Henry Brooks  ‘21

The resurgence of global nationalisms in the twenty-first century demands that we renew and enhance our interrogative methods, with an eye toward disaggregating and disarming that phenomenon.  In this paper, I draw on the work of Claudio Lomnitz and Dipesh Chakrabarty to probe two of the formative processes in early Mexican nationhood: the production of the first national maps and the disamortization of communal and semi-communal landholdings.  With Lomnitz’s seminal work on early Mexican nationalism and Chakrabarty’s examination of colonial archival production, I offer a reading of Mexico’s coming-to-be that stresses the importance of chance encounters, individual career trajectories, and strategic friendships in the formation of Mexico.  I pay special attention to the friendship of Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, a rising star in the Mexican bureaucracy and eventual author of the famous disamortization law, and Antonio García y Cubas, Lerdo de Tejada’s protégé and perhaps the most famous cartographer in Mexican history. In foregrounding this particular reading, I offer an alternative to the dominant account of Latin American nationalisms offered by Benedict Anderson in his seminal work Imagined Communities.




This paper deals with historical memory and its sociopolitical consequences in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (1846-48). What I regard as the most impressive dimension of that shared memory-event, if it can be called that, was the sheer range of accounts it would generate across intellectual disciplines, political contexts, and literary genres. I offer here two key instances for initial consideration.

In an 1856 treatise advocating for a reorganized state politics in the borderland, the liberal jurist Manuel Fernando Soto (1825-1898) made a series of overt gestures to the war with the United States, in which Mexico had been amputated of nearly a third of its pre-1846 area. Commenting on the need for European immigrants to fill what remained of Mexico’s vast northern regions, he observed, “It would not convenience us for this torrent [of immigrants], having left Europe, to pass through… [the US] to take up there its laws, its language, its uses and customs, only to come here and impose them upon us later. […] Let them populate our countryside, and our country will be regenerated” (Soto, 50). Soto’s interest was in a kind of biopolitical maneuver: to use Europeans, as the United States had, to demarcate space and exclude the expansion of a competitor. Within that project, the memory of the Mexican-American War served an obviously advantageous function, impelling opponents of internal colonization to take seriously the threat of a second incursion.

In 1904, as part of a larger work that showed the markings of both memoir and ‘objective’ history, the Mexican cartographer Antonio Garcia Cubas (1832-1912) produced the following account to explain his bitter confusion upon witnessing the returning victims of a recent engagement with US troops near Mexico City: “Uselessly, I search for the words, which I cannot find, that might be capable of conveying an exact idea of the bitterness of my heart, upon seeing all those unhappy men sacrificed for ambition, rivalry, mistakes, and insubordination” (1904). Shortly thereafter, he would recall, “[Our soldiers] returned from the battlefield, with their uniforms in disarray, gushing blood contained under bandages, or their ligaments stuck to their very skin by the same coagulated blood.” And later: “The weak moans of the brave heroes were met with the wails of the women-soldiers following them.” Cubas’s account is instructive for its illustrating two crucial dimensions of the historical memory of the war. First, it captures a distinctly corporeal memory of the events, or more specifically, a capacity to recall embodied and highly personalized trauma. This observation is essential in recovering a sense of the deep indebtedness of a generation of nationalist thinkers to the idea of a homeland in need of securing. The account also gives a sense of the longevity of the trauma and its capacity to color—and shape—personal memory.

The ultimate aim of this paper, in connection with the prior two examples, is to advocate for renewed interest in micro-histories of the Mexican-American War and its aftermaths, believing these to be, on the one hand, a potential ‘way out’ of the problem of methodological nationalism and, on the other, a way to shore up an understanding of the centrality of memory, embodiment, anxiety (formal and visceral), and historical situatedness in the construction of a Mexican national space. The problem of methodological nationalism is one that has been addressed with increasing frequency and attention in the historical-theoretical work on the nation, taking up most recently an avowedly critical position. The noted anthropologist and historian of Mexico Claudio Lomnitz has offered the following in the way of a general description of the shift away from the foundational nationalist historiographic assumptions—of natural communities, bounded spaces, essential alterities, and uniformly and collectively envisioned (and desired) futures:


“Until recently, nationalist narratives were predominant, and they portrayed national identity and national consciousness as processes of “self-awakening.” National identity was portrayed as emerging out of a dialectic that was internal to the national community.

In the past couple of decades, this approach has itself been shown to be an instrument of national identity production. Instead of looking for the secret of national identity within the “soul” or “spirit” of each nation, contemporary analysts have looked at the history of nationalism as an aspect of transnational relations. Local innovations to nationalist imagery, discourse, and technique are communicated between politicians, experts, and intellectuals the world over, in a complex history that leads to the standardization of various strands of nationalism” (Lomnitz, 2001).


