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Andrés Estefane and Luis Thielemann
Marxist thought in Latin America was impacted by various transatlantic intellectual, and social influences. The changes in Latin American Marxism can be placed in a five-stage chronological framework. The first stage, from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, encompasses the arrival of European immigrants, who introduced the first references to Marxist socialism, and the local development of that repertoire among workers, journalists, and intellectuals in the urban centers of Latin America. The initial influence of the Second International and Karl Marx’s texts started to change during the second decade of the 20th century, following the debates sparked by the Russian Revolution and the emergence of communism. This context framed the beginning of the second stage, characterized by the emergence of a group of thinkers who questioned the Eurocentric tone and the mechanical assimilation of European Marxism. Taking as a point of departure the particularity of Latin American social formations, and inspired by a strong anti-imperialist discourse, these intellectuals and revolutionary leaders aimed at developing an original reading of Marxist thinking, more pertinent to the rural and indigenous character of the continental societies and the structural legacies of the colonial past. A third stage began in the 1930s, after the fall of the Spanish Republic, the ascent of fascism and Nazism in Europe, and the ideological purges that followed the Stalinization of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The increasing influence of the Comintern (the Communist International) deactivated the creative impetus of the early 20th century, though it did not prevent the emergence of intellectuals and local organizations—led by Trotskyism and Left Opposition groups—who strongly criticized Stalinism and the bureaucratization of Soviet Communism. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 marked the beginning of a fourth stage in the history of Latin American Marxism. That event inverted the traditional direction of the transatlantic influence, since Latin America became a landmark case for Western Marxism. In the midst of a complex and productive intercontinental dialogue with Europe, Latin American Marxism developed crucial debates on such topics as the colonial legacy of the continental capitalist development, the relationship between racial hierarchies and class struggle, and over the political “routes” to building socialist orders. These dialogues and debates came to an abrupt end after the wave of coup d’états that shook the continent between the 1960s and the 1980s. The political defeats of the attempts to construct socialist systems provoked a Marxist diaspora that brought many European intellectuals back to their own continent and sent many militants and thinkers into exile in Latin America and elsewhere. Interestingly, the evaluation of the defeat was the basis for an ample renovation of the Marxist thought, which marked the beginning of the fifth and current stage, characterized by the emergence of the Latin America’s progressive governments of the 21st century and the gradual withdrawal from the old bases of historical materialism. Although this periodization recognizes the diverse transatlantic contexts that influenced Latin American Marxism, it also seeks to highlight that the production of Marxist thinking on the continent has mainly been connected with the experience of active militants and intellectuals proscribed or marginalized in academia. By extension, the development of Latin American Marxism appears to be intimately linked to the political struggle of the continental Left, which does not negate that Latin American thinkers have also produced theoretical works on Marx.
One of the leading figures who pioneered and promoted changes toward modernity in Mexico City was Laura Méndez de Cuenca. Laura dared to transgress the traditional Catholic norms of her time. She was a teacher, a leader of a feminist movement, and an avant-garde writer. Above all, she dared to live a modern life. But, what was a modern life? Méndez chose an audacious path in order to live a modern life, a life of hard work, determination, and freedom––a freedom for which she paid a high price.
Lázaro Cárdenas served as Mexico’s president from 1934–1940. His presidency marked the end of the “Maximato,” the period in which the former president Plutarco Elías Calles exercised control. It bridged the gap between the rocky postwar years of the 1920s and the authoritarian dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that characterized the rest of the 20th century. Cárdenas is Mexico’s most studied and best remembered president. To the extent that the Mexican Revolution ever was truly radical or popular, it was during the Cárdenas presidency. Cardenismo is an amorphous term that refers both to Cárdenas’s administration and his reform agenda. Cardenistas were a diverse coalition of supporters, some who advocated his agenda and others who merely allied themselves with his administration for non-ideological reasons. Cárdenas set out to realize what he saw as the promises of the revolution: justice for workers and peasants. He distributed about twice as much land as his predecessors combined, and he promoted unionization and strikes. He famously expropriated and nationalized the petroleum industry in dramatic defense of the Mexican worker. These actions earned him enduring affection, although he did not receive universal support even among the disenfranchised while in office. Many opposed his policies, especially those tied with the project of cultural transformation whose origin came earlier, but whose objectives Cárdenas sought to support, especially secularization. Cárdenas’s “Socialist Education” project faced particularly fierce opposition, and he was forced to abandon it along with most of the anticlerical agenda after 1938. That same year, he reorganized the ruling party along corporatist lines and rebaptized it the “Party of the Mexican Revolution,” or PRM. That restructuring is largely credited with having created the conditions under which future administrations would be able to exercise authoritarian control, although this was not Cárdenas’s intention. His presidency is more noted for what it failed to accomplish than for its successes. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on, most visibly in countryside and in the political career of his son Cuahtémoc, who has for decades struggled to fulfill his father’s vision.
