The Mexican Aristocracy

[ Latino/a Studies ]

The Mexican Aristocracy

An Expressive Ethnography, 1910-2000

By Hugo G. Nutini

This ethnography describes the transformation of the Mexican aristocracy from the onset of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when the aristocracy was unquestionably Mexico’s highest-ranking social class, until the end of the twentieth century, when it had almost ceased to function as a superordinate social group.



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The Mexican aristocracy today is simultaneously an anachronism and a testimony to the persistence of social institutions. Shut out from political power by the democratization movements of the twentieth century, stripped of the basis of its great wealth by land reforms in the 1930s, the aristocracy nonetheless maintains a strong sense of group identity through the deeply held belief that their ancestors were the architects and rulers of Mexico for nearly four hundred years.

This expressive ethnography describes the transformation of the Mexican aristocracy from the onset of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when the aristocracy was unquestionably Mexico's highest-ranking social class, until the end of the twentieth century, when it had almost ceased to function as a superordinate social group. Drawing on extensive interviews with group members, Nutini maps out the expressive aspects of aristocratic culture in such areas as perceptions of class and race, city and country living, education and professional occupations, political participation, religion, kinship, marriage and divorce, and social ranking. His findings explain why social elites persist even when they have lost their status as ruling and political classes and also illuminate the relationship between the aristocracy and Mexico's new political and economic plutocracy.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Demographic Composition and Contextual Definition of the Aristocracy
  • Chapter 2. The Relationship of Class and Ethnicity: Somatic and Racial Considerations
  • Chapter 3. The Realization of Expression in the Ethnographic Context
  • Chapter 4. The Organization of Urban Living: Settlement, Residence, and the Household
  • Chapter 5. Economy, Material Culture, and Political Participation
  • Chapter 6. Religion: Ideology, Worship, and the Ritual-Ceremonial Complex
  • Chapter 7. Social Organization: The Configuration and Interrelationship of Kinship Units and Institutions
  • Chapter 8. Internal Stratification and Organization of the Group
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Glossaries
  • Bibliography

This book is a continuation of The Wages of Conquest (Nutini 1995), which is concerned with the Mexican aristocracy, the superordinate class of the country since the Spanish Conquest. Together the two volumes constitute a comprehensive structural and expressive treatment of this social class, its evolution throughout nearly five centuries, and its place in the stratification system of Mexico. Although each is essentially a self-contained monograph, a certain amount of background information will help the reader. Therefore, in these introductory remarks I summarize the most salient points and themes discussed in the first volume. Since the methodological and theoretical framework on which the entire study is based is discussed in the Introduction to that monograph, here I confine myself to restating the basic components underlying the nature of social stratification as I have defined the term: its expressive aspect, upward and downward mobility, the new realignment of classes, aristocratic-plutocratic acculturation, and so on. This is necessary because the conceptual foundation of the study must be handled differently in diachronic and synchronic contexts.

In the balance of these introductory remarks, I address three sets of interrelated topics. First, I present a summary of the Mexican aristocracy which emphasizes the salient diachronic-synchronic junctures from the Spanish Conquest to the Revolution of 1910. Next, I discuss the differential efficacy of expressive behavior, social mobility, and class affiliation in terminal decline. Finally, I describe the aristocracy in the context of the new Mexican superordinate class as it coalesced during the second half of the twentieth century. Unless otherwise indicated, the ethnographic present of this monograph is 1990-2000.

Inception of the Study and Diachronic Background

The paucity of studies of upper-class stratification originally led me to investigate the aristocracy and how it had changed since the onset of the Mexican Revolution. As if by design, social scientists had ignored this social class. Few of the works written on Mexico and comparable areas of Latin America by social scientists are useful, but the works of historians on the nobility and various European aristocracies from the tenth century to the twentieth century are indeed useful for comparative purposes.

