Review of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”

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Oct 292019

In honor of the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty, we republish this post from five years ago in which we highlighted the significance of the pioneering work of Banerjee and Duflo:

Every so often a book comes along that shakes up established wisdom and forces us to rethink our viewpoints and beliefs. The latest such book to cross my desk is Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, published by PublicAffairs in 2011.

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poor-economicsThis is a worthy read for anyone interested in development theory, policy, practice and economics. The authors are professors of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Their book reports on the effectiveness of solutions to global poverty using an evidence-based randomized control trial approach.

Banerjee and Duflo argue that many anti-poverty policies have failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. They conclude that the battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence.

The authors look at some of the unexpected questions related to poverty that empirical studies have thrown up, such as :

  • Why do the poor (those living on less than 99 cents a day) need to borrow in order to save?
  • Why do the poor miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need?
  • Why do the poor start many businesses but do not grow any of them?

The book was supported by an outstanding website that included:

  • Introductions to each chapter
  • Maps showing cited studies with links to original sources
  • Data and figures used with interactive data tools
  • A “What Can You Do” page with links to major organizations working in the field or for the problem discussed in the chapter

The website’s links to research papers mentioned in the book included four studies related to Mexico:

1. Do Conditional Cash Transfers Affect Electoral Behavior? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Mexico, by Ana L. De La O.

The evidence comes from the pioneering Progresa, the original Mexican conditional cash transfer (CCT) program (since repackaged as Oportunidades).  This CCT program led to a 7% increase in turnout and a 16% increase in the  incumbent vote share, with clear implications for politicians in areas where CCT programs reach a large percentage of voters.

2 School Subsidies for the Poor: Evaluating the Mexican Progresa Poverty Program, by T. Paul Schultz of Yale University (August 2001).

This study considered how a CCT program affected school enrollment. The CCT program increased enrollment in school in grades 3 through 9, with the increase often greater for girls than boys. The cumulative effect was estimated to add 0.66 years to the baseline level of 6.80 years of schooling.

3 Experimental Evidence on Returns to Capital and Access to Finance in Mexico, by David McKenzie and Christopher Woodruff (March 2008)

Microenterprises are often unable to access suitable financing, even though they are responsible for employing a large portion of the total workforce. This experiment, which gave cash and in-kind grants to small retail firms, demonstrated that this additional capital generated large increases in profits, with the effects concentrated on those firms which were more financially constrained. The estimated return to capital was found to be at least 20 to 33 percent per month, three to five times higher than market interest rates.

4 Working for the Future: Female Factory Work and Child Health in Mexico, by David Atkin (April 2009)

Atkins’ paper found that children whose mothers lived in a town where a maquiladora (export factory) opened when the women were sixteen years old were much taller than those children born to mothers who did not have a similar opportunity. The effect was so large that “it can bridge the entire gap in height between a poor Mexican child and the “norm” for a well-fed American child.” (Poor Economics, 229)

The increase in height could not be fully explained by the changes in family income resulting from employment in a maquiladora. As Bannerjee and Duflo suggest, “Perhaps the sense of control over the future that people get from knowing that there will be an income coming in every month -and not just the income itself- is what allows these women to focus on building their own careers and those of their children. Perhaps this idea that there is a future is what makes the difference between the poor and the middle class.” (Poor Economics, 229)


Banerjee and Duflo’s positive message is that poverty can indeed be alleviated, but we need to take one small measurable step at a time with constant evaluation of whether or not particular policies are successful, based on evidence, not just on belief systems.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” deserves its place of honor alongside other such genuine classics as E.F. Schumaker’s “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” (1973). It is a must-read for geographers, regardless of your political persuasion.

Note: this is a lightly edited version of a post first published 27 January 2014.

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BBC’s Fiona Bruce has no clue where Mexico is and enters Geo-Mexico’s “Hall of Shame”

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Apr 232019

The BBC has done it again! Not content with its previous entry in Geo-Mexico’s “Hall of Shame” for its TV documentary “Racing Green”, it now qualifies for a second entry for an episode of “Fake or Fortune.”

Fiona Bruce – yes, the Oxford-educated journalist and newsreader and current host of Antiques Roadshow and other noteworthy BBC programmes – apparently believes that Mexico is in South America.

In 2016, episode 3 of series 5 of “Fake or Fortune” investigated the authenticity of an alleged Rodin watercolor of a Cambodian dancer that was given to the owner’s mother in Mexico City in about 1940 by restaurant owner Jimmy Heineman in exchange for some artwork.

The owner’s mother, Suzanne Daco, was a moderately successful artist who held at least one solo exhibit of her work in Mexico City. The exhibition was reviewed at the time for Hoy, the illustrated Mexico City magazine.

Referring to the review, Fiona Bruce commented that it had appeared in Hoy, “one of the top magazines across the whole of the South American continent.” South America? Err… no! Schoolgirl howler from distinguished BBC journalist?  Err… yes!

Congratulations, Ms Bruce! You are the latest entrant to Geo-Mexico’s Hall of Shame. And, congratulations, BBC, you become the first organization to have two entrants in our Hall of Shame.

Program transcript:

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“Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans” by Stacy B. Schaefer

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May 162016

Stacy B. Schaefer is professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, Chico, and has worked in research and education at a number of California museums. Schaefer has a long-standing interest in Mexico, with particular interest in the Huichol Indians. She is the author of To Think With a Good Heart: Wixarika Women, Weavers, and Shamans (University of Utah Press, 2002) and the co-editor, with Peter Furst, of People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival (University of New Mexico, 1997).

In 2015, the University of New Mexico issued a revised reprint of To Think With a Good Heart with the new title, Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans. (We are pleased to say that Geo-Mexico produced a map for this new version, though a production glitch makes the numbers on the scale look like meaningless boxes!)

schafer-coverThe unique aspect of this book is that the author not only lived among the Huichol for extended periods of time over two decades, but committed herself to a long apprenticeship to become a weaver.

Schaefer’s account is a masterful interweaving of personal experiences and  ethnographic research. Her interest in weaving enabled her to become a trusted member of the community, affording her valuable insights into their lives, beliefs and customs.

The book considers the significance of weaving in relation to every aspect of Huichol life, from food gathering and farming to pregnancy, birth, shrines and goddesses. Schaeffer’s eventual success in becoming a master weaver opened yet more doors into the community, with fresh insights into local shamanism.

Schaeffer lived experiences that most of us can only hope to read about. Fortunately, her descriptions are captivating and detailed, as, for example, when she writes about her trip accompanying Huichol “family” on their pilgrimage to collect sacred peyote cactus.

As the back cover blurb states, “For centuries the Huichol (Wixárika) Indian women of Jalisco, Mexico, have been weaving textiles on backstrap looms. This West Mexican tradition has been passed down from mothers to daughters since pre-Columbian times. Weaving is a part of each woman’s identity – allowing them to express their ancient religious beliefs as well as to reflect the personal transformations they have undergone throughout their lives.”

While this is an academic work, Stacy Schaefer does an outstanding job in explaining all this in a way which is easily accessible to the general reader.

Schaefer also wrote Amada’s Blessings from the Peyote Gardens of South Texas (University of New Mexico, 2015), which tells the story (based on 13 years of fieldwork) of Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman, and her pivotal role in the little-known history of the peyote trade, which began in the 1930s.

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Jun 022014

This engaging book analyses the historical geography of the port of San Blas, on Mexico’s west coast, and its hinterland which includes the small city of Tepic, the state capital of Nayarit. This area held immense importance during colonial times, was one of the main gateways for trade and influence peddling during the nineteenth century, before lapsing into relative obscurity at the end of the that century, and into the twentieth century. The tourism industry has sparked a mini-revival but none of the many grandiose plans for this coast have even been brought fully to fruition.

richter-coverThe Camino Real in Richter’s title is actually a branch from the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Inland Royal Road, the spine of the colonial road system in New Spain). During colonial times, this linked the inland city of Guadalajara to Tepic and thence San Blas, though the modern highways uniting these places no longer follow the same route.

