Mexico on Display at the World’s Fairs

This paper examines how Mexico put their national identity on display while undergoing many changes in leadership from 1876-1939.

As Mexico emerged as a young nation, its self-identity was shaped not only by its past but also its present. Determining what that identity is and its impact on Mexico’s representative history can be seen in their displays at several World’s Fairs from 1876-1939. The key to understanding this identity and what was chosen to represent it on such a global scale can be seen in their social, political, and cultural changes that occurred from 1898-1939, looking not just at Mexico’s indigenous and colonial history, but also on events unfolding in Mexico at the time. How this identity was explored and displayed in an effort to create a connection to not only a global audience, but also to an American one is important as attention will be paid to the relationships not only between the United States and Mexico but also the viewer and the artifacts as they experienced tangible evidence of the struggles and triumphs of Mexico’s emerging and evolving national identity.

What is a national identity? A national identity is simply the sense of a country or nation as a cohesive whole, which are represented by distinctive traditions, culture, and language. In this case, Mexico will go through many changes and as their national identity develops, so does their representation at world fairs from 1876-1939.[1] Eric Storm notes that world fairs were global platforms of exchange, a place where countries learned how to shape their national identities. He further explores the idea that national identities are to a larger context the product of globalization and the world’s fairs will function as an international audience. The need for larger displays and pavilions will become popular and become a place where national identity construction could truly take place, which is evidenced by Mexico from the period 1876 to 1939.[2]

To begin, a brief history of Mexico is important to understand the main political influence behind the decisions made at world fairs from 1876-1939. Politically, Mexico goes through roughly 50 governments in its first 40 years. In 1876, Mexico will find new leadership that emerges from a coup by Porfirio Díaz and will last for the next 34 years, until 1910. [3] According to Sven Schuster, Porfirio Díaz will invest heavily in the study of history, archaeology, and anthropology in an effort to give Mexico its national identity. He re-established the National Museum in 1865 with a special section for archaeology in 1887 and in 1885 the Bureau of Inspection and Conservatism was founded under the direction of archaeologist Leopold Bartres. [4]

While Porfirio Díaz generally seemed interested in portraying Mexico as advanced, more often than not, the focus seems to be more on a new wave of Indianism or celebrating the Pre-Columbian past, specifically reflecting a more neo-Aztec motif. Key influences for the displays tend to be about the overall theme of the fair and how it relates to each country. This also seemed to determine where countries were placed in spaces and how they interacted. Mexico was pitted across from the United States in the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia where the push was to showcase the greatness of America.

The end of the nineteenth century saw World Fairs in Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1889) and Chicago (1893). These fairs showcased Mexico under the leadership of Porfiro Díaz and showed an emerging national identity based on its new leadership. The Porfiriato, as it is often referred to, aimed to show progress, order and a newly unified country. According to Robert Rydel, the Philadelphia World Fair in 1876 emphasized national unity and essentially America’s Manifest Destiny while also providing hope for the future as the last one hundred years were examined. The decision on where and how the countries would be displayed came under the guise of America taking the less desirable location and giving more ideal spots to both European, Asian, and Latin American countries. This put Mexico and Brazil directly across from the United States which very well could have had an impact on the perception of Mexico compared to the United States.[5]

The display in Philadelphia marked Mexico’s first official entry into the international exhibition and while it did not have the resources to create a comprehensive display, it did prove itself as a nation rich in natural resources. With the backdrop of revolution in Mexico and the takeover of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico did find a place at the world fair. While Mexico was reduced to a small area of the Main Building, it did use the space well and divided its artifacts into various groups including staple products, manufactures, and mineral specimens which will have displays of silver.[6] Overall, the national identity of Mexico was that of honoring the past and looking to the future, perhaps hopeful. The display may have been smaller, and the United States may have been a larger presence, but the natural resources and ability for patrons to interact with Mexico was important. It did show that Mexico could in fact compete with other nations. The picture of the Mexican Pavilion offers a glimpse at its enticing display.

While Philadelphia may have been Mexico’s first foray into the World Fair market, it continued to grow and expand its visibility. What national identity did Mexico display in 1876? Perhaps the answer is simple, a relatively young, new nation trying to figure that out. By playing on its natural resources, it honored both the past and the future. Looking at the Paris World Fair of 1889, those behind the Mexican exhibition wished to focus on the importance of education specifically on the scientific discourse on race. How to handle Pre-Columbian indigenous history was the focus of many of these exhibitions. Is the indigenous past proof of inferiority or that which should be celebrated? For most of their exhibitions, the past seemed to dictate the identity, even if it was not always desirable by the elites.

