SHIRLEY L. ARORA
PROVERBS AND PREJUDICE:
EL INDIO IN HISPANIC PROVERBIAL SPEECH*
Some twenty years ago, in an article
on "Slurs International," Alan Dundes observed that "a
proverb or a joke told by members of one national group
about another may be more responsible for attitudes held by
the first group about the second than any other single
factor" (Dundes 15). As his study makes clear, proverbial
sayings and other kinds of folk stereotypes are not merely a
passive reflection of attitudes toward ethnic or
national groups; they play an active role in the creation or
propagation of those attitudes. In keeping with the title of
his article, the examples with which Dundes illustrates his
remarks focus largely on national stereotypes, but he also
takes care to point out that "slurs are equally common in
referring to ethnic or other folk groups within a country as
they are to national groups outside a country" (p.
In a recent study of proverbial
stereotyping, Wolfgang Mieder has traced the history,
evolution, and meaning of the American proverb The only
good Indian is a dead Indian from its nineteenth-century
roots down to the present day. Though not, as he points out,
the only North American proverb to encapsulate a stereotypic
view of the Native American, it appears to be by far the
most widely known and firmly entrenched, giving rise even
today to variations on the same pattern that, while
divergent in meaning and application, still preserve
undertones of the original saying (Mieder 1993: 52). Yet
another widely disseminated stereotype regarding the Native
American appears in the phrase "Indian giver," referring
either to someone who violates social rules by seeking to
retrieve an item previously bestowed or--particularly in its
earliest occurrences--to one who gives a gift in the
expectation of receiving an even more valuable one in
return. As a childhood taunt the phrase is no doubt repeated
by its young users, as in the case of many such slurs, with
little real awareness of its ethnic application; but the
record of its currency in adult discourse, in more serious
contexts, is a substantial one, dating back at least to the
early eighteenth century (Mieder 1992: 329).
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Just as we often tend, in English, to
restrict the term "American" to the United States, so also
we may sometimes unwittingly equate the term "Native
American" with "Native North American"; but of course the
indigenous peoples of what are now the United States and
Canada constituted only a fraction of the population with
which Europeans came into contact from the end of the
fifteenth century onward. The proverbial speech of Hispanic
America preserves, even today, numerous traces of the
interaction between explorers, conquerors, or settlers and
the native populations they found in the various regions of
the so-called New World, while printed sources record others
that have apparently disappeared from current usage. Many,
though not all, of these expressions involve stereotypes of
the Native American, some resembling those found in English,
others diverging markedly from them.
Stereotypic images of the Native
American--North and South--are present from the earliest
encounters, and from the outset they involved contrasting
sets of generalizations. The recently-concluded Columbian
Quincentennial has refreshed our recollection of Columbus'
description of the Caribbean islanders whom he met on his
first voyage: gentle people, innocent of all evil, timorous,
ignorant of murder or even of weapons, affectionate,
smiling, credulous, quick to learn and to remember, and of
course "buenos servidores," good servants. Bartolomé de las Casas, famed for his defense of the
Indian (and the one to whom we owe our knowledge of the
contents of Columbus' diary of that first voyage) concurred
with this initial assessment and added some superlatives of
God made all the peoples of
this area, many and varied as they are, as open and as
innocent as can be imagined. The simplest people in the
world--unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and
submissive--they are without malice or guile, and are
utterly faithful and obedient both to their own native
lords and to the Spaniards in whose service they now find
themselves. Never quarrelsome or belligerent or
boisterous, they harbour no grudges and do not seek to
settle old scores; indeed, the notions of revenge,
rancour, and hatred are quite foreign to them. . . They
are also among the poorest people on the face of the
earth; they own next to nothing and have no urge to
acquire material possessions. As a result they are
neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally
uninterested in worldly power.
"Innocent and pure in mind" and at the
same time possessing a "lively intelligence" (ibid.), the
indigenous peoples were, in Las Casas' estimation, ideal
candidates for conversion to the Catholic faith.
