SOURCE: “The Transformation of Privilege in the Work of Elena Poniatowska,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 13, No. 26, July, 1985, pp. 49–62.
[In the following essay, Chevigny examines the effect wealth and social standing have on the women in Poniatowska's stories.]
“We write in Latin America to reclaim a space to discover ourselves in the presence of others, of human community—so that they may see us, so that they may love us—to form the vision of the world, to acquire some dimension—so they can't erase us so easily. We write so as not to disappear.”
These remarks of Elena Poniatowska at a conference at Wellesley College in the spring of 1980 drew their coloration from her anguish over the “disappearance” of Latin Americans by political forces, but they aptly characterize her most important work as well. The evanescent or invisible, the silent or the silenced, those who elude official history or vanish from it, make the subject of the two of Poniatowska's works from which her fame and influence chiefly derive. Her testimonial novel, Hasta no verte Jesús mío [1969, Until I see you, my Jesus] presents in first-person narration the story of an adventuring peasant woman, fighter in the Mexican revolution and survivor of its inhospitable aftermath. Hitherto such characters had been presented only externally, and Poniatowska's distillation of her subject's dense and highly-colored idiom became a new literary resource. La Noche de Tlatelolco [1970, translated as Massacre in Mexico] is a dramatic collage of interviews with participants in the 1968 student movement and with witnesses to the massacre of hundreds during a peaceful meeting in Mexico City, an event obfuscated by government agencies and the press alike.
A close reader of Poniatowska's work may also interpret her words at Wellesley to mean that as her writing brings Latin America into being, so has Latin America made Poniatowska emerge as a writer; the two formations are intimately related. This interpretation gains force when we consider that Poniatowska's identification with Latin America and its language were both deliberate choices, the land and the tongue of her childhood being other. While her mother was Mexican and her father was Polish, both were in many important ways French. Poniatowska was born and raised in Paris. Even after the family returned to Mexico when Poniatowska was nine, only French and English were spoken at home. Most of her family still identify themselves as European. Poniatowska's choosing to cast her lot with Latin America and to write in Spanish with a highly Mexican inflection, point to a deliberateness of self-formation that is reinforced by other choices. For Poniatowska's social roots are aristocratic and her political antecedents are conservative. Generations of exile from reform and revolution in Mexico and Poland produced in France Poniatowska's parents and Poniatowska herself. Against such a background, Poniatowska's two most celebrated works stand in high relief; they delineate the dual trajectory of her career. In Hasta no verte, Jesús mío, she journeys to the opposite end of woman's world of social possibility and, in La Noche de Tlatelolco, she journeys to the alternate pole of political possibility. Each journey may be seen as metaphor and impetus of the other. Like her choice of Latin America, her choosing to write of a woman with no resources but her self and of political insurgents has everything to do with her authorial self-creation.
In this connection, her rejection in 1970 of Mexico's most prestigious literary award, the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for La Noche de Tlatelolco takes on added significance. In an open letter to the new...
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president, Luís Echevarría, Poniatowska asked who was going to give prizes to the dead. In 1968 Echevarría, had been Minister of the Interior, responsible for all internal security forces. In Poniatowska's rejection of the prize lie two refusals: a refusal to help Echevarría symbolically dissociate himself from the massacre and treat as settled the problem raised by the students, and a refusal to identify herself with established power. She rejects the implications of closure which the awarding and accepting of such a prize chiefly signify.
It is arguable that Poniatowska's rejection of the Villaurrutia Prize was an aesthetic as well as a political gesture; in refusing closure with the massacred subjects of her book, she acknowledges the sources of her art. I will try to show that the particular force of Poniatowska's work derives from the emptiness she found in her position as a woman of privilege and from her using that position to cultivate a readiness of imagination and spirit; when this readiness met with vivid exposure to the dispossessed, she converted equivocal privilege into real strength. Such an evolution would make her links to the dispossessed a continuing necessity.
I will trace this evolution by looking first at works of hers which treat women, seeking to discern in them her progressive identification of her career as a writer.1 I will then look at the writings which treat more general political and social issues in an endeavor to show how her evolution as a woman informed her vision of these issues.
When socially privileged, Poniatowska's female characters are cursed with feverish instability. In De noche vienes [1979; You come at night] a volume of stories written over several years, the protagonist or narrator is almost always a woman. Sensuousness, an antic humor, and a lyrical eagerness stamp the stories which are also often edged with intimations of death or of isolation without remedy. Three of them offer patently autobiographical moments. In “Canción de cuña” [“Lullaby”], dedicated to “una Señorita bien educada” [a well-bred young lady], Poniatowska offers a paradigmatic image of that condition. An undefined narrator speaks fancifully to a woman disqualified from experience by her very position of privilege. She is counseled to march through her day with the steps of a sergeant, to end it with prayers and fall asleep to a lullaby:
Lovely little sparrow with a coral beak I bring you a cage of pure crystal.(2)
But with lids closed she feels beneath her body the earth and its grottos, its rivers with their crossing roads, its fire and its gold, its diamonds submerged in coal and still lower the deaf beat of the lava. She feels the elements which erupt in volcanos, and without opening her eyes she hears a voice whispering the most tender declarations of passion. It is important that the explosion of repressed love and longing comes from the earth, that one subterranean realm ignites the other, that despite her crystal cage, the Señorita is not out of touch with earth. Although such women are cut off from life by sex, class, and rearing, their predicament does not jail their imaginations, their sense of the possible.
In “El limbo” [“Limbo”], Monica, a kindred protagonist, tries to take action, carrying the unwanted infant of Rose, a housemaid, to the hospital, there trying absurdly first to get preferential treatment and then to organize a group of mothers to protest bad hospital conditions. At home, her aristocratic grandmother is repelled by the girl's raw indignation (“if you went about it … à la Tolstoy, I would overlook it, but you are the most dreadful fabricator of commonplaces I have ever heard in my life”). Finally her mother half distracts her with thoughts of a dance, but Monica weeps over her supper:
She cried because she would never make a bomb in the basement of her house … —the powder was damp beforehand—but she cried above all because she was Monica and no one else, because the death of Rose's baby was not her death and she couldn't experience it, because she knew very well she would dance Saturday in her red dress, O Bahía, ay, ay, tapping with her heels on the heart of the child, she would dance over the women whose babies fell between their legs like rotten fruit, she would dance … because after all, one's own life is stronger than that of the rest.3
The desperation underlying this self-assertion finds only ironic relief in the experience privilege affords mature women. In them the potential of the señorita of Canción de Cuna is warped. The narrator of “El inventario” [“The Inventory”], the young mistress of an ancestral house being dismantled, is one of those observers on whom nothing is lost. She is closest to the servant, a woman as cold as all the years not lived in that house, as implacable as the furniture which is the essence, in this bitter sketch, of family. This servant, whose kneeling makes the narrator feel kneeled-on is named Ausencia (absence). Ausencia might as well be the name of the narrator, of the ancestral estate, of the life it affords well-bred ladies. In an amazing scene, an Aunt Veronica, who lives to command the furniture and its care, loses herself in the miasma of sweet wood smells and turpentine oils in the shop of a furniture restorer.
Aunt Veronica stopped giving orders. I think she even forgot why she had come. She sniffed excitedly and hid behind the sound of the saw. Slowly, ever so slowly, she ran her slender fingers over the corners of a table, slipping them into this or that crack and leaving one of them inside with indescribable pleasure. Finger and cleft fit delicately together, immersed in each other, and, I don't know precisely how or why, my aunt's excitement was contagious. For the first time I was seeing something unknown and mysterious. Aunt Veronica was breathing hard, as if her body were brushing up against something alive and demanding, something inexhaustible which rose with her as her breathing filled with desire. Then she gave instructions with a vague softness, her eyes sated, and something came out of her, something not like her usual words, her swollen lips betraying her. And then I understood that furniture is made to receive our bodies or for us to touch it lovingly. Not in vain did it have laps, backs, and quilted arms to play horsey on; not in vain were the shoulders so broad, the seats so cozy. Furniture was neither virgin nor innocent; on the contrary, it was heavy with awareness. Every piece was covered with glances, with the licked corners of mouths, with chinks, with sculpted flanks. There were corners filled with a secret light and an animal force rose unmistakably from the wood.4
Again, as with the Señorita and Monica, imagination and the need to give and receive love have nowhere to go. They can offer only this delicious and perverse insight into chairs. It may forever alter our casual sense of them—but is that enough? The flight of fancy here is symptom and protest against the crystal cage of class and gender. And clearly here, the crystal cage is the stronger for being made in Europe. The narrator's family, troubled by her outbursts, determine to keep her more indoors—or to send her to Europe (two versions of the same idea, as it turns out, because for the narrator Europe is an old pullman car with dusty curtains, seats of wine-colored plush, toothless fringes; it is threadbare, it smells bad).
