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The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000

Author(s):Tutino, John
Reviewer(s):López-Alonso, Moramay

Published by EH.Net (August 2018)

John Tutino, The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. viii + 499 pp, $39.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17436-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Moramay López-Alonso, Department of History, Rice University.

In recent years there has been a growing body of literature on the history of capitalism. Many of these narratives tend to focus on the Great Divergence or the importance of a commodity like cotton or sugar; interestingly, they tend to overlook the role played by core areas of the Americas as if the silver that funded many of these ventures had been produced by magic and not by the mines of New Spain or Peru. The Mexican Heartland fills a void in this historiography by presenting a history of capitalism from the perspective of the landed communities surrounding Mexico City from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. These historic communities are at the core of Mesoamerican civilization and have sustained themselves and states that rose and fell over centuries. In brief, in a clearly written and thoroughly researched synthesis, John Tutino shows how Mexico has been part of the global history of capitalism. This longue-durée Braudelian study of Mexico draws from compelling and fascinating regional and local studies to substantiate its arguments. The examples are based on the author’s own original research as well as on broad scholarship from history, anthropology, sociology and political science in both English and Spanish that brings academic perspectives into dialogue beyond the conventional boundaries of disciplines and academic traditions.

Tutino argues that landed (ecological) autonomous communities were central both to the history of Mexico’s heartland and the world and that they sustained and shaped capitalism from the sixteenth century to the present. These landed communities were based on patriarchal organizations of families and communities. The book shows how capitalism steadily eroded the autonomy of communities in the Mexican Heartland. Mechanization, urbanization and globalization were all behind this demise (p. 408).

The book is divided in three sections that follow a chronological order. Each section presents different stages of capitalism through the exposition of the main factors that drove economic development in Mexico, namely silver, industry, and state-led capitalism. Each section details how landed autonomies adapted to capitalism, how they benefited or were challenged in their structures by the new modes of production. The chapters give a detailed view of everyday life where the reader can imagine production, power, family relations, community cultures, and popular insurgencies (p. 21). The different sections, moreover, contain chapters of synthesis that offer the new visions of power and production held by those who ruled as well as the conflicts they faced.

The first section of the book examines the centuries of silver capitalism (1500-1800). Chapter 1 shows how silver production drove commercial capitalism for the three centuries in key American regions and how Spaniards had to negotiate the formation of diverse social orders from Spanish North America to the Andes. While Tutino acknowledges that there are diverging stories in the different regions, community autonomies were key in all regions and they all contributed to the development of global capitalism. Chapters 2 and 3 delve into the origins of silver capitalism in the Mexican heartland specifically, the challenges of depopulation due to epidemics and environmental degradation, and the eventual consolidation of “native republics” (the legally constituted indigenous communities) in the first two centuries of the colonial period. In chapter 5 we learn about the exceptional case of the Otomí community in the Mezquital Valley and the role of population dynamics on labor markets and food production in regions close to mining centers. The last chapter of the section analyzes the impact of Atlantic wars on these regions, how they affected the livelihood of people in the regions due to the expectations of the Spanish Crown for the silver producing regions to fund their wars with their silver and how this in turn influenced the wars of independence.

The second section covers the transition to industrial capitalism during the nineteenth century once Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain. The first chapter of this section explains the transition from silver production as a central economic activity to the nascent industrialization that occurred and the changes in ownership of the large estates, all in the midst of civil wars and foreign invasions. The next chapters present the cases of Chalco and Iztacalco, two grain producing regions close to Mexico City. We learn about the transformations of their communities throughout the century. These were profound changes that generated new opportunities for their inhabitants as the economies were transformed by new modes of production and the emergence of new industries and services as well by politics and war.

The third section studies the nationalist capitalism that evolved from 1920 until 1980, when globalization took over. In this section, the focus is given on the Morelos region (immediately south of Mexico City) and the legacy of the 1910 Revolution on the development of Mexico City and the communities that were absorbed by the vertiginous growth of this metropolis.

Lastly, the epilogue suggests that since 1980 globalization has brought both democracy and the corrosion of patriarchy through an economic system that fails to guarantee job security to men without necessarily guaranteeing more work opportunities for women (p. 414). Such precariousness in the ways of life are the reality of modern Mexico and invite the reader to ponder on the ways in which capitalism has enabled poverty and inequality to prevail despite the growth and development of the past century.

The Mexican Heartland places Mexican history in the context of the world history of capitalism but it does not purport to make broad generalizations on the history of capitalism in the Americas. Tutino hopes it will be the first study on one of the core regions of Mexico and other parts of the Americas to enrich our understanding of capitalism as a global, long-term process.

Moramay López-Alonso is the author of Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2012).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII