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The Mexican Revolution and its Lasting Legacy on American Art and Culture

This is a guest post by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado. He is Professor of Spanish, Latin American Studies, and Film and Media Studies and Jarvis Thurston and Mona Van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. He plans to be in residence at the Kluge Center during the summer of 2021 as the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South. 

November 20 marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution and as the pandemic keeps me from visiting my other country, I have been thinking deeply about those cultural ties. American artists, writers, and thinkers from several disciplines found not only inspiration in the Mexican Revolution, but also a way to think through urgent questions about the relationship between art forms, politics, and society.

As a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, and a scholar of Mexican cultural studies, I have developed a passion for collecting books and films that detail the extensive cultural relations between the two countries. Often pitted in a paradoxical relationship defined by a combination of deep ties and mutual distrust, my two countries have a fascinating history of cultural exchange and collaboration that their respective people often overlook.

Yet, this history provides examples and languages of engagement that I find helpful for our countries to move forward as neighbors, in a relationship that could be more productive and less frictional. The depth of binational culture includes the extensive influence of Mexican artists in the United States, the longstanding fascination with Mexico by American writers and thinkers, and the rich and complex culture of Mexican-American communities in the United States.

Traces of the Mexican Revolution and its cultural aftermath are everywhere in the United States. One can think of Diego Rivera’s spectacular murals in Detroit, my favorite among his works, which boldly brought his deep historical approach, first developed in Mexico, to the Motor City, tying its mythical origins to the struggle of automotive workers at the Ford Motor Company. There is also José Clemente Orozco’s spectacular work The Epic of American Civilization, located in the library at Dartmouth College. As Mary K. Coffey discusses in her excellent book on the murals, Orozco’s painting was a critique of the history of colonialism, addressed both at the legacies of the US doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and Mexico’s official indigenismo, the ideology used to build Mexican national identity through an imagination of indigenous culture.

Diego Rivera is shown at work on his new mural The bacteriological detail appears in the centre; under it is the scene of dancing and bridge playing. Credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

For me, celebrating the Mexican Revolution in the United States in 2020 means working intensely and carefully in unveiling these binational cultural stories, full of beauty, yet fraught with conflict and contradiction. I have additional reminders of these stories close to my home in St. Louis. Reading Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America, and following his reference to Henry W. Berger’s book St. Louis and Empire, I learned that my home city was a center of trade with my country of birth, to the point that a Spanish-language newspaper focused on trade issues was published for decades by John F. Cahill, an American merchant and trader who at one point was even appointed Mexican Consul in St. Louis. In the St. Louis Post Office, murals that date back to 1939 were painted by Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin under the Treasury Department’s New Deal art programs.

What isn’t widely known is that both Millman and Siporin studied under the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their use of fresco techniques and their understanding of art as a public good derive from the Mexican Muralist Movement and were essential to the conceptualization of the type of public art that the New Deal fostered in post offices and other public spaces across the United States. Indeed, as scholars like Melanie Anne Herzog document, the impact of Mexican art was fundamental to African American artists too. Artists like Charles Alston were in dialogue with Rivera and Orozco during their visits to Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, and some exceptional Black American artists also worked in Mexico. Elizabeth Catlett, for instance, an artist and sculptor from Washington, DC, worked in Mexico’s Taller de Gráfica Popular, which was an important Mexican artist collective, in the mid-1940s, and stayed on as a professor in the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) until her retirement. She died in Cuernavaca in 2012.

Pausing to browse my collection of books, I come across many examples of the extensive impact of the Mexican Revolution, and Mexico at large, on the American imagination. Scholar Adela Pineda Franco recently published an extensive study that demonstrates the binational (and later multinational) character of the cinema surrounding the Mexican Revolution, which would become an inspiration to figures like John Steinbeck and Elia Kazan. The 1936 film Redes, recently restored thanks to L’Immagine Ritrovata and the World Cinema Project, brought together the Mexican musician and composer Carlos Chávez, the American photographer Paul Strand, and two up-and-coming directors, Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinneman, who would go on to have distinguished careers in their respective countries.

I also look to Katherine Anne Porter, whose writings on the Mexican revolution led the critic Jeffrey Lawrence to claim that she invented a genre of US writing called “the literature of experience.” Porter’s relationship with Mexico included the translation of The Itching Parrot, the picaresque narrative by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi considered, at least by lore, to be the first novel in post-Independence Latin America. Porter, who took considerable editorial license by making significant cuts to the book, nonetheless defended this Mexican work as a novel of the highest order, as a New York Times review noted  in 1942.

Diego Rivera, full-length portrait, seated in front of mural depicting American “class struggle” Credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

I also see Peregrina, journalist Alma Reed’s fabulous memoir. Reed went to Mexico during the revolution, fell in love with Yucatán’s socialist governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and inspired a famous trova, a music genre from the Yucatan. We have this book thanks to my good friend Michael Schuessler, a US scholar working in Mexico who found the manuscript in an abandoned apartment in 2001 after it had been lost for decades.

Stories of encounter and exchange remind us of the need to think about both countries together, in their difficult common histories, many of them violent and uncomfortable. Binational scholars like myself, and the many colleagues who form a community of Mexicanistas/Mexicanists that live on both sides of the border and beyond, are working every day to bring these stories to visibility, to consciousness, and to the future.

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