The Mexican Miracle and La Ruptura
The post WWII period – also coined “the Mexican Miracle” – was a prosperous time for some Mexicans, but not for everyone. While urban Mexicans enjoyed new affluence and growth, farmers and indigenous peoples struggled to make ends meet. But this cultural renaissance didn’t last long before young Mexicans challenged older norms and ideas about artistic expression and politics.
Ross Chambless: The years after WWII were a prosperous time for both the U.S and for Mexico. Relations between the countries were relatively strong. And on the art front, Susan Vogel says there were many exchanges between countries.
Susan Vogel: There was wonderful optimism and hope for the future, having the U.S., Mexico, and the Soviet Union be allies.
Ross: But these positive international vibes wouldn’t last long. And within Mexico itself, a new revolution was brewing among younger artists to replace the old revolution.
Lola Álvarez Bravo, Architectural Anarchy in Mexico City, 1954
Fanny Blauer: We call it “the rupture.” There was actually a document establishing this term in a Mexican newspaper called "Novedades", the Cactus Curtain…
Ross: The essay titled: “The Cactus Curtain: An Open Letter on Conformity in Mexican Art,” was written by a 19-year-old Mexican artist named José Luis Cuevas.
Fanny: He basically rebelled against the idea that art was only about muralism. Suddenly art in Mexico became a process of painting on the walls and demonstrating nationalism. He said art was more than that.
Ross: Cuevas believed Mexican artists should be able to engage in more global issues beyond a preferred government narrative which had been basically the norm until that time.
Fanny: So, at the age of 19, a very young guy who is really rebelling against these great artists like Rivera, and Orozco, and Siqueiros, he, through a series of documents in this newspaper started a revolution against this movement of muralism… because he thought the idea of the revolution was suddenly owned by the government.
José Luis Cuevas
Ross: This podcast is Nuevas Voces – Episode 16 – a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah. In this episode, we’re talking about La Ruptura or the rupture – the word that came to define this moment of breaking away from the government-sponsored public arts projects and marked a shift towards new ways of artistic thinking. All of this occurred during a period of rapid post-WWII growth in Mexico, coined the “Mexican Miracle.” It involved new forms of architecture, artistic expression, and new ways of thinking for Mexicans broadly.
Susan: This started happening right after the war, when the Cold War began. About the same time, the political artists, the graphic artists, were having money issues, and they were invited by the presidential candidate Miguel Alemán Valdés to create publicity for his presidential campaign… so this was a period of time where the revolution made a big change. The name of the party was changed from the Partido Revolucionario National – the National Revolutionary Party – to the Partido Revolucionario Institutional – the Institutional Revolutionary Party. So, it was a huge change in the sense that revolutionary became whatever the government was doing.
Ross: And what the government was doing, was mainly industrializing Mexico. Much of this industrialization involved handing over corporate control to Americans.
Fanny: When we relate this story of what was happening in Mexico with the U.S., it was around this time the big Bracero Movement was happening.
Ross: The Bracero Movement – something I didn’t know about before we had this conversation – was a series of diplomatic agreements between the U.S. and Mexico, that began on the heels of WWII, to provide decent jobs and working conditions to Mexican laborers to help America with its labor shortage. An average 200,000 braceros worked in the states each year until the program was ended in 1964. It was a good program for the U.S., but as Fanny says, not so great for Mexico perhaps.
The Bracero Program
Fanny: So, you can tell that the financial and economic conditions of the people in the post-revolution wasn’t really working. And many people started to move to the U.S. under the Bracero Program.
Ross: This revolution fatigue in Mexico was one of the many factors that created La Ruptura.
Susan: So, these young artists are thinking, that revolution is history. I didn’t fight in it. Even my dad didn’t fight in it. President Alemán was I think the first president who didn’t fight in it. And he replaced the horses that were always a symbol of the Mexican Revolution with the Cadillac. So, the young people thought this was old stuff. The revolutionary artists were no longer making graphic images of the political things going on, they were painting images of nostalgia, like Zapata or building bridges which was now revolutionary.
Ross: On top of that, an influx of new artistic ideas from Europe, like abstract impressionism and surrealism, were influencing younger Mexican artists. Many of these fresh ideas fed into the notion of the Mexican Miracle.
Rufino Tamayo, The Man, 1953
Fanny: OK, the Mexican Miracle. This is a particularly interesting subject for me because my parents were growing up then in Mexico City. My mom would say Mexico was so beautiful in the 50s and 60s. Anything you wanted in the world you could find in Mexico. My father was the same way. He was a product of the Revolution, and being able to go to the university and graduate as an attorney. And my mother was part of this revelation that women can go to school too. So, Mexico was doing great.
Ross: Another factor that we should mention helped Mexico thrive during this period was Mexico’s nationalization of its oil – that occurred back in 1938 – but it helped the country reap the rewards decades later. The government also encouraged its citizens to invest in technical educations and careers. But, if life in Mexico’s big cities was flourishing, rural farmers and laborers were struggling.
Fanny: People on the farms were basically abandoned. Agriculture during this Mexican Miracle decreased significantly. You can imagine people living on the farms didn’t have the infrastructure to grow economically because everyone was moving to Mexico City to have an urban job. So, although Mexico City was doing great, rural communities were doing bad.
Ross: We’ll get into this a little later, but it’s important to note that much of the Mexican Miracle period was about disguising some real problems of social inequity with progressive outward appearances.
Juan O’Gorman, Mexico City, 1949
Susan: It’s so interesting because if you look at the images, it does look like the Mexican miracle. The image by Lola Álvarez Bravo, called architectural anarchy in Mexico City, 1954, shows a city just bursting with new buildings, skyscrapers, bridges, parks, highways. And anarchy refers to not a lot of planning, but certainly a lot of construction. This image looks very exciting and there’s a lot of movement here.
Ross: One famous Mexican artist and architect was Juan O’Gorman. He painted a notable image of Mexico City in 1949.
Susan: So, this is the post-war and this big boom in construction. It shows the workers, and someone holding a plan that shows the city being built. It looks a lot different than images that we've seen in the past of the valley of Mexico. We’ve seen many images of the valley of Mexico from the time of the Aztecs. And now it looks like any huge city in the world. And that’s what they wanted. Mexico wanted a world-class city.
The Central Library of La UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico
Ross: Another example of some of the adventurous architecture of this time is the Central Library of La UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The building’s facade, which was designed by Juan O’ Gorman and completed in 1952, presents with colored stones an appreciation to ancient pre-Colombian gods and goddesses even as the building embodies the modernization of knowledge and science.
Jorge Rodríguez: It’s also a strong statement artistically speaking.
Ross: This new voice is Jorge Rodríguez. He works for Artes de Mexico en Utah and also hosts a Spanish language show called Cada Domingo on KPCW.
Jorge: The architecture itself gives a nod back to ancient sculpture and artwork, and has the modernization feel to it. It says we are proud of our heritage, but we are modern.
Susan: Another thing I like about it is in a lot of Mexican art the big road leads to the Church. The road leads right to the cathedral. This one does too. The pathway we’re seeing in front of the library, leads to the library and if you follow it upwards there is the cathedral, and then it keeps going up and there is like a hall of justice. Looks like our U.S. Supreme Court. And you keep following it up, and where a Catholic mural would put God, and where Diego Rivera would put revolutionary man, here we have a book. We have learning.
Mathias Goeritz & Luis Barragán, Five Towers, 1957
Ross: Another notable work of public art from this time is the Torres de la Ciudad Satélite (Towers of Satellite City) from 1957, by Mathias Goeritz.
Susan: These are the towers you see everywhere. These are a real symbol of Mexico City. It’s a work of giant public sculpture. They look like 5 towers that would be offices of apartments. But it’s a monumental sculpture. It reminds me of the pyramids or the Olmecs.
Ross: Fanny says yet another noteworthy building project is the Plaza de Tlatelolco.
Fanny: This is where I grew up. This urban neighborhood. It was the first urban neighborhood experiment built in all of Latin America in 1960. It was created by a famous architect, Mario Pani. He also helped to build those towers and the university as well. His urban concept was very relevant at the time. Mario Pani designed Tlatelolco, there are probably about 200 buildings with different sizes and apartment complexes. It’s basically a city within a city. I grew up with our own hospital, our libraries, our own schools, our own stores. We didn’t have to go anywhere. This Plaza is particularly interesting because it was built on ancient Aztec ruins.
Gavilán Pollero, Pedro Infante, 1951
Ross: This is from a classic 1951 Mexican film called Gavilán Pollero – or the Chicken Hawk, starring actor Pedro Infante. Another phenomenon that was helping young Mexicans to showcase new art forms was television and radio. Here’s Jorge again.
Jorge: There was definitely a lot of serials, like radio shows. In the U.S. there were serial shows, like War of Worlds or the Honeymooners. In Mexico, you had the same thing as Radio Novelas. But you also had the dawn on the superheroes. Where rather than just relying on the religion, there was a new aspect. You had personalities like Kalimán or these other folk heroes if you will...
Fanny: El Santo.
Jorge: Right, the wrestlers. They became the new iconography. A new way for the people to identify. But it was also part of this new narrative – this is the industrialized world. Of course, Kalimán was a way of talking about the exotic, which was the Middle East instead of Mexico.
Ross: During the 1950’s Mexico experienced a golden age of cinema.
