Mesoamerica and the Big Apple: Mexican Nationalism at the 1964 World’s Fair

For twelve months between 1964 and 1965, Mexican and Mesoamerican culture invaded the economic heart of the western world, New York City. Grand displays of Mesoamerican art steeped in the mystic symbolism of this ancient culture stood in contrast to modern symbols of art and society. The awe-inspiring Mayan calendar overshadowed skyscrapers, while the enigmatic and mysterious giant Olmec heads instilled a sense of wonder and amazement at the artistic expressions of power of a long-lost civilization. The fair would host pavilions from eighty countries, twenty-four American states, and over forty-five corporations, however, none was more memorable than that of Mexico’s Pavilion. Beyond the savory aromas inherent in Mexican cuisine and tasty beverages that flowed freely, Mesoamerican culture and nationalistic pride of heritage impressed fair goers with the realization that one did not need to travel to Egypt or Rome to immerse oneself in the grandeur and majesty of an ancient civilization. The purpose of this paper is to examine how Mexico used Mesoamerican art, architecture, and food at the 1964 World’s Fair as a vehicle to redefine the nation’s image on the world stage. This paper will argue that Mexico, in the decades following the 1910 revolution, sought to embrace Mesoamerican culture as a nationalistic building block in its attempts to revitalize Mexico’s social, political and economic international position.

Visitors to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Corona, Queens, NY, had many fascinating and exquisitely designed pavilions to explore. Mexico’s pavilion displayed the nation through the lens of its cultural, culinary, and industrial history. The nation’s entry at the World’s fair was the culmination of fifty years of nationalistic re-branding that stressed the importance of Mesoamerican heritage in modern Mexican society. A modern industrial nation’s art, food, and ancient culture may seem unrelated and irrelevant in an examination of a nation’s place on the world stage. However, for Mexico, these representations of Mexican life represented how Mexico wanted the world to view it and further how Mexico wanted its own population to view themselves. The modern architecture of the pavilion and the placement of the giant Olmec head at its entrance was meant to represent Mexico as a multifaceted modern nation that rose from ancient Mesoamerican culture as the ancient art symbolized where the nation came from and the architecture represented the nation as a modern and advanced culture. [1] [2]

It is important to understand the socio-political relationship between Mexico and the United States to understand how the World’s Fairs help in the development of Mexican nationalism. As Stephen Morris asserts, Mexico and the United States prior to the 1910 revolution were intertwined in a relationship that slowly smothered Mexican culture as the two nations developed. The American language, culture, and industry became so prevalent that towns such as Monterrey and even the capital Mexico City were thought of as “American towns." In the post-revolutionary period, Mexican governments embarked on a campaign in which they sought to roll back the cultural assimilation of Mexico by the United States in order to, on one hand, retain their personal power and the other expand the national influence of Mexico. Fairs and expos became battle grounds in the war for Mexican nationalism. [3]

Susan Douglas, in her article on the evolution of World Fairs, argues that the early fairs and trade expos of the nineteenth century originally were intended to showcase a nation’s place within the context of the industrial revolution. At most pavilions, a nation’s industrial and technological advances were displayed to showcase its progress in industry and in doing so it presented the nation as an economic powerhouse. However, she argues that by the early twentieth century, fairs and trade expos had evolved into socio-political statements rather than industrial ones. For Douglas, Mexico’s efforts at fairs and trade expos became a socio-political advertising campaign that announced to the domestic and international community this is what it means to be Mexican. O’Toole reinforces Douglas’ assertion by arguing that for Mexico the intent of fairs and trade expos shifted from an industrial expression of a nations worth to a cultural expression of national value in post a revolution era. This shift in messaging is important to understand as it coincides with Mexico’s recovery, culturally and economically, after the 1910 revolution. O’Toole argues that the fairs and expos were used to showcase the budding nationalistic sentiment in Mexico that canonized the nations Mesoamerican past and boldly asserted the nations reemergence as a significant nation. [4} {5}

David Brading argues that there is no better example of Mexican socio-political rebirth than Mesoamerican art and modern architecture. Brading asserts, that Mexican nationalism was not something that was new in Mexico as Mesoamerican socio-political themes of resistance are common within Mexico’s historiography. An insurgency against Spanish rule in 1810 declared the founding of a new Aztec empire, while this revolution was doomed to failure, the ideals of a new Aztec empire and the re-conquest of the empire from colonial rule was ingrained in the Mexican socio-political imagination. In the post-revolution era, Mexico’s new modern architecture sought to compliment the ancient as Mexico modernized its international image. By combining Mesoamerican iconography with modern architectural flourishes, Mexico both domestically and internationally at fairs presented itself as a modern ancient culture steeped in the past and looking towards the future. [6]

Art and architecture without a doubt is important in the understanding of Mexican nationalism and its representation at the 1964 World’s Fair. However, the story of food in any examination of nationalism and World Fairs is of equal importance to the narrative as it speaks to the cultural bonds that bind a nation’s people together. Every nation has at least one signature dish that you instantly recognize and associate with that nation, for the English, Yorkshire, for France, escargot, and for Mexico, mole. Jeffrey Pilcher asserts that mole, a signature Mexican dish, made with old world spice and new world chilies, is representative of the way Mexico blended its Mesoamerican and Spanish heritage to create a modern Mexico. Much like modern Mexico, mole, is not Mesoamerican, nor is it Spanish, but rather it is a blend of the two that produced something new and unique. For Pilcher, mole, is representative of what it means to be Mexican, a blend of two cultural identities that results in a new unique identity. As a signature dish of the 1964 World’s Fair, mole, was the only logical choice to represent Mexico on the world stage. [7]

The culinary arts of Mexico at the 1964 World’s Fair were a resounding success and introduced global audiences to the rich foods of Mexico. Mole played an important role, as the signature dish, introducing Mexican food to the global community. Craig Claiborne, in his June 1964 New York Times article, pays special attention to the food and atmosphere of the Focolare, one of two Mexican restaurants represented at the fair. The Focolare, as Claiborne describes the restaurant, is awash with amber and ox-blood ceilings and large pillows for chairs. The atmosphere along with the food was designed to impress upon the patrons the grandeur of royal dining at a Mesoamerican court. At the Focolare, nationalism was vividly displayed in the signature dish mole, part Mesoamerican, part Spanish but completely Mexican. Mole signifies how two nations combined to form a new modern nation, Mexico. The restaurants’ décor and atmosphere were complimentary of the past, while representing modern Mexican nationalism. [8]

Art, architecture, and cuisine at Mexico’s 1964 World’s Fair pavilion, as this paper has shown, was designed to showcase Mexico’s growing nationalistic resurgence. The imagery of Mesoamerican art was intended to impress on domestic and the international audience Mexico’s imperial past. Whereas the modern architecture of the pavilion demonstrated a culture that was proud of its past yet looked to the future for inspiration. Yet it is the cuisine that speaks for Mexico, as mole represents what it is to be Mexican, a blended society that represents the Old World and New.