Mexico: Biography of Power

Mexico: Biography of Power

by Enrique Krauze

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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The concentration of power in the caudillo (leader) is as much a formative element of Mexican culture and politics as the historical legacy of the Aztec emperors, Cortez, the Spanish Crown, the Mother Church and the mixing of the Spanish and Indian population into a mestizo culture. Krauze shows how history becomes biography during the century of caudillos from the insurgent priests in 1810 to Porfirio and the Revolution in 1910. The Revolutionary era, ending in 1940, was dominated by the lives of seven presidents — Madero, Zapata, Villa, Carranza, Obregon, Calles and Cardenas. Since 1940, the dominant power of the presidency has continued through years of boom and bust and crisis. A major question for the modern state, with today's president Zedillo, is whether that power can be decentralized, to end the cycles of history as biographies of power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060929176
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/03/1998
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 896
Sales rank: 235,227
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.43(d)

About the Author

Enrique Krauze is the author of twenty books, including Mexico: Biography of Power. He has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, Dissent magazine, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Books. Krauze lives in Mexico City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The pyramid like monument to Cuauhtemoc on the Paseo de la Reforma is decorated with symbols of various pre-Hispanic cities: the friezes of Mitla; the columns of Tula; the cornices of Uxmal; the shields, war dresses, and weapons of Tenochtitlan. Porfirio Diaz had unveiled the monument at a ceremony held in August of 1887. Seated on a chair that recalled the throne of the Aztec monarchs, he listened to laudatory speeches in Spanish and poems in Ndhuatl that acclaimed "the feats of Cuauhtemoc, the last of the Aztec emperors, and the other caudillos who distinguished themselves in defense of their Nation." Cuauhtemoc (whose name means "Falling Eagle") had led the Aztecs in their final, furious resistance to the conquistadors of Cortes after the death of Emperor Moctezuma, who had welcomed the Spaniards. At either side of the monumental complex, impressive bas-reliefs show climactic episodes in the life of Cuauhtemoc. The events chosen for portrayal are his imprisonment and his torture. In the scene of the imprisonmentbased on the testimony of Cortes himself-Cuauhtemoc puts his hand on Cortes's dagger and asks to be killed. The other relief depicts his further sufferings. After the fall of Tenochtitlan in August 1521, despite white-hot irons pressed to the soles of his feet, Cuauhtemoc refuses to reveal the location of Moctezurna's treasure.

Raised high on the pedestal of the monument, the statue of Cuauhtemoc, with its haughty expression, exemplified the neo-Aztec fashion in academic art, a style that had been growing steadily more popular since the victory of the Liberals. Paintings andsculptures would portray Indians with Apache faces and Apollonian bodies draped in Roman togas, participating in idealized scenes of "the ancient world." The Aztec past had such ornamental appeal that the first Mexican brewery, which opened in the industrial city of Monterrey in 1890, was named Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc. It used a drawing of the statue as its trademark.'

Ideological manipulation of the ancient past was an old Mexican custom. When they consolidated their empire, the Aztec emperors took the codices recording their true nomadic origins and had them burned. Then they had history rewritten to link them directly with the Toltecsthe great classical civilization of Mesoamerica-and the mythical founder of that culture, Quetzalcoatl. They were familiar with the abandoned cities of Teotihuacan and Tula, "coming from a time that no one now can describe."' They called the Toltec culture "our possession, that which we must preserve." The Porfiristas, conscious of the power of history as a source of legitimacy, had taken the same route as the Aztecs. Crossing out their Catholic and Spanish origins, they were stretching a bridge toward the Aztec world.

The rewriting of history was not the only way to maintain an Aztec presence, in support of the present order. Even the practice of erecting statues to honor great leaders could be traced to the Aztec past. Following a Toltec custom attributed to Quetzalcoatl, who, "when he went away, left his appearance sculptured on sticks and stones," the fourteenth-century tlatoani (emperor) Moctezuma I had ordered his image and that of the powerful Tlacaelel, his brother and counselor, to be carved on the slope of the hill of Chapultepec, "in perpetual memory, as reward for our work, so that, on seeing the faces, our sons and grandsons may remember our deeds and strive to imitate them."' Scattered remains of those immense stone sculptures could still be seen in 1910, at the foot of Chapultepec Castle, near the monument to the Ninos Heroes.