The skepticism with which the literature, as Lomnitz suggests, now regards the nationalist historiographic assumptions has produced a wave of theoretical and practical reorientations, including, crucially, the “shift from internal accounts of the origins of national identity to accounts that understand nationalism as a cultural product that is generated in a web of transnational [and, he notes later, local] connections” (Lomnitz, 2001). Part of my hope with this paper is to push this shift forward, and deeper into the terrain of micro-historical account, where evidence of Lomnitz’s “identity-producing social relationships” abounds. The organization of this paper therefore consists first (and in its majority) in constructing a micro-historical account of the production of a nation-space between 1850 and 1904. After that account, this paper includes certain relevant theoretical considerations, in particular certain reflections on the historians Dipesh Chakrabarty and Claudio Lomnitz, whose work, in both instances, marked seminal reorientations in the respective fields of historiography and nationalism, coloring a substantial portion of the academic literature.

As part of this paper, I will develop a terminology in which to describe the aspect of historical narrativization that I term “valence.” With this term I am after a conception of historical narrative that exhibits gradations of a certain kind across the dimension of specificity—in particular, specificity of facts marshalled within the historical data-field. The general importance in this move is in its acknowledgement, in the wake of the crucial injunctions of narrative-historians Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Hayden White, that the production of history is, on the one hand, intimately bound up in the production of story and, on the other hand, that (hi)stories are often—if not always—built out in relation to a set of tangible, though sometimes imperceptible, political goals. Thus, to call historical work strictly ‘objective’ is to place a veil over the crucial shaping work done by the historian in crafting stories that unfold in the past, through the present, moving toward a future. My intention in introducing the idea of valence is to complicate the accounts of history afforded by Trouillot and White by giving some broad nomenclature to the different levels of specificity at which accounts can be scrutinized for their factual accuracy. To illustrate precisely what I mean, I introduce throughout the paper two further terms: the “story of generalities” and the “story of intricacies.” With these I mean to demarcate two broad kinds of historical-theoretic accounts made available to scholars of history. The first denotes a broad kind of account of systems, trends, and phenomena, while the second denotes a more micro-historical construction, fashioned from various kinds of place-time contingencies. Occasionally throughout the account of early Mexican history that follows, I will mobilize these terms to denote different forms of account into which the data on which I am drawing might reasonably be fashioned. I should note here that Hayden White presages, in an important way, the distinction that I am drawing between valences of historical narrative. In his essay “The Poetics of History” from the now-classic Metahistory, he presents four “modes of formal argument,” each drawing on the same data-field to produce a distinct structure of reasoning: either “Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic…[or] Contextualist” (White, 1973). It is not worth defining each of these here; suffice it to say that White’s four proposed structures are governed, to varying degrees, by a preference for either individual events or processes on a grander scale. White’s effort to name and categorize these preferences very much informed the attempt I am offering here.


Territory, Loss, Memory: Aftermaths of US Expansion


In Silencing the Past (1995), Michel-Rolph Trouillot offers what remains one of the most iconic account of the production of nationalist historical narratives with his retelling of the early events of the Mexican war with Texas. In February 1836, several months into what would become (but, crucially, what could not yet be) the War of Texan Independence, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876)—who will later figure into this paper’s narrative—arrived upon the site of a derelict mission building near the town of San Antonio de Béxar, prepared to confront the holdout Texan rebels. Though far more arduous than initially anticipated, the siege had nonetheless produced by March 6 a victory for Santa Anna’s army, though memory of that event would prove temporary (Trouillot, 2015). Less than a month after Santa Anna’s victory at the Alamo, the rebel regiment of Sam Houston (1793-1863) would declare boldly in the face of its enemies at the Battle of San Jacinto, “Remember the Alamo!” Here, writes Trouillot, Houston’s men triumphed in two regards. They routed Santa Anna and subsumed their earlier loss within a grander victory narrative as a “necessary turn in the plot” (Trouillot, 2015).

If the Alamo became for Texan Anglos a symbol of valor and its delayed rewards, the Castillo de Chapultepec, a neoclassical-style palace that had overlooked Mexico City since the end of the eighteenth century, would figure oppositely into Mexico’s national imaginary after the events of a decade later. Unlike the Alamo, whose name entered history only upon its consecration in Anglo blood, the Castillo de Chapultepec had already long figured into the nascent national self-conception as a point of pride. The hill upon which the castle rested bore centuries-old significance as a site of pre-Columbian mythos, originally boasting, on the one hand, a Mexica (Aztec) temple honoring the god of war Huitzilopochtli and, on the other hand, a carving of the early Mexica emperor Motecuhzoma-Ilhuicamina and his progenitors in the eastern side of the mound. The exterior of the subsequent castle was constructed largely from a gray Mexican stone called tezontle that emblematized the late colonial aesthetic. Archways at the entrance and stained-glass windows on the upper stories flaunted the iconic national crest: an eagle perched atop a cactus, a snake in its beak (Bellum, 2015). In a country at once seized by the promise of an “Indianesque” nationalism and fastened to claims of mestizaje (both racial and cultural), there could hardly be a more emblematic monument than the Chapultepec (Earle, 2007).

