William E. French
A persuasive literature has argued that the course of Latin American history from the arrival of Europeans to the present has been shaped to a large extent by a small but expanding group of literate bureaucrats, church officials, lawyers, and intellectuals, known as letrados, who made their lives in urban centers. Those marked by this combination of power, urban living, and the written word, an assemblage that Angel Rama has dubbed “the lettered city,” utilized literature, history, the law, politics, and higher education to imagine the country into existence textually and to justify the hierarchies and inequalities that characterized their rule. Yet in Mexico, as elsewhere in Latin America, writing has a long history in nonelite settings, a venue that, in recognition of this fact, has now been referred to as “the lettered countryside.” Moreover, as understandings of a single literacy are giving way to a concern with “literacies,” defined in the plural and operating in relationship rather than opposed to such things as orality and visuality, traces of literacy practices are being discovered in many locations. Foregrounding the conjunction of the lettered city and the lettered countryside is an attempt to bring these venues into conversation while doing away with the binary that associates literary with the city and orality with the rural.
Over the course of the 19th century in Mexico, although the written word was still pressed into the service of national imagining, a number of other characteristics shaped the conjunction of the lettered city and the lettered countryside. A struggle over secularization was one new development, as authority came increasingly to be invested in the written word itself rather than justified in religious terms. New forms of literacies emerged, especially those associated with the novel and other forms of publications, including newspapers, periodicals for and by women, and the penny press, creating new publics with distinct senses of themselves as communities of readers and listeners; oratory, public discussion of politics and other issues in various venues, and the phenomenon of indirect readers also brought together these two locations. As early as the 1840s, rural residents in some parts of the country had made writing their own, drafting political proclamations in which they defined such things as federalism in their own terms and asserted themselves in national politics. While elite diarists, both men and women, left traces of their emotional lives in various forms of life writing over the course of the entire period, ordinary people, including mine workers, agricultural laborers, and women who carried out household duties, wrote love letters to each other by the last third of the century, if not before. Composed and exchanged by means of cooperation, the use of intermediaries known as evangelistas, or by individuals with various degrees of facility in reading and writing, love letters served as privileged means of communicating the emotions they brought into being while often ending up as evidence in legal proceedings that continued to assert the prerogatives of the lettered city even as it came ever more intimately conjoined with the lettered countryside.
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.
The Getty Research Institute (GRI) has an extensive collection of online digital resources, with two portals that focus on Mexico. The first portal discussed in this article is A Nation Emerges: Sixty-five Years of Photography in Mexico, and the second portal discussed is Obsidian Mirror-Travels: Refracting Mexican Art and Archaeology. These portals are the online versions of GRI exhibitions. Viewers of A Nation Emerges: Sixty-five Years of Photography in Mexico will find numerous primary sources, mostly photographs, related to major historical events from 1857 to 1923. This will serve as a useful resource for scholars and students interested in photohistory. The online exhibition Obsidian Mirror-Travels: Refracting Mexican Art and Archaeology offers a wealth of online digitized images related to Aztec art, culture, and archaeology.
Although A Nation Emerges: Sixty-five Years of Photography in Mexico contains superb resources, the site is difficult to navigate and can result in viewers missing much of what it offers. Therefore, this article provides a road map of sorts with the goal of helping scholars and students save valuable time during the research process. This guide will greatly streamline the user experience for those navigating A Nation Emerges: Sixty-five Years of Photography in Mexico. In fact, readers may want to consider having access to this article while they are navigating the particular portal.
On the other hand, viewers will find Obsidian Mirror-Travels: Refracting Mexican Art and Archaeology much easier to navigate. As such, a general overview, rather than a detailed guide is provided for this portal to allow users to direct their research with efficiency and accuracy when navigating the site.
The article concludes with a brief discussion in the “Digitized Resources” section, of the literature, methodology, and historiography of photohistory.
