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Children, Poverty and Film in Mid-century Mexico

Poverty and Film in Mid-century Mexico

Luis Buñuel’s classic film Los olivdados (1950) has mesmerized me for quite some time; countless viewings of the film and its use in my history courses over the years have continued this fascination.  Buñuel’s gritty portrayal of poverty in mid-twentieth century Mexico City and the corrupting influence of urban environment won him a prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1951 and unleashed countless commentaries in Mexico and abroad.  The fascination with his work continues; at least two book-length examinations of the film in the last decade or so contain reproductions of his original script with Buñuel’s notes and his photographs used to research the city in preparation for the production.1

The fact that Buñuel, a Spaniard by birth but resident and eventual citizen of Mexico, produced such a scathing portrayal of Mexico’s youth led some to call for his expulsion from the country.  After conducting extensive research in Mexican periodicals from the era, the discovery of photographs and discourses of childhood in peril that paralleled Buñuel’s film merited further scrutiny.  Newspaper articles depicted images of mangy dogs superimposed over street children; the exact same image appears in the film near the tragic end.  In fact, Buñuel reportedly developed his idea for the film after reading an article about the brutal discovery of a child’s body found in a garbage dump. He later toured various parts of the city taking photos and notes about the conditions he encountered and consulted files of the Juvenile Court and the psychiatric department affiliated with it.2

While Buñuel’s depiction of juvenile delinquency and poverty certainly rang true for the most disadvantaged portion of the capital’s child population, it represented only part of the story told in print media in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  In this article, I demonstrate how both the depiction of children in peril and an idealized childhood experienced by more privileged children opened a public dialogue about how all children deserved to experience a protected childhood.  “Childhood and Modernity in Mexico City: Print Media and State Power during the ‘Mexican Miracle’” examines how photographers and journalists used languages of childhood to critique the ruling party in Mexico and the failure of the 1910 Revolution to bring about socioeconomic equality.

While Los olvidados is but one artifact from the era, it nevertheless provides the viewer with a haunting depiction of childhood in peril.  The film challenges practitioners and students of history to examine more closely the historical forces that caused social inequality in the past and its persistence in today’s world.


1. Carmen Peña Ardid and Víctor Lahuerta Guillén, Buñuel 1950: Los olviadados guión y documentos (Spain: Instituto de Estudios Turolenses, 2007); Agustín Sanchez Vidal, Gabriel Figueroa Flores, Rafael Aviña, and Carlos Monsiváis, Los olvidados: una película de Luis Buñuel(Mexico: Fundación Televisa, 2004).

2. Sanchez Vidal et al., Los olvidados, 35.

About the Author

Eileen Ford is associate professor of history at California State University-Los Angeles and author of “Childhood and Modernity in Mexico City: Print Media and State Power during the ‘Mexican Miracle’” in the next issue of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth.

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