Avant-Garde and Revolution in Mexico
Southern Connecticut State University
"The New Sweaty / Beauty of the Century"
By the mid-twenties and mainly as the result of the Revolution, Mexican society realized that it was much more diverse than anybody had acknowledged in the past regime. The "real" face or rather faces of the country were made painfully visible through the horrors of a civil war, which seemed to provide the ideal conditions to rethink national identity or in words of Guillermo Sheridan, "redefinir la nacionalidad" (384). New currents of cultural expression emerged and significantly most of them were popular. Everybody in the country recognized the importance of incorporating these currents in the new nation, but not everybody agreed on how exactly that should be done. The country was divided and many artistic and intellectual groups were convinced that they were the authentic representatives of Mexican society, turning the need to redefine nationality into a real cultural battle and Mexico City into a battlefield where different positions challenged each other sometimes in vicious confrontations and often in the name of the Revolution.
Very early the poets and artists that sympathized with the Revolution particularly estridentistas and muralistas presented themselves as the only avant-garde intellectuals, proclaiming a unifying although monolithic idea of nation. Also, they did not tolerate those who were different or disagreed with their idea of culture. In the estridentista manifesto this position is presented clearly when it declares that "A los que no estén con nosotros se los comerán los zopilotes" (cited in Verani 91). Among those doomed to be eaten by vultures were the poets gathered in the pages of the magazine Contemporáneos, a group perceived as reactionary, anti-patriotic, and effeminate. It was to these poets that Manuel Maples Arce, the leader of estridentistas, directed the following verses from Urbe in an obvious attempt to disqualify them on moral grounds:
blow towards us
the wind of social revolution.
The literary crotch seekers
will understand nothing
of this new sweaty
beauty of the century]
It is very famous although little studied, for example, the quarrel on effeminacy and literature started with an article published by Julio Jiménez Rueda in 1924 titled, "El afeminamiento en la literatura mexicana" (El universal, December 21, 1924), (1) where the author also associates revolution with virility. Jiménez Rueda’s apparent intention was to show that the Mexican Revolution had not yet produced "La obra poética, narrativa o trágica que sea compendio y cifra de las agitaciones del pueblo."
He attributed such failure to the fact that what had been written until then was very soft or "feminine," while the literature that the country needed was hard and masculine. Even more, he accused most Mexican writers and poets of being passive rather than active, which for him was a sign of lacking sex as well as an anti-patriotic cowardice since everybody knows, according to him, that "[c]ualidad masculina es dar frente con valor a todas las contingencias de la vida, preferir lo fuerte, lo noble, lo altivo: las estatuas de los héroes están siempre de pie en actitud de reto, ansiosas de combate. Cualidad femenina es, en cambio, ampararse en la debilidad para herir impunemente al prójimo." In his view, sex stands for power, determination, rectitude, and love for one’s own homeland, something that clearly for him men could have naturally, but women could not.
This article started a controversy in some of the most important Mexican papers and magazines of the time offering a completely different view from the traditional way Mexican society has been interpreted. An intellectual from the old school, Victoriano Salado Álvarez, responded to Rueda’s article with an evasive note, which title was unwillingly ironic ("No se necesitan intelectuales," Revista de revistas, January 18, 1925). It was, however, a socialist and revolutionary poet, Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz, who made the debate more personal naming specific poets including some of contemporáneos and even those who had been his friends. (2) In his "Literatura con sexo y literatura sin sexo" (La antorcha, January 24, 1925), Gutiérrez Cruz explains his position: "El sexo es algo que abarca todas las manifestaciones de la vida humana [pues] la simple descripción de un crepúsculo no puede ser igual, hecha por un macho que por una hembra." And yet what is evident here is that at the core of the dispute for a revolutionary culture was a struggle for power — the power that comes with erecting one’s own group as the only representative of a Nation — masked in terms of gender.
In a second article, "Los poetas jóvenes sin sexo" (El demócrata, February 21, 1925), González Cruz increases his personal attacks against Torres Bodet, Salvador Novo, Francisco Monterde, and Xavier Villaurrutia — these poets, in his opinion, are all asexual. Two of them, Monterde and Novo, reacted to the attacks by writing on the subject. Monterde’s response ("Un poeta joven con sexo," El demócrata, February 25, 1925) in particular had clearly the intention of getting his name removed from the list since he seems to agree with the equation between sex and virility: the young poet with sex he talks about in his article was, of course, himself. Among other intellectuals who intervened in the dispute, two are important to mention: José Gorostiza ("La juventud contra molinos de vientos," La antorcha, January 24, 1925), who seems more interested in moving the discussion to a more literary territory, and M. Glikowuskt ("El ‘afeminamiento’ en la literatura," La antorcha, March 7, 1925), who considered "effeminacy" a characteristic present not only in Mexican, but in Western literature in general and does not consider it a problem.
