Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Building the Mexican State: The Notion of Citizenship: An Interview with Claudio Lomnitz and Pablo Piccato

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Building the Mexican State: The Notion of Citizenship: An Interview with Claudio Lomnitz and Pablo Piccato

Article excerpt

The process of nation building in Latin American, seen through the history of social, political, and cultural exchanges, can help explain the postcolonial making of modern states. The following feature is an exploration of the process of nation building in Mexico approached from two distinct perspectives. Anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz and historian Pablo Piccato each use their particular analytical lens to show how the construction of a public sphere and the function of the state in Mexico have been complex, acrimonious, and sometimes bloody. As the nation attempted to transform itself from a decentralized agrarian-based economy in the hands of a few regional elites to a modern industrial actor, the state and society have played a vital task in constructing the idea of the "citizen" within the national Mexican project. With no countrywide infrastructure in place, or even a common language with which to unite the new nation in its early years, the state aggressively promoted the notion of a collective citizenry. Was the "citizen" to become the ideal carrier of nationality, espousing progressive values to share with fellow citizens within a common public sphere? Has this artificially-created social construct truly materialized? In the following interview with the Journal, Professor Lomnitz, and Professor Piccato, both from Columbia University, address the role of the "citizen" in shaping the present realities of the Mexican state.

Journal of International Affairs: How would you construct an idea of nation building and discourse of nationalities in Mexico through the lens of your profession?

Pablo Piccato: Historians have traditionally been entrusted with this since the beginning of national life--to create a narrative of how a nation came to be not only as an idea but also an institution. That has been the central task of the profession of historians, but I do not think it is the same today as it was twenty years ago. The history that I find more dynamic, challenging, and socially useful, is not the history of trying to reconstruct the building of the state or the nation, but the history that is critical of that narrative--that looks at other things that were happening on the side and have been neglected by the official history. There were always other forces challenging the nation and the sense of state, which have great relevance to our understanding of the past. Historians are increasingly moving in that direction--looking at actors that have been neglected by historians in the past by the standard political history, such as women and indigenous groups, as they became citizens, or preferred not to become citizens, on their own terms. Scholars are increasingly paying more attention to the development of nationalism as a response to transnational forces. So rather than building a history or a narrative of the nation state, the most interesting aspect of history in my opinion, is trying to show how that was not the only process going on and that there are many more interesting actors and forces at play both within and beyond the nation.

The best indication that this is not just something happening at the level of the profession but in fact is happening more generally, was what happened in Mexico with the Bicentennial Celebration of Independence and the Centennial of the Revolution. It was a massive celebration of these two important dates in national history that, as far as I could see, was also a massive failure in terms of giving the state a boost in its legitimacy and in recreating patriotism. Most evaluations of the great resources invested by the state, from publishing books to building monuments, saw it as excessive spending on things that had little relevance considering the problems the country faced.

So I think both in the profession and in the society, the way in which people look at history--the centrality of the state and the nation--is being challenged. More often, both in history and society, you will find people investigating the other histories that were not considered. …

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