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date: 24 April 2017

Culture in Mexico during the Miracle and Beyond, 1946–1982

Summary and Keywords

Mexican national culture in the period from 1946 to 1982 can be understood by recognizing three overlapping transformations. The first was the consolidation of various national archetypes rooted in Mexican revolutionary and prerevolutionary mythologies of national identity and that were disseminated via state-sponsored cultural institutions as well as through global marketing campaigns related primarily to bolstering tourism. A second was the commodification of national popular culture through local cultural industries, namely radio, cinema, the recording industry, and television, and the competitive engagement of these industries with external cultural flows deriving, primarily though not exclusively, from the United States. The third was the invention of new forms of urban response to inflation and the cascading crises of political legitimacy that characterized the decade leading up to economic collapse in 1982. Across the body politic, one discerns a resilience of shared points of cultural reference—sonic, visual, culinary, and otherwise—derived, often in great measure, from governmental policies and discourse. At the same time, and increasingly over the course of this historical period, one finds movements characterized by an irreverent reappropriation of many of those same reference points, carried out by a diverse range of social actors in pursuit of individual and collective strategies of resistance to both state and patriarchal forms of authority. By the early 1980s Mexican national culture had become a rich and playful bricolage made up of iconic markers over which the state experienced a diminishing, though not yet exhausted, capacity to define.

Keywords: cine clubes, Mexico, Mexican golden age, Mexican Revolution, popular culture, identity, nationalism, globalization, modernism, youth culture

Twilight of a Golden Age (1946–1958)

An initial period for this topic can be framed as roughly 1946–1958, a time that encompassed the simultaneous consolidation of marketable components of a national repertoire with a new sense of pride and political awareness of a rapidly modernizing society. This twin cultural process produced a dynamic tension between a celebration of lo mexicano—that is, a quintessential notion of “Mexicanness” that reflected a form of chauvinistic or boastful nationalism (“¡Como México, no hay dos!”)—and the search for new idioms of cultural expression that more directly engaged with international trends. Although the impact of U.S. culture exports was clearly discernible in certain genres, notably cinema and food/drink, the influence of other external influences, for instance that of Cuban music and European architectural modernism, had an equally decisive impact on the cultural topography of a society undergoing rapid transformation, most notably in Mexico City.

Indeed, these years might be considered as the twilight of the national golden age. The Época de oro is a term generally linked with the successful commercialization of national cinema, yet the phrase also connotes a broader sensibility during which a set of shared cultural and political references emerged across class and regional boundaries. In film, the golden age was defined by the domestic “star system,” which featured the likes of Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, María Félix, Dolores del Río, Tin Tan, and other actors and took hold in the late 1930s before petering out, for a number of reasons, by the late 1950s.

At its best, the thematic content of these films mirrored a set of broader tensions transpiring across the body public, between a nostalgic romanticization of rural provincialism and the comforting solidity of a set of unchanging patriarchal values, on one hand, and, on the other, the unsettling, yet simultaneously liberating transformations taking place in the capital, especially as the country embarked on a trajectory of rapid capitalist modernization after World War II. This developmental strategy clearly stressed the consumption aspirations of a newly expanding urban middle class. It also heightened the cultural divide that was growing between those with access to foreign goods and values in the nation’s urban centers and those in the rural provinces, where access was more limited. At the same time, the lure of jobs and social mobility for migrants to the nation’s capital directly contributed not only to a rapidly shifting demographics but also to an expanding category of working-class consumers eager to assimilate—and contribute to—the capital’s cultural milieu.

By the late 1940s, many of the classics of the golden age cinema had already been made—films such as Allá en el rancho grande (1936), Ahí está el detalle (1940), María Candelaria (1943), and Nosotros los pobres (1947). Still, with the advent of television these films entered a prolonged afterlife and their plotlines, songs, and character mannerisms steadily became embedded in the fabric of popular culture references. In this way, residents of the capital were thus linked with those in the provinces. Moreover, the continuous circulation of these films helped to codify central aspects of mexicanidad both domestically and in urban centers across Latin America, where Mexican cinema was widely viewed. These aspects included tropes such as the gregarious ranchera singer, the urban trickster, and the redemptive Virgin of Guadalupe. At the same time, this was also a golden age for Hollywood film, and the appeal of cinema arriving from up north was fierce. Reflecting the concerns raised by this influx, in 1949, President Miguel Alemán (1946–1952) signed into law the first piece of legislation that specifically addressed the significance of cinema as a core element of a common national cultural identity. One of the stated outcomes of the law was to create a “Cineteca Nacional” that would serve as an archive of national cinema; although bureaucratic obstacles delayed its implementation, it would eventually serve as an invaluable archive until it was tragically destroyed by fire in 1982. More fundamentally, the law established that the government would grant “moral and economic support” to various institutions linked to film production, dissemination, and popular access. Still, by the mid-1950s critics were already lamenting the decline of national cinema. Although output continued through the late 1950s and into the 1960s—indeed, in terms of sheer numbers production thrived—the death of many of star actors, shifting aesthetic sensibilities, and competition from foreign (especially Hollywood) imports left a generalized impression that the age of cinematographic grandeur had passed.

Other cultural forms similarly experienced a twilight era of national popularity. One in particular was the radio personality known as Cri-Crí, the “singing cricket,” who was the star of a children’s program begun in 1934 and that aired over the nationally broadcast station, XEW. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, before the advent of television, children (and often their parents) would gather around the radio for the weekly broadcast of Cri-Crí, whose songs and skits became universally known and celebrated, both in Mexico and across many parts of Latin America. Many of the songs were even incorporated into public school programming, such as the state-sponsored jardines de niños (kindergartens) of the Ministry of Public Education (SEP). As with national cinema, Cri-Crí came to embody a celebrated notion of mexicanidad, one that could compete with foreign imports (in this case, Walt Disney) and define a discernible set of distinctly national values. When Cri-Crí went off the air in 1961, it marked the end of an era of family-oriented radio programming. Eclipsed by the appeal of television, radio would not lose its appeal entirely. During the 1960s, stations dedicated to the programming of rock music—such as the show on Radio Éxitos (790AM) La hora de los Beatles—reached wide sectors of youth and reflected a radical departure in the enthusiastic embrace of Anglo cultural values. Meanwhile, as with cinema, recordings of Cri-Crí (and a feature film, Cri-Crí, el grillito cantor [1963]) helped perpetuate the soundtrack of the iconic radio personality for generations to come.

