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The Development of Mexican National Identity After the Revolution

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Many truisms about the place of indigenous cultures in Mexican society, about what defines Indianness, and about the extent to which Mexicans saw themselves as all part of a cohesive national community, were not outcomes of a seamless history of mestizaje (cultural and racial mixing between Indians and Europeans), but were products of post-revolutionary nationalist discourses. This challenges the common tendency among historians and the public to impose current assumptions from the present onto the past. Historians often assume, for instance, that the Mexican nation has long been culturally integrated and bound by a common sense of mestizaje. As this paper will show, however, both the cultural integration, and the promotion of ethnicized national identity are fairly recent events that developed after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Mexican novelist and political commentator Carlos Fuentes recently observed that the most enduring outcome of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) has been the cultural transformation and nationalist self-discovery that came in its wake. The post-revolutionary movement marked the biggest attempt in Mexican history, he argues, “to recognize the cultural totality of the country, none of whose components should be sacrificed (Fuentes 1996: 66-67).” This paper is a study of cultural transformation. More specifically, it is a study of the post-revolutionary development of Mexican national identity, particularly the popular arts both on the national level.

The Birth of Mexican Cultural Nationalism

At the turn of the twentieth century Mexico was poised to enter modernity. But Mexico was not yet a nation in the modern European sense of the term. The rapid pace of change coupled with the complete reorientation of values during the previous century had deepened ethno-racial divisions in Mexican society. The European models for national unity embraced so enthusiastically as part of the “discourse of futurity” during the anti-colonial struggle against Spain had not resulted in the construction of any sense of mexicanidad. This is demonstrated by the fact that throughout the nineteenth century national identification had remained limited to the Creole class and some upwardly aspiring Mestizos (Chorba 2007).

During the revolutionary period, a new nationalism emerged— one that was founded on the democratization of society and the reconsideration of foreign influences on the country’s economy and culture (Franco 1967: 71). In a search for their true national origins, Mexicans were rejecting the cultural patrimony of Anglo-Saxon Europe (and the United States) in an effort to construct meaningful cultural symbols from their own past. The prevailing sentiment was that Mexico would have to find an independent solution for the political, economic and racial problems that impeded progress—one that drew its strength from the Mexican people themselves. The autochthonous response must by necessity question the detrimental role that foreign (capitalist) development had played in exploiting the country and in obstructing national unity (Lomnitz-Adler 1992).

In a speech before the House of Representatives in 1925, labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano expressed the besieged attitude of the Mexican people:

The whole world knows that the life of commerce and industry in our land is in foreign hands. What is it that we Mexicans have? We have only the land that is exploited by foreign capital. The only thing that belongs to us, the only thing real, the only thing Mexican, is the human being, the individual. It is the only thing we have left- the human factor… And precisely today, when there is no large industry, we must foresee the future… and subject capitalism to a strict and full regulation that will lead it along human ways and that will lead it towards making moral commitments with human beings… (quoted in Tannenbaum 1968: 222)

 This is not to say that the country rejected capitalism’s role in its project for modernization, nor that Toledano’s views represented those of the entire country. In fact, the Mexican Revolution was a bourgeois revolution in the sense that, by destroying the vestiges of the latifundia landholding system, the Revolution prepared the terrain for the development of capitalism in Mexico, transforming the economy into one based on capital accumulation and investment (Knight 1990).

The new Mexican nationalism constructed a sense of shared identity around the one resource available— its people. The state promoted democratization and unity through the commodification of popular culture within a nationalist discourse glorifying racial miscegenation, referred to as mestizofilia or indolatinismo (Doremus 2001). Thus the Revolution of 1910 represents the arrival of nationalism to Mexico in the modern Western sense of the word. As a result of this two-decade-long civil war, the lower classes were “inducted into the political life of the country” (Anderson 1991: 48), and popular culture became the basis of Mexican national identification.

