Radio, Revolution & the Mexican State

A review of Wireless: Radio, Revolution, and the Mexican State, 1897-1938, by J. Justin Castro.

In Mexican history, the transitional period between the Porfiriato (1876-1911) and the consolidation of the revolutionary state (1917-1940) has been preponderantly studied as an era of rupture rather than continuity. The violent phase of the Revolution (1910-1920) beclouds the idea of looking at finer diachronic elements of society that survived the abrupt regime change. Certainly the use of technology in the process of state formation has been one of those overlooked. By examining the early years of radio technology, Justin Castro’s dissertation proves how official policies, which mostly focused on the control and expansion of wireless technology, were continuous with those first crafted by Porfirian officials and then reshaped by revolutionary leaders. His work recognizes the development of radio as a factor both decisive in the revolution’s outcome and central to government plans in both nation and state building processes. In seven chapters, Castro surveys forty years of radio technology, analyzing its progress, expansion, and use by central actors at different social, economic, and political realms.

The first chapter gives a snapshot of scientific experiments and the commercial antecedents of wireless technology before the arrival of radio devices to Mexico. He follows the story of this “child of many parents” from the earlier steps taken around 1820 by Hans Christian Oersted—a Danish physicist and chemist considered a pioneer in experimenting with electro-magnetic forces— to Heinrich Hertz—the first to achieve success in wireless communication—and Guglielmo Marconi, the one who saw it as a profitable business (p. 25). This section provides a lens onto the spread of a technology initially led by global imperial ambitions, scientific pioneers and commercial interests.

In Chapter 2 Mexico enters the scene. Radio technology, initially used by late nineteenth-century global powers as a tool to ensure control, expand trade relations and reinforce domination, became a crucial technology for the Díaz administration in its efforts to unify the nation and overcome regional challenges. Here the author provides us with a global picture of the history of wireless radio technology that contextualizes Mexico’s position in the world, and highlights its special relationship to the rest of Latin America. The quality of this comparative perspective, in particular, distinguishes Castro’s work from the rest of the literature on the subject.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide a comprehensive chronicle of the armed phase of the Revolution through the development and expansion of radio technology. In this regard, Castro makes an important contribution to areas of military history that remain obscure in Mexico’s historiography: strategy and equipment. Through a wide range of sources such as newspapers, magazines and official records from the Defense Ministry National archive, Castro follows every single reference to radio usage by all revolutionary factions. He describes rarely studied periods such as General Victoriano Huerta’s brief stay in the presidential office (1913-1914). Radio became one of the decisive factors in the triumphs of Generals Francisco Villa, Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón, who made it a crucial warfare technology during those years.

One important insight from Chapter 4 is Castro’s recognition of policy convergences between the Carranza and the Díaz administrations regarding radio technology as a means to counter the influence of the United States over Central and South America. His work also contributes to our understanding of Mexico’s foreign policy towards European powers such as Germany during this period. The creation of the Mexican Secret Service in 1918 and the establishment of the National School of Radiotelegraphy by the Carranza administration are two events analyzed by Castro that expand our knowledge of the actual technical groundwork of revolutionary authoritarianism at its earliest stage. Castro illustrates how control over radio technology actually aligns with the lineage of those revolutionaries who led the revolution and came out on top.

Chapters 5 and 6 interpret Álvaro Obregón’s ascent and fall as a watershed in wireless technology usage. Considering it a traditional tool of control and a weapon against enemies, the Obregonista administration turned to radio as a channel to popularize government policies. In this way, he systematized radio as a means to weaken enemies, extinguish rebellions, soften insubordinate factions, and ultimately control elections. The rise of broadcasting matched Obregón’s pragmatism and his sympathy for capitalist interests as he sponsored the formation of a mixed communication system—half private, half public. This period is also market by the emergence of radio amateurs and loyal radio entrepreneurs such as the Azcarraga family, which to this date has remained an important player in the country’s political scene. Castro’s analysis vividly illustrates that the long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship between the national industry of radio communication and the government was forged from the birth of the former. The period he examines must be recognized as a fundamental era of consolidation of what was going to be the longest-lasting political system in Latin America. In these years Castro sees continuity in radio policies pointing to diversification.

Privatization of certain areas of radio systems, private broadcasting, nationalistic promotion and monopolistic practices became official trends during the 1920s. Chapter 7 explains how such tendencies cemented the two columns of Mexico’s single-party system: a revolutionary culture of state and populist rhetoric. Castro closes his analysis with a review of significant events in radio broadcasting, such as Plutarco Elías Calles’s presidential inauguration and the story of General Saturnino Cedillo, the last caudillo to challenge the revolutionary party in 1938. He concludes by emphasizing the essential role played by radio in setting popular culture milestones such as the oil expropriation by Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938, which remains an important symbolic event in the people’s collective memory.

In sum Castro’s dissertation, and the book that would eventually result from it, definitely enriches the historiography on radio technology in Mexico and Latin America, both in English and Spanish. It contributes to this scholarship by shedding light on formerly unexplored archives and repositories, unveiling unknown aspects of larger social and cultural processes. On the other hand, far from his main influences Joy Hayes (Joy Elizabeth Hayes, Radio Nation: Communication, Popular Culture, and Nationalism in Mexico, 1920-1950. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000), and Roberto Ornelas Herrera (Roberto Ornelas Herrera, “Radio y cotidianidad en México, 1900-1930,” in Historia de la vida cotidiana en México. Volume V. Ed. Aurelio de los Reyes. Mexico: El Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006, pp. 127-169), Castro’s work moves the conversation forward as he demonstrates that radio technology was a crucial factor prior, during and in the aftermath of the Revolution. His extensive and meticulous research deepens our knowledge about the critical features of what Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer has called the institutionalization process of the Mexican state. (Lorenzo Meyer, Rafael Segovia, and Alejandra Lajous, Los inicios de la institucionalización: la política del Maximato. Mexico: Colegio de México, 1978). His well-crafted and well-supported argument ratifies that radio became one of the pillars of the single-party state that ruled from 1929 to 2000. Thus, Castro’s major contribution is explaining how this actually happened by looking at the early technical foundations of a wider social process, which involved the centralization of power and the creation of consent through technology.

Luis E. Coronado Guel
PhD Candidate
Latin American History
University of Arizona

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación, Fondos Gobernación and Presidentes, among others.
Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Fondo Revolucionario
Archivo Histórico de la UNAM, Fondo Amado Aguirre
Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso.
Newspapers, Magazines and Periodicals such as: Anales de la Asociación de Ingenieros (1902-1905), Revista de los Telégrafos Nacionales (1921-1922), and Revista Mexicana de Ingeniería y Arquitectura (1923).

Dissertation Information

University of Oklahoma, Norman. 2013. 344 pp. Advisor: Terry Rugeley.


Image: El Buen Tono ad, El Demócrata, 7 Aug. 1923, p. 12.

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