Undergraduate studies of military history and deviant sociology led Stephen Neufeld, associate professor of history, to immerse himself in Mexico City while conducting graduate research.
A mentoring professor, who also studied Mexican cultural history, became his graduate studies adviser and more than a decade later, Neufeld penned “The Blood Contingent: The Military and the Making of Modern Mexico, 1876-1911,” published by University of New Mexico Press in April.
“Put on the spot, I pitched a cultural history of military deviance as my thesis topic,” said Neufeld. “Fast forward a dozen years and I am very glad I did.”
Neufeld also co-edited and contributed to the 2015 University of Arizona Press book “Mexico in Verse: A History of Rhyme, Music and Power.” His chapter “Sly Mockeries of Military Men” received a Woodward Achievement Award.
What is the subject of your book?
“Blood Contingent” is a cultural and social history that examines the lives of soldiers, their families and younger officers in the Mexican Army between 1876 and 1911, just before the Mexican Revolution. To get a full picture, it delves into many areas, including recruitment, training, medicine, sexuality, drug use, and wars against bandits and native insurgencies. More broadly, it is also an analysis of how power relations between an emerging nation and its subject peoples actually works in practice, and what sort of legacies that style of rule leaves behind for later generations.
Why do you think it’s important for people to understand this subject?
The findings of this book are more topical than I perhaps understood when I began it. The U.S. has now been in a military-based, nation-building exercise abroad for more than 16 years, and sometimes the army is simply not the best tool for that sort of thing. In Mexico, the army wrote impunity into the 1917 Constitution (100 years ago) and still uses this to shelter soldiers and officers from prosecutions for violent crimes during this recent cartel war. More generally, understanding the workings of power in politics and society better informs us and our sense of civic place.
What new or surprising information did you discover during your research?
One surprising part of this project for me came in the importance and agency of the women (soldaderas) and families in the pre-revolutionary barracks, for which there really were no histories available. Also intriguing, and not well studied, was the sheer intensity of the anti-indigenous campaigns in terms of genocidal violence and uprooting of communities. A happier surprise came in the researching itself, as I found it hard to leave Mexico City and it became a new home for me.
What related or current research projects are you working on now?
Currently, I am working on a project for University of New Mexico Press of a digitalized classroom game for undergraduate students that draws them into the world described in “Blood Contingent” — they get to play various factions, do some backstabbing and generally empathize with the main historical actors. Somewhat larger and longer term, I am working on a new book project about the relationship between animals and humans in Mexico that examines stray dogs, bull fights, army animals, medical testing and game hunting.