The full text of this
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Armed resistance on the part of the
indigenous population also continued until the 1880s in
Chile, Argentina's neighbor on the other side of the Andean
mountain range, but proverbial allusions to the violent
confrontation there appear to be lacking, or at least have
not been recorded in the relatively limited published
sources available. One large regional dictionary notes that
the term indio may be applied figuratively to anyone
who exhibits "the defects considered to belong to the
Indian," that is, to someone who is "terco, rebelde, poco
comunicativo, incivilizado" ("stubborn, rebellious,
uncommunicative, uncivilized") (Morales III 2460). The same
source lists several variations of allusions to the Indian's
supposed penchant for abrupt loss of temper or self-control,
e.g., le afloró el indio, "the Indian in him
came to the surface"; and also one proverb that is widely
recorded elsewhere, Indio comido, indio ido, roughly
translated as "Once the Indian has eaten, he leaves"
(ibid.). The proverb will be considered at greater length
It is in two Central American
countries that we find the nearest parallel to the proverb The only good Indian is a dead Indian, in its
apparent sanction of deadly violence against Native
Americans. The Nicaraguan Al indio, la culebra y el
zanate, dice la ley que se mate, "An Indian, a snake,
and a grackle, the law says they should be killed"
(Peña 94) is described by the collector as having encomendero overtones, in its implication that the
Indian is as "pernicious" as the dangerous reptile or the
crop-threatening bird. In a Guatemalan variant of the same
dictum the three supposedly legitimate targets of
destruction are the Indian, the "guanaco," and the grackle: Indio, guanaco, y zanate, manda la ley que se mate (Sandoval I 671); guanaco does not refer here to the
Andean relative of the llama, but is a regional term
variously used to refer to a provincial or small-town
inhabitant; an individual from any Central American nation
other than Guatemala; or--most broadly--a fool or a stupid
person (Sandoval I 591f.).
The two sayings just cited are
representative of a technique used in a number of proverbs
that, by grouping el indio with various kinds of
animals, imply that the Native American is less than human,
or at least occupies a low place on the scale of humanity.
Few sayings are as blunt as the Venezuelan Indio no es
gente, ni cazabe es pan, "An Indian is not a person, and
manioc bread is not bread" (Erminy 57) or the Mexican Indios y burros, todos son unos, "Indians and donkeys
are all one and the same" (Rubio I 263), but the depiction
of qualities shared by Indians and non-human animals
achieves the same effect. Usually the qualities cited are
undesirable, but even when the basis of comparison is more
positive, as in El indio y el perro nunca se pierden,
"An Indian and a dog never get lost" (Peña 94), the
effect is to suggest the "animal-like" nature of the Indian,
not only in this regard but also perhaps in other respects
as well. The technique is, to be sure, common to many languages (cf.,
in English, "An Indian, a partridge, and a spruce tree can't
be tamed" [Mieder 1992: 329]) and lends itself to a
wide variety of proverbial "targets."
More typical of proverbs using the
technique of comparing the Indian to an animal is the
Colombian Indio, mula y mujer, si no te la han hecho te
la van a hacer--"An Indian, a mule and a woman, if they
haven't done it to you yet, they will" (Acuña 53),
which actually constitutes a kind of double-barreled attack
on either Native Americans or women or both. (Cf. a Peruvian
variant that uses the same pattern to express distrust of
government officials: Subprefecto, mula, y mujer, si no
te la han hecho te la van a hacer, "A subprefect, a
mule, and a woman . . .[etc.]," [Vargas
86].) The somewhat ambiguous New Mexican proverb Indio, pájaro y conejo, no metas en tu casa aunque
te mueras de viejo, "An Indian, a bird, and a rabbit,
don't take them into your house even if you are dying of old
age" (Cobos no. 843) is explained by the collector as an
expression of the "colonial feeling that Indians were
untrustworthy," while a similarly cryptic Mexican variant, Indio, pájaro y conejo, en tu casa ni aún
de viejo, "An Indian, a bird, and rabbit--[don't
have them] in your house, even in old age" elicits from
the collector, in lieu of a definition, the almost equally
vague comment that the real target of the proverb is not the
bird that requires care or the rabbit that may cause damage,
but simply the Indian, who never ceases to pay the price for
being what he is (Rubio I 262). The same collector provides,
however, "another form" of the proverb in which the meaning
is more explicit: Indio, pájaro y conejo no
conocen gratitud, "An Indian, a bird, and a rabbit know
nothing of gratitude" (ibid.).
