William E. French
A persuasive literature has argued that the course of Latin American history from the arrival of Europeans to the present has been shaped to a large extent by a small but expanding group of literate bureaucrats, church officials, lawyers, and intellectuals, known as letrados, who made their lives in urban centers. Those marked by this combination of power, urban living, and the written word, an assemblage that Angel Rama has dubbed “the lettered city,” utilized literature, history, the law, politics, and higher education to imagine the country into existence textually and to justify the hierarchies and inequalities that characterized their rule. Yet in Mexico, as elsewhere in Latin America, writing has a long history in nonelite settings, a venue that, in recognition of this fact, has now been referred to as “the lettered countryside.” Moreover, as understandings of a single literacy are giving way to a concern with “literacies,” defined in the plural and operating in relationship rather than opposed to such things as orality and visuality, traces of literacy practices are being discovered in many locations. Foregrounding the conjunction of the lettered city and the lettered countryside is an attempt to bring these venues into conversation while doing away with the binary that associates literary with the city and orality with the rural.
Over the course of the 19th century in Mexico, although the written word was still pressed into the service of national imagining, a number of other characteristics shaped the conjunction of the lettered city and the lettered countryside. A struggle over secularization was one new development, as authority came increasingly to be invested in the written word itself rather than justified in religious terms. New forms of literacies emerged, especially those associated with the novel and other forms of publications, including newspapers, periodicals for and by women, and the penny press, creating new publics with distinct senses of themselves as communities of readers and listeners; oratory, public discussion of politics and other issues in various venues, and the phenomenon of indirect readers also brought together these two locations. As early as the 1840s, rural residents in some parts of the country had made writing their own, drafting political proclamations in which they defined such things as federalism in their own terms and asserted themselves in national politics. While elite diarists, both men and women, left traces of their emotional lives in various forms of life writing over the course of the entire period, ordinary people, including mine workers, agricultural laborers, and women who carried out household duties, wrote love letters to each other by the last third of the century, if not before. Composed and exchanged by means of cooperation, the use of intermediaries known as evangelistas, or by individuals with various degrees of facility in reading and writing, love letters served as privileged means of communicating the emotions they brought into being while often ending up as evidence in legal proceedings that continued to assert the prerogatives of the lettered city even as it came ever more intimately conjoined with the lettered countryside.