Alonso, Ana María. 1995. Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico’s Northern Frontier. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
Ana María Alonso traces the “thread of blood” that links frontier settlers’ warfare in Chihuahua against indigenous groups to pre-Revolutionary conflicts and struggles amid the tandem forces of capitalist development and state formation. The thread of blood also leads up to the Mexican Revolution itself, explaining how northern Mexico became one of the hotbeds of revolutionary activity. Alonso shows how constructions of gender, ethnicity, class, and (importantly) honor on the frontier became articulated and enmeshed by both the state and subaltern subjects in polyvalent ways, producing subjects and subjectivities that became alibis of power—both for state-makers and subalterns.
Along these lines, she concludes the book referencing Stuart Hall: “As Stuart Hall points out, in order to understand the dialectics of cultural struggle, we must dispense with that ‘heroic’ view of popular discourses and practices which presumes an autonomous subaltern domain, which represents subordinated groups and classes as the victims but never the accomplices of effects of power that are construed as wholly external (1981)” (237). She adds that one of the main goals of the book is to show that power is both internal and external, repressive and productive, and formative of subjectivities-subjectifications that create, internalize, but also contest the effects of power—a process she equates with hegemony, following Laclau and Mouffe.
When Chihuahua was the site of intense frontier battles against indigenous Apache, “the state promoted a construction of gender and ethnic honor that predicated masculine reputation, access to land, and membership in corporate community on valor and performance in warfare against ‘barbarians’” (7). How this was accomplished is the subject of the first part of the book, which in turns analyzes honor and its articulations with ethnicity, gender, and class. This militarized construction of honor was sustained by discourses of the barbarian Other and the imperative of preserving and protecting the “civility” of women as symbols of ethnic and sexual purity—upon which masculine honor was predicated and defined. The state sanctioned the lands of these military settlement colonies in exchange for their warfare services, which were regulated at a distance by the state’s control of arms provisioning and the awarding of military honors.
The frontier warrior society was highly stratified, but the ability of peasants and other (male) subalterns to gain prestige and status through means other than economic, primarily through battle (55). Nonetheless, violence was evaluated by the state in productive ways: “The state’s hegemony does not simply rest on its control over the means of warfare or on its capacity to legitimate only restricted uses of violence, but also on its ability to make the very identity and status of subjects hinge upon only certain uses of force” (49)—a distinction mainly used to delineate the civilizational from the barbarian. But violence and warfare in the subjectification of masculine warriors was not just an imposition from the state, because it was also a form of subaltern social mobility in the hierarchies of agrarian society (102-103).
Articulations of gender and ethnicity could play a similar role: “For the colonists, the conquest of the frontier indigenes was a metaphoric and at times literal castration, a castration that enhanced the masculinity of the vanquisher and diminished that of the vanquished. In their attempts to subject the ‘barbarians,’ the colonists deployed a multiplicity of practices that feminized the ethnic other and stripped him of his masculinity potency and power” (74). Alonso also discusses how “the confluence of body and place in the ideology of gender lends itself to the imaging of conflicts over territory. The maintenance and breaching of bodily and spatial boundaries were integral to the construction and negotiation of domination, subordination, and territorial struggle on the frontier” (89).
However, with the end of the Indian wars and Mexico’s growing linkages with world markets, the same ideologies instilled in frontier communities of honor, warfare, and masculinity that undergirded the “civilized” peasants from the “barbarous” Apache and propagated the accomplishment of frontier rule eventually backfired (at least for the state). These same identities became rendered just as barbarous and contrary to progress—the new stand-in for “civilization”—as the Apache had once been. “The one-time agents of ‘civilization’, the militarized Serrano peasants, subsequently became redefined by the state and elites as obstacles to ‘order’ and ‘progress’. The extensive corporate land grants and the relative political autonomy of Serrano communities came under attack” (7).
The new conjuncture was leading to greater concentrations and privatizations of land, along with no outlets (as warfare had once been) to further the status and prestige of subalterns in frontier society. Moreover, dispossession, proletarianization, and wage labor were seen as affronts to male honor, implying a feminized subservience and servitude. The growing centralization of the state during the Porfiriato and the proliferation of political bossism (caciquismo) further eroded previous social relations on the frontier. “In response, serranos constructed an ideology of resistance based on social memory of the frontier past and on the notions of gender, ethnicity, and class. This ideology motivated their repeated confrontations with the state…” (7). Alonso shows how these confrontations against the state and elites fluctuated from outright violent armed uprisings to more non-violent, “weapons of the weak” sorts of resistance.
Alonso gives an articulate account of perceptions of the frontier:
In the New World the frontier is conceived as a liminal space, betwixt and between savagery and civilization, a place where the struggle of human beings against the wilderness assumes a particularly harsh form, where society’s domestication of nature is always contingent and threatened. As an outpost of the civilized polis, the frontier is viewed as lying at the margins of state power, between the laws of society and the freedoms of nature, between the imperatives of obedience and the refusals of defiance. The liminality of the frontier, its location on the creative margin between the wild and the social, makes it the locus of liberty and possibility. Frontier societies are viewed as less routinized and law abiding and more open to individual advancement and self-mastery. Hence the fascination of the frontier and the charismatic qualities frequently attributed to its settlers. (15)