Ingratitude is also the charge implied
in the Nicaraguan El indio y el alcaraván, apenas
echan alas, se van, "The Indian and the stone curlew, as
soon as they grow wings, they leave" (Cuadra 300) and its
expanded variant, also from Nicaragua, Indio, piche o
alcaraván, no se crían porque se van, "An
Indian, a tree duck, and a stone curlew, don't raise them
[in your household] because they'll run away"
(Peña 94). Among domestic animals the cat, in
particular, is often accused of failing to reciprocate the
care or affection it receives. A proverb recorded from Peru
and Bolivia proclaims forthrightly: El indio y el gato,
animal ingrato, "An Indian and a cat, ungrateful
animals" (García no. 628; Fernández 193), and
a Panamanian variant adds a dove to make an ungrateful trio: Indio, paloma, y gato, animal ingrato (Aguilera 353,
606). In this latter instance the collector, far from
disassociating herself from the stereotype contained in the
proverb, remarks that the saying "expresses something very
true when it says that the animals named are ungrateful"
since it is well known that Indians hired for domestic
service--especially those from the island of San Blas--are
in the habit of leaving their employment without so much as
a farewell, never to return again (Aguilera 606). (The
Indians of San Blas are a prominent segment of Panama's
"tribal indigenous population," which in 1978 was estimated
at 121,000, or close to 7% of the population as a
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Dundes raises the question, in the
article cited at the beginning of this paper, of the net
effect, or even the advisability, of focusing scholarly
attention on racial or international slurs--whether they be
in the form of jokes, proverbs, or some other folkloric
genre--but concludes that the potential benefits outweigh
the possible disadvantages of publicizing such material
(Dundes 38). It follows that an examination of the ways in
which various regional traditions have sought to stereotype el indio and hence to justify the conduct of
individuals and of society toward the Native American, can
lead to a recognition of the fallacies expressed in such
stereotypes and eventually, perhaps, to their weakening and
to their ultimate disappearance from proverbial speech and
from society as a whole.
*Previously published in Proverbium, 11 (1994), pp. 27-46
- These and similar
observations are found throughout the diary of Columbus'
first voyage, but see in particular the entries for
October 12-13, December 16, and December 25, 1492. A
convenient English translation is: Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage to America, introd. by
Van Wyck Brooks (New York: Albert & Charles Boni,
1924), pp. 23-28, 116-120, and 142-151.
The English version of
this passage from the preface to Las Casas' Brevísima relación de la
destruición de las Indias is taken from the
translation by Nigel Griffin, published with the title A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (London: Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 9-10. The Brevísima relación has been
published many times and in many languages since its
original printing in 1552; a conveniently accessible
version in Spanish is included in the volume of Las
Casas' writings entitled Opúsculos, cartas y
memoriales, vol. 5 of his Obras escogidas,
Biblioteca de Autores Españoles no. 110 (Madrid:
Atlas, 1958), pp. 134-181. The passage quoted is on p.
Oviedo's views are
expressed at various points in his lengthy Historia
general y natural de las Indias, first published in
1535 (Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, Vols.
117-121 [Madrid: Atlas, 1957]). The work as a
whole has yet to be translated into English. For
representative passages involving the qualities cited
here, see Bk. 3, Ch. 6 (Vol. 117, p. 67 in the Biblioteca
de Autores Españoles edition), in which Oviedo
denounces those Spaniards who overwork or mistreat the
Indians entrusted to their care, but follows that
criticism with a generally negative portrait of the
Native American. In contrast, in Bk. 6, Ch. 41, Oviedo
recounts with admiration the extraordinary love shown by
an Indian woman for her husband, who had been sentenced
to be executed for his part in a local rebellion (pp.
