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Until the 1950s, the distribution of land in Bolivia, as in the rest of Latin America, was very unequal. But in 1953, a year after the 1952 national revolution, the nationalist revolutionary movement (MNR) enacted a decree on agrarian reform that dismantled feudal haciendas in the western highlands, abolished the system of forced peasant labor, and distributed expropriated lands to peasants. While the decree proved redistributive in the Altiplano and valleys, it ended up creating new concentrations of land in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. This area, which constituted two thirds of Bolivia’s territory, was home to a number of indigenous groups who were displaced from their lands because of the expansion of latifundio in the second half of the 20th century. In 1996, after pressure from below, the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993–1997) approved a new agrarian law that recognized indigenous rights to collective territory (Tierra Comunitaria de Origen, TCO). In 2006, left-leaning President Evo Morales approved a new agrarian law. Although the new legislation mostly ratified the 1996 law, it established that only indigenous and peasant populations could be granted state lands. Despite this legislation claiming to protect the majority Indian and peasant population, scholars such as Colque, Tinta, and Sanjines note that it was under a neoliberal government, between 1996 to 2006, that much of the process of land distribution favored to indigenous groups of the lowlands, and it was under left-leaning President Evo Morales (from 2010 to the present ) that much of land distribution favored medium and agricultural enterprises. The most important clash between the self-proclaimed indigenous Evo Morales and lowland indigenous groups was in September 2011 when indigenous groups living in the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) protested against the government’s unilateral decision to build a road through their territory. Since 2011 (up to the present, 2018) the tension and political distance between president Morales and his loyal coca-leaf grower supporters—many of whom live on the borders of the park and are invested on the construction of the road—versus the indigenous groups of the lowlands have only grown. Ironically, it seems to be under Morales that key indigenous rights such as the right to prior consultation or the right to consolidate territories (TCOs) seem to be at the most risk.
Elizabeth A. Henson
On September 23, 1965, several years of protest, including land invasions, strikes, sit-ins, and cross-country marches, culminated in an armed attack on an army base located in the remote town of Madera, Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. Protesters had demanded that the state comply with land reform guarantees provided for by the constitution of Mexico; students from the normal schools joined in and raised their own demands. Instead of negotiating partial reforms, the state governor called out troops to burnish his reputation as an anti-communist crusader. Nominally organized in the Unión General de Obreros y Campesinos de México, movement leaders broke with national directives and encouraged “direct action” and illegal occupations, while the normalistas acted within a student activist tradition rooted in the Marxism of the 1930s. The agrarian demands came from landless workers in an agricultural valley planted in cotton, whose fortunes were linked to the world market and from dispossessed smallholders in the mountainous backlands now claimed by timber export companies. This mid-century modernization of land use had its counterpart in the protestors’ emulation of the Cuban revolution and their attempt to apply Che’s theory of guerrilla warfare. As the governor’s recalcitrance radicalized the movement, small groups undertook sporadic armed actions in the mountains, disarming forces sent after them. Other leaders moved to Mexico City to avoid arrest, undergo military training, and attempt to gather support; they returned to Chihuahua with the plan to attack the army base. Despite its spectacular failure, the event has been hailed as Mexico’s first socialist guerrilla struggle and served as inspiration for the dirty war of the 1970s, when armed revolutionaries fought the armed power of the state. Attention to its armed component has eclipsed the movement’s underlying basis, which was equally innovative and had lasting influence on Mexican social protest.
Thomas D. Rogers
The Portuguese took sugarcane from their Atlantic island holdings to Brazil in the first decades of the 16th century, using their model of extensive agriculture and coerced labor to turn their new colony into the world’s largest producer of sugar. From the middle of the 17th century through the 20th century, Brazil faced increasing competition from Caribbean producers. With access to abundant land and forest resources, Brazilian producers generally pursued an extensive production model that made sugarcane’s footprint a large one. Compared to competitors elsewhere, Brazilian farmers were often late in adopting innovations (such as manuring in the 18th century, steam power in the 19th, and synthetic fertilizers in the 20th). With coffee’s growth in the center-south of the country during the middle of the 19th century, sugarcane farming shifted gradually away from enslaved African labor. Labor and production methods shifted at the end of the century with slavery’s abolition and the rise of large new mills, called usinas. The model of steam-powered production, both for railroads carrying cane and for mills grinding it, and a work force largely resident on plantations persisted into the mid-20th century. Rural worker unions were legalized in the 1960s, at the same time that sugar production increased as a result of the Cuban Revolution. A large-scale sugarcane ethanol program in the 1970s also brought upheaval, and growth, to the industry.
