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Wealth and Power in Provincial Mexico: Michoacan from the Late Colony to the Revolution.

Wealth and Power in Provincial Mexico: Michoacan from the Late Colony to the Revolution. By Margaret Chowning (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. xiv plus 477 pp. $60.00).

Most of us regard it as a sociological truism that the economic and political spheres of life affect each other intimately. It is surprisingly rare, however, for a locally or regionally focused study actually to portray convincingly the relationship of ideology and public action to economic structure. Margaret Chowning's excellent book on the economic elite of the state of Michoacan, in western-central Mexico, during the nineteenth century accomplishes this through deep research, judicious generalization, and graceful writing. Although highly quantitative in its approach, Chowning's study is never offputting in the deployment of its technical apparatus, while the author is very honest about the limits of her data, even making a virtue of them. Among the many delights of the book, for example, are the passages in which she contrasts the often lugubrious views of contemporary observers of economic life--be they liberal politicians or famous travelers like Fanny Calderon de la Barca--with the actual facts as rev ealed by notary records, testaments, inventories, and other primary sources, making of the slippage itself an indicator of cultural and political attitudes. While the book does not make a breakthrough in a theoretical or methodological sense, it does represent a highly successful exemplar of a well established and fruitful genre in Latin American and Mexican history--the study of the economic, social, and political reproduction of a regional elite. Where it is most innovative, even playfully so, is in certain aspects of its narrative organization, in the periodization that frames the narrative, and in its portrayal of the cycles of Mexican economic history in the century after 1780 or so. It is a work of accomplished historical imagination, broad vision, and intellectual sophistication, well worth reading not only for specialists in the Latin American field, but also by students of elite groups, nineteenth-century politics, and economic and social history more broadly, especially within the Euro-Atlantic worl d.

Chowning opens her narrative with a delightful description of the regional capital of Valladolid (later rechristened Morelia, for an Independence-era hero) as it would have appeared in about 1800, two decades before independence from Spain, to a traveler coming from Mexico City, some 200 kilometers to the southeast. She portrays the easy rhythms of late colonial life in a major provincial city dominated by an elite of landowning and merchant families, mostly creole but with a substantial number of Old World-born members, situating these groups in the upper two-ninths of city's population and justifying the boundary with reasonable criteria based on wealth. Chowning describes the well established social hierarchy, the place of the church as an institutional entity and of religious sensibility in the everyday lives of the city's populace, a civil society dominated by the essentially conservative political values of the Iberian colonial world, and the burgeoning influence of Enlightenment ideas. Her description of the city and its region closes, and each of the following chapters is preceded and the book as a whole concluded, with a highly evocative essay based on the history of an important local family, the Huartes and their descendants, whose rising and falling fortunes exemplified with reasonable fidelity the ebb and flow of the region's economic and political fortunes over the century 1780-1880 or so. This is a period more conventionally broken by historians at independence from Spain (1821), the advent of the great mid-century liberal Reform (1855), or the rise of the modernizing dictator Porfirio Diaz (1876), although in emphasizing cyclical movement and continuity Chowning by no means discounts the importance of political events. Alternating within them between economic and political matters, subsequent chapters deal with the Spanish imperial crisis eventuating in Mexican Independence, the substantial collapse of the regional economy in the fifteen years or so after Independence, the revival of the 183 Os an d 1840s, the political ferment, upward middle-class mobility, and elite stasis of the 1840s and 1850s, the economic downturn and economic realignments of the 1850s and 1860s, and the railroad- and banking-stimulated revival of the "Porfinian boom" from the middle-1870s or so.

Chowning's extremely interesting conclusions help us to fill in, albeit within a specific regional context, much of the historiographic black hole constituted by the half-century between Independence and the rise of Diaz. Among her most striking findings is the hitherto little suspected economic dynamism of the western-central regional economy during the two cycles of economic recovery she delineates in the 1830s-40s and 1870s-80s. Another is her acute analysis of the changes in political alignments, powerholding, and wealth distribution that occurred with the liberal Reform of the 1 850s, processes that stimulated the rise of a new political and property-holding middle class, and the later bifurcation of the liberals into a more populist, rural, caudillo-dominated group and an urban-based, republican (though not radically democratic) group of progressive modernizers. In a book as ambitious as this one it is not difficult to find some flaws, of course. For example, so elite-centered is the research that commo n people in city and country revert to the position of political objects, as though the new social history or subaltern studies had never developed. To be fair, however, the author delimits her area of inquiry quite clearly in the beginning, so this emphasis is hardly a surprise. On the other hand, even with the wave-like oscillations Chowning portrays in the region's economic fortunes, it is difficult to accept completely the revisionist slant of her findings, or fully to give up the conventional wisdom that the period in Mexico between 1820 and about 1880 was primarily one of contraction (or "decompression," as another scholar of modern Mexico has called it) interspersed with brief reversals, rather than one embracing such distinct cycles. Still, these caveats shrink to relatively minor criticisms in the face of Chowning's considerable accomplishment in knitting together economic and political developments for an important but understudied area of Mexico, framing her study with a subtle research agenda and a relatively novel periodization, and delivering her findings with scrupulous attention to detail and in thoughtful, clear, and evocative writing.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Young, Eric Van
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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