Yaqui Oral Histories / Historias orales de los yoemem

Starting today, I am making available select audio recordings and transcripts from my oral history interviews with the Yaqui Indians (Yoemem) in Sonora, Mexico. I conducted these interviews as part of my dissertation research on U.S. capitalist expansion into the Mexican North between 1880 and 1917, to get a glimpse behind official sources and to understand the effects of this expansion. How did the Mexican Government’s campaign of ethnic cleansing affect the Yaquis, I wondered, who fought against losing their sovereign, fertile lands to foreign investors?

Between 1905 and 1909, a few journalists and travelers documented this campaign, but no contemporary sources prioritized Yaqui perspectives. Scholars since have begun to address this. Building on their work, and after conducting varied interviews with more than a dozen informants, I began to understand the personal and familial repercussions of surviving this era of intense persecution.

Today, the struggle persists, and the Yaqui rallying cry, “Namakasia!” (“Strength!” or “Unity!”), remains. Considering this continued fight to maintain sovereignty, I hope that these interviews may be of use to scholars of Mexico and to future generations of Yoemem themselves. I am indebted to those who shared their time with me and have revealed how this history has been encoded in Yaqui oral tradition and historical memory.

A partir de hoy, hago disponibles las grabaciones y transcripciones de mis entrevistas de historia oral con los yaquis (yoemem) en Sonora, México. Hice estas entrevistas como parte de mi disertación, que tuvo como objeto la expansión capitalista hacia el norte de México entre 1880 y 1917. Quise investigar más allá de los archivos oficiales para entender los efectos de esta expansión estadounidense. Me pregunté ¿cómo afectó a los yoemem la campaña de limpieza étnica del gobierno mexicano, y cómo lucharon para mantener su territorio sagrado y no perderlo con inversionistas extranjeros?

Entre 1905 y 1909, unos cuantos periodistas y viajeros documentaron esta campaña, pero ninguna fuente priorizó la perspectiva del yaqui. Desde entonces, académicos han empezado a darle voz. Juntándome con ellos, y después de hacer varias entrevistas con más de doce personas, empecé a entender los afectos personales y familiares de sobrevivir en esta época de persecución intensa.

Hoy, la lucha persiste, y el grito yaqui, “Namakasia!” (“Fuerza!” o “Unidad!”), aún sigue latente. Pensando en esta lucha, espero que estas entrevistas puedan ayudar a los profesores y estudiantes de México, y también a las generaciones de los yoemem. Estoy en deuda con ellos quienes compartieron su tiempo y revelaron como esta historia quedó grabada en la tradición oral y en la memoria pública de los yaquis.

What Do These Two Women Have in Common?

While conducting research into the history of U.S. expansion into the Mexican North, I came across two compelling protagonists whose differences were more instructive than their similarities. The first, Ricarda León Flores, was a young girl during the early Mexican Revolution. León Flores lived in the Yaqui pueblos in Sonora, Mexico, where she led a life shaped by migration and by indigenous and Mexican cultures.

 Ricarda León Flores (seated) with her first cousin Manuela, ca. 1925. Illustration in Juan Silverio Jaime León,  Testimonios de Una Mujer Yaqui  (n.p., 1998), 77.

Ricarda León Flores (seated) with her first cousin Manuela, ca. 1925. Illustration in Juan
Silverio Jaime León, Testimonios de Una Mujer Yaqui (n.p., 1998), 77.

The second woman, Marjorie Van Meter, lived in Sonora, too, for a brief time in 1913. She joined her brother, employed by the Southern Pacific (of Mexico), on a kind of working vacation south of the border. Van Meter, an Iowan from Belle Plaine, taught school to mostly American children, and thereby recreated a U.S. world in the company town of Empalme.

 Marjorie Van Meter, 1913, Howard Van Meter Pictorial Collection, 1905–1914. Courtesy of Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Marjorie Van Meter, 1913, Howard Van Meter Pictorial Collection, 1905–1914. Courtesy
of Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Though these women inhabited the same geography at the same time (Empalme was only about 40 miles from the Yaqui pueblos), they never met nor knew of each other, though both of their lives were shaped by capitalist expansion and gendered networks.

For León Flores, she and her mother had to migrate to southern Mexico to avoid intense persecution by the Mexican Government. Why? Officials coveted Yaqui lands as a way to encourage and protect U.S. investments in the region. Between 1903 and 1908, the Government led a campaign of ethnic cleansing, removing Yaquis to Yucatán, among other places, clearing the lands for foreign irrigation enterprises. (In fact, the Boer emigrants in my previous posts first considered settling on Yaqui lands, before they ultimately chose to relocate in Chihuahua.) As a result, León Flores' and others' lives were difficult and ever mobile; they nevertheless managed to maintain a sense of "home" among the Sonoran Yaqui pueblos through the years of harshest treatment.

For Van Meter, she experienced Sonora on a lark, more or less, attempting to find employment and adventure for a time while accompanying her brother. Her ability to decide when to go to Mexico, and when to leave, in itself demonstrates the power differential that separated these two women. When the Revolution again flared in 1913, Van Meter lived for a time on "El Morrito," a beach near Empalme, residing in a railroad car (protected by the Southern Pacific) during the evening, enjoying the tides during the day.

