The Mexican Revolution — 2

 The end of hostilities in 1917 led to the single most stable and monolithic systems of government in the 20th century. The triumphant revolutionaries did one thing extremely well: hold on to power. In terms of their social agenda, however, the legacy of Revolution was a mixed bag.

The Revolutionaries by David Alfaro Siqueiros (acryllic on plywood)


Revolution is tricky to define, more so if applied to any particular conflict. Most definitions go for the idea that a revolution fundamentally reorders power relations within society, a reordering that must benefit those from below, that it must eliminate the ruling elite and establish a new governing class. In terms of Mexico, however, a lot of the scholarship sees the Revolution as incomplete or even non-existent. Sociologist Adolfo Gilly considers it an interrupted revolution, others not even that. For more insight, you could do worse than consider one of British higher education’s hidden treasures; a generation of Mexican historians that are the undisputed world’s best (Alan Knight, Brian Hamnett, Will Fowler, Hugh Thomas).

 The failures of the Revolution were many. It did not end the most basic inequalities, poverty remained widespread, land reform (apart from the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas) was piecemeal, insufficient and badly implemented, corruption was never seriously tackled and the state party system was undemocratic. The ruling party (The PRM, which later became the PRI) won every presidential election from 1920 to 2000, held every single governorship until the mid 1980s and would win upwards of 90% of seats in parliament (Mexican vote-rigging techniques are legendary, but it would take too much space to deal with here. A later post, perhaps).

 Despite these drawbacks, the Revolution did make a huge difference to many. The end of debt peonage, nationalization of the American oil companies, education, health and public works programmes benefited many. Women were also freer from traditional gender roles. One important area was a new cultural assertiveness that the revolution brought to Mexicans.

This assertive revolutionary culture had both internal and external causes. In the 1920s, the end of WWI saw the end of European dominance in the economic and cultural sphere and the rise of the United States. Outside Europe, WWI was (is) seen as an elitist clash of empires, and this has a negative effect on how Europe is viewed.

Jose Guadalupe Posada. Popular 19th Century print maker who inspired the muralists

Latin America as a whole also undergoes rapid changes including industrialisation and the growth of economic prosperity (especially in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile). This trend leads to a new assertiveness by Latin Americans as they develop their own cultural identity (cinema, radio, music -Carlos Gardel-, poetry -Rubén Darío- ).

Another important international influence was the Russian Revolution and its art and culture. A split began to develop between an old, elitist culture (identified with Western Europe) and popular new forms (US and Latin American).

Mexico led the way in terms of Latin American culture. Influenced by the Revolution, people began to re examine their own roots: What was it to be a Mexican? The government played a leading part in promoting a new culture. Nationalism became a key feature of this promotion. José Vasconcelos, first director of SEP (education ministry) was a central figure in promoting cultural policy. His aims were:

a) To make culture more nationalistic

b) To explore the Indian past and bring it to the mainstream

c) To fight illiteracy (cultural missions and schools crucial in this)

Mexico is now seen as home of the “cosmic race”, indigenous culture promoted as authentic. Revolution glorified as an epic struggle between good an evil. Campaigns against foreign influences (jazz, horchata, women’s flapper fashions), and more importantly against the Catholic Church.

Muralists were one of great cultural forces in revolutionary creative arts: Diego Rivera (married to Frida Kahlo), José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros are the three big names in this artistic movement. Influences on these included Indian techniques and designs and Soviet muralism (art in public spaces, for the people rather than shut away in galleries and collections of the elite and the rich), painted huge buildings; themes too on a heroic scale: Indians, peasants, workers as heroes. Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa are glorified as champions of the poor (even as they were being marginalized politically). In architecture this spirit is mirrored in the new UNAM university campus: buildings are laid out using the pre-Hispanic cities of Monte Albán and Teotihuacán as a blueprint, to create spaces reminiscent of the Aztec past.

Diego Rivera mural, Mexico City

By contrast, most novelists are cynical about the Revolution and its outcome (Azuela, Rulfo and later Fuentes). Although most of these writers produced nuanced, intelligent and acute portraits of the conflict, the literate novel-reading elite was always a small minority and unlikely to upset the status quo. In fact the SEP promoted many of these critical novels, showing an openness to criticism and dissent in literary salons that was not tolerated in the mass media. Eventually, however, the dam was going to break.

Maria Felix, 1940s actress and star

It all happened in the 1940s, a golden age of Mexican Popular culture: cinema genres (musicals, charro westerns, Luis Buñuel) also championed the music of José Alfredo Jimenez, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete: Mariachi music is born. The development of press magazines and the comic book industry saw the country become increasingly literate and westernized. Radio serials (romantic tales, forerunners of telenovelas) grew alongside the music-hall comedians who made the transition to the wireless medium (Cantinflas is perhaps the best known of these). SEP begins to publish and promote the work of Mexican writers such as Mariano Azuela’s novel Los de Abajo (The Underdogs). Culture became increasingly independent of government; irreverent, questioning and sometimes critical, it reflected the Revolution (and Mexico itself) as a multi-layered and contradictory place.

Cantinflas (R) on the set of Around The World in 80 Days (Shirley Maclaine and David Niven also pictured)

About floppybootstomp

Lecturer, teacher, writer and traveller all perfectly good nouns aren't they? Do they have anything to do with me? Ask the taxman.

Posted on November 29, 2010, in Latin American Stuff, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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