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Interrogating the Cultural Production of Mexico

Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas
Brian M. Napoletano is an assistant professor at the Center for Investigations in Environmental Geography at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. His research is focused on developing the geography of the metabolic rift.
Jennifer Jolly, Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 352 pages, $29.95, paperback.

Though perhaps not as dramatic as the story of Huitzilopochtli guiding the Mexica to the site of Tenochtitlan—upon whose ashes Mexico City presently stands—modern nation-states still appeal to myths when trying to establish a sense of shared national identity among their subjects. In the United States, many of us are taught that our identity originates in a so-called melting pot, in which different (mostly white European) ethnicities come together. In Mexico, the dominant myth has been one of mestizaje, a mixing of indigenous and Spanish culture and traditions into a uniquely Mexican identity. In both cases, the myths gloss over the genocide and territorial dispossession to which the indigenous inhabitants were subjected by European colonists, and exclude or deny the contributions of different (typically nonwhite) cultures and ethnicities. Calling attention to the way that national identities are almost by definition built around such exclusions, and continue to be weaponized in the framing of the citizen against the unwanted other, therefore remains an important task in the development of alternative subjectivities capable of challenging the authority and hegemony of the nation-state and its attempts to divide the working class.

As part of this deconstruction of national identity, Jennifer Jolly, an associate professor of art history at Ithaca College, analyzes the tourist town of Pátzcuaro in the west-central Mexican state of Michoacán as a microcosm of cultural power in which tourism, art, history, and ethnicity were woven together under the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (1934–40). Cárdenas’s term is known as the height of Mexico’s land-reform efforts, saw the historic nationalization of the petroleum industry, PEMEX, and is still regarded by many as the most popular and progressive of Mexico’s postrevolutionary sexenios (presidential terms). Cárdenas took power over a state that had been repeatedly plagued by rebellions, assassinations, and other violence since the presidency of Álvaro Obregón Salido in 1920 signaled the official end of the revolutionary struggle that began in 1910 with Francisco Ignacio Madero González’s challenge to the thirty-one-year presidency of José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori. Cárdenas is credited by many with bringing a degree of stability to Mexico by incorporating different sectors into the state apparatus, without generally taking much of the blame for the state’s rightward shift in the decades following his tenure.

Indeed, so powerful is Cárdenas’s popular legacy that many presidents—up to and including the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)—have often deliberately modeled aspects of their own public images after his. As a populist coming to power through a deep and widespread demand for an end to the authoritarian and increasingly reactionary regime that has ruled Mexico since the revolution, AMLO in particular has drawn heavily on Cárdenas’s legacy in his efforts to guide the nation through what he calls its Fourth Transition (the previous three being Mexico’s independence from Spain, the liberal reform of the mid–nineteenth century, and the revolution). Facing a level of popular outrage similar to that confronted by Cárdenas, AMLO appears to be following a similar strategy of attempting to alleviate the most dangerous social contradictions that threaten to explode in open rebellion while avoiding as much as possible direct challenges to the structural power of the national and international elites plundering the Mexican people’s wealth. Like Cárdenas, AMLO has symbolically attacked the gross disparity of wealth in the country by adopting a public image of humility and austerity. For example, he converted the presidential palace—commissioned by Cárdenas, who also turned the castle that housed his predecessors into a museum—into a cultural space, and he travels the country without a conspicuous entourage.1 Given the similarities, Jolly’s analysis of the ways Cárdenas attempted to construct an ideal of a shared Mexican identity to soften the contradictory material and ideological interests of Mexico’s contending social classes may provide valuable insight into AMLO’s deployment of cultural power in a similar endeavor over the next six years.

Jolly also attempts to explain nationalism’s persistence and prevalence, despite it being an artificial ideology introduced by the ruling class. The key, she argues, lies in the “mass participation,” through which a sense of national identity is transmitted and sustained, rendering it extremely difficult to dislodge.2 Her account of the efforts to integrate and institutionalize art, tourism, ethnicity, history, and tradition in rebuilding Pátzcuaro around a particular idea of lo típico (that is, the defining or essential character) consistent with the territorial concerns of the nation-state is meant to illuminate key mechanisms through which this mass participation is implemented. For those fighting the rise of virulent and reactionary nationalism around the world, Jolly’s analysis suggests that we would be wise to pay attention to the ways that subtle cultural practices feed into and reinforce nationalist ideologies.