David Carey Jr.
Dating from the earliest times in Latin America, alcohol has played a crucial social, economic, political, and cultural role. Often reserved for politico-religious leaders, alcohol was a conduit through which power flowed in many pre-contact indigenous societies; indigenous drinkways (production, commerce, and consumption habits) were associated with communal ritual events and social prestige. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans, distillation profoundly altered the potency of alcoholic drinks for people who were accustomed to fermentation. Even as the social and cultural practices of alcohol consumption changed over time, alcohol continued to have political and economic implications in the colonial and national periods in Latin America. Fearing that inebriation bred disorder and recognizing that moonshining undercut their own revenues, colonial and national governments alike sought to regulate, if not control, the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. In nations as diverse as Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, indigenous women came to play integral roles in the (oftentimes illicit) sale and production of alcohol. A cash nexus for moving labor and land and a crucial component of the economic system by which (often unscrupulous) labor brokers recruited workers, alcohol was a currency of local economies. As a commodity of local, national, and international significance, alcohol shaped the fate of nation-states.
People’s class, ethnic, race, and gender identities all played into their access to alcohol. Although a person’s choice of libation could define their position, some of the more fascinating histories of alcohol are punctuated with women and men who used alcohol to disrupt social conventions. Through the consumption of alcohol, rituals and ceremonies created and reconstituted community both within and across ethnic groups. Imbibing could also divide people. Even while they sipped their cognacs and brandies, elites portrayed indigenous people, the poor, and other marginalized people getting drunk on moonshine to discount and denigrate them. Often associated with (particularly violent) crime, alcohol was seen as a vice by many and excoriated during temperance movements. Yet defendants across Latin America took advantage of judicial systems that considered alcohol a mitigating circumstance in many crimes. As 20th-century evangelical sects that preached abstinence as the route to wealth and marital bliss grew to unprecedented numbers, traditional healers and biomedical practitioners continued to tout alcohol’s medicinal value. In short, alcohol was a marker of social position and cultural identity, a crucial component in community and state building, and a commodity around which different cultural traditions, healing practices, and policing policies developed and evolved.
Alfred Métraux was part of a prolific moment in which French sociology and ethnology were enlarging their scientific scope and advancing toward new fields. Following the colonial expansion of France, Métraux participated in establishing ethnographic methods for codifying social life, material culture, and artistic forms. Through his own transatlantic voyages and personal exchanges, Métraux left personal documents in different parts of the world. Consequently, many are the archives that hold parts of his personal collections, letters, and published or unpublished materials. In addition, because of Métraux’s own cosmopolitanism, studies on the ethnologist’s life and works can be found in different languages. Métraux meticulously collected artifacts and documents from different cultures, and these items are now part of collections in museums in Argentina, France, and the United States. The multiplicity of themes Métraux dedicated himself to during his life reveal logics and developments of his work, as well as the importance of fieldwork to his making as an anthropologist, or a “man of the field,” as he used to describe himself. His intense and long-term relationship with Haitian Vodou was central in his career as it arose from his early interest in vanishing civilizations, religious systems, and material culture, and defined his personal agenda for future research.
David M. K. Sheinin
During the Cold War, there were thousands of Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings in Argentina (in Spanish, Objeto volador no identificado or OVNI). The mainstream media reported on many of them. In a field termed ufología, some events were explained scientifically or somewhat scientifically; most were not. These sightings and their stories lived on in a culture of thousands of OVNI aficionados and their literatures, frequently spilling into larger popular cultures.
OVNI culture disrupts chronologies. It offers a picture of Cold War Argentina that breaks with longstanding popular and academic chronologies that stress a dictatorship-versus-democracy binary. That binary is real. However, OVNI culture superimposes an often-neglected Cold War chronology on the mid- to late 20th century. OVNI stories and their cultural consumption evolve and vary not with reference to violent Argentine political and historical change, but in the context of a larger transnational Cold War culture in an Argentine context. Hallmarks of OVNI culture in Argentina include the enormous influence of U.S. popular culture, as well as references to apocalyptic nuclear weapons, and unscientific notions of psychoses in explaining late-night sightings of spacecraft and extraterrestrials.
Stephen G. Rabe
On March 13, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress, an economic assistance program to promote political democracy, economic growth, and social justice in Latin America. The United States and Latin American nations formally agreed to the alliance at a conference held in August 1961, at Punta del Este, Uruguay. U.S. delegates promised that Latin America would receive over twenty billion dollars in public and private capital from the United States and international lending authorities during the 1960s. The money would arrive in the form of grants, loans, and direct private investments. When combined with an expected eighty billion dollars in internal investment, this new money was projected to stimulate an economic growth rate of not less than 2.5 percent a year. This economic growth would facilitate significant improvements in employment, and in rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy rates. In agreeing to the alliance, Latin American leaders pledged to work for equality and social justice by promoting agrarian reform and progressive income taxes.
The Kennedy administration developed this so-called Marshall Plan for Latin America because it judged the region susceptible to social revolution and communism. Fidel Castro had transformed the Cuban Revolution into a strident anti-American movement and had allied his nation with the Soviet Union. U.S. officials feared that the lower classes of Latin America, mired in poverty and injustice, might follow similarly radical leaders.
Alliance programs delivered outside capital to the region, but the Alliance for Progress failed to transform Latin America. During the 1960s, Latin American economies performed poorly, usually falling below the 2.5 percent target. The region witnessed few improvements in health, education, or welfare. Latin American societies remained unfair and authoritarian. Sixteen extra-constitutional changes of government repeatedly unsettled the region.
The Alliance for Progress fell short of its goals for several reasons. Latin America had formidable obstacles to change: elites resisted land reform, equitable tax systems, and social programs; new credits often brought greater indebtedness rather than growth; and the Marshall Plan experience served as a poor guide to solving the problems of a region that was far different from Western Europe. The United States also acted ambiguously, calling for democratic progress and social justice, but worried that Communists would take advantage of the instability caused by progressive change. Further, Washington provided wholehearted support only to those Latin American governments and organizations that pursued fervent anticommunist policies.
Diogo de Carvalho Cabral
Although it has received less scholarly attention than firearms, microbes, domestic animals and plants, market economy, and statecraft, alphabetic reading and writing was crucial in the European conquest and colonization of the Americas from the late 15th century on. Unlike the agrarian empires the Spaniards encountered in the Andes and the Mexican highlands, the Portuguese frontier advanced upon tribal peoples who relied exclusively on oral language, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. These were semi-sedentary horticultural villagers whose entire socio-ecology (myths and knowledge, territoriality, subsistence strategies, etc.) was conditioned by the face-to-faceness and fugacity of spoken words. In turn, their Portuguese colonizers—for a while rivaled by the French, who enjoyed short periods of stable settlement through the early 17th century—were urban-based, oceangoing merchants, bureaucrats, soldiers, and religious missionaries whose organization strictly depended on the durability and transferability of written texts. Even if most of the Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 16th century were themselves illiterate, colonization as a social enterprise framed their actions according to prescribed roles set down in writing (both handwriting and printed script). Thus, the Portuguese colonization of Brazilian native lands and human populations can be interpreted from the point of view of the imposition of an alphabetically organized way of life. Two major dimensions of this “letterscaping” can be discerned as to its impact on Amerindian bodies (human and nonhuman) and modes of understanding. Although the 16th century was only the introductory act in that drama, its historical record shows the basic outlines of the alphabetic colonization that would play out through the early 19th century: native decimation and enslavement, territory usurpation by sesmaria grants, forest recovery in former native croplands (then resignified as “virgin forest”), loss of native ecological knowledge not recorded in writing, disempowerment of native cultural attunement to the wild soundscape, among other processes.
The evolutionary history of vertebrate nonhuman animals such as mammals in what is now Latin America extends back tens of millions of years. Given that anatomically modern humans first appeared in Africa a mere 200,000 years ago and would not reach Latin America until some 12,000 years ago, nonhuman animals in the region evolved for most of their history without interference from human activities. Once they appeared, humans began to shape the history of the region’s animals in profound ways. In fact, one could argue that animal history in Latin America has been a story of increasing human impact; from the Paleo-Indians, who may have driven countless species of megafauna to extinction; to the agrarian societies that domesticated species such as dogs, turkeys, and llamas (or tolerated the animals’ self-domestication); to the radical transformations brought about by the Columbian Exchange; to the industrialization process of the last two centuries. But animal history in the region is also marked by adaptation and agency on the part of animals, who have influenced the course of human history. This dynamic and adaptive human–animal relationship has been pushed to the limit during extinction pulses, manifest in the currently accelerating biodiversity crisis. Environmental history makes the convincing case that any historical account that neglects the environment offers an inaccurate depiction of the past. By the same token, animal historians suggest that a more complete understanding of history requires redefining its boundaries to include the often underappreciated story of nonhuman species and their interrelationships with human societies.