The Constitution of 1917 was the culminating piece of legislation during this period. It was regarded as the “symbol of that representation of all the classes and interests, the symbol of that democracy of conciliation” (Chorba 2007: 45). The Constitution marked the initiation of the stage of the Revolution, known as “the populist phase” of the 1920s, during which the state (through the personality cults of the presidents Obregon and Calles) appeared to actively champion the causes of the masses. Addressing issues of concern to the popular classes, such as education, agrarian reform and workers’ rights (Articles 3, 27 and 123 of the Constitution, respectively), the state advantageously positioned itself as “the benefactor and protector of the dispossessed” (Tannenbaum 1967: 168), and in this way, diffused potential social unrest.

But the regimes that emerged out of the new “national synthesis” were not popular ones. As Alan Knight points out: “They comprised popular elements and sought to appease (as well as to repress) popular grievances; but its directing elements were not of popular origin nor, more important, did they share popular attitudes. On the contrary, they espoused a nationalist, capitalist, state-building, anticlerical and even anti-religious project which was antithetical to many such attitudes” (“Revolutionary Project:” 236).

The populist stance of the government during the national reconstruction period masked a social structure as inequitable as that of the early nineteenth century. Revolutionary Mexico was still based on those Liberal bourgeois values of private property and individualism, and the presidents were committed to supporting the existing (capitalist) social order. Thus, while Obregon and Calles committed themselves to improving the material well-being of the popular classes through education and land reform, they did virtually nothing to alter the existing power relationships between rich and poor (Chorba 2007: 172).

Incorporation of indigenous groups became an integral part of Mexican national consolidation. In their 1926 lectures to the Harris Foundation, Jose Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio articulated the dilemma of national identity for a racially and culturally heterogeneous country such as Mexico. If one accepted Molina Enrfquez’s figures that Mestizos made up half of the country’s population by 1900, the relevant question was then the economic and spiritual orientation of this 50% (Tannenbaum 1967: 98). According to Gamio, Mexico’s hybrid population had traditionally identified itself more closely with its indigenous roots than with its Hispanic heritage. Because the illegitimately-conceived Mestizos had been raised by their Indian mothers and abandoned by their Hispanic fathers, he maintained that they were naturally more inclined to ally themselves in body and spirit with “the indigenous masses-passive enemies of the white colonists” (Tannenbaum 1967: 110).

Viewed in this light, the Mexican Revolution of the twentieth century represented an integral stage in the country’s project of national construction which was fundamentally concerned with the reorientation of its mestizo population from a traditional indigenous, agrarian economy towards a modern, Western, capitalist one. The objective of the cultural nationalist movement was to transform Mexico into a nation by expanding and modernizing the imagined national community to include the largely indigenous, rural peasantry (Tannenbaum 1967).

Mestizofilia was a movement with the aim of creating a sense of mexicanidad in a country where issues of race, culture and class impeded unity and progress. It transformed the Mestizo into the “symbol of national unity progress (Knight “Racism:” 75).” The modernization of the country was achieved through the unique positioning of the state as champion and protector of those interests identified as Mexican and mestizo (popular and bourgeois) against those alien ones (the landed aristocracy and foreigners) that threatened national unity (Doremus 2001).

Integration of the indigenous into the Mexican body politic remained an especially important social goal during this period, and indigenismo enjoyed renewed popular attention. Alan Knight maintains that the positive evaluation of indigenous cultures during the reconstruction period was due to the anonymous nature of Indian participation in the Revolution. He says that although Indian participation in the Revolution was considerable, there was no “self-consciously Indian project.” Indigenous grievances were primarily agrarian ones having to do with land tenure and were identified using class terms, such as “peasant conflicts” (Knight “Racism:” 75-76).

We can observe this preference for terms that avoid making reference to role of ethnicity in the Revolution, preferring instead the use of more diffuse terms, such as “agrarian” and “popular.” Indigenismo thus became synonymous with “popular,” and was a position that could be co-opted by the populist caudillos without the fear of organized social upheaval (“Racism:” 76-77). The country’s new elites realized that economic and social progress in Mexico would be impossible to achieve without some sense of national unity that included the rural, indigenous element.

