About the Project

Rethinking History and the 
Nation-State: Mexico and 
the United States

Maps and Timeline

Photo Galleries:

Communities Abroad


Major Events

David Thelen

As you drive eastward on the main road from the rough Pacific coast of Mexico toward Tijuana, on the left side of the road a thick concrete barrier stretches for miles, rising so high that you can see the other side only when hills rise in the distance. All along this “fence,” men are gathered in knots, many of them grilling chorizos, waiting for dark when they will try to scale the fence, evade detection and capture by border guards, and reach family and friends on the other side. Across the border, guards wait for what they see as an invasion, trying to police this boundary that seeks to divide life in the United States from life in Mexico, two countries with two flags and two histories.

     This struggle between individuals and nation-states enacted along the southern border of the United States dramatizes a growing challenge as national governments seem increasingly unsure how to engage the growing movement of people, to say nothing of their ideas, products, institutions, and cultures, across national borders. Behind impenetrable borders, nation-states such as the United States and Mexico, with their national cultures and institutions, present themselves as the main arenas for defining values and allocating resources. And yet people have increasingly challenged the faith that the border can keep people and nations apart. Over the past thirty years the number of United States residents of Mexican ancestry has jumped from 4.5 million to over 17 million.1 Many of them have been “undocumented” and thus “stateless” individuals invisible to both nation-states because they constructed their lives in transnational circuits that looped between Mexico and the United States. Over the same period, governments in Mexico City and Washington increasingly surrendered their visible attempts to control the flow of trade between the two countries to the invisible hand of the market, most notably through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) but also through promotion of private commercial ventures in the borderlands that neither state would regulate. The rise of transnational crimes such as narcotics trafficking and currency laundering taxed the traditional ability of the two states to define crimes and enforce laws within their borders and soon led to jurisdictional conflicts as law enforcement agencies sought to pursue criminal suspects and enforce one nation’s laws in the other’s territory. As the two nation-states collaborated to maintain surveillance over citizens, as Mexican politicians increasingly campaigned in the United States for local and state office in Mexico, movements for democracy, human rights, and citizenship burst across national borders and became transnational struggles. Mexican popular culture spread via radio and television networks that sprang up in the United States as Spanish-language alternatives to traditional American mass media. Also moving across borders were water and air pollution and health problems such as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) that governments on neither side seemed able to control.

     From the dramatic increase in traffic of all kinds across the border, people built institutions and cultures that drew pieces from, and defied and ignored, both nation-states and national cultures in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation or two earlier. They “destabilize[d] fixed and unitary notions of community, culture, nationality, and, indeed, of the territorial ‘nation’ itself,” as David G. Gutiérrez writes in this issue.2 On street corners and in national capitals, transnational developments opened up unprecedented debates over the appropriate role of nation-states in regulating economies, defining citizenship, establishing official languages, controlling access to public relief. Defenders of national cultures and institutions dug in to preserve cultural cores against growing transgressions such as the borderland language, “Spanglish,” in which people placed meeting intimate or everyday needs ahead of preserving official or established linguistic forms.

     These changes challenge history to its core. Two centuries ago the modern practice of history began to focus history’s basic concern with change and continuity around narratives about the fate of nations, to try to persuade people to interpret their lives in nation-centered terms. Over those two hundred years some historians have proposed subnational or transnational perspectives — Karl Marx long ago took the “workers of the world” as his subject — but it has proved hard to “rescue history from the nation,” as Prasenjit Duara has posed the issue.3 We have so naturally assumed that nations will order the details of history that we miss other ways of organizing narratives of change and continuity.

     As we at the JAH began to develop special issues to explore the intellectual payoffs from viewing American history from transnational perspectives, we wanted to cut through the abstraction that surrounds much discussion of transnational or “global” processes by presenting the concrete realities and conflicts on the actual border between two nations. To get beneath slogans about being “for” or “against” nation-states, we wanted to reveal the creativity and resourcefulness of participants — from farm workers to diplomats — as they created, experienced, and interpreted the blurring of borders. We wanted to observe public officials redefining and reasserting the interests of nation-states as they responded to transnational challenges and remade the experience of nation states. We wanted, in short, a case study of transnational exchanges and debates.

