Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes

Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes

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In Cartographic Mexico, Raymond B. Craib analyzes the powerful role cartographic routines such as exploration, surveying, and mapmaking played in the creation of the modern Mexican state in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such routines were part of a federal obsession—or “state fixation”—with determining and “fixing” geographic points, lines, and names in order to facilitate economic development and political administration. As well as analyzing the maps that resulted from such routines, Craib examines in close detail the processes that eventually generated them. Taking central Veracruz as a case in point, he shows how in the field, agrarian officials, military surveyors, and metropolitan geographers traversed a “fugitive landscape” of overlapping jurisdictions and use rights, ambiguous borders, shifting place names, and villagers with their own conceptions of history and territory. Drawing on an array of sources—including maps, letters from peasants, official reports, and surveyors’ journals and correspondence—Craib follows the everyday, contested processes through which officials attempted to redefine and codify such fugitive landscapes in struggle with the villagers they encountered in the field. In the process, he vividly demonstrates how surveying and mapmaking were never mere technical procedures: they were, and remain to this day, profoundly social and political practices in which surveyors, landowners, agrarian bureaucrats, and peasants all played powerful and complex roles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822385943
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2004
Series: Latin America Otherwise
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Raymond B. Craib is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University.

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Cartographic Mexico

A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes

By Raymond B. Craib

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8594-3


The Terrain of Tradition

In 1847 the Mexican Liberal politician Mariano Otero, attempting to account for the ease with which "ten or twelve thousand men ... penetrated from Veracruz to the very capital of the republic," offered a stinging explanation: Mexico did not constitute, nor could it call itself, a nation. Locating the absence of nationhood in the persisting legacies of colonial rule, Otero questioned the degree to which Mexico had moved from colony to modern nation. Such an assertion must have proved disturbing to many, coming as it did a quarter-century after the proclamation of independence from Spanish rule. Certainly the Mexican elite that inherited the mantle of independence in 1821 imagined themselves to be members of a distinctly Mexican nation and state. Yet acts of imagination were not, in and of themselves, powerful enough to sustain Mexico, regardless of how hard "its" leaders imagined, as the turbulent years leading up to and including the Mexican-American War had amply demonstrated. In the wake of the war, the questions that had confronted the republic in 1821 persisted: How would an extensive and complex landscape—and the people inhabiting it—cohere as an intelligible, material unit? How would a new political territory be seen as externally and internally legitimate? And how to demonstrate that a nation, a state, a government were something more than mere conjecture? These were—to borrow a term from philosophy—metaphysical questions, and the methods devised to answer them were part of what could be called a metaphysics of nationalism.

In this chapter I suggest that the disciplines of history and geography were harnessed to answer precisely such questions. In particular I focus on how these two disciplines came together in national mapping projects after the Mexican-American War of 1848. To demonstrate that Mexico was something more than a concept, to legitimate Mexico's spatial and temporal existence, and to make visual arguments about its historical and geographical coherence, intellectuals from the federally backed Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadistica [SMGE] devoted their attentions to the construction of national maps (cartas generates) of the Republic. On the purportedly objective surfaces of national maps, they blended history and geography to connect a conceptual space to a narrated place, endowing Mexico with both a textual tangibility and a palpable past. Mexico thus materialized on the cartographer's table, a plotted surface upon which the nation-state's past and future could simultaneously unfold.

This chapter is divided into four sections. In part 1 I consider why Mexican officials pursued the construction of a national map. In part 2 I use Antonio García Cubas's 1858 carta general of Mexico to show how cartographic science visually naturalized the nation-state. In part 3 I examine how the artistic images that appeared on that same map served to connect the plotted territory to an ideologically saturated portrait of a supposedly quintessentially Mexican landscape. Last, in part 4,1 look at how the arbitrary changing of place-names by municipal authorities complicated metropolitan elites' desires to spatially (and cartographically) ground a foundational narrative.


"[A]ll nations have begun as we have, on the road of science," averred Manuel Orozco y Berra in his Apuntes para la historia de la geografía en México (1881). That such a statement—revealing as it does the very constructedness of the nation-state—would come from one of Mexico's preeminent geographers is not surprising. Geography proved a key science in the formation of nineteenth-century nation-states and had a close association with the technical, regulatory needs of those in power. Rising military and economic nationalism spurred the professionalization of geography, its incorporation as a discipline in the halls of higher learning, and the founding of national geographic societies. Latin America's first geographic society—Mexico's Institute Nacional de Geografía y Estadística (later to become the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadistíca)—had been created in 1833 by then president Valentín Gómez Farías, guided by the belief that the accumulation and production of geographic and statistical knowledge were critical for national development. As the minister of domestic and foreign relations, José María Gutiérrez Estrada, put it two years later, the sciences of geography and statistics were of "extreme importance to the prosperity and good governance of the Nation."