Perhaps more than any other cultural element, muralism epitomized the successful collaborative role of the revolutionary government and local artistic production in generating cultural idioms that became widely legible across the body politic and a defining element of national culture recognized abroad. In 1945, Dávid Alfaro Siqueiros famously declared: “No hay más ruta que la nuestra” (There is no other route than ours) in reference to the nationalist singularity of muralist painting. During the 1950s, Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and other muralists (José Clemente Orozco had died in 1949) continued to receive public—and, increasingly, private—commissions to decorate the corridors of government buildings and hotels with their craft. Yet in the mid-1950s, a younger generation of artists mounted a critique of the “school of muralism” as characterized by a socialist realism aesthetic that was outdated, mismatched to modernist trends internationally, and stifling of artistic identity. This movement, aptly identified as “La ruptura” (the Rupture), was perhaps most closely associated with the artist José Luis Cuevas (b. 1934), whose 1958 essay “La cortina de nopal” (The Cactus Curtain) became a manifesto of sorts to encourage artistic revolt against the old guard and Siqueiros in particular. The revolt encompassed more than simply a question of aesthetics. More fundamentally, it reflected a critique of government paternalism and of the very concept of lo mexicano, which Cuevas and others regarded as little more than a celebration of cultural parochialism.

While muralism had settled into a set of staid, yet recognizable tropes—the heroic worker, the humble campesino, the malevolent oligarch—during the 1950s the cover art of nationally disseminated weekly magazines, such as Jueves de Excélsior (1922), Hoy (1937), Mañana (1943), and especially Siempre! (1953), became essential forums for what one author has described as the “new muralism.” Magazine cover art and muralism indeed resembled each other in the sense that both used symbolic language to reach a broad, often semiliterate population. Through their display on street-corner kiosks throughout the country, magazine covers reached an even wider urban audience than muralism ever had. Moreover, whereas muralism was often didactic in its content, magazine cover art more frequently contained biting political satire and, at times, ideological ambiguity. Thus passersby could “read” the editorial content of covers drawn by caricaturists such as Antonio Arias Bernal, Ernesto García (“El Chango”) Cabral, and Rafael Freyre, all of whom became household names. Several of these cover artists were also known for their editorial cartoons, and in the late 1950s a new generation of cartoonists began to appear on the pages of both the mainstream and critical press, most notably Abel Quezada (drawing for Excélsior), Eduardo (“Rius”) del Río (in Política), and Jorge Carreño (taking over following the death of Arias Bernal as cover artist for Siempre!). In their ability to employ sparse lines and a sardonic humor to address the monopolistic practices of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), relations with the United States, the Cold War, and Mexico’s place in global affairs, these caricaturists channeled a new aesthetic and intellectual sensibility, one that reflected a more critical self-awareness of what was at stake in the country’s emergence as a modernizing yet still “underdeveloped” nation on the world stage.

The visual and spatial transformation of the capital itself embodied this larger cultural dynamic. Mexico City went through a remarkable period of urban growth and a reconfiguring of social space from the period after World War II through to the advent of the Cuban Revolution. The influx of migrants from the countryside radically transformed the demographics of the capital and induced the government to implement large-scale urban expansion projects, such as the construction of the massive Conjunto Urbano Presidente Alemán housing complex located in the Colonia del Valle and the relocation, beginning in 1952, of the national university from the city’s center to the open spaces at the southern perimeter of the capital. These new buildings conformed to the style of “high modernism”—which emphasized an economy of usage and limited architectural flourishes—and became key components of a broader strategy by the government to construct a new visual presentation of Mexico in the public (and especially foreign) eye. Another prime example of these efforts was the construction of the Torre Latinoamericano, which was completed in 1956 after a decade of construction. The skyscraper, which closely resembled the structure of the Empire State Building in New York City, became the tallest building in Latin America and quickly emerged as an iconic emblem of Mexico’s modernization prowess. The transformation of Mexico’s architectural landscape would accelerate rapidly after 1959, with major new public works projects encompassing the realms of housing, transportation, and cultural institutions. In sum, by the late 1950s Mexico had succeeded at “rebranding” itself as a dynamic regional actor and emergent model of economic and political development on the world stage.

Global Sixties (1958–1973)

The period c. 1958–1973 is increasingly denoted by historians as constituting the “Global Sixties.” If that of the 1940s–1950s embodied a golden age in which archetypes of cultural identity were codified through the mass media, the Global Sixties was a period when many of those same icons were refashioned through consumptive practices and government-directed actions. This refashioning produced hybrid forms in which lo mexicano melded with foreign cultural references. This hybridity was both celebrated and decried. For many, the new cultural manifestations heralded the recognition of cosmopolitan aspirations in an era of rapid middle-class mobility. For others, the intertwining of the “local” and the “foreign” signified a profound loss of national sovereignty and the triumph of what the political left would come to label as “cultural imperialism.”

Three intersecting historical currents can be discerned. First the Cuban Revolution and the rise of a “New Left,” taken together, had a profound impact on transformations already under way within Mexican left-wing political culture and on university-age youth in particular. These youth, like youth everywhere in the Americas, were galvanized by the rebel appearance and escapades of the Cuban barbudos, whose scraggly beards symbolized a larger, seismic revolt against formal left-wing politics and mainstream culture. The reverence given to Fidel Castro and the unquestioned defense of the Cuban Revolution found particular resonance on the main campus of the National University (UNAM) and the Polytechnic Institute, both of which assumed an oversized role as recruiting grounds for left-wing political movements throughout the 1960s and yet were microcosms of a larger shift nationally in political culture among youth in particular.