Historians, unencumbered by sociological concerns, have been able to ascertain, for example, that within the predominant capitalistic mode of production characteristic of European society during the last 250 years significant elements of the seigneurial period have survived as distinct categories. Thus historians and some gifted social critics analyze contemporary nobility or aristocracy in England, Spain, or France as significant groups, although most social scientists dismiss them as irrelevant by seeing them as spurious survivals from the past. Or these groups are indiscriminately seen as part of a contemporary bourgeois ruling class. Politically powerless and relatively insignificant economically as these social elites may be, they nonetheless exist in a distinctly organized fashion, and they have something that undoubtedly appeals to the real ruling class and/or political class. Explaining social elites and their persistence, once they have lost their status as ruling and political classes, is a central concern of this book.

Shortly after data collection began in 1978, I realized two things. First, a study of an upper class in the traditional mold would result in either another description of a classical aristocracy in the process of being replaced by a new plutocracy or just another urban ethnography in the usual anthropological style. Second, a historical or ethnographic account of the Mexican aristocracy based on structural considerations alone would not explain how this social class has survived without political power and most of its wealth and how it has managed to influence and shape a new upper class that is in the process of replacing it.

Being in this predicament, I turned to the expressive approach as a complementary analytical tool, both to generate some answers to questions of social mobility and persistence and to amplify the concept of social class, particularly at the higher echelons of the stratification system. Class position, mobility, and class consciousness are admittedly entailed by economic forces in action, are concomitantly discharged in a number of cultural domains (the most prominent being the social, the political, and the religious), and are supported by an ideological superstructure designed to perpetuate the status quo.

Thus to say that this study is first and foremost an expressive description and analysis of the Mexican aristocracy means that, based on a solid structural foundation, the expressive focus is the main analytical tool that generates explanations in domains that the traditional approach to social stratification has not explained. This approach may be characterized as one in which structural (economic, political, and other) variables constitute the necessary conditions for the conceptualization of social stratification, while expressive variables constitute the sufficient conditions that in specified settings and domains account for social mobility and the persistence of class ideology.

Although the Mexican aristocracy today does not have residential unity—nor does it constitute a community in the conventional sociological sense—the great majority of its members reside in circumscribed areas of Mexico City. This is not a rigidly bounded group; but by standard criteria of self-identification, the majority of married members know each other personally or by reference and individuals can always be placed genealogically by ancestral place of origin. The Mexican aristocracy today has an approximate membership of 5,500 at most, including roughly 800 households (nuclear family households with a sprinkling of extended family households). The adult population, including married couples and young and old single individuals (roughly 55 percent of the group), constituted the pool from which informants were drawn.

This study is primarily an exercise in expression. The attendant conceptual approach, which I have termed the expressive focus and strategy, serves as the guiding mechanism of description and analysis. This book and the previous volume demonstrate the fundamental proposition of the study: that expressive behavior and expressively derived considerations are at the heart of explaining social mobility. Two other conceptual approaches are complementary to the primary expressive thrust: network analysis and the renewal of elites. Network analysis has been previously employed in studies of ritual kinship (Nutini 1984; Nutini and White 1977). The network approach is used in the analysis of plutocratic upward mobility and the accommodations made by aristocrats in order to survive. The renewal or circulation of elites, as originally postulated by Vilfredo Pareto (1935), provides the main analytical stance in explaining the evolution of the Mexican aristocracy and organizing the diachronic description in the first volume.

Finally, a few words about the general organization of this book. I should reiterate that the standard ethnography and expressive ethnography of the Mexican aristocracy are treated as an undifferentiated whole, as this seems to be the most efficient method of presentation. It avoids repetition and lends itself better to the identification of expressive domains. Thus the organization by chapters follows traditional ethnographic presentation, albeit modified by an accompanying expressive analysis. In this framework the reader will experience an immediate vision of the unfolding expressive array and witness the origin and implications of expressive domains as emanating from social and cultural behavior. Moreover, this method entails optimal conditions for isolating exclusive and inclusive domains and associating the latter with the social classes of Mexican society that share them with the aristocracy.

