Cultural Implications of Diabetes Prevention, Detection and Treatment Among Indigenous Peoples in the Highlands of Chiapas, México

Enrique Eroza, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México

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Abstract: A study carried out among indigenous people with diabetes showed that the increasing incidence of this disease resulted from structural processes leading to reduced physical activity and changes in eating habits. However, there is also a triggering emotional agenda.  Pathogenic emotions are also bound to local social dynamics.  Subjects (patients) tend to account for diabetes as an event connected to previous illnesses. Within this framework, diabetes is connected to other misfortunes that occurred either to them or their relatives, attaching to all of them, either by divine retribution or witchcraft. Some participants did not recognize diabetes symptoms as signs of disease.  Only a few declared they were following treatment, which is partly because many hold negative views about medicine and health institutions. However, it also relates to a reluctance to modify eating and drinking habits.  For example, religious office holders and healers, given the nature of their activities, find themselves compelled to consume “unhealthy” food and beverages. Findings also show that many people follow treatments based on herbal infusions, including locally known therapeutic resources and infusions prepared with plants brought from other regions of Chiapas.  Advice from the ill person’s social network, which may include family members, and often diabetics, is a main source of diagnosis and treatment.  Some patients only undergo treatments to counteract specific ailments or symptoms, assuming they are separate illnesses. Accordingly, some combine medicines, treatments and health care providers, following a logic that I term a “dialogue with the body,” as it implies changing treatment, medicine or health provider, depending on whether they solve, or aggravate certain symptoms or ailments. This health seeking behavior, however, also requires economic resources and the need for support mainly from churches.  We found representations of diabetes, whose sources also involve cultural notions of illness, causation and experiences shaped by interactions between social strata. The complexity illustrated by these findings demonstrates the limitations of health institutions to understand why indigenous populations lack timely detection, and reject paths of action recommended by diabetes control programs. 

About the Presenter: 

Enrique Eroza is an ethnologist graduate from the National School of Anthropology and History at the National erozaAutonomous University of Mexico and holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Brunel University of West London, UK. He has worked as a researcher for The Folk Cultures Institute, The National Indigenous Institute, The National Public Health Institute, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), and currently is a researcher for the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social (CIESAS). He has published papers on a topics ranging from symbolic anthropology and indigenous cosmogonies, to medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry.  Dr. Eroza specializes in ethnographic research methods and analysis of qualitative data in social sciences, as well as anthropological theories. E-mail:

Presented on: 
April 21, 2011
Symposium 2011
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