Nationalism’s uncomfortable truths


Is it wise to use Mexico as the basis for a framework in which to study women, ethnicity and nationalism
in Latin America?


Women, Ethnicity and Nationalisms in Latin America
Edited by Natividad Gutiérrez Chong
2007, Ashgate Publishing
235 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE THEORETICAL study of nationalism has matured to such an extent that it has spawned an academic industry in which ever-more complex models and methodologies compete for the attention of grant-awarding bodies.

While there is clearly some merit in theoretical reflection, there has also been realistic recognition in this field of study that hard empirical research is needed to rescue it from the lack of consensus over theory in which it has been bogged down for so long.

Indeed, at times it has seemed that there are as many theories of nationalism or approaches to its study or schools of thought or systems of classification as nationalisms themselves. As a result, much will depend in an academic career on the school you embrace, the college tie you wear, or the convenience or otherwise of what you say.

That said, there is probably widespread agreement that the relationship between women and nationalism is one area that has been particularly neglected in the field, not least in Latin America, and Women, Ethnicity and Nationalisms in Latin America makes a pioneering contribution to greater understanding in this area.

The formation of editor Natividad Gutiérrez Chong and her own research on nationalism, mainly in Mexico, as well as her contributions to initiatives in the discipline, make her well-suited to edit this work. However, it is unfortunate that the final product leaves one asking uncomfortable questions about the structure of this volume, the approach taken by the editor and the language employed by her and her contributors.


Gutiérrez Chong’s introductory chapter sets itself the ambition of imposing conceptual order on the study of the roles played by women within different types of nationalism by developing a methodology based upon three stages, from the early-19th century to the present: Independence, nation-building, and the contemporary era in which multiculturalism is testing the concept of nationhood. Contributions about Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia are then inserted into this framework.

Yet it is clear that these stages, while applied to the whole of Latin America with its huge variety and many dynamics, are derived from the Mexican case, where nation-building was greatly facilitated by possibilities offered by the country’s pre-Columbian past and the ethnic diversity of its present. And while Gutiérrez is right to point out that the many different ways nationalism can be examined and the resultant “typification” of nationalisms means that choices have to be made, the substance of all three “discernible” contexts she has chosen – Independence, nation-building and multiculturalism – is also open to debate. There is much evidence in the Mexican case – at least for those who do not worship at the altar of Anthony Smith – that the concept of nationhood was fully absent in the Independence era and that nationalism in a diverse and hybrid society is only a function of the state’s nation-building discourses and not of ethnic origins, one obvious result of which is the potency of those challenges posed by the contemporary multicultural argument itself. Nor is there a clear attempt to define what is meant either by indigenous or ethnic in relation to what must, presumably, be referred to as non-indigenous or non-ethnic society.

It would have been far more fruitful to have concentrated one’s fire solely on nation-building and the challenges posed to the unitary national idea by multiculturalism, while recognising that the rise of ethnic consciousness today does not necessarily imply multinationalism, given the existence of concurrent identities, and is just as founded on discourse and invention as its nationalist cousin and has, indeed, been shaped by it.

Gutiérrez Chong proceeds to apply five complex “interesections” of women and nationalism to the three selected stages from a typology of gender and nationalisms developed by Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, arguing that this allows the researcher to mitigate “the inevitable risks of interpretation should one attempt to demonstrate that one nation and its corresponding nationalism are the same as any other.” [p. 1] The result is a system of classification in the Nations and Nationalisms vein whereby one should be able to identity what the roles of women are in the nationalist mosaic in any given case. While this is coherent, the editor singularly fails to articulate clearly why yet another classificatory system is so necessary, and appears to suggest that the methodology allows for the identification for women’s roles in “nation formation” as opposed merely to the formulation of nationalist positions and arguments. To suggest that the nation is anything other than an imagined community is to define it according to concrete criteria, something scholars of nationalism have spent entire careers feuding about.

In short – but also in the true tradition of the discipline – Gutiérrez Chong is distracted by theoretical road signs that lead towards an inconclusive dead end when she should, in fact, be playing up the great merit of this work of highlighting the cultural – that is, the discursive expressions of and by women in the formation of national identity (see for example, the review of Imagining La Chica Moderna in this edition of LatAmRoB).

Lastly, the editor and her contributors do the cause of greater recognition for the study of women and nationalism few favours by employing dense, inaccessible and often grammatically flawed language, and this volume would have benefited greatly from more rigorous editing.

That said, Arnd Schneider’s chapter on calendar shots depicting women in idealised indigenous poses by the Argentine fashion photographer Gaby Herbstein provides a set of fascinating insights into the exoticism associated with indigenous people. Schneider writes:

“It seems that indigenist discourse almost achieves to invert the old proverb (often retold to me by porteños), according to which Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas, and Argentines from the ships, that is by actually substituting Mapuche – or other indigenous populations – for ‘Ships’.” [p. 91]

Irene García’s examination of Mimí Derba (pictured above), Mexico’s first woman film-maker, provides a fascinating portrait of a true pioneer of the industry in the country but also of a woman who, as a result, played a key role in constructing nationalist discourse. García writes:

“Inspired by the zeitgeist of the age, this would have to be a nationalist art, thus Derba contributed to the creation of a nationalist discourse, which would later be consolidated during the golden age of Mexican cinema.” [p. 100]

However, one must ask to what extent other contributions, such as María Eugenia Choque and Guillermo Delgado’s chapter on “ethnic feminisms” and Maylei Blackwell’s chapter on the indigenous women’s movement in Mexico, are in fact about nationalism at all.


The topic of this book has a lot of mileage in it and this volume will, no doubt, hitherto be used frequently as a reference in the study of nationalism. Yet it has to be said that this is largely because there is little else, and one is left with the sense that the editor’s over-ambitious objectives have blurred this book’s focus, and that she is banging a drum.

In her introduction and conclusion, Gutiérrez Chong appears on the verge of making more of case for the need to extend a moral solidarity towards women in ethnic movements in Mexico and elsewhere, and the need to construct an understanding of nationalism “outside Western academic debates” (whatever that is supposed to mean in the Latin American case), than for greater scholastic attention to the relationship between women and nationalism generally. Indeed, what this book lacks is a clear exposition of exactly what the relationship between indigenous women and nationalism, as opposed to women and nationalism, is meant to be.

Finally, given Mexico’s role as a factory of nationalist mythology and the pervasive influence of nationalist historiography upon Mexican intellectual life, one cannot help wondering how appropriate it is to use Mexico as the basis of a framework for the study of nationalism in Latin America more generally. A disproportionate focus upon Mexican nationalism vis-à-vis that of, say, Honduras or Chile etc., has already distorted the field and this is, in large part, a product of the intoxication caused by navel-gazing historiography in Mexican academia. The corollary of this is that the most influential and valuable work on Mexican nationalism has been undertaken by outsiders uninfluenced by local nationalist reflexes, and that the outside approaches Gutiérrez Chong is tangentially critical of may, in fact, be far more objective.

It is this intoxication that best explains why Latin America has been so marginal to the study of nationalism to date, because the region’s scholars have been so slow to follow their instincts about the true nature of nationalism in directions that might lead them to disturbing conclusions about the true nature of their “nations”.

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