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.
In the 1850s, Juana Catarina Romero, known popularly as Juana Cata, peddled her cigarettes on the streets of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, an activity that enabled her to serve as a spy for the liberals under the command of Captain Porfirio Díaz during the War of the Reform (1858–1860). By 1890, Romero (1837–1915) had emerged as an international merchant, sugar cane producer and refiner, philanthropist, and “modernizing” cacica of the city of Tehuantepec. As powerful women rarely receive credit for their achievements, popular myth attributes her success to the men in her life, a supposed youthful love affair with Díaz or a later lover, Colonel Remigio Toledo. In contrast, a study of her career helps to shed light on how women could attain and exercise power in the 19th century and the ways in which they participated in the construction of the nation-state and a capitalist economy. Her trajectory shows that when allied with these forces of modernization, women could take on a more public role in society. It also reveals that it is through the lens of local and regional history that women’s contributions and accomplishments, so often erased in national histories, can be made visible.
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.
Lucha libre, or professional wrestling, has become a staple of urban Mexican culture over the course of the 20th century. In the past twenty years, it has gained international acclaim for its distinctive style and culture. Best known for the masks that luchadores often wear, lucha libre has become a distinctly national rendition of an imported product. Along with Japan and the United States, Mexico is one of the most influential nations in the world of professional wrestling. The sport allows fans to root for técnicos, rudos, and exóticos and it provides theater that upends societal norms in Mexico. Banned from performing on television by Federal District authorities from the 1950s to the early 1990s, wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon took to the silver screen to film “Mexploitation” horror and science fiction films. Although the sport has become an urban tradition, it reflects the cosmopolitan nature of working-class urban culture as well as the influence of Mexican culture on other nations.
Joshua K. Salyers
Revolutionary leaders favored depictions of Mexico City in the mid-20th century that highlighted the progress and orderly growth of a modern industrial city. The ruling party made Mexico City the focus of post–World War II development policies and the showcase for the success of those policies in achieving the new goals of the Mexican Revolution during a period of sustained economic growth known as the “Mexican miracle.” When, in the early 1960s, the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis published The Children of Sánchez, his popular study of urban poverty, and turned the public’s attention away from the sites that underscored the official narrative of orderly industrial growth, it incited a heated public debate in Mexico City. The book contained the oral histories of a family living in the low-income neighborhood of Tepito, in the center of the capital, and was a shocking account, told in their own words, of a family’s attempt to survive urban life. Supporters of the modernizing policies of federal officials and the capital’s mayor, Ernesto Uruchurtu, attacked the book in the press and even filed formal complaints with Mexico’s attorney general demanding that the book and its author be banned from the country and the publisher reprimanded. They claimed that the book was too vulgar for public consumption and called it a foreigner’s attack on the reputation of the country and the city. Critics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party used the publicity generated by the attacks to open up a dialog about the marginalized people left behind by urban development and engaged in the debates as a safe way to express its own concerns about Uruchurtu’s inhumane development policies and the government’s insistence on hiding reality to present the city to the international community as a modern showcase.
Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.