THE CULTURE OF THE MEXICAN ARISTOCRACY--IN THE LIGHT OF NUTINI’S STUDIES

June 23, 2020

I--Preamble: When one hears the gloss aristocracy, the first thought that comes to mind is that it pertains typically to Western Europe.  While there may be several definitions of the Greek rooted gloss (aristokratia), all concur in its referring to a small class of privileged people holding exceptional rank in society, such as the European nobility that was normally ranked immediately below royalty. Still, its crucial characteristic is that its titles are hereditary.

The Spanish colonizers transplanted to the New World much of Spain’s social institutional framework after the Conquest in early XVI century.  Since most of the conquistadores were commoners (i.e., plebeians), the Spanish Crown granted newly invented aristocratic titles to them.  But when the Latin American nations achieved independence in the XIX century, aristocratic privileges became largely dissipated as social upward mobility became possible based primarily on educational and economic achievement, and no longer solely on ascription.  Nevertheless, the aristocracy’s social prestige did not disappear completely, being Mexico a prime example.

There are several sources of information on the Internet regarding the Mexican aristocracy (e.g., https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/descendants-of-cortes-moctezuma-meet/).  Nonetheless, this article addresses the pivotal research on this interesting topic by our own late University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Anthropology Professor Hugo G. Nutini [b.1928, Chile--d.2013, Mexico].  Indeed, this article is dedicated to his memory inasmuch as he would have turned 92 on this June 26, 2020.(1)

It has been duly credited that the development of anthropology as a discipline in the U.S. benefited from the presence in the “front yard” of the “exotic” North-American Indian, the proverbial “other.”  But one wonders if enough credit has been granted to neighboring Mexico in the history of U.S. anthropology as the vast anthropological “backyard” south of the Río Grande.  Likewise, Mexico was a Latin American pioneer in developing a national anthropology of its own (Aguirre-Beltrán, 1967).  But most foreign anthropologists have traditionally focused on the least privileged sectors of Mexican society. Paradigmatic of this approach were the studies of the “culture of poverty” by the famed late anthropologist Oscar Lewis.(2)

Nutini stands out among North-American anthropologists as he conducted intensive research in Mexico for five decades investigating diverse cultural aspects of just about every socio-economic layer, from rural Náhua Indians and mestizos in Central Mexico, to the other extreme in the social pinnacle: the remnants of the enigmatic aristocracy native of Mexico.(3)  Although there are several archaeological and ethno-historical studies of pre-Columbian aristocracies, there seems to be very few bona fide anthropological ethnographies of aristocracies elsewhere.(4)

II--Nutini’s Studies of the Mexican Aristocracy: Dr. Nutini encapsulated his findings of the Mexican aristocracy in two volumes that inspire this essay.

In Volume one, THE WAGES OF CONQUEST (1995), Nutini summarized the historical background of the Mexican aristocracy [hereafter Mex-Ari] from the Spanish Conquest times to the beginning of its decline with the 1910 Mexican Revolution.(5)  The tome, based primarily on ethnohistorical and archival sources, eruditely portrayed the Mex-Ari in the milieu of Western aristocracies, notwithstanding those still reluctant to recognize Latin Americans in that context.(6)  The critique presented here, however, centers on the second volume that is based more on ingenious ethnographic field research.

In Volume II, THE MEXICAN ARISTOCRACY (2004) published nine years after the first tome, Nutini creatively presented descriptive information about the remnants of the Mex-Ari. This sequel chronicled the evolution of the Mex-Ari since the Revolution and also constitutes the first —and only so far— “expressive ethnography” of a social class.  Essentially, it imaginatively problematized the peculiar expressive aspects of the Mexican aristocracy.  Nutini achieved this through the application of an eclectic synchronic/diachronic approach that predominantly integrates quantitative and qualitative data gathered through the typical ethnographic participant-observation, including interviews, in the field with Mexican aristocrats that he was able to identify and locate.

