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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 167-168

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Book Review

Life and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War. By MARK WASSERMAN. Diálogos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000 . Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xiii, 248 pp. Cloth, $39 .95 . Paper, $19 .95 .

Mark Wasserman has taken on the considerable task of making sense of the history of the turbulent nineteenth century in Mexico. The author also proposes to revive "lively narrative" and "colorful biography" as tools of the historian in order to achieve a "balance" (p. 4 ) between analysis and narrative. As a result, Mexico comes to life in his new study, Life and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Mexico. The book weaves together three watersheds (independence, reform, and revolution) and the lives of three prominent politicians (Antonio López de Santa Ana, Benito Juárez, and Porfirio Díaz) with three principal themes.

The first of these themes, "the struggle of the common people to retain control over their everyday lives" (p. 3 ), dominates the book. Relying on recent regional histories, the author stresses two fundamental points: that politics in the nineteenth century was, above all, local and regional, and that the common people participated actively in political life (p. 126 ). Although the author also describes lives of the middle and upper classes, a vivid and sobering portrait of daily life for the common people takes shape, from the grinding of tortillas to religious processions [End Page 167] to the filth and squalor of poor urban neighborhoods. For example, we learn about the hardships faced by Pioquinto Liñán, a permanent worker on the Hacienda de Bocas in San Luis Potosí, who after purchasing the necessary corn for his family was left with only 50 centavos a week for everything else (p. 152 ). This approach serves as a refreshing antidote to elite histories that center Mexico City.

The second theme treats Mexico's wars, particularly with foreign foes, while the third deals with the transformation of gender relations. The destruction left in the wake of constant wars comes across in grim detail, particularly how these wars affected people's daily lives. For instance, the percentage of widows increased from 33 percent in 1811 to 41 percent of all women by 1848 (p. 135 ). Government policies and wars changed women's lives drastically with many migrating to cities to be domestic servants, or to work in factories or in brothels. Still, one wishes that the author had probed the larger meanings of gender relations, for example, in his discussion of national identity and citizenship.

Although not explicit, Mark Wasserman elaborates on a fourth theme, the changing economy and the origins of underdevelopment. Despite a sympathetic explanation of the causes, statements that situate Mexico in the modernist race to progress, in which it "fell irretrievably behind" (p. 73 ), are disturbing. Such lineal narratives, based on false dichotomies (modern/traditional, development/underdevelopment) locate the object (Mexicans or peasants) in a time other than the present and diminish the struggle for local autonomy that the author has underlined. Were not economic outcomes also mutually constructed in a process of negotiation between local peoples and external forces? The author demonstrates how during the wars, country people had leverage as elites sought popular support for provisions and recruits to achieve victory. Nevertheless, once Díaz established peace, the status of rural Mexicans declined, and "elites now openly regarded them as an impediment to progress" (p. 218 ). The commercialization of agriculture and the privatization of land put them under tremendous stress that would culminate in the Revolution of 1910 .

The reader, whether a seasoned investigator or undergraduate, will close this book with a new and profound appreciation for the enormous obstacles Mexico faced, for the incredible determination of its peoples and leaders, and for how the nation ever survived the nineteenth century intact. Blending clear organization and cogent analysis with colorful narrative, it will make an excellent text for Latin American as well as...


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pp. 167-168
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Archived 2004
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