Differential Efficacy of Expressive Behavior, Social Mobility, and Class Affiliation in Terminal Decline

The combined approach developed in the historical-evolutionary analysis of the Mexican aristocracy applies equally to the fundamental changes that this social class has experienced since the 1910 Revolution. But the sociocultural milieu in which the aristocracy was embedded until 1910 is radically different from the economic and political environment generated by the Revolution. Moreover, the four-century dominance of the aristocracy created structural and expressive constraints that made it virtually impossible for this social class to overcome the impending economic decline that never materialized during the three renewals before the Revolution. These two factors require modifications in the conceptual framework and its application to the contemporary analysis of the aristocracy in terminal decline. Thus this book explains the dynamics of total class renewal—as contrasted with the partial renewals characteristic of the aristocracy from its inception to the 1910 Revolution—when a plutocratic sector becomes the predominant social and ruling class.

Expressive Acculturation with and without Dominance

The ideology and imago mundi of the Mexican aristocracy are essentially those of the Spanish aristocracy but somewhat modified by the Conquest of Mexico and the new socioeconomic conditions that emerged during the sixteenth century. The founders of the colonial Creole aristocracy were an original nucleus of conquistador-encomenderos that, by right of conquest, came to control large numbers of Indians and, in time, vast landed estates. By ancient seigneurial rights, conquistadors considered themselves entitled to honors and dignities (commoners aspired to hidalguía—gentry status—and hidalgos aspired to titles of nobility) which the Crown was not willing to grant, as it did not want to perpetuate a seigneurial system that the Catholic kings had largely managed to dismantle in Spain. Nonetheless, despite the original refusal of the Crown and gradual granting of honors and dignities, conquistadors and encomenderos from the start regarded themselves as nobles and gentry. The possession of tributary Indians and (later in the century) landed and some mining wealth validated their pretensions; and it is in this environment that a Creole aristocracy came into being by the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Concomitantly, the Creole aristocracy created an expressive array that, although essentially Spanish in its fundamental tenets, was significantly modified by colonial resources and constraints.

By the turn of the seventeenth century the ideology and imago mundi of the Creole aristocracy had achieved a configuration that remained remarkably constant for 300 years. Not surprisingly, the exclusive expressive array of the aristocracy also remained constant, since the overall social and economic configuration of Mexico, even after Independence, did not change much. The hacienda system—which came into existence as the result of the virtual demise of the encomienda system during the first half of the seventeenth century—remained de facto essentially unchanged as a seigneurial system until 1910.

Throughout these centuries the aristocracy underwent three renewals during which large numbers of nouveau riche plutocratic magnates joined the ranks of the aristocracy. These renewals generated changes in the aristocratic expressive array, as plutocratic ideology in all three instances was able to influence the dominant aristocratic ideology. But given the overwhelming preponderance of the aristocracy, the changes provoked by the acculturative context did not substantially change the exclusive array created by the conquistador-encomendero class in the sixteenth century and perpetuated by the hacendado class in subsequent centuries. On the whole, plutocrats changed the expressive array and worldview of aristocrats only peripherally throughout these renewals, as in most ways they had to adapt to aristocratic ways.

The Mexican Revolution not only terminated the local political importance of the hacienda but radically altered the position of the aristocracy as a social class vis-à-vis the global stratification system of the country. Despite the fact that the aristocracy had never been a political class (at the national level), for more than 300 years its social and ruling predominance had been unchallenged, as befitted the de facto seigneurial system that pervaded several aspects of Mexican society. All structural and expressive changes had hitherto been unable to dislodge the aristocracy as a social class.

By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, during which the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution took place, the aristocracy had been largely reduced to a social group, increasingly vanishing from the consciousness of the population at large but still a group to contend with at the top of the stratification system. The coup de grace, however, came a decade and a half later with the massive land reform of President Lázaro Cárdenas, which by 1940 had completely abolished the great landed estates, so that their aristocratic owners ceased to have any ruling functions. From this point onward, the aristocracy was a mere social class, and a precarious one at that, as it was perceived both by the upwardly mobile elements that were filling the vacuum and by the majority of aristocrats themselves.

