Anita Brenner: A Bridge Between Nations and Religions

03 Aug

Anita Brenner was a woman who straddled many worlds. She was multi-cultural before the word was invented. In fact, her footprint is deeply embedded in Mexican art, literature, world history, the muralist movement, tourism and politics. So, you wonder, why have you never heard her name before? If it weren’t for Susannah Glusker, I too, would be unfamiliar with this influential woman, who was way ahead of her times.


The late Susannah Glusker has published two books on Anita Brenner: Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own and the more recent Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties, redeeming the historical role of this activist-author, while simultaneously providing a fascinating glimpse into a Mexico of another era — the effervescent 20s, touching on the role of women living in a post-revolutionary Mexico.

Brenner was the daughter of Latvian immigrants who moved to Mexico seeking a better life. They settled in the city of Aguascalientes in the late nineteenth century due to a mining boom which created a pole of attraction. She was born in 1905 and raised there until the age of 11 when the family moved to Texas given the threat of ongoing revolts which eventually gave way to the Mexican Revolution.

Brenner became a noteworthy intellectual of her time, freely moving between many circles both in the U.S. and Mexico. Her influx of ideas, her exceptionally lucid, eloquent and versatile writing style which ranged from art reviews, travel reports and children’s stories allowed her to entertain while educating, bridging the gap among people of different backgrounds. Her prodigious passion for explaining Mexico to an English-speaking public gave her an edge during tumultuous times for Mexico and the world, making her so much more than a simple journalist or political activist.

glusker with hammock

Her interests crossed many boundaries – art, Mexican traditions, Jewish issues in Mexico, human rights – making her hard to pigeonhole. Writer Malcolm Gladwell would consider her a “connector,” based on his Tipping Point classification, i.e., part of “a community who know(s) large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions … They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles.”

Brenner Aguascalientes Book

She hobnobbed with people whose names are easily recognizable today, including artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goitia, Carlos Merida, Jean Charlot, Miguel Covarrubias, William Spratling, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as intellectuals of her times such as Frances Toor, Alma Reed and Carlos Fuentes. As a journalist for the Sunday New York Times and The Nation, she interviewed major figures such as Leon Trotsky and Miguel de Unamuno to name a few!

In fact, Brenner was instrumental in bringing Trotsky to Mexico. Although she never formally adhered to any political party or ideology, being too much of a free-thinker to fall into one specific group, she actively participated in the International Committee for Political Prisoners and other radical groups. After interviewing Trotsky in Paris, she was contacted to help get him political asylum since his life was endangered in Europe. Cabling Diego Rivera, they worked the appropriate channels to get Trotsky sanctuary in Mexico.

It was Anita Brenner who introduced Jose Clemente Orozco to Alma Reed. The stormy, taciturn, idiosyncratic artist, today dubbed one of the “Three Great Muralists,” alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, eventually cultivated a long-standing friendship with Reed. Thanks to the connection Brenner established between the two, Orozco found a patroness and anchor who arranged contracts for the painter, which led to commissions at the New School for Social Research, Pomona College and Dartmouth University.

She is also responsible for convinced German-born Jewish artist Mathias Goeritz to stay in Mexico after Diego Rivera bitterly attacked him in the local press. The name Goeritz might not ring a bell, but undoubtedly you have seen his works if you have been to Mexico. He designed the iconic 5 tower abstract sculpture which greet commuters on the Periferico bordering on Ciudad Satelite (along with architect Luis Barragan). He also designed the modern stained glass windows in the Metropolitan Cathedral in downtown Mexico as well as those in the Cuernavaca Cathedral, and participated in creating the Experimental Eco Art Museum, which recently reopened its doors as a gallery. Goeritz participated in several public art projects such the Friendship Route (La Ruta de la Amistad), a series of 18 enormous abstract sculptures which still dot the southern segment of the Mexico City Periferico commemorating the ’68 Olympics.

Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, director of silent masterpieces such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927) and several historic epics, was said to have been inspired by Anita’s first book Idols Behind Altars for his non-political work Que Viva México! Unfortunately, due to a series of financial and logistics mishaps, Eisenstein eventually abandoned this ambitious film project before it was finished. Diego and Frida referred to Eisenstein’s work as “moving frescos.”

Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots

Idols Behind Altars (Brenner’s first title published in 1929) remains today a fascinating compilation of essays covering the historic, religious and artistic aspects of Mexico spanning pre-Columbian times to what was at the time it was written a burgeoning modern muralist movement.

Front Cover

Her second book Your Mexican Holiday (1932) was a travel guide published back when travel in Mexico was considered exotic and difficult given a lack of infrastructure. Brenner began sharing her knowledge of the generosity and warmth of Mexico’s people and its impressive sights (pre-Hispanic ruins, amazing countryside landscapes, an emerging world-class artists’ moment and unequaled food) and eventually revived this thread in an English-language monthly magazine Mexico/This Month, as founder, editor, financial backer and writer. Her pioneering efforts in this sector were so outstanding that she was eventually recognized by the Mexican government.

The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1942

Anita Brenner moved in many circles, comfortable in both the academic world as well as the literary world. With a PhD from Columbia University, she published an ambitious chronicle of Mexico’s complex revolution summarized in 100 pages of text supplemented with 184 photos entitled The Wind that Swept Mexico. This masterpiece remains surprisingly fresh and relevant even today, providing a candid portrayal of the revolution, recognizing its failure from the point of view of the campesino peasant class, the inefficient handling of land tenure, the role of a meddlesome church, etc.