By “expressive culture” it is meant here the body of the shared, culturally transmitted socio-expressive aspects of a community that normally have an emotional significance with no apparent immediate utilitarian end (see Note 1).  That is, their manifestations represent an end in itself.  Moreover, while psychologically grounded and individually internalized, expressive culture has an ultimate collective manifestation, as illustrated by the Mex-Ari’s key expressive domains listed below in Section IV.

III--Why A Creole Aristocracy?  By creole aristocracy it is meant here the Mexican-born aristocracy that basically consists of an auto-identified, self-conscious network of families claiming ancestry to one or more early Spanish aristocrat, usually a conquistador.  Although nobility privileges were officially abolished with independence in 1821, the Mex-Ari has preserved a sui generis Weltanschauung (worldview).  While haute bourgeois and nouveau riche plutocrats have penetrated the aristocracy’s ranks through marriages, it is still a rather exclusionary network of about 5,500 “members” (roughly 0.05 percent of the 128+ million Mexicans), clustered in some 800+ households.(7)

Although aristocratic families used to be dispersed throughout the country, the Mex-Ari has evolved into an urban elite with leading enclaves in Mexico City’s select neighborhoods, such as the Lomas de Chapultepec, located toward the end of the elegant Paseo de la Reforma.  Yet, a few bona fide aristocratic families still remain in the legendary cities of Guadalajara, Puebla and even Tlaxcala.

Phenotypically, Mexican aristocrats are indistinguishable from their European counterparts.  These prevailing somatic traits are shared with the rest of the approximately top 10 percent of Mexico’s social pyramid.  That is, their appearance is distinct from the largely mestizo majority with a mixed indigenous background.

Only one of Nutini’s informants interviewed exhibited indigenous phenotypical features and, in fact, displayed an atavistic honor in the family’s “mixed heritage.”(8). A few others, notwithstanding their European appearance, boasted pride in tracing ancestry to XVI century indigenous nobles.  A case in point is a male interviewee who claimed descendancy to the Tlaxcalan princess Luisa Xicohtencatl and her conquistador husband, Pedro de Alvarado.(9)  As expected, the Mex-Ari aspires to be endogamous.  Notwithstanding, given the relatively limited pool of mates and the more egalitarian tendencies of the younger generations, exogamy cannot be controlled.  Still, when it occurs, it still primarily with similarly European-looking plutocrats and at times foreigners (See Note 7).

Contrary to simplistic, largely Marxist-oriented schemas, neither during colonial times, nor the republic did the Mex-Ari enjoy political supremacy.(10)  The 1930’s socialistic land-reforms further diminished its influence in the economic sphere by altering the rather archaic hacienda system that was the aristocracy’s pillar as the provincial hegemonic class.  Nonetheless, manipulating to their advantage their ever-evolving social capital, aristocrats have sustained a respectable economic position through their privileged education and personal networks, as well by engaging in business, banking and intellectual professions; these encompass attorneys, physicians, authors, educators, and even anthropologists.  Ironically, most ordinary Mexicans are by and large oblivious to the Mex-Ari, to the aristocrats’ delight, given their penchant for inconspicuousness.

Typical of Latin American upper-crust, Mexican aristocrats, while still outwardly politically nationalistic, tend to be Europhilic and, likewise, ambivalent vis-à-vis the U.S., whose culture they often judge as “too vulgar” for their own conception of refined taste.(11, 12)

IV--Expressive Domains: Nutini’s sample of informants interviewed consisted of an estimated 55 percent of the extant Mexican-born aristocracy.  This is remarkable, considering the unique investigative conditions of such a dispersed, numerically veritable minority community whose members are, naturally, suspicious of “outsiders.”  Indeed, they must have been cautious with Nutini as a non-aristocrat foreigner, even if one with decades of Mexican residence, and despite his being married to a Mexican, and father of two Mexican sons.  The research universe ingeniously encompassed children and adolescents; and the ethnographic present is the 1980s.

