In the 1930s the Otomi ethnic group in Mexico became the subject of a broad scientific research program involving their metabolic and nutritional assessment. International agendas and the assumptions of contemporary racial science coalesced in an effort to understand the causes of the “backwardness” of this group. The aim of this paper is to show how Mexican physiologists and French medical expeditioners imagined the Otomi people as a group that could provide knowledge considered to be instrumental for creating public health policies in Mexico in order to “improve” the standard of living of indigenous people.
In post-Revolutionary Mexico, the Indian was conceptualized as a problem that needed to be solved. Indians were believed to be weighing down the nation and thought to constitute an obstacle for fulfilling its promised modern future (Bartra 1974). Thus, the scientific study of indigenous peoples in Mexico became, in the 1930s, a focus of anthropologists, physicians, and other experts, who sought to learn more about indigenous populations in order to solve this “problem.” In this paper I explore how this “problem-solving” was practiced, how and why particular groups of people were used as subjects of inquiry and intervention, how they were selected, and how they enabled the production of knowledge deemed useful to the state for improving the living conditions of these groups, in resonance with national and international public health goals.
Importantly, despite the sizable literature focusing on the construction of Indians as problematic, less attention has been paid to the actual practices deployed to study them.1 This paper focuses on scientific practice—specifically, how materiality and practices are essential to the construction of knowledge (Hacking 1983; Pickering 1995, etc.). In doing so, I follow the approach of Cházaro ( ) and Suárez-Díaz (2014), who have explored how particular indigenous populations were mobilized to produce scientific knowledge, how anthropological and medical knowledge was obtained from them, and how they were measured, quantified, transported, and experimented upon.
In addition, three recent studies are particularly relevant to my narrative. First, Pohl-Valero (2015) has pointed to ways in which physiology emerges as the intersection of local and global interests, recognizing the role of practices and instruments in the construction of a standardized physiology at the turn of the twentieth century. Second, Braun (2014) has shown how standardization and instruments can obscure knowledge about human variation, demonstrating that “race became a key organizing principle of spirometry in dialogue with other categories of difference—including occupation, social class, gender, and disability—whose cultural salience changed over time and place” (Braun 2014, p. xxiii).2 And finally, I build on the work of a recent volume edited by Dyck and Stewart (2016) that emphasizes the uses of humans in experiments, exploring how humans have become both the subject and objects of experiments and knowledge production. They argue that the subject of the experiment is as important as the researcher in the production of scientific knowledge. Within this volume, the work of Neswald (2016) is particularly relevant to my narrative, as she has shown that “successful” experiments in the physiology of nutrition and metabolism require ample cooperation and collaboration from the subject.
Following this recent literature, I trace the practices employed in the selection, manipulation, and study of populations connected with broader social interests to solve the “Indian problem.” By focusing on metabolic research of the Otomi in the Mezquital Valley in 1936, I show how physiology was used as a scientific reinforcement of previous ideas and assumptions about the Indian as different (as compared to the mestizo majority) and, specifically, “backwards.” The Otomi were crucial to the production not only of scientific knowledge about their own physiological characteristics, but also to the early institutionalization of indigenista policies. Their geographic proximity, I argue, facilitated their study by physicians based in Mexico City and central Mexico, and was a key reason why this population was mobilized in this kind of research. Moreover, through this case, I also bring to the fore the fact that the research agendas of local scientists became entangled with a global pursuit of “primitive” subjects of inquiry, which rendered the Otomi worthy of experimentation.
A note on population-making is in order here. Hacking has argued that “classification and judgment are seldom separable. Racial classification is evaluation” (Hacking 2005, p. 109). I am not going to historicize the Otomi as a racial category, but I will show how the actors involved in this story relied on this category, and how purportedly neutral physiological data were incorporated into an already existing racial/ethnic classification. I argue through this historical case study that the Otomi population acquired a new physiological dimension—and thus an evaluation of its virtues and anomalies—that reformulated some of the meanings of being Otomi.
