Vicente Lombardo Toledano was born into a prosperous family in 1894 in Teziutlán, Puebla, and died in Mexico City in 1968. His life is a window into the history of the 20th century: the rise and fall of the old regime; the Mexican Revolution and the transformations that the revolution made in society; the intellectual and social reconstruction of the country under new parameters that included the rise of the labor movement to political prominence as well as the intervention of the trade unions in the construction and consolidation of the state; the dispute over the course of the nation in the tumultuous 1930s; and the configuration of the political and ideological left in Mexico. Lombardo Toledano’s life and work illustrate Mexico’s connections with the world during the Second World War and the Cold War.
Lombardo Toledano belonged to the intellectual elite of men and women who considered themselves progressives, Marxists, and socialists; they believed in a bright future for humanity. He viewed himself as the conscious reflection of the unconscious movement of the masses. With unbridled energy and ideological fervor, he founded unions, parties, and newspapers. During the course of his life, he adhered to various beliefs, from Christianity to Marxism, raising dialectical materialism to the level of a theory of knowledge of absolute proportions in the same fashion that he previously did with idealism. In life, he aroused feelings of love and hate; he was the object of royal welcomes and the target of several attacks; national and international espionage agencies did not let him out of their sight. He was detained in and expelled from several countries and prevented from visiting others. Those who knew him still evoke his incendiary oratorical style, which others remember as soporific. His admirers praise him as the helmsman of Mexican and Latin American workers; others scorn the means he used to achieve his goals as opportunist.
Lombardo Toledano believed that the Soviet Union had achieved a future that Mexico could not aspire to imitate. Mexico was a semifeudal and semicolonial country, hindered by imperialism in its economic development and the creation of a national bourgeoisie, without which it could not pass on to the next stage in the evolution of mankind and without which the working class and peasantry were doomed to underdevelopment. In his interpretation of history, the autonomy of the subordinate classes did not enter into the picture; rather it was the intellectual elites allied with the state who had the task of instilling class consciousness in them. No matter how prominent a personality he was in his time, today few remember the maestro Vicente Lombardo Toledano, despite the many streets and schools named after him. However, the story of his life reveals the vivid and contradictory history of the 20th century, with traces that remain in contemporary Mexico.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Irving W. Levinson
The Mexican-American War ranks among the most consequential events in the history of both nations. Although the casus belli for the United States’s May 12, 1846, declaration of war was the Mexican ambush of a U.S. Army patrol in the disputed Nueces Strip on April 25 of that year, two underlying causes rendered conflict inevitable. The dispute over Texas was the first, and the desire of both nations to control the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico and California was the second. President James Knox Polk identified the acquisition of that territory as the principal objective of his administration.
The conflict also remains noteworthy for the extent to which the political milieu in both countries proved as important as events on the battlefields. In México, a devastating war of independence (1810–1821), multiple violent overthrows of the federal government, the failure of two constitutions to produce a structure acceptable to both conservatives and liberals, and enmities generated by the socioeconomic structure severely limited México’s growth, tranquility, and potential for armed resistance to an invader. In the United States, the national unity evident at the outbreak of the war faded in the face of sectional rivalries, unexpectedly high casualties, and declining relations between the executive and legislative branches.
The military phases of the war fall into two segments. In the first, forces considerably smaller than those deployed in later phases of the war fought in Texas and in the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico, California, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon. When United States victories in northern Mexico failed to produce the anticipated Mexican surrender, the second phase of the conflict began on March 9, 1847, with General Winfield Scott’s invasion of central Mexico and ended with his entrance in Mexico City on September 14, 1847.
In the following seven months, both governments sought to obtain the best terms. A rising tide of violent rural rebellion in Mexico and a rising tide of Whig opposition to the Polk administration in Washington served as catalysts during the negotiations. Two agreements, the February 2, 1848, Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the March 6, 1848, Truce Agreement brought hostilities a close.
Consequences of the conflict included the Mexico’s loss of 525,000 square miles of territory, the emergence of the United States as the dominant continental power, the dispossession of many Mexican citizens living in what had become U.S. territory, and the reestablishment of Mexican sovereignty over territories in rebellion.
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 major art form produced in Mexico during the years following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, especially during 1920–1940, was mural painting, mostly in the technique of fresco. Three artists dominated this period: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, known collectively as the Big Three. Rufino Tamayo, younger and less ideologically aligned to those three, followed his own path of a more modernist style. An important easel painter of this period was Frida Kahlo, who traveled in the cultural and political circles of the muralists but who produced strongly personal images, especially of herself.
In addition, examples of mural paintings by the Big Three in the United States receive their due attention, as does the more independent mural production in Mexico of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The paintings are analyzed in terms of context, meaning brief references to biographical details, more expansive on the general sociohistorical setting, with accounts of the patronage where highly relevant, and relations between the artists themselves. Discussions of the style of the images, in the most comprehensive and general sense, are dedicated to revealing the ideological content of the style as it serves the more straightforward subjects of the paintings.
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.
The Mexican Revolution was the first major social revolution of the 20th century. Its causes included, among others, the authoritarian rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz, the seizure of millions of acres of indigenous village lands by wealthy hacendados and foreign investors, and the growing divide between the rich and the poor. As a result of these varied causes and Mexico’s strong social and regional divisions, the revolution against Díaz lacked ideological focus. The revolutionaries ousted Díaz within six months but could not agree on the new social and political order and—after a failed attempt at democracy—ended up fighting among themselves in a bitter civil war. In 1917, the victorious Constitutionalist faction crafted a landmark constitution, the first in the world to enshrine social rights and limit the rights of private, and particularly foreign capital. Although never fully implemented and partially repealed in the 1990s, the document remains the most significant achievement of the revolution. After 1920, a succession of revolutionary generals gradually centralized political power until the election of a civilian presidential candidate in 1946. This effort at state building confronted significant resistance from popular groups, regional warlords, and disaffected leaders who had lost out in the political realignment. In the end, the symbolic significance of the revolution exceeded its political and social outcomes.
While fundamentally agrarian in nature, the revolution thus ultimately produced a new national elite that gradually restored a strong central state. One can easily divide the revolution into a military (1910–1917) and a reconstructive phase (1917–1946). However, the latter phase witnessed an important generational shift that transferred political power from the leaders of the military phase to their subordinates as well as civilian representatives, with the formation of a revolutionary ruling party in 1929 serving as the most important watershed moment in this process. Therefore, this essay distinguishes among three separate phases: insurrection and civil war (1910–1917); reconstruction (1917–1929); and institutionalization (1929–1946).