Books That Inspire 2005

Pueblo en Vilo
Luis Gonzalez

In 1972 Luis Gonzalez published Pueblo en Vilo (The Waiting Village), in which he reconstructed the history of his home town in San Jose de Gracia, a small Mexican community in the western state of Michoacan. John Upton’s translation as San Jose de Gracia brought the work to English-language readers two years later, and it has remained a classic thereafter. The story of this Mexican nowhereville is gripping. Families gradually settled there in the early 1800s and formed a thriving community composed mostly of small farms.

The social and cultural life of the intensely local, almost xenophobic inhabitants revolved around the Catholic church, and the parish priest remained at the center of most events and decisions. But as they lived out their small lives trouble was brewing elsewhere: the Mexican Revolution, a decade-long fury that claimed the lives of one of every ten Mexicans, began to engulf the country.

One day the violence came to San Jose de Gracia, and there was no one to help them. Bandits and revolutionaries terrorized the western villages; worse still, in 1926, the revolutionary government’s attempts to reduce the powers of the church resulted in a bloodletting known as the Cristero War.

Events reached their climax in 1938, when visionary president Lazaro Cardenas personally negotiated peace in San Jose, earning him legendary status in the town: “He did not kill; he was merciful; he held back the religious persecution; he brought peace.” What is most astonishing is Gonzalez’s ability to tell the story of a simple people without condescension or condemnation.

Forty years later, San Jose de Gracia remains a triumph of history from the ground up, a model for writers who want to capture the intersection of national and local narratives.
Terry L Rugeley
Department of History