Friday, December 21, 2012

Mexico: Biography of Power by Enrique Krauze

A comprehensive overview of the fascinating saga of Mexico
First published in 1997, Mexico: Biography of Power is a monumental examination of two centuries of modern Mexican history. Historian Enrique Krauze approaches the story of Mexico through a series of biographical chapters on powerful and influential men. The cast of characters is composed mostly of Presidents, along with a few famous revolutionaries. Though the book does have its share of dull stretches and inconsistencies, overall it is astonishingly thorough, immensely educational, and, at times, amazingly entertaining.

Though the subtitle of the book delineates its scope from 1810 to 1996, Krauze does provide five preliminary chapters that summarize Mexican history from ancient times to the beginning of the 19th century. The real meat of the book, however, doesn’t really start until the 1810 War of Independence. Like many contemporary historians, Krauze displays a bias toward the 20th century at the expense of what came before. With the exception of a very good chapter on Santa Ana, Krauze’s treatment of the 19th century feels a bit cursory, as if he wants to get it over with so he can move on to the good stuff. Benito Juárez really gets the short shrift here when compared to the in-depth treatment Krauze bestows upon the 20th-century Presidents.

The book really hits its stride when it gets to the Revolution of 1910. The biographies of Madero, Zapata, Villa, Carranza, Obregón, Calles, and Cárdenas are absolutely fascinating. The passages in which Krauze describes the humble origins of many of these powerful leaders are among the book’s most intriguing, perhaps because they constitute almost the only glimpse the reader gets into the lives of the common people of Mexico. This is very much a political history, and for the most part Krauze leads the reader to believe Mexico is a nation populated entirely by statesmen. At times it reads more like a civics lesson than a national history, but at least it’s an excellent civics lesson. Krauze provides an intricately detailed and keenly insightful view of the Mexican political system that is truly eye-opening for the non-Mexican reader. In the chapter on President Miguel Alemán, Krauze gives a brilliant, in-depth explanation of the development of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico unchecked for seven decades, and the dictatorial system of corruption and cronyism that it established. The book climaxes with the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco, where government forces fired upon student demonstrators. Krauze was involved in the student movement and offers some autobiographical perspective on the tumultuous sixties and their aftermath. The ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are summarized rather briefly, mostly following the PRI Presidents but also touching upon the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. It’s a shame the book was published before the Presidential election of 2000, in which the PRI was defeated, because I’m sure Krauze could have written a provocative final chapter on that event.

Focusing on the lives of individuals in order to elucidate the broader picture of Mexican history is a strategy that pays off well for Krauze. Despite the fact that the narrative is broken up into separate lives, Krauze does an excellent job of illuminating the continuum of Mexican history and drawing parallels between the past and present. The English translation by Hank Heifetz is very well written, but the book is still a difficult read. It is so densely packed with information that it requires intense concentration to get through. There’s about two semesters worth of undergraduate course material crammed into these 800 pages. For the general reader with an enthusiasm for Mexican history and culture, the knowledge gleaned from these pages is well worth the effort. It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive and authoritative encapsulation of the subject.

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