The Thrice Shy: Cultural Accommodation to Blindness and Other Disasters in a Mexican Community, by John Langston Gwaltney

John Langston Gwaltney provides another account of how a condition that in other societies would have been disabling was accepted and accommodated for within a particular community. In his ethnographic study of the Mexican village Yolox Pueblo, Gwaltney observed that an unusually high proportion (sometimes reaching almost 90%) of its inhabitants were blinded by onchocerciasis, or ‘river blindness’ (a disease caused by the parasitic worm Onchocera volvulus) which was endemic to the area. He noted that the blind were not segregated or excluded, but meaningfully incorporated in the economic workforce of the community by being sent on ‘begging expeditions’ to the larger surrounding urban settlements. The fact that such trips necessitated being accompanied by child guides was not considered burdensome to the community, and Gwaltney reported that the children themselves derived pleasure from their task of assisting the blind and the process forged strong social links between the generations (the cover of the book even has a sketch of an elderly woman being led by a young girl as indicative of the significance of the act).

Perhaps most noteworthy for the Oaxaca community was the lack of supernatural or social stigma attached to its blind members, which also meant that there were no attempts to use magic or other indigenous healing measures to cure the condition (p vi).

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