Robert Richter has known this area personally for decades, and his intimate knowledge of the local geography shines through. The book combines his own personal experiences with intensive historical research, both in the library and on the ground. Richter’s objective is to pin down the precise route of the Camino Real, and then find every remaining vestige of it that he can on the ground.

In reading the story of San Blas and the Camino Real, readers are treated to a dazzling array of insights into what made this area tick for so long before subsiding into something of a backwater. This branch of the Camino Real, from Guadalajara to San Blas, played a key role in the history of Western Mexico, and saw everything from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, priests and smugglers.

As Richter points out, “The Matanchen Bay-San Blas region grew in geographic and strategic importance to become the most important Pacific seaport between Guayaquil, Ecuador, and San Francisco, California, in the 1830s, a major international way station for both legal and contraband trade between an ungovernable Mexico and the rest of the world.”

This growth continued and, “In the 1850s, the cultural, economic, and political events roiling all along the Camino Real from San Blas to Guadalajara, especially in the mild sierra valley surrounding the city of Tepic, spawned a new regional identity, and eventually, a new political entity—the Mexican state of Nayarit.”

Richter tells his story with passion and it is impossible not to be drawn into the narrative and share his excitement as he sets out to find “missing” sections of the Camino Real, accompanied by a motley crew of secondary characters. To what extend does he succeed? Sorry, no spoilers here!

Inevitably, the past merges with the present and the future. What began as a seemingly straightforward historical geography becomes at turns a travelogue, journal of fieldwork and short essay about the sustainability of economic development along this coast. Richter is clearly not against change, but argues strongly that local tourist development in the future must take account and respect the region’s ecology, its history and its culture.

As the back cover blurb aptly states, “To explore Nayarit’s wild and gorgeous geography, trying to site the ancient Camino Real, is to stumble over another road running toward the state’s future economic development as part of the Mexican Riviera.”

This book should be of interest to geographers everywhere. It serves to prove that historical geography need not be dull and stuffy but can be made relevant, exciting and even entertaining, at the same time as it offers us valuable insights into possible futures.

One minor plea: please add an index when the second edition of this book is prepared!

Search for the Camino Real, a history of San Bad and the road to get there” is one of several books by Richter centered on the fading coastal village culture of Nayarit and the Mexican Riviera. His adventure novel, “Something like a Dream” (Oak Tree Press, 2014) is an especially entertaining read, with a lively plot and well-described settings ranging from the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta to Nayarit fishing villages and tiny Huichol Indian settlements high in the Western Sierra Madre.

Map of the beaches of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit, Mexico shows the location of all the key places mentioned in Richter’s books.

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Global literacy or geo-illiteracy? The latest entrant to our “North America” hall of shame

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Feb 042014

“Mastering Global Literacy” is a collection of short articles written to explain how “educators can cultivate globally literate learners while becoming globally connected themselves.” The book’s authors (Veronica Boix Mansilla, Anthony W. Jackson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, William Kist, Homa Sabet Tavangar and Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano) “explore ways to bring global issues into the classroom and personalize them using new digital tools.” In addition, the advertising blurb promises that readers will find “strategies for implementing global-awareness studies into the traditional school curriculum, as well as creating new types of 21st century learning environments.”

mastering-global-literacyThe aims of this book are laudable, but sadly, in many ways, this book fails to live up to its hype. This is especially true of Chapter 5 (the concluding chapter), “Interdisciplinary Global Issues: A Curriculum for the 21st Century Learner”. The overly US-centric approach adopted in this book is nowhere more obvious than in this chapter. After defining what is meant by global literacy, the chapter considers how the (U.S.) National Geography Standards (NGS) can help educators plan courses that will promote it. The NGS certainly have considerable value in this regard, but (ironically) this chapter might have benefited from also considering a more global perspective such as that adopted by the geography curriculum of the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Program.