     Why Mexico? For one thing, the volume of crossings measured an accelerating pace of change while the variety of crossings illuminated themes that interest historians with many specialties, from immigration to law, popular culture to commerce, politics to diplomacy. For another, the debates took place across levels from the grass roots to the highest councils of state, and they evoked a wide range of conclusions. For still another, both in the identities that people constructed out of transnational experience and the lenses through which scholars viewed those constructions, the United States – Mexican border has generated the paradigmatic perspective of borderland studies that is now being applied to include borderlands between Indian and European, Methodist and Catholic, male and female, Republican and Democrat, official and vernacular, gay and straight. In this new perspective borders became not sites for the division of people into separate spheres and opposing identities and groups, but sites for interaction between individuals from many backgrounds, hybridization, creolization, and negotiation.

     Each of those considerations contributed to a final reason for selecting Mexico. Dramatic events in Mexico over the past three decades have created and made visible widening cracks between the nation’s formal framing of itself and its informal practices. The new contradictions and challenges have sparked ferocious conflict and wide-ranging discussion about the meaning and possibilities of ideas at the center of nation and history: democracy, nationality, politics, the rights of citizens and their relationship to the state.4 Democracy movements have launched brave — some say quixotic — campaigns to root out the corruption and authoritarianism that President Ernesto Zedillo traces to the Spanish Conquest almost five hundred years ago. The new reform-minded mayor has placarded his city with posters proclaiming that “Nuevo Laredo says no to the bite” of official corruption, and the new police chief in Mexico City has fired 200 of the city’s 600 policemen in his first five months in a crusade against narco-corruption.5 These conflicts have highlighted the role that history and tradition have played and can play both in defining problems and in solving them. Indeed, Mexicans are exploring those issues with a freshness and clarity that are absent at this moment north of the border and thus can help Americans reinvigorate their own discussions. The urgency of interconnected economic, constitutional, political, and cultural crises in Mexico, combined with the uncertainty of the outcome of the debates, brings nationality out of the unexamined shadows where it often resides and into full view where it is contested. The stakes in the resolution of those debates range from the future of the political party that has run Mexico since the 1920s, to the fate of Mexicans living in the United States but “undocumented” by that nation-state, to the identity of a country that has discovered racism at the core of its nationhood, despite a vision of itself as the prime exemplar of the Renaissance experiment of racial assimilation.

     In the midst of conflicts with uncertain outcomes in Mexico, it becomes clearer than in the United States that transnational exchanges do not follow linear paths. On the one hand, immigration, commerce, and even governments may blur borders and point toward an integrated economic and demographic arena. A Taco Bell store in Mexico City challenges local restaurants, while Mexican soap operas on Texas television stations challenge American fare. Musicians creatively fuse styles from the two countries. Intermarriage between Mexicans and Americans increases. Amid shifting inventions of nationality traced by David Gutiérrez, people are developing liminal and transnational identities such as “Chicano,” “Latino,” and “Hispanic,” complicating the division of people into “Mexicans” and “Americans” that had assumed a linear movement of people from one national identity to the other. On the other hand, increasing integration and creolization have triggered cultural stereotypes and inspired nationalist responses. In Mexico a nationalism that began with resentment at the loss of half the nation’s territory in the 1840s has taken new forms, which Carlos Monsiváis explores in his interview, in order to defend Mexican traditions against the invasion of consumer culture from the north. And that nationalism has nourished a greater identification with people of Mexican origin in the United States, whom Mexicans had earlier considered traitors. American politicians have insisted that Mexico pass an American test of its resolve in the officially binational fight against narcotics, have tried to block migrants at the border, and have sought to cut off public aid to people simply because they cannot document their national citizenship. With a single narco-economy and -culture on both sides of the border, United States officials blame the problem on Mexican supply while Mexican officials blame it on American demand, artificial nationalist constructions that make it harder to address the integrated reality, as María Celia Toro explores.

