Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Josephy meets the Indian President, Lazaro Cardenas

Lázaro Cárdenas, presidente de México entre 1934 y 1940
In Alvin’s memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon, it sounds like his introduction to Indians is that chance 1951 or ‘52 meeting in Lapwai, Idaho, with the young Nez Perce man, Dan Stevens, Jr. With a nod, to be sure, to the Navajo code talkers he met in the Pacific in World War II.

He does talk about his meetings with Trotsky and President Cardenas in Mexico in 1937, but by the time of the memoir, written in 2000 and published in 2001, Trotsky loomed larger in his mind—and probably ours—than did the long ago Indian president of Mexico. We now have a copy of Alvin’s October 1937 piece on Cardenas in Literary Digest (thanks to intern Dave Struthers, who wound his way through webs to get to the story and get us a copy!). And how I wished I had seen and read it years ago!

It always astounds me that Alvin was 22 years old when he made that Mexico trip. He had a friend with a car and money enough, and a press pass from the New York Herald Tribune—with the offer to maybe buy stories and pay him by the column inch for what they published. He aimed at Trotsky, who was living in the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, dealing with his American secretary (the novelist Bernard Wolfe; Barbara Kingsolver deals with this in her novel, The Lacuna), from New York, and then, on the road in Mexico, sending him a requested list of questions before he finally got the interview. 

The arrangement with Cardenas was also worked out on the road, made with an undersecretary of foreign relations—the undersecretary had no use for the New York Times correspondent, Frank Kluckhohn, who he accused of rabble rousing against the Mexican government. So he arranged the interview with Cardenas, and also helped Alvin with a train trip around the country with the Minister of Finance, a tour celebrating the results of a radical land reform program.

The important fact today is that Lazaro Cardenas was the President of Mexico and he was an Indian! He had nationalized oil companies, which made him a potential bad guy on our side of the border. And he had reduced the military’s budget and increased spending on education! One last interesting tidbit—Cardenas deported a bunch of corrupt government officials to the United States. His ideas meshed nicely with Josephy’s own political conversion to Roosevelt and the New Deal. But let’s hear what Alvin had to say in his October 1937 article in Literary Digest:

LAZARO CARDENAS is today more than President of Mexico. He personifies a peculiar nationalism, first aroused in 1910 and known now as the Revolution—with a capital "R." Cardenas represents the latest and most sweeping phase of a 400-year struggle to give Mexico back to the native Indian.

Halfway along in his administration and barred by law from running for reelection in 1940, Cardenas is taking great strides along a path of reform, mapped for him back in 1910, when sweat-begrimed peons marched out of the fields to the strains of "La Cucuracha," behind the revolutionary flag of Land and Liberty. Today, by the sons of those peons, this big, broad-shouldered man, with the dark skin of a fullblooded Tarascan Indian, is regarded as the Mexican Revolution come true….

Talking recently with Cardenas gave me the same impression. Very reserved, Cardenas is a sharp contrast to most nationalist rulers. As a democrat, he abhors ostentation. When he fell in love with his wife, he postponed their wedding until it could be performed without political fanfare….

Cardenas isn't interested in… foreign claims. In 1500, he says, all Mexican land belonged to the Indians. From 1500 to 1910 that land was stolen from them by foreigners without compensation. Cardenas does not recognize the period from 1500 to 1910. As far as he's concerned, all land in Mexico still belongs to the Indians

As I said, Alvin was 22.  He had done a prodigious amount of research for the interviews while still in the States, background research about the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War when he asked Trotsky whether he would participate in a United Front in Spain. He knew about the Mexican revolution and Cardenas’s rise to power.

And he knew that Cardenas was an Indian. And I never got to ask him what kind of influence that had on his later life as historian and Indian advocate.


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