Anticommunism was a central force in the history of the Chilean political conflict in the 20th century. Not only did several political actors define their identities and actions by their opposition to Marxist-inspired revolutionary projects, but also the state in different moments excluded and persecuted everything identified as “communist.” To a great extent, anticommunism relied on three main “frameworks”: Catholicism, nationalism, and liberalism, all of which were crucial elements in the construction of the Republic since the 19th century. Different combinations and interpretations within each framework resulted in different anticommunist expressions, from pro-fascist movements and nationalist groups to the conservative-liberal right wing, the Social Christian center and even moderate socialists. Many of them, especially in the second half of the 20th century, understood anticommunism as a defense of different variations of capitalism. Of course, anticommunism was not a uniquely Chilean phenomenon. It was, in fact, an ideological trend worldwide. This conditioned the reception in Chile of global events and ideas, while it enabled the construction of transnational networks among related actors. The enactment of the Law of Permanent Defense of Democracy in 1948, which outlawed the Communist Party, symbolized the alignment of Chilean politics to Cold War bipolarity. However, the Marxist left was able to recover during the “long Sixties,” in a political and cultural environment marked by the Cuban Revolution. The Popular Unity government was the materialization of all anticommunist fears. The counter-revolutionary bloc created then paved the way to the 1973 coup and the subsequent military dictatorship, which used anticommunism as state ideology. Human rights violations were legitimated by the dictatorship from that ideological framework. Anticommunism decayed by the late 1980s alongside socialist experiences around the world.
Kathryn E. O’Rourke
Architecture in Mexico City in the mid-20th century was shaped by rapid economic and urban growth, demographic change, new construction technologies, and politics. Architects adapted modernist idioms and those that evoked historical precedents for new purposes. Key figures who had begun practice earlier in the century, including Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman, José Villagrán García, and Luis Barragán, designed major new works and strongly influenced the profession, even as a new generation led by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta, and Teodoro González de Léon came of age. As they had been since the 1920s, public patrons were the most important clients of modern buildings, which often addressed needs for better housing, education, and health care. The period also saw the rise of modern suburbs and the evolution of the single-family house, as well as the creation of major buildings for increasingly important cultural institutions, especially museums.
As they had in preceding decades, architects used the non-architectural arts, particularly painting, to distinguish their works. The legacy of the Mexican muralist movement was most evident on the facades of major buildings in the new University City, where the influence of international modernist planning principles was also striking. In 1968 Mexico City hosted the Olympics, for which architects, planners, and designers created a network of buildings and images that functioned interdependently to present Mexico as cosmopolitan and historically rooted in its indigenous history. Sprawl and pollution worsened in the 1970s, as the capital came to be dominated by buildings that were not designed by architects. While some observers questioned the relevance of architecture in the face of seemingly unstoppable and uncontrollable growth, talented young architects responded with buildings notable for their monumentality, mass, and sophisticated engagement with historical types.
Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, Argentina became closely linked to the North Atlantic world, as the founding fathers of the modern state established a political order modeled on liberal principles, developed a dynamic export economy, and presided over a large immigration—mainly from Spain and Italy. These processes provided the historical framework for the impact of the European crisis of the interwar years in Argentine cultural groups and debates in the 1930s. The cosmopolitan features of Argentine society and intellectual groups, the country’s political crisis in the 1930s, and the particularly heavy influence of the Spanish Civil War explain how the European situation and ideologies such as Fascism and anti-Fascism were processed in a variety of cultural publications and institutions.
The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) and the Role of Religion and Health in Central America
The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.
Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz
On December 8, 1953, in the midst of increasing nuclear weapons testing and geopolitical polarization, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace initiative. More than a pacifist program, the initiative is nowadays seen as an essential piece in the U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War. As such, it pursued several ambitious goals, and Latin America was an ideal target for most of them: to create political allies, to ease fears of the deadly atomic energy while fostering receptive attitudes towards nuclear technologies, to control and avoid development of nuclear weapons outside the United States and its allies, and to open or redirect markets for the new nuclear industry. The U.S. Department of State, through the Foreign Operations Administration, acted in concert with several domestic and foreign middle-range actors, including people at national nuclear commissions, universities, and industrial funds, to implement programs of regional technical assistance, education and training, and technological transfer.
