Macario Schettino: A hundred years of confusion. Mexico in the 20th century, 2008

Our post on the early 20th-century Mexican photographies by the Casasola brothers was also cited on the popular Metafilter, where a Mexican reader added this comment to the pictures:

“Really great pictures from a time that most Mexicans can’t really imagine, unless it’s in some form of cartoonish images from the “estampitas” we used to have to buy and paste on school homework.”

“Estampitas” literally means “small prints”, but in everyday life it is used for the popular little holy images used as bookmarks in prayer books or distributed by the priest after the Mass to the altar boys or for a good answer to the young catechist who endeavor to collect a complete series of them.

A series of estampitas by Don Francisco Esquieres from Lucban, Philippines, 1920

In Mexico, however, led from mid-19th century by militant anticlerical regimes, where the constitution accepted in 1917 and in vigor until 1991 oppressed any form of public worship to such an extent as only the French Revolution did before – Graham Greene’s Power and glory (1940) offers a glimpse into this –, the place of the forbidden “holy cards” was occupied by the new genre of the “revolutionary estampitas”. Several series were published with the portraits of the revolutionary heroes and their 19th-century predecessors, in a format similar to the earlier holy pictures, on the reverse describing their “vida, virtudes y milagros”, just as the holy images that of the saints. Schoolboys had to collect these pictures and stick them into their notebooks or pre-printed albums.

“When I was in school, we would sometimes get asked to go to the papelería (literally, a paper store; actually, an office and school supply store) and get estampitas, small cards with the image and explanation of some revolution war hero, or past presidents, or topics like patriotism and such. Usually the estampitas had a really idealized image at the front and the explanation in the back. We’d go buy them, paste them on a poster or something, and bring them to class to present them to the class.” – writes the above reader.

Estampitas with the portraits of President Juarez and the revolutionary “niños heroes”

The estampitas took over the function of the holy images to such an extent that the heroes represented on them started to be really adored as saints. The Ánima de Coyoacán blog presents in detail the holy cult around the revolutionary colonel “Saint Pacho Villa” together with the stamps spreading it.

“An authentic prayer to the spirit of Pancho Villa”. Below: Tomb of Pacho Villa and the ex voto pictures of those praying there for healing or other miracles

Since the 1960s many things have changed in Mexico, but the revolutionary estampitas and their heroes seem to be immortal. Nowadays they have their reflorescence, inspired by the revolutionary round anniversaries and the wave of nostalgia for the early 20th century. The Diario de Sueños blog presents a recently published album in which, according to the old custom, one can again stick the estampitas of the heroes.

And in the autumn of 2008, in preparation for the anniversary of the revolution – November 20, just like today – the fertile “Mitos y leyendas” card producer fed into the market a new deck entitled Insurgentes, on whose 140 cards the popular web designer, Genzoman created the new images of the revolutionary heroes, Zapata, Pacho Villa, the common soldiers and the soldaderas, adjusted to the graphic convention of our age. The series was acclaimed by the customers, and it will surely define their popular image of the revolution in the next years or decades just like the early estampitas did. And, just like they, instead of the photos by the Casasolas.