Technology, History, and Place

Category: Historians and history (Page 1 of 3)

Heroes and villains in northern Mexico

Chihuahua, a city of about a million people, is the capital of the state by the same name in northern Mexico. Chihuahua city is about four hours south of Ciudad Juárez and the border with the United States. Mexico City is a long way away from Chihuahua, but Chihuahua is nevertheless very much a part of Mexico.

Mexico is a country that loves its national heroes, and there are two heroes that loom particularly large in Chihuahua: Miguel Hidalgo and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Both of them were real people who did real things, but like national heroes everywhere, they have been mythologized. This myth-making supports a particular image of what Mexico is or should be.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Miguel Hidalgo started the rebellion against Spanish rule that led eventually to Mexico’s independence. Hidalgo was a Catholic priest in the town of Dolores in central Mexico, and it was there that he declared his revolt on September 16, 1810 (111 years ago today). He led an irregular army to some early successes against the Spanish, but ultimately he was defeated and captured. The Spanish executed him in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811. It would take another ten years of bitter fighting before Mexico would finally win its independence from Spain.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Pancho Villa was an important figure in a later period of upheaval in Mexican history, the Mexican Revolution. He was a bandit working in the mountains of northern Mexico, reputed for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like Robin Hood. In 1910, he threw in his lot with Francisco I. Madero and the Constitutionalists, who were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. After Díaz was defeated and Madero became president, Madero’s general Victoriano Huerta turned against Villa, who barely escaped execution and fled to El Paso. Huerta ended up betraying Madero as well, overthrowing and assassinating him in a coup.

Meanwhile, Villa built up his own army, División del Norte, which helped defeat Huerta. Crucially, he retook the border town of Ciudad Juárez for the Constitutionalists. But before long, Villa had a falling-out with the new leader of the Constitutionalists, Venustiano Carranza. He was sidelined in Mexican politics as Carranza got official diplomatic recognition from the United States. In March 1916, he demonstrated that Carranza did not in fact control all of Mexico by raiding the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa’s band killed about twenty people before escaping back across the border. The US Army followed in hot pursuit. This punitive expedition, led by General John J. Pershing, spent the better part of a year chasing Villa around northern Mexico, but they were never able to catch him. (It ended when the US Army was recalled from Mexico to fight in Europe in World War I.)

Ultimately, Villa surrendered to the Mexican government after Carranza’s death in 1920. He retired from the outlaw life and settled on a ranch, but his old enemies caught up with him and assassinated him in 1923.

Both Hidalgo and Villa are remembered as being heroes, but the reality, as usual, is a little more complicated. Hidalgo is the father of Mexican independence, but Mexico was not freed from Spanish rule until more than ten years after his death. The man who actually liberated Mexico was Agustín de Iturbide, but he isn’t well-remembered in Mexico anymore. The reason is that he briefly ruled Mexico as an emperor, but Mexico shortly afterward turned toward republicanism. Iturbide went into exile; when he returned to Mexico in an attempt to return to power, he was executed! Hidalgo was never an emperor of anything, and thus he is a much more palatable national hero for the republic of Mexico.


Monument to Hidalgo, across the street from Palacio Gobierno.

As for Villa, he was by trade a bandit, and he could be incredibly cruel. He and his followers were responsible for countless murders in northern Mexico. The Mexican Revolution is remembered as being a story of good guys and bad guys. The good guys were the Constitutionalists: Madero, Villa, Carranza, and others; while the bad guys were the counter-revolutionaries, notably Díaz and Huerta. But the Constitutionalists didn’t just fight the counter-revolutionaries; they also spent a lot of time fighting each other! In death, Carranza and Villa have been made into heroes of the revolution, but they were enemies of each other in life.

None of this is to say that Mexico shouldn’t remember Hidalgo or Villa, or not have national heroes at all. Every country needs its heroes. But when we remember our heroes—whatever country we are from—we shouldn’t be satisfied with the nationalistic myths. Instead, we should view these people with a more critical eye, to see the aspects of their story that the nationalistic myths might obscure.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

Revisiting Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote in the early second century, during the reigns of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He wrote several books that have come down to modern times entirely or partially, including Germania, The Annals (about the first dynasty of Roman emperors, minus the founder Augustus, AD 14-68), and The Histories.

My first encounter with Tacitus was an excerpt of The Annals in my tenth-grade literature textbook, describing a fire that devastated the city of Rome in the year 64. As I recall, the passage hadn’t even been assigned for us to read, but I found it while flipping through the book and read it out of curiosity. I was taken by the vivid narrative explaining how the fire had spread through the city while the much-reviled emperor Nero whiled away the hours of the catastrophe singing about the burning of Troy. I was also intrigued by a brief reference to the Christians who were scapegoated for the fire—one of the earliest references to the practitioners of this new religion outside their own scriptures.

In eleventh grade, when my family went to Rome for Christmas and New Year’s, I brought along a Penguin edition of Tacitus’s Annals, translated by Michael Grant. Although there was much I couldn’t understand, I excitedly read the book on the trip to Italy and afterward. There were several episodes that stood out to me in the narrative, and I still remember them clearly. One of them was the assassination of Nero’s step-brother Britannicus, who was offed by putting poison in a cup that had already been tested, ostensibly to cool the too-hot drink down. There were many stories like this, about the intrigues and schemings of nobles in the inner circle of power.