The stakes of the U.S. invasion in 1846 were all the higher for it. Though initially fought across the regions that would become northern Mexico and Texas, by September 1847, the war had reached well downstream, into the Tacubaya municipality at the northern edge of Mexico City. On the night of the eleventh, four American dispatches established artilleries trained on the castle: one at the Hacienda of the Condesa to the south, another in the Del Rey hills to the southeast, and two among the mills near where the army had been routed three days prior (Balderas, 1850). The following day, the assault on the castle would commence. As one crestfallen observer would recall with resignation, “The events which were soon brought about were undoubtedly designed by the dispensation of Providence against the cause of Mexico.” There is reason to believe that the Americans understood the value of the castle, beyond its obvious strategic significance, as a site “whose reminiscences and traditions made it doubly important” (Balderas, 1850). After several hours of skirmishes and projectile bombardment early on the morning of the fourteenth, the Americans were able to seize the Chapultepec at 10 am. Though the battle continued, it was understood in the minds of the officers that the city had been lost (Balderas, 1850).

The results of the grand struggle for territory, which at the Chapultepec became obviously and visibly a struggle over the fate of a Mexican identity, would be several and, importantly, would penetrate well beyond the domain of a story of generalities like Anderson’s. Early Mexican cartographer Antonio García Cubas would recall in his memoirs, for instance, that among his most searing adolescent experiences was the arrival of the American troops in Mexico City. “I felt oppressed in my heart, and my eyes welled up,” he wrote. “Purest tears spilled for love of my country!” (García Cubas, 1904). In his Recuerdos (1904), Cubas would note also his deep pain at witnessing the return march of his defeated compatriots (García y Cubas, 1905). His accounts of the war were saturated with the language of loss, suffering, and dishonored sovereignty, so much so that the historian of Mexican liberalism María del Carmen Collado would wager in a short biographical essay on Cubas that the “profound scar that these events left on his memory engendered the nationalism visible in his later historical and geographic works” (Collado, 1996).


The “immense loss of territory” in Nationalist Thought


The affective dispositions in Cubas’s Recuerdos found echoes in other primary accounts published during the post-war. In particular, these mirrored Cubas’s profound sense of disillusionment. The early Mexican conservative historian and theorist Lucas Alamán (1792-1853) would begin his renowned essay on the history of the Mexican postwar with a biting—if honest—stocktaking: “in so few years, this immense loss of territory; this collapse of the treasury, leaving behind an onerous debt; this annihilation of a select and courageous army, leaving no means of defense; and, above all, this complete extinction of the public spirit, which has made the whole idea of a national character disappear… finding no Mexicans in Mexico” (italics added) (Burke, 2007). For Alamán, the land question in particular occupied a central position in the grid of threats to Mexico’s national existence. In the same essay on the postwar, he would register “circumstances even more imperative” than the evacuation of the public coffers to the collapse of the Mexican nation. “It’s territory,” he observed, “has been considerably reduced and runs the risk of being invaded again.” Here, Alamán would cite an official circular from the beginning of the war: “‘This [the land problem] …is a question of life or death for the nation, because it does not deal solely with the usurpation of its territory, but also with establishing another race in its territory’” (italics added) (Burke, 2007). Evidently for Alamán, as for the briefly tenured Mexican president Don José Mariano de Salas (1797-1867) who first circulated that sentiment in 1846, the territory “Mexico” and the people “Mexicans” came part and parcel.

But, if for Alamán the people and the place constituted each other reciprocally, others would show that it was not merely the land that had, through the Mexican-American War, proved integral by its absence to the Mexican self-concept, but also an awareness of what land was properly “Mexican.” The historian Collado highlights in her summary account of Cubas’s life a meeting between the young Cubas and longtime president Antonio López de Santa Anna regarding a new federal mapping project (Collado, 1996). Importantly, the meeting was arranged for Cubas by his mentor, a rising bureaucrat in the young republic who would eventually achieve immense influence in federal land policymaking, Miguel Lerdo y Tejada (1812-1861), who had first recognized Cubas’s talents as a cartographer and would expedite his appointment to the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística (the Mexican Society for Geography and Statistics, hereafter SMGE). Prior to that appointment, Lerdo had summoned Cubas to present his first commissioned work, the Carta general de la República Mexicana (A General Map of the Mexican Republic, first edition published 1853), to Santa Anna, as proof of product from the new government cartographic initiative. Cubas would recall in his Recuerdos his confusion when “the omnipotent character [Santa Anna] examined the map presented before him, and upon observing the vast expanses of territory that our neighbors had so unjustly taken from us, uttered indiscernible words of bitterness” (García y Cubas, 1996). Collado underscores, as I would like to, the reason for these “words of bitterness”: that the Mexican president had yet to gauge visually the territory he’d surrendered. This, Cubas confessed, “remained profoundly etched in my memory.”

