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Poverty and Violence During the Mexican Revolution

There are several consistent impressions produced by the creative output of Mexican writers and artists of the 1950s. The Luis Bunuel movie Los Olvidados, the short stories of Juan Rulfos in his collection titled The Plain in Flames, and the mural art of that decade all attest to the failure of the Revolution to resolve Mexico’s persistent problems (Inda, Inclán and Mejia) (Rulfos, The Man). Chief among them is violence. Another is grinding poverty and tenuousness of subsistence. All these problems are worsened by a racial hierarchy with indigenes at the bottom. Neither is mitigated effectively by the authorities and institutions these works portray. These authors, and artists from that era, all show a country struggling, and failing, in the decades following the Revolution, to deal with the burgeoning urban population, and, as the blind beggar/street musician/healer comments, the tragic fact that “there is nothing for them to do” (Inda, Inclán and Mejia).

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Bunuel’s 1950 cinematic examination of the lives of these deeply impoverished Mexico City street folk features incessant violence of all varieties, amidst insecurity over life’s simplest necessities. Whether it is violence peer/peer, elder/youth, male/female, youth/elder, or human/animal, brutal beatings occur constantly. The motivation is sometimes legitimate need, whether for food or money to buy food, but there is also venal desire, for cigarettes, sex, or respect. There is no safety net for these people, and they make their own way, no matter whom it hurts or kills. The justice system, as portrayed in the film, is ill suited to deal with the crimes that most of them commit, and fails at controlling the truly sociopathic criminal -the youth Jaibo – nearly entirely.

Bunuel’s characters are poor to a degree that is hard for North Americans to envision. In the heart of a city clearly building skyscrapers everywhere, they nonetheless must bathe in a basin, and, presumably, also lack sanitary waste disposal. They seldom have access to meat, and must count their beans by hand. They live in a landscape of houses that are either unfinished or have long since largely fallen down. There are no provisions for the handicapped, who appear prominently in the persons of the blind singer (who misses General Porfirio’s law enforcement) and the legless man on a wheeled cart with the defiant and spooky legend painted on its front; “Me Mirabas”, which means ‘you were looking at me’.

There is no support or effective protection for these most vulnerable folk from the violence of their equally destitute neighbors. The penal institution that supposedly is meant to incarcerate Jaibo could not even hold him. This truly dangerous young fellow escapes to wreak havoc on the young boys he leads into crime and bullies, the people he injures and robs, and the mother, among others. The farm school is well-meaning, and tries not to be a jail, although nobody would be there without some sort of criminal background. However, this institution does not operate effectively either (Inda, Inclán and Mejia). Bunuel casts people with both European and indigenous facial features as the poor, but all the authorities appear to be more European. This is reflective of the history of Mexico, which adds to the problems of the poor.

In the Juan Rulfos short story titled Tell Them Not To Kill Me, a small farmer, Juvencia Nava, pays with his life for his efforts to offset the drought’s devastation of his livestock (Rulfos, Tell Them Not To Kill Me 60-66). The ancient techniques of irrigation that supported ancient Mexico’s pyramid builders are long forgotten, and the population is too demoralized to recreate these technologies (McNeish 536). Juvencia’s animals trespass on his neighbor Lupe’s pasture, and the resulting conflict ends in murder. After years of cheerfully accepting Juvencia’s attempted bribes, the judicial system drags him to a firing squad. Although indisputably guilty, Juvencia is portrayed compassionately as an elderly, worn-out fugitive, abandoned by his wife, and barely supported by his son (Rulfos, Tell Them Not To Kill Me 61).. Thus, poverty begets violence, and this ineffectual government does nothing constructive to mitigate suffering.

In the Juan Rulfos short story titled The Man, fatal violence is central to the story. All three narrators are at risk. Acts of revenge and retaliation have occurred before the story begins, and the ‘man’ is in flight. No one has trusted the police enough to ask for help, suggesting that they view the government as totally ineffectual. While resting with a shepherd, the ‘man’ is gunned down, exposing the shepherd to arrest on suspicion of being his an accomplice and thus in danger of his own life (Rulfos, The Man 18-26). Although the government did nothing to prevent the violence in this story, the authorities do take vigorous action to punish, even if the one they threaten to punish is the shepherd, who is entirely blameless.

