At the end of 1914, two armies commanded by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa converged on Mexico City. On 6 December, the two men were photographed in the National Palace, taking turns to sit in the presidential chair. Their occupation of the capital seemed to signal a turning point in the Revolution that had begun in 1910, apparently placing the country’s destiny in the hands of peasant militias from Morelos and Villa’s battle-hardened Northern Division. Yet after a few weeks they abandoned the city to return to the countryside. Three years later, it was the Constitutionalist army led by Venustiano Carranza—the very troops from whom Villa and Zapata had taken over the capital—that emerged strongest from the fray, and was able to consolidate its hold on power.

The 1914 meeting of Zapata and Villa is one of the great what-ifs of Mexican history: how different would its twentieth century have been if the rebel leaders had held onto the capital? What kind of place might the country have become if it had not been ruled by the Constitutionalist generals and their successors in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (pri), which governed Mexico uninterrupted until 2000? Yet tempting as this counterfactual scenario is, it is built on shaky foundations. During the heat of battle, it may have seemed as if Zapata and Villa were fighting in a common cause. But as John Tutino observes in The Mexican Heartland, they and their armies ultimately represented two different ‘ways of being Mexico’—not just distinct regional backgrounds and socio-economic patterns, but also incompatible developmental paths. Zapata raised his Liberation Army from among predominantly poor, indigenous communities to the south of Mexico City; Villa’s men were mainly drawn from among smallholders, ranch hands and herdsmen from the North. Where Zapata’s armies fought for land that would enable them to subsist free of the growing pressures of commerce, Villa’s stood to gain from an expansion of market-oriented agriculture. In the end, their interests ran in different directions, and neither won out; the country’s post-revolutionary leaders first pursued an economic strategy built on oil exports, before turning to a model of national-industrial development.

The Revolution occurs four-fifths of the way through The Mexican Heartland, which traces a long arc from the Conquest to the twenty-first century. As the title suggests, it focuses on a swathe of territory at the country’s centre, stretching about a hundred miles from north to south and taking in not only the mountain-ringed valley in which Mexico City itself sits, but also three broad basins surrounding it: the dry Mezquital to the north, the Valley of Toluca to the west, and Cuernavaca Valley to the south. For most of the centuries Tutino covers, these were overwhelmingly rural areas, their inhabitants largely indigenous peasants living in communities that retained a degree of juridical and administrative autonomy from Spanish colonial and post-independence regimes alike. Over the course of the book, however, we see that autonomy being eroded—sometimes gradually, sometimes with abrupt ferocity—even as urbanization swallows up increasing chunks of the land they depended on to survive. What begins as a history of early modern agrarian struggles ends with the daily battle for existence in the informal settlements that now surround Mexico City.

As one of the leading us historians of Mexico, Tutino is well placed to recount this story. Currently at Georgetown, he was born in 1947, and did his undergraduate degree at the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts before pursuing a doctorate at ut Austin in the 1970s. Throughout his work, he has followed the ebb and flow of socio-economic change in rural Mexico over large stretches of time. From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico (1986) spanned the years 1750 to 1940, and tried to explain how and why the dispersed, localized rural revolts of the nineteenth century turned into a national maelstrom in the early twentieth. In Making a New World (2011), Tutino covered a similarly lengthy time-span, from 1500 to 1810, focusing this time on the north of Mexico and in particular on the Bajío, a grain-producing area to the northwest of Mexico City that contained some of the Spanish Empire’s richest silver mines. The combination of agricultural and mineral bounty underpinned a thrusting commercialism that set these territories apart from those further south. In fact, in Tutino’s view there was no such place as ‘colonial Mexico’. There were, rather, two distinct colonial societies. ‘Spanish North America’, which covered an area stretching roughly from Querétaro, 130 miles northwest of Mexico City, to New Mexico, was a frontier society, ‘dynamic, multicultural, commercial’. By contrast, what Tutino called ‘Spanish Mesoamerica’, comprising the more densely populated territories to the south of the capital, home to myriad indigenous groups, was a ‘conquest society’ in which more coercive, tributary relations came to predominate.

