Sunday, June 1, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 3: The stunning murals of the Palacio Gobierno

Mural portraying Quetzalcoatl, the famous pre-hispanic Plumed Serpent. Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important gods of ancient Mesoamerica. Symbols depicting him go back as far as the Olmecs of 900 BC. To the Aztecs, he was associated with the wind, Venus, and the dawn. He was also the god of knowledge thought to have taught humans how to use corn. The Plumed Serpent was revered especially by merchants, priests, and craftsmen. In modern times, Quetzalcoatl has come to symbolise Mexico's deep pre-hispanic roots. In my last posting, I showed the marvellous architecture of the Palacio Gobierno. This time I will focus on the stunning murals that cover the walls of the first and second floor arcades surrounding the Palacio's two large courtyards. The murals were painted in 1961 and portray Aguascalientes' role in the political and social history of Mexico. The artist, Oswaldo Barra Cunningham (1922-1999), was a Colombian and student of the great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Like Rivera's work, Barra's is richly colored and thickly peopled with historical figures. Some of the mural's non-historical bystanders wear the faces of Barra's friends and acquaintances.

Conquest and colonial exploitation

Armored conquistadores blaze away at fleeing native people. When Nuño Beltrán de Guzman marched through this area in the early 1540s, he slaughtered or enslaved whatever indigenous people he encountered. In the earliest stages of this invasion, the native people were terrified of the Spanish horses and guns. However, these were not the civilised, city-dwelling, indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico whom the Spanish conquered in only a few years. The inhabitants of north-central Mexico's semi-desert highland plateau were fierce, hardy, and independent. These were the fearsome Chichimecs whose warriors had plagued the Aztecs and other civilised pre-hispanic cultures for centuries. They would not easily accept the steel Spanish boot on their necks. Incessant Chichimec attacks forced the Spanish to move the location of Guadalajara at least 4 times before it was settled in its current location. On the upper right, a priest extends a protective hand over the back of a native. Here, Barra demonstrates the ambiguous role of the Church in the conquest. On the one hand, there were notable examples of priests who attempted to protect the indigenous people from the worst abuses. On the other hand, the Church itself materially benefitted from the exploitation and forced labor of the native populations.

A Chichimec woman and her son prepare weapons. While his mother crafts arrowheads, the boy tests out a new bow.  Note the Spanish helmet and steel glove next to the boy, no doubt captured in battle. The armadillo and the fiercely glaring mountain lion symbolise the struggle. They represent an armored but clumsy Spaniard confronted by a lithe and powerful native warrior. The murals are filled with many such vignettes, each telling a story of its own. Mexico's great age of murals grew out of the 1910 Revolution and its aftermath. The country's new leaders wanted to educate the largely illiterate population about the history of Mexico and the values of the Revolution. To help this process, they recruited great artists like Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and others to paint large murals inside public buildings all over Mexico.

Chichimec raiders truss a captured Spanish girl over the back of a horse. After silver was discovered in the ravines around Zacatecas, large-scale mining began. Caravans of heavily laden pack animals traveled south, carrying the silver to Guadalajara and on to Mexico City. Similar caravans carried supplies north to the mines at Zacatecas. During the 50 years of war between the Chichimecs and the Spanish, these caravans made tempting targets. Spanish civilians traveling with the caravans included women and girls. They were sometimes seized by the Chichimecs as slaves or, if they were lucky, as wives for the warriors. The Spanish established a string of settlements between the mines and Guadalajara to act as rest stops and military posts. Aguascalientes was founded as one of these.

Scene from the Battle of the Nopales. As  a Chichimec girl escapes with a captured Spanish horse, a semi-concealed warrior prepares to fire at her pursuers. Spanish reports described the warriors, both men and women, as fighting in the nude. The men were armed with bows, spears, and clubs, but carried no shields. During the 50-year Chichimec War, the indigenous people quickly recognised the value of horses in warfare. The broad, open plains of their territory were ideal cavalry country. However, they fought on foot too, particularly in the earlier stages. When not mounted, they attacked in open array, led by archers who were followed by spearmen and others carrying obsidian-edged clubs. Their nomadic lifestyle made them very difficult to conquer. The Spanish war technology and firepower used so effectively against the cities and fixed settlements of the Aztecs were of little use against opponents like these. In the end, the colonial authorities turned to the Church to negotiate a settlement acceptable to the Chichimecs. The long war officially ended in 1600.

Indigenous miners clamber up rickety ladders carrying heavy loads of silver ore. They are supervised by a narrow-eyed man wielding a whip. After the war ended, the evangelising friars persuaded the nomads to settle in villages around rustic adobe churches. In some cases, the settlers were former indigenous soldiers from other areas, brought in to fight the Chichimecs. The mine owners began to recruit from the villages, often as forced labor under the encomienda system. When the encomienda system was abolished during the indigenous population crash of the 17th Century, wage labor was employed to lure workers to the area. The hours were long and the work and treatment were brutal. Tools were primitive and accidents frequent. A miner would enter the dark tunnels before sunrise and emerge only after dark. Once he began at the mines, a typical indigenous worker's life was short and he often never saw daylight again.

The fruits of the miners' hard labor are delivered. A blonde angel hands the ore to a group of elegantly clad Spaniards, while others dance or drink in the background. Seen here, and in the previous photo are the extreme ends of the social spectrum in colonial society. The Spaniards shown are probably peninsulares, also known as gachupines. They were residents of New Spain but were born in Old Spain. Next down the scale were the criollos, Spaniards born in New World. They could amass wealth through mines, commerce, or hacienda ownership but the top--and very lucrative--official positions were all occupied by peninsulares. Next, came the mestizos, who were of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood. Legend has it that the very first of these was the illegitimate child of Hernán Cortéz and his indigenous mistress known as La Malinche. The overwhelming majority of Mexicans today are mestizos. Below the mestizos were the native people, who in many cases were little better than slaves but did have limited protection through laws and sympathetic priests. Finally, there were the Africans--outright slaves--imported during the indigenous population crash of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Independence, turmoil, and more oppression

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José Pavon Morelos were early Independence War leaders. They were both priests who became generals leading large but undisciplined and ill-equipped armies against Royalist troops. Morelos is seen wielding the sword in the center and Hidalgo is behind him with a bald head fringed by long white hair. Hidalgo launched the war on September 15, 1810 from the steps of his church in Dolores, Guanajato. His famous grito (cry) for freedom drew immediate support. He declared an end to slavery and established the Virgin of Guadalupe--patron of the poor--as the symbol of the revolt. These two acts made him a hero to the indigenous people. After defeating all forces sent against him during the first few months of the war, Hidalgo was defeated at Puente Calderón and later captured and executed. Morelos had studied under Hidalgo at a religious school in Valladolid (now Morelia). He took up the torch and was successful in southern Mexico until he, too, was captured and executed. Both men were excommunicated by the Church whose hierarchy stood firmly with the Royalists. In the foreground you see the largely-indigenous soldiers. Often armed with little more than machetes, axes and pitchforks, their greatest weapon was an intense hatred arising from 300 years of Spanish oppression. However, this sword cut both ways. Their animosity led to atrocities against civilians including Spanish women and children. Their criollo allies drew back, appalled and fearful that they might be next. In truth, many of the criollos who supported the insurgents did not so much want to change society as to oust the peninsulares and take control themselves.

The blonde whore of wealth and power lounges in the midst of her ardent admirers. The War for Independence was stalemated until 1821when a key Royalist commander named Agustin de Iturbe changed sides. Together, he and insurgent commander Vicente Guerrero declared Mexico's independence. Spain had little choice but to withdraw. Iturbe was an opportunist, however, like so many others in Mexico's turbulent history. He made himself Emperor of Mexico but only occupied that post for eight months before the outraged insurgents ousted him and declared a republic. From then until 1867, Mexico experienced one revolt or foreign invasion after another. The opportunists had a field day. Chief among these was Antonio López de Santa Ana, who can be seen decked out in gold braid in the upper left. He was a politician/general who saw himself as the Napoleon of the West. He is remembered in the US as the victor in the Battle of the Alamo, and in Mexico as the man who lost half of its territory. The instability produced weakness which led to two catastrophic foreign invasions. The first was by the United States. Many in the US, including Congressmen Abraham Lincoln, recognised the war as naked aggression. US forces seized Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California. The US had previously annexed Texas, which had been seized by US settlers who defied Mexico's ban on slavery. Internal instability continued with the Reform War between Conservatives and Liberals. When the Conservatives lost to the forces of the Liberal Benito Juarez (upper right, just under the flames), they encouraged the French to invade. Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was installed by the French as Mexico's second Emperor (see the man with the flowing blonde beard in the upper center). When Benito Juarez finally drove the French out--with the material assistance of President Abraham Lincoln--he began the first period of sustained, stable, and honest government since the beginning of the War of Independence. No opportunist, Juarez is honored everywhere in Mexico as a true patriot.

