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Mexico: Biography of Power

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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In honor of Mexican independence day, September 16, a short introductory reading list on Mexican history. More than most historical topics, Latin American historiography has been horribly distorted by the deep and lingering of influence of Marxism. In the particular case of Mexico, this problem has been aggravated by the readiness of too many North American writers to accept the propaganda of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 at face value. On the other hand, every cloud has a silver lining: because so much writing about Mexico is useless, the essential reading list is happily short.

A newcomer to Mexican history should begin with Enrique Krauze’s marvelously vivid Mexico: Biography of Power. Krauze, a liberal in the best sense of the term, argues that the essential continuity of Mexican history is the concentration of power in the hands of chieftains, surmounted by one great national chieftain. And so he tells the history of Mexico in a series of short but superbly insightful biographies of national leaders from the Aztec emperors down to the PRI presidents.

If you like your history written with lots of splashy language and blood-and-guts (and who doesn’t?), take a look at TR Fehrenbach’s Fire and Blood, a gorgeously overwritten survey of Mexican history from its most ancient beginnings to the seeming stability of the 1960s. Some of Fehrenbach’s interpretations of pre-Columbian period are a little peculiar (in particular his analogies between ancient Meso-America and ancient Sumeria), but the book is gripping even so.

For an example of “official history,” see the new Oxford History of Mexico edited by Michael Meyer and William Beezley, two academic historians grimly determined to omit no postmodern twitch or constituency from their telling of Mexican history as a parable of race/sex/class oppression. The fact that much of Mexican history really is a story of race/sex/class oppression does not alas relieve the absurdity of the academic approach.

Opening Mexico by the husband and wife team of Julia Preston and Sam Dillon, former Mexico reporters for the New York Times is an outstanding journalistic account of Mexico’s transition from PRI authoritarianism to a more open and competitive political system.

Hugh Thomas’s The Conquest of Mexico is not for the faint of heart: immensely long and detailed, not always entrancingly written, it does tell more the amazing story of the overthrow of the Aztec empire with more authority than the story has ever been told before. Without in any way slighting the cruelty of the conquistadors, Thomas also makes clear just why they were able to succeed: because Aztec rule was so horrible that Mexico’s subject peoples willingly cooperated with a foreign invader whose arrival they experienced as a liberation. He makes clear too that Cortez for all his faults really was one of the great men of history, not just an armed thug or money-grubbing adventurer.

The events of 16 September are not well understood or clearly remembered by the Mexicans themselves. The day commemorates the so-called “grito” or “cry” of Father Hidalgo, a Mexican-born priest of European extraction, who famously rang the bell of his church in Dolores in 1810 to summon his congregants to rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

What’s not remembered is that Father Hidalgo’s rebellion was rapidly and relatively easily suppressed. While guerilla activity continued, for the next decade Mexico (along with Peru) would remain a bastion of Spanish power in the decade-long wars for independence throughout Latin America.

Mexican independence came about instead in a very different and non-revolutionary way. The man who did most to suppress the 1810 uprising was Agustin Iturbide, the Mexican-born son of new arrivals from Spain. A professional soldier in the royalist army, Iturbide rose rapidly to high command during the war of independence.

But just as it was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain that gave the Spanish American rebels their opportunity to throw off imperial rule, so it was the Napoleonic example that undid royalist success in Mexico. Iturbide began to imagine a larger role for himself than that of a mere general under the Spanish king. In 1820, he switched sides, bringing his army with him. Mexican independence was now quickly won. Iturbide proclaimed himself emperor of Mexico and established a conservative regime that guaranteed the privileged place of the Catholic church and the large landowners.

Having seized power, however, Iturbide proved unable to hold it. He was deposed in 1823, exiled, and (after his own version of Napoleon’s return from Elba), executed in 1824.

For obvious reasons, Mexicans prefer not to acknowledge Iturbide as the real author of their independence. And so it is Father Hidalgo’s unsuccessful attempt that is commemorated on September 16, one of the many fictions of which Mexico’s historical memory is made.

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