Forging Mexico, 1821-1835.
Scholars and commentators have often found it easy to dismiss early nineteenth-century Mexican history as the start of a period of unrelieved anarchy which only the firm hand of the dictator Porfirio Diaz was able to quash after 1876. And, indeed, this period was marked by rapid changes of government, the overturning of elected presidents, and regional revolts. Such a confusing time is indeed hard to encapsulate and writing its history is not for the faint of heart.
Timothy Anna quite rightly asserts that the nineteenth century was pivotal in the formation of the Mexican nation as we know it, and indeed, that it was during these tumultuous years that Mexico was forged. He sets out to make sense of the conflicting forces which raged upon the Mexican scene and concludes that behind the overlay of anarchy certain patterns can be outlined and that, in fact, the view of anarchy had been greatly exaggerated based on the accounts of nineteenth-century Mexican elites who wished to convey just such an impression.
Anna's monograph builds on a solid foundation within the historiography and he liberally quotes both Mexican and American historians. His book does provide new analysis not only because, unlike many of the previous studies, it is not based on a single region or topic, but rather incorporates these works into an overarching synthesis. He argues that the emphasis on disorder has prevented an accurate understanding of the processes in play and in particular the importance of the provinces in forming the central government.
Of note also is the way in which the Canadian experience of federalism and the threat of separation informs his analysis. His introduction compares Canadian, American, and Mexican experiences and perceptions of federalism. If nothing else, scholars interested in such questions would profit from reading this section for the sophistication of his analysis on such a broad canvas. Anna returns to these questions throughout the book (although not in as much detail).
Much of the recent scholarship on nineteenth and early twentieth century Mexico has followed the lead of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. Anna places himself outside these trends and strongly in the camp of political history. Nations, he states, "are not so much imagined as they are forged." He explains that political institutions are formed within the "existing identities, institutions, and history of a territorial space" (p. x, see also p. 267). Despite such statements I think that his book will work well in conjunction with those works of the stream which examine nation-building through popular culture.
Anna follows another trend within very recent historiography -- one evoking some minor controversies -- which is to redefine the traditional chronology of Latin American history. He argues that the events of the early nineteenth century cannot be seen in isolation and thus he starts with a chapter on the late colonial period and the movement for independence. As such he forms part of a growing group of historians who are following regional or thematic history over the traditional temporal divide of Independence. He also brings to this chapter a depth of knowledge derived from his previous work.
This book provides a much-needed corrective to the prevailing notions regarding early nineteenth-century Mexican political history. There are countless areas where Anna's painstaking research and well-grounded analysis clarifies and contextualizes events which on the surface may have seemed illogical. The peripatetic career of Santa Anna (no relation) almost begins to seem reasonable. Anna is also very successful in drawing forth the role of the provinces and explaining the power differentials within the Mexican republic.
Anna concludes that Mexican history does not fit into the prevailing analytical currents on federalism in Latin American history. One view is that federalism was used by caudillos and the large landholders in order to maintain their grip on power. The other view is that the states used federalism in order to wrest power from the municipalities. In Mexico, according to Anna, federalism "was the means to unite the disunited, to create union and thereby to forge nationhood" (pp. 263-264). His book is a powerful argument for the importance of local history but also for the need for synthesis of these regional studies.
Anna's study represents an important addition to the scholarly literature on Mexico and it will take its place next to his other very fine and well-respected studies. Furthermore, historians interested in the questions of regionalism, federalist as opposed to centralist states, or even the notions of order and disorder in political history, should also find it of interest.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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