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  • Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture
  • Dwight B. Heath
Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture. By Tim Mitchell. New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. vii, 216. Bibliography. $23.95 paper.

Everyone who knows much about Mexican culture, contemporary or historical, must recognize that alcohol has played many important roles, but this is the first [End Page 674] book that tries to sort out the forms, meanings, functions, and significance of drinking and drunkenness in many different times and contexts. The author, a professor of Hispanic Studies, has done an innovative and creditable job of combining data, concepts, and methods from many disciplines to make sense of an intricate tapestry that interweaves economic, political, social, and psychological factors with literary, historical, and even musical themes.

Mitchell very effectively corrects some of the early, and continuing, interpretations of Aztec drinking, and shows how folk-Catholic beliefs and practices fostered binges, while many clerics officially opposed them. A brief chapter on anthropologists and alcohol provides some cross-cultural comparisons and also summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of social and cultural perspectives that others have offered on the subject. There are many themes that Mitchell explores in some depth, with neat reviews of the relevant literature and insightful (and sometimes humorous) analysis. For example, heavy episodic drinking and drunkenness are too often dismissed as meaningless or irrational, a quest for numbness and escape from reality. As Mitchell shows, however, on the contrary such drinking can fruitfully be viewed as quite rational, a quest for intensification of feeling and experience in the face of desperation. Heavy drinkers and drunkards are not unaware of the risks posed by their reliance on alcohol: spending money of which they already have too little, abusing their bodies which are not as strong and healthy as they should be, and jeopardizing social relationships that are already tenuous. But risk-taking is not usually an end in itself; it is seen as a way of seeking increased rewards.

The main thrust of Mitchell's argument is that "alcohol's power in Mexican culture . . . [may well be] that it serves to validate numerous modes of cultural confabulation" (p. 194). In explicating those modes of confabulation he lays bare the logic of binges and of some institutions that have rarely been analyzed. Pop songs, poetry, novels, and films are grist for the mill, as are popular stereotypes about national character. Too easily dismissed as manifestations of a mystical force called machismo, boisterousness, bravado, and joking in the face of death all appear to allow some sense of achieving respite from subservience, humiliation, and dependence, all too common pressures on those Latin American males who have neither wealth nor power.

Maybe it is analogous to buying a ticket for the lottery. Those who are comfortably situated can be quick to dismiss such behavior as wasteful and illogical. But the same purchase can be viewed very differently by those who have few other opportunities to invest what little one has. With this alternative perspective, "Mexican selves constructed through alcohol have more to do with mental health than with mental illness" (p. 11).

Dwight B. Heath
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island


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