Brenner, Anita (1905–1974)

By: Donn Trotter

Type: Biography

Published: September 21, 2021

Updated: September 21, 2021


Anita Brenner, a Jewish transnational scholar, journalist, intellectual, and champion of the arts, culture, and indigenous histories of Mexico, was born Hanna Brenner on August 22, 1905, in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where her parents, Isidore and Paula (Duchan) Brenner, had immigrated from Latvia and started a ranch. Little is known about her early life in Mexico. In 1915, during the Mexican Revolution, ten-year-old Anita moved with her family to San Antonio, Texas. In 1919 her father started the Solo Serve Company of discount department stores. She attended Main Avenue High School and Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. She transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied English under J. Frank Dobie and wrote for the school newspaper, the Daily Texan.

After two semesters, Brenner moved back to Mexico due to the lack of inclusion and anti-Semitism she felt in Texas. In the fall of 1923, she enrolled at the National University of Mexico (later the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and worked as a teacher of athletics at the San Angel Normal School in Mexico City. There she learned to embrace her Jewish heritage and became involved with Jewish organizations that received and aided Jewish immigrants coming into Veracruz. She also continued working as a journalist. Her article “The Jew in Mexico,” published in The Nation in 1924, earned her acclaim and established her identity in Mexican intellectual social circles that included Katherine Anne Porter, Octavio Barreda, Mariano Azuela, Carlos Fuentes, and many other writers. She also built close friendships with numerous artists, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jean Charlot. Soon she was offered a scholarship by President Plutarco Elías Calles of Mexico for the nation’s cultural preservation program. She also received funding from Autonomous National University of Mexico for fieldwork and research in multiple Mexican cities, including Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Cuidad Oaxaca, Puebla, and Queretaro, for what was to become her first book, Idols Behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit (1929). In this work she coined the term “Mexican Renaissance” to describe a recovery of autonomous expression in Mexican culture. Idols Behind Altars described the art of Mexico as having an overtly Catholic façade, but that behind the veil of Catholic ardor, there were abounding indigenous influences. She used some of the funding to hire Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, both influential but then still unknown photographers who contributed to the book.

In 1927, under the mentorship of anthropologist Franz Boaz, Brenner left Mexico for New York to attend Columbia University and earned her Ph.D. in 1930 without ever having attained a bachelor or master’s degree. While at Columbia she received the Guggenheim Fellowship to study Aztec art, which aided in her dissertation and her later work, and Idols Behind Altars was published by Harcourt Brace. After completing her degree, she married David Glusker, World War II veteran and medical student, in New York on June 18, 1930. They had two children, Susannah Joel Glusker and Peter Glusker.

Between the 1930s and 1940s Brenner continued to work as a journalist and served as a war correspondent for the New York Times during the Spanish Civil War. She also had articles published in The Nation, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Mademoiselle, Fortune, and was an art editor for the Brooklyn Eagle. Her second book, Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide Book, was published in 1932. The book, which was in its fifth edition in 1941, provided a different view of Mexico that promoted numerous Mexican writers and artists in the United States, including Orozco, Kahlo, Rivera, and Azuela, and countered the regressive narrative of oil, revolution, and bandits commonly found in U. S. newspapers.

During the 1930s Brenner was branded a Communist sympathizer, and her work on the Spanish Civil War influenced her Trotskyist leanings. In 1934 she co-authored an anti-Stalinist open letter and began writing in Trotskyist newspapers under the pseudonym Jean Mendez. In 1936 Brenner sent a pivotal telegram to Diego Rivera and asked him to use his influence in Mexican political spheres to find safe haven and possibly asylum in Mexico for Leon Trotsky, a former leader in the Bolshevik movement who was forced into exile by Joseph Stalin. Because of this effort, President Lázaro Cárdenas granted asylum, and Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova, moved to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City in late 1936. Trotsky was later assassinated in August 1940.

In 1943 Brenner’s The Wind that Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1942 was publishedHer influential monograph, originally published as a series of articles in Harper’s Magazine, was bolstered by 184 photographs assembled by George Leighton. It was the first general account of the war and its aftermath published in the English language and was the first to include perspectives of the disadvantaged classes. She also wrote several children’s books: I Want to Fly (1943), Yo Quiero Volar! (1946), A Hero by Mistake (1953), Dumb Juan and the Bandits (1957), The Timid Ghost (1966), and The Boy Who Could Do Anything (1970).

In 1944 Brenner returned to Mexico with her children, and in 1951 she and her husband separated. She continued writing, and in 1955 she began publishing Mexico/This Month, a monthly periodical which highlighted current events and working-class issues. In 1961 Brenner also re-established her family’s farm on her parents’ land in Aguascalientes and grew mainly asparagus and garlic. In recognition of her work, Brenner was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor that the Mexican government can bestow upon a non-national. She refused the award on the grounds that she was Mexican-born.

Anita Brenner died in an automobile accident near Ojuelos de Jalisco, not far from Aguascalientes, on December 1, 1974. She was survived by Susannah Joel Glusker and Peter Glusker. Brenner’s papers were donated to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her family published posthumously many of her journals and writings, and art galleries and museums have hosted exhibits in her honor in both the United States and Mexico. Collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the San Antonio Museum of Art include photos of Brenner taken by Edward Weston.

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Jaime Marroquín Arredondo, Adela Pineda Franco, and Magdalena Mieri, eds., Open Borders to a Revolution: Culture, Politics, and Migration (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2013). Anita Brenner, Idols Behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929). Anita Brenner, Susannah Joel Glusker, and Carlos Monsiva╠üis, Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner's Journals of the Roaring Twenties(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). Anita Brenner and George Leighton, The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1942 (New York: Harper & Bros, 1943). Adina Cimet, Ashkenazi Jews in Mexico: Ideologies in the Structuring of a Community (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1997). Andrea Jeanne Deetsch, Tina Modotti and Idols Behind Altars (M.A. thesis, University of Louisville, 2003). Susannah Joel Glusker, Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008). Charles C. Kolb, "Review of Glusker, Susannah Joel, Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own," H-LatAm, April 1999 (https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=3039), accessed July 03, 2019. Roberto Loiederman, "Anita Brenner: A Bridge to Mexican Art, Culture," Jewish Journal, September 14, 2017. Merry MacMasters, "Los Diarios de Anita Brenner se Presentarán en México el Próximo Febrero," La Jornada, December 09, 2010. María Minera, “How One Woman Helped Invent Modern Photography,” Aperture, December 18, 2019 (https://aperture.org/editorial/anita-brenner-modern-photography/), accessed September 8, 2021. New York Times, December 3, 1974. William H. Richardson, Mexico through Russian Eyes: 1806–1940 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988). San Antonio Express-News, August 27, 2015. Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

Categories:

  • Activism and Social Reform
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  • Farmers
  • Journalism
  • Newspapers
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Politics and Government
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Time Periods:

  • Progressive Era
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Donn Trotter, “Brenner, Anita,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/brenner-anita.

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September 21, 2021
September 21, 2021

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