Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elena Poniatowska 1933-

Mexican journalist, nonfiction writer, novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Poniatowska's career through 1997.

Poniatowska is one of the most highly regarded contemporary Mexican writers. Her writing demonstrates a strong concern for the voiceless and silenced segments of Mexico's populace. Poniatowska is known for her use of the novela-testimonio (testimonial novel), which utilizes a realistic storytelling style, and her works are widely noted for bringing recognition to the marginalized and ignored classes of society.

Biographical Information

Poniatowska was born in Paris, France, on May 19, 1933. Her mother was Mexican, and from a wealthy family that lost their land during the Mexican Revolution. Poniatowska's father was descended from Polish royalty who were forced from Poland during the partitions of the country in the late 1700s. At age eight, during World War II, Poniatowska moved to Mexico with her mother and sister while her father remained in France to fight the Germans. Because French and Polish were the only languages spoken in the house, Poniatowska learned Spanish from the household servants. After finishing her secondary school education in the United States, she received a scholarship to attend Manhattanville College, then returned home to her adopted country, Mexico. Her writing career began in 1954 as an interviewer for the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior. In 1955 she began working for the newspaper Novedades. Her first novel, Lilus Kikus, was published in 1954, but it was Poniatowska's second novel, Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969; Until We Meet Again) that brought her critical acclaim and international attention. Poniatowska resides in Mexico City, where she continues to work as a staff writer for Novedades.

Major Works

The majority of Poniatowska's writing exposes oppression. In La noche de Tlatelolco (1971; Massacre in Mexico) she relates an account of the protesters that were massacred in October, 1968, in Mexico City, Mexico, by the Mexican government. The massacre arose out of growing tension between students of UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and the government. Due to the approaching 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, the government wished to quell a student protest that could potentially embarrass Mexico internationally. Students at UNAM had successfully taken over the University and turned it into an alternate, or model, society. Mexican troops subsequently occupied the remaining free regions of the University, and during a large gathering assembled for a speech from the National Strike Committee at the Tlatelolco housing unit, soldiers and police surrounded protesters and opened fire. Hundreds were killed and over one thousand people wounded. The government attempted to hush up the incident and was largely successful in limiting public knowledge of the event. International media coverage was hushed, and even many residents of Mexico City did not realize a tragedy had occurred. Poniatowska's book is an account that brings to light many of the details surrounding this event. Poniatowska's publicizing of the Mexican government's failings during the 1980s is an integral part of Nada, nadie (1988; Nothing, Nobody). After an earthquake in Mexico City in September 1985, Poniatowska assisted rescue efforts during the day and spoke to survivors whenever she could, and then wrote her recollections of these interviews from memory at night. In this work, she pieces together a picture of the Mexican government's corruption and inability to deal with a major disaster.

Poniatowska's works do not focus solely on political oppression and government ineptitude; her most celebrated novel, Until We Meet Again, exposes social injustice. The main character, Jesusa, is orphaned, beaten by her husband, unfairly denied a pension, and arrested several times. These misfortunes occur in part because she is poor and uneducated, but mostly because she is a woman. Jesusa's rebellious spirit keeps her afloat in this novel. A recurring theme in many of Poniatowska's fictional works revolves around the rebellious spirit of her female characters. In Lilus Kikus, Lilus rebels against rigid social conventions that confine and restrict her. “Love Story,” a short story in De noche vienes (1979), relates the experiences of Lupe, a maid who rebels against her employer. In La ‘Flor de Lis’ (1988), Mariana rejects her upper-class upbringing. In Tinísima (1992), Tina opposes both the government and the standard roles placed on women. Poniatowska's protagonists do not always succeed in their rise against repression, but because of their spirited resistance these women gain a spiritual freedom previously unrealized.

Critical Reception

Critics find Poniatowska's works thought provoking and well written. Although some reviewers believe that Poniatowska includes irrelevant information in her writings, most believe the amount of detail she does provide gives readers a better perspective. Commentators agree that her use of the novela-testimonio produces insightful and provocative stories. Critics acknowledge that Poniatowska's love for Mexico and its populace is very apparent in her writing. This love is most evident in her nonfiction works Massacre in Mexico and Nothing, Nobody. These two documentaries, along with Until We Meet Again, are regarded as her most important works.