     In the new bright light cast by Mexican debates, we see possibilities opened and closed, as Mexicans and Americans developed similarities and differences as they inhabited the same moment and went through parallel experiences. The key turning point in modern Mexican history, argues Carlos Fuentes in his latest novel, Laura Diaz, came on October 2, 1968, when the state’s authoritarian bosses ordered troops to fire on protesting students in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas, killing over a hundred. In that event, remembered as the massacre at Tlatelolco, Fuentes concludes, the traditional Mexican political “system showed that it had no responses to the demands of the young men and women that were educated in the ideals of democracy and freedom and participation."6 The Mexican state had lost the capacity either to incorporate or to contain movements for participatory democracy. That discovery radicalized many Mexicans and encouraged movements for democracy. Less than three months earlier, in that remarkable year of 1968, the troops of another political boss had attacked protesting students in Grant Park, Chicago, giving rise to the same charge that the resort to force, in Chicago or Vietnam, revealed limits on the ability of “the system” to incorporate participatory democracy. From a thirty-year perspective, the event in Chicago also appears as a turning point that led to the marginalization of protest, even a closing down of the democratic opening that had developed over the 1960s with the civil rights and antiwar movements. The event in Mexico City, in contrast, inspired the movements, first tentative and suppressed, then made more confident by economic collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, that are striving to open up the political system. Now, thirty years later, Mexican movements carry on the discussion of participatory democracy that stalled north of the border in the 1970s and 1980s.

     The difficulty of seeing the overlapping and parallel nature of conflicts that participants in both nations saw as a larger struggle between “participatory democracy” and “law and order” illustrates how the isolation of historical practice in both countries has deprived historians of chances to try out fresh perspectives on familiar developments. Growing up in the nineteenth century to help people to define their experiences in nation-centered terms, the history of the United States has been told as a set of unique stories: of a nation’s birth in a revolution against a European empire that had “settled” its lands as colonial outposts to advance commercial and religious agendas; of a moving frontier engagement with strange forms of nature, other empires, and Indian tribes; of massive nineteenth-century constitutional debates and ultimately civil warfare over whether power would be in local or national hands; of victory by forces of nationalism; of turn-of-the-century revolts to redistribute power from the privileged to the people; of a popular president in the 1930s who established a security net; of movements for democratization and empowerment that flowered in the 1960s; of a New Right movement and its president in the 1980s who deregulated the economy and promoted free trade; and finally, in the 1990s, of a far-reaching debate about national identity, about whether the nation’s construction of itself as a melting pot any longer fits the national culture or its people. But those narratives of the United States of America also fit the United States of Mexico, Estados Unidos Mexicanos. The similarities have been hard to recognize in part because people experienced parallel processes and events differently in the two countries and in part because they use different formulations to make sense of (and perhaps highlight) those differences. And whatever the convergences and divergences in fact, historians in both countries developed self-enclosing historiographical traditions that emphasized national identity and difference when a different historiography might have emphasized similarities or borderlands or common North American themes.

     Those self-enclosing traditions have both caused and reflected strong popular tendencies in both countries to frame history in national terms. Having married an “Anglo” man, a twenty-four-year-old Mexican American woman from Brownsville, Texas, might have constructed narratives about the growing integration of cultures to describe history to her future children. But she assumed that history was nation-centered: “I came from Mexican parents. I like my history, the history of Mexico. Our child may like both [United States and Mexican history] or neither of them. That’s up to him or her. It’s very beneficial for the child to learn both. She will know more about her father’s history and her mother’s history.”7

     As they constructed narratives to position themselves in the nation-centered nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both Americans and Mexicans fixed their eyes on the other country as each defined its history and traditions in opposition to the other: Traditions of expansion and displacement of Indians destined the Protestant, free, enterprising, democratic United States to prevail over the Catholic, autocratic, corrupt, backward-looking mixture of Spaniards and Indians whom fate had placed in the way of its westward march. The imperialist United States was the catalyst for Mexicans to construct their own nationalism. Indeed, the importance of Mexico as the contrast defining central themes in American history provides one more reason for making Mexico a case study.

     As Mexicans sought to make sense of new transnational challenges, they reexamined their history for clues to explain why the country’s informal practices diverged so much from formal structures — to rethink narratives of where they came from and how they had reached the present and to imagine different outcomes. In a country in which history was marshaled to defend authoritarianism, the relationships among official, popular, and professional history making became important in the movement for democracy. Professional historians developed narratives — reflected in this issue in the contributions by Lorenzo Meyer, Sergio Aguayo, and Ilan Semo — that challenged official history as they sought to provide a usable past for a democratic Mexico. And Mexico’s leading popular presenter of history, Enrique Krauze, joined in challenging official narratives with ones that pointed toward democracy. With a widening sense of crisis, historians began to play an ever more central role in Mexican public life, writing regular columns in mass newspapers, giving weekly radio broadcasts, criticizing, advising, and holding office in their government. In their contributions to this special issue, many historians convey a fresh sense of what may be at stake in doing history amid new transnational realities.

