Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol's Power in Mexican History and Culture

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Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol's Power in Mexican History and Culture, by Tim Mitchell (New York & London: Routledge, 2004), 211 pp., $22.95.

Intoxicated Identities is an interesting and important book, but also an exasperating one. It is primarily a study of the cultural meanings and locations of intoxication in Mexico, historically and now. But it also includes much material on the history and organization of alcohol production in Mexico, and on the role of alcohol and intoxication in domination and exploitation, at every level from colonial governance to intimate relationships.

The main thread running through the book is a focus on intoxication events and their meanings in a Mexican context. With the current availability of estimates of alcohol's role in the global burden of disease and injury, it can be seen that alcohol accounts for a greater proportion of the burden in the more developed parts of Latin America (including Mexico) than anywhere else in the developing world (Rehm & Monteiro, in press). If this suggests a need for concern, the corollary is an obvious need to understand intoxication in Mexico. The survey data collected by Maria Elena Medina Mora and her colleagues at the Mexican Institute of Psychiatry (referred to briefly by Mitchell) have long made clear that drinking is not particularly frequent for non-elites in Mexico, but that drinking occasions for males are very often occasions of intoxication.

Despite the inclusion of "my beloved cuates" (drinking buddies) in the acknowledgments, the author provides little direct fieldwork data, instead relying on anthropological and other scholarly studies, on the one hand, and cultural materials such as song lyrics, novels and films, on the other. A third of the way into the book, Mitchell characterizes, justifies and apologizes for his analytical method:

The need to keep this multiplicity [of outcomes of intoxication] in mind . . . has led me to adopt certain rhetorical devices in this book. I quote songs, skip from one end of Mexico to the other, attempt witticisms, constantly cede the podium to other voices, and occasionally digress in pseudo-barroom . . . style.. . . The reader's patience is much appreciated, (p. 62)

The result is an uneven mixture. The book includes much straight analysis and argument, and the scattered references to postmodern theorists (as to many others) are invariably ironic. But the general structure is emergent rather than apparent, and some of the arguments are unconvincing. For example, against Stanley Brandes's assertion that the growth of Alcoholics Anonymous in Mexico reflects its adaptation to popular Mexican Catholicism, Mitchell argues that, on the other hand, "Mexican religious traditions are also deeply implicated in, and often entirely complicit with, binge drinking" (p. 31, emphasis in original). So far, so good. But so what? In my view, this does not end the discussion, as Mitchell's next sentence does: "If Mexicans drink because they are Catholic and refrain from drinking because they are Catholic, where does that leave us?"

One of Mitchell's framings of intoxication is as a form of resistance and rebellion. "For some groups drinking is the continuation of politics by other means, as a strategy of subversion" (p. 6). His primarily historical material on this is interesting; besides the everyday resistance of miners and others rejecting "the time restrictions advocated by middle-class moralists and municipal officials" (p. 105), Mitchell documents, from historical studies and novels, the place of intoxication in active rebellion both in colonial times and in the Mexican revolution. In this aspect, the book is an important contribution to the small literatures on intoxication as cultural resistance and in revolution and war.

A second thread is of intoxication as a bending of time: A priority for Mexico's heavy drinkers, in Mitchell's formulation, is "deliberate interference with the stream of time, . …