Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Juan Negrin: A Life of Service to the Huichol

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 2, 2001



Juan Negrín was a top student at Yale in the late 1960s, but just before graduation he abandoned his studies to come to the Bay Area where a cultural revolution was in full swing. Negrín’s background is unusual. His grandfather was the Spanish President driven from power by Franco’s forces in 1939. His father married an American woman and Negrín was born in Mexico City. With an inherited bent for political action, Negrín was soon a participant in the Viet Nam protests in Berkeley and the volatile atmosphere of the 1960s. By 1970 Negrín had become discouraged by the spreading violence and drug use that had progressively altered the culture of protest. In a few short years, it had declined, as he put it, into “a sorry, directionless theater.”
      In 1970 Negrín returned to Mexico to visit his father in Guadalajara. During his stay there, an exhibit of Huichol yarn paintings made such a deep impression on him it would change his life.
     The following interview touches on aspects of Negrín’s odyssey, which continues to this day. Through learning the Huichol language, participation in religious and community rituals, including several peyote pilgrimages, and the establishment of deep friendships with respected shamans and other tribal members, Negrín acquired not only an intimate understanding of the Huichol way of life, but the deepest respect for their culture. Over a period of nearly forty years, Negrin and his wife Yvonne have devoted themselves to helping preserve the Huichol's ancient way of life while helping them function in the contemporary world of Mexico.
     At the time of this interview, Negrin and his wife Yvonne, were devoting their time to the non-profit they founded Wixarika Research Center  to help spread news and information about the Huichol and their ongoing struggle to maintain their cultural integrity.

Richard Whittaker:   I wanted to understand a little more about your background. You were born in Mexico City? How long were you there?

Juan Negrín:  Less than two years. Then I went to the United States. My sister was born here, in New Jersey. Then, my mother and father went back to Mexico City. Around the time I was three our maternal grandmother took my sister and me and my mother back to the states. They put me into a preschool program in New Jersey and I began to echo certain American values. I was becoming more an American child than a Mexican child or a Spanish child. To avoid this, my grandfather took my sister and me from New Jersey and took us to Paris when I was four.

RW:  How long were you in Paris?

JN:  For ten years. At fourteen I went back to Mexico City. I finished my French studies in the French lycee in Mexico City. After finishing high school, I did a post-high-school program of what they called philosophy. It’s a year long and I was lucky to have a very good philosophy professor. Three months before finishing that I was accepted at Yale. So I left Mexico City in 1963 to begin college at Yale. I was there until the end of the spring of 1967.
     Then I left Yale and came to Berkeley looking for some way to express my disagreement with the American policy of those times, primarily the war policy and secondarily the ecological policies of the time. And also the racial sense of the majority, which I was very much opposed to. I had been struck by jazz even before I left Mexico. I recognized that many black people were obviously my teachers and my superiors.
     In 1970 I went to see my father. He’d moved to Guadalajara. I had become disappointed with the turn of events behind the psychedelic movement and the anti-war movement. I was really opposed to the transformation of many hippies into yuppies. It seemed to be having an impact on the majority of the non-conformists that I knew. They were completely turning their backs on certain values, values that had been communal and let's say, proto-socialistic if you want. I didn't go to live in Mexico until 1972 although I had been going back and forth since visiting my father in 1970.

RW:  When you began returning to Mexico, to Guadalajara in 1970, you became interested in the Huichol Indians. And that became a major involvement for you that continues to this day. I wonder if you could describe what you saw that struck you?

  I think it became obvious to me in their art in the first place, and I saw how undervalued it was. I began to see that they were doing things in art that were extremely striking and that impressed people from all over the world. I realized, as an artist myself, that the forms and the meaning of these forms, as a sort of ideography, which was personalized by each artist, had somehow not reached the international forum at all.
     And it was a new form of art for the Huichol themselves. They had adapted new media.. such as the colored yarn that was available.. and they were using sacred symbols to create work that was desacralized in the process. It would be sold to unknown people, or it would be sold through the Franciscans themselves, the religious missionaries who tried very hard to evangelize the Huichol. Surprisingly, though the Huichol were going through so many influences, they still were producing work that was extraordinary from a visual point of view.
     So I dedicated myself to having strong direct contact and co-participation with those people who demonstrated the potential to be artists. They were constantly creating new forms and had an intuitive sense of what was esthetically beautiful in a universal sense. They tended also, curiously, to be more in contact with their own culture, even though they were exiles from the mountains.
They were more disquieted by the religious link from their culture that they had left behind. It became clear there was a sociological issue here, or a psychological issue. These Huichol were creating what was art to a certain extent to justify their place, or to specify their place in the world. They did not really feel at home in the Mexican environment, and yet they had adapted so much to it that they did not feel at home in the Huichol mountains either.
     Their art was a language that was peculiar to them. And I began seeing the meaning behind the yarn paintings, as I approached the artists more and got to know them. There was a mythology that was extraordinary in its width and depth. I was able to understand this better and better as I participated with the artists in finding their land and finding their culture. I actually did this, to some extent, with them. Some were returning to places deep in the mountains, to sacred spots, for the first time since they had been children, and I often went with them. Some of them, like Jose Benitez Sanchez—the most important artist whom I have met so far—had been being trained to be shamans.

