Comics, Telenovelas, and Mexican History

A review of Entertaining Education: Teaching National History in Mexican State-Sponsored Comic Books and Telenovelas, 1963-1996, by Melanie Huska.

“Entertaining Education” is a study of state-sponsored, historically themed soap operas (telenovelas) and comic books in late twentieth-century Mexico. Author Melanie Huska demonstrates how Mexico’s ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), deployed history to bolster its legitimacy and promote a common national identity. By tracing the collaborations of multiple actors—from producers of the private television monopoly, Televisa, to Ministry of Public Education officials and professional historians—Huska challenges assumptions that elites promoted a unified “official history” of Mexico. Instead, she shows a state composed of individuals with distinct, and often conflicting, goals for educational entertainment or, as she refers to it, “edutainment.” As neoliberal reforms dismantled Mexico’s welfare state in the 1980s and 1990s, Huska shows, the party’s cultural politics exposed emerging political cleavages.

In the introduction, Huska sets up the dissertation’s key themes and historiographical interventions. She identifies the threads that unify its four chapters as the following: the epistemological debates that arose between professional historians and proponents of “official history”; the incorporation of competing historical interpretations into “edutainment” projects; and the learning curve producers encountered as they attempted to create profitable, historically themed products. In pursuing these lines of inquiry, Huska engages a well-established historiography that underscores the importance of cultural politics to the party’s establishment of political hegemony after a bloody revolution (1910-1920) (e.g., Mary Kay Vaughan, Cultural Politics in Revolution: Teachers, Peasants, and Schools in Mexico, 1930-1940. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). Huska’s discussion of post-revolutionary (1920-1940) censorship and the formation of a national film industry nicely establishes the backdrop for telenovela and comic book production in the 1960s and beyond. It further sets the stage for her analysis of shifts in cultural politics as the state ceded greater production and control to private companies.   

Chapter 1 examines two of Mexico’s earliest historically themed telenovelas, Carlota y Maxiliano (1965) and La Tormenta (1967). Huska identifies these cases as exemplary of the early challenges of fusing entertainment and education. The series offered opposing representations of Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president. Huska provides a brief background to the “myths of Juárez” that circulated after his rule and argues that the PRI tied its legitimacy to prominent narratives of Juárez as a champion of liberalism and national sovereignty. Carlota y Maximiliano, produced by Televisa, undermined these myths by offering a sympathetic portrayal of the titular characters, the Austrian empress and emperor who ruled after French military intervention removed Juárez from power in 1862. When the program aired, the Ministry of the Interior forced it off the air and commissioned the production of an opposing telenovela, La Tormenta, to restore Juárez’s image. Outlining Televisa’s symbiotic relationship with the ruling party, Huska argues that the media company’s producers had not intended to revise popular understandings of Mexican history, but only to entice viewers with what might otherwise be a dry historical narrative.

In Chapter 2, Huska examines the divergent representations of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in two comic books, México: historia de un pueblo and Episodios mexicanos. While the Ministry of Education (SEP) sponsored and published both between 1980 and 1982, the series advanced rival interpretations of Mexican identity. México: historia de un pueblo proposed a singular, indigenous heritage, while Episodios mexicanos identified one rooted in “many Mexicos.” Huska’s use of SEP archives and personal interviews enriches her close readings of comic books and leads her to argue that this distinction was rooted in the politics, professional training, and ideologies of the series’ coordinators Guadalupe Jiménez and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Thus, while the SEP aimed to encourage literacy and generate a shared sense of Mexican identity, Huska demonstrates that “the state’s attempt to craft a singular official history was not viable in practice” (p. 85).

Chapter 3 illuminates the ways in which public officials deployed historical revisionism to address contemporary challenges. Using archival materials, press sources, and television guides, Huska examines the reception of two telenovelas during heightened moments of political debate: the fraudulent 1988 presidential elections and Mexico’s 1994 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the first case, public outrage erupted when scenes of Lázaro Cárdenas, the populist Mexican president (1934-1940) and father to 1988 presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc, were cut from telenovela Senda de Gloria’s (1987) second airing after the widely contested election. Meanwhile, El Vuelo de Águila’s (1994) sympathetic portrayal of Porfirio Díaz, the late 19th-century dictator who courted foreign business interests, angered audiences when it aired on the heels of NAFTA’s signing.

In the final chapter, Huska analyzes the successful series La Antorcha Encendida, which she argues signaled Televisa’s mastery of the historical telenovela genre. The media monopoly hired a historical advisory board to avoid potential accusations of ahistorical content from scholars, and the series became wildly popular. At the same time, the program echoed the regime’s shifting discourse about Mexican ethnic identity from mestizaje to multiculturalism. Despite its ability to appease both government officials and professional historians, La Antorcha Encendida would be the final series of its kind, as financial considerations and the state’s disinvestment in co-producing such programs made it difficult to produce more.

The dissertation’s conclusion discusses the educational products rolled out for Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial and centennial celebrations of Independence and the Revolution, respectively. These efforts, Huska argues, suggest the “continuity in the political currency of history” (p. 241). The remainder of the conclusion returns to the dissertation’s major arguments and themes.

“Entertaining Education” enriches our understanding of the shifting relationship between cultural politics and political hegemony in late twentieth-century Mexico. Through this thoughtful inquiry into the relationship between a one-party state and Televisa, Huska provides a compelling case for the shifting political resonances of “official history” by the close of the twentieth century. When published as a book, Huska’s work will offer a refreshing counterpoint to conventional depictions of a monolithic Mexican state for this period.

Vanessa Freije
Department of History
Duke University
vanessa.freije@duke.edu

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación (AGN)
Centro de Estudios de Historia de México, CARSO
Clío TV, Video Archive
Hemeroteca Nacional
Instituto Mexicano de Seguridad Social, Archivo Histórico
Secretaría de Educación Pública, Archivo Histórico

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota, 2013. 258 pp. Primary Advisors: Jeffrey Pilcher and Patrick J. McNamara.

Image: Secretaría de Educación Pública – Dirección General de Publicaciónes y Bibliotecas, “Presagios,” México: historia de un pueblo, vol. 1 (Mexico City: Editorial Nueva Imagen and Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo, 1980). Photo by Author.

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