López Mateos, Gringophobia, and the Battle for the Soul of the PRI

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:40 PM
Wrigleyville Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Andrew Paxman, Millsaps College
When Adolfo López Mateos became Mexican president in 1958, he encountered a slowing economy, agitated unions, and a geopolitical environment shaken by Fidel Castro. Mateos’ sexenio would prove a time of conflicting policies.  He confronted protest with an iron hand, then he showered the poor with social spending and land grants.  Alone among hemispheric leaders, he refused to sever relations with Cuba, yet he remained friendly with the United States.  If there was a consistency to López Mateos’ tenure it was less conservatism or socialism than political and economic nationalism.

The seeming policy contradictions owed much to ideological turbulence.  The rightist, neo-Alemán and leftist, neo-Cárdenas wings within the PRI battled for the soul of the party.  Each wing could cite empirical evidence, but with the USA and Cuba inflaming passions, the debate between Alemanists and Cardenists often shifted to the rhetorical realm.  Left-wing rallies goaded crowds to chant “¡Cuba sí, yanquis no!”  Right-wing crowds countered “¡Cristianismo sí, comunismo no!”  Leftist cartoonists satirized businessmen with ugly caricatures; conservatives depicted Cárdenas as Mao.  Amid the bombastic swirl stood a gringo lightening rod, William O. Jenkins, reportedly Mexico’s richest man.  As a capitalist, monopolist, cultural imperialist, flouter of rules, and target of public excoriation since his infamous kidnapping in 1919, Jenkins – or rather, his public persona – offered the most visible target for “gringophobia.”

This paper, illustrated with political cartoons, considers the role of anti-U.S. rhetoric in general, and anti-Jenkins rhetoric in particular, in the ideological battles of the López Mateos era, which coincided with the last years of Jenkins (1878-1963).  I argue that Jenkins-bashing was a persuasive tool for leftists seeking to gain nationalistic high ground and foster opposition to the more conservative policies of the PRI.  I locate the phenomenon within broader trends of politicized anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism since 1917.