Mexican Studies

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Mexican history since the country achieved its independence from Spain in 1821 is marked by a set of dramatic events that created the context for fundamental social and economic changes. These events shaped contemporary Mexican society and established much of the current agenda of Mexican social and political studies. Three issues in particular have long historical antecedents. These are the ethnic question, the role of the state in development, and relations with the United States. Despite these continuities, social trends and preoccupations in Mexico have also differed according to historical period. In order to handle both continuity and change, we will organize the discussion in terms of four main periods, each initiated by major events, and will consider the dominant trends and intellectual orientations of each period. The time between Mexican independence and the Mexican-American War, the first period is marked by economic stagnation and political fragmentation. The second period lasts from the aftermath of the Mexican-American War until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Rapid but uneven economic development and political unification distinguish the second period. The third period begins with the consolidation of the Mexican Revolution and goes through the 1920s and on into the debt crises of the early 1980s. Nationalism, political centralization, and high rates of urbanization and industrialization characterize this period. Finally, we consider the two last decades of the twentieth century, shaped by the external opening of the economy with its accompanying economic and political liberalization.

This historical context and the unevenness of Mexico's development make U.S.-Mexican relations different, in significant respects, from relations between other neighboring countries. The U.S.-Mexican border is the only international frontier that divides a developing country and a highly developed country. The contradictory trends of Mexico's development shape U.S.-Mexican relations (Weintraub 1990). The two populations have been brought closer to each other in terms of trade, tourism, labor migration, and consumer aspirations. This increasing proximity can also create social distance as each population develops opposing images of the other. These are often based on the misunderstandings that result from wide disparities in income, standards of living, and political and family culture (Pastor and Castañeda 1988). For many Mexicans, the history of conflictive relations with the United States continues to negatively color perceptions of U.S. political and economic intentions toward Mexico.

Independence from Spain left Mexico an impoverished and fragmented nation. The main sources of external revenue—mining and specialized plantation agriculture—declined substantially. Internal markets were not strongly developed and were mainly concentrated in a few major cities. Thus, neither internal nor external trade provided enough stimuli to expand local agricultural or industrial production. The economy was organized on a local and regional basis rather than on a national one. Within this context, politics was dominated by a decentralized system of caudillos (regional leaders, often military) and cacíques (local bosses and power brokers). The formal government alternated between a centralist and a federalist republic, after the short-lived Empire of Iturbide. The proponents of a centralist republic tended to be conservatives, supporting the maintenance of corporatist institutions such as the church, the army, the guilds, and the indigenous communities. In a sociological account of the processes shaping the Independence movement, the intellectual leader of the conservatives, Lucas Alamán ([1847] 1942), advocated a strong central power, economic protectíonism, the remedying of class inequality, and populating the empty spaces to the north through European Catholic colonization. In contrast, the federalists tended to be economically and politically liberal, arguing for individual property rights, free markets, and individual civil and political equality. The radical liberal parliamentarian, José María Luis Mora, went so far as to argue for the complete incorporation of the indigenous population into the market as a means to remedy backwardness and poverty (Lira Gonzalez 1984). A leading liberal politician and intellectual, Lorenzo de Zavala, admired the United States and considered it a model to emulate. He also viewed favorably the colonization of the northern territories by Protestant colonists from the United States (Lira Gonzalez 1984). Later, Zavala became the first vice president of the independent Republic of Texas. In order to govern, both the federalists and centralists relied on the caudillo-cacíque power structure. Thus, the paradigmatic caudillo of this period, Santa Anna, was president several times, under both centralist and federalist banners.

The loss of half of the national territory, first in the Texas War of lndependence of 1835–1836 and then in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, demonstrated dramatically the costs of Mexico's political and economic fragmentation. The conservatives entrenched themselves further in their corporate and hierarchical beliefs, leading finally to the ill-fated, conservative-backed empire of Maximillian of Hapsburg (1864–1867). The aftermath of the Mexican-American war was perhaps more traumatic for the liberals. They saw themselves as betrayed by the United States, which they had regarded as a friend and an ally in modernizing Mexico. Thereafter, particularly with the experiences of the French intervention, Mexican liberals, while supporting market and individual freedoms and the abolition of corporations, were to become the main proponents of a strong state and of nationalism in Mexico.