One important manifestation of this shift was the launching in the spring of 1960 of the biweekly newsmagazine, Política. Conceived and directed by Marcúe Pardiñas, a stalwart of Vicente Lombardo Toledano’s left-wing political party, Partido Popular (which served as a “loyal opposition” to the ruling PRI), Política quickly emerged as a forum for left-wing intellectuals to critique the authoritarian practices of the ruling party and to expound upon the geopolitical ramifications of decolonization and the Cold War. Along with Siempre!, Política helped to forge a network of communication between students, intellectuals, and certain sectors of the middle classes within the capital and between the center of the country and the provinces. This communication in turn laid the foundation for a shared discursive framework in defense of the Cuban Revolution, in particular, and in support of an internationalist role for Mexican politics more broadly. Política differed, however, in one significant way from the other newsmagazines, including Siempre!, its closest competitor: its covers almost always employed photomontage rather than editorial caricature. This difference reflected the magazine’s more serious tone and clear ideological stance. (Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service provided both photographic material and news content.) In fact, the increasing radicalization of the journal, which came to align itself with an insurrectionary current of the global New Left, led to the formal departure in 1964 of various intellectual and cultural figures, such as Carlos Fuentes, Fernando Benítez, and Carlos Monsiváis. This fracturing of Política pointed to a broader split within the culture of the New Left, between those who came to embrace a “heroic revolutionary” discourse that regarded any cultural manifestation derived from the First World as intrinsically “imperialist” and those more open to the fluidity and increasing hybridity of cultural exchange.

The universities became raucous, ideological free zones, where left-wing organizing and right-wing reaction reshaped campus culture and the public’s perception of student life. Ideological confrontation transformed certain provincial capitals, such as in Guadalajara, Morelia, and Puebla into pitched battlegrounds, most notoriously with the explosive response to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. All of this reflected a mounting politicization of student life and cultural outlook more generally. One important manifestation of this politicization was the emergence of the cine clubes on university campuses, notably at the UNAM. The cine clubes were one element of a broader proliferation of student-run artistic and literary forums, all of which helped to forge a critical space for the engagement by youth with an increasingly politicized avant-garde in the arts and the coincident emergence in Europe and the United States of a culture of protest.

In a fundamental respect, this vibrant left-wing student culture was very much in a minority with respect to cultural and political identity nationally. Although the middle classes, especially, embraced the consumerist outlook heralded by the period of steady economic growth and overall political stability, Mexico still remained culturally conservative. Most parents were hardly enamored of their children’s rebellious ways. This was particularly the case as young women began to chafe at the tradition of being chaperoned and men’s hairstyles began to change. At the same time, the left’s rallying cry of “Cuba sí, yanquis no!” was overwhelmed by the counter-cry promulgated by the Catholic Church, “Cristianismo sí, comunismo no!,” which spread with equal fervor among the populace. Shopkeepers and homes, for instance, commonly placed window placards denouncing communism (and later, mugrosos, i.e., hippies). These were positions, moreover, championed by the conservative student group MURO, which established branches at universities across the country and regarded itself as the vanguard defense against Cuban-backed communism.

Coincident with the impact of the Cuban Revolution was a second cultural revolution in the making. This was the apolitical rebellion linked to imported iconoclastic rebels whose rallying cry was rock ‘n’ roll. The new youth sounds and attendant iconography were carried into Mexico on the wings of transnational capital, both through Hollywood film and through subsidiaries of international recording companies located in Mexico City, such as RCA, Polygram, and Columbia Records. The sensationalist aspects of youth gone awry depicted in films such as The Wild One (1953) and Rebel without a Cause (1955) generated a backlash by the conservative parental group known as the Liga de decencia (League of Decency) and provided the basis for the phrase rebeldismo sin causa as a catch-all term used by the media to denounce a perceived breakdown in social mores, of buenas costumbres. Despite being a reference to the (temporarily banned film) Rebel without a Cause, the phrase remained a leitmotif throughout the 1960s, used to depict a perceived insolence of youth; it was invoked as late as 1968 to denounce student protesters. The controversy over youth and the role of the mass media in undermining traditional social values played an important role in the creation of a new national Law of Radio and Television in 1960, which contained specific clauses aimed at shielding youth from the presumed malicious, “anti-Mexican” aspects of imported mass media culture. Government and parental fears that youth were revealing a preference for foreign culture directly contributed to a revitalization of a discourse of malinchismo (i.e., invocation of “La Malinche” as an avatar of cultural traitorousness), a discourse that had largely been dormant since the 1920s.

The 1960 law also raised tariff barriers on imports of recorded music in an effort to protect local artistic production. By doing so, it ended up having the effect of spurring the production of Mexican rock music groups and of subsidizing a nascent industry to compete with foreign imports. By the early 1960s, there were scores of local bands—many with names derived from English, in a nod to the authentic original—recording and performing Spanish-language versions of hits by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and others, with a smattering of originals and covers of Mexican classics thrown in. An attendant film culture featuring Mexican rock ‘n’ roll stars (such as Enrique Gúzman from Los Teen Tops and César Costa of Las camisas negras) helped sustain the profits, if less so the respectability, of Mexico’s otherwise ailing film industry. Although critics railed against the imitative aspects of both the music and the films, for many among the younger generation these became their idols and their rebel culture to embrace. Mexico City’s strong-armed mayor, Ernesto Uruchurtu, repeatedly sought to shut down the numerous youth spaces for rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called cafés cantantes, that dotted the city’s landscape through the early 1960s. While the campaign was largely successful, the repression nevertheless helped to generate a sense among youth that rock music was outlaw culture, one to be nurtured on the run and in defiance of both parental and government authority.

