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Les mémoires de l’entre-deux : constructions mémorielles dans un cadre transnational

Inter-American Memories: Frances Toor, Alma Reed and the Mexican Cultural Renaissance

Mémoires interaméricaines : Frances Toor, Alma Reed et la renaissance culturelle au Mexique
Memorias interamericanas: Frances Toor, Alma Reed y el renacimiento cultural Mexicano
Michael K. Schuessler


Cet article explore les vies et projets culturels de Frances Toor et Alma Reed, deux femmes nord-américaines qui ont voyagé au Mexique juste après la Révolution mexicaine (1910-1920). Dans le contexte d’un Mexique post-révolutionnaire et de l’ébullition artistique d’alors, ces femmes jouèrent le rôle de précoces ponts biculturels qui relièrent deux pays aux relations politiques historiquement épineuses. La relation amoureuse qu’Alma Reed entretint avec Felipe Carrillo Puerto ainsi que ses activités postérieures en tant que promoteur de l’artiste José Clemente Orozco et spécialiste du Mexique préhispanique sont explorés dans le contexte politique de ce moment fondateur de l’histoire moderne du Mexique. Frances Toor, quant à elle, fonda et édita la revue novatrice Mexican Folkways qui explora et célébra les traditions artistiques des nombreux groupes indigènes du pays. En tant que bilingue, elle servit également de véhicule pour diffuser la connaissance du Mexique et de son riche héritage culturel aux États-Unis et au-delà.

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1. Introduction

1« Staging American Memories », the ingenious title of the international symposium held in the spring of 2014 at the Université de Toulouse II Jean-Jaurès, was the seed that grew into the publication of this special issue dedicated to the cultural memory of the Americas. In what follows, I am pleased to present certain aspects of my own research in Mexico and the United States within the framework of this trans-disciplinary and inter-American intellectual project, never forgetting the all-too-important and often overlooked detail that the vast territory baptized with the name of a 16th century Florentine navigator extends far beyond the borders of the United States, a reality that my own compatriots at times appear to disdain. Within this context, the aim of my current research has been to unearth, document and transmit to an academic and general readership the cultural endeavors of a group of US women in Mexico that has been neglected by most academic scholarship, both in Mexico and the US, for decades. Consequently, I will stress that instead of attempting to theorize a previously unknown reality, in this first stage of my research, which includes information gathered from archives, libraries and museums – both in Mexico and the US – as well as interviews with individuals who at times possess firsthand knowledge of my subjects and their cultural projects, I will attempt to inscribe this data within its appropriate historical and cultural context. In a very modest way, I hope that my current inquiries into the lives and works of these inter-American cultural pioneers will contribute towards their subsequent academic analysis and « theorization », while all the time emphasizing that before getting lost in the speculative forest of Homi Bhabba, Benedict Anderson and other contemporary sages, one should not forget a perhaps more traditional and it would seem to me, now relegated, aspect of our profession, one which seeks to make visible concealed histories and to further engage life experiences and cultural contributions in a more general sense, one perhaps to be found within the at times problematic rubric of Cultural Studies.

2This article is essentially a sliver of a work in progress and as such, I will evoke certain aspects of my current book project, tentatively entitled Transcultural Modernists: U.S. Women and the Mexican Cultural Renaissance, which I will soon complete. I have also included images of my subjects, gathered from the archives of Mexican newspapers such as Excélsior and Novedades, the latter now defunct and its vast photographic archives scarcely accessible. I should also point out that the late Swedish painter Rosalie Johansson, whom I had the opportunity to interview at length before her death in 2006, gave me the pictures of Alma Reed reproduced here. Johansson, another expat of note, was Reed’s closest friend and flat mate during the last ten years of her life, and to whom Reed bequeathed a great portion of her material possessions upon her death in 1966, including paintings, photographs, pre-Hispanic objects, and even her enormous hats and floor length satin ball gowns. Fortunately, thanks to Johansson’s nieces, whom, upon the artist’s death, I contacted via the Swedish Embassy in Mexico City, these items are now safely housed in Mexico’s National History Museum, located in the castle designed for Austrian Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and his wife Carlotta, which still sits atop Chapultepec Hill. As I have recently completed my research on the life and work of Alma Reed, known in Mexico as « La Peregrina, » – The Pilgrim – I will devote much of my thoughts to her extraordinary memoir, whose title – as will be seen – bears her musical epithet. However, I shall also discuss at length the concomitant bi-cultural projects undertaken by Frances Toor (1882-1956), who, although born in Riga, Latvia, came to the US with her family as a small child, following a pattern of many Jewish families of that historical period. All the while, it should be kept in mind that in order to create a truly useful and effective bi-cultural model, the first logical step must be that of uncovering and documenting the « hidden history » of these women, while paying special attention to their cultural projects both in Mexico and the United States and the undeniable impact they had upon the cultural and artistic endeavors of both nations.

3My current research aims to chart the lives of four U.S. women whose contributions to the literary and artistic development of post-revolutionary Mexico have gone nearly undetected by U.S. and Mexican scholars for over seventy-five years. I introduce my study by weaving their lives into the cultural and political fabric of an early twentieth-century Mexico marked by the advances of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). In four chapters, I trace the lives and analyze the works of Alma Reed, Frances Toor, Margaret Shedd, and Ione Robinson, including heretofore unpublished documents and photographs that I have located in Mexican newspapers, journals, and photographic archives. Consequently, my book will present both scholars and general readers with an essential facet of the Mexican cultural renaissance, whose proponents (José Vasconcelos, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot et al.) have traditionally been considered exclusively male.

  • 1 Certain sections of this essay have been inspired by my edition of Alma Reed’s memoir entitled: Per (...)
  • 2 There were many other painters active in post-revolutionary Mexico whose works were overshadowed by (...)

4The idea for this project was born during the research I undertook for my critical edition of the autobiography of Alma Reed (1889-1966), a three hundred-page typescript entitled simply Peregrina and that I found in an abandoned apartment building in the summer of 20011. During my research on Reed, which I conducted in Mexico City, Mérida and Manhattan, I became witness to the bi-cultural endeavors of other U.S. women who traveled to post-revolutionary Mexico and actively participated in the country’s artistic renaissance then taking place under the auspices of President Alvaro Obregón’s newly-appointed Secretary of Education, José Vasconcelos, whose patronage of the arts – especially muralism – is well known and one that constitutes perhaps the most visible and recognized forms of 20th century post-revolutionary Mexican art2. The respective enterprises of these four women include cultural journalism and the promotion of the arts (Alma Reed); bilingual publications dedicated to Mexico and its ancestral civilizations, including the creation of tourist guides (Frances Toor); the founding of a Mexican writers’ workshop (Margaret Shedd); the creation of mural paintings and the documentation of the Mexican mural movement (Ione Robinson).

5Besides their shared nationality and interest in Mexican culture, these women functioned as early bicultural bridges that fomented a growing understanding between two countries that had historically regarded one another with suspicion and rancor on the one side and indifference on the other. Moreover, these women promoted the rediscovery of things Mexican by the citizens of Mexico and the United States alike, often through the study and diffusion of pre-Hispanic art that would eventually both inspire and inform revolutionary artistic movements such as the « Mexican School » of painting.

6Significantly, it was during this same period when, in the US, « Americanist » artists began to rediscover and celebrate the indigenous roots of their modern nation. Indeed it has been argued that the work of now canonical US artists such as Edward Weston, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe and others are a direct product of this new found interest in « lo americano » (that which is American). These artists saw the cultural and political division between North and South America as the artificial partition that it really was, and therefore didn’t hesitate to recognize America’s deep-rooted connection to the most advanced cultures that flourished and died (or were destroyed) in what is now Mexico, the nation that was also – due to geographical proximity – the US’s most direct window onto the Hispanic world.

7Given this renewed inter-American spirit, it should come as no great surprise that in 1929 the most « elaborate and splendid » event in New York City was a celebration held in Madison Square Garden, baptized « Aztec Gold ». It was a peculiar spectacle with more than a thousand participants, in which some were transformed into legendary figures of Mexican history such as Hernán Cortés and Montezuma, tlatoani of the Mexicas. The US and its native civilizations were represented by a Hopi tribal leader from Arizona and a ballet (performed by Anglos) dedicated to the indigenous dances of the US.

  • 3 Helen Delpar, The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992, (...)

8In political terms, Helen Delpar, author of the important book The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican, which elucidates the cultural relations between the US and Mexico during a period of 15 years beginning in 1920, points out that « […] cultural relations can flourish only in a fertile environment, and it was not until after 1920 that [one] existed in the two countries […] that [could create] an environment conducive to the development of cultural relations: the return of stability to Mexico after a decade of revolutionary upheaval, the global economic ascendancy of the United States after World War I, and the burgeoning of cultural nationalism in both countries3 ».

9As noted by Octavio Paz in his Nobel Prize lecture entitled « In Search of the Present, » as in the case of the United States, it was through its ancient past that Mexico was to discover its own modernity: « The search for modernity led us to discover our antiquity, the hidden face of the nation. I am not sure whether this unexpected historical lesson has been learnt by all: between tradition and modernity there is a bridge4 ». These women and their respective cultural enterprises illustrate the way this bridge unites not only the past and the present of one cultural entity, but also the cultural traditions of dissimilar political entities, in this case Mexico and the US. Questions of gender play a unique role in this process, and one of my goals is to demonstrate that this cadre of U.S. women complements a group of contemporary Mexican women such as Anita Brenner, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, and Guadalupe Marín, who were also active promoters of Mexican culture both at home and abroad and whose lives have been the object of study since the 1980’s.

2. Frances « Paca » Toor and Mexican Folkways

10Frances Toor (1882-1956) traveled to Mexico in 1922 – on the heels of the Mexican Revolution – in order to study Spanish at the « Escuela de Verano » (Summer School) organized by Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) as part of the post-revolutionary educational movement then taking place in the country.

  • 5 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, v.1, #1, June-July 1925, p. 3.

11After visiting an exhibit of Mexican folk art patronized by the Secretary of Industry, Commerce and Labor in Mexico City that same year, she decided to remain in the country in order to study its native cultures, in particular, their traditional arts and crafts. She would later participate in the creation of the National University’s first modern language department and later founded the influential bilingual magazine Mexican Folkways (1925-1937), the first publication of its kind in Mexico. According to Toor, Mexican Folkways was born as « […] an outgrowth of my great enthusiasm and delight in going among the Indians and studying their customs. I have gone alone among them under circumstances that even my cultured Mexican friends consider dangerous, and in spite of the Indian’s just mistrust of the white stranger, I have never had occasion not to feel safe and at home5 ».

  • 6 By 1910, the last year of Díaz’s iron-fisted rule, Mexico had approximately 900 large landowners an (...)

12Jean Charlot and Diego Rivera were the magazine’s first artistic directors, and both designed covers and other illustrations as well as providing articles about current Mexican artistic trends – Rivera even contributed an article about Mexico City’s notorious « Pulquerías », where pulque (a pre-Hispanic drink made of fermented agave) was served within a space normally decorated with ingenious mural paintings, many times incorporating double-entendres stemming from the effects of this at the time popular beverage. Other noted contributors to Mexican Folkways included chronicler, poet and playwright Salvador Novo and his colleague Xavier Villaurrutia, both members of the avant-garde literary group « Los Contemporáneos », as well as photographer Edward Weston and his disciple Tina Modotti, born in Umbria, Italy, but a naturalized citizen of the US, who published her foundational article « On Photography » in the pages of this magazine, illustrated with some of her most representative photographs. From the United States came collaborations by anthropologist Robert Redfield and journalist Carleton Beals, among others, such as William Spratling, famous for reestablishing Mexico’s renowned silver working tradition in the colonial town of Taxco, Guerrero. Furthermore, Toor’s magazine was the first to devote an entire issue to the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada, whose work greatly influenced Rivera and other Mexican painters of the period and whose famous « Catrina » (fancy lady) portraits would become an emblem of post-revolutionary Mexican art, especially muralism, as it promoted imagery that condemned the life and luxuries of what was generally viewed as the lazy and corrupt upper classes, products of long-reigning former President Porfirio Díaz’s politics of exclusive abundance, by which he effectively built a nation where roughly 90% of the land was owned by 1% of the population6.

  • 7 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, vol. 1, #5, February-March 1926, p. 29.
  • 8 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, vol. 2, #2, June-July 1926, p. 4.
  • 9 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, vol. 7, #4, October-December 1932, p. 205.

13Although the magazine lasted longer and published more issues than other similar publications, for example Vida Mexicana (1922-1923), Nuestro México (1932), and Mexican Art and Life (1938-1939), Toor and her publication always suffered financial crises and even political accusations. As she points out in an editorial note written in 1926, « if it were not for my collaborators and artist friends who give me their contributions and if I myself did not fill every job from errand girl to editor for the mere joy of seeing the magazine published, it could not exist7 […] ». At the end, her persistence was rewarded when President Plutarco Elías Calles said of Mexican Folkways that « […] besides being very original in its class, it is making known to our own people and to foreigners the real spirit of our aboriginal races and the expressive feeling of our people in general, rich in beautiful traditions8 ». Upon reflecting on her editorial work, during the final years of the magazine’s publication, Toor came to the accurate conclusion that: « Mexican Folkways has played an important role in the formation of the new Mexican attitude towards the Indian by making known his customs and art; and for the same reason the magazine has had an important influence on the modern art movement9 ». The latter part of her statement was to prove to be most prophetic as much of Mexico’s 20th century art owes much to that created by the country’s « primitive » and ancient cultures.

  • 10 Frances Toor, Motorist Guide to Mexico, Mexico City, Frances Toor Studios, 1938.
  • 11 Frances Toor, Mexican Popular Arts, Mexico City, Frances Toor Studios, 1939.
  • 12 Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, New York, Crown Publishers, 1947.

14At her Frances Toor Studios, which she founded in Mexico City in 1931 in a building designed by Irish-Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman and inspired by Le Corbusier, she also edited several pioneering tourist guides, including a first Motorist Guide to Mexico10 (1938), as well as a book dedicated exclusively to Mexican Popular Arts11 (1939), another first of its kind in Mexico. The culmination of her ethnographic work is to be found in A Treasury of Mexican Folkways12, first edited by Crown Publishers in 1947. It constitutes an encyclopedia of traditional Mexican rituals, dances, fiestas, and ceremonies, all illustrated by the Guatemalan artist active in Mexico, Carlos Mérida.

3. Alma Reed: Mexico’s « Peregrina »

15In August 2001, I discovered the autobiography of American journalist, archaeologist, and cultural promoter Alma M. Reed; a three hundred-page typescript entitled simply Peregrina, and long believed lost.

16It had been hidden in the closet of an abandoned Mexico City apartment since the author’s unexpected death in November 1966. Prior to becoming a legend in Mexico, Reed was a columnist for the progressive newspaper San Francisco Call and in 1921 she traveled to Mexico for the first time as the distinguished guest of Álvaro Obregón’s revolutionary government due to her successful defense of a young Mexican worker who had been sentenced to hang for a crime he didn’t commit.

17The first time I heard of Alma Reed was in the lobby of the Gran Hotel, in Mérida, Yucatán. I had arrived in the summer of 1990, after a long bus ride from Mexico City, which included stops in numerous towns and villages during the over 30-hour journey. Upon my arrival, the atmosphere of the hotel immediately captivated me and I would soon discover that it is a local landmark in the cultural and political history of the city. As the receptionist handed me the key to my room, he coyly mentioned that Fidel Castro had occupied my suite many years before, when he and his rebels were searching the gulf coast for a boat to take them back to Cuba. My curiosity was sparked, and because of my interest, Don Eusebio rattled off the names of several other celebrities who had once stayed there, until he came upon the most celebrated of all, a woman popularly known as « La Peregrina ». When I failed to show the enthusiasm he seemed to anticipate, my host was quick to underscore the fact that « La Peregrina » was a gringa from San Francisco, California, whose name was Alma Reed. He was astonished that I had never heard of this locally revered – by some reviled – figure, especially given the fact that we were paisanos. He proceeded to narrate the story of her romance with the revolutionary hero and martyred governor of Yucatán, Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

18According to Don Eusebio, Alma Reed met, fell in love with and became engaged to marry Yucatán’s charismatic populist governor, known as the « red dragon with eyes of jade, » while on assignment for the New York Times Sunday Magazine in the early 1920’s. Immediately after their engagement, Alma returned to San Francisco, California, where she gathered her trousseau and made plans for the wedding. Guided by the true spirit of the Mexican Revolution, her fiancée, who had fought alongside Emiliano Zapata in the state of Morelos, made great attempts to modernize his distant state, whose land barons, members of « The Divine Caste », fiercely resisted agrarian reforms and other social advances ushered in by the Revolution, such as adult education and family planning programs, as well as the creation of 417 local schools to educate oppressed and ignorant Maya youth. As a direct result of Carrillo Puerto’s « communist-inspired » government, which lasted only 20 months, on January 3, 1924, this self-styled « Abraham Lincoln » of Mexico was executed by firing squad along with several of his brothers and political confidants. His assassins were agents of the Delahuertista Rebellion, a reactionary offshoot of post-revolutionary Mexico, as well as members of the Divine Caste and the Catholic Church, anxious to regain the henequen haciendas and de facto slave labor they were forced to relinquish as a result of the Mexican Revolution. According to the hotel receptionist, Reed didn’t discover the news of her fiancé’s murder until she returned to Yucatán, where she eyed the tragic headline on a newspaper blowing in the wind of Mérida’s Puerto Progreso. Felipe was dead, but the composer Ricardo Palmerín had immortalized their brief romance. His ballad, « La Peregrina », is still today one of Yucatán’s most famous songs and through it Reed survives in Mexico’s popular imagination.

  • 13 For more information on Reed’s early journalistic work, see Antoinette May, Passionate Pilgrim: The (...)

19Throughout my first visit to Yucatán, Reed’s epithet would surface on numerous occasions, most often in song, but also in the collective memory of the residents of Mérida, who had never forgotten her presence among them. Ever since that visit in 1990, I was captivated by this woman, who, as I would later learn, prior to becoming a personage in Mexico, had begun her journalistic career in San Francisco during the first decades of the 20th century as « Mrs. Goodfellow, » a columnist for the aforementioned San Francisco Call, where she documented the tragedies and injustices suffered by the disenfranchised, earning her the dubious sobriquet of « Sob Sister13 ». Reed’s destiny was sealed after her celebrated defense of Simón Ruiz, a seventeen-year-old undocumented Mexican worker who was sentenced to hang after being advised – in incomprehensible English – by his state-appointed lawyer to plead guilty to trumped-up charges. As a result of a campaign that lasted several months and produced many impassioned articles in the pages of the Call newspaper, the state laws of California were amended to prohibit the execution of minors, and the so-called Boy Hanging Bill was finally passed and is still in force in the state of California, where it is known as the « Saylor Bill », named for the early progressive Berkeley legislator Anna L. Saylor, who authored the legislation.

20Reed’s crusade to save the life of this young Mexican national soon attracted the attention of the country’s new revolutionary government, and shortly afterwards, in 1921, Ms. Reed traveled solo by train to Mexico City for the first time as a semi-official guest of President Álvaro Obregón, the country’s first post-revolutionary president and one whose cultural and social programs are still held in high regard in Mexico. Upon her arrival, Reed received a hero’s welcome; her suite at the Hotel Regis was festooned with flower bouquets and caged songbirds, while a car waited outside to take the young journalist to her various professional engagements, which included a trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacán and luncheon with artist José Clemente Orozco in the celebrated « House of Tiles », at that time, recently converted into one of the first « Sanborns » restaurants of Mexico City.

21It was the second decade of the 20th century and Mexico had just emerged from a revolution that had left thousands dead and millions of peasants homeless. The dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz had been overthrown, and the country was in the midst of a cultural revolution whose artistic achievements are still the hallmark of modern Mexico and, according to Mexican author and intellectual Carlos Fuentes, one of the few things that the Revolution actually did accomplish. During her first sojourn in the capital, Alma was shown the murals then being painted by Diego Rivera in the Public Education Secretariat, as well as those recently begun by Orozco in the National Preparatory School. Surely these powerful images of peasant struggles, local uprisings, the decadent upper classes, and victorious revolutionaries made a great impression upon the young journalist.

22Shortly after her return to San Francisco, Adolph S. Ochs, owner and publisher of The New York Times, contacted Reed at the San Francisco Call, where she had returned to work after her Mexican sojourn. Like many newspapermen of the time, Ochs had been captivated by Alma’s spirited campaign to save the life of a young Mexican national, and now he wanted her to write for his daily. Soon afterwards they met face to face and he offered her the position of California correspondent. Alma was flattered, but what she really wanted was an assignment that would take her back to Mexico. Ochs was surprised by such a request, especially one made by a young single woman. However, as it turned out, he had also come to California looking for someone to cover an upcoming archaeological expedition to Mexico. After a series of brief negotiations, Reed was hired on the spot to cover the Carnegie Institution’s expedition to the Yucatán Peninsula, where she was to document the activities of American archaeologists, including Harvard professor Sylvanus Morley, who planned to excavate the ruins of the ancient Mayan complex of Chichén Itzá, at that time part of an hacienda owned by American explorer and amateur archaeologist Edward Thompson, who had arrived with his family in 1885.

23It was there, on February 14th, 1923, upon interviewing the revolutionary governor, that Reed became enamored of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a tragic romance that would last less than a year, but one that would leave an indelible mark on the life and work of « La Peregrina, » and also upon the history of 20th century Mexico. In chapter four of her memoir, Alma recreates her arrival in Mérida, and the impression that the governor made upon her at first sight:

  • 14 The  « Liga Central » was the building where Governor Carrillo Puerto carried out official business (...)

We were welcomed with warm but simple phrases by a man of exceptional magnetism and rare physical beauty. He was attired in a crisp white linen suit and, in his over six-foot height, towered head and shoulders above the assistants and petitioners who crowded around him. To each of the fourteen members of our party he heartily extended his hand with a cordial expression that embraced some personally directed word or two and the hope that our stay in the « Land of the Maya » would be both joyous and rewarding. He asked our permission to return momentarily to his desk while we « made ourselves at home », explaining that he wished briefly to dispose of a couple of matters that were under consideration when we arrived at the Liga14. One was a Maya mother's appeal for a scholarship for her son in the newly opened Mérida technical school... Standing beside me was Brigadier General William Barclay Parsons, the eminent construction and railroad engineer. A Carnegie Trustee and the senior member of our group, he voiced what was obviously the amazed reaction of his fellow expeditionaries when he whispered into my ear:

« This is the most personable red dragon I've met with in any of my safaris… What do you think, young lady? »

With total conviction, I unhesitatingly answered:

  • 15 Michael Schuessler, Peregrina: Love and Death in Mexico. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, p (...)