Beginning with Beníto Juarez (president, 1861–1863 and 1867–1872), liberals were to dominate the politics of Mexico until the Mexican Revolution, even in the paradoxical guise of the dictator, Porfirio Díaz (president, 1877–1880, 1884–1911). In face of the difficulties of achieving spontaneous economic and social progress, liberalism was modified, however, in an authoritarian and positivist direction. A disciple of Comte, Gabino Barreda, reorganized the educational system of the country to ensure a uniform and centralized system (Zea 1974). Justo Sierra (1969 [1901–1903]), one of Díaz's ministers, wrote a new version of Mexican history as a political evolution that needed a period in which political rights would be limited. He saw economic progress as depending on civic education, as well as individualizing property rights in agriculture, industrial modernization, foreign investment, and trade. Though corporate rights to land had been abolished under Juarez, Díaz made this effective, particularly for the indigenous communities. Railways were built and roads improved. Political control was centralized through a bureaucratic system of patronage that gave the central government a more effective control of state and local governments. For the first time in fifty years, Mexico experienced a long period of peace and stability.

The Díaz period was one of considerable economic expansion in Mexico, but the style of development resulted in a series of social and economic dislocations that were to contribute to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Commercial haciendas expanded, depriving many peasants of access to land. The new economic opportunities and improvements in communication affected communities throughout Mexico, encouraging villagers to give up traditional livelihoods for wage labor in mines, plantations, or as sharecroppers. As dependence on the market grew, so too national and regional economic downturns caused increasing discontent and hardship. Advocates of progress, such as Andrés Molina Enríquez ([1909] 1978), one of the intellectual leaders of the Mexican Revolution, denounced the economic inequities produced by land concentration. lnstead, he placed his hopes on the emerging mestízo middle class of medium-scale farmers, merchants, manufacturers, and professionals. With Molina Enriquez, there is a clear statement of the ethnic basis of social change. Both the European-origin upper class and the indigenous peasantry are seen as incapable of progress. He sees the mestízo as the crucial Mexican identity capable of achieving economic development and social equity. By the time of the Mexican Revolution, the indigenous population, defined in census terms by "race" and non–Spanish-language use, constituted nearly half the Mexican population.

In spite of political centralization, the economy remained regionalized during the Díaz regime. The Mexican Revolution was essentially a set of regional movements and leaders, that responded to the particular economic problems and possibilities that the Porfirian expansion brought to local economies. These regional contexts included the sugar economy of Morelos; the henequen economy of Yucatan; the sharecropping, ranching, and mining economy of Chihuahua and Coahuila; and the emerging commercial farming economy of Sonora (Knight 1986).

The years from after the Mexican Revolution until approximately 1980 transformed Mexico from a society in which three-quarters of the population was agricultural and lived in small villages, to one in which less than a quarter of the population worked in agriculture and most people lived in large cities. This transformation was shaped by two outcomes of the revolution. One was an agrarian reform that destroyed the hacíenda system, replacing it with small and medium-scale commercial farming and a system of social property (the ejido) that reinstated and, at times, extended the rights to land of peasant communities. In the first thirty years after the Revolution, Mexican peasant agriculture was sufficiently strong to feed the growing urban population and help the country's industrialization.

The second major legacy of the revolution was the consolidation of a centralized, modern political system around the official party of the revolution, known as the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) since 1948. The PRI based its control on corporate affiliations by industrial and peasant unions. Also, the massive extension of state employment in education, health, social and administrative services modernized the country and served to create an extensive web of government patronage (Eckstein 1977). Part of the program of social incorporation was the movement known as Indígenismo, which was founded by the anthropologist Manuel Gamio ([1935] 1987). Though the movement sought to protect the indigenous population, its final objective was to incorporate them into the dominant mestízo culture through education, health campaigns, and local development programs sponsored by specialized government agencies. By 1940, the indigenous population, defined in terms of those who speak an lndian language, had declined according to the census of that year to just over 14 percent of the population. In general, the indigenous population remained poorer than the mestízo peasant population.

Economically, the PRI was nationalist, protecting local industries and restricting foreign investment. The state intervened in the economy, managing industries in sectors which were considered vital to the national interest, such as the oil industry, railroads, certain branches of transport, and telephones. However, it tolerated and, at times, promoted private ownership in many industrial sectors, by including entrepreneurs in the corporate alliances through which the PRI governed. For Mexico, the 1940–1970 decades were the "golden years" of development, when annual rates of gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6 percent and more were common (Leopoldo Solis, 1970). It was also a period in which a strong political nationalism accompanied economic nationalism. Under various presidents, Mexico made clear its independence from U.S. political and economic influence, as in the nationalization of oil and as in its continuing relations with Castro's Cuba.