     To present this exciting exchange between rethinking history and rethinking the present, we concluded that we needed not only scholarly articles but also reflections by historians at work, so readers could listen as scholars embrace and reject, learn and unlearn, describe what was hard and easy to see with the urgency of the present moment in Mexico. Interviews with scholars who are also actors in current struggles, whose scholarship informed their experience and whose experience informed their scholarship, sometimes provided the most revealing formats. To illustrate the range of historians’ contributions we wanted to offer a variety of perspectives for historicizing the present moment, from those who seek to remake the nation-state from within its central institutions to those who challenge it from without.

     To introduce these issues we begin with an interview with Sergio Aguayo, Time magazine’s “Man of the Year in Latin America” last year. A historian of United States – Mexican relations at the prestigious Colegio de México, Aguayo has also been a central figure in creating transnational movements for democracy and human rights, a scourge of both Mexican and United States governments, the founding president of Mexico’s Alianza Cívica. In the interview he reflects on how he, a typical child of the nationalist Mexican Revolution, grew up learning that the United States was an enemy and Mexico the champion of anti-imperialism. With his activism and scholarship nourishing each other in the 1960s and 1970s, he unlearned his childhood tale of two antagonistic nation-states and reconceived that relationship as a partnership between Mexican and American governments to give Mexican stability priority over democracy and human rights. And he describes how he made a life that also blurred the border between historical scholarship and activism, as he combined addressing broad publics with addressing scholars. He contributed, for example, to devising a pathbreaking transnational framework that reconceived refugees as the bearers of universal human civil rights whose claims transcended attempts by nation-states to define refugee issues in nationalist terms.8

     In the next interview another distinguished historian with a scholarly career at El Colegio de México, Carlos Rico Ferrat, reflects on transnational challenges to traditional nation-state-centered policy and history from a very different vantage point. After pioneering scholarly projects that reconceived Mexican history, not as the story of a nation-state, but as part of a larger North American history, Rico left the academy to assume high-level positions in the Mexican Foreign Ministry as a maker of policy toward the United States, and he now serves as Mexico’s consul in Boston.

     Rico poignantly describes how popular behavior forced Mexican policy makers to rethink their vision of where Mexico fitted into the larger world. In the 1950s policy makers constructed Mexico as a Latin American country. They diligently developed economic and diplomatic connections with Argentina, Brazil, and other countries south of Mexico. Meanwhile, individual Mexicans constructed their individual and family lives north of the border, in the United States, and, as a result, forced the makers of national policy to reconceive Mexico as a North American country.

     After Aguayo’s and Rico’s reflections on how they came to rethink the nation-state, the issue features four articles on specific challenges that migrants have presented to the traditional definitions of nation-states, nationalism, and national borders. By the 1990s, each December over a million public school students from California headed south with their families for a month or two, while towns such as Granjenal in Michoacán swelled from a few hundred to a few thousand with these annual visitors. Migrants created a “border” that, instead of looking like the thin line of sharp separation between two countries seen on maps, stretched from Mexico City to Chicago, Guadalajara to San Jose, a border in which national histories and flags were much less important than the rhythms of intimate relationships. Through those personal decisions, migrants, their neighbors, and nation-states fought over how — indeed, whether — nation-states were relevant to the lives of people.9

     David Gutiérrez, a leading authority on Chicano history, opens this section with an article that maps ways migrants shaped their lives, their cultural identities, and their citizenships, as they steered among and between, embraced and rejected, nationalisms that menaced and beckoned them on both sides of the border. Gutiérrez’s theme that the perspectives of Chicanos decenter nation-centered history is picked up in the article coauthored by Jorge Durand of the University of Guadalajara and Douglas Massey and Emilio A. Parrado of the University of Pennsylvania. Monitoring crossings of the United States – Mexican border over the past two decades, Durand, Massey, and Parrado show that the United States Congress’s nation-blinded ignorance of the transnational circuits of Mexican migration undercut its intent to stem Mexican migration in the 1986 Simpson-Rodino immigration law. By granting amnesty to some two million “undocumented” migrants north of the border and then making the border much harder to cross, Congress slowed and disrupted the usual circuits of migration; it stranded millions of migrants north of the border.

