Intimate Enemies

Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas

Intimate Enemies

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 12 illustrations, 6 tables, 4 maps Published: June 2007

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Geography, Latin American Studies > Mexico

Intimate Enemies is the first book to explore conflicts in Chiapas from the perspective of the landed elites, crucial but almost entirely unexamined actors in the state’s violent history. Scholarly discussion of agrarian politics has typically cast landed elites as “bad guys” with predetermined interests and obvious motives. Aaron Bobrow-Strain takes the landowners of Chiapas seriously, asking why coffee planters and cattle ranchers with a long and storied history of violent responses to agrarian conflict reacted to land invasions triggered by the Zapatista Rebellion of 1994 with quiescence and resignation rather than thugs and guns. In the process, he offers a unique ethnographic and historical glimpse into conflicts that have been understood almost exclusively through studies of indigenous people and movements.

Weaving together ethnography, archival research, and cultural history, Bobrow-Strain argues that prior to the upheavals of 1994 landowners were already squeezed between increasingly organized indigenous activism and declining political and economic support from the Mexican state. He demonstrates that indigenous mobilizations that began in 1994 challenged not just the economy of estate agriculture but also landowners’ understandings of progress, masculinity, ethnicity, and indigenous docility. By scrutinizing the elites’ responses to land invasions in relation to the cultural politics of race, class, and gender, Bobrow-Strain provides timely insights into policy debates surrounding the recent global resurgence of peasant land reform movements. At the same time, he rethinks key theoretical frameworks that have long guided the study of agrarian politics by engaging political economy and critical human geography’s insights into the production of space. Describing how a carefully defended world of racial privilege, political dominance, and landed monopoly came unglued, Intimate Enemies is a remarkable account of how power works in the countryside.


Intimate Enemies is an important book for historians, anthropologists and students of peasants from all disciplines. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, by focusing on the concepts of position and territoriality, has managed to reconcile, at least in his analysis of landed elites and agrarian conflict in Chiapas, post-structuralism with the empiricism of political economy, and discursive analysis with historical materialism.” — Sarah Washbrook, A Contracorriente

Intimate Enemies can be counted a success, and offers insight to scholars interested in Mexican nationalism, geographies of race and class, and agrarian studies as well as contemporary debates on culture and power. . . . Intimate Enemies strikes a careful balance, rendering landowners as complex historical subjects and presenting their interpretations of history without losing sight of the coercion, violence, and oppression with which they ruled.” — Brandt Peterson, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

Intimate Enemies is a fascinating interdisciplinary book that will be valuable to social scientists interested in questions of land reform, landed production, state-society relations, and indigenous politics. . . . Bobrow-Strain has written a nuanced thick description deeply informed by the literature on landed production and hegemony. I recommend this book highly.” — Shannan L. Mattiace, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

Intimate Enemies is a well-written, engaging, and carefully argued account of agrarian change in Chiapas. Its focus on the struggles over territoriality that accompany land conflict, as well as emphasis on the views of the indigenous other, allow it to provide an alternative understanding of the Chiapas story.” — Gabriela Valdivia, Environment and Planning A

Intimate Enemies is one of the few ethnographies that focus instead on the elite and ask how do events (some global, others local) affect and perhaps marginalize this population as well. The strength of Bobrow-Strain’s work comes in his ability to effectively capture the ambivalent world of the landowners.” — Jeffrey H. Cohen, Ethnohistory

“A a fascinating ethnography and cultural history of the landed elites of Chilón in the northern zone of Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. . . . The lesson of Bobrow-Strain’s excellent book is that not only peasants but also landowners respond to shifting circumstances in ways not predetermined by a generic class label.” — Richard Stahler-Sholk, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[R]eaders interested in understanding the long-term dialectical interaction between state policy and local practice or the ways in which individuals and social groups gain, maintain, and lose power in the face of radical change—in other words, the construction and collapse of hegemonic projects—will find much to enjoy and digest. More generally, Intimate Enemies is a highly recommended corrective to anthropology’s contemporary lack of attention to elites.” — Cody Petterson, American Ethnologist

“This is an important book that, in a logical and convincing manner, explains how landowners responded to the various pressures and tensions of their positions as local elites in an isolated area of Chiapas and why they ultimately accepted the loss of the land that had provided them with status and almost unassailable power. . . . Bobrow-Strain is to be commended for his facility in using oral and archival sources to provide what had been one of the missing pieces in the Chiapas puzzle.” — Todd Hartch, American Historical Review

“[T]his is one of the best geographic ethnographies of the last decade. . . . [It is] a book that will appeal to geographers and nongeographers alike. It not only will force Chiapas specialists to reconsider their own work, but it forces many of us working in other parts of Mexico to reexamine the assumptions behind our own approach. If it forces us out of, to paraphrase Bobrow-Strain, our own ‘honest shadows’ then the book has fulfilled its purpose and then some.” — Eric P. Perramond, Professional Geographer

“Bobrow-Strain makes a subtle and sympathetic contribution to understanding how landowning elites respond to agrarian conflict. An unexpected bonus is that the sensitivity and integrity of his insights is matched by the quality of his writing, making the book not only highly informative but a positive delight to read. . . . [Intimate Enemies] deserves to be read by anyone wishing to understand how complex power relations play out in the warp and weave of agrarian politics.” — Deborah Eade, Development in Practice

“Bobrow-Strain tunes into the intimacies of ladino hegemony in the north-central Chiapas countryside to produce a very good history that adds depth and nuance to what we know about agrarian reform in this well studied state.” — Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez, The Americas

“Bobrow-Strain’s book breaks new ground. . . . Many long-held assumptions about rural Chiapas fall by the wayside in Bobrow-Strain’s study, making Intimate Enemies one of the most important books to be published on Chiapas since the 1994 uprising.” — Stephen E. Lewis, Latin American Perspectives

“The 1994 Chiapas uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico has produced a massive amount of research and writing about indigenous peoples and their movements. But no book in English has told the story of the ruling class against which the uprising took place. Aaron Bobrow-Strain's Intimate Enemies does an excellent job of filling this gap: he offers a nuanced account of the experiences of the ganaderos or cattle ranchers as they lost their land and their dominant position in the northern region of Chiapas, centered around the town of Chilón.” — Gerardo Otero, EIAL

“The book is lyrically written, theoretically rich, and very interesting. It tells a story that has not been told before, and it challenges some deeply held conceptions of the history of land in Chiapas. For those who study Chiapas, it will immediately become an indispensable text. For those who study land, peasants, and agriculture—anywhere—this book makes clear that the other side of the story is part of the story itself.” — Courtney Jung, Comparative Politics

“The book is lyrically written, theoretically rich, and very interesting. It tells a story that has not been told before, and it challenges some deeply held conceptions of the history of land in Chiapas. For those who study Chiapas, it will immediately become an indispensable text.” — Courtney Jung, Perspectives on Politics

“The most original and fascinating dimension of Bobrow-Strain’s analysis lies in his dissection of the way in which the ability of landlords to resist the indigenous offensives that followed the Zapatista uprising was undermined at several levels.” — Harry Cleaver, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“This book stands out as the first to examine the historical experience of ladino landowners, presenting a provocative analysis of estate agriculture . . in north-central Chiapas. . . . [A] rich and thought-provoking account that should interest scholars of Mexico and graduate students investigating rural Mexico, peasant mobilizations, space and place, and historical ethnographic research.” — Julia E. Murphy, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“This recent book by Aaron Bobrow-Strain is one of the most interesting, original, and important books about Chiapas (and, I think, about rural Latin America) that has been published in the last 20 years. . . . There are very interesting discoveries, arguments, and conclusions in this book that should be left to the reader to find, ponder, and enjoy.” — Thomas Benjamin, Hispanic American Historical Review

“Updating Marx’s argument that we take seriously the different historical surroundings of landed production, Bobrow-Strain focuses on the cultural politics of rural social relations. In doing so, he is able to paint a vivid picture, complete with colourful fieldwork anecdotes, of how individual landowners view their past, present and future. . . . Intimate Enemies is not only a valuable addition to the literature on rural politics in Chiapas, but also an important contribution to the broader comparative study of agrarian change.” — Neil Harvey, Journal of Agrarian Change

“Aaron Bobrow-Strain has made an invaluable, important contribution to our understanding of political conflict in Chiapas. This is the first book-length analysis in English that closely documents the landowners’ perspectives on the Zapatista uprising and the struggle for land since 1994. This is a very timely analysis that sheds light on the complex and shifting relationships between landowners, government officials, and agrarian organizations.” — Neil Harvey, author of The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy

“Whether we knew it or not, Intimate Enemies is the book that we have been waiting for since at least 1994: the book about the other side of Chiapas’s rural society, its ladino landowners. Gracefully written, evocative, and wise, it is just superb.” — Jan Rus, coeditor of Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations and Acronyms xiii

I. Rethinking Thuggery

1. Introduction 3

2. Honest Shadows: Ethnography and Ordinary Tyrants 16

3. Landed Relations, Landowner Identities: Race, Space, Power, and Political Economy 32

II. Estate Formations

4. Children of the Magic Fruit: The Making of a Landed Elite, 1850-1920 49

5. Killing Pedro Chulin: Landowners, Revolution, and Reform, 1920-1962 80

6. The Dead at Golonchan: Cattle, Crisis, and Conflict, 1962-1994 105

III. Contours of Quiescence

7. The Invasions of 1994-1998: Estate Agriculture Unglued 133

8. Import-Substitution Dreaming: Producing Landowners’ Place in the Nation 158

9. Geographies of Fear, Spaces of Quiescence 184

10. The Agrarian Spiral 208

Notes 221

Glossary 245

Bibliography 247

Index 265
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4004-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3987-8
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