Santiago, Myrna

Santiago, Myrna I. The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938. Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Santiago blends social and environmental history to explain transformations in the Mexican oil industry leading up the Cárdenas' nationalization in 1938. The guiding concept she uses to bring these two fields together is the notion of an "ecology of oil," which addresses interwoven patterns of land tenure and use with social structures.
The major transformations she describes, then, fall along these three axes: tenure moving gradually from communal to private; use moving agricultural (subsistence and ranching) to drilling and refining; and the social landscape shifting from Huasteca to mestizo, as the industry attracted labour and the instability of the revolution—then post-revolutionary clientelism—pushed labour to the Vera Cruz.

Regarding tenure, the transformation she describes follows a common progression in which commonly held Huasteca land eventually became the property of foreign firms like Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell. However, unlike the situation Melville describes in the Valle del Mezquital, this progression is stunted and interrupted by the nature of the Huasteca landscape and the social transformations of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period. Although consolidation of ownership did occur in the lead up to the revolution, land was not fully privatized by an invasion of ranching-focused hacendados, partly because the dense jungle and tar pits spotting the land were not conducive to large-scale ranching. Moreover, as foreign firms moved in to search for and exploit reserves, the instability of the revolutionary period made it more reasonable to rent from hacendados instead of purchasing land outright.

Piccato, Pablo

Piccato, Pablo. The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere. Durham, Duke University Press, 2010.

Piccato looks at how romanticist rhetoric was adapted in the defense of honor and the impact that had on the public sphere during the República Restaurada and the first half of the Porfiriato. Impressively written and sharply theorized, this book makes significant—and timely—strides to broaden politics in a way that incorporates personal hubris and rhetorical style. Some very interesting ideas are brought up, like the role of passion and heroism in closing the public sphere (something Cornel West touches on in a very different context when he discusses the legacy of MLK), or the way Diaz’s regulation reflected a process by which honor became property protected under the law, effectively commoditizing hubris. Yet as a story of how male aristocrats transformed the public sphere, the general narrative of The Tyranny of Opinion still leaves me unsettled.

Sure, Piccato’s treatment of journalists and students complicates the top-down approach. Both groups, given their precarious position as poverty stricken yet active participants in the formation of public opinion are seen as transcending class. And taking a page from Chambers’ playbook, Piccato does have one chapter on the way common women defended their self-identification as gente decente in the courts. But this book is no example of politics from below in the style of Chambers. Nor is it a case of morality being defined through domination and resistance, as French describes. Indeed, while Chambers examines the place of honor in shaping the political participation of common early republican Arequipeños, and French demonstrates how class formation in the mining districts of late Porfirian and revolutionary Chihuahua relied not on economic stature but on a contentious negotiation of middle-class manners and morals, Piccato—with few exceptions— addresses elite agency, treating honor as a Siglo de Oro construct that male aristocrats duel over.

Melville, Elinor G.K

Melville, Elinor G.K. A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

(Ungulate irruption(Portmanteau biota + Valle del Mezquital) – World system) – indigenous landscape = “conquest landscape” (p. 39) 

Melville looks at the environmental and social transformations that resulted from the introduction of sheep into the Valle del Mezquital over the second half of the sixteenth century. A seriously in-depth analysis of the ungulate irruptions and institutionalization of private land tenure, this study consists of a bipartite periodization: one, sectioned off according to the individual sub-regions of the valley, demonstrates the process of soil degradation and differs by sub-region; the other spans the 1540s to 1600 and deals with the process by which land tenure emerged and transformed into privately held latifundia.

Melville argues against a variety of positions in A Plague of Sheep.

She takes on the World-System approach arguing that environmental transformation and degradation (distinction clarified on p. 88) and the generation of latifunia were the result of local phenomena: namely the production of a “conquest landscape,” foreign to both the colonizers and the colonized, and the process of land granting to regulate grazing.

She challenges Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” model by demonstrating that the problem was not one of open-access commons, but of the fact that the same commons were subordinated to 2 distinct use-rights regimes: that of the Indians and that imposed by the Spanish to regulate grazing. Likewise each of these regimes gave way to a different process of land privatization. Next, she argues the “tragedy of the commons” model relies on a notion of “perfect knowledge” to prove that self-interest will always beat out the long-term communal good. Melville asserts this could not explain the overstocking of grazing lands in the Valle del Mezquital since pastoralists would first have to understand the long-term consequences of their actions in order to act in a short-term, self-interested way.

Gómez Tovar, Laura, Lauren Martin, Manuel Angel Gómez Cruz, and Tad Mutersbaugh

Gómez Tovar, Laura, Lauren Martin, Manuel Angel Gómez Cruz, and Tad Mutersbaugh. “Certified Organic Agriculture in Mexico: Market Connections and Certification Practices in Large and Small Producers.” Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005): pp. 461–474.

As with “Just-in-Space,” this article depends heavily on dichotomies. Based on a dyadic periodization of organic production in which early (1990s) certification regimes emerged as an attempt to reconcile bio-socio-economic concerns only to be co-opted beginning around 2000 by market-oriented, large-scale producers, this article consistently advocates one side of a series of binary constructions. The authors juxtapose all sorts of aspects of organic production—geographical, technological, bureaucratic, economic, ecological,, etc.—and roots them all in the bipartite division of large-and small-scale producers. While a lot of theory has taught me to treat binaries with suspicion, there is no question that this bifurcation of Mexico’s certified-organic industry serves a specific agenda that I no doubt support: that of preserving the initial emphasis placed by the organic movement on sustaining small, ecologically minded producer co-ops.

Miller, Shawn

Miller, Shawn W. An Environmental History of Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 2007.

Despite the supposed irreconcilability of impassioned critique and scholarly rigor (as implied by Coates, for example), Miller uses his scholarship to indict a millennial trend of environmental degradation. Sparse on citations (I assume the fault of the press) but rich in compelling imagery, An Environmental History of Latin America tells a declentionist (as Carey rightly points out) tale in broad strokes, colorful vignettes from across the region and most of the last millennium. While his general focus is narrowed to Mexico, Peru and Brazil, with memorable anecdotes of sugar-related deforestation in Barbados, the nineteenth-century hurricane-related ebb of coffee cultivation or twentieth-century rise of organic agriculture in Cuba, Miller’s thesis relies on the relatively simplistic and starkly humanist dichotomy of nature and culture. Episodes from the swidden, or slash and burn agriculture, practiced by the Tupi, to the global exploitation of guano, the four-century-long project of Mexico City’s Gran Canal, or the birth of highways, are all subordinates of a continual bout in which human endeavors come up against the work of the non-human world in a way that echoes some of the most detrimental aspects of modernization discourse.

Stephen, Lynn

Stephen, Lynn. Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California and Oregon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Generally speaking, Transborder Lives relates the experience of Oaxacan immigrant (pay attention to her point on p. 148) and migrant workers living in Oaxaca, California and Oregon: their histories, migratory routes, labor and domestic lives, political organizing, and the ways in which the ambiguous and often contradictory relationship they have with the US and Mexican states requires a new, more flexible theorization. Her decades of work in Oaxaca afford her ample ethnographic fodder, drawn primarily from the towns of San Agustín Atenango and Teotitlán del Valle and Woodland, Oregon. These interviews are supplemented by organizational ethnographies of Woodland-based groups like Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Mujeres Luchadores Progresistas (MLP), and Organización de Comunidades Indígenas Migrantes Oaxaqueñeos (OCIMO).

Stephen’s general approach relies on a distinction between structure—usually constituted by political (immigration policy), economic (geographies of agricultural production) or even technological (e-mail and the Web) phenomena—and experience. The interpretive thrust of this book, then, rests in the way Stephen juxtaposes ethnographic material with structural analyses. Her analysis in and of itself stems from on her idea of the transborder: a concept that accepts the multiplicity of the transnational, while veering away from the binaries implicated in a base-level dependence on a nation-state framework. This is achieved through a synthesis of Arturo Escobar’s “meshworks” and Nina Glick Schiller's variant of social fields. According to Stephen’s formulation of the transborder, borders are sites of hybridity (Canclini/Anzaldúa) and the people she works with cross and carry multiple borders with them. Below are questions relevant to the individual chapters. 

Lyon, Sarah, Josefina Aranda Bezaury and Tad Mutersbaugh

Lyon, Sarah, Josefina Aranda Bezaury and Tad Mutersbaugh. “Gender Equity in Fairtrade–Organic Coffee Producer Organizations: Cases from Mesoamerica.” Geoforum 41 (2010): pp. 93-103.

This article looks at the circumstances of women working in fairtrade-organic-certified coffee production in southern Mexico and Guatemala. The authors specifically ask how the notional standards and procedural norms of certification (96) have influenced gender equity within the context of an increasing feminization of agriculture and decreasing value of coffee on the world market. Their primary interest is in assessing the impact of fairtrade-organic regulations on the participation of women along value chains; gender relations in households; and the role and capacity of women in organizational networks. The data used in this analysis comes from organizational ethnographies and quantitative data provided by the State Coordinator of Oaxacan Coffee Producers (CEPCO), one of the organizations also providing ethnographic data.

To begin with, the authors describe the feminization of agriculture as a situation in which men often migrate in search of higher paying work, leaving women in charge of the farms they leave behind. In these instances, women are burdened with an extra workload, on top of domestic work. Additionally, because of the lower prices paid for coffee since its peak on the world market in 1986—which usually accounts for the men leaving in the first place—and the tendency of women, given the restrictions imposed by labor, to rely on coyotes rather than forming collectives, they often to receive less compensation. Due to a mix of the doubling of labor and cultural norms, women’s degree of participation along the value chain, then, tends to be restricted to the farm, although some women are moving into inspector positions.

French, William

French, William. “In the Path of Progress: Railroads and moral Reform in Porfirian Mexico.” In Railway Imperialism. Clarence Davis et al eds. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 85-102.

A precursor to the first half of A Peaceful and Working People, this article looks at efforts to instill a capitalist work ethic and middle-class morality in late Porfirian Chihuahua, particularly as related to the birth of the foreign-owned northern railroads. As far as scale, French begins with the nation-state, looking at the developmentalist ideology of Díaz and the pro-modernization Mexican elite, or Científicos. The scale is progressively reduced as discussion of the influence of foreign capital and new railroads gives way to issues dealt with in A Peaceful and Working People, namely efforts to curb drunkenness, prostitution, gambling and vagrancy, and institute a more rigid adherence to clock-time, in order to supply northern mines with a more disciplined workforce and instill a value set that conformed with the ideas of civilization and progress held by the ruling elite. Thus, scale flows from the national to the local—Chihuahua, Hidalgo District, Hidalgo del Parral and Santa Bárbara towns—and back again.

Thematically this article goes from railroad boosterism to mining in Chihuahua, and finally to state and municipal efforts to forge a working class out of—what was seen as—a vice-ridden nomadic population. Using Ronald Robinson's idea of the two sets of local contracts that sustain imperialism—“one between the agents of imperialism and their intermediaries, and the other between the intermediaries and their own people” (93)—French justifies his tying of municipal laws regulating prostitutes and the sale of alcohol, or the building of clocks in town centers, to the machinations of James Dunn and his investors' syndicate in international money markets.