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Fiesta Finance in Mesoamerica and the Origins of a Gift Exchange System

Author(s): John Monaghan

Source: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp.
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
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Vanderbilt University

The particular ethnographic cases through which the phenomenon of the gift was first defined,
coupled with the evolutionary paradigm in which it was embedded, have limited our under-
standing ofthe nature and dynamics of gift exchange. By charting the emergence of a gift exchange
system in the Mixtec-speaking town of Santiago Nuyoo over the last 135 years, this article discusses
distinctive features of Mesoamerican gifting and suggests a perspective that makes gift exchange
a useful category for historical analysis. It also examines the role of exchange in the transformation
of the Nuyoo system of fiesta sponsorship.


A serious rethinking of the gift has been under way in anthropology. We now
understand that general claims about the gift often involve the elevation of
regional ethnographic cases to the status of universals (Parry 1986; 1989;
Thomas 1991: 15-16). It is increasingly difficult to speak about the phenome-
non of the gift without qualifying it in some way; for instance, as 'competitive
gift exchange' (Gregory 1982), 'the Indian gift' (Parry 1986) or 'reproductive
gift exchange' (Gell 1992). Indeed, anthropologists working in Mesoamerica
have been reluctant to use the term 'gift' exchange, preferring terms such as
'no-interest loans', probably because Mesoamerican forms of reciprocity seem
to lack the complex social, moral, aesthetic and symbolic connexions that Mauss
theorized and are richly documented in studies of Melanesia. This article exam-
ines the exchanges made during fiestas in the Mixtec-speaking town of Santiago
Nuyoo in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and suggests that it is the use
of reciprocal exchange to finance fiestas that makes gift exchange in
Mesoamerica distinct from the kinds reported elsewhere.
It has also become clear that our general definitions of the gift are closely tied
to how we understand exchange systems to function and change. Along with so
many other concepts in economic anthropology, the notion of the gift first
developed in the context of efforts to define the differences between capitalist
and pre-capitalist societies (Appadurai 1986; Carrier 1992; Piot 1991; Thomas
1991: 9-14; Weiner 1992: 17; see also Braudel 1982: 223-49). Mauss discussed
the gift as a stage in an evolutionary sequence leading to modern forms of
contract. According to him, the gift originally developed out of the total ex-
change of services between groups (which itself had evolved out of sacrifice)

J. Roy. anthrop. Inst. (N.S.) 2, 499-516

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and is destined to be replaced by impersonal commerce (Hart 1982: 46-7; Parry

1986: 457).
Although Mauss's evolutionary assumptions become less important to later
theorizing, gift exchange did become a marker for a kind of economy distinct
from that found in the West. This 'essentialist' bias (Carrier 1992; Weiner 1992)
stereotyped gifts and commodities as rigidly opposed (Appadurai 1986). We
now know that different forms of exchange, including commerce, barter and
gift-giving, are not necessarily opposed, but are often sequentially and function-
ally linked to one another in the same society (Appadurai 1986; Godelier 1977;
Gregory 1982; Kopytoff 1986). In particular, we know that gift exchange, when
coming into contact with the market may actually 'effloresce' rather than disap-
pear (Gregory 1987). Even in societies whose members have long worked as
wage labourers, new forms of commercialization may be accompanied by an
intensification of gift exchange, as people use goods acquired in the market as
gifts (for an excellent example from Mesoamerica, see Good 1988).
By situating the gift on the far side of the 'great divide' between capitalist and
pre-capitalist societies, and by conceptualizing it in universal terms, anthropo-
logical attention was diverted not only from significant variations in gift
exchange institutions across space, but also from changes in particular gift insti-
tutions over time. It is true that researchers confronted with situations in which
inflation had disturbed the established forms and ratios of exchange could not
easily ignore history in their discussions, nor could they overlook the links
between gifting and the colonial impact on market processes (see, for instance,
Gregory 1982: 60; Hefner 1985, 1990; Lambek 1990; Morris 1986; Strathern
1971). The diversity of the reported cases is important because it attests both to
the varied situations in which gift exchange systems exist, and to the range of
local responses to broader political and economic developments. However, the
conclusions drawn often echo the Maussian one: that gift exchange might per-
sist in an increasingly market-oriented economy, but so distorted and
destabilized that it must be destined to disappear (see, for instance, Lambek
1990: 658).
If these historical studies of gift exchange often draw 'essentialist' conclusions,
much of the recent literature arguing against 'ahistorical essentialism' is itself
not very historical, or else focuses on larger political and economic changes
rather than local particularities of gift exchange. One reason is clearly a lack of
information necessary to trace the development of gifting over time. But a more
fundamental problem lies in a failure to conceptualize gift exchange in a way
that makes change possible. In the Maussian formulation, gifts are so complexly
embedded in ideas about self and other, in cosmology and aesthetics, in moral-
ity and politics, that it is difficult to imagine how change could occur without
the total transformation of society.
Yet if we take the gift out of the epochal framework into which it is usually
placed, it becomes possible to view the history and dynamics of gift in other
ways. One such possibility has to do with origins. As long as gift exchange is
viewed as a primitive form of contract, or as the earliest form of communication
between groups, then the question of origins is, at least in empirical terms,
closed to us. However, if we see gift exchange in a more neutral way, much as
we might view recipes, house forms or naming practices, the idea that a given

