Calendar art and Mexico's national identity

Feathered Aztecs, eagles on cactuses, and hacienda scenes are passe; fast cars, scantily clad women, and first-world cities are in.

With the New Year comes calendar-shopping in Mexico City, and Esther Flores Gutierrez has just picked up the one she wants.

It's a reprint of a famous 1940 calendar depicting the legend of Mexico City's two best-known volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. In the familiar scene by popular Mexican artist Jose de la Helguera, the volcanoes are represented by two tragic Aztec lovers at their Romeo-and-Juliet denouement.

"This is the kind of calendar you used to find in every Mexican home you entered," says Mrs. Flores, at a sidewalk stand in Mexico City's old downtown. "When my ... grandson said he would like a calendar with the legend of the volcanoes, I was only too happy to oblige," she adds. "Most young people today aren't interested in these traditions."

It's not just young Mexicans who've lost interest in the highly idealized - and often heroic and nationalist - calendars that once adorned many Mexican homes. As a stroll through the Santo Domingo Plaza reveals, calendars are still a big business for the small printing shops that line the square. Businesses from butcher shops to, of course, insurance companies, order hundreds of calendars to give out to customers. It's Mexicans in general whose taste in calendar art has changed.

"Sure we used to sell a lot of calendars with Cuauhtemoc [the last Aztec emperor] and other Aztecs with their feathered headdresses, or the ones with patriotic themes, like the eagle landing on the cactus," says Enrique Marco, owner of Aztec Printing on Santo Domingo Plaza. "But this year for every 1,000 calendars I've sold, I'd be surprised if 10 had those themes," he adds.

Sales of religious calendars have also fallen way off, Mr. Marco says, reflecting the secularization of Mexican society. Theories vary here as to why Mexico's traditional calendars have fallen out of fashion. People want something modern, so they like calendars of fast cars or first-world cities, some vendors say. At the same time, people are more nature-conscious now, so they like images of animals and landscapes, others say. And still other vendors guess that the wide availability of relatively cheap prints means that people no longer look to calendars for art.

Mexico's classic calendar art was at its high point from 1930 to 1980. Calendars with stern, muscular Aztecs and patriotically dressed senoritas strengthened a sense of national identity the way Mexico's famed murals in public edifices did during this same period. But calendars changed as Mexico opened up - symbolized by NAFTA's passage in 1994 - and as calendar printers began offering different motifs.

Besides, vendors say, what Mexicans want now is not so much a look at the past, but images that help them dream as they flip through the months of the year. "People today want calendars with pictures of things that are part of their life - or things they'd like to be a part of their life," says Martin Rosas, manager of Montserrat Printers here. "That's why we sell lots of calendars with blond women in bathing suits - or less," he says, "and calendars with Ferraris or scenes from Paris and New York. Nobody dreams of being an Aztec hero."

Still, the few vendors who specialize in calendars featuring reprints of the classics insist there's interest in what they offer. "I wouldn't still be here if these calendars didn't sell," quips Maria Benita de Jesus Moreno, who has sold the works of Mexican calendar artists at the same post for 70 years.

A half-block away, Mrs. Moreno's competitor also reports good sales of calendars depicting everything from the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that would become Mexico City, to idealized Mexican hacienda scenes. "I can hardly keep pulling out the Legend of the Volcanoes fast enough," says vendor Mauro Fuentes Espinoza. Mr. Fuentes acknowledges the interest in calendars featuring photos of foreign landscapes or a basketful of kittens. But he says calendars that a few years ago only sold to tourists are selling to Mexicans once again. "Life has become so complex, there's a nostalgia for the past," says Fuentes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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