The Americas 60.4 (2004) 636-638
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In the abundant literature on the Mexican Revolution, the 1920s remain relatively unexplored, the civil wars of the 1910s and the social and political reforms of the 1930s having garnered far more scholarly attention. Yet the 1920s were crucial years in the formation of the postrevolutionary state, characterized as they were by multiple and varied struggles over anti-clericalism, education, property rights, and the creation of popular organizations. Christopher R. Boyer's account of the emergence, [End Page 636] dynamics, and impact of the agrarista movement in the Mexican state of Michoacán makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this important period in Mexican history.
Boyer sets out to explain how relatively poor people living in the countryside of Michoacán ("rural folk") came to call themselves campesinos, a now ubiquitous term that was seldom employed by anyone prior to the 1920s. He argues that the identity of "campesino" was first adopted by militant agrarista leaders as a political category connoting support for class struggle and anti-clericalism in the effort to recuperate land and create a revolutionary citizenry in the countryside. By the 1940s, according to Boyer, it came to be employed far more generally as a form of cultural identification, becoming much more inclusive and compatible with multiple identities (ethnicity, gender, religiosity) while losing much of its militancy. What Boyer seeks to explain is the process through which a radical and exclusionary form of political identification, employed by a movement that never had more than minority support, came to be adopted as a form of cultural identification by the majority of rural Michoacanos.
As a political history of agrarismo in Michoacán, the book provides an outstanding analysis of the ways in which struggles over land and political power at the local level interacted with and affected politics and institution building at the state and national level. Throughout much of the book, Boyer focuses on the agrarista leaders themselves, on their often conflictual relationships with radical politicians and fellow villagers alike, and on their employment and manipulation of revolutionary discourse generated "from above" in their quest for both land and for political power at the local level and beyond. Boyer's skillful blending of local, state, and national politics rests on a prodigious amount of archival research, supplemented by interviews with veterans of the political battles of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Apart from a brief and by now familiar review of the major periods in the historiography of the Mexican Revolution, Boyer makes little effort to place his work in the context of relevant debates over nineteenth century liberalism, the construction and mobilization of collective identities, and/or state formation, Mexican and otherwise. While this may be viewed as a plus by many readers, I think the book would have made a much stronger and clearer contribution to our understanding of these issues had he done so. In addition, I am not entirely convinced that Boyer completely succeeds in making his argument with respect to the transformation of "campesino" from a political to a cultural identity.
First, there is very little discussion of the concepts themselves, and even less of the differences between them; my best guess is that Boyer considers political identities to be primarily instrumental in nature and cultural ones to be more affective and perhaps more authentic. Second, in making his case, he has a great deal to tell us about the agrarista leaders and the employment of "campesino" as a political identity; here the actors are individuals (Primo Tapia of Naranja, Ernesto Prado of La Cañada) and we learn much of value about what they actually said and did over [End Page 637] the course of the 1920s. When it comes to discussing the term campesino as a cultural identification, however, the actors become...