Mexican Workers Storm Border at Mexicali Feb. 3, 1954
Figure I:Mexican Workers Storm Border at Mexicali Feb. 3, 1954.

Visual artists in the post-Revolutionary era also focused on violence. By portraying the indigenous people as the oppressed, such muralists as Jose Clemente Orozco highlighted the persistent and poisonous post-Conquest racial hierarchy, as in Social Garbage (Orozco, Social Garbage). Diego Rivera seems to use Aztecs subjugated by Europeans as an allegory for the suffering of the modern poor, with obviously indigenous individuals bearing all the burdens (Rivera). Siqueiros, in his 1937 painting Echo of a Scream, captures the pain and frustration that Mexicans felt at disappointed hopes for the Revolution (Siqueiros). The disturbing ink on paper work by Orozco titled Cruelty could have been the source for a storyboard for Los Olvidados (Orozco, Cruelty) (Hernandez n.p.). It is confirmed in the photographic evidence from these.

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decades, for example, in this photo of desperate workers forcing the Mexicali border (Mexican Workers Storm Border at Mexicali). All these artists similarly observed a failure to create a civil society, and instead endure a violent and impoverished nightmare. Their artistic testimony to prevailing miserable conditions forms the basis of current muralismo initiatives to heal the injuries of colonialism even in Hispanic communities in the USA (Zentella 11).

Orozco is the source, as well, for a trenchant observation on why violence and poverty hung over Mexico long after the Revolution. He is reported to have described it as a “farce, drama, barbarity, buffoons and dwarfs trailing along after the gentlemen of noose and dagger.” (Orozco and Stephenson 54) The outcome of this farce, documented by observers such as Bunuel, Rulfos, Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and unnamed journalists, is not irrelevant to the USA. The continued poverty and violence, despite an overall economic output comparable to some European countries, has significantly impact north of the border (Poverties.org n.p.). Consider, for example, the role of desperate undocumented immigrants in recent elections. The poverty and violence they flee are the modern fruits of a revolution that failed to transform.

Works Cited

Hernandez, Daniel. “Jose Clemente Orozco, master muralist, shines in an overwhelming exhibit in Mexico.” 2011. LA Times.

Los Olvidados. Dir. Luis Bunuel. Perf. Estela Inda, et al. Prod. Oscar Dancigers. DailyMotion, 1950. Film.

McNeish, Richard S. “Ancient MesoAmerican Civilization.” Science 143.3606 (1964): 536. Web.

Mexican Workers Storm Border at Mexicali. UCLA Special Collections. San Francisco Bay View. 1954. Web.

Orozco, Jose Clemente and Robert C. Stephenson. Jose Clemente Orozco: An Autobiography. New York: Courier Corporation, 2001.

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Orozco, Jose Clemente. Cruelty. Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. LA Times. Mexico City, 1926-1928.  2015. Web.

—. “Social Garbage.” 1923-1924. sanildefonso.org. Web.

Poverties.org. “Poverty in Mexico, Economic Crisis and 21st Century Welfare.”  2012. Poverties.org.

Rivera, Diego. “Mexico Today and Tomorrow.” 1929-1935. University of Houston.  Web.

Rulfos, Juan. “Tell Them Not To Kill Me.” The Plains in Flames. Trans. Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbram. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 60-66. Print.

–. “The Man.” The Plains in Flames. Trans. Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbram. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 18-26. Print.

Siqueiros, David Alfaro. “Echo of a Scream.” 1937. MOMA.org. Web.

Zentella, Yolanda. “Popular culture as healing: Baile, musica norteña, y muralismo in Las Vegas, Nuevo Mexico.” Journal of Social Justice 3 (2013): 2-17. Web.

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