In “Making Up People,” Hacking argues that “kinds” emerge with their classification (Hacking 2002). For Hacking two vectors are involved in creating the “other”: the “community of experts” who label their subjects of inquiry, and the “person labeled.” I note that while both vectors are without a doubt critical for understanding the Otomi, the historical resources available have silenced the Otomi voices of the 1930s, in an example of the asymmetries of power extant in this case of production of scientific knowledge. While we may hear whispers of these subjects of experimentation by studying the way they were part of this scientific research, reconstructing completely those silenced voices escapes the reach of this paper. Acknowledging this omission, this paper will focus mainly on the “community of experts” and on how they understood, described, and experimented on the Otomi people.
2. Thinking the Otomi as a Problem
The analysis of the health, educational, and economic problem of the Indians in Mexico was an important part of Lázaro Cárdenas’ presidential agenda in the decades after the social Revolution (1934–1940). Several government secretariats during Cárdenas’ tenure focused on attending to the problematic situation of the indigenous populations. The Otomi population was considered to offer a set of advantages as a group through which to address these issues, not the least of which was the fact that they lived in the Mezquital Valley, in Central Mexico. The Mezquital Valley was located in a key position, 150 km to the northeast of Mexico City, a place that was—and still is—the heart of the scientific establishment of the country. Centralization was thus a key operational criterion for selecting this group as a subject for experimentation: scientists working in the main scientific institutions in Mexico City could visit the Mezquital Valley, conduct their research in situ, and return to Mexico City to elaborate on their findings within a single day.
The region’s main municipality, Ixmiquilpan, in the state of Hidalgo, had a little more than 16,000 inhabitants in 1930, all of them living in rural conditions in small villages in what is called the Mezquital area (Secretaría de la Economía Nacional, Dirección General de Estadística 1930). Moreover, the Otomi showed “problems” associated with poverty, the result of a long history of land exploitation going back to the colonial period (Melville 1994). Most of the population of that area had been traditionally characterized as indigenous, and the Cárdenas administration expected the Mezquital area to serve as a model of how to solve the problems of the rest of the Mexican indigenous populations (Siurob 1936, p. 32). The institutional approach to solving the Indian problem, which only later (in the late 1940s) would be called Indigenismo, was still being configured in 1936, and the Otomi population became a crucial part of the first institutional approaches to create and implement public policies directed towards the Indian problem.3
Part of the solution to the problem was the introduction of education and health services to the area. In 1936, Cárdenas ordered the creation of the Departamento Autónomo de Asuntos Indígenas (Autonomous Department of Indigenous Affairs) dependent on the Health Secretariat. At the department’s inaugural speech, Cárdenas said:
The direct knowledge […] of the harsh life conditions in which a great part of our indigenous population currently lives, in need of the most basic benefits of civilization, submerged in extreme poverty and in most cases forming isolated groups from the rest of the country, has made me eagerly search for the most effective way the administrative and governmental action of the Revolutionary government […] may be translated into the effective improvement of the autochthonous races. (quoted in Rivera Martin 2009)
Numerous studies were conducted in the area before the Medical Expedition of 1936,4 but I will briefly describe here one conducted by the Institute of Biology (IB) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The IB was created in 1929, and its director, Isaac Ochoterena, had a utilitarian approach to the study of biology, mostly linking biological research to public health and nutrition (Ledesma-Mateos and Barahona 2003). Ochoterena’s interests oriented his research toward the study of the “poorest population centers” in the country, the Mezquital Valley among them. For the researchers of the IB, “environmental oppression” kept the Otomi Indians in “disastrous” conditions (Instituto de Biología 1937).5 The food of the indigenous populations in Mexico was thought to be of a lesser quality than that needed to fulfill their biological requirements (Bertran 2005, p. 23), and the Otomi diet was not an exception. To solve this problem, research on the environment of the Valley, and the agricultural and food practices of the Otomi people was conducted. The IB proposed a “diet for the poor classes” based upon food “richer in nourishing principles”—basically animal proteins—to help them become “healthier” peasants (Instituto de Biología 1937). The report also offered a brief glimpse of the way the Otomi people might become mestizos: by turning them into peasants, which could be achieved by the industrialization of local foods (sheep, cattle, and vegetables) and by modernizing their agricultural techniques and improving production, with questionable environmental outcomes due to the use of aguas negras (residual water from Mexico City) (Fournier and Mondragón 2012, p. 122). The increased production of food was one of the tools intended to improve the “terrible conditions” of the population of the Mezquital Valley, to “correct” the indigenous population and, in turn, transform the Otomi body (Ochoterena 1937, p. 88; Ortega 1935).
