- Writing Mexican History by Eric Van Young
Writing Mexican History by Eric Van Young is a thoughtful overview of the historiography of Mexico in the last thirty years, dealing mostly with works by American historians—although Mexican historians are also mentioned. Van Young’s overview goes hand in hand with his personal work as a historian, and autobiographical narratives coexist with theoretical analyses. The book features seven previously published articles that, although revised, remain true to their original spirit; they are, in Van Young’s words, “signposts left along the road of my own development as a historian” (1).
The introduction opens with Van Young’s newest project, a biography of nineteenth-century historian Lucas Alamán. The author reflects on how he became interested in Alamán and his particular view of biographical writing. This interest developed out of his earlier research on economic history, especially his work on haciendas, and his later work on social and cultural history, particularly on popular rebellions during the Independence period. Van Young states that history is a product of the time in which the historian writes, as the historian cannot work against the trends, approaches, and methodological frameworks in vogue at that particular moment. Therefore, he explains, his work on haciendas was an obvious choice for a Ph.D. student in the late seventies, given the sources available and the kinds of frameworks in use at that time. His later shift to cultural history was influenced by anthropological methods. After having gone through these paradigmatic changes, Van Young exposes the tension between materialist and culturalist approaches in the writing of history, and advocates “ecumenism” (14).
Chapter 1 consists of a historiographical update on the Mexican hacienda. This chapter originally appeared as the introduction to the second edition of Van Young’s book on the hacienda in eighteenth-century Guadalajara (2006). In it, the author delineates the genealogy of land-labor regimens in Mexico and provides an overview of scholarly debates about this genealogy. Van Young identifies a continuity in the language used in discussions of haciendas, which are usually framed in terms of capitalist or feudal models. Additionally, he illustrates a shift in perceptions of the hacienda, which was viewed first as an economic and social institution, and later as a larger cultural and political entity from which family and ethnic networks originated. According to Van Young, this shift was the consequence of changes in the discipline of history, namely its “anthropologization,” which resulted in a hybrid discipline—ethnohistory. With its maturation, ethno-history, influenced by the linguistic turn and subaltern studies, transformed the historiography of the hacienda, and the discipline of history in general, by questioning the stability of written accounts and seeking to restore the agency of the “common people.”
Chapter 2 overlaps with chapter 1 but has a wider reach. It considers the historiography not only of Mexico but of all rural Latin America in the colonial period and the nineteenth century since “the history of Latin America has been written on and by the land.” Van Young limits the scope of this chapter by separating the scholarship on the subject into three major categories that he considers representative of the historiography of rural Latin America. The first [End Page 124] section, already included and fully explored in chapter 1, is concerned with Mexico and the feudal and capitalist dichotomy in the rural economy; the second one focuses on the Argentine pampas and export sector; and, lastly, he deals with Brazil and the progression from slave-based sugar production to the export booms.
The third chapter criticizes the historical tendency among Anglophone historians of treating Mexico as a problem, which created, as Van young puts it, a patronizing attitude that constructed alterity. Over the last two decades, however, cultural history and the “history of common people” allowed historians to move away from “Manichean dyads of success/failure, model/problem” (85). Van Young explains that this change was due to the methodological approach of these trends, which brought relativism to otherwise universalist narratives. Although Van Young’s goal in this chapter is...