How an Avant-Garde Movement Changed Mexican Culture

A century on from its emergence, Stridentism continues to influence the contours of the country’s literature

How an Avant-Garde Movement Changed Mexican Culture
The colorful backdrop of Veracruz was the birthplace of Stridentism / Eye Ubiquitous / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In December 1921, a manifesto appeared on the walls of Mexico City. Conceived by the poet Manuel Maples Arce, it announced the birth of Stridentism (Estridentismo in Spanish). One of the very first Latin American avant-garde movements, Stridentism was a multifaceted insurgency that brought together writers, sculptors, photographers, musicians and a plethora of visual artists who used text and images symbiotically. Symbols of modernity and urban landscapes were common — such as skyscrapers, transport and wires — and the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath were central themes of Estridentistas, as members of the movement were called.

Just over two years after the launch of the manifesto — called “Actual No 1” — the Estridentistas left Mexico’s sprawling capital for the city of Xalapa, the capital of the coastal state of Veracruz, surrounded by mountains and hills swathed in forests. Baptizing Xalapa as Estridentópolis, they created outstanding artistic, editorial and educational work; and using the provincial capital as an arena for politics and culture, they sought a true utopia in action where the city functioned simultaneously as text, stage and a theater of operations.

Estrindentópolis was a city teeming with exhibitions, manifestos, publications and events that developed in reaction to the exclusive centralism of the Mexican cultural field, led by the rivals of the Estridentistas, the Contemporáneos, with their origins among Mexico City’s elite, and whose governing aesthetic seemed to revolve nearly exclusively around Mexico City.

The state of Veracruz had been a site for protagonists not only in the subtext of the republic but also the general history of the country. It was in Veracruz in the late 16th century where an enslaved African, Gáspar Yanga, escaped from captivity and lived a life on the run with other escaped slaves in inhospitable areas for almost 30 years. Then in 1609, with almost 500 former African slaves and their descendants supporting him, Yanga resisted the Spanish crown’s siege of his base, which later became the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros (and today is known as Yanga).

Later, during the 19th-century independence struggles, Veracruz was the site of important conflicts, including battles waged by heroes of the War of Independence such as José María Morelos y Pavón, Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria.

In the early 20th century, there was the Río Blanco Strike in January 1907, a precursor to the Mexican Revolution, where workers from a spinning and weaving factory were criminally repressed by Porfirio Díaz, the regime’s tyrant. Then in April 1914, as part of a new phase of the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. Navy occupied the port of Veracruz until November to support the constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza, an opponent of the spurious regime of the traitor Victoriano Huerta.

It was against this backdrop and following World War I that Stridentism emerged in the 1920s.

Stridentism is key to understanding contemporary intellectual life in Mexico, as it traced the general lines in which Mexican literature would have to walk during the last century: revolutionary nationalism or aesthetic cosmopolitanism.

Similarly, the struggle between the Stridentist and Contemporáneos movements remains evident in some intellectual conflicts seen in present-day Mexico. In a land of castes and violent contrasts, disputes between the capital and the provinces, between criollismo (those of moral and political pride experienced by those who thought themselves of Spanish descent) and mestizaje (the attempt by the writer José Vasconcelos and others to blur the racial and social differences of Mexican society), continue in Mexico today. As in any cultural field, these tensions lay the foundations of tradition, shape the national project, establish a historical archive and, above all, draw the battlelines.

As the Mexican literary critic Evodio Escalante wrote: “The [unanimous opinion] of Mexican critics is to revile the stridentist project, that is, to exclude it from the literary scene and to even deny its belonging to the avant-garde movement. … [This is] undoubtedly the result of a … still-enduring conservative and even reactionary philological tradition, allergic to the notion of change, and of an old conflict that confronted members of the same generation and that involved them in a struggle for cultural hegemony from the early twenties.”

For Escalante and others, it is about the conflict between the two avant-garde movements that defend different aesthetic conceptions. On one side, Estidentistas were embedded in the socialist rhetoric of the moment, while on the other, Contemporáneos were open to the world, with less political and social commitment. But their works, due to their richness, variety and quality, shaped the Mexican cultural tradition of the first half of the 20th century.

Indeed the Contemporáneos and their political-aesthetic heirs have been protagonists of national literature. This so-called group without a group (or grupo sin grupo, their name pointing to their independence) was made up of figures such as José Gorostiza, Gilberto Owen, Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, Jaime Torres Bodet, Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, Enrique González Rojo, Carlos Pellicer and Jorge Cuesta. For its part, within the Estridentistas there were creative personalities such as Germán List Arzubide, Salvador Gallardo, Árqueles Vela, Kyn Taniya, Ramón Alva de la Canal, Leopoldo Méndez, Fermín Revueltas and Germán Cueto, who were joined by a female contingent including Tina Modotti, Lola Cueto, Nahui Olin, Nellie Campobello and Adela Sequeyro Haro.

