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  • Bandits, Captives, Heroines, and Saints: Cultural Icons of Mexico's Northwest Borderlands
  • David Peterson
Bandits, Captives, Heroines, and Saints: Cultural Icons of Mexico's Northwest Borderlands. By Robert McKee Irwin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 331 pages, $67.50/$24.50.

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Robert Runyon. LADY READING.

Photograph from 5″ × 7″ glass-plate negative. With permission from the Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Image nr. 05686.

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Winner of WLA's 2008 Thomas J. Lyon Book Award, Robert Irwin's Bandits, Captives, Heroines, and Saints will appeal to multiple audiences, whether specialists in Mexican/Latin American/borderlands scholarship or nonspecialists interested in western studies generally. Specialists and established scholars will perhaps discover a potentially powerful new methodology that promises to reinvigorate US/Mexico borderlands research. Nonspecialists and students will find an excellent introduction to Mexicanist approaches and the various borderland cultures Irwin explores as well as an equally excellent model for understanding and appreciating the diversity and complexity of cultures on both sides of the border and beyond.

Chapter 1 provides a useful and engaging overview of borderlands studies. Irwin cogently critiques US borderlands scholarship, focusing on the field's landmark publications and how, while succeeding in drawing attention to neglected US minority cultures, they frequently produce a monolithic, el norte- and English-language-based vision of Chicano/a culture. For Irwin, such works, while admirable and important, reflect a sometimes narrowed vision of south of the border cultures: "When Mexico does enter American studies discourse, it [is too often] … reduced to its national stereotypes, and the cultural diversity that defines Mexico's northern borderlands is largely ignored" (11). Academic practices on the other side of the border, we learn, follow a similar pattern with the heterogeneous and distinct cultures of northwestern Mexico often becoming subsumed into a monolithic, Mexican "national paradigm" or into a still broader monolithic culture within Latin Americanist scholarship (16).

Irwin's book seeks to provide an alternative to what he views as these limited, and limiting, ways of understanding various northwestern borderland cultures and their traditions. Chapter 1, for example, provides a useful historical overview of the various cultural, social, and economic cross-border links, emphasizing in turn the perspective of Mexican norteños; gringo filibusterers; regional indigenous groups, including the Seris, Yaquis, Apaches, Mayos, Pápagos, Pimas, and Ópatas; and various northwestern Mexico immigrant populations (including Anglo-Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans, and Asians). [End Page 191]

The subsequent chapters examine in turn four important late-nineteenth-century cultural icons: Joaquin Murrieta, Lola Casanova, the heroines of Guaymas, and Teresa Urrea. In each case, Irwin provides a synopsis of their emergence from historical and cultural perspectives and then carefully traces their transformations into "products of history, legend, gossip, and literary imagination" and how various individuals and groups harness these products (newspaper accounts, historiography, novels, corridos, films, poetry, academic scholarship, theater, and so forth) to serve various, often conflicting local, regional, national, and transnational interests and aims (xii).

Irwin's carefully researched work leads to complex readings of these figures and their traditions that helpfully eschew oversimplification and easy binaries while remaining refreshingly accessible. At times, the text may seem to the casual reader to get bogged down in too much negative criticism of existing scholarship. He spends a paragraph critiquing, for example, the various (mis)spellings of Joaquin Murrieta's name. Such seems the stuff of pedantic endnotes; however, Irwin's approach is important to his overall methodology, for the variant spellings point to variant cultural traditions as well as reflect different, sometimes harmful, ideological work. His use of negative criticism, then, serves to reveal how academic research is as much engaged in the process of ideologically driven cultural production as any novel or newspaper story and that scholars' choices—even those as seemingly benign as spelling—can inadvertently perpetuate, if not contribute directly to, the erasure of the very cultural diversities they seek to celebrate.

The legends of Murrieta, Casanova, the heroines of Guaymas, Urrea, and others like them are, to borrow from Sherman Alexie, "stories we all should know" but mostly do not...


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