Nutini describes over 230 “expressive domains” pertinent to the Mex-Ari, such as material culture, hobbies and etiquette:  Aristocrats belong to exclusive clubs where they engage in horseback-riding, and play polo and tennis.  At their tastefully decorated homes —staffed by mestizo servants— family heirlooms and hunting firearms are displayed, as are treasured antiques, together with expensive paintings and book collections.  But their expressive array is centered on ideational traits, slighting the material traits that they associate with the presumed less-spiritual plutocrats, to wit:

A)  Above all, is kinship; Mex-Ari’s households are psychological palliative shrines for the cult of the ancestors in a quest to uphold continuity with a nostalgic past.

B)  However, compadrazgo ritual kinship —a topic of which Nutini was a world authority— is limited.  This contrasts with the high socio-economic value bestowed to ritual kinship by the average Mexican (Alum, 2018).

C)  Since the farcical French invasion (1861-1865), which most aristocrats supported, the Mex-Ari’s material expressive culture added a penchant for cultural symbols from France, a country that they like to visit often, aside from visits to their putative ancestral Spain.

D)  As elsewhere in Latin America, and contrary to ill-informed speculations in U.S. intellectual circles, Mexican aristocrats rarely participate in electoral politics, which they consider beneath them.  However, some aristocrats, thanks to their privileged education, social prestige and personal contacts, obtain certain appointments —excused as discharging noblesse oblige— typically to judiciary and diplomatic posts.

V--Coda: Suggestions for Further Research: Ideally, further research on the Mex-Ari, in order to complement, expand and update Nutini’s captivating projects, should consider gathering information about certain aspects absent or incomplete in Nutini’s volumes; such as:

a)   Genealogical charts to support the description of the aristocracy’s inter-family networks.

b)  A listing of the patronymics that are often considered emblematic aristocratic determinants (e.g., Amerlinck, Céspedes, de la Cámara, etc.).

c)  A list of the most frequent aristocratic first names [are they mostly European “nobility-sounding”?  Also, how often are the first names repeated throughout the generations as to honor ancestors?].

In sum, Nutini showed how contemporary Mexico may serve as a social “laboratory” regarding a hitherto little-known and fast vanishing tiny aristocracy.  He opened the door for the legitimate anthropological study of aristocracies in Latin America; his extraordinary legacy should continue.

Likewise, Nutini’s aristocracy volumes should be translated to Spanish so that monolingual Spanish-speaking researchers can make better use of them.  It is hoped that this modest article motivates younger scholars, both in Mexico and the U.S., to pursue this worthy inquiry further.

VI--NOTES

(1) For the sake of full disclosure, Dr. Nutini was the principal co-mentor of the author of this article at Pitt’s Anthropology doctoral program in the 1970s; Dr. John “Jack” Roberts [b.1916-d.1990] was the other co-mentor.  Roberts influenced Nutini to adopt the “expressive culture” approach, which is discussed in the text of this article. Moreover, the author has published about one-and-a-half dozen writings in different venues showcasing Nutini’s and Roberts’ individual, as well as their joint contributions to the discipline of anthropology (e.g., 2013, <https://www.ucis.pitt.edu/clas/sites/default/files/CLASicos73.pdf>; see also Notes 2 and 3).

(2) Based on research initially conducted among Mexican rural-to-urban migrants, Lewis (1961) caused never-ending controversies with his then novel and ingenious “culture of poverty” theories; i.e., the opposite of the “culture of the aristocracy” explored here vis-à-vis Nutini’s studies. Lewis’ polemics were repeated with his writings on poor Puerto Ricans, and again on his “discovery” of the culture of poverty in post-revolutionary Cuba. Lewis defined his concept through some 70 attributes (e.g., marginality, fatalism, absence of class and social consciousness, etc.). Perhaps that list may now seem amenable to a renewed “expressive culture” scrutiny à la Nutini-&-Roberts (see Note 1).  Incidentally, while Lewis’ prior writings generated ire among Mexican and Puerto Rican intellectuals, in Socialist Cuba it was the regime that expelled him from that island-nation; worse still, unfortunately, Lewis had to leave behind a key Cuban collaborator imprisoned by the Castro brothers’ government for his involvement with Lewis  (vid. Alum, 2015 <https://www.panoramas.pitt.edu/news-and-politics/cuban-culture-poverty-conundrum>; and Alum, 2019).