The nutritional requirements were calculated as the energy needed by the body to conduct its internal functions, plus the additional energy required for labor conducted during the day. This understanding of the body and its metabolism “as a laboratory whose working is basically the same for everyone, except those whose laboratory contains a broken instrument—an ‘inborn error’,” as Landecker has explained (Landecker 2011, p. 173), was a widely-held view in the scientific and medical establishments of the period. Human metabolism, it was thought, could prove useful in the expression of inborn errors, the manifestation of nutritional deficiencies and, possibly, racial differences (Vargas-Domínguez 2015).
Among the measurements of different Otomi traits, “basal metabolism” was a figure necessary to calculate the minimum amount of energy their bodies consumed. By relating the number of calories spent by the Indian body to the number of calories eaten in their food, researchers could know if the food available to them was enough. Researchers at the IB had evaluated the regular diet eaten in the region, which consisted mainly of pulque, beans, corn, tortillas, and the regular consumption of insects, as well as small amounts of meat and milk if any. In their results, researchers indicated that a “normal” peasant required 3500 calories per day,6 and the “typical” diet of the Otomi people contained only between 2800 and 2900 calories. Their conclusion was that the diet of the Indians of the Mezquital Valley was “not enough from the plastic and energetic point of view.”7 So, any intervention to improve their diet had to improve the energetic content and the protein content. I will return to this issue later.
But, as mentioned, in order to calculate the “real” amount of energy consumed by the Indian body, researchers needed to measure their basal metabolism. They conducted an experiment in a parallel research project carried out by the National Institute of Psychopedagogy (NIP) at the Mexican Secretariat of Education (SEP).8 The NIP had been created in 1925, and soon became a specialized institute in charge of studying the “psychophysiology” of children, with the aim of characterizing the “Mexican student of the proletariat class” (Urías Horcasitas 2007). These studies included the “inherited characteristics of children” (Gómez Robleda 1936, p. 5) and, among them, the study of individual metabolism. At the NIP, José Rulfo was in charge of research on human metabolism. Rulfo was a Mexican physician who had been trained in Berkeley, California, and later participated in the metabolic study of the Otomi people in 1936, in a special collaboration with the French Medical Expedition that visited Mexico.
3. The French and Mexican Collaboration: The Expert Gaze
Simultaneous to its links with local researchers of metabolism, SEP was in contact with the French Société de Biotypologie, founded in 1932. By that time, the Societé was one of the main eugenics associations in France. It conducted research on anthropometrics and biotypology, and its members were interested in the productivity of the labor class. Thus, their research was oriented toward psychophysiology, a mixed discipline involving psychological and physiological evaluation of populations (Reuchlin 1989).
The Société organized the French Scientific Commission (FSC) that would arrive in Mexico in the summer of 1936, led by André Laterjet and Raymond Bonnardel. The expedition enjoyed all the privileges the Mexican government could provide.9 Six people comprised the FSC, and they arrived to Mexico in August of that year. They were received by high-ranking officials of the Cárdenas administration, including the Secretary of Health, the Secretary of Foreign Relations, the Secretary of Education, and the director of the National School of Medicine, among other officials, and by Roberto Solís Quiroga, head of the NIP (Nota manuscrita-Asistentes a cena 1936). The NIP would host the researchers and lend their facilities to the French Commission (Bonnardel et al. 1948, pp. 3–4).
