Today in many of the Indian communities of both Mesoamerica and the highland Andes, men must serve their communities by passing through a series of offices which usually involve considerable individual expenditure. This system is known as the cargo, or fiesta system or the civil-religious hierarchy. Both the structure and the functioning of the system have evolved since colonial times; and there are now, and probably have always been, differences in the system between communities as well. The most detailed description of a modern cargo system is that provided by Frank Cancian for the Maya community of Zinacantan in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico (1965, 1992). The Spanish term cargo means burden; and basic to all variations of the cargo system is the expenditure of wealth in the sponsorship of religious fiestas in order to accumulate prestige within one's community. The cargo system has been compared to the potlatch of the Northwest Coast and the Big Man redistribution system of the Pacific Islands. Like these other redistribution festivals, the cargo system reduced the wealth of all in exchange for status in the community. In the 19th century and later, in many Mesoamerican Indian communities, there existed a ladder-like arrangement of sets or levels of civil and religious offices, with many positions in the bottom sets and usually only two or a very few in the top sets.
Adult married men were obliged to serve in alternating positions in the civil and the religious hierarchy of offices until they had served in the top sets. The period of service for each office was one year. The lower level cargos were usually low status community services such as acting as policemen at the fiestas or sweeping out the church, buying drinks for the elites to be used in celebrations, or, for the women, preparing the clothing of the saints for holy days. The upper level cargos were those of managing the entire cargo system, and only a handful of men achieved this high status. The elite men usually alternated the religious cargos with civilian political positions, usually ending their careers as alcaldes or mayors at the top of a civilian cargo system. Considerable expense was involved in fulfilling the obligations of office, so most men did not serve in successive years but "rested" for several years in between cargos. Anthropologists, such as George Foster (1965), theorized that the cargo system acted as a leveling mechanism to make everyone equal (it did not), but also had the impact of producing an image of limited good which acted against individuals trying to invest in their land because their profits would have to go into the cargo system. (Today, among the modern Maya of Chiapas, there are political differences between the Catholics who support the old cargo system and the evangelicals who do not.)
It has long been thought that the cargo system had its beginnings in the early colonial period when Spanish civil authorities imposed a set of civil offices on Indian communities and the Catholic Church established the cofrad¡a (religious brotherhood) system to insure the proper care of church property and proper celebration of religious holidays. However, this is not a universally accepted view. Many have argued that the cargo system had pre-Hispanic antecedents which combined with the Spanish system imposed in colonial times [for example, Vogt in his book, The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life]. In colonial times, positions in the hierarchy of civil offices seem to have been separate from the religious brotherhoods, and the civil offices were usually occupied by the indigenous elites. The brotherhoods were entrusted with the sponsorship of religious fiestas which were supported partly from the yield of corporate properties controlled by the brotherhoods and partly through the contributions of the members. Individual sponsorship of cargos does not appear to have been characteristic of the colonial period (Chance and Taylor 1985). Individual sponsorship emerged as the brotherhoods gradually lost control of corporate community lands in the late colonial period when the protections provided by the Spanish Crown weakened.
Interestingly, as modern inflation has impacted indigenous communities, there has been a return in some communities to more collective forms of sponsorship of religious fiestas. Beverly Chiñas describes this shift for the Isthmus Zapotec of San Juan Evangelista (1973). Chiñas also notes that while, strictly speaking, it is a man who publicly serves a cargo, the Zapotec view is that the man and his wife together fulfill the responsibilities and that the man could not do it alone. [For the Peruvian Andes, Catherine Allen notes that a man only accepts a cargo if his wife agrees because it is she who is responsible for providing the elaborate meals and the chicha (corn beer) that must be served on the ritual occasions throughout the year (1988). In Sonqo, the community Allen studied, a man and his wife are not considered to be fully adult members of their community until they have served one cargo.]
The Breakdown of the Closed, Corporate Community
In addition to the different views on the origin and evolution of the cargo system noted above, there have been different interpretations of its function, and it is apparent that these closed communities may be disappearing. Originally, Eric Wolf (1959) argued that the cargo system functioned to redistribute wealth within the Indian community and to protect it from outside forces. But Cancian (1965) conclusively showed for Zinacantan that the cargo system did not level wealth differences, that wealth differences continue to exist, and that it is the well-to-do who can serve the higher level cargos, with their enormous expenditure requirements for food and drink throughout the year, without going deeply into debt. Studies in many other communities have confirmed that while the cargo system serves to redistribute some wealth in the community, it does not level wealth differences. Recent writers argue that these communities were never as closed as once thought, and if they were, they have lost their closure in the last two decades. They argue that the cargo system was a means by which the Spanish Crown and the Church and, later, other outsiders exploited indigenous communities. Marvin Harris (1964) contends that the cargo system never protected Indian communities from exploitation by outsiders, that much of what is needed to fulfill cargo obligations, especially alcoholic beverages, must be purchased from outsiders, and that the system thus drained wealth from the community and enhanced the process of domination.
It is also obvious that the revolutionary violence in Guatemala, and economic pressures on the Maya of southern Mexico have permanently changed whatever once might have been. Modern studies show that while the cargo system clearly developed as part of a process of domination and exploitation of Indian communities in the highlands of Mesoamerica and the Andes, it has been adapted by the plantation elites as a means to maintain political and economic domination. Research in recent years has shown that the debts incurred by Indians in fulfillment of their cargo obligations were purchased by agents working for lowland plantations, and that members of these communities were subsequently forced to work off their debts on the plantations. It has also come to light that the plantations often owned the lands of the Indian communities, and exchanged the use of these lands for working on the plantations (Smith 1982). Thus, the contrast between the closed corporate Indian communities and the open mestizo communities is less clear than it once was. It is becoming clear that if these communities were once closed, they are rapidly being opened today by modern elites, plantation owners, and tourists, and that their corporate social structure may be more a part of the past than the present.
Allen, Catherine J. (1988). The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an
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Cancian, Frank (1965). Economics and Prestige in a Maya Community.
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Chance, John K. and William B. Taylor (1985). Cofradias and cargos: An historical
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