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.
The Revolution begins in Mexico. Revolutionaries throughout the country take up arms, among them Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919) in the south and Pancho Villa (1878–1923) in the north.
Physician and novelist Mariano Azuela (1873–1952) publishes Los de abajo (The Underdogs) in Mexico, chronicling the exploitation of indigenous people at the hands of government troops during the Revolution.
The Constitution of Querétaro, still in force today, is passed in Mexico. Article 27 decrees the return of communal lands, known as ejidos, to indigenous communities and calls for education of the rural population.
The anticlerical government in Mexico closes many monasteries, convents, and church schools, and prohibits religious processions.
The Mexican government commissions Diego Rivera (1886–1957) to paint murals on corridors and staircases in the National Palace in Mexico City; they depict Mexican life and history from Precolumbian times to the Revolution.
The National Revolutionary Party (PNR), the precursor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, is founded in Mexico.
The exhibition Mexican Arts, organized by the American Federation of Arts, presents some 1,200 mostly contemporary works of art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and seven other major museums in the United States.
An uprising by Indian workers in the coffee plantations of El Salvador ends in the death of thousands at the hands of the army and paramilitary groups in league with landowners. Known as La Matanza (The Massacre), the event consolidates the military regime in El Salvador, which remains in power through the 1970s. Many Indians relinquish all appearance of indigenous culture.
At Monte Albán in Oaxaca, the tomb of a Mixtec dignitary is discovered by Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso (1896–1970). Interred between the thirteenth and fifteenth century, the tomb is one of the richest burials ever unearthed in the Americas, containing quantities of jewelry made of precious materials, including large numbers of gold ornaments.
The exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hundreds of artworks in all media are lent by Mexico to illustrate artistic developments from Precolumbian to modern times.
Yuri Knorosov (1922–1999), a Russian epigrapher, demonstrates that Maya hieroglyphic writing is composed of logographs (signs standing for entire words) and phonetic syllables.
The tomb of the Maya ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I (Sun Shield) (r. 615–83), buried deep inside the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, is discovered by the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (1906–1979).
The Russian-American scholar Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909–1985) proves that the inscriptions carved on Maya stone monuments record dates and events in the lives of named rulers and their families.
The Zapotec artist Francisco Toledo (born 1940), moves to Paris after studying graphic art and design in Oaxaca and Mexico City. He works with the renowned British printmaker Stanley William Hayter and travels extensively throughout Europe.
The Mexican National Museum, now called Museo Nacional de Antropología, is enlarged and inaugurated. Gallery displays document ancient Mesoamerican cultures and contemporary indigenous groups.
Francisco Toledo (born 1940) returns to his native Oaxaca from Europe. His remarkable creative imagination is expressed in paintings, graphic art, sculpture, weaving, and pottery.
The Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974) is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His writing is rooted in the traditions and history of indigenous peoples in Guatemala.
Demonstrations against the suppression of civil liberties take place in Mexico City’s Zócalo (main square). More than half a million people gather.
More than 700 pieces of Mexican folk art collected by Nelson A. Rockefeller are exhibited at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.
Guatemala is shaken by revolutionary civil war which lasts through 1985. Marxist guerrillas, joined by Maya groups, challenge the military state.
A monumental, finely carved relief sculpture of the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui is accidentally discovered by workers near the Cathedral in Mexico City. Thousands of archaeological objects are recovered in the four years of excavation around the Templo Mayor that follow; many are now exhibited in the Museo del Templo Mayor, located adjacent to the excavation site.
The North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, goes into effect on January 1. A peasant uprising in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico begins the same day. Demands are made for land reform and social justice, but further impoverishment of Mexico’s indigenous population occurs.
“Mexico and Central America: Native Peoples, 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=can (October 2004)