is a professional body composed of 13 archaeology specialists who review an (...)

1In order to carry out archeological research in Mexico, it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Archeology Council68, institution that annually publishes a list of approved projects guaranteeing the respect of the Federal Law for Protecting Archaeological, Historical, and Artistic Monuments and of The Guidelines for Archeological Research in Mexico. Unlike fellow archeologists, there is no Anthropology Council to which Mexican social anthropologists can ask authorization to develop research projects, even though, there is the Code of Ethics of the Professional Association of Ethnology and Social Anthropology (Colegio de Etnólogos y Antropólogos Sociales; CEAS), and which has certain legal implications (CEAS 2014). In this regard, there is a long-standing critical call to settle the ethical dilemma of Mexican anthropology (Bonfil 1970; Medina 1986; Krotz 2004 & Jacorzynski; Sanchez 2013) on whether or not anthropologists affect the cultural heritage of a social group, and if, through their presence, a society is damaged, altered, trans-culturalized, or survives. There seems to be little institutional concern as to whether or not one can help restore communities or places of study from any damage done, and also whether or not restitution is carried out fairly, ethically, or intelligently. Within anthropology, the relationship of anthropologists, as students, scientists, or social transformers, with the human populations with whom they work has been extensively debated, as has the role of the state (Medina 1995; Vázquez León 2014; Ghasarian 2008). Regardless, the process of restitution in Mexico is only slightly formalized in the elaboration of research protocols. The CEAS code of ethics establishes as a professional commitment: “to do everything possible so that the research and its published reports do not cause harm to the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people studied” and as an obligation: “to restitute the research outcomes to those who are the object of research and participate in it.” (CEAS 2014: 2)

  • 69 “Who are the others?” asks Marc Augé; to him, this question “constitutes the background of the anth (...)

2In this Mexican context, nowadays it is still possible to develop an anthropological research project, in almost any place, without asking permission to any association of anthropologists. Similarly, a few decades ago, any business could establish itself in almost any place of the country, because it was not necessary to ask permission from anyone. Even though there is an important difference between the objectives of a business project and a research one (and mainly in the social sciences), both projects are placed69 and therefore it is necessary to compare them to verify what unites or separates them.

3The first part of this chapter is about how the different projects, for profit or academic, have developed remediation or restitution processes in the locations of the “others”, giving priority to matters of ecological and cultural heritage. The second part focuses on how to avoid the restitution process in social projects; on the one hand, presenting them as beneficial per se, and on the other hand, hiding in some way the real impact of the benefit. It also reviews the relevance of indigenous consultations as a legally efficient instrument to involve the community in the restitution process. The final part presents two cases to illustrate restitution difficulties and my own experience in the Pame community of San José, Ciudad del Maíz, S.L.P., Mexico. The text’s aim is to record several reflections on restitution in a project focused on the anthropology of childhood.

Projects and Restitution

4There are two types of projects that are performed in the world of the others: the for-profit and the non-profit. The former, motivated by capital gains, try to maximize the profit and minimize production costs. It is debatable whether or not said costs can be minimized; what generally happens is that the companies divest themselves of their responsibilities and those who pay at the end said costs are the same rural and/or indigenous communities where the companies have settled. Three concepts and situations derive from this, which will be discussed below: the idea of risk, the rights to consultation, and the obligation of remediation (restitution).

  • 70 “A line of creation and/or application of knowledge is a thematic field in which the research traje (...)

5Non-profit projects are those carried out by academia, the public sector, or civil society and, according to their aims, they can also be divided into two classes: those called “research”, which are carried out to obtain (or extract) knowledge from a place and a population; and those called “intervention”, which, based on certain knowledge, aim to have a positive impact in accordance with norms, laws, or values. Research projects, generally motivated by universities or research centers and carried out by students or researchers, are in turn supported by “lines of creation and/or application of knowledge” (LGACs)70 and are part of the scientific and technological developmental policies of the Mexican state. “Intervention” (or “knowledge application”) projects are also generally financed and promoted by different state institutions: government ministries, public investment funds, etc., and are framed within national and state development plans. This duality, research and intervention, is reflected in various discussions within the social disciplines: in the tense and sharp fragmentation between governmental anthropology and an academic type one (Vázquez León 2014), although both are financed through public funds.