The understanding of these processes was aided by the development of social sciences in Mexico, stimulated by an interest in issues of national identity and culture in face of rapid modernization. Anthropology developed under the auspices of official nationalism in the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the National Indigenist Institute, promoting the restoration and preservation of the pre-Hispanic archeological patrimony as symbols of Mexican nationaiity (Vazquez 1995). Gamio's ([1931] 1969) interest in national identity led him to document the living and working conditions of Mexican labor migrants in the United States. He and the American anthropologist Paul Taylor (1928–1934) demonstrated that the experiences of these migrants would often reinforce Mexican nationalism through ill treatment, prejudice, and summary deportations.

Within Mexico, anthropologists undertook empirical studies of acculturation and cultural integration, viewed as irreversible trnds (Aguirre Beltrán 1957). By the 1970s, sociologists and political scientists working at the National University and at El Colegio de México were questioning the Mexican style of development, focusing on issues of class and ethnic inequality (Stavenhagen 1969; Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales 1970–1973; Benítez Zenteno 1977). Some openly questioned the institutional authoritarianism of the political system and the vertical control that the government exercised over the peasantry and industrial workers through the PRI's corporatist structure (González Casanova, 1972). The critical tone of Mexican social science increased after the student movements of 1968 and their repression by the government.

The anthropologists and economists who concentrated on the rural sector showed that, despite the propeasant rhetoric of the Mexican Revolution and of its successor governments, the lot of the small, subsistence-oriented farmer—the peasant farmer—did not significantly improve (Bartra 1974; Esteva 1983; Warman 1980; Hewitt de Alcantara 1976). Mexican and foreign social scientists demonstrated that agrarian reform had only limited success in creating employment opportunities in agriculture, in diversifying the rural economy, and in stimulating development of rural market and service centers. The expense of producing efficiently for high-risk markets deterred many members of the ejido from continuing in agriculture (de la Peña 1981). The deterrence increased with the advent of new technological packages that offered substantially improved yields, but which indebted the small producer and created dependence on state bureaucracy or on private sector agro-industries (Barkin 1990). Agricultural modernization in Mexico meant the displacement of the peasant farmer and the increasing importance of commercial cultivation, often linked to agro-industry (Arroyo 1989; Sanderson 1986). One major factor that changed the pattern of political incorporation was the extension of government bureaucracy from the 1960s onward (Grindle 1977). In agriculture, this resulted in a considerable increase in government personnel administering various programs of rural development, credit, and technical advice. Direct contacts with government officials enabled peasants to bypass local power brokers, thus weakening the broker's position; but it created a new issue, the interface between bureaucracy and the peasant. Bureaucratic officials implemented central government policy but pursued their own career goals, and both objectives often came into conflict with the strategies of peasant farmers.

Demographic factors also conditioned the processes of social change, geographical mobility, and concentration of wealth. The Mexican population has had high rates of growth as a result of significant declines in mortality without offsetting declines in fertility (Alba and Potter 1982). High rates of population growth combined with the lack of economic opportunities in the countryside result in substantial rural-urban and international migration (Massey et al. 1987; Arroyo 1986). The urban growth rate of Mexico between 1940 and 1980 averaged 4.7 percent a year, with approximately a third of urban growth due to migration from rural areas. This rapid increase and the high urban primacy that resulted in Mexico City having a population six times larger than the next-largest city, Guadalajara, attracted the attention of many researchers, often in collaboration with U.S. or European social scientists. Led by Luis Unikel (1977), researchers at the Colegio de Mexico focused on the "urban bias' of Mexican development policies in which subsidies encouraged urban concentration. Garza (1985) showed that without these subsidies the profitability of Mexico City enterprises would have been less than that of enterprises in smaller cities. Other researchers focused on rural-urban migration showing the high social mobility of rural migrants in the urban labor markets, despite the importance of the informal economy (Balán et al. 1973; Muñoz et al. 1977; Escobar 1986). However, other studies looked at the social and political implications of this rapid urban growth in the spread of squatter settlements, the aggravation of poverty, and the beginnings of urban social movements in demand for basic services (Montaño 1976; Lomnitz 1977; Alonso 1980; Cornelius 1985; Ward 1998).

