During the twentieth century, Mexico and the other nations of Central America experience difficult transitions to political independence. Eschewing their status as colonies of European countries, most Central American nations struggle to define themselves politically. Despite the vast natural resources the region possesses—the very things that make it attractive to Europeans and the United States—many of the countries remain impoverished throughout the twentieth century, often as a result of oppressive political regimes that bring about the concentration of wealth in the hands of tiny elites. Throughout the century, the United States is deeply involved economically and politically in the region.
Works of the visual and other arts are produced throughout Central America in the twentieth century, oftentimes despite conditions that are not conducive to cultural production. In many cases, the works embody trenchant critiques of current social, political, and economic conditions. Books, films, and paintings help to bring international awareness of the deplorable conditions under which many Central Americans live. Perhaps the best-known socially engaged art the region produces in the twentieth century is that of the Mexican muralists beginning in the 1920s. Through their travel, artmaking, and teaching in the United States, the Mexican muralists exert an important influence on younger painters in the U.S.
In many instances, the visual arts respond to both indigenous traditions and Western European movements. In the early part of the century, Cubism and Surrealism exert an impact on artists in Mexico and elsewhere. Corresponding assertions of the importance of local traditions and themes follow, for instance in the Indigenismo movement of the 1920s and ’30s and the Neomexicana movement of the 1980s.
Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) is dictator of Mexico, except during the four years between 1880 and 1884. His fraudulent victory over Francisco I. Madero González (1873–1913) in the presidential election of 1910 sets off the Mexican Revolution. Madero, a revolutionary, becomes president in 1911 but soon alienates the leftist Zapatistas (loyal to Emiliano Zapata, 1879–1919) as well as conservatives. Madero is executed following a military coup in 1913.
The Foraker Act establishes civil government in Puerto Rico and allows for free trade between the island and the United States.
José Guadalupe Posada (1851–1913), a Mexican printmaker, begins production of popular broadsides depicting images of social and political relevance, and continues the work up until the time of his death.
The U.S.-based United Fruit Company begins its economic domination of Guatemala. Eventually the enterprise will control Guatemalan ports and 40 percent of its land. Manuel José Estrada Cabrera (1857–1923), president from 1898 to 1920, supports the UFC.
The Treaty of Paris establishes Cuba’s independence from Spain.
The Republic of Panama declares its independence from Colombia with the backing of the United States and France. Shortly thereafter, the Hay-Bunau-Varrilla Treaty between the U.S. and Panama provides for the construction of the Panama Canal (completed in 1914) and the creation of the Panama Canal Zone.
Mexican-born caricaturist Marius de Zayas (1880–1961) becomes advisor to Alfred Stieglitz and his New York gallery, “291.” De Zayas helps to arrange an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s drawings at 291, which is the artist’s first U.S. exhibition.
In Mexico, the Plan de Ayala, a Zapatista manifesto, is proclaimed. In it, Pascual Orozco (1882–1915) is declared “Chief of the Liberating Revolution.” Initially affiliated with the Revolutionary cause, Orozco later supports the dictator Victoriano Huerta (1854–1916) and conservative Chihuahua cattle barons.
Journalist and political activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) returns to his native Jamaica (from England) where he founds the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League.
The U.S. military occupation of Haiti begins and continues until 1934. The Dominican Republic, the other nation which with Haiti makes up the island of Hispaniola, is occupied by the U.S. and run by a military government from 1916 to 1924.
Mariano Azuela (1873–1952) publishes the novel Los de abajo (The Underdogs), which draws upon his experience as a doctor during the Mexican Revolution and chronicles the exploitation of indigenous people during the conflict.
Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920), Mexican president from 1915 until his assassination in 1920, implements the Constitution of 1917, which was written during the Revolution and remains in effect through the end of the century. It decrees the return of communal land to indigenous communities and calls for the education of rural populations.
The Jones Act makes Puerto Rico an “organized but unincorporated” territory of the United States and all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens.