Latin American countries were classified according to their stage of nuclear development, with Brazil at the top and Argentina and Mexico belonging to the group of “countries worthy of attention.” Nuclear programs often intersected with development projects in other areas, such as agriculture and public health. Moreover, Eisenhower’s initiative required the recruitment of local actors, natural resources and infrastructures, governmental funding, and standardized (but localized techno-scientific) practices from Latin American countries. As Atoms for Peace took shape, it began to rely on newly created multilateral and regional agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations and the Inter-American Nuclear Energy Commission (IANEC) of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Nevertheless, as seen from Latin America, the implementation of atomic energy for peaceful purposes was reinterpreted in different ways in each country. This fact produced different outcomes, depending on the political, economic, and techno-scientific expectations and interventions of the actors involved. It provided, therefore, an opportunity to create local scientific elites and infrastructure. Finally, the peaceful uses of atomic energy allowed the countries in the region to develop national and international political discourses framing the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean signed in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, in 1967, which made Latin America the first atomic weapons–free populated zone in the world.
Set within a larger analysis of class relations in the Haitian Revolution, this is a microhistory that intersects with several important themes in the revolution: rumor, atrocity, the arming of slaves, race relations, and the origins and wealth of the free colored population. It is an empirical investigation of an obscure rebellion by free men of color in the Grande Anse region in 1791. Although the rebellion is obscure, it is associated with an atrocity story that has long resonated in discussion of the revolution. Formerly the least-known segment of Caribbean society, research has shed much new light on free people of color in recent decades, but much remains to be clarified. In certain ways, they are the key to understanding the Haitian Revolution, because of their anomalous position in Saint Domingue society and the way their activism precipitated its unraveling. The Grande Anse region had a unique experience of the revolution in that white supremacy and slavery were maintained there longer than in any other part of the colony. Based primarily on unexploited or little-known sources the article demonstrates the range and depth of research that remains possible and suggests that a regional focus is best way to advance current scholarship on the Haitian Revolution.
Ana Laura de la Torre
The Autonomous Department of Press and Publicity (DAPP) created by Lazaro Cardenas’s administration responded to the need for a fixed ideological framework that would allow for the construction of a modern, prosperous, and politically unified nation based on the Six-Year Plan. The materials produced by the DAPP designated collective identities; defined relations between the government and its enemies, rivals and allies; preserved and molded past memories, and sought to project fears and hopes into the future. The department used a variety of mass media technology to produce messages with the aim of controlling criticism of the regime, shaping public attitudes, generating a collective “us,” and effecting change in the thoughts and actions of the public. The continuous use of the media was a response of the Cardenista administration to the constant rejection that its public policies generated, either because they affected particular economic interests or because they were considered as an affront to the way of thinking of various social sectors, particularly those identified with Catholicism. President Cárdenas and his associates perceived that they were a besieged and criticized administration, both inside and outside the country. Hence, they deemed it essential to start up a strong propaganda apparatus in order to reverse the opposition and generate supporters. Its creation is framed by the efforts taken by various governments during the 1930s that viewed propaganda as an effective tool for producing political consensus, generating feelings of national unity, and changing public habits.
The Conquest of Mexico is typically explained in terms of European military superiority, and although this offered an advantage to the forces arrayed against the Aztecs, it was merely part of a broader picture required to understand their downfall. Indigenous political circumstances played the key role in the Conquest, which can best be understood as an Indian victory over other Indians. The Spaniards represented less a conquering force, with which other native groups opportunistically allied, than an opportunity for groups opposed to the Aztecs to employ the relatively minor Spanish forces to multiply their own superior military strength. The Spaniards recognized their own pivotal role and shifted much of the timing of the conquest to sustain it. Other circumstances of the Spanish arrival, including the massive population loss from the accompanying smallpox, did play a role, but one that was primarily understood and used against the Aztecs by the allied Indians. So ultimately, the Conquest can be best understood as an Indian victory over other Indians, but with the Spaniards manipulating the outcome to ultimately win the peace.
Basques formed a minority ethnic group whose diaspora had a significant impact on the history of colonial Latin America. Basques from the four Spanish or peninsular Basque territories—the Lordship of Vizcaya, the provinces of Álava and Guipúzcoa, and the Kingdom of Navarra—migrated to the New World in significant numbers; the French Basques were also prominent in the Atlantic, particularly in the Newfoundland fisheries.
