James Warfield’s Zinacantan Research Republished
Living among the Maya villages of the indigenous communities, he developed an original set of architectural drawings and ethnographic field notes that became the basis for the chapter in Evon Z. Vogt’s milestone monograph Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas (Harvard Press, 1969). Warfield’s study was published in Spanish in an ethnographic series by the Instituto Nacional de Antropology e Historia and has remained in print for over 50 years. This year, in recognition of the ethnographic as well as historic significance of Warfield’s la arquitectura en zinacantan, his original 1963 field research study has been included as a chapter in the national atlas Las Culturas Indigenas de Mexico (Instituto Nacional de Antropogia e Historia, 2018).
The following is a personal account prepared for publication in the December 18, 2018, issue of the Built Heritage journal for which Warfield writes a weekly column.
Zinacantan—50 Years Later
One never knows the directions a life may take or how unanticipated opportunities might shape one’s career. In my own case, I entered the University of Illinois to gain an education in architecture and to develop those architectural skills required to design and build. I did achieve those goals and enjoyed a 25-year professional architectural career that allowed me to see many built works accomplished. After my formal education, an opportunity arose for me to teach art and architecture courses at the university level in Bolivia as a Peace Corps volunteer. My career goals expanded, and the discovery of the joy of teaching led me to a parallel 50-year career of teaching architectural design. Little did I know that, as an undergraduate, I had already had a life-changing experience that would combine those interests in architecture and education and lead to a lifelong research focus in worldwide vernacular architecture.
In 1963, as a third-year student in architecture, I was recruited by the newly formed Department of Anthropology at Illinois to represent our university in a long-established field research program in Chiapas, Mexico. Professor Evon Z. Vogt, Head of Anthropology at Harvard University, had been working among the Zinacanteco Indians, a modern Maya indigenous people, for over 20 years, and was concluding the manuscript for what would become a world-famous monograph Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas. Although nearly complete, his study lacked an in-depth study of the indigenous vernacular house architecture. Throughout the summer, I worked as a “young field research scholar” to live among the mountain Indian villages of Apas and Navenchak. Though untrained in ethnographic studies, I kept diligent, thorough sketches and technical daily field notes filled with architectural details and observations. What I lacked in experience, I made up for in wonder, enthusiasm and sheer delight. I look back now with pride in producing an effort far beyond anyone’s expectations. My field notes and drawings became a major resource in Vogt’s 1969 Harvard Press publication Zinacantan. Even before the publication of his major work, I adapted my field notes into an article titled “House Architecture in Zinacantan” which was published in Spanish by INI, Mexico DF, the National Indigenous Institute in 1966. It was, for me, a credible first publication and significant part of a book series supported by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History that would remain in print for 50 years. This year, 2018, 55 years after my initial venture into ethnographic field research, my study has been reissued as a chapter in a new publication from Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia. A National Ethnographic Atlas on the Indigenous Cultures of Mexico by Saul Milan, this 50 year anniversary re-publication recognizes “la arquitectura de zinacantan” not only as a significant ethnographic study, but also, now 50 years removed, as a document significant in historic value, as well.
Read more of Warfield’s research on house architecture and the Zinacantecos.