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Laura Méndez de Cuenca: A Force for Mexican Modernity

Summary and Keywords

One of the leading figures who pioneered and promoted changes toward modernity in Mexico City was Laura Méndez de Cuenca. Laura dared to transgress the traditional Catholic norms of her time. She was a teacher, a leader of a feminist movement, and an avant-garde writer. Above all, she dared to live a modern life. But, what was a modern life? Méndez chose an audacious path in order to live a modern life, a life of hard work, determination, and freedom––a freedom for which she paid a high price.

Keywords: biography, modernity, Mexico, Laura Méndez de Cuenca, education system

Birth of a Modern Artist and a Modern Nation

Laura Méndez Lefort was born on August 18, 1853, at the Tamariz hacienda, a beautiful, fertile spot approximately one day away by carriage from Mexico City. Laura’s parents––Ramón Méndez, a military man, and Clara Lefort––had married in 1850, and, as a civil war was ongoing between liberals and conservatives, they thought that the area of the hacienda would be free of revolts. Another reason for moving away from the city was the cholera epidemic, which caused 7,000 victims to perish between May and September that year.1

The Méndez-Lefort couple took shelter at Tamariz because Juan Bautista Arroyave, the owner of the property, had offered Don Ramón the position of manager. The hacienda produced corn and wheat, and Don Ramón’s responsibilities included recruiting hands for sowing and harvesting, as well as keeping the sales ledger.2

The first years of her childhood gave Laura the opportunity to establish direct contact with luxuriant nature and geographic wealth. The imposing majesty of the two volcanoes very close to the property––Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl––and the abundant rivers that originated from their melting snow, providing the land not only with water that rendered it fertile but also with a rich fauna and flora, began to awaken in her spirit the poetic sensitivity and vocation that were to mature with time and that would lead the men and women of letters of her time to consider her a second Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the most renowned Mexican poetess. Laura’s works, including her novels, her short stories, and her poems, recreate the rustic beauty of those places: “I come from the country of flowers/ Golden mountains/ the country of blue afternoons/ and silvery nights . . .”3

The region was far from a paradise, however. The threatening civil war and cholera had reached it. Nevertheless, the couple decided to stay there a few years, as the hacienda provided Don Ramón with a stable job, an advantage worthy of consideration, for at that time the army failed to offer good possibilities or a timely salary.

Laura and her sister Rosa, one year her elder, attended the public school in the nearby town of Tlalmanalco. As in many towns in the country, the schools were located in small, simple rooms outside the sacristies or, sometimes, within the town halls. Images of saints and crucifixes hung from the walls. Religion was the most important subject, followed by reading, writing, and arithmetic. Only in city schools were other subjects such as geography, history, and drawing taught.

As the struggle between the two political groups became more violent in the late 1860s, Clara’s father, Émile Lefort, who had arrived in Mexico from France in 1824, insisted that his daughter and her family return to the capital city. Laura’s literature shows that the political commotion within and without her family influenced the development of her personality, temperament, character, and tastes. The Méndez-Lefort family arrived in the capital city of Mexico at a decisive moment.

Modern Mexico began with the promulgation of a series of laws known as the Reform Laws, proclaimed in 1859 by the liberal President Benito Juárez. These laws suppressed the privileges of the Church and revolutionized the political, economic, and social structure of the country to its core. They were intended to create a federal democratic republic, and to promote economic development as well as the rise of a middle class that would increase productivity––all of which were features of modernity.

As a result of the implementation of one of these laws, regarding the seizure and sale of the properties of the clergy, most convents were in the process of being demolished or divided into lots and sold to the highest bidder. Through the purchase of these lots, the liberals intended to create a middle class, then virtually nonexistent. However, the national treasury was bankrupt, and the liberals were forced to sell off the lots. Thus, as was to be expected, it was the wealthy people who bought the properties, thereby enlarging the gap between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, another war was impending, this time against the French, who, along with Mexican conservatives, imposed a European prince—Maximilian of Habsburg (r. 1864–1867)––as the ruler of Mexico, another reason for the law not being applies as intended.

Such modern transformations were to modify the urban landscape forever: as the avenues were remodeled, new streets and new dwellings emerged, while well-to-do families began to leave downtown and moved eastward, toward the Chapultepec woods, where the air was purer. Because there were no toilets (only latrines), piped water, or drainage, proper hygiene was lacking, the city was insalubrious, and a stench pervaded the air. Cholera, typhus, and other epidemics like smallpox and the measles decimated the population, particularly affecting children.

These conditions were to improve during the second large-scale modernization period under the rule of Porfirio Díaz, which began in 1877.

A Modern Cultural and Educational Renaissance . . . Also for Women

Modernity encompassed various spheres of urban life. Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, the father of Mexican literature, organized a group of prominent writers and intellectuals in order to renew the national literature. The group met at public and private salons and discussed not only the works that were being written––poetry, drama, novels, essays––but also the new literary styles and culture in general. A novelty was the occasional attendance by such women writers as Laureana Wright de Kleinhans and Josefina Pérez. Due to personal issues, Laura was absent from these gatherings.

Since 1870, women had begun to participate more actively, to publish poetry, especially amorous poetry, essays, and social and cultural chronicles. The content of the articles exalted the value of motherhood and the attributes of the fair sex, but it also was directed toward making women open new doors beyond the domestic sphere.4 In general terms, the formal education of women was considered—particularly by men, but also by women—not as a means for personal improvement, but as necessary to provide children with the best academic and moral education and also for women to become better partners for their husbands. Thus, as historian Carmen Ramos Escandón states, the attitude was clearly traditional.5 This was the dominant model. However, there were also men like the jurist Genaro García who aspired to social, economic, and legal equality for women,6 and avant-garde feminist writers like Wright herself and teacher Dolores Correa, both of whom held a modern worldview like Laura (although the former was dependent on her husband and the second, on her brother), who wrote abundantly about the equality that should exist between the genders.

The law decreed by Juarez on December 2, 1867, changed the Mexican educational system to the core. This law shared the objective of the Reform Laws: to limit the action of the Church and to exclude its dogma from the public sphere. As a result of the elimination of religious instruction at schools, the nascent pedagogic approach was radically different from the one previously utilized. In practical terms, it became a modern methodology by which to teach all the subjects: the world was no longer explained from the point of view of religion but from a scientific base; reason, therefore, replaced dogma and memory. Modern didactic materials began to be imported from France; examples of these were the posters that hung from the wall and showed, according to the objective method, various processes of nature, such as the germination of a seed, vertebrate and invertebrate animals, or the human skeleton. School textbooks with this modern, scientific, and rational approach were printed.

The law of 1867 established that women were to have the same educational opportunities as men, and although several years elapsed before women could enter senior high school and the university faculties7––for tradition weighed more than the law––young women fervidly embraced teaching as a profession. The School of Arts and Crafts offered a degree in teaching, trade, and art crafts. Soon female students filled the classroom, and it was there that Laura began to show her exceptional intellectual talents.8 Laura established intellectual bonds with her teachers, including Ignacio Manuel Altamirano; Ignacio Ramírez, famous for his atheism; and Guillermo Prieto, “the people’s poet,” who gave Laura a government scholarship, hoping to woo her in exchange. These were encyclopedic men who taught various subjects in schools of higher studies; they wrote books and newspaper articles, and they organized literary soirées that were attended by other men of letters, like Manuel Acuña and Juan de Dios Peza, and, occasionally, by one or two women. At one of these gatherings, Laura met the poet Manuel Acuña, with whom she fell madly in love. By then, Laura, aged 18, and her sister Rosa had defied the social norms of their time by moving away from their family and forming their own home, showing with this decision their liberal and modern attitudes. Their worldview and their feelings in the face of a society characterized by deep social differences did not fit in with those of the young women of their time, much less with the conservative ideas promoted by their parents.

The romance between Laura and Manuel lasted only a brief time, but long enough for both of them to experience a tortured relationship in which Laura showed her inner and outer freedom, which was characteristic of her nonconformist, impetuous temperament. The poet Manuel strikingly captured Laura’s personality and evolution. He saw in her the woman “who challenged social conventions, who defended her ideas at any price, the passionate woman in whom he perceived a ‘superior soul’ that would sooner or later ‘reach the summit.’”9

Acuña prophesied “a sublime mission” for Laura and predicted that she would free women from “obscurantism”:

Yes Laura . . . may your spirit awake

to fulfill its sublime mission

and may we know in you the strong woman

who from obscurantism is redeemed.10

The turning point in the relationship occurred when Laura told Manuel that she was pregnant at the precise time when he met Rosario de la Peña, the “longed-for” woman of that period: she could recite, embroider, and play the piano, and she organized literary soirées that were attended by the poets and intellectuals previously mentioned, who made her their muse.

The indecision of Manuel and the ensuing rupture must have led to tragic moments, days, and months for Laura. Agustín F. Cuenca, Manuel’s best friend and Mexico’s first modernist poet, accommodated jilted Laura at his home at a critical period when no one, not even her family, came to her aid. The baby, Manuel Acuña Méndez, was born at Agustín’s home in October 1873. At that point, nobody could surmise––not even the senior Manuel’s closest friends, like Agustín or Juan de Dios Peza––that his melancholy, his surmenage or, as we would call it today, his depression, would lead him to commit a tragic action. The news of Manuel’s suicide on December 6 was devastating for Laura and for Agustín, but also for all of cultured Mexico, which had never before witnessed such an immense funeral. He was twenty-two years old.

The infant Manuel Acuña Méndez woke up with pneumonia one day in early January 1874 and died on January 17. We shall never know which of these two tragedies devastated Laura the most, but her stalwart temperament enabled her to overcome these and other tragedies. With time, she became romantically involved with Agustín, whose radical liberal ideas she shared. He was a journalist, a poet, and a playwright. His low salary and the difficult personality of both made sharing life as a couple quite complex, to such an extent that they sometimes lived under separate roofs.

After a difficult relationship of several years and after having four children out of wedlock, they decided to get married, in October 1877, at the recently inaugurated Civil Registry––a totally modern action. Laura and Agustín, being liberals, supported this modern and liberal institution. They did not have a church wedding, which was a conspicuous challenge to society and to their families. That year, Porfirio Díaz became president, and after some time he delivered what he had promised: order, peace, and progress. For several decades, Mexico benefited from the glory of quietude: there were no more wars and people felt safe. The price paid was a military rule with all that this involves. The middle class grew, but an enormous gap arose between the rich and the poor, which was only made wider by the economic and agricultural policies of the regime. Foreign capitals helped inject into the country the progress it so badly needed. The Mexican landscape began to change thanks to the introduction of electric power, the telephone, the sewage system, and the building of infrastructure. Modernization became gradually grounded in Mexico, particularly in its urban areas.

The couple had seven children, but only two grew to become adults. Laura was concerned about both of them: Alicia, who was overly short-tempered, and Horacio, who suffered from intermittent colds. By the end of 1883, Agustín began to feel ill; he died of hepatitis in June of the following year. This was another huge loss for Laura. Only the reality of two sickly children drove her to keep moving forward.

