Tuesday, September 23, 2014


(Sorry it has taken me so long to post this - moved house and forgot which computer it was on.)

In a previous post I reported I was reading Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, a book which seemed to be the answer to many questions about what it is that strikes me as special about the country of Mexico, especially the religious aspects of the country.  Trained as a sociologists I kept thinking I saw “community”, that thing which sociologists felt had been in decline since 1850.  Indeed Auguste Comte (1798-1857) the French sociologist, who first applied the name to a field of study, made significant contributions to our understanding of societal developments before attempting to create a religious-like program which would accomplish what religion had done previously. He saw community disappearing and wanted to rebuild it without religion.   F. Toennies (18551936) made sociology’s concerns clearer when he developed the concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, the former term usually translated by “community” or a society held together by emotional and personal relationships.  In this state  we come to know each other more holistically, we tend to be more open and authentic and we feel more obliged to help others.  The later is modern society where contractual relationships (at work, shopping and so on) bind people together.  We live in a less charged emotional world, always try to present our best face and don’t really know those we even call friends.  In the latter phase there is much less constraint on the ego and too often it “runs amok”.  It creates the “me” generation and many of the other ills of society; the self is homeless and the ego becomes dominant and no one want to tell you when your behaviour is inappropriate since “nobody is the boss of me”.

Friederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) coined the phrase “God is dead”, among others, and with this phrase encouraged us to abandon a belief in God.  Religions were non-rational and humans, having created God, were capable of developing a rational basis for living, for morals, for relationships and so on.

Into this context comes the book Religion for Atheists.  It begins by suggesting the most boring question to ask is: is religion true?  It is very simple to suggest that God and many of the stories of the Bible, or of any religion, do not stand up to the test of science.  If instead we accept that God is dead and the various unsupportable claims made by religions are dismissed:  What is left of religion?  Is it of any use?   To often the answer draws upon another concept from Nietzsche, “the bad odour of religion”, and we tend to reject everything. Even a hint of morality turns people off.  All religions and their 2500 years of thinking about the human condition are dismissed.  Nothing is left and we are on our own.  We would rather believe the most recent research by psychologists than consider issues humans have thought about for centuries.  We tend to believe that the past teaches us nothing.

Botton suggests that all religions have two broad goals:  First “the need to live together in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.  And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to death of loved ones and to our own decay.”  God may be dead but these two important needs continue to haunt us.  Botton attempts to scavenge religious books to separate the non-rational from the helpful, suggesting there are many ingenious concepts with which to understand and perhaps solve the ills of secular society.  If self-help books can be helpful why not 2500 years of religious thought.

The Catholic mass is a beginning point.  The mass works to breakdown many of the social divisions which separate us.  People of all work, income or status groups come together to share, listen, sing and pray together.  We are reminded very quickly that we are all in this together, we want the same attention and love from God.  Second, we all listen to a very moral language and its lessons are repeated over and over.  Third we are surrounded by the great moral figures of our history in the form of statuary. Fourth, the rituals of the occasion are often repeated and the audience plays an important role, responding to requirements to pray, to sing and to recite very common lines.  All of these help unite people and the repetition drives home simple but important messages.  Fifth, the very building in which the mass is conducted has been intentionally created to make us look up, be quiet and to realize how small we are.  Our egos are all put in their proper place.

Botton includes a whole chapter on architecture and I was struck by the debate which emerged during the reformation.  Protestants were incensed at the money spent on Catholic churches and the extensive use of art work, statuary and so on.  Protestants argued that the bible alone could work just fine even if in a simple home surrounded by the squalor of the growing industrialization.   Catholics argued that we could only be uplifted in a beautiful location and they went on a building spree to illustrate their beliefs. It does seem that the Protestants were wrong on this issue and we now all appreciate the value of beautiful building, parks, streets and the value of untrammelled nature.  All of these things appear to heal the spirit and protect it from the roughness of many parts of the community and of life.

The author also takes us back to 1792 when revolutionary France separated the state from the Catholic church.  Three days after this declaration the state opened the Louvre gallery, filling many of its rooms with objects stolen or confiscated from church buildings.  In later years the theft of artifacts from churches further afield filled the halls.  The museum was supposed to perform the same goals as the church but how were we to look at these works of art?  Were we to pray?  Simply adore them?  What?  Rather than to learn moral lessons from art we were expected to learn facts.  This latter objective is often revealed in the museum-gallery itself -  the development of art from 1650 to 1750, the art of painter X, the development of the style y.  Lost of course is the moral point of view, we no longer look at a piece of religious art and find our self melting away and becoming part of the “other” - leading to opening ourselves, becoming less egotistical, more compassionate, thinking about the world, etc.  Instead we are urged to examine the use of brush strokes, of colour, of perspective.

Similarly when society set out on its secular path the universities said they could do what churches had previously done, particularly through the departments of humanities.  Through the great literature of the world they would expose us to the human condition and to solutions to very human problems - grief, relational problems, our own vulnerability and failures.  An examination of most universities however, shows that these grand ideals have been replaced by academic issues.  We are introduced to surveys of the development of narrative, the style of 3 modern authors, the use of metaphor in literature, and so on.  Lost is the moral instruction promised and we are left with a number of valuable books which we may read once and are left to gather our own lessons from the material.  We are presented with more books than the great authors ever dreamed of and yet our souls remain untouched.  If it were the church, students would read less, reread more often and read with the intention of exploring the moral dilemmas inherent in the stories.