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gift exchange system is a relatively recent development is one we might seri-

ously consider. One conclusion this article makes is that the saa sa'a exchange
system in Santiago Nuyoo is only a few decades old (I emphasize the term
system, as opposed to isolated, albeit conventional, acts of reciprocity). This
examination of origins in turn highlights the analytical usefulness of separating
the form exchange takes from the kinds of messages communicated through it.
To put this another way, the reasons why an exchange system may have emerged
may be distinct from the subsequent social uses to which it is put.
The historical perspective on the gift proposed here was foreshadowed by a
view of the gift continued in Mauss's essay but submerged by later readings: the
notion that calculation and interest are as much a part of gifting as are 'obliga-
tion, liberality, generosity and luxury' (Appadurai 1986: 13; Mauss 1990: 73;
Parry 1986: 458). Mauss's insistence on the merger of interest and disinterest,
of morality, religion and economics in the gift, is in fact central to his argument
about the evolution of contractual relationships, as Parry points out (1986:
457-8). It is interesting that both Bourdieu (1977) and Appadurai (1986) choose
to begin their discussions with a focus on the strategic dimension of the gift.
Bourdieu shows that the received model of the gift as a mechanical interlocking
of the obligation to give, receive and return obscures the fact that its significance
lies in the 'art' of the exchange (which he demonstrates by discussing the timing
of gifts and countergifts). He is then able to place gifting within his extended
conception of practice (Bourdieu 1977: 4-8). Appadurai (1986) is able to use the
strategic dimension of the gift to show broad continuities between gift and
other kinds of exchange. This allows him to argue for an approach that views
goods not as 'gifts' or 'commodities' in an absolute sense, but as moving through
phases, with overlapping social features such as exchangeability and alienability
emphasized or de-emphasized at different times (see also Kopytoff 1986).
This is a useful starting place because it suggests that we eschew a vocabulary
that represents usages such as the Mixtec saa sa'a through terms that imply an
absolute form ('the gift') and that we are better served by a focus on the trans-
action itself (saa sa'a translates as 'making sa'a', or 'gifting'). We can then view
gifting as a strategic mode of interaction that allows one to call upon others to
accomplish tasks. This also makes it easier to view saa sa'a as a practice with
considerable flexibility and a number of alternative uses (c? Carrier & Carrier
1991: 126-7). But beyond an accounting of the strategic moves made by inter-
ested actors, a historical perspective demands that we consider the long-term
implications of individual choice, and that we relate these choices more directly
to the broader historical conjuncture that defines the context in which they
occur. This will not only enable us to view the exchange patterns we observe as
results of the regular distribution of choices, but also how, in response to a
changing environment, such choices might accumulate in new directions, shift-
ing the patterns in significant ways not apparent to individual actors and visible
only over time.
Such an approach also requires that we revisit the anthropological truism that
exchange is embedded in a social relationship, even to the point where we
sometimes say it is the whole purpose for the exchange. While this is a welcome
alternative to the narrow economistic view of exchange, it has tended to obscure
the material value of the ideas circulated (e.g. Gell 1992: 145-6) and the fact that

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reciprocal relationships can be configured so that transactors derive measurable

utility from them. This in turn implies that solidarity and alliance may not be
the only, or the dominant, motivation for people to participate in exchange and
that we should be careful not to reduce reciprocal exchange to a handful of core

Cofrad(as and mayordomias

Fiesta sponsorship in Mesoamerica is closely associated with the civil-religious

hierarchy in which men and women serve in a series of unpaid service positions
dedicated to administrative and ritual aspects of collective life. The 'religious'
component of many civil-religious hierarchies in Mesoamerica consists of what
Cancian (1967: 285-6) calls cofradias, or sodalities, dedicated to the cults of
particular saints. Cofradias usually have five or six ranked positions, or cargos,
each of which has duties that a husband and wife share. Each married pair in the
cofradtia is responsible for contributing time and resources to the cofradia's saint,
culminating in the sponsorship of a fiesta on the saint's feast day. The amount
of time and money contributed may vary with the position, but it is always
Other Mesoamerican civil-religious hierarchies have what Cancian calls mayor-
domias (1967: 285-6). Mayordom(as also organize cults of saints, but are usually
more numerous than cofradi'as. Unlike cofradi'as, only a single couple serve as
mayordomo at any time. There is therefore no internal hierarchy of cargos in a
mayordom(a as there is in a cofrad(a (although mayordomkzs may be ranked against
one another the way cofradtas are) and instead of five or six households sponsor-
ing a saint's fiesta, only one household assumes the responsibility.1
In 1801, when detailed information on the religious activities of the
Nuyooteco civil-religious hierarchy first appears, Nuyoo had eleven cofrad
structured in conformity with rules set forth in 1731 by Francisco de Santiago
y Calder6n, Bishop of Oaxaca32 In a decree issued for the founding of a cofradia
in Tlaxiaco, Nuyoo's district capital, the Bishop stipulated that cofradi'as should
have five offices. The top position was that of the mayordomo, followed by the
first deputy, and then three additional office-holders known only as deputies. In
the cofradia records kept in Nuyoo we see that the first deputy often appears a
year or two later as a mayordomo, suggesting that the deputy positions were
ranked in the way contemporary cofradi'a positions are ranked, with the first
deputy position being the step immediately before the mayordomo position. Al-
though the top office in the cofradia was called mayordomo, this did not mean the
religious side of the hierarchy contained mayordomias as Cancian has described
them; it consisted only of cofradi'as.
The mayordomo position, first deputy and three additional deputies were each
probably service positions, and the mayordomo and deputies appear to have been
excused from any further work in the civil-religious hierarchy, since their
names do not appear on the lists of officials serving during the year. According
to oral history, the deputy's duty was to aid the mayordomo in the celebration of
the saint's feast day, by helping to adorn the saints, by gathering flowers for the
altar, and by arranging for the performance of important rituals.3 Most impor-
tantly, each deputy provided a fixed quota (tarea) of food and money, which the
mayordomo would distribute during the celebration of the fiesta. People in the

