“Tears in Mexico” aims to open up new perspectives on the study of Mexican history and culture by bringing analytical approaches from research in the field of the emotions to bear on key questions concerning the configuration of the social compact. By focusing on emotional bonds across time, the project aims to bring fresh thinking to our understanding of the multidirectional traffic of emotions in the colonial period, and major political and social movements of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and their relationship to narratives of class, ethnicity and gender. In this way, the project aims to broaden the field of Mexican cultural history, where familiar conceptions of the past are enriched when they are explored with an eye to emotion. At the same time, through its focus on Mexico, it aims to make a major contribution to the history of the emotions, which so far has largely tended to focus on the USA and Europe. “Tears in Mexico” is funded by the European Commission through a Marie Curie Outgoing Fellowship, which involves two years at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and one year back in the UK at Durham University.
As a richly expressive behaviour, crying occupies a salient position in Mexican history and culture. Shortly before the military defeat in 1520 of Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztecs, a woman was heard wailing about the fate of her children, whom she had murdered and thrown in a river on being abandoned by her lover. This was “La Llorona,” (Weeping Woman), who, it was said, was condemned to wander the earth for all eternity, and whose laments were interpreted as a pre-conquest portent that foretold the future of the Aztec empire. Fleeing from the Aztecs in 1520, before his subsequent triumph, Hernán Cortés is said to have sat down beneath a cypress tree to weep on what came to be known as “la noche triste” (Night of Sorrows). Cortés may have wept tears that were culturally legible to the Spaniards who observed them; commentary on Aztec weeping in the Spanish chronicles suggests that the former were wont to weep in ways that exceeded European conventions. In the 19th century, the autocratic President Porfirio Díaz was known by his detractors as the “Llorón de Icamole,” (Cry Baby of Icamole), after his defeat in the Battle of Icamole on 20 May 1876 during the turbulent years of the Restored Republic (1867-76). He, too, publicly broke down in tears, to be lampooned in political cartoons and journalistic satires published by the independent press, which portrayed him as a vain and brutish military man, unable to control his emotions. Later, after thirty-four years in power, at the end of a controversial and, until recently, partially understood period in national history, he wept to the strains of the national anthem as he departed for exile in 1911. If Díaz’s tears in 1911 were recorded in the press with respect and a degree of solemnity, those shed by the man that overthrew him, unleashing ten years of bitter civil war, had altogether different valences. Francisco I. Madero wept at the funeral of Justo Sierra in October 1912, and was lynched by the press for the weakness that this public display of emotion revealed. Emotions ran high in the Mexican revolution. Lachrymose displays were a mainstay in the emotional repertoire of the charismatic revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, most notably in the extravagant tears that he shed for the assembled photographers and cameramen beside the tomb of the assassinated President Madero in Mexico City in 1914. In his presidential address on 1 September 1982, José López Portillo wept in front of the TV cameras and national assembly, as he announced the government’s bankruptcy. Most recently, during the presidential campaign of 2012 that saw the return to power of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the electorate was party to teary displays by the two main candidates. The Partido de la Revolución Democrática’s candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador wiped away a tear at an event to commemorate the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco; meanwhile, in a TV “spot” to coincide with father’s day, soon-to-triumph PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto welled up as he recalled the father who never got to witness his son’s political success.
WHY STUDY TEARS?
From the conquest through the landmark revolution of the early twentieth century, to the controversial elections of the early twenty-first century, there is a correlation between moments of intense crisis or change, and acts of public weeping. Tears that leave their traces in historical evidence and in collective memory, as recorded across a range of media both at the time at which they were shed, and in their subsequent re-presentations, are often concerned with the trauma of defeat and therefore, by extension, with questions of power. Such lachrymose displays are, moreover, interactive events. They involve not just a weeper, but also an audience, those to whom the tears are addressed. For these, tears might represent a supplication; a show of respect; a display of love and affection; an expression of fear, regret, humiliation, frustration, etc. In other words, tears demand a response on the part of those to whom they are addressed, and this creates an affective bond between the two parties. There is a further aspect. With the exception of La Llorona, weeping is most often associated with male figures, whose tears arguably make a particular impression because they are in excess of sanctioned codes of masculine emotional behaviour. In short, the analysis of tearful displays and their reception across time raises intriguing questions related to social hierarchies, power, gender, ethnicity, values, and morality.
Through the prism of tears, this project aims to address a series of questions about the place of the emotions in the formation of the social compact in Mexican history and culture:
- What moves individuals to tears at specific moments?
- How and where are those tears recorded either by those that shed them and/or those that witness them?
- How are the emotions manifest in such tearful displays received by those that witness them, how do the witnesses react and how, in turn, can such displays be understood to do things?
- To what extent do their modes of representation and mediatisation impact upon our understanding of them?
- Given the transient and immaterial nature of emotive interactions in the past, how does one deal with the challenges of documenting and evaluating their traces?
- How are emotions linked to social position, and in particular to categories of class, gender, and ethnicity?
- To what extent do the methodological paradigms pertaining to the emotions that have been largely developed in the context of Europe and the US hold good for other cultures?
- How can we develop an emotional lexicon to encompass Mexico’s unique linguistic and historical experience?
- What is the relationship between words and gestures and the feelings they express and in turn, their relationship to their specific historical context?
- If emotional norms and styles change across time, what can such fluctuations tell us more broadly about social, cultural, and historical patterns?