Mexico’s “Stonewall” Moment

(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1161.)

This past weekend, Mexico City celebrated its 41st LGBT Pride March in which over 60,000 attendees marched from the iconic Angel de la Independencia statue on Reforma Ave. to the Zocalo, where the Presidential Palace is located. The timing is ideal to examine the number 41 and its close ties to Mexico’s LGBT community. But first, a brief Stonewall primer.

The Stonewall riots took place at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar located in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, on June 28, 1969. Members of the city’s police force decided to raid the establishment, but, much to their surprise, they were welcomed by a series of violent demonstrations by members of the gay community. This event became the catalyst for the gay liberation movement and the worldwide fight for LGBT rights that continues to this day.

Sixty-eight years prior to the Stonewall Riots—on November 18, 1901, to be precise—42 members of Mexico’s aristocratic elite were enjoying themselves at a private party in Mexico City, having a gay old time. Literally. Among those present was Ignacio de la Torre, son-in-law of Porfirio Diaz, who was President of Mexico at the time. Unbeknownst to them, they were about to become the focus of one of the most scandalous events in early 20th Century Mexican history.

Police records at the time give an account of a policeman who was patrolling the neighborhood where said soiree was taking place, during the wee hours of the morning. Attracted by the loud noise they were making, he peeked through a window, realizing that the party was attended by men and women dancing with one another. But there was a small detail. The women didn’t quite look like women. Backups were called for, and an illegal raid ensued.

Ignacio de la Torre

Police forces managed to arrest 41 of the 42 men present at the party, despite their efforts to remove the fancy dresses they were wearing, with colorful makeup and jewelry to match. How the 42nd men managed to escape is not nearly as interesting as his identity: Ignacio de la Torre, the so-called son-in-law of Mexico.

De la Torre’s homosexuality was an open secret in Mexico’s political and aristocratic circles, along with his less-than-cordial relationship with President Díaz, who constantly tried to protect his favorite daughter from scandal. Despite his best efforts to silence the press—something political leaders around the world continue to feel entitled to do to date—the scandal was too juicy to pass.

Among the most renowned accounts of the event was that of engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada. The name may not ring a bell, but if you’ve spent any considerable amount of time in Puerto Vallarta or elsewhere in Mexico, you’ve undoubtedly come across his iconic catrina illustration. Posada was producing illustrations for two publications at the time: Hoja Suelta and La Guacamaya. As was customary, he ridiculed the situation producing the following illustration:

Illustration by José Guadalupe Posada.

What was the outcome of the raid? Along with Mexico’s no-longer favorite son-in-law, several others with influential ties to the government were promptly released, no questions asked. Others were less fortunate and were sentenced to join the Mexican army, ‘imprisoned’ with hard labor. The Raid of the 41 helped fuel sentiments of ridicule and hatred toward homosexuals.

Francisco Uriquizo, a well-known chronicler of the Mexican Revolution wrote: “In Mexico, the number 41 is not valid and is offensive to Mexicans. […] The impact of this tradition is such that the number doesn’t even appear in official documents. There is no division, regimen or battalion in Mexico’s army identified as number 41. The numbering goes up to 40 and then continues with 41. There are no houses with the number 41 in their address. Nobody turns 41 years of age.”

And so, the number 41 became part of Mexico’s popular culture and to this day is used to refer to homosexuals in a subtle manner, and also, as a representation of gay pride throughout the country. Despite efforts to conceal the identity of those present at the party, whose civil rights were egregiously violated, perseverant researchers have managed to gain access to official records and identify most of the names of those who attended the party.

In 2001, one hundred years after the notorious incident, Mexico City’s LGBT community arranged for a commemorative plaque to be installed at the Jose Marti Cultural Center, located at Dr. Mora 1, Colonia Centro, near the famous Alameda Central and near the site of the raid.

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