By Guest Contributor Hodson, cross-posted from Beyond Victoriana
Note: This article is also available to read in Spanish on El Investigador’s website / Este artículo está disponible para leer en español. Thanks go out to El Investigador’s Editor-in-Chief Araceli Rodríguez, and magazine writers Hodson and Miguel for their time and effort in getting this piece together for Beyond Victoriana.
There are many reasons why the Victorian era is considered the Golden Age of the British Empire. Not only the economic and social stability came at a time where social inequalities were as big as scientific advances, but the huge explosion of advances in production, communications, and transportation allowed the existence of a global colonial government facilitated by the ability to improve the response time of all regional governments.
At a time when the great modern empires grew and spread across five continents populated by man, Victorianism quickly became the spirit of the time. The idea of progress and mastery of time through greater efficiency in transport and production was a constant among all the nations of the world, and those who had the power to launch big technology and conquest ventures had secured a bright future in the international area.
The Victorian era was undoubtedly the light bulb that shines light upon this century. It was the time when big government combined a vision of the future and the present into an immediate moment that inspired prosperity and development.
For those living in First World countries, it is easy to imagine a glorious past that never ceased to be, and it is done through an alternate technologically advanced reality. Whether it’s a world of steam or of world war, to imagine that moment of past glory is not a particularly difficult endeavor.
But I dare to say that for those who live this kind of retro-futurism from the Third World, must be a little more difficult to imagine a glorious past drawn from the very distant past of their own 19th century. Just remember that the Victorian era was the era of colonialism. The steampunk retro-futurism of the Victorian era in England is diametrically different from Latin American’s Victorian era, for example, at least conceptually.
This is often reflected in the very limited amount of retro-futuristic works that are created in Latin American countries using their own past in comparison with the big paraphernalia based on countries such as England, France, Germany, Spain, United States, Russia, China, Japan, or Italy, which were at the forefront of history when talking about colonization.
To think about a glorious Victorian era effected countries like Mexico, which faced a period of transitional changes, is a little harder for people. The 19th century was when Mexico was born as an independent country in a continent that began to break away from the domination of Europe and when the borders of the new Latino nations began to take their shape.
By 1821, Mexico had just achieved independence, and the country first attempted to establish an imperial government under the figure of Agustín de Iturbide–the first and only recognized Emperor by Mexican government, but who was later exiled by his own independence movement because of political and social disagreements–and this established the first Republic of Mexico.
The independence of Mexico triggered the independence of eight different countries. After the fall of the first Mexican Empire, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the republics of Yucatan and Chiapas, which later were re-annexed to the Republic of Mexico, declared independence. The Republic also still retained the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and southern California.
Therefore, while nations such as England, France, Germany, and the United States experienced an economic, technological, and military boom, Mexico just began to forge an identity, and its first attempts as a nation were led by military forces rather than by democratic statesmen. One such an attempt at political rule was embodied by the eleven non-consecutive times General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna ruled the country in Mexico’s first 40 years as a country. His administration gave adjustments to the domestic and foreign policy of the country: some of them were ridiculous, such as the tax collection based on the doors and windows in each house.
Others were foreign-policy disasters such as the war against the United States in 1846 and 1848. The first war was driven first by the separation of Texas. Later, he led the campaign which ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ceded the territories later known as California, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma to the United States for a ridiculously small amount of $15 million dollars, though the amount of land was more than half of Mexican territory.
Following these wars and the overthrow of Santa Anna, the Mexican Magna Carta was rewritten, thus beginning a period of political reforms that lead to the success of the federalist state led by President Benito Juarez. The re-founded Republic is threatened again, however; this time by the French invasion and the creation of the Second Mexican Empire, which tried to set up Maximilian of Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico.
It is during the Franco-Mexican War that granted Mexico its only major military victory in the nineteenth century. On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces clashed with French troops on the outskirts of Puebla, under the command of the General Ignacio Zaragoza. They managed to defeat the invaders.
