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Summer of Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval: Elite Politics and Rural Insurgency in Yucatan, 1876-1915.

By Allen Wells and Gilbert M. Joseph (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. x plus 406pp.).

Fruit of a long scholarly collaboration, and a profound knowledge of Yucatecan history embodied in part in previous major monographs by both authors, this new book by Allen Wells and Gilbert Joseph marks an unmistakable advance not only in the history of Yucatan and the Mexican Revolution, but also in the study of subaltern resistance and the methodological approach to popular political culture. Seamlessly and eloquently written, the work is also closely argued, deeply researched, and tellingly but unobtrusively theorized. Particularly valuable both for the specialized and more general reader is the running discussion in the text and notes of current debates concerning the method and theory of what have come to be known as subaltern studies. Here the authors take the position that while the motives of ordinary people in revolt are not easily knowable, they are nonetheless discernible through a careful, layered reading of the texts available, and are finally best explained with reference to material conditions in the rural world, even if politics are the medium for the expression of peasants' ambitions and complaints. Throughout, the authors seem caught in a sort of dilemma common to many students of subaltern movements. While they are theoretically (and to some extent empirically) convinced that peasant protesters and rebels have their own active political consciousness and agendas, and can function in wider contexts, they need to explain at the same time why their revolts often (certainly in this case) remain so fragmented and their alliances so brittle. If in the end a critical reader does not quite find herself or himself at the very epicenter of Maya campesino thinking about the political world, Wells and Joseph have brought us closer to the motives and ideas of common people in revolt than any other recent study of popular protest one can call to mind. The untravelled distance finally results not from any failure of good intention, research, or imaginative nerve on the authors' parts, but rather from the elliptical nature of the documents at their disposal and the well known bias of such documents in favor of the literate and powerful as opposed to the uninscribed and poor.

Wells and Joseph show clearly that humble rural people both inside and out of the peninsula's famous zone of henequen (sisal fiber) production were anything but passive during the years leading up to the Revolution of 1910, and that they were protesting their disenfranchisement, poverty, and oppression by the wealthy planter elite and its political henchmen long before the Revolution had to be "imported" (Joseph's formulation) with the troops of General Salvador Alvarado in 1915. The authors have made particularly careful and imaginative use of criminal records to analyze forms of rural protest and "everyday resistance" during the "gilded age" (Wells' phrase in a previous work) of the Porfirian plantocracy. Even so, their narrative is better served in regard to the political and economic activities of Yucatan's landed elite than for the laborers and peasants whose protests in the years 1911-1913 evoked fears of another caste war like the one that had racked the peninsula since before mid-century. The authors do manage several difficult tasks superbly, however. Among these are their tacking back and forth smoothly between political events at the national, state, and local levels; their untangling of the camarilla politics associated with Porfirian planters and revolutionary reformers such as Olegario Molina, Avelino Montes, Jose Maria Pino Suarez, and other major figures of the period; and their skillful reconstruction of forms of popular mobilization and demobilization in the countryside by the state's various contending elite political factions between 1909 and 1915.

The first several chapters of the book deal in fascinating detail with intra-elite rivalries in Yucatan provoked by such issues as the federalization of the resource-rich territory of Quintana Roo and the suppression of the Maya rebels of the cult of the Speaking Cross (cruzob). Their discussion of the involvement of Yucatecan planters, particularly the Molina-Montes clan, and their analysis of Porfirio Diaz' political regime and its impact at the state level yield in synthetic power and acuity to no account I know of. The disequilibrium in state politics created by Diaz' later developmental policies, the rise to hegemony of Olegario Molina as governor and then in national office after 1900, and the shakeout of many henequen planters in the profitable but difficult market conditions after 1905 compounded the existing intra-elite rivalries and created an opening for popular protest in the countryside. The rise of Francisco Madero's challenge to the aging dictator in 1910 sharpened the political polarization among elite factions in the state and prompted them in their fratricidal struggle to incorporate rural people and artisans as political clienteles, a widening of political conflict which backfired as the popular mobilization spun out of control and developed its own agenda after 1911. In analyzing popular action in the countryside the authors construct biographies for a number of local and regional rebel leaders (e.g., Pedro Crespo) who later founded long-lived cacicazgos and embodied a mediating function between elite politicians and common people. Forms of popular mobilization, such as local jacqueries and "banditry" (a label universally applied by embattled regimes to delegitimize popular opposition groups), receive detailed description and sophisticated analysis, particularly their overwhelmingly localist loyalties, hyper-violence, and revanchisme. After the fall of Madero and his vice president, the yucateco politician Pino Suarez, whose neo-porfirista governing style and socially conservative reformism alienated both elite and popular groups, the still dominant plantocracy (henequen production and prices remained healthy throughout most of the period) struck a social pact with the usurper Victoriano Huerta to fend off a widening of popular rebellion. Even as the Yucatecan countryside was demobilized by mid-1913, however, the Huertista regime's pact with planters began to unravel because of his taxation, conscription, and other policies. A renewed but troubled "spring" for the planter elite ended on the points of Alvarado's invading bayonets in 1915. Asking finally what changed during Yucatan's seasons of upheaval, Wells and Joseph convincingly conclude that although the planter regime enjoyed a brief respite between 1913 and 1915, patterns of social deference in the countryside were irremediably shattered and a sort of parapolitical popular enfranchisement was created with the rise of local popular leaders and the memory of rural rebellion.

Eric Van Young University of California, San Diego
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Van Young, Eric
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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