The FSC was interested in measuring a “well defined ethnic group” to compare the measures obtained with those of the French peasant population, and so the Otomi population was selected.10 The criteria for the selection were “ethnographic and linguistic”, the social and cultural elements that made them “similar” to each other:
Genetically, the study group does not belong to a pure tribe because their phenotype presents morphological variants denouncing mestizaje. Conversely, politically they can be considered as members of a homogeneous community. Their impoverished housing, made with the leaves of the maguey and taking advantage of the terrain, their customs and language (some do not speak or understand Spanish) are elements that identify them as beings of similar life. (Rulfo 1937, p. 665)
The FSC collaborated intensively with the NIP. To be prepared to receive the French scientists, Rulfo borrowed two instruments from the Secretariat of Agriculture to measure basal metabolic rate (Ortega 1936). The instruments were two recording metabolors from the McKesson Appliance Company. To have them installed by the time the French commission arrived, urgent repairs were made at the Metabolism Laboratory of the NIP in Mexico City (Vázquez Vela 1936c). By August 1936, the Metabolism Laboratory was ready to receive the Commission (Vázquez Vela 1936b), which took advantage of the pre-existing scientific infrastructure and networks among the local population of Mexican scientists, medics, and educators.
The study of basal metabolic rate was added to the physiological set of anthropometric measures that could function as possible biological “ethnic” markers produced from above. Alan Knight has written about the labels used on Mexican Indians by Mexican experts:
Post revolutionary indigenismo thus represented yet another non-Indian formulation of the “Indian problem”; it was another white/mestizo construct […], part of a long tradition stretching back to the Conquest. (Knight 1990, p. 77)
André Latarjet (1877–1947) and Raymond Bonnardel (1901–1988) were the heads of the FSC study. Both were interested in evaluating the Otomi people to compare them with French workers, in order to have a broader perspective from which to evaluate the productivity of the French people (Reuchlin 1989). The basal metabolic rate assessment was part of the tests they had performed to evaluate the “human motor” in France, following a technique developed in the United States by Francis Gano Benedict, a worldwide expert in the physiology of metabolism (Amar 1923; Neswald 2010).
The FSC study was originally supposed to be directed by Henri Laugier (1888–1973) but he could not travel and sent Latarjet in his place (Goirán 1936). Laugier had selected the Otomi as the target of their research. To do so, he had asked French ethnologist Jacques Soustelle (1912–1990) for his advice. Soustelle, who had specialized in Mesoamerican cultures, advised him to focus on the Otomi, whom he considered to be the “hommes des plus primitifs” (the most primitive men) one could find. This characterization as “primitive” was thus a prerequisite for doing physiological research on them, and the logistical advantage of their location, again, made them even more appealing. Thanks to their proximity to Mexico City, they could be studied within the researchers’ schedule constraints; they had only two months to complete their research (Bonnardel et al. 1948, p. 3). Certainly, their cultural homogeneity was important, but the logistical requirements of the expedition figured prominently:
We would have been greatly embarrassed in this choice [of the Otomi people] had we not been able to benefit from the experience of J. Soustelle. During his various missions in which he studied from an ethnographic and linguistic point of view different groups of Indians, Mr. Soustelle acquired a deep knowledge of scientific working conditions in Mexico. Under his guidance, our choice fell on the Otomi, very primitive men, relatively little mestizo, and easier to reach in large numbers in a strictly determined time. (Bonnardel et al. 1948, p. 3)
Given that the instruments had been set up at the NIP, the proximity to Mexico City was crucial for the research, which would be conducted under Rulfo’s direction as part of the Mexican eugenic movement.11 Mexican eugenicists like Rulfo occupied important places in the new post-revolutionary institutions, and at the very least we can say that they oriented some of the government programs targeting the management of populations (Urías Horcasitas 2007). In this case, the body of the Indians, particularly the Otomi, thus came to be understood in metabolic terms and was constructed in its specificity under a eugenic gaze, susceptible to improvement.
In order to measure their basal metabolic rate (BMR)12, the Otomi subjects would be transported from Ixmiquilpan to the Metabolism Laboratory of the NIP in Mexico City. Physiology was emerging in the 1930’s as an important tool through which to “modernize” Mexican medicine via international training and the acquisition of modern laboratory equipment.13 Metabolism was a key element in the evaluation of biological difference in the first decades of the 20th century, and the technique became part of the typical anthropometric measures taken in anthropological and medical expeditions (Vargas-Domínguez 2015). However, even from its inception, measuring metabolism in human subjects was a difficult task (Neswald 2016), and doing so in the Otomi people was no exception.
