NEA Big Read
Sun, Stone, and Shadows

Sun, Stone, and Shadows

by Jorge F. Hernández

The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared… Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence.

Temple of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Copyright Mark Segal/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

20th-Century Mexican Culture and History

  1. 1900s
    • The dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) presents Mexico to the world as a land of promise and progress.
    • 1904: Mounted inspectors begin to police the U.S.-Mexican border.
    • 1906: The workers at Río Blanco textile factory and Cananea copper mine go on strike. Both are brutally suppressed.
  2. 1910s
    • 1910: Francisco I. Madero runs for president against Díaz, claims victory in fraudulent elections, calls for revolution.
    • 1910: Armies led by Emiliano Zapata in the south and Francisco "Pancho" Villa in the north revolt against Díaz, beginning the Mexican Revolution.
    • 1911: Francisco I. Madero becomes Mexico's first democratically elected twentieth-century president, 1911.
    • 1917: A new constitution is written forbidding reelection, curtailing the authority of the Catholic Church, giving mineral rights to the nation, and granting new powers to organized labor.
  3. 1920s
    • 1923: Secretary of Education José Vasconcelos gives artists permission and support to paint revolutionary themes on government walls, beginning the mural movement.
    • 1926-1929: The government of President Calles bans religious services and confiscates properties of the Catholic Church; young Catholics revolt in defense of their religion; the government negotiates peace and reinstates religious liberties.
    • 1929: After recently elected President Alvaro Obregón is assassinated, Calles runs Mexico behind the scenes through the precursor to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
  4. 1930s
    • As the Great Depression worsens, more than 500,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans are repatriated.
    • Diego Rivera has a one-man show at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1931, but when he refuses to change the face of Lenin in his mural for the RCA building at Rockefeller Center, his creation is destroyed, 1934.
    • 1938: President Lázaro Cárdenas expands industry and land reform, while also expropriating foreign oil companies, founding Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX).
    • 1939: Germany invades Poland, beginning World War II in Europe.
  5. 1940s
    • 1942: The United States and Mexico adopt the Emergency Farm Labor, or "Bracero" Program, allowing Mexicans to do contract work in the U.S. for a limited time.
    • 1942: Mexico declares war on the Axis powers, joining the Allied forces in World War II.
    • 1945: The United Nations is established after World War II ends, with Mexico as one of its original members.
  6. 1950s
    • 1950: XHTV transmits the first Mexican television broadcast.
    • 1952: The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) opens at its new campus in southern Mexico City.
    • 1955: Inauguration of the International Bridge between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
    • Acapulco becomes a major international tourist destination in Mexico.
  7. 1960s
    • 1962: César Chávez begins to organize farm workers in Delano, California.
    • 1965: The Mexican Border Industrialization Program establishes the first border factories, or maquiladoras.
    • 1968: Ten days before the Mexico City Olympics, riot police open fire on student protesters demonstrating for democracy, killing many and incarcerating even more in the Tlatelolco massacre.
  8. 1970s
    • 1970: Mexico hosts the World Cup for the first time.
    • 1977: The U.S. promulgates the "Carter Plan" to regulate migrant workers.
    • 1978: After a monolith representing Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui is discovered by chance in Mexico City, archaeologists begin excavating the Aztec Templo Mayor.
  9. 1980s
    • Mexico leads the Contadora Group to unify and modernize Central America.
    • 1981: Mexico faces severe economic crisis, causing a major breakdown in investment and social welfare.
    • 1985: An 8.1 earthquake strikes Mexico City, killing thousands.
  10. 1990s
    • 1990: Octavio Paz wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.
    • 1994: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) goes into effect and creates the second-largest trade block in the world.
    • 1994: The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an armed revolutionary group named after Emiliano Zapata, begins its campaign against the Mexican government.
    • 1994: Presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio is assassinated in Tijuana.
  11. 2000s
    • 2000: Seven decades of uninterrupted rule by the PRI are democratically ended with the election of Vicente Fox (National Action Party, or PAN).
    • 2000: Hispanics become largest minority group in the U.S., of which Mexican Americans are, by far, the biggest component.
    • 2006: Felipe Calderón (PAN) becomes President of Mexico.

"At home, my father made me read Mexican history, study Mexican geography, and understand the names, the dreams and defeats of Mexico, a land of Oz with a green cactus road, a landscape and a soul so different from those of the United States that they seemed a fantasy."
—Carlos Fuentes, from Myself with Others: Selected Essays

A Brief History of Mexico

The history and heritage of Mexico are alive in her city streets and rural towns. The magnificent stonemasonry of the Olmec, Toltec, Zapotec, Maya, and other indigenous civilizations still peeks through the lushness of contemporary Mexico. We know the exact spot where Montezuma first met Captain Hernán Cortés on the morning in 1519, marking the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Neither a triumph nor a defeat, the conquest marked the painful birth of a nation's limitless fusion: genetic, cultural, artistic, economic, and architectural.

What was known as New Spain, an immense territory stretching from what is now Oregon down to Central America, would be governed as the jewel among Spanish colonies. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the indigenous Mary of Catholic belief, led to the conversion of more than nine million Indians to Catholicism and later became the symbol for independence from Spain. Today, she remains a symbol of cultural and national identity, even beyond the borders of Mexico.

The priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla sparked a movement for independence from Spain in 1810. Influenced by both the French and American Revolutions, Hidalgo laid the groundwork for a new nation he would not live to see. Throughout the nineteenth century, Mexico wavered between the twin pulls of monarchy and republicanism. More than half of her territory was lost in a war with the United States between 1846 and 1848.

In 1858, an indigenous lawyer from Oaxaca, Benito Juárez, became president of Mexico. For a time, he suppressed the struggles between the liberal and conservative factions. Mexico suffered a military invasion by the French in the 1860s; Juárez defeated the Emperor Maximilian in 1867. Juárez and his generation expelled the imperialist French and instituted democratic reforms.

Juárez died in office in 1872; subsequently, General Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1876. An initially popular veteran of the war against the French, Díaz ruled for more than thirty years. Under his dictatorship, Mexico made substantial economic progress and embraced modernity, but at the excruciating cost of widespread hunger and repression.

All this left Mexico ripe for revolution. An uprising culminated in its own institutionalization: the founding of a political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), that would win every election for the rest of the twentieth century. During this period the PRI governments had no official relationship with the Catholic Church, seen as a symbol of the old political order, although Mexico was undeniably and predominantly Catholic. Those same governments encouraged the work of artists, painters in particular. Twentieth-century Mexico also saw a tremendous flowering of literary talent, nowhere more than in the short-story form.

The Mexican Revolution

In 1910, Francisco I. Madero, a young liberal from northern Mexico championing free elections, term limits, and land reform for poor farmers, challenged the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Madero beat Díaz at the polls, and the Maderistas managed to topple Díaz's government and make Madero one of the youngest presidents in Mexico's history. Yet military officials and aristocrats, longing for the restoration of the Diaz kleptocracy, imprisoned and killed him before he could complete his first term.

The lack of civil liberties (freedom of press, freedom of association), coupled with extreme poverty in many areas, ignited the revolutionary spirit Madero had channeled. Even without Madero, a fundamental change was already palpable in Mexico. The country no longer depended on the imitation or adoption of foreign economic and political models, but instead strove to pursue its own, including farmers' cooperatives and workers' unions.

After Madero's death, three revolutionary leaders attempted to carry the mantle of revolution: Venustiano Carranza, arguing for a new constitution; Pancho Villa, an overwhelmingly popular bandit-general; and Emiliano Zapata, a peasant whose dedication to the downtrodden transcended any theorizing about impoverished masses. All three contributed to overthrowing the government that had killed Madero, and all three took an active role in the disputes and bloodbaths that followed, even among the revolucionados themselves.

The revolutionaries finally laid down their arms in 1917 and established a stable government. Many of its leaders and their followers didn't live to see the Revolution evolve into the political party that would govern Mexico from 1929 until 2000—forty years longer than Díaz had ruled. One at a time, General Carranza, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata were all ambushed and assassinated.

Only two important generals, Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, survived to help institutionalize the movement. They accomplished this politically (with the founding of a one-party system), socially (by letting the state absorb all economic activity), and culturally (by making government censors the final arbiter over all artistic production).

Many revolutionary leaders and political chieftains from different factions lie buried in Mexico City in the Monumento a la Revolución. After all their battles, military and political, they rest in peace together—all except for Emiliano Zapata, who was buried in his homeland of Morelos, among his people, and who alone, according to Octavio Paz, truly embodied the ideals of the Revolution.

"Scribbled in green ink on yellowing sheets or set down by the nervous clacking that typewriters used to make, these are stories meant to be read as if you were leisurely drawing out an after-dinner conversation, or narrating mile after mile of a voyage while lost in a purple dusk, or remembering pieces of your life under the spell of the hypnotic insomnia with which subway cars move in Mexico City."
—Jorge F. Hernández, from the introduction to Sun, Stone, and Shadows

Mexican Surrealism

The artistic movement known as Surrealism first emerged in France, partly as a reaction to the slaughters of World War I and the advent of Freudian psychology. As an artistic movement, whether in literature, film, or the visual arts, Surrealism tried to recreate the workings of the unconscious mind, especially as it is experienced in dreams. Combining illusion and reality, a loose affiliation of poets, novelists, photographers, painters, sculptors, and filmmakers helped shape Surrealism's haunting imagery of the unconscious.

Considered the father of Surrealism, French poet André Breton visited Mexico in 1938. He returned to Paris convinced he had been to a land that lived and breathed Surrealism on an everyday basis. According to legend, Breton once ordered a table from a carpenter, describing the measurements he needed by drawing it in perspective. Two weeks later, the carpenter delivered a beautiful piece of woodwork in triangular form, with two very long legs on one side and a pair of very short ones on the other. He had built exactly what Breton had drawn and, in his defense, muttered that if the foreigner wanted a table he should have said so in the first place.

Once in Mexico, Surrealism quickly took root in unexpected ways. In literature, Octavio Paz, Juan José Arreola, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and others avidly incorporated its parallel worlds and striking, often comic imagery into their work. Such painters as Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo embraced Surrealism as Salvador Dalí had in Spain, granting themselves license to imagine landscapes obedient to dream logic, yet almost photorealistic in their detail. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who had collaborated with Dalí on the landmark Surrealist film Un chien andalou (1929) in Europe, fled the Spanish Civil War and wound up in Mexico, where he made such classics as The Exterminating Angel (1962).

As depicted in the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada, the phantasmagoric dreams of Kahlo, and the murals of Diego Rivera, Mexico is a land where death matters as much as life. In connection with the Catholic holy days of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (November 1 and 2), Mexicans commemorate the dead by bringing food, drinks, flowers, or photographs to graves of their loved ones, a time known as El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is customary to give all living friends and neighbors skulls crafted from sugar, as a reminder of the destiny that awaits us all. No wonder European Surrealism and such gifted practitioners as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Luis Buñuel found their purest expression an ocean away, in Mexico.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, the Queen of Mexico

Twelve years after Spanish explorers landed on Mexican soil, the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe was recorded. In 1531, a dark-skinned mother of Jesus appeared several times to a peasant Indian man named Juan Diego, a Catholic convert. She asked to have a church built on the site. After Diego told a bishop what had happened—only to be turned away—a colorful image of the Virgin was emblazoned on Diego's cloak to validate his story. This miracle led to the conversion of about nine million of Mexico's Indians to Catholicism. The Vatican officially recognized the miracle of Guadalupe in 1745, and the image now hangs above the altar in the Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

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