RW:  You mean when he was a child and still living with the Huichol tribe...

JN:  Yes. People in his community had felt that he had the capacity to become a shaman. They felt he was suitable for that kind of training, and he went on a number of pilgrimages as a child, but his family left the mountains because of a drought that had created a food crisis and they had never returned.

RW:  Your interest in this artwork had a role in the return of some of the exiled artists to the mountains, then?

JN:  Yes. I felt that the people whom they were selling their work to in the tourist stores didn't appreciate either their mythology or their art. They had been exposed to the Huichol for a long time, but they didn't know anything about their mythology or their art. They tried to present the creations of all Huichol merely as "Huichol crafts." And when they began to recognize that there was someone who was very interested in the thinking and culture of the artists, they actually made an effort to hide the names of the artists in some cases.

RW:  You were that interested person.

JN:  Yes. And the Indians saw a big contrast between dealing with me and with the others. There was something I wanted to find. As I tell you, their religion is not an abstract religion—far from that. They consider it absolutely necessary to go through many pilgrimage experiences, fasts, ceremonies and rituals before they will even participate in a responsible manner in a religious ceremony. Years and years will go by before they feel that they themselves can take on that kind of responsibility. And when they do become a bit knowledgeable, I have noticed that many of them even try to hide that fact. There is a radically different approach to religious knowledge there than in our own culture. And so, once they began describing more completely the meaning of their work, I thought these people were at least as interesting from a religious point of view as they were from an artistic point of view.
     I was able to understand that better only as I went to the places which were, for them, "power spots" as we call them. And these power spots actually touched me with a sense of their strong presence. I had a sense of being in a place that was outside of time—outside of historical, journalistic time. These spots—and they have been visited continually for centuries, probably for millennia, by people of the Huichol culture—their power seemed to be… well, they had constantly attracted so many devotees. They’re usually in very striking places and have a striking atmosphere about them.
     And so after beginning to experience this, I began to understand better what the Huichol were talking about in their mythology, and they also began to tell me things that were a bit more abstract or a bit more complex - in some cases things that they themselves were learning about.

RW:  The yarn painters—the ones you had made friends with who were re-entering their culture?

JN:  The yarn painters. Yes. And they were having experiences which were sympathetic to the ones I was having, and simultaneous. So it was relatively easy for them to speak to me about the meaning of their work, and also to give their work more meaning than it would have had were it simply sold to an unknown person, through an intermediary who considered them as "little Huichol." That is, as people who were not quite the same as Mexicans, inferior. "Huicholitos" is the term that was even used recently by politicians in the Huichol mountains, even if it might be a faux pas when they are there as politicians.

RW:  Your commitment to this culture stems from your conviction that it has something of tremendous importance for our own culture. Is that a fair statement?

JN:  Yes. Unique. Singular. Something that can’t be found elsewhere. And it's a culture that is very delicate, very subtle, because it is a culture that is dominated by a religious sense of life.
My interest before meeting the Huichol, to a large extent, was an interest in philosophy. I was interested in the metaphysical aspects of our life. I’ve been seeking since I was very young to give a real meaning to the sense of God—which I have felt frequently—and also I’ve wanted to challenge that sense of God. I’ve felt a need to demonstrate to myself whether that sense was simply a fantasy or not.
     The Huichol gave me an existential terrain within which I was able to test many of these questions through millenarian participation—I mean participation in disciplines which have to do with shamanism, that have to do with what many people consider the primordial religion of man.
     One of the striking things was that I saw so many corresponding values to values that we consider Christian or purely Western. As I started learning about their religion through their mythology, through their work, and then through traveling with them— I saw so many points where our religion would fit into their religion! I think their religion is fascinating because rather than taking the pragmatic point of view, which we take in the Western world trying to do what seems best in an immediately manifesting way, the Huichol are considering doing what is best on a long term basis. I’m having trouble expressing these ideas as well as I’d like.