4. The Otomi People Evaluated in 1936
According to Hacking, an important aspect in the creation of human categories is the way the group members self-identify (Hacking 2007, p. 293). However, it has been very difficult to understand the way the Otomi people defined themselves. In the historical record, it is possible to find traces of how experts—physicians, biologists, anthropologists, and educators—perceived them, but the Otomi voices have been largely silenced. Nonetheless, by studying the way research on the Otomi people was conducted, and by analyzing the way they behaved during this research, we may be able to glimpse who they were and what they were interested in.
In addition to the populations themselves under study, I want to emphasize that material conditions were also important to produce knowledge about them. Instruments used to measure basal metabolic rate had specific requirements that were not easily met in rural areas, including oxygen input and electricity, a recently acquired urban convenience.14 Thus it was easier to move the subjects of experimentation than to move the laboratory. And with that movement, several issues arose.
At least 115 Otomi subjects were moved from their rural homes to Mexico City. The first issue was related to money. Participants of the study would receive a daily stipend during their stay in Mexico City, expected to be at least three days long, and they would receive free food during their stay (Vázquez Vela 1936a, p. 145). The Otomi population in the Ixmiquilpan region was one of the poorest in Mexico, so we can presume that this offer may have seemed attractive to this population. This alone speaks of the highly visible asymmetry in terms of power relations between the population of researchers and the population under study. Second, this “population of cognition” was not only supposed to be representative of the people classified as Otomi in the region, but also of the rest of Mexican indigenous tribes. Notably, the 115 Otomi selected for the study were all male, and averaged 27 years of age.15 Third, not all of them spoke Spanish and, to explain the process to them, a translator was hired. The French doctors gave the instructions in French, and then, their Mexican counterparts translated the instructions into Spanish for the translator, who in turn spoke to the Otomi people in their native language (Bonnardel et al. 1948, p. 12). It is not clear if the translations were well conducted, but there is reason to believe that the Otomi may have not received instructions correctly, or at least, they did not follow them, as we will see below.
Further, to properly measure basal metabolic rate, a set of conditions (regarding a subject’s food intake, position during measurement and prior physical activity) had to be met, which had been developed and established in the United States, by people like Francis Gano Benedict at the Nutrition Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the most important metabolic research center at the time (Neswald 2013; Cueto 2015; Heggie 2015). Benedict and his students had pushed in previous decades for those conditions to be considered “the standard”, or “Caucasian prediction standards” as Benedict called them (Neswald 2010; Benedict 1937), and these were the ones employed during the FSC study. Researchers of metabolism worldwide collaborated and cooperated; they shared some basic scientific knowledge, and were familiar with the experimental setup for measuring basal metabolic rate. But even under optimal conditions the subjects of experimentation and their bodies were “unruly”: their bodies were not easily measured as the scientists wanted, and a diverse array of strategies had to be deployed between the subjects and the experts to minimize deviance (Neswald 2016).
During the evaluations, the subject had to lie still in a bed, with no movement, while a breathing mask was attached to his face. With the mask on, he had to breathe “normally” during the 20–45 minutes each test lasted.16 Additionally, prior to the test, subjects had to restrict all food intake for 12 hours. But the Otomi people, the reports declare, did not strictly follow these directions in the terms that we presume they might have received them (notwithstanding the difficulties of translation). The Otomi people were “nervous” and “restive,” a condition aggravated when they saw the metabolor, an unfamiliar piece of engineering. There were also specific behaviors known to alter the basal metabolic rate measurement, such as physical activity. Rulfo knew that being seated, for instance, altered basal metabolic rate, with a range of variation that oscillated between 7% and 40%. The Otomi had to lay quiet and rest before the experiment, but instead, they remained seated, talking, smoking and moving. Further, the mask they had to wear during the experiment did not fit their “bearded face” (Rulfo 1937, pp. 680–1). Thus, several modifications to the “standard conditions” had to be made. The Otomi proved unrulier than the French and Mexican researchers had expected them to be.
Another factor altering basal metabolic rate was food intake. Eating modified this measurement, with the variation depending on the kind of food consumed. Proteins, for instance, raised basal metabolic rate more than carbohydrates. Hence fasting for 12 hours in advance of the experiment was part of the “standard conditions” for evaluation. However, neither the FSC’s representative, nor Rulfo, could control their research subjects’ food intake. Invariably, they ate more food than the controlled diet the NIP provided, and they did not follow fasting during the 12 hours prior to the experiments, eating from their “morral” (shoulderbag) foodstuffs they brought with them (Rulfo 1937, p. 680). Because of these failures to comply with the “standard conditions”, twenty of the Otomi people were removed from the experiment.
These “irregular” conditions during the experiments were explained by Rulfo by attributing to the Otomi common negative characteristics of the Mexican Indian: “It was impossible to instruct them appropriately,” due to their “lack of understanding of our different languages” and also due to their “natural fear of the tests because of their illiteracy and nature,” even though they had willingly accepted their participation in the study (Rulfo 1937, p. 666). It is remarkable that the process of translation itself was not questioned. Instead the explanation for their behavior was in their nature. The Mexican experts’ view of the Otomi people as “primitive” was reinforced and it was invoked to explain all the alterations in the results. When the FSC published the results of the psychological tests, they did mention that they had difficulties during translation, but this possible explanation of the behavior of the Otomi research subjects as the result of their misunderstanding the instructions—which were lost in translation—was not pursued any further (Bonnardel et al. 1948, p. 12). The alteration in metabolism they claimed to find, as I will show in the next section, became a new line in the old argument that assumed the Indian body as biologically different.
5. Otomi Metabolism, and How to Improve It
Ultimately, 95 Otomi subjects provided information like height, age, and weight, that were used to create an indigenous “type.” The “type” showed the “general characteristics of the studied [population] group,” even if they represented a small sample of the Ixmiquilpan population, and an even smaller fraction of the Otomi population. The Otomi type had the following characteristics: height 1.57 m, weight 53.08 kg, age 27, and male. With data of the Otomi in hand, Rulfo could now use the “normal standard” formulas to predict their metabolism. The experimental data, when contrasted with the predicted basal metabolic rate, confirmed that Indians had, somehow, a higher metabolic rate than that predicted by the metabolic standard (i.e. that expected for “normal” people). The instrument had shown that the actual metabolic rate of the people studied was 6.77% to 11.77% higher than the predicted value (Rulfo 1937, p. 683).
This anomaly in metabolic status of the Otomi reinforced the idea of Indians as different in some biological way. Their altered physiology was not a surprise. Earlier research conducted on the Mayan population in Yucatán had shown that the experimental results of Mayan metabolism were higher than that predicted (Vargas-Domínguez 2015). The altered metabolism was a new piece added to the complex definition of the Indian.
Rulfo, however, was cautious about his results, and he proposed that to have statistically relevant data that would support a metabolic “Otomi standard,” a larger study should be carried out using more sophisticated statistical tools. He wrote, for instance, that a sample of at least 949 people was needed (Rulfo 1937, p. 678). However, the experimental results were enough evidence for the Mexican and French scientists to conclude that the metabolism of the Otomi people was different and higher than expected. The previous findings—and prejudices—of the IB tests (that the diet of the Otomi people was inferior in quality and was lacking sufficient energetic elements) were aggregated with the physiological fact that the Indian body expended more energy to perform its basal metabolism (in a way, it was a less efficient motor). While the standard for a “normal body” predicted an expenditure of 39.5 calories per hour to perform its internal functions (Aub and Du Bois 1917), the Otomi people were found to have an expenditure between 43.8 to 45.6 calories per hour (Rulfo 1937, p. 681). A “normal body” would require at least 948 calories daily, while the intake calculated for Otomi bodies was between 1051.2 and 1094.4 calories daily. This set of data hid the struggles, unruliness, and required collaboration of subjects in the study.
The data consequently proved that the Otomi were different or anomalous, and furthermore, provided an avenue for change through social policies, like improving their food habits. By modifying their “inferior” diet, they could modify in part their “primitive behavior.” The optimal diet for a “normal” peasant was 3500 calories, while the Otomi diet consisted of 2800 to 2900. If their body required more energy to perform its basal metabolism, there was an obvious deficit in the food intake. They required more food than the “normal” man—a figure created using American and European populations (Vargas-Domínguez 2015)—but ate less food than the prescribed ideal diet. The prescribed ideal diet was created in the United States and widely distributed in the international arena, using the same guidelines in Mexico: the consumption of meat, milk, and eggs was suggested as the most important source of proteins. Increasing the Otomi’s consumption of those foods became one of the state interventions through which it would be possible to solve the “dreadful situation” of nutrition in Mexico (Ortega, p. 255).
