What drives my different research projects is the question of how people became culturally integrated into nations, and how such integration has had an impact on their lives and their interactions with the people and environments around them. My first book is Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution. Through a focus on intellectuals, the state, rural indigenous artisans, and changes in the art market, the book traces how Mexicans remade themselves from a fragmented population in 1910 into one of the hemisphere’s most distinctive and integrated nations by the 1940s. The book explains how this transformation happened, why it unfolded with remarkable speed and depth, and why it has to be understood within a transnational context. With attention to top-down processes as well as to how events unfolded in the town of Olinalá in the southern state of Guerrero, it shows that aesthetics were not mere window dressing in the unfolding of history, but a central component. It also demonstrates why national integration has proven remarkably successful in Mexico, despite (and even because of) deep-seated contradictions, inequalities, and internal tensions.
Through smaller projects, I have explored other aspects of Mexican cultural national integration. My 2004 article "Forging a Mexican National Identity in Chicago: Mexican Migrants and Hull-House: 1920-1937," for instance, considers how a nationalist aesthetic was promoted beyond Mexico's political borders among the Mexican migrant community of Chicago. It argues that aesthetics (such as popular art, folk dances, music, and visual styles) played a crucial role in the consolidation of Chicago's migrants into a Mexican-American community, and that these migrants came to identify with a nationalist vision emanating out of Mexico City, rather than one born out of their own experiences as migrants. This past summer, I explored yet another aspect of the issue of nation formation in Mexico. At a conference at Yale, I presented my research on the changing ways cartographic representations have presented the nation as culturally and physically integrated. I argue that far from representing grounded, or even physically observable realities, these maps acted as blueprints for nationalists' aspirations. As elites' aspirations changed, and as the definition of the cultural national transformed after the Revolution, so too did the mode of representing this cartographically and the ideals that these representations embodied.
Currently I am working on two monographs on Mexican environmental history. The first, “Mexico’s Environmental Imagination: Science, Nature, and Aesthetics in the Making of a Modern Nation”focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth century when populations around the globe began organizing themselves into nation states. The book traces how nationalists and local people in central, eastern, and northern Mexico drew upon their relationship to the land and nature to contest the meaning of nationhood. I have completed much of the research for this project and published the first of my findings as “Nature as Subject and Citizen: The Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain (1787-1803)”, which appeared in A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico, edited by Chris Boyer (University of Arizona Press, 2012). I have received strong interest from three publishers eager to add my book to their listings in Latin American environmental history (University of Arizona, University of Pittsburgh, and Duke University Press).
The second monograph-in-progress is “A Territory Cleaved: Nation, Nature, and Ethnicity on the Frontier”. This study focuses on the riparian communities of Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario in modern-day west Texas. Within less than half a century this territory shifted from being the Spanish frontier, to an outpost of the inchoate Mexican nation, then part of the Republic of Texas and finally part of the western United States and the US-Mexican borderland. The book addresses how local people (indigenous, mexicano/paseño, and white/Anglo) engaged in processes of national identity and ethnic formation as expressed through their management of natural resources and their conflicts over the commons and private property. The book bridges Latin American and US environmental historiographies, while also connecting cultural history (drawing particularly on the rich historiographies that have emerged out of Subaltern Studies and British Cultural Studies) to what economist Joan Martínez-Alier has termed “environmentalism of the poor.”
Whether I am researching Mexican Americans in Chicago, Mexican environmental history, or post-revolutionary Mexican cultural integration, my research always brings together my interests in the lives of individuals, relationships of power, visual production, and cultural theory.