Bradley Skopyk and Elinor G. K. Melville
The onset of Spanish imperial rule in Mexico in 1521 had profound consequences well beyond the political and cultural spheres. It also altered Mexico’s environment, reconstituting the region’s ecology as new fauna, flora, and microorganisms were added and as the population dynamics of native Mexican biota fluctuated in response to Old World arrivals. While the consequences of myriad interactions between native and non-native species were vast and complex, it was the decimation of indigenous persons by pathogens that was one of the first biological consequences of colonization (in fact, occurring first in 1520, one year before the fall of the Aztec state) and one of the most important. Mexican human populations were reduced by 80 to 90 percent, effecting cascading ecological consequences across the physical and biological geography of Mexico. Forests regenerated, terraced slopes degraded, and much of the Mexican landscape lost its anthropogenic aspect. Simultaneously, ungulate introductions transformed Mexican flora and likely initiated soil erosion in some regions that, when transported to fluvial environments, disrupted the flow of rivers. On the other hand, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and other ungulates altered plant communities through selective seed dispersion. New economic pursuits such as brick making and silver mining increased demand for heat energy that, in an unprecedented manner, encouraged intensive forest usage and, probably, regional deforestation, although empirical data on historical forest cover are still lacking.
Severe climate variability, of a scale not experienced for at least five hundred years and perhaps many millennia, occurred simultaneously with colonial-induced ecological change. A significant conquest-era drought was followed by one of the coolest and wettest periods of the Holocene; a strong pluvial in the Mexican context lasted from 1540 to around 1620. Subsequent anomalies of both temperature (cold) and precipitation (either wet or dry) occurred in the 1640s and 1650s, and from the 1690s until about 1705. Together, these climate anomalies are known as the core Little Ice Age, and initiated agrarian transitions, hazardous flooding, prolonged droughts, epidemics, epizootics, and recurring agrarian crises that destabilized human health and spurred high rates of mortality. Soil degradation and suppressed forest cover are also likely outcomes of this process. Although debate abounds regarding the timing, extent, and causes of soil and water degradation, there is little doubt that extensive degradation occurred and destabilized late-colonial and early-Republic societies.
Mikael D. Wolfe
What role did drought play in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1910? Although historians of the Mexican Revolution acknowledge that the effects of drought helped catalyze it, they have not explored in any depth what connects drought to revolution. Instead, they usually subsume it within a more general discussion of agricultural cycles to explain the conduct and fortunes of popular revolutionary armies. In particular, they reference the onset of drought between 1907 and 1909 as exacerbating an economic downturn induced by severe recession in the United States. By then, Mexico had become economically integrated with its northern neighbor through rapidly growing foreign investment, trade, and cross-border migration facilitated by the railroad transportation revolution. These socioeconomic and ecological factors together led to steep declines in wages and earnings, devastating crop failures, spikes in food prices (principally corn and beans), and even famine in the lower and middle classes.
Although suggestive, such passing references to drought in the historiography of the revolution do not furnish a clear picture of its effects and how they may have contributed to social and political conflict. In the 21st century, new technologies, methods, and sources—from historical meteorological reports and climate-related accounts gleaned from archival sources to modern historical climatological data reconstructions—facilitate doing more rigorous climate history. This article provides a sampling of these methods and sources on the role of drought in late 19th- and early 20th-century Mexico that can supplement, elucidate, and even revise our understanding of the origins of the Mexican Revolution.
The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the Porfiriato
Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield
Historians have extensively explored the topic of water control in Mexico City. From the relationship between political power and hydraulics to detailed studies of drainage and other large-scale infrastructure projects, the epic story of water in this megalopolis, constructed over a series of ancient lakes, continues to captivate people’s imaginations. Securing potable water for the fast-growing city is also a constant struggle, yet it has received comparatively less attention than drainage in historical research. Moreover, until quite recently scholars have not been especially concerned with water control as a process of representation—that is, a process shaped by, and shaping, visual culture. Yet, potable water brings together many stories about people and places both within and outside of the Basin of Mexico. As such, the history of potable water is communicated through a diverse array of objects and modern infrastructures not limited to the idea of waterworks in the traditional sense of the term. A more expansive view of “infrastructure” incorporates more than the commonplace objects of hydraulic management such as aqueducts, pumps, wells, and pipes: it also involves architecture, photography, and narrative history, official and unofficial. Built in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to acute water shortages, the impressively modern Xochimilco Potable Water Works exemplifies a system that delivered far more than fresh drinking water through its series of modern electric pumps and aqueduct. The system was a result of a larger modernization initiative launched by the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). It wove together an official history of water, which included the annexation of Xochimilco’s springs, through its diverse infrastructures, including the engineering of the potable water system as well as the significance of the structures themselves in terms of locations and architectural elaboration in neo-styles (also known as historical styles) typical of the period. Demonstrably clear from the sheer investment in making the Xochimilco waterworks appealing to the public is that infrastructure can possess a rich visual culture of its own.
During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.
Alejandro Tortolero Villaseñor
For several years, some of Mexico’s most influential literary figures associated mountains with the presence of certain characteristics: wildlife, botanic variety, and most importantly, backwards and/or mysterious indigenous communities. Order and civilization, it seemed, for writers like Ignacio Altamirano and Manuel Payno, ceased to exist in mountainscapes. For these writes, mountains constituted social afterthoughts—places lacking history and dynamism, places that did not matter. They were, in Braudelian terms, the margins of civilization and factories that supplied human resources to cities.
Such portrayals were not derived from reality, however. Far from solely being dull or dangerous sites where banditry and romantic indigeneity prevailed, Mexico’s mountains were, between the colonial era and the Porfiriato, the places where dramatic transformations took place. Impresarios’ mastery of Mexico’s natural resources fueled the country’s economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries. Concomitant with this growth came dramatic alterations of the country’s landscape that left much of Mexico’s environment in disrepair.
Mountains, thus, have histories. They are not landscapes where civilization parts ways with society. Such an argument has relevance in parts of the world like Latin America, where nearly half of the people who reside there live at elevations above sea level, and where only 7 percent reside under an elevation of 1,000 meters above sea level.
Conservation, in broad terms, has been a dynamic and nuanced practice throughout Mexican history. Nature conservation and protection include individual practices such as planting trees to protect watersheds, seasonal hunting bans, land set-asides such as national parks, and the ideas and values that shape these actions. Three broad eras are analyzed to provide a kaleidoscopic view of how some people living in Mexican territory have understood and acted for nature conservation. The first era, stretching from the pre-Columbian through the colonial eras, was characterized by an abundance of nature relative to people using it. The reasons for conservation were infrequent but did emerge, particularly in urban settings. The second era, the administrative era from the 1820s to the 1980s, included early national claims, revolutionary policies, and the reach of global institutions into domestic conservation policy. Nature’s limitations became apparent due to overuse and development which inspired formal responses to limit exploitation. The third era, from 1982 to the present, involves an age of abstraction where conservation has been reimagined for various purposes by a culture increasingly removed from an appreciation of the practical and aesthetic qualities of nature.
Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar.
The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400
In February 1943, a small but powerful volcano emerged from a cornfield in the vicinity of Uruapan, Michoacán, México. A stunned farmer, Dionisio Pulido, alerted the nearby town of San Juan Parangaricutiro, and a group of villagers went to investigate the growing mound in Pulido’s field. The new volcano, named Parícutin by Mexican scientist Dr. Ezequiel Ordóñez, emitted smoke, ash, and lava until 1952. The ash fall and lava flows severely changed life in five of the surrounding villages. Most villagers in the affected areas were reluctant to move, but the ash fall made it nearly impossible to cultivate their crops, polluted the air and water sources, and made their animals sick. In the end, two villages completely evacuated with the help of the national government.
A few days after the volcano emerged, scientists from México and the United States flocked to the area for the unique opportunity to study a volcano from its birth. They recorded lava flows, eruption patterns, ash fall, and damage to the surrounding agricultural land. A significant relationship blossomed between a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, Carl Fries Jr., and a local Purépecha man, Celedonio Gutiérrez. Although Gutiérrez had only a minimal education, his knowledge of the environment and the local people proved essential to foreign academics studying the volcano. Working together, the two men published at least eight scientific articles in the U.S. weekly magazine Eos, based on daily observations of the volcano.
Parícutin fascinated people from México and the United States since the moment it grew into a cinder cone. Artists such as Dr. Atl used the volcano for inspiration, producing countless sketches and paintings, some of which were published. Reporters, tourists, and artists from around the world visited Parícutin, excited at the possibility of seeing an active volcano up close. Authors and illustrators also expressed the fascinating story of the volcano and the affected Purépecha community in children’s stories. In the 21st century, Parícutin remains a popular tourist destination.
A half-buried church in what was San Juan Parangaricutiro is all that remains of a once lively village and stands as a testament to the strength and reach of Parícutin. Despite the destruction, the eruption serves as a reminder of the importance of volcanoes in Mexican culture and provides a lens to examine the long-established relationship between people and volcanoes. The study of Parícutin fits into the wider scholarship of Latin American environmental history because it highlights the connections between culture and environment. This story demonstrates the interplay between the perspectives different groups of people had of the volcano and how landscape affects the social and cultural history of a place and its people.
Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history.
Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.
Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.