The easiest way for the government to accomplish this task was the creation of school canteens, where milk was served on a daily basis.17 The creation of new industrialized food projects, social and educational developments in the area, along with the creation of a National Institute of Nutrition in 1943, were part of government efforts to “modernize” and solve the “Indian problem,” in which rural teachers, like Maurilio Muñóz Basilio became “heroes” thanks to their devotion to “the Otomi redemption” (Dawson 2004, p. 159). A more nuanced Indigenismo developed in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, in which local culture and tradition became important, but the nutritional guidelines proposed a decade earlier were not questioned. The Otomi people thus became an important Population of Cognition, a representative group for the implementation of local and international policies, and their bodies were mobilized as subjects and objects of knowledge production, since they were necessary for the construction of new social technologies that aimed to normalize both their internal metabolism and their publicly assessed and approved diet.
6. Concluding Remarks
The results of research undertaken by members of the IB and the Mexican-French expedition pointed to an altered or anomalous basal metabolic rate in the Otomi Indians, which reinforced the idea that the state could and should intervene in the quality of their nutrition. The results fit within the eugenic framework of the nascent Mexican Indigenismo, which sought to integrate the Indian population into the modern mestizo nation by providing public health services and education.
The Otomi population was transformed and reframed in the process of this research, following a series of reductions, some of which I highlight here. First, the complexity of a large group was artificially homogenized based on outsiders’ previous racial/ethnic distinctions. A second reduction took place by selecting the inhabitants of Ixmiquilpan and surrounding villages as representative of a larger population—in the state of Hidalgo 47,000 people spoke Otomi as their native language—(Secretaría de la Economía Nacional, Dirección General de Estadística 1930). A third reduction was the selection of a very small sample, less than one hundred individuals, to produce the Otomi “type” and basal metabolic rate. Notably, though, the data produced from this small sample would have an amplifying effect, as it would be employed in the creation of public policies for all indigenous populations in Mexico.
The Otomi emerge here as a Population of Cognition not only because of the expert gaze that helped constitute them as a group suitable for research in the context of the international circulation of physiological knowledge, but also as a result of particular material and logistic conditions, such as their location in the Mezquital Valley, with its proximity to Mexico City. Further, their “primitive” life conditions were deemed problematic, but were also in large part what made them attractive for social and scientific research from the perspectives of the researchers. Indeed, scientists’ beliefs about their “primitiveness” appear to have over-determined research conducted on their metabolic difference.
In this sense, the case of the Otomi aligns with Lundy Braun’s (2014) observations about how racialization is facilitated through the concept of normality in cases where the standard is created by measuring “Caucasian” populations as “normal.” Specifically, in the case of the spirometer, Braun has shown how the use of markers of normality privileges a view of difference, of abnormality. Similarly, I have shown here that indigenous populations, in the interwar period, were expected to be different. Difference was a prerequisite for their selection as subjects, so the finding that they did not conform to the norm is hardly surprising.
The conclusions of the FSC study ultimately aligned with the indigenista agenda that prioritized the use of social mechanisms to incorporate the Indian into the mainstream mestizo ideal. Indeed, this remains the typical motif marking social programs in Mexico. However:
[…] one might wonder what would be left of the divergences noted if the influence of diverse factors such as standard of life, social surroundings, school attendance, etc., could be removed? (Bonnardel et al. 1948, p. 67)
There is a growing literature addressing the concepts and discourse of Mexican elites of this period, from Vasconcelos’ La Raza Cósmica to Manuel Gamio’s Forjando Patria. This historiography has largely focused on the elites and their conceptual change (Knight 1990; Walsh 2004; Mijangos Díaz and Martínez Villa 2008; Araujo 2015). Also, research has focused on the creation and implementation of population policies in Mexico, which centered on improving the social body, through the deployment of tools ranging from a focus on mental health (Suárez y López-Guazo and Ruiz Gutiérrez  2001; Urías Horcasitas 2007) to linguistic and cultural integration (Mijangos Díaz and López Torres 2011), to efforts in Mexico to control the reproduction of the unfit (Minna Stern 2011). Additional analyses have focused on “soft eugenics” and medical approaches to “improve” the indigenous body (Stepan 1991; Suárez y López-Guazo and Ruiz Gutiérrez  2001).