Rivers of ink have flowed exploring the disputes between these groups. However, much less attention has been given to the context out of which these movements grew. The post-revolutionary era and the wider post-World War I era influenced ideas about nationhood. Estridentistas and Contemporáneos agreed that a national literary culture was important, and both were committed to creating it. With the bloodshed of Mexico’s Revolution from 1910 to 1920 still fresh, Mexican culture reached some of its most dizzying heights in the 20th century because of, among other causes, the creation of the Ministry of Public Education led by José Vasconcelos. (Vasconcelos would also serve as the intellectual architect of what would become Mexican Muralism through the work of figures like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.) A revolutionary nationalist ideological vein was born at a time when the country needed to build a state and project an idea of ​​a nation after the revolution.

Estridentistas built a national and literary project under Veracruz Gov. Heriberto Jara Corona (whose second term in office lasted from 1924 until 1927), while the Contemporáneos contributed to it under the protection of the Ministry of Public Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had the support of the new Mexican state to varying degrees starting in 1921. Publications also provided a platform for the Contemporáneos to promote their national project, including the magazines La Falange (1922-1923), Ulises (1927-1938) and Contemporáneos (1928-1931), which had the financial backing of writer and politician Genaro Estrada.

Rivalry and competition also stemmed from government support of the movements. Stridentism was labeled an ideological bridge between the Mexican Revolution and Bolshevik ideology — which, in effect, makes it an avant-garde sui generis. Such critiques deflected from the fact that some of the Contemporaries were also the recipients of state support (a circumstance that has been changing, negatively, for the university, artistic and cultural community during the current, ostensibly leftist government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador).

The state continues to be involved in intellectual life in Mexico through a system of scholarships, publishers and other means of support, acting as a guarantor of cultural legitimacy to such an extent that it would be imprecise to consider the state’s role only as a system of cooptation of intellectuals.

Despite establishment intellectuals’ criticisms of Estridentistas for everything from their avant-garde artistic inclinations to their long, unkempt hair, it is impossible to deny that they merged an avant-garde attentiveness to urban modernity with the revolutionary ideology of the time, as can be read in the titles of some of their best-known works, such as Manuel Maples Arce’s “Urbe. Super-poema bolchevique en 5 cantos” (translated into English by John Dos Passos under the title “Metropolis”) or Germán List Arzubide’s “Plebe. Poesía anarquista” (in English, roughly, “Anarchist Poetry”).

When the Estridentistas moved the movement to Xalapa, they lived in a modest provincial city of 36,000 inhabitants that contrasted sharply with the factories and skyscrapers, streetcars and automobiles, neon signs and radios, and cinemas and vast avenues of Mexico City. Xalapa provided an intellectual climate for the development of different types of schools, which ultimately lay the foundations for what would later be the Universidad Veracruzana. Stridentism was able to flourish outside the predatory confines of Mexico City and became a source of cultural and artistic renewal that continues today.

This extraordinary period of Mexican intellectual life compels us to look at the official historiography of Mexican literature differently, because both of these schools of thought were revolutionary in their own way. The U.S. professor Anthony Stanton characterized it thusly:

“In both groups there is a fascination with modernity, with its liberating possibilities and also with its negative effects. As for their relationship with the avant-garde, it is common to say that the Estridentistas have all the hallmarks of an ism (with their peremptory manifestos and the necessary dose of iconoclastic intolerance) while the Contemporaries are more rational and skeptical spirits, still in love of the previous tradition.”

What remains of the Estridentistas today? A combative attitude against the established culture and other suffocating gerontocracies is discernible. There has also been an update to the art, which blends the technique of the past with the technology and popular culture of today.

In an interview with an aging Manuel Maples Arce in 1976, the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, author of such seminal works as “The Savage Detectives” and heir to the Estridentista spirit, captured the essence of the movement today when he wrote:

“At first glance, everything that refers to estridentismo leaves him cold, but scratching a little about those seasons of hunting that were the twenties, there begins to take shape, although never completely, the almost hysterical and sweet face of the riots; then Maples Arce appears, giving the ladies Molotov cocktails, waving from his motorcycle in motion to the 28-year-old revolutionary generals, listening to jazz while the military trains unload the wounded, saying, to poetry, ‘From now on you will be called adventure.’ ”

Today, 100 years after the assault of Stridentism, it is worthwhile not only to approach its works and legacy with fresh eyes but to value, justifiably so, the only Mexican avant-garde that put the values ​​of its time in check, an unexpected birth that even today continues to set fire to the conservative temperament of the Mexican intellectual field.

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