Those of us who study the political culture of nineenth century Mexico often lament the absence of archival documentation and the elusiveness of that which we know must exist somewhere, but just cannot find ... yet. Further frustration arises in the study of the popular classes, who were much less likely than elites to engage in the kinds of activities that leave traces in the archives. Indeed, the urban poor were even less likely than their rural counterparts to engage in the kinds of activities that leave traces of their presence in the archives (lawsuits over communal lands, for example). The words of Jules Michelet, the mid-nineteenth century French romantic historian, form an appropriate epigraph for these frustrations. Michelet, perhaps most well known for his 1846 work, titled simply The People, despaired, "I had the people in my heart ... but I found their language inaccessible. I was unable to make it speak." (1)
Recent literature in history and cultural studies, however, suggests that a dearth of archival materials in fact is not the primary obstacle to the study of the popular, or subaltern, classes in Mexico, or anywhere else. Rather, the real challenges are theoretical and methodological. A crucial experience several years ago forced me to clarify my position regarding these challenges by providing the archival equivalent of viewing "Rashomon," the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film that contemplates the nature of truth and memory by recreating four different versions of the same rape-murder in medieval Japan. Rashomon arrived in Mexico City's Zocalo when I came across two diametrically opposed "eyewitness" accounts in private diaries of the same popular protest.
The first version of this upheaval noted that on March 11, 1837, a mob of leperos attacked the Mexican congress. While the "pretext" for the upheaval was a recent devaluation of copper currency and a food shortage, the real cause was "the infamous machinations of anarchists." The events were carefully planned and executed by radical federalists who yet again manipulated small numbers of the city's malleable masses for their political ends. (2) The second version of these events asserted that a "truly popular" cross-section of the city's residents gathered in Mexico City's main square to protest the congress' misguided decision to devalue copper coin dramatically. The participants included "many persons of distinct opinions," whose frustration was directed by "persons of no [specific political] category." (3) While temporarily frustrating my romantic quest for the Holy Grail of nineteenth century Mexican politics, finding these documents was of course a great stroke of luck, since it forced me to question again the way in which I was using all of my sources, and to refine my criteria for their evaluation. It put into sharp focus many of the theoretical and methodological problems that face the researcher who presumes to investigate popular political culture, and the pitfalls that await. First, these documents, written by members of the elite, remind us that popular political culture cannot be isolated from the broader political culture. Just as studies of popular culture in general challenge the traditional division between high and popular culture, the same must be done for the distinction between popular and elite political culture. (4) Though we may try to use archival documents to explore the actions and motivations of non-elite actors, the documentary record was written and collected by and for elites, and we must always be cognizant of the changing ways in which "the masses" were used as a trope in competing elite discourses. However, to end our analysis at the level of elite discourse would in some ways deny both the ability of historians to contextualize and evaluate sources and the agency of non-elites, as far removed as they may be from having direct input into the documentary record. …