A similar approach has been taken by Vargas-Domínguez (2015, vol. 13) to show that instruments used to measure metabolism were also employed to differentiate populations in the 1920’s along racial lines.
These were conducted by several dependencies of the Mexican government and were concerned mostly with the geographic characteristics of the area. They included studies by the Instituto Geológico de México in 1937, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Geología, Geofísica y Geodesia in 1938 (Díaz Lozano 1936; Lanks 1938).
Researchers who worked on the Mezquital Project under the direction of Ochoterena included Antonio Ramírez Laguna, Liborio Martínez, Juan Roca and Roberto Llamas.
The source material does not trace the origin of this “normal requirements,” but we may adventure that they were based upon the nutritional requirements developed in the United States.
The plastic elements of the diet referred to the protein content (Enríquez Roca 1930).
The Instituto de Psicopedagogía was formerly known as Department of Psychopedagogy and Hygiene (DPH) and transformed into an Institute during Lázaro Cárdenas’ presidency. Actors of the period often referred to it indistinctly as DPH or NIP (Minna Stern 2003, p. 201).
For example, in January 1936, the Mexican government had decreed that all the scientific commissions that planned to conduct research in Mexico were exempt from customs and taxation, and thus the FSC sent its instruments and material in advance to Mexico through the Minister of France in Mexico, without paying a single peso for it (Acuña 1936).
I have not found more information about the evaluation of other ethnic or social groups. Though the expedition took place in 1936, the results were published in 1948. It is in the results that I found this comparison, but further information about the details of the other studies is still missing.
Rulfo was an active member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Eugenesia para el Mejoramiento de la Raza [Eugenics Mexican Society for the Improvement of Race] (SEM). He not only worked for the NIP, but was also a professor at the Faculty of Medicine, at the National University of Mexico (Suárez y López-Guazo 2005:114). Other experts and high-ranking functionaries, like the Director of the Faculty of Medicine, Fernando Ocaranza, were also members of the SEM. This goes against the idea, common among Mexican historians, that during the Cardenist period, the SEM was of little importance (Suárez y López-Guazo and Ruiz Gutiérrez  2001, p. 85; Urías Horcasitas 2007, p. 36). This idea has also been questioned by Stepan (1991) and Minna Stern ( 2002).
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) was a physiological parameter recently stabilized in the Nutrition Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution, under the head of Francis Gano Benedict. In the 1930’s BMR was being discussed as a tool for racial differentiation by American physiologists (Vargas-Domínguez 2015, vol. 13).
Physiology became an “entry point” for international foundations to reform medical science in Mexico, as Cueto (2015) has shown. However, there were “modern” instrumental practices, independent from these foundations’ interests or reach, like the measure of metabolism, which mixed local interests with the international circulation of ideas and instruments, as seems to be the case here.
Instruments had to be calibrated carefully to obtain results comparable to ones being produced in experiments in other latitudes. For example, air pressure and temperature data were needed to calibrate the instrument. Precise measures were difficult to obtain if the material conditions were not met, and the NIP did not have access to the portable instruments being developed elsewhere (Vargas-Domínguez 2015).
The absence of female bodies in almost all studies of populations is beyond the reach of this paper. However, it is worth noting it.
The report of the CSF nor the Rulfo paper indicate the length of each evaluation, but the regular time using the respiration apparatus was 20 minutes at the minimum (Mclean and Tobin 2007).
The industrialization and popularization of milk was an international trend that increased milk consumption worldwide during the 1930’s (McKee 1997; Zazueta 2011; Pohl-Valero 2014). The biological basis for some of the problems associated with the ingestion of dairy products by indigenous populations (for example, lactose intolerance) was described until the 1960’s (Auricchio et al., 1963).