A haughty hacendado supervises the whipping of a peon. From the earliest days, most haciendas were self-enclosed worlds, remote from outside control or authority. The hacendados (owners) lived like feudal lords and dispensed "justice" as they saw fit. The peon (hacienda worker) above may have tried to escape debts run up in the tienda de raya (company store). The tienda de raya had two functions. First, it was a lucrative profit center, since other, cheaper sources of daily necessities were often far away. On some haciendas, the peones were paid with tokens that could only be used in the company store. Second, the debts incurred at the store became a key mechanism for controlling the labor supply. By law, peones could not leave the hacienda with debts outstanding. The peones were almost all illiterate and the hacendado or his mayordomo (administratorkept the books. Who was to say when a debt was really paid off? Punishments for running away, or even disrespect, could be severe.

A woman sells tacos, while another woman and her daughter sell flowers. Life was hard in pre-Revolution Mexico, as it had always been since the Conquest and as it still is in many areas today. The scene above could have been found in any pueblo of the 1800s. I saw an almost identical cast of characters when I visited the street market in my town of Ajijic just today. While there is still considerable poverty in Mexico, the opportunities available to ordinary people are vastly greater than before the Revolution. There are also much greater legal protections for workers and the dignity and self-respect they enjoy today far exceed anything known before the Revolution.

A street musician strums his guitar while sleekly dressed people lounge just beyond the railing. Street musicians have been a feature of Mexican life for centuries and are still ubiquitous in Mexico. They perform for whatever people are willing to give them. I always tip the musicians for their delightful music and because I know it is a hard way to make a living. The scene above shows how closely the wealthy and the poor have always lived to one another, while still being separated by the powerful economic and social barriers represented by the stone railing.

The Porfirato

Again, the privileged elite dote on a Reubenesque female figure representing corruption. She holds the scales of justice on which a top-hatted man has placed a bag of gold. While a disapproving Juarez looks on (upper left), sycophants swarm around a moustachioed and medal-bedecked Porfirio Diaz. During the Reform War and the later French Occupation, General Diaz had won numerous victories. Following the departure of the French and the re-establishment of the Republic, he turned out to be another of Mexico's many opportunists. After leading an unsuccessful revolt against Juarez, Diaz was exiled for a time. However, after Juarez died in office, Diaz re-emerged politically. In May 1877, he was elected President of Mexico. Diaz held that post, either directly or through proxies for 35 years. During this period, known as the Porfirato, he maintained power through rigged elections, secret police repression, and the bribing or assassination of opponents. The last was referred to as a choice between silver or lead. Notice the turmoil behind the top hats. One banner proclaims "Huelga!" (strike). Throughout the Porfirato there were revolts by campesinos and strikes by workers, usually put down with great brutality.

A campesino clutches his harvested corn as a hand reaches out to claim the hacendado's share. Many hacendados did not plant all of their own land but rented some of it out to share-croppers. Under the Porfirato, Mexico rapidly modernised. Foreign corporations, welcomed by Diaz, stitched networks of railroads across the nation. Because of the difficulty of getting products to broader markets, many haciendas had long been status symbols rather than serious economic concerns. Suddenly, products that used to take weeks or months to deliver could be transported in days or hours. Cash crops such as agave for tequila, sisal for hemp string, and sugar cane became immensely profitable. Available arable land became scarce. Hacendados all over Mexico began seizing property belonging to indigenous villages or small landholders. Diaz officials averted their gaze from corrupt legal manoeuvres or even seizures at the point of a gun. Many hacendados became multi-millionaires living in plush mansions while the rural mestizo population became landless. The indigenous villages were a special target. They had employed a communal land system since centuries before the Conquest. One unfortunate effect of  Juarez' earlier reforms was to delegitimise the communal system, forcing individual ownership, thus making the land that much easier to steal.

Women and children line up to purchase the corn their husbands and fathers raised. The maize is doled out grudgingly by a hacienda employee who keeps his pistol close. Some people (see upper right) began the work of educating the illiterate masses, as a first step to reform. As you can see above, many were too busy staying alive to pay much attention.

One man hangs, while another's ears are cut off. Notice that the hanged man's feet are tied to a bag of tierra (earth) to ensure he strangles. During the Porfirato, land ownership by small operators and indigenous villagers was increasingly being strangled. The hacendados and factory owners were under no illusion that educating hacienda and factory workers would do anything but cause unrest. The owners saw ignorance and docility as the best policy and sometimes took strong action to enforce it. There is no question that Mexico became a much wealthier and more developed country under Diaz. Transportation and communications improved with the new railroad, telegraph, and telephone systems. Ports such as Vera Cruz were modernised to handle mining and cash crop exports and the imports of foreign goods. Foreign investors scrambled to take advantage of the Mexican bonanza. Hacienda owners smiled as their profits continued to skyrocket. Owners of the new factories--both foreign and Mexican--gloried in their ability to pay rock bottom wages while the government repressed worker attempts to organise. With the fire of public anger steadily building underneath, and Diaz' rigid lid clamped tight on the political kettle, pressure began to build toward an inevitable--and huge--explosion.

The winners in Mexico's new capitalist economy enjoy their good fortune. What they don't seem to notice is how much of the winnings are raked away by the out-of-view figure of the croupier, who represents the foreign bankers. This scene demonstrates both the profligacy of the nouveau riche and their fecklessness in allowing the nation's wealth to be increasingly dominated by foreign interests. They were caricatured in the late 19th Century by a political cartoonist named José Guadalupe Posada. He portrayed Mexico's nouveau riche as catrinas--skeletons elegantly dressed in the latest French finery. Posada was born and raised in Aguascalientes and his work is displayed in a local museum that I will show in a later posting. Catrina figures, and endless variations on their theme, are still wildly popular throughout Mexico. While the wealthy partied, the steam in that kettle began to whistle.


Mexican generals assassinate revolutionary leaders Francisco Madero and José Piño Suarez. Madero is on the far left holding his Plan of San Luis Potosí and shaking the clawed hand of one of the treacherous officers. Piño Suarez stands behind him to the right. General Victoriano Huerta points a gun at the heads of Madero and Piño Suarez as other officers brandish knives. Francisco Madero ran against Diaz in the 1910 presidential election, while Piño Suarez ran for Governor of Yucatan. Both were arrested but escaped to the US. On November 20, 1910, they issued their Plan of San Luis Potosí. This called for widely popular land, labor, and election reforms. Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and many others answered the call. Diaz was quickly defeated and the old dictator resigned and sailed for France in May, 1911. Ironically, he would be the only top figure during the Revolution to die peacefully in bed. Madero and Piño Suarez were elected President and Vice President of Mexico. Though popular, Madero proved weak and a poor judge of character. He was an upper-class hacendado and, like many of the crillos during the Independence War, he wasn't really interested in the fundamental changes demanded by the workers and campesinos. Madero made the disastrous mistake of trusting Diaz' former generals. A group of them, led by Victoriano Huerta, conspired with US Ambassador Lane Wilson to stage a coup and set up a military dictatorship. During the coup, Madero and Piño Suarez were murdered in what became known as the Ten Tragic Days. Villa and Carranza joined with Zapata against Huerta. Zaparta was already in revolt because of Madero's failure to follow through on land reform.

Pancho Villa (left) and Emiliano Zapata (right) sit in front of their soldiers. Villa and Zapata possessed many similarities. Both grew up as poor country boys. Zapata lived on a small rancho and was an expert horse trainer. Even prior to Madero's 1910 proclamation, Zapata had begun to lead armed revolts against illegal land seizures in his native Morelos State. Villa grew up as a share-cropping campesino in Chihuahua far to the north. After a local hacendado raped his sister, Villa killed the man and rode off to the mountains to become a bandit. Both were close to the people and strongly supported land reform and an end to the hacienda system. Both were natural leaders beloved by their soldiers and, although lacking formal training, displayed great military ability. On the other hand, their personalities were quite different. Villa was ebullient and outgoing, while Zapata was intense and introspective. Of the two, Zapata had the most comprehensive and well-thought-out program of social reform called the Plan of Ayala, which he implemented even while the fighting continued. Villa seems to have been more of a "throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks" kind of guy. There is no doubt that they were the two foremost social revolutionaries in the struggle. They only met a few times and both came to tragic ends. Most in Mexico still consider them heroes.

