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Knowing History in Mexico

An Ethnography of Citizenship

Trevor Stack

Publication Year: 2012

While much has been written about national history and citizenship, anthropologist Trevor Stack focuses on the history and citizenship of towns and cities. Basing his inquiry on fieldwork in west Mexican towns near Guadalajara, Stack begins by observing that people talked (and wrote) of their towns’ history and not just of Mexico’s.

Key to Stack’s study is the insight that knowing history can give someone public status or authority. It can make someone stand out as a good or eminent citizen. What is it about history that makes this so? What is involved in knowing history and who is good at it? And what do they gain from being eminent citizens, whether of towns or nations?

As well as academic historians, Stack interviewed people from all walks of life—bricklayers, priests, teachers, politicians, peasant farmers, lawyers, and migrants. Resisting the idea that history is intrinsically interesting or valuable—that one simply must know the past in order to understand the present—he explores the very idea of “the past” and asks why it is valued by so many people.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Maps, Illustrations, and Figures

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xvi

The British actor Stephen Fry launched a recent campaign called History Matters by noting that “historians, more than any other class, spend a great deal of time justifying their trade.” He goes on to note that many feel that history has fallen victim to “a new and bewildering contempt...

PART ONE: THE TRUTH OF HISTORY: An Anthropological Approach to History as Public Knowledge

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1: What Is Historia?: From Oral History and Memory Studies to the Anthropology of History

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pp. 3-18

This book looks at ideas about history in Mexico. My interest in historical knowledge began long before I went to Mexico for the first time in 1991. I enjoyed history classes in a Scottish school and went on to study the subject at Oxford, before traveling...

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2: The Past of History: Valuing a Public Kind of Truth

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pp. 19-30

The Oxford historian had decided that my research was anthropology rather than history. It was well-meant advice, which I accepted by studying anthropology rather than history and doing an anthropology of history that focused on people’s ideas of history...


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3: Knowing History, Having Cultura, Being Citizens

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pp. 33-46

History is usually about place. Family history has grown in popularity and there are histories of organizations and of such phenomena as slavery, capitalism, and civilization. For the most part, though, what links us to the heroes of our histories...

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4: Skewing of History: Who Could Know History?

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pp. 47-60

I heard a lot of people in Tapalpa and Atacco say they wanted to produce a history of their town but remarkably few ever got around to it. That was in part because it was trickier than it seemed. Federico’s group was interested in history as part of their attempt to make...

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5: Juggling Rooting and Cultura: Cosmopolitan Citizens

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pp. 61-78

History is not just about cultura—it is also about belonging. That is why immigrants in so many countries have to learn some history before they are granted citizenship. British history, for example, has been condensed into a short book that tells...

PART THREE: OTHER HISTORIES: National History and the History of Virgins

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6: Towns and Nations: Different Histories, Different Citizenships

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pp. 81-93

I found that, just as Rulfo said, Mexicans liked to talk Mexican history more than natives of many other countries did theirs. Mexican history came up in many conversations around Tapalpa, Zamora, and Concord. I even witnessed a debate between two Mexicans...

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7: Histories of the Virgin: The Higher Ground of Secular History

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pp. 94-108

History was not just told of towns and nations. I also heard and read histories of Catholic figures, especially the Virgen de la Defensa (Virgin of Defense), who spent most of the year in a town near Tapalpa. Before going to Mexico, I had often heard...

PART FOUR: HISTORIES OF HISTORY: Tracing History and Histories Back in Time

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8: Shifts in History: How a History Changes over Time

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pp. 111-124

Dissatisfied with the task of rendering Tapalpa’s history myself, I became interested in others’ perceptions of history, and the book so far has focused on the histories told and written by...

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9: A Successful History: What Did Not Change

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pp. 125-134

The previous chapter was all about change—the remaining two chapters are about continuity. I have just traced how the history told of Tapalpa’s founding changed during the twentieth century, but here I show that one crucial piece of that history did not change...

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10: The Success of History: How a Genre Prospers

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pp. 135-146

I began part IV by pointing to some shifts—not just in the history of how Tapalpa was founded but shifts in the whole genre of history— hence the many different strains of history, including the varieties that I had studied in Scotland, at Oxford, and at the University...

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Epilogue: Citizenship Beyond the State?

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pp. 147-150

I have argued that my informants in the Sierra de Tapalpa were citizens not just of Mexico but of their towns, and I suggested that their urban and national citizenships were different in kind. I have also indicated that some people were considered better citizens...


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pp. 151-160


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pp. 161-168

Back Cover

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p. 169-169

E-ISBN-13: 9780826352545
E-ISBN-10: 0826352545
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826352521
Print-ISBN-10: 0826352529

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 4 drawings, 29 halftones, 1 maps
Publication Year: 2012