Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939

Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939

by Ageeth Sluis
Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939

Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939

by Ageeth Sluis


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In the turbulent decades following the Mexican Revolution, Mexico City saw a drastic influx of female migrants seeking escape and protection from the ravages of war in the countryside. While some settled in slums and tenements, where the informal economy often provided the only means of survival, the revolution, in the absence of men, also prompted women to take up traditionally male roles, created new jobs in the public sphere open to women, and carved out new social spaces in which women could exercise agency.

In Deco Body, Deco City, Ageeth Sluis explores the effects of changing gender norms on the formation of urban space in Mexico City by linking aesthetic and architectural discourses to political and social developments. Through an analysis of the relationship between female migration to the city and gender performances on and off the stage, the book shows how a new transnational ideal female physique informed the physical shape of the city. By bridging the gap between indigenismo (pride in Mexico’s indigenous heritage) and mestizaje (privileging the ideal of race mixing), this new female deco body paved the way for mestizo modernity. This cultural history enriches our understanding of Mexico’s postrevolutionary decades and brings together social, gender, theater, and architectural history to demonstrate how changing gender norms formed the basis of a new urban modernity.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803293908
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Series: The Mexican Experience
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 400
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Ageeth Sluis is an associate professor of history at Butler University. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Journal of Transnational American Studies, Journal of Urban History, and The Americas.

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Deco Body, Deco City

Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900â"1939

By Ageeth Sluis


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9390-8



A City of Spectacles

Esperanza Iris, the grand dame of Mexican operetta and the theater's namesake (fig. 1), felt nervous as she looked out over her audience while stagehands made the final preparations. On the night of its inauguration, the elegant theater was filled to the brim with the beau monde of Mexico City. The finest of families, celebrities, bon vivants, foreign dignitaries, reporters, and the top cadres of revolutionary leadership sat in the midst of the theater's refined grandeur. Velvet seats in the boxes, gold and marble ornamentation on the walls, sweeping staircases, and a sumptuous sculpted and warmly lit ceiling all added to the feel of a real coliseo befitting the capital city. The excitement of the public was palpable in the throng of voices. The theater was alive with socialites gossiping, families showing off debutantes, the new military elite displaying their stately finery, and young couples exchanging heated glances — a public engrossed in its own performance and spectacle. The revolution was over, and it was time for La Iris, who had but recently returned to Mexico, to conquer the hearts of the capitalinos once again.

The inauguration of the Teatro Esperanza Iris on May 25, 1818, was a crowning achievement for the diva. It was a festive occasion covered extensively by the press, with every last seat filled. Perhaps a full house was all but guaranteed due to publicity that had engulfed the theater since construction began. The commander of the revolutionary forces, Primer Jefe Don Venustiano Carranza — who sat in the best box in the house — attended along with high-ranking military officers, members of the diplomatic corps, and other well-known políticos. They listened to the national anthem and several acts of La Duquesa del Bal-Tabarín, the operetta that defined the career of the diva and earned her the title "La Emperatriz de Opereta." The ceremony ended with a concert sponsored by teatro cronistas (columnists) from the city's most important newspapers.

This performance in 1918 marked a crowning moment for Iris. In 1899 she had stepped onto the stage as fourteen-year-old María Rosalía Esperanza Bofill Ferrer from the state of Tabasco in her first role as a newspaper boy. From there she embarked on a long career as a stage and film actress, impresario, and celebrity. In 1919, a mere twenty years later, she and her adopted city had changed significantly. Iris had exchanged her provincial origins for the status of a mature, wealthy metropolitan actress who owned her own theater company and had built her own theater. With this she inserted herself into the built environment of the city, and was thus emblematic of larger changes in the city itself. Her rise from newspaper boy to Porfirian diva exemplifies the changes brought about in the social and cultural geography from 1900 to 1920 (from the late Porfiriato until the end of the armed phase of the revolution), especially in terms of the way gender norms connected perceptions of modernity and urban life. Theater performances — as well as the public lives of divas like La Iris — influenced ideas of femininity and masculinity that were articulated through discourses of the city.

The theater world informed the "daily performances of gender" that capitalinos both saw and enacted upon the city streets. How they perceived the gendered nature and class segregation of their city and cityscapes was an extension of the performances they attended. Theater (especially before the advent of mass communication such as film) was the premier visual discourse that used the entanglement of city and gender to set the stage for new, modern sensibilities and subjectivities.

Performativity in the Porfirian City

Esperanza Iris's debut in a small role on the stage of Mexico City's grand theater El Principal linked her public life of performance to that of the capital city. The play La cuarta plana (The fourth page), a spoof on current events in the city, featured adolescent Esperanza as a lovable but tough street kid hawking newspapers. Nineteen years later, La Iris was a diva of great renown in many Latin American countries who captured the hearts of theatergoers as "La Emperatriz de Opereta." But as she cemented her place in the city with the opening of the city's grandest theater, she could add another title to her repertoire: "La Hija Predelicta de Cuidad de México," Mexico City's favorite daughter.

Like Esperanza, Mexico City also had experienced great changes in its transition from Porfirian showcase to revolutionary city. In 1899, counting but 344,721 inhabitants, Mexico's capital was rather small. Despite having undergone drastic changes during the early Porfiriato, the city still bore distinct traces of its colonial past, such as its division into eight districts. The center consisted of the remainder of the old traza, ten to fifteen blocks around the Zócalo that had been set aside for elite peninsulares during early colonization. This central plaza, dominated by mansions, government buildings, and churches, including the Palacio Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitana built with the red tezontle stones recycled from Aztec temples, had functioned as the city's center of gravity since pre-Columbian times. The massive colonial mansions of this area (now known as the centro histórico) propelled Alexander von Humboldt to dub Mexico City the "City of Palaces" upon touring Spain's crown jewel in the early 1800s. Despite colonial attempts to segregate urban space by safeguarding the traza for those of European descent, the centro was a place where classes mingled; and despite efforts to keep physical boundaries of social divisions in place during the Porfiriato, capitalinos did so more avidly than ever at the end of the nineteenth century.

From the turn of the century onward, modernization projects reflective of the changing economic, social, and political conditions of the late Porfiriato were mapped onto this colonial urban structure. Like rapidly growing cities elsewhere in Latin America, Mexico City absorbed a continual stream of displaced rural migrants. During the 1890s, at the height of Porfirian economic power, the city experienced an enormous influx of destitute campesinos who had been displaced by the encroachment of haciendas in rural areas. They came to the city looking for work, and most ended up living in the tenement belt east of the Zócalo. This east side doubled in size from 1880 to 1900, and more than a third of the city's population lived in an area that composed less than 15 percent of the overall urban landmass. Moreover, the migrants proved difficult to contain. If the Porfirian city should exemplify order and progress, with an ample police force on the streets to bar "disorderly elements" from places of affluence and political governance, the migrants who occupied the streets of the centro defied that ideal. As many scholars of Porfirian Mexico City have demonstrated, the culturally (and often ethnically) different ex-campesinos caused "apprehension and fear" on the part of the urban Porfirian elite. This influx of population, as well as what was perceived to be its gendered nature, informed the formation of both symbolic and structural demarcations of an affluent, "feminine" west side positioned against an impoverished, male east.

In positioning and contrasting the poor against the rich, especially in spatial terms, much emphasis was placed on material spectacle, the visual and performative nature of class distinctions that were easily visible on the city streets. Pablo Piccato describes Porfirian society as divided into three segments based on the visibility of class distinctions perceptible in urban space: "Individuals wearing plain shirts comprised the poorest class, people with jackets were members of the middle class, and, at the top of the scale, the upper class donned frock coats." Moreover, this division had gendered dimensions, as it was rendered most visible by women. Gender ideals of the era stipulated that señoras decentes remain indoors or take carefully prescribed steps outside the home. As the population of the metropolis grew, however, women increasingly gained access to work and education. Piccato and Robert Buffington link "unsettled" gender roles with the rapid growth of the city during the Porfiriato, as "women in ever greater numbers left the family hearth for salaried jobs in the public sphere; and streets, restaurants, dance halls, bars and brothels took on an aura of uncontrolled and dangerous popular sociability."

Male intellectuals and social commentators took this opportunity to elaborate on the influence of feminism and to articulate normative behavior for women that centered on discourses of domesticity. Porfirian científicos (as members of Díaz's circle of trusted advisers were referred to) defined class distinctions based on sexuality, sexual difference, and gender characteristics. They "constructed the natural order according to sex and gender," placing the middle- and upper-class woman, the señora decente, "sum of all moral virtues," at the pinnacle of social classification. In many respects, this Porfirian grande dame was the epitome of the performative role of a "gracious woman," expressing middle-class status as well as morals. Dressed in European finery, she commanded the admiration of onlookers while leaving or entering public buildings or private residences on the city's posh west side. As fashion was of the utmost importance in maintaining class boundaries, elite women in Latin American cities were identified by their hairstyles and haute couture designed for their public appearances on streets, in parks, and at the theater.

Considering the visible importance of women as embodied markers of class, positivists warned against women's changing roles. Porfirian intellectual Gabino Barreda, for example, wrote a seven-part "Estudio sobre 'El feminismo'" in 1909 in which he concluded that women were inferior to men and hence that feminism, in seeking equality with men (especially in the public sphere), could only result in the unfortunate creation of "public women." Even the famed criminologist Carlos Roumagnac concluded that many of the violent crimes linked to the working class resulted from "sexual rivalry" based on clear gender distinctions. In detailing the sexual identity and practices of criminals he studied at the Belem prison, Roumagnac placed sex and gender at the heart of his criminology. In this, Mexican elites reacted to changing gender norms not unlike their counterparts in Europe. Many European intellectuals and writers also openly attacked the "New Woman" as unfit for modernity, which, they argued, made women prone to hysteria (a nervous condition thought to afflict only women), morphine addiction, and excessive libidinous instincts.

The gendering of space, positioning not only the public sphere against the private sphere but also the affluent areas of the city against the poor ones, colored the perception of Mexico City's changing cityscapes. Tepito's and La Bolsa's numerous pulquerías, where the popular classes whiled away their time imbibing agave-derived beverages (pulque), were seen as places that fueled crimes of passion associated with the area. This idea became more prevalent after 1890 when a string of murders of prostitutes and other lower-class women branded the area as synonymous with violence, sex, and dangerous women. Crime and alcoholism in these parts of the city upset traditional gender roles, as alcohol was believed to attack "the central traits of femininity."

Prostitution facilitated the sexualization and masculinization of the city's east side, chronicled in novels that captured the imagination of well-to-do Porfirians. Like Zola's Nana in France, Frederico Gamboa's Santa (1903) became a classic of this new genre. Telling the story of a young woman's descent into prostitution after arriving in the capital city from the countryside, Santa demonstrated the corrupting influences of urban space. In addition to prostitution, however, the east side harbored casas de cita (houses of assignation) that were used by women and men, including those of the middle class, who sought private or secret meeting places to be able to be sexually intimate, away from prying eyes of family members, servants, or husbands and wives. Historian James Garza states that these spaces existed outside of the sanctions of elite society, "sanctuaries where Porfirian rules of propriety did not apply."

Not surprisingly, científicos hoped to demonstrate that lower-class urban space constituted an "enclosed environment of contagion." By drawing innocents into the orbit of pulque, crime, and vice, this militated against the lofty ideals of the científico Gabino Barreda, who hoped education would further modernity among the masses. Fear of social contagion, the spread of degeneration to the rest of the country, left Porfirians to imagine "Mexican criminals returning to the barbarous ways of the Aztecs." Thus, for modernity to be visible, the modernizing city needed counterpoints, mirrors through which to recognize and differentiate itself. These mirrors were made up not only of crime and moral insanity but also of spectacle, a performativity of norms and behavior that looked to the "actual world" of art, aesthetics, and espectáculos for its inspiration.

Theaters and Divas

Theater has played an important role in shaping Mexico City's cultural and social landscape for a large part of the city's history. As historian Juan Pedro Viquiera Albán has shown, theater had functioned as an educational tool going back to the period of the conquest. It then took center stage during the Bourbon Reforms, when theaters served as laboratories of modernity in which measures dreamed up in Spain were tested in the colonies. Yet the Bourbon Reforms ultimately did little to control spectacle. Instead, the newly built theaters, bullrings, and pelota arenas resulted in entertainment infused with plebeian norms. As in early modern Europe, even if plays in Bourbon Mexico City were harnessed as a civilizing agent and educational tool, the theater as a social space remained a site of spectacle, sociability, and leisure for a diverse public.

Bourbon-era theater featured specific gendered tactics to educate audiences, particularly in its attempt to model proper behavior for women. Interestingly, Spanish theater companies — unlike their northern European counterparts — hired women as actresses and, at times, even as directors. Due to the highly public nature of their work, these women were both celebrated and cause for concern. Frivolous plays would be followed by indecent interludes replete with licentious and provocative dances involving female dancers showing off their physiques to please male members of the lower classes. Concerned authorities feared for the corruption of their daughters and wives. In their efforts to regulate theater, administrators not only initiated measures to censor the content of plays but also increased official scrutiny of actresses. Denoting the importance of women's performances offstage as well as on, officials threatened actresses by policing their "immoral" private lives.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of these daring actresses persisted into the nineteenth century. In fact, popular theater, especially the género chico — as the genre of comedies, operettas, zarzuelas, and revistas was known — increasingly played a major role in forging Mexico City's sexual and social attitudes during the Porfiriato. By the 1870s, drama and opera, referred to as the género grande, had been replaced in popularity by the zarzuela, a picaresque comedy that became increasingly affordable and popular among the middle classes. Dating to the Spanish two-act court plays of the seventeenth century, zarzuelas were dramatic comedies developed along a unified plot and combined dialogue, song, and dance. With a resurgence in Spain in the mid-nineteenth century, zarzuelas became popular with the broader Mexican public and split into two distinct types of shows defined by length and subject matter. The zarzuela grande, structurally related to the Viennese operetta (the genre that made Esperanza Iris a star), contained three acts and focused on serious subjects. Its shorter, popular counterpart, the género chico, consisted of one-act zarzuelas and began in 1867 when a weak Spanish economy prompted empresarios to offer cheaper entertainment to low-income audiences. Later popular genres, such as the revistas (revues), were closely related to the latter type of zarzuela.


Excerpted from Deco Body, Deco City by Ageeth Sluis. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: City, Modernity, Spectacle,
1. Performance: A City of Spectacles,
2. Bataclanismo: From Divas to Deco Bodies,
3. Camposcape: Naturalizing Nudity,
4. Promis-ciudad: Projecting Pornography and Mapping Modernity,
5. Planning the Deco City: Urban Reform,
6. Mercado Abelardo Rodríguez,
7. Palacio de Bellas Artes,
Conclusion: Deco Bodies, Camposcape, and Recurrence,

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