Made on Rails in Mexico

by John Mraz

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 113-121
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

If the viewer does not know a photograph's contextual specificity, an image like this of a "Mexican riviter fabricating a boxcar" becomes reduced to an example of a "railroad worker." Photo by Hermanos Mayo. Riviters making boxcars, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 8 November 1944. Archivo General de la nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 1679.

The most recent offspring from the mating of historiography and technological media, video history—like all later children—has been defined essentially in relation to its older siblings. Thus, in one of the few essays which has attempted to wrestle with some of the thorny issues raised by this emerging discipline, David Ellwood warned that video history

"risks falling between two historiographical stools…oral history and film history."[1] [open notes in new window]

Ellwood was perhaps the first to point out the necessity of specifying the parameters of video history, a task which daily grows more important. This article hopes to make some small contribution to that endeavor. However, I must admit that I am considerably less concerned with "historiographical risks" than in trying to determine what this form of discourse about the past and present offers to historians, and in asking how we might go about wrestling it from the monopoly maintained by both commercial and State television producers — with their mercenary and officialist ends.

I doubt that I will have to spend much time or energy to convince readers that the "TV history" which dominates television screens is much more interested in ideological control and technical perfection than it is in conveying a real sense of the past, particularly that of the working class and, above all, that of the working class in the "backyard" of the United States. Technical perfection is neither neutral nor cheap; it is very expensive, and the costs are not only in money. Through such perfection, historians are intimidated from producing their own video histories.

Thus the field is left to those who know little of history, but are most informed as to how to obtain the enormous sums necessary to produce such "histories." Obviously, the history they propagate serves the interests of the ruling elites who make that money available. Historians' reviews of the major networks' lavishly produced "TV histories" abound with criticisms of their anachronism, inaccuracies, and triviality — faults palpably evident in the most important Mexican example, the officialist Biografía de poder ("Biography of Power"), shown extensively during 1987. However, although I know that such cursing of the darkness has it uses, I would prefer to call upon historians to light their own candles and begin using this sensuous, convincing, and entertaining medium to communicate the knowledge and understanding they have developed through their years of studying and teaching this discipline.

This low-angle, dynamic shot expresses the energy and optimism of the Workers’ Administration experiment. Photo of Riviters, Mexico, ca. 1930. Fondo Casasola, SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional del INAH.

Video history and oral history

Oral history now has enough of a tradition to have begun to define its disciplinary limits, and the use of videotape equipment in conducting interviews has apparently "engendered a great deal of controversy."[2] Evidently, much of this controversy has ranged around the manner in which the presence of videotape equipment "disrupts" the sensitive interpersonal context of an interview. While not wishing to minimize the effects of equipment presence, two observations of this criticism seem to be in order.

One: To assume such purity is to lose sight of the fact that every form of "rescuing" the past will have both limitations and advantages. Although video historians need to learn from the theoretical groundwork and methodological experiences of oral historians, the particular restraints imposed by recording and recounting the past with videotape will shape that historical discourse in specific ways. For example, it has been argued by some documentary filmmakers that the very presence of equipment and personnel necessary to film an interview can act as a "catalyst," what Jean Rouch described as a "psychoanalytic stimulant," that leads informants to take the situation more seriously and incites them to greater clarity and honesty — they become more, not less, of who they are.[3]

Two: The concern of oral historians with the phenomenological aspects of the interview situation may have limited their perspective of the ways interviews can he used to communicate about the past. It could he argued that they have tended to focus on the interview process, whereas the video historian is perhaps more concerned with editing those interviews into a history.

That is not to say, obviously, that video historians are unconcerned with the interview context. What goes on during the conducting of interviews is of great importance to the finished product, and I believe that "rapport" — that delicate, if difficult to describe, relation between interviewer and informant — is probably the primary mediation of video history's aesthetic. Poor rapport results not simply in a lack of information, it turns informants into wooden figures whose stiffness interferes with the audience's ability to learn from the history they are recounting. Oral historians commonly utilize their material in transcript form, a fact which saves them from the doubly-toilsome task which video historians have in fomenting the necessary rapport for interviews.

Hechos sobre los rieles / Made on the Rails

The Mexican Revolution was “made on rails.” To tell this story requires the historian to unearth and identify images. Photo: Women on top of railroad cars, Mexico, ca. 1915. Inv. 643154, Fondo Casasola, SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional del INAH.