This purpose of this essay is to reveal the diversity of writers responsible for creating the texts of lawsuits in the Spanish empire. It peeks behind the curtain of pages in civil complaints in an attempt to figure out how legal papers actually made it into the court record and who was doing their writing. While historians have recently thrown a spotlight on various official writers, from notaries to native procurators, in fact unidentified, unofficial writers penned quite a few petitions in civil suits. Knowing who wrote the filings in civil cases has a bearing on our understanding of Spanish imperial subjects, their interactions with the law, and ultimately how much of a hand they had in making their own historical record.
The role that liberals and liberalism played from the beginning of the crisis hispánica of 1808 until the death of Simón Bolívar in 1830 can be separated for analytical purposes in two different strands: the Peninsular and the Spanish American. This is a distinction that should be adopted with care, because in the end it can be considered that we are dealing with a single liberalism, the liberalismo hispánico. However, different historical, political, and social realities on each side of the Atlantic gave this liberalism different connotations. At first, Peninsulars and Spanish Americans worked in the same direction and with the same objective (the rejection of the French king that Napoleon imposed in the throne of Spain), but soon they parted ways in a practical, though not necessarily in a theoretical sense, at least concerning liberalism. In any case, contrary to what Western historiography has repeated for a long time, liberalism was a major player in the mundo hispánico during the Age of Revolutions. In fact, the term “liberal” used to define a political group made its first appearance in the Cortes (parliament or congress) that gathered in the Spanish port of Cádiz from 1810 to 1814. Nevertheless, the revolutionary contents of liberalism had to confront sociopolitical histories and realities that forced it to adapt itself to the prevailing social circumstances and to make concessions to other currents of thought and practices that do not coincide with the “liberal model” that still has ascendancy in Western historiography. This model tends to ignore the historical liberalisms that have existed in Europe, America, and other parts of the world since the “liberals” made their appearance in Spain more than two hundred years ago and in the Hispanic case in particular fails to address its radical character when considered against the Spanish Ancien régime. The result in the case of the mundo hispánico was an original and revolutionary doctrine that during the second and third decades of the 19th century transformed Hispanic politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The fact that these transformations were not consolidated or in the Peninsular case did not last for long does not diminish their importance for political and intellectual history.
Benito Pablo Juárez Garcia (b. San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, March 21, 1806; d. Mexico City, July 18, 1872) was one of the greatest (and most controversial) statesmen in Mexican history. Born a humble Zapotec Indian, he was orphaned before the age of four, obtained an improbable education, became a lawyer and politician, was a revolutionary reformer, served twice as governor of Oaxaca, and succeeded to the presidency in a time of crisis. His unlikely rise to political prominence in a country with a racial caste system was remarkable. As president he led Liberal Republicans to victory in the War of Reform (1858–1861) as well as in the War of the French Intervention (1862–1867). Juarez and his generals defeated reactionary Conservatives and recalcitrant Catholic bishops in 1858–1861 and defended the republican Constitution of 1857. His defense of the Republic against foreign invasion and the imposition of an Austrian archduke as Emperor of Mexico, from 1862 to 1867, gave Juárez his heroic, even cultic, stature during his lifetime.