As different as these two women's lives were, they both played a small part (one affected by, the other contributing to) in a similar historical process--the U.S. capitalist development of the Mexican North--that shaped countless lives, albeit in strikingly different ways.

For more on the resonances and dissonances between the lives of León Flores and Van Meter, see an article I published a few years ago. These two women also make brief cameos in my forthcoming book.

The South African Roots of the Hacienda de Humboldt in Chihuahua

After suffering defeat in the South African War, between 1902 and 1903, Boer exiles from southern Africa (related to my previous post) chose to settle 60 miles southeast of Chihuahua City on a stretch of land made fertile by irrigation agriculture. The Boers had considered lands first in Sonora, among the Yaqui Indians, but selected fields in Chihuahua (Mexico) that offered an easier connection to U.S. markets to the north by railroad.

The details of this colony -- what it produced, how long it lasted, and where it went -- appear in my book's Chapter 4. In researching this history, while doing archival work, I went to the location of the colony to track down descendants still living in the region. Along the way I learned an important difference between understanding history and proving it.

Today the Boer colony is entirely forgotten in the region. Nevertheless, I wanted to introduce myself to folks with the (idealistic) hope that I may find oral histories or privately held archives. Unsurprisingly, I had little success just knocking on doors. It turns out that either:

A) not too many residents are relaxing at home on Saturday afternoons;
B) residents are indeed relaxing but have no interest in that strange, random gringo knocking on their front doors and/or peering into their windows; or
C) A and B, but mostly B.

Despite the long odds, and accompanied by a Chihuahua friend, I managed to make contact with Don Pablo Hoffmann, whose grandfather purchased the lands from the Boers (though Don Pablo, himself, knew nothing of the lands' southern African connection). 

 Don Pablo Hoffmann in his fields, near Meoqui, Chihuahua. June 2014.

Don Pablo Hoffmann in his fields, near Meoqui, Chihuahua. June 2014.

On two separate occasions, Don Pablo welcomed me into his home and shared his knowledge of the family lands. I must admit, when he did not know of the connection to the Boers, while not entirely surprising, it did raise a number of questions in my mind. Was I absolutely sure I had the right location of the Boer colony? What proof did I have that it was once on these exact lands? Don Pablo shared a number of documents/items with me, including an original label for peaches that his ancestors once canned and marketed throughout the state and region. 

 After 1905, German colonists in the early twentieth century canned peaches and other products for sale in Mexican and U.S. markets. The Hacienda de Humboldt got its name as an homage to the German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who had traveled through the region a hundred years earlier (ca. 1804).

After 1905, German colonists in the early twentieth century canned peaches and other products for sale in Mexican and U.S. markets. The Hacienda de Humboldt got its name as an homage to the German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who had traveled through the region a hundred years earlier (ca. 1804).

I left with a deeper appreciation for the region's rich history, but a question lingered for several days: where was the proof connecting the Hacienda de Humboldt with the previous Boer colonists? Don Pablo's certainty shook my faith in how I understood the past. What did I have that could prove to him that, without question, his lands had a connection to Boers, and that I was not a random gringo making false claims for personal advancement (a history not unfamiliar to the region)? For the first time, I had what felt to be the most skeptical audience imaginable: a generous and cordial gentleman, sharing coffee with me in his home, trying to weigh whether my textual proof would convince him that he did not know an entirely hidden part of his lands' history. More than any other readers of my future work, he had a vested interest.

As it turned out, I would find proof in the ICHICULT archives in Chihuahua and in online newspaper repositories over the next few days. The lightening bolt struck in the lead paragraph of an article appearing in the Mexican Herald, an English language paper based in Mexico City, in December 1906.

With this, I had proven the Hacienda de Humboldt's history and shared with Don Pablo his strange connection to a Boer past.

As I left the region for the last time, outside of Meoqui, I saw the workers tending the fields, realizing that the "strange" history is only so because of categories we place on people: nation, gender, race, and class. The longer history of human hands, fertile earth, and agriculture smooths over these rough patches of interest, and in this way I felt as if I were viewing a sight common to Don Pablo's time, to his grandfather's (and Boers'), and to Alexander von Humboldt's.

 Workers in a field near Meoqui, Chihuahua. July 2014.

Workers in a field near Meoqui, Chihuahua. July 2014.


What is a Burro Party?

The Congregational missionaries James and Gertrude Eaton served the American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions in Mexico after 1882, when railroads connected Chihuahua with the U.S. Southwest. Holding culturally hybrid events like "burro birthday parties" and Christmas celebrations in Spanish, as well as leading lives marked by the influence of global Protestantism, left the Eatons in a precarious position with their Catholic neighbors.

James and Gertrude Eaton hosted a "burro party" for their daughter, Dorothy, at their home in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua. Source: Private Collection of Susan Martine.

My thanks to Mary Edgar of Gilbert, Arizona, and Susan Martine of Lakewood, Colorado, both granddaughters of the Eatons, for providing this and other documents and photographs relevant to the Eaton mission in Chihuahua.