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.
David S. Parker
In Montevideo in 1923, streetcar company executive Juan Cat shot at journalist and Communist parliamentarian Celestino Mibelli in the atrium of the Uruguayan Congress. Despite this premeditated assassination attempt in front of numerous witnesses, Cat was released, the judge accepting the possibility that his actions were in legitimate self-defense. The logic that led police, prosecutor, and judge to arrive at conclusions that seemed to contradict both the evidence and the law hinged upon, and in the process reveals, deeply conflicting ideas of honor, family, the public versus the private sphere, and the unwritten laws that governed journalism in 1920s Uruguay. Mibelli had published a series of scandalous newspaper stories, one involving Cat’s young daughter, and many Uruguayans identified with the aggrieved father, arguing that an attack on family honor was no different from a physical assault. The only legally and socially acceptable remedy for Cat was to challenge his slanderer to a duel, but Mibelli refused to accept challenges because he considered dueling elitist. In the end, the police report, the prosecutor’s brief, and the judge’s ruling each subtly distorted the details of the encounter to construct Cat’s attack as a quasi-duel, a frustrated attempt to “demand explanations” from Mibelli, following a ritualized script set down in the dueling codes of the era. Factually, Cat’s actions were no such thing, but by crafting the narrative of an “affair of honor” gone wrong, official lies reflected deeper cultural truths.
Although on a lesser scale than the United States, southern South America became a major receiving region during the period of mass transatlantic migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even as the white elites of most Latin American countries favored European immigration in the late 19th century, since in their eyes it would “civilize” their countries, it was the temperate areas closely tied into the Atlantic economy as exporters of primary products that received the bulk of European laborers. Previously scarcely populated lands like Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil thus witnessed massive population growth and in some ways turned into societies resembling those of other immigration countries, such as the United States and Canada. This article concentrates on lands where the overwhelming majority of migrants headed, although it also briefly deals with Latin American nations that received significantly fewer newcomers, such as Mexico.
This mass migration lastingly modified identity narratives within Latin America. First, as the majority of Europeans headed to sparsely populated former colonial peripheries that promised economic betterment, migration shifted prevalent notions about the region’s racial composition. The former colonial heartlands of Mexico, Peru, and northeastern Brazil were increasingly regarded as nonwhite, poor, and “backward,” whereas coastal Argentina, São Paulo, and Costa Rica were associated with whiteness, wealth, and “progress.” Second, mass migration was capable of both solidifying and challenging notions of national identity. Rather than crossing over well-established and undisputed boundaries of national identities and territories, migration thus contributed decisively to making them.
In Brazil between 1920 and 1945, the potential for professional advancement increased significantly among literate individuals in three main areas: the intellectual and academic field in São Paulo and the emergence of a university-based intelligentsia; the boom in the publishing industry and the rise of professional novelists; and the Vargas regime’s widespread and deliberate co-optation of intellectuals. The interpretation presented in this article links class dynamics to changes within the activities of intellectuals, some of whom are analyzed here in the context of political and institutional tensions produced by the collapse of the oligarchic Old Republic (1889–1930).
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.
Robert M. Buffington
The Porfirian era (1876–1911) marked a watershed in social understandings of manhood. New ideas about what it meant to be a man had appeared in Mexico by the middle of the 19th century in the form of self-help manuals intended primarily for middle-class and bourgeois men who sought to distinguish themselves in a post-independence society that had done away with legal distinctions, including aristocratic titles. Marks of distinction included cleanliness, good grooming, moderation, affability, respectability, love of country, and careful attentiveness to the needs and opinions of others, including women, children, and social “inferiors”—an approach that artfully combined longstanding notions of masculine responsibility and authority with modern ideas about self-mastery and citizenship, especially the sublimation of volatile “passions” in all domains of social life. Modern qualities also mapped onto traditional concerns about male honor predicated on the fulfillment of patriarchal duties, especially the control of female dependents. The socially validated, “hegemonic” masculinity produced by this amalgamation of modern and traditional ideas proved burdensome for many middle-class men, who struggled to maintain an always precarious sense of honor or who rejected the constraints it sought to impose on their behavior. For men from less privileged classes, it represented an impossible ideal that they sometimes rejected through the adoption of antisocial “protest” masculinities and often satirized as delusional or unmanly, even as they too came to define their masculinity in relation to a modern/traditional binary. The modern/traditional binary that characterized ideas about masculinity for all sectors of Porfirian society has persisted until the present day, despite the epochal 1910 social revolution that inaugurated a new era in Mexican social relations.
Nicole von Germeten
Female occupational and economic choices help clarify understandings of colonial historic agency, especially in the lives of Mexican women who made their income as alcahuetas or “bawds.” These women hosted and managed other women in the marketing and selling of sex acts in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Viceregal bawds manipulated both the sex lives of their clients and the paternalism of crown justice in hopes of exoneration in court. They walked a precarious legal tightrope, negotiating the fluctuating margins of legal procuring and the transition to more stringent laws against sex for sale. The examples presented here, drawn from contemporary archival documents, show that these women’s lives span most of New Spain’s history, ranging from 1570 to the independence era in the early 19th century. In the 16th century, bawdry resembled the clandestine personal mediation that was common and familiar in medieval and early modern Spain. Bawds working in the 1st century of Spanish rule in Mexico carefully defended their social respectability to contradict evidence that they solicited for clients in the street. Reputable hospitality featured prominently in the early 17th-century procuring, while indigenous-influenced sorcery and love magic dominated the understanding of 17th- and early 18th-century alcahuetas. Lastly, in the 19th century, profitable market exchange characterized professional brothel operations, granting bawds honorable status within their economic and occupational community. Bawds recorded in the archives demonstrate communication skills, entrepreneurialism, and a concern for reputation through all of these eras. These intelligent female survivors offer compelling representations of viceregal women who exercised their personal agency to forge their own economic prosperity.
The years immediately following World War II constituted a watershed in Mexico’s political development: the national government, controlled by the recently renamed Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and led by a new generation of civilian professional politicians, made rapid industrialization its top priority. In a matter of decades, the nation transformed from a predominantly rural to an ever more urbanized society. Significant social and cultural changes followed. The middle classes became the dominant voice in national politics and the beneficiaries of the government’s economic policies, while earlier efforts designed to ameliorate the suffering of the majority were suspended or even reversed, leaving urban workers and the rural poor to wonder what had happened to their revolution. Gradually, a consumerist culture eclipsed the cultural revolution of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite official claims to the contrary, Mexico in this era shed its revolutionary identity and replaced it with a modernizing zeal.
Through the 1960s, scholarly assessments regarded the nation as a model of Third World development. In the estimation of foreign and domestic observers alike, the combination of aggressive capitalist development, state protectionism, and foreign investment had created an economic miracle, while the 1910 Revolution had produced a relatively benign, paternalistic form of “soft” authoritarianism. But in the years following the devastating massacre of students in 1968 at the Plaza de Tlatelolco just days before the Mexico City Summer Olympics, scholarly assessments soured. In the coming decades, more and more evidence of political violence, media manipulation, and official corruption would surface, leading to a crisis of political legitimacy that would be severely aggravated by economic crisis in 1982. For these reasons, the period from 1946 to 1982 is a distinct and important chapter in the nation’s 20th-century development.