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region today say the quota consisted of 360 tortillas, six to twelve gourds of
beans (a gourd is equivalent to about a litre) and a variable quantity of cash, salt,
chili, pasta and liquor. In the past, the money would be used to buy liquor or, if
the mayordomo had enough cash, a steer to be butchered and served to the
guests. It appears that the exact size of the quota could vary, and the mayordomos
and deputies would come together well before the fiesta to determine the
amount of goods they would need. Although it occurred in the 1930s, one older
man told me that on his first religious cargo he had to buy a steer, since this was
an important saint. He first calculated the amount of money he needed and
filled a gourd with corn kernels, one kernel for each centavo. Following a
custom that no doubt dated from the nineteenth century, he then invited a
number of deputies to his house. They sat on the floor, and he went around the
room placing a kernel in front of each man until the gourd was empty. Then
each man looked at the pile in front of him and knew what his quota would be
for the fiesta. The number of tortillas was fixed at sixty per man and the amount
of beans was one gourd.
One important feature of the Nuyoo cofrad'as of the early 1800s is that all the
members pooled their resources to accumulate the goods needed to celebrate
the saint. The mayordomo's household may have contributed more than any of
the others, but not significantly more (cf Nutini 1988: 283). It is therefore best
to think of the mayordomo in the cofradia system as first among equals, especially
with regards to the financing of fiestas.
This organization has undergone some radical changes over the past 175 years
and it is not immediately obvious how Nuyooteco arrangements for financing
fiestas today developed from those I have outlined for the first half of the
nineteenth century. To understand why these changes occurred, and to identifyr
the ldnds of decisions people made that led to the development of the contem-
porary gift exchange system, some broader political and economic
developments during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries must first be dis-
cussed. My point of departure will be the collective enterprises stewarded by
cofradias to generate a surplus for fiesta expenditures.

Cofradifas and corporate property

Throughout the colonial period in Mexico, cofradi'as controlled property and

lent money (Farriss 1984). In Nuyoo the main form of wealth cofradias control-
led were cattle, sheep, goats and mules (Monaghan 1995: 265-6). The animals
provided Nuyootecos with an inexpensive source of meat which the mayordomos
would butcher during fiestas and distribute in collective meals.4 The mayordomos
also sold animals to pay the Church tithe, to buy a chalice, to provide funds for
bringing a priest in to say Mass during fiestas, to pay for a survey of the town's
boundaries, to cover general municipal expenses and, later, to purchase school
books for the community's children.5
Nuyootecos proved to be quite adept at raising livestock, and the size of the
herd reached seventy head of cattle and more than one hundred head of sheep
and goats by 1870.6 In addition, the cofradias held substantial amounts of cash in
special chests which today also contain wax for candle making, account books,
and property belonging to the saint's image, such as clothing and jewellery.
Nuyootecos call this money shu'un ka'nu, or 'principal'. The mayordomo and

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other cofradia members could

saint's feast day, but had they
make a payment to the genera
Currently, most mayordomos c
such as making bread or sellin
payments (which, according t
of the principal amount at th
cent.). People also loan the mo
bers, and then use the interest
As noted above, each mayordo
called the general fund of all
be substantial and officials tap
municipal expenditures and, f
The fund still exists and Nuyo
new school, to buy and repair instruments for the municipal band, and to
defray the costs of constructing a government-subsidized dry goods store. In
1993, the fund contained a little over 20,000 pesos (about US $7,000).

Increases in the numbers of deputies

The records kept in the chests show that the cofrad(as began to undergo some
important alterations in the 1860s and 1870s. This was a period of political
upheaval in the Mixteca and in Mexico more generally. The country suffered
the War of the Reform, and then the French Intervention, when European
forces took control. The unrest severely disrupted the Oaxaca economy, and
major skirmishes occurred in the Tlaxiaco region (Martinez Gracida 1986: 785;
Mendez Aquino 1985: 197-201). In addition, there were several revolts by
Oaxaque-nos against the Federal government, some of which began in the Mix-
teca (Berry 1981: 200-1). During this period, Nuyoo and its neighbours,
Yucuhiti and Yosotato, were looted and burned (Monaghan 1990b). This state of
unrest, with armed bands criss-crossing the region and looting rural towns,
made the accumulation of foodstuffs for fiestas difficult at best.
The building of the new church in Nuyoo began at this time. An architect
from outside the community supervised the project, with Nuyootecos perform-
ing the heavy labour. Construction began in the mid-1870s, and was still not
completed in 1915. To meet the costs of buying the materials and paying wages
for outside workers, officials in the 1870s and 1880s sold most of the animals in
the communal herds and spent a large portion of the cash held by the cofradiias.7
So far as fiestas were concerned, this was a loss of an inexpensive source of
meat, the most important food distributed. It is a tradition that guests receive
meat during the fiesta meals. One can imagine that after the sale of the commu-
nal herd, meals with meat would have become difficult to arrange. Instead of
simply taking an animal from the community herd, or paying for it at below the
market rate, the religious officials had the difficult task of raising money to
purchase steers in the market.
The 1870s, particularly the last years of the decade, were thus difficult times.
Food was scarce, the construction of the church consumed an increasing pro-
portion of communal labour, and the assets of the cofrad(as, which were an
important source of cash and food for fiesta sponsorship,8 had all but disappeared.

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Chance and Taylor (1985) observe that at the end of the colonial period and the
beginning of independence, corporate assets throughout Mesoamerica were
eroded, and this in turn led to individual sponsorship of cargos. In Nuyoo the
household did eventually assume responsibility for fiesta (and other cargo) ex-
penses. But in the 1870s Nuyooteco households controlled little private wealth,
and certainly not enough to sponsor elaborate fiestas. There were no private
herds of animals in the community, and the income from cash cropping would
not become significant until coffee began to replace the banana as the main cash
crop in the late 1930s. Although corporate resources were no longer sufficient
to meet expenses, shifting the burden to individual sponsors was not initially a
solution to the problem. How then, did Nuyootecos respond?
Their answer involved spreading the costs of fiesta sponsorship beyond the
five original members of the cofradi'a to between six and ten sponsors, by the
simple process of increasing the number of deputies (Brandes 1981: 212-13
describes a similar process for Tzintzuntzan after 1942; see also Ingham 1986:
95; Martfnez Ruvalcaba 1987: 61-7). In other words, rather than having five
officers in the cofradia, as in the first half of the nineteenth century, by the
second half of the century Nuyooteco cofradias had six to ten officers, so that
instead of preserving the feasting complex by shifting to individual sponsorship,
Nuyootecos went the other way and preserved it by making it even more of a
collective undertaking.
One can see from figure 1 that this process first began in the 1860s, when the
number of deputies began to exceed four for the first time.9 It accelerated in the
late 1870s, precisely when Nuyootecos began building the church. The number
of deputies levelled off in the 1890s to between seven and eight. This corre-
sponds to the period when church construction began to wind down, and the
Diaz regime normalized the political and economic situation in the countryside.




