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.
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.
With the arrival of the daguerreotype in Río de la Plata, in 1840, the photography industry was immediately monopolized by portrait photographers. By 1850 there were already more than ten daguerreotype photographers in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the two main cities on either side of the river. The majority were traveling foreigners, who frequently moved their studios between the two banks. Local society welcomed this new technology with enthusiasm and praised its representational perfection and its powerful verisimilitude. However, the high cost of the first daguerreotypes made portraiture an item of prestige and social differentiation, reserved only for those who were well-to-do. Far from the instantaneous photography of the early 21st century, daguerreotype portraits involved lengthy exposure times. This meant that they were highly staged, according to the attitudes, expectations, and motivations (conscious or unconscious), of the photographer, the subject, and the society in which these works were created. Through expertly arranged costumes, scenery, and poses, the bourgeoisie of Río de la Plata communicated and immortalized the prejudices, behaviors, and opinions specific to their class.
With the emergence of paper photography and the growth of standardized formats, such as the carte de visite, c. 1855, photography transcended class boundaries for the first time. In this period the portrait acquired a commemorative function associated with the consolidation of new genres, such as post-mortem portraits, wedding portraits, and First Communion portraits, pictures meant to immortalize important family events. During this time large photography studios appeared, with new and luxurious facilities, in which the photographic compositions would become much more sophisticated and theatrical.
For the local elite the decision to have their portraits taken was an act of expressing their identity; for certain social subjects, however, being photographed, invariably through the imposition of the operator, and with no agency in the representation of their own image, photography functioned as an instrument of privilege used to construct otherness. During this period the development of disciplines such as anthropology, criminology, and psychiatry, which sought to record and classify everything that did not conform with the normalized homogeneity of the time, made photography the ideal tool to identify those “others” for whom there was no space in respectable society or who fulfilled a negative role in it.