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Rediscovering the Past at Mexico's Periphery
Essays on the History of Modern Yucatán
By Gilbert M. Joseph
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1986 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Recent Boom
In the summer of 1973, when I first set foot in Mérida, Yucatán, a callow doctoral student in search of a topic, professional historians were an exotic species in the peninsula. There were no Mexican or international scholars working in the Archivo General del Estado, then housed on the second floor of "La Mejorada," a former Franciscan church built in the sixteenth century. For all of its colonial charm, the AGE lacked electric lighting, plumbing, and any system of classification for its extensive modern holdings. The Universidad de Yucatán, although proud enough of its Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas to provide it with its own minicampus, lacked a department of history. Nor did the new Centro Regional del Sureste of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia have a professional historian on its staff; characteristically the director was an archaeologist. Indeed, throughout the duration of my dissertation research, Yucatecan friends persisted in introducing me as an anthropologist, despite my repeated disclaimers and painstaking attempts to explain the nature of my research.
It was not that yucatecos had an aversion to the past; on the contrary, they relished it. Yet history was less the province of a trained academic elite than a vibrant pastime practiced in the public domain. Anyone could speculate or write about the region's past, and many did. Every afternoon, intellectuals debated the stuff of regional politics past and present in Mérida's cafes, then committed their opinions, recollections, and occasional researches to print in the local press or in a steady stream of pamphlets, books, and journals published by the university, the state government, or privately. Any number of meridano professionals, schoolteachers, party politicians, and sons of the old casta divina (divine caste) had expressed a view on the origins of the apocalyptic Caste War of 1847, or captured a grand moment of Yucatán's belle époque at the turn of the century, when the export of henequen fiber brought an elegance to the region matched only in the national capital. Many also speculated on the reasons for Yucatán's subsequent precipitous decline in the wake of social revolution and agrarian reform. Heirs to a rich local tradition of literary erudition and rhetoric, such self-styled pensadores told (and retold) these stories, passionately contending over the more controversial historical themes. Since I had come, beca (fellowship) in hand and "scientifically trained" to investigate Yucatán's past, I must be an anthropologist.
Ten years later, professional history has come of age in Yucatán. The past decade has witnessed an impressive harvest of monographs, anthologies, articles, and dissertations on the region's colonial and modern history by a diverse group of Mexican and foreign scholars. This new literature has been fostered by a more favorable climate for historical research in Yucatán, reflected in the upgrading of archives and libraries; an increased commitment by government, academic institutions, and international foundations to social science training and research; and the creation of several new journals and forums.
The AGE as well as the Archivo Notarial del Estado, the state's Hemeroteca Pino Suárez, and its premier collection, the Biblioteca Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona, have all been moved into larger quarters. The small but hardworking staff of the AGE has now classified the archive's holdings through the Caste War of 1847 and begun the herculean task of ordering the thousands of legajos remaining for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Local archivists, aided by visiting North American graduate researchers, have taken preliminary steps in organizing the extensive colonial holdings of the Catholic church housed in Mérida's central cathedral, although many of the documents of the national period have yet to be surveyed. The first published guides to regional archives and collections have begun to appear. Researchers based in the United States will be especially interested to learn that the University of Texas at Arlington, aided by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has now microfilmed a large portion of the holdings of the AGE, ANE, the state hemeroteca (newspaper archives) and the church's historical archives (known by several names, most commonly as the Archivo de la Mitra or the Archivo Histórico de la Arquidiócesis de Yucatán). The university recently published a catalog of its substantial collection (1.5 million pages contained on 1,078 rolls) that includes a description of each of the major archives prepared by Yucatecan archivists.
Finally, students of the regional past received an unexpected windfall when the Universidad de Yucatán recently acquired a significant portion of the extraordinary photographic archives of Guerra and Company, for decades one of Mérida's most prominent commercial studios. Housed on the campus of the university's Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas, where it is now accessible to researchers, the Fototeca Pedro Guerra contains tens of thousands of uncataloged glass-plate negatives documenting the political, social, and cultural life of the region from about 1880 to 1930.