     The focus shifts from the migrants to the nation-state for the other part of this section on migration. We listen as, in response to swelling emigration, Mexican policy makers debate the nation-state’s interests, even its identity, develop new policies for reaching emigrants, rethink the official nationalism whose proclamations of a huge chasm between the two countries made migrants feel unwanted by the government of the country they had left even as they felt unappreciated in the country they had entered. As migration grew to a torrent, as its implications extended to the core of Mexican politics and economy, the Mexican government created the Program for Mexican Communities Abroad in 1990 to announce and center a dramatic shift to an official transborder embrace and an attempt to recruit migrants in the United States as members of a national diaspora. Even to contemplate such a radical about-face, they had to confront Mexico’s constitutional prohibition against interference of one nation-state in the affairs of another, placed in the constitution to assert political and moral distance between Mexico and the United States. We listen to a former director of this program, Rodulfo Figueroa-Aramoni, now consul general in Houston, and the scholar–policy maker who helped theorize and establish the program in the key Los Angeles consulate, Carlos González Gutiérrez, who now heads the Office for Hispanic Affairs of the Mexican Embassy in Washington, share the agony of rethinking culture, citizenship, and history. They describe the transnational pressures — remittances and civic influence flow through the intimate circuits between the two countries, migrants employ transnational media to criticize the Mexican state both for authoritarian politics and for forcing them to become exiles in search of jobs — that led to the new Mexican program. Through it, the Mexican government sponsors 6,000 soccer leagues in the United States, provides exchanges of athletes between the two countries, pays for 250 Mexican teachers to augment bilingual education north of the border, funds trips to reacquaint Mexican American leaders with their heritage, and develops Spanish-language radio soap operas — all to strengthen migrants’ allegiance to the country they left behind. (Readers can see the many aspects of the program by consulting a gallery of snapshots of its activities posted at http://www.indiana.edu/~jah/mexico/mexabroad.html) In 1998 Mexico legally changed the connection of nation-states to citizenship by allowing migrants to be citizens of both the United States and Mexico, constructing “Greater Mexico," as David Gutiérrez describes it, as an alternative to Americanization. But González is candid; he reports that “in its efforts to cultivate a sense of belonging for its emigrant population, the [Mexican] government has opened a sort of Pandora’s box, since those same immigrants whose organization it supports are increasingly willing and able to articulate their interests and mobilize support independent of both [the United States and Mexican] governments.”10

     Migrants created the most visible and explosive transnational pressures on both sides of the border, but debates in Mexico over the future of democracy and the national character shaped the moment south of the border and generated rich theorizing about history and nationality. For greater historical perspective on this Mexican moment, where it came from and where it is heading, we present articles by the constitutional authority Francisco Valdés-Ugalde and the pioneering Mexican historian of United States – Mexican relations, Lorenzo Meyer, and an interview with Carlos Monsiváis, Mexico’s premier cultural critic. They present three different historical analyses, with dramatically different textures, to make sense of present possibilities and choices. The hopeful Valdés sees the present as an extraordinary opportunity for Mexico to solve problems that have held it back from fulfilling Mexican dreams and to resolve its contradictions. For Valdés events over the past generation have made visible intolerable chasms between the formal principles of the Mexican state and its informal practices. The national ideal of a racial melting pot, of mestizaje, is mocked by the racism revealed by the Chiapas revolt that began on January 1, 1994. (See Zapatista manifesto at http://www.indiana.edu/~jah/mexico/zapmanifest.html.) Mexico’s republican heritage of uninterrupted elections, unique in Latin America, mocks a reality of corruption and one-party authoritarian rule. To address those contradictions Valdés examines moments when Mexican leaders have used the example of the United States to think about where they want to go.

