Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since 1940

Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since 1940

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During the twentieth century the Mexican government invested in the creation and promotion of a national culture more aggressively than any other state in the western hemisphere. Fragments of a Golden Age provides a comprehensive cultural history of the vibrant Mexico that emerged after 1940. Agreeing that the politics of culture and its production, dissemination, and reception constitute one of the keys to understanding this period of Mexican history, the volume’s contributors—historians, popular writers, anthropologists, artists, and cultural critics—weigh in on a wealth of topics from music, tourism, television, and sports to theatre, unions, art, and magazines.
Each essay in its own way addresses the fragmentation of a cultural consensus that prevailed during the “golden age” of post–revolutionary prosperity, a time when the state was still successfully bolstering its power with narratives of modernization and shared community. Combining detailed case studies—both urban and rural—with larger discussions of political, economic, and cultural phenomena, the contributors take on such topics as the golden age of Mexican cinema, the death of Pedro Infante as a political spectacle, the 1951 “caravan of hunger,” professional wrestling, rock music, and soap operas.
Fragments of a Golden Age will fill a particular gap for students of modern Mexico, Latin American studies, cultural studies, political economy, and twentieth century history, as well as to others concerned with rethinking the cultural dimensions of nationalism, imperialism, and modernization.

Contributors. Steven J. Bachelor, Quetzil E. Castañeda, Seth Fein, Alison Greene, Omar Hernández, Jis & Trino, Gilbert M. Joseph, Heather Levi, Rubén Martínez, Emile McAnany, John Mraz, Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Elena Poniatowska, Anne Rubenstein, Alex Saragoza, Arthur Schmidt, Mary Kay Vaughan, Eric Zolov

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822383123
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/29/2001
Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 526
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Gilbert M. Joseph is Farnam Professor of History at Yale University and the coeditor of Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico and Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.–Latin American Relations, both published by Duke University Press.

Anne Rubenstein is Associate Professor of History, York University, Toronto and author of Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation, also published by Duke University Press.

Eric Zolov is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York, Stony Brook and the author of Refried Elvis: the Rise of the Mexican Counterculture and coeditor of Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History.

Read an Excerpt

Fragments of a Golden Age

The politics of culture in Mexico since 1940
By G. M. Joseph

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2718-X

Chapter One

Assembling the Fragments: Writing a Cultural History of Mexico Since 1940 Gilbert M. Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov

Fragments are the only form I trust. - Donald Barthelme, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

Fragmentation, ambiguity, and disjuncture are features of complex systems ... [but] the task remains to understand the complex architecture of parts and whole. -Fernando Coronil, foreword to Close Encounters of Empire

There is a historical narrative about Mexico after the Revolution that everyone knows. It could be a mural, one so familiar that we buy postcards of it without bothering to visit it first. Three scenes would occupy the foreground of this imaginary fresco. On the left would be the 1940 inauguration of President Manuel Avila Camacho, with his signature declaration Soy creyente (literally, "I am a believer," but by implication, "I am a Catholic") scrolling from his lips, indicating an end to the Revolution's anticlericalism and radical fervor. In the center we'd see the brutal 1968 massacre of student demonstrators by government agents at Tlatelolco Plaza, rendered in blood red and the black of despair. And at the right of the mural, marking the end of one era and the onset of the next, we would have President Carlos Salinas deGortari, luridly depicted in chupacabras regalia, of course, and his neoliberal allies George Bush and Bill Clinton signing the 1994 NAFTA accord, with the Zapatista leader of Chiapas, Subcomandante Marcos, posing threateningly behind them, laptop in hand. This mural's background might feature jagged lines on a graph to represent a national economy that had cycled several times between miraculous expansion and disastrous collapse; or perhaps smoggy crowd scenes to suggest the massive population boom and staggering urbanization of Mexico City and the country at large after 1940; or maybe even ranks of faceless bureaucrats with outstretched hands to evoke the increasing power, centralization, and corruption of the state.

