The History of Mexico: an ideological masterpiece

(December 2017)

No trip to the capital of Mexico would be complete without a significant amount of time being devoted to the city’s various art works.

Two in particular stand out as being representative of the competing philosophies which have shaped the Mexico of today: The History of Mexico mural by Diego Rivera and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The fact that the historical murals of Rivera  – husband of fellow artist Frida Kahlo – are given such prominence in the National Palace are testament to his standing in Mexico, and their genesis is telling.

In the late 1920s, the revolutionary government which had come to power following the chaotic Mexican revolution from 1910 onwards was faced with chronic instability and violence.

In this environment, it was vital for the government to legitimise their revolution, and one part of this effort involved the commissioning of the Marxist Rivera to paint murals which would depict Mexico’s historical evolution, while also pointing to where the country was heading if it could stayed the course.

Rivera’s completed work does not disappoint. The massive mural in the stairwell of the palace is a breathtaking collage of vibrant colours which instantly captures the full attention of the visitor.

Those who are familiar with the broad thrust of Mexican history would recognise many of the events depicted, and their gazes would likely be drawn inexorably from the most ancient scenes to the most modern, just as the artist intended.

The History of Mexico is also a deeply ideological work.

The violent struggle between the Aztecs and the invading Spaniards features prominently in the centre of the mural.

This invasion paved the way for unspeakable brutality, as is represented by the Spanish soldier forcing himself upon the native woman, or the other images in which the natives are forced to labour using shovels and pickaxes as a Spaniard draws his whip back, ready to strike.

Natives are also shown lining up to be baptised. In an interesting touch, the priest who is standing over the baptismal font at which a dark figure kneels is immediately to the left of a helmeted soldier who has just fired his musket downwards into a crowd of Aztecs.

Just to the right, another native extends his hands upwards to a tonsured monk and offers him a basket of gifts, which the monk seems only too happy to accept.

These images depict the violence which was a crucial part of the speedy conversion of Latin America to Catholicism.

While Europe and other regions were converted to the faith through the sermons and good examples of missionaries, the toxic connection between the rapacious conquistadors and the domineering medieval clerics was more reminiscent of the various Islamic conquests than it was of true Christian conversion.

It has left a stain on the record of Christianity, and has presented leftist revolutionaries such as Rivera with a narrative which can to this day be used to undermine the legitimacy of religion.

Yet to his credit, Rivera was not entirely unfair when it came to examining the role of Christianity in shaping Mexico. While he presents the viewer with images of greedy monks and, further on, members of the Inquisition, he also highlights the role which clerics played in defence of the underprivileged.

To the right of the baptismal scene, another friar with a noticeably forehead is shown. Several natives are clinging to his cloak, beseeching his protection against the soldiers nearby.

With his left hand, the friar is shielding one of them, and with his right hand, he is holding a simple crucifix before a disgruntled Spanish nobleman, who appears unhappy with the challenge being posed to his temporal authority.

This friar is Bartolomé de las Casas, the renowned Dominican Bishop whose excoriation of the crimes of his fellow Spaniards led to his being appointed as Protector of the Indians. The well-known city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas is today named in his honour.

Other important events in Mexico’s history (the war for independence against Spain, the invasion by the United States, and the revolution to overthrow Porfirio Diaz) are described in the murals on the main wall, but it is the murals on the South Wall, located appropriately enough on the left side of the stairwell, which are the most heavily ideological.

They present the clearest justification for the revolution of the early 1900s, and for the perpetuation of the system of government – presided over by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI – which it created, and which lasted until the PRI were finally defeated in the landmark democratic election of 2000.

In Rivera’s mural, workers are shown tightly packed together, clamouring for change. Barring their path forwards are the forces of oppression, uniformed thugs wielding guns and replete with Nazi symbols.

Diego’s wife Frida is presented as a teacher, extolling the virtues of Marxism to a group of children. Elsewhere, Leon Trotsky – who lived with Diego and Frida for a time – is shown teaching an assembled mass of multi-ethnic students.

While the central mural is somewhat nuanced in its treatment of religion, Rivera’s vision of contemporary Mexico and the utopia of tomorrow is entirely dismissive of it.

A group of peasants, their heads bowed, are dropping coins into a box marked ‘indulgencias’. The coins are being fed into a system of pipes which leads upwards towards those who the Mexican left struggled against, and whose sins they insisted justified their bloody – and ongoing – revolution: their old enemies the aristocracy and the Church, capitalism and Catholicism.

