Richard Griswold del Castillo, Book Review Editor
Mexico’s Regions: Comparative History and Development.
Edited by Eric Van Young. San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD, 1992. Bibliography. Illustrations. 257 pages.
Reviewed by Miguel Dominguez, Professor of Spanish and Director of Mexican American Studies, California State University Dominguez Hills.
Some Mexicans arrive hastily in Southern California with no suitcases, but drag behind them cultural baggage containing a variety of regional dialects, folklore, stereotypes and loyalties. Even after the homogenizing effects of the Mexican Revolution and of seventy years of industrialization and centralization, many Mexicans still exhibit exuberant pride regarding home region, state, town and even “ranchito.” Some barrios in Southern California house Mexicans of the same provenance so that these enclaves are informally known as “la nueva Yahualica”, “el pequeño Zacatecas”, etc.
Mexico is a national mosaic in space and time. It is the sum of its parts, each of which unarguably merits attention by itself. Modern Mexico springs from a past coalescence of “patrias chicas” characterized by saliently different life styles and attitudes that still influence its national economy, politics, and culture. Many microhistories make up a larger macrohistory.
Now then, first, for the human reason of understanding the Mexican in old and emerging barrios in San Diego, Los Angeles, and other cities in California and, second, for the intellectual reason to shed light on sociohistorical forces affecting the growth and behavior of a nation, one must consider in detail the study of the origin and implications of regions and regionalism in Mexico.
Mexico’s Regions, edited by Eric Van Young, rises well to the call and challenge of exploring alternative methods the way regions can be thought of and defined (or redefined). All of this, of course, while considering empirically local case histories from which, as he says, “different dimensions of regionalism emerge.”
The volume itself emerged from a workshop/conference of the same title that took place at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies in December 1988 at the University of California, San Diego. Apparently, from the list of supporting or funding sources and the participation of various experts from different disciplines, the conference and this present volume had and have a high level of interest both nationally and internationally.
The book is laid out in a format that allows the essays to weave together thematically into a larger coherent work. In his essay, “Introduction: Are Regions Good to Think?”, Van Young discusses the problem of defining a region (that for the inhabitants may be a state of mind but nevertheless a palpable reality) as well as how regions and regionalism have affected Mexico’s development. The last part of his article is devoted to summaries of the nine essays that follow in the volume. After the Van Young introduction, the book is divided into three parts. Part one, “Theoretical and Contemporary Perspectives” contains three essays; part two, “Mexico Regions: Broader History and Case Studies,” four essays, and part three, “Commentaries: The Larger Vision,” two essays.
For the non-specialist, the book can be a tough nut to crack. Indeed, the articles are directed toward the serious advanced student of history, geography, sociology, political science and ethnic studies. Also, the observations and comments become more relevant and illuminating if the reader knows Mexican history-particularly of the 19th and 20th century-quite well.
Mexico’s regionalism, complicated and varied depending on the criteria used, has and still shapes Mexico’s development culturally, politically and economically. Thus the multidisciplinary approach seen in the book is required, indeed welcomed and applauded. The editor is to be commended also for tapping very well the disciplinary forte of each writer to treat the plastic and multi-faceted context of region and regionalism. Most of the writers use specific cases or the local history of different regions that give relevance to theoretical discussion. Also some essayists take into account larger-national and a few times international-questions and utilize a comparative approach. All agree that the concept of region is a dynamic one that may not conform to strictly geographical features-for instance, rivers do change course-or to arbitrary political borders.
The three essays in part one represent the necessary foray into theoretical discussions and definitions. They form a backdrop against which subsequent articles are to be considered. The four articles in part two perhaps represent the meat of the volume, that is, the actual historical events that verify theoretical explanations. Some examples are quite specific in scope of space and time, and do require an awareness of personalities and political movements in the areas mentioned.
The last part has two articles. For the last one, Van Young asked a generalist to provide an insider’s perspective in a style that is more approachable for the interested layman. Carlos Monsivais is well known in Mexico as a journalist, critic, and novelist, while the other contributors are technical, academic experts accustomed to speaking to their colleagues.
Overall, the volume is a needed addition to fathoming the Mexican mind and providing a point of departure that explains why there is not so much one Mexico but rather many Mexicos. The vignettes of local histories were very enjoyable, offsetting the rather academic discussion regarding the latest approaches of the study of regional history.
Altogether Mexico’s Regions is a beginning not an end, implicitly but persuasively arguing for redefinition of concepts of regionalism and the need for experts from other fields to bring their disciplines to bear on this issue. The book is stimulating because it answers the “por que” of some aspects of Mexican behavior, but more interestingly it alludes to a series of “por que” not thought of before.
The writer, N. Scott Momaday points out that a sense of place is crucial to people, that there is a refreshing and energizing good when returning to a setting that had extraordinary meaning to one’s life. Places (regions) have to do with memory, with identity-“yo soy de donde soy.” Region and regionalism are still very concrete and important for the Mexican here and there. Because of this and for the reasons given above, the reader found the book very interesting and a valuable resource that gives some order to apparent chaos, explaining theoretically the practical reality lived, experienced and perpetuated by millions of people of Mexican descent.