Her “Virile” Dauntlessness

Since her days at the School of Arts and Crafts, Laura had contemplated the idea of becoming a teacher; she had studied grammar, geography, and history, and she began to prepare for the examination before the Mexico City town council, which took place on November 17, 1885. Even with a degree, women earned less than men, and Laura’s salary was insufficient to pay for her bare necessities. Her work schedule, from 8 a.m. to 12 noon and from 2 to 5 p.m., plus the task of caring for her continually sick children and her everyday chores left her exhausted. Eventually, with the excessive teaching and household workload, she fell ill with hysteria, a disease that, according to physicians of the time, affected middle- and upper-class women because they were idle, as a consequence of reading novels, of experiencing love disappointments, of going to parties, of whatever might exacerbate their emotions. Lower-class women did not suffer from hysteria because they always kept very busy. According to Gail Finney, hysteria was a response to the oppression under which women lived.11 In Laura’s case this was true: she lived physically and psychologically oppressed by the society that talked behind her back about her free life, her lovers, and her children born out of wedlock, and by the educational authorities, who, because she was a woman, inspected her school more strictly. As a result of this condition, she became weak, and when she resumed the exhausting workload, she succumbed to a terrible epidemic that was latent in the environment and of which there was a sudden outbreak: typhus, a disease transmitted by a bacterium living in lice or in the fleas of rats. By that time the authorities were already fumigating living quarters with acids and attempting to separate infected people, as the disease was extremely contagious, but thousands of people died of it. Like today, the poorest, because they lived under more insalubrious conditions, and the weakest perished. Laura managed to survive.12

She resumed her teaching activities, but her life remained extremely tense. She began to think of leaving Mexico, a reckless idea for a single woman with two children and no money. The peculiarities of her temperament gave her the courage to embark on a new path. Doubtless, widowhood provided her with the autonomy that she would not have had if she had been married or single. She longed to open up new perspectives that she could no longer find in Mexico, a country anchored to its deeply ingrained religious customs. She felt she no longer belonged to or fit into the community that had stifled her both physically and intellectually. At this point she aspired to have “wings rather than arms,”13 to seek her own destiny.

It is not known for certain why Laura decided to move to San Francisco, California. Perhaps it was because there were many Mexican residents there, and intellectuals like Guillermo Prieto had been captivated by its economic strength, its liberal, learned environment, and its cosmopolitanism.

Laura arrived in that city with her two children, and with no knowledge of English, in July 1891. In Mexico, it was said that Laura had become an expatriate because, due to one of the “mannish outbursts which characterize her, she moved to San Francisco, she [is a] woman whose virility and feminine energy might be envied by many men.”14 Indeed, it was believed that only a man could show such determination.

Her experience in San Francisco made her a self-assured, free, modern woman—modern because she transgressed the limits imposed on her by society, because she was able to sustain herself and her two children, because she was passionately interested in her surroundings. Although she may have shared these characteristics with other modern people,15 they cannot be generalized, for, as Ernst Block has truthfully remarked, “not all people live in the same time, the same Now.”16 Certainly, Laura experienced feelings similar to those of other women who struggled for their emancipation directly, but coming face-to-face with a culture so different from the Mexican one also engendered an inner contradiction, because Laura was at the same time an Angel in the House and a New Woman “coexisting in the same body.”17 Her Mexican roots led her to prioritize her family, but her education and her work were as important; she always thought that the ideal of every woman should be in her realization as a wife, a mother, and a professional.

Laura arrived in San Francisco just as the feminist movement took off. Through their writings and associational activities, women urged their sisters to “study, work and defend their rights.” By 1900 women constituted 18 percent of the workforce in California.18 Laura was not directly involved in the feminist movement in San Francisco but she lived, worked, and wrote according to feminist principles. There were certainly other women who wrote about modernity (in both content and style)19 but did not live a modern life: free and financially self-sufficient. Thus, Laura was amazingly consistent with her ideas––an admirable achievement, especially coming from a male-chauvinist country like Mexico.

Laura’s personality fit in with the competitiveness of Americans: “I am determined that while I can, by work, earn a dollar for my children, I won’t let my neighbour earn it before me.”20 Laura earned her living by teaching Spanish to wealthy women who paid her a dollar and a half for one hour––a sum that took her a fortnight to make in Mexico. In order to increase her income, she also wrote articles about her experiences in San Francisco, as well as poetry and short stories, for Mexican newspapers such as El Mundo, El Imparcial, and El Renacimiento.21 Her poetry in particular began to be admired in Mexico because her “verses were far superior to those written by other women.”22

Laura’s children continued to trouble her. Neither Alicia nor Horacio had any enthusiasm for work or study. They arrived in San Francisco at the ages of thirteen and eleven, respectively. Alicia eventually became a teacher and gave occasional private Spanish classes. Horacio was a printer in the publishing project founded by his mother in San Francisco.

After living for a few years in that city, Laura began to establish bonds with men and women of letters, people in the fields of education and diplomacy, and the crème de la crème of intellectuals. It was at one of these gatherings that she met the Argentinian consul José Schleiden, together with whom she founded, after a time, Revista Hispanoamericana, meant to circulate across the continent. This magazine was fully bilingual and offered commercial exchange with the Latin American countries; it announced the sale of the most attractive modern items in every field, such as ploughs, grinders, de-kernelling machines, exotic plants and trees like the Chilean araucaria, toilets, cars, and all the latest in trade and industry. The magazine subsisted on these advertisements and on subscriptions. The first issue appeared in March 1895, with a print run of 4,000 copies. Laura was the editor and Schleiden, the manager. The offices were located in the city’s first skyscraper, the Mills Building, where the most renowned industrials like Hearst, head of a newspaper emporium, and Oliver, head of a typewriter emporium, had their offices. Laura succeeded in placing Horacio as the printer of the magazine. Thus began her vocation to become an editor, in a large-scale endeavor like any company in the United States. Net profits were $1,000 per month,23 a huge sum that she could never have been able to make in Mexico.

Perhaps due to her lack of experience, Laura did not think of signing a contract for the company. One day in July 1896, her business partner took full hold of the magazine without warning. She had no documents that might give her credit as a partner, so any legal action was bound to fail. Thus her dreams of becoming an editor died . . . for the time being.

