Run-Ins with the Law: Judicializing Everyday Life in 20th-Century Mexico

AHA Session 108
Conference on Latin American History 23
Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 603 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
William Beezley, University of Arizona
James A. Garza, University of Nebraska

Session Abstract

A reassessment of the traditional periodization of Mexican history, heretofore defined by political events, has afforded the examination of continuities between the liberal period (1857-1910), the Revolution (1910-1940) and the post-revolutionary period. The work of cultural historians has been central in documenting and analyzing late nineteenth century and early twentieth century governmental efforts that sought to modernize public spaces and public behavior. From the 1880s onward, Mexico experienced processes of increased technification, secularization and urbanization that sought to script the legal and illegal uses of spaces and to redefine public and private rights and behaviors. At the heart of these processes was an ongoing negotiation of power between the state and its citizenry.  

According to French sociologist Henri Lefebrve, public and semi-private places, real and imagined, represent the spatialized production of ideas, values, and memories that individuals and the state attach to them. Individual understandings of the regulation and ordering of space had the power to “transform space into place,” capable of shaping and reshaping the cultural landscape of Mexico. By employing a legal/cultural analysis of space, this panel elicits a dynamic, scaled conversation that examines individual relationships to the environment and legal authorities to create new loci of meaning and memory. This panel examines not only an understanding of the contested constructions of these realms or jurisdictions, but how ordinary, everyday behaviors of individuals shaped these spaces through the contestation over their use. We argue that public and private behaviors in the first half of the 20th century were not only increasingly contested within a spatialized framework, but also judicialized in an effort to eradicate behaviors and practices deemed incompatible with modern life. The legal/cultural battles resulting from positivist development policies employed during the Porfirian era, post-revolutionary reforms aimed at “redeeming the Mexican people” from ignorance, and mid-twentieth century state emphasis on the creation and protection of the “Revolutionary family” are but facets of a larger narrative of spatialized, multifaceted conflicts between the modern Mexican state and its people.           

“Run-ins with the law” speaks to the contested nature of these efforts, to the quotidian clashes and challenges vividly captured in judicial records, of individual experiences with judicial authorities and/or the law itself. Judicialization, according to scholars such as Neal Tate and Torbjörn Vallinder, is the process of bringing these negotiations under the remit of the law to integrate them into the judicial system. Judicializing something, like a specific sphere of rights over spaces, usually entails both, an increase of judicial procedures related to that domain, and an expansion of the judicial power associated with it. This panel examines such a process at different historical scales and levels of experience. It also puts our individuals explorations into a context, contingencies and complexity of judicializing everyday life. In doing so, this panel brings the processes of electrification, secularization and urbanization, among others, into a conversation to encourage dialogue about the law’s role as an integral component of a country’s culture.

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