(1) 40 . . * +
40 ci? 4+ *


> 30-+
Oz - - , _, __ _ ,

1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950


FIGURE 1. Average number of deputies, 1860-1945.

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This was also the period when the communal cattle herd began to increase
again (although it never reached more than a quarter of its earlier size) and
when more resources were presumably available for fiesta sponsorship.
This situation again changed with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). The
cattle herd disappeared during this period, when roving bands of soldiers rav-
aged the countryside. According to older people, food was hard to find and it
became very difficult for parents to feed their children, much as it had been
forty years earlier. And just as in the 1870s, the number of deputies increased
exponentially. This increase is made more dramatic by the fact that the total
population of Nuyoo declined during the war years (see fig. 1).
The effects of the Mexican Revolution on the Mixteca were disastrous. lTade
dried up, markets were held only infrequently and agricultural production
plummeted. A nadir was reached in 1917, when Federal troops sacked Tlaxiaco
and the separatist forces fled the region. But the unrest continued well beyond
the official end of the Revolution in 1920, since the earlier loosening of state
control allowed hostile communities to attack one another and private armies
continued to operate freely in the region. This continued until the 1930s, when
the state was able to exert some control for the first time since the end of the
Diaz government. If it is true that hard times precipitated increases in the
number of deputies in Nuyoo cofradias, then this long period of unrest after the
Revolution, which made travel and trade very difficult and took prime agricul-
tural land out of production, explains the steady growth in the numbers of
deputies through the mid-1930s.
Nuyootecos, then, met the burden of increased fiesta costs and the loss of
corporate property by spreading the responsibility for fiesta sponsorship among
ever-increasing numbers of households. We can see this in the old man's ac-
count of using corn kernels to calculate the quotas of his deputies. At the time,
in the 1930s, he had about forty deputies, each contributing a fixed amount of
tortillas and cash, instead of the four or five deputies a mayordomo would have
had two generations before.
There was another significant change that made the old man's experience as
mayordomo different from that of officials before him. During the period be-
tween 1870 and 1920 (I have not been able to determine exactly when) the
deputy role became uncoupled from the civil-religious hierarchy, so that it was
no longer considered a service position (cf Brandes 1981: 214, 222-3). It may
have been that the loss of cattle left the deputies with little to do, and the
amassing of tortillas, beans and a few centavos were not regarded as so difficult
that someone could be excused from serving in another office as well. There is
also evidence that the amount of food contributed by individual deputies de-
creased. As I noted, older people in the region define the standard quota as 360
tortillas, and some recall having heard that this amount was the traditional
contribution of the deputy to the fiesta. However, none of them ever actually
saw deputies contribute 360 tortillas. The most they had seen was 60 tortillas, or
occasionally 120. This reduction in the contribution may have been part of the
process of spreading the burden of fiesta sponsorship among more households.
If I am correct about the reduction of individual deputy contributions to the
cofradaia, then this development, along with the removal of the deputy position
from the civil-religious hierarchy, would have had an important effect on the

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relationship of the deputies to both the fiesta and to the mayordomo. Recall that
when deputies were service positions they had many responsibilities. The depu-
ties were in charge of organizing rituals, ensuring that the mayordomo made the
proper fiesta distributions, and overseeing the mayordomia accounts. The mayor-
domo may have been the central administrator of the cofradia, but the deputies
were essential to its functioning. When the deputy position was removed from
the civil-religious hierarchy, however, the deputies lost their responsibility for
the outcome of the cargo. The deputies were no longer held accountable by
local government for the results of the fiesta, and became passive participants
instead of individuals with a personal stake in the event. The mayordomo house-
hold alone began to organize the rituals, make the proper distributions, and
ensure accounts were in order.
A similar process took place in financing the fiesta. We saw that in the first
half of the nineteenth century each deputy provided a quota of food and money
for the fiesta. The mayordomo's quota may have been larger than any of the
others, but it was not substantially larger. With the deputies no longer a cargo
position, their financial responsibility for the fiesta declined. As noted, the size
of their individual contributions grew smaller. By the 1930s, deputies were
individually contributing only 2-3 per cent. of total fiesta costs, instead of the
15-20 per cent. contributed before.
But what is significant about the uncoupling of the deputy position from the
civil-religious hierarchy is that it was no longer a civil-religious obligation for
the deputies to aid the mayordomo. In the first half of the nineteenth century,
community elders and the top officers of the hierarchy nominated the deputies,
just as they nominated the town police and other officials. Yet by the late 1800s
or early 1900s the authorities stopped appointing deputies. The mayordomo,
however, remained an appointed position responsible for the fiesta, and now
assumed the additional task of recruiting deputies.