Her Caliber as a Modern Woman

When Laura arrived in Mexico City after almost a decade of absence, she observed many changes. Electric power, drainage, new streets, the telephone, bicycles, skates, cars, emerging neighborhoods and residential developments, buildings under construction, such as the main Post Office and the Palace of Fine Arts, and many more, all characteristic of modernization and progress––modified the urban landscape. Friars and nuns were no longer seen walking in the streets in their religious habits, and although civilians, that is, men, had long moved freely through the city, beginning in the 1880s women were seen, surprisingly going not only to church, holding rosaries and missals, but also to work at offices, factories, and schools. It was precisely this fact––the change in women’s activities, equally a trait of modernity––that was to bring about a change in the relationship between the genders.24 Laura pointed out that, although men disagreed with liberation, this was so evident that they were forced to accept it.25

It seemed that, after such a long time, her compatriots had forgiven the sins of her youth. San Francisco had provided her with knowledge, experiences, and cosmopolitism. She was regarded as the most learned woman in Mexico.26 She had written a novel, El Espejo de Amarilis, about her teaching experience in Mexico; she spoke English, French, German and Greek; and she began to translate into Spanish American poetry such as “Annabel Lee,” by Edgar Allan Poe.27 Some intellectuals such as Adalberto Esteva, Porfirio Parra, and Manuel Caballero wrote that she and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the previously most well-known female Mexican poet, were the best in the country.28

The first decade of the 20th century predicted glories and new challenges, awards, and distinctions for Laura. The Mexican government sent her first to St. Louis, Missouri, and then to Berlin, to study the American and German educational systems and to observe what elements of these could be implemented in Mexican schools. All three countries had instituted the modern teaching system. The differences lay, in the case of Mexico, in the scarcity of the resources devoted to education and in the poverty in which most of the population lived, particularly the indigenous peoples. Due to this, indigenous children were unable to attend school because they had to help their parents with agricultural and household chores. Some 85 percent of the population of Mexico could not read or write. Laura believed that the solution was not merely to educate. In her series of articles, “The Needs of Mexico,” she discussed the three components required in order to improve the population: education, nutrition, and hygiene. Without improving all three factors, –she argued, Mexico would be unable to overcome its backwardness.

Despite Laura’s triumphs, life brought her ever-increasing tragedies. One year after she arrived in St. Louis, Laura received a telegram announcing the death of her son, from typhus, on July 17, 1902. He was twenty-two years old. It must have been terrible for her to think that, almost twenty years after she had managed to survive the disease, it had taken the life of her son.

Surely the company of her friend and colleague Aurora Gutiérrez, who lived with Laura from 1900 to 1910 helped her overcome this brutal blow. Little by little, her intense intellectual curiosity and demands by the Mexican government in relation to the delivery of regular reports drove Laura to resume her activities visiting schools. A characteristic of her personality was her passion for learning and for knowledge: “She studies and observes everything,” a journalist wrote,29 so she not only sent reports, but her fearlessness and self-confidence and her mastery of the English language led her to establish a rapport with people of interest to her. In 1903 she was invited to become a member of the Society of Pedagogy, which included the most distinguished teachers and professors. This appointment opened doors for her to form bonds with other areas of social life in St. Louis. As a result, she realized that there were greater manifestations of sympathy for Mexico and more opportunities to observe the schools’ teaching methods.30

When she returned to Mexico with Aurora in 1904, she was invited to chair a feminist society whose purpose was “the physical, intellectual and moral improvement of women,” and whose ideological vehicle was the magazine La Mujer Mexicana, in which Laura and other women published a variety of articles that might be of interest for the female sex. Within this group, they founded the Society for the Protection of Women, which, among other tasks, engaged in helping women find jobs.

Laura fought not only for equal wages and opportunities for both sexes but also to enable women to study and work: “Part of the human species wants to have a right to a true life, intellectual life, which is light, versus the life of a mole to which it has been condemned. . . . [Women ask] in the name of justice, to be conveniently equipped for the struggle for life; to be respected day and night and everywhere; to receive the same remuneration for her work than men.”31

In 1906 Laura was invited by Justo Sierra, head of the Department of Public Education, to become the only female member of the Higher Council for Education, an institution charged with discussing the most relevant topics in education and proposing solutions; at the same time, the regime of Porfirio Díaz began to collapse. Nobody could deny the radiance of modernity, progress, and order, but the huge social differences were equally undeniable. Soon the detonators exploded. Mining and textile strikes in which workers demanded raises and better life conditions broke out. The response of the government was brutal: federal troops killed hundreds of people.

In this atmosphere of political, social, and economic instability, Laura was sent to Berlin by the Mexican government to study the educational systems in various European countries. She remained in Europe for four years, during which she walked the cities and the parks and visited hospitals, museums, fortresses, castles, and whatever attracted her curious gaze. She chronicled this period for El Imparcial and other newspapers.32 Hundreds of pages portray her social concerns in the spheres of education, health, and hygiene, especially over educational inequality and labor inequality between men and women.

Modern man, but above all modern woman, secluded at home for so long, felt free for the first time, moving about public spaces. According to Laura and other women writers, modernity represented a time of great transformations, but it had been unable to reduce the inequality between the sexes.33 Laura’s stay in Europe sharpened her feminist sensitivity. She sent to Mexico several articles in which she urged women to “rebel” and to “free themselves from the humiliating dependence upon men in which [they] have lived for centuries,” for “men know much about everything except what a woman thinks and feels, although they are unaware of their ignorance.” For this reason, women must confront them and “claim the human––not social––position that is their birthright.”34 Despite her radicalism, Laura agreed that happiness for the fair sex lay in an integral form, in both the household––as a wife and as a mother––and the public spheres, at school or at work. In order for women to enjoy their private environment, Laura argued, it should be reformed, and therefore she wrote a manual titled El hogar mexicano (The Mexican Home),35 published in 1907, 1910, and 1914, and addressed to Mexican girls and young women, in which she hoped to introduce modern innovations to the new Mexican homes: toilets, showers, gas stoves, washing machines, and other modern inventions, while encouraging young women to change their hygiene and health habits. The lay manual36 incorporated her valuable professional experiences, nurtured by modern discussion on topics such as order, cleanliness, and health (she attended several conferences on hygiene and education in Europe). Laura was wholly up to date in these matters. Her text is similar in structure and content to The Complete Home, printed in New York in 1907.37 El hogar mexicano is profusely illustrated and maintains that a healthy body requires a wholesome, balanced nutrition (the author recommended eating fruits and vegetables, among other foods), as well as gymnastic exercises. Many of her recommendations are relevant even today. The first sentence states that the head of the family can be either a man or a woman.