Many of the suggestions made in this book for how global literacy can be promoted are already being practiced (and have been for decades) by geography teachers in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere. The idea that geography can be infused into other disciplines has been around for a long time, hence the proliferation of course titles (in many disciplines besides geography) including terms like “Global” and”World”. There is no need to reinvent this particular wheel in developing courses that promote global literacy, and little advantage to be gained from adopting new terminology, such as the proposals for “Geo-economics”, “Geocommunications”, “Geo-arts and literature”, “Geohealth”, “Geosports” and “Geo-education”.

This book is also the latest entrant in our “North America” hall of shame for its description of a “subject-specific strategy” that will boost global literacy in the classroom when “a globally connected educator facilitates the learning”. The strategy is based on a geography lesson in which “A middle school class is studying South America and following, via a blog and Twitter feed, a National Geographic-sponsored trip of a man traveling by bus from the United States to Antarctica. Students learn about the traveler’s different destinations throughout South America: Mexico, Guatemala, the Panama Canal, Colombia, Argentina, and finally, Cape Horn.”

“Houston, we have a problem!”. The suggestion that Mexico, Guatemala and the Panama Canal are located in South America is a classic example of geo-illiteracy and, as such, completely out of place in a book about global literacy.

Conclusion? While this book does have some valuable sections, it offers far less to geographers than its promotional materials would suggest. Given its title, the book’s failure to engage with modern geography (as practiced outside the USA) is a major limitation.

Mastering Global Literacy. Contributors: Veronica Boix Mansilla, Anthony W. Jackson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, William Kist, Homa Sabet Tavangar, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano. 136 pages. Solution Tree. 2013.

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Apr 022011

The book is impressive; indeed, I would say it is encyclopedic, both in terms of Mexico as a place, and geography as a subject.  Exactly as promised on p.2, it introduces models and theories that are characteristic of the subject, and then shows how they could be adapted to be made more relevant to Mexico.  Moreover, it does so in ways so clear that a layman/non-geographer would have little difficulty understanding the linkages made.

Chapter 2 illustrates the point: a reader does not have to be a physical geographer to understand the links between plate tectonics and volcanoes and earthquakes in Mexico.  Other chapters do likewise, and it has been a delight to find geographic theories and principles stated and then illustrated with reference to the topic of the subject – and in plain language, rather than jargon.

The diagrams and maps are very well done and not simply imported from other sources -a clear indication that the authors really know their subject of Mexico.  To describe the Latin American urban model is one thing:  to view Figure 22.4 is to see it in effect and to understand its socio-economic impact (and politics?).  I can well see why the book should be promoted.

The linkages between models, theories, processes, and site are so clearly made that I could see the book being valuable for International Baccalaureate students; but I would not expect that to be the case for most senior high school students.  It is more likely to be used at university level….  Its comprehensiveness as a dual encyclopedia would make it an indispensable reference…

Reproduced by kind permission of Dr. Stuart Semple, Adjunct Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography and Environment at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. Dr. Semple is a respected educator and a former Chief Geography Examiner of the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Review of “One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico”.

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Jul 302010

In an earlier post, we listed the towns included in One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico, by Guillermo García Oropeza and Cristóbal García Sánchez (Rizzoli International Publications, 2008; 280 pp.). Here we offer a short review of the book.

Cover of 101 Beautiful Small Towns in MexicoThis is a large format book, with many magnificent photographs. A fascinating range of places is included, even though the criteria used for their selection are nowhere explained. The selection offers lots of interest for anyone curious about Mexico’s geography.

For example, a stunning aerial view of Mexcaltitán (Nayarit) shows the cross-and-concentric-circle street pattern of “Mexico’s Venice”, surrounded by muddy brown shrimp-bearing swamps.

Curiously, the list of places included in the book on the contents pages adopts the affected style of using no capital letters whatsoever for any of the town names.

Each place is afforded at least a double page spread, and the back of the book has helpful lists of tourist offices, and selected hotels and restaurants.