The last period is that following the debt crises of the early 1980s. These crises reflected the exhaustion of the import-substituting model of development in Mexico. The national industries were not competitive internationally and Mexico desperately needed foreign investment to continue its modernization. From the mid-1980s onward, under strong pressure from international agencies and the United States, the Mexican government adopted a free market approach to development, marked by its accession to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1985 and its joining with the United States and Canada in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. Commercial interests in Mexico saw ejídal property rights as discouraging foreign and national investment in agriculture and in the cities where ejídal land hemmed in city boundaries. In 1992, laws were passed that permitted the private sale of ejídal land, thus effectively dismantling the agrarian reform system (de Janvry et al. 1997).

Accompanying these economic policies was a political liberalization, which included electoral reform and a greater role for opposition parties. The regime's new economic policies undermined much of its corporate political support. The abolition of the ejido effectively weakened the power of PRI's National Peasant Confederation in the countryside. Deregulation, particularly of labor markets, weakened the main industrial unions. The political challenge to the PRI became greater in this period because economic liberalization also created economic instability (Otero 1996). lncome inequality grew and employment became unstable, as indicated by the growth of the urban informal economy.

The growth of the urban population continued, but less rapidly than earlier as a result of declines in fertility and in a diminishing pool of rural migrants (Demos 1997). According to the population count of 1995, 63 percent of Mexico's 91 million inhabitants live in places of more than 10,000 people. The fastest growing cities in the period 1990–1995 (3.1 percent growth annually) were the ones that began the period with between 100,000 and 1 million inhabitants (Solís 1997). An important component of the new population dynamic is a gradual change in the pattern of internal migration in Mexico. From a predominantly rural-urban migration focusing mainly on Mexico City, Mexican migration patterns have become increasingiy interurban, with a movement of population from the center and south of the country toward the cities of the north (Lozano et al. 1997).

The changes in migration patterns reflect the changing economic geography of Mexico resulting from the development of export-oriented manufacturing mainly in the north of the country along or close to the U.S. border. By 1999, the in bond industry (maquiladora) sector generated over a million jobs, mainly in the cities of the north. In contrast, in the 1980s manufacturing lost jobs in the old industrial regions of the center of the country, although industrial restructuring in the Federal District of Mexico in the 1990s has reasserted Mexico City's importance in industrial production. The industrial transformation is a complex one. There are assembly-line operations that use cheap, mainly female labor (Fernández-Kelly 1983; Young and Fort 1994). There are also plants with high levels of technology that require workers with high levels of qualification and that are prepared to offer attractive conditions of work. The Mexican car industry has shifted to northern Mexico as part of an integrated North American production system, with Mexico shipping cars as well as parts to the U.S. market (Carrillo 1989). These processes are creating a distinct border region straddling the frontier, neither fully Mexican nor fully American (Bustamante 1981; Tamayo and Fernandez 1983).

The Mexican economy is not only highly regionalized and predominantly urban, but is increasingly based on service employment (García 1988). By 1995, the majority of employment (53 percent) was in services and commerce, with manufacturing and construction contributing 21 percent and agriculture 25 percent (Pacheco 1997). The same source shows that these shifts in sectoral employment have also been accompanied by increasing rates of female economic participation, growing from 21.5 percent in 1979 to 34.5 percent in 1995. Also, after 1979, the employment categories associated with the urban informal economy—seif-employed and unpaid family workers—increase from 33.7 percent to 38.3 percent of employment, whereas employees decline from 62.9 percent to 57.2 percent (Pacheko 1997).

New intellectual tendencies are emerging in face of these realities. There is now less emphasis on rural studies than in the past, although there is a growing focus on the consequences for rural areas of economic integration with the United States, including international migration (Cornelius and Myhre 1998). Mexican and U.S. scholars are studying the impact of the U.S. market on production and commercialization in Mexico with respect to crops such as avocados, mangos, and tomatoes (González Chávez 1991). Particular focuses are the difficulties faced by small-scale farmers, given the capital and technology needed to compete in the U.S. market. Also, there is a greater concern with environmental issues than in the past as market development puts greater competitive pressures on local agriculture or creates incentives to develop ecologically fragile areas for tourism (Tudela 1989; Moreno 1992; Toledo 1994).

