Mexico at the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition 1897: A Time of Race, Space, and Place

The Latin American presence in the World’s Fairs evoked interest in international trade and commerce. Countries such as Cuba, Peru, and Venezuela participated as often as their political, social, and economic conditions allowed for it. Mexico’s participation in the World’s Fairs, had been prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Latin American elite showed interest in the world’s fairs as early as 1851.”[1] (Schuster, 73). The world’s fairs had become a platform for the presidency of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) to highlight Mexico’s advancement in industrialization and technology.

Pre-eminence at the World’s Cotton Centennial in New Orleans in 1884, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the 1891 Exposition in Portland, Oregon, allowed Mexico to foster a presence which came to be prolific, if not, expected. However, at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, which was held in Nashville, Mexico’s “signature,” notably its Eighth Regiment Cavalry military band, was absent. “Desaparecido en acción,” loosely translated, means “missing in action” in Spanish. Mexico’s participation at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition was limited, at best. Known for its cultural richness and social diversity, the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition in 1897, etched its place into history as one of the only profitable world’s fairs held in the United States. “Tennessee was a hundred years old on June 1, 1896, and for four years before that, Nashville citizens had tried to get the project in motion.” [2] Undermining its deeply invested heritage was a darker, hidden side of the world’s fairs, in which race, space, and place, were pivotal in the social and political order of the Tennessee Exposition’s success.

The World’s Fairs were places of cultural and social diversity. They were educational and expositional in nature. Countries from all over the world rushed to not only host World’s Fairs, but to participate in the fairs by sending their goods, highlighting their exports, and profiting from their ultimate aim to be global-minded. Yet, there was often a darker, hidden side of these expositions. Blacks, for example, were not given a place of honor at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Africans, Asians, and Native Americans were put on display at the Exposition.

The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition of 1897, was just one example of the burgeoning efforts to present the South as a society which overcame its notoriety as one which had succumbed to the “Lost Cause.” As diverse and culturally aware as the World’s Fairs organizers proposed to be, they were often extravagant events, where the race and ethnicities of attendees and participants were supposedly fluid, yet juxtaposed into adherent norms of the time. One of the Tennessee Centennial’s crowned accomplishments was that of the Negro Building. Built with a Spanish Renaissance style, organizers gathered some of the most well-known and influential African-Americans in the State of Tennessee to form a committee and discuss the content and theme of the Negro Building.

The Negro Building bridged the gap between African-American citizens of Tennessee and the paternalistic nature and goodwill of white organizers of the centennial celebration. (Cardon, 290). “Although the rhetoric surrounding the exhibits had a tinge of equality, the fairs' organizers in fact viewed the buildings as a way to demonstrate whites' guidance
of a supposedly childlike race.”[3] Race often played a factor in many of the displays and exhibits, and the overall organizational efforts of the World’s Fairs in southern states. The Jim Crow era was slowly emerging in the nation’s South in the late nineteenth-century, often at the bemoaning of African-Americans. “Jim Crow modernity was not a new idea—it was taking hold across the South—but at the expositions it was distilled into a consumable ideology.” [4] The ideology was laughable at times. “From Atlanta’s 1881 International Cotton Exposition to Nashville’s 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, Southern aspirations built “solemn circuses.” [5]

Countries participated in the world’s fairs because the prospects of developing trade partnerships and access was crucial to economic growth. “Nations throughout Latin America both participated in and hosted a number of expositions in an effort to promote images of cultural modernity and industrial progress to international audiences.” [6] Latin American countries in general, and Mexico in particular, were no exception. Their governments clamored for a space at the table of the world’s fairs. Occupying a seat at the table presented by the world’s fairs was a transnational space with commercial and economic outcomes. Many of the world's fairs did not make a profit, although the Tennessee Centennial did. However, approximately forty-five world’s fairs were held in North America alone. (Goodstein, 132). The organizers of the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition of 1897 were among those who knew that international trade was significant to the southern economy. “The 1893 fair launched a full-blown world’s fair movement in the United States. Following Chicago’s triumph, major international fairs were held in San Francisco (1894), Atlanta (1895), Nashville (1897), Omaha (1898), Buffalo (1901), St. Louis (1904), Portland (1905), Jamestown (1907), Seattle (1909), San Francisco (1915–16), and San Diego (1915–16).”[7]

