The late Mexican author (and former Mexican ambassador to France) Carlos Fuentes maintained a difficult relationship with women and with the female characters in his novels. As with other Hispanic authors – for example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of whose novels was titled Memories of My Melancholy Whores and dealt with the relationship of an elderly male journalist and the young prostitute with whom he falls in love – Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo portrays its female characters through the prism of Latin American history and culture. In the character of Harriet Winslow, Fuentes presents an eminently decent human being whose perspective of life is both infinitely naïve and whose sexuality provides the story the force connecting disparate male personalities.
The Old Gringo takes place during a time and at a place – the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th Century, which involved cross-border incursions by Mexican forces into the United States and U.S. forces into Mexico – when the role of women in both American and Mexican cultures was severely constrained by primitive concepts of gender roles in society. In a 1981 interview, Fuentes was questioned about his portrayal of women in his novels. In addressing his female character, Claudia, in The Holy Place, Fuentes stated the following:
“Claudia Nervo is an extreme. On the contrary, it is Mexican men who make an extreme of her. She is only defending herself. She is a central figure and the men won't allow women to be central figures; they are banished to the extremes because Mexico is a country where women are condemned to be whores or nuns.”
Similarly, in that same interview, he expanded on criticisms of his portrayals of women:
“I've been attacked for depicting very impure women, but this is because of the negative vision my culture has had of women. A culture that combines Arabs, Spaniards, and Aztecs is not very healthy for feminism. Among the Aztecs, for example, the male gods all represent a single thing: wind, water, war, while the goddesses are ambivalent, representing purity and filth, day and night, love and hate.”
In The Old Gringo, Fuentes utilizes the character of Harriet Winslow to represent the uninformed ‘establishment’ perspective from far-away Washington, D.C., from which she traveled to be a school teacher in Mexico. In her conversation with the “old man,” the character based on real-life journalist and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, she declares her intentions for Mexico having recently arrived there: “What these people need is education, not rifles. A good scrubbing, followed by a few lessons how we do things in the United States, and you’d see an end to this chaos.” Fuentes’ use of such condescending language by this cultured and educated American woman is intended to illuminate the condescending approach to Mexico taken by most Americans, especially the wealthy. Winslow’s love affair with General Arroyo, as well as the “old man’s” unrequited love for her, serve to place the female character in the only roles for which women were perceived to be suited: lover and teacher. That Winslow evolves during the course of the novel is testament to Fuentes’ own appreciation for the way in which history and culture had sublimated the role of women in society to that of men. He knows better, but his own history is too imbued with what most today consider antiquated notions.