Beyond the Revisionist Narrative

Our imaginary mural depicts the "revisionist" history of the postrevolutionary era that has held sway in Mexican studies since the 1970s. As Arthur Schmidt documents in his contribution to this volume, such dark-hued accounts have interpreted the trajectory of the decades since 1940 as one of "Revolution to Demolition," inverting the "Revolution to Evolution" narrative told by an earlier generation, which had depicted the postrevolutionary period in essentially benign terms to validate the Mexican state's own Whiggish tale. That earlier orthodoxy had asserted-and celebrated-Mexico's gradual attainment of political stability and a modicum of democratization, as well as an impressive threshold of economic development, all under the aegis of a modernizing, nationalist postrevolutionary regime. Challenges to this neat teleology began even as it was being formulated. Especially in the late 1950s and 1960s, novelists, artists, art critics, and journalists joined peasant organizers and unionists in resisting and rewriting the official version of the past. But the Revolution to Evolution story dominated the popular imagination as well as most scholarship until 1968, when it was shattered in the wake of the state's repressive tactics at Tlatelolco and the tumultuous, cyclical shocks that have dragged down an economy previously believed to have "taken off" Few now argue with revisionism's general political-economic critique of the Institutional Revolution's trajectory and deficiencies.

Yet many scenes, great and small, don't fit revisionism's broadly brushed mural. Consider just a few of the incongruous episodes that lack a place in the conventional picture.

It is 1947. The archbishop of Mexico City strides through Mexico's very first Sears Roebuck store, pronouncing blessings on the new enterprise as incense censers swing, shop-girls genuflect, and press photographers explode flashbulbs to publicize the thoroughly modern event.

It is 1956. A year-end report on ticket sales in Central American movie theaters announces that the top three movies for the year are all Mexican-made (and all musical comedies starring Pedro Infante). Meanwhile, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and their small band of Cuban revolutionaries have commenced training in the techniques of guerrilla warfare in Mexico City. They gather each day for their clandestine practice in front of the popular Linda-vista movie palace, strengthening themselves by their long walks through the city to and from the cinema; later, Che would claim that he modeled his self-effacing public persona after Cantinflas, Mexico's king of comedy. To oversee their physical training the exiles choose a Mexican, the professional wrestler Arsacio Vanegas, who will weep when they finally leave him behind as their rickety boat sails from a beach near Tuxpan.

It is 1961. Soon Gabriel Garcia Marquez will arrive in Mexico City to write the meditation on Colombia's past that will eventually earn him the Nobel Prize: Cien anos de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Carlos Fuentes, meanwhile, has already left for Havana, where he is completing the definitive statement of revisionist historical narrative, his novel La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz). Although Fuentes depicts the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican state using the image of a dying rich man's putrefying body, the novelist will go on working at a high level in the Mexican diplomatic corps for another decade.

It is 1969. The village of Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, has long since developed a reputation among adventurous youth from the United States and other wealthy nations as a good place to find hallucinogenic mushrooms and peaceful rural isolation. More recently, these foreigners have been joined by Mexico's own jipitecas, who are searching for forms of cultural rebellion in the aftermath of the destruction of the student political movement at Tlatelolco. But the Mexican state, too, is looking for a way out of the resulting political stalemate, and some within the government hope to encourage national unity by blaming the tumult of 1968 on foreign agitators. Thus, the federal and local police raid Huautla and find twenty-two foreigners they can deport, all with long hair, many with bare feet and guitars (simultaneously, the police also jail sixty-four Mexican members of a local commune). But it is already too late to stop the wave of cultural change. The gringo hippie style has become jipi fashion, and Mexico's middle-class urban youth are doing the previously unthinkable: dressing in "Indian" beads, embroidered shirts, and sandals. Through association with the rebels from the United States, then, the children of the social sector most likely to express contempt for Mexico's indigenous people begin borrowing the Indians' distinctive dress.

