The Jewish-American Writer Who Transformed U.S.-Mexico Relations

Diego Rivera sketch
Dance in Tehuantepec / Danza en Tehuantepec, a watercolor sketch by Diego Rivera, 1935.
via The Skirball Cultural Center
© 2017 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is currently highlighting the life and writing of Anita Brenner, a Mexican-born, American Jewish writer. Brenner was born in 1905 in Aguascalientes, and spent the majority of her life writing about the art and culture of Mexico, trying to bridge the gap between the U.S. and Mexico.

Brenner was ahead of her times, taking an anti-anthropological approach to explaining the art and culture of Mexico. Rather than differencing and “othering” Mexico as many other Euro-American writers of the time did, she instead explained and translated the art, aesthetics, culture, and history in humanizing and equal terms.

A 1930 review of Brenner’s book Idols Behind Altars wrote that it could “be described as a symphonic interpretation of Mexico through its arts and artists, from the unknown maker of the Aztec codex to the contemporary revolutionary artists who wears overalls and works eight hours a day painting huge frescos on the walls of public buildings,” a clear reference to Diego Rivera.

Anita Brenner

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

The reviewer goes on to describe how Brenner’s biography, background, and education make her unique: “Trained as an anthropologist at an American university, a journalist by profession, temperamentally a poet, Jewish background transplanted into the richest of Mexican experience, it is impossible to classify her or her book.”

Anita Brenner surrounded herself with a now-famous circle of artists including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. As such, she wrote about Mexican art and culture from both an insider and outsider perspective, at once able to make important cultural connections about Mexico, while also helping foreign audiences to understand it in a far more relatable way than other writers of the time. 

To this end, Brenner founded Mexico|This Month, a travel magazine that highlighted Mexico’s thriving arts, culture, and food. She hired artists and writers she admired to contribute and ran the magazine for an impressive 16 years. In 1977, three years after Brenner’s death, Beth Miller noted that she had “enlivened the cultural and social life of Mexico City and worked to increase and popularize knowledge about Mexico, both in the Americas and abroad.”  Miller’s interview with Brenner reveals the excitement Brenner had for making history relatable for people.

Trailblazing figures like Anita Brenner offer us a new perspective on the currently troubled relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Through Brenner’s eyes, readers can share in a delightful experience of Mexico that feels especially relevant now, more than 85 years later.

SaveSave


JSTOR Citations

An Interview with Anita Brenner

By: Beth Miller and Anita Brenner

Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe, Vol. 4, No. 1/2 (January-August 1977), pp. 113-118

Bilingual Press / Editorial Bilingüe

Reviewed Work: Idols Behind Altars by Anita Brenner

By: L. P. K.

Pacific Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 5 (May, 1930), pp. 508-509

Pacific Affairs, University of British Columbia

Ellen C. Caldwell

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and professor. She writes about visual culture, the arts, and popular media for publications including New American Paintings, KCET's Artbound, Riot Material, Desert Jewels, and more. Read more of her writing at eclaire.me.

Comments are closed.