José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) receives his first commission for a mural series, for the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) in Mexico City. Later, he will execute murals in the United States at the New School for Social Research in New York (1930), at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (1932), and elsewhere.
Mexican revolutionary leader and folk hero Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878–1923) is assassinated in Chihuahua. During the Revolution, Villa had commanded the División del Norte, which was part of the resistance to the 1913—14 dictatorship of Victoriano Huerta (1854–1916).
El Grupo Minorista, an avant-garde Cuban literary circle, is formed. In 1927, the group begins publication of La Revista de Avance.
Cuban painter Manuel García Valdes (1897–1969), known as “Víctor Manuel” from the time of his trip to Paris in 1925, holds his first exhibition in Havana. He is considered one of the leaders of modern Cuban painting.
Diego Rivera (1886–1957) paints Flower Day (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), in which the motif of a lily seller is adapted from his murals at the Ministry of Education (1923–24) in Mexico City. The painting is associated with Indigenismo, or the rediscovery of traditional culture. In 1932–33, Rivera paints a series of murals for the Ford Motor plant (now at the Detroit Institute of Arts) embodying a critique of social and economic conditions.
Painter Amelia Peláez (1896–1968) receives a grant from the Cuban government to study in Paris. Before returning to Cuba in 1934, she publishes an article in La Volonté entitled “Les peintres cubains à Paris.”
The Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party, PNR) comes to power. Later, it will become the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and hold power in Mexico through the end of the century.
The Art Deco–style Bacardí Building, headquarters of the rum-producing company of the same name, is constructed in Havana, Cuba. The architects are Esteban Rodríguez Castells, Rafael Fernández Ruenes, and José Menéndez.
General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1891–1961) becomes the U.S.-supported dictator of the Dominican Republic when he leads the overthrow of President Horacio Vásquez (1860–1936). Trujillo is assassinated in 1961 and his family flees to France.
Mexican Arts, an exhibition of some 1,200 works, is organized by the American Federation of Arts and shown at the Metropolitan Museum and seven other U.S. venues. The exhibition includes fine arts as well as crafts and ancient objects.
American architecture professor William Spratling (1900–1967) begins a workshop in Taxco, Mexico, the site of established silver mines, to produce silver jewelry, flatware, and other objects to his own designs. Spratling is widely acknowledged as “The Father of Mexican Silver.”
Architect Juan O’Gorman (1905–1982) designs a house and studios for Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) in the San Ángel district of Mexico City. These early works demonstrate the influence of the International Style, while his later work, exemplified by his own house in Mexico City built in 1953—56, shows his interest in vernacular tradition and ancient Mesoamerican culture.
An uprising by Indian workers in the coffee plantations of El Salvador kills thousands. Known as La Matanza, the event consolidates the military regime in El Salvador, which remains in power through the 1970s. Many Indians relinquish all appearance of indigenous culture.
Painter María Izquierdo (1902–1955) organizes a group of Mexican women to make posters. This leads to the traveling exhibition Revolutionary Posters of Remaile Section of Artes Plásticas, Departamiento de Bellas Artes.
David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974) runs the Experimental Workshop (A Laboratory of Modern Techniques in Art) in New York, which attracts many American artists who had participated in government-sponsored art programs under the Works Progress Administration, such as future Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock (1912–1956).
Anastasio Somoza García (1896–1956) is the dictatorial president of Nicaragua until his assassination in 1956. He is followed by his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925–1980), who is president from 1967 to 1972, and from 1974 to 1979.
The Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphics Workshop) is founded in Mexico City. The founding artists are Leopoldo Méndez (1902–1969), Luis Arenal (1908–1985), and Pablo O’Higgins (1904–1983).
Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia (1903–1950) publishes Nostalgia de la muerte (Nostalgia for Death), considered his most important work. The book embodies the dark vision also evident in his 1944 play Invitación a la muerte (Invitation to Death).
