Alfonso Reyes Ochoa was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, the ninth of twelve children born to General Bernardo Reyes and Aurelia Ochoa, both of whom were from the environs of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. General Reyes, the author of an array of military manuals, brochures, and histories, was an enlightened and efficient governor of the state of Nuevo León and was largely responsible for the progressive spirit which obtains in Monterrey even in the twenty-first century. Of his early years, Reyes wrote in “Sol de Monterrey” (“Monterrey Sun”), “I knew no shadow in my childhood,/ only the brilliance of the sun”; a sun that followed at his heels “like a Pekinese.” Reyes entered the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City in 1905, and went on to the Escuela Nacional de Altos Estudios. Mexico at that time was in the tight grip of the dictator Porfirio Díaz, and although the positivist milieu that Díaz encouraged was not favorable to the study of the humanities, Reyes immersed himself in the study of the classics.
Reyes married Manela Mota in 1911, and their only child, Alfonso, was born in 1912. The following year, Reyes received a law degree from the University of Mexico. He became the youngest member of the Centennial Generation (which included Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Antonio Caso, and José Vasconcelos), a group dedicated to changing the official modes of thought in Mexico. Reyes also helped found the Ateneo de laJuventud (Athenaeum of Youth), an institution for young intellectuals that flourished until 1940.
When Díaz was ousted by Francisco Madero in 1910, Mexico was thrown into a welter of revolt and banditry. Before dawn on February 9, 1913, rebel troops tried to install General Reyes, long viewed as Díaz’s successor, as head of state. General Reyes was shot to death in street fighting at the Zocalo in Mexico City; seventeen years later, his son honored his father—that “tower of a man”—in a prose elegy, “Oración del 9 de febrero de 1913” (“Prayer of the Ninth of February”), giving Reyes the opportunity to observe in himself a “presentiment of an obscure equivocation in the moral clockwork of our world.” There is also a four-stanza poem on the same subject, “+9 de febrero de 1913,” in which the poet asks, “Where are you, man of seven wounds,/ blood spurting at midday?” and proceeds to promise that “if I have continued to live since that day,/ it is because I carry you with me, where you are inviolable.”
In August of 1913, Reyes went to Paris as second secretary of the Mexican legation. The following year, he gravitated to Madrid, where he earned a meager living from journalism. He soon became associated with the famous Center of Historical Studies in Madrid, directed by Pidal, and made valuable contributions to the Revista de filología española. He worked in the company of such scholars as Américo Castro, Federico de Onís, Tomás Navarro Tomás, and Antonio Solalinde, all of whom Reyes called “the princes of Spanish philology” and into whose society he was readily admitted. Reminiscing years later about those days in Madrid, Reyes wrote that literature had been everywhere—in the air, in the cafés, and in the streets.
In 1927, Reyes returned to Mexico and became the Mexican ambassador to Argentina, where he remained until 1930, when he went to Rio de Janeiro as ambassador to Brazil. In 1939, he returned to Mexico to stay, after nearly twenty-five years of almost continuous diplomatic service. He proceeded to establish two great educational institutions: the group of scholars called El Colegio Nacional and the graduate school of the humanities, El Colegio de México. His home in Mexico City included a magnificent library that became for Reyes a sanctuary of the muses; the library was dubbed “Capilla Alfonsina” (Alfonsine Chapel) by his friend, Enrique Díez-Canedo, a Spanish poet.
At the age of seventy, Reyes succumbed to the last of a series of heart attacks and was buried in the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres in the Panteón Civil de Dolores in Mexico City. His wife was killed in an accident in 1965, and their granddaughter, Alicia Reyes, directs the Alfonsine Chapel, used as a research center and sponsored by the Mexican government.
“The art of expression,” wrote Alfonso Reyes (RAY-yays), “did not appear to me as a rhetorical function, independent of conduct, but a means of realizing human feeling.” Thus this Mexican writer defined and justified his literary vocation, so faithfully and completely fulfilled during the fifty years of his writing that he has justly been called “the most accomplished example of the man of letters in Mexico.”
Born in Monterrey, capital of the state of Nuevo Leon, on May 17, 1889, he was the son of General Bernardo Reyes, at that time governor of the state and a prominent politician in the regime of President Porfirio Díaz. Having begun his schooling in his native city, Reyes moved later to Mexico City, where in 1913 he received the professional title of lawyer. There he became part of a generation of writers engaged in a vigorous intellectual revolution that had enormous repercussions in Mexican culture. These writers were united in a movement called El Ateneo de la Juventud (The Athenaeum of Youth). Reyes was the youngest member of this group, and he labored side by side with other writers who became primary figures in the intellectual life of modern Mexico, including José Vasconcelos, Antonio Caso, Martín Luis Guzmán, and Enrique González Martínez. The basic aims of this group were the study and understanding of Mexican culture, the assimilation of the emerging post-positivist philosophies, and the development of literary criticism, all grounded in the universal ideas and values of the Enlightenment. The coming revolution, however, produced a rift among those aims: the dream of a harmonious insertion of the Mexican culture into the universal one proved complicated. Each member of the generation pursued his own path out of the impasse.
Immersed in these intellectual currents, Reyes left for Europe in the service of Mexican diplomacy. In Madrid he collaborated with the emerging Center of Historical Studies under the direction of D. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and he was also invited to contribute to the pages of El Sol (The Sun), headed by José Ortega y Gasset. In 1939, after twenty-five years—except for a few intermissions—of diplomatic service, he returned to Mexico and pursued his literary activities with the greatest enthusiasm. Reyes used the presence in Mexico of exiled Spanish intellectuals to found El Colegio de México, which became the primary Mexican institution of higher learning. The Universities of California, Havana, and Mexico as well as Tulane, Harvard, and Princeton Universities conferred honorary degrees on him. In 1957, in recognition of his faithful and constant dedication to letters, he was named president of the Mexican Academy of Language, of which he had been a corresponding member since 1918.
Reyes’s body of work is extensive. During his more than fifty years as a writer—in 1906, at the age of seventeen, he wrote his first sonnet, “Mercenario”—his indefatigable pen produced no fewer than three hundred titles, among them poems, criticism, essays, memoirs, plays, novels, short stories, prefaces, newspaper articles, nonliterary works, and translations. A constant element of his work, as much in his prose as in his verse, is a lyricism that gives to his books a tone that is agreeable and gracious, ingenious and subtle. In his poetry are evident the influences of Luis de Góngora and Stéphane Mallarmé, combined with a personal taste for the picturesque and colloquial. In his preferred medium, the essay, he treats a great variety of subjects. His best literary criticism is to be found in the essays of La experiencia literaria, in which he pours forth his own experiences in the profession of a writer, and in “Sobre la estetica de Gongora,” with which he opens the doors to the modern study and understanding of that baroque Spanish poet. Important among his strictly literary works is Vision of Anáhuac, a poetic evocation of pre-Columbian Mexican history. Among the humanistic studies, Discurso por Virgilio (1933; address in behalf of Vergil), contains both profound classical and American flavor; among the works with fantastic and dreamlike themes is Arbol de pólvora.
With a profound understanding of the function of a writer, Reyes produced his greatest critical work, El deslinde (the boundary line). In it, he analyzes the artistic import of expression, style, aesthetic problems, semantics, philology, and the philosophy of language.
“American, European, universal”—thus Federico de Onís described Reyes. These epithets are well applied if one considers that this Mexican writer, through his native sensibility, his classic form, and the universality of his subjects, is, as the same critic avers, “the most successful example of a citizen of the international world of letters, both ancient and modern.”