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date: 19 September 2017

La Reina de la Raza: The Making of the India Bonita

Summary and Keywords

The India Bonita Pageant of 1921 marked a critical moment in Mexico’s revolutionary identity formation. This serialized pageant hosted by the Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, also played a major role in the formulation of indigenous “authenticity,” as defined by race, material culture, gender, and sexuality. The aims of the pageant were at least superficially focused on celebrating indigenous peoples, but it ultimately narrowed popular understandings of what it meant to be indigenous through its focus on select visual markers of indigeneity. It thereby discursively erased portions of the indigenous population that did not conform to these parameters. The pageant also played into broader efforts to solve the so-called Indian Problem by situating ideal indigeneity in the rural past, favoring Aztec heritage over other indigenous identities, and positioning Mestizos as the race of the future. Ultimately, this attempt at indigenous inclusion was part of broader revolutionary identity projects that sought to isolate and erase one problematic part of the population under the guise of celebrating it.

Keywords: identity, indigeneity, Mexico, indigenous, race, gender

When Mexico City newspaper El Universal announced the India Bonita contest on January 15, 1921, it must have come as welcome diversion to a readership that had just endured a decade of bloodshed.1 Appearing under the no-nonsense headline “Who is the most beautiful Indian?,” the paper urged its readers to turn their attention to the “strong and pretty faces of the countless Indian women who occupy the lowest ranks of society.” After recounting recent El Universal serialized contests that had sought to find the most beautiful woman or the kindest worker, they admitted that never before had they thought to adorn their pages with the “strong and pretty” faces of indigenous women.2 Thus, the paper was inaugurating the India Bonita contest aimed at discovering the most beautiful Indian. In the same patronizing tone that characterized much of the newspaper’s writing about indigenous peoples, they assured readers that even these women had aspirations in their “little hearts” and that this “racial contest” would surely elevate their spirits.

Although El Universal’s intentions were at least superficially aimed at celebrating indigenous peoples, the pageant ultimately narrowed popular understandings of what it meant to be indigenous through its focus on select visual markers of indigeneity. It thereby discursively erased portions of the indigenous population that did not conform to these parameters, frequently through engagement with modernity. The pageant also played into broader efforts to solve the so-called Indian Problem by situating ideal indigeneity in the rural past, favoring Aztec heritage over other indigenous identities, and positioning Mestizos as the race of the future.3 Ultimately, then, this attempt at indigenous inclusion was not really a story of inclusion at all, but rather part of broader revolutionary identity projects that sought to isolate and erase one problematic part of the population under the guise of celebrating it.

Shaping the Pageant

Shortly after the pageant announcement, El Universal organized a team of reporters and photographers to go on reconnaissance missions into largely indigenous neighborhoods of Mexico City in search of contestants. Weighted down with their pens, camera equipment, and a fierce nationalist ideology, the intrepid reporters set off into the city to find indias bonitas. After several forays into local markets, the team members turned their attention to Xochimilco, the picturesque region of southern Mexico City known for its intricate network of canals dating back to the pre-Hispanic era. With dramatic flourish, an El Universal journalist relayed how the India Bonita team traveled to Xochimilco, a place he described as being “full of legitimate Indians.”4 Enthusiasm for the pageant continued to grow, and eager contestants from across the republic began submitting photos and brief biographies.

For seven months following the announcement of the pageant, the newspaper featured photographs of contestants on an almost daily basis. The women and girls who entered the pageant were mostly young domestic workers in Mexico City, ranging in age from 14 to 25. While some nominated themselves for the competition, employers, photographers, and scouts submitted the majority of nominations. Submissions also came from across the nation and, in some cases, were submitted by search teams comprising members of the upper class who found the task of hunting for indias bonitas to be an entertaining diversion. El Universal had clearly met their goal of creating a broad, national audience for their contest, and enthusiasm continued to grow over time.

The India Bonita contest was different from other beauty pageants featured in the pages of El Universal. Other national and international beauty pageants celebrated women with European features and spoke of the contestants in different terms than those used when speaking about the indias bonitas. For example, the winner of a contest to represent Mexico in an international beauty pageant was the epitome of the chica moderna, with a pageboy haircut and carefully made-up face.5 The journalist covering the story praised the grace and serenity of her countenance that, he claimed, harkened back to the classic Greek and Roman beauties that had been immortalized in marble and bronze. Similarly, the Mexicana más Bella contest—a 1920 El Universal-sponsored predecessor to the India Bonita pageant—focused almost entirely on European beauty standards. In one article, a journalist discussed the amazing range of beauty seen in Mexico, but focused solely on the disparity between women from Northern Europe (“tall, white, intensely blue eyes, and blond hair”) and those from Spain (“more short than tall, sensual lips, dark hair, and undulating, lively movements”).6 Indigenous beauty was universally excluded from dialogues and visual representations of beauty culture at the time.

The portraits of the India Bonita candidates also differed markedly from other pageant and glamor photographs. Contestants in the Mexicana más Bella contest, for example, appeared in dancerly poses with dramatic lighting that featured the long lines of their necks and arms. They were commonly pictured draped in cloth, reminiscent of Greek statuary, to emphasize the woman’s face or body rather than her clothing. In contrast, the India Bonita contestants were almost always pictured facing the camera directly, with their heads sometimes turned slightly to the left or right. In some cases, full-body portraits showed off ornate clothing, studio props like pottery or painted gourd baskets, and bare feet. These images were more akin to racial “type” photographs and postcards than the conventional portraits of beauty queens and movie stars.7

In turn, discussion of female beauty was almost entirely absent from the India Bonita pageant. The descriptions of the women that accompanied the photographs focused on contestant mannerisms like subservience, piety, melancholic dispositions, and humble or shy behavior. They also attempted to assert the legitimacy of each contestant’s Indianness by drawing attention to clothing or facial features that were thought to look Indian, though specific tribal affiliations were rarely mentioned. In the rare instances in which the women were quoted, their words were often misspelled in order to draw attention to their inferior Spanish language skills.

Thus, while indigenous women were ostensibly being celebrated for their beauty, the contest had more to do with race and ethnicity than with beauty. Through beauty-pageant coverage, advertisements, and female advice columns, European beauty aesthetics were clearly promoted and remained central to beauty standards of the time. Indigenous beauty, in essence, was presented as a quaint new way to celebrate isolated, desirable aspects of indigeneity rather than a standard other women should strive to attain. Even so, the contestants reflected the wide range of styles, looks, and physical characteristics that existed among Mexico’s diverse indigenous population. Throughout the course of the pageant, many women wore clothing that was recognizably “traditional,” but others sported of-the-moment fashions including the flapper-style bobbed hair, headbands, and long necklaces. Others wore nondescript work clothes or uniforms whose lacey frills had a decidedly Victorian air to them. In many of the cases in which the contestant donned Western dress or showed other signs of assimilation, the written entries that accompanied their photos compensated for their lack of visible signifiers of indigeneity by expressly stating that these women were in fact “legitimate” Indians.

La Reina de la Raza: The Making of the India BonitaClick to view larger

Figure 1 India Bonita contestant Aurora Azarte. El Universal, 1921.

For example, one fair-skinned contestant’s entry (Figure 1) anticipated readers exclaiming, “This isn’t an Indian!” upon seeing her image, but assured them that “fortunately Indians still existed who exhibit the proud features of Moctezuma,” and she was one of them.8 “Very few people who see this delicious photograph would believe that she is an Indian,” said the nomination letter, “but indeed she is. She has green eyes but is pure in race because she is the descendent of legitimate Indians.” The journalist’s claims to racial purity are indicative of a broader social project that sought to define indigeneity by delimiting it to a narrow set of cultural and social factors. As was often the case, though, the criteria outsiders used to determined “real Indians” was nebulous and inconsistently applied. In the case of Aurora Azarte, readers of El Universal were to see her as indigenous simply because the reporter said so.

While the pageant included a diverse group of contestants, the greatest praise was reserved for those who most closely conformed to the popular ideals of indigenous femininity. Signifiers of this ideal included long braids, embroidered blouses, long skirts, and sandals. The newspaper simultaneously discouraged contestants from wearing contemporary fashions by turning away some submissions that editors deemed too modern. As these criteria became more clear, contestants took measures to “look Indian” by wearing indigenous dress or by donning other recognizable markers. In some cases, this was likely the everyday dress of the contestants, while others were strategically employing it in order to appear more authentically Indian.

One contestant went beyond all the others in demonstrating her knowledge of indigenous dress and language. María Bibiana Uribe, a fifteen-year-old still living in her birthplace—the rural community of San Andrés Tenango, Puebla—submitted an entry to the pageant that showed her in Western dress, but she was encouraged to submit another photo in which she was wearing more “authentic” clothing.9 She complied, submitting a photograph that featured her wearing recognizably Nahua clothing. The letter that accompanied this new photo was written by María Bibiana’s godmother and went into more detail about indigenous identity than any other entry. The godmother stated that María Bibiana had “wheat-colored skin” and was a descendent of the “fierce Aztec race.” She described what she wore, emphasizing the fact that María Bibiana had made much of it by hand and identifying every article of clothing with its Nahuatl name, which the paper printed in bolded typeface.

