The Americas 61.2 (2004) 289-290
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Historians once conceived of Mexican nation building as a strictly top-down affair: a century of caudillos was followed by an era of autocratic presidents. Over the past twenty years, the profession has increasingly favored examining that process from below—so much so, one might say, that the bottom (the peasantry, urban workers, rancheros and rockeros) has become the new top. David LaFrance, in his account of the bloodiest years of the Mexican Revolution, offers a third approach: a "view from the middle." His viewpoint is not simply a matter of "decentering the regime," though this meticulous history of the strategically crucial yet under-researched state of Puebla is in itself a great contribution to scholarship of the revolution. It also involves attention to the role of generals, caciques, businessmen and others from the middle sectors who exerted remarkable influence on the course of events, resisting the centralizing impositions of the government of Venustiano Carranza and hence facilitating the swift process of Álvaro Obregón's 1920 coup. LaFrance emphasizes that the view from the middle is geographically and politically fragmented. For much of the period, four insurgent groups harassed the weak state government and offered pragmatic, localized visions of reform: Zapatistas spilling across Puebla's western border with Morelos, Marquistas in the sierras of the northeast, Arenistas in the northwest, and former federal officers in the south. Simultaneously, distrust intensified between quasi-liberal Carrancista politicians and their more conservative military counterparts. Throughout the state, junior generals allied themselves with caciques (some were one and the same) and plotted their ascent to political office.
LaFrance's distinctive viewpoint serves a distinct thesis: the revolution turned on the struggle not for land but for autonomy. Among the above insurgent groups, only Zapatistas held land tenure as their overriding concern. Yet all insurgents chafed at the ongoing Porfirian legacy of imposed governors and centralized rule. Such resentments were shared by many in Puebla's middle classes. Thus, as the Carrancistas proved unwilling to fulfill their promises of greater autonomy—indeed, Carranza's appointed governors were more repressive than the "reactionary" Huertistas they replaced—the populace resisted their edicts and sought further alliance with the disaffected generals. Drawing upon 54 archival collections and 30 periodicals, LaFrance has synthesized a plethora of evidence to support his case that autonomy was the one imperative that gave poblanos common cause. In addition, he departs from the linear structure of his earlier work (The Mexican Revolution in [End Page 289] Puebla, 1908-1913 ) to analyze in detail the political, economic, social and military projects of the competing armies and the degree to which they succeeded or, more usually, failed.
LaFrance's work marks an important step in an ongoing revision of the era; it also fuels Hans Werner Tobler's contention that Mexico, at least by 1920, witnessed no sharp break with the Porfirian past. The question now is whether the autonomy thesis holds true on a national scale. The author often refers to similar findings scholars have made for other states, such as the civilian-military split within Carrancismo. But on the central matter of poblano autonomy-mindedness, he presents few parallels. The problem may be that other regionalists have scarcely broached the question. Then again, one may suspect a certain cultural exceptionality. Absent from the analysis is the alleged cliquishness and arrogance that has long caused outsiders to disparage poblanos (the common insult being pipopes; that is, pinches poblanos pendejos). Whether or not such perceptions reflect an actual poblano insularity, it is possible that the Carrancista governors, who mostly hailed from the north, gave in to unusual prejudice and antagonism in their rule of Puebla, in turn prompting an atypically willing embrace of local power-brokers, the cacique-generals. Certainly, between 1920 and 1935, Puebla experienced exceptional political chaos&mdash...