"It is remarkable that the past influences Mexico, more than many other parts of the world”.
By Eduardo Estala Rojas*
Friedrich Katz (Vienna, Austria, 1927) is not only one of the most significant historians and anthropologists in the second half of the twentieth century, but also one of the most important archival researchers concerning the history of the Mexican Revolution.
Since he came to Mexico in 1940, he showed a special interest in the culture of Mexico, its language, customs, and history. Although at first he did not speak Spanish, he rapidly perceived the kind of situation that Mexico was living in those times, and realized what his professional calling was going to be.
Even though he has resided in Europe and in the city of Chicago for most of his life, all of his research has been related to different periods of Mexican history. He combines broad interpretations with a meticulous attention to details.
Actually, Friedrich Katz is a Morton D. Hull Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Latin American History at the University of Chicago. The “Katz Center for Mexican Studies” at this university is an acknowledgment of his professional work.
A GREAT PASSION FOR “EL CENTAURO DEL NORTE”
Friedrich Katz’ historical passion has been without any doubt the great personality of Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Francisco Villa. His two-volumes book, “Pancho Villa”, (Era Editions, 1998), is one of the best biographies written about this historical and legendary figure of the twentieth century. This research work on Francisco Villa also examined other great figures of the history of Mexico such as Emiliano Zapata, Francisco I. Madero, and Porfirio Díaz.
During this interview, Dr. Friedrich Katz dealt with both Mexico’s history and his own life. He also mentioned some of the reasons that led him became a historian and an anthropologist of Mexico.
—Let’s talk about your arrival to Mexico in 1940 during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río. What was your first impression of the country?
My first impression… I was thirteen years old. I did not speak Spanish and had never been in Mexico before. It seemed a completely strange country to me. I liked the palm trees and the houses. People seemed friendly but at the same time reserved. I can say that my first impression of the country was spontaneous and positive. Mexico was very different from Europe and the United States. Thanks to my father and above all to our Mexican friends who came to visit us, I very soon became fascinated by Mexico’s history.
One of my strongest impressions after I arrived in Mexico was the contrast between the deep pessimism that pervaded war torn Europe, and the profound optimism that was the hallmark of “Cardenista” Mexico. Lázaro Cárdenas had transformed and carried out profound social changes such as land reform without any violence. He had challenged some of the most powerful American business interests, its oil companies, and the U.S. government had taken no drastic reprisals. In contrast to Europe, Mexico was at peace. Although I was only thirteen years old and did not speak the language, I already shared the same optimistic perception about the future of the country.
—How did your interest in the mystical personages of the Mexican Revolution, such as Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Francisco I. Madero arise?
Let’s see. First, I would say that my interest in the Mexican Revolution arose very early. In part, this was due to the fact that the generation that had participated in the revolution was very much alive, and I met many of them. Many of its veterans were in their fifties. Many of them had also participated in the “Cardenista” reform. People constantly wrote about revolutionary Mexico.
A second and more personal aspect of my interest in Mexico was the fact that my parents sent me to study at the “Liceo Franco-Mexicano” (a French-Mexican high school). We had lived in France and they wanted to make my school transition easier. I did not know a word in Spanish. French was spoken at this school, and we learned about France’s history. During the three Spanish class hours, we studied Spain’s history. Mexico’s history was not mentioned at all. I did not like that. I was opposed to it. This “feeling of opposition” inside me made me more interested in Mexico. So, I started talking to Mexicans about their history. I read whatever I could in regard the Mexican Revolution, the history of Mexico, and also its pre-Hispanic roots. Interest for Mexico’s evolution and its history played an increasing role in my life.
I was six years old when we had to leave Germany and escaped to France (I come from Austria but lived in Germany in 1933). The police came to look for my father who had written several articles against Hitler. The French government expelled us five years later because we were refugees. After this, we came to the United States, but we only had a temporary visa. In 1940 we arrived in Mexico, where my parents were granted political asylum. Finally, we felt safe. It is thus not surprising that I developed a great affection for Mexico.
