Schaefer on Marino, 'Huixquilucan: Ley y justicia en la modernización del espacio rural mexiquense, 1856-1910'

Daniela Marino
Timo Schaefer

Daniela Marino. Huixquilucan: Ley y justicia en la modernización del espacio rural mexiquense, 1856-1910. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2016. 269 pp. EUR 13.46 (paper), ISBN 978-84-00-10081-0.

Reviewed by Timo Schaefer (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Law (November, 2018) Commissioned by Laurent Corbeil (Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d'études latino-américaines, Université du Québec à Montréal)

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The municipality of Huixquilucan sits in the mountains between the Valley of Mexico and Toluca Valley, about forty kilometers to the west of Mexico City. Even before the advent of motorized transport—or, before that, the advent of the railroad—this was a short and convenient distance: in the nineteenth century, residents of Huixquilucan regularly traveled to the capital to sell firewood, charcoal, and pulque. Culturally and socially, however, the places were far apart. Huixquilucan was a majority indigenous municipality characterized by dispersed settlements, steep pathways between them, and small wooded and agricultural plots. Passing from one world to the other was not without danger as, after the civil wars of the 1850s and 1860s, the road between Huixquilucan and Mexico City was sometimes attacked by bandits.

Daniela Marino’s book is about the implementation of Mexico’s liberal disentailment laws in Huixquilucan. In the second half of the nineteenth century, these laws mandated the privatization of land owned corporately by the Catholic Church and by indigenous towns. In a sense, the disentailment laws brought the Mexican capital closer to Huixquilucan than it had ever been. They constituted an ambitious intervention into local social life by Mexico’s national government, which tried to impose a utopian vision—of a society of unencumbered individuals and an economy friendly to accumulation—onto the variety of cultures and settings in which Mexicans were at home. At the same time, the laws highlighted the distance between the two places, since the laws’ local implementation was shaped by the same variety of cultures and settings they sought to homogenize. This has not always been understood. Adopting a view from the capital, and failing to attend to the local histories of landholding, scholars used to overestimate the concentration of private landownership in nineteenth-century Mexico that the disentailment laws brought about. From a historiographical perspective, Marino’s study may therefore be viewed as part of a larger project of creating—town by town and region by region—a more accurate picture of the signature policy of liberal reform in postcolonial Mexico.

The traditional notion of liberal land reform as a kind of capitalist rapine of the countryside is accurate for certain Mexican regions but has little to say about places like Huixquilucan, a relatively poor municipality that was free not only of large estates but also of the conditions to make such estates profitable. Privatization in Huixquilucan lagged behind the laws—no land was privatized under the 1856 Lerdo Law until 1872—and, it seems, happened, when it happened, mostly without violent conflict. Many residents applied for title to their lands after the passage of the 1883 vacant-land law, which opened public land to outside investment. This suggests that national legislation did have the power to make people anxious in Huixquilucan. But people’s title applications were all granted, and no municipal land ended up in outsiders’ hands. Privatization in the municipality mostly meant giving people formal title to land they had already been holding in usufruct, though some lands that had been collectively used were also parceled out to individual users.

With its depiction of a relatively uneventful privatization, Marino’s book shares some of its findings with Edgar Mendoza García’s important study of land privatization in an indigenous town in Oaxaca, Los bienes de comunidad y la defensa de las tierras en la Mixteca oaxaqueña: Cohesión y autonomía del municipio de Santo Domingo Tepenene, 1856-1912 (2004). Residents of Huixquilucan, like those of Santo Domingo Tepenene, sometimes invoked the privatization laws strategically in their land conflicts with neighboring towns: both studies show that the disentailment laws could be put at the service of collective claims making, in spite of the anti-collective intentions of their makers. And in both places a modest degree of land accumulation by resident elites took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, helped along (if perhaps not exclusively caused) by the disentailment laws.

Unlike the Mixtecan town of Santo Domingo, however, Huixquilucan in the nineteenth century was a multi-ethnic municipality. Land reform here was part of a larger process of political readjustment that took place after Mexico became independent and indigenous Mexicans were formally deprived of a collective legal personality. While a significant majority of Huixquilucan’s residents were indigenous throughout the century, local power after independence shifted to a mestizo elite, who took advantage of the literacy requirements for municipal politicians to monopolize the highest political offices.

Marino’s nuanced analysis of interethnic relations in nineteenth-century Huixquilucan is one of the highlights of this study. Indigenous communities in this large municipality throughout the nineteenth century continued to function as collectivities—they were governed by low-level authorities called alcaldes auxiliares—and to exert collective control over their resources. They also joined the poorer part of the mestizo population in serving on the foot patrols that acted as a municipal guard or police force (richer mestizos, who alone possessed horses, served in a mounted guard). At the same time, natives’ subordinate position in town politics meant that they now had to share natural resources, which had belonged to them exclusively in the colonial period, with their mestizo neighbors. The land-reform legislation was important in Huixquilucan because it gave a mestizo power elite one more tool to tighten their control over local resources: under its aegis pulque-producing mestizo politicians were in a position to take ownership of some of the richest and best-watered valley lands in the municipality. Hence even in a place like Huixquilucan, where land privatization was not overly predatory in nature, it was still linked to a broader loss of control over natural resources for indigenous Mexicans.

Huixquilucan is not always a reader-friendly book. Different themes could have been more neatly disentangled, and an index would have gone a long way toward making Marino’s findings more easily retrievable. Attentive readers, however, will be impressed by the depth of Marino’s research. By examining the disentailment of corporate landholdings in a multi-ethnic municipality, and by considering it in the context of a wider process of legal disempowerment, Marino has made an important and original contribution to our understanding of the local politics of land privatization in nineteenth-century Mexico. Historians of Mexico, and any other scholars with an interest in Latin American indigenous societies, will learn much from this study.

Citation: Timo Schaefer. Review of Marino, Daniela, Huixquilucan: Ley y justicia en la modernización del espacio rural mexiquense, 1856-1910. H-Law, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.