Situated within a basin in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, near the southern shore of the eponymous Lake Pátzcuaro, Pátzcuaro is only about forty-five kilometers (or twenty-eight miles) southwest of the state capital of Morelia, with several automobiles and buses shuttling workers and tourists between the cities daily. Unlike Morelia, Pátzcuaro predates the Spanish conquest and was an important political, and later ceremonial, center of the Tarascan Empire (which consisted predominantly of Purépecha, but included several other partially assimilated ethnic groups) that held the region against the Aztec Empire until both fell to the Spanish conquistadores. After a genocidal campaign to crush Purépecha resistance left Pátzcuaro severely depopulated and nearly leveled, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga—mythologized in Pátzcuaro’s (as well as Mexico’s) official history as a champion of indigenous people—encouraged both indigenous and Spanish subjects to settle in the city. Quiroga also had it designated as the capital of his province in 1539, which it remained until Valladolid (now Morelia) was made the capital ten years after his death in 1565.

As Jolly explains, Pátzcuaro’s status as an important part of both the pre-Spanish and colonial histories of the region closely conforms to the idea of mestizaje, which is in turn inscribed in the city’s visual representation as a semirustic idealization of Mexico’s cultural heritage and its distinct architectural style that blends indigenous and colonial elements in its wood and adobe buildings with tiled roofs. This image of lo típico remains a defining feature of Pátzcuaro—whose revenue continues to flow primarily from the tourism and artisan markets in its center—belying the city’s development into a major national and international cultural center and tourist destination in a nation whose population is overwhelmingly urban. Jolly also demonstrates that even as these efforts by the state to appropriate the peasant identity were just beginning, there were already signs that emerging subjectivities would continue to defy complete control by the ruling class, often leading to unexpected resistance.

In situating various diverse cultural practices in the context of a nation-building project, Jolly employs a wide array of social theories in her book’s five chapters, each of which uses a slightly different lens to view Pátzcuaro as a microcosm of cultural power. She begins with the ways that seeing and representing Lake Pátzcuaro and the city were part of transforming it, with tourism, visual culture, and art employed alongside and as part of official projects to institutionalize the nation’s mestizo identity and foment—particularly by rendering tourism an experience of privilege—a so-called middle-class subjectivity that identifies with the ruling class. Here she describes how indigeneity was deployed in picturesque approaches to Mexico’s version of the myth of the subverted paradise, where indigenous figures are portrayed as melancholy savages tied to an idyllic past disappearing with the advance of capitalist modernization. She also contends that, despite their conscious attempts to counter this idealism, depictions based on social realism and other antiaesthetic approaches still tended to adopt, albeit in an inverted form, assumptions of the picturesque paradigms they were criticizing, such that all these different renderings ultimately contributed to a view of Pátzcuaro seen through the eyes of the tourist.

In the following chapter, Jolly considers how lo típico was developed and deployed as an ideological tool and visual strategy of modernization. Pátzcuaro, she argues, became not just an ideal representation of lo típico, but a metaphorical type specimen, with national traditions and myths fitted to Pátzcuaro’s particularities and employed in local struggles over access and control. These latter primarily involved market activities and related attempts to govern commerce, as well as secularization through the restoration of religious sites as cultural rather than spiritual centers. The guiding vision became the transformation of Pátzcuaro itself into a historical monument, a concept that could symbolically achieve the moral work of nation-building through secular mechanisms. The institutionalization of this vision took place on three fronts: (1) the tourism economy, which provided economic impetus to the project and an opportunity to disseminate its results; (2) the blending of Spanish and indigenous styles to preserve and amplify the aforementioned architectural expression of mestizaje, which in turn aided the secularization project by helping transform the city itself into a historical monument; and (3) art history, which helped supply a rational, scientific framework to describe and enhance the subjective tourist experience.

From here, Jolly explores the apparent paradox of the state as both the agent of modernization and the guardian of history and tradition. Using this modern-traditional duality as a springboard, she moves through a series of related binaries, including region-nation, past-future, hegemonic-subaltern, and “pure art”-propaganda. One of the key implications of her inquiry is that these dichotomies seem to be as indispensable to capitalist ideology as they are problematic (at least when cast as Cartesian binaries). Jolly astutely observes that this is part of their utility, as their seeming resolution in the state endows it with the apparent power to transcend irreconcilable contradictions. Institutionalization of this idealization of the state’s role in Mexico endured well beyond Cárdenas’s sexenio, unlike many of the efforts to enroll artists in institutional structures overtly committed to propagating the state’s vision, which declined after Cárdenas’s term as the pure-art faction gained preponderance in the artistic community.