Mexican muralist and leftist political activist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974) leads an attack on the house of Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), located in a suburb of Mexico City. Siqueiros had taken the Stalinists’ side in the schism between Trotsky and Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Among Siqueiros’ early works is Echo of a Scream (1937; Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat (1900–1990) records the hit song “Perfidia” with singer Miguelito Valdés (1910–1978). Cugat, along with his Cuban-born protégés Desi Arnaz (1917–1986) and Pérez Prado (1916–1989), popularizes Latin music in the United States.
Honduran painter Arturo López Rodezno (1906–1975) helps to found the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts) in Comayagüela. The school’s building contains murals painted by Rodezno in a Social Realist style.
American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) purchases a house near Havana called Finca Vigía. He keeps his boat, El Pilar, in the nearby village of Cojimar, where his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Old Man and the Sea (1952) is set.
The Exposición Internacional del Surrealismo is held at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City. Among the artists whose works are exhibited is photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902–2002).
The exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, featuring some 5,000 works, is held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Painter Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) returns to his native Cuba after a long period of study and practice in Spain and France. After this point, Lam’s work begins to feature the Cuban landscape and explore his Afro-Cuban identity.
Mexican-born film actress Dolores Del Rio (1905–1983) returns to Mexico from the United States, where she has been a star since the 1920s, and begins making Spanish-language films.
Painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) begins teaching at art school in Mexico City. Chronic poor health forces her to instruct her four faithful students, “Los Fridos,” at home.
The “Ten Years of Spring,” a period of reform, begins in Guatemala with the overthrow of dictator Jorge Ubico y Castañeda (1878–1946) by the October Revolutionaries.
Architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988) builds his house and studio in Mexico City. Barragán is one of the foremost practitioners of mid-century modernism in Mexico and wins the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1980.
José Figueres Ferrer (1906–1990) begins the first of three terms as president of Costa Rica (1948–49, 1953–58, 1970–74). Figueres contributes to Costa Rican democracy and prosperity by abolishing the army, granting voting rights to women, and nationalizing the banks.
Spanish-born film director Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) becomes a Mexican citizen. During the 1940s and ’50s, Buñuel, known for his earlier Surrealist films, makes films such as Los Olvidados (1950) and El (1953), remarkable for their disturbing imagery.
The master plan for the expansive Ciudad Universitaria of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City is produced by Enrique del Moral (1906–1987) and Mario Pani (1911–1993). The library building, decorated with murals incorporating ancient symbols, is designed by Juan O’Gorman (1905–1982) and others.
Puerto Rico adopts a new constitution. Under its terms, Puerto Rico has the status of a self-governing commonwealth with the United States.
Puerto Rican playwright and novelist René Marqués (1919–1979) writes the play La Carreta (The Oxcart), which encompasses his central themes of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and its modernization.
Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991) completes murals at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Earlier his work had shown the influence of European Surrealism.
The Cuban Revolution brings an end to the rule of dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (1901–1973) and begins the presidency of Fidel Castro (born 1926), who remains in power through the end of the century and transforms Cuba into a communist state. Among the leaders of the Revolution is Argentinian-born Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (1928–1967).
Juan Rulfo (1918–1986) publishes the novel Pedro Páramo. This and Rulfo’s other works focus on the lives of Mexico’s rural poor.
François Duvalier (1907–1971) is elected president of Haiti but in 1964 proclaims himself president for life. When the repressive regime of Duvalier (a.k.a. “Papa Doc”) ends with his death in 1971, power passes to his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (1951–2014, a.k.a. “Baby Doc”). The Duvalier dictatorship ends in 1986 when Baby Doc flees to France after months of protest.
The Museum of Primitive Art is established in New York City and comprises a collection of indigenous art from the Americas, Oceania, and Africa assembled by Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908–1979). The collection is later transferred to the Metropolitan Museum.
José Luis Cuevas (born 1934) publishes an essay entitled “La cortina de nopal” (The Cactus Curtain), in which he opposes the dominance of the Mexican muralists in the country’s art scene. In the 1950s, Cuevas used the term “neofiguration” to denote the contemporary return among certain Mexican painters to an expressionistic use of the human figure.
Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012) publishes his first novel, La región más transparente (Where the Air Is Clear), dealing with issues of national identity and indicting Mexican society. The book brings Fuentes national renown.
Alberto Gironella (1929–1999) produces the mixed-media work La reina Mariana (Portrait of Queen Mariana). It is among contemporary works, by Gironella and others, that take up the legacy in Mexico of Spanish Baroque art.
The failed U.S. invasion of Cuba under President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), called the “Bay of Pigs,” leads to closer relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union.
The group Nueva Presencia is founded in Mexico by the Canadian Arnold Belkin (1930–1992) and the Mexican Francisco Icaza (1930–2014). The group publishes the review Nueva Presencia between 1961 and 1963.
The Cuban Missile Crisis ensues when U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) orders a naval blockade of the island based on intelligence that the Soviet Union is building missile bases there. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) authorizes the use of nuclear weapons if there is a U.S. invasion, but after a seven-day stand-off, recalls Soviet ships and missiles. The crisis leads to a discontinuation of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba and a trade embargo that continues through the end of the century.
Clement Seymour “Sir Coxsone” Dodd (1932–2004) opens the Studio One recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica. It is the first black-owned enterprise of its kind. In addition to popularizing Jamaican music internationally during the 1950s and ’60s, Dodd is also credited with launching the reggae group Bob Marley (1945–1981) and the Wailers.
Architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez (1919–2013) designs the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City. The new Basilica of Guadalupe is also built to his design, between 1974 and 1976.
Belize is granted self-government and its name is changed from British Honduras in 1973. Full official independence is achieved in 1981 under the leadership of George Cadle Price (1919–2011).
Construction of a complex of modernist buildings to house the Schools of Modern Dance, Plastic Arts, Dramatic Arts, Music, and Ballet in the Havana suburb of Cubanacán, personally ordered by Fidel Castro (born 1926), is abandoned for practical and political reasons. In 2000, Castro orders the restoration of the buildings.
Joaquín Balaguer (1906–2002) becomes president of the Dominican Republic, with the backing of the United States, following a coup that ousts President Juan Bosch (1909–2001). Balaguer serves as president until 1978 and again between 1986 and 1996.
Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974) is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Although educated at the Sorbonne and active in Parisian literary circles in the 1920s, his writings are rooted in the traditions and history of indigenous peoples in Guatemala.
Cuban journalist and poet Heberto Padilla (1932–2000) publishes his award-winning book Fuera del juego. Some consider Padilla’s ambiguous poetry counter-revolutionary and he is imprisoned in 1971. In 1980, he emigrates to the United States, where he continues to write works that are critical of the Cuban government.
Honduras and El Salvador fight the short-lived Football War (or Soccer War), the immediate cause of which is tension around the qualifying games for the 1970 Football World Cup. In 1980, the two nations sign a peace treaty.
David Alfaro Siqueiros’ (1896–1974) most ambitious mural, The March of Humanity, is painted for the Hotel de México in Cuernavaca.
José Napoleon Duarte (1925–1990), leader of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), unites the opposition to ongoing military rule in El Salvador, but his reform program is defeated in the elections of this year as a result of fraud. Duarte is exiled, which contributes to disillusionment regarding peaceful reform and helps to ignite a twelve-year civil war in the late 1970s. In 1980, Duarte joins the ruling military junta, which later allows death squads to assassinate political dissidents.
Haitian artist Joseph Jean-Gilles (born 1943) paints Haitian Landscape. Jean-Gilles’ work possesses characteristics that lead him to be associated with “primitive” or “naive” painting in the 1970s.
The Mariel Boatlift entails the exodus of nearly 125,000 Cubans from Mariel Harbor. Many leave in unseaworthy boats for Florida, and twenty-seven die in the process.
Elections bring to power a civilian government in Honduras following decades of military rule. In the early 1980s, groups of Contras, opponents of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, form in Honduras.