All of these reasons led to my interest in Mexico and the great figures of its history. There were two aspects that specifically caused my particular interest in Francisco Villa. The first one is that Villa and Zapata were totally different from other important revolutionaries of the twentieth century. Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, and Ho Chi Min were intellectuals and leaders of political organizations. In contrast, Villa was semi-illiterate. As far as I know, he never attended any elementary school. Nevertheless, he was able to lead a sixty to eighty thousand-men army and also to transform his guerrilla army into a regular army. He was also able to administer the state of Chihuahua, gain popular support and the respect of the Wilson administration in the United States. How did this semi-illiterate individual achieve such successes? It cannot be said that he had had intellectual advisers that made all this possible. He did the most of it by himself.
The second reason for my interest in Villa is that he was the most controversial figure of the Mexican Revolution, even more than Zapata. People, especially in Chihuahua, either loved or hated him. There were very few neutrals. This fact also interested me. There is a third aspect that fascinated me. This is the “legend of Villa”. His legend not only exists in Mexico but also here in the United States. Villa is probably the best-known Mexican besides Moctezuma and Benito Juárez. One of the greatest challenges I faced was to separate history from legend. That was extremely difficult. On the one hand, Villa left no archive and only some memoirs. On the other hand, he liked his own legend. He also established a connection with Hollywood, which perpetuated these legends. This fact enormously intrigued me. Finally, I was also interested in the complex agrarian situation in Northern Mexico, which was intimately linked to the Villa movement.
— How did you organize your historical work about these persons and their lives? They are very revealing indeed. You show in most of your books not only different stages of the Mexican Revolution, but also compare them to historical processes in Latin America.
To better respond, I have to divide my answer in two parts: its general and theoretical aspects, and the sources I utilized. First, it was necessary to properly analyze the social problems that led to the revolution in a comparative perspective. I had to compare it to other revolutionary movements, in order to find similarities and differences between them.
Secondly, I had to consider the international scenario that influenced the revolutionary movement in Mexico. This was very important. For example, it can be said that the greatest changes in Mexico took place when the United States were involved in conflicts outside of the continent. Even when the United States were not directly involved in such conflicts yet, they were already indirectly implicated in them. The “Cardenista” reforms occurred when the Nazi menace was emerging in Europe. The government of the United States was worried over Nazi influence in Latin America. At that time, Mexico was the most anti-fascist country in Latin America, and Lázaro Cárdenas was its president. This is one reason why during his administration, the United States tolerated Mexico’s expropriation of United States oil companies. By looking at the international situation, it is easier to us understand the internal development of the Mexican Revolution.
In this context, my aim was to examine both Mexican and international sources. Villa left no papers, but a large part of his collaborators’ papers had been sold to libraries in the United States. One such source was constituted by the papers of one of his most important advisers and administrators, Silvestre Terrazas, which were sold to the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley. I also had to examine both reports from foreign diplomats and intelligence agents from the United States, France, Great Britain, Spain, Austria, Germany, Cuba, and Japan which forced me to carry out research in most of these countries.
—Mexican History is depicted in many novels. What do you think of them?
They are very important. Many of them such as the works of Carlos Fuentes and Mariano Azuela present a wonderful and realistic image of the Mexican Revolution.
—How would you define the relationship between the past and present in the historiography and social anthropology of Mexico?
It is remarkable that the past influences Mexico more than many other parts of the world including the United States. This is due to the fact that many people, until a short while ago, still continued to reside the same places where their families had lived. As a result, there was a family and regional historical tradition that went far beyond the description of the past in schools, books, movies, and the media. This family tradition is very important. It passed from generation to generation. In the United States, people change their residence every five or six years, moving from one place to another. Grandchildren have far less contacts with their grandparents and extended families.
