Not Ready to Play Ball: Mexico's Muted Embrace of the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition of 1937

“An international celebration of peace and good will in the Americas,” reads an advertisement announcing the harmonious theme of the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition of 1937 (“Exposition”).[1] The 1937 Exposition was a creature of its time. Historian of fairs Robert Rydell claims, “depression-era fairs…became cultural icons for the nation’s hopes and future.”[2] This Exposition, like other fairs, “provided a tangible way for powerful institutions, such as local and national governments, as well as elite economic interests to broadcast visually their worldviews to a large audience.”[3] Promotional materials crafted a romantic vision of a shared experience of empire, telling potential fairgoers, “the spread of empire throughout the Western World in less than five centuries is the phenomenal story of the promote the feeling of international goodwill between the twenty-one independent nations of the New World, as voiced so strongly by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt before the 1936 Inter-American Peace Conference in Buenos Aires, is the magnificent Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition at Dallas.”[4] One author notes, “the stated intention of the 1937 fair was to usher in an era of peace and cooperation between all the countries of the Western hemisphere with Texas at the heart of a great Pan-American economic engine.”[5] Nevertheless, underlying this Pan-American ideal was a “tension inherent in the asymmetrical U.S.-Latin American relationship.”[6]

Overshadowed by and often collapsed into the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 (“Texas Centennial”), the Exposition’s distinguishing features are largely overlooked. The Exposition opened at Dallas’s Fair Park just six months after the close of the Texas Centennial. The grounds and buildings were repackaged with a Latin American flair representative of the stereotypes and clichés of the time, and, unlike the Texas Centennial, all of the nations of the Americas were invited to construct exhibits.[7] As befitted Texas’s nearest neighbor, Mexico’s exhibit at the Exposition occupied the largest space allotted in the Rotundo le las Americas.[8] However, Mexico threatened to remove its exhibit at least twice, and Mexican athletes were mysteriously absent from the Exposition’s widely advertised Pan-American games. This paper explores Mexico’s muted embrace of the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition within the context of its political and economic relationship with the United States in 1937.

In keeping with the Exposition’s theme of cooperation, a highly anticipated schedule of friendly, international athletic events was planned, which some recognize as the first Pan-American Games.[9] The Exposition hired Washington, D.C. businessman George Preston Marshall as Director of Sports and Entertainment. Marshall viewed, “sport as the key to expanding trade and tourism in the Western Hemisphere.”[10] Planned events included track and field; boxing; a soccer tournament to include “the strongest units of South America and the champions of Mexico and the United States;” car racing; a motorboat regatta; and “the crowning glory,” a 1,400-mile foot race from Mexico City to Dallas.[11] $100,000 of prize money was allocated for winners of the events.[12] The pomp and circumstance of the athletic competition would be demonstrated by elaborate opening ceremonies and the “flame of friendship” atop the “Tower of Flame,” the largest sports monument built in the United States at that time.[13] State Department envoys embarked on a twenty-nation tour of Latin America to personally deliver invitations to participate in the Exposition and to send athletes to compete in the games.[14] Despite these efforts and widespread coverage by newspapers, the games were smaller in reality than envisioned, and notably lacked participation by Mexico. Early reporting claimed that Mexico had accepted the invitation and would send a soccer team. In April of 1937, it seemed the United States, Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, and possibly Cuba had entered teams in the soccer tournament.[15] By June 8, one week before the soccer tournament was to begin, newspapers declared that the soccer tournament would include Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States.[16] Just before the Exposition’s opening, a quiet mention was made in the Dallas Morning News that Mexico would not be sending a soccer team after all.[17] It is unclear what happened with the Peruvian and Uruguayan teams. At least one newspaper reported that the teams failed to attend due to “mismanagement by tournament officials.”[18] In the end, only the United States, Canada, and Argentina fielded teams in the soccer tournament. Meanwhile, numerous newspapers continued to anticipate the exciting spectacle of the road race from Mexico City to Dallas.[19] It was postponed and eventually cancelled due to “complex arrangement details.”[20]