The population density of the Basque Atlantic valleys, which was the highest of any region in Spain, was an important factor that encouraged emigration. And, in response to demographic pressure, in the second half of the 15th century most villages and towns adopted an impartible inheritance system that compelled non-inheriting offspring to seek their fortunes outside the country. Castile was the immediate choice for the Basque émigré, but after 1492 America gradually became an attractive destination. Outside their home country, their unique language and sense of collective nobility (hidalguía universal) were to become two outstanding features of Basque cultural identity.
The Basques’ share of total Spanish migration to the New World increased significantly in the second half of the 17th century. By the 18th century they were one of the largest and most influential peninsular regional groups in America. The typical Basque émigré was a young, single man aged between fifteen and thirty. In the New World they left their mark in economic activities that their countrymen had developed in their homeland for centuries: trade, navigation, shipbuilding, and mining. Furthermore, Basques’ collective nobility and limpieza de sangre (blood purity) facilitated their access to important official positions.
Benito Juárez was born on March 21, 1806, in San Pablo Guelatao, a Zapotec-speaking hamlet in Sierra de Ixtlán (renamed the Sierra de Juárez on July 30, 1857) in Mexico’s southeastern state of Oaxaca. He died in the National Palace on July 18, 1872, as President of the Republic, an office he had occupied since January 1858, when, as President of the Supreme Court, he had succeeded the moderate Liberal Ignacio Comonfort, who had been driven into exile by a Conservative military revolt. During his fifteen years as president, a younger generation of Liberals, few of whom could remember the revolution of Independence (1808–1821), radically transformed Mexico’s laws and institutions. In October 1855, when Juárez was the minister of justice in the newly formed Liberal government, he implemented the “Law of Restriction of Corporate Privileges,” which is credited with setting in motion the wider Reform movement.
Between 1855 and 1860, in what was at the time called La Revolución but soon became known as La Reforma (the Reformation), Mexico moved from being a “Catholic Nation,” in which many of the social and racial hierarchies and corporate privileges of colonial rule still held sway, to becoming a secular federal republic regulated by a liberal constitution based on the sovereignty of the people and equality before the law, reducing the legal immunities and special privileges of the army and the Catholic Church and establishing a single system of civil law that guaranteed a wide range of freedoms and social rights. In the face of a Conservative uprising in January 1858, which broadened into the Three Years’ War (1858–1861), Liberals pressed ahead with an ambitious project of religious and civil disentailment (desamortización) that abolished corporate or communal property in favor of individual private ownership. The Liberal revolution was further strengthened in 1859 by the “Laws of Reform,” which ordered the wholesale nationalization of Church wealth and the closure of nunneries and monasteries; barred Roman Catholicism, the national religion until 1857, along with any other religion, from external manifestations of the cult; and established a civil registry and a strict separation of church and state.
Conservatives, undeterred by their defeat in the Battle of Calpulalpan, in December 1860, and in spite of Juárez receiving his first full popular mandate in the elections of March 1861, redoubled their resistance to the Reform by encouraging Napoleon III’s colonial ambitions, efforts that culminated in January 1862 in the occupation of Veracruz by forces from France, Britain, and Spain and the imposition of Maximilian Habsburg as emperor in April 1864. Juárez now led the defense of the Liberal republic on two fronts, and he retreated to northern Mexico, from where he coordinated resistance to the Empire.
Following the defeat of the Second Empire, which culminated in the execution of Maximilian alongside the principal Conservative generals at Querétaro on June 19, 1867, Juárez returned to the national capital wearing the twin laurels of Liberal law giver and savior of the nation. Although at his death, in 1872, he faced many enemies, especially in the Liberal camp, Juárez soon became enshrined as Liberal Mexico’s undisputed founding father and moral guide, much in the mold of his contemporaries Giuseppe Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln. Under his leadership, liberalism had become insolubly fused with patriotism in the republican victory over European monarchy—Mexico’s second revolution of independence. La Reforma is recognized as a major watershed in Mexico’s history on a par with the revolution of Independence from Spain and the Revolution of 1910–1917.
What can we learn about the documents we work with if we incorporate a study of document creation, travel, and storage into the consideration of document content? Some well-known documents, such as the Popol Vuh, have backstories that reveal as much as their content. But even obscure documents, such as a dispute over a road detour in 18th-century Guatemala, can be read productively as objects with life trajectories. Understanding the “life” of this document—the world in which it was made, the tools and knowledge of its making, its travel while being written, its storage in colonial and national archives—sheds new light on its meaning. Similarly, all colonial documents can be interpreted in new ways if their lives are treated as part of the interpretation.