¡Bandido, bandido!

Bandit Nation by Chris Frazer explores the cultural history of outlaws in Mexico and their role in shaping national identity


Bandit Nation: A History of Outlaws and Cultural Struggle in Mexico, 1810-1920
Chris Frazer
2006, University of Nebraska Press
243 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE FIGURE of the bandit is as central to our oft-distorted perception of Mexico as tacos and mariachis and has become a cliché in cinema and literature, with modern narcos displacing the mustachioed, pot-bellied, trigger-happy and morally ambivalent gunslingers of the past in the popular imagination.

The problem with trying to dispel this crude stereotype is that the bandit has occupied an important role in Mexican social history both as a cultural icon but also, at times, serving as a metaphor for the regional cacique, or strongman.

Bandit Nation is a fascinating and important contribution to our understanding of the complex role played by outlaws in a crucial period in which Mexican national identity was being forged between Independence and the Revolution, 1810 to 1920. This cultural history of banditry is a worthy successor of Eric Hobsbawm’s work of the 1950s and trail-blazing Bandits (1969) which first drew attention in a systematic way to the role of the bandit in social history.

Chris Frazer’s study offers a highly nuanced and well-informed analysis of how and why Mexicans, and their counterparts in the form of foreign travellers, constructed and employed images of banditry to shape state-formation and national identity. It is also an excellent introduction to the relationship between crime and class in this country’s turbulent evolution, helping to explain why in such a divided land banditry was often seen as a form of popular salvation in much the same way as piracy in early modern Britain while at the same time being reviled by urbane elites desperate to reproduce European high culture.

Ubiquitous in Mexican culture

Frazer draws attention to how narratives about the Mexican bandit have appeared in every form of cultural production since the early 19th century: novels, travel accounts, journalism, academic works, ballads and paintings. These continue to cast a shadow across interpretations of Mexican identity and this is sometimes reflected in accounts about the 19th-century bandits’ contemporary heirs: drug-traffickers and even Zapatista rebels. Frazer writes: “It is no exaggeration to assert that the imagined bandit is ubiquitous in Mexican culture.” (p.2)

The author asks us to consider, for example, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, initially denounced as a bandit (of the most ruthless kind) and for a generation ignored by the post-revolutionary Mexican state, yet suddenly transformed into a nationalist hero and reinterred in the Monumento de la Revolución. Such an about-turn says much about the role the bandit can play after death for a government short on legitimacy but long on ideological skill. It also speaks volumes about the class role played by a figure today remembered, above all else, as a champion of the poor. As Frazer points out, the struggle over Villa’s identity is merely a contemporary manifestation of a much longer struggle since the days when banditry plagued the incipient Mexican nation in the years after Independence.

Bandit Nation begins by exploring the relationship between the bandit and the state before adopting a systematic approach to the examination of banditry within different forms of cultural production: the writing of travellers, novelists and balladeers.

We learn that harsh measures adopted by the infant state after independence failed to reduce banditry, whose practitioners even populated the highest echelons of the post-colonial hierarchy. Santa Anna’s military aide, Colonel Juan Yáñez, for example, used his position to create and protect a vast network or urban and rural bandits who preyed on wealthy travellers and capitalinos.

Frazer explores the obsession of Anglo-Saxon travellers in Mexico with the bandit, whom they employed in their writing as a metaphor for Mexican society and its backwardness. Travellers often attributed this plague afflicting Mexico to spurious racial theories, with banditry seen as a characteristic of nations where racial mixing and geography degraded masculinity. By contrast, many members of the Mexican elite insisted banditry was a reflection of their country’s colonial inheritance and would decline as the nation overcame this troubled legacy.

Bandits also became a fixation of Mexicans themselves, such that outlaw tales developed into a common literary theme and entered popular culture through corridos (ballads) that entertained the poor. Frazer identifies two stages in the literary discourse of the 19th century: from Independence until 1867, when images of banditry in novels expressed the insurgent liberalism of the creole middle class and provided ammunition for them in their attacks on the ancien régime. The very first Mexican novel, El periquillo sarniento (1816) by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, enlisted the bandit as a critical device with which to condemn the moral decay of the colonial era. After 1867 and with the triumph of liberalism, writers no longer could blame the colonial order for the ills afflicting Mexican society and began to position banditry within their indictments of the obstacles to modernisation thrown up by the backwardness of the lower classes. In Ignacio Manuel Altamirano’s El Zarco (1888), for example, the bandit plateados are depicted in the most negative terms as brutes committing heinous crimes without remorse and provoking the ire of all decent folk. Yet while novelists employed the bandit as a figure that should be suppressed, the lower classes often celebrated the bandit as a hero in corridos that allowed them to challenge elite discourses and give voice to their own grievances.

Frazer explores how banditry subsequently began to form part of a broader and increasingly scientific discourse on criminality and provide one more way of testing Mexico’s progress towards modernity under the Porfirian regime (1876-1911). This authoritarian liberal dictatorship oversaw rapid development and economic growth in the country with policies that greatly favoured foreign investors and aimed to drag Mexico by its boot laces into the Atlantic trading order. The state not only confronted banditry with harsh repression but also tried to defeat it at a psychological level by sponsoring cultural production with rival themes, such as corridos lauding Porfirio Díaz and his rural police.

Yet these efforts had only a limited effect. Frazer writes: “The tradition of popular outlaw banditry survived the decline of real-life banditry, adapted to the new face of urban crime, and resisted the regime’s counter-mythology of law and order. At the same time, a bifurcation appeared in middle-class and elite attitudes towards bandits, suggesting that some of the values inscribed in popular culture were making inroads into literary culture.” (p.182)

Bandit discourse was to form an important backdrop to the subsequent anarchy of the revolutionary era, with the Huertistas again trying to depict Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata as bloodthirsty bandit chieftains at the head of pillaging hordes. Yet, as Frazer concludes, it was popular memory that would make the final judgment on these titans, eventually establishing them firmly in the pantheon of revolutionary nationalism as champions of the lower classes. The bandit, it would seem, is always victorious in the end.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books