Elizabeth A. Henson
On September 23, 1965, several years of protest, including land invasions, strikes, sit-ins, and cross-country marches, culminated in an armed attack on an army base located in the remote town of Madera, Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. Protesters had demanded that the state comply with land reform guarantees provided for by the constitution of Mexico; students from the normal schools joined in and raised their own demands. Instead of negotiating partial reforms, the state governor called out troops to burnish his reputation as an anti-communist crusader. Nominally organized in the Unión General de Obreros y Campesinos de México, movement leaders broke with national directives and encouraged “direct action” and illegal occupations, while the normalistas acted within a student activist tradition rooted in the Marxism of the 1930s. The agrarian demands came from landless workers in an agricultural valley planted in cotton, whose fortunes were linked to the world market and from dispossessed smallholders in the mountainous backlands now claimed by timber export companies. This mid-century modernization of land use had its counterpart in the protestors’ emulation of the Cuban revolution and their attempt to apply Che’s theory of guerrilla warfare. As the governor’s recalcitrance radicalized the movement, small groups undertook sporadic armed actions in the mountains, disarming forces sent after them. Other leaders moved to Mexico City to avoid arrest, undergo military training, and attempt to gather support; they returned to Chihuahua with the plan to attack the army base. Despite its spectacular failure, the event has been hailed as Mexico’s first socialist guerrilla struggle and served as inspiration for the dirty war of the 1970s, when armed revolutionaries fought the armed power of the state. Attention to its armed component has eclipsed the movement’s underlying basis, which was equally innovative and had lasting influence on Mexican social protest.
Kathryn E. O’Rourke
Architecture in Mexico City in the mid-20th century was shaped by rapid economic and urban growth, demographic change, new construction technologies, and politics. Architects adapted modernist idioms and those that evoked historical precedents for new purposes. Key figures who had begun practice earlier in the century, including Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman, José Villagrán García, and Luis Barragán, designed major new works and strongly influenced the profession, even as a new generation led by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta, and Teodoro González de Léon came of age. As they had been since the 1920s, public patrons were the most important clients of modern buildings, which often addressed needs for better housing, education, and health care. The period also saw the rise of modern suburbs and the evolution of the single-family house, as well as the creation of major buildings for increasingly important cultural institutions, especially museums.
As they had in preceding decades, architects used the non-architectural arts, particularly painting, to distinguish their works. The legacy of the Mexican muralist movement was most evident on the facades of major buildings in the new University City, where the influence of international modernist planning principles was also striking. In 1968 Mexico City hosted the Olympics, for which architects, planners, and designers created a network of buildings and images that functioned interdependently to present Mexico as cosmopolitan and historically rooted in its indigenous history. Sprawl and pollution worsened in the 1970s, as the capital came to be dominated by buildings that were not designed by architects. While some observers questioned the relevance of architecture in the face of seemingly unstoppable and uncontrollable growth, talented young architects responded with buildings notable for their monumentality, mass, and sophisticated engagement with historical types.
Juan R. García
The Bracero Program began in 1942 as a temporary wartime measure but was extended repeatedly until 1964. During that time, more than 4.5 million braceros received contracts to work in the United States, primarily as agricultural laborers. Before the program ended, braceros worked in thirty-eight states in the United States, with the majority contracted by eight states.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941 and the subsequent sinking of two Mexican vessels by German submarines, Mexico and the United States entered into a bilateral agreement. In actuality, there were two bilateral agreements, the first extending from 1942 to 1949, and the second, enacted as Public Law 78, starting in 1951 and culminating in 1964. Throughout the program’s existence Mexico strove to ensure favorable conditions under which braceros were to be contracted, especially in light of the strong opposition to the program among a number of sectors in Mexico and the long history of discrimination against people of Mexican descent in the United States. Like Mexico, the United States faced opposition to the contract labor program from both employers and labor unions. Employers were wary of too much government interference in their ability to secure a plentiful and cheap labor supply, while labor unions viewed the program as a threat to organizing efforts and as an obstacle to achieving better working conditions and pay for agricultural workers in the United States. The Bracero Program also deeply affected the braceros themselves in both positive and negative ways. And it had a profound impact on the families of the braceros who left to work in the United States. The program was plagued by a number of issues and problems, primarily resulting from a lack of enforcement and widespread contract violations. Despite the problems associated with the program, both countries touted its benefits, not only to their economy, but to the braceros themselves. The braceros did not passively accept their fate and challenged their treatment in a variety of ways. Although the Bracero Program ended in 1964, its legacy continues to affect US–Mexican relations to this day. Furthermore, former braceros and their descendants have undertaken a movement to demand reimbursement for wages promised them under the requirements of the Bracero Program.
