Ortega Bayona on Henson, 'Agrarian Revolt in the Sierra of Chihuahua, 1959-1965'

Elizabeth Henson
Berenice Ortega Bayona

Elizabeth Henson. Agrarian Revolt in the Sierra of Chihuahua, 1959-1965. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2019. 269 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8165-3873-7.

Reviewed by Berenice Ortega Bayona (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) Published on H-LatAm (April, 2020) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54479 

Elizabeth Henson's historical study depicts what is widely considered to be the beginning of left-wing guerrilla movements in twentieth-century Mexico as part of a much more long-standing process of political violence. The author goes beyond the specific event of the infamous assault on the Madera military base in the state of Chihuahua in 1965 and the individual actors involved to characterize the underlying patterns and structures of inequality, authoritarianism, and political organization. From the armed rebellions and revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the so-called Dirty War period to the latest, innovative form of a left-wing guerrilla found in the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation), radical mobilized popular sectors have consistently made themselves present in the shaping of politics in Mexico, regardless of the adverse circumstances. This study seems timely and relevant in the current national context of organized crime violence and the spread of “self-defense” armed peasant groups that react to it, particularly in the states of Michoacán, Jalisco and Guerrero. As this book shows, these rural and communitarian armed self-defense groups date back many years before the current context of organized crime. This book can also be situated within the recent surge of studies on 60s-70s guerrillas in Mexico that have emerged due to the greater availability of archives of government ministries and political organizations since 2000. Yet we cannot deny that concern about widespread violence, its causes, and reactions to it motivate much of the increased interest in this topic.

In order to understand the motivations behind armed political violence in Chihuahua and the formation of the Grupo Popular Guerrillero (GPG), Henson’s study reconstructs in detail the struggles over the state’s land and resources over the last century. In the first chapter, she frames the political violence and the development of the guerrilla in the national context of the Cold War, the role of US intervention, the persecution of left-wing rural movements, the influence of the Cuban revolution on the Mexican Left, and the emergence of New Left urban and student communist movements. In the second chapter, she describes the long history of land disputes in the local terrain, including Chihuahua’s remoteness in the eighteenth century, its large haciendas with little protection against Native American raids from the north, the strengthening of a sense of a serrano identity and of autonomy in the nineteenth century, and the growth of foreign investment in mining, lumber, and large-scale agriculture and ranching towards the beginning of the twentieth century. In chapter 3, the author then outlines the role of the Bosques de Chihuahua company—which integrated the four largest livestock investors in the state (the so-called Cuatro Amigos)—in the intimidation and persecution of peasants and small ranchers with claims to land. As is thoroughly documented by Henson, this company operated, in practice, as a paramilitary group, with cacique thugs stripping small ranchers and peasants of their lands, raping women and killing opponents. These patterns of violence, Henson’s research also shows us, were backed up and protected by corrupt and authoritarian state structures. As a result of all this, many of the serranos began to organize in the 1950s to resist the violence and the dispossession of their lands.

The center of the book, chapters 4 and 5, describe the further organization and radicalization of groups of displaced peasants and ranchers, in the context of the second half of the twentieth century, where communist parties, left-wing students, and rural teachers (normalistas), as well as independent labor and peasant unions all shared and experienced spaces of politization and empowerment. Here, we learn of the founders, actors, and main collaborators of the GPG, such as Arturo Gámiz, Álvaro Ríos, Jacinto López, Pablo Gómez, and Judith Reyes, most of whom lost their lives in the Madera military base assault. Henson leads us through the story of their political formation, ideals, strategies, and of significant events beyond the Madera assault, such as the experiences of a progressive municipal government (Partido Popular Socialista) in Mineral de Dolores; land invasions; government office occupations; marches; and the spreading of dissident newspapers, literature, and songs. Additionally, Henson follows the different paths that socialist and popular political organizations took in the region throughout the 60s and 70s in a context shaped by government persecution and cooptation. Finally, as she highlights, the memory of the short-lived GPG became a reference and inspiration to many of the radical political organizations that followed within the rest of the nation as well as locally—most continued to demand an end to the climate of state political violence, the redistribution of land, and the creation of local industries to generate jobs.

Henson’s book is undoubtedly the result of thorough research into historical local and national archives, comprehensive fieldwork in Chihuahua, and the consultation of the main studies and published testimonies on the subject. In this sense, her book provides an updated compilation of studies, as well as intelligent interpretation and analysis. Moreover, given that most of the literature produced on this topic has been in Spanish, this book is an important contribution in English to the field of studies on guerillas and political violence in Mexico in the second half of the twentieth century. If anything, although helpful lists and insightful illustrations are included, a chronology and more detailed maps of the region would have aided the reader even further.

Finally, I would like to insist on the pertinence of this study in a moment when discussions on the memory and significance of Mexico’s recent violent political history are increasingly important in light of the persistent social demands for a long-overdue transitional justice process. This was evident in the dozens of public conferences and debates that took place during 2018, which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 student protests and repression in Mexico, as well as in the seminars that examined the impact of the GPG and the Madera attack in its fiftieth anniversary, within which links were constantly made to the demands of pending social justice.[1] These forums demonstrate the contribution that historians and social scientists can make in the reconstruction of recent collective memory, a battlefield not yet settled in Mexico. Hence, historical studies like Henson’s play a crucial role not only in the remembrance, but also in the debate on how we interpret our history and with what purpose.


[1]. A representative example was the conferences and seminars organized by the UNAM research group on history of the present time (seminario Historia del Tiempo Presente, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, UNAM), including a colloquium reflecting on the subject of this book, which took place on September 7-8, 2015, in Mexico City.

Citation: Berenice Ortega Bayona. Review of Henson, Elizabeth, Agrarian Revolt in the Sierra of Chihuahua, 1959-1965. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54479

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