Leopoldo Méndez – Little School Teacher, How Great is Your Will (1948)

According to legend, the Aztecs were told by Huitzilopochtli, the Sun and War god, to leave their homes and look for the place where they would see an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake. In that place, they were to build the most powerful empire in all Mesoamerica (Middle America). And that is how Teotihuacán (present-day Mexico City) was founded.

Today, we can see the influence of that legend in the symbols used on the Mexican flag, as well as in artworks such as Little School Teacher, How Great is Your Will. Mexican printmaker Leopoldo Méndez was not only inspired by the Aztec legend, but also by a 1948 film called Hidden River (Rio Escondido), with its lead character as a school teacher that embodied the principles of the Mexican Revolution: universal education and the fight against oppression. In the movie plot, the rural school teacher urged the dwellers of a village to rise against their despotic sheriff, who was denying them access to education and fresh water.

Leopoldo Méndez - Little School Teacher, How Great is Your Will
Leopoldo Méndez – Little School Teacher, How Great is Your Will (1948), linocut

This linocut (a sheet of linoleum is used as a relief surface, making it easier to cut) is as gripping as it could have been even without this background story. A school teacher carrying a suitcase is marching across a deserted landscape in the midst of night. The path she’s walking on is lit, as if she’s on a mission. Seeing the large eagle in the sky, you get a sense of danger looming ahead. And yet, the eagle is there to protect her and guide her way. There is a smaller eagle next to it, holding a serpent in its beak, as a reference to the Aztec legend. Last, but not least, also in the sky there is a man holding a spear, pointing her in the right direction. The school teacher represents the Mexican ideals through her sheer determination, commitment to education and her battle against oppression.

 

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