Botton does not confine himself to Catholicism, drawing useful lessons from Judaism and Buddhism.  One example from Judaism is the day of atonement when you are required to review the past year to identify instances when you hurt someone.   You are then required to seek them out and apologize.  The receiver is obliged to appreciate your thought and effort and to forgive.  In this way small hurts are dealt with before they become disruptive of relationships.  In Buddhism we find the practise of meditation where one is led through a process of breathing, focussing on elements of the body until the ego is silenced if even for a few moments.   With repetition the ego is tamed and one is more open to your own needs and to the  needs of others.

If all of this can be generalized it is by seeing that these religions see the self (or our ego) as a source of a great many problems.  They have each found useful solutions in order to reduce the barriers between people, to take us out of ourselves so we can appreciate others, to impart moral lessons, to imagine the suffering of others, to talk about our feelings and vulnerabilities and to live and work together. All religions realized another important part of the human condition:  we all have best of intentions but forget our commitment shortly thereafter.  This is most clear to us on January 10 when our New Year resolutions are broken and put away until next January.  Religions are built around practice so that we continue to hear that voice in our head - “keep pedaling”.

Reading this book has given some clarity to why it is that I do not believe in God and at the same time get weepy when I witness community events and religious ritual in Mexico.  I have always thought it was about more than the God thing.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


If you have read this blog previously you will recall that I wrote about the number of religious images where I assumed this revewaled a process of democratization of religious power.  No longer centered in the institution nor in a single image (Christ or Guadalupe) power is transferred to simple images in metal or to photos, posters, small replicas of a saint.  Here I want to talk briefly about the history of this process.
Is this just an example of consumer "stuff" or is it a display of power?

I have been reading Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton and found it fascinating and challenging.  His basic thesis is that as the West became increasingly secularized we began to dismiss any religion (God was dead) and in this process we threw out the baby with the bathwater - or perhaps throwing out the bathwater with the baby.  After 2500 years of history we havediscarded everything  these religions knew about the problems of the "soul"and the building of community.  I will return to this book in a separate post but here only want to report on a little history.

The Romans had many gods and deities resulting in a multitude of temples and alters.  Each of these gods were believed to have a special power and so were sought out by those with specific needs.  In 312 AD Emperor Constantine was on his way to an important battle when he had a vision during the night.   In this vision he saw an image of a Christian word above him.  He awoke and had his troops paint this image on their shields.  They were successful in the battle and he believed it was due to the Christian image.  He subsequently legitimized Christianity by converting.   The Christians, not being fools, set about replacing all of the images and temples of the Romans with their own alters and temples.  Many of these placed a deity with a specific characteristic which corresponded to what was considered sacred locally.  As a result there were saints who performed miracles, others who provided relief for dental problems, marital problems, and so on.  In about 411 AD the Christian church declared that a simple piece of linen could be used to touch a sacred image and thus transfer the power of that image thus allowing you to take this power to your home.  As a result a market was created for a multitude of "handkerchiefs" as well as replica saints.   This is the process of democratization I referred to in an earlier post.  Attaching specific deities to a local location also fostered, probably unintentionally, travel which was to be undertaken for enlightenment and problems of the "soul".  (Now travel is to provide us with entertainment, knowledge or just as a time to see the sights - but what sights do we see?)

When the Spanish conquered Mexico they introduced the same polices.   When ever they found a site sacred to the local people they erected a cross or built a church.  I recently visited the city of Puebla and small town of Cholula.  In each of these locations you can't help but be struck by the number of beautiful churches.  In Cholula which was a sacred site for the large pre-columbian population Cortez vowed to build 365 church, one to replace every temple he had destroyed.  I think you would be hard pressed to find all these churches but there are indeed many churches and some of the most amazing in the county. One of these is the church of the Virgen de los Remedios begun in 1574 (replacing a cross that had twice been destroyed by lightening.  The image of the Virgin (only 27 cm high) was apparently brought from Spain with one of Cortez's troops who buried it after a terrible defeat by the Aztecs.  During the next battle the Spanish troops saw a young girl throwing dirt into the eyes of the Aztecs resulting in their defeat   Perhaps the young girl was the Virgin herself .  The image was thought to have brought them success.    The church itself is built on top of one of the great pyramids of the world.  Cortez probably wasn't aware that a pyramid was there as it had been vacated and was covered in trees and grass. Exploration of the pyramid was first begun in 1930 and while a small section has been reconstructed it is still covered in grass and trees.  The image of the Virgin was first referred to as Our Lady of Victory, but in 1594 was renamed the Virgin of Remedies. For the indigenous peoples the site was associated with the god of rain.   It is still a sacred site for the indigenous population (being one of several sites visited by the Conchero dancers each year) as well as for Catholics.
A view of Los Remedios as you climb up the pyramid.

The small section of reconstruction with the top of Los Remedios just showing on top of the pyramid.

Inside of Los Remedios with the small virgin (27cm tall) above the alter.

These few details helped me to see that the process of the Christianization of Mexico was not unique and the presence of a plethora of religious images goes back almost 1600 years.

A few more words on the image of the Virgin.  Upon seeing the Virgin I was convinced it was the same image as found in Patzcuaro, Neustra Senora de la Salud.  Although the image in Patzcuaro is much larger and made by the local idigenous population of pasta de cana it bears a remarkable likeness to that at Los Remedios.  One exception is that the Virgin of Los Remedios is carrying a small Christ child in her am.  One often wonders where Vasco de Quirroga found the inspiration for his image; it now seems possible it may have come from Cholula.  Indeed he may have known the image in Spain.
A photo of the replica of the Virgin of Los Remedios.  Notice the moon at the bottom and in her hands there is a small Christ child.

La Senora de la Salud during a pilgrimage in Patzcuaro.  Notice that she holds a rosary in her hands (but the original in the basilica has a small moon at her feet).