At the highest point in the picture, cleverly juxtaposed against the ascending staircase in front of it, stands Karl Marx. He is holding a banner with one hand, and pointing the workers towards a bright, industrial future with the other.

The sun is rising behind him, ushering in a new dawn for Mexico and the world, and a flag of the Soviet Union is nearby.

This is ultimately what The History of Mexico is about: the onward march of socialism, the scientific doctrine which had supplanted religion and overcome capitalism, and which would one day free all Mexicans from oppression and help them to create a secular heaven on earth.

One wonders just how much Rivera knew about the Soviet Union in the 1930s. As he worked feverishly to finish painting his vision of the history of class struggle, his idol in Moscow Josef Stalin was also busy completing one of his own major works.

Stalin’s ‘dekulakization’ project began in earnest in 1929, the same year that Rivera started painting The History of Mexico, and it resulted in the murder of millions of landowning peasants.

With the kulaks gone, collectivisation – the abolition of private landholdings and their replacement with massive state-run farms – could begin.

That it did, and the resulting catastrophic famine showed the world just how effective central planning was when it came to the relatively simple task of producing food.

If the Marxist rulers of the country which Rivera pointed to as being the way forward deliberately starved millions of their own people, it would put a dampener on his great work. And if they inadvertently starved millions through a policy failure, that wouldn’t necessarily be better.

All things considered, the grim reality of the world which Marxism had already ushered in in Russia, and which would soon be exported elsewhere, casts a dark light on his utopia.

It also casts a dark light on this mural, and indeed on Diego Rivera’s character and judgement, too.

There is one more detail in The History of Mexico which is worth commenting on.

Just above the collection plate on the South Wall, there is a small image of a woman, so small that it is easily missed (go down on a straight line from Marx’s image and you’ll see it almost between the legs of a woman being seduced by what seems to be a priest).

This is an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and given the prominent position which it has occupied in Mexican society for the last 500 years, Rivera’s decision to minimise its place in The History of Mexico is one of his most curious.

The image can be viewed in churches, homes and businesses across the entire nation, and it has been carried into battle by countless warriors and tattooed onto the flesh of countless bodies, the pious and the profane alike.

Father Miguel Hidalgo’s forces carried the image into battle when fighting for independence against Spain, the bandit Emiliano Zapata’s men carried it during the revolution and even the anti-globalist Zapatistas adopted it when resisting the implementation of NAFTA in the 1990s.

The famous novelist Carlos Fuentes summed up the image’s place in his country very well when he said, “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

To see the original image, one must travel into the north of Mexico city, where it is displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the site where an event occurred in 1531 which shaped Mexico forever.

The basic points of the story are these: a decade or so after the Spanish conquest, an indigenous man named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary close to his home.

During a later apparition, in order to help Juan Diego when he was trying to prove the veracity of her apparitions to the ecclesiastical authorities, Mary presented him with a bundle of non-native roses, placing them in his cloak (or tilma) which Juan Diego held close to his body as he made his way to the archbishop.

Upon reaching him, Juan Diego let the tilma down, but instead of scattering roses at the foot of the archbishop, the assembled witnesses found that an image of a woman – unmistakable as the Virgin Mary – was imprinted upon the tilma.

The context in which this miracle supposedly occurred is important.

At this point, a lively debate as to whether the indigenous population was fully human was still ongoing among European philosophers and theologians, and it would be almost a decade until the papal encyclical Sublimis Deus answered in the affirmative, and forbade the enslavement of the Indians, as the indigenous population were called then, and still sometimes are.

In this context, the news that the mother of the man the Spaniards called God had appeared to an Indian, and had created a unique image of herself in the cloth of one of their own compatriots, electrified the local population.

Everything else belonged to the Spaniards now, but the tilma was theirs, a sign of divine providence. The alleged apparition inspired many more Indians to convert, and placed a key piece of Catholic iconography at the heart of Mexican identity.

Of course, sceptics then and now believe that an apparition so beneficial to Spain’s declared goal of mass conversion was likely invented.

What is more, the Basilica stands on a location where the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin had previously been venerated.

If a Spanish cleric or colonial administrator had been searching for a way to forge a syncretic identity which would help the Indians to make peace with the new religion, the co-opting of Tonantzin’s holy place would have been a wise tactic.

Yet for many in the Spanish elite, the apparitions at Guadalupe were anything but convenient. If true, they showed that the Mother of God looked favourably on those who they viewed with contempt.

It is hardly coincidental that in the following years, the efforts of Bishop de las Casas and others began to bear fruit, and the long and painful process towards the achievement of something resembling equality between Indians and European settlers was embarked upon.

Whether or not the miracle truly occurred, Guadalupe was indisputably one of the landmark moments in Mexican history.

And what of the image itself and of its supposedly miraculous origins?

Devotees point to various factors as evidence that the tilma is, as they say, not made by human hands.

Entire books have been dedicated to examining the various arguments, and elaborating on the scientific investigations into the tilma which have been undertaken at various times.

Among these are: the fact that the materials from which the tilma is made are so poor, and yet the image has been successfully produced in spite of this; the apparent absence of brush strokes, which makes it seem that the image was imprinted instantaneously; the iridescent quality of the colours; the survival of the tilma which surely should have disintegrated centuries ago; the presence of tiny shapes in the eyes of Our Lady, which believers say are the reflections of the archbishop and other figures who saw the miracle take place.

While Our Lady of Guadalupe is enormously popular in Mexico, the image – being inextricably linked to Catholicism – is not universally loved. The struggle between the religious and the irreligious has been one of the key conflicts in Mexican history, one which Diego Rivera went to great lengths to illustrate.

During the 1920s, the Catholic Church was viciously persecuted by the leftist victors of the Mexican Revolution.

Priests were shot, churches were burned and in some regions of the country the practice of Catholicism was outlawed completely. In this environment, many feared for the survival of the tilma.

Indeed, in his book about Mexico of the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh writes of how during the fiercest persecutions, the Indians guarded the Basilica at Guadalupe day and night, for fear that anti-clerical forces would attempt to rid Mexico of the tilma once and for all.

During the 1920s, far-left elements did succeed in getting a large bomb into the Basilica, and detonating it underneath the image, but the tilma was left strangely untouched by the blast.

This incident merely added to the fervour of devotees, who believed that not only was it not made by human hands, it clearly could not be destroyed by human hands either.

For all of the story behind it, however, on first inspection Our Lady of Guadalupe pales in comparison with The History of Mexico.

The image is surprisingly small though, and hanging overhead it is also quite distant. The colours are nowhere near as vibrant, and the sounds of the Mass being heard above the viewing passageway are somewhat disconcerting.

All you are left with is the small image of a young woman with dark hair, clothed in a green cloak, her hands joined together as if to represent peace, her gaze directed away to her right.

Why, given the irrefutable fact that Our Lady of Guadalupe is an integral part of Mexican identity, did Diego Rivera choose to all but omit it from his definitive account of his country’s history?

The underlying ideology of The History of Mexico is Marxist, and according to this ideology, religion is simply the opium of the masses, and a tool for the exploitation of the proletariat. The role of religion in Mexican life was a baleful one in Rivera’s eyes, and he predicted that it would have no role in the bright future which his painting predicted was inevitable.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, therefore, presented the artist with a difficult problem. As an atheist, by definition, Rivera had to believe that the story of the apparition was built on lies, probably dreamt up by the clerical-colonial elite.

Had Rivera the courage of his convictions, he would have incorporated this belief into The History of Mexico. Rivera did not do this, however.

Even though he was designing his murals at a time when the Church was laid low, Rivera likely assumed that the mockery of an event which the great majority of his compatriots believed in to some or more extent would have rendered his interpretation of history unacceptable to most of them.

He was faced with a Catch-22, one similar to when the Pharisees were asked about the provenance of John’s baptism. To publicly deny that there was a divine hand behind the tilma would incite outrage, and to accept its legitimacy would have undermined everything else which he depicted.

For if the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is true, then it is surely the most consequential moment in the history of Mexico. All other events would pale in comparison to the moment when the heavenly mother who the Spaniards spoke of revealed herself, not to them, but to a humble Mexican.

In pondering how to answer such a difficult question, Rivera – like the Pharisees – chose silence, and as a result, The History of Mexico remains tragically incomplete. It is neither an honest account of Mexico’s history nor an honest description of the artist’s own feelings.

And as for its central vision and message, history has long since shown the Marxist heaven which Rivera giddily anticipated to be instead a dystopian hell.

Long before they were finally removed from office, the PRI party whose interests Rivera served had abandoned socialism in favour of a free-market economy. Today, none of Mexico’s main political parties advocate Marxism.

As for the project to reshape Mexico’s religious identity by exposing the sins of the fathers, this had even less success. Mexico remains overwhelming Catholic, and as attached as ever to its various and vibrant religious traditions: one of the most important being devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Mexico has abandoned the religion of Diego Rivera, but it has not abandoned the tilma.  For its enduring popularity testifies to the existence of something deeper.

The murals in the National Palace are a window into Mexico’s memory, but the tilma is a window into Mexico’s soul.