Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A review of “Mexico: A History” (by Robert Ryal Miller)

"[The Mexican Empire] solemnly declares by means of the Supreme Junta of the Empire that it is a Sovereign nation and independent of old Spain ... "

Declaration of the independence of the Mexican Empire, issued by its Sovereign Junta, assembled in the Capital on September 28, 1821

Since early 2012, I have made an effort to learn the Spanish language. The reasons for this are many (and too long to detail here), but chief among them is the local usefulness of the language - I live in Arizona (in the American Southwest); so Spanish is the most important local language besides my native English. The opportunities to use Spanish here are endless, and I have long wanted to know something about the Hispanic population of the Southwest, whom I have interacted with for years, at school and at church.

Mexican flag

Mexico has a strong influence on the American Southwest

In the American Southwest, most of the Hispanics are of Mexican descent - in contrast to the strong Cuban descent found in Florida, and the strong Puerto Rican descent found in New York - the other parts of the United States where Spanish-speaking populations are most often found. In the American Southwest, people of Mexican origin are the most common ones; and so I thought it might be helpful to know something about their country of origin - which is one of my country's only two neighbors, incidentally (the other being Canada); and the one that is closest to my home state of Arizona - and thus, the nation that we Arizonans do the most trade with outside of our own. (Stuff that my American audience already knows, I'm sure; but I have an international audience here, so the geography of my situation is worth going over.)

Why I opted for a book, instead of a lighter TV program

I'll admit freely that I am a lazy history buff when the situation allows, in that I normally wouldn't learn anything from books that can be more easily learned from television - I plead "no contest" to the charge of "couch potato," at least when I've had a long day at work. Unfortunately, there aren't any television histories of Mexico as there are for my country's other neighbor of Canada (at least not that I know of); so my professional (and other) interest in the country - curiosity, greed, and all - won out over the laziness of my desire not to read a book about it. (Hey, at least I'm up front about it!) So I did an Internet search for a good book history of Mexico, and happened upon the one that I will be reviewing now - one that I checked out from my local library when I first read it, but since acquired my own copy of when I found out it was worth owning for me. (I've not read any other book histories of Mexico, I should disclose, so I can't compare it to any others; but I found that it's a good summary of the broader outlines of Mexican history, which is useful for a Gringo like me who is unfamiliar with them.)

Pyramid of the Sun - Teotihuacan, Mexico

This book starts out in a period before written records ...

The book starts out long before the Spanish Conquest, in a time when the region was populated exclusively by natives - which is necessary in any true history of Mexico, but the limited availability of written records for these periods makes their history hard to cover in the traditional way. Thus, the author elected to talk about this period with the anthropological evidence (including archaeological remains), which seems the appropriate way to talk about prehistoric cultures - prehistoric meaning "before these particular cultures discovered writing" in this context. There is an entire chapter devoted to the Aztecs, since they were the most dominant native culture at the time that the Spanish explorers first arrived. As with any liberal coverage of this period, the common Aztec practice of human sacrifice is somewhat whitewashed for "political correctness" reasons; but enough of the history gets through that this isn't a very serious problem.

The fall of Tenochtitlan, 1521 - an important event in the Spanish Conquest

... but begins to use these records as soon as they become available to the story

By the third chapter, they're already talking about the arrival of the Europeans; which quickly developed into an orgy of conquest for less-than-admirable reasons. This is the first period in the book for which written records are available, and so the Spanish Conquest is brought to life with extraordinary detail and vivid clarity. Whatever else the Spanish Conquest was, it was also extremely fascinating; and their coverage of the story is both intensely dramatic and of seminal importance, setting the stage for all the Mexican history that followed. Some other chapters focus on the establishment of New Spain, and on colonial institutions and life - an important topic for any country in the Americas whose culture is the product of colonial times.

Mexican War of Independence, 1821

When Spain fought Napoleon, Latin American colonies rebelled (including Mexico)

Surprisingly, the Mexican War of Independence isn't covered in as much detail as one might expect, since it may have actually been less turbulent than much of the Mexican history that followed; but they do cover extensively the way that Europe's "Napoleonic Wars" paved the way for Latin American independence. Specifically, the mother country of Spain was kept busy by wars with Napoleon's France, and thus had fewer troops available to maintain their control of their overseas colonies. Mexico was not the only country to become independent from Spain during this turbulent period, as it was part of a sweeping series of independence movements throughout Spanish America, accompanied by a similar independence movement in Portuguese Brazil. The focus of this book is, of course, on Mexico; but one can't cover these events in Mexico without mentioning the international context in which they happened.

Battle against the French invaders at Puebla, 1862
(the battle whose anniversary is today celebrated as "Cinco de Mayo")

Mexico was invaded by both France and the United States ...

There are chapters on the First Empire and Early Republic, and on the French invasion of Mexico by the German-speaking Emperor Maximilian - one of a number of Europeans who had his eyes set on Mexico, and whose French armies took control of Mexico for a time. The administrations of Juárez and Porfirio Díaz are also covered in some detail, and one gets a feel for how turbulent the politics of Latin America really are. Not surprisingly, they also spend some time on their disastrous war with the United States, where they lost much of their northern territory to the American aggressor. (Their national anthem is a remnant of this time, as they speak about the Gringo invader in the song's lyrics, with resistance to their powerful neighbor glorified.) Their relationship with the United States would color Mexican politics for years to come, and they would have more than one crisis in their complicated relations with the Americans.

Mexican Revolution of 1910

The "Great Revolution" in Mexico: It's not the war of independence from Spain

The next significant crisis on their northern border came during the revolution of the 1910's. Many foreigners assume that Mexico's "Great Revolution" was the war of independence from Spain; but when Mexicans speak of their "Great Revolution" today, they usually mean this one from the 1910's - a revolution against their own government, with towering names like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata that are still well-known to Mexicans today. The instabilities from this revolution spilled over across the American border more than once, with the consequence that the Americans retaliated against the raids with an expedition into Mexico, and an occupation of the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1914. It was quite fortunate for Mexico when the British intercepted a telegram the Germans had sent them about making war against the United States, which angered the Americans enough that they sent troops to Europe to fight in World War One - a great relief to the people of Mexico, who would prefer the Americans make war against the Germans than send more troops across the border.

Conclusion: This book is a good summary of Mexican history

As with so many epic histories, this book's quality goes down considerably when talking about more modern events (which happened since the "Great Revolution" of the twentieth century), and the book ends with a paragraph that names "inequality" as the most serious of Mexico's ills - a strange choice for #1, which betrays the author's liberal bias. Nonetheless, this book gives a good summary of Mexican history which helps to get Gringos like me started; and while I cannot compare this book with any other published histories, I can say that it is a good one which gives a good introduction to Mexican history. I don't have any praise to give for the system of government there; but I have much heartfelt praise for Mexican culture, and I can testify that my country's destiny is inextricably tied with the destiny of its southern neighbor. For good or ill, we will always feel the effects of events in Mexico; and we would do well to work for Mexican stability, prosperity, and (most importantly) liberty.

Footnote to this blog post:

Spain recognized the independence of Mexico on 28 December 1836, in the Santa María–Calatrava Treaty - 15 years after Mexico's Declaration of Independence in 1821.

Book at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The epic clash of empires: How the Spanish conquered the New World

Latin American became independent because of Napoleonic Wars - (well, partially)

A review of "The Storm That Swept Mexico" (the Mexican Revolution of 1910)

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