With one foot in Mexico and another in the US, one foot in a staunch Roman Catholic society and another in a strong Jewish tradition, Brenner never shied away from complex, controversial topics.  She became a spokesperson for the underdog, be it Mexicans bad-mouthed by the American press or the Jewish minority in a predominantly Catholic country. She wrote on touchy subjects such as the expropriation of the Mexican oil industry (in 1938), and William Randolph Hearst’s expansive land holdings in Mexico, as well as his meddling in Mexican politics in hopes of retaining his land by sending journalists to Mexico to write unfavorable reports and distorted information. Her point of view was always clear and consistent, unconcerned with gaining popularity. And her articles and books wielded great impact at the time they were published. It comes as no surprise that her opinionated, feisty personality combined with her bilingual background spurred many a debate.

Brenner Kids Book

With her untimely death in 1974 (caused by a car crash), she left several projects unfinished, including a children’s book on the life of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero (who was shipwrecked and lived in the Yucatan peninsula 8 years prior to Hernan Cortes’s arrival), and a novel on Luis de Carvajal (who belonged to a well-known family of marranos or Jews who converted to avoid the persecution of the Holy Inquisition, only to eventually become its victim).


Brenner was at risk of falling into historical obscurity if it weren’t for the late Susannah Glusker, whose biographical works on her mother has rekindled her historic importance. Thanks to Glusker’s vivid childhood memories of family friends including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Anthony Quinn and Henry Moore among others she was able produce cogent, well documented books that portray an accurate account of the life of Anita Brenner.


Unfortunately, Glusker passed away earlier this year, but she achieved her legacy to save Anita Brenner from historical limbo. I have chosen to resume my blog Mexican Museums and Mavens in tribute to my dear friend Susannah Glusker and her remarkable mother Anita Brenner, both role models for me and future generations.


Posted by on August 3, 2013 in Mavens


9 responses to “Anita Brenner: A Bridge Between Nations and Religions

  1. Leonor Delgado

    August 3, 2013 at 6:52 am

    Wonderful review… I truly enjoyed reading it.

    • Mexican Museums and Mavens

      August 3, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      Thanks, Leonor.
      I plan on showcasing lots of interesting people in Mexico, so stay tuned for more.

  2. Mexican Museums and Mavens

    August 3, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Yikes – my first blog in over a year and somehow all the photos disappeared when I published it! I will get my in-house consultant (and life-long partner) to see what caused this technological glitch and correct it today! If you see this post without pictures, please come back later. I stopped blogging over a year ago due to my technological frustrations, but have decided that I have too much to share to let a little bit of technology stop me. I am determined to overcome this handicap, and promise to move forward into the XXI century! Thanks for your understanding!

  3. Barbara Glusker

    August 4, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Susannah was my cousin. We were to each other the sister we never had. I so very much miss her.

    I provided some editing assistance as she began her journey to get her PhD. It is wonderful her original focus on women in Mexico, their influence and impact on culture morphed into the biography of Anita. She used her mother’s diaries as the center of her research. Organizing the diaries and letters and papers was such an enormous task and each new finding provided her more insight into the mother she loved but knew so briefly.

    Thank you for resuming your blog in her honor.

    My visits with her in Mexico were magic as she was a wonderful person and tour guide. I love Mexican peasant art and we always went to the Green Door, a very special art sales warehouse with virtually everything being currently made by local artists. My home remains full of those treasures even though I’ve shared much with friends over the years. I hope it still exists.

    • Mexican Museums and Mavens

      August 4, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      Susannah, as her mother, was a very special person who left her mark wherever she went. She was vivacious, always so full of life. Her presence is sorely missed. I’ll check on the Green Door for you, Barb.

  4. Lakshmi Menon

    October 10, 2013 at 5:28 pm


    I came across your blog while looking for information on H L Gupta and Pandurang Khankhoje who came to Mexico from the U.S. to escape British surveillance of their activities on behalf of independence for India. They were a part of Anita Brenner’s circle of friends. We at the Indo-American Heritage Museum are trying to supplement our gallery on Indian freedom fighters, and any information you might have about them would be most appreciated.

    Can you identify the individuals in the photo with the hammock and in the group photo alongside the image of the Orozco book? Apparently, Jose Vasconcelos was instrumental in securing a professorial job for Heramba Lal Gupta in the National University of Mexico.

    Any documents, letters, pictures you might be able to access on our behalf would be a great help. Information about our institution is at at

    Thank you.

    • Mexican Museums and Mavens

      October 11, 2013 at 9:08 am

      How fascinating! Let me check around and see what information I can find that might be relevant for you.
      Good luck on your project. L

  5. Mary Daniels

    December 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    I worked on Mexico/this month for Anita Brenner…she was mentor, role model and friend and had a huge influence on my life when I was very young. It was a wonderful time in my life, meeting many of the people she knew and beginning an understanding of the Mexican culture

    • Mexican Museums and Mavens

      December 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      What a privileged time to be living in Mexico, Mary.
      I would love to hear your first hand impressions about working with her.


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