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  • Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship by Trevor Stack
  • Amy Starecheski
Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship. By Trevor Stack. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012. 168 pp. Hardbound, $45.00; Softbound, $30.00.

In this book, anthropologist Trevor Stack presents some of the insights gained during over twenty years of intermittent fieldwork in a small town, Tapalpa, and a neighboring village, Atacco, both a few hours from Guadalajara, Mexico. What began as a microhistory of the 1926 Cristero rebellion, in which Catholics rebelled against the new postrevolutionary Mexican government, became an inquiry into much larger questions: What kind of knowledge is history? And what does it do for people?

Oral historians have long wrestled with these questions. One of the foundational arguments of our field, that what people misremember is important because it tells us about their desires and dreams, is based on the idea that history is something people make use of to describe and shape their social worlds (see, for example, Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991]). Stack’s work further explores this idea through ethnographic research, integrating the study of oral history with research on other forms of history making, such as archival research, history writing, and informal discussions of the past.

In Knowing History in Mexico, Stack focuses on the relationship between history and citizenship, particularly urban citizenship. While citizenship has long been thought of as a legal relationship between a person and a nation, more recent scholarship has focused on cities as crucial arenas in which people participate and make claims about society. For many, including some of Stack’s informants, belonging to a city is more significant than belonging to a nation, especially in terms of everyday life.

History, Stack argues, is an important coin in the transactions that produce urban citizenship. Stack finds, first, that part of what defines a town is that it is both a place whose history can be known and a place in which history can be produced. Having history, however, is of course more than simply having a past; it is having a past that can be articulated in certain privileged ways. For example, during the period of Stack’s fieldwork, the village of Atacco was smaller and poorer than the neighboring town of Tapalpa, but the popular historical narrative in the area was that Atacco had once been the town—even the county seat—and Tapalpa the backwater, a lone hacienda. Atacco residents, trying to reclaim their village’s lost status, attempted, as one part of their campaign, to document Atacco’s long history. With few written documents upon which to draw, they began conducting interviews with local elders. Stack found, however, that they struggled to turn these interviews into an authoritative historical narrative. Lacking the skills and social capital required to analyze and legitimate their [End Page 391] interviews and, in effect, turn them into the powerful primary source documents we call oral histories, the would-be historians floundered.

This brings us to another key argument of the book: knowing history both produces and requires what the residents of Tapalpa and Atacco call cultura, which we might call “being cultured.” Those with cultura have a greater capacity to produce histories that both the public and expert historians will recognize as history, while producing histories (especially writing books, but also telling about history) can lend a person cultura. Having cultura is part of being a good citizen and is a prerequisite for assuming a public leadership role. Telling stories about the past is not sufficient to produce cultura; the stories must be told in a particular way and be particular types of stories to count as history. History, here, is a public genre explicitly in contrast to the less-prestigious private oral genre of gossip or the entertaining stories of legend. Tapalpans understood history as an authoritative account of a sealed-over past, as opposed to the still-raw stories of gossip.

Stack’s description of the status hierarchies and different historical practices of academic historians, local historians, so-called “municipal...