6It might be assumed that for-profit projects have to restitute because, unlike non-profit projects, they make a profit. Notwithstanding, of course, this division is artificial, and it is only the starting point from which to understand the complex matter of restitution, because most projects are both for-profit and non-profit, research and intervention. For example, infrastructure construction – roads, highways, electricity, health care centers – implies a (non-profit) state intervention – through laws and regulations – as well as the hiring of consulting or constructing companies (for-profit) and of other instances (non-profit), such as the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), responsible for research (on sites of archeological interest), or the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), which performs environmental impact diagnostics, as well as the participation of researchers from academic and private areas. Conversely, a “non-profit” label does not mean “without gain” because the “non-profit” projects also obtain gains, though not for profit. Finally, there are those for-profit projects in which anthropologists participate “on behalf” of transnational companies or national states, and which lead to serious ethical dilemmas because anthropologists can act as spies or data miners for transnational companies, with results that, although they cannot be considered illegal or criminal, are dishonorable for the discipline, not because of the profit, but because of the inequality and how this affects rural or indigenous populations (Legarreta et al. 2016).

  • 71 The start of operations of a project implies –among others- (1) a Health Authorization (granted by  (...)

7Today, there is a proliferation of permit applications to perform for-profit projects around the country71. These authorizations are mainly focused on land use, environmental impact, health, and to a lesser extent, the conservation of tangible cultural heritage. It is the opinion of some sociologists (Beck 1998) that this proliferation is dependent on the awareness of risk that emerged after the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, even though Mary Douglas (1986), the same year, published in a similar sense, Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences. In Mexico, this idea of risk first manifested itself through the construction of the nuclear plant in Laguna Verde, Veracruz, a project that was conceived in the 1950s under the influence of Dr. Nabor Carrillo, but that was finally consolidated at the end of the 1980s. The project Laguna Verde meant the beginning of environmental struggles in Mexico, because people feared – and still do – that said plant could have the same tragic end as the one in the USSR. Groups of fishers, women, and indigenous peoples of the region, who at that moment felt affected, participated in demonstrations against the nuclear plant project (Lane 1999: 244).

8Laguna Verde meant the start of the Mexican environmentalist and ecological movement, but the struggle of rural and indigenous peoples for access to the resources of their respective territories started long before (Katz 2004), even though they did not necessarily identify themselves with a particular environmental movement. In this regard, some cases are worth mentioning: the communities displaced for dam building (Bartolomé 1992); the creation of protected territories (Brenner 2010); the resistance against mining projects (Zetina Rodríguez 2016; Guzmán & Kindl 2017); deforestation (Viqueira 1977; Arizpe 1993); water disputes (Ávila 2002; Peña 2004). Latin American pedagogical reflections (Freire 2002; Fals Borda 2009) and critical sociological reflections (Long 2007) that question the purpose of research and the political position of researchers deserve special mention. All these cases of struggle and resistance were discussed from different anthropological – and of course, non-anthropological – approaches such as power studies (e.g., Castro 2003), political ecology (Durand et al. 2012; Guzmán 2013), agrarianism (Warman 2001; Salas Quintanal & Rivermar Pérez 2011; Plata Vázquez 2013), indigenism (Stavenhagen 1968; Bonfil 1970), and so on.

9The increase in requirements, operating licenses, or fines for different for-profit projects is motivated by a certain conception of risk that seeks to avoid the negative consequences of a productive action, but also to establish sanctions and actions to remediate the affected resources (Schmidt & Ondraczek 2010). The main remediation issues are related to the environment, health, and, to a lesser extent, to tangible cultural heritage. If the requirements and standards tend to increase, it is because there are factors of alarm, alert, and discussion in public awareness regarding human or environmental rights, in other words, a growing perception of risk. The struggle of indigenous and rural peoples is the most serious factor; their motivations, accompanied or not by environmental groups, have finally been the counterweight that has delineated environmental policy, where the right and obligation of restitution have been better thought through. To focus on the point discussed: whoever affects must remedy and whoever benefits from the territory of others must restitute.

Restitution in Social Research Projects and the Right to Consultation

10The question remains as to whether academic research projects affect or benefit from the territory of other populations and whether public officials and their institutions should propose remediation or restitution processes. Regarding the idea of restitution in environmental policy, for decades there has been a growing demand to consider the perception of local actors: their meanings, interests, and imaginaries. For example, political ecology has concluded that it is not possible to consider facts, but that the events always carry substantial meaning, historically built interests, and power exercised from ones to others, through speeches, knowledge, and regulations (Durand et al. 2012: 25). In this sense, environmental policies, human rights, agrarian rights, and other aspects of social justice have the tendency to demand remediation and restitution processes from for-profit projects, but what about research and/or knowledge application projects?

