Hispanic American Historical Review (HAHR) Interview with Professor Mikael D. Wolfe
1. How did you come to Mexico as an area of research?
Before I became a Mexicanist, I studied the history of Japan and Korea. I took a break from graduate school at the University of Chicago and worked for an environmental NGO in Mexico City, where I learned a lot about Mexico’s environmental challenges and got interested in environmental history. Attending a talk by Mexico’s preeminent history of water, Luis Aboites, at the Colego de México, sealed the deal for me in changing my field from East Asia to Latin America (and therefore my decision to stay in graduate school): Aboites’s presentation was on the Archivo Histórico del Agua, a vast repository of water-related materials from across Mexico, about which he said, “there are many theses waiting to be written using these materials.” I answered his call, and the rest is history!
2. Your previous, award-winning book covered water uses in the arid Comarca Lagunera region in north-central Mexico. How, if at all, did your HAHRarticle on climate and the Mexican Revolution develop from this previous study?
The research I did for my first book led me directly to this second book project on climate and revolution in Mexico and Cuba. In examining water and land reform through the lens of engineers, landowners, peasants, and politicians in the Laguna region during the postrevolutionary period (1920s to 1960s), climatic variability often came up in my sources. However, I didn’t make the topic central to my book or engage directly with climate history as such. In my HAHR article, I make climate central by explicitly investigating its connection to the agrarian origins of the Mexican Revolution, not just in the Laguna but also throughout the country.
3. The historiography on the Mexican Revolution is daunting. How did you deal with this challenge? And how does your article contribute to this historiography?
Yes, indeed it is daunting. There is a voluminous historiography on the revolution that would take a lifetime (and probably more) to read all of carefully. However, the environmental history of the revolution is still in its infancy, as I discovered in my review of detailed studies of drought and other extreme weather phenomena shortly before and during the revolution. I expand on the handful of these older studies, mainly from the 1980s and 1990s, in my article by incorporating heretofore-untapped historical climatological data—namely, NASA’s Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), available online since 2005. The PDSI displays the severity of drought in select areas of the world going back to the 1870s, when instrumental meteorological records began to be kept regularly, including in Mexico. Like any source, the PDSI has its limitations, but used in conjunction with other contemporary sources such as meteorological and Agricultural Society bulletins, newspapers, and government correspondence, it provides a reasonably clear picture of climatic variability in Mexico from 1907 to 1911—the years during which the Mexican government of Porfirio Díaz faced unprecedented economic and political challenges to his decades-long authoritarian rule. And that picture shows not one but rather several different droughts of varying intensity, across Mexico. Where rural rebellions were most powerful in Morelos and the northern border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango, there is a discernible correlation between the rebellions that gained steam in early 1911 and the various droughts during much of 1909 and 1910. But correlation should not be confused with causation, and I do not argue for the latter in my article, but rather something quite different and novel (see reply below).