In a country such as Mexico, personal and family relations are indispensable in establishing rapport. During the making of Hechos sobre los rieles: Una historia de los ferrocarrileros mexicanos, the close personal relations which the interviewer, Gloria Tirado, had maintained with several key figures in the history of the rairoad union — for example, Guillermo Treviño, Valentín Campa, Elías Terán, Juan B. Gutiérrez, and Miguel Aroche Parra — were as crucial in establishing rapport as were her family connections in the railroad town of Oriental.[4] These affinities were the key which allowed these individuals to open up in front of the camera: recounting anecdotes, telling jokes, openly criticizing the railroad union, and talking in great detail about the events which they have lived and know so well. These relationships also provided access to private photographic collections, as various informants allowed us to copy their photos and provided us with important information on these images, which were an integral visual element of the tape's aesthetic.

There was, as well, a political element in establishing rapport with the informants. With some exceptions, most of the national and local leaders interviewed were members of the Mexican Communist Party, a decision based on our desire to tell a very different story than is available in official histories, whether written or in the mass media. The fact that we came from the University of Puebla, an institution known for its leftist orientation, was important in allowing them to open up to us: they trusted us, and believed that the final tape would not betray that trust.

Here, it is useful to consider the texture offered by the variations between the interviews with those leaders and the rank-and-file workers we interviewed in the railroad town of Oriental. On the one hand, our intention was to develop a relation between the national history of the railroad workers and the micro-history of Oriental. On the other hand, it seemed to us important that the history we recounted was told not only through the mouths of the leaders, but from the perspective of the workers as well. One should not lose sight of the fact that several of those leaders came up through the rank-and-file, rising in the union through their militancy: for example, Campa and Treviño.

Nonetheless, there were significant differences between the perspective of the leaders and that of the Oriental workers. Perhaps the principle utility of the worker interviews was more that of revealing their "collective unconscious" rather than contributing to a specifically historical analysis. For example, although one of our intentions in the videotape was to demystify to some extent the exaggerated role assigned to Demetrio Vallejo in the strikes of 1958-59 (and the critiques leveled by Terán and Aroche Parra were of some use in this issue) the tendency of the workers to refer constantly to the "Vallejista Movement" reinforced the idea that those strikes were the work of one man. However, conscious of the importance of presenting what we might call a "popular historiography,"[5] and aware that an interview is a delicate relation, we chose not to contradict our informants and risk alienating them with questions that were not going to take us very far at any rate.

Video history and historical films

Such observations make us aware of the fact that video historians wear two hats. As oral historians, they have to be aware of the interview context, while as film historians they must focus on the medium as a communication tool. Nonetheless, I feel we should be careful not to be overly impressed with the apparent similarity of these two media. Film has much more visual resolution than video; in film, the image can "carry" the sound. With video, it is the opposite: sound is often of greater importance than the visual elements. It follows from this that video history is at least as closely allied with oral history as it is with film history, a position supported by the advantages which video offers when compared to film in conducting interviews. The great cost of doing interviews on film necessarily imposes limits. With video, interviewers can allow the interview to continue as long as they want, and they can conduct many more interviews.

Thus, it seems to me that, while film history will generally tend — and has in fact tended — toward the use of omniscient narration, it is the nature of video history to construct the historical narrative from interviews. Here, I would like to be as clear as possible about some of the implications of the differences between using omniscient narration and interviews (or participant narration). Although a narrative forged exclusively from interviews — as in cinema verité (the very name itself points to the danger) — may appear to be more objective, it is not. In fact, the very credibility which the interviews lend to the videotape may tend to interfere with the critical perspective which every good work of history ought to awaken in its audience. A narrative constructed from interviews may make it difficult to get beyond or behind the vision of those being interviewed. Thus, it becomes the task of the video historian to create a context which will distinguish between memory and history (a problem we will return to below).

It is also important to draw attention to the structural limitations that one confronts in attempting to construct a history through interviews. The director of the BBC series "The World at War," Jerry Kuehl observed that there is a tendency among informants

"to replace a candid, private version of events, with a sorter public version."[6]

For Kuehl, while interviews can appear to he very intimate, those which go into historical documentaries often make for a very formal and very public kind of history that is a good deal more circumspect. We like to believe that the rapport that we were able to establish with our informants in making Hechos saved us, to a large degree, from the generalized self-censorship that preoccupies Kuehl.[7] However, there was surely more than one occasion on which the fact that our informants were appearing before a camera conditioned their responses.