By 1920 most of the great landed estates were still in the possession of aristocrats, but a thorough land reform was only a matter of time. This was realized by only a small number of aristocrats, who managed to parcel and sell most of their land to farmers and small proprietors. These forward-looking aristocrats invested in industry and banking, ultimately becoming aristocratic plutocrats and spearheading the terminal renewal of the aristocracy. The great majority of aristocrats, however, held onto their land, wishfully thinking that massive land reform would never come. More than 90 percent of aristocratic landowners fell into this category, and by 1940 they were left with little more than the manorial establishments of their once immense estates. The net result of this economic disaster was that the aristocrats had become impoverished in less than a generation, and only the sheer predominance that they had once enjoyed saved them from even greater economic downfall. The situation was mitigated by the fact that (to some extent as a hobby and to some extent for utilitarian reasons) by the turn of the century significant numbers of aristocrats had become lawyers, physicians, and members of other liberal professions. Thus perhaps most members of the class were able to survive economically, without even considering that many of them were still rich in terms of art, residences, and other heirlooms which they adamantly refused to convert into negotiable assets. Nonetheless, impoverished as the aristocracy had become by the early 1940s, it still thoroughly dominated the social scene of Mexico City. This milieu is poignantly captured in the words of an informant:

I remember well the years before and after the war [1940-1950], when we were in fact aristocrats and not in name only, and when the new rich still paid us homage and we dominated the social life of the city [Mexico City] as if the Revolution had not taken place. Many of the families were no longer rich as in the old days, but they spent money as if there were no tomorrow on celebrations and balls that were the admiration of the city. It seemed as if our world was coming to an end, and the ostentation and lavishness [were] the last gasps of something that was dying. Some years later our resources could not compete with the nouveau riche class with which we had nothing in common [1955-1960]. From then on our decline began, so that today [1990] we are aristocrats in name only.

The fundamental reality in the evolution of the Mexican aristocracy since the Spanish Conquest is the seigneurial system that pervaded much of Mexican society and survived even after Independence, when the country became a representative democracy de jure but not de facto, as it took more than a century to approach that ideal. This institutional state of affairs underlined nearly four centuries of aristocratic dominance, which (despite lack of national political functions) enabled this social class to retain undisputed social predominance. A concomitant aspect in the evolution of the aristocracy is that all the renewals it underwent throughout its history were basically acculturative transformations—that is, concentrated periods of interaction with relatively large numbers of upwardly mobile personnel. These plutocratic personnel, as I have termed them, had a different imago mundi and expressive array; in the process of upward mobility and incorporation into the aristocracy, they made themselves felt, thereby structuring an acculturative matrix that resulted in a new social and ruling milieu, usually after a generation or so. Thus, in the renewals undergone by the aristocracy before 1910, a plutocratic imago mundi and specific expressive domains modified the ideology and expressive culture of the aristocracy but always within tolerable boundaries. The exclusive array of this culture remained basically unchanged, as these ideational elements came to reinforce aristocratic wealth and power.

This situation came to an end with the Mexican Revolution of 1910. As the seigneurial system disappeared, society as a whole began to democratize, and eventually the social system acquired a modern fluidity. The aristocracy, however, did not ipso facto disappear; nor was it drastically curtailed. Rather, there was a slow decline marked by four rather well-delineated stages, which are detailed in the Conclusions.

Herein lies the crux of the explanation of the evolution and transformation of the Mexican aristocracy before and after the 1910 Revolution. Before 1910 the aristocracy, by virtue of its unchallenged social and ruling standing, prevailed expressively. Because of its social and economic decline since the Revolution, the aristocracy has been seriously challenged by the new plutocracy, which, for at least a generation, has been creating its own expressive array.