Well into colonial times, and thanks to the copious and meticulous works of ethnography produced by the Spanish missionaries with the help of Indian informants, the creoles of New Spain also resorted to an ideological manipulation of the past. What arguments could they muster against their ethnic brothers, the Spaniards from the Iberian peninsula, who were given preference in almost all areas of the life of New Spain while the criollos were ranked as second-class Spaniards? They had only one strong claim-they had been "born in these lands,"in "our Mexican home."' To enrich this single assertion, the mere geographical fact of birth soon came to be nourished with every conceivable item of cultural separation. The creoles, through the force of history, would try to build a case for themselves as legitimate heirs to the land of New Spain. "In the Mexican Emperors may be found," the prolific creole writer and scientist Don Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora wrote in 1680, "what others had to beg for in fables. 115 Siguenza wrote the biography of the nine Aztec emperors, favorably comparing the political virtues of each with analogous Greek or Roman rulers. In his Ancient History of Mexico (1780), the Jesuit humanist Francisco Javier Clavijero ascribed to the civilization of the Mexicas a classical rank equal to that of Greece and Rome: "The state of culture of the Mexicans when the Spaniards discovered them greatly surpasses that of the Spaniards themselves when they came to be known by the Greeks, the Romans, the Gauls, the Germans, and the Bretons." To prove it, he examined all the areas of ancient Aztec life, weighing their characteristics with an impressive combination of comprehensive sympathy and Olympian objectivity, qualities required more than anything for his analysis of the human sacrifices:

I admit that the religion of the Mexicans was very bloody and that their sacrifices were extremely cruel but there is no nation in the world that has not sometimes sacrificed victims to the God they adored. In respect to cannibalism, their religion was without doubt more barbarous than those of the Romans, Egyptians and other civilized nations but it was less superstitious, less ridiculous and less indecent.

In 1794 the priest Servando Teresa de Mier publicly asserted the identity of Quetzalcoatl and the apostle Thomas. Not only did he agree with Siguenza and Clavijero in their view of the indigenous world as a classical past, but he was willing to transfer Christian legitimacy from the three colonial centuries to the Toltec culture. These historical assettions of the Mexican creoles-and idealized identification with the world of the ...

Mexico: Biography of Power. Copyright © by Enrique Krauze. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Sarah Kerr

"This shrewd and in many ways brave book is necessary reading. With luck it will help Americans appreciate that Mexico is more than an abstract policy dilemma."

Wall Street Journal

"A magisterial history...Mr. Krauze's book will surely stand for many years as the standard history of postcolonial Mexico...with its scope and color, his mural makes its powerful, unique impression."

John Bailey

"A vast interpretive synthesis of two centuries of Mexican political history. . . . Krauze is masterful in bringing his characters to life."

Saul Landau

"Much in the manner of Richard Hofstadter's tour de force The American Political Tradition, Enrique Krauze has sought to tell the remarkable history of Mexico through the men who made it."

Margaret Flanagan

"Krauze offers a unique perspective of modern Mexico by interweaving the biographies of a number of consequential nineteenth- and twentieth-century leaders into a cohesive historical overview of the Mexican nation....An insightful examination of how this unbroken cycle of power has played a decisive role in the political and social history of Mexico."

Kenneth Maxwell

"A book worthy of Mexico's tumultuous history and vital to our understanding."

Octavio Paz

"A book which fulfills to perfection the two-fold requirement for works of history: it combines rigorous investigation with an imagination that makes the past and people and events come alive."

Daniel Bell

"A stunning achievement."

Hugh Thomas

"So what to read for an introduction to what has happened in the last couple of centuries in Mexico? The answer can now be confidently given: Enrique Krauze's original, affecting and often entertaining history of Mexico since 1810. This beautifully written book has been splendidly translated from Spanish by Hank Heifetz."

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