The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

The Romance of Democracy: Compliant Defiance in Contemporary Mexico.

By Matthew Gutmann. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. notes. photos. xxx + 289. $49.95 cloth. $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Jeffrey K. Lucas, Instructor, Department of History, University of Texas, El Paso.

Matthew Gutmann’s study of late twentieth century political culture in a colonia popular on Mexico City’s south side is a robust example of how anthropology and history can (and should) interact. The author focuses on the people of Colonia Santo Domingo, whose original residents moved en masse into the rock-laden terrain as squatters in 1971. Gutmann suggests that, throughout Mexico, the last thirty-five years have brought a sea change to the way Mexicans view themselves, their government, their politicians, and democracy itself.

The watershed events that led to widespread cynicism and distrust of the political process were the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco; the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, when government bureaucrats’ incompetence compelled private citizens to seize the reins of the disaster relief and recovery effort; and the national election of 1988, in which the ruling party’s (Partido de la Revolución Democrática [PRI]) candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari gained the presidency through apparent fraud.

Against this background of cynicism, Gutmann builds his discussion on an ethnographic methodology. As a resident of Colonia Santo Domingo throughout much of the 1990s, he became intimately familiar with the people, their feelings, beliefs, frustrations, and world view. He moves from an opening discussion of compliant defiance in the colonia to a thoughtful treatment of the legacy of Oscar Lewis, whose anthropological work extended to Latin America, south Asia and North America during the mid-twentieth century. As Gutmann reminds us, Lewis coined such terms as “the culture of poverty” and “blaming the victim.” (p. 26) The author ponders the paradox surrounding Oscar Lewis, who insisted that the lower and working class have agency, hence a significant degree of self-determination, but one must also hold those subalterns at least partly responsible for their own plight. Through chapters entitled “1968 – The Massacre at Tlatelolco,” “For Whom the Taco Bell Tolls,” “Crossing Borders,” “Rituals of Resistance,” “Chiapas and Mexican Blood,” “Engendering Popular Culture,” the “UNAM Strike,” and “Political Fantasies,” the author proceeds to show how these events and circumstances affect the people of Colonia Santo Domingo and their political culture.

This work considers defiance and compliance in contemporary Mexico, distinguishing between defiance as more reformist compliance, and compliance as part of an emergent, organic defiance. Hence it describes some of the more recent thresholds in the evolution of what Carlos Monsiváis (Aires de familia, 2000) describes as “versions of the popular” by changing subaltern history. If democracy is to flourish beyond the legislative halls, Gutmann believes we must examine how the incentive for popular sovereignty can continue to catalyze change. Distrustful of politicians, Santo Domingo’s denizens continue to pursue their own ways of comprehending and fostering change. Frustrating for them is the fragmented nature of their efforts. Romantic democracy should originate among ordinary people. Beyond waiting haplessly for the next election, however, the nagging issue persists: how ordinary people can achieve democracy rather than having it bestowed upon them by one more sanctimonious redeemer.

Like any solid work of scholarship, this book has a few minor problems. In a general discussion of Latin America, Gutmann gratuitously conflates the election of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez with the reelection of Peruvian (ex-) president Alberto Fujimori in 2000 as “illustrative of politics that really had very little to do with democracy in any meaningful sense” (pp. xxiv-xxv) – true enough regarding Fujimori, but untrue in the case of Chávez. Furthermore, his Spanish-to-English translations are at times oversimplified. For example, his version of “Viva México, hijos de la chingada! – “Long live Mexico, children of the damned!” (p. xxix) – fails to convey the historic gravity of this phrase about Malintzín (or Malinche), her controversial relationship with Cortés, the betrayal of the pre-colonial Mexican people which such authors as Octavio Paz have attributed to her, and the influence that this perception continues to have on the Mexican psyche. This oversight is particularly unfortunate, given Gutmann’s previous work on gender. On political “parties,” he infers from a particular resident of the colonia that “leftist political parties do not work,” as a “corollary lesson from 1968” (p. 71) – apparently in reference to the PRI, whose identity as a “leftist” party is dubious at best. Finally, Gutmann mentions “the virtual erasure of socialism from the realm of acceptable discourse on the world stage,” (p. 210) as if such socialist states as Cuba, Sweden, North Korea, Vietnam, China, and Venezuela were of no consequence.

These criticisms aside, The Romance of Democracy is a well-written, thoughtfully conceived expression of ethnographic research. While the bibliography contains an impressive array of existing literature, the most important sources are the people of Colonia Santo Domingo. This book succeeds in giving the reader a real sense of Gutmann’s ideas about self-government, of and by the people, in the Mexican scene.