It is the late 1970s, and although Chicano cultural and political groups remain active in southern California, more and more Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles find themselves drawn to gangs that express ethnic identity and pride in the face of an increasingly hostile Anglo society. Each organization develops complex rules for communal and individual self-display, but all share one regulation: no woman may have herself tattooed with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. That picture belongs on male bodies only.

It is 1980. In Nayarit, a group of Huichol Indians declares that they will rename their town after the man they most admire: assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende.

It is the late 1980s. Tzotzil-speaking Indians from the highland village of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas toast during festivals with Pepsi-Cola rather than beer or pulque.

It is the early 1990s. A group of restless Mayan teenage girls in a small village in Yucatan assert their "modern" identities and gain a measure of local respect when they start to imitate a rock group on a popular Televisa variety show.

It is 1994. New immigration laws in the United States find physical expression in a huge new metal gate at the Tijuana border, and almost overnight the muralist movement, discredited in Mexico's official culture since the middle of the 1950s (which saw both the death of Diego Rivera and the publication of Jose Luis Cuevas's manifesto against muralism, "La Cortina de Nopal"), revives itself to cover the gate with a wordless tale of danger, anger, and sorrow.

It is 1997. The city council of Tijuana declares itself scandalized by Tijuana's terrible public image, created by media coverage of the wretched conditions there both for would-be border crossers and, even more, for the migrants from southern Mexico who come seeking work in the unregulated maquiladoras that cluster near the border. The council responds by taking out a patent on "the good name of the city of Tijuana." But even with NAFTA'S new standards for enforcement of international copyright laws, the council will find it impossible to prevent local, national, and global exposure of the worsening conditions there.

It is the end of the century, and the economy, despite or because of neoliberal reforms, is collapsing (again). Small groups of children stop traffic in the largest cities to earn tiny sums as rewards for performing stunts-eating fire, building human pyramids, shouting out popular songs-much as kids might have done on the same streets a century before. Only now, these impoverished street urchins masquerade as Carlos Salinas and Bart Simpson.

These fragments of stories suggest that the familiar narrative of post-1940 Mexico fails to accommodate the numerous contradictions and nuances embedded within the daily life of the period. Cultural and political relations among Mexicans themselves, between Mexicans and their government, between Mexicans and a host of actors and agencies in the United States, and between Mexicans and the rest of Latin America are far more complicated and ambiguous than the revisionist metanarrative will allow. Although these relationships were typically asymmetrical, they were also invariably multifaceted, and power was rarely fixed on one side or another. And rather than the story of postrevolutionary Mexico being that of the outright betrayal or slow death of the Revolution, the era is often recollected by the people who lived through it as a "Golden Age" (at least, that is how they often describe the years prior to the economic shocks of the mid-1970s). This volume seeks to excavate the cultural fragments of that golden age and, once they are dusted off and scrutinized from a variety of methodological and disciplinary perspectives, to begin to assemble them within a broader framework of historical analysis. It is our contention that such an analysis must integrate political-economy and cultural studies approaches and examine the intersection of local, national, and transnational realms.

To return to Fernando Coronil, whose epigraph introduces this essay:

One consequence of the various "turns" (discursive, linguistic) and "posts" (postmodernism, postcoloniality) has been the tendency to identify political economy with modernist master narratives and cultural studies with postmodern fragmented stories. While one approach typically generates unilinear plots, unified actors, and integrated systems, the other produces multistranded accounts, divided subjects, and fragmented social fields. Yet there is no reason why social analysis should be cast in terms that polarize determinism and contingency, the systemic and the fragmentary. The critique of modernist assumptions should lead to a more critical engagement with history's complexity, not to a proliferation of disjointed vignettes and stories. ... [T]he analytical inclusion of fluid subjects and unstable terrains must be complemented by the analysis of their articulation within encompassing social fields.