The diachronic context of stratification of the Mexican aristocracy means fundamentally its transformation throughout nearly four centuries of total predominance, punctuated by adaptations enhancing its perpetuation as a social and ruling class. In this dynamic of continuous preponderance, economic variables (the encomienda and hacienda systems and seigneurialism, accompanied by rather pronounced ethnic differences) were the necessary conditions for the maintenance of a worldview and expressive array that constituted the sufficient conditions of superordinate stratification. Throughout the three renewals, plutocratic personnel in significant numbers were always incorporated into the aristocracy, increasing its survival and strength. Thus the processes of acculturation that these renewals involved were limited and asymmetrical, as plutocratic inputs, no matter how strong, were never enough to upset aristocratic supremacy.

Western European aristocracies, beginning shortly after the inception of absolutism in the early sixteenth century, interacted with an increasingly powerful plutocracy that made the process of structural and expressive acculturation almost symmetrical; by shortly after the French Revolution, they had undergone a significant degree of embourgeoisement. This is the natural development of the European aristocracy's not having been able to compete economically with the industrial plutocracy, which was the main architect of the Industrial Revolution that continued to dominate the economic life of Europe until the twentieth century. Thus expressive acculturation was until recently symmetrical, while structural integration was greatly skewed toward the plutocratic side of the equation—mainly because landed wealth could not compete with industrial wealth, to say nothing of the natural process of democratization that Europe has been undergoing for more than two centuries. The Mexican aristocracy, however, began its decline in 1910 and the accompanying process of asymmetrical acculturation (that is, processes that the European aristocracy began to experience when the Mexican aristocracy was in its formative stage) nearly four decades later. This was the result of the confluence of a belated seigneurialism and basically different ethnic and demographic orders as compared to those of Western Europe. Given these considerations, and far away from the mother country, the Mexican aristocracy de facto represents the perpetuation of a stratification system that had begun to decline in Western Europe while forming anew in the New World.

The synchronic context of structural-expressive stratification, in contrast, is concerned with the terminal phase of the Mexican aristocracy as a superordinate class, triggered by the 1910 Revolution and now approaching its end. The main concern of this final renewal is not with the continuity of expression. Rather, the emphasis is on how the terminal phase of the aristocracy has been instrumental in creating a new superordinate class: a new plutocracy that has been acquiring ruling functions for more than sixty years and is on the verge of supplanting the aristocracy as the dominant social class of the country. Indeed, the new plutocracy (including increasing numbers of the political class who become plutocrats after their one term in high office) is already the ruling class of the country and probably achieved that status during the 1960s. As a social class, however, the process of expressive acculturation has been going on since the 1930s but has not yet run its course. In this process, the aristocracy predominated until the new plutocracy indisputably asserted itself as a ruling class. For the past twenty-five years or so, however, the plutocracy has been innovating on its own and has fashioned many domains in a new expressive array that is neither aristocratic nor new-plutocratic but a combination of both, increasingly colored by the ruling predominance of the plutocrats. Thus this volume chronicles not only the expressive ethnography of the aristocracy but, as an important aspect of it, the input of the new plutocracy, which has significantly affected the aristocracy as a social class. The main analytical aims addressed throughout this study may be outlined as follows.

The first goal is to establish the dynamics of asymmetrical acculturation in the context of the increasing and ultimate predominance of an upwardly mobile group that becomes a new ruling class. Most important in this endeavor is to delineate the developmental cycle of expressive acculturation in terms of specific stages to determine the give and take of aristocrats and plutocrats.

The second aim is to determine how and to what extent the imago mundi of aristocrats has been modified by increasing contact with plutocrats and by their own inability to create new wealth and thereby join the ranks of the new ruling class. This process is largely determined by expressive constraints, and it is of the utmost significance to determine the social and psychological profiles of aristocrats who are able to overcome them—thereby becoming upwardly mobile economically and active members of the new emerging social class—and of those who are not—thereby becoming downwardly mobile or static economically and ultimately dropping out of the system. Conversely, similar profiles of plutocrats must be determined in order to identify those who are creating the new expressive array of the emerging ruling class and those who—despite economic success—drop out of the system by their unwillingness to interact with plutocrats or independently of them create new expressive domains not consonant with their potential position in the ruling class.