La Reina de la Raza

By the time the all-male jury of elite artists and intellectuals met in August of 1921 to select the winner of the pageant, 171 photographs of hopeful contestants had graced the pages of the newspaper. While the competition began as an attempt to find the prettiest Indian woman, the paper was clear in its objective to find the most legitimate Indian by the end of the contest. In fact, the editor in charge of the pageant asserted, “the selection [of the winner] was based solely on indigenous features and was in no way motivated by the beauty of the contestants.”10

Pageant judge Manuel Gamio served as the arbiter of this authenticity. Gamio had trained under U.S. anthropologist Franz Boas and is frequently cited as being the father of Mexican anthropology. He argued that the nation needed to civilize and economically improve its indigenous population, not only to quell revolutionary violence but also to prevent them from falling prey to the socialist influences of the Soviet Union.11 Gamio’s language in interviews and in the numerous editorials he penned throughout the course of the pageant indicated his awareness of how race science could be employed to determine the physiological features of true Indians. He used scientific, seemingly objective language in describing the characteristics that determined “authentic” indigenous beauty. Despite his reliance on science that we now understand to be tainted by racial prejudice and white supremacy, Gamio was relatively progressive for his time. Employing a more benevolent brand of racism, he argued that all races had equal capability of adapting to modern civilization and that the European race would in fact grow stronger if it was Indianized. Like his contemporary intellectuals who subscribed to the ethos of Aztec nationalism, Gamio favored Aztec ancestry over other indigenous identifications. To him, the most Indian Indians were the descendants of Moctezuma.

La Reina de la Raza: The Making of the India BonitaClick to view larger

Figure 2 The India Bonita finalists with María Bibiana Uribe inset at left, El Universal, 1921.

Against this backdrop of identity projects, scientific racism, and the Aztec Vogue, the ten pageant finalists convened in the offices of the El Universal on August 1, 1921.12 A photograph (Figure 2) shows these young women assembled in front of the unmistakable outlines of pyramids, providing a clear visual referent to the Aztec past and no doubt bolstering the authenticity of the contestants and the pageant they were participating in.

Despite the vast diversity of contestants seen over the course of the pageant, the photograph shows a notably homogenous looking group of young women. The finalists were all dressed in a way that reinforced popular conceptions of what indigenous women looked like: each contestant wore a rebozo, braids, embroidered clothing, and bare feet. Upon arriving for the photo, their faces had been wiped with a moist cloth in order to ensure that they were in their “natural” state and not wearing any makeup.13 Considering the jubilant verbiage that had characterized discussions of the pageant, the portrait of the finalists is remarkably somber, playing into the stoic Indian stereotype.

The “Ideal” Indigeneity of María Bibiana Uribe

At the center of the photo stands a young woman described as an “obsidian-eyed princess,” ensconced in a lacey, white scarf and holding a painted Olinala-style gourd bowl in her hands. This was María Bibiana, newly crowned the “queen of the bronze race” and the winner of the India Bonita title. In an interview published just after the pageant, each of the judges stated that they believed that she had won because she best represented the “nearly forgotten race.”14 Given the significant cultural value that Aztec identity held, it should come as little surprise that the contestant who most explicitly detailed her Nahua heritage and dress—and, in doing so, established herself as a descendent of the Aztecs—was the one selected as the ideal representative of her race and the winner of the pageant.

María Bibiana’s “Aztec-ness” was underscored by Manuel Gamio, who confirmed that she was a descendent of “Moctezuma’s race,” evidenced as much by her physical characteristics as by her ability to speak Nahuatl. The newspaper lauded her victory by explaining that this “fine and sweet little figure” exhibited all the characteristics of the race: “dark skin, black eyes, short stature, delicate hands and feet, long, black hair, and so forth.”15 As yet another reminder that this beauty pageant had little at all to do with beauty, these physical descriptors paid little heed to María Bibiana’s physical attractiveness and focused instead on treating her as though she were a cultural specimen.

This attention to physical traits and Aztec descent fit neatly within the trajectory of revolutionary identity discourse. But the discursive turn that transpired next broke from this predictable pattern. In a series of El Universal articles, questions and assertions of María Bibiana’s virginity, romantic availability, and sexual appeal began to pepper the articles about her cultural and racial identity. Although the contestants’ virginity had been neither stipulated as being a criterion for winning the pageant nor publicly discussed at any previous point throughout the pageant, the jurors and reporters immediately began referring to María Bibiana as the virgen indigena or the virgen morena.

In a newspaper interview conducted the day she was awarded the title, reporter Fernando Ramírez de Aguilar—using the pen name Jacobo Dalevuelta—described María Bibiana as a delicate flor de campo who had the “candor of a virgin, the beauty of a flower of Yolochilt, and the good looks of a Sultan’s favorite harem consort.”16 Dalevuelta interrogated her about her relationship status, repeatedly asking her if she had a boyfriend. He described María Bibiana as refusing to answer, blushing, lowering her eyes, and seeming nervous. When asked again about whether she had a boyfriend, she replied that she did not know. Playwright and pageant judge Aurelio Gomez Carrasco’s comments were particularly full of sexual innuendo and suggestions that one of the judges or newspapermen should take advantage of the opportunity and marry María Bibiana.17

The fact that interest had strayed from cultural and physical assets toward her personal life and sexual history underscores the integrationist undercurrents of revolutionary identity projects. What started off as an effort to identify and celebrate indigenous beauty became a civic education project aimed at defining Indianness and, in its final moments, an opportunity to depict the ideal indigenous woman as being pure, sexually available, and worthy of the attention of non-indigenous men. Social taboos prevented Indian men from mixing with whiter, Mestiza women. But for European men, the act of transgressing racial boundaries to sexually exploit indigenous women was deeply ingrained in the colonial mentality.18 The discussion of María Bibiana’s sexual availability and virginity, then, fit within broader efforts to cast indigenous women as worthy objects of Mestizo male sexual appetites in an effort to “modernize” the Mexican people through more thorough racial integration.19

The indigenous woman-as-object-of-desire was one narrative that emerged from the India Bonita contest, but there were others too. Another line of post-pageant discourse pictured indigenous peoples as helpless children in need of moral guidance and racial betterment. In this narrative, the newspaper cast María Bibiana as a child in need of well-appointed Spanish padrinos who could take her in and ensure a good education. El Universal selected Don Andres Fernandez and his wife, the “esteemed doña Esperanza M. de Fernández,” for the job.20 Newspaper coverage of María Bibiana’s first meeting with this family mentioned the father’s white skin several times and refers to him as an ideal representative of the Spanish race.21 The journalists describe María Bibiana and her biological mother, who was also in attendance, as being quiet and full of gratitude. The description of the encounter emphasizes the genteel nature of the hosts, while showing the two Nahua women to be out of their element. Despite the fact that the description of this encounter highlighted difference, it was ultimately an argument for integration and assimilation. María Bibiana was a backward Indian, the article implied, but could be refined and modernized through education and exposure to the more “civilized.”

Performance, Commercialization, and an Antidote to Modernity

Another narrative thread that emerged after the pageant helped to normalize the performance of indigeneity by non-indigenous actors. María Conesa, a Spanish-born diva on the Mexican género chica circuit, depicted the India Bonita in a bawdy tanda show that premiered about a month into the contest. The show—a tribute peppered with off-color jokes22—was so well received that Conesa was ultimately honored alongside María Bibiana in her coronation as the India Bonita.23 Because indigenous identity had been reduced to a few symbols and characteristics throughout the pageant, it was easier for people like Conesa to appropriate and perform Indianness. For non-Indians, indigeneity was further normalized as a costume that could be taken up at will and then shed when choosing to be “modern” was more preferable. And the move from the género chico stage to a much larger venue with polite society in attendance not only paralleled Conesa’s own career, but was also an early instance of the india trope moving from the margins into the mainstream.24

In addition to Conesa’s performances, other theaters around the city honored the India Bonita by writing performances about her or working her into existing plays. The popular “Candidato a Periodista,” for example, changed the character of the obrera simpatica to an india bonita. The famous composer Miguel Lerdo de Tejada wrote a waltz in her honor, and Alfonso Esparza Oteo won a song-writing contest with his foxtrot, “La India Bonita.” These functions were held, in part, to raise funds for Bibiana; in the end she was awarded more than seven thousand pesos.25 Bibiana’s material gains included more than just the revenue from these performances. She was also showered with gifts from businesses and artists from across the republic. Each of these prizes was carefully accounted for in the pages of the El Universal with prize listings reading like advertisements, including the name and street address of the donor. For example, the announcement of a gift of soda pop carried this zippy tagline: “A case of one hundred ‘Zas, que sabroso estas’ sodas, made in the Aguas Gaseosas factory ‘El Gallo S.A.,’ located in the 13th of Bolivar 170.” For a small donation of goods, businesses across the republic were able to demonstrate concern for social issues while also advertising their wares.

Indeed, a current of commercial interest ran throughout the pageant. El Universal’s decision to run a popular, serialized “beauty” contest was likely just as much about selling newspapers as it was about advancing Palavicini’s social aims. Similarly, the portrait contest gave photography studios a chance to demonstrate the quality of their work well beyond the storefront displays that had traditionally been used to attract customers. In the oversized portrait that accompanied the paper’s final accounting of the pageant, María Bibiana looks particularly pious, engulfed in a broad white veil and with her arms crossed gingerly over her chest. But the photo has a decidedly commercial feel to it thanks to the fact that the portraitist’s name and street address are scrawled across her left arm (Figure 3). En route to forging new identity archetypes, El Universal and other business enterprises found numerous avenues for profit.

La Reina de la Raza: The Making of the India BonitaClick to view larger

Figure 3 María Bibiana Uribe, El Universal, 1921.

While El Universal drove the pageant and the flurry of activity that followed, the event did not go unnoticed by other newspapers. Even The New York Times ran a photo spread featuring Bibiana’s victory in their special rotogravure section. The photo shows Bibiana dressed in all white with a white headdress covering her head. The print is overexposed, so that the white takes on an almost ethereal quality and washes out part of her face. Her large, dark eyes anchor the photo. It is a beautiful image, but the overexposure leaves a haunting effect that surely conveyed a sense of otherness (and otherworldliness) to its international audience. It likely would have registered among U.S. viewers familiar with the work of Edward S. Curtis as being a romantic ode to a vanishing race, and it had a similar, but more moralistic, currency in Mexico as well. The popular Revista de Revistas reprinted the photo on January 8, 1922, along with a contribution from a special correspondent in Washington, DC. In the article, the Washington correspondent positioned María Bibiana as an ideal emblem of tradition and piety, juxtaposed against the capricious “American girl” who imprudently “bares her chest and her legs” to the world.26 Even beyond the discussion about Mexican identity and indigeneity, María Bibiana’s “serene” visage was used as a counterweight to the moral panic caused by the emerging flapper fad. Her image was appropriated as an antidote to modernity because this “priestess of the Virgin of Guadalupe” purportedly represented all that was good and moral about the past. Even as the cultural elite worked to solve the “Indian Problem,” they romanticized a moral purity in Indians that countered the ills of modernity.

While The New York Times praised the pageant, other Mexican newspapers viewed it with scorn and attempted to discredit both the pageant and María Bibiana herself. Veracruz’s daily newspaper, El Informador, published an article expressing their pity for María Bibiana. The paper argued that “this poor india bonita” had been plucked from her village and showered with prizes that would now make her the scorn of her fellow Indians.27 The article concluded by saying she would have been better off if the newspaper had left her “humble and barefoot, with her two braids and simple dress, waiting for a beau to come ask for her hand in marriage.”28 Much of this can be chalked up to competitors looking to detract from El Universal’s success, but it also serves as a reminder that the competition was not universally well received. It also evidences the racist logic that Indians were not fit for modernity and that wealth and material possessions would only serve to complicate their lives.

Defining Indigenous “Purity”

Several months after María Bibiana’s victory, a debate about the legitimacy of her indigenous heritage broke out in the pages of El Universal and its competitor El Excelsior. And the discourse employed in that debate highlighted the complexity and the contradictions of the racial logic at play in the pageant. In a lengthy article published in April 1922, El Excélsior tried to provoke a scandal by charging that María Bibiana was not an authentic indigenous woman.29 They also discredited her title as la virgen indígena by revealing that just three months after her India Bonita crowning, she gave birth to a child. In a menacing tone, the El Excelsior article contended that María Bibiana had tricked El Universal and the pageant judges into thinking that she was indigenous. Reporters bolstered their case by attempting to prove María Bibiana’s modernity. They argued that her hometown was no longer a traditional indigenous community because a dam constructed outside of Necaxa by the Motriz Light and Power Company had displaced them. El Excelsior went on to allege that María Bibiana had never worn traditional indigenous dress (traje) prior to her participation in the pageant, that she only feigned ignorance of the Spanish language, and that she carried the painted jicara bowl (visible in many of her post-pageant portraits) just for show.30

The newspaper’s investigation claimed that the only “Indian blood” to be found in María Bibiana’s family came from her maternal grandmother, but that her paternal grandparents and parents were already “perfectly Mestizo.” As proof of this point, the reporter presented a list of what he clearly found to be damning evidence: María Bibiana had long been exposed to “civilized people,” and her father was a town leader, he did not speak Mexicano, and he had always dressed in so-called European clothing. El Excelsior also claimed that María Bibiana’s typical dress, which they said consisted of silk blouses, patent leather shoes, and finely woven stockings, stood in contrast to the “fanciful, arbitrary” costume she donned during the India Bonita pageant. To El Excelsior, this entanglement with “modern” material culture amounted to proof that this well-dressed woman was clearly not indigenous.31

If the India Bonita pageant as a whole reflected narrowing conceptualizations of indigeneity, El Excelsior’s claims represented a more tenacious project of erasure. The charges belied common misperceptions of the meaning of indigeneity, namely that only people living in rural, traditional homelands, speaking Native languages, and eating ancestral foods, all while remaining completely untouched by modernity, could truly claim to be indigenous.32 The implication that the communities who were relocated in order to make way for the Necaxa dam—a major modernization project of the time—were less indigenous because they had lost their ancestral homelands essentially uses colonization as a justification for further colonization and erasure.

El Universal promptly answered these charges in a series of articles aimed at discrediting El Excelsior, recounting the details of the pageant, and explicitly spelling out the racial logic that informed it. The reporter reminded El Universal readers that they had organized the pageant to celebrate the indigenous race on the anniversary of the nation’s independence, that it had been judged by authorities in the matters of indigenous race and culture, and that the finalists had been brought to the offices of El Universal so that the judges could personally see the candidates to avoid any fraudulent contestants.33 Then, in bolded, capitalized typeface, the paper listed the things about María Bibiana that, to them, so clearly proved her to be a member of the indigenous race:


The tone and block lettering conveyed a sense of impatience at yet again having to explain what made someone indigenous when surely, to their minds, these points had been generously made over the course of the pageant itself. The article contended that both of María Bibiana’s parents were indeed indigenous and that her accent as well as the words she spoke proved her identity. Finally, the author responded to the El Excelsior’s claims that María Bibiana’s pregnancy voided her rights to the India Bonita title by celebrating the fact this perfect emblem of the indigenous race had brought another of her type into the world. This confounding reversal of the previous emphasis on María Bibiana’s virginity is yet further evidence of the arbitrary nature of race and gender constructs at this early moment of revolutionary identity projects.

The following day, another El Universal article penned by Manuel Gamio delved more deeply into explicit race science than any previously published discourse about the pageant.35 Gamio again spelled out the physical characteristics that made her identifiably indigenous: the color and type of hair, the color of her irises, the specific configuration of her cheekbones and ears, and other details that would be too “tiresome” to enumerate. He went on to say that he could scientifically prove María Bibiana’s indigenous heritage, alluding to anthropometric measurements and the Jenks index. He then ridiculed some of the racial logic that El Excelsior had employed—the idea that indigenous people in modern or European dress were somehow less indigenous than their relatives in more traditional dress. He conveniently declined to point out that by favoring indigenous women in traje as being more authentic, the pageant organizers had themselves relied upon similar materialist calculations. Gamio concluded by stating that distinguishing the genetic differences between one race and the other was one of the greatest challenges facing anthropology, but that, overall, Mestizaje and indigeneity were not simple matters that could be defined by blood.

While Gamio’s views on race in this final article may seem relatively enlightened, his previous interest in the contestants’ clothing and physical characteristics prove that, in practice at least, Gamio was still very much a proponent of the racial logic of his time. His opinions on the matter had likely evolved since the pageant’s conclusion. In September of 1921—just as María Bibiana was being crowned the India Bonita—Gamio had travelled to Washington, DC, for the second annual International Eugenics congress.36 Despite El Universal’s vociferous refutation of El Excelsior’s charges, the logic that drove María Bibiana’s victory synchronized with the conceptions of race described in El Excelsior. They did, after all, select the one candidate who most clearly demonstrated mastery of her native language and dress. They referred to her as the Indian virgin—giving the impression that this was indeed an important quality. Gamio’s rejoinder to the El Excelsior’s charges ultimately contradicted several of his previous statements about why María Bibiana was an ideal representative of her race.

Identity Formation and the “Indian Problem”

Ultimately, the pageant was part of a highly racialized and gendered effort, driven primarily by cultural elites, to place indigenous peoples within the nascent formulations of revolutionary national identity. Because of prevailing beliefs that something had to be done to make indigenous peoples feel a part of the nation, simply writing them out of the narrative or adopting Porfirio Díaz’s genocidal approaches were not viable options. But there was neither clear policy nor an identifiable solution for moving forward in constructing a new identity for the nation and dealing with the so-called Indian Problem. Rather, a cacophony of voices attempted to articulate what modern indigeneity ought to look like and what elements of it to incorporate into revolutionary national identity. Centering the discourse on women and female beauty allowed for the incorporation of nonthreatening aspects of indigeneity into national-identity formation without increasing anxieties about the perceived sociocultural and physical threats Indian men posed to the minority non-indigenous elite.37

Furthermore, the pageant discursively and visually narrowed the parameters of authentic indigeneity to a particular look, linguistic category, and rural point of origin. Casting indigenous peoples as rural and identifiable by distinct markers like dress and hairstyle was part of an early attempt to delineate boundaries between mestizos from indigenous peoples, and “authentic” Indians from “impure” ones. With the judges’ selection of one of the few rural-dwelling contestants as the winner, the pageant also replicated the idea that indigeneity in its purest form existed outside of the city and that urban, mixed-race, Spanish-speaking Indians were somehow less Indian than their relatives in the country.

The pageant also promoted the idea that the purest and noblest form of indigeneity existed in the past by focusing on the candidate with the clearest connections to Aztec culture and by playing up this connection with references like “Moctezuma’s race.” By perpetuating the idea that Aztec identity was the purest form of indigeneity, the pageant ultimately reinforced a narrow understanding of indigeneity that devalued other indigenous groups and made it easier to legitimate the denial of their rights and sovereignty.

Finally, the emphasis on sexuality and assimilation helped normalize the biological and cultural integration seen as being essential to solving the “Indian Problem.” In the project of “improving the race,” indigenous women were seen as the necessary channels through which the indigenous race would be whitened. In his 1916 book, Forjando Patria, Gamio had described several types of women and selected one—the “feminine type”—as being the ideal progenitor of the new nation. This influential work helped to revalue indigenous femininity as being “worthy not just of emulation but of incorporation.”38 While women had always been the ones responsible for, quite literally, birthing a new nation, Gamio’s assertions in his book and in the pageant gave voice and the authority of scientific objectivity to their role in Mexican nation building.

These combined undercurrents made the India Bonita pageant an early instance of two revolutionary identity projects—Indigenismo and Mestizaje—that sought to deal with the nation’s “Indian Problem” through social ideology, programs, and policies. They positioned Mestizaje as the race of the future but celebrated only select components of indigenous cultures and narrowed popular understandings of what “authentic” indigeneity looked like. In public events like the India Bonita pageant, proponents of these ideologies lauded “desirable” components of indigenous identity while at the same time subverting—or erasing—the rich complexity of the actual indigenous experience. The cultural elite retooled Porfirian indigenist sensibilities that relied entirely on archaeological relics to incorporate living indigenous peoples in a way that purportedly helped them to meet the goals of the Revolution.

