The Americas 61.2 (2004) 287-289
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José Antonio Serrano Ortega proposes to explain what he calls one of the most important political transitions of Mexico's past: the transition from the ancién regime to independent republic in the years 1790-1835. His thesis is that the massive [End Page 287] upheavals in political alignment during this period can be explained in part by examining changes in the organization of authority over political space (territory). He argues that political authority during the colonial period rested in the hands of patricians in capital cities throughout New Spain, with that authority spreading over what he calls subject towns creating a territorial hierarchy. He posits that the causes of the political contention in Mexico in the nineteenth century can be traced to pressures resulting not from the Bourbon Reforms but from the wars of independence and the liberal Constitution of 1812. He further argues that the concurrence of these factors caused a breakdown in the colonial territorial hierarchy between 1810 and 1835: the concentration of power of patricians living in capital cities such as Guanajuato, Léon, Celaya, and San Miguel was dissipated into the hands of vecinos principales in smaller urban centers that had previously been vassals to the capital cities. This in turn created a tension between the two groups of actors that would result in the instability of the nineteenth century. His research is focused on Guanajuato as a representative example of this process.
The book is organized into six chapters with an Introduction, Conclusion, and appendices, notes, and a very useful bibliography. The first chapter concludes that the Bourbon reforms did not affect the territorial hierarchy in any significant way. The second chapter outlines how the wars of independence instigated the breakdown in the territorial hierarchy by motivating the royalist government to organize military forces not only in the capital cities but in each of the "villas, pueblos, y congregaciones" (p. 22). Throughout the colonial period and unchanged by the Bourbon reforms the organization of military battalions had been an activity conducted under the auspices of the patricians of the capital cities. Devolving this organization to subject urban centers created alternative centers of authority in the previously vassal centers. In the third chapter the author argues that the rift initiated by the wars of independence between the capitals and subject towns was widened by the liberal changes resulting from the Constitution of 1812. Serrano Ortega points out that the constitution resulted in the creation of twenty-two new cabildos in the formerly subject towns. These new cabildos assumed powers to tax, spend, and govern that had previously been reserved to the patricians in the urban centers. This decentralization of power did not go unchallenged by the patricians, however. Chapters 4-6 analyze the factors and circumstances that explain the actions of the two groups of actors (patricians and vecinos principales) in response to the liberal constitution—responses that would lead to contention and political instability.
Serrano Ortega relies heavily on a wide range of secondary sources as well as a number of primary sources found in archives and collections in Guanajuato, Mexico City, and elsewhere. Jerarquía territorial y transición política is a welcome edition to the historiography of the Mexican national period. It provides a previously unexplored perspective on the era that will prove useful to specialists in the field of Mexican history as well as those who consider the more general topic of state formation in Latin America. Its publication in Spanish will limit its usefulness to the anglophile academy, but to the serious scholar it gives a thoughtful [End Page 288] and thought provoking viewpoint of this complex and imperfectly understood period of Mexican history.
Keith W. Cox
San Marcos, California