Studies of international migration have become increasingly numerous, showing how migration to the United States has become the major means by which poor rural households complement inadequate incomes, attracting even the skilled and better educated (Massey et al. 1994). The existence of large Mexican-origin communities in cities throughout the United States, but particularly in Los Angeles and other cities of the Southwest, provides bridgeheads facilitating immigration. The importance of the U.S. migration experience has led scholars to document extensively the life histories of migrants, sometimes explicitly comparing their experiences with those recorded by Gamio and Taylor in the 1930s (Durand 1996). Mexican and U.S. researchers have also focused on the significance for U.S.-Mexico relations of transnational migrant communities where migrants settled in the U.S. maintain active links with their Mexican communities of origin, even to the extent of participating in local politics and development projects (Roberts et al. 1999).

In the realm of urban research, there is now considerable attention given to studies of family, gender and female economic participation (Benería and Roldán 1987; García and Oliveira 1997). These studies began with an emphasis on household coping strategies in face of poverty, particularly the pooling of resources and placing more members in the labor market (González de la Rocha 1994; Chant 1991; de la Peña et al. 1990; Selby et al. 1990; Roberts 1989). They have increasingly taken up issues of the changing role of women within the household as they gain a certain economic independence. The researchers question assumptions about the strength of the Mexican family and its ability to cope on its own with the fragmenting pressures coming from economic adjustment and migration. Domestic violence has become an important topic of research. In contrast with these demythifying visions of the Mexican family, other studies that focus on elites and entrepreneurial groups show that family cooperation and hierarchy are crucial for upper-class social mobility and business success, particularly among foreign immigrants and innovators willing to take risks (Lomnitz and Pérez Lizaur 1987; Ramírez 1994; Padilla Dieste 1997).

There has also been considerable research on the impact of international economic integration and "neoliberal" policies on two phenomena: poverty and political participation. The new faces of poverty and inequality have been examined through the analysis of representative surveys and case studies, but also from the perspective of the state's retreat from welfare and social services (González de la Rocha and Escobar 1991; Cortés and Rubalcava 1991; Boltvinik 1994; Brachet-Márquez 1996; Escobar 1986). The changing political scene has been studied particularly through electoral studies and the analysis of emerging political cultures. Widespread social discontent from the magnitude of fraud in the 1988 elections, as well as the government's search for international legitimacy in the context of economic globalization, led to the strengthening of opposition parties and the reform of electoral legislation (Molinar 1989, 1992; Azíz and Peschard 1993; Crespo 1993). The process of Mexican democratization is also related to the decline of clientelistic practices, which nowadays proves to be ineffective for handling demands in both urban and rural situations (Middlebrook 1995). The political awakening of an increasingly active civil society is reflected in new social movements that in addition to their demands for services and social justice nowadays challenge the official party and focus on issues of citizenship (Krotz 1996). Middle-class actors, whose standard of living is also declining rapidly, have a considerable presence in such movements (Sergio Tamayo 1994).

The quest for democracy and citizenship is crucial for the understanding of ethnic movements in Mexico. Their importance was dramatically highlighted by the eruption of the Chiapas rebellion on January 1, 1994—the very date of the formal enactment of NAFTA—but urgent ethnic demands have been put forward by dozens of nonviolent indigenous organizations since the 1970s (Campbell 1994; Zárate 1993). Such organizations criticized official Indigenista policies because of their ineffectiveness in eradicating poverty but also because of their assimilationist practices and their blatant disregard for the cultural and political rights of the indigenous population (Arizpe 1978). This critique was reinforced by a new anthropological literature emphasizing persisting ethnicity and cultural resistence instead of acculturation and national homogeneization (Bonfil 1981; Boege 1988). A radical statement of this position argues for the existence of an Indian "deep Mexico"—the real Mexico that has been artificially covered and repressed by authoritarianism and a spurious imitation of European modernity (Bonfil 1996). Even the National Indigenist Institute adopted a discourse of cultural plurality, and the Ministry of Education reinforced its programs of bilingual education (Instituto Nacional Indigenista 1988). In 1991, the National Congress surprisingly passed a constitutional reform that recognized multiculturalism as an essential component of the Mexican nation. If this reform may be explained as related to the government's search for international legitimacy when NAFTA was being negotiated, it nevertheless opened the way to new indigenous demands and to a widespread discussion of the issue of autonomy for autochtonous peoples, where the participation of Indian representatives and authors is as important as that of non-Indian scholars (Warman and Argueta 1993; Díaz-Polanco 1997; Villoro 1998).


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Guillermode la PeÑa
Bryan R. Roberts

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