The India Bonita pageant has had a long afterlife. The ideas articulated in the process of finding the nation’s “prettiest Indian” influenced popular representations of indigenous people for decades to come, laid important groundwork for Indigenismo and Mestizaje, and reaffirmed racial ideologies and hierarchies that continue to inform Mexican understandings of Indianness today. As with other settler colonial projects, these imposed racial and cultural ideals have become embedded in the fabric of society and manifest themselves in a range of romanticized and racialized attitudes about what it looks like and means to be indigenous. When it came to defining what “authentic” indigeneity looked like, the pageant reinforced the parameters of the conversation and the people authorized to have it.

El Universal’s final words on the India Bonita were appended to Gamio’s impassioned response to El Excelsior’s attack. Under the subhead, “The Cult of the India Bonita,” the newspaper pointed out that María Bibiana’s portrait could be seen enshrined with the Virgin of Guadalupe in humble abodes in even the farthest stretches of the country.39 While this clearly shows some hyperbole, it suggests that perhaps María Bibiana’s visage had been adopted as a sort of folk hero among indigenous people of the time. This glimpse into indigenous response to the pageant shows that despite the racialized and totalizing discourse at play in the pageant, indigenous peoples might have imbued it with their own meaning and might have seen Bibiana as one of their own, despite the many layers of colonialist, gendered, and racialized rhetoric the pageant organizers had used to frame her. It serves as an important reminder that in the midst of Indigenismo and Mestizaje projects, the indigenous experience remained multifaceted and included varying degrees of engagement with—and departure from—efforts to narrow and erase what it meant to be Indian.

Discussion of the Literature

Several recent works examine the construction of Mexican national identity in the decades of Revolutionary Reconstruction. Perhaps chief among them is the edited collection The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940. Contributors argue that artists and intellectuals were major factors in the construction of national identity at a moment when government officials and bureaucrats were occupied with rebuilding in the aftermath of revolutionary warfare. They expertly illustrate how this identity project played out in myriad cultural and educational programs.

Rick Lopez’s Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artists, and the State After the Revolution (Duke University Press, 2010) examines how intellectuals and artists borrowed elements of indigenous culture to incorporate into national identity following the Revolution. Apart from the first few chapters, one of which chronicles the India Bonita pageant, his book focuses primarily on material culture in the era of revolutionary nation building. Lopez’s treatment of the India Bonita contest is a rich and comprehensive analysis. The current study adds to this new archival material as well as broader discussions of racial construction and its implications for how Mexico viewed its indigenous populations.

Adriana Zavala’s book Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art (Penn State University Press, 2009) examines the ways in which Mexican national-identity construction was centered on representations of women. She, too, addresses the India Bonita pageant and topics of identity construction. Employing a gendered analysis of visual culture and performance from the Porfiriato through the 1940s, Zavala’s book shows the roots of revolutionary cultural identity projects. Her analysis includes critical observations about gender, but less about the construction of racial and ethnic identities.

Primary Sources

Mexico City’s Biblioteca Lerdo de Tejada has the most comprehensive collection of El Universal and other newspapers for much of the 20th century. The Benson library at the University of Texas–Austin and the Archívo Histórico at the Museo Nacional de Anthropología also hold copies of El Universal as well as other periodicals. The Hermeroteca Naciónal de Mexico at UNAM stores microfilm copies of many newspapers from across the nation, including El Universal. Together, these four archives held newspaper collections that amount to comprehensive national and international coverage of the India Bonita pageant.

Looking more broadly at modern national-identity formation in Mexico, the presidential archives and the image gallery at the Archivo General de la Nación are indispensable. For Mexico City–specific formation, the Archivo Histório de la Ciudad de México houses valuable documents, correspondence, and maps. Finally, University of California–Berkley’s Bancroft Library holds one of the more comprehensive collections of photos, postcards, and posters documenting popular iterations of national-identity projects.

As a digital corollary to her book La Raza Cosmetica: Race, Gender, and Indigeneity in Revolutionary Mexico City (University of Arizona Press, forthcoming 2019), the author of this essay will be publishing a complete archive of India Bonita pageant. This will include individual entries and biographical information about each of the contestants, as well as a teaching guide. An in-progress prototype of this archive is currently available here.

Further Reading

Dawson, Alexander. Indian and Nation in Revolutionary Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Lopez, Rick. Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Pérez Montfort, Ricardo. Estampas de Nacionalismo Popular Mexicano: Diez Ensayos Sobre Cultural Popular Y Nacionalismo. 2d ed. Mexico City: Centro de Investigacionces y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 2003.Find this resource:

Poole, Deborah. “An Image of ‘Our Indian’: Type Photographs and Racial Sentiments in Oaxaca, 1920–1940.” Hispanic American Historical Review 84.1 (2004): 37–82.Find this resource:

Rubenstein, Ann. “Mass Media and Popular Culture in the Postrevolutionary Era.” In Oxford History of Mexico. Edited by William Beezley and Michael C. Meyer, 598–633. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Vaughn, Mary Kay, Gabriela Cano, and Jocelyn H. Olcott, eds. Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Vaughn, Mary Kay, and Stephen Lewis, eds. The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Zavala, Adriana. Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.Find this resource:


(1.) “Cual es la india más bonita,” El Universal, January 15, 1921.

