The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1999, Volume 45, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Power of God Against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century.  

By Paul J. Vanderwood. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Photos, maps, bibliography, notes, xi + 409 pages. $65. cloth..

Reviewed by Terry Rugeley, Associate Professor of Mexican History, University of Oklahoma, author of Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War (1996).

Paul Vanderwood’s new and important work on the Tomochic rebellion of western Chihuahua fills a void in our historical knowledge of one of the more dramatic events in late nineteenth-century Mexico. This book manages to impress in so many ways that isolating any one contribution seems difficult, but perhaps Vanderwood’s most critical achievement is to show how village quarrels, popular religiosity, and national politics combined to spark a bloody repression that permanently stained the regime of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911).

The (complicated) underlying story runs something as follows. In 1891 the mountain village of Tomochic found itself stricken by drought, economic change, conflicts with the Catholic clergy, and factional quarrels concerning local resources and town political power. The latter two mostly belonged to the “village son of a bitch” Reyes Dominguez, a ruthless man with allies in the municipal government and among the regional clergy. Town religion, however, lay in the hands of a faction led by Cruz Chavez, a proud, stiff-necked individual with a religious faith in justice. Chavez and his followers chafed under local and state prohibitions against public religious pilgrimages. When a visiting minister threatened to suspend church services in Tomochic, Chavez and his followers bolted the town and set out for El Chopeque, a local religious site, but on the way a brush with a rural military unit turns fatal, and the Chavez group were quickly inflated into revolutionaries and fanatics. Much of the religious ferment of the time owed to the nearby presence of a faith-healer, Teresa Urrea of Cabora, Sonora; her miracle cures comforted the local masses, but her preachings against “priests, money, an doctors” began to inspire those unhappy with the Diaz dictatorship, which country people experienced through the rule of regional subordinates. When a local Indian uprising invoked Teresa’s name, Diaz banished the saint and her family to Arizona, and launched a crackdown on the “revolutionaries” of Tomochic. This plan was complicated by the corruption and incompetence of the porfirian military, but eventually, in late October of 1892, the army managed to wipe out the Tomochic revolutionaries to a man. Teresita lived on in exile, healing the poor, working as a traveling act, dallying in affairs, and eventually dying of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of 33. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans of all political persuasions spent the following decades recasting the story and meaning of Teresita and Tomochic to suit their own particular interests.

This is a compelling story, but also a known story, at least in its larger contours. More important is what Vanderwood manages to bring along the way. He uses the narrative as launching pad for explorations of many aspects of nineteenth-century Chihuahua, including town life, mining, “religion as practiced,” and state politics. Consonant with his earlier work, Vanderwood places considerable emphasis on the incompetence of the porfirian army. The reader will long remember the scene in which a general, hopelessly intoxicated, leads his men in a cavalry charge against a field of wheat. The author’s history of Teresa’s travails in exile illuminate many of the intrigues that flourished among Mexicans and Hispanics living in Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California during the twilight of Porfirio Diaz.

The Power of God scores two important points. The first is the way that community-level quarrels and power struggles help condition the course of Mexican history. As Vanderwood puts it, “Mexican campesinos are not often good neighbors,” and he proceeds to show how struggles over local taxes, general stores, and political offices could mushroom into regional conflicts. This, I think, is getting at the heart of the Mexican rural experience, and will serve as a signpost for future work. Second, he demonstrates how religion functioned as a repository of all hopes and discontents, universal and hierarchical in theory but intensely local and popular in practice, always possessed of a “dangerous magic” that could turn into rebellion. Much to his credit, Vanderwood manages to do all this without trafficking in pretentious vocabularies. Even when dealing with matters as complex as religious prophesy, he finds a way to say it without rhetoric.

The book does make some demands. Vanderwood begins in the middle of things, as the followers of Cruz Chavez suffer their first brush with the Mexican armed forces. Only slowly does he peel back the preceding layers of history, so that it takes a while for the reader to become situated. At times his determination to get into the minds and daily lives of the participants leads Vanderwood into speculation. But the patient reader will be rewarded. The Tomochic episode, long neglected in English-language writings on Mexican history, seems clear at last, while The Power of God should have a place in the professional literature for a long time to come.