Discovering Consumer Culture in Porfirian Mexico

Dr. Steven Bunker
Dr. Steven Bunker

What began as an undergraduate research topic for Dr. Steven Bunker, associate professor in the Department of History, has become a nearly 20-year journey investigating the consumer culture in Mexico during the rule of President Porfirio Diaz (1876–1910), known as the Porfiriato. Bunker’s efforts have resulted in the publication of his first book, Creating Mexican Consumer Culture in the Age of Porfirio Diaz, which has garnered two national awards.

Bunker’s book earned the Thomas McGann Award for outstanding book published in Latin American studies in 2012 from the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies, the oldest organization of its kind. It also earned the 2013 Mexico Humanities Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association, which is the largest organization for Latin American studies scholars.

“This has been 20 years in the making,” Bunker said. “Having the book recognized by two award committees is the culmination and validation of nearly two decades of labor and intellectual development.”

Many scholars have discussed the rapid modernization during this time with a focus on politics and economic production. However, Bunker was interested in how ordinary citizens understood Diaz’s motto of “Order and Progress” and how their consumption habits reflected rapid changes happening in Mexico. His book is the first to analyze progress and economic changes during the Porfiriato through the lens of consumer culture.

Bunker became interested in Latin American studies as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he was in the honors program. His first seminar, which discussed revolutionary Latin America, was taught by an enthusiastic professor who used an interdisciplinary approach that incorporated sociology, anthropology, and geography. That professor became his undergraduate and master’s thesis advisor, and the training Bunker received shaped the methods he used in researching and composing his dissertation and first book.

He began his research by consulting archives in Mexico, France, and the United States, including newspapers in several languages. Some of his more unusual sources, including patent applications, advertising ephemera bought at flea markets, and business archives, gave him a picture of life for ordinary Mexicans.

This approach took him into areas that many historians have left alone. Bunker says there are huge areas that scholars do not pursue because it is seen as too mundane, too ordinary. While historians have given considerable attention to acts and sites of production, such as factories and workers, acts of consumption, such as shopping, have historically been dismissed as insignificant, despite the obvious economic, cultural, social, and political dimensions.

“Historians can be blind,” Bunker said. “Looking at everyday lives is seen as somehow unimportant, but it is important to me.”

Bunker theorizes that the everyday experiences of people provide a more telling picture of the rapid economic and cultural change that took place 40 years before the Mexican Revolution. The book overturns conventional wisdom that only the elite participated in the modernizing of consumer culture and demonstrates the popular and participatory nature of the Mexican modernizing process.

When doing research, Bunker says he likes to “cast a wide net” and does not limit himself to a predetermined notion of what he thinks he will find. The resulting scholarly outcomes are often more rewarding.

“Being in archives, or walking through Mexico City, and really getting into it is exhilarating,” Bunker said. “I like to think of history as a massive jigsaw puzzle, and you only see small pieces at a time, and I really love finding those pieces.”

Bunker’s next book focuses on Richard “Don Ricardo” Bell, an Englishman born in the 1850s who went on to become one of the most famous clowns in Mexico. Bunker argues that Bell was far more than just a clown. Rather, Bell was the most recognizable individual in that country and a nationwide iconic figure within a developing popular Mexican national identity.

In a period of rapid economic growth and material progress accompanied by vast disparities of wealth and poverty, not unlike the Gilded Age in the United States, foreigners received privileged treatment by the government but were seen as separate from the population. Bell, however, did not fit this characterization. For nearly three decades he delighted Mexican audiences with his clown persona, his horsemanship, and his ability to play any instrument, even a coffee pot. Mexicans from across the social spectrum embraced him for his knowledge of Mexican Spanish and his grasp of Mexican codes of humor and culture.

Bunker encountered stories of Ricardo Bell while doing research for his first book. After running across story after story about him in Mexican newspapers, he serendipitously uncovered a small archive on Bell at Texas Christian University, where Bunker was completing his Ph.D. The trove of photos, papers, and artifacts was donated by Edward Andre Bell Jr., one of Ricardo’s grandchildren, who taught Spanish at TCU from 1964 to 1977. The collection provides a sense of the historical memory held by the whole Bell family, who, after Ricardo Bell died in 1911, continued to perform until the 1920s.

Bunker views his new project, tentatively named Ricardo Bell and the British Clown Invasion of Latin America, as more than a biographical account of Bell’s life. He hopes to use Bell as a figure to convey a picture of the larger social and cultural transformations occurring in Mexico in the late 1800s. Bunker notes that after Bell’s death, Mexicans relied on memories of Bell for a variety of causes, including political. For decades, social critics used him to attack the government and the perceived direction of Mexican society. Mexican conservatives, waxing nostalgic about the idyllic pre–Mexican Revolution era, used Bell as a surrogate for Porfirio Diaz, who they openly admired in the post-revolutionary media.

<Bunker strives to write about interesting topics in an engaging way. In much the same way that his own professors were enthusiastic about their areas of specialty, Bunker brings his own unique passion to his scholarly work and his teaching at the Capstone.