The Americas 60.4 (2004) 635-636
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Juan Manuel de Rosas and his regime (1829-52) occupy a central position in Argentine political imagery and historiographic debates. To generations of liberal intellectuals and historians, he remained the "Caligula of the River Plate" and his rule a feudal and despotic prelude to the long period of liberal hegemony that lasted until the country's first military coup in 1930. To nationalist ideologues and "revisionist" historians, particularly after that date, Rosas represented a populist and anti-imperialist leader who enjoyed the support of the masses and defended national sovereignty. The tone of recent Argentine historiography has shifted from the politically charged and Manichean language of these confrontations to the dispassionate, or less bombastic, style of scholarly prose. But debates about the political and economic nature of the Rosas regime and its relationship to the lower classes continue. This book represents an enormous contribution to this specific discussion as well as to the political and social history of rural populations in nineteenth-century Latin America in general.
Indeed, contrary to common practice, this book delivers more than it promises. Its declared "subalternist" perspective and its reliance on judicial and military files of arrested militia recruits could have produced a standard tale of repression and resistance. After all, what distinguishes subaltern studies from social history "from below" is mainly its concern, one could even say obsession, with relations of domination/subordination, particularly in their colonial and "postcolonial" manifestations. And it would be impossible not to find a relentless narrative of coercion and confrontation in interrogations conducted by representatives of the state's principal institutions of social discipline. In the body of the book, more than in the introduction and conclusion, Salvatore transcends these limitations with an admirable combination of interpretive individuality and methodological ingenuity. He recognizes the drawbacks of applying a perspective developed with British India in mind to a much more open society. The "wandering" in the title, the picture of a gaucho and [End Page 635] his stallion on the front cover, and much of the book underscore the fact that the subjects of this study lived in an environment whose ratio of land and cattle to people surpassed by far that of rural India—or of Europe and most of Latin America for that matter. The author shows how this and the resulting scarcity of labor enhanced subaltern bargaining power in the market and, to a lesser degree, in the law, the military, and politics—the other three "fields of power" on which Salvatore focuses. Moreover, successful negotiation relied more on individual than on collective strategies.
Methodologically, Salvatore shuns subaltern studies' anti-empiricist postures and assembles two databases with 2,200 personal files of arrestees that allow him to measure the mobility of the Wandering Paysanos: their occupations, nativity, residence, age, military experience, and even the fabric, color, and style of their clothes. These factors he analyses in a particularly ingenious chapter appropriately titled "Class by Appearance." One of the databases also provides a useful statistical reconstruction of rural crime during the period. The other main methodological thrust mines the declarations made by the interrogated prisoners and deserters. Although mediated, the testimonies are unusually rich and Salvatore adroitly combines them with other sources to reconstruct popular attitudes concerning work, authority, war, personal dignity and rights, patriotic and familial duty, Rosismo's political rituals and rhetoric of egalitarian republicanism, and the market. Regarding the latter, Salvatore reveals the prevalence of a moral economy rooted in surprisingly positive attitudes towards liberalism and market culture that debunks the traditional portrayals of gauchos as victims of capitalist modernity.
Overall, the merit of this book lies not, as the blurbs on the back cover proclaim, in being grounded "in the best tradition of subaltern studies" or in "redeeming" the promise of this perspective, but in moving beyond...