Ana Sabau, an assistant professor of Spanish at the Romance Literatures and Language department, recently published her first book Riot and Rebellion in Mexico: The Making of a Race War Paradigm with the University of Texas Press.

The book “challenges conventional narratives of Mexican history and establishes race-making as a central instrument for the repression of social upheaval in nineteenth-century Mexico rather than a relic of the colonial-era caste system.”

Riot and Rebellion in Mexico: The Making of a Race War Paradigm is about race war in 19th century Mexico. Sabau said that her book denaturalizes the use of rhetoric depicting social conflict as “race wars” and  looks at what types of projects were implemented to repress or contain them.  

“The 19th century was a time of great political volatility,” Sabau said.

Throughout her investigation, Sabau thought about what counted as a “race war.” She found that conflicts labeled as such were mostly indigenous rebellions that were happening in fringe zones of the country where there were disputes about the self-determination and autonomy of indigenous communities.   

“19th century elites in Mexico often wrote about these rebellions as having one main goal: to exterminate Whites in the nation,” Sabau said. “In my book I try to understand where this comes from.”  

In addition to these narratives, Sabau also looks at documents, letters and manifestos from the people who were participating in these rebellions. She writes about how they experimented with forms of freedom and equality.  

“Through these documents you get a glimpse of what actually were some of the political imaginations that people were conjuring in their struggles,” Sabau said. “And what you get to see is that it’s a much more complex scenario.”     

Sabau’s journey of writing her book began as her dissertation project and evolved throughout the years. She moved from graduate school to California to Michigan, so had many different perspectives from the people she was in conversation with. She was particularly interested in the Caste War, a rebellion in the Yucatan Peninsula, which was a driving point in her investigation.  

“I was just really fascinated by the documents that they wrote,” Sabau said. “The way they were re-thinking about land and property and equality could be inspiring not only for the 19th century, but for the present moment as well.”

Other authors and reviewers have commented on the thoughtfulness and intellectuality of Sabau’s writing.  

“A rigorous, thoughtful, and intellectually inspiring genealogy of how the idea of a “race war” was imputed to social conflicts in New Spain/Mexico during the long nineteenth century, as well as how one can discern a “rebel archive” of challenges to that paradigm from racialized social movements at each and every turn,” author David Kazanjian said. “There is no book quite like Riot and Rebellion in Mexico, and it will surely make a serious and sustained impact on many fields for years to come.”

Overall, Sabau hopes that Riot and Rebellion in Mexico: The Making of a Race War Paradigm speaks to not only to specialists in Mexican studies, but also to people who are interested in other regions and histories. She believes that through speaking about the problematic history of the concept of “race war” in Mexico, she can spark some conversations.  

“This is a book about the past, but it tries to open the door to thinking about the legacy of racist practices into the present,” Sabau said.  

Sabau originally wrote the book in Spanish, but then switched to English to be able to reach a wider audience in the United States. She is planning on working on a Spanish translation of the complete book in the future.  

At U-M, Sabau’s research focuses on the study of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Latin American written and visual culture, with a special emphasis on Mexico. She is also the author of articles published in collected volumes and peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and Revista de Estudios Hispánicos.  

Sabau is also interested in studying the histories of labor and property as they intersect with processes of racialization. She explores Mexico’s insertion in the global networks of indentured and convict labor; as well as the question of social reproduction and domestic work.