« He's my idea of a Greek God15! »

24After Felipe’s assassination, Alma traveled to North Africa as a correspondent for the New York Times, where she reported on archaeological excavations at Carthage. Then, after studying archaeology for a year in Naples, she traveled to Greece, where she was reunited with childhood friend Eva Palmer, wife of the Greek poet Angelo Sikelianos, whose work Alma would later translate under the title Dedication. While in Athens, Reed participated in the First Delphic Festival, in 1927, organized by her friend as a fitting way to return Greek culture and traditions to their rightful heirs.

25Alma and Eva traveled to New York later that year to found the Delphic Society’s first US colony and in early 1928 they moved into an apartment once occupied by Maxim Gorky, located at 12 Fifth Avenue. The flat, situated near Washington Square, was baptized the « Ashram, » in homage to Mahatma Gandhi, whom both Eva and Alma greatly admired. Like Gandhi’s settlement, the friends’ New York apartment revolved around communal activities while serving as headquarters for a cultural movement born of ancient philosophy, both Eastern and Western; eventually the Delphic Studios Press would emerge as the most enduring product of their collaborative effort.

  • 16 Susannah J. Glusker, Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1998.
  • 17 Anita Brenner, Idols behind Altars, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.
  • 18 Alma M. Reed, José Clemente Orozco, New York, Delphic Studios Press, 1932.

26One day while in Manhattan, Alma received a telephone call from Anita Brenner, a young woman from Aguascalientes who shared her fascination with Mexico, but whose parents had immigrated to San Antonio, Texas, at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution16. Later, Brenner would return to Mexico on numerous occasions, first to complete research for her noted publications, which included her groundbreaking study of religious syncretism and Mexican art, Idols behind Altars, first published in 192917. During their conversation, Anita informed Alma that artist José Clemente Orozco had been living in Manhattan since December of 1927, and was a bit down on his luck. Reed, who had befriended the melancholy artist and admired his virulent frescoes at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, immediately volunteered to help her friend and went to visit him at his basement studio on Riverside Drive. Soon afterwards, Alma convinced her friend Eva to commission a portrait from the painter, who set up his easel in a small room of the Ashram he dubbed the « Pulquería », in honor of the notorious Mexican watering holes. As Alma recalls in her book dedicated to Orozco, published by Delphic Studios Press in 1932 – the first written in any language about the Mexican painter – he later painted odd pieces of homemade furniture and completed two canvases for the decoration of what he called the Ashram’s « Mexican Sector18 ». He even painted Alma’s portrait, but later destroyed it in a typical paroxysm, this time inspired by what he considered to be a far superior rendering created by Lebanese artist and poet Khalil Gibran. His admirable drawing includes the following dedication: « For Alma Reed: My dear and gracious friend, whose heart dwells in the world of truth and beauty ».

  • 19 See, José Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race: a Bilingual Edition, translated and annotated by Didier T.  (...)

27Orozco held his first US exhibition in that Greenwich Village apartment, inaugurated in September of 1928, and attended by some sixty guests. The success of his first showing led to a two-week exhibition of his « Mexico in Revolution » series at the Marie Sterner Gallery. The show opened on October 10, 1928, and Alma herself paid for the framing of his canvases as well as the printing and mailing of exhibition catalogues. Through the sale of a property she owned in San Francisco, Reed was able gather enough funds to rent a space on the top floor of the same 57th Street building and there set up her own formal gallery to promote Orozco. The Mexican artist even designed the furniture and chose the colors to best complement his work. Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 meant the sudden end of their shared venture. Although times were tough, Alma was able to negotiate a commission for a mural by Orozco from professor José Pijoan, head of Art History at Pomona College. The title of that work is « Prometheus Bound, » whose theme inspired by Alma and the individuals Orozco had met at the Delphic Studios. Alma also secured a commission for Orozco from the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, inaugurated on January 19, 1931, whose principal mural is entitled « Table of Brotherhood. » Amongst the images included in the mural cycle is a portrait of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, depicting the martyred governor of Yucatán in the same pose as that of a framed photograph always to be found on Alma’s desk. In the background, Orozco painted the pyramid of Chichén Itzá, which Alma and Felipe had climbed together almost ten years before. Other world leaders depicted by Orozco at this universal supper were Gandhi and Lenin. In 1952, McCarthyism forced school authorities to temporarily cover not only Lenin’s portrait, but Felipe’s as well. A year after the New School commission, Orozco was invited to paint his last US mural at Dartmouth College, which he entitled « Indian Prometheus », in a clear allusion to his growing fascination with the concept of the « Cosmic Race », an idea first proposed by José Vasconcelos in the early 1920’s19.

  • 20 Alma Reed, The Mexican Muralists. New York, Crown Publishers, 1960.
  • 21 Alma Reed, The Ancient Past of Mexico, New York, Crown Publishers, 1966.