It is tempting to read Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela [1978; Dear Diego, with hugs from Quiela] as that sort of covert autobiography which magically fends off possible destinies; in it Poniatowska, a Pole raised in Paris and in love with Mexico, seems to measure the cage she has had to flee. For Quiela is Angelina Beloff, a Russian painter who lived in Paris ten years with Diego Rivera before he left her for Mexico promising to write for her to follow. Drawn to this woman left on history's margin, Poniatowska has taken scraps of her letters and imagined them whole, imagined what Quiela felt, recalling the cold winter when their infant son died, living through another winter trying to keep her love alive and give new birth to her painting. All fails, motherhood, painting, and love—even the letters are (and were) never answered. Poniatowska has found a form that follows the contours of unrequited love and pathetically enduring hope, an epistolary novel of dead letters, a duet for one instrument. What is her object? Poniatowska explores the depths of female dependency, casting her light in that abyss to banish its terrors, for herself and the rest of us. In all these works Poniatowska demystifies privileged gentility so that it can no longer seduce any woman or be honored or used as weapon of control over them. Angelina's story may exorcize a ghost of Poniatowska's, but it is not her story. For she would have been already there in Mexico, like Rivera, but making her own mural of the revolution.
A mural of revolution: that partly describes Hasta no verte, Jesús mío. Jesusa Palancares, the speaker of this extraordinary novela-testimonio, is the antithesis of Angelina Beloff, sharing with her only a will to survive and a need to break silence, to assert herself (Angelina before an indifferent man, Jesusa before an indifferent society). They have in common also Elena Poniatowska, who sees in Angelina how one kind of female sensibility feeds dependence and in Jesusa how another kind feeds an independence that is almost—though not absolutely—complete.
The novela-testimonio lends itself peculiarly to a sort of symbiosis in which the author explores through the presentation of the subject her or his own potential strengths and weaknesses. In Cuba, for example, Miguel Barnet sees in the black centenarian who fled slavery and fought for Cuban independence what is the stuff of independence [Biografia de un cimarrón, 1968, translated as Autobiography of A Runaway Slave]; in the spunky vedette Rachel, who fought for marginal bourgeois existence in republican Cuba, he sees how inevitably her thoughts and feelings were compromised [Canción de Rachel, 1970; Rachel's Song]. Barnet, who was transforming himself from a privileged bourgeois into a revolutionary clearly used these books as aspiration and catharsis, and his method, it seems to me, might also be Poniatowska's. He writes: “Canción de Rachel speaks of her, of her life, just as she told it to me and just as I then told it to her.”5 As the writers become ventriloquists for their subjects, so is the reverse true.
What we know of Poniatowska's life bears out such an interpretation. When she was brought to Mexico at the age of nine, she was placed for three years in an English school. As only French and English were spoken at home, she learned Spanish from the servants; her regard for these speakers and their world is bound up with her love for the language as they speak it. She has said that she feels that she is Mexican because this idiom comes now more definitively from within herself than any other.6 When she first saw Jesusa, she was working as a journalist, interviewing important figures daily for the Mexican newspaper Novedades, but she was more attracted to Jesusa than to anyone else, she says, “because she spoke so coarsely, so vehemently—I loved her language—because she was always fighting and because she is very short like me.”7 Jesusa did not want to be interviewed, however, and Poniatowska for some time visited Jesusa once a week in what appears a tacit understanding of an equalizing ritual. Jesusa would set her to the task of taking her thirteen hens, a little leash tied to a leg of each, out into the sun. Gradually Jesusa began to talk of her life, and after Poniatowska's period of initiation, reverted to the coarse and figurative speech that had so drawn the writer. Poniatowska says that sometimes Jesusa did not want to talk—Jesusa needed to fix a drain, get fish for the cat, take a nap—but that she learned things from these encounters as well (“when we took a nap I found wonderful sayings embroidered on her pillows.”8) The ensuing creative process was symbiotic. Although Poniatowska has said she made up details, her deference to Jesusa is patent in everything she says about her. For example, in speaking of Jesusa's wish to die alone, Poniatowska said, “She needs no one, but I need her, and perhaps others need her.”9
The passage to which she refers ends the book and expresses as powerfully as any Jesusa's poignant self-sufficiency, in which the crucial relationships of her life form a part, and the mysteries of society, nature, and death are acknowledged and integrated:
