Jennie Purnell. Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacan. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. 271 pp. $17.95 (paper), $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-2282-5.
Reviewed by Andrew G. Wood (University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS), Riverside, CA)
Published on H-Mexico (October, 1999)
Jennie Purnell's comparative study of two rival social movements in Michoacn during the 1920s is well researched and theoretically balanced. Coming in the wake of Joseph and Nugent's 1994 Everyday Forms of State Formation, Purnell offers a post-revisionist approach that takes seriously the role of popular groups in the formation of post-revolutionary society. Purnell adeptly synthesizes the efforts of earlier historians (i.e. Luis Gonzlez, Jean Meyer, David Bailey and Paul Friedrich among others) and then adds her own data gathered in Mexican archives to explain whom, where and why certain peasants became cristeros or agraristas. The most important variables in each of her cases relate directly to local history and culture.
Purnell writes "we need to take a closer look at what different peasants had to say" about political issues rather than sorting them into unspecific sociological categories. So called counter-revolutionary groups such as the cristeros are significant for Purnell because they "advanced popular goals" that ran counter to the designs of both revolutionary and reactionary elites. Instead, what explains the emergence of popular political identity (i.e. cristero, agrarista) and corresponding character of state formation according to Purnell--writing as a political scientist--is "different local historical experiences." Instead of deploying pre-made social movement theories to explain her individual cases, the author argues that "partisanship in the cristero rebellion, as in the revolution before it, was very much a local affair, rooted in specific histories and cultures that do not correspond well to class categories, ethnicity, or degrees of religiosity" (p. 10).
Having set an approach centered on local conditions, Purnell provides important background to postrevolutionary collective action in Michoacan by first considering the influence of nineteenth century liberalism on property and community politics. Here, she charges that liberal discourse is important because it "established a strong ideological link between the regulation of property rights, the secularization of society, and the consolidation of a sovereign state that was drawn upon and reelaborated by revolutionary state makers and popular groups alike in the course of conflicts over agrarianism and anticlericalism in the 1920s" (p. 21). Borrowing from different interpretations of nineteenth century liberalism, agraristas emphasized the central role of the state in shaping society while Catholics challenged growing state intervention by stressing individual rights and local autonomy. This tension soon became apparent in Michoacn after the revolution when the administrations of Francisco Mgica (1920-22) and Lzaro Crdenas (1928-32) initiated state reforms. Their efforts gave rise to strong opposition from elite and popular groups including those who participated in the cristiada of 1926-29.
Purnell's explanation as to why the cristiada took shape in central west region of Mexico and not elsewhere stresses not so much class, ethnicity or the institutional strength of the Church but rather "the survival of large numbers of communities and their constituent institutions related to land, religious practice, and political authority, as well as concrete threats to these institutions in the form of revolutionary state formation" as essential factors which gave rise to rebellion (p. 22). According to the author, the highland areas near the city of Uruapan illustrate this trajectory as well as various smallholding ranchero groups settled to the northwest (chapters six and seven). Conversely, Purnell argues that in areas where communities did see a loss of autonomy and decline in shared religious practice (such as in the largely Indian Zacapu region) postrevolutionary state-sponsored agrarianism was more likely to take hold (chapter five). Given the material offered in support of her claim combined with comparative glances to other regions gleaned through secondary sources, Purnell's argument certainly appears well grounded.
While Popular Movements and State Formation presents a clear argument and plenty of information on local communities, I sometimes found the narrative almost too detailed at times. With only two maps to help illustrate the book, the publishers also could have helped make the author's presentation a bit more visually appealing by including an occasional photo. Minor complaints aside, Jennie Purnell has made a solid contribution to a growing new generation of historical literature focused on postrevolutionary popular movements in Mexico.
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Andrew G. Wood. Review of Purnell, Jennie, Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacan.
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