(3) The author of this article reviewed Nutini’s Mexican aristocracy second volume for an anthropological journal (Alum, 2007).  Additionally, some qualitative data gathered by the author, especially during his two recent trips to various places in Mexico (March and September/2019), are incorporated here, as are some minor excerpts from his presentations in Spanish at the Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala’s conferences honoring the legacy of Nutini to Mexican anthropology.  Moreover, the author thanks several colleagues for their critiques to prior drafts of his writings, particularly Barry Isaac, as well as Jean Nutini and Richard Scaglion, both of whom were my Pitt classmates.  Additionally, Isaac and Jean Nutini (Dr. Nutini’s wife) tour-guided me throughout Tlaxcala last fall at the conclusion of the conclusion of the conference that paid homage to Dr. Nutini.  Only the author, however, is responsible for his opinions expressed here (see Note 1).  Likewise, he routinely welcomes all constructive critiques {ralum@pitt.edu}.

(4) See anthropologists Kuper’s (1947) unusual studies of African Swazi’s aristocracy, Hayden’s (1987) of British royalty, and Lebra-Sugiyama’s (1993) of Japanese nobility.

(5) Notwithstanding its socialistic overtones, the Mexican Revolution —happily— did not follow the deleterious totalitarian Communist models later imposed in Eastern European, Asian, African, and Latin American nations.  Admittedly, though, governmental corruption has been the rule, rather than the exception ever since, something that every new presidential administration promises to eliminate, to no avail.

(6) A mostly Anglo-European snobbish intellectual quasi-doctrine, which resurfaces at times under distinct guises, views Iberian-origin cultures as marginal to Western civilization (e.g., Dean, 1966).

(7) By “plutocracy,” Nutini means the non-aristocratic but more affluent upper-class that —unlike the aristocracy— normally does engage in politics, and further usually serves as the backbone of the emerging superordinate class.  Although Mexico is home to some of the world’s richest families, contrary to confusing perceptions, none is part of the real aristocracy studied by Nutini.

(8) The manipulation of socio-racial identities has at times reached policy levels in Latin America.  For example, Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) —a former anti-French invasion (1861-1867) hero of mestizo origins whose continuismo prompted the Revolution— sought European immigrants “to improve ‘the Mexican race’” [sic].  But in the Dominican Republic, the bloody Trujillo dictatorship (1930-61) instituted worse ethnic-cleansing projects, including the genocide of Haitian immigrants.  Incidentally, Trujillo was still granted an honoris causa degree by a prestigious U.S. university, as the author of this article noted again recently (https://www.periodicocubano.com/un-recuento-comparativo-del-trujillato-y-el-castrismo/).

(9) Although archaeologists and ethnohistorians would object to my over-generalization, let us say, for argument sake that, comparably to the Inca Empire, Aztec society in Central Mexico had two basic strata: (i) the less numerous aristocracy, (ii) and just about everyone else, if with various nuanced social stages.  In both New World nuclear areas —Mesoamerica and the Andes— the invading Spaniards attempted to absorb some of the indigenous nobility.  This practice was also convenient when the Tlaxcaltecas allied with the Spaniards vs. the Aztecs, who were their traditional pre-Conquest enemies (Isaac, 1983).  Incidentally, a Mexican writer, Carrillo de Albornoz (1998), has been publishing books about his claimed XVI century noble ancestor: Isabel Moctezuma.

(10) Notwithstanding false stereotypes in U.S. academic and journalistic venues, the military sector has not been normally an attractive career to the Latin American traditional upper classes.  I wonder if this may explain the antagonism of various recent military dictators —even if masqueraded as populists toward the social pinnacle; to wit, the Trujillo brothers in the Dominican Republic, 1930-1961; Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (followed by civilian Nicolás Maduro), since 1988; and particularly the Fidel and Raúl Castro comandante siblings in Cuba since 1959.