11I do not mean to increase requirements and (already heavy) academic bureaucracy; I want to question why some assets generate political anxiety or a more acute conception of risk than others. Due to the aforementioned political struggles, business projects, for-profit or extractive, because of the effects they cause, adhere to an increasingly complex regulatory framework. The same is true for social, economic, or cultural development projects that the state wishes to impulse in different territories. Academic projects should be considered differently, yet only in the case of archeology (in Mexico), because it deals with tangible cultural heritage, a prior authorization must be requested from a professional body. Many research projects manage financial resources and offer several prestige and work opportunities that benefit their researchers, without considering the potential development of the study sites. Since the aim of research is a priori considered positive, the result in itself is seen as the compensation researchers make to the communities where the research is carried out, thus overshadowing the responsibility of restitution.

  • 72 I was not able to be present most of the time, so I relied on the support of anthropologist Minerva (...)

12As an example, I describe a case of my own. Some years ago, I became aware of the imminent disappearance of the Pame indigenous language in Ciudad del Maíz (xi’iuy), the northernmost population of this indigenous people in Mexico. After years of persistence on the subject from my part, the state authorities finally decided to act. An ancient worker from the Council for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) was hired, as well as a documentalist photographer-camera man, and an anthropologist – myself. We were to develop a campaign to promote the language72, which consisted in taking the Pame speaking elders to elementary and secondary schools to carry out certain activities with the children. We held a festivity, which included dances and tamales (cornmeal stuffed with meat). After reviewing our expenses, I realized that most of the budget went to the outsiders: in our salaries, fieldwork, and operational expenses. Even though the elders were paid for their collaboration with the campaign, and we indeed worked with school children, I asked myself how much of the investment would really bear fruit. It is hard to accept, but the real beneficiaries in this instance were the researchers.

13This example enables a reflection on the fact that even projects of social intervention can hide or minimize the benefits addressed to the study sites and that these projects do not enlighten the restitution process because they are considered beneficial a priori. Even more important is the fact that the “beneficiary” population remains an outsider to decisions on the benefits or restitution for them. How can the local communities in which research projects are carried out be included?

14Currently, a new condition is about to change everything regarding project authorizations and permits, not only business or for-profit projects, but also academic ones. This is the legislation on indigenous’ rights to consultation, derived from the ILO Convention 189 (1989) to which Mexico has signed up since 2001, and which consists in the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to be part of state decisions related to the design, approval, and implementation of public policies for their own development (González Galván 2014). Although, to date, there are only three Mexican states whose local legislations have been adapted, it is expected that in the coming years this will extend to all the states of the Mexican Republic. Even so, the inclusion in paragraph B of Article 2 of the national constitution is sufficient for indigenous’ rights to consultation to be effective throughout the national territory.

15The main spirit of indigenous’ rights to consultation refers to two main aspects: first, the systematic harassment that rural and indigenous peoples have suffered from different extractive projects such as mining, refineries, juice factories, etc., which not only extract certain resources from places, but also leave concatenated trails of effects in their wake (López Bárcenas 2002: 22); second, being considered during the design phase of their own development and avoid, as far as possible, being affected by decisions made from the office of a state secretariat, alien to their local reality (López Bárcenas 2002: 30).

16In the near future, it is likely that academic research funded by state institutions and directed by national policies, will not be subject to an academic council (anthropology, geography, environmental impact, etc.) but to the discretion of the population to be “studied” or that at least has rights over the territory where the research will be carried out. The research could then start with a prior negotiation between the different actors involved. The researcher will need to convince those with rights to consultation of the tenets of the research: What is it about? Will it be useful to them? How will it affect them? Who will benefit? In case of negative impact, who will be held responsible? And above all, how will local communities benefit from this research? One question is crucial for indigenous peoples: what and how much does the researcher earn? This question is linked to another one: what and how much will the community earn?

Restitution in Anthropological Research

17Indigenous peoples welcome the anthropologist, sociologist, or social worker who visits them and open the doors of their homes. Usually, research stems from a hypothesis that is only interesting to a research network and serves academic structures, such as, the “state of the art”, paradigms, topics of national interest, or sources that create knowledge. The study population is anything but interested in the research topic, which is unexpected, considering that the social sciences insist on the political importance of knowing the point of view of the populations involved, for example, in terms of political ecology (Durand et al. 2012) or social development (Long 2007).

18It is a well-known fact that, as the researcher lives with a study population, inter-subjective phenomena occur, such as the researcher’s identification with the customs of the study population or vice-versa. In a key moment within the research process, the researcher achieves his or her integration into the community that accepts him or her. There is an intense reflection on the role of the others and the researcher in Devereux (1977), Turner (1980), Clifford (2008), Geertz and Cardin (1989), Rosaldo (2006), and Augé (2014).