Laura arrived in Paris with Aurora and with her daughter, Alicia, who had departed from San Francisco. Because of the irritable, depressive character of Alicia, the three Mexican teachers had a difficult time living under the same roof on the old continent, from 1906 to 1910.

Although Laura had several periods of study in Paris and in Vienna, her permanent destination was Berlin, where novel modern pedagogies were arising. She arrived in this city when Germany was in its heyday, under the rule of the learned Otto von Bismarck. Intellectually, her experience in Berlin was the most fruitful. She admired the German people more than any other because she found in that country what she had always sought: care for cleanliness, good nutrition, hygiene, order in all aspects of life, and social balance. A strong middle class held the social edifice––the same edifice that was then beginning to emerge from its foundations in Mexico.

Next, as she had previously done in St. Louis, she began touring elementary schools for boys and for girls. From her daily records, we can perceive that German education provided a religious, moral, and patriotic instruction. First and foremost, it promoted solidarity, not individualism.38 The teachers, most of whom held degrees, transmitted knowledge in a vivid, entertaining manner, using children’s textbooks appropriate for each age; thus, teaching methods were the key factor in progress at school.39

In early 1910, Laura began having health issues: a pain in her right elbow made it hard for her to write. This was one of her reasons for requesting to return to Mexico, “the most hospitable country,” while advising Undersecretary Chávez that “she still felt capable of teaching, and of teaching better than ever before.”40

Revenge of the Revolutionary Governments?

Laura returned in the summer, just as the last preparations were being made for the renowned centennial festivities, in which the 1st century of independence of Mexico was to be celebrated, on September 16, 1910. Soon after, Aurora and Alicia arrived from Paris, where they had lived during the previous year, possibly due to the difficult relationship between Laura and her daughter. The celebrations had just ended when, on November 20, the Mexican Revolution broke out. It lasted ten years, cost a million lives, and devastated Mexico in every sense. However, it also shook consciousness. The initial ideals of the distribution of the land and social justice were ravaged by the complex revolutionary fabric under the mythical figures of Madero, Zapata, Villa, Carranza, and Obregón.

Those supporters of Porfirio Díaz who could do so left the country. Others, like Laura, who had no resources but had collaborated with the government of Porfirio Díaz, became victims of a sort of revenge by the revolutionary governments. To make matters worse, once she arrived in Mexico, Aurora decided to separate herself from Laura due to the difficulty in living under the same roof as Alicia. Despite huge financial difficulties, Alicia worked as an English teacher only for a few months. She spent some time as a psychiatric patient at La Castañeda, which had recently opened, in 1910.

In the summer of 1910, Laura had been promoted to the highest position in the educational hierarchy: inspector, earning the high sum of 2,135 pesos a year. She had just published in Paris, at Ollendorff, her collection of short stories, “Simplezas” (Trifles), in which she narrates several stories of strong, dominant women who seek to have “wings” to break the domestic shell and free themselves from male domination. She had written several reading books, and her literary and pedagogic works consisted of more than 2,000 pages. At the time, some writers and academic scholars considered her the best female writer of the 19th century.41 The teacher’s charge as inspector was to be exercised in Milpa Alta, a very poor indigenous area far from the city. She could ride the railroad as far as Tlalpan, but from that point she would have to travel several kilometers on foot or on horseback. For a fifty-seven-year-old diabetic woman, this was rather a punishment than a reward.

In the course of fifteen long years, from 1911 to 1926, when Laura, aged seventy-three, was finally able to retire, she held at least fifteen different positions at schools as assistant. The “revolutionary” governments had demoted her to the lowest rank in the educational hierarchy, with a salary ranging between 50 and 60 pesos a month, one third of what an inspector earned.42 For some time she was forced to open a small grocery store. It is therefore not surprising that, as Leonor Lach, who knew and admired her, wrote, her character should “turn sour to the point of rendering it so difficult in her old age . . . she always suffered . . . from financial hardships that prevented her from achieving all the things that she might have been able to do.”43 Guadalupe Gutiérrez de Joseph, who met her in St. Louis, Missouri, and who “took pleasure in reciting her verses” at a Spanish-speaking club, wrote in 1930:

Doña Laura was extremely careful in her choice of words, and she was constantly seeking beautiful manners of expression. She had great knowledge of world literature. . . . She enjoyed reading the German classics and studied their language solely for the sake of this pleasure . . . Her time was more arduous than ours; she had to face all by herself derision and lack of appreciation by a world that acknowledged no other field of action for women than home . . . She is a forerunner of the current generation of women who everyday free themselves more from prejudice and weaknesses.44

Despite her complicated, difficult life, Laura never gave up the banner of feminism, and, although she lived in a tumultuous environment, she perceived the progress made by women. In “La mujer mexicana moderna en el nuevo hogar” (“The Mexican modern woman in the new home”), the writer rejoices at the fact that

Modern woman works, modern woman goes out on the streets by herself, she manages her own affairs. . . . Modern woman, “enlightened by the torch of the Revolution [. . .] claims, before all the privileges to which she is entitled, the invaluable right to freedom.”45

Once the revolution reached its end, the brilliant writer José Vasconcelos became in 1921, under President Álvaro Obregón, the head of the Department of Education. Laura had met him before, as they had both been members of the prestigious Higher Council of Education in 1914. Vasconcelos carried out one of the most interesting educational reforms in the history of Mexico: he fought illiteracy through campaigns that also involved improvement in the health and hygiene of the inhabitants. Laura collaborated in this project, but Vasconcelos did not help her as might have been expected.

From 1916 to 1924, Laura enrolled at the university as a regular student, attending literature classes. She paid her fees and passed the exams. This fact drew the attention of many, but especially of one teacher, Francisco Monterde, who was surprised to see this wholly emancipated “elderly lady”; he also regretted not having asked her about her past with Manuel Acuña, with Agustín F. Cuenca, and during the golden years of Mexican culture.

In 1925, after Laura’s forty-two years of service, the federal government granted her a retirement pension, a measly daily sum of $7.50 pesos, comparable to the wages of a handyman. She retired to a small house in the San Pedro de los Pinos neighborhood, which she had built upon her return from San Francisco, thanks to a small inheritance from her husband, to which she added her own savings. The most salient feature in it was her select library, which abounded in educational treatises and volumes on modern methodology, literature, and history.46

She died on November 1, 1928. Today she is the only woman whose remains lie buried in the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons of the State of Mexico.


Laura Méndez de Cuenca lived a tragic life, having dared to transgress the social norms and to change, to the extent possible, the traditional domestic path of women and impel them toward modernity, toward middle and higher education and work, which were to bring them freedom and happiness. Her life was the clearest example that not all was to remain merely words: women must engage in new roles as active participants in history. Those seeds of modernity in women began to sprout during the 1920s, when several women held leading positions in the field of education. Perhaps in the last few decades we women have been fulfilling, though not without some degree of dejection, Laura’s utopia: to be wives and mothers, as well as study and work, without sacrificing any of these aspects.

Her mark in the history of Mexican education lies in having proposed to the Mexican government certain changes in the teaching of the national language, in the introduction of partial exams (formerly there were only final exams), in making children reason things out as they learned each of the subjects in the curriculum––all contributions that were discussed by the pedagogic authorities and eventually incorporated as laws, decrees, or regulations.

Her main legacy is her many essays, poems, short stories, novels, and school textbooks (above all El hogar mexicano), which portray traditional women of the entire social ladder who are fated to live a limited, tragic life, but who are invited to join modernity, understood as a space that allows a free, happy life.

Discussion of the Literature

Modern biography, as Alice Kessler-Harris states, opens “a different path into the past”47 and analyzes subjectivity, understood as the ability of the individuals to creatively process the messages and the experiences received throughout their lives and act upon them.48 Furthermore, it follows the school of everyday-life history promoted in Mexico by Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, a theoretical trend based on behavioral paradigms shared by many, all, or certain individuals, and that change according to time and space. The use of certain sources, little used by historians, such as novels, criminal trials, and the micro and macro focus of analysis, makes it possible to go in depth into the routine, the repetition, or the spontaneity of everyday activities.49 The recommendation of Joan W. Scott to read literature as history, “to read for ‘the literary’ by treating both the literary and non-literary writings as discursive events that organize and orchestrate our understanding of the historical real”50 has been followed here. The literary work of Méndez adds up to 2,000 pages; it may be said that her difficult, enriching experience as a modern woman is its guiding thread. A multitude of original and secondary sources and Mílada Bazant’s biography of Laura Méndez de Cuenca51 have been consulted.

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación (General National Archives of Mexico), Mexico City. This is the main archive of Mexico, Ramo Educación; it includes some documents of the first Ministry of Education created in 1905. Here I found some working documents of Laura Méndez, Alicia Cuenca, and other teachers.

Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública (Historical Archive of the Ministry of Education). It contains valuable information of many education subjects. The most important teachers, such as Laura Méndez de Cuenca have an “Expediente Sobresaliente,” which includes Laura’s detailed career as a teacher, from 1885–1926.

Archivo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Historical Archives of the National Autonomous University of Mexico). This is an extraordinary source for tracking the academic career of students. Here I found Laura’s letters written to education intellectuals such as Justo Sierra and Ezequiel A. Chávez and to her friend Enrique Olavarría y Ferrari, and also her exams.

Archivo Municipal de Tlalmanalco (Municipal Archives of Tlalmanalco), State of Mexico. This is the archive of the town where Laura Méndez de Cuenca lived as a child. It is very rich but is poorly cataloged. Many towns in Mexico have archives, but few have been explored.

Hemeroteca Nacional de México (National Newspaper Library of Mexico). All the newspapers and magazines since the 16th century can be found here. Many have been digitalized. This collection was crucial for reconstructing the biography of Laura Méndez de Cuenca, as her literary and pedagogic work, comprising more than 2,000 pages, was scattered among many newspapers. I edited it, and it was published, in three volumes, as La herencia cultural de Laura Méndez de Cuenca by Siglo XXI. Her novel El Espejo de Amarilis, short stories, textbooks, letters, and travelogues were the main sources to understand Méndez de Cuenca´s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings.

Mapoteca Manuel Orozco y Berra (Manuel Orozco y Berra Map Library), Mexico City. Its historical archives includes maps of Mexico from the pre-Hispanic period to the 20th century, which may be accessed at: Maps are indispensable to reconstruct the life and times of any historical figure. Understanding the geographical space (and Méndez de Cuenca’s experience in it) is as important as understanding the historical facts that took place in them.

Fototeca Nacional de México (Photographic Library of Mexico). Millions of photographs can be found in this archive.