Taking up a more specific focus on the duality of memory and history in the formation of national identity, Jolly next discusses how the creation of historical Pátzcuaro was bound to the professionalization and institutionalization of (particularly historical and artistic) scholarship in Mexico. Here she suggests that history and memory were both subjected to a process of appropriation (in the sense of claiming as one’s own something that pertains to someone else) by different actors in Pátzcuaro and in Cárdenas’s administration to advance their modernization agenda. Importantly, this appropriation was not exclusive to intellectuals, artists, and politicians aligned with the state, as local communities and groups also participated in the articulation of their own visions of Pátzcuaro as a historical monument. Given the power asymmetries involved, however, the most important determinant of which parts of Pátzcuaro’s history were incorporated into the official account and which were excluded from it was typically how well the history in question fit into the official vision. The state’s predominant role here was, in turn, an important factor in the intense debates among artists and other intellectuals over the degree to which they could participate in such selective remembering without sacrificing their autonomy, with advocates of pure art eventually gaining the upper hand. In this sense, the composition, content, and geography of historical Pátzcuaro can be read as a reflection of both shared and competing visions of where the postrevolutionary state should be going.

Jolly closes her analysis with a deeper examination of the mythology surrounding Cárdenas himself, and how it is embedded in the Mexican state and portrayed in Pátzcuaro, where he resided after retiring from politics. Here she points out how the tendency to focus on Cárdenas as a heroic figure embodying the ideals of the revolution and the will of the people, while downplaying the role of the many people he enrolled to assist him, often translates into messianic portrayals. Such depictions have helped feed the myth of the enlightened leader repeatedly invoked by Cardenás’s successors to legitimize their own policies and actions (which, often enough, have been diametrically opposed to any sort of popular will). Cárdenas’s reputation for traveling throughout the Mexican countryside also became a key part of his legend, reinforcing the idea that tourists who follow Cárdenas’s example can eventually come to see Mexico through his eyes. Here, Jolly emphasizes the extent to which this process occurs beyond the state’s immediate control, such that the dissemination of particular subjectivities through tourism, art, and the other mechanisms is partial and selective, and the outcome is therefore not necessarily or entirely consistent with ruling-class intentions. The ways in which peasant and indigenous identities have been invoked in various resistance movements in Mexico attest to this last point.

In counterposing the subjectivity of the tourist to the role of indigeneity, Jolly also draws out an important connection between the ideology of mestizaje, the spatialization of race, and the territoriality of the Mexican state. She argues that the colonial view of the native as essentially connected to the land—at times even considered part of the landscape—complemented the territorial aspirations of the Mexican state and its ruling class by suggesting that the mixing of indigenous and Spanish ancestry effectively grounded Mexican identity within the national territory, thereby distinguishing Mexican identity from a mere extension of European culture and providing a unifying narrative for a highly fragmented society. She also proposes that this is why African culture was largely excluded from the national identity: as a culture also violently imported by European colonists, it was not deemed useful to the nation-building project. Noting contemporary efforts to recover African culture as the forgotten third pillar of Mexican identity, Jolly briefly points to some aspects of Pátzcuaro that could potentially identify remnants of African influences that were not entirely erased.

As a general rule, Jolly assumes that her reader is well acquainted with the region in which Pátzcuaro is located and its history, and does not offer much in the way of help in this regard. This is unfortunate, because the widespread appeal of the concepts she addresses is such that her book could be read by many unfamiliar with Latin America. Without disputing her argument that even a map represents a particular way of seeing the territory, I maintain that depicting Pátzcuaro in relation to the other towns mentioned, to Morelia and probably even Mexico City, would greatly help orient the reader.