Within the past seven years, despite recession-induced cutbacks in its budget, the Centro Regional del Sureste of CIS-INAH has sponsored several long-term projects designed to develop the research skills of local investigators and further analysis of the political economy of Yucatán during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1977 and 1978, anthropologist-social historian Arturo Warman of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana directed a team of Yucatecan and visiting UAM researchers in a series of community studies analyzing changes in the social relations of production in the eastern corn and cattle zone. Shortly thereafter, José Luis Sierra Villarreal, the first historian to join the permanent staff of the Centro Regional del Sureste, launched a collective project on the social and economic structures of the region's dominant henequen zone between the Caste War and the Mexican Revolution. Following publication of the results of this study of henequen and the Old Regime, the Centro Regional del Sureste has initiated a new project on the character of the Mexican Revolution in Yucatán, focusing upon questions of political mobilization and leadership.
The Universidad de Yucatán's new Departamento de Estudios Económicos y Sociales (created in 1976), constitutes another focal point of historical research on the political economy of modern Yucatán. Research by faculty and students has focused on the evolution of land tenure and labor systems during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, popular responses to the expansion of commercial agriculture, and more contemporary questions of rural-urban migration in the state. In 1977, with financial assistance from the Ford Foundation, DEES established a Banco de Información specifically to facilitate this regionally oriented research. Among the services offered by the Banco, which has received a commitment of ongoing support from the Ford Foundation, are a library, a newspaper indexing center, and an archival collection of photographs emphasizing henequen, rural work, and culture. Using these resources, the DEES has produced useful "bibliografías básicas" for the study of the henequen industry, the peasant economy, and the Caste War.
In 1979, the Banco de Información embarked upon a far more ambitious project: to develop the first database devoted exclusively to Yucatecan studies. Over the past several years, teams of DEES faculty and students, under the leadership of Banco director Francisco Anda Vela, have sought to locate, film, and catalog extant printed literature on Yucatán. Thus far, the most successful aspect of the project has been the microfilming of private libraries in Mérida. Approximately 2,000 books, pamphlets, and periodicals held in the personal collections of prominent regional intellectuals have already been copied. To further a binational approach to mutual problems of access and preservation, DEES and the Universidad de Yucatán have graciously consented to make the Banco's growing microfilm collection available to North American scholars through The University of Alabama, which is currently seeking funding to copy and then catalog these materials into this country's OCLC (Ohio College Library Center) database.
The University of Yucatán's Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas (permanently established in 1970) has also increasingly emphasized history in its curricular and research priorities. Like the DEES, it has periodically invited scholars from the national capital and abroad to conduct symposia and teach courses in historiography as well as other social science theory and methodology. Early in 1981, the school formally created a Departamento de Estudios Históricos to complement existing specializations in archaeology and social anthropology and added three historians to its staff. By mid-1985, the history faculty had tripled, and the school proudly announced the creation of a master's degree program to commence in 1986.
Equally promising has been the dramatic increase in outlets for the publication and dissemination of the new historical research being undertaken by local, national, and international scholars. Under the leadership of Conrado Menéndez Díaz and Rodolfo Ruz Menéndez, the venerable Revista de la Universidad de Yucatán, which traces its lineage back to the early 1920s and the founding of the university by revolutionary governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto, has encouraged professional scholars throughout Mexico and the United States to contribute articles and has occasionally subsidized the translation of English-language pieces. The newer Boletín de la Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas de la Universidad de Yucatán, founded in 1973, although highlighting archaeological and anthropological research, has sometimes published important articles by historians. Within the past five years, the Boletín has more than doubled its size and has become perhaps the most prestigious scholarly journal of the region. Newer still is Yucatán: Historia y Economía, created in 1977 by the DEES. Like the Revista and Boletín, the journal has solicited contributions by prominent national and international historians. However, unlike its counterparts, Historia y Economía is unabashedly Marxist, is edited by a research collective, and actively concerns itself with the contemporary politics of development and class struggle in Yucatán, Mexico, and Latin America.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the surge of interest in historical research over the course of the past decade is the institution of "history weeks," sponsored by the Universidad de Yucatán. First inaugurated in Mérida in February 1978, the "Primera Semana de la Historia de Yucatán" assembled a diverse group of amateur and professional historians for the purpose of sharing research and cementing collegial ties. In the fall of 1978, the DEES built upon the enthusiasm generated by the first history week, organizing a smaller, exclusively professional symposium entitled "La Hacienda Mexicana en el Cambio (Siglo XIX–XX)." A distinguished panel of national and international agrarian specialists, including Friedrich Katz, Marcello Carmagnani, Angel Palerm, and John Coatsworth, were invited to present papers with a view to their eventual publication in Yucatán: Historia y Economía, and the sessions did much to stimulate local research on the most celebrated Yucatecan version of the great estate, the henequen plantation. Then, in February 1980, a second history week was held, drawing many more national and international participants — whose local expenses were paid by the university — and producing papers of substantially higher quality than its 1978 predecessor. Each of the history weeks attracted substantial public interest, reflected in healthy attendance of the sessions and extensive media coverage. Originally, it was hoped that the history weeks would become a regular feature of the region's cultural life, providing historians with a larger, more public version of the Palenque mesas redondas that have long served archaeologists of the lowland Maya area. Unfortunately, Mexico's current economic crisis has put the continuing existence of the history weeks in jeopardy.
