Children of the revolution

Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism
Elena Jackson Albarrán
2015, University of Nebraska Press
504 pages, plates, paperback

NATION-BUILDING in Mexico has reflected a constant tension since Independence between the imagined and the real, opening huge creative spaces for social and cultural thinkers to participate in shaping the country’s identity.

Nowhere was this more so than in the period in which cultural nationalists at the heart of a bold new state explicitly attempted to inculcate a new sense of identity in the Mexican people following the 1910–17 Revolution.

This was an exciting and hopeful endeavour in which some of the country’s great minds began to mould collective memory and recent experience into unifying narratives that would serve the agenda of Mexico’s new political masters.

Inevitably, public education played a key role in this process, as the revolutionary state attempted to extend its nation-building ideology across the country through the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) under the celebrated “cultural caudillo” José Vasconcelos. Indeed, after military expenditure, public education became the single most important element of public spending within the national budget.

A lack of debate about what the Mexican Revolution actually was, and the complete absence of public education prior to this period and during the turbulent revolutionary war itself, gave Vasconcelos a tabula rasa, and he found himself in a unique position to fashion the agenda and instil the unifying concept of patriotism as revolutionay lawmakers set about constructing the new, ideal citizen.

As Elena Jackson Albarrán records, the dissemination of revolutionary cultural nationalism found fertile soil in the new classrooms popping up everywhere, and this period began to see intellectuals devoting far greater symbolic and rhetorical attention to children, Mexico’s future citizens, and their wholesale incorporation into a new civic and political culture.

As a result, childhood itself was defined by the state – possibly for the first time in Mexico – and its scope was vastly increased through new activities, locations and forms of media consumption as new communications technologies and institutions opened up new possibilities.

As Jackson Albarrán writes: “The culture of childhood changed notably in these decades, in an evolution from the symbolic child to the actively engaged social citizen. Efforts transformed the role of the child from that of an individual bounded by the family to that of a member of the classroom, the community, the nation, and a transnational generation.” [p7]

But as the author notes, the integration of children into the revolutionary family over the following 20 years was a highly uneven process whose success was patchy. While the indigenismo valorising indigenous culture articulated by Vasconcelos and others, for example, characterised the textbooks of urban children, these often did not reach the countryside. Separate departments for rural and urban areas within the education ministry resulted in distinctive curriculums that were only unified in the early 1930s, and especially after Lázaro Cárdenas came to power and ushered in a period of explicitly socialist education.

Now the Mexican child was depicted as a proto-proletariat whose duty would be to national production, pupils would sing The Internationale at assembly, and gone was the emphasis on romantic indigenismo.

Jackson Albarrán writes: “Textbooks began to promote ideas of group citizenship over individual citizenship and promoted productivity at all levels, from the kindergartens to the state governments. Socialist education’s stated goals were to transform social institutions, to achieve a better distribution of wealth, to eliminate religiosity in the classroom, and to bring the proletariat to power.” [p9]

The niño proletario lost its force as an idea in 1939 as Cárdenas yielded to church pressure to tone down the anticlerical aspects of his education agenda – leaving us with a picture in the 20 years following the Revolution of an uneven, erratic, inconsistent top-down vision of childhood. As Jackson Albarrán notes, some historians have cautioned against confusing the intent of the SEP’s educational initiatives with the actual outcomes: “Not all children were exposed to the official constructions of the symbolic child, and reasons for this abounded … These factors and more make it impossible to outline a single contour of revolutionary Mexican childhood. To recognise the plurality of Mexican childhoods that were possible in an era that celebrated monolithic expressions of cultural nationalism means to recover stories both of children who conformed enthusiastically to models of the day and of those who found themselves lamentably outside of the circle of benefits that modern Mexican childhood offered to an elite few.” [pp 9–10]

The author proceeds to explore not just the state’s efforts to inculcate nationalist ideas in children through socialisation in this way, but how children themselves responded to this process. She examines the voices, experiences and perceptions of children within different cultural domains funded by SEP, embodied in puppet theatre, radio and art magazines. She also traces children’s involvement in national and international organisations where they could project and express their nationalism.

Jackson Albarrán provides us with a fascinating and highly original insight into a unique period in history, one that is unlikely ever to be replicated.

By the 1940s the Revolution had become institutionalised and increasingly staffed by business-oriented elites, and a deluge of popular culture from the US was beginning to transform the definition of childhood. The author writes: “The child consumer of the Mexican Miracle eclipsed the proletarian child of the Cárdenas era as the embodiment of ideal citizenship practice. The spaces of citizen formation shifted from schoolyard patios to department store window displays. Children assumed their new preferred place in the patria: in front of the cash register.” [pp 323–24]

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