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Edward Wright-Rios

Professor of History
Mellon Foundation Chair in the Humanities

Edward Wright-Rios is a cultural historian specializing in modern Mexico. He is currently a Guggenheim Fellow (2018-2019), and thus on sabbatical, researching and writing a book on pilgrimage in southern Mexico – Devotion in Motion: Pilgrimage in Modern Mexico. The project is simultaneously a historical, visual, and digital analysis of a cultural phenomenon that has proven extraordinarily resilient and remarkably dynamic over the centuries. In particular, he focuses on the last 60 to 70 years as technological changes, social media, and transportation improvements fueled the expansion of pilgrimage. It has included participation in a six-day walking pilgrimage alongside thousands of devotees and collaboration with Mike Dubose, a professional photographer. (please scroll to the bottom to see some of the photographs)

His first book Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 1887-1934(Duke University Press, 2009) won the 2010 Murdo J. MacLeod Prize of the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association. It was also named the winner of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), Mexico Section, Social Science Book Prize, for outstanding scholarship on Mexico. Revolutions examines religious reformism in the Catholic Church and popular religious movements in southern Mexico. Thus, it tracks both “top-down” and “bottom-up” processes. On one hand, it explores how Catholic priests and activists brought about a modern revitalization of the Church as an institution, and sought to discipline popular religiosity and westernize pious expression within the nation’s diverse population. On the other, it traces how indigenous communities, and particularly devout women, championed their own religious experiences and organized movements around events and experiences that they deemed miraculous.

Professor Wright-Rios’s second book scrutinizes the historical legacy of an apocryphal prophetess and her visions concerning Mexico’s tumultuous history. Entitled Searching for La Madre Matiana: Prophecy and Popular Culture in Modern Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), this book offers a “life and times” of a legendary popular figure and narrative. The book follows the devotees, satirists, activists, and reformers who made use of prophetess and her visions—and repeatedly hence altered their meaning—over the course of a century. At its core, the book explores how Mexicans tended to conflate female piety, fanaticism, and cultural authenticity amid the advent of modernity. As a result, they kept coming back to the legendary Matiana figure as they debated how Mexican society and culture should or shouldn’t change, or alternatively, how she demonstrated that Mexico had modernized, but done so in a disjointed, inappropriate manner.

Professor Wright-Rios has enjoyed the support of the Fulbright Foundation, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States, and Vanderbilt’s Center for the Americas and the Division for Sponsored Research. He was also awarded the Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship administered by the American Council of Learned Societies in 2011. And most recently, he won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018.

Professor Wright-Rios teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on colonial and modern Latin America, reform and revolution, Mexico, popular culture, the social and cultural impact of the drug trade, and religious change. He has given lectures on Mexican art, dance, and politics at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. He also led a professional development program for public school teachers in Mexico for Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies.