The Worm in the Wheat: Rosalie Evans and Agrarian Struggle in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley of Mexico, 1906-1927, and: Modernity at the Edge of Empire: State, Individual, and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885-1935 (review)
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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 368-372



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Book Review

The Worm in the Wheat:
Rosalie Evans and Agrarian Struggle in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley of Mexico, 1906—1927

Modernity at the Edge of Empire:
State, Individual, and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885—1935


The Worm in the Wheat: Rosalie Evans and Agrarian Struggle in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley of Mexico, 1906—1927. By Timothy J. Henderson. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. viii + 288 pp., introduction, prologue, epilogue, illustrations, maps, appendixes, bibliography, index. $18.95 paper.)

Modernity at the Edge of Empire: State, Individual, and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885—1935. By David Nugent. (Stanford, ca: Stanford University Press, 1997. ix + 404 pp., introduction, illustrations, maps, conclusion, bibliography, index. $55.00 cloth.)

A study of North American hacendada Rosalie Evans’s fight for her Puebla valley estate might seem too idiosyncratic to contribute much new to the long historiography of revolutionary Mexico. After all, as a foreign woman Evans had little in common with the typical Porfirian landowner, and her battle against the revolutionary state gained notoriety through unusual circumstances–she convinced a British diplomat to aggressively interject [End Page 368] her claim for an exemption to land reform into tense negotiations among Mexico, the United States, and Great Britain; and her sister drew on her social connections to have Evans’s life and death converted into a highly fictionalized pulp biography that made something of a splash during the nadir of U.S.—Mexican relations in the mid-1920s.

But Timothy J. Henderson’s painstaking research and rich, at times almost novelistic, treatment of Evans’s saga transforms it into much more than a dramatic story seasoned with memorable anecdotes. From Evans’s clashes with peasants, caciques, generals, and high officials of three nations (including President Alvaro Obregón), the author traces the boundaries of gender, class, and national divisions in postrevolutionary Mexico. At the same time, Henderson uses Evans’s struggle to reconsider the agrarian process at the heart of the Mexican Revolution.

Not surprisingly, gender figures prominently. Evans, as a wealthy foreign widow in Mexico, found herself both shackled and privileged by her status. Like the native revolutionary soldadera, her assertiveness (wielding a whip, siccing dogs on trespassers) and bold appropriation of supposedly male prerogatives blurred gender lines in a way that elicited both suspicion and respect. The author sees Evans’s physical courage and recourse to violence as "a kind of bravado that bordered on machismo" (121). Her direct challenges of Mexican men–from riding down peasants to beating a general at a game of chess–were "signals mixed and crossed" (120) in the virile atmosphere of Obregón’s age. Although she never won over the revolutionary elite, their antagonism allowed Evans to skillfully manipulate the Victorian Anglo-Saxon fear of the white maiden threatened by dark hordes to rally British and (for a while) U.S. diplomats to her cause, even as she spooked peasants into believing she was a witch. Henderson subtly underscores the ironic fact that as she played the maiden in distress, Evans became more and more dependent on her incompetent male protectors–her Spanish consort and overseer Bermijillo; his replacement (as majordomo), the volatile and racist American George Camp; and the irascible and inept British diplomat Cunard Cummins. Served poorly by her would-be foreign male paladins, she sank deeper and deeper into the quicksand of postrevolutionary politics and diplomacy from the mid-teens to the crisis over Obregón’s reelection in 1927. The Worm in the Wheat lays bare much of the foundations of the postrevolutionary Mexican state, as Evans gamely tried to use every internal and external upheaval in Mexico to her advantage to force national authorities to remove pending agrarian claims to her land, or at least buy her out at a high price.

Henderson brings a refreshing and balanced perspective to agrarian reform, rejecting...


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