Perez on Castañeda, 'Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics'

Luis M. Castañeda
Jesus Perez

Luis M. Castañeda. Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. xxvii + 301 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-9076-3; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-9079-4.

Reviewed by Jesus Perez (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-War (February, 2016) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Luis M. Castañeda analyzes Mexico’s 1968 Olympics through a set of lenses others have only started to look at. Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics describes the events surrounding Mexico’s hosting of the Olympics as “the most ambitious sequence of official design projects designed to support the claim that, in the aftermath of its revolutionary wars, a socially unified and prosperous Mexico had effectively arrived to ‘the developed’ world” (p. xv). Historians of Mexico have made similar claims; Castañeda’s contribution to this historiography is the manner in which he supports this claim.

Castañeda explores the power of architecture in five sets of projects that took place during the period known as the Mexican “miracle.” First, he discusses Mexico’s pavilions presented in world’s fairs primarily through the life of individuals, such as Pedro Ramírez Vásquez. Second, he examines museums of culture and their importance to what he terms “the exhibitionist state,” a concept borrowed from historian Tony Bennett. Third, he looks at Mexico’s construction and refurbishing of stadiums to host the Olympics, including the Aztec Stadium. Fourth, Castañeda analyzes the construction and maintenance of highways, sculptures, and other urban construction projects in Mexico City. Fifth, his final chapter discusses Mexico City’s first subway system.

A number of themes are found throughout this book; however, the most apparent are the themes of race and exclusion, especially in regard to lower-class Mexicans. Castañeda argues that many important works of architecture were contradictory in terms of goals and hidden agendas. Mexico’s leaders had clear goals in mind when commissioning pavilions in the world’s fairs. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) portrayed Mexico to the world as a nation in which race was not an important nor a dividing characteristic among the population. However, Mexico was far from the racially inclusive country PRI leaders sought to portray. For example, in chapter 1, Castañeda analyzes the photographs displayed by photojournalist Nacho López as an example in which inequality and countryside-to-city migration was rampant, both side effects of racial divisions. In chapter 4, Castañeda examines architect Eduardo Terrazas’s exhibition at the 1968 Milan Triennial Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Architecture and the official program commissioned by Mexico’s Olympic Committee (MOC). The MOC’s idea was to tap “into current debates about architecture and planning’s possibilities for social inclusiveness and abilities to respond to the rapidly industrializing world” (p. 151). Although MOC and PRI leaders promoted the concept of social inclusiveness, many of the construction projects and exhibitions Castañeda covers in chapter 4, not only by Terrazas but by others as well, were designed “to turn attention away from the impoverished areas of Mexico City” (p. 154). Castañeda focuses on several important construction projects in chapter 4, one of the most important being the Periférico, a highway system surrounding Mexico City. The official purpose of the Periférico was making transportation more efficient; however, not only did it turn attention away from impoverished areas of Mexico City, but it also segregated Mexico City’s poor.

Castañeda’s themes of race and exclusion are very well researched and analyzed; those themes are found throughout the Western Hemisphere, not only in Mexico. The unofficial segregation of the poor was a common phenomenon in many countries around the world. Thomas J. Sugrue’s book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) provides an example of state and local policies intended to marginalize the poor, in this case, African Americans in Detroit, Michigan. In Mexico City’s case, the poor were likely indigenous or dark-skin Mexicans, who were seen as a burden on the nation by mainstream society. Castañeda brings international perspectives to his analysis of race and exclusion for which he should be given credit. Perhaps the most vivid comparison of urban segregation between Mexico and a foreign country is found in chapter 4 with the case of George Nelson, an industrial designer from New York. Nelson’s work “emphasized the importance of monuments as focal points of city centers and positioned circulation in streets as the primary generator of urban form.” This correlates with what Mexico’s leaders attempted to do during the 1968 Olympics. Castañeda does a good job of examining how urban segregation in Mexico City was similar to suburban growth in the United States. The growth of suburbs was fueled by highways and car traffic. The movement of middle-class families in the United States as in Mexico City led to “racially and socially segregated urban centers” (p. 164).

Castañeda makes a marvelous contribution to Mexico City’s historiography through analyzing the official and hidden purpose of architecture, museums, and other construction projects of the exhibitionist state. Although many important themes are found in this book, the themes of race and exclusion are especially significant because they were and continue to be an important phenomenon in modern-day society. In fact, Castañeda’s contribution is very well made not only because of the great quantity of primary material, but also because it helps explain why Mexico has developed unevenly. PRI leaders might have sought to portray their nation as an advanced country, comparable to European nations, yet Mexico was far from advanced. Inequality was and continues to be rampant throughout Mexico, especially with regard to indigenous people. Castañeda’s sources drawn from archives in both the United States and Mexico—including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, and two archives in Mexico City, the Archivo General de la Nación and the Archivo Ramírez Vásquez—clearly and efficiently support this main arguments.

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Citation: Jesus Perez. Review of Castañeda, Luis M., Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2016. URL:

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