Ambiguities in the historical context that Jolly builds her narrative around are less readily resolved, particularly given the way her portrayal of the postrevolutionary state at times suggests that she herself is relying on a somewhat restricted and problematic reading of this context. This can be seen in her underlying characterization of postrevolutionary reforms as part of a radical, socialist campaign of anti-Catholic secularization and modernization. The bloody Cristero War of 1926–29 fought between an anticlerical Mexican state and rural forces backed by the Catholic Church then becomes a form of “violent resistance” to the state’s assault on religious freedom, such that Cárdenas and his allies are forced to disguise their campaign to secularize religious spaces by declaring important cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and other historical church property as part of the nation’s cultural patrimony in an “aesthetic bait and switch.”3

To take the last claim in the sequence first, the problem with such a borderline-conspiratorial argument is that, in the absence of any definitive record of Cárdenas or his partners unambiguously expressing such ulterior motives (which Jolly does not provide), the assertion is more speculative than substantive. It is rendered even more tenuous given Jolly’s own observation that multiple (often contradictory) versions of the Cárdenas myth exist and have been invoked to legitimize very different types of projects, such that no guarantee exists that Jolly’s anticlerical Cárdenas is more accurate than a more genuinely conciliatory one. For instance, one could just as easily suggest on the basis of Jolly’s analysis that the repurposing was meant by Cárdenas as a secular concession to the Catholic Church’s contribution to national history and identity, and thereby a peace offering to the nation’s religious sympathies that would not run afoul of the explicitly anticlerical aspects of the 1917 constitution. This alternative interpretation also focuses on Cárdenas’s task of uniting different, hostile sectors of society in a project of liberal nation-building rather than suggesting that he was willing to risk provoking another round of open warfare by secretly working to further undermine the Catholic Church. Basing the argument here on individual motives, hidden or otherwise, is moreover somewhat puzzling, as it seems superfluous: attributing the repurposing of religious sites to the secular orientation in the classical-liberal ideology that informed much of the pre- and postrevolutionary modernization project still conveys the essence of Jolly’s point, but without the need to assume that the people involved were acting with a hidden agenda.

Jolly’s characterization of the Cristero War as a struggle against religious persecution similarly provides a partial, unsatisfactory account of the historical context in which the transformation of Pátzcuaro took place. In addition to the state with the second-largest Cristero movement, Michoacán was also the state with the strongest and most militant agrarista (agrarian) movement—which boasted a similarly large number of Catholics among its ranks—that fought against the cristeros. Though religious concerns and conflicts were interwoven in this conflict, they are insufficient to account for the presence of both Catholic and anti-Catholic forces on both sides, nor do they explain why rebellion to a national policy in a nation where strong Catholic sentiments could be found anywhere was restricted to a handful of states in the west-central region and unevenly carried out even there. Grounding this cultural conflict in a more materialist context entails considering the complex patterns of class divisions and power struggles throughout the countryside, and the growing precarity of small-holding rancheros concerned that their lands in particular would be the ones redistributed.4 This does not negate Jolly’s argument, but suggests that the circumstances guiding the conversion of church buildings into historical and cultural sites in Pátzcuaro were more complex than just an ideological effort to substitute the state for the Catholic Church as the people’s moral authority.

Finally, the characterization of Cárdenas’s and other postrevolutionary reforms as socialist or even radical relies on a somewhat dubious interpretation of these categories, which in hands more sympathetic to the church’s position is used to suggest such reforms were tantamount to the Soviet Union’s campaign against the church.5 Though pro-Bolshevik socialists—such as Francisco José Múgica, who is generally credited with the short-lived amendment calling for a socialist education and whom Cárdenas considered too radical to be his successor—did occasionally gain influential posts in the postrevolutionary government, the bulk of Mexico’s institutional anticlerical sentiment came from a liberal view that had dominated official ideology since at least the mid–nineteenth century, and that viewed both indigenous and Catholic traditions as barriers to modernization.6 At the risk of oversimplifying and conflating a wide range of different perspectives on this point, most assessments of Mexico’s postrevolutionary government, particularly those developed after the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, regard it as decidedly capitalist, albeit with some progressive and reformist concessions included to bring the (then still-armed and battle-hardened) peasantry and workers on board.7 Most of the more radical elements, in contrast, were violently excised by the regrouping ruling class, even as their most popular advocates were included in the formally sanctioned pantheon of revolutionaries.8 Thus, while they may appear radical in the age of monopoly-finance capitalism’s subordination of social concerns to the all-powerful market, Mexico’s early postrevolutionary rulers are perhaps better described as rational capitalists pragmatically responding to the exigencies of a protracted and turbulent social-political crisis than as socialists attempting to undertake a program of radical reform and modernization.9