Despite the title, some of the locations are more to do with the natural environment than with settlement. For instance, the town of Cuatro Ciénegas is a somewhat unprepossessing place whereas the desert oases of Cuatro Ciénegas,on which the book entry focuses, are an amazing natural zoological laboratory of crystalline water and extraordinary biodiversity. Similarly, Cacahuamilpa Caverns hardly qualify as a town!

The San Ignacio entry focuses on difficult to reach cave paintings. The village itself has few claims to fame beyond its colonial mission church.

The Paricutín double-page spread is named after the volcano which devoured several small settlements including Parícutin (for the name of the original village, the accent is on the second syllable; for the volcano it is on the last syllable). The photos included here actually show (as the captions make clear) the towns of Angahuan, and the upper facade of the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, overwhelmed by the volcano’s lava.

A couple of places are given names that might not be very familiar to their residents. Casas Nuevas (Chihuahua) is actually Nuevo Casas Grandes (the real Casas Nuevas is an entirely different place which had only 13 inhabitants at the time of the 2000 census) and Mineral del Monte (Hidalgo) is more usually known as Real del Monte.

In southern Mexico, Santa María del Tule gets an entry. Santa María would not be worthy of mention, except for the fact that it is home to what is arguably the world’s largest tree, now thankfully restored to good health after decades of neglect.

In the Yucatán, three entries ignore the main thrust of the book, and focus instead on significant routes, one linking henequen (sisal) haciendas, one combining relatively minor archaeological sites which share distinctive Puuc architecture, and one going from one friary (monastery) to another. These are all interesting trips, but are entirely unexpected in a book specifically about towns. Some judicious editing might have removed some of the inaccuracies such as describing hemp (sisal) as “in the agave… or cactus, family”. The family name for agaves is Agavaceae which includes the genus Agave. In any event, agaves are biologically distinct to all members of the Cactaceae family; confusing agaves with cacti is an unexpected blunder.

The chosen towns quite rightly include some long-abandoned sites such as Teotihuacan, “City of the Gods”, which was once a city of 200,000 or so, the fascinating Mayan sites of Palenque and Chichen Itza, and Mitla and Monte Alban, both in Oaxaca.

The cover photo of the town of Chapala in Jalisco, much favored by American and Canadian retirees in recent years, unfortunately dates from a time when the lake level was relatively low. The green areas in the lake are floating masses of the introduced aquatic weed water hyacinth.

Despite being written by a Mexican historian, there are numerous minor historical inaccuracies in the text, though these should not detract from the enjoyment of the average reader.

For instance, in the Chapala entry, illustrated by the same photo used on the cover, it should be Septimus Crowe (not Crow), and the “navigation company with two small steam ships” had nothing to do with Christian Schjetnam. The steamships predated his arrival in Chapala by many years. Schjetnam did however, introduce two small sail yachts to the area, perhaps explaining the confusion. The description of President Díaz’s interest in Chapala appears to imply that he was first acquainted with the lake when he visited “a political crony” in 1904. Actually, Díaz was certainly personally familiar with Lake Chapala from long before this.

The entry for Santa Rosalia repeats the long-held but unproven idea that the main church was designed by Frenchman Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). The town does have other Eiffel connections, and the church may indeed have been brought lock, stock and barrel from the 1889 Paris World Exhibition. However, research by Angela Gardner strongly suggests that the original designer was probably not Eiffel but was far more likely to have been Brazilian Bibiano Duclos, who graduated from the same Parisian academy as Eiffel. Gardner proved that Duclos took out a patent on prefabricated buildings, whereas she could find no evidence that Eiffel had ever designed a prefabricated building of any kind. Regardless of who designed it, it is certainly a unique design in the context of Mexico, and well worth seeing.

And really, surely this is the main point of this book. It was presumably never intended to be a reliable geographical (or historical) primer, but rather an enticing selection of seductive places, many of which will be unfamiliar to any but the most traveled reader. The variety of places included is breathtaking; few countries on earth can possibly match it. As such, One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico is a resounding success.