Further Reading

Alvarado, María de Lourdes. La educación “superior” femenina en el México del siglo XIX. México City: UNAM, 2004.Find this resource:

    Ardis, Ann L., and Leslie W. Lewis, eds. Women´s Experience of Modernity, 1875–1945. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

      Arrom, Silvia Marina. Las mujeres de la Ciudad de México, 1790–1857. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1988.Find this resource:

        Bazant, Jan. A Concise History of Mexico. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.Find this resource:

          Bazant, Mílada. Historia de la educación en el Porfiriato. México: El Colegio de México, 2006.Find this resource:

            Bazant, Mílada, ed. Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Su herencia cultural. 3 vols. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2011.Find this resource:

              Bazant, Mílada. “La educación moderna, 1867–1911.” In Historia de la educación en la ciudad de México. Edited by Pilar Gonzalbo and Anne Staples, 245–327. Mexico City: El Colegio de México—Centro de Estudios Históricos—Secretaría de Educación del Distrito Federal, 2012.Find this resource:

                Bazant, Mílada. Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Mujer indómita y moderna 1853–1928. Vida cotidiana y entorno educativo. 3d ed. Mexico City: El Colegio Mexiquense, A. C., 2013.Find this resource:

                  Berman, Marshall. Todo lo sólido se desvanece en el aire: La experiencia de la modernidad. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2003.Find this resource:

                    Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

                      Infante, Lucrecia. “De la escritura al margen a la dirección de empresas culturales: Mujeres en la prensa literaria mexicana del siglo XIX, (1805–1907).” PhD diss., Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, UNAM, 2009.Find this resource:

                        Vázquez, Lilia Granillo. Escribir como mujer entre hombres: Historia de la poesía femenina mexicana del siglo XIX. Mexico City: UAM-Xochimilco, 2010.Find this resource:


                          (1.) El Universal, October 2–3, 1850.

                          (2.) I was unable to find any record of the activity of Don Ramón at Tamariz in the Municipal Archives of Tlalmanalco, but I inferred that he had been the manager of the hacienda from the fact that he had subsequently managed the Socorro ranch. Archivo Histórico Municipal de Tlalmanalco (AHMT), Sesiones de Cabildo 1852–1861 y Noticias de Estadística, 1853.

                          (3.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, “Tristeza,” Segundo Almanaque de Arte y Letras (February 1896): 51.

                          (4.) Lilia Granillo Vázquez, Escribir como mujer entre hombres: Historia de la poesía femenina mexicana del siglo XIX (México: UAM-Xochimilco, 2010). There were approximately 250 women writers who wrote in more than 3,000 magazines, 40 of which were addressed to women (12 were headed by women; these figures are for the whole country). Lucrecia Infante, “De la escritura al margen a la dirección de empresas culturales: Mujeres en la prensa literaria mexicana del siglo XIX, (1805–1907)” (PhD diss., UNAM, 2009), annex 3.

                          (5.) Carmen Ramos Escandón, “Género y modernidad mujeril: Las relaciones de Género en el fin de siglo mexicano,” Anuario IEHS 16 (2001): 261–284. Ramos analyzes La Mujer and La Revista Moderna in order to sustain her argument; there are other publications.

                          (6.) Carmen Ramos Escandón, “Genaro García, historiador feminista de fin de siglo,” Signos Históricos 5 (January–June 2001): 87–107.

                          (7.) From 1882 to 1900 fifty-eight women entered senior high school but from 1877 to 1910 not more than ten obtained degrees in medicine, engineering, and pharmacy. María de Lourdes Alvarado, La educación superior femenina en el México del siglo XIX: Demanda social y reto gubernamental (Mexico City: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, UNAM, 2001), 325–330.

                          (8.) Lourdes Alvarado, La educación superior femenina, 224.

                          (9.) Manuel Acuña, “A Laura,” El Eco de Ambos Mundos, May 9, 1872.

                          (10.) Acuña, “A Laura.”

                          (11.) According to Gail Finney, feminists expressed their oppression in a rebellious, liberating way, while hysterics expressed it passively and self-destructively. In Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 3.

                          (12.) La Voz de México, January 1, 1885, 3; January 29, 1885, 3; May 24, 1885, 3; May 28, 1885, 3.

                          (13.) “Heroína de miedo,” El Imparcial, November 18, 1908.

                          (14.) P. P., in the Jueves supplement of El Mundo: Ilustración Popular, June 12, 1902. P. P. may be the initials of Porfirio Parra, a friend of Laura and an orthodox positivist.

                          (15.) Véase Berman, Todo lo sólido se desvanece en el aire: La experiencia de la modernidad (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2003), 5–11.

                          (16.) Cited in Wendy Parkins, “Moving Dangerously: Mobility and the Modern Woman,” Tulsa Studies 20.1 (Spring 2001): 78.

                          (17.) Quoted by Rita Felski, according to whom those of us who study women should “recognize that the past remains active in the present and that older ideals of femininity may continue to exercise a powerful pull.” Felski, Afterword to Women’s Experience of Modernity (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), 294.

                          (18.) Lauren Abel, “The California Plan,” Voces Novae: Chapman University Historical Review 1 (2013): 11–12.

                          (19.) Mateana Murguía de Aveleyra, Laureana Wright de Kleinhans, and Dolores Correa, among many others, wrote poetry and essays in which they condemned the narrow domestic sphere of women.

                          (20.) Laura’s letter to Enrique de Olavarría y Ferrari, April 9, 1895, Pablo Mora, Cartas de Laura Méndez de Cuenca a Enrique de Olavarría y Ferrari: dos promotores de la cultura mexicana, Literatura Mexicana, vol. XIV, núm. 1, 2003, p. 259, [Consulta: 26 de noviembre de 2017].

                          (21.) Besides the work that I collected in three volumes, Laura wrote: (1) Impresiones de viajes (articles); (2) a volume of short stories; (3) Vacaciones: Novela de costumbres mexicanas; (4) Los Preciado: Novela de costumbres mexicanas; (5) La dicha . . . hay que atraparla; (6) Eureka, comedia en tres actos; (7) La ley del embudo, Zarzuela en tres actos; (8) Carmen, drama en tres actos; (9) Novela de costumbres sin título; and (10) three textbooks: for 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades of primary school, all of them lost except Los Preciado, Colegio de México, Ramón Beteta’s Historical Archive (Archivo Histórico de Ramón Beteta, AHRB), box 49, file 321.