(11) The perception of the U.S. by most Latin American upper classes has varied little since the XIX century, when France-residing Cuban-born Countess of Merlin wrote about her “horrible impressions” of a visit to antebellum U.S. (Méndez-Rodena, 1998).  The aristocrats’ usual disdain for the U.S. egalitarian ideology may surprise many U.S. intellectuals who naïvely assume that top elites elsewhere routinely want to emulate U.S. society.

(12) The U.S. has not had an aristocracy per se, though —like plutocrats everywhere— the powerful rich try to imitate it.  Confusing the plutocracy as coterminous with pedigreed consanguineal lineage would disregard Nutini’s arduous clarifications.  During the XIX century Post-Reconstruction Era, many marriages were arranged for wealthy women to European cash-poor aristocrats (e.g., Winston Churchill’s mother to Lord Churchill).  Indeed, Cuban-American Consuelo Yznaga, Duchess of Manchester, was the grand dame marriage-broker who arranged for her goddaughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt (1953), and also for her sister, to marry English aristocrats. Indeed, Vanderbilt had been named Consuelo in Yznaga’s honor.  Interestingly, depicting the saga of a Gilded Age “princess” in her romantic novel, Elizabeth Wharton (1938) modeled her character Conchita after Yznaga.

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Aguirre-Beltrán, G., 1967, Regiones de Refugio.  Mexico: Instituto Indigenista.

  2. Alum, R., 2007, “Review of H. Nutini’s [2004], ‘The Mexican Aristocracy–An Expressive Ethnography’;”  IN: Political & Legal Anthropology Review, 30(2):363-366. 

  3. ---, 2013, “A la memoria del mexicanólogo Hugo Nutini;”  IN: Ahora News (N.J. & Puebla),  Mar. 05/2013.

  4. ---, 2018, “The Latin American compadrazgo;”  IN: Wiley’s Encyclopedia of Anthropology Anthropology; pp. 2196-2002.

  5. ---, 2019, “Nathan Glazer vs. Oscar Lewis on the Culture of Poverty;”  IN: Academic Questions (32):578-582.

  6. Carrillo de Albornoz, J. M., 1997, Los Hijos de Doña Isabel de Moctezuma. Mexico: Imagen.

  7. Dean, V., 1966, The Nature of the Non-Western World.  Mentor.

  8. Hayden, I, 1987, Symbol and Privilege--Ritual Context of British Royalty. University of Arizona Press.

  9. Isaac, B., 1983, “The Aztec Flowery War;”  IN:  Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 39(4):415-32.

  10. Kuper, H., 1947, An African Aristocracy.  Oxford.

  11. Lebra-Sugiyama, T., 1993, Above the Clouds.  University of California Press.

  12. Lewis, O., 1961, The Children of Sanchez.  Vintage.

  13. Méndez-Rodina, Adriana, 1998, Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba--The Travels of Condesa de Merlin.  Vanderbilt University Press.

  14. Nutini, H., 1995, The Wages of Conquest--The Mexican Aristocracy in the Context of Western Aristocracies. University of Michigan Press.

  15. ---, 2004, The Mexican Aristocracy--An Expressive Ethnography, 1910-2000. University of Texas Press.

  16. Vanderbilt-Balsan, C., 1953, The Glitter and the Gold. Harper.

  17. Wharton, E., 1938, The Buccaneers. Viking.

About Author(s)

Roland Armando Alum
ROLAND ARMANDO ALUM, is a New Jersey-based [external] Research Associate in anthropology with the Univ. of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies, from which he graduated, also received a Post-Doctoral Certificate from the Univ. of Virginia. A former Fulbright scholar in the Dominican Republic, he is a Fellow of the Society for Applied Anthropology, a trustee of DeVry Univ.-N.J., and vice-chair of both, the N.J. Certified Psychoanalysts Committee and the N.J. Center for Hispanic Policy, Research & Development. He has taught at several colleges/universities in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Dominican Rep. , and has in addition held N.J.-State & Federal high level executive and pro bono posts. His over 135 writings–-in English & Spanish—have been published in U.S. and foreign scholarly journals, books, encyclopedias, and newspapers. Among his research interests is the anthropology of dictatorships [ralum@pitt.edu].