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Historian takes readers on an epic journey through centuries of Mexican history

Epic Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Compact, clear-eyed yet comprehensive. That could be a short, snappy description of Terry Rugeley’s new book, “Epic Mexico: A History from Earliest Times.”

Before it was called Mexico, the country went by other early names – Mayab, Teotihuacán, Zempoala, Pátzcuaro, Aztlán and Chapultepec. The book hits many markers in the country’s history, dating from well before indigenous peoples came in contact with Europeans and coursing inexorably through three centuries of Spanish colonialism, followed by an independent Mexico established in 1821 to the present.

The amount of information between the covers may slow down readers.

Each chapter is filled with historically significant names of political and military leaders, indigenous peoples, cities, movements, revolutions, wars, and other human activities. To help readers understand these elements, Rugeley occasionally uses key words in Spanish or indigenous languages with English translations.

This book “allowed me to include everything I’ve studied about Mexico. It was a summary statement of my career,” says author and retired history professor Terry Rugeley.

Rugeley said in a phone interview that he wrote the book for readers – and even students – with little or no prior knowledge of the topic. So he wanted to make the book as accessible as possible and as complete as he could make it within the word count limit he was given.

Rugeley has this advice for readers: “I would say you have to pay attention to the long sweep of Mexican history. You have to look at the continuing of certain themes over hundreds of years, themes such as the ethnicities of Mexico, the relationship of people to the land, the issue of religion versus secular society and finally Mexico’s complicated relationship with the United States.”

That last-mentioned relationship sometimes involved what is today New Mexico, a land that was under the flags of New Spain and later Mexico until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In signing the treaty, Mexico ceded about 40% of its territory, including Texas and California, as well as all or parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, Rugeley writes.

Speaking of ethnicities, much of the population of New Spain in the colonial period (mid-1500s to mid-1600s) was either Spaniard, Indian or, to a greater degree, of mixed heritage (mestizo), he writes, noting “Spaniards scorned the mestizo, while Indian villagers wanted him nowhere around. But the process of mestizaje (racial blending) continued apace…”

He introduces another dimension to the issue of race in this period – slavery. Spaniards imported African slaves during a lengthy Indian labor shortage. “All in all, some 200,000 Africans came to Mexico in the course of the colonial period,” Rugeley writes. Some who fled enslavement were black women who married Spaniards, producing mixed-race children known as mulatos; children of black-Indian marriages were pardos.

“I am very happy with the book,” Rugeley said. “Number one, it allowed me to include everything I’ve studied about Mexico. It was a summary statement of my career. Number two, it allowed me to work on good writing. I don’t like bad writing. What matters a lot me is to be graceful, to be engaging but to communicate serious ideas. … And number three, I tried to include positive dimensions of Mexican history” in, for example, the arts.

Rugeley sometimes borrows modern phrases to make a point and lighten the mood. In praising the artistic creativity of Mayan murals, particularly those of the Classic Maya period (200 CE-900 CE), he writes that they “rank among the finest anywhere.” He zeros in on an unknown Mayan artist who “actually painted himself into a small corner of his elaborate creation, like a pre-Columbian Rembrandt. Even in 790 CE, ego was ego.” CE stands for Christian Era.

Rugeley, a native of Wharton, Texas, is a retired professor of Latin American history at the University of Oklahoma.

“Epic Mexico” is his 13th book on Mexican and Central American history, including monographs, translations and edited collections.

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