Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico Since the Civil War by John Mason Hart

... and following up after my recent blog post, it's also a great pleasure of a book tour to meet and visit with others who have written about the same, or related subjects. I have long been an admirer of John Mason Hart, author of many works on Mexico, and one in particular that shines bright for me: Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (University of California Press, 2002). Bright for me because, well, I am an American who has been living in Mexico for more than 20 years, and I've long been fascinated with the history of Americans in Mexico. My novel has much to do with Alice Green de Iturbide, the American-born wife of the second son of the Emperor Iturbide. Her son, Agustin de Iturbide y Green (1863-1925), was the prince of the title of my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which I presented at Mexico's Consulate General in Houston (co-host was Literal: Latin American Voices magazine) with John Mason Hart (none other!) as one of the presenters. What an honor indeed! Literal's editor, Rose Mary Salum, has posted more about the event here.

Quoting the jacket text:

Hart's sweeping and unprecedented chronicle of the economic and social connections between [Mexico and the U.S.] brilliantly illuminates the course of events that made the United States a global empire. Combining economic and historical analysis with personal memoirs and vivid descriptions of key episodes and players, Empire and Revolution draws on previously unexplored source material in the archives of the United States government and research in rural Mexico... Empire and Revolution reveals much about the American psyche, especially the compulsion of American elites toward wealth and global power and the urge to control other people in order to "save" them.

Hart's Empire and Revolution is a work that is becoming ever-more relevant as increasing numbers of Americans look south of border, and not only for business opportunities but for retirement and medical care (dentistry, knee replacement surgery, plastic surgery, you-name-it). Alas, when it comes to Mexico, in the U.S. we're so often treated to "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" news stories that, for those outside the loop, the U.S. involvement in the Mexican economy and massive immigration to Mexico is a sort of Gargantua sitting quietly unnoticed in broad daylight. The whole landscape of Mexico is changing with the new wave of Americans, many of whom are so recently arrived, they don't even realize that, say, the picturesque "pueblito" they've stepped into would be unrecognizable to those who knew it 20 years ago. I'm talking about the days long before NAFTA, and before Wal-Mart and Starbuck's, yea, even, KFC. San Miguel de Allende? Lovely and artsy as it may be, when I hear my Mexico City friends call it "Saint Mike's de Allende"--- well, that's apt.

In coming years I think we will begin to sharpen the focus on a new culture: Americans who have become Mexican citizens (yes, a large number are getting their Mexican citizenship-- which allows them to own property and vote). Not that Americans living in Mexico is a novelty, but we tend to think and talk about them as, well, Americans. Expats. Business people. Period. But in coming to Mexico, whether frequently or permanently, we change, and if there are enough of us, we begin to form a distinct culture. And no doubt many subcultures. Already any casual observer can spot the class system of the Americans in Mexico (for heavensakes, what human conglomeration doesn't have one?) with its surprising and unsurprising flexibilities and rigidities, quite different, it seems to me than the ones in the United States. I could go on. But my point is, there's no way to understand any of this, no way to gain context, without first reading Hart's masterwork on the history of Americans in Mexico.

When Mexicans settle in the U.S. they become Chicanos. When U.S. citizens settle in Mexico, they become-- what?

More anon.