Excerpt: Apostle of Progress

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Apostle of Progress: Modesto C. Rolland, Global Progressivism, and the Engineering of Revolutionary Mexico (January 2019) by J. Justin Castro. This is the newest title in the The Mexican Experience series, which includes books that explore the rich and varied character of the Mexican experience through narrative, description, and analysis.


9781496211736I hope that my academic peers find Apostle of Progress to be a compelling work of scholarship, but I wrote this book with a broader audience in mind. I wanted to create a narrative story that provides students and interested members of the general public an enjoyable and engaging entry point into the dynamics of twentieth-century Mexican history. With this in mind, I am going to make my historiographical discussion brief.

This book draws from a number of historiographical branches. Influences include works in biography and narrative history, the history of progressivism, the history of science and technology, and the history of the Mexican Revolution and its legacies. For students and general readers interested in delving deeper into these scholarly threads and other topics covered in this book, a close reading of my notes and bibliography will provide a start down those paths.

In my exploration of progressivism I build on publications written by a number of outstanding historians who have worked on revealing the international breadth of progressive thought, policies, and social action in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The historian James T. Kloppenberg’s explanation of how U.S. progressives changed their conceptions of liberalism applies well to the thinking of many of their contemporaries in Mexico who became involved in the Mexican Revolution: “these thinkers turned the old liberalism into a new liberalism, a moral and political argument for the welfare state based on a conception of the individual as a social being whose values are shaped by personal choices and cultural conditions.” Like Kloppenberg, most authors who discuss progressivism in a global context have focused on the connections between western Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. One of the firm conclusions I came to while writing Apostle of Progress is that this discussion of global progressivism needs to be expanded further into Mexico if we are to more fully comprehend the revolution, the initiatives that it birthed, and a more complete understanding of the world during this era. I think scholars examining other parts of Latin America would also benefit from more deeply exploring the influence of this complicated intellectual and social phenomenon.

Historians besides myself have made the connection between agents of the Mexican Revolution and a more encompassing worldwide movement, though they have rarely addressed such a connection in clear terms or focused on the topic specifically. Most of these scholars have linked Mexican intellectuals and U.S. progressives without discussing Mexico as part of a larger, more global progressive phenomenon. My book fleshes out these transnational connections.

In connection with my argument on progressivism, I demonstrate that Rolland was a person essential to Carranza’s savvy U.S. foreign policy. Building on the works of historians who have explored Mexican operatives in the United States during the Mexican Revolution, I argue that Carranza’s agents were proactive and often successful at manipulating the U.S. public, especially through their collaboration with U.S. progressives and their media outlets. Rolland was an instrumental player in using progressive networks to solidify support for Carranza’s faction.

Other related gaps in the historiography I hope to address are the limited coverage of moderate, middle-class specialists and the importance of infrastructure projects to nation-state building in Mexico during the revolution and into the mid-twentieth century. Scholars—especially those who have focused on the environment, economists, agronomists and surveyors, development, and the history of technology—have begun to address this lacuna, but there is still much work to be done. I don’t claim to fill this gap completely, but I think this book makes a contribution.

It is also my desire to bring further nuance to studies of the Mexican Revolution and its consequences. Even if less black and white than Steinbeck, some of the most sophisticated histories on the revolution still possess a sort of polarizing, cinematic quality, with larger-than-life personalities clashing in an epic contest for Mexico’s future. But the near constant focus on stark oppositions between men like the firm patrician Venustiano Carranza and the peasants’ hero Emiliano Zapata has long obscured the importance of Rolland and others like him. Rolland was a major player in developmental projects in Mexico from 1906 to 1952, and he was not alone. Recounting the story of the revolution without engineers and other mid-level planners makes for a very incomplete understanding of the revolution and the construction of modern Mexico. I hope to complicate these dichotomous portrayals by emphasizing a middle-out sort of history that argues that mid-level technocrats, intellectuals, and bureaucrats had a longer-lasting, more intricate, and more important impact on the conduct and legacies of the revolution than is usually acknowledged.

Exploring Rolland’s life and work provides a window into his technocratic worldview and, to some extent, the mentalities of many of his colleagues, people essential to the construction of modern Mexico and to what Rolland perceived as progress. Working in so many facets of development during the first half of the twentieth century, Rolland serves as a lens through which we may examine the Mexican Revolution, relations of power, engineering practices, infrastructural development, political ecology, transnational exchanges, and Mexican politics. This book is a history of one man’s life, but it is also a history of engineers and the neglected personalities who during the Mexican Revolution worked between military chieftains on one side and impoverished soldiers on the other—those individuals who drew up the blueprints, printed newspapers, implemented reforms, and constructed complexity, people all too often forgotten but who built modern Mexico and created a more global world. This is a history about dreamers of progress and the doubts they created.

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