By the mid-1960s, this native youth movement increasingly merged with a global search by youth for new languages of social protest in what was becoming known as a counterculture. In Mexico, this counterculture was called La onda—a term denoting “the wave,” simultaneously a reference to the “new wave” of youth styles and sentiment and also an acknowledgment of the impact of new technologies, such as the transistor radio and color television. Adults maintained a somewhat ambivalent relationship toward these new cultural sensibilities. On one hand, the rebelliousness of youth seemed to embody a larger crisis of patriarchal values, one in which a lack of respect shown for the president by protesting students was directly linked to cultural performances that were regarded by many grown-ups as disrespectful of religion and traditional values. This was in evidence, for instance, with the short-lived television show from the late 1960s, 1, 2, 3 a Go-Go, which aimed to capitalize on the youth market. Directed by the iconoclastic Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, living in Mexico since the early 1960s and whose avant-garde theatrical and cinematographic productions were well known among university students, the weekly series integrated psychedelic rock music by the next generation of Mexican rock musicians (such as Los Dug Dug’s) with a rewriting of cultural references from the country’s nationalist repertoire.

At the same time, many adults eagerly embraced other aspects of this youth culture, as La onda seemed to herald Mexico’s own advancement into the developed world. One of Mexico City’s renowned shopping areas, for instance, was the so-called Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), located in the heart of the capital’s commercial and diplomatic district. The Zona Rosa became famous locally for its hip consumerism and as a selling point for the tourist industry. Tellingly, it was also the staging ground in 1967 for the so-called Ephemeral Mural, designed by José Luis Cuevas, who by then had constituted himself as one of a “mafia” of intellectual critics of Mexican nationalism and of the dominant political culture. The concept of Cuevas’s “mural”—staged as a “happening” in the Zona Rosa and destroyed shortly after completion—was to highlight the death of the muralist movement itself by underscoring how it had become overly reified as an aspect of nationalist culture, monumentalized and therefore stripped of its creative and emancipatory powers.

By the end of the 1950s, a dynamic tension was in evidence between a “folkloric” cultural repertoire consisting of state-sponsored programming and an engagement with “cosmopolitan” aesthetic and intellectual trends. As Luis Castañeda demonstrates, this tension was embraced by the regime’s own institutional cultural establishment as a means of marketing Mexico’s place in an unsettled and rapidly transforming world. One important example of this marketing effort was the rise of the Ballet Folklórico, a modern dance troupe directed by Amalia Hernández that restaged classic regional folk dances for modern, urban audiences. Although the troupe was founded in 1952 and by the end of the decade had become known to Mexican audiences through its television performances, it was during the 1960s that the group gained international renown, with government-sponsored tours throughout the United States and Europe, as well as the Soviet Union.

The most direct embodiment of governmental efforts to embrace this cultural dynamic emerged with the staging of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. This was reflected notably in the design leitmotif and yearlong cultural programming (“Cultural Olympiad”) that preceded the actual sporting events. Central to the design concept was the need to balance a perception of Mexican “rootedness” (folklore) with a manifestation of Mexican “modernity” (cosmopolitanism). The balancing of those twin cultural forces was perfectly evoked by the design created by Lance Wyman—a U.S. graphic artist who successfully won an international competition called for by the Mexican Olympic Committee—which referenced Huichol and pre-Columbian motifs embedded in a psychedelic, op-art style. Mexican citizens across the nation rallied in enthusiastic support for the Olympics, and many students also took advantage of the cultural programming that was central to the Cultural Olympiad and which transformed public spaces throughout the capital. Indeed, the folkloric-cosmopolitan idea became a key element of Mexico’s branding abroad by the late 1960s, though the success of this imagery was tarnished by the violence and political disruptions generated by the 1968 student movement.

The student movement that erupted in the months prior to the opening ceremony of the Olympiad merged key tropes from the Cuban-inspired revolutionary experience (such as holding signs and slogans of Che Guevara) with that of La onda. This was reflected, for instance, in the fact that protesters often (though not exclusively) reflected the stylistic aspects of the youth movement internationally. Long hair, blue jeans, miniskirts, and a more casual look on both men and woman more generally reflected shifting attitudes and assertions of individual aspirations. The music of the protesters also reflected a hybrid mixture of protest song, in which the Mexican performer Oscar Chávez revitalized the corrido style of political song making yet students also embraced the soundtrack of international rock music. In fact, although Mexico’s own rock scene was evolving with the times, local bands were still largely performing cover versions of foreign originals. And while bands played widely for public and private audiences, on university campuses locally produced rock was almost entirely absent. Still, in the exuberance of the 1968 period, the ideological lines that otherwise divided “protest song” from rock music were increasingly blurred, and youth simultaneously defined themselves as both activists and countercultural agents. This perception was, in fact, reflected in antimovement propaganda and media discourse, which sought to conflate the political activism of student protesters with the antipatriarchal renegade position characteristic of youthful dissenters more broadly.

The government repression of the student movement in the capital on October 2 revealed the real stakes of youth protest and directly contributed to a sharpening of the cultural divide among the student population. An unknown number of students and bystanders were caught up in the political rally at the plaza at Tlatelolco—the so-called “Plaza of the Three Cultures”—that fateful day. Scores were killed or disappeared; the exact numbers remain in dispute to this day. Many were arrested, including the central figures of the student movement. The extreme levels of government-sponsored violence, which included the use of tanks and machine guns, shocked even the political left. Still, most people around the country accepted the mainstream media’s presentation of events, one that conveyed a government narrative of “foreign-directed” (Cuban or alternatively the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) student subversives intent on disrupting the Olympics and thereby robbing Mexico of its moment of international glory. It would take at least a decade for a counter-narrative to emerge, and by the 1980s this retelling celebrated the heroics of a student movement whose sacrifices had singularly led to the democratization of the nation.