A unique component of Mexican cultural nationalism was that the futurity of its racial discourse simultaneously invoked the unity of all Latin Americans against the forces of imperialism. Mestizofilia provided the needed avenue for projecting the future greatness of a mixed-race Mexico, thus paving the way for the transition to a modern capitalist economy at the same time it stressed the importance of the traditional values of its Hispanic past. It also addressed the continental aspirations of all Hispanic peoples in America (Doremus 2001).

Mestizofilia was a movement capable of revindicating the “Latin soul of America” against the “excessive industrial and mechanical progress” of the Anglo-Saxon cultures (Chorba 2007: 90). In this respect, the Hispanic civilizations of the New World represented the future hope of all humankind for freedom from foreign tyranny. The search for a Mexican national identity was thus linked to the concept of a continent-wide Hispanic identity in the making (Gutierrez 1998).

Popular Arts, and the Search for a Mexican Aesthetic

Clearly, Mexicans were not stumbling about unselfconsciously prior to the Revolution. What, then, constituted this self-discovery and what was new about it? How did post-revolutionary nationalists go about discovering the nation to which they had belonged all of their lives? Ever since the Revolution, Mexican intellectuals have recognized the centrality of certain aspects of what they have often termed “Mexican character (Gutierrez 1999).” Prominent pensadores (public intellectuals) like Manuel Gamio, Moises Saenz, Jose Vasconcelos, Octavio Paz, and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla have written extensively on the topic. Their writings are erudite and fascinating think pieces designed to reinforce or contest certain national mythologies. More recently, a number of other scholars have written incisive critiques of Mexican nationalist ideologies and have examined the interaction between regional and national identities. These have contributed greatly to our understanding of Mexican culture and politics (Miller 1999).

The post-revolutionary nationalist effort to promote the country’s popular arts as the embodiment of a distinctly Mexican aesthetic begins, on a national level, it in 1921, when Mexican intellectuals inaugurated a concerted effort to promote an ethnicized national identity that incorporated the cultures, people, and aesthetics of the largely indigenous countryside. That year, the first popular arts show was organized, which prompted a dramatic reconsideration of artesanias from mere curiosities to bona fide art in their own right. The event kindled the reconsideration of Mexican crafts in light of new cosmopolitan assumptions, revised cultural criteria, and the growing nationalist movement. On a local level, the nationalist effort begins in the late-1800s when Olinaltecan society assumed some of its enduring traits, and when crafts production became local markers of economic desperation and social marginalization (Paz 1993).

Both on a national and a local level, the nationalist effort ends around 1972, when the state changed the way it dealt with popular arts and how it related to local actors. State cultural policies reflected an attempt to return to the cultural and political ideals forged during the 1920s, thus bringing the Mexican government full circle between 1920 and 1972. On the local level, 1972 marks the year when Olinaltecan artisans were finally able to harness nationalist and aesthetic discourses that had been evolving since 1921, and successfully channeled these discourses and national politics to their own benefit, countering the exploitation of local brokers (Lomnitz-Adler 1992).

Modern Mexican national identity, with its emphasis on inclusion and indigenousness, was not a natural outflow from Mexico’s supposed long history of mestizaje (Gutierrez 1998). Instead, it was largely the creation of an international cast of artists, intellectuals, journalists, social scientists, art collectors, and others who were inspired by the Revolution and who actively promoted a particular view of the country’s past and post-revolutionary present. The cultural and political ideas in Mexico were closely tied to international currents across Europe, the United States, and even other parts of the world. And it was within this global context, and based on how transnational currents intersected with the events and ideas specific to Mexico, that an inclusive and ethnicized national identity was forged (Gutierrez 1999).

Within Mexico, validation of popular arts was inextricably bound up with the project of national integration; with the creation of an ethnicized national identity; and with the fortification of cultural links between elite nationalists and the rural popular classes. Regarding the first, following the Mexican Revolution state leaders and the intelligentsia became preoccupied with what they perceived as the country’s cultural fragmentation. Mexican commentators even declared that there was no Mexican nation, only disunited groups separated from one another by a difficult terrain, cultural barriers, and over thirty different languages. To avoid another revolution, and to transform Mexico into what they believed a modern nation should look like, they stressed the need to discover the bonds that would finally unite the population into a cohesive nationality. Within this movement some looked to regional popular arts to understand the cultural essence of the Mexican masses (Gutierrez 1999).

