Penny presses’ printed poetry

Inside the cheap sensationalistic papers of the early 1900s Mexico, Robert Buffington discovered evidence hinting toward a “gender revolution.”

Growing up in the Southwest, the University history professor was heavily influenced by Hispanic-Mexican culture. Pursuing his interests in Mexican history, Buffington looked to the four-paged, “penny-press” publications to learn about the working class’s views on politics and criminal behavior.

But what he found was romantic poetry and prose.

What he learned was that these working-class men were redefining who they were, and that who they were depended on the women they were with and the women in their lives.

Before this period, the defining relationships for men were intimate, non-sexual relationships with other men, Buffington said.

But as the working class struggled to make ends meet, it was essential for women to work. Whereas traditionally women’s public lives were in the marketplace and men bonded in the cantinas, they now worked side by side, Buffington added.

Looking to study and publish these findings in a more in depth manner, Buffington was given a $40,000 grant through the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Having already published a book on the Mexican criminal justice system and authoring an encyclopedia on contemporary Mexican history and culture, his latest work will be called “A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: Mexico City 1900-10.”

Looking from the perspective of these men, Buffington’s book will address the overall attitudes of Mexican men in dealing with the new trends.

Having studied Mexican literature around the same time period, romance language professor Amy Robinson said that the literature she has read often depicted men building their identity off of a woman’s moral failures or death.

Robinson said she believes that Buffington’s work will “eventually open up another way to read all sorts of texts in that period and rethink all sorts of ideas about the Mexican working class’ ideas and more importantly how it’s gendered.”

And Buffington feels part of the rethinking of these ideas is the desire of visibility.

“Mexican working class men were trying to become visible in society and be acknowledged as important contributions to society, as citizens,” he said.

Buffington said the men experienced a lot of attitude changes, “attitudes towards work and leisure, modern love and homophobia.”

While men were perceiving women as more important in their lives and being defined by their relationships with their wives, mothers and sisters, they also could be moved to great violence on new motives.

Buffington said that traditionally violence against women was believed to stem from economic stress, but he feels otherwise.

“The argument I’m making is that women suffered from violence because the role they play in men’s psyche,” he said.

Buffington added that it wasn’t just a man worried about his reputation if he felt disrespected, but “a loss of self in face of female betrayal.”

“Part of what happens when women become crucial to who you are when they don’t cooperate for some men that creates a crisis of being. You would be shattered,” Buffington said.

In the penny presses, Buffington found statements by men like ‘better to give the blow that kills then to be killed by the blow.”

“That reasoning is just as true for men now as it was for working class men then,” Buffington said.

And these attitudes and experiences, both positive and negative still exist today, he added.

“The first notion for modern masculinity experiences haven’t changed all that much and we’re still going through them,” Buffington said. “This notion that for men to be men they have to be involved in some hetero relationship is very important to them.

And these ideas are shared by many people in the United States, Buffington said. While he believes the shift in gender relations began somewhat earlier in American cities, the same values and perspectives still apply.

But looking at another culture, “allows us to step outside our own involvement of those experiences,” Buffington said. When light is shed on other cultures’ history, people gain insight into their own, he explained.

About Buffington’s work with these sources, Robinson said, that “by using these sources he can see the working class perspective from the inside.”

And right now he sees those similarities in both American and Mexican culture. And as he looks into gender roles, the University professor doesn’t want to be mistaken for only caring about the masculine role. He said it is simply difficult to know women’s positions because the literature of the time was written by and for men. And these are the literary references he has to go on besides a few court cases mentioning women.

He said this isn’t the first time someone is studying the penny presses for knowledge on politics and crime; it’s just the first time someone paid attention to the roles of gender and how important it was to a sense of male citizenship.