That Mexico’s top brass had lacked until that encounter an accurate visualization of the national territory might read as something of a marvel to citizens of the present, for whom the language of borders and their security is familiar in the context nationhood and sovereignty. In the immediate aftermath of the Mexican-American War, however, the lack of widely available, standardized cartographic material would have engendered a sense of perpetual insecurity among statesmen, generals, and mapmakers alike. Observing in that era a general sense of the “abandonment in which the national geography found itself,” Cubas would document the specific concern that Mexico’s lack of cartographic archives rendered its sovereignty the object of foreign jurisdiction. “For the treaty regarding limits between Mexico and the United States,” he noted, “we laid hands in 1848 on an incorrect and in many ways deficient map of the United Mexican States, published in London” (Collado, 1996). In Cubas’s conception, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had marked the end of formal hostilities with the United States, seemed more than anything a sleight of hand in which Mexico, unaware of itself, had ceded more than its generals intended (the Gadsden cession five years later resulted from this dissonance between map and territory). So, it was that in at least one mind, faulty mapmaking was that root of the contemporary Mexican misfortune.


“To avoid the caste war”: Indigenous Dissent as Nationalist Problematic


Many of Cubas’s compatriots in government perceived far different impediments to the general national advancement than Cubas’s and Alamán’s concerns for lost—or unaccounted for—territory. In particular, the question of the indio—of his integration into the burgeoning national-liberal culture—was coming to a head in a way unseen since at least the independence war. On this subject, liberal jurist and magistrate Manuel Soto (1825-1898) produced several essays compiled in a volume of political recommendations titled simply El nuevo estado (The New State, 1853). Published shortly before the crucial rise of Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Cubas’s mentor, to the position of Secretary for National Development, Soto’s writings often betrayed a biting distaste for the remaining indigenous communities in Latin America’s young republics. In one instance, Soto registered the perhaps impolite but not uncommon concern that Mexico’s indios, a collection of races “expropriated, abject, and reduced for the most part to mendacity,” would by their very disposition instigate revolts if not first pacified by the state (Soto, 1856). Soto noted also that the indios, by virtue of their innate incivility and rambunctiousness, could be conscripted into an antidemocratic project by the “first tyrant who would flatter their pretensions.” Argentina’s Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877) and Guatemala’s Rafael Carrera y Turcios (1814-1865) were proof enough of this truth (Soto, 1856).

Soto’s position on Mexico’s indigenous communities—that “these castes, living among us, constitute societies foreign to our own”—inverted in a sense the outward gaze displayed by Cubas, Alamán, and Santa Anna, all of whom located the fate of the Mexican nation at the northern border. For Soto, the most immediate threat to Mexican sovereignty lay scattered within what all the civilized nations regarded as uncontested Mexican jurisdiction. These were the indigenous partidos (bands), whose communities had persisted relatively unencumbered (save for minor changes to the tribute system) since before the conquest. That the enclaves on which these partidos lived provided apt conditions for revolt (to which Soto and his contemporaries had born active witness less than a decade prior in the Yucatán Peninsula), seemed to obstruct Mexico’s sallying forth into the community of (modern) nations. Crucially however these enclaves posed for Soto a second significant threat, not nearly as paroxysmal as revolt yet equally damning to the nationalist strivings, in the form of economic unproductivity. In Soto’s mind, the problem of indigenous idleness might even have carried the questions of revolt and failure to integrate piggyback. Describing his solution to the indio question, Soto explained with an air of confidence that “it can be reduced essentially to these two points: give individual land plots to the Indians, dividing between families the communal landholdings; and civilize their villages by any means necessary.” “The inconveniences of these communities,” he would later assert, “are palpable every day” (Soto, 1856).

Importantly, the language of liberal reform often registered the desire to weld indigenous peoples to their plots according to the logic of liberal economy. Soto expressed in El nuevo estado his understanding of the economic benefits of privatization, explaining succinctly in one instance, “giving the Indians property will bind them to the land that is theirs exclusively. The particular interests will stir within each [Indian] a drive to improve his plot.” This process of improvement, he estimated, would engender new increases in the value of land, which in turn would ensure the indio’s “desire to profit and assure a future for his offspring” (Soto, 1856). In this way, the logic of private property would be self-replicating across generations, flowing from the father’s new property (because the new system would prefer, though not exclusively, males) to the child’s new aspirations for increase. It also seemed to enable a new kind of connectivity between men and the land, mediated by the marketplace. Crucially, the fulfillment of these logics meant to many contemporary liberals the consolidation of territorial knowledge in the forms of a national survey archive and government property registers. These institutions were expected, according to historian Raymond Craib, to ensure “complete security of property,” conferring among other benefits protection against “counterclaims and invasions with regards to property boundaries” (Craib, 2004). In brief, they substantiated the liberals’ newly conceived divisions.


The Nationalist Bedfellows Rise to Power


The answer to the indio question employed a register of terms strikingly similar to that deployed by Mexico’s border hawks—all of whom took far more interest in securing the northern frontier than quashing collective ownership. Crucially on this point, the language of complete security, claims/counterclaims, and invasion risk figured critically into both the struggle by border-oriented intellectuals to bind, in Alamán’s terms, their race to the territory of Mexico and the efforts of indigenous modernizers to decompose semi-communal indigenous landholdings. References to a grand national mapping project also figured importantly into both strands of the nationalist discourse, demanding a stocktaking of the contested margins of Mexican national space whether by demarcating the U.S.-Mexico border or surveying and parceling out indigenous pueblos. Crucially, convergence between the vocabularies of border security and indigenous modernization evoked a sense that “owning and ruling, though analytically distinct, were intimately connected aspects of early modern” governance (Greer, 2013). This (unspoken) conceptualization of the nationalist project would inform—if not directly instigate—the unfolding of two critical events in the history of Mexican modernization.