The aesthetic and material “discoveries” made in rural Mexico by modernist artists and intellectuals provided much of the foundation for a distinctive, shared national culture. Validation of popular crafts became an avenue for the cultural vanguard to promote ethnicized understanding of Mexico’s national culture (meaning an identity that incorporates ideas of Indianness rather than trying to define Mexican nationality as essentially European) (Miller 1999).

During the nineteenth century, Mexico was often thought of as a white nation that, though culturally and racially based on European society, was tied to the land through its claims over the pre-Columbian past (Chorba 2007). Despite their expressions of pride for Mexico’s ancient Aztec and Mayan glories, most Mexican leaders disdained contemporary Indians as ignorant peons, dangerous rabble, or a national embarrassment that may or may not have had the mental capacity for advancement and civilization. Rarely were contemporary Indians or peasants included in the idea of the Mexican nation, and never were they celebrated as the very essence of what it meant to be culturally Mexican (Knight 1990).

Though racism dies slowly, the official attitude toward the indigenous population improved after 1910. Inspired by the potential of the Revolution to usher in social and political transformation, and drawing upon international intellectual currents connected to cultural relativism, nationalism, and the collective subconscious, the literati set a new course for the development of Mexican culture and society. If Mexico was to be a truly mestizo nation, as the new generation of nationalists believed it should, the image of the Indian had to be rehabilitated so that it could stand nobly beside that of the European. This rehabilitation demanded a fundamental shift in attitude toward living Indians and Indianness. The aesthetic validation of popular arts was integral to this shift (Lomnitz-Adler 1992).

For the post-revolutionary intelligentsia, popular arts also offered a way to link rural communities to cosmopolitan elite society and to the rest of the nation. Mexican nationalists faulted the pre-revolutionary regime for its failure to unite the nation, a failure that they attributed largely to Europhilia and a supposed lack of interest in knowing, understanding, or sympathizing with the cultures and experiences of the popular classes (Gutierrez 1999).

Post-revolutionary intelligentsia and state leaders undertook intensive projects to study the population with the goal of weaving together the diverse cultures into a shared nationality. They created new kinds of institutions and networks to link communities not only with the state, but also with one another; and they sought to culturally unite the white and mestizo city with the indigenous countryside and to bring together local with the national. The “improvement” and promotion of popular arts as the highest and most authentic expression of the national aesthetic was part of this effort (Gutierrez 1998).

This Mexican validation of things Indian and the construction of an ethnicized and pluralist understanding of the nation developed within an imminently transnational context both in terms of context and in terms of practice (Chorba 2007). The intellectual movements to which it was connected extended far beyond Mexico into European and North American intellectual currents. And the development and consolidation of an Indianized national identity within Mexico resulted not just from the work of Mexicans, but also from the efforts of an international coterie of artists, intellectuals, and social scientists who demonstrated personal, institutional, and market support for certain pro-indigenous nationalist orientations (Lomnitz-Adler 1992).

This is not to say that Mexican national identity was a derivative discourse. Mexican and political leaders were of the world. As such, they both lent inspiration to, and drew upon, movements in other parts of the globe. And, like artists and intelligentsia from other countries, Mexicans developed their own idiosyncratic modernist imagination, which nurtured their interpretation of their people and territory. In Culture and Imperialism, postcolonial critic Edward Said argues: “Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another, none is singular and pure, all are hybrid … and unmonolithic (Said 1993: xxv.).” Said’s insight helps move us beyond stale debates over whether particular cultural formations were foreign or national, and to look instead at the particular ways cultural formations emerged and articulated with one another. From this perspective, it becomes clear that categories of “foreign” or “national” were often contingent, tied to changing ways of contesting balances of power, and perpetually in need of reanimation (Said 1993).

