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You Can Teach An Old Revolutionary Historiography New Tricks: Regions, Popular Movements, Culture, and Gender in Mexico, 1820–1940

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 43, Number 2, 2008
pp. 260-271 | 10.1353/lar.0.0015

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The major innovations in the historiography of the Mexican Revolution over the past three decades lie in four linked areas. First, historians concluded—perhaps following the advice given by Luis González y González in his famous Invitación a la microhistoria (1972)—that we can understand the revolution only if we explore what occurred at the state and local levels. Patrick McNamara deftly expresses this idea in his Sons of the Sierra: "Like the narrow dirt road that connects Ixtlán with Oaxaca City . . . the interconnection between local and national history in Mexico has always moved in two directions" (4). Second, and this is an outgrowth of the first, historians discovered that the clases populares not only were the cannon fodder of the conflict but shaped it as well. For all the revisionism that swept the landscape of Mexican history after the sinister and tragic events of 1968, and for all the wrong turns that the postrevolutionary regime took toward authoritarianism (in the form of a one-party state) in 1929 and toward corruption and trickle-down development after 1946, the revolution itself was very much the work of subaltern classes. The more that historians investigated the revolution at the local level, the clearer it became that, whether it succeeded or not, it was the product of workers and peasants. Third, as historians looked more closely at the grassroots revolution, it became apparent that the initial protests and subsequent long period of violence did not arise from strictly economic and political factors; instead, there was a strong cultural element. Culture was also crucial in the long period of reconstruction that comprised the second stage of the revolution, from 1920 to 1940. Issues of local autonomy, for example, had as much to do with maintaining custom and tradition as with politics. Finally, local and state researchers revealed the crucial role of gender in shaping the discourse and structure, if not the events, of the revolution. Women, these studies made clear, were fervent revolutionaries, died in the names of various causes, and helped to formulate the outcome of decades of upheaval.

Underlying the various reexaminations of the revolution was also the drive to revisit the periodization of all of Mexican history. In the 1960s, Richard Morse recommended a new chronological framework for Latin America.1 Most pertinent to our discussion, he suggested that we look at the era from 1760 through 1920 that he labels the colonial period, which runs from the Bourbon reforms through the end of the modern export boom in agricultural commodities and minerals. Dozens of dissertations and first books employing this breakdown followed. By the 1990s, however, periodization again came under review as regional and local historians (of Mexico, at least) questioned the notion that the origins of the revolution lay only as far back as the Porfiriato (1876–1911). The new historiography looked to the early postindependence era, 1821 to the 1860s, or even further back, to the mid-eighteenth century, for the antecedents of the 1910 upheaval. This epoch, long relegated to the status of mystery and labeled "chaotic" and inexplicable, became an integral part of revolutionary history. Historians determined that they had to explain 1821 to 1876 before they could explain the events of 1910 to 1920.2 Moreover, they concluded that much of what happened in the postrevolutionary years of reconstruction had its beginnings in the nineteenth century as well. As Mary Kay Vaughan and Stephen Lewis put it in their introduction to The Eagle and the Virgin: "while the revolution marked deep ruptures with the past, national identity and memory construction were rooted in the nineteenth century" (2). Paul Hart concurs in Bitter Harvest: "the roots of the conflict went back to the middle of the nineteenth century when the region began an intense economic transformation" (1).

Regional and Local History

From the maze of details found in the many regional studies of the nineteenth century, the Porfiriato, the revolution, and the postrevolution, it becomes clear that the causes, course, and outcomes of the revolution were locally based. The books by Hart and McNamara fit squarely into the trend to locate the origins of the revolution in the first three quarters...

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