I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo (review)
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I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 528 pp. xxii + 393. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. US $45.00 hardback (ISBN 13-978-0-226-79271-2).

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo is Professor of History at University of Chicago and Associate Professor, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico City. He examines in six sets of essays how non-Mexicans have viewed, acted with relation to and interpreted Mexicans and their culture, and vice versa. His exploration entails how Mexicans of different socio-economic classes, races and geographies (particularly those from the Mexico City region and those not) interacted in Mexico City from 1880 - 1940. [End Page 184]

The essays focus on the development and culture of Mexico City with regard to: 1) the 1910 and 1921 celebrations, commemorations and new constructions for the centennials of declaration and consummation of Mexican independence; 2) the brief, nascent, and truly cosmopolitan culture of writers, artists and others in post-Mexican Revolution, and post-World War I Mexico City which was overwhelmed and replaced by the subject of the next essay; 3) the “Brown Atlantis”, Tenorio-Trillo’s term for the multifarious depictions and experiences of picturesque, ‘authentic’, ‘indigenous’ Mexican arts and popular culture (think: burros, sombreros, siestas, tequilas and the ‘whole enchilada’!), that has long been sought by tourists, and served up through murals and other vehicles of Mexican popular culture, most famously and internationally through the art and lifestyles of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; 4) “Odalisque-Mania” or infatuation with all things Eastern/Oriental, especially but not exclusively among Mexico’s upper class and intelligentsia and particularly with regard to culture of Japan and India, that was part of the great wave of love for Eastern-related art, design, philosophy, religion and other aspects of culture that, from about the 1820s onward, as part of Romanticism, swept into Europe from its colonies and settlements in the Middle and Far East and South Asia and, in about the 1860s to 1930s, from Europe to the Americas; 5) urban epidemiology, particularly finding the cure for typhus; and 6) slang, street vendor calls and insults, some of which formed chilango, a long-evolving dialect of Mexico City, especially as it existed in 1880-1940.

Tenorio-Trillo offers some questionable opinions. For example, in discussing “Odalisque-mania,” the author asserts that although Mexican Revolution leader and President from 1911-13, Francisco Madero, found in theosophical and spiritualist dogmas originating in India, “a natural complement to both his Catholic beliefs and his ideas of human fraternity”, Madero was “no more of a visionary (or as it may be, a lunatic) than many of the English, French, and U.S. intellectuals following these trends” (260). While there were many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century ‘intellectual tourists’ in study of and adherence to theosophy, spiritualism and spiritism, I think it may miss the mark to characterize Madero as someone who did not have a vision of a spiritual and intellectual life. Madero’s vision may seem naïve to some, but I think he and others believed that a governmental framework was possible, one that would allow Mexicans of all classes to achieve more of their full potential and happiness in life.

Tenorio-Trillo discusses the approximate 20 years that Francisco Madero spent studying and writing about theosophy and spiritualism-spiritism, including Madero’s authorship, under the pseudonym Bhima, of El Manual Espirita (1911). However, the author probably did not see Catherine Mansell Mayo’s 2013 publication, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution, which would have enhanced the book under review here.

I saw a few discrepancies in I Speak of the City. On page 59, Tenorio-Trillo provides the correct title, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park” (“Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central”) for Diego Rivera’s 1946-47 mural, originally at Hotel Del Prado, which presents a procession of Mexican history and some aspects of Diego’s childhood, set in Mexico City’s Alameda Park. Nevertheless, on the next page, under Figure 2.2...