Third, as a concomitant aspect of the first and second points, the dynamics of structural and expressive interaction strike at the heart of explaining superordinate stratification. Thus it is necessary to identify not only the economic and political conditions that structure the rise of a ruling class but also the extent to which its members are able to create a new imago mundi underlined by the original ideology that brought them economic power.

Configuration of the Social and Ruling Class in the Context of Final Renewal

It is useful to compare the decline and near extinction of the aristocracy as a class in Western Europe and Mexico and by extension in other situations in Latin America where so-called oligarchies survived until the second half of this century. The French Revolution initiated the decline of Western aristocracies as ruling and social classes; but, surprisingly, this event also represents a resurgence of political participation after the near obliteration of aristocracies as political classes with the onset of absolutism. Western aristocracies had lost their ruling predominance by the second half of the nineteenth century, as landed wealth could not compete with industrial wealth, and most aristocrats could not make the transition. As social classes, however, Western aristocracies managed to remain rather unchallenged for nearly another century, that is, until shortly after World War I. This discrepancy is an intriguing phenomenon that cannot entirely be explained; but it is perhaps related to the fact that Western European aristocracies were always numerous in relation to the total population.

The Mexican aristocracy, however, after having significant ruling functions and total social domination, declined drastically in three generations. This can be explained by the absence of factors that made the decline of Western European aristocracies significantly slower.

First, neither in colonial nor in republican times was the Mexican aristocracy the political class of the country, and it never had a firm control over the military (as most European aristocracies did until World War I). This was a serious mistake that made the aristocrats more vulnerable to and less salient among the urban masses, which no doubt feared their ruling power but did not relate to them in the wider social sense. To put it differently, the European aristocracy was always more in the social consciousness of the population at large than the Mexican aristocracy ever was.

Second, the Mexican aristocracy was an extremely small social class; even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the ratio of peninsulares and Creoles to the entire population of Indians and mestizos was much smaller than in subsequent centuries, it never amounted to more than 2 percent. By the time of Independence the aristocracy represented roughly 0.5 percent of the country's population, and it was half that by the 1910 Revolution. Compared to the aristocracies of Western European countries, which ranged roughly from 5 to 9 percent of the population, the Mexican aristocracy was minuscule. Perhaps more powerful at the local level, where they reigned supreme over an ethnically different population, the aristocrats were never as visible and publicly salient at the national level as the European aristocracies were until well into the twentieth century.

Third, the abolition of titles of nobility shortly after Independence was another factor that diminished the visibility and integrity of the aristocracy as a social class. Significantly, such egalitarian developments right after Independence were due to an initial democratic fervor with a tinge of revolutionary zeal experienced by the Creole population, perhaps half of it racially mestizo. By the onset of the nineteenth century this Creole population numbered about a million and constituted the economic life of the cities; and in some rural environments it engaged in mercantile, trading, and manufacturing operations, including the hitherto underdeveloped liberal professions.

Because of the political inexperience of the aristocratic sector beyond the local and provincial levels throughout colonial times, the political vacuum left after Independence naturally was filled by Creoles, aided by the fact that aristocrats, so confident of their power, deemed it unnecessary actively to engage in politics. Thus ensued the tacit covenant that governed Mexico's political system throughout most of the nineteenth century: an increasingly mestizo political class which governed without undue interference as long as it respected the interests of the aristocratic and banking and industrial classes. This status quo was a double-edged sword for the aristocracy: on the one hand, it safeguarded its economic dominance, particularly after the 1857 Reforma Laws, when its landed power reached a zenith; on the other hand, it made the aristocracy vulnerable to political actions that it could not always control.

