The Americas 59.1 (2002) 119-120
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Theodore Vincent's book is more than a biography of Vicente Guerrero. Vincent shows the importance of race in early nineteenth-century Mexican politics, and he also makes arguments about the legacy of Guerrero. The result is a book that occasionally frustrates but also makes some very important points about Mexican society and politics in the period.
Most of the book sets out the context in which Guerrero rose to prominence and describes his colorful career as an insurgent leader and post-independence politician. Guerrero, a muleteer in 1810, demonstrated great political and military ability during the independence war, and by the end he was the most important surviving insurgent. Using this springboard, he became a crucial figure in the 1820s, rising to the presidency before he was driven from office and eventually executed. [End Page 119]
Vincent argues convincingly that Guerrero and many other important insurgent leaders arose from a mixed race milieu that incubated much of what would become Mexican popular culture. In this milieu different biological and cultural ancestries mingled, and many individuals built social networks that transcended racial categories. When early insurgent leaders propagandized in 1810-1812, the rejection of racial categories was by far their most radical argument, and it was precisely this argument that made their rebellion attractive to many people who were neither demonstrably "white" nor settled indigenous villagers.
Guerrero's populist politics after the war were a logical continuation of this struggle; both during and after the war much criticism of insurgents and populist leaders used racial innuendo and epithets. In essence, race continued to be central to Mexican politics even though populist leaders like Guerrero declined to make explicitly racial arguments. Mexico's relatively wealthy, white elite continued to hold itself aloof from supposedly barbarous masses. This divide remained important for the nineteenth century and beyond. Vincent demonstrates, for instance, the importance of race in the visions of Mexico constructed by populist liberal leaders during the War of the Reform and afterward, including Guerrero's famous grandson, the historian, politician, and novelist Vicente Riva Palacio. Vincent is less convincing when he moves further forward in time and claims that most of the populist forces at work in Mexico in the twentieth-century share a tight connection to the legacy of Vicente Guerrero.
The story Vincent tells in this book is often a compelling one, but there are significant problems in the way he tells it. He harshly criticizes some scholars, sometimes for their unselfconscious repetition of the racial stereotypes in their sources but sometimes for reasons that seem much weaker. Vincent works hard to reconstruct the social worlds of the actors at the center of his story, but at times his reconstruction of those social worlds is a bit too imaginative. For example, he often repeats as fact the colorful but often dubious stories told by both nineteenth-century and twentieth-century historians about Guerrero and others. Vincent also recreates dialogues, and although sometimes these exchanges seem quite plausible there is little evidence of the specific things said. Vincent makes minor factual errors. Finally, the narrative is sometimes difficult to follow because the author often inserts information that is tangential to the basic arguments of various chapters.
In the end, this is a very provocative book. Vincent has combined years of diligent research and an obvious passion for history to create something unique. Behind the sometimes harsh judgments and naïve celebration of achievements, Vincent sets out an interpretation that offers two important contributions that future researchers should take very seriously. First, Vincent rescues key portions of the often hidden presence of African cultural and biological heritage in Mexican history. Second, Vincent argues that our understanding of the independence wars and the politics that followed can be significantly enriched by a more careful consideration of the importance of race and...