Mexico, the Agave, and the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

There was a strange sight to behold on the shore of Lake Michigan, in Chicago, days before the May 1 opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. An agave plant in night caps was inside the temporarily erected Horticultural Building. The plant was not tired; nor was it Mexican of origin. It was grown and presented by the United States and started the process of blooming well before opening day of the fair. The buds were dressed in bed attire to block light hoping to trick the plant from blooming and subsequently its death march. The century plant, as many call the agave or maguey, only blooms once. It shoots a quiote from the center of the plant well above the collection of sharp, leathery leaves, reproduces and then dies. [1]

The agave did not make it through the duration of the fair in plant form. What is most notable about this story is not the failure of silly efforts, but that the presentation of a culturally significant Mexican plant is in its natural state presented by the United States, but elsewhere throughout the fair the plant could be found turned into usable goods as presented by Mexico and other’s. The silences and underrepresentation of agave at the Columbian Exposition exemplify the ways in which the motivations of capitalist events like world’s fairs and the ruling Porfirio Díaz government at the time in Mexico.The crossroads that are all shared here is the manipulation of the native plant in the presentation of the plant showcased and ignored agave in such a way that it encapsulates the overarching understanding of not only what role Mexico’s standing was globally but what was held culturally valuable by the ruling class.

Fairs have a long history of being places where cultures meet one another to share goods, ideas, and commodities. However, following the American Civil war there was a sharp shift towards fairs being a ritual of nation-building, progress, productivity, and capitalism. The Columbian Exposition, honoring the 400th anniversary of Cristopher Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, and celebrated civility, profit, and achievements of high European society. [2] The White City, a nickname given to the fair from the incandescent lights and white plaster buildings that shined white in the electric lighting, hosted dozens of countries from around the world to exhibit their arts, agriculture, technology, and popular goods.

Mexican President Porfirio Díaz was synonymous with the Mexico’s participation in the 1893 World’s Fair. When he his rule in Mexico from 1876 to 1911 he promoted American investments in key industries of mining and transportation conforming to the industrial world’s In Mexico, foreign investments drove agriculture, mining and transportation and the representation that was most desirable for developing industrial countries at this world exhibition was marketability and profitability. A push to modernize the country was paired with a movement away from indigenous culture and representation can also be mirrored in the showing at the Columbian Exposition.

Nationalists undertones were present in fairs in the late nineteenth century, much like those asserted by the Mexican government at the time. The Mexican government pushed for a unified and European monoculture. For powerful nations, it was an opportunity to commemorate the achievements and values. Conversely, developing nations saw fairs as a chance to stand on the same stage as global powers and present local raw materials and goods to an international market. [3] The fair was largely paid for by private donations, and those donations steered the manner of the products presented in the fair.

In the crossroads that are all shared here is the manipulation of the native plant in the presentation of the plant in the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 showcased and ignored agave in such a way that it encapsulates the overarching understanding of not only what role Mexico’s standing was globally.

It is notable that in a few instances the agave plant is in a sense hijacked by non-Mexican entities. In the February 25, 1893, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune the agave plants was listed as a part of the Horticultural exhibit for New Mexico, the same one wearing night caps. The sisal fibers are given to South Florida. [4] The control of the agave plant at the fair downplayed any additional attention that the plant would have received and mirrored Mexico’s goals on a larger global scale. The government at the time of the 1893 fair was interested in presenting the profitability of Mexico over the culture, and if culture had to fall to the wayside, so be it.

Part of the Mexican display that made it into the fair is recorded in the History of the World’s Fair (1893), “Visitors to the Horticultural Building may look upon the deadly Mexican aguardiente. There are many other kinds of Mexican wines and cognacs in the display, too, as well as licor de Naranja, which is orange juice, and a good display of fruit pastes and jellies. There are agaves, cocoanuts, grapefruits, mosses, and ferns also in the display. Some dried bananas are shown, just to prove that bananas can be dried. The Mexicans take much pride in the purity of their wines. Commissioner J. Miguel Carabay is in charge of the exhibit.” [5] In this description the consumables of Mexico were put in the forefront, things that had the ability to be exported, like dried bananas.

Mexico had an impressive mining and agricultural showing at the fair, winning some 1,195 awards. [6] One was that to Cenobio Sauza for his brandy mescal, which oddly was left from the account published during or shortly after the fair. The Sauza tequila family, began exporting their distilled agave liquor to the United States as early as 1873 and a push to call the beverage created from specifically the blue weber agave plant. The Sauza family, represented by Cenobio Sauza, participated in the Chicago fair of 1893, and symbolized a turning point for the once indigenous plant. José Orozco writes in “Tequila and the Redemption of Mexico’s Vital Fluid”, “Many mezcaleros like Sauza sympathized with the national government’s modernization project because they understood how Western narratives of Mexican degeneration affected the reputation of their product at home and abroad. Specifically, they were troubled by the fact that foreigners seemed not to distinguish between their mezcal and their alcoholic beverage that many foreign and domestic observers saw as a significant impediment to modernity, pulque.” [7]

Priorities of the Díaz leadership are mirrored in the Sauza tequila family. Over time the pulque, or agave plant drink had lost favor in larger operations due to shelf stability. When considering what would be presented at the fair only the shelf stable and exportable, they went and further modified the plant for it to be a safe product, but thus stripped away the tradition. This is an important parallel that solidifies the relationship between World’s Fairs in general and people and economies that hold profit and modernity over tradition and true history of cultures.

In The Official Directory of the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) the agave plant gets no mention at all in the “Foreign Participation” under Mexico’s name. In fact, the only mention of the agave at all is credited to Ecuador through sisal being produced into ropes and cords also in the Agricultural Building. [8] What is mentioned under Mexico their features in the Department of Mines and Mining, the Department of Manufactures and Liberal Arts, and the Department of Agriculture. What is included there is the name Díaz, in reference to Porfirio Díaz’s wife’s interest and the display Mexico presented in the Woman’s Department. This publication represents what culturally was found usable for industry.

In an artistic, unintended act of destiny the deficiency by the maguey plant at the Columbian Exposition, its untimely bloom represented the ways that profit, and power can lead to the manipulation of culturally significant plants. The coming together of people, especially in the Gilded Age, was the beginning of the age of consumerism and that is apparent through the representation and treatment of the agave.



I must offer thanks to the Sam Houston State University History Department that make it possible for me to continue my learning in history and the role that it has played in my development as a scholar. Specific gratitude must be extended to Associate Professor Dr. Charles Heath. His expertise in Latin American history has guided me towards ever more analytical approaches to Mexican history and the role Mexico has played in the World’s Fairs over time. The Newton Gresham Library at Sam Houston State University has provided me with a deeply intentional archive of information and materials that are invaluable to the progress of knowledge. Specially, thanks are due to Research and Instruction Librarian, Kristina Claunch. Thank you for your dedication in finding evermore specific and useful materials in the never-ending pursuit of knowledge.