The debate on effeminacy, revolution, and patriotism went on for months and involved directly and indirectly the most prominent intellectuals of the time. National identity was accepted as a collective priority, but it also opened the door to other concerns considered personal, if not secret. The struggle for identity felt in the public arena was mirrored in the space considered most private — sexual identity. In the verses from Urbe quoted above is clear that Maples Arce was trying to discredit contemporáneos by questioning their sexuality as much as he was trying to incorporate Mexican estridentismo into a bigger, international, and revolutionary project through the association with Russia and through a clumsy appropriation of the reactionary ideas of Italian futurism — chiefly its praise of war, patriotism, machinery, velocity, "manly" work, aggression, and disdain of women.
In fact, the avant-garde in Mexico for the most part excluded women and everything feminine was often considered fragile, unstable, and undesirable, therefore being effeminate, a woman or a homosexual — it did not matter which one — was to be weak. Even in those rare cases in which women hold an important position in the avant-garde circles, most notably Frida Kahlo, it is evident that her acceptance had to do not only with her socialist ideas, but also with what could have been percieved as her "masculine" qualities (she was revolutionary and had to endure a harsh life in pain and illness) to the point that Diego Rivera painted her distributing arms to the workers getting ready for a social revolt dressed in manly overalls.
This seems an important aspect to consider to understand Mexican modernity because I do not believe, like most critics, that the attacks of estridentistas and other revolutionary artists against contemporáneos and all the "effeminate" poets were motivated only by homophobic prejudices, (3) a statement often mentioned, but that in my opinion explains very little, particularly because they were directed against everybody — heterosexual or homosexual — who did not write about the revolution and therefore was considered passive, soft, and effeminate. On the contrary, I think that those attacks were the desperate cries of a dying culture stubbornly incapable of understanding the modern world in more complex terms. The traditional dualistic view of Mexican society based on the opposition of irreconcilable parts (male/female, strong/weak, national/foreigner) was losing terrain before the demands of groups that started to raise their voices, including women.
The Revolution had propitiated after all the rethinking of sexual roles
since it had allowed and even encouraged a high degree of promiscuity;
it also had allowed an increase in the expression of individuality — women
would accompany men, leaving their towns in order to perform traditional
domestic roles, but also in some cases to fight side by side with them
and often ended up abandoned, pregnant, and dislocated. In popular music
and folklore there are several stories about the role of women in the Revolution,
from "soldaderas" to "valentinas," "coronelas," "adelitas," and other female
figures who achieved mythological status. In a way, the Revolution abolished
the Porfirian moral by sexualizing the masses. Modernity was seen in Mexico
in terms of gender and sexual identity very early on. (4)
Better yet: modernity in that country was the struggle between a traditional
patriarchal society and an emerging one that challenged the authority and
the values of unification, control, determination, and integrity considered
exclusively masculine and praised by that society.
Whose Sweaty Men Are They, Anyway?
Nowhere seems more evident the attempt to reduce to a monolithic and official culture the newly revealed diversity of Mexican society than ironically in Diego Rivera’s revolutionary murals, particularly in those painted in the 1920s and 1930s in the Secretaría de Educación Pública and in the Palacio Nacional. In those murals, Rivera offers representative and populist images of the people and trades of Mexico; in the "patio de los oficios" of the Secretaría de Educación Pública we see, for example, all types of occupations and trades from refining sugar to mining, to cultivating the land. And in the second floor of the same building Rivera illustrated some corridos and gave a synthesis of the country’s struggles for freedom in which every event of the past led to the Revolution and every future act came out of it in a way that did not leave room for different interpretations of history or other types of behaviors. On the same lines, the murals of Palacio Nacional represent Mexican history from pre-Columbian times to the Revolution in an inquestionable version proposed by the government. However, such restrictive view of national identity did not go unchallenged and among those openly critizacing it was Salvador Novo (1904-1974) whom I consider a barometer of what was happening in the country.
Novo is an emblematic figure of his time and its conflicts, a figure that questioned a traditional society by assuming his individuality as much as by criticizing and mocking the retrograde views of revolutionary groups. As we can observe in the poem that opens Novo’s collection of "Poemas proletarios" (1931), he proposes a very funny, ironic and often precise revision of the way Mexican history and myths have been politically manipulated. What makes this poem even more important is the fact that it easily can be read as a response to the interpretation of Mexican history offered by muralistas and estridentistas and their revolutionary aspirations.