Although he faced fierce critics and enemies during his lifetime and after his death, Liberal partisans—politicians, journalists, workers, and Juárez himself—created the hero cult and the myth of Juárez. He was hailed as the incorruptible champion of the law, the constitutional republic, and the Mexican nation against powerful Mexican and foreign enemies in life and, even more, in death. General Porfirio Díaz served the Juárez government in war, opposed it in peace, and in 1876–1877, four years after the death of Juárez, became president by means of rebellion and then election. The new president was also from Oaxaca and embraced the Juárez myth to unite the nation and, in time, to create his own myth as the culminating hero in the making of the modern Mexican nation. The apotheosis of Juárez was consecrated in significant commemorative monuments of marble and bronze during the Porfiriato (the age of Porfirio Díaz, 1876–1911).
By the first decade of the 20th century, the Juárez myth was more divisive than uniting. The scientific liberals (científicos) supporting the Díaz regime presented Juárista politics as the template for the Díaz dictatorship. A new generation of liberals believed Díaz had abandoned the constitutionalism of Juárez. The Mexican Revolution, led by these liberals, overthrew Díaz in 1911. Revolutionary governments continued the cult of Juárez. Public schools were given Juárez busts, and liberal textbooks introduced the Juárez myth to a new generation. Juárez, Mexico’s greatest symbol of the defense of national sovereignty was popularly and officially celebrated when US troops evacuated Veracruz (after several months of intervention) in November 1914. The same took place upon the expropriation of the foreign oil companies by the Mexican government in 1938. During the 20th century, and at the beginning of the 21st century, the cult of Juárez (the devoted attachment to Juarez) has remained steady. Professional historians and the popular cynicism of official history have undermined, to some extent, the official myth of Juárez (the idealization of Juárez by the state).
Agrarian transformations in Andean Peru, subject to larger sociopolitical and economic processes, entailed major material, environmental, and biological changes. The long history of sheep introduction in Andean environments, its specific impact on the central highlands, and the making of an Andean breed of sheep—the oveja Junín—illustrate how such transformations shaped rural Peru as a societal space. Following larger environmental patters in Latin America, sheep became the dominant animal of the upper Andean regions, populating depleted landscapes and refashioning otherwise hostile environments as areas of agrarian productivity. Many of the transformations that occurred during colonial times, particularly the consolidation of the hacienda system and the rise of sheepherding as a form of peonage, served manifold purposes in the transition to the national period. While the 19th-century liberal obliteration of corporate identities and property obscured the legacy of indigenous communities, sheep continued to thrive and set the conditions for the incorporation of the Peruvian countryside into the global world economy. In the 20th century, with the parallel arrival of state and capital governance, transforming sheep and sheepherding from vernacular expressions of livelihood into advanced forms of modern agrarian industrialism merged together scientific and veterinarian knowledge with local understandings, producing the oveja Junín as the ultimate result. As sheepherding modernized based on efficient husbandry, sheep modernity efficiently nurtured rural developmentalism, bringing together communal and capitalist interests in unprecedented ways. The state-sponsored project of granjas comunales devoted to capital-intensive grazing economies reveals how husbandry and modern grazing activities both reinforced and transformed societal organization within indigenous communities, sanctioning existing differences while providing a vocabulary of capital for recasting their internal social relations of production. When the state envisioned the centralization of otherwise profitable communal grazing economies, through the allegedly empowering language of agrarian reform, the cooperativization of land, labor, and animals led to communal, family, and individual disenfranchisement. Indigenous community members, turned into campesinos, sought new battlegrounds for resisting state intromission. Eventually, the very biology of the oveja Junín as an exclusive domain of state and capital became the target of campesino sabotage. As the agrarian reform collapsed and revolution engulfed the countryside, rural livelihoods—sheep included—faced their ultimate demise, often with severe degrees of violence. In this entire trajectory, sheep—and the oveja Junín—ruled the upper regions of the Andes like no political power ever did.
Vicente Lombardo Toledano was born into a prosperous family in 1894 in Teziutlán, Puebla, and died in Mexico City in 1968. His life is a window into the history of the 20th century: the rise and fall of the old regime; the Mexican Revolution and the transformations that the revolution made in society; the intellectual and social reconstruction of the country under new parameters that included the rise of the labor movement to political prominence as well as the intervention of the trade unions in the construction and consolidation of the state; the dispute over the course of the nation in the tumultuous 1930s; and the configuration of the political and ideological left in Mexico. Lombardo Toledano’s life and work illustrate Mexico’s connections with the world during the Second World War and the Cold War.
