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Book Review: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo

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Mexico has been in the news lately. It has also been part of the literary tsunami following the publication of Roberto Bolaño’s epic 2666. In the section entitled “The Part about the Crimes,” Bolaño brings us into a world of chaotic violence against women in Santa Teresa near the US-Mexican border. The free flow of capital and drugs turns Santa Teresa into a zone of relentless murder, brutality, and violation. But to understand the violence of modern Mexico, one must also understand the violence of 19th century Mexico. C.M. Mayo’s historical romance, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, brings to light aristocratic intrigue, revolutionary violence, and dynastic striving during the late 1860s.

To readers in the United States, the short pitiful reign of Emperor Maximilian and the Second Mexican Empire are nothing more than footnotes to a footnote. In fairness, the United States in 1866 was recovering from four years of the Civil War. One can be forgiven for not caring about the machinations of Emperor Louis Napoleon of France engineering a Hapsburg scion to occupy the newly created Mexican Imperial throne. A foreign power wanting to install a friendly government an ocean away? How is that relevant?

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire concerns the early life of Prince Agustín de Iturbide y Green. The Prince’s mother came from a prominent Washington DC family, married the son of the former Mexican Emperor, and shared his name. Following the restoration of the Mexican Empire, backed by French troops, the Iturbide family has their aristocratic status restored, and all is well with the world. Emperor Maximilian, the estranged brother of the Austrian Kaiser, is forced to sign the humiliating Family Pact. In so doing, he accepts the Imperial Crown of Mexico but has to renounce his titles and privileges as a Hapsburg. In order to solidify his dynasty, he takes young Prince Agustín into his custody. Princess Alicia (née Alice Green) also signs away her child with a document similar to the Family Pact.

What follows is a tale of political intrigue and revolutionary violence as Prince Alicia tries to get her beloved child back. While Emperor Maximilian heads down to his jungle retreat in Cuernavaca to explore the region’s botanical species (a modern equivalent of Texas brush-clearing one could say), Benito Juárez and his revolutionary partisans lead an insurgency in northern Mexico. Meanwhile, the triumphant Union stages troops on the Mexico-Texas border and is ready to strike. The United States was victorious in 1848, and lightning could strike a second time.

The political details are convoluted, but C.M. Mayo brings the story to life. Taking a few creative liberties, she captures the atmosphere of Second Empire Mexico in the words, culture, language, and cuisine. We enter the minds of Emperor Maximilian, Empress Carlota, Princess Alicia, and many others, including cooks, diplomats, and revolutionaries. Obscure history has never been so interesting. One can get a nicely summarized version of events by scanning the Wikipedia entry. That is far less fun than reading this book. In the Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, one will encounter a nation divided by dynastic splendor and revolutionary struggle, families sundered and ideals curdled by poor planning and political corruption. There’s even a little bit about pirates.

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire reads like a paleo-prequel to Bolaño’s 2666, a timely meditation on a violent, beautiful land and a people struggling for peace and happiness.

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About Karl Wolff