Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico

The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacan

Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 9 tables, 2 maps Published: June 1999

Author: Jennie Purnell

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Mexico, Politics > Political Science

In Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico Jennie Purnell reconsiders peasant partisanship in the cristiada of 1926–29, one episode in the broader Mexican Revolution and the last major popular rebellion in Mexican history. While some scholars have argued that the Mexican Revolution was a people’s rebellion that aimed to destroy the political and economic power of the elites to the benefit of the peasants, others claim that the Revolution was a struggle between elites that left little room for popular participation. Neither approach, however, explains why thousands of peasants sided with the Church against the state and its program of agrarian reform—reform that was presumably in the best interest of the peasants. Nor do they explain why so many peasants who considered themselves devout Catholics took up arms against the Church.
Rather than viewing the cristeros (supporters of the Church) as victims of false consciousness or as religious fanatics, as others have done, Purnell shows that their motivations—as well as the motivations of the agraristas (supporters of the revolutionary state)—stem from local political conflicts that began decades, and sometimes centuries, before the Revolution. Drawing on rich but underutilized correspondence between peasants and state officials written over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Purnell shows how these conflicts shaped the relationships between property rights, religious practice, and political authority in the center-west region of Mexico and provides a nuanced understanding of the stakes and interests involved in subsequent conflicts over Mexican anticlericalism and agrarian reform in the 1920s.


“[A] sophisticated and nuanced regional study of religious and agrarian conflict. . . . Meticulous in her research, the author uses an abundance of archival records, including seldom-used correspondence between peasants and government officials. Her knowledge of the secondary literature, including the theoretical work on state formation, popular and religious movements, and peasant studies is impressive.” — Winfield J. Burggraaff , Agricultural History

“[A] superb study. . . . Purnell . . . has written a truly elegant history. She addresses a significant problem in Mexican historiography, carefully describes the inadequacy of the existing scholarship, and offers polished logic, solid evidence, clear language, and as a bonus, an absence of postmodernist jargon. This is how it should be done.” — Thomas Benjamin , Catholic Historical Review

“[N]ot only a fine work of historical explanation but also a fruitful statement in the ongoing discussion over the cultural dimensions of state construction in Latin America.” — Pablo Piccato , Journal of Social History

“[Purnell’s] finely researched book situates the rational decisions individuals make not only within community . . . but within changing historical and regional contexts as well. . . . It is an indispensable advance in efforts to construct a holistic model of state and identity formation.” — Greg Grandin , Latin American Studies

“[Purnell] synthesizes the populist and revisionist approaches by combining a concern for popular aspirations and movements with an emphasis on the construction of the revolutionary state. [She] expertly weaves together a long-term analysis to explore the emergence of collective identities based on centuries-old agrarian and religious community disputes with a short-term analysis of conjunctural factors leading to rebellion in the 1920s.” — Heather Fowler-Salamini , American Historical Review

“[T]his work offers an interesting and valuable perspective on a much neglected episode in the turbulent history of Mexico.” — Elaine McAllister , South Eastern Latin Americanist

“A thorough examination of the Cristero revolt, and an exploration of the way in which relations between peasants, the Catholic Church and the revolutionary elites shaped the local formation of the early revolutionary state. . . . This is a well written and researched work on popular consciousness and state and identity formation.” — British Bulletin of Publications

“Excellent reading for students and scholars of Mexico’s Revolution, the P’urépecha highlands of Michoacán, cultural anthropology, rural politics and history, Purnell’s project makes a strong case for paying close attention to local-level dynamics as explanatory tools of history and the politics of state formation.” — Warren D. Anderson , Rural History

“Purnell helps us understand much that is of national significance, such as the enduring local struggles that finally obliged the state to recognize the corporate juridical status of the comunidad agraria in 1971. The book also offers valuable lessons for a world still given to applying the label ‘fanatics’ to grassroots movements that impede the projects of its centers of power.” — John Gledhill , Hispanic American Historical Review

“Purnell’s careful archival and library research and knowledge of recent social-movement and state-formation theory gives scholars a refreshing new take on a critically important period of the Mexican Revolution. . . . This well-organized book is gracefully written. Solid depth and breadth make this monograph a prime candidate for adoption for both undergraduate and graduate courses on Mexican history.” — James F. Siekmeier , Red River Valley Historical Journal

“Purnell’s penetrating study of the revolutionary movement in the western region brings clarity to a bewildering set of events. . . . [A] methodological tour de force.” — Everett A. Wilson , Church History

“Purnell’s work adds to the understanding of state formation by finding a place for diverse peasant interests in the discussion.” — D. Baldwin, Choice

“Purnell’s work is important to scholars of Mexican history and rural social conflict because it welds the economic and noneconomic factors to explain the formation, substance, and mobilization of political identities in understanding peasant collective action. Moreover, by comparing the cristero rebellion and other popular antistate movements of the revolutionary period, the author demonstrates how resistance, rebellion, and insurrection result, not just from short-term grievances and the ability to marshal immediate strategic variables such as allies and resources, but also how they interface with historical memory rooted in long-term legacies of conflict.” — Norman Caulfield , International Review of Social History

“An exceptionally important book. Purnell brings sweeping innovations to the study of the Mexican revolution, the cristero revolt, and other early-twentieth-century developments.” — John Tutino, Georgetown University

“Purnell has produced an analysis that is new and helpful not only to our understanding popular agency in the Revolution but for writing history from below—especially the history of state formation as a contested, social phenomenon.—Mary Kay Vaughan, University of Illinois at Chicago — N/A


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jennie Purnell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston College.

Table of Contents Back to Top

1. What Makes Peasants Counterrevolutionary?
The Problem of Partisanship in Mexico's Cristero Rebellion

2. Liberals, Indians, and the Catholic Church in Nineteenth-Century Michoacan

3. State Formation in Revolutionary Michoacan

4. The Cristiada: Elites and Popular Groups in Rebellion against the Revolutionary State

5. The Agraristas of the Zacapu Region

6. Catholics, Cristeros, and Agraristas in the Purepecha Highlands

7. The Cristeros of Northwestern Michoacan

8. Popular Groups, Political Identities, and the State in Mexico: The Cristiada in Comparative Perspective



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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2314-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2282-5
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