What has produced this historiographical renaissance at Mexico's periphery? Why have an increasing number of Mexican and North American scholars chosen to work in Yucatán, establishing it, along with the northwestern states and Oaxaca, as one of the three Mexican regions of greatest interest to the new generation of local historians? To begin with, one cannot ignore the economics of contemporary Yucatecan development. While it has not promoted balanced growth, tourism has dramatically altered the face of the region over the past decade, stimulating a long-term commitment by both the federal and state governments to historical conservation and promotion which, it is hoped, Mexico's current recession will not jeopardize.
Beyond a materialist explanation, current trends within the historical profession and the larger social science community must also be considered. A generation ago, Harry Bernstein criticized fellow Mexicanists for the creation of a "centralist historiography," an exaggerated tendency to concentrate almost exclusively on events in Mexico City and "the Core," or to interpret events elsewhere only in the context of the center. This was because most Mexicanists — like their counterparts in other fields — generally assumed that all meaningful ideas and forces for change ultimately radiated outward from the central heartland to the remote regional peripheries. The current generation of historians has reacted against this approach. Mexican historian Luis González would argue that the new generation of yucatecólogos is merely obeying what he calls the "regionalist impulse of our times," a search for identity in the authentic world of local, often rural, traditions in the face of disorienting modernization and stifling centralization. Such an impulse often instills in investigators — even in many who are "outsiders" — a warm, almost personal attachment to their "terruño." Other historians regard this predilection for "microhistory" as part and parcel of a broad movement which has swept up much of the current, methodologically sophisticated, generation of professionals. Dissatisfied with existing generalizations, particularly about socioeconomic phenomena, many younger historians have sought to test those generalizations at the local level. The result has been hailed by some as a "historiographical revolution," a shift in the locus of historical initiative from the institutional superstructure to the level of local regions, communities, and interest groups; a move away from political and institutional history in and from the perspective of the metropolis to social and economic history in and from the perspective of the periphery.
This "revolution," in overflowing disciplinary boundaries, has pointed up their artificial nature. The best historical studies of peripheral areas have necessarily been interdisciplinary in scope, obliging students of local regions and communities to integrate political, economic, social, and cultural levels of activity into a complex whole. This has often involved historians in borrowing methodological and interpretative tools from anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and increasingly, from political economists working within the Marxist paradigm. As we shall see, the process of cross-fertilization between history and anthropology has been especially productive for the study of modern Yucatán. If, in their observation of (and occasionally, participation in) the affairs of local communities, microhistorians have become more like anthropologists, the converse has also been true. The mid-1970s and the early 1980s have witnessed a variety of efforts aimed at integrating ethnographic and archival approaches to the study of lowland Maya society and culture which have contributed significantly to a new regional historiography.
Relatively speaking, however, the "new regional history" took its time getting to Yucatán. Luis González's clarion call — or "invitación" — to do microhistory was issued to Mexicanists in 1973, four years after John Womack's classic study of Morelos had already begun showcasing the exciting possibilities of regional historiography as well as revolutionizing work on the Mexican Revolution. Still, although local amateur historians remained active, professionals outside the peninsula kept their distance, seeking the meaning of the modern Mexican past elsewhere. In bypassing Yucatán, they seem to have concurred with the assessment of Yucatán's revolutionary poet, Antonio Mediz Bolio, that national events took on an "exotic and strange" cast in the peninsula.
Excerpted from Rediscovering the Past at Mexico's Periphery by Gilbert M. Joseph. Copyright © 1986 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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