From that victory, the people of Mexico were filled with a renewed spirit in their resistance against the invaders. Guerrillas were constantly undermining the French army, and the change in the European political scene allowed Mexico to be triumphant in the War of French Intervention in 1867.
Unfortunately, the weakened Mexican state suffered under a new military and political movements afterwards, which led to the creation of the dictatorship of the General Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1910. Ironically, this time period also ended up being the peak time of Mexican economic growth and technological development.
Interestingly, it is this point in history that many Mexicans use as basis for its aesthetics and steampunk characters. This later time period that we know of as the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century also acted like a late call to join the spirit of technological renovation and industrialization that had been held by the European powers. The Mexicans of the late nineteenth century conceived many elements of progress and technological heritage from the French, who were a major presence in the country’s development during this century. Both the fashion and lifestyle, cuisine, style of education, politics, economics, and technology came from the French style.
From this period the phenomenon of Mexican historical revisionism for steampunk can be established. In the world of parallel realities, Mexican steampunk can be drawn from their experiences of the Old West for their own use, taking advantage of the weakness of political boundaries during America’s colonization of the Far West.
Mexican steampunk history can create new independent states or territories which are formed by parts of lost territories. In Mexican steampunk, technology can not only reinvent the fashion of the time, but also reinvent the story, allowing the rewriting of history and political boundaries. In this view of retrofuturism, Mexico is more glorious than it was, and its economic and military power is more on par with their indomitable spirit. The attitudes of resistance in the era that are evident in the Mexican retro-futurism can breathe new life into the idea of “what if the world had been different?”
Remembering the difficult parts of our histories is often painful, considering that many of these nations and territories had a Victorian era without victory, having neither the Queen nor the concept of winning. The advantage of retro-futurism, however, is that you can create a different past, where not only the culture and technology took a different path, but the story has changed. So the retro-futurism that seems destined for the elite of the First World becomes the new opportunity for Third World countries to create a glorious past in the present.
You just have to look at the kinds of character types that are common in Latin American storytelling compared with the Europeans and Americans, for example. While most American and European character types are basically Gentlemen/Ladies, Adventurers, Scientists, Engineers and Monster-hunters, in Mexico we have, in addition to those already mentioned, Priests, Generals, Mercenaries, Cowboys, Sheriffs, progressive Indigenous peoples, Statehooders and Preachers. These characters are not only different, they are also more directly linked to our past and reflect perfectly the social classes and occupations developed at that time. It is during this period where a sense of identity of the next century and more innovative Mexican steampunks look to their own past rather than looking back to the Euro/U.S. in an effort to reclaim the lost history of defeat and the 19th century represented to this nation.
This tendency to change the past to make the Third World countries more competitive may be the secret of success in these nations’ retro-futuristic ideas. In Latin America, steampunk has spread almost virulently in the minds of enthusiasts without any advertising beyond the steampunks themselves among their relatives and the occasional curious observer.
Although the above countries lived Victorianism without victory, steampunk in particular has enabled countries that were exploited by the spirit of European colonialism a chance for historical-literary revenge. The transformation of losers to winners is what drives the revolution of ideas in the minds of the followers of retro-futurism. After all, the imagination is still the fuel of mind and passion that drives our spirit.
El Investigador is a magazine about science fiction and retrofuturism for Spanish speakers based in Mexico. You can learn more about them on their website.
Hodson (Dan Hernández) is a columnist for El Investigador and holds a Bachelor’s degree in sociology. His writing interests for the magazine include of social-recreational movements in audiovisual media, and taking a sociological viewpoint in exploring Japanese anime/manga and American comics, video games, and retrofuturistic communities. Hodson is also the Captain of the S.P.M. Nao de China, Airship Vanguardia of the Nueva Galicia’s Armada, and served as an organizer for their participation in the Steampunk Mexico’s Forum in the April 2011 issue of El Investigador.Miguel Ángel Manzo Martínez is an Animation student and often translates texts for El Investigador.