Although only a small handful of youth would, in fact, join the ensuing guerrilla movements, many felt politically obliged to support the ideological positions of that movement. Some, for instance, turned away from rock music altogether and rejected Mexico’s nascent rock counterculture as embodiments of “cultural imperialism.” At the same time, after 1968 Mexico’s rock movement abandoned Spanish-language covers and sought its own political and cultural identity. A slew of new bands emerged, many of which now made explicit reference to iconic aspects of the national imaginary, such as with the bands La Revolución de Emiliano Zapata, Bandido, and La división del norte (the latter a reference to the heroics of Pancho Villa). The national character of this movement was also in evidence, with provincial cities such as Guadalajara and Monterrey giving rise to vibrant rock scenes. All of these bands now began to write and perform original music, yet they ironically did so in English (which was considered more “authentic”) rather than in Spanish. This embrace of English, which was reflected in certain literary aspects of La onda as well, went in the opposite direction from what was occurring throughout much of the rest of Latin America with respect to rock music performance at the time. In any event, Mexico’s well-established transnational and local culture industries thrived on this new movement, baptized La onda chicana.

The climactic moment for La onda chicana was on September 11–12, 1971, during a two-day outdoor festival in Valle de Bravo, a resort location a few hours’ drive from Mexico City. The concert, officially known as the Festival de rock y ruedas (Festival of Rock and Wheels), was originally scheduled to accompany an annual road derby at the Avándaro lakeside resort, just outside of town. When nearly two hundred thousand people—of all social classes—descended upon the site, the road derby was canceled. The musical festival went on, despite pouring rain, and soon became legendary. Avándaro, as Mexico’s own Woodstock came to be known, was criticized by the left for its imitation of U.S. youth culture and lambasted by the right for fomenting the breakdown of buenas costumbres and disrespect shown to national symbols. (Most inflammatory were the various ways in which the Mexican flag was appropriated by participants.) In the wake of this backlash, radio stations were pressured by the government to stop giving airtime to local rock, and many record companies canceled their contracts. The collapse of La onda chicana as a homegrown rock movement soon followed. Carlos Monsiváis, by then the left’s foremost interpreter of Mexican national identity, famously denounced Avándaro (while abroad in London) as incarnating “the first generation of North Americans born in Mexico” and an event indicative of “mental colonialism.” Monsiváis, in fact, captured the essence of what cultural nationalists on both the left and the right felt regarding the Americanized aspects of the counterculture. Yet his biting sarcasm missed a larger point, one that he himself would shortly after acknowledge: Avándaro heralded a productive rupture in the body politic, one that introduced the reinvention of nationalist symbolism as a means by which to critique the ruling party’s authoritarian practices and thus forge a more democratic political culture.

Denouement of the Mexican Miracle (1973–1982)

In the final period under consideration, c. 1973–1982, one can discern three trends in terms of national cultural identity: An activist cultural agenda emanating from the government that focused on “indigeneity,” the loosening of patriarchal values and a wider acceptance of “countercultural” values among the middle-classes, and the emergence of a defiant culture of protest from the lower classes, in which the post-Avándaro rock scene assumed a completely new form and sensibility. It is a period that encompasses the end of the so-called Mexican Miracle, which had been characterized by low inflation and steady economic growth, and thus of increasing inflation and a flattening out of economic mobility. For the first time since the 1920s, the discourse of national identity became highly contested. Control over cultural symbolism, which had long been a hallmark of the government’s strategy to forge political consensus, became increasingly politicized as various actors, ranging from armed movements on the left to middle-class jipis to lumpen-proletariat proto-punk rockers, all actively reappropriated the symbolic repertoire of national identity as integral to their respective—and quite divergent—means of resistance to state authoritarianism and conservative cultural mores.

The first trend to note is that of a robust cultural programming by the government in an effort to respond to the concerns about the “loss of national identity” voiced by the left in the context of La onda chicana. This was central to a broader governmental response under President Luis Echeverría (1971–1976) to implement what he called an apertura democrática (democratic opening), a policy that led to the incorporation of left-wing critics directly into positions in the government. Under Echeverría, official discourse eschewed the language of modernization invoked by his predecessor and instead embraced a language and style of politics that asserted Mexican leadership within the so-called Third World. As the political discourse changed, so too did cultural programming. A new emphasis was placed on providing support in the form of both subsidies and performance venues for national and international theatrical and musical groups, especially those working within the folkloric tradition. This emphasis on “cultural authenticity” became a hallmark of the Echeverría period and was central to official-led efforts to rejuvenate the symbolic meaning of various cultural markers of national identity. An essential element of these efforts was government support for indigenous groups. This agenda simultaneously sought to reassert the PRI’s cultural patronage while providing the tools and venues for indigenous peoples to stake claims on their own cultural futures, an approach that climaxed in 1975 with the convening by the government of the First National Congress of Indigenous Peoples, held in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. At the same time, during both the Echeverría presidency and the subsequent presidency of José López Portillo (1977–1982), the film industry received new government attention, with a massive influx of money and new forms of institutional support. Although many of the films revealed blatantly nationalistic overtones, there were some notable exceptions, such as Canoa (1976), which dealt with the difficult, politically fraught issue of how the media contributed to the demonization of students in the wake of 1968 and the role of the Catholic Church in sustaining conservative social values, especially in the provinces.

Middle-class culture went through a series of profound transformations during this period. These changes were directly linked both to the steady decline in value of the peso and to the shift in cultural mores introduced by the youth movements of the 1960s. As the generation of protesting students became parents themselves and as marketers targeted a new generation of consumers, what had once been deemed stylistically “rebellious” helped to remake the aesthetic choices of the middle class. In part, this fashion shift also took its cues from above, with President Echeverría himself donning the casual guayabera—a loose, cotton, button-down shirt associated with the peasantry and revolutionary Cuba (where the guayabera was widely used)—as a signifier of his solidarity with the downtrodden, instead of the traditional business suit. Many of the young also began to travel extensively throughout the country, such as to Oaxaca, hitchhiking en rol as it was called. In doing so, these youth often adopted an “indigenous look” as a political statement. At the same time, they financed their trips by designing and selling handmade jewelry and in this way helped to popularize a new urban tradition of sidewalk artesanos (artisans). By the 1980s, this appropriation of indigenous artisanship transformed the stylistic choices, especially among youth, in the capital and other urban centers.