(2.) References to the Mexicana mas Bella contest (1920) and the Obrera Simpatica contest (1918).

(3.) The “Indian Problem,” as it was called, posited that the indigenous peoples who had endured invasion and centuries of colonization were innately backwards and an impediment to progress. The Porfirian regime had taken extreme and, at times, genocidal measures in its approach to resolving the “Indian problem,” seeking to eliminate or assimilate indigenous peoples while at the same time enshrining the stone relics and pyramids their ancestors had labored over for centuries. Revolutionary leaders took a softer, though no less racist, approach to solving the problem through cultural projects, ideologies, and policies that discursively erased indigenous identity even as it celebrated select components of that identity.

(4.) “El Concurso de la India Bonita,” El Universal, January 28, 1921.

(5.) Fernando Mota, “Una charla con la mujer mas bella de México,” El Universal, May 4, 1921.

(6.) “Tipos de belleza,” El Universal, March 20, 1920.

(7.) Deborah Poole, “An Image of ‘Our Indian’: Type Photographs and Racial Sentiments in Oaxaca, 1920–1940.” Hispanic American Historical Review 84.1 (2004).

(8.) “El concurso de la india bonita,” El Universal, March 21, 1921.

(9.) “El concurso de la india bonita.”

(10.) Jacobo Dalevuelta, “La representante de la raza: la princesa de ojos de obsidian que reinara en las fiestas de septiembre,” El Universal, August 2, 1921.

(11.) J. Sorel, “Porque Triunfo María Bibiana,” El Universal, August 4, 1921.

(12.) This Aztec Vogue was, of course, nothing new. Celebration of indigeneity under Porfirio’s mano dura privileged Aztec culture above other indigenous communities. This selective glorification replicated a racist hierarchy that ranked indigenous groups according to European models of progress; a model that long predated the dictator’s rule. During the French occupation, the puppet emperor Maximiliano (1864–1867) favored the Aztecs whose artifacts were deemed worthy of display in the Louvre and whose resemblance to European nobility made them seem civilized according to Western standards. Maximiliano helped formulate national myths surrounding the Aztecs and identified Cuauhtémoc as a hero. This campaign resonated enough that in a speech delivered shortly after Maximiliano’s execution, Benito Juarez (himself a Zapotec Indian) identified Mexicans as the heirs to “the indigenous nationality of the Aztecs.” The publication of the massive historical tomes, México a través de los siglos (1887–1889), further established the role of the Aztec empire as a precursor to modern nation in the Mexican imaginary.

(13.) Rick Lopez, Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 40.

(14.) J. Sorel, “Porque Triunfo María Bibiana.”

(15.) Jacobo Dalevuelta, Maria Bibiana Uribe, de la Sierra de Puebla, “Proclamada la India Bonita de Mexico,” El Universal, August 2, 1921.

(16.) Dalevuelta, “Proclamada la India Bonita de Mexico.”

(17.) J. Sorel, “Porque Triunfo María Bibiana.”

(18.) Diane Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 221.

(19.) Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala, 6.

(20.) “D. Andres Fernandez y su distinguida esposa ofrecieron ayer una fiesta a la india bonita,” El Universal, August 24, 1921.

(21.) “D. Andres Fernandez y su distinguida esposa ofrecieron ayer una fiesta a la india bonita.”

(22.) “La India Bonita,” El Universal Ilustrado, February 24, 1921.

(23.) “La gran fiesta de la india bonita en el colon,” El Universal, August 25, 1921.

(24.) López, 47.

(25.) “La historia de la india bonita,” El Universal, September 25, 1921.

(26.) José Albuerne, “Belleza Mexicana,” Revista de Revistas, January 8, 1922.

(27.) “La india bonita,” El Informador, August 18, 1921.

(28.) “La india bonita.”

(29.) “La India Bonita es una abnegada madre de familia,” Excelsior, April 10, 1922.

(30.) “La India Bonita es una abnegada madre de familia.”

(31.) “La India Bonita es una abnegada madre de familia.”

(32.) Ricardo Pérez Montfort, Estampas de Nacionalismo Popular Mexicano: Diez Ensayos Sobre Cultural Popular Y Nacionalismo, 2d ed. (Mexico City: Centro de Investigacionces y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 2003), 162.

(33.) “Vive de la renta de su capital Bibiana Uribe,” El Universal, April 11, 1922.

(34.) “Vive de la renta de su capital Bibiana Uribe.”

(35.) “Los Caracteres de Raza de Maria Bibiana,” El Universal, April 12, 1922.

(36.) Adriana Zavala, Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 161.

(37.) Zavala, Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition, 154.

(38.) Zavala, Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition, 3.

(39.) “Los caracteres de raza de Maria Bibiana,” El Universal, April 12, 1922.