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A mural on Mexico’s history

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Esther Cepeda
May 12, 2011
— The new PBS documentary “The Storm That Swept Mexico” should be required viewing for two distinct American audiences: U.S.-born Latinos who came to know the stoic faces of Mexican revolutionary icons solely from seeing them painted on the sides of Mexican-oriented grocery stores, and anyone who wants a peek at the roots of 100 years’ worth of U.S.-Mexico relations.

The film, a two-hour special premiering Sunday, May 15, tells the story of how disparate Mexican regional interests came together to foment a revolution that rocked the world. It ends with an explanation of what the bulk of recent first-generation U.S.-born Hispanics of Mexican descent recognize as a fountain of their culture: murals.


It turns out that the works—depicting farm workers, indigenous peasant dancers, Mayan and Aztec gods, revolution-era heroes and empowered protesters—which can be found almost anywhere Mexican immigrants call their new home, are a relatively new thing.


Sure, temple wall paintings can be seen at archaeological sites all over Mexico. But the murals and the explosion of arts, history and long-forgotten indigenous traditions that came into vogue in the 1930s and ’40s were the sum of what the Mexican identity had come to stand for after centuries of Spanish conquest, crushing hacienda systems and eventual uprising against dictator-like national leaders.


Directed by Raymond Telles, the movie begins in the mid-1850s after half of Mexico’s land was lost to the United States and President Porfirio Diaz was beginning his 35-year iron-fisted hold on the country. Two distinct Mexicos are described, which some may recognize today—one ruled by an elite political class eager to wheel and deal with the United States for economic goodies, and the workers and farmers who lived and died to deliver on Diaz’s vision.


Viewers are introduced to Pancho Villa, a minor outlaw from the north who eventually gets arms and support from Washington, and Emiliano Zapata, a land-reformer from southern Mexico who was seen as a bandit by some of his countrymen and as a destabilizing threat by the United States. They had in common a desire for workers’ rights and a weak central government.


The elderly veterans who fought alongside them help tell of the logistical and philosophical struggles to mount an uprising fueled by the frustrations of both the indigenous plantation workers from the South and those who toiled in the North’s copper mines.


The film does a beautiful job of detailing Villa’s and Zapata’s evolution from folk heroes to war leaders—and full-fledged movie star in Villa’s case—warts and all. But the story is told without trampling the beloved myths of these perennial subjects of young Hispanic student essays that evoke loving descriptions of Villa’s crossed bandoliers and breathless hero-worship of Zapata’s battle cry—“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”


History buffs will appreciate learning more about the United States’ relationship with Mexico at a time when President William Howard Taft’s “dollar diplomacy” had poured more money into Mexico’s coal and copper mines and railroads than Mexico had in all its resources combined. A careful retelling of how Germany sought an alliance with Mexico, and its impact on the United States’ unpopular decision to enter into World War I, gives insight into subtext for strained relations today.


What the documentary lacks in passion it makes up for with an evenhanded telling of history that doesn’t lapse into activism or try to draw parallels between events in the past and what’s happening today. The film graciously allows us to connect those dots for ourselves.


After the 1917 Mexican constitution failed to deliver the unprecedented rights for the poor and worker protections it had promised, unrest gripped Mexico again in the 1930s. The filmmaker shows these frustrations expressing themselves in the cultural renaissance that begat all the wonderful murals and describes the birth of a new culture of organized popular protest against ruling parties.


That culture lives on today. Just last Sunday, tens of thousands marched silently in Mexico City to protest President Felipe Calderon’s failed strategy against the drug gangs that have ravaged the country, killing more than 35,000 people in the process. As “The Storm That Swept Mexico” shows, Mexico’s history of objection to oppressors is not dead and dusty. It is very much alive and playing itself out anew.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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