A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
September 8, 2005 Volume 36 / Number 1


The Ambivalent Revolution: Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910–1945

Stephen E. Lewis (University of New Mexico Press)

A former jail, a warehouse in a seedy part of Mexico City, and a municipal archive ransacked by Zapatista rebels in 1994: these were the settings for Steve Lewis’s research on the history of revolutionary and postrevolutionary Chiapas, Mexico. The fruit of that work is his recently released book, The Ambivalent Revolution: Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910–1945.

The project had its beginning during Lewis’s second year of graduate work at UC San Diego, in his search for a dissertation topic. He was interested in the idea of nation and state building in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century, especially after the revolution of 1910. With less than $1,000 and five weeks to spend it, he planned to travel from the southernmost state in Mexico to the northernmost, looking for possible topics along the way.

His first stop was Chiapas, formerly part of Guatemala. He realized he didn’t have to travel farther. Chiapas—by most measures the poorest, most marginalized state in Mexico, inhabited largely by indigenous peoples—provided a perfect case study for the Mexican government’s attempts at state building after 1920.

Lewis’s book documents the critical years of the 1920s and 1930s when the Ministry of Public Education (SEP) struggled to introduce the land and labor reforms and institutions of the Mexican revolution in Chiapas. His book sheds light on the question “Why did the Zapatista rebellion occur in Chiapas and not in some other state in southern Mexico where there was also a legacy of exploitation and repression?”

As in other such efforts around the world, the educational system was used to transform the state’s ethnically diverse populations (nearly a dozen distinct ethnic groups of Mayan descent) into secular, sober Mexican citizens. Federal teachers were also used to introduce reforms to a state that had historically and fiercely defended its autonomy.

The SEP’s efforts produced mixed results. Federal teachers won over most mestizo communities by fomenting land reform, unionizing coffee pickers, and challenging local exploiters, but their efforts infuriated local ranchers, planters, and politicians. Lewis outlines the unintended and even “sinister” consequence of the SEP program in the Maya highlands.

By the 1940s, the SEP’s efforts to transform indigenous Mexico had failed. A new federal ministry, the National Indigenous Institute (INI), was created to handle official Indian policy. The INI’s first “Coordinating Center” was built in highland Chiapas and won the applause of Mexican and foreign anthropologists, politicians, and pedagogues. By the 1980s, however, these centers were largely run by unqualified people, budgets were linked to politics, and the INI, too, was regarded as an agent of cultural imperialism.

The neo-Zapatista rebellion therefore took root in a state where “the delayed, incomplete, and corrupted nature of state and nation building prevented government from resolving pressing political, economic, and social problems.” In this setting, violent rebellion became an attractive option for many indigenous Chiapanecos. Eleven years into the rebellion, it remains to be seen whether Mexico can create a more just and inclusive state and nation.

—Kathleen McPartland