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Modernity at Gunpoint.
Firearms, Politics, and Culture in Mexico and Central America
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018)

Winner of the 2019 award for Best Book in the Humanities of the Mexico section of the Latin American Studies Association.

Cover page of book Modernity at Gunpoint

Modernity at Gunpoint provides a critical inquiry into the relationship between war, technology, and society by analyzing armed conflicts in Mexico and Central America from 1910 to the present. Unique in its focus, this first book-length study of the symbolic meaning of weaponry in Latin America was published in Pittsburgh's long-standing Illuminations Series. Through an analysis of novels, songs, and photographs, Sophie Esch underscores the political and cultural significance of weaponry in the region and examine the firearm as a key object through which writers negotiate conceptions of modernity, citizenship, militancy, and gender.

Esch argues that during the Mexican Revolution, Mexican peasants became visible as citizens via the cartridge belts strapped across their chests and the rifles on their shoulders and that the notorious executions by firing squads during the revolution became a symbol of and an entry point to an inherently violent modernity. In the case of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Esch shows that the rifle was not a prosthesis for citizenship, but a prosthesis for militancy, the key artifact to underscore one's willingness not to kill but rather to die for the revolutionary cause. Esch then traces how the rifle loses its revolutionary, albeit not political dimension in current conflicts, in which the rifle becomes the tool of demobilized combatants turned violence workers and a powerful and confusing prop in the theater of war that is the so-called drug war in Mexico.


The book's introduction, "Firearms as Symbols of Insurgency and Modernity," is available for download here.




“This engaging, well written, and richly researched book points to exciting new avenues in scholarship, blazing the path for future scholars to think about Mexico and Central America in tandem, or to unpack the multivalent resonances of a single object.”

Carolyn Fornoff, Revista de Estudios Hispánicos

“Con un despliegue singular de erudición en terrenos aparentemente alejados y lúcidas exploraciones de los textos culturales más diversos, la lectura el libro de Esch es una experiencia enriquecedora. De esta manera, marca un momento importante en los estudios culturales y literarios en América Latina al proponer un abordaje que reconoce y enfrenta la concreción material de su objeto de estudio. Por esta razón, considero que abre nuevas avenidas de investigación no sólo para el estudio de la violencia, sino que propone una construcción teórico-metodológica sugerente para todo esfuerzo de análisis cultural atento a su propia materialidad.”

Ricardo Roque Baldovinos, Istmo

“Sophie Esch’s excellent study offers an unparalleled approach to weapons to confront modernity and, more generally, culture, across a variety of cultural production and national experiences. With the firearm as an analytical trope, Esch seeks to understand cultural responses to political violence, focusing mostly on Mexico and Nicaragua in the periods of 1910–1920, 1979–1990, and the present day.”

Andrew Bentley, Confluencia


“La transformación de la relación entre el hombre y el rifle que observamos en el trabajo de Esch es sorprendente y el resultado de una amplia investigación que incluye extensas fuentes históricas. Su corpus de cultura popular es notable, especialmente en el uso de la canción popular.”

Rafael Acosta, Transmodernity

“The entirety of the work is showing us the direction that I think our field is going, showing the commonalities between Mexico, Central America, and the borderlands—even as it reaffirms the uniqueness of each context.”

Rebecca Janzen, Chasqui


“Esch treats the firearm as a cultural and symbolic artifact rooted in the history as well as the present of the region.”

Jenny Pearce, Latin American Research Review

Reviews of Modernity at Gunpoint

Back cover of Modernity at Gunpoint
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