Where the River Ends: Contested Indigeneity in the Mexican Colorado Delta

Where the River Ends: Contested Indigeneity in the Mexican Colorado Delta

by Shaylih Muehlmann

ISBN: 9780822354451

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Calendars/Multicultural

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Sample Chapter



Topologies of Invisibility on the Colorado River

We are here. We eat, we dance, we fish. Here we are and we still live. No éramos, somos. (It's not that we were, we are.)


DON MADELENO OFTEN REPEATED the refrain "We're still here." The first time I heard him say this, I interpreted it as a triumphant declaration of survival. In this instance, Don Madeleno was narrating the history of the Cucapá people in the delta: a history of war, conquest, disease, water scarcity, the criminalization of fishing, and the rise of the narco-economy. After everything his people had experienced, they were still there carrying on with their lives.

I heard Don Madeleno use the phrase in this sense on many other occasions: in interviews, at festivals, and in informal conversations. Because it was part of his personal narration I was struck when I first heard him use the phrase in a much more literal sense in the context of maps. Every so often I would bring Don Madeleno a map of the delta from books or archives to elicit his reactions to these representations of the land he knew so well. Every time I brought him a map we went through the same routine: he would look over the page slowly and meticulously and start pointing to all of the places it was missing. He would comment on whether or not the map showed the Cucapá village, the fishing grounds, and the Sierra Cucapá. He would also bring up the places that were almost always missing—Las Pintas, Pozo de Coyote, and a dozen other sites important to Cucapá history. Then Don Madeleno would irritatedly declare, while pointing at the absent places, "Estamos aquí" (We are here). Once or twice he went on to emphasize his point by saying, "Somos aquí" (We are this place).

In this context, "We are here" took on a meaning that is central to the issues I explore in this chapter. What Don Madeleno meant was that while you would not know it from looking at any official map of the area, the Colorado delta is a terrain rich with the traces of his people's presence: their places, stories, and history. And by saying "Nosotros somos aquí" he invoked an even stronger connection to place, drawing on the distinction in Spanish between the two verbs for "to be": ser and estar. Whereas estar is used to describe the current state of something and is almost always used to describe a location in space, ser is used to describe the unchangeable nature of something. By emphasizing "somos aquí," Don Madeleno was arguing that his people were not just occupying the delta but that they were the delta and that their very being was inseparable from that space.

This statement is not just a strategic invocation; it is also indicative of Don Madeleno's personal experience of the changing landscape. He was born on February 16, 1934, one year before the construction of the Boulder Dam (later renamed the "Hoover"), the first of the large dams on the river. His life has spanned exactly the time frame in which the Colorado River has been siphoned off from the lower part of the delta where his village is located. Since the first dam went in, about eighty dams and diversions have been built on the rivers of the Colorado watershed (Reisner 1993: 40). In the process, the flow of the Colorado to the delta and the Gulf was completely cut of.

In this chapter I analyze how maps, literature, and media coverage collude in a representation of the Colorado River that erases the Colorado delta and its inhabitants in northern Mexico. Therefore, this chapter provides the historical background and upstream context for why the river no longer reaches the sea. I argue that the rhetoric around the construction of these dams, and in particular the central concept of "beneficial use," promoted a particular water logic that carries through to present-day politics. Whereas in later chapters I examine how people experience the material efects of this water logic, in this chapter I examine how they experience the political and ideological erasure that results from it. In doing so, I trace a landscape that has been made invisible in representations of the river. This is a landscape filled with the places people navigate on a daily basis—their homes, the river, el monte (the bush), el zanjón (the fishing grounds)—as well as the places at a greater distance but still intimately connected to everyday routes in and out of the village: Cerro Prieto, nearby colonias, and el Valle de Guadalupe.

The narrative will also visit, if only in stories, places that no longer exist: colonias wiped out by floods; fishing grounds long evaporated as a result of the dams upstream; the Colorado River itself, now whisked off" in canals along the border. And we visit the places that feature in legends and creation myths: where Coyote first shared water with the people, the mountain of the eagle where the spirits go after death, the mountain range that a giant carved into the shape of houses and windows. I conclude by analyzing a mapmaking project that attempts to redraw the map of the Colorado delta and the Cucapa territory.

The Mirage on the Map: The Makings of a River without a Delta

The idea that space is made meaningful is familiar to anthropology, which has long recognized that the experience of space is socially constructed. Several authors have pointed out that a key concern in the politics of place making is the question of who has the power to make spaces and what is at stake in the process (Braun 2002; Gordillo 2004; Gupta and Ferguson i992). This is a particularly important consideration in the context of environmental disputes, which construct places in specific ways. Constructions of place that focus on nature, regardless of whether this focus is in nature's "defense," can participate in colonialist erasures of native people from political geographies (Braun 2002). These erasures are often accomplished through powerful representations of place, which are used to legitimate specific institutional policies and practices (Carbaugh 2001; McElhinny 2006; Muhlhausler and Peace 2006; Myerson and Ryden 1996). Maps, media coverage, and educational materials on the Colorado River are a vivid example of exactly such strategic representations.

Gupta and Ferguson (i992) have emphasized that "the presumption that spaces are autonomous has enabled the power of topography to conceal successfully the topography of power" (8). Tsing (2000: 330) has voiced a complementary concern by pointing out that the recent fascination with global flows obscures the material and institutional components through which powerful and central sites are constructed. The dangers of both an assumption of autonomy and fluidity in spatial imaginaries is apparent in the case of the Colorado delta. Here a discourse of free trade, migration, and movement has obscured the very real friction that the border creates: the river barely makes it down across the border to Mexico, and migrants are increasingly prevented from making it up across the border to the United States. Ironically, this very friction is facilitated by a parallel assumption of autonomy. The lands and people across the border in Mexico are over and over again represented as a blankness on maps from agencies in the United States and are rarely mentioned in many of the major literary and historical works on the Colorado River.

Before exploring the geographies made invisible by the representations of global flows, it's helpful to look at how those powerful sites and flows became constituted in the first place. This is the central question that guided my archival research upstream in(Continues…)

Excerpted from "Where the River Ends: Contested Indigeneity in the Mexican Colorado Delta" by Shaylih Muehlmann. Copyright © 2013 by Shaylih Muehlmann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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