In this way, Novo bursts into the conversation about national identity, presenting a different and critical point of view. The poem’s opening stanza, for example, clearly states that Mexican history is the result of the overlapping of cultures and events interacting with each other silently:
[From the remote past
over the pyramids of Teotihuacán,
over the temples and volcanoes,
over the bones and crosses of the golden conquistadores
time grows in silence]
Also, the poem presents a vivid and sarcastic parade of characters and heroes of Mexican history ridiculing the way they have been elevated to their official pedestals. So when we move forward from the time of the Conquest to the Independence, we read:
have been dressed like marionettes
and crushed in the pages of the books
for the veneration and memory of dedicated children,
and Father Hidalgo,
Morelos and the corregidor of Querétaro’s wife,
with her peineta and her double chin, always on profile,
and Morelos with frock coat, black boots and a piece of cloth
tied around his head, aggressive expression, southern caudillo
and the court of velvet, iron, and laces of the viceroys
and the wax-figure of Xóchitl, barefooted
among magueys of green wax]
Particularly, Novo’s reference to the indigenous peoples is an irreverent statement that mocks their inclusion in the "revolutionary" rhetoric, not only the folkloric Indian girl of wax, but also a historical figure like Benito Júarez: "Y Júarez, Benemérito de las Américas, / para que vean de lo que son capaces los indios" (10). It is impossible, once more, not to read this poem as a comment on the murals of Rivera that had transformed the government buildings into "museums" for the people.
But "Del pasado remoto" goes further and pokes fun at the marriage of the indigenous and the revolutionary in what is again an open criticism to both estridentistas and muralistas:
[The literature of the Revolution,
the revolutionary poetry
around two or three anecdotes of Villa
and the flourishing of masseurs,
the signs of the rope and the soldadera,
the cartridge belts and the corn cobs,
the ravine and the Sun, brother, proletarian painter,
the epic songs and folk songs
the blue overalls of the skies,
the strangled siren of the factory
and the new rhythm of the hammers
of the brother-workers
and the green patches of the communal lands
from where the brother-farmers
have expelled the scarecrow-priest]
To make his case stronger, Novo writes four poems dedicated to the working classes following "Del pasado remoto." In these poems, all the cliches of the proletariat, such as the beauty of sweaty arms manipulating heavy machinery or the heroic and optimistic brotherhood that the Revolution had supposedly brought to the masses are avoided. The poems talk instead of the poor devil that stops every morning by a little store on his way to work to drink alcohol and soda and again before returning home, only to start the cycle the following morning since he earns only seventy-five cents a day.
Novo writes also about the soldiers, sub-lieutenants and privates, who at night in the barracks share their dreams and talk about their towns and get drunk with tequila and gunpowder, and smoke marijuana. Novo, the "bourgeois" poet, is writing assertively not from the perspective of the intellectual that looks at these people with contempt and finds their behavior "picturesque," but from the perspective of the man who does not romanticize them and sees their integrity as human beings in an unjust society.
Novo — it is important to clarify — is not writing out of class consciousness or because he identifies and sympathizes with a proletarian or an Indian cause; he simply refuses, like the other members of contemporáneos, any simplistic interpretation of history and nationalism. His poems are not didactic, since their intention is not to teach others how to write "real" proletarian, or indigenous, or patriotic poetry, but to expose their failure when attempting to do so. Furthermore, I think that we can read these poems as "manifestos" of the impossibility of writing such kind of poetry. Novo’s "proletarian" poems are not aesthetic declarations, but aesthetic interrogations that question the idea that poetry, to succeed, depends on its subject alone.
These poems therefore must be read in relation to another one written a year earlier where Novo meditates on what poetry really is. In this text, he not only mistrusts the subject but also the technique:
And even if the subject itself could elevate an expression to the artistic category, Novo seems to imply that most intellectuals cannot claim to understand the real needs of the real proletarians, since all they can do honestly is talk about the working class in abstract terms. The problem emerges when they cannot resist the temptation of claiming to know better than the proletarians themselves what their needs are. Speaking of the "campesino," Novo makes this point clear:
[Painters reproduce him on the walls of offices
his arm on the worker’s shoulder,
watching the birth of the Sun of the Vindications,
carrying on his back flowers or straw,
or descending into the black mines.
(He has never seen those walls, and in his hut
there hangs a calendar from Bayer products
or the picture of Miss Arizona in a bathing suit
that he cut from the Sunday paper.)]
Novo, on the contrary, does not pretend to know what’s best for the working men and yet he has no problem speaking to them directly, for example in "Noche," poem published a little earlier than "Poemas proletarios" where we read:
It is not that I am socialist,
but you have been the entire day
looking after a machine
invented by Americans
to cover necessities
invented by Americans]
The poem is also a bold social statement inasmuch as the "bourgeois" poet addresses the worker without depending on socialist rhetoric, in a gesture that could be interpreted as a vote of confidence on the intellectual capacities of the working class. The "reactionary" poet accused of being the enemy of the workers suddenly becomes the only one capable of talking to them directly and the only one that understands their situation. There is, of course, as in almost everything that Novo wrote, a high degree of perverse irony. In order not to be confused with a follower of socialist realism, he ends his poem in the most pretentious way with multilingual verses:
[Your girlfriend and mine
will make laces and projects.
