Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part Two

By Anna Mazhirov

(Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part One can be read here)

Having read all of the reviews of Mexicana seven decades later, I’m left wondering, as many critics did in 1939, whether the Mexican government’s endeavor to produce the show was naïve or wise.

What was wise is obvious. The production was a means to stir warm sentiments in the hearts of Americans towards their southern neighbors. Celestino Gorostiza, who oversaw Mexicana as the director of Mexico’s Department of Fine Arts, said in an interview that the Mexican government produced the show as a “gesture of friendship, sympathy, and good will.”  Thomas Dash of the Daily News Record, among other reviewers, noted this aspect of the show’s ambitions. I wonder, though, if this sincere effort was heavy handed.  Looking back at all the evidence today, I cannot say.

Gene Smith strove to tell something honest of people, something that transcended the political context. This was likewise the aim of Mexicana. Brooks Atkinson celebrated the show’s mission in the New York Times, “For this is World’s Fair time, when interest in foreign nations extends beyond armies, navies, and trade to the native arts which tell the real truth about human beings.” Mexicana must have told Smith some truth, powerful and constant, for him to see it sixty-three times in a row.

What might have been naïve was expecting New Yorkers (and I admit to sometimes fitting into this category of the jaded) not to see kitsch in an overabundance of childlike candor. Many critics complained about the revue’s length and repetitiveness. Because of the variety of acts, singing, dancing, and pantomime, some unfairly labeled the production as vaudeville.

The representation of the many sides of Mexican culture might have bordered on tedium. The opening scene, “Ecos de Ayer” (Echoes of Yesterday), tracks the development of Mexican music from ancient to modern in a sequence of dances: Primitive Dance, Dance of the Reindeer, War Dance, “Areito” (a dance of the Aztec nobles), and War Dance between Aztecs and Spaniards. Other scenes try to cover the scope of Mexican folklore. “Yunuen” relates the tale of the fisherman who defeats the lake monster, saves the village, and wins the belle. The popular legend, “La Mulata de Cordoba,” tells of the beautiful girl who, being able to vanish from the men she teases, gets condemned to be burned at the stake as a witch and then uses magic to escape on a painted caravel. “Un Velorio” (The Wake)* attempts to account for the pagan and the Christian in Mexican ceremony, showing the fiesta following someone’s death and the supernatural guests from heaven and hell who vie for the deceased’s soul. Other scenes include, “Patio de Vecindad” (In the Tenement House), “A Wedding in Tehuantepec,” caricatures of a baseball player and Ghandi, and “La Cucarachita.”

But perhaps this mélange, this straightforward effort to tell all, is what upheld the Mexican government’s mission for the show. Michael Mok of the New York Post wrote that Mexicana was, “one of the most disarmingly naïve entertainments ever presented on a Broadway surfeited with professional artifice.” John Anderson wrote in the New York Journal-American that, “At the 46th Street Theater are to be found Mexicans in their true color, without falsification or hokum. These people love art. And they mean “Mexicana” to be art, not mere merchandise.” I can imagine that the production’s hot paints, primordial vigor, and naturalness could have been jolting to Americans (even New Yorkers) of 1939.

I’d venture to say that this raw sincerity appealed to Smith and yet the piece that left the biggest impact on him was the clean, highly technical, traditional Spanish dancing of Marissa Flores and her partner, Jose Fernandez.

Most of the reviews praise the show only within the category of kitsch. Few saw anything elevated about it as a whole, but only single out individual talent. Sidney Whipple of the World-Telegram noted that “by far the most artistic performance of the production, however, was given by Jose Fernandez and Marissa Flores dancing on their heels to the rhythm of castanets.”

Marissa and Jose danced two dances in their “Spanish Suite.” The first was a Bulerias to the guitar playing of Vincente Gomez, who New Yorkers already knew and loved. It is an upbeat dance, requiring speed and skill to maintain the complex rhythm, often played at 240 beats per minute. Because a Bulerias requires elaborate tapping of the toe, heel, and ball of the foot, one reviewer recognized it as a sort of Mexican tap dance. The second dance was an arrangement of the intermezzo of Granados’s “Goyescas,” using two-voiced castanets. Usually, the higher pitched hembra pair is held in the right hand, while the larger macho pair is held in the left. One fragment of a news clipping I found stated that the “Goyescas” dance, “for grace and reticence and subdued eloquence is a masterpiece.”

We cannot know if it was with the wisdom or the naiveté of Mexicana, or both, that Smith fell in love with. But it seems this production had much to offer the steadfast, open-hearted viewer. As one spokesman said, “In Mexicana, we have tried to present Mexican bewitchment in a kaleidoscope of color and grace, of legend and mystery.”

* One of Smith’s most famous photographs was The Wake from his classic 1951 photo-essay, “Spanish Village.”

1 Comment

  1. Frank Amoss Said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Dear Sam,

    Your post about Mexicana and Gene Smith’s connection with it enthuses me with the same wonder and appreciation for having been a part of the New York scene as does being connected to the Jazz Loft Project.

    In 1964, twenty-five years after Gene treated himself to sixty-three performances of Mexicana, and also a World’s Fair year, I was in the pit of the 46th St. Theater, playing drums for “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”

    I have always been respectful of the longevity and history of the magnificent edifices that house Broadway productions, whether musical or drama. Whenever I am in one, especially backstage, I am filled with a sense of awe for the amount of talent and artistic expression that has taken place and for the dedicated people who have brought it forth.

    It is more than nostalgia that warms my heart when I read your article and recall personal experiences which connect me to those historic persons and places, not the least of which is Gene Smith.


    Frank Amoss