Around 1937, in Mexico City—perhaps returning from his cultural mission in the Sierra Tarahumara, Filiberto Gómez “chanced upon an American struggling to make himself understood with no better results than a red face and a bewildered Mexican. Gómez came to the rescue and the grateful American introduced himself as the Physical Director of Gustavus Adolphus College.” This “grateful American” was George Myrum, who had presided over the Minnesotan college’s ascent to athletic renown in the 1930s. Two Gustavus teams were “invited to tournaments in Mexico City” in the mid-1930s, which could explain why Myrum was in the Mexican capital.
Gómez’ academic success, training in physical education, and their “new friendship” convinced the director to give him a job and a scholarship at Gustavus. Gómez was a student there from 1938 to 1939. He served as assistant Physical Director, reporting to Myrum. Gómez earned his Bachelor’s degree at Gustavus and “graduated with honors.”
While in northern Mexico, Gómez had organized cultural programming to expose borderlands Mexicans to folkloric Mexican culture; in Minnesota he found a new audience for these sorts of performances. While a student at Gustavus, Gómez added to his income with a side job as a public speaker. With a letter of introduction provided by an English professor, he promoted his services on college letterhead decorated with small cartoons of a Mexican peasant and his burro.
For “Program A,” which cost $10 plus traveling expenses, Gómez offered “an interesting discussion on the economic, social, and educational problems which Mexico faces today”; “Program B” was a livelier presentation that combined a talk with “songs, folk dances, and motion pictures” for the price of $15 plus traveling expenses.The letter stated that Gómez’ programs constituted “a splendid opportunity to increase international understanding.”
After graduating from Gustavus, Gómez immediately moved on to postgraduate study in the nearest metropolis. At the University of Chicago, Gómez had a scholarship of US$300 for the 1939-1940 academic year, but this only covered his tuition he also worked on the “student staff” at Hutchinson Commons, a dining hall. Once again, Gómez sought to monetize his familiarity with Mexican folkloric culture to support himself. Around 1939, on the University of Chicago campus, he organized an exhibition of “part of his collection of Mexican costumes, vases, drums, hand-woven rugs, jewelry, pottery, bows and arrows” produced by “the Indians of the deep interior where foreigners seldom or never visit.”
Gómez stood to gain financially from the primitive appeal of his Mexican handicrafts. As the announcement noted, visitors to the exhibit could buy some of the items from Gómez to “relieve some of his financial strain.”
There is no evidence to suggest that Gómez’ declarations of patriotism were insincere. At the same time, his role as a cultural representative proved personally beneficial. Gómez converted his cultural capital as an elite Mexican to economic capital in the form of payments for his presentations and sales of his folkloric trinkets.
A few days before Christmas in 1939, Filiberto Gómez drafted a letter to ask for a scholarship from his government. Writing from the University of Chicago’s International House, Gómez was beginning his graduate studies in the Department of Languages. While the University of Chicago gave him some funding, he regretted that he still had work to cover his expenses. As Gómez explained to the Mexican Secretary of Education in his request for funding, his part-time work “naturally prevents my studies from being as intense as would be desired,” and he wished to “dedicate [himself] only and exclusively to [his] studies.” Closing his letter to the Secretary of Education, which he also sent to Mexico’s president Lázaro Cárdenas, Gómez declared: “As a Mexican citizen and as a student, always and in every instance, I have fought, I have done what I could, to honor my country abroad, in a disinterested way, through speeches, dances, exhibitions, etc.”
As an expert in Mexican regional dances, Gómez was qualified to lead Mexican cultural performances; “Latin” dances had been popular attractions in Chicago since the 1920s. In the summer of 1940, the Field Museum of Natural History hosted a free children’s program called “An Hour in Mexico,” featuring films and “a troupe of Mexican dancers headed by Senor [sic] Filiberto Gomez.”
When he helped organize a “Hispanic-Mexican International Festival” at the University of Chicago’s international house in February 1940, he even attracted the attention of the U.S. Spanish-language press. As San Antonio’s La Prensa reported, “countryman Don Filiberto Gómez” was responsible for teaching the young men and women the folkloric dances which they would perform “wearing the typical indigenous garb of our country.” Three presentations were scheduled to accommodate the high student interest in the festival.
Yet in the Mexican press, Gómez was celebrated for embodying not national traditions, but modern progress: a 1939 newspaper profile of Gómez published in Torreón proclaimed satisfaction that this native of the Laguna region “has progressed in foreign lands as Filiberto has done.” They included a picture, partially obscured here by another page stapled on top.
The article noted that the Mexican education system had lost a valuable talent when Gómez departed for study in the United States, and it stated that Gómez had been “honored” with scholarships at Gustavus and Chicago for “his merits.” Not mentioned in the profile was the fact that Gómez had grown up in El Paso, an aspect of his biography that would be entirely forgotten by the 1940s.
It is not clear whether Gómez ever received a scholarship from the Mexican government. He left Chicago in 1941, perhaps because he could not cover his expenses despite his scholarship and side jobs.
Yet despite this setback, Gómez managed to build a successful career in which people north and south of the border sought out his expertise as a Mexican intellectual, as a rural development specialist, and in particular, as an expert on the Tarahumara indigenous group living in the mountains of Chihuahua.
There is more to this story. Check back soon.