Monday, February 02, 2009

Gods, Gachupines and Gringos - Review

In able hands, Mexico’s long and convoluted history becomes a joyful, dynamic read

Written by Alex Gesheva
Saturday, 22 November 2008
Guadalajara Reporter

Some historians burden students with a dreary list of facts and figures, and an unfortunate life-long allergy to the subject.

Others, the rare and wonderful kind, make the past transcend numbers and coax students into wanting to learn more.

Richard Grabman is not a historian, at least not in the academic sense. But his book, “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: a people’s history of Mexico,” may inspire a slew of history-phobes to finally dip their toes into the subject.

Once upon a time, Grabman was a technical writer – and it shows. His style is crisp, clean, and includes not a single paragraph-length sentence or invented word (shame on academics who unnecessarily torture the English language).

Fortunately, aside from pristine grammar, there is nothing particularly technical about this book. Extremely complex events in Mexican history are made accessible to complete beginners in the subject with clarity, grace and wit. Short, eminently readable chapters with catchy titles go a long way towards easing deeply (and not so deeply) hidden adult fears of musty, dusty tomes.

Best of all, as a non-academic writer for a general audience, Grabman unhesitatingly selects the most compelling details of Mexico’s long and convoluted history and uses them to turn a difficult story into a joyful, dynamic read. After all, self-professed serious readers still yearn to learn about dental care under Aztec rule, swashbuckling nuns, the Pastry War of 1838, Francisco Madero’s conversations with the ghost of his dead brother, and President Jose Lopez Portillo’s famous, ill-fated comment involving a dog.

Grabman has written “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos” with a specific goal: to explore Mexico’s multi-faceted, multi-cultural past and to help foreigners become more familiar with a very ancient society. The quirky details, therefore, serve to smooth encounters with maddeningly complicated episodes of Mexican history that could otherwise alienate and befuddle uninitiated readers. In this case, the knowledge is also extremely relevant to understanding Mexico’s geopolitcal present.

“With Mexicans, ‘history is destiny,’” explains Grabman. “Unless we understand the history, and our own role in it, we will continue to be ‘distant neighbors.’”

Yes, yes, the goal-oriented reader may say impatiently, but is it an accurate history? Absolutely ... and to a point. Scholars will justifiably argue that no introductory history can exist without a fair amount of bias – in the choice of detail, in describing causality, in subtly courting the reader’s sympathies for a particular cause. Introductory histories are by necessity either mindlessly dull or at least subtly slanted, often in ways that slip by novice historians.

“Gods, Gachupines and Gringos” is no different, and fortunately far from dull. Grabman’s interpretations may inspire some history specialists to write a scathing letter or two (particularly over the choice of where to skim and where to focus). But they may also inspire many other readers (who would otherwise never dream of picking up a history book) to venture deeper into the subject. The book’s well-crafted and accessible bibliography is a great start.

And those who choose to stop here can at least walk away having enjoyed an eminently readable, quirky history that explains and explores Mexico’s past with sympathy and gentle humor.

“Gods, Gachupines and Gringos” is a great read for all those who know or remember little to nothing about Mexican history and wish they did, and for all those who may need to be prodded into knowing by well-meaning friends. It may even surprise those who thought they knew it all.

Link to the Guadalajara Reporter article

‘Gods, gachupines and gringos’
by Richard Grabman
Editorial Mazatlan, 2008
472 pages
Editorial Mazatlán


Steve Cotton said...

Scott -- Thanks for passing along the review. Have you read it? I may pick up a copy. Mexican history is one of my minor hobbies -- even though my degree is in American History.

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