19With participant observation, the “study subjects” trust the researchers and vice versa. It is a strange process of social exchange, with so many confusions, modifications, apologies, and misunderstandings. From this mutual interaction, a phenomenon similar to that of psychiatric transference and countertransference (Devereux 1977), the anthropologist acquires cultural habits from the study subjects and conversely; the “studied” people become familiar with the strange researcher; they acculturate each other – or perhaps more than that. It is during this contamination process, also known as the “turning point” (Agar 2008: 129), that the “eureka” moments that motivated the research appear and the hypothesis that for years kept researchers awake is resolved.

  • 73 In Mexico, Dr. Andrés Medina has insisted on questioning the concept of “informant”, a discussion o (...)

20However, so much disciplinary discovery leaves a legacy of personal commitment. The anthropologist enters the research and becomes part of the community that receives him or her. Then, with increasing intensity, the researcher’s conscience tingles when he or she says “informant”73 to someone who is really his or her friend, his or her compadre/comadre (the godparent of one’s child or the parent of one’s godchild), or his or her adoptive father. If it were not for the systematic recording, fieldwork would be nothing more than the sincere cultivation of friendship, and this is the correct word for the human and supportive mechanism of reciprocity.

21These are the reasons why anthropologists are concerned with restitution. Other professions also acquire the responsibility of restitution with the community that welcomes them, because the need for restitution is present in a generalized way, in cases where there is full fieldwork. The anthropologist becomes emotionally naked and vulnerable in front of a population that is no longer just a “study” one.

22Restitution is a process that begins on the first day of fieldwork and probably never ends. The process of restitution continues even after the grant has ended. Upon awakening from the research dream, the compadres, godchildren, friends, and problems with which the anthropologist became involved are still thornily there. There is advanced warning: in order to fully offer restitution, it is necessary to fight like in a Kafkaesque novel against municipal councils, state institutions, paperwork, lack of commitment... in brief, no one is forced to do the impossible, but this recognition does not stop the impotence felt when seeing a restitution project fail.

A Failed Restitution Project with Children

23For decades, in Mexico there has been a sense that indigenous people are treated as if they were “minors” (Bonfil 1970). In anthropology of childhood studies, the challenge of restitution has been not only to abandon the old practice of considering the marginality of indigenous people but also that of children, because such a legal status (Gómez & Zanabria 2010) goes counter to the stance of understanding and horizontality intended by the research. Above all it is necessary to abandon the contrite vision of children as blank pages, as empty vessels, without opinion, without decision, without participation and without interest (Corona 2003; Alvarado et al. 2018).

  • 74 The Pames are an indigenous people who inhabit the region called the Middle Zone of San Luis Potosi (...)
  • 75 This means “traditional music”. It is called “vara” because of the violin bow, the most important i (...)

24One of my restitution projects with the Pames74 of Ciudad del Maíz consisted in organizing a workshop on “vara music”75 so that children could learn to play the violin. For years, dancers have danced to the sound of recordings they copy – each time of worse quality – from a cassette that the last violinist, the “late Leno”, managed to record. The more sophisticated dance groups use a speaker with a USB memory stick containing the same faulty recording. The dancers frankly admitted that for them it was better to dance along a live violinist, because both violinist and dancers “fit together”, otherwise, the dance must adapt to the same inert recording and that is why the current festivities have lost their original beauty.

25As I did with the Pame language, I insisted for months on the need of teaching children and young people to play the violin. The “front dancers” (name given to the chiefs) looked at me with disdain: “What for?” they thought. “We have the recordings. What we want is your support (with money) to improve the dancing apparels (the dancers’ costumes).” I persisted in attempting to rescue vara music. Finally, through a government program (PACMYC), we obtained the support of 50,000 pesos, to help with four dances. Within the budget, up to 9,000 pesos were destined to buy four violins. As I had designed the budget, I was able to push my own interest. I told them that in return of their support, we had been commissioned to start a musical workshop. Some groups were more enthusiastic than others and sent their candidate as apprentice musician. Someone suggested to me a teacher, from a distant community, a little more than 30 km away by mountain road.