One clue to a deeper reason than mere inconvenience for Mexico’s withdrawal from the games is noted by historian Mark Dyreson. He refers to a “quiet Mexican boycott,” citing Mexican newspaper La Afición. La Afición appears to have missed the distinction between the Exposition and the Texas Centennial, urging readers not to attend the games. In strong language, the newspaper condemned the games as a celebration of the “despoilation” of Mexico’s former province, Texas, and stated, “frankly, we could blush with shame if a Mexican team in any sport attended the Pan-American Field Day.”[21] Dyreson argues, “Mexico’s athletic boycott of the Pan-American festival scuttled Marshall’s proposed Mexico City to Dallas footrace and put a damper on the international and interracial harmony the Pan-American Games would allegedly foment.”[22] As it happens, La Afición’s position was not entirely unfounded.

From the outset, Exposition director, Frank McNeny, took pains to set the Exposition apart from the Texas Centennial. A newspaper article from January 8, 1937, reported McNeny had asked the public to use the correct name of the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition because the Texas Centennial, “commemorated a glorious past,” but this Exposition, “will look to the brilliant future.”[23] Despite McNeny’s efforts, in the rush to convert the Texas Centennial into the Exposition, the continuities of time and space may have confused some audiences. One of the Texas Centennial’s main attractions had been the Cavalcade of Texas. The 1937 Exposition reinvented this as the Cavalcade of the Americas. One author says it “backfired,” arguing, “the revised Dallas fair, with its commingling of Aztec, rodeo, and Americana, indicated that the complicated invented hemispheric subject it projected had not been resolved in the sociopolitical reality of Dallas, Texas.”[24] A particularly contentious part of the Cavalcade was a historically inaccurate dramatization of an Aztec ritual sacrifice of a maiden.[25] The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Mexican Consul Adolfo Domínguez protested until the board of directors of the Exposition corrected the ritual to accurately depict the sacrifice of a warrior instead.[26] Another conflict involving four wax panels, retained from the Texas Centennial, glorifying Texas’s victory over Mexico, prompted Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to instruct Consul Domínguez to “withdraw Mexican exhibits unless the offending wax panels were deleted.”[27] Both of these complaints were addressed to Mexico’s satisfaction, and its exhibits remained. Still, one wonders if insults like these contributed to Mexico’s withdrawal from the Pan-American games.

Finally, Mexico’s absence from the Pan-American games in 1937 may have been indicative of larger political and economic initiatives pursued by the Mexican government. President Cárdenas had set Mexico on a course toward economic self-determination. Mexico was likely less interested in the Exposition’s enticement to boost trade than in taking charge of its own economy. Newspaper headlines from 1937, such as “Mexico Slows Reform Drive: Financial Crisis Faces Cárdenas,” reveal a Mexico in transition and facing critical decisions.[28] As one editor wrote, “the government is attempting to throw off the yoke of the foreign exploiter. It is trying to reclaim Mexico for Mexicans.”[29] Through this lens, one could argue the games were a victim of bad timing. The U.S. had yet to prove itself a good neighbor when faced with a Latin American nation prioritizing its own interests over U.S. trade investments. Perhaps Mexico sensed that Texas had more to gain from Mexican participation from the Exposition games than Mexico did.

As a creature of its time, the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition cast an aspirational vision of hemispheric harmony in an effort to boost trade and bolster political alliances during a global depression and war brewing in Europe. The Pan-American games themselves were an ambitious undertaking and deserve credit for inspiring what would become the Pan-American Games that we know today. In the end, the games were considered a successful “link in the good-neighbor policy,” attended by 55,000 Texans, prompting the Brazilian ambassador to offer to host the games the following year.[30] However, Mexico’s absence from the games must have seemed glaring given its proximity to Dallas and early expectations of involvement. Time and place matter. Hosting the Exposition only six months after the close of the Texas Centennial in the same venue may have made it difficult to distinguish the two fairs. Instances of cultural insensitivity may have caused Mexico to doubt Texan overtures of neighborliness. Finally, the Pan-American games were perhaps ahead of their time. Mexico was in the process of pursuing a path of economic independence. Only a few months after the close of the Exposition, President Cárdenas would execute the pivotal nationalization of the oil industry in Mexico. This would place the Good Neighbor Policy in a real-world contest rather than in one played on the pitch.