Reading:  Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I’m sure you have had this experience.   You read something and soon discover that you really hadn’t understood something you previously believed you were familiar with.    I recently had this experience twice in one week - enough to shake ones sense of reality.

The first “shake” occurred while reading Wade Davis’ recent book on the life of George Mallory (Into the Silence).  The book casts a sufficiently wide net to allow the reader to set the first attempts on Mount Everest in a political and cultural context and there is sufficient detail on the actual climbs that one feels you were there.   One element of that broad context was World War 1 as all of the members of the first attempt on the mountain had been in the war or experienced the loss of countless family and friends.  Davis’ account of World War 1 is graphic and at the same time almost poetic; an amazing piece of writing.  I have been privileged to be part of a generation for whom war was not a personal reality; I knew from an early age I was not going to join the military and given the times was quite anti-military.   However, my father and two uncles had been in World War 2, my wife’s uncle had died in World War 1, but that is now 90 years in the past and an aunt I never knew lost her husband in World War 1.  So, I had to ask myself why I never knew, or cared to know, about the most terrible war in history.   Why didn’t the numbers of dead from that war ever get through to me previously?  I really don’t know.   I did, however, go back through family histories and very quickly came up with a list of 16 men who had served in the war, 4 of whom died from injuries. So now this was has my attention.  Primarily in terms of the social consequences of this horrendous event on communities and on societies as well as on individual men as in the story of George Mallory.

The second shake was on reading Massacre in Mexico (1971) by Elena Poniatowska.   Poniatowska spent her career as a journalist and when it came to the two most significant events in Mexican history of the past 50 years she developed a very modern style.   Rather than tell her story or attempt to provide an analysis of the event she simply let people speak for themselves.  Almost the entirety of the book is made up of short clips from interviews with people.  It is like reading a contemporary twitter feed from the front lines.  The reader gradually pieces events together and forms a powerful image of what happened.  The event of course was the state killing of approximately 320 students at the Plaza of Three Cultures located at Tlateloloco just days before the 1968 olympics were to begin in Mexico City.   Student protests had been going on for some time regarding significant issues of the time (not about tuition, etc) and as the Olympics approached it seemed that the government made a decision to bring events to a close.  Although there is not a strong consensus about events because of the technology available and the ability of the government to control the press and to intercept any photos which may have come out of the plaza.

The strong view, and I think the right view, is that the military prepared and then virtually trapped the students in the plaza and assisted by an armed helicopter and forces with machine guns, bayonets, and guns set about killing as many people as they could.   We have become accustomed to the police roughing up protesters and occasionally wounding them or, as in the case at Kent State University, killing four and wounding 9 others. More intentional incidents are associated with communist states like China (Tiananmen Square, 1989) or autocratic states where dissent is not tolerated and few are able to resist without serious repercussions.   But here was Mexico, our neighbor, engaging in behaviour which should not have been tolerated at a state level.   Further, I was old enough and developing sufficient political consciousness to be more aware.  The 1967 Detroit Riots were close at hand, resulting in 43 deaths. and this did shape my political awareness of the USA.  I should have known to expect the worst of politicians.

I have now started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow and things may never be the same for me.  Although, for any thinking person, it is not new, the way the author frames the analysis is does leave you at least trembling.


As a Canadian, Mexico was not part of my consciousness until I arrived in central Mexico and ended up spending a great deal of time in the region.  The situation for Americans was quite different as their history was intimately connected to Mexico and it became the focus of advertising in the 1920s.  There was a new found interest in Mexican art and there was travel between the two countries as well as efforts to exhibit and sell many things Mexican.  With the relative stabilization of Mexico under president Obregón (1920-1924) and the malaise that set over many western nations after world war 1 there was great interest in the revolution as the new politics made space for progressive voices and nationalism.  America had come to be seen as cautious, materialistic and boring.  Excitement, hope, social reform, new forms of art and “untouched”  (i.e authentic) peoples were south of the border.   It wasn’t until 1923 that the USA formally recognized Mexico and still later until some of the tension between the two diminished.  However, people did not wait for all of this; they took a train to Mexico City.  Mexico also became a gathering point for many revolutionaries from Latin America - Cuba, Venezuela - who had been exiled for their politics, being seen as too radical and threatening.   Many of these people had a lasting impact on Mexico and the USA and others influenced developments in other countries.   Patricia Albers in her biography of Tina Mondotti explains it best:  Mexico City teemed with fanatics, bohemians, idealists, radical; and visionaries.  Intellectuals who had once looked to Europe for cultural revelation now turned their backs upon the old continent, embracing instead the genius of peasants and indigenous peoples whose inclusion in the Mexican community promised to bring forth the regeneration and exaltation of the national spirit.

The relationship to the indigenous peoples was difficult and full of contradictions.  As noted in a previous post on “Night of the dead the old men” we saw a genuine interest in the indigenous Purépecha peoples but behind this we saw a tension between the past and the present.  The indigenous people of the past were of interest (as perhaps captured by that difficult term “Mexican folkways”) but the relationship to real people was often different and contradictory.  José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) provided a good example.  In the government of Álvaro Obregón he was the minister of education and began the process of modernizing the education system and saw it as a vehicle for the creation of a common or national sense of belonging to a wider community.  At the same time he was a firm believer in the creation of a new Mexican race where all of the indigenous people would disappear and become like everyone else.

While many “foreigner” were in Mexico prior to 1920 it is this date which really marked a turning point.  The following list is my working document but it may be of interest to others.  I am sorry it is so long and so "rough" but please consider it as my working notes.

Alma Reed (1889-1966):  One of the more extraordinary women to go to Mexico.  While a journalist in San Francisco she wrote about the terrible wrong done to a young Mexican man who was sentenced to death at age 16.  Due to her efforts his sentence was commuted and the president of Mexico (Álvaro Obregón) invited her to visit Mexico in 1922.  She accepted this offer but got her publisher to give her an assignment in Mexico, covering an archaeology conference in the Yucatán.  Two extraordinary things happened here.   First, an American who owned the property where Chichen Itza is located confessed to her, or perhaps bragged, that he had found a great deal of fascinating material in the cenotes on his property and arranged to have them sent secretly to the USA.  The response to her story in the paper was that Mexico set about getting the museum to return many artifacts.  The other thing was her meeting with Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the radical governor of the Yucatán.   The two fell deeply in love and while she was back in San Francisco organizing their wedding the governor was assassinated  on January of 1924, a victim of a coup in one of the most radical states at that time.  The reasons for this are unclear but as this was still a troubled time in Mexico it was probably organized by the landowners who wanted to protect their property from his reforms, or, Adolfo de la Puerta, a member of Obregón government, although an enemy, was stirring up a rebellion and needed to keep open the route of firearms coming from Belize.  A song was written about their love affair, a movie made and books published as well as her autobiography.   The discovery of her autobiography after her unexpected death is a story for another time.   At the urging of Anita Brenner, Reed met Orozco and they were to meet again and she became his principal patron and went on to write extensively about the muralist movement.  Both Alma and Orozco met Edward Weston while on a trip to Carmel, California.  (see the 1994 biography by  Antoinette May, Passionate Pilgrim: The extraordinary life of Alma Reed.   Also the incomplete autobiography discovered and published by Michael Schuessler  Peregrina: Love and death in Mexico. )

Edward Weston (1886-1958):  He traveled to Mexico in 1923 with one of his four sons and Tina Modotti, a young Italian woman who appeared in silent movies. Between 1923-27 he had a commission with Anita Brenner to travel through Mexico taking photos of artisans and of everyday life.  His relationship with Modottii was short lived but he did portraits of Rivera and others of his cultural and intellectual circle.  He returned to the USA in 1929.   A great deal has been written on Weston but see in particular Tina Modotti and Edward Weston:  The Mexican Years. (2004)

Tina Modotti (1896-1942):  Modotti apprenticed with Weston and gained some recognition for her work.  However, she became increasingly political, declaring she was a communist and was expelled from Mexico in 1929 after allegations that she murdered her lover.  She returned under a false name in 1939.  Modotti had a relationship with a Cuban in Mexico who was part of a large Latin American group of revolutionaries, many exiled from their own country.  You can find images of Modotti in some of Diego Rivera’s early murals.  See Patricia Albers (2002)  Shadows, Fire, Snow;  The Life of Tina Modotti.   Or, Mildred Constantine (1993) Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life, or even Margaret Hooks ( 2000) Tina Modotti: Radical Photographer.    Or to make the circle a little tighter check out the book by Elena Poniatowska (1932-), Tinísima (1991).  Poniatowska was not born in Mexico although her Mexican grandmother left for Europe during the revolution.  Poniatowska and her parents returned (in a sense) to Mexico in 1942 where Elena soon became actively involved in journalism, revealing a powerful social consciousness.   She write in Spanish and has a long list of publication, many which are significant for understanding Mexico.  Two in particular stand out:  Massacre in Mexico (1971)  (in English translation) which deals with the 1968 murder of students in Tlalelolco and the Nada, Nadie (1988) which deals with the 1985 earthquake and the failure of the political system to respond.  Both of these events were transformative and are helpful for understanding Mexico today.   You can find a biography of Poniatowska written by Michael Schuessler.

Anita Brenner (1905-1974):   Brenner was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico but her family left to live in Texas during the revolution.  She returned in 1923 and immediately became part of the intellectual and cultural life of the new republic.  She remained in Mexico City until 1927 and did not return until 1940.  In 1929 she published Idols Behind Altars, with some illustrations by Weston, and in 1943 The Wind that Swept Mexico, a story of the revolution.  Both are still referred to today.   You can find the diary/journal she kept from 1925-1930 edited by her daughter Susannah Glusker and including numerous great photos in Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico (2010).   Her daughter also wrote Anita Brenner: A mind of Her Own (2010).

Frances Toor (1890-1956):  Born into a large Jewish family, Toor went to Mexico City in 1922, along with her husband who she divorced a few years later, to continue her studies  and after three years she began publishing the immensely influential magazine Mexican Folkways which lasted until 1939.  As we know from the post on Night of the dead and the old men as symbols, she was included in a 1923 or 1924 trip to Lake Patzcuaro where she witnessed night of the dead as well as Los Viejitos (the old men).  The first issue of her magazine includes stories from that trip. In 1936 or 1938 she published a tourist guide to Mexico for a foreign audience, in 1939 a book on Mexican Popular Arts and in 1947 she published  A Treasury of Mexican Folkways which went in to several printings and was influential in creating a sense of the vibrancy of indigenous life and the arts and crafts in Mexico.  No one has done more to promote tourism to Mexico and to value the arts of the indigenous peoples.  Toor also gave Aaron Copeland a copy of Cancioneros, songs she had collected in Mexico, and these formed the basis of his music known as El Salón México.   This spurred Copeland to use American folk themes in his music.

William Spratling (1900-1967):  Moved to Mexico in 1929 after spending 3-4 summers there during previous years.  Immediately became part of the circle around Diego Rivera and assisted in having his works shown in New York.  With his commission from that sale he moved to Taxco where he began to design silver, frequently using indigenous themes. Taxco became a minor centre for expats at this time.

