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  • ¡Viva México! World’s Fair Exhibits and Souvenirs: The Shaping of Collective Consciousness
  • Zahra M. Moss

World’s fairs emerged in the nineteenth century intended as showcases for Western civilization. Collections of commodities were put on display to mimic previous cultural achievements and monuments that distinguished civilized nations from their supposed economically inferior counterparts. By the twentieth century, these expositions reflected the global competition for natural resources and the subsequent geographic expansion of the West. The 1933 Chicago exposition, aptly titled the “Century of Progress,” followed suit, presenting a blueprint for national economic growth and technological development amidst mounting global political and economic tensions.

This case study of exhibits at the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair examines how U.S. concessionaires and Mexican government officials used the expo as an opportunity to define symbols of Mexican national identity following the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). This visual syllabary crafted a revisionist narrative that rooted national technological and cultural advancement in the country’s pre-Columbian heritage. These displays in conjunction with the production of souvenirs allowed audiences to sharpen official narratives that challenged negative stereotypes associated with financial and political consequences of the revolutionary violence.

The first section of this essay briefly examines the political and social context in which the theme of the Century of Progress emerged. The fair served international interests in promoting U.S. entrepreneurial ventures while legitimizing the revolutionary government. Part two focuses upon the use of material culture to represent national identity. Mexican officials selected regional symbols to represent the nation in an effort to homogenize and unify an ideologically and culturally fragmented country. The United States capitalized upon this symbolism and presented an idealized visualization of Mexico’s path to civilization. The analysis examines how American concessionaires used ethnographic representations of the Mexican people as fair exhibits. Arguably these served a didactic purpose: intending audiences to reconsider the violent, unruly, and pauper stereotypes promoted by presses in the early years of the revolution.1 Instead these ethnographic [End Page 64] representations relied upon appealing sensory devices such as dress, music, and food to challenge preconceived notions of Mexican identity. In all, these exhibits served the dual purpose of manipulating the collective consciousness of international audiences to restore faith in future diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States.

Mexico in the Twentieth Century

In 1910, Mexico experienced a political and cultural revolution. Throughout the course of the country’s violent civil war, insurgents fought for control of the government. Lacking a stringent political ideology, they slowly yet surely eliminated one another as competition. This instability wreaked havoc on domestic infrastructure. It scared potential investors and foreigners who interpreted the conflict as more than a cry for help, but a true testament of the government’s inability to lead the country into the future.

Contrary to popular perception, people in the United States remained intrigued by their neighbors to the south. Border towns were popular tourist sites where American families could vacation, watch a bullfight, or purchase authentic handicrafts. The insurgents consolidated the political ideology of the revolutionary cause in the Constitution of 1917. In contrast to the Porfirian regime’s understandings of modernity and progress (1876–1910), the revolutionaries, in significant changes, planned to unify a socially and culturally fragmented society. As a blueprint for reconstruction, the constitution defined the national government as the arbiter of diplomatic relations, political infrastructure, and cultural patrimony.

The new administration relied upon all bureaucratic agencies in the process of crafting a modern identity for international display. Intellectuals, artists, and performers from all over the country became cultural ambassadors. Cultural homogeneity relied upon the consolidation of regional symbols that could be presented at emblematic of the nation. The 1933 fair became the launching grounds for a newly proposed and consolidated Mexican identity.

Contemporary scholarship emphasizes the economic causes: political conditions, great battles, and individuals that shaped the course of the civil conflict. This approach overlooks, to some extent, the significance of political stabilization and cultural revival that predominantly shaped the 1910s and early 1920s. This study fills this void in the existing literature by approaching the diverse preceptors of the revolution through the...


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pp. 64-79
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