The first of these was the accession of Miguel Lerdo de Tejada (a liberal bureaucrat and mentor to Antonio García y Cubas) to the office of Secretary of Haciendas and Public Credit in 1856 under president and fellow liberal Ignacio Comonfort. In his capacity as secretary, Lerdo de Tejada oversaw both the country’s large “corporate” landholdings and its public coffers, which, but for the generosity of Mexican capitalists and a compensation pittance from the U.S., had been nearly empty after the costly northern war (Bazant, 1971). It was in this position that Lerdo de Tejada would draft in only a month’s time the text of the Law for the Disamortization of Urban and Rural Corporate Properties (later called the “Lerdo Law”), which proclaimed on June 25, 1856 the start of parcelación, in which “unused”[1] indigenous and ecclesiastical lands could be “denounced” to the state if undivided after a three-month adjustment period. By denouncing an unused plot, the denouncer made the land available for cheap purchase (or occasionally direct transfer) to anyone (including himself) who would agree to pursue “productive” use. The logic underpinning the Lerdo Law was twofold. First, by enabling land transfers from corporations to individual tenants, the law expected to summon into existence a new class of productive citizens whose individualist ambitions would produce increases in labor supply and entrepreneurial activity. In tandem with this increase, it was thought, the state could levy a five-percent tax on property transfers to restore the public accounts (though not, admittedly, to pre-war levels).  Thus, the Lerdo Law was born as a condominium of ideological and pragmatic projects, each of which rested upon the foreclosure of communal landholdings.

Not coincidentally, it was only a short time after Lerdo de Tejada’s appointment to the Ministry of Haciendas and Public Credit that Cubas acceded to the SMGE as a cartographer in 1857. Here, Cubas would experience something like an intellectual blossoming, working among a cohort of cartographers, statisticians, and historians who understood “practices such as ethnography, linguistics, statistics, economics, history, and geography as integral and scientific components to nation-state formation” (Craib, 2004). The positive spillovers of this intellectual environment on Cubas’s work manifested in his high productivity during the years 1857 and 1858, when he completed two of his most notable cartographic works. The first of these was an updated version of his carta general that drew the attention of bureaucrats and his SMGE colleagues for its unprecedented detail, labeling thousands of pueblos, sierras, and ports as well as major highways and railways. To follow this, in 1858, Cubas finalized his Atlas geográfico, estadístico e historico de la República Mexicana (Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Atlas of the Mexican Republic), which paired maps with detailed economic, demographic, agricultural, and mineral statistics for both the republic at-large and each state individually. Crucially, as cartographic historian Raymond Craib reminds, Cubas’s atlas figured neatly within the liberal project to colonize and capitalize on unparcelled rural, indigenous, and ecclesiastical lands (Craib, 2002). Also important is that the demand to which Cubas perceived himself as responding was a distinctly nationalist demand whose claim to territorial coherency rested on the ability of the SMGE to manufacture a contiguous national space. Certain key features of Cubas’s later productions hint that he shared in this aim. Craib recalls as an example Cubas’s extensive attention to the events of the Mexican-American War but near omission of the 1862 French invasion from his later Diccionario geográfico, histórico y biográfico de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (Geographical, Historical, and Biographical Dictionary of the United States of Mexico, published 1888). Craib understands this disproportionality as arising from the fact that Mexico had lost extensive territory during its war with the U.S. (“a massive territorial amputation” in his exact assessment) but none in its war with France. Other evidence seems also to locate Cubas’s work within the liberal project. Of his productions that acknowledged Mexico’s indio communities, for instance, many distinguished between “sedentarist” and nomadic cultures, painting the former as defenders of Mexican society and the latter as brutish, backwards “tribes” (in part because Cubas understood their cultures as lacking a heritage in the way the Nahua or Maya did not) (Craib, 2002). Craib reads into this distinction an endorsement of the new nationalist imaginary, which could (and often did) draw on the pasts of “civilized” (sedentarist) indios in order to convey the effect of a “presumably unified territorial entity of historical longevity” (Craib, 2002).


The Long, Wide Shadow of Nationalist Policy: Spillovers in Space and Time


In the aggregate, these efforts would produce an impressive array of discontents. Certain sources, for instance, recorded indigenous communities as fervently opposing the arrival of federal surveyors; one in particular, according to Craib, recalled residents of an indigenous pueblo meeting surveyors with death chants, worried that the surveyors could not be impartial in the way the government had assured they would be (2004). In other instances, resistance involved acts that I term “ritual refusals,” referring to the interruption of socially sanctioned performances for the purpose of public ridicule. This often meant turning away public officials at communion or omitting their names from public prayers (Knowlton, 1995). In still other episodes, the results of the liberal modernization push would be openly brutal; competing surveyors, according to Craib, might simply murder each other to secure a valuable commission (Craib, 2004).

