Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Postal Insurgency: Letter Writing and the Limits of Mexican Nationalism in Gustavo Sainz's Fiction

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Postal Insurgency: Letter Writing and the Limits of Mexican Nationalism in Gustavo Sainz's Fiction

Article excerpt

In the introduction to his two-volume Apuntes y documentos para la historia del correo mexicano (1908), historian José Velarde celebrates mail as the carrier of civilization and as a durable link connecting the citizens of the modern Mexican nation. Mail, he argues, strengthens the ties of "afecto e interés" that sustain society and contributes to "el progreso material e intelectual de la humanidad" (vii) to such an extent that a society's degree of technological and intellectual development can be measured by looking at the level of sophistication of its postal institutions (xi). Velarde goes on to quote from the speech that Porfirio Diaz's Director of Postal Services, Manuel de Zamacona, gave during the ceremony in which Diaz laid the cornerstone of the Palacio de Correos in Mexico City on September 14, 1902. Like Velarde, Zamacona underlines the importance of mail as a powerful instrument of social homogenization and as a vehicle of civilization. He declares that epistolary traffic brings people together irrespective of their race and religious beliefs while successfully transmitting the "fluido vital de la civilización" from the cities to the remotest villages. Zamacona concludes that one could not conceive of "un Estado sin el auxilio de tan poderoso Agente, reflejo á la vez de la cultura y del progreso humano" (Velarde viii-ix).

Indeed, the postal system, along with the development of transportation networks, administrative bureaucracies, and the educational system, contributed significantly to the expansion and consolidation of the Mexican nationstate during the Porfiriato (1876-1911). As Velarde and Zamacona suggest, epistolary exchange embodied the liberal-positivist goals of fostering feelings of national belonging, consolidating state centralization, and propelling the country forward in time towards progress and modernization. Just as the metaphor of ethnic mixing deployed by theories of mestizaje subsumed racial, linguistic, and cultural differences under a unified national identity in post-independence Mexico, so mail enacted the liberal dream of socializing without authoritarian absolutisms - of harmoniously conflating the public and the private spheres without enforcing impersonal laws.' As Carlos Monsiváis has noted, epistolary culture in nineteenth-century Mexico developed strong ties between people and communities plagued by civil strife, poverty, and cultural backwardness. In this social context, the personal letter was a stimulus that Monsiváis graphically describes as "la botella que el náufrago recibe y envía" (28). However, the Mexican critic also underlines that during these years epistolary writing became increasingly subjected to rhetorical norms. The numerous epistolary manuals published during the late nineteenth century carried out a crucial disciplinary function by prescribing formal guidelines and formulas for letter writing. These handbooks codified proper forms of expression and contained models for congratulatory letters, for notes of condolence and gratitude, and for missives addressed to church and state officials. Monsiváis's observations reveal the inherent duplicity of epistolary practice as both an instrument of intimate expression and as a mechanism of discipline and control of private subjectivities.

Mail served much of the same function during the Porfiriato as it did in postrevolutionary Mexico. The year 1910 ushered in violent changes in government, but the postal network continued to be one of the main foundations of the new one-party state ruled by the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (renamed Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI, in 1946). One of the main functions of the mail system during the first few decades of the twentieth century was to institutionalize revolutionary ideology, a task later to be further developed by radio, cinema, and television.2 For instance, as early as 1915, subversive propaganda against the Mexican government was considered to be illegal according to the Mexican Penal Code and was therefore banned from postal circulation (Gojman de Backal 146-47). …

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