Another constraint in this discipline come from the sort of expectations that we have about what is a good screen presence; that is, the degree to which what we believe to be "good television" determines who we allow to tell the history. This issue of presence revolves around various considerations: For example, does the informant talk too fast or too slow? Do they speak clearly or are they difficult to understand. Is their's a popular or an academic language. Do you hear the "dental click" characteristic of many older informants? Do they move too much or do they appear to have no energy? Such questions make us aware of the fact that many times the people that appear on the screen to recount historical events are there, not because their interpretation is the best, but because their's is a TV presence to which we hay become accustomed. Finally, we must not forget the all-too-familiar phenomenon of informants who tell wonderful stories — passionate and colorful and full of anecdotes that illuminate the past and bring it to life — until the moment when we turn on the lights to begin taping them. Then, the faces become pallid and the histories monosyllabic. Obviously, they have been terrorized by the equipment, and cannot appear in the tape. Nonetheless, if it is necessary to be conscious of these structural limitations, it is important to remember that these are among the limits that define the discipline of video history.

Further, if the use of interviews and a cinema verité narrative do not necessarily assure greater objectivity, they do allow viewers to see and hear actual participants, and they may provide more historical detail: for example, information about the informants' sex, age, race, and class (something that can be gleaned from their clothing, as well as from their forms of speech.)[8] Moreover, interviews can provide access to elements absent from written sources, such as body language and voice intonation, volume, and rhythm.

Housing was a central demand of the 1958 strikes. For that reason, communist militant and railroad worker, Guillermo Treviño documented the poor conditions in which railroad families lived. Photo: Guillermo Treviño. Old train cars that serve as housing for railroad workers and their families, Puebla, 1958. Archive of Guillermo Treviño, Instituto de Ciencias Sociales-Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

These may tell us more about meaning than about facts.[9] For example, Miguel Aroche Parra provides a trenchant description of the significance attached to the greatest setback in the history of Mexican labor when he states,

"The railroaders' defeat in 1959 was a defeat for the labor movement, a defeat for the democratic movement, a defeat for the anti-imperialist movement, a defeat for the peace movement. That is the magnitude of the 1959 defeat."

Whether one agrees with Aroche Parra's hyperbole, it is indicative of the psychological impact of that event on its participants, something reinforced by the emotional charge evident in his vehement tone and passionate gestures.

Soldiers occupied the installations in an effort to impose the government’s will. Photo: Hermanos Mayo. Soldier and striking railroad worker, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 6 August 1958. Archivo General de la Nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 12636.

Aroche Parra's use of significant pauses, the lowering and raising of his voice, and his kinetic body motion — one hand cutting knife-like into the other as he recounts how U.S. President Eisenhower ordered his Mexican counterpart, Lopez Mateos, to "strike against the labor movement" — are an articulate demonstration of the feelings still moved by those memories. His intonation and movements are also a revealing embodiment of an expressive style typical of Mexican labor militants. Hence his physical presence conveys an element at once important to understanding the history of the Mexican railroad workers and impossible to convey except through the medium of a video (or film) interview.

Yet another instance during the filming of Hechos where an informant's reaction provided an interesting insight into Mexican culture occured during the interview with Guillermo Treviño. When I asked Treviño why the 1959 repression had been so brutal, I did so knowing that it he was going to he made uncomfortable by having to respond to me, a gringo, that it had been a result of Eisenhower's pressure on López Mateos. And, that is what happened: he said,

"Although I'd prefer not to have to say it, I think that the U.S. had a lot to do with what happened."

As a Mexican caballero of the old school, Treviño did not want to insult his "guest." But, as a tireless defender of social justice, he had to answer with what he thought was the truth. Here, the interview context served as a catalyst, provoking a behavior very typical of elder Mexican men.

Utilizing the interview as the narrative structure of a video history does not, however, assign to it a value such that the historian ought to fear "interrupting" the "flow of memory," as Ellwood noted some "extreme defenders" of oral history do.[10] In all forms of history, materials are selected by the historian in accordance with what he or she perceives as the truth to be conveyed. But, some oral historians have argued against the use of the "TV history" form in which "cutaways" to moving footage or photographs are usual. Here, the distinction between the "stereotypical" and the "particular" is of utmost importance. Producers of "TV history" are little concerned with communicating the particularity — i.e., the historical — of the specific event and period presented. They conduct a minimum of graphic research, and the result is the use of photos and moving footage time and again to illustrate some thesis, with little respect for the real context out of which these historical artifacts have been ripped.

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