Everybody is asleep, but
Voici ma douce amie
si méprisée ici car elle est sage
and numerical and temperamental
Goodby, friend, good luck
with Lady Gordiva.
To me, Vive la France
even though my friend
cannot, right now, literally,
be thankful for the compliment]
Still one cannot help but wonder why this intimacy with the proletarians of Mexico in a petit bourgeois poet that does not claim to speak for them. Why does Novo feel so comfortable talking directly to these sweaty working men? Why does his proletarian poetry sounds a lot more honest than that of the self-proclaimed revolutionary poets? The answer, I think, can be found in Novo’s determination to live his own sexuality. If Maples Arce had said before that the "asalta-braguetas literarios" understand nothing of the new sweaty beauty of the century, Poemas proletarios replied that neither does Maples Arce. Novo goes further and in his best satirical poetry he makes clear that not only he knows more about those sweaty, hard-working men, but also he is responsible in part for their sweat.
That is how I interpret most of his erotic sonnets, which are populated by butchers, bus drivers, cops, thieves, letter carriers, soldiers, etc. Novo himself describes in his memoirs the sexual adventures of his youth. "I used to throw myself, explains, to hunt the kind of guys that electrified me when I discovered, touched, squeezed them—bus drivers. They were the young generation eager to manipulate machines, to live life fast in the still small Mexico of those days." (115).
This confession ironically seems very close to the ideas of estridentistas. And yet the preference for the sweaty, machine-operating men that live fast was very different in both cases. For Novo, more than anything, it is a matter of living his sexuality to its full capacity, and in that respect he resembles Oscar Wilde. Talking about Novo, Carlos Monsiváis has said that he enriches the diversity of Mexican society essentially because he exercises the rebelliousness of not hiding who he was.
In the end, the dispute for National identity that marks a big portion
of the avant-garde in Mexico turned out to be more about two specific and
very different visions of modernity. Paradoxically, of these two visions
the one that emphasized individuality and diversity (including sexual diversity)
was more subversive than the "revolutionary" one that preached one and
only one way of being Mexican.
(1). These articles have never been collected and the newspapers where they originally appeared are old and not always consistent or accessible, so I have decided to give the title of the publication and the date in parenthesis in the text of the essay — I believe this would assist the curious reader who wants to locate them.
(2). Xavier Villaurrutia and Gutiérrez Cruz were friends at one point and Villaurrutia even dedicated a poem about passionate love to him.
(3). Díaz Arciniega’s opinion is that "el [centrarse en el] afeminamiento revela intereses personales y prejuicios homofóbicos" (16).
(4). See my essay "El poeta en la Quinta Avenida" where I explore the relationship between modernity and sexuality, particularly in the female figure as reflected in José Juan Tablada’s poetry. Tablada, I propose, saw the changing female figure at the beginning of the twentieth century and associated with a modern sensibility as a danger for a traditional society like the Mexican.
(5). Most of the quotes of Novo’s
poetry come from the same book, Poesía; in the few cases
that poetry from another book it will be indicated.
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Breezley, William, Cheryl English Martin and William French. Rituals of Rule, Rituals of Resistance. Public celebrations and Popular Culture in Mexico. Wilmington: SR Books, 1994.
Díaz Arciniega, Víctor. Querella por la cultura "revolucionaria" (1925). México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989.
Haskell, Barbara. The American Century. Art and Culture, 1900-1950. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999.
Hernández Rodríguez, Rafael. "El poeta en la Quinta Avenida: modernidad o el tropiezo con el cuerpo femenino. Latin American Literary Review 25. 49 (1997): 43-61.
Maples Arce, Manuel. Las semillas del tiempo. Obra poética 1919-1980. México: Conseja Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1990.
Memorias de un mexicano. Documentary filmed between 1897-1944. Fundación Carmen Toscano, IAP, compiled in 1944-50.
Monsiváis, Carlos. "Introducción." Novo, La estatua de sal, 11-41.
Novo, Salvador. La estatua de sal. México: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1998.
---. Poesía. XX poemas/Espejo/Nuevo Amor/ Poesías no coleccionadas. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1961.
Sheridan, Guillermo. "Entre la casa y la calle: la polémica de 1932 entre nacionalismo y cosmopolitismo literario." Blancarte 384-413.
Tenenbaum, Barbara A. "Streetwise History: The Paseo de la Reforma and Porfirian State, 1876-1910." Breezley et al 127-150.
Verani, Hugo J. Las vanguardias literarias en Hispanoamérica. Manifiestos, proclamas y otros escritos. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990.