Esch’s new book explores firearm politics and culture in Mexico and Central America

‘Modernity at Gunpoint’ provides first study of guns in Latin America from literary and cultural perspective

German-born literary scholar Sophie Esch, Rice’s new assistant professor of Mexican and Central American literature and culture, first heard music from the Sandinista revolution during her undergraduate years in Berlin in 2003, when a friend from Chile copied them onto a CD. She was intrigued by the Nicaraguan revolutionary folk songs and within the year had visited the country itself. She couldn’t have known then that this unlikely encounter would spur her to learn about the region’s revolutionary and military legacy — a legacy that would one day be the focus of her first book.

"Modernity at Gunpoint"Modernity at Gunpoint” (University of Pittsburgh Press, $28.95) is the result of years of study in Mexico and Central America. It’s also the first of its kind: No other scholars have approached the topic of guns in Latin America from the perspective of literary and cultural studies.

“I felt it was important to study firearms because they were always there — in the photos, in the novels, in the songs — but nobody seemed to be analyzing their presence and meaning,” Esch said.

Long before she officially began her research, Esch noticed weaponry everywhere she went — reminders of violence past and present. She can rattle off memories and moments that still seem clear 15 years later.

Among her memories: “People pointing out machine gun holes from the revolution in buildings in León in Nicaragua in 2003. Visiting an improvised museum of the revolution in the same city which featured a mockup of a Molotov cocktail and a few photographs, or seeing the shot-up car in which Pancho Villa was assassinated in a museum dedicated to him in Chihuahua, or seeing in 2006 the entire comandancia (command) of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional arrive in a village in Chiapas, accompanied by armed guards.”

Esch realized these moments signified something deeper and more profound. And at the heart of each of them was a gun.

It was in the culture, too. In Diego Rivera’s famous “Paisaje Zapatista El Guerrillero,” one of the artist’s first paintings depicting the Mexican Revolution, a rifle is instantly identifiable amidst a jumble of amorphous Cubist shapes. In one of the most memorable photographs from the Sandinista Revolution, “La Miliciana de Waswalito,” a breastfeeding woman carries a baby in her arms and an AK-47 assault rifleslung over her shoulder.

“One of the most important literary texts about the Mexican Revolution is called ‘Cartucho,’ written as a collection of vignettes, and almost every vignette deals with executions by firing squad, rifles, bullets,” Esch explained.

Esch realized all of novels, songs and images could be used as a lens for examining how the people and culture in these countries conceive of revolutionary violence, modernity, legitimacy and citizenship. The gun plays a distinct role in all of these ideals and more.

Sophie Esch

Sophie Esch

And so Esch returned, again and again, to the novels and songs — listening to the Nicaraguan and Mexican ballads so often she knew them by heart — as well as to Central America and Mexico, finding more to study each time. In 2012 she went to Nicaragua to interview musicians and former guerrilla fighters. In 2016 she received special permission from the Mexican military to visit the Museo de Enervantes and its extensive collection of golden and silver rifles, said to have been confiscated from former drug traffickers.

She studied the gun’s place in revolutions as well as other armed conflicts, such as the drug war, and the ways in which it transcends its primary function to become a symbol.

“When you’re writing a book about firearms people tend to assume what it will be about,” Esch said. “Some think it is a book about fetishism, or a book of gun lore itself, or a condemnation of firearms, or of violence per se.”

‘Modernity at Gunpoint’ is neither a simple glorification nor condemnation of violence. Rather, as Esch put it, the book offers “an exploration of the possibility and problem of the use of force in politics.” It explores the mark that revolutions and other armed conflicts have left on the region, and for that reason it focuses of the firearm as a tool and a commodity but also, and more importantly, as a cultural artifact and symbol.

“I also distinguish between different layers of symbolic meaning, the sociocultural, allegorical and performative dimensions of the firearm as artifact, trope and prop,” Esch said. “And this is where literature and cultural-literary inquiry become so important.”

In the book’s first chapter, Esch dives straight into one of the most iconic images of the Mexican Revolution: that of revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, posing in Cuernavaca in 1911, cartridge belts crisscrossing his chest as he levels his heavy gaze into the camera. For decades, peasants like Zapata were marginalized and oppressed by Mexico’s feudalist elites. But with cartridges and rifle in hand, she argues, these men suddenly entered the political arena, they became visible for the first time; through their insurgency, they claimed some of the power they’d so long been denied.

Diego Rivera, Paisaje Zapatista El Guerrillero

Diego Rivera, Paisaje Zapatista El Guerrillero

Esch found a similar notion in Nellie Campobello’s text that depicts a different aspect of the revolution: Pancho Villa’s uprising in Northern Mexico. Author Campobello lived through the revolution in Parral, Chihuahua, and many years later took to the literary form to chronicle this experience . Published in 1931, ‘Cartucho’ is a book Esch describes as “a text that smells of gunpowder,” its pages filled with tales of rifles and cartridges and the survival or death those bought for their bearers. And yet, for Campobello, the gun is so much more than that: it’s a trope of male violence as well as a call to consider other methods of revolutionary state-building.

“Cartucho” is a book Esch said was “absolutely crucial to my research because it presents revolutionary violence as simultaneously dignified, precarious, brutal and traumatizing.” Literature, she said, is able to convey this sort of complexity in a way that a straightforward history of rifles as physical objects used in wartime would not.

The gun, through Esch’s studies across literature, music and other forms of art, is thus considered for all of its many facets.

“It becomes an artifact of different symbolic-political uses and meanings: an artifact for militancy, as well as an artifact for participation in modernity,” Esch wrote in the book’s epilogue. “The book thus captures a modernity aspired, fulfilled, modified and seen through a rifle, a modernity imagined, realized and negotiated at gunpoint, a modernity mirrored in and haunted by the rifle.”

A book presentation will take place at Rice in January 2019; details to follow.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.