Penny men

A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900–1910
Robert M Buffington
2015, Duke University Press
294 pages, plates, paperback

IT IS REFRESHING to encounter a book so enthusiastically devoted to the working class, although Robert Buffington’s study of the working man in Mexico on the eve of the country’s tumultuous revolution is much more than that.

This book explores one of the important influences shaping how men imagined themselves at a crucial moment in Mexico’s history in the last decade of the Porfiriato – the end of one era, and the start of another – and offers key insights about the origins of modern male subjectivity.

It’s an important topic, because as Buffington points out, machismo is one of Mexico’s most characateristic contributions to world language, and is in turn most closely associated with notions about the working-class male. Codified almost endlessly in sociological and literary explorations of the Mexican culture, the macho has been understood as a standard reference for men by which they understand and calibrate their identity.

But as Buffington writes, ideas about manhood in circulation in early 20th-century Mexico were complex, shifting and contradictory, constantly in motion and never fixed. One source of definition and negotiation of these ideas was the influential and ubiquitous “penny press” – the satirical newspapers published in Mexico City and aimed directly at the working class, often with absurd titles such as La Guacamaya, El Diablito Rojo and El Diablito Bromista. These were dedicated to working-class concerns, easy to read, and liberally peppered with graphics (the great Posada, for example, was a frequent contributor).

The author writes that efforts to examine “altenative masculine scripts” at work or under construction in the satirical penny press during that first decade of the twentieth century can challenge the simplistic reduction of working-class masculinity to the macho stereotype.

This is a nuanced and detailed study in which Buffington travels many avenues, eloquently it must be said, but the clearest direction of travel is in its commitment to putting aside the disciplinary projects of the modernising state, its agents and the liberal bourgeoisie that aimed to shape the psychology of the working man, and exploring instead the “alternative sentimental education” that workers gained themselves from their own narrative media.

This is an important ambition, because as Buffington points out, the penny press formed a key forum within which working-class consciousness was shaped and, in the process, a Mexican national community was grounded upon their honest and patriotic toil.

It was for this reason – the endeavour to shape a new man for a modern era by ridding him of the stereotypical qualities with which elites understood the traditional Mexican male: lassitude, promiscuity, and a penchant for drink and violence – that authorities tolerated the propensity of penny press editors to attack political corruption, crony capitalsism and exploitation of the workers.

But, subversively, those editors did not subscribe to the new definitions of masculinity favoured by liberal social engineers. As Buffington writes: “While penny press editors often joked about the vicios (vices) of working-class men, they were up to something quite different. The sentimental education they proposed not only foregrounded the absurdity of bourgeois solutions to working-class problems; it sought, through social satire that mocked working-class and bourgeois sentiments alike, to construct for its protégés a way of being in the modern world that was every bit as complicated and contradictory as their day-to-day lives.” [p 5]