Another aspect of this cultural shift was the emergence of the peña, or folk song café, and the popularization more generally of folk-protest music, a genre that was celebrated by the left as a nationalist “response” to the cultural imperialism of rock music. Groups such as Los folkloristas (often with government support) reinterpreted Mexican and Latin American folk music, part of a neo-folk revival that was transpiring across many parts of Latin America. At the same time, one discerns a turn away from Catholicism and a search for spiritual meaning and revelation in nontraditional outlets: tarot cards, astrology, and a fascination with Eastern religious practices. In certain places, such as the state of Morelos, full-scale communes were established by those seeking to reconnect with an “indigenous sensibility” and to escape from the urban megalopolis that Mexico City had become.

Finally, the post-1973 period was characterized by the rise of what Carlos Monsiváis has labeled “naco culture.” By this, Monsiváis referred to the cultural proclivities and aesthetic choices among the urban lower classes. This is a period when the urban capital mushroomed in size from the influx of migrants, subject both to being pushed out of the countryside by a lack of access to arable land and to being attracted by the prospect of a marginal notion of social mobility in the capital. It was the culmination of a demographic trend begun in the 1940s and one that gave rise during the 1970s and 1980s to urban slums, the so-called ciudades perdidas, or “lost cities,” the most famous of which was Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, located on the edge of Mexico City.

At one level, the designation naco (generally used as a pejorative) reflected a cultural stance born of necessity, of recycling and improvisation. Implicit in the term was a presumed ignorance of the “proper” use of cultural objects and a misunderstanding of cultural signifiers. Hence, naco culture denoted rampant, seemingly illogical hybridity. It thus also implied a lack of aesthetic “taste,” since to be naco meant that one lacked an understanding of “proper” cultural capital. An important example of this was the tremendous popularity among the working and lower classes of the B-movie series Lola la trailera (Lola the Tractor Driver) and a proliferation of the lucha libre detective fantasies featuring the masked hero, El Santo. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the middle classes and intellectuals had largely looked down on these cultural forms. By the late 1970s, however, what was once derided as naco was being embraced by middle-class youth, artists, and intellectuals as “authentic” urban culture, revered for its inventiveness and the potential for mocking the political domination of the PRI and the ruling party’s pretensions of controlling the narrative of Mexican identity.

The rise of naco culture was part of a broader trend in the emergence of alternative urban cultural spaces and practices during the 1970s. This included the superochero (Super-8) movement in independent cinema and the emergence of performance artists such as Felipe Ehrenberg. An essential aspect of this alternative culture was a thriving, semiunderground rock scene. After Avándaro, middle-class support for a native rock movement largely collapsed, although certain artists such as Jaime López and Sergio Arau did take rock in new experimental directions. The primary audience for native rock, however, shifted away from the middle classes toward those on the socioeconomic margins. Performing mostly in abandoned urban structures known as hoyos fonquis and, at times, literally on the move—Rock sobre ruedas (Rock on Wheels) kept bands alive in the immediate aftermath of Avándaro—an entire youth subculture emerged, one that had its origins in the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s but that now claimed rock as a means of political protest against police repression and economic subordination. (The group Three Souls in My Mind, rebaptized as El tri in the 1980s, played an important role in this movement.)

By the late 1970s, various intellectuals were beginning to reassess their position toward this urban youth subculture and valorize its social practices as constituting a vital form of counter-hegemony to dominant political and cultural structures. In 1979, the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City—a Porfirian-era structure that had recently been transformed into a space for urban artistic production—organized a contest for rock-inspired literature and a year later hosted the first Tianguis de la Música in which rock fans, largely from the lower classes, bartered albums and rock paraphernalia. This tianguis (a Nahua word meaning “marketplace”) became the basis for the well-known Tianguis del Chopo, a meeting grounds and performance space that emerged in the 1980s at which the multiple facets of urban countercultural movements coalesced on a weekly basis.

In 1982, Mexico nearly defaulted on its debt and helped set off what became known across Latin America as la década perdida (the Lost Decade), a prolonged period marked by rampant inflation, economic stagnation, and political crisis. That date is a fitting one to bookend the era of the “Mexican Miracle,” a period that in cultural terms encompassed both the coupling of iconic aspects of national identity to state authoritarianism and the creative, oftentimes iconoclastic refashioning of national cultural forms from below. Although the ability of the ruling PRI to influence the discourse of national belonging had never been absolute, by the 1980s that influence was even more attenuated, as the public sphere became more culturally heterogeneous and, in turn, more democratic.

Discussion of the Literature

Broadly defined, one can divide the literature on this subject into three sections. The first covers the broad area of popular culture, which would include cinema, music, caricature, food, and other aspects of urban entertainment and consumptive practices. One of the best cultural entry points into the era is the short story “Battles in the Desert,” by José Emilio Pacheco, a wonderfully evocative vignette of shifting cultural and social mores set in early 1950s Mexico City.1 An accessible, entertaining overview of the period is presented in the first two volumes of Tragicomedia mexicana by José Agustín, one of the major literary figures of La onda.2 Though largely anecdotal and lacking in sources, these volumes provide essential background and link cultural practices with political shifts. Similarly, the two volumes on Mexico’s rock history by Federico Araña, Guaraches de ante azul, provide a highly entertaining narrative by another of the era’s literary and rock practitioners.3 Araña’s playful use of language and encyclopedic knowledge of the intricacies of rock cultural politics helped lay the basis for later scholarly approaches to La onda, such as that by Eric Zolov in Refried Elvis.4 The same can be said of the late Carlos Monsiváis, the indispensable chronicler of cultural life for this period, whose most influential essays from the 1960s are gathered in his book, Días de guardar.5 Other scholarly approaches to rock music politics and youth culture include Federico Rubli, Estremécete y rueda: Loco por el rock & roll and selections in the edited collection Rockin’ Las Américas.6 We still know quite little about the emergence of rock and countercultural scenes outside of Mexico City. Similarly, virtually nothing has been written on the establishment of communes in places such as Tepoztlán (Morelos) or on the turn toward non-Western religious practices among middle-class youth of the era.

