Bringing Nuance to Mexican History

Jamie Locke-Jones
Friday 20 August 2021

Santa Anna is probably the historical figure most Mexicans love to hate. Although perceived as a hero by those who served under him during a 40-year political career, this six-times President of Mexico has since been described as ‘Traitor to the Homeland,’ ‘devious,’ ‘overambitious,’ ‘vulgar,’ and ‘corrupt’. (“The Oxford History of Mexico”, p.322) In the School of Modern Languages, Professor Will Fowler is helping to reconcile the two perspectives. 

Beyond ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ (Click to expand)

Professor Fowler’s is far from the first biography of Santa Anna; however, it deviates substantially from the precedent set by many of its predecessors. Until recently, Santa Anna has consistently been described as a traitor and tyrant. The list of charges levelled against him include recognising the independence of Texas after being captured by Texan forces in 1836, losing the Mexican-American War of 1846-8 on purpose, and selling parts of Mexico to the U.S. in 1853. These points are frequently used to draw the picture of a cynical opportunist who switched sides as it suited him, and upon whose shoulders the failings of Mexico’s Early Republican Period could be placed. Indeed, the period of his service is frequently known as the ‘Age of Santa Anna’. This legacy is in many ways characteristic of the ‘official history’ of Mexico, with its caricatures of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Mexicans who can often lack the depth of real and complicated human beings. Fowler’s biography is typical of a new historiographical wave that rejects this simplistic view. Initially published as Santa Anna of Mexico in 2007, Fowler’s work was the result of research in national and regional archives in Britain, Spain and the U.S. as well as Mexico. His findings complicate our view of Santa Anna’s legacy, revealing previously hidden motivations for some ostensibly devious actions and demonstrating others to be outright fabrications. The complexities of Santa Anna’s character reveal a much more sympathetic figure, largely undeserving of history’s low regard. 

Santa Anna of Mexico was translated and published in Spanish in 2010, with several reprints over the subsequent decade. In this time, Professor Fowler’s work has fundamentally altered perceptions of Santa Anna’s legacy. One example is the formation in 2014 of a local civic group, the Unión Cívica de Xalapa, which used Fowler’s research to promote a more positive understanding of the former president’s legacy. The group hosts regular events, including an annual commemoration of Santa Anna’s death, and recently a commemoration of the battle of Cerro Gordo of 1847. 

Fowler’s research has also had significant exposure and impact on a national level. This has included a series of media appearances, most recently in March 2020 when he was interviewed by award-winning investigative journalist Eduardo Ruiz-Healy, who later recognised that the experience had left him with a different perspective of Santa Anna. This experience has been replicated in the Mexican press, where national newspapers such as El Excélsior have praised Fowler for showing Santa Anna ‘in all his tonalities’.  

This national attention has since resulted in fundamental changes to the way Santa Anna’s history is taught, particularly at university level. In 2018, Fowler’s publication became compulsory reading in many higher education institutions in Mexico and has been a set text in modules spanning from undergraduate to postgraduate research levels. The student response has been extremely positive, exemplified by the claim of one student publication that Fowler has introduced them to ‘the complexities and contradictions of [our] historical experience’

This work contributed to the University of St Andrews’ REF 2021 submission.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a system which assesses research at UK Higher Education Institutions by discipline, based on three elements: outputs, impact and environment. This blogpost is based upon an impact case study that contributed to St Andrews’ outstanding results this REF cycle. Visit REF to view the submitted case study in the UKRI’s impact case study database.

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