© 1944 Hudson Strode
My knowledge of Mexico consists of a few events with a great many spaces in between: Aztecs, Cortes, independence, war with Texas, Pancho Villa, the PRI, and cartel warfare encapsulate my paltry knowledge. I read Timeless Mexico as a beginning effort to remedy that, knowing of course that a work published in 1944 would be severely dated. Hudson Strode’s Timeless Mexico covers the country from prehistoric speculation until 1944, with an almost exclusive focus on politics.
Strode is obviously sympathetic to the Mexican people, or at least the peasantry, and often reflects the sentiment he quotes directly: all those who love Mexico must always have their hearts broken. It’s easy to see why, because the narrative has one dictator after another — sometimes elected, sometimes installed by a coup. (Santa Anna is like the Black Death, seemingly impossible to get rid of permanently.) Strode is obviously partial to some of them, hailing their best intentions; the other side’s fellows with good intentions are of course wicked. We can’t begrudge anyone for trying to improve their country, of course — promoting schools, roads, hospitals, that sort of thing. I had no idea that revolutionary politics came so early to Mexico, or that its prescriptive nature was embraced so widely. I couldn’t muster up a lot of love for any of the politicos here, what with their seizing property left and right and ordering people around. It’s all well and good to build schools, but to force people to attend the government’s schools exclusively, with no private or parochical institutions allowed to teach, is quite another. Still, the politics here are fundamentally agrarian, not communist; men like Lázaro Cárdenas were closer to the Gracchai brothers than Lenin. Their economic plans involved breaking up plantations and distributing the land to the peasantry, given to them to be held privately and perpetually. The government confiscation wasn’t always outright theft; when the oil industry was nationalized, for instance, the oil companies were paid for the equipment. (Not at the asking price, but still.) That agrarian distribution was the only nod I saw to people being put in command of their own lives; most of the politics insists of mobs supporting one caudillo or another, then waiting on The Man to do something.
Timeless Mexico is heavily weighted toward ‘current events’, which for the author was the 1940s and World War 2. Although Mexico’s history with the allied powers had been antagonistic (their all being former colonial-imperial powers in Mexico or its backyard), and despite Mexico’s close business ties with Germany, once Japan attacked the United States, America found an immediate ally in its southern neighbor. Given Mexico’s political makeup — a persistently victorious left front that was anti-stalinist on the whole, but which might have a few fans of Murderin’ Joe, and the left’s opponents, who preferred throwing in with the Nazis — and its past as being given to violent pendulum revolutions, who could say what might become of it during the conflict? Strode reccommends Mexican history to Americans on the merits of closeness, but World War 2 made that meager division of the Rio Grande much more important.
Although Timeless Mexico isn’t quite timeless itself, being dated by a good seventy years at this point, its political coverage is extensive, includes societal change as a matter of course, and is written with devotion to the people. I’ll be following this with more up to date books, but found Strode’s narrative an affectionate and detailed introduction.