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Social Inequality in Oaxaca: A History of Resistance and Change.

It is often true that a well realized scholarly work falling short of an overly ambitious goal is ultimately more satisfying and important than a more narrowly defined study which succeeds completely within its modest bounds. That is certainly the case with the book in hand, which essentially attempts a social history of an important Mexican city over several millennia. In the success column, the anthropologist authors have given us a convincing, eloquent, and humane portrait of charming and somewhat sleepy Oaxaca, skillfully combining ethnographic participant-observation, survey research, life history collection, and the synthesis of historical and social science literatures. On the other hand, the plasticity of their central theme--urban social mobility over several centuries, with a concentration on the period since 1950 or so--makes for a study stronger on ethnographic description and middle-level sociological generalization than on broad explanatory discussion. Still, on the whole the book's considerable virtues far outweigh its faults.

In pre-Columbian times what later came to be the city of Oaxaca lay at the center of a major population concentration in southeastern Mexico. As a Spanish colonial city it attained a degree of economic importance, particularly because of the cochineal trade, but throughout its history its function has primarily been that of a mercantile and service center for the surrounding region, variably integrated with the larger Mesoamerican and world economies.(1) Indeed, the major thesis of the book is that cycles of intensified integration--in the late sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the era of Porfirio Diaz (ca. 1880-1910), and the period since about 1950 (known as the "Mexican Miracle" up until the difficulties of the mid-1970s)--have imposed on the city recurrent epochs of sharpening social stratification, calling forth concomitant social coping mechanisms and political struggles embracing all social groups. Periods of relative isolation or involution, on the other hand, have meant social decompression. As a secondary city, modern Oaxaca has a rather truncated class structure, less stratified (although also less prosperous) than many Mexican or Latin American cities. All this is not so much wrong as unsurprising, especially to historians and Latin American regionalists. The book's major contribution, therefore, lies less in the originality of its central idea than in its descriptive ethnography.

The book's substantive discussion begins with a nice social history of the city from pre-colonial times (the discussion of colonial social stratification is actually a bit flaccid) up to about 1950, the take-off point of the most recent cycle of increasing differentiation. While this is interesting in and of itself, the focus of the book is so clearly on the late twentieth century that one wonders why the authors devoted several score pages to material largely left behind in subsequent discussion. There follow richly detailed chapters on the social geography of the city, the contemporary economy, community-level adaptation to resurgent social differentiation, the place of family and household in patterns of social mobility, and a final chapter setting out the mobility cycles of four households as portrayed in individual life histories. These household histories are among the most telling of the book's evocations of recent Oaxacan life, illustrating clearly the differences in levels of material well-being over time which the authors take to be the basic criterion of social mobility. Drawn one each from the four basic categories of the very poor, minimum wage, aspiring, and middle/elite groups, the first-person life narratives make the authors' attached glosses on them actually look rather silly. Following on a well written and highly concentrated summary and conclusion is a bibliographical essay of about ten pages particularly useful, one would think, for undergraduate students.

The study's most interesting findings, as I have said, refer to patterns of social mobility in the last two generations. Among these are the hardly surprising but interestingly analyzed importance of education and occupational placement in determining social status in Oaxaca across the four basic social groupings established by the authors. The factors determining whether families at various social levels make the substantial investment in human capital implied by educating their children are treated in one of the most interesting ongoing discussions in the book. This is matched by fascinating descriptions of the sort of informal interpersonal networking vital to career advancement, and to the role of families rather than individuals in the cumulative processes of upward mobility. On the other hand, the rather abbreviated discussion of the middle class throughout might lead one to entertain the possibility that the study is less about social mobility as such than about the life of the working poor, a suspicion born out by the faintly unsympathetic treatment of the upper middle-class Abel (a successful gas station owner) and his family in Chapter 7. Also, to conflate "middle-class" and elite groups as the authors do, even in a middling provincial city like Oaxaca, seems an odd procedure to anyone who knows Latin American cities. Another interesting finding is the central importance of the post-Revolutionary Mexican state in underwriting the upward mobility of the "aspiring" and middle/elite groups, primarily through the expansion of the federal bureaucracy and the national infrastructure, and injections of capital in social services and housing. In view of this fact, it is interesting that the steady drum-beat of anti-government attitudes manifest across all four social groups in the life histories calls forth so little comment on the part of the authors. One is also struck by the stubborness--and this emerges especially in the life histories--with which individual differences in capacity for work, in self-discipline, and in talent emerge across social groupings no matter what the socio-economic environmental factors in play in individual lives. This also calls forth little comment from the authors, perhaps because of its illiberal resonances.

Whatever criticisms one might level as to scope, method, or substance, however, the authors have produced a highly readable, detailed, and nuanced treatment of social mobility in a Latin American city. They touch on family life, politics, economic development, and the role of the post-Revolutionary Mexican state, among other themes, all the while attempting to keep in sight the broader currents of regional and national history in ways that will appeal to readers across disciplinary lines.

Eric Van Young University of California, San Diego


1. The authors err in calling the Oaxaca region the Mexican colony's most important economic area during the period 1750-1810 (p.22); the silver mining complex at Guanajuato with the surrounding Bajio agricultural zone, to the north of Mexico City, was arguably the most important region. They are also mistaken in calling Oaxaca the third largest city in the colony by 1800 or so (p. 23); its population was exceeded by that of the viceregal capital, Puebla, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, and Zacatecas.
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Author:Van Young, Eric
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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