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Positively nuts

31 January 2018

In my first edition of Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, I devoted only a sentence to Positivism when talking about immigration to Mexico in the Porfirian era. I don’t want to write a treatise on Latin Amrican Positivism, but on the other hand, I can’t get away with just saying “the Cientificos were positive they were right”, and leave it at that, either.

A couple of notes:

I’m leading up to a discussion of why “whitening” was never really successful. With the United States also in a “Social Darwinist” mood, thanks to “Jim Crow” and later the Chinese Exclusion Act, non-European migrants would often opt to immigrate to Mexico over the United States. And, with African Americans, sometimes FROM the United States.

Juana Catalina Romero is discussed earlier. Said to have been Porfirio’s first love, she was a Zapoteca street vendor who worked her way up to one of the richest women of her era. Her relationship with Porfirio was symbiotic, her behind the scenes political advice and support being a quid pro quo for her free hand in building her business empire of mining concessions, agricultural exports, and retail stores in Oaxaca.

Positivism had a much greater effect on Mexico and Latin America, in things other than immigration and racial theories, but I’ll get to that elsewhere.

Positivism and immigration

Porfirio Díaz may have presented himself (and largely remained) a simple soldier from Oaxaca, but when it came to his advisors and cabinet, his choice fell on the era’s elites: with the singular exception of his Juana Catalina Romero, he was surrounded by rich, well-born white men, while honest and well-intentioned for the most part, were out-of-touch with the masses. Díaz’ “think tank”… los cientificos (the scientists) … were, to a man, influenced by the then “modern” philosophy of Positivism.

At its most basic, the Positivists said that all human knowledge is based on the logical interpretation of natural events. In other words: What you see is what you get. Having fought both the clerical party in the Reforma, and the monarchists during the French intervention, the new elites of Porfirio’s generation naturally gravitated to a school of thought that no longer depended on either tradition or divine revelation for guidance. However, Positivism lost something in translation when it reached Latin America.

Porfirio was the great nationalist hero who had heroically fought against the French, but Positivism was for the most part a French import. Positivism had first developed in France, and Latin American intellectuals largely depended on French writers for their own understanding of the new thinking. Positivists’ experience of the world being that of France, Porfiro depended on ironically enough men who saw their former enemy as the source of not only the best thinking of the time, but as a nation to emulate if they wanted to turn their weak nation into one that could fend off further foreign intervention… from, among others… France!

The cientificos, like other Positivists, had adopted the best of the new scientific thinking from Europe, as well as some of the worst. Misreading Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in which “survival of the fitest” meant the survival of a species in a given place meant the successful breeding by those individuals who had best adapted to their environment to mean that those human cultures that were the most “advanced” were the “fittest”: the French, naturally, seeing France as the ideal of an advanced culture. Quite logically, the cientificos could cite statistics showing that European workers were more productive than Mexicans, not noticing the Europeans were better fed, housed, and clothed than their own people, and that western Europe was highly industrialized fifty years earlier, in large part thanks to natural resources imported from colonial possessions and countries like Mexico. All factors that were overlooked by “Social Darwinism”: France and western Europe were thriving because the people were more “developed”. The cientificos saw “whitening” the population as an imperative for national development.

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