Mexico’s National Identity

Mexico’s ethnicized or mestizo national identity did not emerge naturally from the country’s past of racial and cultural mixture, as is generally assumed by both scholars and by the national and international public (Gutierrez 1998). Instead, it grew out of persistent efforts by the post-revolutionary intelligentsia to forge a distinctive and inclusive cultural nation. It was they who created the foundation for nationalizing rural and indigenous cultural practices and it was they who celebrated previously marginalized groups, practices, and aesthetics as emblems of mexicanidad. The validation of Mexico’s popular arts was part of this post-revolutionary movement to integrate the nation and to forge and ethnicized national identity (Gutierrez 1999).

Official indigenismo and the widespread interpretation of the country’s history as a steady march toward mestizaje have obscured both the novelty and the messiness of the nativist nationalist movement of the 1920s (Doremus 2001). They have also muted the incongruities that existed between nationalists’ projects and local reality. As this dissertation shows, the cultural nationalist movement’s impact on the local level was often different than its leaders envisioned. Their project did not spread out as evenly, or as unchangingly as they believed. Not until the 1970s, in fact, when Mexico entered a second period of rural nationalism and folkloric revival, were steps taken to bring greater benefits to the very groups, such as the artisans of Olinala, who had served as the symbolic foundation for the construction of Mexico’s collective identity and aesthetic image (Paz 1993)

Scholars have tended to treat the construction of “Mexican character” and national identity as though it had developed internally to Mexico (Gutierrez 1999). In fact, anti-imperialist nativist views of Mexico, particularly the validation of Mexico’s Indianness, occurred in an imminently transnational context. There were two kinds of transnational collaboration: the participation by Mexican intellectuals and artists in international cultural and political currents, most of which were centered in Europe; and the day to day construction of Mexico’s collective identity, validation of indigenous cultures, and investigations into the cultures and traditions of the heavily-indigenous Mexican countryside (Miller 1999).

Although, cultural categories of foreign and national become imprecise, even deceptive. The emergence of a distinctive Mexican culture, was shaped profoundly by foreign and transnational involvement. The understanding of Mexico’s culture as ethnicized and culturally inclusive was no less foreign than it was Mexican.  Mexico had a long tradition of looking to European centers, especially France and Spain, for cultural cues and validation. Knight 1990). Ironically, even the nativist turn in Mexico after with Mexico’s indigenous traditions, were much more forceful in their advocacy of the idea of an ethnicized Mexico. They allied with certain Mexican colleagues, learned from them, funded and supported them, provided markets for Mexican arts, and often built upon their intellectual orientation. Foreigners supported romantic, pro-indigenous views of the Mexican post-revolutionary nation over certain other orientations, particularly the Hispanophilic and Francophilic strains that had previously been strong within Mexico (Gutierrez 1999).

In the decades following the Mexican Revolution, pro-Indian nationalists purported to speak for the rural majority, to know what was good for them, to decide whether or not they were “Indian,” to judge what aspects of their culture were positive and which were negative. They did this while presuming that the popular classes were incapable of speaking for themselves or of evaluating their own needs and sense of identity (Fuentes 1996).  These nationalists imposed their own visions of who they believed the masses to be and how they could be “improved.” While these intellectuals, politicians, and artists wanted to incorporate, understand, and even embrace the masses, they did not trust them, nor did they offer any opportunities for the masses to speak for themselves or offer input on national policies (Lomnitz-Adler 1992).

In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s foreigners sometimes were more inclined to validate the alternative interpretations of experience found in the Mexican countryside and less likely to declare the need to “do away” with certain aspects of rural culture. They were also more likely to publish or otherwise publicize their findings. This is not to say that foreigners were more objective. They brought their own concerns and their own search for an alternative to the modernity they critiqued back home, and created their own assumptions about Mexico and about Indians. Nevertheless, this back and forth between Mexican intellectuals and foreigners led to a growing consensus on both sides regarding the essentially ethnic character of Mexico’s national identity (Gutierrez 1998).