26At that time, the Center for the Arts of San Luis Potosí (CEART), directed by Deborah Chenillo, had assigned 4,800 pesos per month for classes. I invested time and resources to take the teacher to the state capital and introduce him to the CEART. Additionally, I had to justify why a simple peasant who could barely sign his contract had to be paid such a high salary. The local government of Ciudad del Maíz collaborated with the teacher’s travel fares. The course started with eight participants, four young male students, two women, and two men. Almost immediately the problems started: the teacher did not have an appropriate pedagogical method. The students were desperate, and the dance chiefs convinced me to look for the services of another teacher.

27The second teacher was a musician coming from a ranch even further away, but who spent most of his time in the municipal capital due to his own businesses. Considering the situation, the procedure was similar to the one before. He was paid for three months, two classes per week. The participating children learned what they still play today. The course was suspended despite its favorable results, because CEART changed its board of directors, and the new administration cancelled this sort of courses. This project adds up to a series of restitution projects that I have tried to carry out with this indigenous community and have failed. Nevertheless, there was a slightly favorable outcome. Two dance groups started dancing to vara music with a live violin again after just a few lessons.

28I would like to point out some remarks from this experience:

29Who should decide what and how to restitute? In this case the chief dancers did not want a course on vara music: they did not think it was possible to organize one nor could they foresee a direct benefit. It would have been more difficult to do it considering the initial opinion of the children. I took advantage of the funding and the front dancers decided for the children; nevertheless, the participants were satisfied and happy with this experience. This demonstrates, on the one hand, that the anthropologist’s external opinion can be fundamental for the construction of a restitution objective. On the other hand, it should not be assumed that deceit or withholding information is an acceptable condition for restitution. I should have found a transparent mechanism.

30To what extent should the community opinions be considered? Two aspects can be highlighted: first, establishing listening mechanisms, which may mean, as was the case here, considering the local mechanisms for childcare; second, one should not be afraid of adjusting the project. It is worth mentioning as an example that the restitution project was the product of research knowledge itself (the place of dances in rituals), that a decision on the project was built from a negotiation between the anthropologist’s vision - the need to rehabilitate traditional music - and local interest - the financing of the dances –, and that, although applied vertically, at a given moment the project was adapted to the opinion of the children/youths. As a self-criticism, it should be emphasized that deceit – even if for “positive” reasons – cannot be considered beneficial. Additionally, greater horizontality must be sought in decision-making as well as considering strategies that match the agendas and interests of state institutions with those of the project itself, so that the funding resources are not exhausted. In other words, the negotiation process must be systematically included as an important aspect of restitution.

“Pharisee” Children

31In other papers, I have tried to explain the notion of childhood (ikilii) for the Pames of Ciudad del Maíz. Concepts that are obvious to a dominant-westernized society, such as, that every child is an individual, that only people go through childhood, or that childhood is measured in years, are inconsistent with the thinking of the Pames. For them, not only humans go through childhood, nor necessarily everything that is a child is a person, but practically all world beings can have a childlike condition, associated with the tender, the cold, the green, and above all the pre-sexual.

Figure 1. Left, “Pharisee” child holding his pole-spear with multicolor papers; middle, devil with his whip; right, “monkey” or “Judas” to be burned, © León García Lam.

Figure 1. Left, “Pharisee” child holding his pole-spear with multicolor papers; middle, devil with his whip; right, “monkey” or “Judas” to be burned, © León García Lam.

32Through participant observation during the Pames Holy Week ceremonies, 2011 to 2018, I realized that “Pharisees” are Holy Week characters whose role is to accompany the “devils” that are going to crucify God (Jesus Christ-Sun). In my doctoral thesis (García 2017), I explained how the Holy Week represents a moment in which the Sun (Ganú) stops being a child, becomes warm and mature through an encounter with the Moon (Ragui). Since the Moon is his mother, the virgin, this first sexual encounter has an incestuous connotation. For that reason, during Holy Week (the big festival), when the Sun and the Moon rise in the same place, the equinoctial line, the world is filled with “devils” and dangers whose purpose is to kill the Sun.

33From the social point of view, the “Pharisees” are children, tender males who have not had sexual contact. If the reader were to see the procession of “Pharisees”, he might think that some “Pharisees” are no longer children or that they even look like old men. And the fact is that being a child for the Pames and for the indigenous and rural world is not a question of age, but a condition of things that depends on their sexual life and its social consequences: one ceases to be a child with the pairing, with the obtaining of a sexual partner. From a cosmological point of view, the “Pharisees” are characters whose main role consists in crucifying the Sun-Christ. I have not yet fully understood why the children are the ones to fulfill this strange mission, but it is related to the sociological and cosmological fact that the Sun ceases to be a child. From a ceremonial point of view, the “Pharisees” are children who carry a pole from which multicolored papers hang and which ends in a spearhead (See Figure 1). Like all males, “Pharisee” boys also wear a red bandana on their heads. To date, there have been no “Pharisee” girls in the procession. Besides by accompanying the “devils” to all the processions and to all the ritual episodes of Holy Week, the “Pharisees” also have a pyrotechnical role, explained below.

