Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

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Book Review by C.M. Mayo

By John Tutino
Duke University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-8223-4989-1

Edited by John Tutino
University of Texas Press, 2012
ISBN 978-0-292-73718-1

Review originally published in Literal 34, 2013

The Bajío, a rich agricultural, mining and industrial region north of Mexico City, does not even appear on most English-speaking peoples' mental maps of Mexico. North of the U.S.-Mexico border, the best word to describe the image of Querétaro, the Bajío's first and still thriving major city, would probably be "obscure." And yet Querétaro, founded by Otomís and Franciscan friars in 1531, may be the hometown of capitalism— so argues John Tutino in Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America, a nearly 700 page tour de force of original research heavy with appendices, yet with such a wealth of novelistic detail, the reading itself trips along like a novel.

While not denying the role of England and its North Atlantic colonies, Tutino points out that because they dominated the capitalist world after 1800, the origins and nature of what preceded it—sparked by Ming China's demand for silver and Spain's American colonies' ability to provide it—have been overlooked. The main early silver mines in the 16th century were Potosí in South America and Zacatecas, in the Bajío north of Mexico City. It was this nexus out of which flowered the international trade and culture of capitalism.

The "enduring presumption" that capitalism was "Europe's gift to the world (or plague upon it)," is the first Tutino explodes, and the second, that the conservative nature of Spanish Catholic culture could not nurture the innovation and creativity necessary for true capitalism, he attacks with a few life stories from the early days in the colonial Bajío, as it was expanding beyond traditional farming and mining into a more intricate and internationally connected commercial society. He gives their names, describes their accomplishments in trade, mining, farming, and various social honors and donations to the church, yet, to the reader's undoubted surprise, one is Otomí, one most likely descended from African slaves, and another, an Italian count. Tutino asserts:

"[T]the Bajío and Spanish North America were not ruled by a dominant Spanish state; they were not led by men more interested in honor than profit; they did not organize work mostly by coercion. Life was not ruled by rigid castes; communities were no constrained by an imposed Catholicism that inhibited debate. They were instead societies founded and led by powerful, profit-seeking entrepreneurs of diverse ancestry."

This dynamism of the Bajío and Spanish North America and its vital importance for understanding North American, and therefore the United States history itself, is reprised in Tutino's anthology, Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States, with his essay, "Capitalist Foundations: Spanish North America, Mexico, and the United States."

The anthology departs from and explores the view that, to quote from Tutino's introduction:

"Mexicans are not 'invaders' of the United States. Rather, Mexico and Mexicans have been and remain key participants (among many and diverse peoples) in the construction of the United States- our prosperity, our power in the world, our promise of inclusion, even our ways of segmentation and exclusion."

Andrew Isenberg's "Between Mexico and the United States: From Indios to Vacqueros in the Pastoral Borderlands," offers a fascinating look at one of the indigenous responses to Spanish Conquest, to adopt Old World livestock—sheep, cattle and horses— and how that changed the societies themselves in the complex interplay with each other, with Mexicans, and with an encroaching United States.

David Montejano's "Mexican Merchants and Teamsters on the Texas Cotton Road, 1862-1865," examines the role of "Mexican" cotton, that is, Confederate cotton re-labeled for export to avoid the Union blockade, in both the ability of the South to fight for as long as it did, and in the rise of Monterrey, Mexico's major northern commercial city.

As for shaping ideas of Mexico and Mexicans in the U.S. imagination, Shelley Streeby delves into the profound influence of now forgotten novels such as Magdalena: The Beautiful Mexican Maid and The Female Warrior, whose heroine, a belle from Mobile, ends up imprisoned in Mexico City, menaced by the nefarious and romantically inclined tyrant, Santa Anna.

Especially insightful is Ramón Gutiérrez's look at New Mexico's concept of mestizaje, which he argues is a key contribution to the making of North America, bringing it beyond polarities of white and black.

As Tutino notes, "Too often we presume that rapid 'Americanization' shaped the borderlands, drowning Mexican ways and peoples. Yet every careful analysis shows a more complex, interactive, adaptive history from Texas to California." Both his Making a New World and the several essays in this anthology suggest the dazzling richness of still untold shared histories.

Listen to my Marfa Mondays podcast interview with John Tutino,
"Looking at Mexico in New Ways"
Main (Notes) + Podomatic + iTunes + Transcript