This discussion panel showcases current research on the different responses to a number of human-induced and natural disasters that occurred in Mexico from the 1860s to the 1930s. Despite the recent embrace of environmental topics in the Latin American historiography, few historians have addressed the impact of disasters on political, social, and scientific trends in Mexican history. The panelists assembled here join a growing group of scholars who are pushing historiographical boundaries in order to research the relationships between humans and the environment, exploring important questions about how disasters changed the ways that people understood and shaped their roles in society. Could disasters, natural or otherwise, bring community members together or tear them apart? Which members of society got blamed for provoking or exacerbating problems related to disasters? How could experiences with or memories of disasters change an individual’s or a society’s worldview? How can examinations of the aftermaths of natural and manmade disasters impact the ways that historians think about the past?
This panel will approach these questions from a variety of angles. Proceeding chronologically, Anna Rose Alexander will explain how real and perceived fire risks in Mexico City spurred the development of social services, large-scale infrastructural projects, and advancements in medicine and science. Alan Fujishin will follow with a discussion of the emergence of community, church, governmental, and international philanthropic organizations in Guanajuato to cope with the aftermath of two major floods. The presentation by James Garza will address how the 1894 earthquake in Mexico created anxieties and made people question everything from the role of science in society to the responsibilities of government to their faith in religion and God. In her discussion of mistletoe blights in the forests of central Mexico, Emily Wakild will discuss the dialogue between local communities and the federal government over who was to blame for the infestations and how best to approach the disasters. In each paper, the presenters address several themes: how disasters prompted conflicting responses from governments, charitable or other organizations, and various social groups; how international developments helped to create awareness and fear of disasters; and how scientific experts used their knowledge and training to attempt to prevent or control disasters. Commentary will be provided by Myrna Santiago, author of a book on environmental impacts on Mexico’s oil industry. Stephen Lewis, who works on indigenismo in Chiapas, will chair the panel.
A discussion about disasters in Mexico will appeal to scholars with a wide range of topical interests, from various geographic and temporal subfields. Historians engaged in environmental and hazards research will be drawn to the international comparisons that this session offers. Scholars in and outside the field of Latin American history will be interested in the predominant themes of popular mobilization, state responsiveness, and social struggle that each paper explores. Finally, since these disasters initiated discussions about how to manage the physical environment and protect the population through innovations in engineering and industrial science, they promise to be of great interest to historians of science and technology.