34The Sunday of “monkeys” (the resurrection Sunday in the Christian world), the Pames descend with their iskiriuy neighbors (not Pames) to take “the “devils”” and party with them. The “devils” of the Holy Week descend to the iskiriuy town to burn the “monkeys” or “Judases”, that are explosive cardboard objects representing specific human forms and are filled with pyrotechnics which when ignited immolate themselves.

  • 76 There is not enough space here to explain the complicated motivations of the non-Pames or Iskiriuy (...)

35The Pame “devils” dance in front of a multitude of iskiriuy who wait for them anxiously.76 The “Pharisee” children, in two lines, make a circle around the “monkey”. The neighbors donate presents and money to the “devils” so that they dance. Then, somebody “peels” the wick of the “monkey” and ignites it with a cigar… An expectant tension arises among participants …From the “monkey” comes out some smoke and a hissing is heard … “ssssssssssss”, while many bow down, the “Pharisee” children shake their poles, everyone closes their eyes and “boom”, a roar is heard that barely allows one to blink and dozens of ground rockets escape from the “monkey”. Every year, several of these rockets burn a woman’s hair or bruise a girl’s legs, and so on. Those most exposed are obviously the “Pharisee” children, whose job that day is to oversee the burning of up to 30 “monkeys”. The day begins at 8 am and finishes at 8 or 9 pm. The children show off their bumps and burns with great dignity and pride. When the rockets are lit, they laugh with nervousness, others cover their ears, and most of them face the risks of their role with great courage.

36Why do children participate? The first possible answer would be the shared prize, consisting of all the goods received by the “Pharisee” children that day. Each year, three or four trucks are loaded with presents: new and used shoes, food, fruit, beverages, toys, clothing, and alcohol. Nevertheless, the award of these “prizes” cannot be the only reason because no matter how poor a family is, they would not risk their children’s safety just for food. Children would not work so hard just for a ball or a watermelon, which is what they sometimes receive, and, stranger still, they would not show such enthusiasm for participating. My hypothesis so far presupposes that participating in Holy Week gives the “Pharisee” children the satisfaction of being part of the community and a certain prestige among the community of children. As an extra gain, the children are paid for their effort, or as they say, “the sacrifice”, with the goods obtained.

37Each year I follow the Holy Week and I ask myself the same question. Why do children participate? I realize their participation is not for free. They contribute with their childhood, which is a fundamental element of the ceremony; this in turn integrates them to the community of which they feel a part of. The children contribute with their work and receive presents in return. It seems that the gift system is complete. At the same time, I realize that the role of the anthropologist is that of an annoying character. The best place to put him or her during that Sunday is with the pole bearer children. For several years, I did not realize that I worked with children. Rather, I was studying the ritual system of the population, childhood and children were part of that system. Gradually, I became aware that I had been working with children all this time. Also, in some way, the Pames see me as a child because I am still “single”, partly because I do not have a milpa (an agricultural plot) and because I am still a stranger. They call me “Leoncito” (diminutive of León, my first name). I end up collaborating with the ceremony by carrying the poles of the children who go to the bathroom, or of those who need a rest. There I am, doing “participant observation” and discovering the Pame way of thinking, but for them, I serve to carry the poles of the children who are tired.

38However, the thoughtful input of Drs. Razy, Alvarado Solís, and de Suremain leads me to strengthen my arguments on the role of children in the rituals and to come back to the subject of restitution: How could I achieve restitution with children?

39The following were the questions I asked myself in order to achieve restitution: first, the system of reciprocity is relatively well balanced during Holy Week: what interest do the children have in participating? Second, who are the children to whom I owe restitution? With whom have I participated? Or should it be all the children? Conversely, restitution must not be something that depends on me, but something that, coming from me (because I am in debt), could be maintained and reproduced without me.

40In 2017, I proposed the following to the Holy Week organizing assembly:

41During the “Monkey” Sunday walk, there are few places where people can rest. When there are, first the “devils”, the drummers, and the carriers are fed, and since there are many children (more than 20), they do not get much afterwards. In order to eat, they depend on what their parents manage to bring them, and that is what they have practically for the whole day. Therefore, I proposed to set up a place for the “Pharisee” children to eat.

