The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940 / Edition 1

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When the fighting of the Mexican Revolution died down in 1920, the national government faced the daunting task of building a cohesive nation. It had to establish control over a disparate and needy population and prepare the country for global economic competition. As part of this effort, the government enlisted the energy of artists and intellectuals in cultivating a distinctly Mexican identity. It devised a project for the incorporation of indigenous peoples and oversaw a vast, innovative program in the arts. The Eagle and the Virgin examines the massive nation-building project Mexico undertook between 1920 and 1940.

Contributors explore the nation-building efforts of the government, artists, entrepreneurs, and social movements; their contradictory, often conflicting intersection; and their inevitably transnational nature. Scholars of political and social history, communications, and art history describe the creation of national symbols, myths, histories, and heroes to inspire patriotism and transform workers and peasants into efficient, productive, gendered subjects. They analyze the aesthetics of nation building made visible in murals, music, and architecture; investigate state projects to promote health, anticlericalism, and education; and consider the role of mass communications, such as cinema and radio, and the impact of road building. They discuss how national identity was forged among social groups, specifically political Catholics, industrial workers, middle-class women, and indigenous communities. Most important, the volume weighs in on debates about the tension between the eagle (the modernizing secular state) and the Virgin of Guadalupe (the Catholic defense of faith and morality). It argues that despite bitter, violent conflict, the symbolic repertoire created to promote national identity and memory making eventually proved capacious enough to allow the eagle and the virgin to coexist peacefully.

Contributors. Adrian Bantjes, Katherine Bliss, María Teresa Fernández, Joy Elizabeth Hayes, Joanne Hershfield, Stephen E. Lewis, Claudio Lomnitz, Rick A. López, Sarah M. Lowe, Jean Meyer, James Oles, Patrice Olsen, Desmond Rochfort, Michael Snodgrass, Mary Kay Vaughan, Marco Velázquez, Wendy Waters, Adriana Zavala

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Eagle and the Virgin is a necessary book, a selection of essays which allows readers to see in detail how a nation is invented and reinvented, how it experiences its achievements and its customs, both the good and the bad; and how it is internationalized and nationalized (since by 1940 Mexico was both a more cosmopolitan country and a more Mexican one). A delightful work.”—Carlos Monsiváis

“Steeped in a generation of new cultural and transnational analysis of state formation and popular expression, The Eagle and the Virgin raises the bar for studies of nation building and cultural politics in postrevolutionary Mexico. Particularly impressive is the volume’s sensitive analysis of contests over religious culture and symbols, its gendered understanding of state formation, and its handsomely illustrated treatment of the development of a Mexican revolutionary aesthetic.”—Gilbert M. Joseph, coeditor of The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics

Susan M. Deeds

“The 16 essays that Mary Kay Vaughan and Stephen E. Lewis have compiled here inventively probe and synthesize the synergistic processes of nation building and cultural revolution that characterized Mexico in the period from 1920 to 1940. . . . The vibrancy and variety of these essays remind us that culture is integral to any analysis of this crucial period in the formation of Mexican national identity, because Mexico’s cultural revolution is so inimitable in its many contested manifestations. As this volume demonstrates, its very creativity and inconsistency are fundamental to understanding the complexity of the interactions that took place between the state and popular sectors.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336686
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 396
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Kay Vaughan is Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her books include Cultural Politics in Revolution: Teachers, Peasants, and Schools in Mexico, 1930–1940. She is a coeditor of the journal Hispanic American Historical Review.

Stephen E. Lewis is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Chico. He is the author of The Ambivalent Revolution: Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910–1945.

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Read an Excerpt

The EAGLE and the VIRGIN

Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3657-0

Chapter One

The Aesthetics of Nation Building

The Noche Mexicana and the Exhibition of Popular Arts: Two Ways of Exalting Indianness


After watching the Mexican revolution from Europe, Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Roberto Montenegro, Jorge Enciso, and Adolfo Best Maugard, among other artists and intellectuals, answered the patriotic call to come home and help to rebuild the nation. Imbued with modernist sensibilities, they looked on Mexico and its people with new eyes, fascinated above all with the nation's distinctive nativist qualities. Living indigenous cultures, despite centuries of disparagement, seemed to offer a source for a new national culture that might unite the nation while propelling Mexico into the highest ranks of cultural modernity. In 1921 a number of these artists and intellectuals organized public displays for the massive state-sponsored celebration of the centennial of Mexico's independence. Among the most innovative of theseevents were the Exhibition of Popular Arts by Enciso, Montenegro, and Atl, and the Noche Mexicana by Best Maugard. Together they expressed the search for an indigenous-based national identity-an identity that event organizers hoped might help unite the historically fragmented, war-torn population.

Both events recast native craft industries from symbols of peasant backwardness into integral components of Mexican identity. Yet they represented contrasting visions of the role that indigenous cultures should play in the formation of the national self. They clashed in their assumptions about the relationship between Indianness and Mexicanness. Both reveal the extent to which the turn toward an "ethnicized" or "Indianized" definition of Mexico's national culture did not flow inevitably out of Mexico's historical experience, as is generally assumed, but instead resulted from a distinct movement led by cosmopolitan nationalists inside and outside the government. And far from occurring uniquely within Mexico, this generation's turn toward things native, and away from "Europeanized artificiality," occurred in a profoundly transnational context in artistic and intellectual circles across Europe, Russia, the Americas, India, and Japan.

The Centennial Celebrations

By mid-May 1921, when events sponsored by the newspaper El Universal and other private organizations had generated public excitement for the upcoming centennial, the new minister of foreign relations, Alberto Pani (recently returned from living in Paris), became convinced that the fledgling state should take the organizational and financial reins of the commemoration. Pani had previously stressed the need to study and publicize the diverse languages, customs, aesthetics, and composition of the peoples of Mexico so as to unite them culturally. He conceded that rural cultures were crude and splintered, and that it might take years to forge a common culture. The government, he insisted, should play a leading role in this transformation. State sponsorship of a popularly oriented centennial celebration was a first step in this state-led transformation.

President Álvaro Obregón, who saw the centennial celebrations as a means of crafting a populist image for his regime and a unifying identity for the fragmented nation, backed Pani's plan. With a mere four months to coordinate one of the largest, most public displays in Mexican history, Obregón ordered his cabinet to appoint prominent intellectuals to a planning committee and immediately issued invitations to foreign envoys. After intense public debate, he won passage of a controversial one-time tax on middle- and upper-income earners to help fund the events.

To contrast with what they defined as the elitist quality of Porfirio Díaz's 1910 centennial celebrations, the month-long commemoration was to be of "essentially popular character." But it was far from clear what the committee meant by "popular." Some of the events, such as street parades, offered public access. Others like bullfights, circuses, and sporting events had a proven appeal to nonelite audiences. As September drew near, promoters and journalists asserted that this was not enough. The centennial needed events rooted in rural popular culture ("folk culture" and "indigenous culture" were other frequently invoked terms). Even the newspaper Excélsior, skeptical of the new cultural orientation, affirmed that the events should celebrate folk culture and not cursi (pretentious and tacky) European styles.

But who were these rural popular classes of which everyone spoke, and how would their culture make the events more Mexican? This question posed a problem not only for the celebrations but also for the postrevolutionary regime, whose very mandate was based on its supposed advocacy of the popular classes that had fought in the revolution. Some people emphasized the country's Spanish colonial heritage as the basis for a shared cultural nation, while others emphasized a romanticized pre-Hispanic past. A brief glance at the statuary along Paseo de la Reforma sufficed to confirm that there was nothing particularly revolutionary about the celebration of Mexico's Spanish, Aztec, and Maya roots. What was new was that after the revolution these were joined by a novel populist discourse that cast rural Mexicans as Indian and placed their culture at the center of postrevolutionary national identity. The Noche Mexicana and the Exhibition of Popular Arts were among the centennial events that focused most self-consciously on this emerging interpretation of popular cultures.

"The Germ for Artistic Expression"

In August 1921 the Centennial Committee contracted Adolfo Best Maugard to plan a garden party to celebrate the new paved roads and electric lighting in Chapultepec Park-an homage to modern improvements typical of the Porfiriato. Best transformed the staid gathering into an exuberant outpouring of postrevolutionary nationalism modeled after regional ferias (regional fairs) and christened it "Noche Mexicana."

He drew inspiration from the indigenous aesthetics of his homeland. In New York at Columbia University, Best had worked for Franz Boas, pioneer in theories of cultural relativism. Best had illustrated pre-Hispanic pottery shards that would later inspire his own theory of a common seven-motif origin for world (and Mexican) art. In modernist avant-garde circles in Europe, he had become familiar with German and Russian neoromantic nationalism within a revalorization of intuition, emotion, and the primitive and veneration for popular traditions as carriers of the collective spirit.

Best transformed the old-fashioned garden party into a grand experiment uniting cosmopolitan modernism, popular revolution, and postrevolutionary nationalism, so as to forge a new aesthetic vocabulary of Mexicanidad. A leading commentator declared the event unprecedented, magical, and "genuinely Mexican." Another announced that the "soul of the Republic, dispersed and almost forgotten by our foreign-oriented intellectuals," had been rediscovered and made palpable by the Noche Mexicana and the Exhibition of Popular Arts.

The Noche Mexicana, free to the general public, was reportedly packed with thousands of people from all walks of life, including special guests-President Obregón, foreign envoys, government officials, artists and literati, and members of prominent families. It won two repeat performances in September and October and was later restaged at the Teatro Arbeu.

As the park opened, visitors wandered along its newly paved roads, lit by the freshly installed electric streetlights and hundreds of small illuminated stars dangling from tree branches. Originally planned as the focus for a celebration of modernity, these became mere background for Best's gala tribute to a folkloric Mexicanidad. Guests wandered through the festival, stopping at the many booths from which elite white women served lower-class Mexican food and drinks. Best Maugard supervised the women's choice of regional costumes and saw to it that all the booths were "authentically" decorated "with blankets, woven mats, shawls, flags, and ... art objects ... typical of the Mexican nation." The "damas" sold "refreshments of the kind classically prepared in tapatío clay jugs [from Tonalá, outside Guadalajara] then served in gourds beautifully decorated by the Indians of Pátzcuaro." They also sold popular food and beverages-pollo asado, enchiladas, tamales, buñuelos, atole, and hot chocolate-served on ceramics from Guadalajara and Texcoco.

At each street corner, guests encountered small stages on which Yucatecan troubadours, dancing charros and chinas poblanas, and Yaqui performers mesmerized the audience with "exotic" performances. A spectacular fireworks display inaugurated the evening's entertainment. Special guests were led to viewing stands constructed on the Avenida de Lago bridge, and everyone else pressed around the edges of the lake. From a brightly lit island stage in the middle of the lake, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada's 350-member Orquesta Típica del Centenario accompanied regional dancers attired in the beautiful costume of the Tehuana of the Oaxaca Isthmus. Then, from the side, a replica of the volcano Popocatépetl erupted from the waters with lights and pyrotechnics, topped off by an overflight of planes trailed by multicolored flames. Clapping hands, bold strings, and stomping feet drew attention back to the stage where over a hundred colorfully adorned chinas poblanas and charros burst into a modernized rendition of the jarabe tapatío entitled "Fantasía Mexicana."

"Fantasía Mexicana" had originally been staged by Best and choreographed by Anna Pavlova of the Ballets Russes in 1919 as an avant-garde performance in New York City, then repeated in Mexico the same year. The jarabe tapatío dated back to the colonial-era Jalisco but remained a regional dance and Mexico City vaudeville act until Pavlova's and Best's transformation (see figures 1 and 2). For the centennial, Maria Cristina Pereda, her brother, and Castro Padilla modified Pavlova's act, expanding it into a massive folkloric outpouring danced by several hundred couples. Their rendition would be reworked in 1929 by Gloria and Nelli Campobello, who would emerge as major choreographers of a revolutionary, folkloric, and nationalist aesthetic.

In September 1921, the Noche Mexicana was novel in scale and bold in its celebration of previously devalued aesthetic forms. During the Porfiriato, artists had celebrated preconquest civilizations while disparaging contemporary indigenous people. Their handicrafts had been treated as embarrassing evidence of Mexican backwardness. Occasional attempts to bring them into national art did not transcend the conventions of European academicism. In his Noche Mexicana, Best did not suggest incorporating new subjects into old artistic forms. He proposed a distinctive aesthetic language inspired by the popular art of Mexico's "Indian classes." He strove to demonstrate how popular traditions, when filtered and refined by the modern, cosmopolitan artist, could provide the aesthetic expression of the Mexican nation.

The experiment was jolting. Some public response was decidedly negative. But one of the most respected critics, Francisco Zamora (who went by the nom de plume Jerónimo Coignard), raised his pen in Best's defense. Writing of the Noche Mexicana (and its restaging in the Teatro Arbeu), Coignard conceded that the dances were not great. Neither were they "una lata" (a tedious bore), as "certain snobbish theater critics" had charged. The problem, he explained, was that because Best called them "ballet," the audience expected more than folk dances could deliver. Coignard agreed that classical ballet would have been more refined, but he countered that such a performance would have offered nothing new. Based on the "manner of Mexico," "Fantasía Mexicana" was novel and praiseworthy.

Coignard found himself pressed into the role of apologist for vernacular art. He lamented his countrymen's low regard for things "truly" Mexican. Rather than appreciate their own, most middle- and upper-class Mexicans lived "in the reflected images of other peoples, whom we have imitated as if we had no aesthetic traditions of our own from which to make our own art." This represented an unfortunate loss for the nation, because apart from Europeanized art, "each country has its own vigorous manifestations, its own peculiar art born from the spontaneity and primitiveness of the humble classes." He conceded that popular aesthetic expression was crude, but it provided "the germ for artistic expression, ready to be developed and refined by men of talent" who could use it as the inspiration for a nationalist art that remained "faithful to the sentiments and thought of the popular soul of Mexico."

He complained that everyone loved Russian ballet, inspired by popular dances, but when Best created a performance based on "what is ours, we see it as disconcerting." To break away from foreign influences, Coignard recommended that Mexico's professional artists appropriate popular expression just as Europeans had done. By this formulation, popular aesthetics remained devoid of form or meaning until interpreted by elite artists with Western sensibilities. "Fantasía Mexicana," Coignard argued, needed to be understood as a revolutionary first step toward Mexico's nationalist modernity and aesthetic liberation.

Neither Coignard nor Best Maugard argued that popular arts had any direct value except as raw material for elite artists. José Vasconcelos, who left an unrivaled cultural stamp on 1920s Mexico, shared this perspective. Like that of Best and Coignard, Vasconcelos's populism was tempered by an unbending cultural elitism. As minister of public education, he supported efforts to promote popular crafts, but he did not consider the vernacular industries to be "art." True art could not "arise spontaneously from the people." It had to be nurtured and required "intervention by the cultured artists." It also demanded state patronage, "since artists cannot produce anything when abandoned to their own resources, and only the government" was able to direct and systematize artistic production. Vasconcelos advocated a nationalist regeneration that was sympathetic to the rural masses, but one that avoided sinking into what he saw as the morass of provincial and lower-class ignorance.

Despite commonalties, the vision that Best promoted through his Noche Mexicana drew on antirationalist modernism, not on Vasconcelos's classical liberal humanism. Vasconcelos saw all the lower classes as uniformly uncultured yet redeemable by Western humanism. Not surprisingly, he insisted that the highlight of the centennial events was a performance by a European opera company. Only the opera provided an edifying model for the masses-a model apart from bullfights, Indian beauty contests, popular music and dances, and exhibits of indigenous handicrafts. Best, by contrast, focused on a nativist search for the essence of the Mexican "race." He cast the rural poor as Indian and saw their culture as the germ of true Mexicanness. While Vasconcelos felt that Western art and Greek classics should be used to elevate the depraved masses, Best advocated the adoption of popular aesthetics "as a base from which to move forward [and] evolve" so as to produce "our own expression" that is "genuinely Mexican."

Despite differences, Vasconcelos, Best Maugard, Coignard, and fellow travelers were united in their call for an elite-led transformation by "men of talent" such as themselves. Within this project, the main alternative came from an expanding group of artists and intellectuals that included Dr. Atl, Jorge Enciso, Roberto Montenegro, and Manuel Gamio. In their view, far from a mere "germ" for the creation of Mexicanidad, popular arts embodied the ultimate expression of a primordial Mexicanidad. Their Exhibition of Popular Arts emerged as one of the earliest public testaments to this perspective.


Excerpted from The EAGLE and the VIRGIN Copyright © 2006 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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Table of Contents

The Noche Mexicana and the exhibition of popular arts : two ways of exalting Indianness 23
The sickle, the serpent, and the soil : history, revolution, nationhood, and modernity in the murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros 43
Frida Kahlo 58
Maria Izquierdo 67
The Mexican experience of Marion and Grace Greenwood 79
Mestizaje and musical nationalism in Mexico 95
Revolution in the city streets : changing nomenclature, changing form, and the revision of public memory 119
Saints, sinners, and state formation : local religion and cultural revolution in Mexico 137
Nationalizing the countryside : schools and rural communities in the 1930s 157
The nation, education, and the "Indian problem" in Mexico, 1920-1940 176
For the health of the nation : gender and the cultural politics of social hygiene in revolutionary Mexico 196
Remapping identities : road construction and nation building in postrevolutionary Mexico 221
National imaginings on the air : radio in Mexico, 1920-1950 243
Screening the nation 259
An idea of Mexico : Catholics in the revolution 281
Guadalajaran women and the construction of national identity 297
"We are all Mexicans here" : workers, patriotism, and union struggles in Monterrey 314
Final reflections : what was Mexico's cultural revolution? 335
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