One of the first scholarly efforts to conceptualize popular culture during the period was the collection of essays in Fragments of a Golden Age, which featured chapters on film, photography, lucha libre, food, music, and other aspects of cultural identity, situating these facets in relationship to state power.7 In Spanish, the writings by Mexican historian Ricardo Pérez Montfort explore various aspects of cultural identity, especially related to radio and music of the 1940s–1950s.8 There is an ample literature on cinema and more recently an effort to understand television, though that field is still largely undeveloped.9 For instance, we know relatively little about television programming and consumption practices for the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from the realms of music and moviegoing, there is an almost complete dearth of writings on middle-class shopping and other consumption habits. A pioneer work is by Julio Moreno, Yankee Don’t Go Home!,10 but there is ample room in the historiography for research projects on the cultural and economic history of shopping plazas and places of middle-class consumption (e.g., Liverpool, Palacio de Hierro, Sanborns) and on the relationship between those venues of modernity and the persistence of more “traditional” open-air markets and tianguis. An important reference guide that covers many aspects of cultural production and identity politics for this period and that can serve as a useful point of introduction on a variety of topics is the recently published two-volume collection Iconic Mexico.11

A second historiographical strand approaches the subject by way of political and intellectual culture. Earlier significant works in Spanish include Elisa Servin’s study of the henriquista movement, which sought to carry forward the cause of cardenismo into the 1950s; Soledad Loaeza’s examination of the clash between Catholic and progressive political values during the López Mateos presidency; and Roger Bartra’s ruminations in La jaula de la melancolía, on the ideological and cultural vicissitudes of the left.12 A useful assessment of intellectual currents and debates from a literary perspective is an essay by Deborah Cohn, “The Mexican Intelligentsia, 1950–1968: Cosmopolitanism, National Identity, and the State.”13 Explorations of this subject have been especially vibrant in the past several years, as historians continue to work through the declassified police and intelligence records of the Cold War period. An early, groundbreaking collection of essays is edited by Gilbert Joseph and Daniela Spenser, In from the Cold, which represented the first effort to link cultural, political, and diplomatic history for the region.14 Renata Keller’s book Mexico’s Cold War will remain a significant reference text for locating the shifting contours of political mobilization, diplomacy, and state repression in the context of the Cuban Revolution.15 More recently, the collection edited by Paul Gillingham and Benjamin Smith, Dictablanda has sought to establish a new conceptual paradigm for understanding political culture in the period, seeing the state not as authoritarian monolith but rather as a political “gatekeeper,” though the book’s focus is less on cultural practices per se.16 In his exhaustive examination of student political culture during the “long 1960s,” Rebel Mexico, Jaime Pensado has established himself as a leading interpreter of the period.17 His arguments have helped move away from the “heroic” narrative of 1968 and opened up the historical frame to include right-wing student politics and social Catholicism as central, overlooked facets of the 1960s. Similarly, Louise Walker’s book Waking from the Dream is the first to take historical analysis into the 1970s and 1980s and to link transformations in political sentiment with the collapse of the “economic miracle.”18

A final strand in this historiography is that encompassed by visual culture. On art and architecture, see the critical survey by James Oles and the revisionist interpretation of the muralist movement by Mary Coffey.19 Through his various analyses of photography, John Mraz charts the rise of photojournalism during the 1940s as a crucial vehicle for presenting an alternative political narrative to dominant media representations.20 Little has been written about the significance of political caricature and less about that of magazine covers. On the latter, see the article by Eric Zolov, who discusses the influence of caricaturist Jorge Carreño.21 The 1968 Olympiad has attracted much attention, with a particular focus on the ideological and aesthetic and aspects related to the Cultural Olympiad. The most thorough discussion of the Olympiad, linking it to a wider historical frame of Mexican participation in global artistic and cultural expositions, is Luis Castañeda, Spectacular Mexico.22 There is very little written on the performative aspects of Mexican culture during this period, in particular related to avant-garde theater, “happenings,” and experimental cinema. An essential resource that provides an encyclopedic survey of this subject is La era de la discrepancia, based upon an exhibition held at the UNAM.23 In English, the recent biography by Mary Kay Vaughan of the painter Pepe Zuñiga provides an insightful analysis of generation formation and a fresh interpretation of cultural politics during the 1940s–1970s.24

Primary Sources

Researching popular culture is always a challenge. One needs simultaneously to think about the sources that produce cultural objects (especially when concerning mass culture), the mechanisms of circulation (e.g., movie theaters, radio, magazines), and the means and uses via consumption. The Archivo general de la nación (AGN) is an important place to start, though one often needs to think creatively in terms of under which archival categories one’s research may fall. The AGN also contains the full collection of materials related to the organization of the 1968 Olympics, including the Cultural Olympiad. The Fototeca (Photographic Archives) at the AGN and the Hermanos Mayo Collection, in particular, are of immense value for discerning shifting cultural tastes. Similarly, the Archivos económicos (Archive of Newspaper Clippings) at the Biblioteca Lerdo de Tejada (Centro Histórico in Mexico City) can be useful; there, one will find a wide range of newspaper articles organized around different topics, including those related to popular culture. The two largest collections of newspapers and magazines are located at the Hermeroteca Nacional (UNAM) and the Biblioteca Nacional (near the Zona Rosa). The main archive of CONACULTA (Consejo nacional para la cultura y las artes), located just outside of Coyoacán, houses a wide range of materials related to the production and dissemination of state-sponsored cultural programming. In the city center, the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) maintains a small, yet useful library and periodical collection, by appointment only.