The recruitment of deputies

When the deputy position first ceased being a service position, it was probably
not difficult for the couple serving as mayordomo to find from among their
household's network of kin, ritual kin and neighbours, six or eight deputies to
help finance the fiesta. However, as time went on, and sponsors needed ever
more deputies to help, the nature of the task changed. How was the mayordomo
to attract several dozen deputies, when these same people had their own civil-
religious hierarchy service to perform, and many of them probably also had
fiestas to sponsor? The answer turned on the development of several recruit-
ment strategies. One strategy was to use the money in the mayordomo chest. The
cofradta officers had a year to work with this money, after which they made an
interest payment of 60-100 per cent. Often mayordomos try to earn enough to
meet the payment by lending the money at interest. There are usually many
people who would like to borrow the money, and the mayordomo can make
serving as a deputy an informal condition for receiving a loan. Another strategy
was to ply men with liquor or pulque and then ask them for their help, since,
when people drink, they often agree to things that they might think twice about
when sober, and many feel obliged to help once someone has treated them. The
most effective way of recruiting deputies, however, was to enter an agreement

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with those who had fiestas to

a deputy and bring tortillas,
domo 'B', if Mayordomo 'B' would return the same goods at A's' fiesta some
months later. This is the kind of reciprocal contract that Nuyootecos call
'speaking sa'a'.
'Speaking saa' is an ancient practice in rural Mixtec communities. Alvarado
(1964: 14) mentions it, for example, in his 1593 dictionary of the Mixtec lan-
guage. However, it appears that, in these earlier times, what was circulated in
sa'a was agricultural labour.10 Saa sa'a was useful because it enabled a farmer to
secure the co-operation of a large group of people. Men in Nuyoo today recall
that the members of one household would enter into agreements with the
members of as many as fifteen other households to take turns weeding each
other's cornfields. To mobilize this many people one would otherwise have to
have cash to pay wages, and few households in Nuyoo had that much cash on
hand. There was, moreover, considerable flexibility in how a day of labour
could be returned. For example, a man's day of labour could be repaid by
sending two boys to work, or by the loan of a mule for half a day. It may be that
the same flexibility came into play with regard to fiesta financing, so that
Nuyootecos began to circulate cash and foodstuffs, along with labour, in saa
sa'a. Cash and food may even have been circulated in saa sa'a outside the fiesta
complex in earlier times.
Although all these methods of recruiting deputies continue to be employed,
maldng sa'a became predominant. As one man explained the change: 'Before
the mayordomo did not speak sa'a; the mayordomo spoke tarea (quotas)'. The
switch came about in part because the other methods simply could not be used
to secure the co-operation of large numbers of people. After all, there was only
so much money in the chest, and plying people with liquor will only work if
used occasionally and on certain individuals. The use of reciprocal contracts,
however, allowed the mayordomo to appeal to a large number of people without
having to make formal expenditures, and to achieve a high level of success since
it is in the partner's interests to exchange. On average, people sponsor fiestas
once every three or four years, since they also celebrate baptisms, weddings,
mortuary rites and, for civil officials, patriotic holidays (Monaghan 1990b). By
making a reciprocal contract, they are, in effect, able to 'bank' labour and re-
sources with another household (Beals 1970). Because like must be repaid with
like, this also ensures that they will have precise quantities of specific types of
foodstuffs available. This is always a worry, since a fiesta requires that a variety
of foods and drinks be served, and it can be ruined if the sponsors run short of
an item.
Yet the strategy of using reciprocal contracts to finance fiestas had the unfore-
seen effect of placing the mayordomo in considerable debt. Recall that in the first
half of the nineteenth century, the entire cofradt'a might produce 1,800 tortillas (5
x 360), with the household of the mayordomo producing only one fourth to one
fifth of that. The rest would come from the quotas of the four deputies. How-
ever, if we assume that the mayordomo household is able to produce 600 tortillas
on its own, the office-holder today would have to contract twenty-four gift
exchange partners, and end up owing them 1,200 tortillas, plus cash, liquor and
other items. Here then, we can clearly see that the mayordomo not only assumed

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responsibility for the fiesta, but was left greatly in debt by it. How Nuyootecos
arranged to lighten the burden of the mayordomo so that the position did not
leave households destitute marks another major change in fiesta organization.
Older people say that it was not uncommon for goods to remain after a fiesta.
When the ritual was over, the mayordomo would gather the deputies around a
mat in the centre of the house. Then he would count the number of leftover
tortillas, litres of beans, sticks of firewood and so forth for all to see, and divide
them among the deputies, reserving a share equal to that of a deputy for him-
self Distributing surpluses to the deputies made eminent sense when
participants contributed equal amounts for the financing of the fiesta. As one
man put it, not to have redistributed the surplus would have been 'like stealing'.
I first learned about dividing fiesta surpluses among deputies in 1985, from
the late NRanluu Maria Sarabia.11 We had been talking about the fiesta her grand-
son was to sponsor. The conversation shifted to the nature of fiestas in her
youth, in the 1940s. She spoke about the distribution of surpluses among the
deputies, and I asked her whether, if a deputy contributed sixty tortillas and
received fifteen as part of the distribution of fiesta surpluses, the mayordomo
would owe the deputy only forty-five tortillas. Before she could answer, her
grandson replied: 'Of course. Since the mayordomo was returning part of what
they had given, then it would be that much less that the mayordomo would owe'.
Nanluu Marfa however, to her grandson's and my surprise, said that this was
wrong. What happened was that the mayordomo continued to owe the deputies
what they had given the mayordomo, even though the mayordomo had given them
a share of the goods that remained after the fiesta ended. The grandson pro-
tested that this did not seem fair. 'Yes, it wasn't fair', she said, 'and that is why
people agreed [in 1947] the mayordomo should be able to keep what is left over
after the fiesta, since he supplies the bulk of the things for the celebration'.
By the 1940s and 1950s, then, people had begun to think that the deputies,
with their responsibilities so diluted, should not receive any surplus from the
fiesta. This had only made sense when each deputy contributed an amount
equal to that contributed by the mayordomo; it no longer made sense when the
deputy only contributed 2 per cent. of the fiesta costs and received this back as
gift credits.
This development is of interest because it shows that, in Nuyoo at least,
mayordomt'as are genetically related to cofradias. Although the historical connexion
between them has been recognized (Chance 1990: 32), the former emerged out
of the latter through a series of decisions people made about how to finance
fiestas in a situation in which corporate assets had been eroded and households
were becoming property-holding units. At first, this involved increasing the
number of households responsible for the fiesta so that the burden of sponsor-
ship might be spread more widely. But the increase in the number of deputies
also meant that the position could no longer be considered a cargo. Deputies
then had to be recruited by other means. Of several different strategies, the
most widely used were the creation of reciprocal contracts with relatives, ritual
kin and neighbours. This, along with the steady accumulation of property by
individual households, led to a gradual shift of the burden of sponsorship to the
single household.