Jean Charlot (1898-1979):  Born in France to a mother of mexican origin, returned with his mother in 1921.  From 1926-1928 he worked at Chichen Itza as the artist attached to the excavation project but more importantly when he first arrived in Mexico he worked with Diego Rivera on murals.  His own, and best known, mural was Massacre in the Main Temple at the National Preparatory School.  Charlot was also involved with Anita Brenner.   He went to New York in 1928 but did return to Mexico where he met his wife.  After 1949 he lived in Hawaii. It is worth looking at his book titled The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920-25.  (1963)

Walter Pach  (1883-1958):   artists, gallery owner and organizer.   Pach was one of the people behind the armory show in New York in 1919 and taught in Mexico City during the 1920s with an emphasis on indigenous art.  He established an important link between the USA and Mexico and was instrumental in getting people like Rivera and Orozco shown in the USA.

Frans Blom (1893-1963):  Born in Denmark, he first traveled to Mexico in 1919 where he stumbled into archaeology. He returned to USA and received training in the field and was working at the university in New Orleans when he returned to Mexico in 1922 to examine and explore the ruins at Palenque.  He devoted his life to exploration in this area and to work with the Lacandon indians.  He became connected to Gertrude Duby  (1901-1993) a Swiss photographer who came to Mexico in 1940 and spent her life working with the Lacandon, taking 1000s of photos and eventually opening a large home (Casa Na Balom) in San Cristóbal which welcomed indians among other guests.  Her books of photos are worth searching for.  (Note:  archaeological sites in central Mexico were the domain of Mexican explorers while sires in the south were left to foreign money and archaeologists.)

Paul Strand (1890-1976):   An American photographer who had many styles was drawn to social reform photography, perhaps due to early experience with Robert Hines but also because of his socialist leanings.  Only in Mexico from 1932-35 where he had a commission from the Mexican government to produce a film, Redes (1936) released in the USA as The wave.

Andre Breton (1896-1966):   Born in France and founder of the surrealist movement, was sent to Mexico in 1938 by the French government.  In Mexico from 1938-40 where he became part of an hidden intellectual group in Erongaricuaro, Michoacán (about 20 minutes from Pátzcuaro).   Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo would visit this group.  He had the opportunity to write with Leon Trotsky who had arrived in Mexico in 1937 and assassinated in 1940.

Carl Zigrosser (1891-1975).  Was a print collector and manager of the Wehye gallery until 1940 when he moved to Philadelphia Museum of Art to become the curator of prints and drawings.  While he spent only a brief visit to Mexico he corresponded with many of the artists of his time and arranged for showing and the sale of their work.  Until he emerged on the scene there was no where in the USA to purchase Mexican art.  He also organized the exhibition of the works of José Guadalupe Posada in 1944. 

Ruth Lechuga (1920-2004):  Arrived in Mexico in 1939 to escape the war in Europe, went on to become a photographer and anthropologist, creating a collection of indigenous art and objects of everyday life that is now on exhibition.  The museum of her collection is well worth the visit.  She was responsible for a change in which the indigenous peoples of Mexico were perceived.

Hugo Brehme (1882-1954), a photographer born in Germany, arrived in Mexico in 1908,  expecting to stay only a short while.  This turned into a lifetime.  He published some famous photos of the revolution and was known for his pictoralism style.   He met Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902-2002) who was to become one of Mexico’s best known photographers in 1923.  Bravo also met Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera, Paul Strand, Andre Breton, Carteir-Bresson and worked with Eisenstein on his movie about mexico. He was more influenced by the formalism style of Weston and Mondotti.  His mature work however, has a surrealist quality and he had an exhibition arranged by Andre Breton.

Ione Robinson (1910-1989).   Arrived in Mexico in 1929 and returned in 1931 with a Guggenheim grant to study art; she chose to work with Diego Rivera on the   mural in the National Palace.   For a short while she lived with Tina Mondotti in Mexico City. Politically focused all her life, she went to Spain in support of the republican side and in 1936 arranged for about 450 orphans to be sent to Morelia, Mexico.   In 1939 she was again in Mexico to take photos of the children in Morelia.  She is best know as a short story writer and in 1945 wrote an instructive piece on the bull fights in Mexico City.  See her biography, A wall to paint on (1946).  

The above list could continue but here is a brief mention of others.   Margaret Shedd (1898-1986) lived off and on in Mexico and developed the  Mexican Centre for Writers.  Katherine Anne Porter a well know writer first visited Mexico in 1920 in time for the inauguration of president Obregón.  She made many visits and her writings reflected her experiences there.   Eliabeth Catlett an artist who arrived in 1946.  Rene Harnoncourt arrived in 1926 and was among the first art curator to exhibit Mexican works in the USA.  Charles Lindburg made his well publicized flight to Mexico in 1927. Frank Tannenbaum, a leftist,  wrote several books about Mexico based on his travels, beginning in 1922.  Carleton Beals, a socialist, first visited in 1918 and returned again in 1923, eventually to be exiled.  Stuart Chase who visited Mexico in 1930 and wrote a much remarked upon book, Mexico: A Study of Two Americas (1931).   Edward E. Ross, the sociologists, traveled to Mexico and wrote the Social Revolution In Mexico in 1923 and also lectured in MC in 1928.  Eyler E. Simpson, a sociologist, was in Mexico from 1928 to 1935 and wrote, The Ejido:  Mexico’s Way Out. (1937).  Martha Graham, the famous dancer and teacher, visited in 1932.  Robert Redfield was in Mexico in 1926 and wrote the very well known book, Tepoztlan, a Mexican Village:  A study in Social Life (1930).  This book and others continues to be reflected in the observations of visitors to Mexico who note that Mexico seems more authentic than the USA, more communal, more family based, has a less materialistic and individualistic attitude, and so on.  D. H. Lawrence arrived in 1923.  John Dos Passos in 1926-27.  John Dewey, the famous educator/philosopher in 1926.  Elsie Clews Parsons, having received a PhD in 1898, made her first visit to Mitla in 1913 and returned between 1929 and 1933.  The results of her work were published in 1936 as Mitla: The Town of Souls.