It's really hard not dying when you're supposed to. When I don't feel well I keep my door shut—I spend days on end barricaded in. At most I'll boil some tea or gruel or something like that. But I don't go out stirring up trouble and nobody comes to my door. One day I'll be all twisted up in here and my door will be bolted shut. That's why I ask God to let me die up in the hills. If he answered my prayers, all I'd need would be the strength to climb to the top. But since He doesn't give scorpions wings, who knows? That's what I pray for, but if He says no … then let His will be done. I'd like to go back and die where I used to gallivant about when I was young and sit under a tree over there, let the buzzards surround me, and that's it. Then if anyone came looking for me I'd be up there happy as can be flying in the buzzards' guts. Otherwise your neighbors come and peer in while you're dying, to see how horrible you look, all twisted and tangled and bloated, with your legs splayed and your mouth gaping and your eyes popped out. Some life, to die like that! That's why I bolt myself in. Casimira, the landlady, will have to break the door down to get me when I'm stiff as a board and starting to stink. They'll have to drag me out. But no one's going to come in and see if this or that … no one. It'll be just God and me. That's why I don't what to die in Mexico City. No. I want to be on a hillside or in a ditch like my father, who died under a tree in an open field. God give me the strength to get there! It's a good thing to know the hour of your death. I ask Him to let me know so I can get ready, and be on my way. I'll become fodder for the animals out there. For the coyotes, like Pedro, my husband. It's not that I don't want to be buried, but who's going to bury me? They'll say: “Praise the Lord, that old mule's finally bit the dust.” I don't think people are good. Only Jesus Christ, but I never met him. And my father, who I never knew if he loved me or not. But here on earth, how can you expect people to be good? Now fuck off. Go away. Let me sleep.10
Here and throughout this book, Poniatowska's language becomes much more definitively Mexican than it has been in earlier work. She exploits the resources of Mexican campesino speech, making a thick brew of its errors and earthiness, its domesticating diminutives and strong images. For a European, she has said, writing is a way of belonging to adopted country, and in Jesusa's speech there is no trace of the old Pullman.
Much of the power of Hasta no verte lies in the surprise it plays on official history, which has left Jesusa out of its accounting. Poniatowska not only adds her in, but gives us a Jesusa who recasts it wholly. That's one surprise. Another is that Jesusa gains prodigious authority from a range of activities on which society confers no authority. She is by turns a motherless child, a punching-bag for her father, a servant to her stepmothers, neglected by all but the revolutionary soldier husband Pedro who likes to beat her; the pension she is promised after riding and fighting in the revolution, even leading Pedro's troops after his death, is later denied her; she lives as a vagrant, picking up work when she can in laundries, restaurants, factories, bars, fine houses; a haunter of vestibules and corners of the houses of others, she becomes also a handy street-brawler and a protector, willing or not, of superfluous children and dogs. Orphaned, victimized, deluded, fired, cheated, beaten, and often jailed, Jesusa tells with unflagging zest of language how she fought back on each occasion; she delivers judgments as fresh as they are convincing on Mexican heroes, politics in general, marriage, the relation of men to women, of humans to the earth, to evil, and to death. How is this alchemy worked? I believe that Jesusa offered the anecdotal skeleton, that the styles of discourse are essentially hers, but that it was Poniatowska who heard what she said, who broke through the noise of disordered reminiscence (another kind of silence), and saw the strength hidden in weakness. Human gain buried in human loss, the diamond in the coal, these are the strengths granted woman in general that women artists are especially gifted in releasing. For a woman, writing is converting her loss into gain. And as Barnet's writing moves him from the bourgeoisie to the revolution, Poniatowska's moves her from the implosions of the haut-bourgeois—self-serenades, orgasms with furniture, dead letters—to the explosions of Jesusa. At the same time, the imaginative attention to things which distinguished the idle high-born ladies is now present in Jesusa's scrupulously detailed accounts of her work.
Poniatowska does not romanticize Jesusa's strength. When her difficulties seem overwhelming, Jesusa seeks consolation, from time to time, in confusion, in the mystifying light of the Obras Espirituales. This spiritualist sect, with its creed of reincarnation, plays on her naiveté, and her desire for a more fulfilling past and future and for a justification for her current suffering. Jesusa's engagement with the revolution responded in part to her quest for family, for community and for meaning; when it was foiled she sought them in individual terms, in the specious family and opportunistic meanings of the sect. In a sense, in her later work, Poniatowska makes Jesusa's quest her own.
Hasta no verte Jesús mío appears to have led Poniatowska past the impasse of adolescent Monica who felt, even while despising her own life, that it was stronger than that of the rest. Finding Jesusa's strength, she could begin to cultivate her own.