For material culture, researchers will benefit from the Museo del Estanquillo, which houses the personal archive of the late Carlos Monsiváis; the Museo de la Caricatura, a unique museum dedicated to the history of comic books and political caricature; and the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, a general museum to popular culture with rotating exhibits, located in the heart of Coyoacán. Recently rebuilt and expanded, the film archive of the Cineteca Nacional contains an immense collection of materials related to all facets of Mexican cinema. For research on the 1968 student movement, one should consult the vast oral history archive and other related materials that are part of the permanent collection of the Memorial 68, at the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco. Researchers interested in the counterculture, the history of rock in Mexico, and avant-garde artistic production in general should consult the materials and unique collection of books available at the Museo Universitario del Chopo. Although it is affiliated in name only, the countercultural “flea market” El Tianguis Cultural del Chopo, every Saturday from 10 to 2 p.m., offers a wide range of materials, cultural activities, and potential contacts dealing with all aspects of rock music culture and its offshoots.

Further Reading

Agustín, José. Tragicomedia mexicana. 3 vols. Mexico City: Debolsillo, 2013.Find this resource:

Berger, Dina, and Andrew Grant Wood, eds., Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Coffey, Mary. How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Joseph, Gilbert, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov, eds. Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Popular Culture in Mexico since 1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Mraz, John. Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Pensado, Jaime. Rebel Mexico: Student Unrest and Authoritarian Political Culture during the Long Sixties. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Rubenstein, Anne. Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Tinajero, Araceli, and J. Brian Freeman, eds. Technology and Culture in Twentieth-Century Mexico. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2013.Find this resource:

Walker, Louis. Waking from the Dream: Mexico’s Middle Classes after 1968. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Zolov, Eric. Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Zolov, Eric, ed. Iconic Mexico: An Encyclopedia from Acapulco to Zócalo. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) José Emilio Pacheco, Battles in the Desert and Other Stories, trans. Katherine Silver (New York: New Directions, 1987).

(2.) José Agustín, Tragicomedia mexicana, vol. 1, La vida en México, 1940–1970 (Mexico City: Planeta, 1990), and Tragicomedia mexicana, vol. 2, La vida en México, 1970–1982 (Mexico City: Planeta, 1992).

(3.) Federico Araña, Guaraches de ante azul: Historia del roc mexicano (Mexico City: Editorial Posada, 1985).

(4.) Eric Zolov, Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

(5.) Carlos Monsiváis, Días de guardar (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1970).

(6.) Federico Rubli, Estremécete y rueda: Loco por el rock & roll (Mexico City: Ediciones Chapa, 2007); and Deborah Pacini-Hernandez, Héctor Fernández L’Hoeste, and Eric Zolov, eds., Rockin’ Las Américas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

(7.) Gilbert Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov, eds., Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico since 1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); and Heather Levi, World of Lucha Libre (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

(8.) Ricardo Pérez Montfort, Expresiones populares y estereotipos culturales en México: Siglos XIX y XX (Mexico City: CIESAS, 2007); and Pérez Montfort, La cultura. México (1930–1960) (Mexico City: Taurus, 2015).

(9.) Joanne Hershfield and David Maciel, eds., Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999); Carl Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896–1980, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Jeffrey Pilcher, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000); and Celeste González de Bustamante, Muy buenas noches: Mexico, Television, and the Cold War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

(10.) Julio Moreno, Yankee Don’t Go Home! Mexican Nationalism, American Business Culture, and the Shaping of Modern Mexico, 1920–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

(11.) Eric Zolov, ed., Iconic Mexico: An Encyclopedia from Acapulco to Zócalo (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015).

(12.) Elisa Servin, Ruptura y oposición: El Movimiento Henriquista, 1945–1954 (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 2001); Soledad Loaeza, Las clases media y política en México: La querella escolar, 1959–1963 (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1988); Roger Bartra, La jaula de la melancolía (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2002); and Roger Bartra, Blood, Ink, and Culture: Miseries and Splendors of the Post-Mexican Condition, trans. Mark Healey (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

(13.) Deborah Cohn, “The Mexican Intelligentsia, 1950–1968: Cosmopolitanism, National Identity, and the State,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 21.1 (Winter 2005): 141–182.

(14.) Gilbert Joseph and Daniela Spenser, eds., In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

(15.) Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

(16.) Paul Gillingham and Benjamin Smith, eds., Dictablanda: Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938–1968 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

(17.) Jaime Pensado, Rebel Mexico: Student Unrest and Authoritarian Political Culture during the Long 1960s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); and Jaime Pensado, “‘To Assault with the Truth’: The Revitalization of Conservative Militancy in Mexico during the Global Sixties,” The Americas 70.3 (2014): 489–522.

(18.) Louise Walker, Waking from the Dream: Mexico’s Middle Classes after 1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

(19.) James Oles, Art and Architecture in Mexico (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013); and Mary Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

(20.) John Mraz, Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); and John Mraz, Nacho López: Mexican Photographer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

(21.) Eric Zolov, “The Graphic Satire of Mexico’s Jorge Carreño and the Politics of Presidentialism during the 1960s,” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina 17.1 (2006): 13–38.

(22.) Luis Castañeda, Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); and Eric Zolov, “Showcasing the ‘Mexico of Tomorrow’: Mexico and the 1968 Olympics,” The Americas 61.2 (October 2004): 159–188.

(23.) Olivier Debroise, ed., La era de la discrepancia: arte y cultura en México, 1968–1997 (Mexico City: UNAM/Turner, 2006).

(24.) Mary Kay Vaughan, Portrait of a Young Painter: Pepe Zúñiga and Mexico City’s Rebel Generation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).