Efraín Ríos Montt (born 1926) heads a military regime in Guatemala. Said to have strong ties to the United States and President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), Ríos Montt presides over the bloodiest phase in Guatemala’s thirty-six-year internal conflict. Between about 1978 and 1985, Marxist guerrillas, joined by Maya groups, challenge the military state.
The film El Norte (The North), directed by Gregory Nava (born 1949), debuts. In 1985, it is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, written by Nava with his wife Anna Thomas (born 1948). El Norte tells the story of a Guatemalan brother and sister who flee to the United States when their father is murdered and their mother lost as a result of the internal conflict there.
Daniel Ortega (born 1945) becomes president of Nicaragua, under the Sandinista government, and serves until 1990. Ortega had been one of the leaders of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) that brought about the defeat of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925–1980) in 1979. His attempts at socialist reform are undercut by civil war.
In the Iran-Contra Affair, the United States secretly sells arms to Iran and channels the proceeds to the Contra rebels who are fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Writer and scholar Paco Ignacio Taibo II (born 1949) receives the Francisco Javier Clavijero Prize for his book Los Bolshevikis: Historia narrativa de los orígenes del comunismo en México, 1919–1925. Taibo, who was born in Spain but who has lived in Mexico since 1958, is also well known for his novels featuring the one-eyed detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne.
Rigoberta Menchú Tum (born 1959) publishes her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, which details the oppression of indigenous people in Guatemala. In 1992, she receives the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Supreme Court building is constructed in Mexico City. The postmodern design is by architect Teodoro González de León (born 1926).
The U.S. launches Operation Just Cause, a military invasion of Panama ousting General Manuel Antonio Noriega (born 1934), who had been in power since 1983. In addition to the civilian state, Noriega had also controlled the Panama Defense Forces (PDF).
Jean-Bertrand Aristide (born 1953) wins the presidential election in Haiti by a substantial margin. Soon, however, he is overthrown by opponents but serves from 1994 to 1996, and 2001 to 2004.
Mexican poet, philosopher, and critic Octavio Paz (1914–1998) is awarded the Nobel Prize. Among his critical works is a 1968 study of artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) entitled Marcel Duchamp, o, El castillo de la pureza (Marcel Duchamp, or, The Castle of Purity).
A novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel (born 1950), Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), is published in Spanish and English. A film adaptation, produced in 1992, becomes the largest grossing foreign film in the United States.
The Metropolitan Museum holds the exhibition Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries.
The New York City Accord is signed by the Salvadoran government and representatives of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The accord creates the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ). In 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords, signed in Mexico City, end the fighting in El Salvador.
Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls), a memoir by Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990), is published posthumously. In it, Arenas is critical of the treatment of gays and intellectuals under the Cuban Revolution.
An uprising by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, named for the earlier revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, 1879–1919) begins in the Mexican region of Chiapas. The Zapatistas oppose authoritarian rule in the region.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) goes into effect.
Peace accords are signed ending a thirty-six-year period of internal struggle in Guatemala during which some 200,000 mostly indigenous people are killed. U.S. President Bill Clinton (born 1946) apologizes to the Guatemalan people for the U.S. role in state-sponsored violence.
Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) visits Cuba, despite long-time government suppression of Catholicism there. The pope calls for the abandonment of Marxist ideology among Cubans and a return to Catholicism.
The release of the film Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Wim Wenders (born 1945), contributes to worldwide interest in Cuban musical traditions. The film focuses on the process by which American musician Ry Cooder (born 1947) brings together a group of Cuban musicians to make an internationally acclaimed recording.
The Panama Canal, as well as the area surrounding it and the U.S. military bases nearby, are turned over to Panama, in accordance with an agreement signed in 1977.
Vicente Fox Quesada (born 1942), affiliated with the National Action Party (PAN), is elected president. The elections of this year bring to an end the long domination of Mexican politics by the PRI.
“Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=ca (October 2004)