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.
During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.
María L. O. Muñoz
The political history of indigenous peoples in Mexico during the 20th century is complex, particularly because it intersects with changing local, state, and federal government projects aimed at exclusion, inclusion, assimilation, integration, homogenization, and multiculturalism. Focusing only on such government initiatives, however, muddies the analytical waters, as doing so tends to silence forms of resistance, accommodation, reaction, adaptation, and the agency of first peoples and communities. Oftentimes this approach assumes a complacent population at the mercy of a predatory state or a subject people in the care of a paternalistic state. In recognition of the danger of accepting state-driven indigenismo projects as the defining criteria of native people’s histories during the 20th century, this article parallels glimpses of state-driven indigenismos with indigenous forms of regional and national organization in defense of individual and collective interests, as expressed in works that have emerged over the last twenty-five years. By no means are the themes covered in this article indicative of the breadth of the concerns, ideas or political, social, and economic interests of native peoples. Rather, its intent is to juxtapose histories of indigenismos and indígena mobilizations and organization after 1940 to illustrate how the government attempted to shape its “revolutionary” vision after 1920 and the ways in which indigenous communities themselves also engaged, or did not, in this process for a number of reasons, collective and individual.
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.
Natasha S. Varner
The India Bonita Pageant of 1921 marked a critical moment in Mexico’s revolutionary identity formation. This serialized pageant hosted by the Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, also played a major role in the formulation of indigenous “authenticity,” as defined by race, material culture, gender, and sexuality. The aims of the pageant were at least superficially focused on celebrating indigenous peoples, but it ultimately narrowed popular understandings of what it meant to be indigenous through its focus on select visual markers of indigeneity. It thereby discursively erased portions of the indigenous population that did not conform to these parameters. The pageant also played into broader efforts to solve the so-called Indian Problem by situating ideal indigeneity in the rural past, favoring Aztec heritage over other indigenous identities, and positioning Mestizos as the race of the future. Ultimately, this attempt at indigenous inclusion was part of broader revolutionary identity projects that sought to isolate and erase one problematic part of the population under the guise of celebrating it.
Lázaro Cárdenas served as Mexico’s president from 1934–1940. His presidency marked the end of the “Maximato,” the period in which the former president Plutarco Elías Calles exercised control. It bridged the gap between the rocky postwar years of the 1920s and the authoritarian dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that characterized the rest of the 20th century. Cárdenas is Mexico’s most studied and best remembered president. To the extent that the Mexican Revolution ever was truly radical or popular, it was during the Cárdenas presidency. Cardenismo is an amorphous term that refers both to Cárdenas’s administration and his reform agenda. Cardenistas were a diverse coalition of supporters, some who advocated his agenda and others who merely allied themselves with his administration for non-ideological reasons. Cárdenas set out to realize what he saw as the promises of the revolution: justice for workers and peasants. He distributed about twice as much land as his predecessors combined, and he promoted unionization and strikes. He famously expropriated and nationalized the petroleum industry in dramatic defense of the Mexican worker. These actions earned him enduring affection, although he did not receive universal support even among the disenfranchised while in office. Many opposed his policies, especially those tied with the project of cultural transformation whose origin came earlier, but whose objectives Cárdenas sought to support, especially secularization. Cárdenas’s “Socialist Education” project faced particularly fierce opposition, and he was forced to abandon it along with most of the anticlerical agenda after 1938. That same year, he reorganized the ruling party along corporatist lines and rebaptized it the “Party of the Mexican Revolution,” or PRM. That restructuring is largely credited with having created the conditions under which future administrations would be able to exercise authoritarian control, although this was not Cárdenas’s intention. His presidency is more noted for what it failed to accomplish than for its successes. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on, most visibly in countryside and in the political career of his son Cuahtémoc, who has for decades struggled to fulfill his father’s vision.
When Mexico became independent in 1821, the first choice for a political system for the new country was a monarchy. In fact, the Plan of Iguala, which prompted the separation from Spain, called for Ferdinand VII or any member of his family to come rule over the novel nation. While such efforts did not prosper then and in fact precipitated a failed attempt for a national empire, the monarchist option remained alive for several decades, until a French intervention sponsored the enactment of Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. When that attempt was defeated in 1867 it marked the end of monarchism there.
One of the main promoters of such a political system was Lucas Alamán. A member of a miner’s family from Guanajuato, he became an important and influential statesman of independent Mexico. From 1821, when he first participated in the Spanish congress, until his death in 1853, Alamán, like other thinkers who lived through a transitional period, held paradoxical views; while he promoted industrialization and economic development, he maintained more-traditional views on politics and rather ancestral conceptions regarding the treatment of Indian communities. Either as minister of foreign relations, congressman, or advisor to various governments, he defended his ideas, and more than once they aimed for a monarchist option. His career illustrates the quandaries and dilemmas that the officials of Hispanic America and Old Spain as well confronted in modernizing their societies. As he got involved in public office, he also became the administrator of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone’s state in Mexico; such a position provided him—through the British agents of the Neapolitan-Sicilian nobleman—with a regular source of information on the European scene. Thus, Alamán was one of the most learned public officials of his time. He also wrote historical works that granted him recognition in academic institutions, such as the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.
Today, the death of women during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum is considered simultaneously a public health, social inequality, and gender discrimination problem. In Mexico, approximately one thousand women die each year during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum or from an unsafe abortion, experiencing a premature and sudden death in the midst of their most productive years, often with lasting consequences for their families and surviving children. As elsewhere, the great majority of these deaths would not have occurred if women had had prompt and unlimited access to quality emergency obstetric care, as well as easy access to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Most deaths are related to the substandard quality of available maternal healthcare services; services that are provided for free to most Mexican women in an overly saturated and underfunded public health system that also tends to overmedicalize and pathologize normal births. Their prematurity and abruptness, their occurrence in the process of giving life, the fact that these deaths exclusively affect women, and their avoidable nature make maternal mortality unacceptable in today’s social, political, and ethical arenas.
From an historical perspective, deaths in childbirth were much more common in past centuries than today; these deaths were considered inevitable and were accepted as natural occurrences until the late 19th century. However, surrounding rituals, the meaning attached to these deaths, related notions of womanhood and motherhood, and practices to prevent or avoid them, underwent changes according to broader sociocultural, political and religious transformations from Pre-Hispanic times to the 20th century.
As elsewhere, in Mexico maternal deaths declined considerably in the 1930s–1950s with the discovery of penicillin and the concomitant decline of puerperal fever; they reached a plateau in the 1960s and 1970s and began to slowly decline again in the 1980s–1990s with an even steeper decrease after the signature of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals in the year 2000; time when the reduction of maternal mortality became one of eight high-priority global public policy objectives, closely monitored by UN bodies.
Maternal deaths are a reflection of ingrained multiple social inequalities that characterize Mexican society at large; poor, rural, marginalized and Indigenous pregnant women face a 2–10 times higher risk of dying than the rest of Mexican women, because their access to contraception and to prompt and high quality obstetric emergency care is more limited. Today, research in the field of maternal mortality etiology, measurement and reduction includes the call for women-centered respectful maternal care, the elimination of discrimination in the provision of obstetric services and the application of a human rights perspective to health policies, programs, and care.