The quest for a space in the movement, along with commercial aspirations, was at the forefront of Mexican policy and its participation in the world’s fairs. “Among the Latin American countries represented in the expositions, Mexico was the most important and consistent participant.” [8] Mexican President Porfirio Díaz had introduced a patriarchal view towards participation in world’s fairs by overseeing much of the exhibits which would be sent out. At the Tennessee Centennial, over sixteen nations had exhibits displayed throughout fairgrounds. “By 1889 Mexico had acquired some experience as a participant in world expositions, especially during the Porfirian peace.”[9] Porfirian peace was hard fought. “Following the disruptions of the Mexican war for independence, the disarray in the new country’s commercial system provided an opportunity for foreign merchants to become important elements at the fair.” [10]

Navigating space at the internationally diverse world’s fairs had to be strategic, not only physically, but politically. Mexico was economically recovering from its relatively recent war with the United States, which lasted from 1846-1848. Díaz knew that it was important for Mexico to recover its image on a global scale. Recent developments in Latin American countries saw many countries gaining their independence. Participation in world’s fairs fostered the opportunity for trade. “Held in every region in the country, the Tennessee Centennial was one of many fairs which were organized and served as powerful rationalizing forces in American life.” [11] The South, however, in its own paternalistic manner, felt that Latin American countries could take note on race relations, as they scrambled for economic recovery. “The Tennessee Centennial Exposition was similarly accused of being a segregated space.” [12] Interest in boosterism caused people like Clark Howell, who was interested in boosting the “New South,” felt that all of the Latin American countries, including Mexico, should overcome social and industrial woes that were pertinent to their independence. (Cardon, 87).

Mexico, which had enjoyed a relatively infamous reputation of its goodwill tours across the United States, with its Eighth Calvary Regiment Mexican band, and its experience at previous world’s fairs, was in a better space at the table of the world’s fairs than some of its Latin American counterparts. Historian Nathan Cardon, in A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs, posited that during the exposition in Atlanta, “the only official foreign building was the Mexico and Central America building.”[13] Of all of the buildings at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, the Commerce building was the largest. (Cardon, p. 28). It housed the foreign exhibits. The Parthenon, a replica of the Greek Parthenon in Athens, was not only popular, but it is also the only remnant of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial which still stands today.

The Tennessee Centennial organizers repeatedly touted its exposition as the place to be from May 1, 1897 to October 30, 1897. With its fantastic light display and its advertisements about President William McKinley starting the celebration with a push of a button from the White House, the Tennessee Centennial planners mustered all of the pride and dignity it could to present its world’s fair as a place of modernity and progress. It was a site where a place could be reserved for innovation and technological advancement. Mexico was no different. Its government wanted to show the world that it had recovered from instability and was on the verge of a political and economic upswing. The world’s fairs provided the place to do just that.

Mexico’s presence at the Paris Exposition in 1889, for example, drew praise and criticism. Its Mexican pavilion was a display of an Aztec inspired building of which Mexican and European critics thought was too exotic. (Schuster, 83). The image of Mexico was important to President Díaz and its rightful place should be shrouded in cohesive nationalism. “Instead of propagating ‘whitening through immigration,’ as Brazil did at the world’s fairs, the Mexican exhibition organizers emphasized the importance of education.” [14] International audiences were the focus of many of the Latin American countries who had the opportunities to participate in world’s fairs. (Munro, 83). The ministry of Economic Development was responsible for the displays at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial in Nashville. (Tenorio-Trillo, 186).

Although Mexico had a building, its governmental officials did not curate the displays in the place that it was given. The University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology ‘s Frederick Starr was responsible for that duty. (Cardon, 90). Among the artifacts were pottery and weapons which were touted as authentic Aztec weaponry, but according to G. P. Thruston, whose invaluable eyewitness to the items on display in the History Department’s building, stated in 1898, “Prof. Frederick Starr, of the University of Chicago, lent a case of rare terra cotta heads and objects of interest, discovered by him during his recent explorations in Mexico.” [15] Starr added his own personal items to the Mexican artifacts on display. The place of standard and control over its own exhibits, which Mexico maintained at previous world’s fairs, was non-existent at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

In conclusion, at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, race, space, and place were viable characteristics of the events at its world’s fair. Mexico at the 1897 world’s fair in Nashville, Tennessee, was without its famous Eighth Cavalry Regiment band, there was no appearance by its President Porfirio Díaz, and there were no shouts of “Viva La Mexico!” Though Mexico did not represent with its normal fan-fare and notoriety, as it did at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition in 1895, a few exhibits of pottery, “Aztec weapons,” and Mexican dancing girls on display at the Cuban Village, were all that was to be remembered of the Mexican presence at the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition in 1897.