Reading Tacitus corresponded with my own awakening as a scholar late in high school. Now that my days of adolescent apathy were past, I was beginning to see the world with new eyes, and it was turning out to be a big and fascinating place. The Annals was the beginning of an ancient history reading kick that continued with Josephus, Tacitus again (this time The Histories), Herodotus, Thucydides, and a little later (in college), Arrian (The Campaigns of Alexander).

When I read The Annals the first time, I took its content and style very much for granted. I guess I assumed that this was the one way to tell the history of early imperial Rome. By reading Tacitus, I felt that I was learning the true, authoritative history of Rome.

Ten years later, when I was in graduate school, I reread some parts of The Annals for a class about historiography (the history of history-writing). It was unsettling to read Tacitus again, because his writing didn’t seem so worshipful now. The parts that I read this time seemed petty and narrow-minded, as they focused almost completely on a small power-holding elite in a vast empire. There was nothing true or authoritative about any of this. I felt that my teenage self had been naïve to see the endless string of assassinations as the definitive account of Roman history. I now knew that there were many ways to tell the story of a time and place, and Tacitus had only chosen one of them.

I was ready to jettison Tacitus entirely when I reread him in grad school, but I have been assured—both by a friend who is a late-antique historian, and my own reading—that Tacitus is still an important and indispensable resource for early-imperial Roman history. The key is not to read him as the authoritative account and final word on everything, as I did in high school, but to read him critically as a source, much as I would read a project report for an Indian development project or an editorial from the Times of India or Hindustan.

But there is at least one fundamental way in which the work of an ancient historian differs from my own: I don’t have to reconstruct the past. Certain details of events that I am interested in might remain obscure, but the period that I as a modern historian study is very well-documented. That is not the case for Roman history. Most books, including Tacitus’s narrative histories, are missing large parts. Many books have disappeared entirely. Before ancient historians can study why something happened, they first must try to discover what happened. I have the luxury of skipping that step.

Remodeling Nehru’s house

In the three years since I did a little of my dissertation research there, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has become the subject of controversy over plans to remodel the museum or its surrounding grounds.

As much as I like NMML, I grant that the museum could use a good remodeling. It is housed in Teen Murti Bhawan, a British-era mansion that was originally built as the Commander-in-Chief’s house before independence, and after independence served as the official residence of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the house was converted into a museum rather than serving as the official residence of subsequent Prime Ministers.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bottom floor of the house has exhibits about Nehru’s life and the independence movement. It is a standard textbook-style narrative, and it is quite unengagingly presented with black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text in English and Hindi. The upper floor has some preserved rooms, including Nehru’s office and the bedroom where he died. The rooms are certainly interesting too look at, but they are not in the best of condition. I remember seeing water damage on the ceiling in one or two of them.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l'oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l’oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum.

The house is located on a large landscaped estate, which also includes a research library, a planetarium, and a medieval hunting lodge that was incorporated into the site plan when the mansion was built.

SLV-3, India's first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

SLV-3, India’s first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

Proposals to remodel NMML go in two different directions. One direction is modernizing the existing displays but keeping the nationalistic, Nehru-centered narrative intact. This is outlined in a document posted on the NMML website, “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” from September 2015. The black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text will go, to be replaced by touchscreens.

The other direction for remodeling the museum is completely overhauling it to honor all prime ministers, not just Nehru. This seems to be favored by the current ruling party, the BJP, which has made it a point to play down the legacy of Nehru.

From what I can tell, the proposals have reached a compromise of sorts, with Teen Murti Bhawan set to stay as it is and a national prime ministers museum to be built somewhere else on the estate.

These proposals to remodel Nehru’s house are at their heart political, but I would like to look at them from a historical perspective—or rather a historiographical perspective, which means how history is interpreted.

I don’t know enough about the national prime ministers museum proposal to comment on it, but from studying the “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” I feel that it has missed an opportunity to reinterpret Nehru and his legacy in an appropriately critical light. As is it now, there is no room in Indian popular discourse for a critical discussion of Nehru. He can be either all good or all bad, and the debates about remodeling NMML fall into these predictable ruts.

Like every leader in the history of this planet, Nehru left a mixed legacy. This legacy should be open for interpretation, but it shouldn’t be inevitably polarized. Like many leaders of his time, Nehru promoted industrial growth and democratization at the expense of minority communities. He proudly trumpeted anti-colonialism but refused to criticize Soviet interventions in eastern Europe. He claimed to believe in democracy and self-determination but took a firm line on Kashmir and brutally suppressed an insurgency in Nagaland. This ambiguity in Nehru’s legacy needs to be taken seriously, not papered over by heroizing or villainizing narratives.

But isn’t it inevitable that a museum dedicated to one man’s legacy would portray him as a hero? I argue that it is not. As an example to the contrary, consider the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, USA. As president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, Johnson had as mixed a legacy as Nehru. He promoted civil rights legislation and social welfare programs known as the Great Society. But he also escalated the the American war in Vietnam, a war that left over a million people dead. The LBJ Library does not softpedal Johnson’s role in escalating the war.

The same approach can and should be taken for a remodeling of NMML. Nehru’s contested legacy should be acknowledged and explored in the museum dedicated to him.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

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