Alcohol and National Identity in Nineteenth Century Mexican Literature
My doctoral research explores the thematic use of alcohol in Mexican literature as part of nation-building discourses during the nineteenth century. The apparent predominance of excessive alcohol consumption among the native population had long concerned government and church authorities and with increasing urbanisation and social unrest in the decades before independence, the drinking habits of the lower classes in general became subject to scrutiny. In the aftermath of the Wars of Independence, hampered by political factionalism, foreign invasions and civil wars, Mexican intellectuals, including Manuel Ignacio Altamirano, Manuel Payno, Juan Díaz Covarrubias and Nicolás Pizarro, sought to create a cohesive sense of national identity and to educate the general population how to behave as productive, patriotic and civilised citizens. Drinking habits were a specific target of such educative endeavours but drinking also acted as a metaphor for different problems or as a pivot around which other social ills revolved, making alcohol a useful theme to explore the ways in which nineteenth century intellectuals interpreted their country and their fellow countrymen, while also providing an indication, however obscure, of the meanings behind the drinking practices these intellectuals sought to represent. A variety of theoretical and methodological approaches are being employed to untangle the complex discursive role that alcohol played in nineteenth century ideas about Mexican national identity and how these ideas were manifested and propagated in nineteenth century literature.
I am especially interested in spatial analyses of society and culture as a means of interpreting the treatment novelists gave to drinking venues in their fiction and my first chapter employs this method of analysis to highlight the search for cultural "authenticity" in popular culture and related intellectual concerns about the (perceived) elite-popular divide in Mexican society and culture. A second chapter examines competing models of masculinity that are evident from the portraits of heroes, anti-heroes and villains, and their comparative levels of inebriety, in nineteenth century fiction. The final two chapters trace the extent to which ideas about how drinking alcohol affected the body (both individual and social) changed as the intellectual, artistic and political climates changed from Enlightenment liberalism and romanticism in the early to mid nineteenth century to positivism, realism and naturalism in the late nineteenth century. This will include an exploration of the concept of alcoholism as a medical and social disease in the context of late nineteenth century debates about criminality, disease and degeneration and their effects on Mexican national development.
Lizardi and the European Enlightenment: the Search for Intellectual Justification of the Creole Identity in Late Colonial Mexico
As a contribution to the 2006-7 Mellon-Newberry Project, this study (presented during a two-week summer residential workshop in Chicago) analyses the interpretation and application of Enlightenment philosophy in the articulation of a Creole identity in the fictional work of José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, which encapsulates the gradual development of liberal ideas amongst the Creole population during the late colonial era, advocating social reform without a specifically national or radical agenda. Lizardi hoped to disseminate his reformist ideas amongst as great a section of the Mexican population as possible in order to further the use of reasoned understanding to improve his homeland’s social and cultural position. Through this study I hope to elucidate the complex cultural relationship that colonial Mexico had with its motherland Spain and Western Europe more generally, seeking a cultivated identity of its own but one that could be validated as a member of the European “club”.
This project might also form the foundation of an early chapter of my doctoral thesis as well as establishing several themes to be explored therein; the continuing influence of European, particularly French, literature and thought on the development of Mexican letters; the persistent didacticism of Mexican novels, and the political and social activism of the majority of Mexico’s literary figures during this period. As such, I look forward to further expanding my thematic and theoretical understanding of forms of knowledge across the Americas and Europe in the workshop as a means of situating my own research within the broader context of this intellectual exchange.
Maize, Alcohol and Cultural Identity in Colonial Mexico
Drawing on a range of anthropological, cultural and literary theory, my MA dissertation analysed the renegotiation of cultural identities among the indigenous population of Mexico during the colonial era through an examination of beliefs and practices involving maize and alcohol. As substances intricately involved in the religious, economic and everyday life of pre-Conquest society, maize and alcohol acted as cultural conduits for the interaction between natives and Spaniards in the evolving religious, economic, political and social relationships of the colonial period. Indigenous interpretations of Christianity used these foodstuffs to incorporate new religious teachings within native conceptual frameworks and to adapt Catholic spiritual rituals to temporal, material concerns. The indigenous population also integrated maize and alcohol into the political and economic languages through which they defended their rights and resources. Since these same foodstuffs defined the Indians as tribute-paying, defenceless subjects in need of Spanish tutelage they could be invoked as reminders of the colonial state’s obligation to protect the indigenous population from exploitation. As Indians interacted more with other ethnic groups of similar social standing, alcohol and maize helped the indigenous population to participate in the accelerating process of cultural mestizaje and the negotiation of intertwined gender, class and ethnic identities that comprised this complex process.