- The Illusion of Ignorance: Constructing the American Encounter with Mexico, 1877–1920
Educators have long noted Americans’ lack of knowledge about the world. In her book, The Illusion of Ignorance: Constructing the America Encounter with Mexico, 1877–1920, historian Janice Jayes argues that this lack of interest has been used to excuse “the awkward inconsistencies” in American foreign policy and to simplify the troubling outcomes of our unequal relations with other countries (223). Jayes focuses on U.S.-Mexico relations during the rule of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911) because she believes it was during this period that Americans first began to cultivate this “illusion of ignorance” that would come to influence American interaction with the rest of the world. The book is divided into three sections and contains eight chapters, along with an introduction and epilogue.
Part one, Diplomatic Fictions, contains three chapters and focus on the up-and-down career of John W. Foster, who served as the U.S. Minister to Mexico from 1873 to 1880. Although Foster was closely linked to U.S. policy in Mexico, and particularly the withholding of recognition to the Díaz government, Jayes demonstrates that his influence greatly declined over time due to advances in communication and transportation that ended his monopoly on information. These changes allowed the Díaz administration to put forth an alternative narrative of U.S.-Mexico relations through a public relations campaign that appealed directly to the American public. Díaz was successful in attaining official recognition and foreign investment, but she argues that it was Foster and the U.S. who prevailed in imposing their vision for world order. In his two-volume memoirs (1909), Foster reinterpreted his part in U.S.-Mexican relations. In addition to giving himself a more prominent role, he provided Americans with a simplified model of the world in which American foreign policy and the U.S. model of development dominated.
Part two addresses the Mexican government’s attempt to advance an image of the country as a progressive republican nation and to gain international recognition of its sovereignty. The campaign was also devised, in part, to counteract the negative and racist images of Mexico in the American press that had been used to validate increasing American hegemony in the region. Chapter four focuses on the highly anticipated arrival of eighty American businessmen who had been invited to Mexico to encourage trade and foreign investment. The following chapter then discusses the government’s effort to promote itself as a “sister republic” to the United States. That motif was particularly highlighted during the visit of former President Ulysses S. Grant in 1880. The Díaz administration hoped Grant’s trip would attract widespread attention in the United States, but the scant press coverage they received only perpetuated stereotypes and did little to increase American knowledge of Mexico. Furthermore although American investment arrived, the economic partnership and political security Mexico hoped for never materialized. [End Page 217]
The final section addresses U.S.-Mexico cultural relations through the prism of tourism, international expositions in the U.S., and the writings of Americans during the Mexican Revolution. While the Mexican government strove to promote an image of a modern nation during these interactions, Jayes shows that it had little control over how it was viewed. Rather than perceiving Mexico as a coequal, Americans instead preferred a more simplistic view of a “primitive Mexican wonderland” that still endures today (xvi).
The Illusion of Ignorance is an original and well-written book that utilizes a wide variety of travel accounts from the era. The author reveals how stereotypical images of Mexico not only served to de-legitimize Mexico’s sovereignty, but also influenced how Americans saw the world. Thus, although the focus of the book is on the Porfiriatio and its aftermath, it sheds light on our present-day interaction with the world that is expressed in a combination of “interest and aversion” (3).