Elena Poniatowska Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Elena Poniatowska (poh-nyah-TOW-skah) is best known for her journalistic work, a career launched by chance when, in 1954, she interviewed the U.S. ambassador the day after meeting him at a cocktail party. Poniatowska has dedicated her writing to recording a wide spectrum of Mexican life, from the country’s power elite to marginalized peasant populations. In 1978 she became the first woman in Mexico awarded the Premio Nacional de Periodismo, the country’s most prestigious prize in journalism.

Dialogue serves as a foundation for most of her literary production. Poniatowska’s first collection of interviews, Palabras cruzadas(crossed words), includes such varied personalities as Spanish film director Luis Buñuel, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. By contrast, Todo empezó el domingo (everything started on Sunday) celebrates the mundane Sunday outings of working-class Mexicans. The attention Poniatowska gives to the cross-section of social classes in Mexico reflects aspects of her own background.

Poniatowska was born in Paris in 1933 of French-born parents whose families had been displaced by political upheaval. Her mother, Dolores de Amor, came from a Mexican family of hacienda owners who left for Europe when the government of Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated their land and instituted agrarian reform after the Mexican Revolution. The paternal family of Polish aristocrats settled in France after fleeing Poland during World War II. When her own family moved to Mexico, Poniatowska was about nine years old and spoke only French. In fact, Poniatowska never studied Spanish in school and acquired the language from house maids. She attended French and English schools, one of which was a convent school in Pennsylvania. Since rigorous religious training instilled young women with self-sacrificing qualities, the fact that many nontraditional women populate her writing suggests the author’s rejection of customary female roles.

Although Poniatowska grew up among the Mexican gentry, the household help exposed her to the problems of the working-class poor. Furthermore, since from an early age Poniatowska witnessed her parents’ civic involvement and wartime service (her father fought in World...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chevigny, Bell Gale. “The Transformation of Privilege in the Work of Elena Poniatowska.” Latin American Literary Review 13, no. 26 (1985). Studies how both the writer’s privileged background and the experience of living in Latin America have influenced her authorial voice.

Franco, Jean. “Rewriting the Family: Contemporary Feminism’s Revision of the Past.” In Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Discusses the unconventionality of both protagonists and genre categories.

Jörgensen, Beth Ellen. The Writing of Elena Poniatowska: Engaging Dialogues. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. A study of the whole range of Poniatowska’s work, focusing on how Poniatowska’s work as a journalist informs her fiction.

Medeiros-Lichem, María Teresa. Reading the Feminine Voice in Latin American Women’s Fiction: From Teresa de la Parra to Elena Poniatowska and Luisa Valenzuela. New York: P. Lang, 2003. Focuses on Poniatowska’s fiction.

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art, and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992. Explores Poniatowska’s use of the epistolary genre in reconstructing true-to-life protagonists.