If you choose to do further reading on this period I recommend Helen Delpar The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican.  (1992) as a starting place.

While I have searched for Canadians who might have had a connection to Mexico in the 1920s all I have learned to date is 25,000 German Mennonites began moving from Canada to Northern Mexico in the 1920s. 

For those who want to know something of the political context behind this time period, here is a list of the Presidents of Mexico.

There were 9 presidents from the deposing of Porfirio Diaz in 1911 to the election of Álvaro Obregón in 1920.  Two of the 9 where assassinated, 3 were interim presidents (one for 45 minutes), 2 were exiled  and 2 resigned under pressure.

Álvaro Obregón  (1920-24).   He and Calles came to be seen as soft liberals and not the radicals that many expected.

Plutarco Elias Calles (1924-28)   Was a more cautious politician and lacked the interest in the art of cultural nationalism that was shared by Obregón and his circle.  This made life for many artists more difficult and forced them to look to the USA for markets.

Alvaro Obregón wins election as president and is assassinated two weeks later.   Calles appoints Gill.  This was the beginning of the PRI election machine.

Emilio Portes Gill (1928-30)

Pazcual Ortiz Rubio (1930-32)  Resigns early due to the undue influence of Gill.

Abilardo Rodriguez (1932-34)

Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40)  Removes all of the people loyal to Calles from government  and in 1936 forces Calles into exile.  Also in 1936 he gives refuge to Trotsky who arrives in Jan. 1937. In 1937 he nationalizes the railway system and in 1938 nationalizes petroleum.   So, much more progressive, some might say radical, politics.  However, Cárdenas was a member of what became the PRI as were those going back to president Gill and this party remained in control until the election of Vicente Fox in 2000.

Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-1946).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


 Martha Stone:  At the Sign of Midnight: the Concheros Dance Cult of Mexico. (1975)

It was with some surprise that I read Martha Stone’s 1975 book on the Conchero dancers.   I now wish I had read it much earlier to avoid months of flailing about in attempts to understands this dance.  Although published in 1975 Stone was living in Mexico City and began to document the dance as early as 1940 and continued for 20 years, becoming a dancer and rising to the position of capitana.  Here then is a first hand account of the dance from an insider’s perspective and showing a real effort to understand the dance.  The book is written in an informal manner, introducing you to many of the participants, revealing internal tensions, and more importantly showing you much more than the dance itself.  The dance is what most of us are familiar with but the dance is supported by a wide range of other activities.  Events such as vigils which are often held prior to a dance, the death of a member, initiation of new members, loyalties, obligations, discipline, creation of the Xuchil, passing of leadership, a 'conquista', raising funds in order to create new banners as well as the everyday travails of quite poor peoples.  Stone attends events (always on invitation) in Mexico City and gradually travels to much more distant places thus providing a sense of the difficulty of travel and often being protected by the leader of a group who had presented the invitation.  She was deeply accepted by those who knew her but was under suspicion when other troops were around.  The tale of her going to the bell tower with her husband (on instructions of the dance leader) only for her to be requested to go down and then threatened with jail.  The problem was that women were not allowed in the tower.  Or the tale of a serious train accident, a train she was supposed to be on, where many of the dance troop were killed while on route to a dance in Jalisco.  I came away with a sense of how busy their schedule was; the dance was a way of life.

The reader gets a very strong impression of how Catholic the dance was (and is) and many of the symbols used can be seen to have a Christian interpretation.  For example, at one point two men declared they were going to dance without their shirts and the leader was so outraged that they were to be disciplined. (Presumably because it violated church practice.)  Discipline consisted of a few lashes to the shoulder or back as well as things like being excluded.  However, as I read all  of this I obtained a strong impression that Catholicism was really a disguise to satisfy the authorities and at the same time allowing them to continue ancient beliefs. In short, it may well be pre-Hispanic.  Stone is quite convinced the dance is pre-conquest and does present suggestive evidence gathered from historical documents and from the creation of this oral history.  The senior members of the dance group are very able to talk about the origins of the dance and while some of these stories don’t hold up to examination others do leave you wondering.  In addition, most of the dancers she spoke to identified as Otomí.  She includes an intriguing story about a piece of paper.  For years she wondered what was in a small bundle often placed at the back of the altar.  Much later she shows a senior dancer a copy of a depiction of the dance from a book about the pre-conquest peoples.  Soon after this the same dancer takes her into a closed room and opens the small bundle in which was a similar depiction of the early dance. I wish she had explored this in more depth.

She traveled to many events, including:  October 15, in San Miguel de Allende, February 2 in San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco, during carnival in Amecameca, in Huejotzing, Puebla, Taxco, first Friday during Lent in Chalma, the fourth  Sunday in Acopilco, June 16 and December 16 in Tenancingo, September 18 in Los Remedios, December 12 at the Villa de Guadalupe, as well as Tlaltelolco and Ameyalco.  These being the main events which people who have made a “promesa” must attend. 

Also of interest in understanding the Choncheros is a piece by Gertrude Kurath from 1946 - "Los Concheros" in Journal of American Folklore 59, 1946:  387-399.  Kurath makes a few valuable observations:   1555 First Provincial Council meeting ruled that the natives should not be allowed to dance.   In 1585 ruled that they should not be allowed to wear headdresses.   Also in 16th century rules about teaching - it must in Spanish.  But in the rural areas the priest and others often ignored these rules.