I regard these expressions of discontent as both the pangs of modernization and the earmarks of culturally specific silences. That the national coming-to-be entailed at once the provincialization of Catholicism (visible in the uncoupling of national cartographies from the standard referent of the Catedral Metropolitana), the subsumption of indigenous bandas within bourgeois-productive relations, the parcelación and commodification of semi-communal indigenous lands, the cartographic rendering of the as-yet unmapped (and mythically indigenous) sierras, the production of natural resource registers and agricultural surveys to measure the output of haciendas and minas (mines), the “-objectification” of national borders to mitigate U.S. expansionism, and the privileging of sedentarist indio cultures in the national imaginary—among other maneuvers—I take to signal the concerted (if often un-self-conscious) production of historically and culturally specific silences by official archivists. In this understanding, it seems plausible—and well within the domain of a story of intricacies—to assert that the mass production of these “optical errors” was ultimately what enabled the constitution of a nation-space called Mexico, complete with the semblance of coherence and the impression of transhistorical fixity. Crucially, that narrative of the production of a Mexican nation-space seems also to register plausibly with the grid of micro-historical contingencies—in particular, the coming into friendship of Lerdo de Tejada and Cubas—upon which it would necessarily have hinged. Furthermore, that narrative avoids the lamentably essentialist theoretical commitments that this paper understands as available in Andersonian accounts. In avoiding these, it produces a Mexico ‘from scratch’: that is to say, in a way “never external or prior to history” (Craib, 2002).

Importantly, the projects mentioned above would consume several decades of political effort. In 1862, the federal government would renew the SMGE charter, revealing in this process the state’s obsessive nationalist commitments, including “perfecting more and more the general map” and developing a “historical, geographical, and statistical almanac of the country” (Torres, 1862). Craib reminds that surveyors—both freelance and government-employed—would roam the countryside into the early 1900s in search of undivided properties or uncharted interiors (Craib, 2004). García y Cubas would not even produce his most comprehensive almanacs until the early 1890s. I understand the spillage of these ongoing projects into the twentieth century as indication that, in micro-historical terms, Mexico was not finalized until fairly recently.


Thinking Like a State: Revisiting Theories of Official Knowledge


Much of the historical-theoretic literature generated by the Subaltern Studies Collective, which famously took India as its social and cultural field of operation, addresses questions of knowledge-power and knowledge formation. I sense that Latin Americanists might benefit from maintaining and expanding any existing channels of productive exchange with that intellectual tradition, particularly where we are interested in the production of nation-spaces, borderlands, archives, and race. In the account offered here, I locate the production of Mexico within a grid of contingencies accumulated by the SMGE in the production of historical, mineral, and agricultural atlases. Hoping to contribute to an expanded exchange with South Asian subaltern studies, I want to now draw on Chakrabarty to address the issue of silences in official SMGE publications like Cubas’s. My suggestion with this move is that silences figured critically into the project of official nation-space consolidation.

Here I sketch an overview of certain important points from Chakrabarty’s chapter “Conditions and Culture,” which outlines that author’s understanding of the historiographical consequences of privileging “official” sources over others when aggregating data. Chief among these, in Chakrabarty’s view, is the problem of “optical errors,” in which the consolidation of a governmental body of knowledge inadvertently reveals through its selections, imputations, and omissions its particularity within the range of available perspectives. In his comprehensive study of Bengal’s prolific jute industry, Chakrabarty identifies clear optical errors in the state government’s efforts to aggregate information of the labor conditions of natives. He finds that these errors entered into the incipient body of economic knowledge in large part as a result of the state’s unabashed proximity to the jute capitalists. Because “the government of Bengal lacked the political will necessary to distance itself from the employers in the jute industry,” he argues, the particular bent of information consecrated as properly “official” could not but bear the watermark of its industrial originators (Chakrabarty, 1989). This conclusion, in Chakrabarty’s understanding, only resolved one question with another; he notes that one might reasonably have asked, “Why was the vision of capital blinkered?” or “Why did the jute mills fail to produce the daily records that the Government of India had asked for?” (Chakrabarty, 1989). Here Chakrabarty intimates the “problem of the unreliability of documents,” which he suggests derived in Bengali factory arrangements from the particularities of that region’s culture (Chakrabarty, 1989). Specifically, he argues that it was not the so-called “needs of capital” but rather the culturally mediated significance of the native labor supervisors (sardars) in Bengali life that produced incomprehensible silences in British documentation (both colonial and industrial). That these silences—whether tampered wage records, mislabeled or altered attendance figures, or unrecorded violations of “fair” labor standards—resulted from a range of behaviors such as public displays of “physical prowess” or appeal to traditional kinship networks that were valorized by the sardar’s cultural (and, crucially, not valorized by the colonialist’s culture) meant that official documentation—and its resulting narratives—could not help but reproduce the silences often ascribed to foreign worldviews (Chakrabarty 1989).

