- Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship by Trevor Stack
The people of Crete, Saki wrote, produce more history than they can consume locally. The people Trevor Stack writes about have quite the opposite problem: they can’t produce [End Page 330] enough local history. This is a problem because history, in small-town Jalisco—and across provincial Mexico—is not seen as a source of misery, something that a Fukuyama or a Ford think best ended for all concerned, but rather as a limited good and as a source of the inalienable prestige of cultura. Stack is interested in why this should be. Why, by his assessment, is national and local history more valued in Mexico than in many other countries? Why does knowing a town’s history lend individuals eminence? Why do collectivities strive to be pueblos mágicos rather than pueblos banales?
Stack conducted his research over more than a decade in Tapalpa, a small town in the hills of Jalisco, and to a lesser extent in nearby Atacco. His many interlocutors took a blissfully Rankean view of history: it was what in fact happened. As such, it was distinct from two other genres of knowledge of the past, namely legend, which recounts good (if woolly) tales of a more distant past, and gossip, which tells good (if worryingly intrusive) tales of a more immediate past. History was duller than these rivals, but it was also worthier, and the historically literate—local politicians, municipal chroniclers, teachers, lawyers, priests, the odd entrepreneur, and Stack himself—were seen as good citizens. “History was not only about nations” (p. 90); it was also about being citizens of towns with their own identities and their own public arena, with the cultura that distinguishes townsmen from peasants.
There is a certain irony here, in that while history was portrayed as a higher calling, free from the taint of politics, knowing it was in reality a route to advancement. Stack demonstrates this neatly by tracing not just winners like the Tapalpans who accrued regional status through knowing history, but also losers like the group of workers up the dirt road in Attaco whose civic group tried to produce history and largely failed. History, Stack shows, is a strategic resource, but one that is difficult to grasp. Shaping it requires the raw material of ruins, old buildings, and old people with memories and the events to register in them. It requires priests to forswear supernatural interventions for secular causation. More prosaically, it requires access to travel, and archives, and the networks that give chroniclers a public voice. The extent to which provincial Mexicans profit from history is determined, in short, by their ethnicity, class, and place.
This research dovetails with the work of scholars such as Claudio Lomnitz and Florencia Mallon. Newer to Latin Americanists is the book’s second idea, that amateur local historians are not necessarily all that bothered about linking their town’s stories to a national story, whether in terms of inclusion or exclusion. Tapalpa’s history makers have concerns that are tangible in that they must create and retain a credible local status, and abstract in that they at the same time attain credible status as members of the “lettered city” (p. 34). Stack sees them in the light of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s idea of the “rooted cosmopolitan” (p. 62), an identity to which he argues that many are called and few are chosen. The hierarchy of cultural snobbery is clear: at the top, there is the cronista anointed by politicians and regional papers, juggling earthy authenticity with metropolitan panache; at the bottom, the luckless “indians” of subject villages, or migrant workers in the fields of California. Connections with any canonical national story are largely irrelevant: local substance and universal style are what count. [End Page 331]
This is provocative, given the emphasis in historical and anthropological literature on the schemes of both local intellectuals and local politicians to connect their...