Such concerns ensured that, once established, the Institute could count on the assistance of the federal government despite the constant shifts in political power that characterized the initial decades of the Mexican Republic. Both Conservatives and Liberals financially supported the institution and the only changes it experienced were in its name. For example, in 1839 the organization was renamed the Comisión de Estadística Militar, at the request of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, a ranking military officer and son of José María Morelos y Pavón. Now under the auspices of the Ministry of War, the Comisión's employees received a federal salary and were obligated to complete the tasks they were assigned. The shift reflected a sense of urgency in the upper echelons of the Mexican military regarding the collection of geographic and statistical data as Texas moved increasingly toward secession. A decade later, the organization adopted the name it still has today: the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística.

Statistics and geography were sciences of statecraft. Strongly influenced by the utilitarianism of Bentham and the political economy of Smith, Mexican intellectuals and officials saw statistical inquiry as a means not only to control the vicissitudes of reality but to shape it. With the capacity to measure and compare came the capacity to plan, modify, and transform economies, spaces, and populations. The urge to measure and plan also structured the understanding of geography at the time but, at least at mid-century, geography meant something very specific to members of the SMGE and the federal government: the creation of a national map of the Republic. Why the emphasis upon a national map? Certainly there were very practical concerns related to governance, particularly in the early years of the Republic. Without a reliable national map the new government could hardly begin to conceive of, let alone carry out, any political reorganization of the territory. This would prove a constant source of concern in the recurring territorial reconstructions of the country's politicoterritorial divisions by federalists and centrists, each of whom had their own politico administrative geographies. A national map could also prove useful in the war against fiscal chaos, administrative fragmentation, and regional politics in that a variety of local and regional statistical information, and maps could be compiled and incorporated into a master map. More important, perhaps, a national map of geographic and topographic accuracy could improve the fledgling state's military capacity during a time of both international and domestic uncertainty, at least for the macro-coordination required for national defense. Thus in the 1820s the government created a new course of study in geographic engineering, commissioned individuals to "travel throughout the entire territory and assemble statistics and a geographic map," and composed a national map from the remnants of the Spanish navy's collection of images created for the defense of New Spain.

Such concerns provide an initial explanation for the persistent pursuit of a carta general but not a complete one, particularly as the years progressed. The fact remains that national maps are of such small scale that they often have minimal instrumental value. A military expedition sent to crush a rural rebellion or ward off a foreign invasion across the mesa central would find only so much of value in a map of the entire republic. The plotting of routes and planning of tactics required the large-scale topographic maps produced by military engineers on careful traverse surveys through the countryside, not the small-scale political and geographic overviews of a carta general constructed from a compilation of sources. Similarly, development efforts, such as the building of roads that would tie regional economies and politics to a central apparatus, required primarily regional and local maps of various kinds.

Yet until the 1860s the federally subsidized SMGE, as well as its earlier incarnations, still devoted the vast majority of its energies to creating a carta general, one which would be a "faithful expression of the land it represents." Why? A national map had as much iconographic as it did instrumental power. For one, a national map served the very basic function of defining a bounded space within which a newly emergent post-imperial elite could purport to assert their power, confirm their continuing status, and legitimate their rights to rule and, in effect, represent. Moreover, a national map symbolically affirmed the political reality of an entity whose very existence was at the time increasingly in question—a unified and sovereign Mexican nation-state. Rebellions in northern territories, the secession of Texas and then the Yucatán, and regional conflicts all confounded any comforting thoughts of a unified national space and repeatedly raised the specter of total national disintegration. A national map refuted such troublesome realities by visually affirming what supposedly already existed: after all, if a map were simply a mimetic reflection of an objective reality, then a national map by definition presupposed the existence of the nation itself. The still precarious and open-ended process of forging an independent Mexico appeared as authoritatively over, concluded and confirmed. A scale map of a nation-state, which furthered the ideological mirage of neutrality by applying objective mathematical principles to map construction, thus argued backward from the desired conclusion, serving as a model for, rather than of, what it purportedly represented.

Even simply delineating where Mexico ended and other nations began could be significant at a time when established boundaries and territorial cohesion were increasingly regarded as integral features of the modern nation-state. Indeed, the powerful sway of territoriality as the basis for modern identity and control ensured that geographic science and its primary medium, the map, occupied a place of preeminence in the nationalist repertoire. This was particularly the case by the 1840s. The strident predations of Mexico's northern neighbor, with its fervent faith in Manifest Destiny, left little room or time for what one author has aptly termed "growing pains." In a manner befitting their continentalist convictions, and further evidence of the power of the geographic imagination at the time, U.S. officials relied upon a kind of cartographic determinism to justify their imperial pretensions. Already in 1823 John Quincy Adams had equated geographical proximity with historical providence when he promulgated his so-called ripe apple policy, which argued that Cuba and Puerto Rico were "natural appendages to the North American continent," fated to fall under U.S. control once the proper conditions prevailed. In 1825 U.S. secretary of state Henry Clay took such geographic determinism to an audacious extreme by suggesting to Mexican officials that turning over the northern reaches of Mexico would actually benefit the country by geographically centralizing its capital. By 1844 businessman and Democrat John O'Sullivan could comfortably assert that anyone "who cast a glance over the map of North America" could see that Texas was "a huge fragment, artificially broken off" from the continent to which it naturally belonged. He had little cause for concern: Nature and Nation soon united.