I read the mapping and surveying initiatives of the SMGE and its associated governmental organs (including, importantly, the Ministry of Development) as attempting to consolidate a body of knowledge much in the same way that the Bengali government and jute mills intended during the later years of the Raj. In the Mexican case, I understand the government’s central concern as being the aggregation of a body of territorial knowledge with which to articulate the “objective” conditions of national sovereignty (through national maps, cadastral plans, resource legers, border demarcations, and general reports). This meant, on the one hand, the commissioning of more (and more precise) cartographic projections from Cubas and his colleagues and, on the other, the deployment of a national corps of surveyors to translate the particularities of the Mexican nation-space into objective metrics (crucially, property lines, plot deeds, and municipal boundaries). The results of these efforts by the liberal government—and Lerdo de Tejada in particular—would be several. Cubas would produce the first ever national map aligned with the Greenwich meridian rather than the cathedral of the Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City, perhaps believing this to indicate Mexico’s accession to the “objective” geographic order (Craib, 2002). Mexican universities would begin offering (or in some cases adding) courses on surveying and “topographical engineering” to accommodate large numbers of interested young men (Craib, 2004). The federal government would briefly consider establishing a national property register in which household participation would be mandatory (this initiative eventually collapsed under the strain of landowner opposition) (Craib, 2004).


Legislating the Borderlands


I have suggested in this paper that the downstream effects of the Mexican-American War reflected a kind of long shadow, but also a wide one. My purpose in moving to this augmented description was to underscore not just the long-lived nature of the ‘border anxieties’ engendered by that event but also to document their wide sweep across geographies, genres, political contexts, and intellectual disciplines. The sheer vastness of the reach of that memory-event, and the depths to which it penetrated into Mexican micro-historical production, have been my chief interest here. One might characterize the theoretical claims regarding nationalism that have arisen from this account as representing the kind of “grounded theory” work that Claudio Lomnitz recommended in his own seminal study of Mexican nationalism, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico (2001).

I would like, in this final section, to present two instances of what I call ‘legislating the borderlands.’ With this term I mean legislation that constructed the liminal space of the ‘border.’ I want emphasize the crucial way that invasion anxieties manifested in the logics of border construction, in the various forms these would take across the nineteenth century. The first instance that I will raise is a piece of federal legislation adopted under the liberal president Anastasio Bustamante, five years before the outbreak of Texas secession. The second comes from an 1891 land grant securing to the civil engineer and colonist Luis Gayou a plot in Mexico’s vast northwest. My purpose in raising these two particular instances is to reassert, in the parting moments of this essay, the sheer sweep of the micro-historical evidence of border anxiety—whether as anticipation of invasion or as traumatic memory—across the general data-field.

The Law of April 6, 1830 marked in many ways an enhancement of a long- project for securing the border. Drafted under the conservative president Anastasio Bustamante, the law contained several provisions whose language and effect indicated an unambiguous bent toward preventing infiltration from the north (though no language in that document suggests that its drafters anticipated an outright invasion of the kind that would follow sixteen years later). Article 3 of the law authorized the federal government to select “commissioners” who would carry out two important functions: on the one hand, the inspection of existing colonies in the frontier states and, on the other hand, the selection—on the advice of state legislators—of new sites considered “suitable for the establishment of colonies of Mexicans and other nationalities.” The logic of these settlements was almost self-evidently one of defending territory against North American encroachment, as the article suggests in a subsequent passage granting commissioners the wide authority to act in a manner “expedient for the security of the Republic.” Articles 4, 5, and 6 of the law offer more in the way of military specification, delimiting the aims of colonization to a set of explicitly defensive purposes, methods, and subject-actors. The first of those articles authorized the president to demarcate for government use any territories “deemed suitable for fortifications or arsenals and for new colonies,” cementing—in more explicit terms this time—the consonance between colonization and militarization. The law’s fifth article was a kind of biopolitical provision, reserving for the federal government the authority to transport to the colonies established under the terms of the April 6th Law the “convict-soldiers destined for Vera Cruz and other points.” This provision is important for the sense of scope it affords; not only did the security impulse shape the placement and governance of Mexico’s internal colonies, it also fashioned a population from which to draw when ‘filling’ the borderlands. Up around these core populations of “convict-soldiers” the government expected entire communities would grow, spawned from soldiers’ families, whose fare to the colonies would be fully funded by the state. The core purpose of these regions, however, remained distinctly military. The law’s sixth article sketched the specific forms of work in which the convict-soldiers would engage, which included “constructing the fortifications, public works and roads” approved by commissioners. The budget for these projects and their concomitant activities—transit, basic farming, settlement construction—outlined in the law’s fourteenth article, was to be five-hundred thousand pesos. Such was the price of “progress and security” (Law of April 6, 1830).