Lombardo Toledano belonged to the intellectual elite of men and women who considered themselves progressives, Marxists, and socialists; they believed in a bright future for humanity. He viewed himself as the conscious reflection of the unconscious movement of the masses. With unbridled energy and ideological fervor, he founded unions, parties, and newspapers. During the course of his life, he adhered to various beliefs, from Christianity to Marxism, raising dialectical materialism to the level of a theory of knowledge of absolute proportions in the same fashion that he previously did with idealism. In life, he aroused feelings of love and hate; he was the object of royal welcomes and the target of several attacks; national and international espionage agencies did not let him out of their sight. He was detained in and expelled from several countries and prevented from visiting others. Those who knew him still evoke his incendiary oratorical style, which others remember as soporific. His admirers praise him as the helmsman of Mexican and Latin American workers; others scorn the means he used to achieve his goals as opportunist.
Lombardo Toledano believed that the Soviet Union had achieved a future that Mexico could not aspire to imitate. Mexico was a semifeudal and semicolonial country, hindered by imperialism in its economic development and the creation of a national bourgeoisie, without which it could not pass on to the next stage in the evolution of mankind and without which the working class and peasantry were doomed to underdevelopment. In his interpretation of history, the autonomy of the subordinate classes did not enter into the picture; rather it was the intellectual elites allied with the state who had the task of instilling class consciousness in them. No matter how prominent a personality he was in his time, today few remember the maestro Vicente Lombardo Toledano, despite the many streets and schools named after him. However, the story of his life reveals the vivid and contradictory history of the 20th century, with traces that remain in contemporary Mexico.
Alejandro García Magos
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (b. 1953) is the current president of Mexico (for the period 2018–2024). He has been at the forefront of Mexican politics since 2000, having served as mayor of Mexico City between 2000 and 2005, and making three runs for the presidency in 2006, 2012, and 2018 in which he finally emerged victorious. While his detractors consider him a radical leftist in the mold of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, his supporters praise him as a man of the people who fights to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Political preferences aside, the ascent of López Obrador to the presidency of Mexico needs to be understood first and foremost in the context of the country’s democratic transition. This was a protracted process that started in 1977 and concluded at some point between 1997 and 2000, right about when López arrived on the national political stage. The transition leveled the electoral arena and opened up opportunities for electoral competition that López has been able to capitalize on. Ironically, to this day he refuses to acknowledge the democratic improvements that Mexico experienced during its transition, and which allowed his political ascent in the first place.
When Mexico became independent in 1821, the first choice for a political system for the new country was a monarchy. In fact, the Plan of Iguala, which prompted the separation from Spain, called for Ferdinand VII or any member of his family to come rule over the novel nation. While such efforts did not prosper then and in fact precipitated a failed attempt for a national empire, the monarchist option remained alive for several decades, until a French intervention sponsored the enactment of Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. When that attempt was defeated in 1867 it marked the end of monarchism there.
One of the main promoters of such a political system was Lucas Alamán. A member of a miner’s family from Guanajuato, he became an important and influential statesman of independent Mexico. From 1821, when he first participated in the Spanish congress, until his death in 1853, Alamán, like other thinkers who lived through a transitional period, held paradoxical views; while he promoted industrialization and economic development, he maintained more-traditional views on politics and rather ancestral conceptions regarding the treatment of Indian communities. Either as minister of foreign relations, congressman, or advisor to various governments, he defended his ideas, and more than once they aimed for a monarchist option. His career illustrates the quandaries and dilemmas that the officials of Hispanic America and Old Spain as well confronted in modernizing their societies. As he got involved in public office, he also became the administrator of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone’s state in Mexico; such a position provided him—through the British agents of the Neapolitan-Sicilian nobleman—with a regular source of information on the European scene. Thus, Alamán was one of the most learned public officials of his time. He also wrote historical works that granted him recognition in academic institutions, such as the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.
Lucha libre, or professional wrestling, has become a staple of urban Mexican culture over the course of the 20th century. In the past twenty years, it has gained international acclaim for its distinctive style and culture. Best known for the masks that luchadores often wear, lucha libre has become a distinctly national rendition of an imported product. Along with Japan and the United States, Mexico is one of the most influential nations in the world of professional wrestling. The sport allows fans to root for técnicos, rudos, and exóticos and it provides theater that upends societal norms in Mexico. Banned from performing on television by Federal District authorities from the 1950s to the early 1990s, wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon took to the silver screen to film “Mexploitation” horror and science fiction films. Although the sport has become an urban tradition, it reflects the cosmopolitan nature of working-class urban culture as well as the influence of Mexican culture on other nations.
Daniel Aarão Reis
Luís Carlos Prestes, from his birth in 1898 to his death in 1990, had a long, restless, and bustling life. His childhood and youth, as well as key events in his family life, are especially important in understanding the formation of his character. Trained as a soldier, Prestes would as an adult participate in the struggles of Brazilian army officers for the modernization and democratization of the nation (1920s), commanding, with Miguel Costa, a guerrilla column that traversed the country from 1924 to 1927. After that, Prestes became a communist and joined the Communist Party, leading a revolutionary putsch in November 1935, which was quickly put down. He then spent nine years in prison. By the time he was released, in 1945, he had become the undisputed leader of Brazil’s communists, and he was elected senator from the city of Rio de Janeiro in December. Between 1946 and 1964, through victories and defeats, he was one of the leading lights of the Brazilian Lefts. He was also an important player in the international communist movement, serving as an interlocutor in talks with the Communist parties of the USSR and China. After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the defeat of the Brazilian Left in 1964, when a long military dictatorship was established in Brazil, Prestes’s prestige at home and abroad declined sharply. However, in the context of redemocratization, a process initiated in 1979, he remained a frequent reference point for leftists, albeit on a secondary level, who lauded his integrity and determination. For the Right, he stalked the political scene like a menacing ghost. Upon his death in 1990, no one could deny his impact on the history of Brazil, and on the Brazilian Left in particular.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (b. Caetés, Pernambuco, Brazil, October 27, 1945) was born in severe poverty in the Brazilian northeast. “Lula” was a nickname which he legalized as an adult so that it could be listed on election ballots. He is universally referred to as Lula in Brazil. When he was seven years old his mother took the family on the back of a truck to the state of São Paulo in the hope of joining Lula’s father, who had abandoned the family. With her help, and without Lula’s illiterate and abusive father’s encouragement, he went to school to become a lathe mechanic. He then became a union activist and a leader of massive strikes in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo during the last years of Brazil’s military regime.
In 1980, Lula joined with progressive union leaders, activists, and intellectuals in organizing the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers’ Party. The PT was distinguished by its internal democracy and intellectual openness, and many on the left, in Brazil and elsewhere, believed it had great potential for reconciling socialist economics with political democracy. It initiated participatory budgeting practices in an effort to go beyond formal electoral democracy. Lula da Silva’s charisma made him the Party’s most popular leader. Lula won a seat in Congress in 1986, then was defeated in presidential campaigns in 1989, 1994, and 1998. In 2002, he adopted a more moderate campaign platform and was elected president of Brazil. He was re-elected in 2006 and passed the presidency on to his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, at the end of his second term.
As president of Brazil, Lula followed moderate economic and social policies, building on the accomplishments of his predecessor rather than making the radical changes many Workers’ Party activists and supporters wanted. The economy grew during his presidency, and he was able to increase funding for income redistribution programs that helped the poorest Brazilians. His administration was tarnished, however, by a massive corruption scandal involving illegal payments to members of Congress. Brazil went into a recession after Dilma Rousseff’s re-election in 2014, and there was an even larger corruption scandal involving the national oil company. Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and the Workers’ Party lost control of the Brazilian government and fared badly in municipal elections. Lula da Silva was convicted on corruption charges. If his conviction is not reversed on appeal, or if he is convicted on other pending indictments, he will not be allowed to compete for the presidency in the 2018 elections.
