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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 69-117

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Interpreting the Expropriation of Indian Pueblo Lands in Porfirian Mexico:
The Unexamined Legacies of Andrés Molina Enríquez

Emilio H. Kourí


In the course of the nineteenth century, communal forms of land ownership almost disappeared from the Mexican countryside. According to the historia patria that is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination of Mexico, this was a fateful development, because during the long rule of Porfirio Díaz the demise of communal land tenure produced widespread landlessness and rural injustice, conditions that acted as catalysts for the Mexican Revolution. For the most part, scholarly interpretations have concurred with this assessment. Yet considering the significance generally attached to this historic transformation in patterns of land tenure, it is remarkable to discover that the process has not until now been analyzed in any detail. Although it is clear that the lands of many pueblos were privatized during the Porfiriato, there is still--one hundred years later--very little concrete understanding of how this happened and what it meant. More than two decades ago, David Brading called attention to the fact that "in general we know remarkably little about changes in land tenure during the Porfiriato." 1 With respect to the disentailment of pueblo lands, his assessment remains true today.

Indeed, a review of the historical literature reveals a glaring paucity of research on this question. There is not a single published monograph devoted to the privatization of village lands, nor are there any reliable statistics-- [End Page 69] national or regional--that can at least suggest the scale, scope, and chronology of these developments. An extensive bibliographic search turns up approximately 15 articles--written over the course of four decades--directly concerned with one or another aspect of village disentailment. 2 As a body of research, however, they do not amount to very much, since most consist primarily of general overviews of the relevant legislation and policies, and hence reveal little about what may have taken place. Only a handful of those articles--generally the most recent ones--contain research-based case studies (for example, on Sultepec, Ocoyoacac, Papantla, Zacapu, and San Juan Parangaricutiro), and these, while suggestive, are for the most part fairly brief. A number of book-length [End Page 70] studies address the subject, though mostly just in passing, and even those are rather few. 3 Given the importance of the subject, the amount of specific research it has thus far generated seems strikingly meager.

Consider also the highly influential studies of land tenure in Mexico produced by a succession of American scholars between 1920 and 1950--the works of George McBride, Helen Phipps, Frank Tannenbaum, Eyler Simpson, and Nathan Whetten. 4 They are still in many ways quite useful, and Tannenbaum's oeuvre in particular remains an obligatory point of reference for historians seeking to examine the agrarian aspects of the revolution and the beginnings of state-led land reform. Yet when it comes to understanding the evolution of the process of communal disentailment--its chronology, its regional and local variations, and even its final outcomes--these studies offer scant guidance. They rely on isolated examples, selected anecdotes, and broad generalizations to produce a stark picture of village land expropriation that is at once intuitively compelling and largely unsubstantiated. These books undoubtedly have numerous merits, but they do not provide a satisfactory explanation of how, when, where, or why the lands of the pueblos were (or were not) privatized. [End Page 71]

Much the same can be said regarding the works of their Mexican counterparts. This assessment applies to the writings of authors as diverse as Wistano Luis Orozco, José L. Cossío, Fernando González Roa, José Covarrubias, Lucio Mendieta, José Valadés, and Jesús Silva Herzog, as well as to Daniel Cosío Villegas's monumental Historia moderna de México, which devotes only 13 of its thousands of pages to what Moisés González Navarro labeled "el empeño desamortizador." 5 Each...


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pp. 69-117
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Archived 2004
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