This beautifully illustrated book should certainly tempt readers to venture into new parts of Mexico in search of these and other memorable places. Enjoy your travels!

– – – –

Mexico’s cities and towns are analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!!

Review by John Pint in MexConnect

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Feb 232010

John Pint, one of Mexico’s best known cavers and explorers, and author of “Outdoors in Western Mexico”,  has reviewed Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico for MexConnect e-zine.

In Pint’s view,

Rhoda and Burton tell us that geography as a subject is — like Mexico itself — “often under-appreciated, equated with memorizing the names of countries, capitals, mountain ranges and rivers.” However, these authors claim that “real” geography is much more interesting and even exciting because it “focuses on the interaction between individuals, societies and the physical environment in both time and space.”

This book, in fact, includes subjects like female quality of life in Mexico, access to cell phones, urban sprawl, the survival of the Tarahumara Indians and even gives us the touring route of the Hermanos Vázquez Circus.

Pint concludes that

Geo-Mexico will surely become the geography book of choice for ethnically-oriented courses in the USA and Canada…  If only we’d had textbooks like this one when I was a youngster.

Click here for the complete review by John Pint

Mexico Bible for Armchair Explorers of Geography and More

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Feb 072010

Review by Dale Palfrey in The Guadalajara Reporter, Friday January 22, 2010. (Reproduced by kind permission of The Guadalajara Reporter)

Collaborating long-distance via Internet over the past six years, Tony Burton and Richard Rhoda have put together the most comprehensive resource of Mexico geography ever published. “Geo-Mexico, the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico” is now on the market in sync with a milestone year in the country’s history.

Mexico is home to planet earth’s largest natural crystals, its deepest water-filed sink hole, and second richest man, telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim. The country ranks first in the world for diversity of reptile species and the incidence of diabetes, while placing second only to the United States in the consumption of soft drinks. Those are just a few of the juicy factual tidbits curious readers will pick up on the pages of the timely and engaging tome compiled by Ajijic-based geographer Richard Rhoda and colleague Tony Burton, a former lakeside resident who now makes his home in Ladysmith, British Columbia.

The book goes far beyond describing the physical characteristics of the country, exploring sociological, economic, political and cultural landscapes as well to comprise the most comprehensive geographical study of the republic ever published in English.

Laymen and scholars alike will appreciate the straightforward, seamless, reader-friendly writing style and the enhancement of information with more than 150 maps, graphs, diagrams and highlighted textboxes. Presented in 31 easily digestible chapters, the text delves into tha land’s past, present and future with keen analysis that provides a clear understanding of Mexico in a global context.

The concept for the book originated from a lecture series on Mexican geography Rhoda put together for the Lake Chapala Society in 2004. From his original idea of putting his lecture notes into a printed form, the project evolved into a six year research, writing and publishing endeavor.

Burton’s involvement came about as Rhoda was looking into avenues for getting his work into print. He pulled a copy of Burton’s “Western Mexico: A Traveller’s Treasury” off his bookshelf and learned that the self-published author was a fellow geographer. He contacted Burton to seek advice on how to get the work published, but finding common ground, soon saw the project turn into a collaborative effort.

It turns out that Burton had a similar idea floating in the back of his head that came from his struggles to find a single, solid resource in the early 1980’s when he was teaching a college level course on subject in Mexico City. Frustrated by the need to assemble teaching materials from diverse sources, he yearned to fill the gap, but saw it as a gargantuan task he could only conceive of undertaking in retirement.

After an initial exchange of ideas, the two men promptly developed an easy-going working relationship, complementing one another perfectly in their divergent areas of expertise. Rhoda wrote a first draft and then Burton kicked in on editing, fleshing out the content, and putting together the graphics.

The end product is a stunning accomplishment, intentionally timed to coincide with Mexico’s Independence bicentenary and Revolution centenary milestone. It is a must-have item for any Mexicophile’s bookcase.