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Yankee Don’t Go Home! Mexican Nationalism, American Business Culture, and the Shaping of Modern Mexico, 1920-1950

Author(s):Moreno, Julio
Reviewer(s):Schell Jr., William

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Julio Moreno, Yankee Don’t Go Home! Mexican Nationalism, American Business Culture, and the Shaping of Modern Mexico, 1920-1950. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xi + 319 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2802-5; $21.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8078-5478-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William Schell, Jr., Department of History, Murray State University.

University of San Francisco professor Julio Moreno opens his book Yankee Don’t Go Home with a description of Sears Roebuck’s grand opening in Mexico City and a question: “Why was Sears so successful at entering the Mexican market a few years after popular nationalism drove American companies out of Mexico” (p. 1)? From this question flows a series of inquiries. How did Mexican and American domestic and geopolitical interests come to coincide? Why did Mexico’s promoters of import substitution industrialization (ISI) encourage American reentry into its economy? What role did Mexican advertising and media professionals play in this convergence?

By the late-1920s Moreno explains, pragmatic Mexican politicos, scrambling to institutionalize the revolution and their legitimacy, decided to pursue the “reconstruction of modern Mexico … under the banner of industrial capitalism” (p. 229). The most efficient means to that end and to turn Mexican workers into consumers would be to infuse Mexican economic culture with yanqui business methods. Obviously that would necessitate some degree of American economic involvement, a significant problem given Mexican national consciousness was shaped by a revolution laden with anti-Americanism.

State-building politicos faced a conundrum — how to put “a nationalist and revolutionary spin” on their plan to substitute “consumer democracy” for political democracy (pp. 151 and 44). Fortunately Mexico’s advertising agents then organizing as a profession proved willing collaborators. Versed in advertising techniques pioneered by American firms like J. Walter Thompson, these self-styled “prophets of capitalism” sold their fellow citizens a Mexican version of the American dream with consumer goods as revolutionary rewards. In doing so, they refashioned Mexican national identity “syncretizing … American and Mexican values … [to] forg[e] … a middle ground that allowed the coexistence of apparently conflicting values” (pp. 6 and 82-112).

American-style modernization evoked opposition by Catholic conservatives, just as it had during the Porfiriato. While desiring “a comfortable standard of living” for Mexicans, conservatives felt unbridled materialism and consumerism would erode traditional family and spiritual values. Nonetheless Acc?on Cat?lica readily employed mass media and techniques of modern advertising to warn of the dangers of “obsession with material wealth” — particularly on women (p. 226). They decried sexually suggestive advertising for cosmetics, hosiery, and (especially) feminine hygiene products (figs. 3.4, 3.5 and 7.3) fearing their daughters and wives would become “preoccupied with [their] physical appearance[s]” and “spend most of [their] time at beauty salons and movie theaters” (p. 221). Thus the Church resisted the consumerism preached by Thompson’s “commercial missionaries” and their Mexican acolytes (p. 155).

Official Washington only slowly recognized that Mexico’s pragmatic revolutionaries had adopted “consumption and material prosperity as synonyms for democracy and national identity” and was slower still to take advantage of the opportunity offered (p. 4). Not until the eve of World War II did it established the Office of Inter-American Affairs under Nelson Rockefeller to merge commercial speech and political propaganda. Although U.S. trade with Mexico was relatively insignificant, Rockefeller encouraged American businesses to take the long view and continue advertising in Mexico. To promote American products was to promote American cultural values and thus undercut German fascism and, during the Cold War, Communism. Over time yanqui businessmen came to see this iteration of Dollar Diplomacy carried on by Sears and other “commercial diplomats” as more “progressive” and effective in promoting U.S. interests than State Department diplomacy (pp. 172, 230-231).

In the final analysis, Mexican state builders and official Washington employed the same means to achieve different ends. Mexican state builders opened markets to American firms while simultaneously promoting ISI. American firms seeking Mexican markets had to appeal to national traditions and culture while simultaneously finding ways to accommodate or circumvent government ISI programs. Thus Palmolive adorned its soap with the image of Nuestra Se?ora de Guadalupe (fig. 4.8) while the Westinghouse subsidiary Industria Electrica de M?xico ran ads supporting nationalist “buy at home” campaigns (fig. 4.11). American operations south of the border were Mexicanized which facilitated the transmission of things Mexican to the other side while, pari passu, Mexican consumer culture and modernity took on a yanqui color.

