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Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers,…

Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers, and Urban Protest in Veracruz,…

by Andrew Grant Wood

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Andrew Grant Wood's Revolution in the Street examines a specific example of social protest, that of tenants in urban Veracruz during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Like many urban centers around Mexico (and other industrializing nations), adequate housing was difficult for many workers to find or afford. Consequently, the urban poor were forced to live in rundown tenements in unsanitary patios. Two events challenged their ability to find and keep adequate housing: the Yankee invasion of 1914 and the plague outbreak of 1920. These events raised mixed emotions among the working poor: increased nationalism, the promise of more sanitary living conditions, and the destruction of neighborhoods under the guise of public health. The ongoing Mexican Revolution and the promises of the 1917 Constitution gave urban workers a new sense of citizenship and an increasing awareness of the new rights the document guaranteed them. Wood describes the efforts of these workers to achieve lower rents and better housing. Organized in the Communist-oriented Tenants' Syndicate, led by anarchist Herón Proal, the tenants of Veracruz challenged local landlords and politicians with a series of rallies and rent strikes. Though ultimately suppressed by local authorities, the tenants did win passage of a landmark housing law.
Wood, an associate professor of history at the University of Tulsa, attempts to place the rent strike within the context of revolutionary Mexico and an increasingly modern Veracruz. The modernization of the city and the growth of working class neighborhoods laid the groundwork for tenant organizing; "subsequently, elite state-building efforts after the revolution politicized citizens who soon used the discourse of nationalism and workers' rights to frame their grievances over housing" (xvii). The mobilization of Veracruzanos, which came to include nearly 75 percent of the city's population, was the result of "moral outrage and grassroots organizing" made possible by a sense of rising expectations involving standards of living and notions of social justice in an atmosphere of weakened governmental institutions (xvii). Tenants organized the Revolutionary Syndicate to work toward housing reform; their activities—sometimes violent—dominated the city for years and threatened the political stability of the state.
Wood builds his analysis upon solid research in Mexican archival sources and contemporary newspapers. His contention that the tenants were motivated by a sincere understanding of their rights under the revolutionary Constitution seems to be supported by the evidence, and thanks to his adept use of primary material Revolution in the Street never loses the essence of the historical actors' voices. Key figures, such as Proal, are fully fleshed out. While it is understandably difficult for a historian to ascribe motivation to historical actors—especially for nebulous formations such as 'landlords'—Wood, for the most part, resists the temptation.
The strengths of Revolution in the Street outweigh its' weaknesses. The historical voice is seldom lost, and Wood is careful to refrain from unsupportable conclusions. The book's chronological organization makes it relatively easy for the reader to maintain interest and understanding throughout the text. Notwithstanding some extremely awkward sentences, the book is well written and well researched. One does wish, though, that Wood had endeavored to place the events in Veracruz in perspective by comparing them to events in other cities in Mexico; he mentions similar strikes in other cities at about the same time—were they also co-opted or suppressed? While women are mentioned in the subtitle of the book and were instrumental in the organizing and leading of the syndicate, the hoary face of gendered analysis seldom shows itself; this could be a strength or weakness, depending on the reader's scholarly bent. In any case, we are made aware of the importance of women to the tenants' struggle, but we learn little about women's experiences. Why were they so central to the leadership of the organization, and did their gender have an influence upon the syndicate's message or action? Organizations such as the Libertarian Women are mentioned briefly; sadly, we learn little about such a tantalizingly named organization. Wood does place the origins of the tenants' strike within the context of the Mexican Revolution; however, we do lose sight of the larger context as the narrative develops. Otherwise, Revolution in the Streets is an admirable addition to urban history and Latin American historiography.
  cao9415 | Mar 13, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0842028803, Paperback)

Winner of the 1999 Michael C. Meyer Manuscript Prize!

This new book examines the social protests of popular groups in urban Mexico during and after the Mexican Revolution and also shows how the revolution inspired women to become activists in these movements.

Andrew Grant Wood's well-researched narrative focuses specifically on the complex negotiation between elites and popular groups over the issue of public housing in post-revolutionary Veracruz, Mexico. Wood then compares the Veracruz experience with other tenant movements throughout Mexico and Latin America. He analyzes what the popular groups wanted, what they got, how they got it, and how the changes wrought by the revolution facilitated their actions.

Grassroots organizing by house-renters in Veracruz began at a time of 'multiple sovereignty' when ruling elites found themselves in a process of regime change and political realignment. As the movement took shape, tenants expanded their opportunities through a dynamic repertoire of public demonstration, direct action, networking, and constant negotiation with landlords and public officials. During the height of the movement, protesters forced revolutionary elites to respond by requiring them either to negotiate, co-opt, and/or repress members of independent grassroots organizations in order to maintain their rule.

The tenant movements demonstrate how ordinary women and men contributed to the remaking of state and civil society relations in post-revolutionary Mexico. This book analyzes the critical roles that women played as leaders and as rank-and-file agitators to keep the movements alive.

The author has used a wide variety of primary sources to provide a vibrant portrayal of these urban social protesters. On a larger scale, this book shows that the voices of the urban poor were able to become part of the revolutionary dialogue and ideology. While others have highlighted the role of rural folk such as the Zapatistas, this work allows readers to appreciate the urban side of the popular movement.

Revolution in the Street is a valuable resource on the Mexican Revolution, modern Mexico, and the urban history of Latin America.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:29 -0400)

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