- A Nation of Villages: Riot and Rebellion in the Mexican Huasteca, 1750-1850
Although Benedict Anderson's name nowhere appears in the index of Michael Ducey's study of peasant disturbances and politics in eastern central Mexico during the "Age of Revolution" (my term, not Ducey's), the question of whether, when, and how rural Mexicans, particularly indigenous villagers, began imagining themselves part of a nation haunts every page. The author is well known in Mexico as profoundly knowledgeable about the colonial and early national history of the fascinating region known as the Huasteca, which embraces parts of the modern states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and Hidalgo, and stretches from the tropical lowlands of the Gulf coast to the cold uplands of the central plateau. Prominent among an important cohort of mid-career scholars in this country (including John Tutino, Charles Walker, Peter Guardino, Richard Warren, Andrés Reséndez and several others, many of them trained, interestingly, at the University of Chicago) doing some of the most sophisticated research and writing on Spanish American political culture during the transition from colonial to republican regimes, Ducey has given us a skillfully wrought and detailed picture of how peasant collective violence—"politics by other means"—both reflected and shaped Indian villagers' adaptation to the changing political circumstances of the time. Ducey's goal is to show how the Mexican state was built from the top down, as the hegemonic project of elite groups, and the Mexican nation from the bottom up, as the process of subalterns leveraging their control over local politics by means of their rights as citizens, increasingly speaking the language of republicanism and nationalism. What one sees in Ducey's study is yet another testimony to the apotheosis of peasant agency very characteristic of these works, its venue the post-Independence municipio (municipality), the nation writ small.
Although the primary sources available for this sort of study (official reports of rural disturbances, litigation, criminal court records, and so forth) do not always yield the sort of detailed information one could wish about who the subaltern participants in rural disturbances were, and what they thought they were doing, Ducey has read his documents deeply. Following an introductory chapter in which he outlines [End Page 271] the historiographical state of play regarding issues of peasant agency, rural class alliances, and the problematics of nation-building, he moves on to an extremely interesting pair of chapters on late colonial riots in the region in response to the "second colonization" embodied by the Bourbon Reforms, and to the ways in which the prolonged guerrilla struggle during the decade 1810-1821 broke down old patterns of elite domination, introduced new idioms of politics and citizenship, and allowed for the emergence of new political entrepreneurs. The last two chapters detail cycles of republican-era rural political violence in which the new rules of the game became clearer, the first the Olarte rebellion in the Papantla area in 1836-1839, the second the so-called Caste War of the Huasteca, 1845-1850, which became entangled in interesting ways with the U.S. invasion of the region during the Mexican-American War. In his accounts of this century Ducey is particularly careful to portray the local power struggles and odd cross-class alliances that prevent facile generalization.
The problem with making these arguments convincingly is not so much Ducey's, who reasons closely and struggles valiantly to connect evidence and interpretation, but the lack of documentation as to what subaltern political actors actually thought they were doing in these episodes of political violence. There is a strong tendency to focus on the actions and discourse of elite political actors, and to take these as a proxy for what their followers thought. This is not only a methodological and conceptual issue throughout the work, but an empirical one, as well. In his intriguing treatment of the Independence struggle, for example, Ducey uses leaders' actions and statements...