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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 1-31

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Dreaming of a Mexican Empire:
The Political Projects of the "Imperialistas"

Erika Pani

No suelen ser nuestras ideas las que nos hacen optimistas o pesimistas, sino que es nuestro optimismo o nuestro pesimismo, de orden fisiológico o patológico quizás, tanto el uno como el otro, el que hace nuestras ideas.

--Miguel de Unamuno

In the narrative of Mexican national memory, the struggle against the French intervention and Maximilian's empire seems to have retained, even in the face of increasing revisionism, all the qualities of a pristine patriotic myth: the color, excitement, and simplicity of a triumph of good over evil. If we are to believe the textbook version, between 1862 and 1867 the nation--except for a few traitorous Conservatives--led by Benito Juárez, rose heroically to vanquish French imperialism, sweeping away the ridiculous throne set up by the invader. For added drama--and poetic justice--the Hapsburg usurper was shot; his wife went crazy. Mexico's victory in such an unequal struggle confirmed its commitment to democracy and freedom and its providential destiny as an independent liberal republic.

As a building block for Historia patria, the imperial episode fades before this promethean "Second War of Independence." Interestingly, the depiction of the Second Empire as an exogenous event, as the frivolous, misbegotten experiment of degenerate Europe, in which Mexicans played practically no role, has been pervasive in Mexican historiography. After Maximilian was defeated, those who had fought against him pen in hand--José María Iglesias, [End Page 1] Vicente Riva Palacio, and José María Vigil--blissfully gave into deriding and ridiculing his regime and its supporters. 1

Conversely, historians who resisted the official version of the story and tried to defend the imperial project--self-proclaimed clerical monarchists such as Francisco de Paula Arrangoiz and, to a lesser degree, Spaniard Niceto de Zamacois--sought to wash their hands off its disastrous results: the regime ratified the Reforma laws that nationalized church wealth and legalized religious toleration, and culminated with the spilling of Hapsburg blood in Querétaro. In other words, they strove to minimize the role of the Conservatives in such an experiment. 2 Subsequent works of diverse ideological orientation--from Sierra and Rivera Cambas to García Cantú 3 --have not only repeated the original arguments but also reiterated the strident images of traditional historiography: the static imperial government run by thieving central Europeans who did not even speak Spanish; the omnipresence and omnipotence of the French army in the affairs of the Mexican government. More recent work has focused on more specific aspects of the imperial experience such as its cultural, social and foreign policies, or the roles played by Napoleon's soldiers. It has started to chip away at this monolithic Historia de bronce. 4 Nevertheless, [End Page 2] historians who have attempted to present an overall vision of the period--José C. Valadés, José Fuentes Mares, and Gastón García Cantú--do little to disturb the ways in which official national memory has chosen to remember the empire. 5

Thus this period has remained the picturesque, romantic, amusing realm of Austrian music, Zorrilla's theater, and hollow court ceremonial; of a womanizing emperor and his bossy wife; of a perverted upper class who, too preoccupied with mimicking European aristocracy, abandoned the affairs of state to a group of swindling foreigners. The regime is painted as having been glaringly detached from Mexican social and political realities. As such, it has been considered totally alien to Mexico's historical development. It would seem that the so-called empire--el llamado imperio--does not even deserve to be called a Mexican government; consequently, its laws do not appear in any of the legislative compilations that have since been edited. 6

The traditional version of the story tells us that the empire was the "feeble, puny, rickety" creature of the French monarch's ambition; of Maximilian's gullibility; and of the misguided dreams of monarchy of a minuscule, senile...


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