Written by Carlos R. Hernández
Sweating profusely from the tropical climate, I entered Prof. Sergio Quezada’s airconditioned office at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, where he kindly agreed to meet with me on my second day in Mérida—the capital of Mexico’s southeastern state of Yucatán—after I had obtained his contact information from Ms. Beatriz Heredia de De Pau, one of the senior archivists at the Biblioteca Yucatanense. After shaking my hand and inviting me to sit down, Sergio asked me about my dissertation research. “So, you’re writing about beach tourism in the Yucatán Peninsula. Well, Carlos, you have a very interesting problem,” he chuckled, “Mexican history ends in 1955. After that, it’s up to social scientists to figure out what happened.”
In many respects, Sergio’s opening remarks encapsulated the challenges of writing “contemporary” Mexican history. For unlike Mexican historiography in the United States, Mexican historiography in Mexico tends to end with President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-58). According to Quezada, a leading scholar of colonial Maya history and author of Yucatán: Historia breve (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2011), this is because “contemporary” Mexico is inundated with statistics. Although the Mexican state certainly maintains its hegemony in part through a coterie of U.S.-trained economists, Sergio’s joke also highlighted deeper differences in the ways in which Mexican history is written in both countries, particularly when it comes to treating the recent past.
For me, however, history always concerns the relationship between the past and the present, which is in part why my dissertation research is fundamentally and unapologetically anchored in “contemporary” (post-1960s) Mexican history.
Although beach tourism has a long history in Mexico, dating back to the postrevolutionary initiatives of the Department of Tourism in the early twentieth century, which sought to promote tourism as a form of cultural diplomacy, its most aggressive measures began in the late twentieth century in an attempt to combat the nation’s flagging economy and wavering political stability. After two massacres of student activists in 1968 and 1971, respectively, the Mexican state, which had been under the control of a single political party since 1929, began to lose some of its power. But it still endured, effectively founding the popular tourist pole of Cancún in 1970 on the northeastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula.
With the support of Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), I had the privilege to spend a week in Mérida while I conducted archival research at the Biblioteca Yucatanense and the Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán (AGEY). Building on my previous research, mostly in Mexico City’s Archivo General de la Nación (the National Archive, or AGN), this trip allowed me to consult new and more local types of primary sources (e.g., two rare collections of newspapers) beyond the official reports available in the nation’s capital. Although Cancún is located in the state of Quintana Roo—the Yucatan Peninsula has three states (from west to east: Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo)—I traveled to Mérida because Quintana Roo did not gain statehood until 1974. In fact, its status oscillated during the twentieth century between being a federal territory and serving as an extension of Yucatán, and it was largely because of tourism in Cozumel and Cancún that Quintana Roo became sufficiently populated for its politicians to advance a successful bid for statehood. For these reasons, much of the relevant documentation remains in Mérida.
As I process my research findings and further revise my dissertation prospectus, I continually return to my conversation with Sergio Quezada about the challenges of writing “contemporary” history. Although Cancún alone accounts for half of Mexico’s tourist dollars, few scholars have examined its history. According to Sergio, this is because, “It’s easy to write political histories. The problem with contemporary history is that historians don’t have the tools of social scientists. For that, we have to turn to economists.” Indeed, the very history of modern Mexico has shaped its historiography in ways which are distinct from U.S. historiographical currents.
While the U.S. historical academy grappled with the challenges of the Vietnam generation, shifting its orientation from “top-down” to “bottom-up” approaches, its counterpart in Mexico confronted the legacies of the 1910 revolution at a time when the state had all but abandoned its revolutionary commitments to agrarian reform. Despite Mexico’s turn to microhistory and regional history in the 1970s, many Mexican intellectuals struggled to write popular histories without reifying the state’s populistic claims. Compounded by the fact that most of the funding for historical research in Mexico is derived from federal sources, this explains why, even today, most Mexican historians shy away from “contemporary” problems.
As a Mexican American historian of Mexico, I am both personally and professionally interested in these tensions between past and present. However, working on “contemporary” history also poses specific challenges. Despite the abundance of statistics on topics such as flight information, I have struggled to find more inclusive types of sources, particularly as they relate to labor history. Nevertheless, I hope that by returning to the archive I can refine my structural understanding of the history of beach tourism in the Yucatán Peninsula, which will in turn prepare me for oral interviews. As Sergio reminded me in parting, “Hay que hablar con la gente.”
Carlos R. Hernández is a Ph.D. Candidate in History who specializes in Latin America and, in particular, modern Mexico.
Carlos is a 2017 recipient of the RITM Travel and Research Awards, which support research, course development, and conference travel by Yale graduate students, Yale professional school students, and Yale faculty members on topics related to race, indigeneity, or transnational migration.
The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration advances work related to Ethnic Studies fields; to intersectional race, gender, and sexuality research; and to Native and diasporic communities in the United States and abroad.