Margaret Maud McKellar’s memoir of her family’s 1891 move from New Zealand to Coahuila reads at first like so many other foreigners’ accounts of Mexico. Early chapters depict a hot, dusty landscape; greasy, unclean food; and lazy, uncomprehending Mexicans. After the family settles into life on its sprawling cattle ranch (formerly part of the Sánchez Navarro latifundio), McKellar’s descriptions of her surroundings be come more nuanced. Yet the family’s reluctance to learn Spanish adds to the book’s overall superficiality as a source about Mexico. A New Zealand newspaper published McKellar’s account in 1898.
Readers should take interest in two understudied populations from the United States that were neighbors of the McKellar estate: Kickapoo Indians and one-time black slaves and their descendants. Both groups entered Mexico in 1850 and later received lands from Benito Juárez’ government. Despite McKellar’s limited interactions with the Kickapoo, editor Dolores L. Latorre, a scholar of the Kickapoo, vouches for the ethnographic utility of her descriptions. McKellar became more familiar with the black community, with which she shared a native tongue. Several blacks became trusted servants in the McKellar household. Based on this steady contact, the book recounts the speech, religious ideas, and work habits of this unusual and relatively isolated black community.
Latorre’s introduction outlines the McKellars’ family history and the reasons they emigrated to Mexico. Latorre also traces the history of their landholdings back to the colonial period. She proves less able to situate the McKellars’ story in the context of change in nineteenth-century northern Mexico. Likewise, her endnotes seldom illuminate larger historical questions; moreover, she usually neglects to cite her sources.
The book’s greatest value for historians may be its evocation of the small English and Australian community that developed in northern Mexico. The McKellars formed part of this network of mostly male acquaintances who quickly became trusted associates in business and personal matters. Working in mines, on ranches, or on the railroads, the men often lived in relative isolation from one another. McKellar recalls how they enthusiastically came together for occasional cricket matches.
President Porfirio Díaz favored these foreigners, but as the McKellars soon learned, local elites could prove less welcoming. In 1893, just two years after their arrival, the family head, David McKellar, was murdered, apparently by a rival Mexican cattle rancher. His widow and children left Mexico soon afterward (motivated also by the political unrest of that year) and settled in the United States. Latorre writes that McKellar’s death became a cause célèbre throughout the Anglo world. The uproar regarding his death must have moved his daughter to write this memoir. Margaret Maud McKellar’s generally bitter and distrustful characterization of Mexico surely reflects her father’s death and the family’s slow and unsuccessful pursuit of justice under the Porfiriato.