Library of Congress Hosts ‘A Celebration of Mexico’
The sepia-toned footage contains rare glimpses of Mexico from a vanished era: Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata entering Mexico City with a throng of troops, a pile of burned corpses, a child in folk dress celebrating the country’s independence, an artillery platoon preparing to fight counter-revolutionaries.
The images, captured on five reels of preserved nitrate film, have been compiled into a historical documentary that will receive its world premiere Friday at the Library of Congress as part of a two-day series of events focused on the United States’ southern neighbor.
“A Celebration of Mexico” will mix film, live music and dance with panel discussions and exhibits of works by artists including Diego Rivera and items such as the earliest printed map of Mexico City, from 1524. The library will also use the occasion to honor anthropologist-historian Miguel León-Portilla with its Living Legend Award for his efforts to preserve Nahuatl, the pre-Columbian language of the Aztecs.
The events come as Mexico’s reformist president, Enrique Peña Nieto, tries to reshape the nation’s energy policy and trade and security arrangements, and while Congress remains gridlocked over immigration policy and the question of whether to grant legal status to the approximately 6 million undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States.
Organizers say the displays and discussions might provide some context for current events by revealing new perspectives on the Mexican-American experience. One item of note is a drawing of a crowned Madonna by the self-taught artist Martín Ramírez, who migrated north seeking work but spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California mental hospitals.
“Mexico is one of our closest neighbors but many Americans have only a limited understanding of its cultural patrimony,” said Francisco Macías , a senior legal information analyst at the library who also serves as project coordinator. “The hope of this is to give people a very unique glimpse of Mexico one wouldn’t normally see.”
One prevailing theme is the outsize influence of the Mexican Revolution, a conflict fought roughly from 1910 to 1920 that marked the first major political and cultural upheaval of the 20th century. The uprising challenged the regime of Porfirio Díaz and a feudal-like system dating to Spanish rule that concentrated power in the hands of wealthy landowners.
The violent struggle not only led to agrarian reforms and new economic rights, but also prompted hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to legally immigrate to the United States. It also inspired innovations such as the muralist art movement that blended political expression with public art and gained a foothold in the United States during the New Deal.
The documentary that will be premiered is the only such compilation from the silent-film era and will be screened to a live piano accompaniment of period music. The fragile reels were part of New Jersey collector John E. Allen’s extensive private film archive before they were donated to the library.
The preservation took place at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., with input from restorer Gregorio Rocha and the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía.
Scenes show Porfirio Díaz inaugurating a dam project in Juarez and meeting with President William Howard Taft in El Paso, Texas, as well as celebrations of the centennial of Mexican independence in 1910. Federal Army regulars are shown preparing to tamp down a counter-revolutionary revolt in 1912, and there are scenes of revolution leader Pascual Orozco with rebel forces in Chihuahua.
The newsreel-type footage mostly chronicles the early stages of the revolution, during which armies ousted the Díaz regime, leaving power in the hands of an uneasy alliance of Orozco, Villa and Francisco Madero. The footage includes intertitles in Spanish and English.
The film, which will be screened at 11 a.m. Friday in the library’s Coolidge Auditorium, is only part of the multimedia menu of events.
Accompanying exhibits show how the revolution influenced arts and literature. Fine prints and photographs from the era include the work of José Guadalupe Posada, a cartoonist and illustrator whose portrayals of religious and historical figures and penchant for satire and political commentary influenced generations of Latin American artists.
On the musical front, the Latin Grammy-winning string quartet Cuarteto Latinoamericano will perform a Friday afternoon concert of music by Mexican composers Gabriela Ortíz, Manuel Ponce and Silvestre Revueltas. Native dance will be represented by the Maru Montero Dance Company, which kicks off the two days of events on Thursday morning with a traditional program to coincide with the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most celebrated days on the Mexican calendar.
Also on Thursday, archaeologist Leonardo López Luján will discuss the Templo Mayor project, which is devoted to unearthing an Aztec metropolis of perhaps 300,000 people beneath Mexico City.
The events, a list of which can be found at loc.gov/celebration-of-mexico, also dovetail with the library’s exhibition “Exploring the Early Americas,” which features rare maps, documents and objects from pre-Colombian and colonial America.