Overall an enjoyable read with a much more wholistic view of the dance than you can obtain from other readings.  I have written several posts on the Conchero (or Aztec) dance which you might wish to check out as you will find photos there.   See the following:
Concheros dance

Or, Aztec dance

Monday, June 11, 2012


Let me be a little personal to start this post.   I have spent quite a bit of time in the state of Michoacán, Mexico and quickly became enamored of the dances and festivals.  Now that I think about my own reactions/perceptions I note two things somewhat unusual:  I never went to Janitizio except to allow visitors to have a look and I much preferred events where there were no tourists and especially no “gringos”.  The later often required trips somewhat distant from Pátzcuaro.  Although I am a news junkie I had never been aware of how central Michoacán was to national tourist promotion and even to national unity.  It is after all one of the poorest states in the republic, has more than its share of narco-traficante action and the indigenous peoples are amongst the poorest of the state. I arrived in Michoacán with no preconceived ideas of the peoples or events and very gradually came to love the place.  It should be noted that I am Canadian and Canada's relationship to Mexico is still quite different that that of the USA.

It was with surprise and pleasure that I read 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 (see note) 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”.  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 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 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.
Shot in Jaracuro rather than Janitzio but showing the classic scene-women wrapped in rebozos and kneeling before candles.  However now they almost always bring small chairs.
This is not close to the classic scene as it shows a man before the grave, a not uncommon sight.

Who were the Mexicans?  Porfirio Diaz (president from 1876-1911)  identified with France and one can see many signs of this in the avenues and architecture of Mexico City.  The elite typically looked outside of Mexico for models with which to identify.  Now what was needed was something from within.  Why not look to the past, to an indigenous past?  If so the right narrative, and image, had to be constructed.  The indigenous of Michoacán provided the model especially those around lake Pátzcuaro.  The viejitos danced in what can be seen as typical indigenous clothing (white pants and top with embroidery, sandals, a beribboned hat and pink mask) so they can be presented as pan-Mexican.  The clothing contains the image of the past and of truly “authentic” indigenous peoples.  The night of the dead provided a female image, rather than the male image of the dancers, and again the simple image of indigenous women wrapped in a rebozo kneeling before candles and a grave met the need for something “authentic” and yet indigenous.  Finally the ability to create a sense of remoteness or isolation and thus pre-modern was easy with canoe trips and even with modern launches. 
This shows the most typical scene in the Patzcuaro area-4-5 dancers and the band behind them.
This a group far from the lake region: the clothing is similar but there are more dancers and they tend to dancers in lines or with other dancers.
Here we have an example of the entertainment aspect of the dance, the dancers dancing fast and appearing to levitate.

The narrative suggests that this is where all of Mexico originated - in rural and indigenous communities.  What of course was implied in all of this was that the real people (not the imaged) were primitive and underdeveloped.  Primitive or backward rather than modern, rural rather than urban, indigenous rather than mestizo.  How to make all of this fit?  One option was to promote economic development. We saw this in the 1936 construction of the enormous image of Morelos by president Lázaro Cárdenas (born in the state and president from 1934-1940 and governor of the state prior to that), an indigenous hero of the first revolution, atop the Island of Janitzio, construction of roads to allow visitors access and the creation of CREFAL in 1950 (located in the Pátzcuaro house of former President Lázaro Cárdenas) to foster economic development projects around the lake.

The discussion above is short on specifics whereas Hellier-Tinoco is long (so to speak).  Much of the above activity took places under the auspices of the federal secretary of education (the same agency that hired Diego Rivera in the 1920-30 to create mural images that spoke to who Mexicans were) since education was seen as central to the construction of a national identity.  Students were taught about the two activities discussed, images of the dancers and night of the dead were used extensively in advertising (and as she points out the people seldom paid), world fairs presented these images as the “soul of Mexico", corporations used the images, and beginning in the 1930 dance performances were staged to highlight the viejitos and then in 1950 the national Ballet Focklorico was created to present the viejitos on a grand scale in the Bellas Artes building in Mexico City.  The viejitos were taken on tours of the United States and Europe and anthropologists and archaeologists were invited to Michoacán and to much of Mexico to uncover the indigenous past with work on the site at Ihuatzio, Michoacán (excavated and opened to the public in 1937-38 and currently undergoing further development) and the ruins in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán (also excavated in the 1930s).

Little did I know that two events from Michoacán would come to stand for the “soul of Mexico”.  The trouble for Michoacán of course is that it becomes difficult if not impossible to escape the framework created almost 100 years ago. It's folklore and folk art or starve as other cultural activities and artistic endeavors are ignored and economic development still waits.

Note: #1.  The author does not say exactly when the trip to Janitzio occurred but I have selected 1922. It may have been 1923 as Frances Toor an American anthropologists only arrived in Mexico in 1922.  One wonders how she so quickly achieved the confidence of those in power.  In 1925 three of the people involved published articles related to their journey and in the same year Toor began publishing her famous journal, Mexican Folkways.

Note #2:  One often hears that the dance of the old men has its origins in the encounters of the indigenous an the Spanish with the dance been a bit of a spoof.  This may not be true as a reference to the dance is made as early as the 16th century and it appeared to serve very local purposes.  However, the dance is uniquely Purépecha.

You can expect me to return to this subject as reading about Frances Toor has led me to the excitement of the 1920s in Mexico City.

