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  • Visions of the Emerald City: Modernity, Tradition, and the Formation of Porfirian Mexico
  • Robert M. Buffington
Visions of the Emerald City: Modernity, Tradition, and the Formation of Porfirian Mexico. By Mark Overmyer-Velázquez. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. xv, 231. Illustrations. Tables. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $79.95 cloth; $22.95 paper.

This work makes an important and engaging contribution to our understanding of peripheral modernity in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Mexico, and especially the role of provincial cities like Oaxaca "in mediating the experience of modernity" (p. 6). As Overmyer-Velázquez carefully explains, modernity is a cultural construct that emerges out of the discursive interplay between things represented as "modern" and things represented as "traditional." Straightforward as this explanation might seem (a testimony to the author's cogent exposition of a complex and often convoluted body of theory), modernity's emergence is never simple. In Oaxaca, for example, "elites and commoners alike constructed modernity physically in the streets, plazas, neighborhoods, and buildings of the Emerald City . . . and discursively through notions of class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion as displayed in things like civic regulations, newspapers, and public rituals" (p. 2). This potent combination of multiple authorship and contentious social issues meant that although modernity might have promised Oaxacans "order and progress," it produced instead all manner of "anxieties."

As might be expected, in Oaxaca as elsewhere, modernity received its initial impetus from the introduction of elite-controlled "technologies of power" (to borrow Michel Foucault's convenient descriptor) like "urban planning and architecture, social engineering, the organization and mapping of public and private spaces, and . . . photographic registries of the city's workers" (p. 2). Given the elite impetus behind the modernity project, the author sensibly devotes the book's first two chapters to the formation and consolidation of Oaxaca's ruling class, and their attempts to transform the city into a showcase for Porfirian progress: prosperous, well-ordered, hygienic, and white. Many of his conclusions, especially in these first two chapters, will come as no surprise to scholars familiar with previous works on Mexican peripheral modernities, such as Gil Joseph and Allen Wells' path-breaking study of Mérida, Summer of Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval (1996). Indeed, much of Visions of the Emerald City is devoted to the useful task of filling in the blanks on Porfirian Oaxaca. This is a worthy project in and of itself, and one which the author manages with considerable panache and admirable concision. [End Page 683]

Several of the author's contributions, however, are new (at least to this reviewer) and deserve special mention. Chapter 3, for example, explores the pivotal role of the Catholic Church, under the direction of Archbishop Eulogio Gillow, in supporting Porfirian efforts at modernization. Inspired by Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, "On the Condition of the Working Classes," with its vision of social harmony underwritten by responsible, compassionate capitalists and productive, obedient workers, Gillow's brand of social Catholicism encouraged workers to join institutions like the Catholic Worker's Circle of Oaxaca which provided modest financial and social benefits, accompanied by heavy doses of propaganda. Historians have known about Porfirio Díaz's rapprochement with the Church for some time, but this fascinating account of Gillow's reformist project and its close, if occasionally contentious, ties to the Porfirian regime reveals a shared vision of modernity (and of the importance of docile workers to that vision) that makes better sense of that rapprochement than previous interpretations which saw it as little more than neo-conservative backsliding on the part of Díaz and his científico cronies.

The final two chapters complement the highly-regarded work of Katherine Bliss and William French on prostitution in Mexico and its symbolic centrality to notions of nationhood and citizenship (as its antithesis or "constitutive other"). Chapter 4 focuses on municipal efforts to "regulate" the sex trade as city officials struggled unsuccessfully to reconcile their distrust of sexually dangerous women with the recognition that their services were a "necessary evil," especially in a city with a sizeable population of unattached young men, attracted by a late-nineteenth-century mining boom. Municipal regulation thus...


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