Digital Resources: The Mexican Digital Library, BDMx (Mexican National Council for Culture and the Arts)
Andrea Martínez Baracs
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Biblioteca Digital Mexicana (BDMx) provides access—for the average user as well as for students and scholars—to significant historical materials, "unpublished or very rare," as was said in the second half of the nineteenth century, the golden age of Mexican historiography. The BDMx is not concerned with documents that have a principally symbolic value (such as autographs or decrees about the founding of cities); rather, it deals with those with high cultural density, whose value is not diminished upon their first reading. Finally, the BDMx contains only materials that are not already easily found online, which, unfortunately, excludes a great number of very valuable works.
This initiative was founded and directed with the support of a directorial council comprised of the directors of four important Mexican institutions connected to Mexican history and culture: the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia (BNAH), the Centro de Estudios de Historia de México (CEHM-Carso), and the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (Conaculta). With this institutional backing, the BDMx has been able to add eight additional archives and libraries, and it continues to grow.
The AGN houses most national historical archives; the BNAH holds the main Mesoamerican Codices collection of the country, and its Colección Antigua has long been appreciated by scholars, with holdings such as the Franciscan Archives collection; CEHM-Carso is a private library that has acquired unique archival collections; Conaculta is our Ministry of Culture and, as such, has under its wing many regional museums, important photography collections, and more. The BDMx also works closely with the Universidad Iberoamericana's Biblioteca Francisco Xavier Clavijero, a private library that holds the Porfirio Díaz Archives and much more. And the Mapoteca Manuel Orozco y Berra, founded in the nineteenth century, holds a trove of historical maps.
The BDMx chooses the documents by common agreement with the curators of these collections. It looks for variety in the types of documents and supportive materials (books, other publications, manuscripts, pictography, photography, lithography, and so on). The themes are self-selected, due to their own worth and because they might mark an important anniversary or a centennial. Up to the present, some of the principal selections have been Mesoamerican codices, the unpublished oeuvre of Guillén de Lampart, ancient maps and plans, and the work of Rodrigo de Vivero.
Each item is accompanied by a historiographical introduction that aims to be up to date and relevant. The user is distracted with nothing other than the presentation of the documents, in a clean and friendly format. And the worth of the project lies in the quality of the documents. This is an example where less is more.
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.
The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the Porfiriato
Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield
Historians have extensively explored the topic of water control in Mexico City. From the relationship between political power and hydraulics to detailed studies of drainage and other large-scale infrastructure projects, the epic story of water in this megalopolis, constructed over a series of ancient lakes, continues to captivate people’s imaginations. Securing potable water for the fast-growing city is also a constant struggle, yet it has received comparatively less attention than drainage in historical research. Moreover, until quite recently scholars have not been especially concerned with water control as a process of representation—that is, a process shaped by, and shaping, visual culture. Yet, potable water brings together many stories about people and places both within and outside of the Basin of Mexico. As such, the history of potable water is communicated through a diverse array of objects and modern infrastructures not limited to the idea of waterworks in the traditional sense of the term. A more expansive view of “infrastructure” incorporates more than the commonplace objects of hydraulic management such as aqueducts, pumps, wells, and pipes: it also involves architecture, photography, and narrative history, official and unofficial. Built in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to acute water shortages, the impressively modern Xochimilco Potable Water Works exemplifies a system that delivered far more than fresh drinking water through its series of modern electric pumps and aqueduct. The system was a result of a larger modernization initiative launched by the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). It wove together an official history of water, which included the annexation of Xochimilco’s springs, through its diverse infrastructures, including the engineering of the potable water system as well as the significance of the structures themselves in terms of locations and architectural elaboration in neo-styles (also known as historical styles) typical of the period. Demonstrably clear from the sheer investment in making the Xochimilco waterworks appealing to the public is that infrastructure can possess a rich visual culture of its own.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
That the Mexican mural renaissance is understudied is clear from the fact than not one of its artists has been the subject of a scholarly biography. Moreover, the movement as a whole has usually been viewed through nationalist prejudices and partisan interpretations. A current reevaluation uses the wedge of several hitherto marginalized artists who figure more prominently in documents and chronology than in popular history. Among them, Jean Charlot can be placed securely at the beginning of several major developments, which were continuations of his work in France. At the open air art school of Coyoacán, he helped the young teachers move from impressionism to a geometry-based postimpressionism more appropriate for mural composition. He introduced woodcut, which he had practiced in France and which became the print medium of choice for generations of Mexican artists. His first mural, The Massacre in the Main Temple, was important for its successful use of fresco—immediately adopted as the preferred medium by other muralists—and its dynamic geometric composition, an alternative to Diego Rivera’s static classicism in Creation. Charlot further broadened the thematic and stylistic options of the movement in a series of small oils and in the first studies of the indigenous nude. He continued to nourish his colleagues with the results of his work as an archeological draughtsman at the Chichen Itza expedition of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.