The display in Paris 1889 is further proof of this. Sven Schuster considered Mexico an antique tragedy that gave birth to a new hybrid civilization, not necessarily a truly national style. Under Porfirio Díaz, the struggle over the national self-image will emerge as race and nation are now connected due to racial factors shaping Mexico’s destiny. The display in Paris will be different yet, instead of solely showcasing the modernity of Mexico, it will once more celebrate its pre-colonial past. The Paris World Fair in 1889 will be a celebration of the one-hundred-year anniversary of the French Revolution. It also featured human zoos, giant dioramas, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and the Eiffel Tower. Mexico and other Latin American countries emphasized the progressiveness of their original inhabitants. A vision of the vanquished as an alternative perspective from the Spanish will give a greater voice to the post-conquest Aztec as it is integrated into Mexican National History.[7] According to Shelley Garrigan, these fairs were spectacular instruments of mass communication that allowed a medium for self-conscious displays of nationhood to occur. The Paris World Fair was a venue for the Porfiriato to showcase advancement. Mexico created the Aztec Palace which featured deities, symbols, glyphs, and sculptures, though not all belonged to the Aztec to honor the past. Schuster noted this was an Indianist project and citing Mauricio Tenorio Trillo, based on discussions of the appropriate image of Mexico and its search for an authentic identity that combined the pre-Hispanic and neo-classical elements. While the outside structure celebrated the past, according to Garrigan, the inside offered a more modern display including raw materials, geography, education, production and science. [8] Mexico did well in some ways to bridge the gap in its national identity as it celebrated the past while looking to a brighter future. Once more, the national identity of Mexico is a hybrid between honoring the peoples of the past and those that came as a result of the Spanish.

A shift in ideals will occur from Paris to Chicago as Porfirio Díaz had personally opted for Peñafiel’s Aztec Palace but eventually regretted the decision as his main focus was to show the world that Mexico was a contender. He was interested in modernization with the help of foreign investment and to celebrate Mexico’s economic growth along with its now more enlightened and superior ruler. With this idea, Mexico’s identity was changing to be more than its Pre-Columbian past once more. The Chicago World Fair of 1893 featured displays designed to the latest scientific findings with a strong focus on archaeological elements while also celebrating the discovery of America. In Chicago, Porfirio Díaz wanted to showcase a hacienda, but his vision was replaced by the “Ruins of Yucatan” once more drawing on the Pre-Columbian past. In Chicago, Mexico had a smaller display due to financial problems as tensions mounted between the idea of Hispanism or the cultural bonds between Spain and its former colonies and Pan-Americanism or the cultural exchange & political equality between sister republics. The Ruins of Yucatan once more made the indigenous past more visible in Mexico’s national identity.

Beginning in 1910, Porfirio Díaz will start to lose power as Mexico will be thrust into revolution. From 1910 to 1940, new leadership emerged in Mexico and more than that, the world will also see the First World War, a global depression, and the start of the Second World War. After Díaz and then Madero, Mexico will experience anarchy until around 1917 with the creation of a new constitution. The First World War pitted the United States and Mexico against each other in some ways due to the Zimmerman Telegram but after the war, a status quo relationship seemed to resound once more with the United States in a more dominant role. After that, a series of revolutions as various groups tried to take control of Mexico.

From 1928-1934, the Maximato controlled Mexico which was during Mexico’s representation at the Chicago World Fair of 1933, The Century of Progress. According to Zahra Moss, US concessionaires and the Mexican government used this fair as an opportunity to define symbols of Mexican national identity in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Mexico’s display was based on a major archaeological discovery, the ruins of Monte Alban in the southern state of Oaxaca which is considered the largest discovery of indigenous artifacts crafted without the use of rotary tools. Why use this display in the midst of so much change and both political and social issues in Mexico at this time? According to Moss, the decision was based on the construction of a historical narrative that once more celebrated Mexico’s more indigenous past. With each emerging conflict, government and discovery, Mexico seemed to focus on the past. With the discovery of the Monte Alban treasure, it gave new focus to the greatness that was their past when the future seemed to be somewhat chaotic and uncertain. [9]

Finally, Mexico will once more undergo new leadership in 1934 which will last into the beginning of World War II. Lázaro Cárdenas or the People’s Hero will come into power in 1934 with real change taking place, seemingly for the better. Miriam Österreich noted that the 1939 New York World Fair had the goal of overcoming the Great Depression culturally and narrowed the focus to national US interest over Pan-American ones. This fair comes at a time when World War II has already begun in Europe and the US was at the end of its own Great Depression. Mexico will be featured in two ways, first by participating in “The World of Tomorrow” display and then in the second season of this fair, in the “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art” display at the Museum of Modern Art. Mexico’s display featured many pieces of art and photography juxtaposing the past and the present. In many ways it was a montage of pre-Hispanic archaeological artifacts with dominant themes of Mexican arts and crafts from Pre-Columbian to contemporary and based on tourism. One of the more prominent artists featured was Luis Márquez whose art will later be moved to the MoMA. This display, more than the others, gave Mexico a national identity, that it could be both modern and nostalgic or reminiscent of the past. They could in fact be both and that to create a truly unified nation, one must include all people, the indigenous peoples from before colonization and those that came as a result. [10]

Regarding Mexico and the many World Fairs they participated in, their struggle between the past and present seemed to play out each time. Lisa Munro notes that an exhibitionary culture developed in the late 19th century and with it, increased visibility of world fairs, national museums, and department stores, allowing new cultural attitudes to flourish and knowledge to be shared. This can be seen in each of Mexico’s displays mentioned. She concludes that fairs allowed all those who entered to experience images and tangible objects that showcased the elite while appealing to lower socioeconomic groups.

Ideas of nationalism, colonialism and industrialization helped influence people in their everyday lives. This is the case with Mexico and its national identity. In almost every case, leadership wanted to present Mexico as an example for a more modern future, but ultimately what was celebrated was the past. Each display examined, had a strong connection to the pre-Columbian, pre-Hispanic past while slowly incorporating modern components of science and modern ideals. Events in Mexican history shaped this, and this new hybrid civilization did in fact emerge. [11]