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  • "La carrera de la muerte":Death, Driving, and Rituals of Modernization in 1950s Mexico*
  • J. Brian Freeman

… a future of plentitude and universal well-being was predicted, without specifying just how it would be achieved. Clean cities without in-justice, poor people, violence, congestion, or garbage. Every family with an ultramodern and aerodynamic (words from that era) house … Machines will do all the work … Paradise on earth.1

—José Emilio Pacheco, Battles in the Desert, 1987


In 1950, Mexico's Asociación Nacional Automovilística (National Automobile Association, or ANA), with the aid of national, state, and local government, staged an international automobile race dubbed the Carrera Panamericana (Pan-American Road Race), celebrating the inauguration of the country's section of the Pan-American Highway. The spectacle, which earned the embarrassing name "carrera de la muerte" or death race, took drivers from Ciudad Juárez on the northern border with the United States all the way to the edge of Guatemala. After 1950, organizers turned the race into a yearly event, lasting until 1954, when it was finally cancelled by presidential decree.

For five years this ritual of modernization attracted hundreds of entrants from across Europe and the Americas, while reporters spread throughout the world news of the riveting exploits of daring drivers and announced in an unprecedented manner the nation's apparent assent to modernity, what later analysts would call the "Mexican Miracle."2 The image of state-of-the-art, aerodynamic machines, barreling down the newly inaugurated and Mexican-built Pan-American Highway seemed to many to embody the aspirations of post-1940 developmentalism. Roads, machines, and industrial growth would put the nail in the coffin of the old imagery of burros and backwardness, while industrialization would create the wealth necessary to meet the needs of all citizens. What is more, hemispheric communications, advocates proclaimed, would finally link all nations of the Americas, advancing the cause [End Page 2] of progress and international understanding.3 In these times of change, it could not be too far off until, as President Miguel Alemán (1946–1952) once longed, all citizens would have "a Cadillac, a cigar and a ticket to the bullfights" (Krauze 543).

Through an examination of the race, this article traces the contours of the Mexican state's mid-twentieth-century modernizing discourse, paying particular attention to its links to business interests, the politics of post-war Pan-Americanism, and a confidence in the transformative power of modern technology. Offering an analysis of the planning, promotion, and public discussion surrounding the Carrera Panamerica, it argues that while the race successfully gained the attention of a broad national and international audience, the failure to limit an imagery of death, destruction, as well as backwardness, ultimately undermined the official narrative of progress it sought to project. As a result, such counternarratives inspired observers to draw subversive conclusions about the overriding concerns of the regime, attacking the state for its perceived sycophantic support of all things foreign and its wasteful deployment of public resources for the benefit of private interests.4

Since the late nineteenth century, the Mexican state has turned to large-scale public celebration in order to justify its rule to citizens and advertise national projects of modernization to international observers. During the twilight of the Porfiriato (1876–1911), in 1910, the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz celebrated the Centennial of Mexican Independence. The celebration sought to establish a new, dominant narrative about Mexico's past, present, and future, placing the Liberal political establishment and President Díaz at the vanguard of national history. Through allegorical parades, scientific congresses, and infrastructure inaugurations, the state aimed to pave the way for the country's entrance into a select club of developed nations. To do so, as Mauricio Tenorio Trillo has demonstrated, organizers meticulously transformed a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse Mexico City into "the ideal city," disguising or eliminating discursive eyesores: the shoeless, the poor, the indigenous, and so on. Yet even in this authoritarian context, disruptions took place as participants aimed to project their own narratives onto the event. Supporters of future president Francisco I. Madero, for example, marched and battled with authorities during the celebrations (Tenorio...


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