Anita Brenner Shared Mexican Culture with U.S.

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor

A woman who invigorated a renaissance, celebrated a revolution and interpreted a culture, Anita Brenner is worth knowing.

“Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico” fits neatly into the Pacific Standard Time’s focus on Latin America at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The exhibit introduces audiences to a Jewish immigrant who found a comfortable place among artists and intellectuals in Mexico in the 1920s and vigorously promoted Mexico’s rich heritage and culture to American audiences.

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, 1935. Courtesy Collection of LACMA, from the Milton W. Lipper Estate

Brenner’s life path was shaped by her childhood, although like most of us, she wouldn’t value those early influences until she found her passions and gave voice to them.

When Anita was born, in 1905, her father was making his way to prosperity in Aguascalientes, a Mexican town booming with foreign capital from petroleum and vast mineral deposits. He had emigrated from Latvia in the 1880s with a big ambition and an eager entrepreneurial spirit.

Yet, it wasn’t long until the corrupt Mexican government fermented upheaval and the beginning of a decade of armed struggle exploded in the Mexican revolution (1910-20), radically transforming Mexican culture and government.

With the danger increasing, the Brenners left Mexico and relocated in San Antonio when Anita was seven years old.

She had settled happily in the outdoor freedom of her years in Aguascalientes, despite the isolation her family felt as immigrants and “not Catholics.” But nothing like the stigma that labeled her in Texas. She recalls in her diary being asked by her teacher, “What are you?” Taken aback, she replied, “I am an Israelite.” Up to that point Anita had been identified as “the little Mexican girl,” and had one friend. She lost that friend as soon as she became “the little Jew girl.”

In high school, despite suffering social isolation, Anita was respected intellectually, writing for the school newspaper and honing a fine debating skill. When she turned 18, still dreaming about Mexico, she persuaded her father to let her go to school in Mexico City; the armed struggle between the revolutionary leaders and the government was over.

Tina Modotti, Anita Brenner, c. 1926. Courtesy of the Witliff Collections, Texas State University

With an introduction to the head of the B’nai B’rith (oldest Jewish service organization in the world), Anita found a welcome entrée to the world of writers, artists and intellectuals, and finally a community.

“No snobbishness, prejudice, of any sort—racial, monetary, apparent,” she wrote to a friend. “How could there be, there are too many shades of skin and flag represented.”

Although the revolution was over, the country was unsettled, fluid and open for change: an opportunity that attracted various foreign intellectuals and artists to rebuild Mexico.

“Brenner associated with a group of people, all cosmopolitans,” says Skirball Curator Laura Mart. “Photographer Tina Modotti had worked in Hollywood; the French painter Jean Charlot, and Diego Rivera, who was widely traveled; muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, American photographer Edward Weston—it was a very diverse group of people with a lot of different perspectives and sense of identity.”

Mathias Goeritz, Satellite Towers, date unknown. Serigraph.
Courtesy of Collection of Ricardo B. Salinas Pliego

Brenner also valued her close friendships with women, especially Modotti, whose work she promoted. Concha Michel was a singer/songwriter who sang ballads during the Mexican Revolution and Mexican proletariat Marxist songs.

Luz Jimenez was an indigenous Mexican model and Nuhuatl-language storyteller who would take Brenner to visit her fam- ily in one of Mexico City’s rural boroughs, thereby giving her a connection to an indigenous community.

She also knew Frida Kahlo very well, Mart says, “They probably met in New York in the early 1930s. Anita helped get her work into galleries.”

Mexicans too began to revalue their own people, freed from civil repression and political stagnation of the era of President Porfirio Diaz. They turned to their indigenous roots, art and customs in what was coined the Mexican Renaissance. Anita embraced the movement and particularly the focus on indigenous artistic expression.

Jean Charlot, detail of mural The Massacre in the Main Temple, Mexico City, 1922-23. Photo: Jean Charlot Estate; photograph by Bob Schalkwijk

“To paint, to carve, to make something of color and form—this is a Mexican need,” she wrote in 1928. “Thinking and feeling in color and form, it is only through the things that Mexico makes that she can be clearly seen.”

In 1929, when she was 24 years old, Brenner wrote “Idols Behind Altars,” wherein she combined folklore and history to record her firsthand impressions of the artists, their work and their dramas.

Artists such as Rivera, Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros (Los Tres Grandes) and Charlot conveyed their political convic- tions in murals on government buildings around Mexico.

Rivera, who one of the most highly sought after artists of his time, lauded for his creative genius and his detailed paintings, was also a terrific self-promoter, Mart says. Feeling that all walls were his to paint, “he actually had some other people’s mural painted over, including those of Jean Charlot.”

“Cover” of Mexico/this month, February 1956.
Illustration by Vlady

A section of the Skirball exhibition focuses on Rivera’s mural commissioned by Nelson D. Rockefeller for Rockefeller Center’s soaring lobby in 1932, which was chiseled off before he completed it when politics, artistic visions and wealth collided in 1934.

Rivera refused to remove an image of Leon Trotsky from the scene.

Brenner passionately defended Rivera’s right of freedom of speech in a series of newspaper articles for the New York Times, calling Rivera “the fiery crusader of the paintbrush.”

With her work promoting artists, Brenner saw the value of contributing to society that not everyone could see. She used her many talents to help them, through her skills as a writer or even by purchasing their work when they were in difficult financial situations. Once she told Orozco that a collector had purchased one of his paintings, when in truth, it was she who had done so.

Responding to America’s thirst for knowledge about Mexico, she began writing tour guides. In 1932, she published the first guidebook, “Your Mexican Holiday,” which contained road maps, what to see, where to go and the main characters.

Building upon that success, Brenner funded a magazine, Mexico/this month, from 1955 to 1971, which had two purposes: to spread information about Mexico on a variety of different topics—festivals, bullfighting, sport fishing, real estate investments—and to intersperse articles on Mexican history with the aim to get people to learn something substantial about the country.

By the 1930s, the fervor for reform in Mexico was over. Anita returned to New York in 1932, where she launched her career as a politically active journalist. Two years earlier, she had married David Glusker, with whom she had two children. The couple settled in Mexico permanently in 1944 and ultimately separated in 1951.

In 1960, Anita returned to her birthplace, Aguascalientes, to take over operations of her family’s ranch. She set up a kind of collective community cultivating garlic, chiles and white asparagus. She died in an automobile accident in 1974.

Making Mexico seen, helping explain the Mexican culture, for so long disregarded, exploited or worse yet, ignored by the United States, was her mission. Throughout her life, in her writing, her support for Mexican artists and writers and in her books, Anita Brenner created a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico.

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