Neither the promotion of an ethnicized national identity, nor the validation of popular arts were state projects per se. Instead, they were movements initiated by a loose coterie of modernist artists and intellectuals who constantly pursued state support for their efforts. The state, then, became involved in the cultural project largely at the urging of intellectuals (Miller 1999). But, when it did get involved in projects such as the promotion of popular arts, it tended to swallow up intellectuals’ and artists’ projects, discarding many of their ideals, and closing off any openings for individual initiative or for the formulation of alternative visions of the nation’s cultural politics. As these intellectuals soon discovered, their own marginalization was the price they would pay for getting the state involved in their movement (Miller 1999).

During the 1920s and 1930s Mexican popular arts received inconsistent and lukewarm support from the state. When the state did offer support during these years, it did so because of the temporary presence of one of more intellectuals in key posts (Miller 1999).  As these individuals moved on, the initiatives floundered. Things changed in the 1940s, when the economic potential of the crafts industry became apparent. The state allied with private investors to exploit the popular arts market that had been created by nationalist artists and intellectuals, but failed to understand the aesthetic and cultural foundations of these markets. Instead, the state and investors promoted crafts as they might have promoted any other industry of mass production (Miller 1999).

The results were disastrous for artisans, and according to cultural nationalists, to the national soul. When the government revised its policies in the 1960s and 1970s in light of a new wave of nationalism and a pan-Latin American folkloric revival, they sought a return to the nationalist ideals of the 1920s. Harnessed to the institutionalized Revolution, these ideals became vehicles for the regime, whose legitimacy was increasingly in doubt, to shore up public support for its own perpetuation (Lomnitz-Adler 1992)


After the Revolution of 1910, Mexico’s national identity and official culture became transformed and by the 1970s, the Mexican population became integrated into a unified cultural nation both in the imagination, and in actual practice. In the 1970s, the Echeverria regime looked back to the nativist nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s, but it lacked the same spirit of experimentation and mission. Instead, its neo-indigenist policies were half government sleight of hand to keep the ruling regime in power, and half a sense of nostalgia and a return to roots. But though his policies outwardly reflected those of the 1920s, they were based on an already institutionalized understanding of rural and indigenous traditions, and not the ambitious, experimental visions of the 1920s and 1930s.

Mexicans continue to live with the legacy of accumulated discourses that have constructed the Indian as central to the national consciousness, yet marginal to the life of the nation. Today, indigenous autonomous struggles and a new form of Indianist politics have confronted this legacy, and have sought to proclaim a higher level of indigenous self-determination. To gain national and international attention, and to sustain their claims against the government, different radical groups have couched their struggle in terms of their indigenousness and their rights as Mexican Indians. They do not situate their struggle in terms of Marxist class conflict or in terms of homogenous rights of citizenship.

Mexican artisans have tapped into the same ethnicized nationalist discourses, and have come out ahead of where they were before. They are craftspeople whose forms of art, if not always the artisans themselves, are understood to be indigenous, profoundly Mexican, and continually rediscovered by the public. Their struggles are not couched as labor issues, but in terms of national patrimony. And therein lies their power both nationally and locally, and their limitations. For by accepting the discourse, artisans find themselves unable to strike out in overtly novel or radical artistic, economic, or political directions. Mexico’s ethnicized national identity, then, has enabled artisans to lift themselves out of the depths of poverty and powerlessness, but it has also marginalized them in relation to national politics. It has allowed them to be considered fine craftspeople, but never independent, creative artists free to take their art in any directions they like.


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Chorba, Carrie. 2007. Mexico, From Mestizo to Multicultural: National Identity and Recent Representations of the Conquest. Vanderbilt University Press

Doremus, Anne. 2001. Indigenism, Mestizaje, and National Identity in Mexico during the 1940s and the 1950s Mexican Studies. Estudios Mexicanos, 17, 2: 375-402

Fuentes, Carlos. 1996. A New Time for Mexico. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Paz, Octavio. 1993. Essays on Mexican Art. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

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