New Book by UA History Professor Examines Mexican National Identity

A Mexican national identity was forged during the 19th century not by a self-anointed elite but rather by a disparate mix of ordinary people and everyday events according to William Beezley, a professor of history at The University of Arizona, in his new book "Mexican National Identity: Memory, Innuendo and Popular Culture." In examining Mexican independence festivals, children's games, annual almanacs and puppet theater performances, Beezley argues that the seemingly unrelated and commonplace occurrences -- not the far more self-conscious and organized efforts of politicians and teachers -- created a far-reaching sense of a new nation. As Beezley looked at the descriptions and photos of Mexican Independence Day parades and floats he recognized many of the symbols, characters and icons. So he began to investigate other popular activities to see if the same images were there as well. "By accident, I discovered an archive of an itinerant family of puppeteers and learned their puppet plays used many of the same characters and icons to tell the story of Mexico," said Beezley, who is considered by many to be the world's leading expert on Mexican puppetry. From this research, Beezley developed the conclusion that icons in puppetry and festivals both represented and promoted a popular sense of Mexican identity. In the century that followed Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, Beezley maintains, sentiments of nationality were promulgated by people who were concerned not with the promotion of nationalism, but with something far more immediate -- the need to earn a living. These peddlers, vendors, actors, artisans, writers, publishers and puppeteers sought widespread popular appeal so that they could earn money. According to Beezley, they constantly refined their performances, as well as the symbols and images they employed, in order to secure larger revenues. Gradually they discovered the stories, acts and products that attracted the largest number of paying customers. As Beezley convincingly asserts, out of "what is sold to the masses" a collective national identity slowly emerged. Beezley has long been interested in the ways Mexicans enjoyed life in the past, and has tried to understand political fiestas and other celebrations. "I want to know how Mexicans define themselves and their culture and I had a good time doing it," Beezley said. He believes it is important for citizens in this country and region to better understand the history of Mexican culture. "Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are becoming an increasing large percentage of the U.S. population and are becoming an increasing visible part of the culture," Beezley said. I am confident that in the future Mexican independence will be as widely celebrated as St. Patrick's Day." Beezley, who has been UA faculty since 1998, has published many books, including "The Oxford History of Mexico" (co-edited with Michael C. Meyer), "Latin America: The Peoples and Their History" (co-authored with Colin MacLachlan) and "Judas at the Jockey Club." "Mexican National Identity: Memory, Innuendo and Popular Culture"was published by UA Press.