May 18 – 25, 2019: The Regime of Porfirio Díaz

This week we are going to take a look at the political program of Porfirio Díaz. He was President of Mexico from 1876-1880, then again from 1884-1911, after a 4 year lapse with intervening President Manuel González. Díaz was a military man from Oaxaca, a rising liberal star under President Benito Juárez during La Reforma. In 1876, with the backing of the army, he issued the Plan de Tuxtepec, a revolt against the then-current regime and declaration of himself as President of Mexico. After he took office, he amended the Constitution of 1857 to proclaim no re-election and a presidential term of 4 years.

Porfirio Diaz
Porfirio Díaz, Portrait exhibited in the Museo del Templo y Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, in the city of Oaxaca, México. Wikimedia commons.

The Mexico that Díaz inherited was in shambles. The national debt was out of control, it lacked basic infrastructure such as a consistent railway system, technology and modernization were light years behind other industrializing countries such as the U.S. and Britain, and there was a public health crisis especially in Central Mexico where recurrent floods led to stagnating waters and disease. The reputation of the country abroad was that of a backward nation.

Díaz adopted the slogan “Order and Progress”: in order for Mexico to progress as a nation, the rule of law needed to come first. Díaz effectively squashed opposition, using his army to violently put down agrarian strikes and to execute dissenters. Meyer, et al. write that “rebel leaders who were not shot down on the field of battle were disposed of shortly after their capture… characteristic of Díaz’s attitude toward those who would disrupt the national peace was his reaction to a revolt in Veracruz during his first year in office… ‘Mátalos en caliente’ (Kill them on the spot).” (379)  Díaz also established order through the appointment of loyal political cronies into lesser offices such as governors, jefes políticos (district heads), and army officers. In return for their loyalty, these agents were able to enrich themselves and exercise full control over their respective territories, often with a heavy hand.

The Porfiriato was also the age of the land-grab. Laws such as the Ley de Deslindes (1883) and the Ley de Terrenos Baldíos (1894) opened the door to large real estate companies and wealthy individuals seizing large tracts of land, land that was often held communally by indigenous communities (ejidos). “If the victims offered armed resistance, Díaz sent troops against them and sold the vanquished rebels like slaves to labor on henequen plantations in Yucatán or sugar plantations in Cuba.” Keen & Haynes, 2013 (257-258). By 1910, it is estimated that 90% of indigenous villages in Central Mexico had lost their communal lands, and that landless peons and their families comprised 9.5 million of a rural population of 12 million. (Ibid) Indeed, this presents a large, systematic problem that eventually became the basis for revolt during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

Sugar plantation 1900-1910
“Sugar Cane on the Rio ?, Veracruz.” AGN, Colección Fotográfica de Propiedad Artística y Literaria, Charles B. Waite, Haciendas y Plantaciones, foto 23.

In order to better understand the policies initiated by Porfirio Díaz and his advisors, it is necessary to discuss the ideologies of the era. The first is positivism, the idea famously put forth by Auguste Comte that knowledge is based on natural phenomena, or what can be seen, heard, and touched; therefore, empirical data was prized over metaphysics and theology. Reason and logic ruled the day, and scientific thinking could be applied to social issues in order to find practical solutions. Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism was also a component of Porfirian politics. In this school of thought, humans were in a struggle for “survival of the fittest,” where the weak (i.e. the poor, the dark-skinned) would ultimately be overruled by the strong (the rich, the white). The weak were expected to be in a constant state of development to reach the pinnacle of “civilization,” meaning to be assimilated into the dominant culture of the powerful. This theory was the basis for many racially-based policies in the 19th-century, such as forced Indian education and the breakup of ejidos, where unused land was considered to be misused by the natives who were hindering national progress.

In that vein, Porfirio Díaz hired científicos, a group of technocrats who used positivist thinking to “scientifically” modernize society. Most famous of these were José Limantour (Secretary of Treasury) and Justo Sierra (Secretary of Education), who were adherents to the idea of the “inherent inferiority of the native and mestizo population and the consequent necessity for relying on the white elite and on foreigners and their capital to lead Mexico out of its backwardness” Keen & Haynes, 2013 (256).  Development was important to the científicos, who strove to make Mexico a desirable place for foreign investment. Limantour was able to make some economic gains for the country. For example, he reformed tariffs, switched the country from a silver to a gold standard, and made administrative changes intended to reduce governmental corruption and graft.

Jose Limantour 1910
José Limantour, 1910. U.S. Library of Congress, Wikimedia commons.

The country began to modernize under this regime, replacing animal and human labor with steam, water, and electric power. Hydraulic and hydro-electric stations were built and machinery came with it. The telephone arrived in the 1880s, and a nationwide telegraph system was finally installed. Díaz hired an overseas engineering firm to oversee the sanitation crisis in Mexico City, and they were able to build a canal and a tunnel to address the flooding problem. A large number of neoclassical public buildings and monuments began to pop up in the cities. Railroads became big business and linked cities together, which expanded domestic markets and furthered economic growth . Foreign investment became important in the areas of mining and oil production, as U.S. and British companies vied for stakes in the industries. Meyer, et al. 2007 (382-389) All of this began to showcase Mexico internationally as a country that was on the rise.

Unfortunately, the material wealth and abundance never trickled down to the people. All of this positive growth masked a dark side. As mentioned in a previous post, the mass expropriation of village lands led to an underclass of peones, agricultural and mine workers who were tied to their lands, paid meager wages, and could never escape a cycle of debt to their overlords. Because of this, trade unions began to grow in the early 1900s. Though often brutally repressed by the Díaz regime, popular unrest began to foment throughout the country, spearheaded by intellectuals such as Ricardo Flores Magón and even wealthy capitalists such as Francisco I. Madero. Critics argued that more aggressive economic and social reforms were necessary to avoid a revolution by the masses.

Features of the Porfiriato such as sham elections and vast patronage networks, administration of justice through force, press censorship and intimidation, and repression of any opposition, ultimately contributed to its downfall. In conjunction with a recession that hit Mexico hard in 1906-1907 and crop failures from 1907-1910, the Mexican people were largely unsatisfied with the regime. The opposition gradually began to organize and eventually forced the resignation of Porfirio Díaz on May 25, 1911.