RW:  As I listen to you it seems just the opposite.

JN:   [laughs..] Well, I'm sorry, we're going to disagree from time to time. No, the fascinating question for me has to do with the contrast I’ve experienced in this culture to this materialistic point of view of our own culture. This has actually concerned me for a long time, ever since I became aware that the world was in delicate shape, that man was possibly willing to destroy the whole world.

RW:   This short-term, bottom-line mentality.

JN:  Yes. Absolutely. As I began to know the Huichol in the mountain areas where they are very conservative, and where they were very reluctant to see outsiders show up, they actually drew me into service in February of 1979, asking me to help them save their land which was being threatened by timber interests.
     Government agents were telling them that if they did not sign a contract with particular timber industries they would lose the land that was most forested. When the Huichol drew me into service at that point, I had reached contact with a more collective group of Huichol—who did precisely prove to me that their social understanding of life, or their psychological understanding of life, is radically different from ours in the sense that they are not competing to possess…they are not competing to have things.
     The Huichol I met years ago have very few possessions, and most of them are still that way deep in the mountains. What they are interested in is in maintaining themselves in harmony with the energies of God in nature. And they feel that the answer is given to them every year, when they have harvests and when they go on hunts on an individual basis, and also through disease.
     If there are many deaths, as there have been in some cases where hundreds of Huichol have died because of contact with outside viruses recently, their sense is that they have lost touch with these energies of nature in a balanced manner—that they have only called on some of these energies and not on the whole.
     In other words, if nature is approached in an unbalanced manner, these forces of nature, the responses of nature will go awry and there will be trouble on a widespread basis. This can be shown through droughts, diseases and other ways as well. The general sense of balance for them is given by a proper relationship toward female ancestors which stem from the Ocean, to the west of the center where they live, and the male energies which are primarily situated in the East where the sun rises.

RW:  Do you think that there are possibilities for any synthesis of such a world and our western world?

JN:  Yes. I feel contact with the unacculturated Huichol is urgent at this moment. It has to be deepened, approached in greater depth by—perhaps by someone who is in contact with many Huichol on many different levels. The reason I feel this is important is because frequently we don't have all the mental tools to even understand what the Huichol are referring to when they are talking about their philosophy—their philosophy of life, if you want. And it takes a long time and many experiences before a dialogue can be established which is meaningful.
     But when this is done, I think that our own perception of life can be reinforced in ethical ways. It can be reinforced from a metaphysical standpoint, because I think their sense of life is not contradictory to ours, but in my opinion it has more meaning.
I feel Western man is screaming for some sense of the spirit, some understanding of the spirit. I think that very few people have abandoned the idea that there is something more to us than birth and death and the body’s emotions in between.
     People like the Huichol are becoming fewer and fewer in the world. There aren’t any people from Mexico to Canada—I believe—who have a culture as extensive and as unsyncretized as theirs. If we simply watch this culture get destroyed—which is what I am seeing myself most of the time—then what we are also seeing is something equivalent to a jungle being destroyed before the plants and creatures within it are even known. We may recognize that they were a precious part of nature and a resource to redress nature in a time of crisis. And so that is what makes it terribly urgent, to me.
For me there were three stages of approaching the Huichol. The first one was simply through the visual impact of their art. The second was through the search to find the artists, and this was parallel to seeking the meaning of their art—which I did find—and it does have an enormous amount of meaning, mythologically to begin with, and metaphysically ultimately. And the third approach was that of social-political responsibility with the collective group which, in many cases, reinforced my understanding of the differences between their culture and our culture.
     I understood better now how they apply their metaphysical sense to a truly practical realm, the realm of trying to maintain, trying to survive within their land. But they are being pushed by the outside world to change as quickly as possible at this moment.

RW:  I understand that where most of your energy is going now has to do with helping the tribe to establish a sort of cottage industry to utilize their own timber in a controlled and ecologically sound way.

