Elena Poniatowska

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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 War II, and her mother drove ambulances), it is not surprising that much of her journalistic work documents national crisis. The October, 1968, clash between police and student protesters at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City prompted Poniatowska to record the bloodbath in Massacre in Mexico. Fuerte es el silencio (silence is strong) incorporates other national concerns such as the influx of peasants into the capital in search of work, the miserable shantytown housing of these urban dwellers, the “disappeared” victims of political repression, and the struggle of rural communities to improve living conditions. The very title suggests the voicelessness of the unrepresented poor, a social ill Poniatowska denounces in her writing. In Nothing, Nobody Poniatowska turns from social inequities to natural disaster by recording the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Typically her journalistic texts feature mixed media, including accounts from news clips, eyewitness accounts, interviews, author narrative, and photographs.

The interviews of the seven 1982 presidential candidates compiled in Domingo siete (Sunday the seventh) suggest the importance of politics in Mexican society. The country’s intelligentsia also command a space in Poniatowska’s writing. The essays in ¡Ay vida, no me mereces! (oh, life, you do not deserve me!) delve into the work of prominent contemporary writers Rosario Castellanos, Juan Rulfo, and Carlos Fuentes. A feminist, Poniatowska shows a predilection for Castellanos’s writing that takes a stand on women’s issues.

Themes relating to women’s issues predominate in Poniatowska’s fiction writing. Her first book, Lilus Kikus , consists of short vignettes about the protagonist’s nonconformity with typical female socialization. Lilus likes...

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to play outdoors and explore nature, but society dictates otherwise for girls. Fiction took a back seat to journalism until the publication of the testimonial novelHere’s to You, Jesusa!, which is based on a year’s worth of conversations with Josefina Bórquez, an extraordinary peasant woman. A staunch feminist by today’s standards, Jesusa Palancares—as Poniatowska renames her in the novel—fought in the Mexican Revolution alongside her father and husband, stood up to their abuse, liberated herself from male tutelage, and led an independent life. Again drawing from real life to construct fiction, in Dear Diego Poniatowska writes the series of letters she imagines that émigré Russian artist Angelina Beloff would have written to her lover, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, when he left Paris and returned to Mexico in 1921. The emotional dependence the heart-broken Quiela shows for Diego contrasts dramatically with the polygamous wife in the title story of De noche vienes (you come at night). Esmerald, a nurse by profession, epitomizes the traditional caretaker role of females—so much so that she manages to keep five husbands until getting caught. Poniatowska applies a humorous feminist spin to machismo’s double standard.

Autobiographical similarities abound in La “Flor de Lis.” An aristocratic child, Mariana, lives in France surrounded by luxury and servants until World War II changes her family’s lifestyle. Mariana’s French father leaves for the war, while her Mexican mother sets off for exile in Mexico with two young daughters. The narrative focuses on the class and gender traditions that shape Mariana’s cultural identity in the new country. Whether focusing on the uniqueness of one woman, as in Tinísima, the story of early twentieth century photographer and political militant Tina Modotti, or of village women, as in Juchitán de las mujeres (the women’s Juchitán), Poniatowska’s writings typically inscribe the cultural contributions of the underrepresented in Mexican society.


Critical Essays