     For Meyer fundamental changes in economic and political systems spell the end of the protectionist and authoritarian client state that took modern form in the 1920s following the consolidation of the revolution, making a dangerous and unstable present in which Mexico may establish political democracy, economic growth, and redistribution, substituting a political economy based on productivity for one based on loyalty. The central issue is whether Mexico can do those things without the suffering and destruction that accompanied the other three transitional moments in the nation’s history — independence from Spain, establishment of political competition in the mid-nineteenth century, and the revolution. The present is also a fragile moment in United States – Mexican relations. The end of the Cold War removed American pressure for a stable, anticommunist regime to the south and created a space for the United States to permit, if not encourage, the potential instability that might accompany a rise of political democracy in Mexico. But Meyer fears for the future, because NAFTA and economic competition have dislocated the Mexican economy and polarized its society, sparking mass migrations that the United States, in turn, must absorb if it wants a stable Mexico but that many Americans view as a threat.

     Monsiváis views the present as a moment when democracy is challenging nationalism, when for the first time Mexico has developed a “national conscience” toward its oppressed. But he fears that Mexico is losing the traditional depth and richness of its cultures to the engulfing spread of commercialized popular culture from the north. For Monsiváis, Americanizing cultures of consumption and youth have eroded Mexico’s identity and confidence, injecting what he calls a shallow culture of “speed” to replace Mexican ideals of rootedness deepened by profound folk traditions, the sense of history as a story of tragedy. The changes are symbolized by the ascendancy of Los Angeles over Mexico City as the new mecca for Mexican life, the magnet for people and culture. Massive migration to the north has turned the hated “land of the gringos” into “the land of the gringos and the relatives.”11

     We wanted the perspectives by Valdés, Meyer, and Monsiváis on contemporary Mexican debates to frame a final section in which scholars explore how people have rethought traditionally nation-centered issues and problems in response to transnational pressures. The right to define crimes, enforce laws, and exercise police powers lie close to the core of conceptions of sovereignty in the era of the nation-state. María Celia Toro shows how the dramatic rise of transnational drug trade and transnational crimes (most spectacularly the “laundering” of nations’ currencies, another key measure of their existence) led to the internationalization of the police and to unprecedented intrusions by United States police and military authorities on the sovereignty of Mexico to define what it considers criminal and to enforce its laws. To Toro, an expert on drugs and police power, officials in both countries are asserting old nationalist diplomatic reflexes to cover their failures to address seriously at any level from community to world the realities of the drug traffic with creativity, resourcefulness, and courage in their own countries.

     After the Mexican Revolution, Mexico and the United States seemed to present the world with two dramatically different national models — one of a nationalism born in the first twentieth-century social revolution and the other of the most resilient capitalist economy. Jesus Velasco explores how intellectuals and more recently “think tanks” from the two countries became transnational bearers of influence, how they interacted with the nation-states as they promoted changes in national policies. His complex story opens questions about how regimes in both countries used intellectuals to reach people in the other country with ideas that were politically difficult for those regimes to promote at home. Indeed, the bipartisan promotion by a binational elite of free trade ideas that were unpopular for both Bill Clinton and Carlos Salinas to sell to their political bases raises the possibility that intellectuals were leading players in attempts by binational elites to overcome traditional nation-based popular political resistance.

     Once transnational circumstances lead us to question the nation-centered narratives of history, we can go back and reexamine earlier phenomena that historians have framed in nation-centered terms and even interrogate the fundamental assumption that the nation-state was destined to prevail over sub- or transnational perspectives. To illustrate these possibilities, Andrés Reséndez traces how inhabitants of Texas and New Mexico argued about the meaning of national identity between the moments when their land became part of Mexico with Mexican independence in 1821 and part of the United States with the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. He shows how two national regimes and cultures used different rituals and identities and loyalties to court the allegiance of people in a land that was transformed by a single treaty from being the Mexican North into the American West.

     The problem of winning allegiance to a centralizing nation-state becomes the central theme in the interview with Ilan Semo, a historian and editor of Fractal, a leading journal of opinion. Semo explores the difficulty nation builders have faced in Mexico as they have tried since the days of the Conquistadors to impose a nation-state — from tax collections to landownership to the Spanish language — on the scattered communities of indigenous peoples whose ways of understanding the world in over ninety languages stretch back over a thousand years of settled life in the Valley of Mexico. In depicting the depth and tenacity of local resistance to centralization and nationality, Semo echoes Guillermo Bonfil Batalla’s classic concept of México profundo: modern attempts to impose an “imaginary Mexico” over ancient cultural traditions have charted a fragile, difficult project whose record is mostly one of failure.12 The revolt in Chiapas is the most recent of a host of insurgencies against the clientalist state that nation-minded elites had built to consolidate the revolution, a cousin to the broker state the New Deal was consolidating to the north.