In 1891 the Mexican Minister for Public Works Carlos Pacheco gave final assent to a measure granting to the entrepreneur and civil engineer Luis Gayou the right to colonize a sparsely populated section of northwest Mexico in the region now organized as the State of Nayarit. The deal stipulated that land would be sold to Mr. Gayou at a price of seventy-five cents (Mexican) per hectare; the total area to enter Gayou’s possession, rather than a fixed value, would be “85 percent of two thirds of the lands that will result as…belonging to the government…by virtue of the survey now being carried out by…‘Felipe Arellano and associates’” (Concession from the Mexican Government, 1891). The remaining fifteen percent (of the two-thirds figure), to be dispersed throughout Gayou’s possessions rather than demarcated contiguously, would be retained by the federal government for public use; the final third of the surveyed land would go to Arellano and Associates. It would become Gayou’s chief responsibility to populate his new holdings, at the minimum rate of four persons per 2,500 hectares, within three years of the official date of the land transfer. No more than four in ten of those colonists could be foreigners (Concession, 1891). Crucial to Gayou’s project for populating and cultivating the arid northwest would be the water rights secured to him by the federal government, at a rate of one cubic meter per ten colonists and, for irrigation, 86.4 cubic meters per hectare. The concession document also contained certain broad guarantees of political privileges for colonists. Article 14 declared, “Colonists will be considered as Mexicans possessing all the rights and franchise but having the same obligations imposed on the latter.” Article 15 granted colonists and rentiers alike access to the court system in the event of a dispute with the other party (Concession, 1891).

I raise these two accounts to suggest that the language of a “receding horizon” of nationalist imagining (often meant to suggest, as Lomnitz intends it in Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico, an invisible set of sociocultural referents against which to group people as politically and historically ‘us’) might also be appropriately applied to an actual receding horizon of frontier geography, invisible until it manifested corporeally and infrastructurally through internal colonies, railways, and military encampments. The justificatory reasoning for these projects, I suggest, rested largely on the border anxieties engendered by an expansionist northern neighbor and by the ambiguous relations of sovereignty between, on the one hand, the expanding Mexican and American nation-states and the persistent indigenous, often nomadic cohabitants of those same regions.


Conclusion: Toward Further Micro-Histories of Nationalism


As Claudio Lomnitz suggests in his now-seminal Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico, the general shift in studies of nationhood has been away from the historiographic assumptions—of bounded spaces, transhistorical communities, and homogenously anticipated national destinies—internal to nationalism and toward a practice of transnationalizing, situating, and deconstructing the social, economic, technical, and political networks that would engender variants of the nation-form on a global scale. This paper marks a concerted attempt to further that project. With it, I have tracked two strains of nationalist thinking that stressed, respectively, the establishment of border integrity and the integrating of indigenous communities into the national economic life. After concluding that discussion, I have considered the possibility of expanded productive dialogue between Latin Americanists and the Subaltern Studies Collective, taking Dipesh Chakrabarty as a particularly useful interlocutor on the matter of state knowledge production. Finally, I have used two primary documents to present the idea of ‘legislating the borderlands’ as a potentially fruitful field of legal and sociocultural micro-history. My hope in presenting these is that they will encourage future studies on these subjects, and that the political demands of future moments—as yet unanticipated—will be met with the necessary historical and anthropological work.



Alamán, Lucas (2007). “The History of Mexico.” 1849. In Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition, edited by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey, 175-200.

Anderson, Benedict (2016). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. 4th ed.

Balderas, Lucas (1850). “Storming of the Castle of Chapultepec.” 1847. In The Other Side: or Notes for the History of the War Between Mexico and the United States, 349-73.

Bazant, Jan (1971). Alienation of Church Wealth in Mexico: 1856-1875.

Bellum, Rebekah (2015). “Narratives of Violence and Tales of Power: The Work of Jorge González Camarena, the History of the Castillo de Chapultepec, and the Establishment of the National Museums in the Project of Mexican Nationalism.” PhD diss., University of New Mexico.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (1989). Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940.

Collado, María Del Carmen (1996). “Antonio García Cubas.” In En busca de un discurso integrador de la nación, compiled by Juan A. Ortega y Medina and Rosa Camelo, 425-48.“Concession from the Mexican Government to Colonize and Irrigate Lands in Tepic”

Coronado, Raúl (2013). A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture.

Craib, Raymond B (2004). Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations.

Craib, Raymond B (2002). “A Nationalist Metaphysics: State Fixations, National Maps, and the Geo-Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Mexico.” Hispanic American Historical Review 82, no. 1, 33-68.

Ducey, Michael T (1997). “Liberal Theory and Peasant Practice: Land and Power in Northern Veracruz, Mexico, 1826-1900.” In Liberals, the Church, and Indian Peasants: Corporate Lands and the Challenge of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Spanish America, edited by Robert H. Jackson, 65-93.

Earle, Rebecca (2007). The Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930.

García y Cubas, Antonio (1904). El libro de mis recuerdos.

Greer, Allan (2013). “Land, Property and Colonization: Some Conceptual Issues.” Paper presented at ‘Property in the Making of the Portuguese Empire,’ Lisbon, Portugal.

Knowlton, Robert J (1995). “Some Practical Effects of Clerical Opposition to the Mexican Reform, 1856-1860.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 45, no. 2, 246-56.

“Law of April 6, 1830,” Mexico.

Lomnitz, Claudio. Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Reglamento para el gobierno interior de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística (1862).

Soto, Manuel (1856). El nuevo estado.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (2015). Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. 2nd ed.


[1] Note that what constituted “use” was highly circumscribed by a vision of liberal individualism.





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.