Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution

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After Mexico’s revolution of 1910–1920, intellectuals sought to forge a unified cultural nation out of the country’s diverse populace. Their efforts resulted in an “ethnicized” interpretation of Mexicanness that intentionally incorporated elements of folk and indigenous culture. In this rich history, Rick A. López explains how thinkers and artists, including the anthropologist Manuel Gamio, the composer Carlos Chávez, the educator Moisés Sáenz, the painter Diego Rivera, and many less-known figures, formulated and promoted a notion of nationhood in which previously denigrated vernacular arts—dance, music, and handicrafts such as textiles, basketry, ceramics, wooden toys, and ritual masks—came to be seen as symbolic of Mexico’s modernity and national distinctiveness. López examines how the nationalist project intersected with transnational intellectual and artistic currents, as well as how it was adapted in rural communities. He provides an in-depth account of artisanal practices in the village of Olinalá, located in the mountainous southern state of Guerrero. Since the 1920s, Olinalá has been renowned for its lacquered boxes and gourds, which have been considered to be among the “most Mexican” of the nation’s arts. Crafting Mexico illuminates the role of cultural politics and visual production in Mexico’s transformation from a regionally and culturally fragmented country into a modern nation-state with an inclusive and compelling national identity.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Crafting Mexico is an important and original contribution to the literature on
visual arts in national ideologies. The detailed history, sophisticated analyses, intriguing case studies, and wonderful black and white and color photographs make this book essential to the library of anyone interested in Mexican popular art. “ - Michael Chibnik, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

Crafting México is a major contribution to the growing literature on nation, revolution, and indigenismo in postrevolutionary Mexico. . . . This fascinating and richly illustrated book is a fitting testimony to over a decade of exhaustive research and careful writing. It will surely serve as a model for future work.” - Stephen E. Lewis, The Americas

Crafting Mexico is an impressive work of cultural and intellectual history
that is unique in analyzing the intersection of grassroots practices with
intellectual currents. It should gain an audience among scholars of state
formation beyond Mexico or Latin America.” - Robert F. Alegre, History: Reviews of New Books

“Rick A. López tells the fascinating story of how folk art produced by anonymous potters, weavers, and wood carvers became a ‘proud symbol of Mexico’s authentic national identity’ (p. 2). His excellent monograph advances our understanding of Mexico’s cultural revolution—the state policies, artistic movements, and commercial developments that transformed a regionally fragmented postwar society into a unified nationstate with an ethnically inclusive national identity.” - Michael Snodgrass, American Historical Review

Crafting Mexico reminds us that quality scholarship does not resort to sweeping generalizations but rather assesses what is often a complex situation case by case. It is an impressive interdisciplinary study that adds much to our appreciation of modern Mexican culture and society.” - Andrew Grant Wood, Hispanic American Historical Review

Crafting Mexico covers much new territory. Its linkage of local, national, and transnational history is exemplary.”—Mary Kay Vaughan, co-editor of The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940

“In recent decades, historians of twentieth-century Mexico have reshaped the way we understand state and nation formation—particularly popular constructions of the national—and the role that foreign actors have played in brokering Mexico’s distinctive, transnational process of becoming modern. Crafting Mexico represents a culminating moment in these inquiries. Better than any study I know, it wrestles with the complex process whereby Mexico transformed itself from a fragmented society, driven by regional loyalties, linguistic and cultural particularism, and caudillo politics, into one of the hemisphere’s most unified nations. Part of the answer, Rick A. López argues masterfully, lies in a surprisingly contingent aesthetic and political process that embraced foreign and local actors, cosmopolitan intellectuals and indigenous crafts producers, and a panoply of state and private initiatives. Deftly integrating analytical and spatial dimensions, and bridging temporal boundaries, Crafting Mexico is a substantial achievement.”—Gilbert M. Joseph, co-editor of Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico since 1940

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822347033
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 9/9/2010
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 971,177
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Rick A. López is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Nation Formation, Popular Art, and the Search for a Mexican Aesthetic 1

Part I Indianness and the Postrevolutionary Mexican Nation 27

1 Ethnicizing the Nation: The India Bonita Contest of 1921 29

2 Popular Art and the Staging of Indianness 65

3 Foreign-Mexican Collaboration, 1920-1940 95

4 The Postrevolutionary Cultural Project, 1916-1938 127

5 The Museum and the Market, 1929-1948 151

6 Formulating a State Policy toward Popular Art, 1937-1974 175

Part II Alternative Narratives of Metropolitan Intervention: The Artisans of Olinalá, Guerrero 195

7 The "Unbroken Tradition" of Olinalá from the Aztecs through the Revolution 201

8 Transnational Renaissance and Local Power Struggles, 1920s to 1940s 229

9 The Road to Olinalá, 1935-1972 263

Conclusions 289

Notes 299

Bibliography 349

Index 381

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First Chapter


Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4703-3

Chapter One

Ethnicizing the Nation The India Bonita Contest of 1921

The public cheered on 18 September 1921, as María Bibiana Uribe, a humble housecleaner from Necaxa, Puebla, paraded down the main avenue of Mexico City. The next day leading intellectuals, high society, and politicians-including the Mexican president, Alvaro Obregón-joined middle- and working-class spectators as they crowded into one of the capital's finest theaters for her coronation. A few months earlier no one predicted that the crowning of the India Bonita (Beautiful Indian) would become such a sensation. The contest leading up to Bibiana's election had confronted a reluctant public, such that the anthropologist Manuel Gamio, widely recognized as an expert on indigenous culture and a leading voice for nation-formation, felt the need to explain in a newspaper article how an indigenous woman possibly could be considered beautiful. Who was Bibiana, and why had this humble woman become the focus of so much public attention? And why had it been necessary to convince the reading public of Mexico, one of the most indigenous and mestizo countries in the Americas, that an indigenous woman could be considered beautiful? The answers begin to emerge if we look beyond the common assumption that Mexico's national identity has emerged from the gradual and seamless interweaving of Indians and Europeans into a mestizo, or racially and culturally mixed, society. This chapter focuses on the India Bonita Contest of 1921 as a lens for understanding early 1920s postrevolutionary nation-formation and gendered constructions of Indianness. It does not claim that the con test had a transformative impact on the course of Mexican history, only that it is particularly revealing about the goals, methods, and contradictions inherent in the broader movement to ethnicize national identity and to bring indigenous peoples into the national fold.

The projects of ethnicization and integration were responses to the recent revolution, which had revealed and even exacerbated the deep fragmentation of the population. In 1921 fighters at last began to lay down their arms and the new president, the northern general Alvaro Obregón, began to reestablish state authority. Intellectuals and politicians set out to unify Mexico's population as a nation so as to forestall a new cycle of social disintegration and to initiate an era of modernization. This was the period when the educator and soon-to-be minister of education José Vasconcelos, often hailed as a father of the Mexican renaissance, traveled to many of the federal states to convince legislators to ratify the creation of a federal education system (which would extend public education and the nationalist project into the rural corners of Mexico). Obregón announced the creation of the Escuela de Verano (Summer School for Foreigners) at the National University in Mexico City, which would soon become a launching ground for studies of popular culture and a key institution for better understanding "the Mexican people." The secretary of transportation and communications, after a drawn-out debate over whether Mexico needed roads, announced plans for new highways to tie together the regions of the country. This was also the time when an effort to name a national tree led to public debate about whether the ahuehuete or the ceiba was more distinctly Mexican. Such initiatives were very different from one another and of radically different scales, but they all were steps toward uniting the population around a common identity.

In their search for an authentic national culture around which to unite the population, so as to move the country toward its own distinctive form of modernity, nationalists looked to the grounded experiences and worldviews of the masses. They debated which aspects of popular and indigenous culture merited celebration and which should be extirpated due to their "backwardness." A growing number of nationalists focused overtly upon contemporary (as opposed to archaeological) Indianness as the thread that could unite the people and, at the same time, distinguish Mexico among a global family of nation-states. They chastised those who rejected the country's Indianness, charging them with "foreignness" and insufficient nationalist zeal.

This indigenous-oriented nationalism found expression in such events as the India Bonita Contest, but it was not the dominant discourse. In fact, many civic leaders refused to link the idea of national identity to living indigenous cultures, preferring a continued focus on Hispanic roots and the preconquest Maya and Aztec past. Others, such as Vasconcelos, advocated a form of mestizaje that evaded or minimized the need to validate the idea of "Indianness." It was not yet clear whether the pro-indigenous discourse would prove compelling. Moreover, even as the India Bonita Contest spoke to this emerging project of ethnicized cultural nation building, it was not an uncompromised nationalist act. As will become clear, part of the reason the former revolutionary Félix Palavicini initiated the contest was to draw public attention to his newspaper El Universal. Theater houses, artists, and intellectuals subsequently joined forces with the contest, blending cultural nationalism with commercial self-promotion. Each of these tapped into the mood of the time by speaking to commonly held assumptions, while working to alter those assumptions. The contest also tapped into gendered concerns about the recent urban influx of potentially "unassimilable" indigenous migrants displaced by the economic, political, and social upheavals during the revolution. Not only was the proindigenous position not the dominant discourse and not a result of uncompromised nationalism but it was not even necessarily a state discourse. Too often, postrevolutionary cultural change has been attributed narrowly to a "state project" when, in fact, at the start of the 1920s the state was too weak to formulate or enforce such a project. This chapter reveals the role of nonstate actors and urban mass culture in ethnicizing national culture as part of the broader movement toward integration. It also shows when and why the state did become involved, and with what consequences.

In 1921, then, the project to promote living Indian culture as central to Mexican identity was not the dominant discourse, nor was it promoted out of selfless nationalism; neither was it simply a "state project." Yet the project certainly earned attention as novel, and it did sell newspapers, and the India Bonita Contest did capture the public imagination. Most importantly, it gained the support of the postrevolutionary intellectuals who would dominate government departments during the 1920s. Finally, it was a movement that assigned a central place to popular aesthetics, and that eventually would catapult this sense of aesthetic nationalism into the realm of "commonsense."

One of the first people to come to mind upon mention of postrevolutionary aesthetics is the artist Diego Rivera. As Pete Hamill aptly states in his study of the muralist, Rivera used his art to unify "a people long fractured by history, language, racism, religious and political schism. He said in his art: you are all Mexico." But, while Rivera may have been the most elegant, or at least the best remembered, promoter of this nativist aesthetic language, he did not invent it. At the moment when Rivera, who had been at the center of the artistic debates of Paris, barely was stepping off the boat from Europe armed with his Cubist and Cézannesque canvases, the India Bonita Contest already had become a media sensation. It was only after his entry into this energized milieu that Rivera began to develop the nativist style that he later would make public in his 1923-28 mural on the walls of the Ministry of Public Education. Less-remembered figures are at least as important as Rivera. It was their blend of nativism and cosmopolitanism that propelled the desire to learn about, interpret, and celebrate the faces, cultures, and aesthetic that Rivera has immortalized. The contest offers a glimpse into these people's activities. It also offers insights into the limitations and contradictions of the movement they created, reinforcing the argument by the historians Mary Kay Vaughan, Heather Fowler-Salamini, and Katherine Bliss that from the perspective of women, "the Mexican Revolution was not so much a revolution" as "a 'patriarchal event' that largely consolidated male authority at all social levels." This is not to imply that gender and ethnic relations remained unchanged or that they merely hardened Porfirian conventions. Rather, my intent is to begin to chart how aesthetics contributed to these changes and continuities, and how shared assumptions about the interconnections among gender, ethnicity, and nation became normalized through the movement for cultural integration around an ethnicized national identity.

El Concurso de la India Bonita

The India Bonita Contest began in January 1921 when Félix Palavicini, founder and director of the prominent periodical El Universal, told his staff to celebrate Mexico's centennial with a contest that would bring attention and sympathy to indigenous people as part of Mexico so as to make them an important concern for cultural and political leaders. Palavicini had founded El Universal at the end of 1916, during the revolution, as a model for the emerging liberal free press and as an advocate for a strong central government. The newspaper served initially as a mouthpiece for Carranza's constitutionalist cause, but by 1920 it had become an independent news source with its own political agenda that it publicized regularly. By quickly adopting telegraph technology, the newspaper became a leader in national coverage. In January 1921 Palavicini matched his efforts at national coverage with an overt campaign advocating national cultural unification. He argued that unless marginalized indigenous people received a stake in Mexico, they might launch another revolution or be lured into Soviet Communism. Palavicini conceived of the India Bonita Contest as a capitalist venture aimed at unifying the nation by creating a place for Indianness within this emerging national community.

In the public announcement for the India Bonita Contest, El Universal stated that it had long been the custom to award prizes for the beauty of a woman or for the inspiration of a poet, but no periodical or magazine had ever thought to adorn its pages with the "strong and beautiful faces" of the Indians of the Mexican "lower class." As the announcement suggests, visuality was crucial to the contest organizers' efforts to find a place for indigenous people within the emerging national culture. This was not Palavicini's first effort to link aesthetics and populism. Six years earlier, in October 1914, as minister of education under Venustiano Carranza, he had called for the creation of a Department of Fine Art charged with "democratizing art without watering it down, so as to make it useful for the popular classes." The difference between his position in 1914 and what he now was trying to do in 1921 was that, whereas previously he simply sought to deepen the Porfirian goal of compelling the masses to assimilate into a fundamentally Europeanized nation, now he argued that the nation itself had to change to accommodate indigenous people. Through the India Bonita Contest he hoped to advance his political and cultural goals while edging out El Universal's main commercial rival, Excélsior.

