The defiant Antonieta Rivas Mercado

10/06/2020

Antonieta Rivas Mercado's cultural work was very diverse, since, in addition to being a cultural promoter, she was a book editor, a political activist, and became an essential part of the Contemporaries.

The challenging Antonieta Rivas Mercado
The challenging Antonieta Rivas Mercado

At the Ministry of Public Education, Diego Rivera created in 1928 a work that is part of the mural set located on the second level of the patio of the building.

This mural painting draws attention by depicting three characters in a peculiar scene. On the right side of the painting is Antonieta Rivas Mercado, who is painted in an elegant manner and with a devastating face; Rivas Mercado receives a broom from the hands of a revolutionary woman and this woman points her finger at a ribbon that announces the name of the painting: "Whoever wants to eat, must work".

On the lower left is a character with donkey ears that picks up art-related elements from the ground and an issue of Contemporary magazine; behind him, a boy, whose appearance is similar to that of Diego Rivera, kicks this character that could represent Salvador Novo, one of the most prominent writers who crowded around that publication and from which they got their nickname. This mural painting by Rivera perfectly reflects the muralist's animosity towards the movement and ideology represented by the Contemporaries.

Antonieta Rivas Mercado played an active and influential role in Mexico's cultural life during the post-revolutionary period. Without her, it would have been impossible to conceive of the Teatro Ulises, the magazine Ulises and the magazine Contemporáneos, cultural projects of which she was a patron and which were radically different from the monumental movement represented by Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

Rivas Mercado was a woman who defied her time and an avant-garde artist whose work was key to the modernization of culture in Mexico, since she belonged to the group of artists and intellectuals who resisted the official discourse that placed the Revolution as the myth that supported artistic work and political struggles, a myth that was used by post-revolutionary governments to legitimize themselves, and whose narrative marked the cultural life of the country by recovering various elements of pre-Hispanic and indigenous cultures and popular culture in order to identify them as "the Mexican" and as "true" reflections of Mexican society.

The distance of these intellectuals from the art in charge of extolling the Revolution, the workers' struggles, communism, and socialism generated accusations against them by calling them "devoid of nationalism", "traitors to the Revolution" and "promoters of bourgeois values", as shown in Diego Rivera's work.

The time she spent in Europe and the influence that the avant-garde theater of Paris generated in her awakened in Antonieta Rivas Mercado the concern to promote in Mexico a theater that would renew the Mexican scene marked by stiff nationalism. In this way, and by recommendation of Manuel Rodriguez Lozano, Rivas supported with his fortune the Contemporaries to start the Ulises Theater, that in spite of having a relatively short life influenced in an important way the theater in Mexico by its experimental and vanguard cut, and generated multiple reactions in the critics little used to foreign works and proposals far from the officialism and the nationalism.

She was not just any patron, as she challenged the image of the wealthy woman who was fascinated by culture and showed that fascination in a passive and altruistic way. Patronage was not the work that characterized or defined her contribution to culture in Mexico, for as Fabienne Bradu, an essayist who has concentrated part of her work on the life of Rivas Mercado, explains, she defined herself by her active involvement:

"If a modern theater had to be created in Mexico, Antonieta not only rented and fitted out a space on Mesones Street, but she also participated in the translation of the plays, in the staging, in the acting, in the costume design, in the press conferences and even in the choice of cocktails on the night of the premiere," says Bradu in her text Memoria de Antonieta Rivas Mercado.

She adds: "No other lady of her time, no matter how much of a patron she was, would have dared to appear with such challenges, which society described as mischief. The patrons prefer the modesty of the boxes; Antoinette longed for the light of the stages".

It is almost impossible to think of artists, intellectuals and writers like Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, José Gorostiza, Carlos Pellicer, Roberto Montenegro and Agustín Lazo without alluding to Antonieta Rivas Mercado, who became an essential part of the Contemporaries.

"She shared with the Contemporaries her vision of Mexican culture (...) To such a point she connected Antonieta with the Contemporaries that (...) she became an 'unexpected woman-Ulises' (...) Like them, she understood that literature had its own universal and autonomous tradition, and that it was necessary to incorporate Mexican literature into that tradition if it was to come of age and strong enough to express itself with its own voice," says Rosa García Gutiérrez in her text Antonieta Rivas Mercado

Rivas Mercado's cultural work was very diverse, since in addition to being a cultural promoter, she was the editor of books such as Dama de corazones by Xavier Villaurrutia, Novela como nube by Gilberto Owen and Los hombres que disperó la danza by Andrés Henestrosa. In addition, she founded and financed the Mexican Symphony Orchestra, which was conducted by composer Carlos Chávez.

Her work as a writer includes drama, essay, prose, novel, chronicle, epistle, and translation; she also published some articles in several newspapers. This literary production is contained in two volumes published under the name Antonieta Rivas Mercado: Obras, which were edited by Tayde Acosta Gamas; and in the book Obras completas de Antonieta Rivas Mercado, edited by Luis Mario Schneider.

In these publications, the spirit of a great writer can be seen.

Among Rivas Mercado's writings, those in which she makes a claim for women, one of the many concerns present in her work, stands out. In the article La mujer mexicana, published around 1928 in El Sol de Madrid, she indicates that culture is "the only way to save women", since she points out that "it is necessary, especially for Mexican women, to broaden their horizons, to educate and instruct them, to cultivate their minds and learn to think".

Rivas Mercado's intelligence and restlessness got involved in politics, as she had a prominent role in the electoral campaign of José Vasconcelos, who in 1929 decided to run for the presidency of Mexico. Antonieta Rivas Mercado was in charge of chronicling the campaign of Vasconcelos, who sought to reach the presidential seat in front of Plutarco Elias Calles and Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Precisely, Antonieta was a great critic of the cultural and political reality that took place during the Callista regime.

Before the end of the campaign, and before the hostile scenario in Mexico for Vasconcelos' supporters, Rivas Mercado went into exile in New York City and later settled in Paris to work as a journalist and writer. During this period, she poured her energies into producing her novel El que huía and into writing her Crónica de la campaña política de José Vasconcelos (1928-1929).

Her political chronicles would not be published until later years and her novel would remain unfinished because Antonieta Rivas Mercado decided to take her own life in 1931 in the French capital.

"For me, life has been suffering and work, this is my fun and relief; I have never been able to carry a light soul, something has always weighed on me and in truth, I wish no one a similar fate," says Antonieta Rivas Mercado in a letter to her sister.