42The municipal DIF (Integrated Family Development) – and some butcher shops – accepted collaborating by offering breakfast to the children, which included soft drinks, meat, rice, and beans. In 2018, the procession stopped in front of the municipal presidency and the children were called to enter a place named “the Palapa” to eat. At that point, the adults felt marginalized because they were used to an environment of general and communal participation, under established consumption hierarchies: first the “devils”, the drummers, the water carriers, and finally, the children. Indeed, the children entered the place with some apprehension and uncertain as to how to behave. Suddenly, they ran decidedly to serve themselves and sit down. The staff of the Municipality did not know how to react either. They wanted to control the children’s festive behavior and reprimanded them a little. As there was some food left, some adults were invited to sit down and eat. Many adults refused because they initially felt “despised”. One of the female carriers said: “It is because the ‘devils’ are used to having the party for them and only them.”

43The festivity then went back to normality and ended as usual. It was agreed that for next year’s meal organization, some parents would participate. I would like to emphasize that this restitution process emerged from a consultation with the festival community organization. It was addressed to the children, but from a vertical decision and based on knowledge that arose from the research itself. The benefit of restitution was directed not only to the children who participated that year, but also to subsequent generations. In future, I am interested in observing the development of children’s and adults’ opinions as this space is constructed. Will the adults impose their hierarchies? Will the children feel that this space is theirs?

44This restitution process was a simple proposal emerging from an ethnographic reflection (the place of the “Pharisee” children during the ceremony) and from an observed need (food and rest for “Pharisee” children) and continued through a consultation process with the local organizing committee. The proposed activity was carried out with the collaboration of the different social actors (parents, children, public institutions, etc.), but was confronted to the adults’ usual behavior of deciding for the children, while enabling a local reflection on their place in the ceremony. In turn, this moment offered relevant ethnographic information: the clash between locally instituted values, such as child protection, and common practices, where adults impose themselves over the interests of children. The restitution process remains open and expectant about the possibilities of its continuity.


45Throughout this article I have shown some aspects of the restitution process. I was particularly interested in comparing the place of this process in the anthropological research project with that in other kinds of projects: in the social sciences – such as archaeology, which has an authorizing and review panel –, in other disciplines that are also linked to the realms of others – engineering, medicine, teaching, etc. –; or in for-profit projects, which are circumscribed by a wide and complex network of requirements, licenses, and fines around their responsibility for remediation and/or restitution.

46Through this comparison, the articulation of three concepts emerges: risk, consultation, and restitution. Risk awareness enables to foresee actions leading to remediation and restitution. The right to consultation is an emergent factor that will hopefully acquire political and legal force in the coming years and will probably modify the way research projects are proposed in Mexico, considering risk and restitution. In this regard, it will be an asset for indigenous peoples to participate in the decision of accepting or not the research projects that involve them. At the same time, it will be necessary for anthropologists to reflect on the following questions: for what and for whom do we do research? What do we leave behind in the localities where we work? How are the benefits of the research shared? And how do we restore the damage caused?

47In general, anthropologic-ethnographic projects in Mexico have disregarded restitution, though it is an obvious step, considering the place this process occupies in research protocols, in the preparation of funding – a complicated process –, and in the incipient place of consultation in previous research documents.

48Firstly, anthropologic research implies a low-level risk, or its results are considered positive in themselves. Restitution in anthropology depends on benefits sharing: the researcher, whether in training or experienced, obtains one benefit from the community, extracts data and local knowledge from it, and when he or she presents his or her project, he or she is more or less clear about what her or she will obtain. In future, it will be necessary to reflect on this again: how much should the community participate in the research project design? In the anthropology of childhood, the challenge is twofold because children are often ignored in the decisions of the community; this situation has raised many ethical discussions in relation to children. In this sense, the anthropologist plays a crucial role: that of mediator between the dominant society (academic-political-civilian) and the locality, but also in the relationship between the social field of childhood and that of adults.

49Secondly, the process of anthropological restitution is based above all on a sense of reciprocity that is built through participant observation, where the study subjects and the researcher become intimate (compadres, friends, relatives...) and collaborators on the same project. We cannot disregard that the colonized condition of these people places them in a state of social, economic, and political inequality.

