November 2015 Archives

Oscar Lewis’ Mexico City

By Emilio de Antuñano, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History

My dissertation studies Mexico City’s growth in the years between 1930 and 1950, analyzing how different groups shaped the transformation of Mexico’s capital and—perhaps more significantly—were shaped by it. These questions first led me to Mexico City’s municipal archives, where I spent months looking at documents that recorded the conflicts between urban planners, government officials, political brokers, and associations of urban residents at a time of unforeseen urban growth. For the most part, these documents seemed bureaucratic and dry, in stark contrast with the boisterous corner of the streets of Cuba and Chile where the Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México stands. The movement and the noises of the street offered a reminder of life, a life which I was unable to find amidst the dusty papers of the archive, particularly during the initial months of my research.

This past summer, my research took me to a very different site, only two hours away from Chicago: the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the Oscar and Ruth Lewis Papers are located. Trained as an anthropologist, Oscar Lewis wrote extensively about small, “traditional” communities, cities, and the migration from one to the other that so deeply transformed the twentieth century. Ruth Lewis, a psychologist, conducted research alongside her husband, often gaining entrance into domestic spheres closed to him. Most significantly for my own research, Oscar and Ruth Lewis spent the larger part of the 1950s in Mexico City, studying the culture of the poor in Mexico’s infamous vecindades; two books—Five Families (1959) and Children of Sánchez (1961)—are the direct outcome of this research. The Oscar and Ruth Lewis Papers hold a trove of wonderful ethnographic material: interviews, life histories, photographs, statistics, and detailed descriptions of some of Mexico City’s neighborhoods. As a whole, these materials provide a unique window into the life of Mexico City’s poor residents at the time.

Lewis travelled to Mexico City in 1951, after conducting extensive fieldwork in Tepoztlán. His findings there challenged the traditional, homogenous, and static community that anthropologist Robert Redfield had theorized through his concept of the “folk society.” Instead of stability and harmony, Lewis discovered a town rife with conflict and change, as illustrated by the migration to Mexico City. “I want to study the influence of “city people” [migrants from Tepoztlán in Mexico City] on Tepoztlán and vice-versa,” wrote Lewis in 1944 while explaining his new project to Ernest Maes. “Furthermore, Mexico City now has a population of about two million. Of these at least a million are from the out-skirts, from rural areas. In this sense the colony of Tepoztecans may be representative of many country people who came to Mexico. We should know what happens to these people when they come to the city." (1)

Lewis’ papers illuminate how his experience in Tepoztlán—as an anthropologist studying a “primitive” culture—shaped the questions that he posed to Mexico City. There, Lewis conducted most of his research in a few blocks of Colonia Morelos, a universe that in his writings appears as self-contained and that he would get to know intimately. This vantage point is crucial for understanding his ideas; although many of the people that he met led lives full of adventure and movement—migrating from Mexico City to the United States, or from Tepoztlán to Mexico City—reading his books it sometimes seems that they always came back to the streets of Colonia Morelos, crossed by kinship ties. Based on this vantage point, Lewis argued that migrants in Mexico City did not suffer from the loneliness and alienation that sociologists expected but, on the contrary recreated relationships that could be traced back to their towns of origin.                                  

The transcripts of The Children of Sánchez are, arguably, the highlight of the archive. This book is divided in four parts, each of them telling the story of one of Jesús Sánchez’s four children—Jesús’ own life story opens and closes the book. The book is written from a first-person perspective, extracted from the hundreds of hours of interviews that Oscar, Ruth, and their research assistants conducted. Woven together, these stories provide an extremely layered and nuanced history of a family (the reader gets, for instance, four or five viewpoints of significant events in the family history). Lewis claimed that he chose his informants based on their talent as storytellers and their fascinating lives but his presence in the transcripts of the interviews is evident. By interviewing the Sánchez, befriending them, and editing their voices, Lewis wrote a book that resembles a novel—this is not incidental, he discussed literary matters with John Steinbeck and took the Sánchez to an O’Neill play, in order to “help them see the level” he was after (2). The lines between art and method, fiction and social science, are very hard to draw.

These meditations struck me as I read the transcripts of Lewis’s long interviews with the Sánchez and realized that they do not include the names featured in the book—Jesús, Manuel, Roberto, Consuelo, and Marta Sánchez—but, rather, the “real” names of the people whose lives the book so intimately describes. (The names were changed to protect the identity of the family, mostly a futile measure, as some of the “Sánchez” embraced the limelight and acquired relative fame). Reading these names stirred me; they seemed capable of bringing me one step closer to the past. And this feeling only grew, becoming almost unbearable, when I discovered a folder with photographs of the “Sánchez.” Lewis was a marvelous photographer. He looked at his subjects as equals and friends, without distance or condescension. The portraits seemed familiar, as if picturing someone we knew, as if the camera was not betraying the people in the book. The relationship between words in print and images was uncanny.

Viewing these photographs represented a deeply touching experience. It was, in many ways, the reverse of my earlier experience at the Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México. Urbana-Champaign is a quiet and bucolic college town; Lewis’ archive is located around its southern fringe, in a library annex by a park that gently transforms into an endless landscape of cornfields. Nothing could be further apart from the busy corner of the streets of Cuba and Chile—or from the streets that Lewis described and photographed. Life seemed richer within the archive this time, amidst the papers and photographs.                                      

Sketch of Colonia Morelos. Unknown author. Oscar and Ruth Lewis Papers, 1944–1967. “Peluqueros Census Data” (1956). Box 124.



Sketch of Colonia Morelos. Unknown author. Oscar and Ruth Lewis Papers, 1944–1967. “Peluqueros Census Data” (1956). Box 124.                                                      



(1) March 9, 1944. Quoted in Susan M. Rigdon, The Cultural Facade: Art, Science, and Politics in the Work of Oscar Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 198. 

(2) Oscar to Ruth Lewis. July 1957. The Cultural Facade, 219. 

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.