199-201). José Miranda's assessment of Oviedo's
opinions appears in the introduction to his edition of
Oviedo's Sumario de la natural historia de las
Indias (Mexico, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura
Económica, 1950), p. 68.
Imperial Eyes: Travel
Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge,
1992), pp. 6-7. Pratt uses the term to refer to "the
space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples
geographically and historically separated come into
contact with each other and establish ongoing relations,
usually involving conditions of coercion, radical
inequality, and intractable conflict" (p. 6).
Two other phrases listed
in the entry for indio--caer de indio, "to
fall [for something] like an Indian," and subírsele a uno el indio, which may be
roughly translated as "for the Indian [in one] to
rise up"--are identified as American (i.e., Spanish
American) rather than Peninsular Spanish. I will consider
them along with other New World sayings later on.
Under the encomienda system, groups of Indians were assigned
to Spanish conquerors or settlers, for whom they were
required to labor and by whom they were to be protected,
"civilized," and Christianized. The Laws of Burgos,
promulgated by King Ferdinand in 1512, stipulated that
"each Indian was to be given a house for himself and his
family and a farm for raising crops and cattle. . .The
Indians were to be persuaded to wear clothing, like
'reasonable men.' The children of each town were to be
brought together twice a week for religious instruction.
They were also to be taught reading, writing, the sign of
the Cross, the confession, the Pater Noster, the Credo,
and the Salve Regina; and, of course, they were to be
baptized and forced to attend religious services" (Lesley
Byrd Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain: The
Beginning of Spanish Mexico, rev. ed. [Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1966], p. 11). For a more detailed overview of the
Laws of Burgos, see Chapter 3 of the same work, pp.
29-38. As the result of widespread abuse of the
provisions governing the encomiendas, even after
repeated attempts at reform, the term encomendero has come to symbolize for many the worst degree of
exploitation of, and cruelty toward, the indigenous
peoples of America.
With the exception of
the comparative figure for the 1950s, all data mentioned
here are from the Statistical Abstract of Latin
America, ed. James W. Willkie, co-eds. Carlos Alberto
Contreras and Christof Anders Weber (Los Angeles: UCLA
Latin American Center, 1993), vol. 30, pt. 1, p. 150. A
footnote identifies the source of the data as an article
published by the Inter-American Indian Institute in 1979.
The estimates for the countries of Central America are
labelled as "unreliable." The population figure for the
1950s is taken from the Statistical Abstract for
1976 (vol. 17), ed. James Wilkie and co-ed. Paul
Turovsky, pp. 83f.
See, for example, the
article by Martin Edwin Andersen entitled "Early Warning
from Chiapas," in the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 6,
1994, pt. B, p. 7.
Abstract, vol. 30, p. 150. The figures for the United
States are taken from the 1980 census.
For a consideration of
the effects of this kind of "transference" in relation to
another set of proverbial metaphors, see Shirley L.
Arora, "A Woman and a Guitar: Variations on a Folk
Metaphor," Proverbium: Yearbook of International
Proverb Scholarship 10 (1993), pp. 21-36, but
especially pp. 21-23; reprinted in De Proverbio: An
Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies,
Volume 1, Number 2, 1995.
proverbs concerning women adopt this pattern, e.g., La
mujer y la oveja, a casa antes de anochezca, "Women
and sheep should be home before dark" (Jara 247); A la
mujer y al can, el palo en una mano y en la otra el
pan, "For women and dogs, a stick in one hand and
bread in the other" (Jara 279), El ánade, la
mujer y la cabra, es mala cosa siendo magra, "A duck,
a woman, and a goat are bad if they are thin" (Jara
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Shirley L. Arora
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California
Los Angeles, California 90095-1532