Friday, May 11, 2012


This post is a third or fourth attempt to describe the Conchero (or Aztec) dancers of Mexico. (To see my earlier post go to  Aztec Dance.)  I have just read Susanna Rostas’s book on the Conchero dancers -Carrying the Word- and looked particularly at the historical section where she attempts to give an idea of where these dancers came from.  The book itself is a marvel in that it gives the reader a very good sense of the difficulty of understanding any dance in Mexico.  They all must have a long and complicated history and as the dancers themselves were preliterate (her term) it is difficult to get to the bottom of anything.  I have also been reading Ruth Hellier-Tinoco’s book on the viejito dancers of Michoacán which focuses on the way this dance was appropriated by the state for nation building purposes during the 1920s.  It leaves the reader with a profound sense of the complexity of understanding.  The centuries of preliteracy with a few written words by Spanish priests of Rostas’ book turns to a detailed examination of documents and interviews in Hellier-Tinoco’s book and you come away thinking:  “how can we understand anything”.

Having said that,  this post is an attempt to review the section of Rostas’s book which focuses on the history of Conchero dancers, primarily chapter 9 titled “Oral tradition, Myth and History”.  This is a difficult chapter to read so here I pull out what I believe to be the essence of the chapter.

The concheros themselves have a founding myth which places their beginnings in the Bajio region of Mexico: a region to the North West of Mexico City best known today by the cities of San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and as far south as northern Michoacán.   The myth describes a battle between the Spanish and the Chichemaca Indians in which Santa Cruz (essentially the Holy Cross of Christendom) and Santiago (the patron saint of Spain and Mexico) appeared during the heat of battle; the Chichimecas put down their arms and converted to Christianity.  They demanded that a cross be raised and they danced around it for days.   One of the songs of the Concheros continues to make reference to this newly erected cross and the battle.  There is also a document prepared by a Spanish priest (probably in 1744) which recounts a version of this story.   What is significant about the story is that it gives the dance of the Concheros a Catholic origin, making the dance Christian rather than indigenous.  It also locates the dance outside of the domain of the Aztecs.  Having said that, it is not at all clear exactly what the dance was.

If the above story has any truth it might suggest that the dance itself is a version of the dance of the Christians and Moors, a dance introduced by the Spanish as a tool in their conversion of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.  There is a 1643 document which described a version of the dance of the Moors (performed for the celebration of Santa Cruz) in the state of Michoacán which describes the various roles of the dancers.  These roles were probably standard roles of the confraternities established by the Spanish as a way to ensure the continuity of dances.  It is significant that these roles (and terms) are still used by the Concheros today.  Over time confraternities gradually diminished in Mexico and became more like secret societies.  Until quite recently the Concheros themselves were family based organizations which one had to be born into.  More recently one could be invited but a large number of the groups are still primarily family based. 

In the 18th century the state attempted to block the publication of documents which might praise the Aztec past.  After the revolution of 1810 Catholicism became the legal religion of Mexico but by the mid-eighteenth century attempts were made to prohibit public celebrations around carnival for fear of riots.  In 1828 a law was passed making clandestine meetings punishable.  In 1857 Benito Juarez led an attack on the church by removing property and limitings is powers.   All of this eliminated confraternities or drove them underground until the end of the century when an attempt was made to heal the rift between church and state and once again pilgrimages were allowed to the sacred site of Guadalupe.  What is important about this 100 year period were three things:  the attempt to diminish public dances (although probably mostly in large urban areas), the weakening of the church and the virtual disappearance of confraternities.  Although there were exceptions, the Conchero dancers went underground or disappeared but the confraternity aspect of the dancer groups remained (things such as looking out for the needs of its members).

The turn of the century (1900) brought with it rapid urbanization as many from the countryside migrated to Mexico City; among those migrants were Conchero dancers and their confraternities which had survived.  But another revolution led to laws making public dances illegal and all of this led to the period of the Cristeros (those attempting to re-establish  the church).  President Camacho (1940 to 1945) was to declare himself a Catholic and the image of Guadalupe was brought out of hiding and placed in a refurbished Basilica.  Slowly, public dances gained importance and the umbrella of religious organization prevailed.  Two others things were going on at this time which impacted the indigenous population and the Concheros. 

The first was the attempt to create a national identity.  After 1910 it became important to establish a national identity for Mexicans and the Indians were to play a part in this.  Although it is too simple to claim that prior to this the society had been racist,  a new interest was shown in the Indians with an effort to document their history and cultures.  Although there was still an interest in the assimilation of the indigenous peoples, for their own good of course, it was believed that the past could establish a sense of what it meant to be Mexican.   (For a marvelous account of this period in Michoacán see the 2011 book by Ruth Hellier-Tonico, Embodying Mexico:  Tourism, Nationalism and Politics.)  There was ambivalence in this of course as it was difficult to study and identify with the past and not see the numerous examples of living  cultures.

The second was the reorganization of the Concheros.   Starting in the late 19th century a standard was raised in Mexico City (a standard is the banner the group carries and states their founding date among other things).  Then in 1920 an attempt was made to  develop an organization of Conchero dancers - in fact two such organizations appeared - and for the next 40 years these brought the past forward and provided the vehicle for the stability and spread of the dance in Mexico.  However, by 1960 the family or confraternity basis of these organizations began to give way and new members were invited in.  It was at this time that a renewed interest in the Aztec past appeared and this climaxed in the 1992 celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of North America.   At this time it became increasingly clear that the Conchero dancers were no longer primarily a Catholic and spiritual organization and the Aztec style was fully entrenched.  In short,  the Mexica dancers became fully established and the Conchero dancers, while still spiritual, took on Aztec dress styles.

My apologies to professor Rostas for any errors made in this attempt to make a (somewhat) coherent story of a vast array of events.

Readers may also want to check out the article by Arnoldo Carols Vento - Aztec Conchero Dance Tradition: Historic, Religious and Cultural Significance.  Wicazo Sa Review
Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 59-64

And, Martha Stone's 1975 book  At the Sign of Midnight:  The Conchero Dance Cult of Mexico.