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Volume 11, No. 2—March 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

We asked five scholars to recommend the best recent books about Mexico.

Jonathan A. Fox, chair of the Latin American and Latino studies department at the University of California at Santa Cruz and co-editor, with L. David Brown, of The Struggle for Accountability: The World Bank, NGOs, and Grassroots Movements (MIT, 1998).

"Mexico's persistent combination of competitive electoral politics and powerful authoritarian enclaves has long confused scholars whose frame works assume homogeneous national institutions. Some political scientists and sociologists, however, are now catching on to what historians and anthropologists have long understood: the importance of regions for understanding Mexican politics. This approach is well represented in Subnational Politics and Democratization in Mexico (Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California at San Diego, 1999), edited by Wayne A. Cornelius, Todd A. Eisenstadt, and Jane Hindley. It is no coincidence that the first opposition party to win the presidency since Mexico's revolution did so by first building up a steady track record of governing at the state and local level. At the same time, in Mexico's deep south, regionally entrenched authoritarian rule slowed the national transition to democracy—as the 1994 elections showed. This volume begins to untangle the complex threads that link a nation's center to its regions."

Eric Zolov, assistant professor of Latin American history at Franklin & Marshall College and co-editor, with Robert H. Holden, of Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History (Oxford, 2000).

"Two recent books by Sergio Aguayo Quezada are refreshing efforts to understand how, and at what cost, Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) managed to hold on to power for so long. In the recently translated Myths and [Mis]Perceptions: Changing U.S. Elite Visions of Mexico (Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California at San Diego, 1998), Aguayo argues that the mainstream U.S. media made key assumptions about Mexico that not only precluded a more critical assessment of that nation's authoritarianism but also transformed the media into an ally of U.S. policy throughout the Cold War. Aguayo's book revolves around a content analysis of 6,903 New York Times articles. Spanish-language readers may prefer 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/Reforma, 1998), a focused and gripping exploration of a pivotal moment in modern Mexican history: the period just before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when the democratic impulses of middle-class youth ran headlong into the repressive apparatus of the state. Among Aguayo's strengths is his insistence on the inseparability of domestic and international forces in understanding the longevity of Mexico's one-party system."

Anne Rubenstein, assistant professor of history at Allegheny College and author of Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico (Duke, 1998).

"Future historians of post- revolutionary Mexico have a problem: Some of the world's best writers—notably Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, Alma Guillermoprieto, Salvador Novo, and Carlos Monsivais—have gotten there first. The best new histories of modern Mexico have followed the lead of these authors in taking up cultural questions, often examining the intersections of media, gender, and the state. Julia Tuñón's elegant analysis of women in the movies, Mujeres de luz y sombra en el cine mexicano: La construcción de una imagen, 1939-1952 (Women of light and shadow in the Mexican cinema: The construction of an image, 1939-1952; El Colegio de México, 1998), exemplifies this pattern (and deserves an English translation). The anthropologist Quetzil Castañeda's In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichén Itzá (Minnesota, 1996), a fascinating and thorny ethnography of Mayans, tourists, and representatives of the Mexican state, explores similar questions about the relationships between state agencies and the lives of ordinary Mexicans. Neither the Tuñón nor the Castañeda is a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with recent Mexican history, but both books will interest scholars studying regions far beyond Mexico's borders."

Ilan Stavans, professor of Spanish at Amherst College and author of The Essential Ilan Stavans (Routledge, 2000).

"Among the most memorable books to come out of Mexico in the twentieth century is Jorge Volpi's En busca de Klingsor (In search of Klingsor), a detective novel that was published in Spain in 1999 and received that country's Biblioteca Breve Prize. Its central theme is Adolf Hitler's quest to develop the atomic bomb. The novel's climax features the same historical event the Broadway play Copenhagen rotates around: the meeting in Denmark of the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. En busca de Klingsor is far from a perfect book; it is more enchanted with philosophy than with physics, and the result is at times obtuse and infuriatingly ethereal. Still, there is much to prize in these pages, in particular the fact that the book is as un-Mexican as one could imagine—its characters are American and European, and its action takes place in the United States as well as the Old World. Volpi proves that south-of-the-border literature ought not to be taken hostage by a rainstorm of butterflies and an army of clairvoyant prostitutes. Simon and Schuster is scheduled to release an English translation of the book early next year."

Jeffrey Pilcher, professor of history at The Citadel and author of ¡Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (New Mexico, 1998).

"Economists once praised the 'Mexican miracle' of rapid growth achieved through 'stabilizing development,' but the real miracle of the postrevolutionary era was maintaining political stability despite a wide gap between rich and poor. Enrique C. Ochoa's Feeding Mexico: The Political Uses of Food Since 1910 (Scholarly Resources, 2000) shows how the ruling party constructed a welfare system that both subsidized industrialization and bought social peace. The book documents the political crises that undermined a program created by reform president Lázaro Cárdenas. Cárdenas intended the program to help small farmers compete in national markets, but it ballooned into a huge bureaucracy that supported big unions and large agribusiness. Anne Rubenstein explains another aspect of the PRI's seventy-one-year hegemony in Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico (Duke, 1998). Comics, Mexico's most widespread form of literature, emerged around the same time as the PRI, and Rubenstein attributes much of the party's longevity to its ability to turn social unrest over its policies into harmless culture wars over its censorship of comics."

John Palattella

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