We’ll discuss the events leading up to that in the coming days, as next time I explore in more depth the end of the Porfiriato and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. I hope that this post has been useful and has provided a good overview of a complicated era (Mexican history is filled with complicated eras!). As always, please like and share the post, and comment down below if you’d like to join the discussion. Until next time!

May 5 – 11, 2019 – Society & Culture during the Porfiriato (1876 – 1910)

¡Hola a todos! On May 25 will be the anniversary of the overthrow of Mexican President/dictator Porfirio Díaz, a significant moment which sparked the Mexican Revolution. In honor of that, I have decided to spend some time this month talking about what life was like in late 19th-early 20th century Mexico. This week will be focused on culture and society, or the social aspects of this time period known as “the Porfiriato.” Next week I will delve more into the politics of the era; finally, I will end with an explanation of the downfall of Porfirio Díaz.

As a quick matter of housekeeping, I am going to be pulling from two main sources: “El Porfiriato” by Sandra Kuntz Ficker and Elisa Speckman Guerra, from the book Historia general de México ilustrada volumen II (2010) [Spanish translation by me]; and “Ch. 25: Society and Culture during the Porfiriato” by Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds from the book The Course of Mexican History, 8th edition (2006). I highly recommend reading both, as they give a great overview of the time period.

At the end of the 19th century, Mexico was rapidly growing and developing. The wars between liberals and conservatives were over, as Porfirio Díaz remained in control of the country for over 30 years. In 1895, there were an estimated 50 million people living in Mexico. By 1910, it was 100 million. Rising birth rates were largely due to advances in medicine and nutrition, coupled with lower death rates due to living in a more peaceful era. The bulk of the population lived in the central states, which had disproportionately high numbers of people living there, as well as in Jalisco, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Railroad development, mining, and port improvements contributed to the growth of cities. Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and San Luis Potosí all saw huge increases in population during this time. Despite this, the country’s population was mostly rural: in 1900, about 80% of Mexicans lived in localities with under 2,500 people. 

mapa de mexico
Mapa de la República de México, J.H. Colton, 1851.

By 1910, all of the state capitals had electricity and most had tramways. City services like sewage systems and hospitals became more common during this time. In addition, travelers noticed less crime and political upheaval, although it was likely due to pay-offs of the army, rurales (countryside police), and local law enforcement.

As I mentioned previously, the era of liberalism was coming to an end. Corporatism, where group identity was important, became more widespread in contrast to the liberal idea of individualism with equal rights. For example, some groups were experiencing a rise in popularity: confraternities, guilds, campesino (farming) communities, barrios (neighborhoods), and professional societies. In addition, societal prejudices became more ingratiated due to the idea of determinism: that one’s physical and mental constitution determined one’s character, conduct, and morality. This concept was applied to both gender and race. This challenged the liberal idea that all people were born equal. 

“The division of spaces and tasks, which assigned the woman to the private sphere and to the care of the family, while the man had the public space and the political and professional tasks, was justified on the basis of the weakness of women, their reduced cranial volume, their diminished rationality and their natural propensity for hysteria, sentimentality, and emotionality. This formed an artificial line between men and women, where in reality women owned property and worked in factories and offices, or in more traditional sectors like teaching, the field, selling food, and domestic service.”

Kuntz Ficker & Speckman Guerra, 178.

Women in porfiriato
Upper-class women during the Porfiriato. El universal.

Women were a slowly growing population in higher education and the professional workplace, however, it was more common for them to remain in the home, if it could be managed financially. Upper and middle class women were, in general, expected to be submissive and to have a lot of patience with their husbands, often enduring marital infidelities and little decision-making power. Women often turned to the church for solace and community.

Income inequality was at a high point during this time. The elite, which constituted just a small portion of the population, held much of the nation’s wealth. This class consisted of hacendados (hacienda owners), bankers, and kings of industry and commercial activity. The elite mostly lived in cities and had interests in multiple areas of business. For example, the Creel Terrazas family from Chihuahua held lots of land in the state but were also involved in industry, commerce, and banking. For the upper classes, the true mark of success was how French one could become in taste and manners. French education, governesses, furniture, language, music, and cuisine reigned supreme.

creel terrazas home chihuahua
Quinta Carolina, home of the Creel Terrazas family, built in 1896, Chihuahua, Mexico. Photo: lyricmac, 2010. Wikimedia commons.

The middle class was small, and included ranchers and caciques who held smaller tracts of land; hacienda administrators, skilled artisans, government bureaucrats, scribes, clergymen, low-ranking army officers, and professional men. This group had a larger presence in the cities, and typically had indoor plumbing, which was not widely available at the time. Unlike the lower classes, they were able to afford a varied diet which included meat and soup several times per week. Many members of the middle class could be callous in their treatment of lower class people, seeing their problems as personal failings.

The lower class was the largest, comprised of about 90% of the population. This included day laborers, soldiers, beggars, domestics, street vendors, and the unemployed. The people mostly subsisted on corn, beans, chile, and pulque, with meat being almost totally absent from their diets. Due to poor nutrition and medical care, life expectancy was only about 30 years and the masses were susceptible to a number of diseases.

pulqueria tacubaya
A pulquería in Tacubaya, Mexico City. Wikimedia commons.

Small farmers were also in this category, usually with remote lands or poor soils. Or they could be “campesinos sin tierra” (farmers without land) who worked as migrant field workers on the haciendas. Some were tied to the land as peones, in a form of debt servitude to the hacienda owner where the owner would cover a worker’s initial expenses but a worker would never make enough to fully pay off the debt. The peon also had to buy supplies at the tienda de raya, the property’s general store, and so would thereby be sinking his wages back into the hacienda. Working conditions were the worst in the southeast on the henequen and tobacco haciendas, where workers were more strictly tied to the land and lived in the poorest conditions. The situation was somewhat better in the north where there were less laborers and more demand for workers.