Machu Picchu is an Inca royal estate constructed in the mid-15th century in Peru’s picturesque high jungle. As a seasonal retreat for celebrations, religious rituals, and administrative affairs when the Incas traveled beyond Cuzco, Machu Picchu was abandoned soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Andes in 1531. The site was largely lost to the Western world until 1911, when a Yale University expedition led by Hiram Bingham lay claim to the scientific and historical “discovery” of the impressive complex of white-granite buildings and agricultural terraces. Contentious debates over cultural patrimony, conservation, indigenous rights, and neoliberal exploitation have enhanced Machu Picchu’s allure as one of the most famous archaeological remains in the Western Hemisphere.
Manuel Gómez Morin was a multifaceted Mexican whose life spanned the first three quarters of the 20th century, from 1897 to 1972. He was affected personally, domestically, and generationally by the Revolution, which drastically impacted the geographic backdrops of his childhood and youth and severely affected his family’s social standing. In ideological terms, he was aware of the last (and undoubtedly most authoritarian) stages of Porfirio Díaz’s government, as well as Victoriano Huerta’s dictatorship, which had pushed the Mexican population to take up arms. Although he rejected the destructive violence inherent in the process of revolution, he also opposed the dictatorial regimes that were applauded by some for the results they produced. He spent the second half of his life as a critic of the post-revolutionary Mexican state.
Pablo Azócar Fernández and Zenobio Saldivia Maldonado
In the history of cartography and in critical cartography, there is a link between the role of maps and power relations, especially during the conquest and domination of territories by national states. Such cartographic products have frequently been used—for both their scientific and persuasive content—in different places, such as in Chile in the Araucanía region during the so-called pacification process, led by the Chilean state during the second half of the 19th century. From a cartographic perspective, the “epistemological and unintentional silences on the maps” can be observed for maps produced during this process. It implied that the “scientific discourse” and the “social and political discourse” of the cartographic images generated during this process of conquest and domination were relevant for the expansionist objectives of the Republic of Chile.
The history of Marxism in Brazil has been marked by discord. This tension makes sense considering that historical materialism developed in a European social environment, contrasted, to some extent, with the Asian context. The problem is, therefore, twofold. First, the theory proved incapable of reflecting the specificity of a particular social formation. The latter, differing significantly from the reality in which Marxism emerged, comes to be seen as “eccentric.” Moreover, Marxist theory seeks to transform reality, which contributes to a confusion between thought and politics. In the same sense, Marxism cannot be self-sufficient, because it must respond to the challenges of the environment in which it is inserted, contributing, in turn, to its contact with other intellectual and political traditions.
Marxist thought in Brazil can be divided into three main historical moments: the first was marked by the preponderant influence of communism, from the 1920s to the 1964 coup; the second was characterized by the emergence in the mid-1950s of a New Left; and the third was the debate regarding democracy, which has gained momentum since the end of the country’s most recent authoritarian period in 1985. Throughout this extended historical period, Brazilian Marxists have been preoccupied with a recurring concern: How will the Bourgeois Revolution happen in Brazil? The periodization is not exact, with trends often overlapping and fostering an evolving political culture. In this way, through opportunities seized and missed, the Left—whose main theoretical reference today is still Marxism—penetrated Brazilian society and became an important part of national life.
Supported by a multiclass alliance including the working class and some sectors of industry and the military, Juan Domingo Perón’s government (1946–1955) industrialized the country, modernized and expanded the state, transformed local and national politics, empowered the labor unions, and substantially improved the standard of living. Perón combined a strong nationalistic and anti-oligarchic discourse with concrete material benefits like high wages, the expansion and consolidation of the retirement system, paid vacations, housing subsidies, and full employment that ensured the political support of large sectors of the working population. Like the workers, various other traditionally disenfranchised social sectors took center stage. The very poor became the main beneficiaries of the charities run by first lady Eva Perón; women won the right to vote with a law passed in 1947 and were mobilized and politicized by the Peronist Party; and children were recognized by the government as the true heirs of the new Argentina built by Peronism and thus subject to co-optation and indoctrination. At the same time, internal migrants, attracted by the promises of a better life and industrial employment, left the countryside and small towns in the interior for the cities, propelling a profound process of urbanization. The cultural, social, political, and economic changes that marked the Peronist years had major consequences for gender relations, roles, and identities, transforming the ways of being a man or a woman in mid-twentieth-century Argentina. Those changes profoundly reshaped discursive and symbolic representations of masculinities as well as social and cultural expectations of manhood across different social classes while creating the political, social, and economic conditions that facilitated the transformation of masculinity as a lived, everyday experience.