The net result of these factors and developments was that—predominant as the aristocracy was as a social class until 1910—it was a fragile institution that survived despite its weak mechanisms of control; the aristocracy endured mainly because the promise of democracy generated during the first decade after Independence did not materialize, and Mexico did not significantly evolve from its colonial situation. When Mexico experienced its first popular revolution in 1910, and the mestizo political leadership broke its traditional alliance with the ruling class, the aristocracy received a blow more severe than that dealt to its European counterparts by the French Revolution. Thus the aristocracy's inexperience with politics, its very small membership, and its lack of national visibility and limited vicarious appeal (except locally) are the main attributes that underline the precipitous decline of the aristocracy after 1910 and its inability to secure a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis the rising plutocracy.

Concentrating on the second half of the twentieth century, what was the position of the aristocracy within the new superordinate sector of the country, which had not yet coalesced into a well-delineated class? The best way to characterize this sector is as an haute bourgeoisie composed of a social class, a ruling class, and a political class, all three in a state of disintegration or formation.

Briefly, the political class is composed of the heirs of the Mexican Revolution, that is, past high officials of the official party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) at the federal, state, and occasionally local level. This is a rather small group that has wielded continuous political power and status since shortly after 1928, including past presidents, important cabinet members, some state governors, large-city mayors, and other assorted high-office holders. The political class of Mexico in the twentieth century at no time had more than 1,500 members, growing roughly at the rate of 150 for every six-year administration. One of the most significant results of the Mexican Revolution was to institutionalize the practice that high executive officers of state cannot be reelected. While this did not apply to nonelective officials, during more than sixty years politicians' careers culminated in a high office to which they could not be reelected: president of the republic, state governor, or mayor of the largest cities. After holding high office, members of this circle continued to have political influence; and over decades a fairly permanent nucleus emerged, fostering stability and enhancing the power of the political class.

In assessing the configuration and position of the political class of Mexico within the global stratification system, perhaps equally important is the universally acknowledged fact that high political office has always been a source of enrichment since colonial times. In the twentieth century some of the largest fortunes in Mexico had their origin in politics—that is, once in high office individuals amass hundreds of millions of dollars. The net result of this form of institutionalized corruption is that sooner or later politicians become plutocrats. As control of the ruling party is coming to an end, and the political system becomes more representative and democratic, politics as a source of wealth is being curtailed. But the role of the political class in the formation of the ruling class must not be underestimated. Moreover, constrained by the populist attitude and "revolutionary" image that went with the role of being members of the political class, politicians-turned-plutocrats were reluctant to engage in upward social mobility. This is changing rapidly, as more and more high-ranking politicians are being integrated into aristocratic-plutocratic circles.

The ruling class of Mexico today (2000) has been in the process of formation since the end of the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1919), when the middle-class leadership that precipitated this momentous transformation became the political as well as the ruling class of Mexico, thus ushering in the last renewal of elites. By the late 1920s this plutocracy was in a vigorous process of formation, and by World War II it was already a significant force in the life of the nation.

The Mexican Revolution was the first popular revolution of the twentieth century; but even before the PRI was founded and established in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was clear that its leadership was not modeling Mexico into a socialist or Communist state, despite occasional deviations from 1930 to 1950. By then the political ideology of the ruling class, the PRI, was a fuzzy combination of socialist ideas and capitalist enterprise.

Whether intentionally or not, the ruling party had become one of the breeding grounds for a capitalistic plutocracy, and many great fortunes were made by politicians in their one term in office. By 1940 the redistribution of land among the propertyless had been largely accomplished, fulfilling the socialistic claim of the Revolution. In other respects, a mixed economy was favored; and with the exception of the nationalization of railroads, the oil industry, and other basic services, the state interfered only moderately in the free-enterprise system. Given this state of affairs, and the fact that the mixed economy was fostered as a means for politicians-turned-plutocrats to invest their ill-gotten fortunes, this moderately laissez-faire type of economy was the breeding ground for a new plutocracy. Partly because of lack of entrepreneurial ability and partly because of government impediments, the traditional aristocracy-plutocracy of the era of Porfirio Díaz did not essentially participate in the formation of the new plutocracy; and today only a minimal number of aristocrats may also be said to be plutocratic magnates. The beginnings of the new plutocracy may be traced to the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928); and by the last years of President Miguel Alemán's administration (1946-1952) it was exerting a mayor impact on the life of the nation. During the past forty years this new plutocracy has become a ruling class, not only by virtue of its great wealth but because it also includes many former high-ranking politicians.

