Sugar Cane is based loosely on a panel from Rivera’s mural cycle at the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The most noticeable change made to this source image is the family group added to the foreground of the portable mural. This detail offers a foil to the harsh scene of exploitation that unfolds in the middle and background of the work. Nonetheless, commentators in the U.S. press immediately recognized the panel’s political message, highlighting the “unremitting toil” depicted.
Precedents for Sugar Cane’s focus on Indian peasants and workers are found in Rivera’s early mural panels at the Secretaría de Educación Pública, begun in 1923. At that time, viewers were unaccustomed to seeing Mexico’s native people as a worthy subject of high art, and many objected loudly to Rivera’s large-scale depictions of indigenous figures.
Considered separately from the rest of the panel, the woman and children in Sugar Cane might seem to invoke a picturesque vision of rural life. They recall other works by Rivera that promote a benign, folksy image of Mexico. Oil-on-canvas paintings like Flower Day, which won the purchase prize at the First Pan-American Exhibition of Oil Paintings at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art (now known as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), appealed to U.S. collectors but irked critics on the left who questioned Rivera’s political commitment. In Sugar Cane, the indigenous family, paired with a stark portrayal of unjust labor practices, illustrates that Mexico’s agrarian system exploited not only Indian men but also women and children.
In Sugar Cane, Rivera frames his composition as though he is looking through the viewfinder of a camera. The bodies of the female laborers at the lower edge of the work, for instance, are cut off at the waist, giving the impression that this panel presents only a fragment of a larger composition. Rivera’s practice of “cropping” his images may stem from his contact with photographers and filmmakers. He was a longtime friend of Tina Modotti, and he worked with the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein on his unfinished masterwork ¡Que viva México!