28I never forgot the legend of Alma and Felipe’s tragic romance, although five years would pass until the couple would again appear, this time in the pages of Alma’s memoir, which, as previously mentioned, I discovered in an abandoned Mexico City apartment in 2001. After living in New York City during the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s, where she co-founded the Delphic Society along with Eva Palmer Sikelianos and promoted the art of José Clemente Orozco, Reed spent several years studying classical archaeology in Rome and later worked in various cities in the US as a journalist. Finally, in 1952, at the age of 63, she returned to Mexico for good, a country where she was still a celebrity, and whose eponymous ballad was customarily performed by local musicians upon her arrival at a restaurant or cultural event, much to her delight. In Mexico City, Reed was hired by the owner of the Mexican daily Novedades as a columnist for the recently-founded English-language daily, The News, where she wrote a column entitled « Alma M. Reed Reports » for its Sunday edition, recalling her years at the New York Times in the 1930’s, when she published many articles in its Sunday Magazine, often dedicated to Mexican art and archaeology. Back in Mexico she also wrote books on Mexican art and Mesoamerican archaeology, most notably The Mexican Muralists20 (1961) and her last – and most fitting – publication, The Ancient Past of Mexico21 (1966), both edited by Crown Publishers of New York.

29Shortly after her return to Mexico, Reed met US playwright Richard Posner at a cultural event and they soon became friends; Richard would often accompany Alma to her social and professional engagements in the capital. « Dick », as she called him, would become one of her closest acquaintances and confidants – « everything but lovers, » as he would later recall. He would remain so until Reed’s unexpected death on November 20th, 1966, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. As US journalist and longtime Mexico City resident Joe Nash recalled in his unpublished memoirs: « Had she been able to designate a date to terminate her militant career that would have been it ».

30The night Reed passed away, Mr. Posner was able to gain access to her duplex apartment, where he recovered many of the author’s papers and other documents, including a version of her memoir. Evidently Posner stuffed all of her assorted papers, correspondence and folders – which neatly contained 23 chapters of « Peregrina » – into one of Reed’s many woven henequen bags, or sabucanes, as they are called in the Yucatán Peninsula. It was there that I found them, after several unsuccessful attempts, in the back of a bedroom closet, hidden behind a collection of mildewed pillows and blankets. Mr. Posner had secretly held on to this valuable material for almost forty years and I am fortunate to have found it because, as it turned out, the apartment had a leaky roof, and most of the contents in the bedroom were destroyed during a strong rainstorm only two weeks after I retrieved it.

31I will end where Alma begins, by including an extract taken from her « Author’s Foreword », which precedes the more than 300 pages of her most remarkable story:

32A moral obligation to history is incurred by anyone who has shared the hopes and aims of a great public leader sacrificed to the causes he courageously served. In writing Peregrina I have attempted to discharge a sacred responsibility of this character. The idealist, who entered my own life to embody for me the archetypal reality of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, was Felipe Carrillo Puerto, martyred Governor of Yucatán, often referred to as the « Abraham Lincoln of Mexico ». My commitment was assumed with his full knowledge during the autumn of 1923, when we decided to unite our destinies. In that ecstatic hour of faith in our common future, we planned to collaborate on a book for which Felipe Carrillo had provided the title. The proposed autobiography, « Details from the Life of a Socialist Leader », was designed to project the fruits of his years of intensive labor and study, of incessant struggle and constant peril. The work was to have contained his educational, social, and economic program for lifting within a generation hapless millions of the five continents out of their age-old Karma of ignorance and fear, superstition and desperate poverty.

33Obviously, « Details from the Life of a Socialist Leader », as Felipe Carrillo and I had planned it, will never be written. But the final chapters of his heroic epic embrace certain chapters of my own personal story. In consequence, Peregrina is both biographical and a partial autobiography. But I have always thought of the happenings the book records as part of a larger story of our world in transition -a phase in humanity's revolutionary ascent from the predatory violence of the jungle to the practice of the Golden Rule. More specifically, I feel that the biographical aspects outline the story of a major American continental effort in the never-ending endeavor to rescue man from the inhumanity of his fellow man…

  • 22 Quoted in Michael Schuessler, Peregrina: Love and Death in Mexico, Austin, University of Texas Pres (...)

34Throughout all the years that have passed since that fateful dawn of January 3, 1924, Felipe Carrillo has retained for me and for all who truly knew him, his creative force in the living present. I find no yesterdays at journey's end. For the images that have vanished from physical sight still dominate the inner prospect and are more intelligible for heart and mind than the concrete realities of the passing hour. « That which was can never cease having been ». These words of the 16th century Spanish philosopher, Saavedra de Fajardo, are now recalled with fresh poignancy, in the « ceaseless » quality of everything that relates to Felipe Carrillo. But while his spiritual presence and influence function in continuum for the Maya race, the Mexican people and for tomorrow's world, the date at which « it all began » for me is clearly noted between the purple leather covers of my 1923 diary. As I read its pages, memory reconstructs this « beginning » and all the unutterable magic and pain that followed, as distinctly as though I were viewing the sequence on a TV screen22.

