The cultural heritage of the Spanish exile in Mexico

13/10/2020

When the ship Sinaia docked in the port of Veracruz, after 19 days at sea, Lucinda Urristi smelled freedom. The fresh wind, the busy sea, and the hot land hit her head on after spending years fleeing from the Spanish civil war. At the age of 10, the painter born in Melilla, Spain, understood that this trip had no return ticket and the land that was receiving her, along with her family, would be her new home.

Detail from "La Huida" Remedios Varo 1961. Image: Wikimedia
Detail from "La Huida" Remedios Varo 1961. Image: Wikimedia

The Mexican government sent her to Mexico City where she was employed in a cuddly toy factory. She stuffed and sewed the bears' paws by hand. At that time she didn't imagine she would be one of the painters representing the Rupture Generation and a sort of Spanish heritage in the country that adopted her.

It was in 1939 when nearly 25 thousand Spanish refugees arrived in Mexico, of which about five thousand were intellectuals - artists, writers, academics, scientists, professors, engineers - who left a cultural heritage to the country. Not only a contribution to the sense of work production, but also a change in the thought and conception of the Mexican people and their culture based on the Spanish presence.

"I remember the Sinaia, the staircase to climb, there was the orchestra of Madrid and in the afternoons after lunch, there were concerts or conferences by Susana Gamboa illustrating how the Mexico we were going to find was. Mexico was the only country along with Russia that opened its doors to us, nobody in the world accepted us.

"When we arrived, I could sense that it was no longer confinement in concentration camps or jumping around, but that we were arriving at a place to stay. A place that welcomed us with warmth, the air, the sky, the sea gave me an effective sense of freedom and security, we arrived at a place to stay and not return", remembers Urrusti in the documentary that compiles her life and work, and now tours the European film festivals.

Reconfiguration of the Mexican

Although the first years were complex for the Spanish community in Mexico, since they were not accepted by all Mexicans on a daily basis, the task of putting down roots was immediately undertaken. Their first action was to found the Casa de España, directed by Alfonso Reyes and Daniel Cosío Villegas, who in 1940 turned it into the current Colegio de México; they also created the Ateneo Español, the Fondo de Cultura Económica, basic education schools such as Colegio Madrid, besides collaborating with UNAM and IPN.

Outstanding is the work of Joaquín Díez-Canedo, considered the editor par excellence of Mexican literature. He founded his publishing house Joaquín Mortiz in 1962, the first Mexican independent house with 20 years of experience. Outstanding professors and emeritus researchers joined the university project, such as Carlos Bosch García, Óscar de Buen, Francisco Giral González, Eduardo Nicol and Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez.

"There comes a time when they realize that it will not be possible to defeat Franco and a second period for exile comes, which is the resignation of staying in Mexico. They realize that this will be their homeland and it is a very special case because they have a ghostly representation of the Republic, but many become Mexican and a reconfiguration takes place", reflects Luis Ruis Caso, historian and art critic, son of a Spanish family in exile.

For the author of El Espía de Franco, the Spanish legacy goes beyond listing institutions or artistic currents. The intellectual community largely determined a rethinking of the concept of the Mexican: what was Mexican painting, how is national literature defined, what it means to be from Mexico.

"With them comes a philosophical thought linked to existentialism that will be the seed that allows us to question what is Mexican, where we are going to weave the future: for what is Spanish, for what is indigenous or for neither, as Octavio Paz said in El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). This philosophical root is brought by José Gaos, and with it, there is a new reflection on German thought and on existentialism that will be present in the context of the Second World War and with the representation of El Colegio de México a worthy construction of a republican thought is made", he states in an interview.

With thinkers like José Moreno Villa, Luis Cerduna, and José Gaos there was a reconfiguration of the intellectual coordinates. The historian points out that the thinking prior to the exile, around José Vasconcelos, thought about the indigenous, but he did not quite understand it; he did not dimension the multiculturalism and summarized the identities in three reductive figures: Indian, Spanish, and mestizo. At that time there was talk of failed mestizaje.

But with exile, thinkers like Octavio Paz began to question Mexican culture. This is how El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) came about, as well as a number of essays by Luis Villoro who supported the idea of a Mexicanness via the indigenous movement.

"Other fields are opened -continues Ruis Caso- very broad and dialogue with visual art, for example, Diego Rivera is a constant reference, for some he is a monster and for others a great visionary, and they include him in a great debate on being Mexican because he understands that he proposes rescuing the indigenous for the future".

It is possible that from this reconfiguration the true mestizaje emerged. The researcher exemplifies with Fernando Leal, who paints the murals of the Basilica of Guadalupe that basically arise from the debate about the Mexican: "His bet was on Guadeloupe, this Creole construction".

The children of the exile

The insertion of Spanish artists into the Mexican mainstream was little more than difficult, warns Ruis Caso. The Mexican School of Painting, considered one of the strongest avant-garde movements in the world, did not escape the attention of those who bet on an abstract line.

Some artists, such as the Valencian Josep Renau, decided to join the muralist movement, although the presence of the three great ones - Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros - made this a complex task. Renau worked on the mural Spain Conquers America, at the Hotel Casino de la Selva in Cuernavaca. There he played with the caffeine technique, an experiment that had not been used. The work was lost when the place was torn down.

Then a generation of painters considered the children of the exile was born. "They are Hispanic-Mexican artists, because they came as children and grew up here, or because they were already born here, and they will have a very relevant role in the transformation of the art of the '50s and '60s as teachers and protagonists of that change who moved away from social and political art, and most joined the Generation of the Rupture," the historian says.

Creators, such as Vicente Rojo, whose teacher was Arturo Souto, also an exiled painter, left the foundation of a conceptual change in art. Their bet is on abstraction and experimentation in order to substitute Mexican nationalism for the manifestation of other concerns.

Mari Martín, Elvira Gascón, Marta Palau and Remedios Vario are some of the names that stand out when talking about Spanish painting born in the country. They are joined by Javier Areán, Antonio Rodríguez Luna, José Bardasano, Antonio Peyrí, José García Narezo, among many other exile heirs.

By Sonia Ávila, Source: El Sol de Mexico