                          (22.) “She combines hendecasyllables and heptasyllables with sextets.” Francisco Monterde, Diccionario de las calles de México (México, Porrúa, 1970), 147.

                          (23.) Mílada Bazant, Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Mujer indómita y moderna 1853–1928. Vida cotidiana y entorno educativo (México: El Colegio Mexiquense, A.C., 2010), 208–212.

                          (24.) Joan Landes, “The public and private sphere,” quoted in Ramos Escandón, “Género y Modernidad Mujeril”: 263.

                          (25.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, “La mujer progresa,” Jalisco Libre, February 14, 1908.

                          (26.) Biblios, August 30, 1919, 664.

                          (27.) El Mundo Ilustrado, June 14, 1896.

                          (28.) Jueves of El Mundo, June 12, 1902; and El Mercurio Occidental, July 2, 1893.

                          (29.) Mary de Lys, “Mujeres Mexicanas,” Acción Mundial (April 1, 1916), 19; and Guadalupe Gutiérrez de Joseph, “Mujeres de México: Laura Méndez de Cuenca,” Nuestra Ciudad (April–May 1930): 665.

                          (30.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, “Informes rendidos a la Secretaría de Justicia e Instrucción Pública, por la señora Laura Méndez de Cuenca, encargada por dicha secretaría del estudio de las instituciones escolares de instrucción pública en los Estados Unidos de América,” La Gaceta de Gobierno, Periódico Oficial del Estado de México, July 16, July 20, October 12, October 15, October 19, October 22, October 26, October 29, and November 2, 1904; and Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Personajes sobresalientes, Laura Méndez de Cuenca, file 1, January 27, 1903, 29.

                          (31.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, “El decantado feminismo,” El Imparcial, November 17, 1907, 10–11.

                          (32.) Bazant, Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Su herencia cultural, vol. 3, 399–771.

                          (33.) Many studies on women as “participants” of modernity are still to be written. Most works on modernity address this from the male perspective. For Berman, according to Felski, “the gender of modernity is masculine,” for its chosen prototypes are Faust, Marx, and Baudelaire; this choice orients his work. Berman, Todo lo sólido se desvanece, 2. Conversely, Felski approaches the modern experience through texts by women and discusses “the complexities of modernity´s relationship to femininity through an analysis of its varied and competing representations.” Her vast field of study opens up the perspective that modernity exerted a very varied influence on the different social groups. Felski, The Gender of Modernity, 7–9.

                          (34.) Méndez de Cuenca, “El decantado feminismo” and “La mujer progresa.”

                          (35.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, El hogar mexicano: Nociones de economía doméstica para uso de las alumnas de instrucción primaria, 2 vols. (Mexico City: Herrero Hermanos, 1907).

                          (36.) Other manuals included religious prescriptions, although these were prohibited. Dolores Correa Zapata, La mujer en el hogar: Obra adoptada como texto de economía doméstica y deberes de la mujer en la Escuela Normal para Profesoras de la capital de la República. Breves consideraciones sociológicas sobre la mujer y la familia y ligeros apuntes sobre educación física y moral (Paris: Librería de la viuda de Ch. Bouret, 1899).

                          (37.) Leticia Moreno, “Los libros escolares de lectura y las formas de leer,” in Experiencias educativas en el Estado de México: Un recorrido histórico (México: El Colegio Mexiquense, A. C., 1999), 247.

                          (38.) Letter by Laura Méndez de Cuenca to Ezequiel A. Chávez, Berlín, March 3, 1909, AHUNAM, Fondo Exequiel A. Chávez, Sección Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes, Serie Correspondencia personal, box 36, file 109, doc. 34.

                          (39.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, “Informe del Kindergarten” and “Informes sobre el sistema de educación popular en Alemania,” 1908, AGN, Fondo Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes, Sección de instrucción Preparatoria y Profesional, box 255, file 12.

                          (40.) Letter by Laura Méndez de Cuenca to Ezequiel A. Chávez, Vienna, February 2, 1910, AHUNAM, Fondo Exequiel A. Chávez, Sección Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes, Serie Correspondencia personal, box 36, file 109, doc. 38.

                          (41.) These include the well-known writer José Emilio Pacheco and academic scholars such as Pablo Mora, Lilia Granillo, Luzelena Gutiérrez de Velasco, and Ana Rosa Domenella, among others.

                          (42.) Rosa María González Jiménez, “De cómo y por qué las maestras llegaron a ser mayoría en las escuelas primarias de México, Distrito Federal,” Revista mexicana de investigación educativa 42 (2009): 765, 776 (Table 7).

                          (43.) Leonor Lach, “Tres escritoras mexicanas,” El libro y el pueblo (April 1934).

                          (44.) Gutiérrez de Joseph, “Mujeres de México.”

                          (45.) Laura Méndez de Cuenca, “La mujer mexicana moderna en el nuevo hogar,” El Pueblo, September 14, 1916, 16.

                          (46.) Aurelio Venegas, La Gaceta del Gobierno, November 3, 1928.

                          (47.) Alice Kessler-Harris, “Why Biography?” American Historical Review 3 (2009): 626.

                          (48.) Mary Kay Vaughan, “La labor creativa en la construcción biográfica: El equilibrio entre el sujeto y su contexto histórico,” in Biografía: Modelos, métodos y enfoques, ed. Mílada Bazant (Mexico City: El Colegio Mexiquense, A.C., 2013), 56.

                          (49.) Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, Introducción a la historia de la vida cotidiana (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2006).

                          (50.) Quoted in the Introduction by the editors, Ann L. Ardis and Leslie W. Lewis, Women’s Experience of Modernity, 1875–1945 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 3.

                          (51.) Mílada Bazant, Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Mujer indómita; and Bazant, Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Su herencia cultural.