The Mexican government’s civil aviation program implemented elite development strategies during a period of national reconstruction. In the decades following the revolution, political leaders and industrialists attempted to strike a balance between preserving a unique national identity and asserting their country’s place in global affairs as a competitive, modern nation. Nation builders were primarily concerned with improving the nation’s communication and transportation capabilities, although they quickly learned to exploit the spectacle of aviation through the mass media and in public ceremonies, as well. The symbolic figure of the pilot proved an adept vessel for disseminating the values championed by the country’s ruling party. Aviators validated the technological determinism underpinning the government’s development philosophy, while projecting an image of strength abroad.
This article traces the trajectory of aviation development from 1920s through the 1950s. In the process it demonstrates how the social and cultural significance of technology in Mexico changed over time. The establishment of the Department of Civil Aeronautics under the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works (SCOP), in 1928, reflected the ambitions of reform-minded officials who were intent on modernizing the country. Although the onset of the Great Depression slowed aviation development for about a decade, policymakers recommitted to the technology during World War II. President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946) used it to achieve two of his primary goals: securing the country from the threat of international fascism and shifting the nation from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Wartime aid alleviated material obstacles hamstringing national aviation development, and the rapid growth of tourism to the country in 1940s and 1950s benefited commercial airlines. Presidents Miguel Aléman (1946–1952) and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–1958) touted the success of the aviation industry as a consequence of their development policies. The near financial collapse of the country’s largest airline, Compañía Mexicana de Aviación (CMA), at the end of the decade nevertheless hinted that the country’s sustained economic growth was less miraculous than officials and foreign observers liked to believe.
Mexican national culture in the period from 1946 to 1982 can be understood by recognizing three overlapping transformations. The first was the consolidation of various national archetypes rooted in Mexican revolutionary and prerevolutionary mythologies of national identity and that were disseminated via state-sponsored cultural institutions as well as through global marketing campaigns related primarily to bolstering tourism. A second was the commodification of national popular culture through local cultural industries, namely radio, cinema, the recording industry, and television, and the competitive engagement of these industries with external cultural flows deriving, primarily though not exclusively, from the United States. The third was the invention of new forms of urban response to inflation and the cascading crises of political legitimacy that characterized the decade leading up to economic collapse in 1982. Across the body politic, one discerns a resilience of shared points of cultural reference—sonic, visual, culinary, and otherwise—derived, often in great measure, from governmental policies and discourse. At the same time, and increasingly over the course of this historical period, one finds movements characterized by an irreverent reappropriation of many of those same reference points, carried out by a diverse range of social actors in pursuit of individual and collective strategies of resistance to both state and patriarchal forms of authority. By the early 1980s Mexican national culture had become a rich and playful bricolage made up of iconic markers over which the state experienced a diminishing, though not yet exhausted, capacity to define.
Roderic Ai Camp
Mexico’s democratic transition provides a revealing case study of a semi-authoritarian political model evolving incrementally into an electoral democracy over two decades. One of the special features of that transition was its slow progress compared to its peers in Latin America, especially given its proximity to the United States, the most influential democracy in the last half of the 20th century. The first attempt to introduce fair, competitive elections occurred under the leadership of Miguel de la Madrid in 1983, but he reversed direction when he was opposed by leading politicians from his own party. His successor, Carlos Salinas (1988–1994), chose to pursue economic liberalization, opening up Mexico to greater competition globally, and negotiating an agreement with Canada and the United States (North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA), while maintaining an authoritarian presidency. During this era, proactive actors that fomented significant political change came from numerous sources. The following were particularly noteworthy in explaining Mexico’s shift to a democratic model: dissident elites who pushed for democracy inside the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); dissident elites who left PRI to form the most successful opposition parties in the 20th century, including the founding of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1989; social and civic movements originating from government incompetence in addressing the results of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the widespread fraud during the 1988 presidential election, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation uprising in 1994; the altered composition of political leadership from the establishment and the opposition characterized by stronger backgrounds in local, elective offices, party leadership, and nonpolitical careers; new electoral laws reinforcing independent decision-making regarding electoral practices and outcomes in the 1990s; and the introduction of new political actors supportive of democratic change, such as the Catholic Church.
Maira Mayola Benítez Carrillo
Gabriel Vargas Bernal created one of the greatest examples of Mexican comic strips, The Burrón Family. He had a remarkable career as a prolific cartoonist, screenwriter, historian, and journalist, with many titles published throughout decades of work. His predominant topic is social criticism and his narrative style is that of journalistic humor. Self-taught, he worked for the country’s most important–newspapers. Over the years, he wrote pieces on sports and the most popular festivals in Mexico, completed comic strips to support literacy campaigns, and designed many types of comics: historical, religious, war, detective, ecological, didactic, humor, and adventure. In 1948, he created the comic La familia Burrón, a series that tells of a poor family’s daily life in a working-class neighborhood. The author’s sense of criticism was the key to allowing readers to identify with the almost one hundred characters who appeared on its pages. Many of them came from real life and were recreated on the pages of this comic, which was published for six decades.