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Note that at this point the groups formed through saa sa'a exchanges are
formally similar to rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAS),12 in which
'partners agree to make regular contributions to a fund which is given, in whole
or in part, to each contributor in rotation' (Ardener 1964: 201; Geertz 1962).
Each Nuyooteco participant in effect takes a turn at the centre of the group,
receiving the individual contributions of money, tortillas and other food items
when it is his or her turn to sponsor a fiesta (Monaghan 1990a).
ROSCAS in Latin America have tended to be seen as urban phenomena occur-
ring, for the most part, among migrants and others who lack access to formal
financial institutions.13 Yet the need to save to finance lumpy expenditures
exists among rural people with fiestas to sponsor as well as among urbanites
buying refrigerators or cars. Moreover, the advantages of the ROSCA - that it
allows a group to use its savings more effectively, and that almost everyone can
reduce the waiting time needed to finance an expenditure since even the last
person to receive the fund loses no time - are readily apparent to Nuyootecos
(Monaghan 1990a; see Ardener 1964; Besley et al. 1993; Callier 1990).
The financial advantages of configuring reciprocal contracts in this way ac-
cords with Nuyootecos' historical disregard for Maussian fields of obligation
when accounting for participation in saa sa'a. For example, a man who spon-
sored a fiesta in 1943 told me that the first individual he asked to serve as
deputy replied: 'You should be looking for people who are like you, who have
not yet suffered [that is, young men who had not yet served in the civil-religious
hierarchy], not like me, a person who has suffered a lot. Why do you want to
impose more work on me?'
There are, however, features of the Nuyooteco saa sa'a complex that make it
distinct from a ROSCA. For example, ROSCAS are normally closed groups. In saa
sa'a, participation is open-ended, since at each fiesta new individuals effectively
join by making new reciprocal contracts to sponsors, and old participants drop
out by returning what they owe. The set of participants in any one fiesta is thus
never the same in the next. Moreover, if ROSCAS thrive because they keep the
utility costs of savings low, then even though the Nuyooteco saa sa'a complex
must be viewed as a solution to the practical problems of accumulating re-
sources to celebrate a fiesta, one should not go too far in accounting for the
participation of everyone in terms of financial utility. The utility costs of savings
in the Nuyoo case can be quite high, since one must travel to others' fiestas in
order to participate. This may involve long journeys, and require one to spend
nights away. Some people complain about the time they lose making exchanges.
In this respect, saa sa'a begins to seem like gift exchange. Although it is true that
in the past people were not reluctant to express unwillingness to give or receive
items in saa sa'a, Nuyootecos today describe the exchange of items in terms and
grammatical forms that suggest that the item, once given, connects participants
by an obligation to return. There is also a Maussian link between the items
exchanged and the persons who transact them. Specifically, Nuyootecos speak
of the sa'a items as objectifying the labour of those who produced them.14 It
may be that the typological ambiguity of saa sa'a has to do with the different
discourses associated with the two kinds of exchange (discourses of financial
intermediation for the ROSCA [Callier 1990: 274], and of solidarity and social
symbolism for gift exchange) and with the more general problems caused by

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attempts to classify practices s

in terms of the pattern of tran
tions of reciprocal exchange. Similarly, many reciprocal exchange systems,
particularly those in which goods are channelled into a centre to be redistrib-
uted, could be seen as ROSCAS.15
The perspective in this article, however, is that saa sa'a is a flexible mode of
sociality allowing Nuyootecos to call upon others to accomplish tasks. Saa sa'a
is not a rigid institutional form but a way of being 'with and for one another',
to use Simmel's (1971: 24) phrase, that unfolds through time. Today a house-
hold's sa'a partnerships are part of its ongoing relationships with a core of
relatives, ritual kin and neighbours (Monaghan 1995: 90-3) and, in contrast to
the past, the social messages communicated through sa'a are an important aspect
of overall village life. This latter development has to be seen in terms of certain
formal properties of sa'a exchange that have emerged since the 1930s.

Saa sa'a as an exchange system

Nuyootecos celebrate fiestas to mark life-crisis events, as well as organizing

fiestas in the course of their civil-religious hierarchy duties. They finance the
life-crisis fiestas in the same way they finance the civil-religious hierarchy fies-
tas: that is, through saa sa'a. As the population increased over the last thirty
years, so did the number of fiestas, since there are many more baptisms, mar-
riages and funerals to celebrate. Coincident with this increase in life-crisis
rituals, the number of mayordom(as has also increased, from eleven in the early
1800s to twenty-three by 1920. Furthermore, fiesta sponsorship has become a
duty for many civil cargo holders. The result of this is that the 420 households
of the community now sponsor some eighty-two major fiestas during an aver-
age year. Because several cargo holders celebrate many of the new civil fiestas
jointly, about 83 per cent. of contemporary Nuyoo households sponsor a fiesta
in any three-year period (Monaghan 1995: 79-80).
The fact that most households have to sponsor a fiesta at least once every
three years gives their efforts at financing the events a characteristic periodicity.
About a year, or year and a half, before a couple sponsors a fiesta, they begin to
prepare for it by contributing to other fiestas an average of 36 per cent. of the
tortillas they plan to distribute, and an equally large percentage of the beans,
cash and liquor they will need. These other sponsors must then return the same
amount and kinds of goods on the day of the fiesta. Then, when the household
celebrates its fiesta, others who have forthcoming fiestas, and those bound to
the household through ties of kinship, ritual kinship and propinquity, will arrive
to make new gifts. On average, these people bring with them 52 per cent. of the
tortillas the sponsors distribute. After the fiesta, members of the sponsoring
household will begin to pay off what they owe by returning the gifts in fiestas
sponsored by their partners. This means that in terms of participation in saa sa'a,
the first year after fiesta sponsorship is usually dedicated to returning what is
owed, since most of those who have made gifts to the couple's household do so
with the intention of sponsoring a fiesta in the near- or mid-term (although it
can take as long as three to five years for partners to sponsor a fiesta and return
what they owe). After the first year, once the members of the sponsoring house-
hold have reduced their debts, they may begin to accumulate credits by

