Thursday, May 11, 2017



Have you ever looked at a Mexican travel brochure?   If you have there is a very good chance that is includes photos of the dance of the old men (los viejitos) or of women during the night of the dead (noche de los muertos).  Invariably these are photos of indigenous events and peoples and they are presented as representing the “soul of Mexico”.  How did this come about?  The mystery in suggested by contradiction of the “soul of Mexico” and the reality which sees the indigenous peoples on the margin of society, having little or no representation in positions of power and being the poorest peoples in the nation.   How can they be on the margin and yet representing the essence of what it means to be Mexican?

To unravel this we have to go back to the end of the revolution of 1910-1920.  The revolution of 1820 was a fight to achieve independence from Spain and its conclusion left power in the hands of the rich and well connected and often the children of Spanish parents.  The next 100 years were about the powerful trying to create a state, a difficult task in a country as varied as Mexico with about 60 different languages and having a terrain which led to isolation of groups and created barriers to the imposition of a centralized state.   The revolution of 1910 was more about bringing democracy to Mexico and creating a nation as well as a central state.  To centralize the state it was necessary to weaken and clearly define the role of state and local governments.  It also meant ensuring the army was loyal to the central authority and not to local authorities.    But the revolutionaries also knew they had to create a nation.  A nation depends upon having a shared narrative or myth about who the peoples are, where they came  from or what it is that distinguishes them from others.  If they can share in this sense of shared community they can be loyal to the state and perhaps take pride in the activities of the state.  Without this the country can only be held together by force.  This idea is fully developed in Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities:  Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1991.  Mexico had seen 200 years of disruption and it was time for a centralized state and a shared image that glued people together.    If one looks at the United States of America we find a strong founding myth and a sense of the nation being distinguished by an ideal of freedom and of individual liberty.  In Canada the myth is quite different and often difficult to pin down.  There is a myth around the nation’s founding but the stronger image comes out of a sense of shared peoples building a life together.  Initially this myth involved just the English and the French.  It was gradually widened to include the indigenous peoples and since about 1960 it has been a sense of a multicultural society.  Many peoples with different cultures come together and with respect build a life together.   There is a secondary myth built around the difficulty of building a small nation which in a sense is built sideway rather than up and down, east-west rather that north south.  This made it very important that many things be done together.   Who is going to build the canals, build the railway, feed the poor?  Canada, by necessity became a more cooperative society.  It shared aspects of this myth with Europe which came by it through a different route, i.e, the threat of revolution.

These narratives or myths do not have to be literally true as long as they resonate with the people.  They may even be violated quite flagrantly without damaging the myth/narrative.  Think of slavery in the USA, the too frequent hate talk about Muslims and the brutal death of a group of Muslims at prayer in Canada.  Now, back to creating the myth.

I recently read two books on this topic and will discuss the more academic of the two well as the more local.  This is Ruth Hellier-Tinoco’s book, Embodying Mexico:  Tourism, Nationalism and Performance (2011) which provides a very well researched and documented study of Michoacán from about 1920 to the present.  She shows very clearly how the Island of Janitzio was “discovered” by state intellectuals and the media in 1922  and their realization that both the night of the dead celebrations and the dance of the viejitos could serve much broader purposes for the nation.  The context for all of this was the virtual civil war that occurred from 1910-1920 with the overthrow of the Porfirio Diaz (president from 1876-1911) regime.   With the new found stability of 1920 came the need for a truly national state and this depended upon Mexicans having a strong sense of who they were and something to share that might provide for unity.  In a sense there was a need to create an “imagined community”.  President Obregon created the Secretariat of Public Eduction (SEP) in 1920 and in 1921 Jose Vasconcelos became the director of this institution.   He realized the important role education could play in building a national community.  To start with it would ensure that everyone could speak Spanish but beyond that it allowed a central authority to determine the stories (the curriculum) which was passed to each student.  Vasconcleos had a rather ambivalent outlook on the indigenous population.  On the one had they were seen as backward and the troubling characteristics of their heritage had to be rubbed out, hence the value of education, and on the other had they had positive characteristic, determined by him, which could be identified and used to create a nation.   In the end he believed that Mexico should become a mestizaje nation, one of mixed race.  He implemented a program of sending people out to the frontier to gather songs and stories which could be used in education.   Into this vacuum and this need came Rubén Campos [musicologist], Francisco Domínguez [artist], Frances Toor [anthropologist], Moisés Sánez [undersecretary of education], Carlos González [also a state representative] and I.L. Kandel [a guest].  (Two of these members received government funds to return to Michoacán in 1923 to collect folklore.) On that night in 1922 they arrived by canoe to the Island of Janitzio in lake Pátzcuaro as simple observers for a short while before returning to shore.  The island at that time was not appreciative of visitors and it a marvel that the newcomers were not thrown off; perhaps the visitors were protected by their official look.  They managed to take some photographs and saw the night of the dead activities.  They also took a canoe to the island of Jarácuaro where they saw the dance of the viejitos (the old men) and in 1924 took Nicolás Bartolo from Jaracuaro to Mexico City to teach others to perform the dance and the first stage event took place that year.  Nothing was to be the same and at the same time everything had to be same.  Approximately 100,000 visitors arrive each year to observe night of the dead in the region, exactly as did the six visitors in 1922, and the viejitos dance, or their image, is everywhere.  At the same time it was important that these two events not change and tourists today can recreated the 1922 trip  for themselves.