Palavicini put Rafael Pérez Taylor, working under the pseudonym Hipólito Seijas, in charge of getting the contest off the ground. Pérez Taylor, who stood to the political left of Palavicini, had taken an early interest in politics while growing up in a middle-class family on the outskirts of Mexico City. He had joined the Partido Liberal Constitucional Progresista and supported the presidential candidacy of Francisco Madero against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in 1910. In 1914, during the revolution, he helped revive the radical anarcho syndicalist labor union known as the Casa del Obrero Mundial, first founded in 1912. Together with the Zapatista socialist intellectual Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, Pérez Taylor tried to persuade the Casa to maintain its autonomy while endorsing the Zapatistas and the Convención de Aguascalientes. His effort failed when Gerardo Murillo (who went by the name of Doctor Atl), convinced the Casa to subordinate itself to Carranza and then organized the workers into the Red Battalions to fight against the Zapatistas and Villistas. After the revolution, Pérez Taylor continued his political advocacy, but through journalism and the arts rather than labor organizing. By 1920 he had developed a reputation as a leading journalist, theater and film critic, and political advocate. With the India Bonita contest Pérez Taylor saw an opportunity to test the boundaries between theater, politics, and journalism.

In 1921, as head of the contest, Pérez Taylor led his staff into the outdoor markets on the edges of Mexico City in search of indias bonitas. He complained that their efforts to recruit contestants were met with evasion, even hostility, on account of rigid social and language barriers that he claimed separated indigenous people from urban white and mestizo society. Because Pérez Taylor and his team spoke no indigenous languages, they found themselves unable to communicate with the women they approached. Despite several days in the outlying communities, they failed to enroll a single indígena.

In search of a new strategy he abandoned outlying communities in favor of marketplaces within the city's indigenous barrios to search for gatitas. In the parlance of the time, white male middle- and upper-class urbanites used the depreciative sobriquet gatita, literally "kitten," to refer to young indigenous girls, usually of rural origin, who developed ties with wealthy households in the city through such menial employment as shopping at outdoor markets, grinding corn into nixtamal, or cleaning houses. The term often carried a licentious connotation, suggesting naïve sexual allure. As one author explained at the time, "Some gatas are simply gatas" smelling of onions and roses, but "others are gatitas from Angora." Pérez Taylor reasoned that because gatitas had experience with urban whites they might possess working knowledge of Spanish and perhaps be willing to talk to the organizers. These gatitas, in other words, would be sufficiently exotic for the purposes of the contest, but not so "Other" as to be inaccessible.

After less than an hour of combing through the women who tended the vending stalls and hunched over metates in the market section of the neighborhood of San Antonio Abad, Pérez Taylor found a potential candidate and convinced her to allow his team to take her photo and enroll her into the contest. He soon netted other recruits in a similar manner, but this was so slow and cumbersome that he decided to encourage his readers to take on the role of recruiters. Relying on readers also gave Pérez Taylor an easy way to extend his call beyond the capital into provincial centers like Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and Jalapa.

The newspaper did not encourage girls to enroll themselves (though some girls, such as Dolores Navarro, an eighteen-year-old housekeeper in Mexico City, did so on their own). Instead it urged any reader who had an india bonita in their hire to send in her photo. It also encouraged photographers to "go out to the picturesque populations within their state to search the peasant huts and the cane fields for candidates." By managing the contest in this way, El Universal cast nonindigenous people, especially men, as protagonists who delved into the dark corners of the country to discover and publicize its passive Indian wonders. When the newspaper published the photos, the accompanying profiles regularly listed the name of the discoverer before the name of the girl herself (which occasionally was omitted altogether).

The newspaper's recruitment strategy revealed ambivalence about acknowledging any agency on the part of female indigenous subjects. Though they frequently debated whether particular girls were really indigenous and by what criteria, not once did the contest organizers ask the girls how they defined themselves. They advocated the inclusion of Indianness as part of the Mexican national identity, but relegated indigenous people, above all, indigenous women, to a subservient and objectified place in the nation. Moreover, despite the fact that most of the contestants were recruited from urban areas, the contest continued to define indigenousness as fundamentally rural.


Excerpted from CRAFTING MEXICO by RICK A. LÓPEZ Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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