Funerals, Festivals, and Cultural Politics in Porfirian Mexico

Article excerpt

Funerals, Festivals, and Cultural Politics in Porfirian Mexico. By Mattiiew D. Esposito. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010. Pp. xvi + 332, illustrations, appendices, index. $29.95 paper.)

Considering funerals not only as rituals but also as identity-generating events with underlying political messages has become a popular topic in anthropological and historical studies, particularly since Katherine Verdery's milestone publication The Political Life of Dead Bodies (1999). Historian Matdiew D. Esposito follows Verdery's lead from a distinct historical perspective, delving into a transitional and instable period of Mexican history (1876-1890) beginning with die deadi of President Benito Juárez and ending with die establishment of a durable hegemonic state under Porfirio Díaz.

Esposito follows in his book die diirty-five years of the Porfirian regime and the 110 state funerals organized during that period scrupulously, and in descriptive detail. The audior argues diat cultural politics and a national mydiology have been grounded in a particular use and political instrumentalization of dead bodies, particularly those of national heroes. Through commemorating die dead - and mobilizing die media resources of diat time - political authority could be built most effectively. Esposito presented this hypothesis in an earlier article published in 2005 in The Americas.

Throughout the book Esposito is interested in the strong links between national and cultural identity, and acts of memory and death as a ritual. He analyzes funerals as public events, which at times resemble popular street parties. Drawing on the notion of "entertaining funerals," he points out die fact that feasts and funerals were not as strictly divided as one might expect but functioned predominantly as popular happenings. He interprets this as the regime's attempt to actively involve popular classes in the processes of political legitimization and nation-building. At the same time, Esposito argues that funerals did not serve only as quiet and solemn manifestations of mourning and state power but also functioned on another level as subversive happenings of unorganized crowds demonstrating transgressive behaviour. Both points of view are not new, but were rather put forward in Joâojosé Reis' discussion of funeral rites and rebellion in nineteenth century Brazil (1991, English translation 2003).

The descriptive and often captivating examples Esposito provides - including rare photographs and popular prints that are reproduced in the book - show in detail the political strategies the state employed for a reconciliation of the nation. In this context Esposito underlines that funerals also took on a role in promoting a particular vision of modernity and religiosity. The fact that funeral processions were organized by using the train or the tram illustrates how the Porfirian regime embraced modernity publicly. A modem funeral industry also emerged at the same time. Funeral practice had important social implications. During this period, the state moved to give costìy funerals not only to generals, but also to honoured citizens, illustrating to the Western world that the regime had overcome militarism. At the same time, state burials were held without crosses, priests and candles: Esposito interprets this move as a distancing from Catholic religiosity and as a step towards a "civic religion. …