Elena Albarrán

In January 2015, Professor Albarrán published a historical study entitled Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism (University of Nebraska Press).

Q: What was the inspiration behind your book?

EA: During my undergraduate and graduate careers, I studied, lived, and traveled extensively in Mexico. I was always struck by the child-centered nature of the country, on one hand, and the high visibility of child poverty and socioeconomic inequality, on the other hand. After trying multidisciplinary approaches to understand the phenomenon, including anthropology and art therapy, I realized that History provided me with the right tools for me to engage with this lingering query.Elena Albarran  

Revolutions often result in a transformation of the relationship of the state to its citizens. Following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the new government engaged in a comprehensive effort to incorporate the wider population into national politics, economic production, and culture. This was carried out through the vast and deep expansion of the education system. Since children were the primary targets of this system, I wanted to know how they experienced the major cultural innovations that inundated them in the decades following the revolution.  

I found evidence of children’s participation in the construction of cultural nationalism in the following domains: puppet theater, radio programming, the art curriculum, children’s magazines, children’s political conferences, literacy campaigns, Boy Scouts, and the Junior Red Cross. These sources allowed me to draw the conclusion that during the period 1920-1940, there was an unprecedented opening of physical and cultural spaces for children, and that resulted in more visible participation of children in the process of nation building. They sometimes embraced, other times rejected, and oftentimes misunderstood the official rhetoric of cultural nationalism that was directed at them.  But importantly, this period was also marked by quite uneven access to the child-centered cultural domain—often marginalizing the rural and indigenous children from the modernizing auspices of the Mexican education program.

Q: Where did you do research for your book?

EA: I conducted nearly all of my research in about a dozen archives in Mexico City, and a few libraries and archives in the U.S. I love the adrenaline rush (yes, the pursuit of history can actually produce adrenaline!) of tracking down a rare book, piece of correspondence, or periodical. Much of my source material for one chapter came from a popular children’s magazine from the 1920s that had been printed on cheap paper; most issues had not survived.  It was not held by any archive in Mexico City. Somehow I got linked to a “dealer”—an antique book dealer, that is—who contacted me whenever he had a lead on an issue of this elusive magazine that turned up whenever he received a new estate sale. I would receive furtive texts from my dealer, and I would flee social situations to meet him at a plaza or street corner to exchange cash for these treasured magazines.  

Q: How did your teaching and/or students influence this project? Albarran group

EA: It’s worth mentioning that when I started research on this project, no grant agency would fund it. At the time, childhood studies were in their infancy—pun intended—and a dissertation/monograph that prioritized child-produced sources (drawings, letters, marginalia, speeches, autobiographies) was considered untenable or trivial.  Since then, the field of childhood studies has exploded. It has led me to conferences and collaborations beyond Mexico to Sweden, Hong Kong, Germany, and Argentina. I have taught two childhood-related capstones in History and Latin American Studies. And I’ve just joined the organizing committee of a newly-formed network of historians of Latin American childhood. We signed the governing document yesterday in Buenos Aires. 

Albarrán photo caption (Dr. Albarrán is front row, second from left):
Dr. Albarrán with the rest of the founding members of the Red de Historiadores de las Infancias en América Latina (or Network of Historians of Latin American Childhoods) taken after our inaugural meeting in April 2015 in Buenos Aires. The group was made up of delegations from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. As one of the Brazilian members said, "This is a historic moment."