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.

View of Shillong with Shillong Peak in the background.

The restless records of Assam

On January 21, 1972, the Indian state of Assam lost its capital Shillong to a new state, Meghalaya. Shillong had been the capital of Assam since colonial times, and the Assamese were proud of their capital, a charming hill station at 4,900 feet above sea level. A cosmopolitan, polyglot town, Shillong was surrounded by tribal land where the dominant language was Khasi rather than Assamese.

The location of Shillong became an issue after the state legislative assembly passed the Assam Official Language Bill, 1960, which declared:

Assamese and English … shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.1

The tribal population of the Khasi Hills felt marginalized by the elevation of Assamese over their own language. Khasi tribal leaders joined leaders from the Garo and Jaintia Hills from to form the Hill State Movement, agitating for separation of the tribal areas of the Meghalaya Plateau from Assam. In 1970, Meghalaya became and autonomous state in Assam, and in 1972 it became a full-fledged state within the Indian union.

The capital of Assam moved from the hills down to Dispur, a suburb of Gauhati (Guwahati) in the Brahmaputra River Valley. (Dispur has since been swallowed up in Guwahati’s urban sprawl.) Assam government offices and institutions moved down to Dispur. In 1980, the records of Assam shifted from Shillong and were set up in the Assam State Archives in Dispur. Meanwhile, the Government of Meghalaya set up its own State Records Room in Shillong. The records kept there were about the period after the split with Assam, because the records from before had moved down to Dispur.

This is something I wish I had understood before going to Guwahati and Shillong for research: most of the pre-1972 records are in Guwahati, even if they pertain directly to Shillong. After spending a week in Guwahati, I headed up to Shillong and went on some wild-goose chases looking for things that were back in Guwahati.

I spent two days in Shillong looking for the Shillong Times from the 1960s. I had already looked for the newspaper in the Library of Congress, which has practically everything. Although the LoC does have master copies of the paper from the time period I was interested in, there were no copies that patrons could read. No matter, I thought; I would look for Shillong Times in India. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find the newspaper in the city where it was published—but I couldn’t.

I started my wild-goose chase at the Central Library, but the head librarian told me that they only had post-1978 issues in Shillong; everything earlier was down in Guwahati. She suggested that I try Sacred Heart College Library and NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) Library. I spent the afternoon visiting the two institutions, but the helpful staff at both failed to turn up anything. The next day, I went looking for the Shillong Times office, which a librarian at NEHU had assured me would have what I needed. It took me a while to find the office, as it was tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the Rilbong area south of the city center. In Rilbong, I had to ask a couple of people before I found the newspaper’s office, housed in a yellow Anglo-Assamese bungalow. There was no sign out front, just two brass medallions on the gate, one that said “S” and the other “T.” I inquired in the office about the newspaper from the 1960s. An employee went into the back and returned with the oldest issue they had, from 1986.

The mini-partition of Assam imposed an archival amnesia on Shillong. The Central Library does not even have archives of the city’s newspaper before the split—and neither does the head office of the paper.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.


  • Assam State Archives have an interesting and informative website, including a virtual tour as well as more practical information about the collection.
  • NEHU Library
  • Shillong Times
  1. The full quotation is: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.” The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25. []

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