Fanny: Cantinflas, this is an interesting thing, was a Mexican actor who was, like Cervantes. Like Don Quijote in the cinema industry. (Charles Chaplin in the U.S.) Because he made fun of every single political injustice through comedy. His movements and language said a lot without saying anything. The Spanish Language Academy actually recognizes now his name as a verb: "cantinflear". If you look in the dictionary, you'll find this word as a verb, which means saying a lot without really saying anything.
Fanny: It was such an artistic time, to live in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Art was exploding in the television. I grew up watching those black and white movies and I was fascinated every time I saw them.
Susan: The first movie I remember seeing was “Around the World in 80 Days” with Cantinflas.
Jorge: Yeah. Cantinflas had the popular crowd, the common folk. But then you had the kind of serious side of things where the upper-class people were. You had Jorge Negrete, who was a musician, he was a singer but he was also an actor. And then you had Pedro Infante who was the other popular character. So, Jorge Negrete was considered the upper-class representation whereas Pedro Infante was like the commoner.
Ross: Yet, even as Mexico was experiencing unprecedented economic growth, and its arts and culture was thriving in this period, forces were also shifting against the older institutions.
Susan: And the La Ruptura is a product of all those changes. At that point, the younger generation is saying we have all this exciting stuff going on, we've got an art market, we can sell our work. Abstract expressionism is showing the inner emotions of an artist. We don’t need these collective groups that are creating more cactuses and rifles and railroads and tributes to Zapata and Villa. This young generation led by Jose Luis Cuevas really hammered on the social realists and disparaged them and told them they were old and out of touch, and step aside and let us come forward with new technology and an eye to the future instead of continually rehashing the past and all these images of the Revolution. This was devastating to the social realists.
Frida Kahlo, Suicide of Dorothy Hale, 1938
Ross: It was not just the social realists who the younger generation was beginning to challenge. Young people were also increasingly challenging their government and the status quo.
Fanny: Outside, the world thought Mexico was the example for Latin America. They said Mexico is doing fantastic. This is the Mexican Miracle. But the reality was in the 1950s, so many social movements were happening. My family, in particular, participated in all of these movements. My father as part of the railroad program and the union. There was a famous movement in 1952 in Mexico City where the railroad wanted to be unionized and the government didn’t allow them to do it. It was the collapse of the railroad system that lasted less than 100 years in Mexico. And then the doctors… during the presidency of Miguel Alemán, also the social security health system was implemented, but ten years later the health and working conditions for doctors were minimal. There were thousands of students graduating from universities with no jobs or very poor working conditions. So, there was a big movement in 1962 where 30,000 medical students gathered in the main plaza of Mexico City. It was called Las Batas Blancas. My aunt who graduated as one of the first female doctors in the 1960s attended this meeting.
Remedios Varo, The Escape, 1962, oil on masonite
Ross: By the 1960s young Mexicans were growing impatient and frustrated with problems they felt weren’t being addressed by the dominant political party of the revolution. This wasn’t without some irony, given how the original Mexican Revolution was ignited half a century earlier.
Fanny: Remember that before the Revolution the mining companies were owned by the U.S. Well, by 1970, 80 percent of the corporations were owned by the (U.S.) government in Mexico.
Ross: Also, many rural agrarian Mexicans, like Jorge’s family, were not experiencing the prosperity of the Mexican Miracle.
Jorge: A lot of my family and their ancestors were farmers. They had humble beginnings. They didn't have the chance to go to University. Most of them couldn’t even consider going to school, because of the remoteness. The reality was very different for them. I had the chance to visit them living in a village, of maybe 100 people and there was nothing. There was maybe a telephone. They literally survived off the farming they did. They had to live off their livestock and crops.
Fanny: So, you can see how the Mexican Miracle was so segregated.
Ross. Urban-rural divide...
Susan: So, it’s interesting to think about what’s going on in the late 50s. Mexico has grown tremendously and gained international stature. At the same time, the Cold War has come in and it sort of muzzled the artists. This abstract movement has come in and things are looking good. There’s not a lot of dissent that we see from the outside. The art is really abstract. It may be lovely, may be confusing, but doesn’t make people want to throw things. And Mexico gets the prize, and that’s the Olympics.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; and Jorge Rodriguez. Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to the Scope Radio at University of Utah Health for the studio space; Music credit: The music you heard in this episode comes from Pedro Infante, Calexico, Los Panchos, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Bromfman, Conjunto Jardín, Javier Solís, Gustavo Santaolalla, Antonio Pinto, Al Caiola, and Cantinflas, and Los Locos Del Ritmo.
Engage with Us:
Did you or your family grow up during the Mexican Miracle? What impressions do you have of the art or architecture, or the golden age of cinema that came out of that period? Do you have a favorite artist or performer who emerged during this Mexican Miracle or La Ruptura period? Let us know.