35Throughout this essay, I have attempted to illustrate how the careful documentation of the lives and works of two US women, who were also honorary citizens of Mexico, is a logical extension of my previous academic research and hopefully will reshape – albeit modestly – the way in which we understand the nature of this inter-American cultural revolution of the early twentieth century. Through the networks that they created in Mexico and in the United States, these women functioned as early bicultural bridges during a period when the relationship between the two neighboring countries was both distant and misconstrued, a phenomenon that has repeated itself over the last one hundred years, sadly to the detriment of hemispheric peace and understanding. As I stated at the beginning of this article, the activities of Reed and Toor echoed those of a group of Mexican women who also had an invested interested in the cultural development of their native country, as well as bringing the products of its recent political and cultural revolution to the attention of their northern neighbors. Concluding, I strongly believe that many central features of the Mexican cultural renaissance were first presented to a US audience through the networks, friendships and professional affiliations cultivated by US women such as Reed and Toor, as well as others who were active at that time, such as Margaret Shedd and Frances Flynn Paine. The former launched an important writers workshop in Mexico City during the early 1950’s, one that lasted into the 21st century, while the latter was an outspoken patron and ambassador of post-revolutionary Mexican art and who, through the patronage of the Rockefeller Foundation, helped to organize some of the original groundbreaking art exhibits held in the Museum of Modern Art in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the future, through the careful study of these extraordinary individuals, both early cultural promoters of things Mexican in the United States in their own right, I will hope to posit an early model of intercultural exchange that is more and more applicable to our postcolonial, multicultural world.

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1 Certain sections of this essay have been inspired by my edition of Alma Reed’s memoir entitled: Peregrina: Love and Death in Mexico, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007.

2 There were many other painters active in post-revolutionary Mexico whose works were overshadowed by the artistic and ideological projects of « Three Great » Mexican muralists: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and the younger David Alfaro Siqueiros.

3 Helen Delpar, The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992, IX.

4 See Octavio Paz’s complete Nobel Prize speech here:

5 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, v.1, #1, June-July 1925, p. 3.

6 By 1910, the last year of Díaz’s iron-fisted rule, Mexico had approximately 900 large landowners and a landless peasant population of nine million out of a total population of fifteen million.

7 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, vol. 1, #5, February-March 1926, p. 29.

8 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, vol. 2, #2, June-July 1926, p. 4.

9 Frances Toor, Mexican Folkways, vol. 7, #4, October-December 1932, p. 205.

10 Frances Toor, Motorist Guide to Mexico, Mexico City, Frances Toor Studios, 1938.

11 Frances Toor, Mexican Popular Arts, Mexico City, Frances Toor Studios, 1939.

12 Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, New York, Crown Publishers, 1947.

13 For more information on Reed’s early journalistic work, see Antoinette May, Passionate Pilgrim: The Extraordinary Life of Alma Reed. New York, Paragon House, 1993.

14 The  « Liga Central » was the building where Governor Carrillo Puerto carried out official business of the Partido Socialista del Sureste (The Southeastern Socialist Party).

15 Michael Schuessler, Peregrina: Love and Death in Mexico. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, p. 105-106.

16 Susannah J. Glusker, Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1998.

17 Anita Brenner, Idols behind Altars, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.

18 Alma M. Reed, José Clemente Orozco, New York, Delphic Studios Press, 1932.

19 See, José Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race: a Bilingual Edition, translated and annotated by Didier T. Jaén, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

20 Alma Reed, The Mexican Muralists. New York, Crown Publishers, 1960.

21 Alma Reed, The Ancient Past of Mexico, New York, Crown Publishers, 1966.

22 Quoted in Michael Schuessler, Peregrina: Love and Death in Mexico, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, p. 59-61.

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Michael K. Schuessler, « Inter-American Memories: Frances Toor, Alma Reed and the Mexican Cultural Renaissance », Les Cahiers de Framespa [En ligne], 24 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2017, consulté le 20 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/framespa.4322

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Michael K. Schuessler

Michael K. Schuessler is Professor of Humanities at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Cuajimalpa, in Mexico City, where he teaches courses dedicated to Latin American art and literature, pre-Columbian Mexico, colonial Mexico, etc. He received his PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specialized in the literature and arts of colonial Latin America. His latest publication is a book of biographical fiction inspired by the lives of five foreigners in Mexico published by Ed. Planeta in late 2014.

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