A well-known Colombian novelist once talked about how sad he was when he killed off a character. Historians never face that problem; our characters die of their own volition, or someone else’s, and there’s not much we can do about it. Our problem is never writing about some people at all, about running out of space to put them in our books. Mid-twentieth-century Mexico left traces of many vivid characters in the archives who rarely make it into historical writing.
Sometimes these characters are whole groups of people. Muleteers were the men who drove large trains of pack animals carrying everything from sewing machines to brandy to nails and stockings through the country’s mountains, deserts, and forests. There weren’t many paved roads or trucks in Mexico until the 1940s, and the muleteers were the people who dealt with that lack of roads (and rivers too) to link together ports, railway stations, and a handful of cities with market towns, and through them villages and hamlets, and in doing so helped make a land mass into a country. In passing they learned a lot about how to deal with those different places and their important people, their merchants, ranchers, crooks, smugglers, and small-town politicians, and because of that local knowledge of many different localities muleteers made useful bandits and rebels, who ended up over and over again either being or breeding the powerful. The main hero of the Independence wars, Padre Morelos, was a muleteer. So was the father of the great nineteenth-century dictator Porfirio Díaz, and so were the men who overthrew him, among them Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata’s roguish brother Eufemio, and the families of no less than three revolutionary presidents.
Then there were some very different entrepreneurs of the cities, the newsboys who sold papers by shouting out headlines and their exaggerated glosses on the street corners. They get lost in the archives, their work taken for granted by citydwellers of the time as part of the background of urban life, not worth remarking, part of the everyday noise and smell that we on the other hand strain to grasp. Occasionally, though, they come into focus to remind us that they lived and mattered. One of the more haunting photos of the 1940s, the last days of black-and-white Mexico, is of a newsboy dying on election day, propped up on one hand as he struggles and fails to get back up. His name was Félix Rodríguez and he was rooting for the opposition, the caption said, and throwing rocks, and so the government’s gunmen shot him four times. The photo made me think of just what a political job a street urchin could have; the louder and more radical they were the more papers they sold, and so they were easily-forgotten but important intermediaries in the politics of the bigger towns and cities of the time.
A third lost figure is one whose profession was on the up just as muleteers and newsboys were becoming extinct: the spy, and one spy in particular, a man called Manuel Rios Thivol. He was a member of the Dirección General de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales, one of Mexico’s two post-war intelligence agencies, and he was a busy man. In one year alone, 1947, he investigated elections across Mexico, shut down gambling dens, went on a classified mission with the military, looked into two armed risings and a savage lynching, a wave of murders on the tropical coast, and finally asked for an interview with the Interior Minster to defend himself from accusations that he’d gone rogue. He was an army colonel but the Ministry of Defence had no record of his ever existing. He seemed, in short, a Mexican James Bond.
All of this is revealing in two ways. The first is the obvious; his reports, sequestered for decades in classified files in the Lecumberri penitentiary, point out a lot of important things. The Balsas rising in Guerrero, for example, has never registered with prior historians or anybody else outside of its immediate environs. Yet when a hundred armed men attack a railway station and proclaim it a rebellion it is quite significant. The second, perhaps less obvious, lesson in his file lies in its sheer size. Sophisticated intelligence agencies do not rely on a single agent to do so much of their work; James Bond is a fantasy. Manuel Rios Thivol was not a fantasy, though, and his colorful record is a cautionary tip off about the endemic weakness of the security services. Other evidence leads in this same direction; there is a revealing bureaucratic pathos in the administrative minutiae of the spies, with their paltry budgets, their lost files, their numerous sick days and broken film projector and remarkably short list of office furniture. But Rios Thivol dramatizes the point in an exciting fashion.
Historians aren’t always happy to meet the descendants of the people about whom they write. I got an email once from someone with the same name as one of the villains in my work, a corrupt and extremely violent general. They had heard I had given a paper on his grandfather, the email ran, and wondered if I could share it. Of course, I wrote back a bit nervously, delighted to, here it is attached, please do realize that these were different times, different mores etc. The reply came back along the lines of thanks very much, don’t worry about it, we always knew he was a son of a bitch. The descendants of another of the historical villains in my work, gangsters from central Veracruz, are still gangsters, running the region’s cartel; I wouldn’t much want to meet them either. I would have liked to have met Rios Thivol, though, or at least his descendants, in the faint hope of a trove of papers that would tell me more about him. The last time I looked, though, the only person sharing that name had been buried years ago by a funeral parlor in Querétaro.
Paul Gillingham is professor of history at Northwestern University. His book Cuauhtémoc’s Bones: Forging National Identity in Modern Mexico won the Conference on Latin American History’s Mexican History Book Prize.