Stealing the Archives and Suspending the State in the 19th-Century Chiapas-Guatemala Borderlands

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:10 PM
Embassy Room (Omni Shoreham)
Lean Sweeney, University of New Mexico
The current paper uses a case of document theft to reveal the gaps in state control based precisely on state reliance on record-keeping, preservation, and organization. I highlight the case of Juan Ortega, a customs administrator who, in stealing the customs house archives and fleeing across national borders, kindled the fires of revolution in his home state of Chiapas, Mexico. In classic caudillo fashion, Ortega pronounced against the new, elected governor of Chiapas in 1855 and was able to provoke a widespread rebellion taking over the majority of the state and laying siege to the capital city of San Cristobal. Yet Ortega's choice, early on in his rebellion, to escape Chiapas for Guatemala with the custom house archives, as well as the keys and stamp to the customs house, suggests a very different understanding of his place in history, and the relation between state-making, state-unmaking, and the mundane instruments of bureaucracy. Ortega's efforts to keep the administrative traces of the past in his possession, in direct defiance of the Chiapas governor and national directives to hand these in to the new regime, point to an overt dialogue between this rebel and the document-producing process in general. Ortega's archive robbery also opens up the possibility of reconsidering other nineteenth-century appropriations of documents--passports, mail, wills, bills of sale--as direct interactions between popular politics and the expanding territory of state bureaucracy, not only as "popular forms of liberalism," but as ways to change reality through controlling the past. Revolution, in this sense, becomes not merely a battle for power, but rather a battle for documentary control.
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