Charlot also participated in the notable collaboration between artists and writers in 1920s Mexico. Along with Manuel Maples Arce, he was on the two-man Direction Committee of the estridentista movement, illustrating books of poetry and joining group exhibitions. His writings are among the earliest discussions of contemporary Mexican art—publicizing the movement in Europe and the United States—and continue to influence interpretation today. His collections of documents and interviews, as well as his personal experience, became the invaluable basis of books like his The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925 and numerous articles in several languages. His latest bibliography is 173 pages long. Charlot fulfilled the unique role of insider-outsider, participant-observer, in the Mexican mural renaissance.
As Mexico’s minister of public education from 1921 to 1924, José Vasconcelos played a prominent role in efforts to create a new national identity expressing the 1910 Revolution’s goals of an inclusive society and equitable nation, opportunities created through education, and shared cultural expressions. Vasconcelos has been widely praised for his educational campaigns, especially in the countryside, among indigenous communities, and for his literacy programs in the city. According to these recent interpretations, his efforts as minister of public education have been both over- and underestimated. Nevertheless, the revolutionary national identity that he helped to foster with his discussion of mestizaje in La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race; 1925) has since been ingrained into everyday life and culture.
Elissa Rashkin and Isabel Arredondo
The 1932 film Flame of Mexico (released in Mexico as Alma mexicana), written and produced by the US feminist activist Juliet Barrett Rublee (b. 1875–d. 1966), provides a window on to political and cultural aspects of US-Mexican relations during the 1920s. A melodrama whose themes include land, education, oil, and the Mexican Revolution, Flame of Mexico takes an activist stance toward international politics, critiques economic exploitation, and argues for US support of Mexican sovereignty in a time of conflict. Addressed to diplomatic circles and mass audiences alike, the message is rendered subtler by its central romantic love story and numerous action sequences drawn from the nascent Hollywood industry, as well as its finely filmed picturesque scenery and its tapestry of regional Mexican music, woven into an appealing soundtrack by leading composers and musicians of the era.
Long overlooked by film historians, Flame of Mexico is a unique artifact in film history: made in the first years of sound cinema, the film contains both intertitles and a synchronized musical score and is a transnational project. Latin American musicians living or working in Los Angeles recorded the score, while a Hollywood crew shot the film in Mexico. The film is credited with being the first feature film about Mexico shot on location in that country, and it preceded Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished Mexico project, a version of which was released in the United States almost simultaneously with Flame as Thunder over Mexico (1933). Also unique is Flame’s mix of melodrama and travelogue genres; it features a cast of Mexican actors, some of whom would go on to enjoy stable binational acting careers, with US actors playing the gringo villains as well as numerous non-actors playing themselves in ethnographic scenes designed to show, in the words of its producer, “the real Mexico.”
Although masked in the film’s publicity and press reviews, Rublee’s personal, multifaceted history as an activist is key to understanding her film as an important political and cultural undertaking, rather than the extravagant failure that some critics have portrayed, often relying on secondhand opinions without having had access to the film itself. In spite of its limited distribution and meager box-office returns—in the midst of an economic depression—the film is an act of political intervention whose colorful and romantic love story is deployed in the service of a message of peace and transnational cooperation.
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.