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The Mexican Revolution at Its Centennial

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 2, 2013
pp. 184-192 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0025

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The 2010 centennial of the Mexican Revolution provided an occasion for reflection on a topic that remains one of the most heavily researched topics in Latin American history. Placing aside the obvious interest in the revolution among Mexicans, the first social revolution of the twentieth-century world has long fascinated historians from North America and Europe. In the 1980s, the publication of five grand syntheses in English, French, and German revealed a sophisticated historiography rich in local and regional nuance.1 Since then, the torrent of new scholarship has never let up, even as historians discovered the postrevolutionary decades, and most notably the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as a new and fertile ground for scholarship.

Given this ongoing scholarly interest, it is no coincidence that this review of Anglophone scholarship on the Mexican Revolution appears just five years after Mark Wasserman’s 2008 article in Latin American Research Review.2 Wasserman referred to four significant historiographical trends: the turn toward regional and local history, the focus on subaltern agency, the rise of the “new cultural history,” and the commitment to study gender (and sexuality, one might add) as an important analytical category. Two of the books under review in the present essay, From Many, One and Gender in the Mexican Revolution, fall into Wasserman’s second and fourth categories, respectively. Three other books address themes that have emerged as new scholarly foci: the environment (Revolutionary Parks), visual culture (Photographing the Mexican Revolution), and the legacy of the revolution (Populism in Twentieth-Century Mexico).3 The final book, Mexicans in Revolution, is a synthesis geared toward an undergraduate student audience.

The Longer Revolution (And its Political Icons)

This synthesis is an apt starting point. Its major aim is to counterbalance the criticism of the revolution that has dominated the scholarly literature since the 1968 massacre of student protesters in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. The massacre showed that the revolution had ended badly. It tarnished not only the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), a party that claimed to represent the achievements of the revolution, but also the way historians viewed the revolutionary process itself. Scholars now focused on the failure of revolutionary leaders and their successors to bring democracy and social justice to Mexico after the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). Reflecting on this critique, Mexicans in Revolution seeks to “restore vitality to the study of the revolutionaries and their programs” (vii), and it does so primarily by analyzing the protagonists and their policies. William H. Beezley and Colin M. MacLachlan strive to understand the revolutionaries on their own terms rather than through a teleological lens, constructing a master narrative informed significantly by the actions and thoughts of the “great men” (and women) of the revolution, balanced by captivating descriptions of daily life and culture.

Mexicans in Revolution takes the rhetoric of revolutionary leaders seriously, at the very least as a “public transcript” against which ordinary people could define their place in the revolution. In the words of the authors, the revolutionaries pursued “significant national reforms” and “shaped the destiny of their nation across the twentieth century” (1). The social rights embodied in the 1917 Constitution structured political discourse, especially article 27, regarding ownership of land and the subsoil, and article 123, addressing the rights of workers. Although these articles never found full implementation, they helped encourage campesinos and workers to fight for their rights. They also informed a series of reform measures culminating in President Lázaro Cárdenas’s redistribution of forty-nine million acres of land, as well as the 1938 expropriation of the foreign-owned oil industry following a labor dispute. Mexicans in Revolution takes advantage of recent biographies that have refocused our attention on the original aims of the revolutionaries and how those objectives changed over time.4

In their conclusion, the authors propose an extension of the time frame for the revolution, dating it from 1910 to 1946, rather than to 1917, 1920, or 1940, the three watersheds most widely accepted as concluding the revolutionary era. These periodizations represent the framing of the revolutionary constitution; a coup d’état that ushered in the last violent change of government to date; and the end of the...

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