On a Mexican hacienda, early 20th c. Cultura Colectiva

Many of this class emigrated to cities, where they began to work in factories. Artisans could not compete with factory output and so this profession gradually dwindled. In the cities, salaries were low and generally not enough to support a family: experienced workers made between 2-5 pesos per day in 1910, less experienced workers made 75 centavos – 1 peso per day; and women and children made 25 – 10 centavos, respectively. The regular work day consisted on 12-14 hour shifts and a worker could be dismissed at any time without warning, even when there was an accident on the job. The working conditions were very similar to what you may have learned about in 19th century US history.

obrero porfiriato
An obrero (workshop) during the Porfiriato. Universidad Autónoma de Nayarit.

Religion remained the centerpiece of society, even through the Liberal reforms: according to a census, more than 99% of Mexicans were Catholic, only .5% being Protestant.  The Church provided schools and attended to the sick and needy. Some groups became involved in social issues like reducing inequality amongst factory workers. Even though people now had to register with the civil authorities to be legally married, church weddings remained the most popular. Religious festivals and devotions remained important during this time.

Race remained a barrier for many in the poorer classes to overcome. Indigenous peoples have historically faced discrimination in Mexico, though beginning in the early 19th century, their glorious Aztec and Maya pasts (just to name a few) had become idealized as a true marker of mexicanidad. Kuntz Ficker and Speckman Guerra explain:

“From Independence [in 1821], the Prehispanic past was idealized, but this idealization contrasted with the vision that was held about the indigenous person, who was described as indifferent, servile, untrustworthy, taciturn, a liar, and bloodthirsty, with little inclination toward work, hygiene, or family, and a high inclination toward vagrancy and alcoholism.” 178-179.

Some thought of the poor situation of indigenous peoples as a result of limited opportunities for work and education, but some thought of it as inborn and insurmountable, hence their exclusion from the national political and social projects of the day.

gente indigena porfiriato
A snapshot of indigenous men during the Porfiriato.

Education became an important tool of the Porfiriato. Free, uniform, obligatory, and secular instruction was considered the best way to create a national conscience. Education for children expanded during this time as a way to inculcate patriotic values into the youth. In 1891, Mexican politician and writer Guillermo Prieto maintained: “in school the patria is breathed, the patria is born.” (We will talk more about the expansion of education next week during the political discussion.)

Not everyone was patriotic or bought into the Porfirian regime, however. Socialism was an up-and-coming school of thought, and even anarchism by the likes of Richard Flores Magón became well-known. Modernism in writing became popular, with famous poets like Salvador Díaz Mirón, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, Amado Nervo, and José Juan Tablada, who “redeemed the usage of symbols and questioned the primacy of reason.” Kuntz Ficker & Speckman Guerra, 194

In the arts, the Art Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City dominated. Future giants of Mexican art – Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco – came from that school. Emphasis was placed on copying European models but a few students (such as the aforementioned) began to break with this tradition and to experiment with Mexican themes. This will later become an important aspect of the Mexican Revolution.

Aspects of late 19th – early 20th century Mexico may sound familiar to those with a background in U.S. history: the income inequality, the working conditions, the gender and racial discrimination. One of the main differences was the expansion of the haciendas and the continued disenfranchisement of farmers and indigenous peoples. This laid the groundwork for the overthrow of the Díaz regime in 1911. Join me next week as we discuss the political program of the Porfiriato.


April 14 – 20, 2019 – Passion Plays of La Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Holy Week is upon us, and that means the end of the season of Lent for Christians. It begins with Palm Sunday (this year on April 14) which celebrates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, and ends on Holy (or Black) Saturday, the day between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Each day during Holy Week symbolizes an aspect of the Bible related to Jesus’ impeding resurrection: the anointing (Monday), Jesus predicting his death (Tuesday), the betrayal by Judas (Wednesday), the Last Supper (Thursday), and the crucifixion (Friday). Easter Sunday, then, is a great feast day and so begins the Eastertide season, leading up until Pentecost.

(Disclaimer: I am not advocating for the practice of any religion, I merely view religion as an important part of culture.) 

Around the world, the occasion is celebrated with the performance of passion plays, theatrical performances of the biblical events leading up to resurrection of Christ. In Mexico, passion plays are especially popular. One in particular, the passion play at Itztapalapa, is known as one of the largest in the world. Itztapalapa is a small town approximately 12 miles (19 km) southeast of Mexico City. Every year, it attracts scores of tourists for this event, while also boasting a Miss Itztapalapa beauty pagaent and a cross-bearing athletic competition for young men. Here I am going to describe the development of the passion play at Itztapalapa, beginning from its origins in colonial New Spain (Mexico) through to today. For this I will be relying heavily on the historical monograph by Richard C. Trexler, entitled Reliving Golgotha: The Passion Play of Itztapalapawhich provides a thorough accounting of the play’s history.

Passion Play San Simon Texcoco
Photo: A01333441jarh

Dating from approximately the 1260s, the Genoese began a tradition of self-flagellation, (or flogging oneself for religious purposes) and founded confraternities (lay brotherhoods) of people walking through the streets doing this. In time the practice spread throughout Europe and into Spain, where into the 18th century, this became a common practice during Holy Week. This was during the same time that the Spanish began to colonize New Spain.

In the 1520s, Franciscan friars began arriving in New Spain to convert the native peoples to Christianity. They brought to Mexico City this self-flagellation tradition. This practice became popular with the natives, who “convinced themselves that their public mortification was what the missionaries most wanted to see as evidence of conversion.” (24-25) Priests in the 16th century also began a tradition of re-enacting the Washing of the Feet of Jesus on Holy Thursday. According to renowned chronicler Fray Juan de Torquemada, it was Franciscan Francisco de Gamboa who introduced the theatrical aspect of Holy Week, leading processions through the Church of the Statue of Soledad; live representations of the stations of the cross on Fridays; and establishing a Sunday tradition of theatrical performances in the Nahuatl indigenous language. The custom of the burial of Jesus at the end of Holy Week (el Santo Entierro) was also established during this time. (39)

Atotonilco Church last supper
The Last Supper, Church of Atotonilco, Guanajuato. Photo: cjuanpavon

Primary sources and scholarship on 17th – early 18th century Mexico are generally weak. However, what we do know is that in the 17th century, Stations of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) were built as an outdoor route through Mexico City, mimicking the Via Dolorosa traveled by Jesus. This path began at the Church of San Francisco and ended at the Church of San Diego, with 14 chapels in between, representing the 14 stations of the cross. In Mexico City, a performance known as the Tres Caídas (Three Falls) began to emerge as early as 1696. This was the scenario where Jesus carried his cross through the streets and was humiliated by the crowd, falling three times before being crucified.

