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History Department

The Ambivalent Revolution

Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910-1945

My first major research project grew out of my longstanding interest in nationalism, marginalized populations, and revolution. Chiapas, Mexico, is an ethnically diverse, impoverished state bordering on Guatemala, and it proved to be the ideal laboratory for the study of state- and nation-building after 1920. Teachers from Mexico’s fledgling Ministry of Public Education (SEP) sought to bring to rural Chiapas the land, labor, and pro-Indian reforms that we usually associate with the Mexican revolution. Ranchers, coffee planters, alcohol merchants, debt labor contractors and even state governors resisted the federal blueprint. They fiercely defended their interests against teachers who doubled as agrarian reformers, unionizers, political agitators, social reformers, and labor inspectors. Mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian) peasants and workers, for their part, generally supported the teachers and came to embrace populist pedagogy during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40). Meanwhile, the state’s highland indigenous communities rejected the SEP's cultural project throughout the period of study. Indeed, the Zapatista insurrection of 1994 dramatically indicted several decades of failed federal Indian policy in Chiapas and underscored the revolution’s “ambivalent” outcome.