Revolutionary leaders gathered in Aguascalientes in October 1914 to draft a constitution.  The fight to overthrow the usurper Huerta was the last time the leaders of the Revoluiton would all be on the same side. Zapata surged up from the south and Villa, under the command of Carranza, drove south. However, friction was already growing between Villa on the one side, and Carranza and his chief supporter Álvaro Obregon on the other. Defying Carranza's orders, Villa seized the vital silver-production center of Zacatecas. This broke the back of Huerta's resistance and, in July 1914, Huerta fled the country. He later died in a US jail. The revolutionaries agreed to meet in Aguascalientes to hammer out a constitution. They gathered at the Morelos Theatre, just off Plaza de la Patria. Although each sent delegations, none of the top leaders personally attended except Álvaro Obregon. Jealousy and distrust among them were increasing.

In an apocryphal scene, Zapata, Villa, and other leaders sign a Mexican flag. One of the most powerful convention speakers was Paulino Martinez, a member of Zapata's delegation. He demanded that the convention address "the social question," urging "land, liberty, and justice" rather than "presidential armchairs for those of ambition, wealth, and authority." He objected to "privileges for a particular group without political equality, collective welfare, and land for all." The revolutionary leaders attending included many who were, indeed, men of ambition. They recognised that they could only realise those ambitions by listening to the demands of the workers and campesinos who made up the bulk of their armies. Competing proposals for land reform and worker rights were soon developed by Carranza and Villa (Zapata was already implementing his Plan of Ayala). However, the failure of any of the Big Three to attend crippled the effectiveness of the convention. Through their delegations, Villa and Zapata agreed to support General Eulalio Gutiérrez Ortiz as interim President, but Carranza and Obregon refused. The third stage of the revolution was about to begin. Before its echoes faded, all four of these leaders would be dead from assassins' bullets.

Children surround a teacher who holds up Article 3 of the 1917 Constitution. Among other things, this article provides that elementary education shall be compulsory, that all education provided by the State shall be free, and that religious instruction in public schools is forbidden. That was truly revolutionary in Mexico. From the earliest colonial times, education had been denominated by the Catholic Church. Curbing the overwhelming social and economic control by the Church over national life had been the aim of reformers back to the days of Benito Juarez and his Reform Laws.

Scientists, philosophers and educators oversee the education of young children. Interestingly, what the children are viewing on the TV is Centeotl, the Aztec corn god. However much modern ideas spread in Mexico, ancient ways persist. The education provisions of the Constitution, and the policies they set in motion, arguably caused as much of a social earthquake as the breakup of the haciendas and distribution of their lands to the landless. The government sent thousands of low-paid teachers out into the hinterlands and initiated a policy of "each one teach one." This campaign began to dramatically reduce the illiteracy rate, at least at the basic level. As with land reform, there was bitter and sometimes violent resistance. Both the Church and the hacendados viewed the education campaign as a mechanism for undermining their traditional control over the rural population. Resistance to rural education was bitter and sometimes violent. As late as 1939, rural teachers were being murdered by Catholic fanatics.

Workers release doves of peace. The reforms of the Revolution didn't just distribute land and educate the illiterate. Maximum hours and minimum wages were set for workers, along with other reforms and protections. The right to organise was officially recognised and worker organisations proliferated. These not only enabled a united voice when dealing with employers, they provided a vehicle for worker and campesino political power. Mexico wasn't a "workers' paradise" after the Revolution, and certainly isn't today. Corruption is a problem and laws protecting workers are sometimes ignored. An expanding population has meant that the lands distributed in the 1920s-30s are no longer capable of supporting all those who might want to farm. The North American Free Trade Agreement has resulted in the dumping of tax-subsidised US agricultural surpluses, particularly corn, on the Mexican market. This has caused millions of small farmers to lose their land. Ironically, many have had to cross Mexico's northern border to work for the very agribusinesses that did the dumping. Still, with all of this, it would be hard to find any Mexican willing to go back to pre-Revolution times with no rights, no dignity, and little hope for change.

This completes Part 3 of my Aguascalientes series. I hope you enjoyed these wonderful murals and the story they tell. Anyone who wants to respond should either leave their comment in the Comments section below or email me directly. If it says "no comments" at the bottom of the page, that means no one has yet commented. Just click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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