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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Yugoslavia’s secret weapon against Soviet influence: YuMex culture

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Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz describes himself as a Rednexican who hails from Ciudad Juárez, an adopted Tennessean, an amateur historian, and an average basketball player currently living in Costa Rica. He can be contacted at alvaroamadormu@gmail.com or via Twitter @AlvaroAmadorM.
President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, right, is showered with confetti, as he and Mexican President Luis Schevarria wave to the crowd at the beginning of a five-day official visit in 1975. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Mexico City is bursting with statues and monuments, from Abraham Lincoln to a monumental clock donated by the Turkish government. These monuments might seem random to the eyes of foreign visitors, but they are a testament to the richness and complexity of Mexican history. 

During my daily commute, one statue always caught my attention. It is dedicated to Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito. 

I was intrigued because I found the statue to be a bit odd-looking. It also started me thinking about what links could have possibly existed between Mexico and the former Yugoslavia. I did not know much about Mexico-Yugoslav relations. A quick Google search surprised me with images of mariachis and a Slovenian author named Miha Mazzini and his novel Paloma Negra.

In his novel, Miha Mazzini narrates how the inhabitants of a remote Yugoslavian village, influenced by the several Mexican movies seen in the itinerant cinema, adopted cultural characteristics of movie characters in the bigger-than-life stories of heroes, bravery, and romance. They imitated their favorite characters’ garments and traditions and even founded their own Mariachi band.

During an interview, Mazzini explained that he came up with the idea of writing Paloma Negra because he was moved by and triggered by recurrent findings of Yugoslav mariachi-looking LP covers in flea markets in ex-Yugoslav countries and by the lack of information to explain these rare discoveries. Frustrated by the scarce literature about the Yugoslav mariachis, Miha opened a website and asked people to share any information, stories, and Mexican-inspired materials from the former Yugoslavia. 

Miha received an overwhelming number of responses on this new website. People were reaching out to share memories of their parent’s favorite Mexican-sounding songs during the 50s and 60s, requests from relatives of dying elder Yugoslavs wanting to hear their favorite tune on their deathbed, and even a note from the owner of a nightclub in Sweden telling how his customers from ex-Yugoslav countries, after few drinks, always sang Mexican songs.

Thanks in part to his curiosity, we now have more information about how and why there was such a craze for Mexican culture in Yugoslavia during the 1950s and ‘60s. This Mexican-inspired cultural movement is now called YuMex and has its origins in the heart of modern Mexican identity. 

A music album in 1967 shows how cultures met. Photo: Courtesy

The Mexican revolution

Mexico had a revolution in 1910. A revolution where the poor peasants, weary of the tyranny of the dictator Porfirio Diaz and armed with nothing but rusty rifles and machetes, defeated the well-uniformed republican army. Thanks to the incredible bravery of Pancho Villa and the mustached Emiliano Zapata, Diaz fled to France in 1911, and the victors established a prosperous and democratic new order. This is the overly romanticized picture of the Mexican revolution that became part of the Mexican identity and, for a reason I explain below, lifted the revolutionary spirit in faraway places around the world.

At the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, Mexico was divided, morally broken, and struggling to find a national identity. In 1920, the Secretary of Public Education, José Vasconcelos, conceptualized a Mexican identity created around the imagery and values of the Mexican Revolution. Vasconcelos then persuaded the Mexican government to finance a promotion and dissemination campaign through art forms like painting, cinema, music, etc. Vasconcelos’ plan worked better than he anticipated. The romantic narrative of the Mexican Revolution not only created a strong unified identity in Mexico but also created a source of Mexican soft power through the work of muralists such as Diego Rivera, Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. 

The film industry was not the exception and also thrived under the plan. Mexico produced countless films, most of them related to stories and melodramas during the Mexican Revolution. These films also reached faraway places like Yugoslavia. 

But why did Yugoslavs love Mexican films? Were the Mexican films better than Hollywood or European films? Well, the Mexican revolutionary films certainly resonated in the hearts and minds of grieving, freedom-searching nations. Nothing more emotive than an image of Pancho Villa leading his cavalry through the war fumes and dust while screaming “viva la revolución!” Right? But it also helped that Tito decided to adopt Mexican culture to offset East and West influence.

After World War II, Yugoslavia was devastated, and its relationship with the USSR was less than affable. In the late 1940s, Tito’s clashes with Stalin caused the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Eastern Bloc (Cominform), and Tito prohibited Soviet music and films that could spread Soviet propaganda. Tito’s antagonistic position against the USSR left Yugoslavia isolated in the middle of the cold war. It was a socialist country with no ties with the Kremlin but also against the capitalistic principles of the US and the West in general. 

One of his close generals, general Mosa Pijade, had an idea to fulfill the cultural needs of the Yugoslavian people by importing films from Mexico. Mosa had lived in Paris and had been exposed to Mexican art. He believed that Mexican revolutionary films mirrored the Yugoslav spirit of freedom, but most importantly, they were cheap to import and distribute. Tito said “si” to this idea and instructed his government to only show Mexican revolutionary films in theaters around Yugoslavia. Yugoslavs overwhelmingly welcomed the new Mexican melodramas and music, and soon after, Yugoslav musicians were singing in Spanish, or translated lyrics into Serbo-Croatian, and creating their own Mariachi songs.

The euphoria for Mexican culture did not last long and by the 1960s it started vanishing with the gradual cultural opening of Yugoslavia. The YuMex movement slowly disappeared and now it is nothing but a memory in the mind of the older generations.

I am always amused about how rich and intricate Mexican history is and how little we seem to know about how far its influence reached. I hope I am lucky enough to find one of those YuMEx LPs myself one of these days. Now, as a history geek, there is something that is still not clicking for me. Didn’t anyone tell Tito that the Mexican Revolution was about overthrowing a dictator like himself? This proves my point: History does not lie but you can certainly lie using history.

The land free, the land free for all, land without overseers and without masters. — Emiliano Zapata

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