This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Spanish crown claimed to wield sovereignty over Mexico’s vast geographic territory from around 1521 to 1810, though many regions remained beyond Spanish influence. As part of Spain’s ongoing effort to exert political and economic control, royal representatives (such as secular and ecclesiastical bureaucrats and military personnel) attempted to create and maintain a stratified social order. Colonial society was meant to resemble a kind of pyramid, with Indians (the legal name for indigenous vassals) and foreign slaves at the bottom and a small group of colonists and their descendants at the top. To preserve this social organization, secular and ecclesiastical law distinguished between people based on their ancestry or purity of blood (related to religion, ethnicity, and race), sex, and legal standing as either free vassals or human chattel. Spanish men of old Christian blood had the most rights and privileges, and slaves the fewest. This framework existed in the secular and ecclesiastical courts and in the highest corridors of Spanish political power, especially in Mexico City and other urban centers like Puebla and Guadalajara.
The reality of social relations on the ground, however, bore little semblance to the archetype. Mexico had an extraordinarily diverse population, including indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who mixed and interacted with one another in complex ways. People followed innumerable life trajectories and faced diverse challenges, most of which had little to do with the constraints of the colonial governing system. To think that Spanish social constructs, such as the caste system depicted in eighteen-century paintings, shaped the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in Mexico during three centuries of colonial rule is to overlook historical contingency and to exaggerate Spain’s imperial perspective. This article illustrates the paths taken by individual men and women—some merely to survive and others to achieve great social standing—in an overall effort to see beyond the categories used in colonial documents and understand Mexico’s social organization from people’s actual experiences.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Mexican cuisine is often considered to be a mestizo fusion of indigenous and Spanish foods, but this mixture did not simply happen by accident; it required the labor, imagination, and sensory appreciation of both native and immigrant cooks. In turn, diverse regional and ethnic expressions of domestic cooking, street food, festival dishes, and haute cuisine provided affective foundations for rival attempts to define a Mexican national identity. To understand these processes of historical change, food studies scholars have begun focusing on the embodied sense of taste as an important complement to discursive studies of social construction that formerly predominated in the scholarship. Research from around the world has suggested the rise of sweetness as the predominant sensory experience of the modern dietary transition from peasant cuisines dominated by complex carbohydrates and vegetable proteins to industrial diets based on sugars and fats. This was certainly true of Mexico, but historical sources reveal a far more complicated picture of changing tastes. Although the arrival of sugar cane with the Spanish conquest did begin to shift the sensory balance from pre-Hispanic bitterness (chile peppers, cacao) toward sweetness, the introduction of other new foods brought complementary increases in sourness (lime, tamarind) and savory tastes (from the meat of domesticated animals), as well as new fragrances from spices (cinnamon, clove, pepper). New imagined communities arose with 18th-century creole patriotism among Spaniards born in the Americas and explicitly nationalist ideologies in the 19th century, but these were largely overlaid onto sensory and social understandings that assigned elite status to European flavors. Only in the 20th century did the unique taste of the corn tortilla become identified with the national community, and by that time, industrial production had fundamentally changed the tactile, olfactory, and taste sensations evoked by tortillas.
“Technology” is the practical expression of accumulated knowledge and expertise focused on how to mediate and manipulate the world. Scholars and contemporary observers of Mexico have long characterized production methods there as unchanging and lagging well behind the standard in the Atlantic world, but there are few systematic studies of technology in Mexican history, and especially for the critical 19th-century era of early modernization.
Mexico’s first half century of independence (c. 1820–1870) saw relatively little technological change. In spite of a number of sustained efforts to introduce the technologies—such as railroads, steam power, and iron manufacturing—that were transforming economic life and production in Great Britain and the United States, production methods in Mexico remained small scale and artisanal. Textile manufactures were a partial exception, as there were several dozen large-scale factories, powered by water turbines and occasionally by steam, that spun and wove thread. But the substantial obstacles to innovation discouraged or undermined most attempts.
The next forty or so years, however, could not have been more different (c. 1870s–1920). As political stability slowly settled over most of the country, investment in economic activities picked up, slowly at first, then more rapidly into the 1880s and beyond. Initially focused on railroad transport and mining, new investments from both Mexican and foreign entrepreneurs diversified into a wide range of manufacturing enterprises, commercial agriculture, and urban infrastructure and commerce. Tightly linked to the concurrent dramatic expansion of the Atlantic economy—the so-called second industrial revolution—this expansion pushed demand for new technologies of production and swept across the country, transforming production, productivity, and the working and consuming lives of Mexicans at nearly all levels of society. The result was substantial modernization, manifest as economic growth as well as social dislocation.
Individuals and firms proved able to adopt and commercialize a wide range of new production technologies during this period. This success was not matched, however, by substantial local assimilation of new technological knowledge and expertise, that is, by a process of technological learning. Until the 1870s, Mexican engineers, mechanics, and workers had scant opportunities to work with and learn from production technologies appearing in the Atlantic world. When new machines, tools, and processes swept across Mexico thereafter, adopting firms typically hired technical experts and skilled workers from abroad, given the scarcity of expertise at home. This became a self-reinforcing cycle, perpetuating dependence on imported machines and imported know-how well into the 20th century.
Elena Jackson Albarrán
The shape, function, and social meaning of the Mexican family changed alongside its relationship to the state, the Catholic Church, and popularly held beliefs and customs over the course of the 20th century. Liberal reforms of the 19th century, and in particular the Penal Code of 1871 and the Civil Code of 1884, accelerated the intentionally political function of the family, as policymakers sought to bring the domestic sphere into the service of the state. Although domestic policies aimed to wrest influence over the private sphere from the Catholic Church, both the secularizing effects and economic impact of these efforts resulted in markedly unequal gender standards. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 wrought some dramatic demographic changes that had a long-term impact on family structure, gender roles within the family, and, perhaps most significantly, the resulting revolutionary government’s conception of the role that the family unit ought to play in nationalist development projects. The post-revolutionary decades saw the reinterpretation of late-19th-century liberalizing tendencies to align the family more consciously with a vision of a modern, collectively identified economic nationalist vision of the future. Men, women, and children saw their social roles reimagined in the rhetorical ideal, even as agrarian and educational reforms revised individuals’ relationships to the labor and socializing institutions that had come to define their identities. By the 1940s, economic growth, political stability, and technological advances in medicine and healthcare all contributed to the beginning of a surge in population growth that continued until the early 1970s. Coupled with a radical shift in population density to the urban areas, these changes contributed to transformations in family residence patterns, the division of labor, and the role of children and young people. But events in the 1970s conspired to bring a radical end to the high birth rate. These included the conscious domestic-policy reform of the Luís Echeverría administration (1970–1976); the availability of contraception and its tacit approval by the Mexican Catholic Church; the transnational feminist movement, culminating in the 1975 meeting in Mexico City of the United Nations’ Conference on Women to commemorate International Women’s Year; and, not least of these, preventive measures taken by citizens themselves to reduce the strain on the family unit. By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, transnational migrations and remittances came to define an increasing percentage of families and kinship structures.
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.
U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in the 19th century initially focused on excluding or limiting the military and economic influence of European powers, territorial expansion, and encouraging American commerce. These objectives were expressed in the No Transfer Principle (1811) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). American policy was unilateralist (not isolationist); it gradually became more aggressive and interventionist as the idea of Manifest Destiny contributed to wars and military conflicts against indigenous peoples, France, Britain, Spain, and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. Expansionist sentiments and U.S. domestic politics inspired annexationist impulses and filibuster expeditions to Mexico, Cuba, and parts of Central America. Civil war in the United States put a temporary halt to interventionism and imperial dreams in Latin America. From the 1870s until the end of the century, U.S. policy intensified efforts to establish political and military hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, including periodic naval interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, reaching even to Brazil in the 1890s. By the end of the century Secretary of State Richard Olney added the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (“Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition . . .”), and President Theodore Roosevelt contributed his own corollary in 1904 (“in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to exercise an international police power”). American policy toward Latin America, at the turn of the century, explicitly justified unilateral intervention, military occupation, and transformation of sovereign states into political and economic protectorates in order to defend U.S. economic interests and an expanding concept of national security.
Aridity, a significant characteristic of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, has affected water use patterns for different groups of people in this region for thousands of years. From indigenous groups to European invaders and colonizers to 20th- and 21st-century farmers, ranchers, and policy-makers in Mexico and the United States, controlling the area’s scarce water resources has been a vital concern for survival and economic success. Given that an international border divides the region, national-era relations between the United States and Mexico often have been marked by water issues and the development of water projects and policies. And on both sides of the border these projects and policies have caused environmental changes that merit attention. Much of that history revolves around agricultural development with the need to ensure steady sources of water for irrigation. But industry and urban areas have also been enormous consumers of scarce water resources in the region, issues that are discussed here.
María Teresa Fernández Aceves
From the War of Independence until the recognition of female suffrage in Mexico in 1953, the women of Guadalajara witnessed different forms of activism that touched upon national and local issues, causing them to take to the streets in order to defend their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities: their political and religious ideals. Their active participation upended traditional notions of femininity within the Catholic Church and the liberal state of the 19th century, as well as the postrevolutionary state (1920–1940). The tasks they undertook over this lengthy period of time were highly diversified and encompassed welfare, education, war, politics, religion, and social endeavors.
Susie S. Porter
From la Adelita to the suffragette, from la chica moderna to the factory girl dressed in red shirt and black skirt—the colors of the anarchist—women’s mobilization in the midst of Mexican Revolution was, to a large degree, rooted in their workforce participation. The evolution of gendered occupational segregation of the workforce, sex-typing of occupations, and gendered wage differentials marked women’s experiences and the way they organized to take control of their lives and to shape working conditions and politics. While women’s employment nationwide contracted during the period 1890–1930, it was nevertheless a moment of significant cultural change in the recognition of women’s work outside of the home. Women shifted public debates over their right to work and mobilized around the issues of maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, and respect for seniority. Across the workforce, women fought for the application of the rights afforded by the Mexican Constitution (1917) and then, in the 1930s, by federal labor law. By the fact of their work and because of their activism, women shifted the conversation on the rights of women—single or married, mothers or not, and regardless of personal beliefs or sexual morality—to dignity at work and the right to combine a life of work with other activities that informed their lives and fulfilled their passions.
Javier Contreras Alcantara
During the 2012 presidential election in Mexico, a movement arose that broke with the existing framework of political mobilizations. What began as a protest to call into question the past of one of the candidates became, with the assertion of their status as university students, a student and social movement that urged a discussion on the nature of Mexico’s democracy. The movement, called #YoSoy132 (#IAm132), became active on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, uniting young citizens from a generation that was beginning to distance itself from politics. Finally, following a series of debates on the path the country should take and the presidential election, the movement did not strengthen, but instead left behind a generation of young politicized citizens who now adopted new forms of socialization and organization for political action, which applied to further mobilizations. Since then, Mexico witnessed the emergence of new political players which have lifted the unease felt by the current political class.