The political class of Mexico today is directly or indirectly of revolutionary extraction: mostly of middle-class origin or more modest circumstances, once or twice removed from these milieux. More intimately relevant for the problem at hand, plutocrats of nonpolitical origin are mostly of middle-class extraction, considerable numbers are "self-made men," and many have training in the law and other professions. While some of the families of plutocratic magnates in the 1950s were already in control of certain entrepreneurial activity on the eve of the Revolution or shortly after, most of the great fortunes of Mexico today began to be made in the 1930s and 1940s and in a few instances during the years immediately following the armed phase of the Revolution. This period coincides with a significant migration of European, Near Eastern, and a few U.S. entrepreneurs. They came to Mexico with a certain amount of capital and almost invariably with a good deal of technical and financial expertise. All great fortunes were made in banking, industry, commerce, and services, as mining, transportation, and oil had become state enterprises. Most great fortunes were made during the administration of President Alemán and in the early 1970s, primarily in banking and industry.

The relationship between the political class (all high government officials of the administration in power, influential former officials, and the ruling clique of the PRI) and the plutocracy may be characterized as a delicate balancing act, in which the ostensibly socialistic aims and programs of the government are always pitted against the capitalist free-enterprise interests of the plutocracy. Policy and issues are decided so that government (actually the ruling party) is made to look "revolutionary" on behalf of the people's social welfare but without significantly altering or dislocating the free-enterprise system that ultimately serves the politicians' plutocratic interests. Most aspects of the private-public interaction (labor disputes, wage scales, labor-management relations, and so on) are regulated by this unstated covenant; and the occasional drastic actions of the government that seriously affect the free-enterprise system are frequently determined by their effect on the economic interests of plutocratic politicians.

Finally, the aristocracy has perilously managed to maintain a foothold in the emerging social class. To put it in recent historical perspective, the plutocracy, with which the dying aristocracy has been increasingly interacting since the late 1940s, is coalescing into the new social class at the top of the Mexican stratification system. The interaction has been more intimate and sustained with the nonpolitical segment of the plutocracy. Plutocrats of political extraction have been more reticent to acquire the behavior and modes of expression of the traditional aristocracy (by now somewhat filtered and modified by plutocratic accommodations) and remain to a large extent marginal to the main aristocratic-plutocratic circles.

The coalescing of these rather disparate sectors at the top of the Mexican stratification system is largely governed by a process of expressive acculturation. Throughout this book, these strands are analyzed in the following manner. Expressive imperatives of aristocratic provenance—and plutocratic aspirations and the validation of social status—are in the process of coalescing into a single entity spanning the three basic sectors of the Mexican haute bourgeoisie. The final renewal in the upper reaches of the Mexican stratification system is not yet quite complete, but its basic form is evident: the political class is unmistakably embodied in the ruling political party but changing rapidly toward greater diversification; the ruling class is a mixture of politicians-turned-plutocrats and new plutocrats of nonpolitical extraction; while the social upper class is now in the process of rapid change, in which the old aristocracy is at the end of its existence and the new plutocracy is asserting itself.


By Hugo G. Nutini

Hugo G. Nutini is University Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

"This book is unique. There is simply no other extensive treatise on the Mexican aristocracy. . . . The scholarship is sound. Nutini knows Mexico better than any anthropologist alive."

—Henry R. Selby, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin

"Providing ample details about the Mexican aristocracy, Nutini raises intriguing questions about the nature of social class by highlighting the aristocracy's shifting place within Mexico's superordinate social stratum."

Journal of Anthropological Research

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