Celebrating Mexico's long, long fight for freedom

Celebrating Mexico: The Grito de Dolores and the Mexican Revolution opens today at the Green Library. Stanford is joining Berkeley's Bancroft Library with collaborating exhibits celebrating the Mexican bicentennial. Both libraries are well known for their Mexican history collections.

Postcard of Mexican girl with gun

Undated postcard of girl soldier.

War has always been entertainment – a blood sport watched by civilians from hilltops and parapets. Mexico's long battle for freedom was no different from many others – except for the camera.

That's why the new Cecil H. Green Library exhibit opening today, Celebrating Mexico: The Grito de Dolores and the Mexican Revolution, includes a photo of a little girl, perhaps 8 years old, wearing a bandolier and carrying a rifle almost as tall as she is. Some might call her plucky. The less romantic might describe the look on her face as hardened.

The point is, the image is on the back of a postcard. Someone sent this image to a friend, a relative, a lover. Other postcards of the time showed dead bodies on the streets of Mexico, or retouched photos that claimed to be from Mexico but were not.

The exhibition continues through Jan. 16, 2011. Stanford is joining the University of California-Berkeley's Bancroft Library to celebrate Mexico's bicentennial; a concurrent exhibition opened there Sept. 2. Adán Griego, curator for Latin American collections at Stanford University Libraries, said plans are afoot to have a virtual exhibition in Second Life later this year.

Both exhibitions commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain, and the 100th anniversary of Mexico's bloody and chaotic revolution – a caste and class war that eventually forged a united political vision to create a modern state.

Both libraries have superlative Mexican history collections with vast collections of photos. Stanford, in particular, holds extensive Mexican literary and film poster collections.

The Mexican-American War (1846-48) was the first conflict to be captured by camera. By the time of the Crimean War in the 1850s, photographers were already staging and manipulating images for effect. The Mexican Revolution was no different – but technology was advancing.

Poster for 'Si Adelita se fuera con otro,' 1948, one of the popular films on the theme of women soldiers.

Poster for 'Si Adelita se fuera con otro,' 1948, one of the popular films on the theme of women soldiers.

Photography was on the move – literally. By 1910, still images had already started to flicker across screens. Hollywood approached the revolutionary general Pancho Villa to make the first wartime "reality show" after he launched his revolt in 1910.

The media-savvy general made sure he had coverage in print as well: The exhibition includes a rare, dust-jacketed copy of John Reed's Insurgent Mexico, describing his brief, four-month stint as an embedded reporter with Villa's troops.

The roots of the revolution were long and anything but glamorous: Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's 1810 speech launched Mexico's fierce struggle for independence from Spain – a move precipitated by Napoleon's takeover of the Iberian throne. A contemporary portrait offered in the exhibition shows the renegade priest simply dressed, raising a cross; he is round-faced and dark-skinned.

By 1910, Hidalgo had been literally whitewashed; a publication of the day showed his face longer, his coat formal – he could be Longfellow or an American president, rather than an excommunicated rebel who faced a firing squad at 58.

The Stanford exhibition includes a mujer valiente (brave woman) on horseback, an undated snapshot of a woman encamped with a group of male revolutionaries. Other photos and images portray the women as Joan-of-Arc wannabes – but the women carried guns and traveled with troops for protection, not glory. Many of the children in the photos – like the little girl with the big gun – were probably orphans.

Griego said more than a million Mexicans were killed between 1910 and 1920, and nearly 900,000 came to the United States.

Besides picture postcards for foreigners, the exhibition includes real estate marketing booklets and Hollywood depictions that demonstrate how the Mexican Revolution played out in the North American imagination.

And especially in the Mexican imagination: By 1948, the film Si Adelita se fuera con otro, featuring the postwar cinema power couple Jorge Negrete and Gloria Marin, showcased the glamorous mujer valiente with a gun slung on her shoulder and her lipstick unsmudged.

Like the paintbrush, the camera proved as capable of propagating propaganda as telling the truth. It not only exposed the horrors of war but helped to mythologize and romanticize them too.

The exhibition is free and open to the public in the Green Library's Peterson Gallery. Exhibition cases are illuminated Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. The Peterson Gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open. For library hours, call (650) 723-0931 or visit http://library.stanford.edu.