Today, the death of women during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum is considered simultaneously a public health, social inequality, and gender discrimination problem. In Mexico, approximately one thousand women die each year during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum or from an unsafe abortion, experiencing a premature and sudden death in the midst of their most productive years, often with lasting consequences for their families and surviving children. As elsewhere, the great majority of these deaths would not have occurred if women had had prompt and unlimited access to quality emergency obstetric care, as well as easy access to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Most deaths are related to the substandard quality of available maternal healthcare services; services that are provided for free to most Mexican women in an overly saturated and underfunded public health system that also tends to overmedicalize and pathologize normal births. Their prematurity and abruptness, their occurrence in the process of giving life, the fact that these deaths exclusively affect women, and their avoidable nature make maternal mortality unacceptable in today’s social, political, and ethical arenas.
From an historical perspective, deaths in childbirth were much more common in past centuries than today; these deaths were considered inevitable and were accepted as natural occurrences until the late 19th century. However, surrounding rituals, the meaning attached to these deaths, related notions of womanhood and motherhood, and practices to prevent or avoid them, underwent changes according to broader sociocultural, political and religious transformations from Pre-Hispanic times to the 20th century.
As elsewhere, in Mexico maternal deaths declined considerably in the 1930s–1950s with the discovery of penicillin and the concomitant decline of puerperal fever; they reached a plateau in the 1960s and 1970s and began to slowly decline again in the 1980s–1990s with an even steeper decrease after the signature of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals in the year 2000; time when the reduction of maternal mortality became one of eight high-priority global public policy objectives, closely monitored by UN bodies.
Maternal deaths are a reflection of ingrained multiple social inequalities that characterize Mexican society at large; poor, rural, marginalized and Indigenous pregnant women face a 2–10 times higher risk of dying than the rest of Mexican women, because their access to contraception and to prompt and high quality obstetric emergency care is more limited. Today, research in the field of maternal mortality etiology, measurement and reduction includes the call for women-centered respectful maternal care, the elimination of discrimination in the provision of obstetric services and the application of a human rights perspective to health policies, programs, and care.
Nicole L. Pacino
During the pre-Columbian and colonial periods, Andean cosmological understandings shaped indigenous approaches to maternal health. Women typically gave birth at home with the assistance of a midwife (also called a partera or comadrona in Spanish). Birthing and post-partum care relied on local herbal remedies and followed specific social rituals. Women drank teas derived from anise or coca during the labor process, gave birth in a squatting position (toward Mother Earth, or Pachamama), and drank sheep soup after labor to replenish strength and warm the body. Rooms were kept dark because the common perception was that bright light injured newborn babies’ eyes. After labor, families buried or otherwise disposed of the placenta to keep the baby and mother healthy and facilitate lactation, as per Andean tradition.
Changes in maternal health rituals began in the 18th century, as colonial rule became more consolidated. The rise of a distinct medical profession and government interest in population growth gradually shifted responsibility for maternal health from the Catholic Church and charitable organizations to the state. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the growing power and authority of the state and the medical profession led doctors and urban-based reformers to attempt to change long-standing Andean birthing practices, which they considered archaic and unsanitary. These reforms emerged from a desire to reduce infant mortality rates and to replace traditional healers with medical professionals who were trained, licensed, and regulated by the state. As reformers looked to replace Andean maternal health and healing practices with new scientific understandings of the female body and birthing process, they also worked to discredit and displace midwives’ knowledge and practices. In particular, they encouraged women to give birth in newly constructed hospitals and to seek the guidance of medical professionals, like obstetricians. However, these reforms met with limited success. In the Andes today, midwives still attend to roughly 50 percent of all births, and in some remote areas, the figure is as high as 90 percent. It is also more common today to see the merging of biomedical and ritual practices to increase women’s access to and acceptance of health services and to reduce overall mortality rates.