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Mexico 27 Chapter 1 Rehearsals of the Tragi-​ Co(s)mic Race April 27, 1924, was not a good day for José Vasconcelos, the man who would go down in history as the premiere “cultural caudillo” of the Mexican Revo‑ lution.1 With only a week to go before the inaugural ceremony of the new National Stadium, the founding director of the Secretariat of Public Educa‑ tion was struggling to hold his own against a barrage of negative publicity. The sixty-​ thousand-​ seat arena was supposed to be the crowning achieve‑ ment of his sweeping cultural reforms—­ proof the Mexican people could accomplish constructive goals and the new government could deliver on its promises, even if large parts of the country had yet to be “pacified” and political assassinations were still a common affair. Instead, his pet project had been plagued by controversy from the start. First, he had tangled with the architect, who had trouble wrapping his unimaginative head around the fact that the stadium was meant to be not a mere “racetrack” but a revival of the ancient Greek open-​ air theaters. Then Diego Rivera had requested some modifications in the design to accommodate his plans for the interior murals, causing his diehard enemies to howl and every architect in the city to protest that painters, sculptors, and other “decorators” should stick to their area of expertise. Now Rivera was all riled up and on the verge of lambasting his critics in the press as semi-​ civilized vestiges of the prerevolutionary bourgeoi‑ sie. And as if all of that weren’t enough, rumors were flying that Vasconcelos was either about to quit or be fired—­ rumors he knew were true. All of that, and now this. Five thousand schoolgirls were assembled in the stadium, rehearsing the songs they would sing en masse while others formed improbable pyramids or danced a traditional jarabe tapatío. Every‑ thing seemed to be going fine, but the day was exceptionally hot and no one had thought to bring refreshments, so around high noon the children began to collapse. It was just a mild case of sunstroke, though try telling that to the parents watching in the stands who descended in a panic, setting off a stam‑ pede out of which several girls emerged even worse for wear. Still, none of the injuries were serious, and surely a hundred heat-​ frazzled schoolgirls out of five thousand wasn’t such a bad tally. Alas, the daily Excélsior disagreed. The next day its front-​ page headline screamed, “More Than One Hundred Girls 28 Chapter 1 Were on the Verge of Dying of Sunstroke in the National Stadium.” Then a string of subheaders such as “Great Alarm in the City” led up to the article’s histrionic first line: “Yesterday, over thousands of homes in our capital and outlying areas of the District, the horrifying grimace of tragedy appeared.”2 Never one to hold his fire, Vasconcelos immediately dispatched a communi‑ qué to every classroom in the city urging students to ignore the newspaper, a commercial rag in cahoots with the bullfighting impresarios and other pur‑ veyors of dishonest entertainment who recognized the stadium as a threat to their ill-​ gotten gains. Yes, he conceded, the incident was unfortunate, but in fact a mere fifty girls had fainted, and it only demonstrated the urgent need for a “theater-​ stadium” where “our race” would forge its physique and create the “art of the future”—­ an art that would put an end to all the ensayos, all the rehearsals foiled by the foibles of the human, all-​ too-​ human flesh.3 The National Stadium was demolished in 1949 due to cracks in its foun‑ dation, and today few residents of Mexico City recall its existence. Far more often Vasconcelos is remembered for his messianic cultural “missions,” which sent newly trained teachers into rural areas to spread the gospel of good hygiene and teach impoverished peasants to read the Iliad and the Mahabharata. But despite his penchant for the classics and his eventual trans‑ formation into a peevish librarian, Vasconcelos is a hard man to pin down, not least because he was instrumental in creating the conditions for the emer‑ gence of the Mexican avant-​ garde. Shortly after assuming office he reached out to Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, still on extended sojourns in Paris and Barcelona, and offered to subsidize their studies of Renaissance fresco techniques in Italy before luring them back to Mexico with commissions to...


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