     Out of rich discussion of the past and future of nationality, democracy, and history, Mexicans have explored new means for popular empowerment in a more transnational world. As capital has moved across borders, according to Carlos Rico, the Mexican nation-state has lost its sovereignty over basic features of Mexican life to transnational corporations: creation of jobs, regulation of health, control over what was once a national economy. Those corporations have steadily eroded the power of the state. Throughout Mexico, however, we heard of movements that sought to restore popular empowerment and public controls by organizing people across national lines, workers in the same industries, doctors, human rights advocates, the sin fronteras movements that define and address problems (and give them histories) that transcend national borders. In Mexico the breakup of tight partnerships between the state and client organizations of businessmen, workers, peasants, and other productive groups that buttressed the status quo, Semo and Meyer report, has given rise to a profusion of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that unite people across national lines and to dreams of parliaments in which workers from Detroit might engage workers from Michoacán and Montreal since the national borders delimiting the powers of existing parliaments no longer encompass a reality in which jobs have migrated as freely as people.

     We are indebted to many Mexican colleagues for inviting us to eavesdrop on painful discussions about democracy and nationality in their country and thereby helping us to see basic themes of change and continuity differently by taking down the fence that national politicians and historiographies and politics erected to frame history in nation-centered terms. To Josefina Vázquez, the dean of American historians in Mexico and the mentor of many authors in this issue, we owe a particular debt for helping frame the project, identify and recruit authors, and generally provide advice and encouragement all along.

David Thelen is former editor of the Journal of American History and professor of history at Indiana University. He has organized and superintended this special issue throughout. 

I would like to thank Susan Armeny, Patrick Ettinger, Peter Guardino, Steven Stowe, and Mauricio Tenorio for terrific criticism of an earlier draft.

Readers may contact Thelen at thelen@indiana.edu.

1 David G. Gutiérrez, “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the ‘Third Space’: The Shifting Politics of Nationalism in Greater Mexico,” Journal of American History, 86 (Sept. 1999), 506; Carlos González Gutiérrez, “Fostering Identities: Mexico’s Relations with Its Diaspora,” ibid., 545.

2 Gutiérrez, “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the ‘Third Space,’ " 483.

3 Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago, 1995).

4 For an influential interpretation of these events for Americans, see Jorge G. Castañeda, The Mexican Shock: Its Meaning for the United States (New York, 1995).

5 Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1999, sec. 1, p. 15.

6 Ibid., June 15, 1999, sec. 2, p. 5; Carlos Fuentes, Los años con Laura Diaz (The years with Laura Diaz) (Buenos Aires, 1999).

7 Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York, 1998), 58.

8 Sergio Aguayo, Myths and [Mis]Perceptions: Changing U.S. Elite Visions of Mexico, trans. Julian Brody (La Jolla, 1998); Aristide R. Zolberg, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (New York, 1989).

9On the border, see, for example, Jorge A. Bustamante, “Demystifying the United States – Mexico Border,” Journal of American History, 79 (Sept. 1992), 485 – 90; Roger Rouse, “Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism,” Diaspora, 1 (Spring 1991), 8 – 23; Jose David Saldivar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (Berkeley, 1997); Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, 1987); David Avalos with John C. Welchman, “Response to the Philosophical Brothel,” in Rethinking Borders, ed. John C. Welchman (Minneapolis, 1996), 87 – 99; “The Busboys of San Miguel,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dec. 14, 1997, pp. 34 – 36, 52; Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28, 1997, sec. A, p. 5; ibid., Dec. 25, 1997, sec. A, pp. 3, 25; Carlos Fuentes, The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories, trans. Alfred MacAdam (New York, 1997); and Bobby Byrd and Susannah Mississippi Byrd, eds., The Late Great Mexican Border: Reports from a Disappearing Line (El Paso, 1996).

10 González, “Fostering Identities,” 567.

11 “Mexico’s Cultural Landscapes: A Conversation with Carlos Monsiváis,” Journal of American History, 86 (Sept. 1999), 620.

12 Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization, trans. Philip A. Dennis (Austin, 1996).

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