In the mid 18th century, there arises documented evidence of passion plays being performed in smaller towns southeast of Mexico City, with most of the participants being of indigenous heritage. In the sources, the Church began to try to outlaw these plays as idolatrous representations of the Lord because they were not solemn in nature: Jesus was presented naked, he repeated the exact holy words of the consecration of the host, Judas kept people laughing, etc. The Inquisition soon took an interest after many complaints, and a hearing was held which thereafter sought to suppress the crowds of armados in the passion plays, those individuals who dressed as Romans and protected the Holy Eucharist. This affected an entire industry of clothiers, whose economic livelihood diminished, and sent the faithful indigenous people to outlying towns to participate in other passion plays, often engaging in illicit activities while out of town. Due to this, the idea became popular amongst the elite that natives needed visual representation of the passion of Jesus to remain orderly, and so concessions were made.

It is important to note that natives themselves were organizing and participating in these passion plays. Richard Trexler notes: “Natives, imbibing certain images of Christianity, in effect developed their own cultural product in the face of an unfriendly clerical, if not creole, universe.” (56) Natives were creating their own religious traditions, separate from the Church, and in the face of elite opposition. This included a native tradition of pantomime, where a preacher would be reciting biblical text and ad-libbing.

Miguel Cabrera - The Divine Spouse
Miguel Cabrera, “The Divine Spouse” (18th c.)

The passion play of Itztapalapa had its origins in 1843, 10 years after a cholera epidemic devastated the pueblo. This was done to give glory to God for their salvation from the disease. It didn’t begin to be performed regularly until 1883, however. By 1898 the play was mentioned in the local papers as one of the main passion plays in the country, attracting tourists from the capitol on a yearly basis. The tourists began to come for the whole week as a diversion from daily life, and there was little any authorities could do to stem the tide.

The play was performed at the Santuario or Shrine of the Holy Sepulcher. It consisted of indigenous actors playing both the Jews and the good and bad thieves (Dimas & Gestas); an articulated wooden figure of Jesus, which was carried during the crucifixion, deposition, funeral procession, and burial. The play’s characters had to follow the procession of the Santo Entierro with their arms tied behind their backs, paying respects to the corpse of Jesus. A parish priest would then charge 200-300 pesos for his services in overseeing the festivities of the day. By the end of the 19th century, actual people would replace the wooden effigy of Jesus, being “crucified” live on the cross.

Carrying of the cross, Itz.
Photo: Yavidaxiu

In late 18th century, the  “Roman soldiers” in the play began to be elected each year by their native fellows. These characters were chosen from the upper-level of native society around Mexico City; this was a prestigious honor. Thus began the tradition of electing an executive body for the passion play, possibly derived from the native tradition of cabildos (town councils). From this, the Itztapalapan Council or Comité was born. This committee is the one who votes on who receives which part in the passion play, as well as organizing it every year.

In the 19th century, the Liberal Reforms of the Constitution of 1857 sought to strip the church of power, and thus forbade the performance of any religious act of public worship anywhere other than inside churches. This was primarily meant to keep the clergy inside the church so they wouldn’t protest the anti-clerical laws. This was important for the passion play of Itztapalapa in that for a span of time, the clergy would largely become uninvolved in its production. The play would be created by and for the people. The clergy would largely be unable to influence it or to contain the festivities to a small area of the church.

Over time, the production ceased to be solely indigenous, becoming known as more of a mestizo (mixed-race) tradition. The Modern Mexican state of the early 20th century saw it as a humiliation to the public face of Mexico, decrying its continued proliferation. However, by the second half of the 20th century, the play became important to the economic life of Itztapalapa and to the capitol. The press and the church eventually supported it. Clergy now began to become involved in establishing passion plays elsewhere in the country, and began to infiltrate the organization of the play. As a major tourist attraction, it was soon supported through private and even public funding.

Procession itztapalapa
Procession in Itztapalapa, Photo: Yavidaxiu.

Passion plays in Mexico represent a cultural force led primarily by the native population; it is popular religion, a manifestation of religious belief primarily outside of the bounds of the Church. The passion plays have been alternately suppressed and embraced by authority figures, yet remain a significant driver of both religious and economic activity for outlying pueblos.

You can view the entirety of the 2018 Passion Play of Itztapalapa here. I highly recommend that you view it, even skipping through the major parts, as it gives such an amazing representation of everything I’ve talked about here. Enjoy!

April 7 – 13, 2019 – Birth & Death of María Félix

This week, we’ll be celebrating one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, “la Doña” María Félix.

María Félix

Félix was a silver screen icon who was well known for playing the femme fatale, a seductress who ultimately brings ruin to men. She played roles which challenged the definition of traditional femininity, as we shall discuss. Due to her beauty, popularity, and distinctive voice, she served as a muse to many artists of the day, including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, writer Octavio Paz, and the many fashion houses who dressed her, including jeweler Cartier. She has also had two songs composed in her honor: “María de todas las Marías” by Juan Gabriel and “Je l’aime a mourir” by Francis Cabrel.

Maria Felix 1954
María Félix, 1954. Getty images.

María Félix was born on April 8, 1914 in Álamos, Sonora as María de los Ángeles Félix Güereña. Later, she moved to Mexico City where she briefly worked in a plastic surgeon’s office, modeling for the patients the beauty they could aspire to, though she supposedly received no surgery herself. Legend has it that she was discovered one day while walking down the streets of Mexico City by director Fernando Palacios. She was given the opportunity to go to Hollywood and meet with director Cecil B. DeMille, but she rejected any movie offer, preferring instead to stay in Mexico.

Her first starring role was in the film, El Peñón de Las Ánimas (1942), a tale of forbidden love, and was notable for placing her alongside well-known actor Jorge Negrete. Sources say that the two detested each other at first because Negrete’s girlfriend had been passed over for Félix’s role; ironically, 10 years later Negrete and Félix would marry.

Maria Felix Dona Barbara
Movie poster, IMDB.

The role that made her a star, however, was 1943’s Doña Bárbaradirected by famed director Fernando de Fuentes. The film’s plot is as follows:

“Set on the dusty savannas of Venezuela, Doña Bárbara is a sublimely melodramatic fable of a young woman (Maria Felix) who is raped and her would-be lover killed by a group of brutal seamen. She settles on the arid plains and becomes a cattle trader, ruthlessly building an empire out of violence and cold-hearted determination. According to the film’s introduction, “nothing can placate her loathing toward men.” She rules the plains with an iron fist, while her daughter, Marisela (Maria Elena Marques), roams the llanos as an almost feral woman-child. When a powerful lawyer, Santos Luzardo (Julian Soler), arrives in the region to sell off his family’s ranch, he seems nothing more than another man ripe for crushing. But Dona Barbara becomes fascinated by this handsome stranger.”

Synopsis by: Turner Classic Movies (TCM)

In 1940s Mexico, more people were moving from rural to urban areas, so there was a tension between the traditional and the modern (for more on this, see: Golden Age of Mexican Cinema). You can see the tension between the two sides at work in this film. The character of Doña Bárbara contested the idea of women as submissive, stay-at-home wives. Doña Bárbara was a strong, independent, working woman; fearless; one who had her way with men. Yet she also represented the traditional in a sense: working the land, and engaging in tradition and superstition. (26) At the end of the film, Doña Bárbara leaves, representing a triumph of traditional values over contemporary values for women, almost a cautionary tale (26). Film scholar Susan Wiebe Drake is one of the few to analyze the impact of María Félix’s movie roles. In her opinion, Doña Bárbara “allowed the ‘what-if’ fantasy of a beautiful, powerful, financially independent, woman who controlled her sexuality and destiny to play out in the minds of her audience.” (160) It allowed audiences to see who women could become in an increasingly modern world.

Maria Felix Juana Gallo
(1961), IMDB

Later in her career, María Félix subverts gender expectations in three Revolutionary-themed films: La Cucaracha (1958); Juana Gallo (1961); and La Generala (1970). These movies are different than her earlier 1940s films on the Mexican Revolution (La Enamorada and Río Escondido, for example) because in the later ones, she is an active participant in the war, picking up arms and joining in the quest for land and liberty, versus playing a teacher or a lover to a Revolutionary man. These roles question both femininity and masculinity in a post-Revolutionary, post-WWII moment in Mexico. (98)

This time period was known as the “Mexican Miracle,” a time of relative political stability and economic growth, but increased political corruption under president Miguel Alemán (1946-1952). Since 1920, the ideals from the Mexican Revolution of land, labor, and education had always been a large part of society, including being depicted in movies, but had now begun to fade. The reality of the poor being able to own and work their lands was largely unattainable, and many moved into the cities as increased industrialization provided more jobs. There were also shifts in gender dynamics during the time, as women increasingly entered the workforce and gained the right to vote in 1952.

Wiebe Drake argues that in María Félix’s revolutionary soldadera roles, the message to the audience is that in a changing world, national identity as a Mexican will give people a sense of belonging. (105) In addition, these films, especially Juana Gallo, depict Félix as an active and important character in the Mexican Revolution. Therefore, this can be compared with women entering the workforce in the 1960s, suggesting that both aspects represent progress for Mexico and should generally be viewed as positive: “just as women were great assets during the Revolution, women are also great assets during industrialization.” (105


La Generala (1970) would be Félix’s last film. In her later years, she mostly stayed out of the spotlight. Coincidentally, she died on her birthday, April 8, 2002 at the age of 88. Her legacy remains as an international cinema icon, forever known for her strong presence and for pushing the boundaries for women in film.

March 31 – April 6, 2019 – The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema

This week we’re going to take a break from politics and discuss a more entertaining topic (literally). Unbeknownst to some in the United States, Mexico has a long history of film production, with a Golden Age of Cinema that occurred around the same time as ours did, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Today, in preparation for next week’s post (what will it be?!), we will be taking a look at this era in film in order to understand more about the major themes and players.

Most sources agree that the “Golden Age” began in 1936 with the release of the film Vámonos con Pancho Villa, directed by Fernándo de Fuentes. This film was based on the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and depicted the cruelty of it and of its leader in the north, Pancho Villa. While this angle was unusual for films about the Revolution, which usually portrayed its glory, it remains one of the first major films of the genre. The Mexican government actually had a stake in its production, as well – it rescued the film financially due to poor box office returns. This established the importance of the public depiction of the Revolution in film.

vamonos con pancho villa

The Mexican Revolution, and rural life in general, were popular subjects in the early Golden Age. In the 1930s-40s, the values of the Revolution were still being promulgated by the Mexican government, that being land, labor, education, nationalism, and indigenismo, the celebration of indigenous and mestizo peoples. [This can be also seen in state-funded art of the time painted by the Big 3 muralists: Rivera, Orozco, Siquieros.] As the Mexican film industry was state-supported, naturally Revolutionary ideology, the glory of the war, as well as rural nostalgia became quite popular in film. Some of the famous Revolutionary-themed films of the era include: Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936), El Cementerio de las Águilas (1938), Flor Silvestre (1943), and La Cucaracha (1959).

In the late 1940s-1950s, a general population shift began to occur from rural to urban areas, as a push toward industrialization became a major goal of the government under President Miguel Alemán. Here, I will be pulling from work done by Latin Americanist Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, who argues that the film industry began producing melodramas and comedies that pushed the boundaries of Mexican nationalism, with cosmopolitan settings, transnational themes (including European influences), and characters who contested government officials. “In the 1940s and 1950s, a considerable number of melodramas and thrillers reflected the anxieties produced by a modernization process that contradicted the utopian rural scenes constructed by films such as María Candelaria (dir. Emilio Fernández, 1944) and Los tres huastecos.” (255) Sánchez Prado continues: “These radical transformations in Mexico’s life and culture impacted culture decisively and the tension between capitalist development and the social and cultural spheres of the country produced some of Mexico’s major cultural works.” (244)
Here we have actors such as Tin Tan, who represent this argument well. Tin Tan often performed as a pachuco, or a Mexican-American zoot-suiter, as well as roles with worldly themes such as Zorro, a pirate, and a sultan. Sánchez Prado describes Tin Tan in this way: “Tin Tan’s national nature is not so much his construction of identifiable stereotypes of Mexicanness, but his ability to subvert the increasingly hegemonic codes of import capitalism through a perfect command of worldly cultural repertoires.” (253) This means that (according to the author) Tin Tan’s performances were of a more international flavor, incorporating not just stereotypical Mexican tropes but with the ability to draw from European or Middle Eastern cultures and successfully portray that to audiences, despite trade policies that may have sought to stifle foreign influence. A few of his famous films include: El Rey del Barrio (1950) and La Marca del Zorrillo (1950).

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In terms of contesting authority onscreen, no one is perhaps better known for this than Cantinflas, one of Mexico’s premier comedians of the Golden Age. Cantinflas is described this way, according to historian Cesar G. Abarca: “the image of Cantinflas is very culturally symbolic including the representation of the pelado, or vulgar, plucked one. The character of Cantinflas dressed like a hobo and talked in a comical nonsense code that made everyone laugh at the situations he created with his manners, attitudes, and accompanied by a Patiño (another actor who played the “serious” role).” (46-47) What he is known for is confusing authority figures, whether legal or social superiors, with his speech, which has actually become a term in its own right: cantinfleo or cantinflismo. Film scholar Nilo Couret adds that his “characteristic lack of seriousness” pushed the boundaries of the usual power relations between a lower-class person and an authority figure, which was incredibly entertaining to the masses in 1930s Mexico, where up to 70% were illiterate. (34) A few of his classic films are: Ahí está el detalle (1940) and Ni Sangre ni Arena (1941).

Tin Tan and Cantinflas appealed to poor and working-class Mexicans, Tin Tan representing border culture and workers who went North with his pachuco characteristics and Spanglish speech, Cantinflas holding interactions in urban areas such as Mexico City.

Besides the two I’ve mentioned, other huge stars from the time include:

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There appears to be a consensus that the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema declined in the late 50s, especially after the death of Pedro Infante in 1957. A major reason in the decline in quality of the films was the gradual disappearance of American money – Hollywood had been a major investor in Mexican films and many films had achieved a level of success among the Spanish-speaking population of the U.S., especially due to the Bracero guest-worker program of the 1940s. The Mexican Cinematographic Bank, established for national film funding, took more creative control over the pictures, which, scholars argue, became more formulaic and commercial over time.

I hope that this brief overview has been useful – stay tuned for next week’s post as we continue with this topic, celebrating an important star of the Golden Age.

March 24 – 30, 2019 – Conservatism

Hi everyone and welcome back! This week’s post is going to be a little different. There will inevitably come times where there are no events to be found for a particular week, or maybe I have already written about it in the past. So I want to take these opportunities to delve more into a larger theme in Mexican history, something that is not as specific as one person or event. I will, however, try to link it to a previous or upcoming post so that it’s relevant.

In last week’s post, we discussed Benito Juárez as the leading figure in liberal politics in 19th-century Mexico. We went through a list of characteristics of and beliefs held by liberals during this period. This week, I want to continue talking about the conflict between liberals and conservatives, because the back-and-forth between them really defined politics in that era. So today we’re going to take a look at conservatism and what that meant for 19th-century Mexico.

Anastasio Bustamante, president
Anastasio Bustamante, 4th President of Mexico (1830-1832). AGN, Public domain.

Scholar José Luis Soberanes Fernández defines conservatism as: “the political ideology and social philosophy that privileges the status quo and looks to maintain established traditions and institutions.” Source, p. 70 Mexican historian Alfonso Noriega Cantú expands on this definition by adding that conservatism is: “the political view that opposes violent changes, that essentially respects tradition; but that accepts the evolutive transformation of society and not its immutability as traditionalism does.” Source, p. 3 Noriega makes a distinction here between conservatism and traditionalism: the former willing to accept change, but at a slower pace; the latter wanting to freeze time in the past, essentially. I’m not sure that I completely agree with this description, as it seems that that 19th-century conservatives were interested in keeping the Spanish colonial past intact (albeit with Mexican/criollo leaders in place of peninsular Spanish ones). Does anyone disagree with this? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

I do agree that conservatives were more of what Soberanes describes as, “counter-revolutionary,” a force for slowing change in a newly independent country which saw the rise of a radical faction (liberalism) that called for a break from the preexisting colonial order. p. 72

Let’s talk about what conservative thought in general actually entails. Political philosopher Russell Kirk identifies 6 main aspects of it:

  • Providentialism, the belief that society is structured by God. Political problems are also moral and religious ones.
  • Preference for tradition over idealism and utopianism.
  • Civilization requires an ordered social hierarchy and, therefore, inequality must exist.
  • Respect for private property as essential to freedom.
  • The need to govern according to cultural norms and traditions, not based on grand theories.
  • Gradual change, building up to something, rather than radical change which destroys. Source
Entrada del Generalísimo Dn. Agustín de Yturbide à Mexico el día 27. de Septiembre de 1821; anonymous, public domain.

Now let’s take a look at how these points actually existed in Mexican politics. These are some of the more specific characteristics of conservatism as they appeared in Mexico:

  • Conservatives were mainly the elite of society: large landowners, upper clergy, higher ranks of military and civil bureaucracy, wealthy merchants.
  • Wanted a strong central government.
  • Some wanted to replace the new federalist government with a monarchy.
  • Distrusted civil liberties such as freedom of speech, press, and religion.
  • Believed in the power of the Church – wanted to uphold Catholicism as the only official religion.
  • Generally uninterested in problems relating to indigenous people or other castas (mixed-race people), but sometimes claimed to continue the Spanish paternalist policy toward indigenous communities and often enjoyed their support. Source, p. 204
Lucas Alamán, notable conservative thinker and statesman (1830?), AGN, public domain.

Now I want to take a quick look at how conservatism (or centralism in the history texts) played out in Mexican politics. After the struggle for Independence from Spain ended in 1821, a new constitution was enacted in 1824 which was a mixture of liberal and conservative elements: separation of powers (liberal, similar to the US model); the Catholic Church as the official religion (conservative), etc. However, there still remained deep political divisions between the two sides.

Historian Michael P. Costeloe writes that by 1834-1835, conservative sentiment reached a head, with lots of propaganda-style newspaper editorials being published that decried a decline in traditional values, a dip in the economy, and attacks on personal security that only a centralist, conservative government could fix:

“A new form of government would bring back national unity and end the factional divisions and multi-party politics which had caused so much instability and administrative disruption. Law and order would be guaranteed with the streets and highways made safe for decent people. Above all, the traditional values of the family, respect for the nation’s once venerated institutions, the spirit of public service and public morality in general would be restored. The precepts of the only true faith would again be taught in schools and the corruption of youth by the modern heresies of the day stopped. Men of property would reoccupy their rightful position in the corridors of power and their presence would ensure that reforms when needed would be made without the radical upheaval of society and all the dangers of social and economic equality as preached by the demagogic, federalist sans culottes. The Church and the army would once again be the twin pillars of their new society, but not its masters.”

Michael P. Costeloe. “Federalism to Centralism in Mexico: The Conservative Case for Change, 1834-1835,” The Americas 45, No. 2 (Oct., 1988): 184. Source

This type of thinking paved the way for General Antonio López de Santa Anna to come into power in 1835 and remain influential for the next 22 years. Although he was not specifically a conservative, he did centralize the government, take control of the military, and repeal many of the liberal aspects of the 1824 Constitution in the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws).

Santa Anna
General Antonio López de Santa Anna, public domain.

Jumping ahead… later, while Benito Juárez was president in the 1850s, conservatives (including the church and the military) rose up against liberalism and took control of Mexico City during the War of the Reform, 1858-1861. Eventually, conservatives convinced France that the Mexican people were clamoring for a monarch, and, among other reasons, the French installed a Hapsburg monarch into power in Mexico in 1864, Maximilian I. This “French intervention” was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and in 1867 the monarchy collapsed, along with the conservative platform and any power they had once accrued. Juárez and the liberals regained control of the government at this point until 1872.

In conclusion, you can see that this back-and-forth between conservatives and liberals largely defined Mexican politics in the 19th-century, but was also extremely disruptive. Conservatives at the time were interested in maintaining power amongst the elite and aligning themselves with the military and the Church, at the expense of more European-style liberal politics which advocated a separation of church and state and a federalist government. They were “counter-revolutionary,” with an eye toward repealing liberal efforts at creating a more democratic society, but I do believe that they largely wanted to maintain the “traditional” colonial way of life that they enjoyed under Spanish rule.

As always, thank you for your readership, and I encourage you to delve more into the topic on your own. ¡Adiós!

(Shout-out to my husband for help with Spanish translation.)

March 21, 2019 – Birth of Benito Juárez

Welcome back to my little corner of the internet! It’s been a while since my first post… life happened and I decided to put this project on hiatus for a while, but now I am recommitted to getting it going again.

March 18, 2019 is the celebration of the Natalicio de Benito Juárez (the birth of Benito Juárez). Although he was actually born on the 21st of March, 1806, this legal holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of each March.  Benito Juárez served as President of Mexico from 1858-1872, excluding a lapse between 1864-1867. A popular and deeply influential President, his legacy is still celebrated in México, especially through the dedication of streets, towns, monuments, and even currency (his face is on the 20 peso banknote) in his name.


Statue of Benito Juárez @ Secretaria de Educación Pública, CDMX. Photo: Candace Garcia, 2015.

He is perhaps best known as the face of Mexican Liberalism, part of a larger movement occurring throughout Latin America and Europe in the 19th century. Juárez presided over a period in México known as La Reforma, where a series of liberal reforms were enacted that drastically changed the official relationship between church and state, as well as land tenure laws that would cause severe disruption in the country.

This is admittedly a huge topic – many scholars have devoted time to Mexican liberalism and La Reforma. Here, my goal is to present a brief overview of what 19th-century liberalism was and Juárez’s legacy (in a nutshell).

In order to understand Juárez and his period of history, it is critical to define the term liberalism. In 19th century Mexico, it consisted of many of the following elements:

  • Appealed to middle class groups, small landowners, lawyers, professionals, aspiring mixed-race people.
  • Favored a federalist government, inspired by US & European models.
  • Guarantees of individual rights.
  • End to special privileges for the military and church.
  • Confiscation of church property.
  • Abolition of slavery.
  • A disregard for the communal lifestyles of indigenous people; saw this as an impediment to modernization. In Mexico, this resulted in the breaking up of ejidos (communal lands).

(Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013.)

Benito Juárez, public domain.

From the 1830s through to the time of Benito Juárez, there was a constant struggle between liberals and conservatives, the usually upper-class sector of the population who supported the church and a strong central government. Benito Juárez, a lawyer and governor in the state of Oaxaca, was a leader of the Liberal Party and also of Zapotec indigenous origin. With his rise, he represented a new demographic entering onto the national political scene, yet it remains a complex relationship because he favored the breaking up and sale of indigenous lands through the Ley Lerdo in 1856.

His Presidency ushered in a period known as La Reforma. To put it simply, Juárez oversaw the implementation of several new liberal reforms during this time, the most important being:

  • Ley Lerdo (1856): a sweeping land reform that required all religious properties not in direct religious usage to be auctioned off. This is the law that also did the same for indigenous ejidos, breaking them up and auctioning them off, usually ending up in the hands of hacendados (hacienda owners), which furthered the creation of a landed elite.
  • Ley Juárez (1856): eliminated clerical and military privileges (fueros). This obviously angered the Church and the military.
  • Ley Iglesias (1857): required that Church-issued services such as birth and marriage certificates were to be handled by the state going forward. This expanded the bureaucracy of the state and stripped more power from the Church.

Benito Juárez was President through the War of Reform or Three Years’ War (1857-1860) and was temporarily displaced during the French Intervention of Mexico by Maxmilian I (1861-1867), a European Hapsburg royal who briefly reigned as emperor in Mexico. Juárez remained in office until his death in 1872.

Monument to Benito Juárez, Alameda Central, CDMX.
(Hemiciclo a Juárez, Avenida Juárez). Photo: Hajor, 2004.

His legacy stands as a major liberal innovator during a turbulent period in the 19th-century: he was anti-clerical, breaking up many of the privileges of the Church; he subjected the military to government control; and he passed land reforms that changed the landscape of the Mexican countryside (literally). As previously mentioned, he remains a national hero in México and his likeness can be found everywhere.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. I want to inspire you to take time to learn more about Benito Juárez and La Reforma. It’s a fascinating, complex, and important period of Mexican history.

If you have book or film suggestions for this period, or if there is a topic you would like to see discussed in the future, please comment below.

July 9 – 15, 2017 – Frida Kahlo

Saludos desde California! I’d like to welcome you all to my blog, This Week in Mexican History.

I’m excited to begin this online adventure with a post about a very significant person within the last century of Mexican History — a strong, intelligent woman whose story means a lot to me personally. What I admire most about her is the desire to stay true to herself and to embrace her mestiza identity, while often flouting social convention in her fashion choices, gender/sexuality, and artistic mode of expression.

Photo: Nikolas Murray, Frida Pink/Green Blouse, Coyoacon, Bentley Gallery, 1938.

Of course, I’m referring to Frida Kahlo de Rivera, who was born in Coyoacán, México on July 6, 1907 and also died in her hometown on July 13, 1954, at the age of 47. Her work and personal life have become more renowned over the last 20 years here in the U.S., especially due to the Hollywood blockbuster featuring Salma Hayek (Frida, 2002).  Much of her personal story is already well-known, so instead, I would like to pay respect to her significance as an artist by exploring the place and moment in which she lived, which so inspired her creations.

Mural de Diego Rivera, DF
Photo: Candace Garcia, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico D.F., June 22, 2015.

The art of Post-Revolutionary Mexico (~1920s – 1940s) is most often characterized by the murals of “The Big Three/Los Tres Grandes”: Diego Rivera, Davíd Alfaro Siquieros, and José Clemente Orozco. This artwork contained important symbolism, embodying the new social reforms that were called for by the Mexican Revolution: land, labor, and education for all; national unity; idealizing and embracing Mexico’s indigenous past (indigenismo), accompanied by a rejection of the primacy of European culture; and a rise in secularism and intellectualism, which was sometimes associated with the popularity of socialist thought at the time (see: Bolshevik Revolution, 1917).

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Beyond Los Tres Grandes, it’s important to recognize the work of Mexican women who were also inspired by Revolutionary values, some who ran in the same intellectual/artistic circles as those named above. Frida Kahlo was one of these women, along with Tina Modotti, Lola Cueto, Rosario Cabrera, Chabela Villaseñor, and Nahui Olin, whom art historian Tatiana Flores characterizes as “Strategic Modernists.” Flores defines this as:

  “Women avant-garde artists of post-revolutionary Mexico who engaged with modernist thought and prevailing modes of visual production… All rejected academic traditions and pondered through visual means what should be the purpose of Mexican art in the postrevolutionary moment. Their strategies included critiquing dominant avant-garde models, experimenting with diverse media that challenged the parameters of high art, employing pedagogy and activism as a means to effect social and cultural changes, and asserting the relevance of art that engaged personal experience. Stylistically heterogeneous, their work redefines the role of art and the artist in the post-revolutionary period.”

Flores, Tatiana. “Strategic Modernists: Women Artists in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.” Woman’s Art Journal, Fall-Winter 2008, 29, no. 2 (2008): 12.

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We can easily see, by looking at the repertoire of Kahlo’s artwork, how intimately she portrayed her own personal experiences, by showcasing herself as the subject of many of her paintings. She used aspects of Mexican folk art (indigenous aesthetics) and surrealism to depict herself overcoming physical and emotional suffering or also living everyday life. Kahlo challenged gender roles by depicting herself wearing a man’s suit with short hair, for example, and by depicting herself as a woman surrounded by dreamlike, sometimes gory imagery, as opposed to looking pristine and conventionally beautiful.

Kahlo painted what she knew, her immediate environment including herself, her thoughts, plants and animals, close friends. Although she’s now become part of popular Latino culture here in the U.S. (I have a great pair of socks with her likeness on them), I’m using this opportunity to remember her for her contributions to the art world. Kahlo is both representative of the Post-Revolutionary moment in Mexico and its values, while simultaneously challenging the status quo in regard to gender and visual expression.

Thanks for sharing this moment of reflection for Frida during this week, that of her birth and death.

[A huge shout-out to my former professor, mentor, and friend Dr. Miriam Riggs for the resources and intellectual inspiration for this article. Thank you!]


Visitar : If you’re in Mexico City, make sure to visit Frida & Diego’s home, La Casa Azul aka Museo Frida KahloAlso check out Rivera’s awesome collection of Pre-Hispanic art @ Museo Anahuacalli.

Ver : For a general, North American overview of Frida’s life, watch the film Frida (2002)

YouTube has some cool Frida videos – including this one from Univision about the newest exhibition at Museo Frida Kahlo, which showcases fashions from her closet which has remained under wraps for 58 years, now being made public.

Take a brief tour of Coyoacán , including the Museum, from a Mexican vlogger (in Spanish, can use subtitles).

No longer running in So Cal, now at the Cincinnati Opera, try to catch the opera based on our favorite lady, aptly titled Frida.

Know any good books, documentaries, films, exhibitions, etc. related to Frida Kahlo? I welcome your suggestions!!