Vargas had a clear critical view of Mexican society. He incorporated costumbrist scenes and knew how to use idioms and popular expressions through his characters, adapting them to each decade in which the comic strip was published. His stories are full of humor and absurd situations, a mix of reality and fiction. The strip had a half-million printings per week and has been published in compilation books that are among the most sold at Mexico’s main book fairs. Vargas’s work is a necessary reference to learn and understand the idiosyncrasies of Mexicans—their customs, traditions, conflicts, and short-comings—in the urban environment.
After decades of revolutionary upheaval and political violence that began early in the 20th century, Mexico had seemingly achieved stability and a relative level of social peace by the 1940s. The peasant revolution of 1910—beginning with its armed, insurrectionary phase (1910–1920) to the subsequent decades (1920–1940) that involved making “The Revolution” manifest in the everyday lives of Mexicans who (to borrow historian Jeffrey Pilcher’s metaphor) chose à la carte from the revolutionary menu—produced a durable political order characterized by an active level of popular participation and legitimacy. The peace was durable, yet potentially fragile since postrevolutionary rulers, contained within the confines of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and its previous incarnations, could not take the peasant masses for granted. Revolution had taught these masses something about their power, both its limitations and potential, to shape the content and form of the Mexican state.
After 1940, as the PRI gradually exhibited its preference for political authoritarianism and an economic project that rapidly industrialized and urbanized the country while pauperizing the countryside, a series of disparate popular protest movements continually emerged. Usually peaceful and basing their alternative modernizing visions on the 1917 Constitution and the radical policies of President Lázaro Cárdenas during the 1930s, these movements—peasant, organized labor, and student movements—often faced repression and violence at the hands of state agents and/or local-regional caciques when demanding political democracy and economic justice. The spectacular massacre of protestors in public spaces and the selective assassination of dissident movement leaders represent two of the tactics employed by the PRI to quell popular resistance in the post–1940 era. Yet, such instances of state violence also stimulated political and tactical radicalization as some protestors organized revolutionary expressions of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare. From 1940 to 1982, more than three dozen armed organizations emerged in almost every region, in both urban and rural settings, displaying a wide variety of revolutionary ideologies and practices. Beginning with Rubén Jaramillo’s 1943 armed resistance in Morelos and ending with the formal dissolution of the urban Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre in 1982, these armed struggles generally shared the goal of overthrowing the PRI regime, seizing state power, and articulating a socialist vision for a post-PRI Mexico.
Historians have extensively explored the topic of architecture in Mexico City in the 20th century. From the relationships between politics, public patrons, new construction technologies, and new idioms of modernism, the impressive story of architecture in this megalopolis continues to astound and captivate people’s imaginations. Architecture was a channel that politicians used to address housing, education, and health care needs in a rapidly growing city. Yet scholars have not been especially concerned with private construction projects and their influence on the process of shaping and being shaped by the visual representation of Mexico City. Private building projects reveal an alternative reality of the city—one not envisioned by politicians and public institutions. Private construction projects in the historic city center are particularly interesting due to their location. These buildings are built on ancient clay lakebeds and volcanic soil on which the Aztecs first built the city. Not only are these buildings located in the heart of the city, the buildings in the rest of the historic district are also sinking. Any building in a historic district that has withstood the test of time should be an object of interest to scholars. The Torre Latinoamericana is perhaps the only building in the historic district and the entire city that ceases to sink, and instead floats! Located on the corner of Madero and San Juan de Letrán, the building sits at the heart of history, culture, and ancient Aztec clay lakebeds. The Torre Latinoamericana was built between 1948 and 1956 and is one of the most important visual symbols of resilience and modernity in Mexico City today.
The 1968 Mexican student movement remains essential to the formation of the modern Mexican human rights movement. Mexico has had a long tradition of revolutionary activity, rural social movements, and an active labor movement that sought to gain basic human rights such as education, adequate housing, decent wages, and access to land. In 1968, students drew inspiration from leaders of the revolution, labor movements, and rural social activists. They echoed their demands, they used their images, and they insisted that the government respect the 1917 constitution. Despite their efforts to build a nonviolent social movement, they met violence at the hands of the government, which brutally suppressed the movement on October 2, 1968.
Following the massacre and into 1970, the government imprisoned students while others fled into exile to avoid prison. By the 1970s, the government initiated a “democratic opening” in which former activists were released from prison and others returned from exiles. While some former leaders entered government service, others questioned the impunity of the government and demanded answers. In their writings, films, and public presentations, they made connections to the struggles of the past. Like their counterparts in Europe and the United States, their struggles matured and evolved, and they became the leaders of the feminist, LGBTQ, and the modern human rights movements.