Second, another fact that kept the memory of the revolution alive in people’s mind was that until it lost the presidency, the ruling “Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI”, considered the revolution a decisive part of its ideology. For example, every town has avenues bearing the names of revolutionary leaders such as Francisco I. Madero, Porfirio Díaz, or Francisco Villa. Their names have not being modified, or substituted by other names such as Victoriano Huerta for example. In contrast, in the former Soviet Union streets and cities named for revolutionary leaders were renamed. Two of the most important political parties in Mexico, the “Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD” and the “Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI”, keep affirming that they were the ones who consolidated the Mexican Revolution. In other words, the Mexican Revolution continues to envoy legitimacy in Mexico.
—Actually, Mexico is encountering different kind of problems (violence, drug trafficking, kidnappings). Some of them are very similar to those that occurred one hundred years ago, but within a cosmopolitan arena. What do you think of these challenges and how can they be overcome in this new stage in the history of Mexico?
Well, this is a very difficult problem. Some of the challenges that existed in 1910 are similar, while others are different. Unfortunately, two of them continue being the same. These are poverty and social inequality. The Mexican Revolution allowed the country to reach a period of stability that other Latin American countries did not have. Above all, unlike Mexico, so many Latin American countries turned into military dictatorships. In contrast to the situation that existed one hundred years ago, Mexico today is a democratic country, so that, substantial changes can be achieved through democratic means.
In addition, in 1810 and in 1910, Mexico was essentially a rural country. One of the main problems then was the political, economical, and personal power of the “latifundistas”, or large landowners. This problem does not exist today as it did before. What it exists today is a situation of misery and drug trafficking that did not exist before. These are very serious problems. The international situation of Mexico is different from what it was of one and two hundred years ago. During the nineteenth century, Mexico faced two major armed interventions, the war against the United States, and the invasion by France. Finally, Mexico’s educational level is far higher than it was one hundred years ago.
—In these moments, the festivities of the Centennial of the Mexican Revolution, and of the Bi-Centennial of the Mexican Independence are being organized. What do these celebrations mean to you?
As a historian, these festivities are of a tremendous importance for me due to the fact that all of my academic life has been related to the history of Mexico. Both celebrations are very significant for Mexico. In both cases, Mexico has a unique history. In South America, the Independence movements were largely borne by the middle classes. Obviously, in some places such as Venezuela, popular movements took place, but none of them can be compared to the great popular revolution lead by Hidalgo and Morelos. The Mexican Independence movement in 1810 was based on the popular classes and served their interests. The Mexican Revolution in 1910 also showed a tremendous and unusual participation of the popular classes. In my opinion, the main meaning of these events for the popular classes in Mexico today is that they should be aware of their own strength.“Through these celebrations, Mexican people should become more conscious of their own history, and of what the popular classes can do to transform their own country. Like other problems in Mexico, the tremendous poverty of so many people in Mexico played a major role on the outbreak of both the Independence Movement and the Mexican Revolution as well. Poverty continues to be a major problem for Mexico. This situation has not been resolved.
—Finally, the Mexican Independence movement began in 1810, and the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The Bi-Centennial celebration will be in 2010. It seems like every one hundred years, radical changes occur in Mexico. What changes will take place in 2010?
One great advantage of being a historian and not a politician is that we are only concerned about the past and do not have to predict the future. Mexico’s situation is very difficult, not only because of the problems mentioned before — delinquency, drugs, and social inequality — but also because of the global economical crisis that affects all countries in the world. I can only hope that in spite of all these obstacles, Mexico can progress and will resolve its greatest problem: its widespread poverty.
*Eduardo Estala Rojas is a Mexican writer, poet, and cultural journalist.
English Translation by Adriana Elizabeth Vera, from the Latin American History Program, Department of History, University of Chicago. Associate Member of the American Translators Association. Bachelor and Master Degree in Administration, ITESM, Mexico.
Photo by Luis F. Soto.
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