In The Mexican Heartland, Tutino turns his attention to this second domain. He begins with the Conquest, and with the installation of a Spanish system of rule that in many respects carried over Mexica (Aztec) feudal traditions. Rather than seeing it as built on outright coercion, Tutino argues that Spanish colonialism in these territories was erected on a series of compromises—lop-sided, to be sure; but they at least allowed the indigenous inhabitants a limited autonomy. As well as being governed by a separate juridical system, known as the república de indios, they often held lands collectively, and retained a margin of economic independence through subsistence farming. Others were able to use local know-how to make a living as tlachiqueros, harvesting the maguey plant to distill and sell pulque. An increasing number of peasants were drawn into waged labour on haciendas, above all due to the prodigious growth of Mexican silver mining—overall production soared from over 2 million pesos in 1597 to 13 million by 1750, and had doubled again by 1809—which fuelled a rapid expansion of commercial agriculture, to supply food for the cities and mines. But as Tutino relates, many peasants remained only semi-entangled in these new forms of exploitation, and the old communal ways persisted—much to the despair of landlords seeking to tie labourers to their estates, as well as of priests appalled by the loose morals and syncretic religious practices of their flocks.

In Tutino’s view, this system of what he calls ‘symbiotic exploitations’ was the foundation on which the Spanish Empire was built. (The term is a little awkward: it probably didn’t feel all that symbiotic to those on the receiving end.) Yet the colonial order broke down dramatically at the start of the nineteenth century, with the collapse first of the Spanish monarchy in 1808, and then of its outposts in the Americas over the following decade and a half. In Mexico, thousands of campesinos joined the insurrectionary army of Father Miguel Hidalgo in September 1810, tramping back and forth across the country’s burning middle, from the Bajío to Toluca. But a large proportion of the residents of Tutino’s Heartland seems to have avoided the turmoil of battle, which lasted another eleven years. Indeed, in those territories not devastated by the fighting, the implosion of the colonial system meant that lands previously dedicated to market-oriented production were in many cases turned back over to subsistence farming. The new country that emerged in 1821 was economically all but ruined: its silver mines were producing less than half their 1810 output, its commercial networks were in tatters, and many landlords had been bankrupted. As Tutino points out, though, this was not such a disaster as far as the Heartland’s peasants were concerned; for them, ‘the commercial collapse of the post-independence decades was not a problem, but a welcomed respite.’

Yet although independence relieved many of the burdens weighing on the rural populace—most obviously the colonial tribute system—it also did away with the repúblicas de indios, and whatever legal protections they entailed. Over the course of the nineteenth century, a prolonged struggle would take place between a nascent national elite and local communities. Liberals in particular sought to replace traditional collective landholding rights with individualized titles, in some cases privatizing the ground from beneath the campesinos’ feet. Periods of turbulence at the national level—invasion and defeat by the us in 1846–48; the War of Reform of 1857–60 between liberals and conservatives; invasion and occupation by the French in 1862–67—punctuated and partially impeded a steady erosion of community autonomies. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, a recovery of silver mining and the beginnings of industrial growth began to pull Mexico’s rural populations more closely into the embrace of markets, and to generate increasing disparities of wealth. To many contemporary observers, the sudden enrichment of select individuals was inexplicable except by reference to some infernal pact. Tutino cites striking testimony from Xalatlaco, on the eastern slopes of the Valley of Toluca, where one resident asserted that the wealth of local bigwig Dolores Reynoso ‘did not come from work, but from “the Other”’. Reynoso’s own nephew recalled similar rumours about the source of his uncle’s gains: ‘There are people in San Agustín who tell how at midnight a wagon descended, all illuminated and amid thunder; it brought money from the hill named Cuahuatl and deposited it in town.’