The importance of the carta general took on dramatic significance with the Mexican-American War. While countries such as the United States, England, Spain, and France achieved a degree of self definition through imperial expansion, Mexico's imperative need to construct and present itself as a sovereign, independent nation-state arose in the face of invasion and perceived impotence. García Cubas put it dramatically in his summation of the Armistice of 1847: "[O]ur history is written simply by saying that Mexico and the United States are neighbors. At least France and England are separated by the Channel; between our nation and our neighbor there exists no other border than a simple mathe-matic line.... God help the Republic!" The members of the Comisión de Estadística Militar, in 1848, hinted at the continuing threat months following the armistice when they rhetorically asked, "How can one expect to understand the nation's territorial extension, or consult regarding its defense, without the formation of a general map and one of each State and territory?"

Under these less than auspicious circumstances the SMGE'S new national map, hastily finished in the aftermath of the war and during the initial phases of the boundary demarcation, appeared in 1850. Along with a wealth of statistical information and comparative tables, it included a visual elaboration of the territory lost in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as well as the demarcation of the new international limits between Mexico and the United States. Reflective of the increasing primacy of the visual in the nineteenth century, the image brought an expression of bitterness from General Santa Anna, who for the first time could actually envision the magnitude of territory Mexico had lost. The map never saw publication because of the government's precarious financial condition after the war. Members of the Comision and the Sociedad sought publishers in the United States and England but found the prices for publication no more accommodating than in Mexico. As a consequence, in 1851 a foreign traveler could still warn others: "[T]here is no complete map of the territory which may be confidently relied upon."

The need for a published and circulated, Mexican-produced, national map became even more pronounced when, in 1854, Mexico lost another portion of its territorial claims as a partial result of a faulty U.S. map. Article 5 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo dictated that John Disturnell's 1846 Mapa de los Estados-Unidos de Méjico be used to set the boundary line between the two nations. However, perceived defects in the map regarding the location of El Paso and the course of the Río Grande helped justify renewed U.S. territorial claims, culminating in the 1853—1854 Gadsden Purchase. Regardless of the role General Antonio López de Santa Anna and others played in the politics of the Purchase, Mexican officials and intellectuals were convinced: Mexico needed an accurate and internationally accepted national map of its own, published and circulated.

But was it enough to merely delineate the nation's territorial extent? Otero, in 1847, observed that it was "useless to point out that the Mexican Republic possesses an immense territory of more than [840,000 square miles]" when Mexico itself lacked a "national spirit." After the war, a new carta general, constructed by García Cubas, would proffer an iconographic image of the state's new parameters and fill that territory with the ghosts of the past, in the process creating an image of a single national spirit.


Shortly after the Mexican-American War, Antonio García Cubas (1832-1912) made a name for himself as one of Mexico's leading geographers and cartographers. He began his career in the offices of the Ministry of Colonization and Industry, simultaneously studying engineering at the Colegio Nacional de Minería. Limited by his widowed mother's financial straits, he took longer than usual to finish his degree, eventually graduating in 1865. In the meantime, he worked diligently on various cartographic and geographic projects, spending his free afternoons and evenings in the library of the SMGE and in the private collections of a number of its members.

The corridors of the SMGE, and the pages of its Boletín, exposed García Cubas to two generations of intellectuals—both conservative and liberal—who carried on a long tradition of scientific scholarship in Mexico. The Comisión de Estadística Militar had been largely populated by military men of high rank, such as Pedro García Conde, Mariano Arista, Juan Almonte, and Juan Velázquez de León. But by the early 1850s the newly named Sociedad had begun to incorporate an array of well-to-do civilian scientists and intellectuals from Mexico City into its ranks, many of them trained at the Colegio Nacional de Minería. Whether military or civilian, the members of the Sociedad constituted a single scientific community: they frequented the same literary and scientific events, bookstores, theaters, and cafes, and lived in fairly close proximity near the Zócalo. Many of them had lived through the War of Independence, and all, obviously, had experienced the humiliating defeat of 1848. As a result of this final experience in particular, and regardless of their political persuasions, they thus shared one more thing in common: an abiding interest in sciences (especially geography and statistics but also increasingly ethnography, linguistics, and history) as utilitarian undertakings crucial to the formation of an integral nation-state.


Excerpted from Cartographic Mexico by Raymond B. Craib. Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Abbreviations xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Writing a Spatial History of Modern Mexico 1

1. The Terrain of Tradition 19

2. Fugitive Landscapes 55

3. Standard Plots 91

4. Situated Knowledges: The Geographic Exploration Commission (I) 127

5. Spatial Progressions: The Geographic Exploration Commission (II) 163

6. Fluvial Confusions 193

7. Revolutionary Spaces 219

Epilogue: “These questions will never end” 255

Bibliography 261

Index 289

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