JN:  Yes. One of the things that helped the Huichol escape a thorough conquest up until now was that their land was always considered relatively worthless. The Spaniards never found minerals, silver or gold, and it is very difficult to cross the Huichol territory because it is broken up by deep canyons. Once you are within the Huichol territory the land is not very fertile either, so even agriculturally the land was not interesting to the outside world. It was only in the last forty years that Huichol land became interesting to their neighbors.
     This first happened for grazing purposes as there began to be more and more cattle. These neighbors began trying to rent grazing land from the Huichol—most of the time they wouldn't pay the rent they promised—and frequently it was difficult for the Huichol to avoid this use of their land by cattle. To make good grazing land it was found helpful to cut down trees too. This wasn't done on a large scale, but people who had surveyed Huichol territory from the air started to recognize its forests.
     As the forests in Jalisco state, where most of the Huichol live, began to disappear, their timber began to stand out. And those who surveyed from the air were in many cases connected with the timber industries. Some of them told me directly they felt it was really a shame they couldn't reach that land, because it was so distant from areas where there were dirt roads or some kind of infrastructure.
     These outsiders felt that the investment of building the roads would be too costly to be able to take out the timber and make a profit on a short term basis. Then, the Mexican government under Echeverria became extremely interested in the Huichol as being a totally unusual indigenous tribe in Mexico—a group of three tribes actually—which had been untouched by the government in recent years, and never in Mexican history in any organized fashion. To their distaste, they began to see that the only people in contact with the Huichol people were Franciscans. This, in one of the three tribes which is more acculturated.

RW:  What did they do?

JN:  They began to pursue policies of "helping" this poor backward culture. They began to put landing strips in the Huichol mountains. Next to these landing strips they began building boarding schools in order to begin to educate the Huichol Indians in Mexican culture. They also had plans for putting clinics there, and they have now been put there, and they have been very, very inefficient.
But the efforts have been made and the infrastructural work is there. They also began to think about how the Huichol could become producers in the modern world. This was from 1970-1976. At the end of 1975 the first dirt road was built into the Huichol mountains. This dirt road became the first logging road in that territory. Instead of being a road for communication with the Huichol it became a road through which timber was pulled out, and in terrible proportions.
     The logging was based on studies which were farces, and which said there was much more timber than was actually there, and that the timber was in much better condition than it actually was. And so the first people who came to exploit the Huichol timber in this community, or tribe, the Tatei Kié, started stripping the land in a way that was even against the Mexican law. The information has been falsified by the Mexican forestry department in charge of the area.
     One of the things that struck me—coincidences never stop striking me there—was that the driver of the vehicle that was finishing off the construction of that first road—he was just finishing it, and I asked him what his name was. He said, "Cortez." [ironic laugh]
     Shortly thereafter, by the end of 1977, roads were going in. One major access was going into the Eastern side of the Huichol mountains to the edges of the tribe of Tuapuri and into the tribe of Wautüa, the third tribe which is the one which is now being stripped of its wood.

RW:  You are convinced, I take it, that this situation left to the natural flow of events will be disastrous.

JN:  Yes. Yes, I think it will be an ecological disaster. It will make the Huichol territory which has been very difficult to survive in forever, impossible to survive in except in small spots. And I think that without any kind of self-reliance or economic independence, which the Huichol have had up until now, the Huichol culture will be completely crushed.
     Right now it is being quickly transformed through government efforts which in many cases are claiming to try to help the Huichol culture, while they are injecting precisely the tools that are going to destroy it.
     This began a couple of sexennia ago (The Mexican governmental regime is six years. Every six years it’s changed.) For a couple of sexennia the Mexican government, while appearing to be aware of the legacy that the Huichol represent, has been trying "to help" the Huichol, for instance, get to the places where their pilgrimage spots are to be found. So they have given them vehicles, rather big trucks, and the Huichol have stopped in the last ten or twelve years going on foot to many pilgrimage spots that are distant.
     They used to do it on foot. This is a major part of the pilgrimage lesson, the experience of doing it on foot. Now it can be claimed that more Huichol are going, but they are doing pilgrimages in three or four days that used to take thirty days.

RW:  It reminds me of when you told me about the elder who spoke out against a road that the tribe was considering allowing.

JN:  That very elder, Mancawewa—who is a compadre—was talking about this with me about 10 years ago. He broke down in tears talking about the speed with which the ceremonial center officers were coming back from their pilgrimage to the desert. He felt it was really a tragedy.
     And he was talking at that moment also of the Huichol headquarters of the tribe, Tuapuri, about how dangerous it would be for a road to be built to the headquarters, to the main ceremonial center, because it would attract outsiders who would then go from there to very sacred spots which have been left unmolested for millennia. ◊

Juan Negrin and his wife, Yvonne, formed the non-profit organization The Wixarika Research Center to promote public awareness and understanding of the Huichol (Wixarika, in their tongue) culture of Mexico. Juan died in 2015.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.        


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