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Mexico’s chroniclers tell the other half of history

BEFORE REVOLUTION swept Mexico in 1910, the most tumultuous episode in the history of San José de Gracia, a tiny town in the state of Michoacán, was neither a battle nor a reform. It was a rumour that the world would come to an end on December 31st 1900. Decades later Luis González y González, a native son of San José, described the ensuing pandemonium:

The church was filled with despairing people. No one wanted to be caught unshriven, but the priest could not hear everyone’s confession at once. He announced that he would begin with mothers who had babes in arms. There was uproar in the church when it was discovered that one of the women had been holding a pillow in her arms instead of a child.

“Pueblo en Vilo” (“Town on Edge”), the biography of San José from which this tale comes, is one of Mexico’s greatest books. González, a historian by training, turned the town’s recollections and archival documents into a story. “I have the feeling of being the official chronicler of the people, the compiler and constructor of collective memory,” he said. Cities and villages across Mexico have since appointed writers to be exactly that: hundreds of municipal governments now have an official cronista. Their job is to record noteworthy happenings on their patch, in the way they see...

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