- Love and Progress:Nineteenth-Century Merida's Alternative View of Modernity and Restoration
On Sunday, July 12th of 1874 the cultural and political elite of Merida, Yucatan gathered for a special program held at the Teatro San Carlos to raise funds for a newly conceived Casa de Beneficencia (Settlement House). The event was advertised with great anticipation in the government publication, La Razón del Pueblo (1867-1896).1 Two weeks prior to the event the paper reported that three local organizations: The Conservatorio, La Academia Artístico-Recreativa and La Siempreviva would be in charge of the program and entertainment ("Casa de Beneficencia" 4).2 The performances for charity were the first major social event in Merida since the defeat of Maximilian in 1867 and the beginning of the reinstatement of the liberal government or the period known as the Mexican Restoration (1867-76).3 This extraordinary event became a public platform for La Siempreviva, a women's society whose main founders' signature line became the motto "Caridad y Progreso" (Charity and Progress). Discourses about gender appeared in the official government paper revealing political tensions in Meridian society that became articulated through discussions of progress and modernity. Women's subjectivity and citizenship were at the center of these discussions as they began to actively participate in the political life of Merida through their accepted roles as providers of charity and education. The special benefit at the San Carlos Theatre highlights the involvement of three important women pioneers in the areas of education, literature, and charitable causes. Their public actions served to reject the domestic angel ideology as they embraced modernity and progress as conduits for women's advancement.
The women's volunteer charitable organization, publication and school for girls La Siempreviva and its members were at the forefront of a contested space for women's roles in Yucatan.4 The leaders: Rita Cetina Gutiérrez (1846-1908), Gertrudis Tenorio Zavala (1843-1926) and Cristina Farfán (1846-1880) were well-respected and admired local poets and artists. Their efforts to have a voice and a literary presence surpassed initiatives towards "interpretive power" to create a third space that offered an alternative view of modernity through their quest for progress in acts of charity and the education of girls. The women of LS negotiated gender boundaries in strategic and often complex social practices that at times reified the legacy of the Catholic church in works of charity while simultaneously embracing [End Page 117] Liberal mandates to secularize the education of young girls.5 Visibly and publicly participating at the theatre and other charitable projects, the women were inaugurating a new expression of citizenship for other women in late 1870's Mexico. Their theme of caridad y progreso resonated with Meridian society in a historical moment when the nation was being re-imagined and re-constructed, signaling an interstitial process led by women that preceded the motto Paz, Orden y Progreso later appropriated by the Porfiriato (1884-1910).
In the 1870's the Guerra de Castas or Caste Wars6 continued to threaten Merida as outlaying towns were frequently attacked by whom the local newspapers characterized as "barbarous indians." Crecencio Carrillo Ancona, in an article published by La Revista de Mérida (1869-82) about the archeologist Augustus LePlongeon's return to the capital, notes that Agnes (LePlongeon's young wife) carries a rifle and suggestively mentions that the couple is living "in the camp of the savage indians, ("Colaboración: Incursión Arquelógica," 2).7 He emphasizes the danger of such proximity when he reminds the readers that the American engineer Joseph Stephens was killed by "rebellious Indians, enemies of all civilization," ("Colaboración" 2). Carrillo Ancona, who later becomes the Bishop of Yucatan, ends his article by proposing another thesis of progress "we will see how religion and science, which are the two wings of real progress, will bring us the cloudless day of the much desired social welfare," ("Colaboración" 2).8 Carrillo Ancona also proposes that evangelistic conversion by the hand of missionaries could bring peace to the "indio salvaje," an ostensibly kinder approach to the myriad of tactics articulated...