Hellier-Tinoco provides much more detail but the book tends to be written from a theoretical perspective and goes to great length talking about views of, and the importance of, performance.   A much broader historical perspective and one that focuses on indigenous art rather than two events  can be found in Rick Lopez’s book, Crafting Mexico, 2010     Lopez begins at the same historical moment, the time immediately following the revolution of 1910-20.   Vasconcelos is important but much more significant was the contribution of Dr. Atl.  His birth name was Gerardo Murillo but he changed it using a Nauhatl name meaning water while living in Paris focusing on his skills as a painter but also keeping an eye on Mexican politics.  His new name was a symbolic rejection of his colonial past and signalled a new direction.  He returned to Mexico for a few years and participated in the revolution being appointed by President Carranza (1917-20) as Director of the Academy of San Carlos which was to become an important institution in the mural movement.  He also received a commission from President Diaz to design a glass curtain for the stage at the Bellas Artes building to be manufactured by Tiffany of France.   He also issued a manifesto calling for the creation of monumental art in Mexico and art which portrayed the lives of Mexicans.   He returned to Paris briefly in 1911.   One of his first students at the Academy of San Carlos was Diego Rivera and Dr. Atl appealed to him to return from Europe to produce art with a Mexican theme.  It was unclear at the time just what this would mean but Dr. Atl was clear, Mexcio needed images of the indigenous population (what he came to call Indians) and indeed once the revolutionary dust settled the elite of Mexico were rejecting a Eurocentric view and where coming to think they must find the roots of nation building on the indigenous past of Mexico.  They did not mean the peoples of pre-conquest Mexico, rather the living indigenous peoples, the real Mexicans.

1915 Dr. Atl had a proposed an exhibition of handicrafts (what he would come to refer to as art) from indigenous community but this call fell on deaf ears.  In 1920 however, the climate had changed and several people were suggesting this for the exhibition upcoming to celebrate the 1820 revolution for independence.  Roberto Montenegro and Jorge Enciso (both of whom had also been in Europe) proposed this with the backing of Atl when one exhibition was cancelled and something was required to fill this hole in the agenda.  However,  no one had a collection of popular arts which would represent all regions of the country.  The organizers put together what they had but it was insufficient and sent out message to the governors asking them to send indigenous art.  The governors were puzzled and said the Indians produced no art.  After much explanation materials began to arrive.   Dr. Atl was asked to write the catalogue for this exhibition and he took time in the publication to tell the audience how to see the materials.  It was an instructive guide on a new way to see what had been seen as trinkets or simply functional materials.  Atl was later asked to produce a second edition which grew to 480 pages and he now goes on at great length to justify the exhibition of this material and to guide people on how to see and understand it.    The exhibition was widely successful and was a  turning point in the use and production of “folk art”. 

Also in 1920 a very successful  display was held in Chapultepec Park called “La Noche Mexicana”.  The commission for preparing this was given to Adolfo Best Maugard and what he presented was revolutionary for the time.  He made an attempt to create a peasant village with stalls decorated in the village way, Indian food was served and drinks of atole served in ceramic cups, the servers (mostly whites) were dressed in peasant clothing.  For entertainment there was music from the villages and traditional dances.   Of course there were also fireworks.  This event was also a success.  Best was appointed the director of the department of Drawing and Handicrafts in the Secretary of Public Education.  He had worked for Franz Boas at Columbia University drawing the images found on countless fragments of ceramic pottery.   From all of this as well as his natural talent he developed a theory and a method of drawing which  he formulated in a book to teach school children to draw.   Patrons of European art (or real art) were horrified at his method but children quickly became drawers and the book has never been out of print.

Also in 1920 and 1921, Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros were given commissions to begin painting monumental art by painting on walls.   The mural movement was born.

All of these events which happened in a very short time were designed to “Indianize “ Mexico.  Developing the groundwork for forming a nation with elements from indigenous cultures as the glue that was to hold people together.   One is forced to ask, is this just appropriating indigenous culture for political purposes?  Did it really changes the lives of those in the village? 

The state’s relationship to the market for indigenous art (handicrafts) was complicated and inconsistent.  On the one hand some were reluctant to develop a market for fear this would contaminate the art work.  It was thought to emerge spontaneously from the peasant subconscious.  If they produced work for the market it would be different.  The state did open a Museum of Folk Art in 1929 but it did not provide a vehicle for sales and the museum itself ultimately failed and much of the inventory placed in storage was lost to a fire.  The current museum of popular rates was only opened in 2006 and has been enormously successful .  There were also concern from this side that foreigners were romanticizing village life and their interest was leading to the commercialization of production.   Others argued, of course, that a market is what the villages needed to survive and this should be encouraged.  It wasn’t until the 1970s with the development of Fonart that a market was provided for quality indigenous art.  Local markets of courses were always place to look for folk art.  Banamex got into the market in 1998 with the publication of Great Masters of Popular Arts from the Banamex collection and with its foundation to support Mexico’s great folk art tradition and frequent exhibition of high quality items.  

The final chapter provides a brief case study of the town of Olinala to show how artisans operated.  Although the production of lacquer products goes back many centuries and there is ample evidence they traded with the Aztecs they had great difficult in finding and reaching a market due to their physical isolation.  It was only when artisans are able to be heard over the wishes of local leaders that the federal government built a road which shortened travel time to a few hours from a few days that they once again gained a market.

What is most amazing about this book is that one begins to understand how successful Mexico was in creating a national identity.  It achieved this long before other Latin American countries did.  Also, one comes to see that this national identity was not built on language or on values but on aesthetics.  When one thinks of Mexico one thinks of village foods, Indians festivals and masks, Indians folk art, colour and other physical things.  Is there another country which has an identity built on the backs of a minority of the population?  

NOTE:   You can find an abbreviated version of the argument of the Lopez book in his article "The Noche Mexicana and the Exhibition of Popular Arts"  Two Ways of Exalting Indianness" on line.  It can also be found in the book The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940, edited by Vaughan and Lewis 

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