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.
The Mexican government’s civil aviation program implemented elite development strategies during a period of national reconstruction. In the decades following the revolution, political leaders and industrialists attempted to strike a balance between preserving a unique national identity and asserting their country’s place in global affairs as a competitive, modern nation. Nation builders were primarily concerned with improving the nation’s communication and transportation capabilities, although they quickly learned to exploit the spectacle of aviation through the mass media and in public ceremonies, as well. The symbolic figure of the pilot proved an adept vessel for disseminating the values championed by the country’s ruling party. Aviators validated the technological determinism underpinning the government’s development philosophy, while projecting an image of strength abroad.
This article traces the trajectory of aviation development from 1920s through the 1950s. In the process it demonstrates how the social and cultural significance of technology in Mexico changed over time. The establishment of the Department of Civil Aeronautics under the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works (SCOP), in 1928, reflected the ambitions of reform-minded officials who were intent on modernizing the country. Although the onset of the Great Depression slowed aviation development for about a decade, policymakers recommitted to the technology during World War II. President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946) used it to achieve two of his primary goals: securing the country from the threat of international fascism and shifting the nation from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Wartime aid alleviated material obstacles hamstringing national aviation development, and the rapid growth of tourism to the country in 1940s and 1950s benefited commercial airlines. Presidents Miguel Aléman (1946–1952) and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–1958) touted the success of the aviation industry as a consequence of their development policies. The near financial collapse of the country’s largest airline, Compañía Mexicana de Aviación (CMA), at the end of the decade nevertheless hinted that the country’s sustained economic growth was less miraculous than officials and foreign observers liked to believe.
After decades of revolutionary upheaval and political violence that began early in the 20th century, Mexico had seemingly achieved stability and a relative level of social peace by the 1940s. The peasant revolution of 1910—beginning with its armed, insurrectionary phase (1910–1920) to the subsequent decades (1920–1940) that involved making “The Revolution” manifest in the everyday lives of Mexicans who (to borrow historian Jeffrey Pilcher’s metaphor) chose à la carte from the revolutionary menu—produced a durable political order characterized by an active level of popular participation and legitimacy. The peace was durable, yet potentially fragile since postrevolutionary rulers, contained within the confines of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and its previous incarnations, could not take the peasant masses for granted. Revolution had taught these masses something about their power, both its limitations and potential, to shape the content and form of the Mexican state.
After 1940, as the PRI gradually exhibited its preference for political authoritarianism and an economic project that rapidly industrialized and urbanized the country while pauperizing the countryside, a series of disparate popular protest movements continually emerged. Usually peaceful and basing their alternative modernizing visions on the 1917 Constitution and the radical policies of President Lázaro Cárdenas during the 1930s, these movements—peasant, organized labor, and student movements—often faced repression and violence at the hands of state agents and/or local-regional caciques when demanding political democracy and economic justice. The spectacular massacre of protestors in public spaces and the selective assassination of dissident movement leaders represent two of the tactics employed by the PRI to quell popular resistance in the post–1940 era. Yet, such instances of state violence also stimulated political and tactical radicalization as some protestors organized revolutionary expressions of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare. From 1940 to 1982, more than three dozen armed organizations emerged in almost every region, in both urban and rural settings, displaying a wide variety of revolutionary ideologies and practices. Beginning with Rubén Jaramillo’s 1943 armed resistance in Morelos and ending with the formal dissolution of the urban Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre in 1982, these armed struggles generally shared the goal of overthrowing the PRI regime, seizing state power, and articulating a socialist vision for a post-PRI Mexico.
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.
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.
Jennifer L. Jenkins
The visual and technical culture of the Mexican Revolution shaped and was shaped by cinematic innovation in newsreel and fiction filmmaking, which evolved simultaneously with those social changes, presenting the image of those changes for the first time to Mexican audiences. While Russian Sergei Eisenstein has been (wrongly) credited with inventing Mexican cinema, a strong tradition of family-based production units existed long before Eisenstein’s visit and persists to this day. From the earliest newsreels of the conflict to the melodramas and historical epics of the epoca de oro, the Revolution infused cinematic narrative in the first half of the 20th century. As such, distinctive visual tropes and film language evolved in response and counterdistinction to Revolutionary ideals. Moving toward midcentury, cinema developed genres and narratives that continually revisioned the Revolution, creating the epoca de oro films. In this period, the film industry developed in direct correlation to the agendas of the sitting presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946), and Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946–1952). Influential directors Fernándo de Fuentes, Emilio Fernández, and Spanish immigrant Luis Buñuel, along with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, shaped the charter myths of modern Mexico though their cinematic works. At midcentury, with the advent of television and a postwar economic boom, Revolution-themed films appeared in near-continuous playback on television, while Buñuel inaugurated a cinema of realism that explored the harsher realities of the failure of Revolutionary ideals for the urban underclasses. The cultural imaginary that is cinema continued this exploration up to and after the tragedies of 1968.
Joseph U. Lenti
For seventy-five years the Mexican government allocated private and public land to people who needed it—and lots of it. An average of 1.3 million hectares were redistributed annually from 1917 to 1992, for a total of nearly 1 million square kilometers, or, almost exactly half of the nation’s arable area. On the other hand, serious flaws in government policy, coupled with macroeconomic, demographic, and environmental phenomena, undermined the program and turned its signature component, the ejido, into a synonym for rural backwardness and poverty. Thus, in spite of the astonishing volume of redistributed land, many assert that revolutionary land reform in Mexico failed: that it did not permanently improve the lives of rural land recipients as much as convert them into clients of the government.