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contributing to the fiestas of persons to whom they owe nothing. In this way
they begin to prepare to sponsor another fiesta. The switch from paying off
debts to accumulating credits occurs by the end of the third year, when the
members of the sponsoring household begin to plan their next fiesta.
The increase in the number of fiestas celebrated in the community, coupled
with the spacing of gift-giving and repayment over several years, has resulted in
a situation where people are constantly in search of partners and, consequently,
almost everyone in Nuyoo is making reciprocal contracts all the time. In terms
of the saa sa'a complex as a whole, this has meant that while the ratio of credits
to debts changes depending on where one stands in the fiesta sponsorship cycle,
individual cycles of fiesta sponsorship overlap so that a huge amount of goods
constantly circulates through saa sa'a (Monaghan 1990b).
This is significant because what has happened in Nuyoo over the past century
is that these contracts have become so interconnected and dense that saa sa'a
functions automatically, coordinating action in a way that has consequences
beyond the intentions of any of the individual actors. This systemic dimension
distinguishes the current saa sa'a complex from anything that existed earlier in
Nuyoo, and from the formal reciprocities and everyday give-and-take that can
probably be found in any society. Moreover, the systemic properties of saa sa'a
have allowed Nuyootecos to use exchange to communicate the complexities
and nuances of their relationships with one another, a development that has
made saa sa'a look more and more like gift exchange.

From deputy to friend

The most recent change in fiesta financing has been the slow disappearance of
the custom of contracting exchange partnerships. The increasingly systemic
nature of saa sa'a has made this development possible. Although people con-
tinue to make contracts to exchange specified types and amounts of goods in
advance, the need for this has been reduced. Because so many people are ac-
tively seeking exchange partners and such large quantities of goods circulate,
people are confident that many partners will attend their fiestas on their own
accord, bringing with them sufficient food items and money.
The relative infrequency of sa'a contracts today is part of a gradual shift in
what saa sa'a exchanges mean to Nuyootecos. In the earlier period, we saw that
the deputy's participation changed from being a communal service imposed by
the town government to one based on the mayordomo's ability to recruit others.
Now participation is much less formal and much more voluntaristic. On the
one hand, the mayordono no longer has to appeal to people's self-interest for aid
in the fiesta, get them drunk, make loans and sometimes suffer embarrassing
rebuffs. To attract the required number of partners, sponsors instead rely on
their personal reputations as trustworthy individuals who will return presta-
tions, on their ties with other households, and on participants' wish to 'bank'
items before sponsoring their owni fiestas. On the other hand, partners can
choose when and where to make gifts and, through the size and quality of their
gifts, signal to the sponsors important aspects of their relationship (see Monaghan
1995: 90-3). One old man put it this way: 'Before we didn't have any friends
(amigu) come to see us (i.e., to participate in fiestas). It was just deputies. Now
people are not obliged to come, they come out of good will (kurnani)'. This does

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not mean that the formal contracting of gifts has completely stopped. It contin-
ues, but mainly among older people. Even here, however, it reflects badly on
the sponsors if they have to ask many of their guests to attend. As another man
explained, it is like saying, 'I can't find anyone who thinks I am a friend, or who
deems me honorable enough to trust me with their goods'.


The present configuration of saa sa'a first developed as the result of a series of
local decisions about how to sponsor fiestas. These decisions were taken in
response to the loss of corporate property, a loss linked to the privatization of
land and the growing importance of cash crops in the village (Monaghan 1995:
259-84). But while the origins of the present saa sa'a system must be seen in
terms of strategies of financing lumpy expenditures, the exchanges have become
invested over time with new and complex meanings. Nuyootecos now speak of
saa sa'a transactions as freely given 'aid' to 'friends'. Similarly, account books are
no longer kept solely to record credits and debts but are saved, even after debts
are paid, to review who supported one in the past, and whom one is obliged to
support in the future (see Monaghan 1995: 92). Saa sa'a is like a new technol-
ogy, such as the answering machine - a machine now used not only for the
purposes for which it was first designed (recording calls) but also to communi-
cate nuanced social messages (for instance, it can be left on to screen calls, and
a caller's importance is signalled if their call is picked up).
Today, communal holdings play only a small role in Nuyooteco economic
arrangements, with households owning land, animals and other assets, and ac-
tivities are premissed much less on kin-like, corporate ties of collective
obligation. Rather, the means of achieving individual goals and organizing col-
lective activities are the networks of friendship which households maintain with
one another. The increasing use of saa sa'a to finance fiestas, coupled with the
properties of the system as it developed, have allowed Nuyootecos to make
reciprocal morality a consistent feature of the way they experience one another.
Saa sa'a has thus served as a vehicle through which Nuyootecos have been able
to stress 'friendship' relationships and constitute their community in a new way.
But 'finance' continues to drive participation in saa sa'a, and can be seen at
work in some of the features which Nuyooteco saa sa'a shares with other gift
exchange systems. For example, even though the circulation of gifts in Nuyoo
displays an 'alternating disequilibrium' (Strathern 1971), only a small percent-
age of people actually increment their gifts to make their partners indebted to
them, with most preferring simply to repay the exact amount they owe.16 This
suggests that the materiality of the gift (that is, its specific uses in the fiesta)
continues to have significance, despite Nuyooteco statements that saa sa'a is 'aid'
to a friend in need (see Gell 1992: 145-6). This is not to say that Nuyooteco gift
exchange is unrelated to matters of prestige or alliance. But an understanding of
contemporary Nuyooteco gifting, as well as its historical dynamics over the last
century and a haIf must start with its utility in solving the practical problem of
how to sponsor a fiesta.

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An earlier version of this article was given in September 1991 at an Anthropolog

ment colloquium at the University of Michigan. I should like to thank Edward Abs
Carrier, James Dow, Urlich Kbhler, Igor Kopytoff, Joyce Marcus, Carlos Rincon and an
anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and suggestions.
I While Cancian's distinction between cofrad(as and mayordomfas generally holds, the local
Spanish name for these organizations can vary to the extent that what are defined here as
cofradias may be called mayordomfas, and what are defined as mayordom(as may be called cofradfas
(Dow 1975).
2 Archivo Parroquial de Tlaxiaco, Libro de Cofradia, Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesu
3 The diputado position can be found in cofradfas throughout central Mexico in the Colon
period (Monaghan 1995: 288).
4 The mayordomo employed a full time cowherd (Caja de La Virgen de Rosario, estado de
cuenta, 1873). According to oral history, all the mayordomos and deputies were obliged to work
with the herd when many hands were needed, such as during the castration and branding of
calves and the repairing of corrals.
5 Caja de la Virgen de Rosario, estado de cuentas, 1823, 1827, 1866, 1873, 1903, 1904.
6 Caja de la Virgen de Rosario, estado de cuenta, 1803, 1862, 1870.
7 From 1879 to 1883 alone, the mayordomos and other religious officials contributed 1,818
pesos to the construction of the church. They raised this money by selling animals from the
cofradia herds, and by draining money from the cash account of the mayordomos (Archive of
Maestro Eliazar Perez, Nuyoo Center, Libro que pertenece a este pueblo, por el presidente
municipal que consta toda la cantidad del afio de 1879 que se paga por los albafniles que va a
fabricar al templo del presente pueblo, Jan. 18, 1880).
8 That this was a longstanding problem can be seen in the steady mention of cofradta animals
being slaughtered for fiestas and sold to buy fireworks throughout the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. See Caja de la Virgen de Rosario, estado de cuentas, 1827, 1904.
9 The information in this table is drawn from the records in the archive chests of the follow-
ing Nuyoo mayordomzas: Misericordia, Rosario, Santa Ana, San Sebastian, Santiago, and Santo
10 In his 1593 dictionary, Alvarado defines tudzahadi (equivalent to the Nuyooteco 'speaking
sa'a') as 'ayudarse adinvicem' ('help in tum', or 'help mutually, reciprocally') and 'que en lo que
ayudo me ayudan' (Alvarado 1964: 14). He later uses the same term to describe the reciprocal
exchange of labour in milpa production, a practice found throughout Oaxaca today ('Ayudar
labrar milpa con order que acabando todosjuntos una milpa labren otra' [Alvarado 1964: 14]).
11 Nafnuu, or 'mother of the town', is a title given to women who have served in the top
offices of the civil-religious hierarchy.
12 The term 'rotating savings and credit associations' has been suggested to highlight the fact
that both savings and credit rotate among the members (Bouman 1977).
13 However, Kurtz and Showman (1978: 65) and Velez Ibaniez (1983) speculate that they
may exist in rural areas of Mexico; Beals (1975: 138) states that the Zapotec guelaguetza is a
'non-interest system of savings and credit in which the recipient gains assistance for extraordi-
nary ritual obligations and the lender establishes savings or credits toward the time when he
must meet similar obligations'. Compare the descriptions of cost sharing by Brandes (1981:
215-16) and Martfnez Ruvalcaba (1987: 86).
14 Because the earliest form of saa sa'a appears to have been rotational labour exchange, this
sort of objectification might be more productively viewed not as an expression of some essen-
tial notion of inalienability, but as a key innovation necessary for saa sa'a to develop into its
present form. Objectification is also crucial to the emergence of saa sa'a as a system, since it is
difficult to see how Nuyootecos could have achieved the volume or frequency of exchanges
necessary if they exchanged only labour.
15 The Tennger Javanese use reciprocal exchange in a way that is remarkably similar to what
I describe for Nuyoo (Hefner 1985: 222-4; 1990 187-8).
16 Of the 317 sa'a transactions I was able to follow through one complete sequence of presta-
tion and counterprestation, only seventy included an increment of the return gifts, so that the

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partner returned more than he or she was given. In other words, only 22 per cent. remained
connected by debt after the initial exchange.


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Le financement des festivals religieux en Amerique Centrale, et

l'origine du systeme de don

Les cas ethnographiques particuliers qui ont servi a d6finir le don et le paradigme 6volu-
tionniste dans lequel nos definitions se sont inscrites ont limit6 notre compr6hension de la
nature et de la dynamique du don et de l'6change. Cet article, qui retrace I'6mergence d'un
systdme d'6change et de don au cours des 135 ann6es qui viennent de s'6couler a Santiago
Nuyoo, une ville de langue Mixtec, ouvre la discussion sur les traits caracteristiques du don
en Am6rique Centrale et sugg6re une nouvelle perspective permettant de traiter le don
comme une cat6gorie pertinente pour l'analyse historique. De plus, il examine le r6lejou6
par l'6change dans la transformation du systeme de financement et de parrainage des festivals
religieux Nuyoo.

Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37235, U.SA

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