50To conclude, I outline here for further reflection and discussion the characteristics that, in my opinion, the restitution process should include:

  1. All research, whether to obtain knowledge and/or to apply it, must carry out a process of restitution for the locality where the research took place. This process is not completed only by “returning the results and products of research” and is independent of the benefits provided by the project.
  2. Restitution should be considered as another stage of the research project and should be proposed and managed as part of the pre-project and/or research project, discussed and negotiated as seriously as the methodology or the hypothesis.
  3. Restitution should be agreed upon and negotiated with the community. In other words, it should be as participative as possible.
  4. Restitution should, as far as possible, be constituted as a long-lasting and sustainable good.
  5. The recording of the restitution process should be part of the research itself.
    In anthropology of childhood, the restitution process should:
  6. Establish clear mechanisms of children observation, listening, and opinion recording, as well as mediation between children and adults, led by the research team.


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68 The Archaeology Council is a professional body composed of 13 archaeology specialists who review and approve archaeological research projects in Mexico. It is part of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and is the primary entity safeguarding Mexico’s archaeological heritage, which is also protected by the Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic, and Historic Monuments and Zones.

69 “Who are the others?” asks Marc Augé; to him, this question “constitutes the background of the anthropological debate” (1996: 23) and cannot be responded without observing the subversion of the one who is different. For Segalen, exoticism is equivalent to surprise, the result of experiencing difference – on an aesthetic level – of perceiving it and, therefore, the explanation of diversity would go from experience to thought. The others constitute the exo, what is outside (1989: 17). Who are those “outsiders”? The savages, the primitives, the illiterate, the people of the cold, finally, the indigenous peoples referred to in Convention 189 of the International Labour Organization (ILO); or else: the ethnic groups (Frederick 1969), euphemism for these tribal, clannish, aboriginal, natural, indigenous, etc., others (Breton 1983). In other words: the colonized.

70 “A line of creation and/or application of knowledge is a thematic field in which the research trajectories of the professors that conform the basic academic nucleus of a graduate program and the work of the students converge from a systemic perspective of new knowledge creation or application. The LGAC are those that define the nature of the program.” (Conacyt 2011)

71 The start of operations of a project implies –among others- (1) a Health Authorization (granted by the Ministry of Health), (2) the registration before the Mexican Social Security Institute that classifies the project, the degree of risk of Labor Insurance, (3) the verification of the Ministry of Economy of the Mexican official standards that apply to each case; (4) the operating license issued by the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Fishing, (5) permits and payments before the National Water Commission. See

72 I was not able to be present most of the time, so I relied on the support of anthropologist Minerva Arellano Guel, who carried out the main programmed activities.

73 In Mexico, Dr. Andrés Medina has insisted on questioning the concept of “informant”, a discussion originated in The Jungle of Symbols by Turner (1980) and continued by Geertz and Cardin (1989) and Clifford (2008): who is the author of an ethnography? The issue is this: the term “informant” downgrades the place and value of those who co-produce the research.

74 The Pames are an indigenous people who inhabit the region called the Middle Zone of San Luis Potosi State, but also the north of Queretaro. Their language, Pame or Xi’iuy, is the northernmost language of the Otomanguean family. Because they live on the frontier, they have been considered Chichimecs since the 16th century. They live in several ranches organized in ejidos (rural land for collective use) and communities. They are victims of high levels of discrimination and poverty. The examples in this article come from the municipality of Ciudad del Maíz, one with the most “acculturated” Pames.

75 This means “traditional music”. It is called “vara” because of the violin bow, the most important instrument in the Mexican tradition, and it has variations such as rabels or vihuelas.

76 There is not enough space here to explain the complicated motivations of the non-Pames or Iskiriuy to participate in this festival. For additional context see my PhD thesis Entre chinchos y pitacoches. Análisis del sistema ritual de los pames septententrionales de Ciudad del Maíz, San Luis Potosí (UNAM library website:

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Left, “Pharisee” child holding his pole-spear with multicolor papers; middle, devil with his whip; right, “monkey” or “Judas” to be burned, © León García Lam.
Fichier image/jpeg, 265k


Il est enseignant-chercheur dans le domaine sociomédical à la Faculté de Médecine de l’Université Cuauhtémoc (Mexique). Il s’est intéressé à divers sujets en rapport avec l’enfance autochtone à San Luis Potosí, Mexique, tels que le pèlerinage, le ritualisme, l’art populaire et la corporalité, principalement auprès des peuples indigènes Pames, Teenek, Nahua et Mixtec.


He is a researcher and professor in the sociomedical area at the Cuauhtémoc University School of Medicine (Mexico). He has investigated various topics related to indigenous childhood in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, such as pilgrimage, ritualism, popular art and corporeality, mainly with the indigenous Pames, Teenek, Nahua, and Mixtec peoples.

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.


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