Had she been more inclined to examine this purported radicalism critically, Jolly’s observations regarding the selective use of indigeneity in nation-building could have been strengthened, and possibly broadened into more insightful questions regarding which cultural identities were subordinated to and which were excluded from the postrevolutionary nation’s identity. She could have explored to what extent such formal enrollment in nation-building translated into improved prospects, for which members of these groups, and whether their inclusion in this way was intended directly to advance the nation-building project or appease a restive social sector. Jolly moves somewhat in this direction when she notes how indigenous identity was simultaneously preserved and essentialized in a manner analogous to the way she describes the secularization of religious sites—that is, some indigenous people gained a superficial acceptance even as the essence of their identity was subsumed by the modern state. Not surprisingly, such recognition has failed to address, let alone redress, the horrors of colonialism or elevate indigenous communities to the status of equal partners in the Mexican state, and many of their material interests have been undermined at the same time that their identities have been acknowledged. Jolly interestingly notes that some indigenous and mestizo residents of Pátzcuaro embraced the indigenous narrative precisely because of the material benefits it yielded, but does not discuss whether this was a widespread acceptance or whether the idealization of indigeneity was internalized or merely affected for the benefit of tourism.

A more critical reading of the secularization of religious sites as historical monuments, in turn, could be that this was meant to situate the European half of mestizaje, as reflected in Catholicism and its subordination to Rome, as a past contribution to Mexican identity, rather than a contemporary political influence that could threaten the authority of the severely weakened state. This, in turn, would suggest that Mexican rulers were more concerned with the political machinations of the Almighty’s earthly representatives in Mexico than with the religiosity of the Mexican people as a barrier to modernization. Though this is mostly speculation on my part, it seems at the very least plausible and consistent with the evidence and arguments that Jolly offers for her more ideological interpretation, as well as with what I know of Mexico’s postrevolutionary history. Moreover, that the spectacle for which Pátzcuaro and its neighbors are most renowned is the syncretic pagan-Catholic celebration of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) at the beginning of November sits uneasily at best with Jolly’s contention that the tourist program was built around a secularizing agenda, and also raises the question of how much considerations guiding the historical re-creation of Pátzcuaro can account for contemporary Mexican culture. Here in particular, inclusion of more overtly political-economic analysis of mestizaje and the role of tourism in Mexican development could have strengthened and provided a degree of balance to Jolly’s cultural analysis.

The attentive reader can find ample grounds for forgiving Jolly some degree of simplification in her historical and political analysis, especially given the depth and wide range of historical and interpretive methods and concepts from the arts, humanities, and social sciences she draws on to relate the cultural aspects of a broader nation-building project at a particular historical juncture to the re-creation of Pátzcuaro as a historical monument. Nor do the occasional, seemingly speculative appeals to individual motives discredit her overall account of the cultural production (in the philosophical sense) of a uniquely Mexican identity consistent with the interests of the nation-state, which is by definition more of an institutional than individual undertaking. Indeed, one may hope that other scholars follow Jolly’s lead and look into the ways that cultural power has been deployed through similar mechanisms of nation-building elsewhere and at different times in Mexico, as well as in other countries. As a compelling account of the creation of a particular historical and cultural narrative for Pátzcuaro in the context of building a national Mexican identity, Jolly’s book constitutes both an excellent scholarly contribution and a fascinating and insightful story well worth reading.


  1. Edwin F. Ackerman, “Mexico’s Fourth Transformation,” Jacobin, February 11, 2019.
  2. Jennifer Jolly, Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 3.
  3. Jolly, Creating Pátzcuaro, 90, 122.
  4. Ramón Jrade, “Inquiries into the Cristero Insurrection Against the Mexican Revolution,” Latin American Research Review 20, no. 2 (1985): 53–69; John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
  5. See, for example, Matthew Butler, “The Church in ‘Red Mexico’: Michoacán Catholics and the Mexican Revolution, 1920–1929,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 55, no. 3 (2004): 520–41.
  6. Jennie Purnell, “With All Due Respect: Popular Resistance to the Privatization of Communal Lands in Nineteenth-Century Michoacán,” Latin American Research Review 34, no. 1 (1999): 85–121.
  7. Christopher R. Boyer, “Old Loves, New Loyalties: Agrarismo in Michoacán, 1920–1928,” Hispanic American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (1998): 419–55.
  8. James D. Cockcroft, Mexico’s Revolution Then and Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010); Adolfo Gilly, La Revolución Interrumpida (Mexico City: El Caballito, 1971).
  9. Stuart Easterling, The Mexican Revolution: A Short History, 1910–1920 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013).
2020, Commentary, Volume 71, Issue 08 (January 2020)
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