New Findings in North American Drug History: Mexico, the United States, and the Wider World, 1890–1980
Conference on Latin American History 60
Around the turn of the twentieth century, drug prohibitions began sweeping across North America. This process gradually turned once ordinary goods into deeply fetishized, multi-billion dollar global commodities fueling violent black markets, political corruption, mass incarceration, and environmental damage. This panel will explore three understudied aspects of this history, all with relevance to “Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors.”
At the center of our focus is Mexico, one of the key nodes of exciting research in what Paul Gootenberg and myself have termed “The New Drug History of the Americas.” Despite Mexico’s crucial role in twentieth century drug wars, scholars are only beginning to scratch the surface of that nation’s fascinating, and pivotal, drug history. If I may paraphrase from this year’s call for papers, few goods have managed to ignite the imagination, etch the landscape, and transform identity like illicit drugs in Mexico. Yet for years scholars simply assumed that Mexican drug history was a product of U.S. diktats. This panel will demonstrate how Mexican drug history has long been driven by transnational cultural and intellectual flows intermingling with local and international politics. These many influences have imbued the drugs themselves with meaning while producing wide-ranging and often unintended consequences.
The papers on this panel will explore three distinct aspects of the trans- and international history of drugs in Mexico. We will see how peyote, perhaps the most iconic of Mexico’s indigenous drugs, had been almost forgotten until rediscovered by foreigners at the turn of the twentieth century. By championing the drug’s properties and publicized its seemingly miraculous effects worldwide, these outsiders highlighted key domestic contradictions in Mexico, specifically the subaltern place of Indian culture, and Mexican elites’ anxieties about it, in a new modern Mexican era. Later, as our second paper will demonstrate, Mexican officials began to face an increasingly chauvinistic, “supply-side” approach to illicit drugs on the part of the United States, thus creating a contradiction with Mexico’s own revolutionary nationalism and commitment to “self-determination”; this despite U.S. and Mexican policymakers largely agreeing on the wisdom of drug prohibitions. Our final paper examines how, during the 1970s, high-intensity U.S. drug-war policy (chemical defoliation) in Mexico created frictions with broader U.S. environmental initiatives. Ultimately the traditions of state sovereignty took precedence over environmentalism's inherent transnationalism, resulting in drug war exigencies trumping concerns about ecological harm in drug-producing nations.
In sum, these papers present some of the most exciting new findings in Mexican, and greater North American, drug history, while resonating deeply with the AHA’s 2016 conference theme.