In the eyes of the world, Mexican men embody the concept of “machismo,” that aggressively male behavior that can be either strong, silent and responsible or, conversely, vain, arrogant and belligerent.
However, Dr. Robert Buffington, history, has uncovered evidence, in the Mexico City “penny presses” of 1900-10, that for working-class Mexican men, things were considerably more complicated than the macho stereotype would suggest. These satirical, four-page publications, written by educated workers and lower-status intellectuals, were a lively mix of political commentary and social criticism, plus cultural reportage often told in dialect and poetry. Pro-working class, filled with satirical cartoons and wordplay, they flourished briefly in the decade before the Mexican Revolution, when mass dailies took over.
Buffington will study this rich trove of popular writing through a one-year, $40,000 National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship that began Jan. 1. Titled “A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: Mexico City 1900-10,” the project will reconstruct the complex and shifting conditions under which early 20th-century Mexican working-class men emerged as specifically male citizens.
He said that as Mexican society changed with the advent of industrialization, which meant more people moving to the cities and women going out to work, the relationships between men and women changed as well. “Working-class men were rethinking what it meant to be a man,” he said.
Buffington is interested in questions of identity and subjectivity (personhood) in different environments and the ways in which people understand themselves in a cultural context. For the working-class Mexican man of 1900, the concept of “maleness'” began to be defined by having intimate relationships with women, Buffington said, and this was expressed in the penny presses in hyper-romantic poetry and prose.
“The vision of male-female relationships was very idealized. It was almost courtly love,” he said. If women rejected them, it nearly negated men's very being. “It was seen as a dissolution of the self,” he said (noting that this power did not extend so far as actual women's rights or political clout). On the other hand, the presses also contained rollicking accounts of the henpecked husband, the evil mother-in-law and the beatific mother. “Moms were the best,” he said humorously.
The penny presses are “a wonderful source” for a street-level view of the working classes, Buffington said. The view the writers present of themselves is quite different from that held by the upper classes. For the wealthy, a woman's merely being out in public automatically rendered her debased and unprotected, for example. But the working class understood that women must work, and as people lived together more closely in cities, there was naturally more contact. “The rich were always able to isolate themselves and their women, but the working class could not, and they understood that,” he said.
At that time, society also began to be more segregated in terms of social class, with working-class neighborhoods becoming more defined and thus contributing to residents' sense of themselves as members of that class. The penny press represented a public sphere in which working-class men could begin to define themselves as “modern” in terms of work, leisure, consumption and their relationships with women. Buffington argues that working-class men, seen as barbarous traditionalists by the bourgeoisie, actively participated in a “civilizing process,” rather than absorbing it as it trickled down from the upper classes.
For the study, which is well under way, he will continue to examine materials from Mexico City's newspaper archive, the National Archives in Mexico City, and extensive archives of old penny-press publications in the University of Texas at Austin's Nettie Lee Benson Collection.
The result of his research will be a book with chapters on politics, work and leisure, modern love, homophobia and violence against women. With contributions to the fields of labor history and gender/sexuality studies, the book will be aimed at both academics and upper-level college students. It will contain numerous illustrations, including graphics by famed illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, best known to Americans for his depictions of Day of the Dead skeletons.
Buffington, who has already published versions of two of the book's chapters in edited volumes, has previously researched and written about crime and the criminal justice system in Mexico and co-authored an encyclopedia of contemporary Mexican history and culture.