Moreno’s inquiry into the interplay of cultures and economics in post-revolutionary Mexico is a worthy enterprise that taps fresh and rich archival sources. Moreno gets the big picture right. Architects of the institutional revolutionary state pursued a two-track policy — supporting Washington’s geopolitical positions while offering American businesses limited entry into the Mexican economy to supply consumer goods, an essential precondition to recast Mexican workers as consumers. Once a consumer mentality was established, demand for goods and services would create the conditions for successful ISI. Moreno also deserves praise for emphasizing Mexico’s primacy in directing and shaping its relationship with the U.S. by anticipating Washington’s responses to global events.

Although I think the evidence insufficient to support his assertion that “government leaders … saw advertising as the driving force of Mexico’s industrial and commercial growth” (p. 25), I tend to agree that “advertising images bridged conflicting values in Mexican society (by) creat(ing) a setting in which the national and the global coexisted” (p. 151). Still Moreno’s development of his theme and use of evidence seems haphazard. For instance, he reproduces ads for Colgate and Hormel from 1943 (figs. 2.3 and 2.4) ostensibly to show American use of advertising to carry anti-Axis propaganda and to “‘militarize’ the Mexican population” (p. 77). While this militarization is central in Hormel’s ad, Pueblo Sano ?Patria Fuerte!, juxtaposing exercising children with an infantryman under arms, it is illustrated less well, if at all, by Colgate’s use of the inconspicuous win-the-war unity logo routinely placed in wartime ads.

The ads do, however, raise questions relating to Moreno’s major themes of cultural syncretism and the emergence of a “middle-ground” between Mexican and American values. Colgate’s ad uses Mexican models and Moreno later examines Colgate’s cultural sensitivity in its advertising at length but without reference to this ad (pp.137-146). Meanwhile the visual evidence of Hormel’s shows little syncretism. Its cartoon pitchmen look as if they sprang from the Dick-and-Jane reader, leaving me (if not Moreno) to wonder just whose nation might be strengthened by eating Spam.

Moreno recognizes that, in their “reconstruction of modern Mexico (revolutionaries) … recycled processes that were fundamental to nation building during the (Porfiriato)” (p. 113). Yet his work seems oddly disconnected from Porfirian studies. He caricatures the Porfiriato, fashioning strawmen to heighten contrasts between the ancien r?gime and its revolutionary successor as when he notes: “Unlike the D?az administration, government representatives after 1917 believed that the state should sponsor or direct the economy and … actively support Mexico’s industrial and commercial growth.” This differs not at all from the protectionist, interventionist Porfirian state described by Steven Haber, Edward Beatty, Sandra Kuntz Ficker and others.

More disconcerting given his focus on media management to achieve geopolitical and domestic goals, Moreno seems unaware of the D?az regime’s innovative international press operation. Porfirian spin-doctors used advertising and propaganda techniques every bit as sophisticated as those Moreno describes for the post-revolutionary period. The regime’s Bureau of Information, headed by Paul Hudson, a powerful and influential publisher, sold Mexico and D?az to the world while burying all negative reports. His Mexican Herald introduced Mexicans to consumer culture, generating the same sort of syncretism, while his Modern Mexico shamelessly touted wildly over-valued tropical lands to na?ve North American investors. In 1910, he directed an amazingly successful propaganda campaign pumping up Mexico’s Centennial while refuting charges of barbarism and rumors of political unrest then circulating. As a result American investment actually increased as Francisco Madero launched his revolution.

Linda Hall has judged Moreno’s book a “highly readable narrative (that) … makes a significant contribution to the field” (cover notes). I found it plodding, uninteresting, and, with the substitution of repetition for analysis, rather less informative than might be expected. Ultimately, when reviewers disagree so sharply, all those interested in the important questions of culture and economy Moreno presents should read and decide for themselves.

William Schell, Jr. is a professor of history at Murray State University in Western Kentucky. He authored Integral Outsiders: The American Colony of Mexico City, 1876-1911 (2001) and “Silver Symbiosis: ReOrienting Mexican Economic History,” Hispanic American Historic Review 81 (2001). His commentary “Opposing Military Tribunals,” aired on NPR’s Morning Edition (Dec. 2001).

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII