El pelado y ‘la desnudez de México:’ Reading Urban Poverty with Salvador Novo and Agustín Yáñez

Document Type


Presentation Date


Conference Name

65th Annual Kentucky Foreign Language Conference

Conference Location

Lexington, KY


The paper examines the role that urban poor played in discourses of national identity in the post-revolutionary period in Mexico (1920-1950). As Mexico emphasized its indigenous, rural past while at the same time becoming increasingly urban during its process of modernization, the underpinnings of a “proper” or “autochthonous” national identity were also necessarily questioned. These tensions are perhaps best exemplified in what Guillermo Sheridan has called the “dilemma” of “formative” and “speculative” models of the “national soul” (57). While the former saw itself as prescriptive, this “speculative” model of national identity, in which “la nacionalidad se convierte … en una interrogación más sobre la naturaleza de la creación individual, no en su bandera ni en su coartada” (49) would rather be descriptive and would be carried forward by the avant-garde authors associated with the Contemporáneos group. As such, their association with the cosmopolitan, the foreign and the apolitical, emerges instead as a “mexicanidad … como borradura” (Sheridan 45). I place into dialogue this “mexicanismo por borradura” (48) that Sheridan attributes to the Contemporáneos in general and Salvador Novo and Xavier Villaurrutia in particular with a seemingly opposite current in Mexico: “la desnudez de México” (Yáñez xix),the condition that characterizes the pelado, Mexico’s urban poor who are, as the novelist Agustín Yáñez would assert, “el mexicano en estado de naturaleza” (xxvi). Taking up the figure of the avant-garde artist and the pelado, “mexicanidad como borradura” and “mexicanidad en toda su desnudez”, I argue that the urban poor, presented in the form of the pelado in post-revolutionary Mexico, can be understood as a supreme national paradox, simultaneously articulated as the essence of national identity and as the central obstacle for Mexico as it sought to produce itself as an authentic source of “universal culture” that would be understood as equal to, rather than an imitation of, European and North American forms of cultural modernity. For this paper, I rely on Yáñez’s “Estudio preliminar de El pensador mexicano” (1940) and Novo’s Ensayos (1925), En defensa de lo usado (1934) and Nueva grandeza mexicana (1946).


Mexico, urban poverty, nationalism, avant-garde, realism


Arts and Humanities | Latin American Literature | Spanish and Portuguese Language and Literature

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