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Shipwrecked Identities

Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast

Baron L. Pineda
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 294
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  • Book Info
    Shipwrecked Identities
    Book Description:

    Global identity politics rest heavily on notions of ethnicity and authenticity, especially in contexts where indigenous identity becomes a basis for claims of social and economic justice. In contemporary Latin America there is a resurgence of indigenous claims for cultural and political autonomy and for the benefits of economic development. Yet these identities have often been taken for granted. In this historical ethnography, Baron Pineda traces the history of the port town of Bilwi, now known officially as Puerto Cabezas, on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua to explore the development, transformation, and function of racial categories in this region over time. From the English colonial period, through the Sandanista conflict of the 1980s, to the aftermath of the Contra War, Pineda shows how powerful outside actors, as well as Nicaraguans, have made efforts to influence notions about African and Black identity among the Miskito Indians, Afro-Nicaraguan Creole, and Mestizos in the region. In the process, he provides insight into the causes and meaning of social movements and political turmoil. Shipwrecked Identities also includes important critical analysis of the role of anthropologists and other North American scholars in the Contra-Sandinista conflict, as well as the ways these scholars have defined ethnic identities in Latin America. As the indigenous people of the Mosquito Coast continue to negotiate the effects of a long history of contested ethnic and racial identity, this book takes an important step in questioning the origins, legitimacy, and consequences of such claims.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3943-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Chapter 1 The Setting
    (pp. 1-20)

    Don Paco Mendez owns and operates a store among the strings of general stores that line thecalle commercial(commercial street) of Puerto Cabezas—the port and capital of Nicaragua’s recently formed North Atlantic Autonomous Region (la RAANas it is known locally). One afternoon I stopped by his store to do an informal interview with him about his life.¹ He told me that his family was one of the founders of Puerto Cabezas during the period that is known locally as “company time”—an idealized period from the 1920s to the 1970s in which US and Canadian banana, lumber,...

  2. Chapter 2 Nicaragua’s Two Coasts
    (pp. 21-66)

    In the pre-Columbian period human populations in what is now the country of Nicaragua occupied three distinct ecological zones: (1) the Pacific Lowlands, (2) the Central Highlands, and (3) the Caribbean Coastal Plain (Newson 1987, 42, 88). The Pacific Lowlands, made fertile by the volcanic deposits left by the chain of thirty volcanoes that split the lowlands from north to south, contained a climate that was ideal for maize agriculture. It received plentiful rainfall, although the long dry season between November and May necessitated the use of irrigation (ibid., 43). Although in the present these lands are heavily deforested, evergreen...

  3. Chapter 3 From Bilwi to Puerto Cabezas: Mestizo Nationalism in the Age of Agro-Industry
    (pp. 67-107)

    In the above quotation, North American linguist George Heath calls on Nicaraguan scholars to perform the ideological work of promoting the use of Mosquito Coast indigeneity, in this case the use of Indian place names, for the purpose of cementing Nicaraguan nationalism on a coast-to-coast basis (Heath 1927, 88). Throughout Latin America, national governments have historically promoted the use of indigenous toponyms as a way of inscribing a vision of national identity that would incorporate both Indian and Spanish imagery in the construction of Euro-American Mestizo nationalism. In the case of eastern Nicaragua the matter was made more complicated and...

  4. Chapter 4 Company Time
    (pp. 108-151)

    From the time of the establishment of Bragman’s Bluff Lumber Company until the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, which effectively drove away North American enterprises, the port city of Puerto Cabezas served as a base to a series of US and Canadian lumber, mining, rubber, and fishing companies that operated in the “boom and bust” (Helms 1971) economy of the region. The operation of these resource-extracting industries radically transformed the natural environment of the Mosquito Coast within a short period of time. Lumber companies left behind extensive grass-covered savannas littered with tree stumps where extensive subtropical forest had once flourished. Mining...

  5. Chapter 5 Neighborhoods and Official Ethnicity
    (pp. 152-189)

    When I first started fieldwork in puerto cabezas, I had hoped to focus my attention on the regional councils of the new autonomous regions and the ways in which race and culture were invoked within them. However, to my dismay I discovered that this forum was, for my purposes, remarkably ethnographically sterile as well as logistically frustrating. With regard to the logistical frustrations, I discovered that the national government, led by the UNO party, neglected to fund the regional councils. It also neglected to invest the regional councils with anything but the most limited governmental authority. For this reason the...

  6. Chapter 6 Costeño Warriors and Contra Rebels: Nature, Culture, and Ethnic Conflict
    (pp. 190-218)

    The Contra War and the Costeno-Sandinista confrontation received a great deal of attention from scholars and journalists, particularly because it represented a hot spot in the tense cold-war standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. For leftists around the world, the Sandinista Revolution became a symbol of hope in the losing struggle against unfettered global capitalism. Within the hemisphere the revolution stood for the power of popular nationalist movements against dictators and their traditional US patrons. For the right, the revolution invoked the fear of the domino effect in a region in a perpetual state of brutal civil...

  7. Chapter 7 Conclusion
    (pp. 219-226)

    The above observations, written in the mid-eighteenth century by the British historian of the Caribbean Edward Long, speak to the historical depth of the interpenetration of racial ideologies and political economy in the Mosquito Coast. Long’s words also dramatize the profound paradox of being a native of a New World that has for five hundred years been in the process of being conquered and “civilized.” The conquest of the Americas produced an ideological system that, in order to justify European domination, posed Indians as savage, premodern foils to European progress, civilization, and modernity. Europeans placed Indians in the primitive half...