About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Resource... And Imagined Community

INEGI (the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography) is kind enough to put PDF files up of a number of its publications on the INEGI site. I'm adding it to my resources section (column on the right... your right). There are some interesting historic items in there (statistics from the porfirato, etc.) as well as some interesting new publications.

I decided to browse one of the books - a chronological history of the census in Mexico published in 2009. Reading it reminded me of the chapter in Benedict Anderson's revised edition of Imagined Communities in which he talks about the census, map, and museum as ways that colonial powers helped create the imagined nationalist communities of their colonies. Anderson makes his argument about the categorization of ethnicity and religion as a tool, but I wanted to go a little different direction than Anderson: How does INEGI think about the history of the census show how they think about Mexico?

First, INEGI starts their chronology in 1521. Since no true census "documents" exist in what is geographically Mexico exist from prior to the conquest this might make sense. Indeed, INEGI argues the first census-like document isn't produced in Mexico until the Huixquilucan in 1532. Nevertheless, they start the chronology eleven years earlier. Why not start with first contact on the coast years earlier? It seems that would be the place to begin discussing how the different parties involved in forming Mexico began trying to conceptualize and quantify each other. Instead, INEGI follows the same old (I would call it internal colonialist) line of pegging the entire nation's history and existence to the meeting of Spaniard and Mexica in Mexico City (often sans Africans despite a certain plaza in DF). INEGI can conceive of the geography and quantification of the nation from Mexico City, not from the Yucatan where first contact was made.

The second thing I thought about was the three column presentation of the work. Column A shows "census stuff," column B shows parallel "history stuff," and column C shows important developments in the world regarding the concept of the census such as mathematical concepts and the first modern census. As a person constantly referred to as the non-western historian in our department, I was somewhat warmed to see INEGI's "imagination" or conceptualization of Mexico as squarely in the Western tradition.

The part of me interested in World History grumbles at a lack of discussion of possible pre-contact census methods as well as non-Western comparisons. On the other hand, the INEGI document also highlights one of the things I have most appreciated about Mexico: The insistence that it belongs to the greater international tradition of "civil" society and the best that Western Civilization has to offer. There is no pretense to grumble and complain that Mexico exists as an "exception" to the rules of civilized existence but instead a desire to participate with other nations in a better world. In a time when the LA Times refers to Mexico as a place of "lawlessness" and "carnage" (I lived in East LA and the San Gabriel Valley in the mid 90s and the irony of that smear coming from an LA paper is not lost on me) it is refreshing to see Mexicans referencing themselves as part of a more "civil" world system (despite all the sinister Gramscian notions of hegemony that I acknowledge exist in those systems).

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