Unfortunately, until now, the cultural history of postrevolutionary Mexico has often been discussed in terms of a bounded nationalism celebrated for its authenticity and idiosyncrasy but epitomized by the amorphous concept of lo mexicano (the Mexican way). Part official construct, part popular narrative, lo mexicano emerged in the 1920s as the organizing motif for a society devastated by revolutionary turmoil and in search of a unifying identity. The images, language, colors, songs, and ultimately the martyred leaders of the vanquished popular revolutionary armies were appropriated, sanitized, and then celebrated with gusto by the victorious middle-class Constitutionalist faction and their caudillo allies. Embodied politically in the new, one-party state orchestrated by the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (which was founded in 1929 and rebaptized as the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano in 1938 and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional in 1946), Mexicans across class, regional, ethnic, race, gender, and generational lines were exhorted by their rulers to feel part of the new "Revolutionary Family" to which they belonged by birth and which spoke in their name.

These processes did create a common discourse of national belonging, which was firmly in place by the time Manuel Avila Camacho became president in 1940. In the following decades, a shared mythology drawing on a pantheon of popular idols and icons-military and political heroes like Benito Juarez, figures from mass media like the wrestler El Santo, villains like La Malinche, and above all, the Virgin of Guadalupe-helped unify the nation as never before in its history. But, as we shall see, this cultural-political construct was shaped, resisted, and ultimately negotiated by a multitude of actors and interests, and lo mexicano came to serve counterhegemonic impulses as well as regime projects.

The Politics of Culture During the "Golden Age" (and Beyond)

Mexican historiography usually identifies 1940 as a turning point. The year is held to mark the beginning of the end to the revolutionary promise, embodied particularly in the now mythic figure of Lazaro Cardenas, whose sexenio (six-year presidential term) ended in 1940. Although closer historical scrutiny of the Cardenas period indicates a conscious turn to the right following the 1938 oil nationalization, 1940 still remains a convenient historical signpost of the shift in revolutionary politics away from Cardenas's radical redistribution of wealth toward Avila Camacho's policy of intensive capital accumulation. Moreover, despite (and, in important ways, owing to) the economic dislocations generated by World War II, 1940 is often also hailed as the onset of the country's prolonged "miracle" of economic growth, which continued through the 1960s.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Foreword / Elena Poniatowska


I. Reclaiming the History of Postrevolutionary Mexico

Assembling the Fragments: Writing a Cultural History of Mexico Since 1940 / Gilbert M. Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov

Making It Real Compared to What? Reconceptualizing Mexican History Since 1940 / Arthur Schmidt

II. At Play Amongst the Fragments

Mexico’s Pepsi Challenge: Traditional Cooking, Mass Consumption, and National Identity / Jeffrey M. Pilcher

The Selling of Mexico: Tourism and the State, 1929–1952 / Alex Saragoza

Today, Tomorrow, and Always: The Golden Age of Illustrated Magazines in Mexico, 1937–1960 / John Mraz

Myths of Cultural Imperialism and Nationalism in Golden Age Mexican Cinema / Seth Fein

Bodies, Cities, Cinema: Pedro Infante’s Death as Political Spectacle / Anne Rubenstein

Discovering a Land “Mysterious and Obvious”: The Renarrativizing of Postrevolutionary Mexico / Eric Zolov

Toiling for the “New Invaders”: Autoworkers, Transnational Corporations, and Working-Class Culture in Mexico City, 1955–1968 / Steven J. Bachelor

El Santos and the Return of the Killer Aztecs! / Jis y Trino

Masked Media: The Adventures of Lucha Libre on the Small Screen / Heather Levi

Corazón del Rocanrol / Rubén Martínez

Cultural Industries in the Free Trade Age: A Look at Mexican Television / Omar Hernández and Emile McAnany

Cablevision(nation) and Rural Yucatán: Performing Modernity and Mexicanidad in the Early 1990s / Alison Greene

The Aura of Ruins / Quetzil E. Castaneda

III. Final Reflections

Transnational Processes and the Rise and Fall of the Mexican Cultural State: Notes from the Past / Mary Kay Vaughan



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