Listening to Jesusa in order to break the silence about her side of Mexican history prepared Poniatowska to understand the silence at the heart of contemporary Mexican political life. Profoundly shaken by the events of 1968, she brought to them and subsequent political events imaginative resources developed in her evolving treatment of women. These include an uncanny ear and eye, and a vigilance for opportunities to identify the self in action and to locate the values of intimacy and family in a community which dominates no one.
In the summer of 1968 an escalating series of student demonstrations culminated in the call for a huge and public dialogue with the government. This last demand reveals the students' acumen with regard to the PRI, the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party—the bitter paradox of that name had become insufferable. The students saw that with its monolithic dominance of politic, of the economy, of the labor unions and of the press, the PRI offered less than a monologue—in effect, silence. The chants of the student movement were thus important but the dialogues they initiated were more so. The students of UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, bridged the chasms of class in making common cause with the students of the National Polytechical Institute; women began to share positions of leadership with men; and their lightning meetings and imaginative street theatre began to tell in working-class districts.
The form of Poniatowska's chronicle Massacre in Mexico captures this excitement over dialogue itself.11 Extracts of the testimony of students and faculty leaders, other participants, workers, passersby, journalists, critics and informers are interwoven with leaflets, slogans, and official statements. Poniatowska edits and orchestrates, but, adding no words to those of her sources, makes history seem to flow from the voices of the participants and gives us an uncanny experience of the simultaneous spontaneity and inevitability of events. And the feeling of immediacy is balanced by the historical sense of those who saw this movement against the backdrop of the railroad strike of 1958, the killing of Zapatista peasant organizer Ruben Jaramillo in 1962, and the repression of the doctors' movement in 1964. The euphoria of the movement at high tide is epitomized in the students' occupation of UNAM. They converted the university into a model or alternate society, an exemplary state, a self-proclaimed “territorio libre de Mexico.” Poniatowska later wrote, with her characteristic susceptibility to dislocated domesticity, the university now “really functioned like an alma mater, an amorous mother who sheltered and covered with her protecting wings.” Students fell asleep, she reports, to the cradle song of the mimeograph machine.12
The army's occupation of the free territory of UNAM on September 18 and later of the Polytechnical Institute brought an end to this dialogue. Although the students had promised not to interfere with the Olympic games scheduled to open October 12, the government grew frantic at the prospect of menace to this star in its crown, conclusive proof of Mexico's alleged superiority in the Hispanic world. The horror of Tlatelolco represents the loss of the trophy of world opinion in the effort to secure it. On October 2, while 10,000 people gathered to hear speeches from the National Strike Committee at the Tlatelolco housing unit, 5,000 soldiers and police surrounded the square. Flares in the sky gave the signal to open fire, and those who tried to flee were met by columns approaching in a pincer play. Over 2,000 were jailed, many of them for years. The dead proved harder to count; after careful investigation the British newspaper, The Guardian offered what may be the estimate: 325. On October 3, the Mexican press estimated variously 20 to 26 dead.
The press' irresponsibility was backed by deepened government silence as it refused to investigate the massacre. Poniatowska, who defines literature as “un largo grito” (a long shout),13 constructed her narrative to amplify her protest against silence: the book's first part recounts the events before and after Oct. 2; the second is the prolonged cry of anguish and rage which is the telling of the night of Tlatelolco.
Significantly, Poniatowska differs in her interpretation of that night from her good friend Octavio Paz, the poet and critic who in 1968 resigned his ambassadorial post in India in protest and also wrote the introduction to the United States edition of Massacre in Mexico. In his analysis, The Other Mexico: A Critique of the Pyramid (1972), he argues that the “invisible history” of the country, the survival in modern Mexico of Aztec hierarchic domination and ritual sacrifice, explains the blood-letting. As Poniatowska challenges the publicists who claim for Mexico an enlightenment that excepts it from the rest of Latin America, so she disputes the fatalism which for Paz distinguishes his land.14
Without making nationalist claims, Poniatowska discerns exceptional persons and moments which animate belief in change. Of the several massive marches on the Zocalo in 1968, she gives her sharpest attention in Massacre in Mexico to the silent march of September 13, which happened also to be the largest. On that date some 400,000 participants marched in silence, some with their mouths taped shut—a silence that ran counter to the fiesta-like abandon said to be the quintessence of Mexican public events. This show of the capacity for change, more than any other march, brought on-lookers off the benches and into the ranks. What engages Poniatowska, I believe, is the power of silence transformed into silence heard: as such it is the emblem of her later work, and gives her most recent book its title.
Hearkening to the nuances of silence, speaking for those who answer “no one” to the peremptory question, “who goes there?”—15 these are the disciplines that govern Poniatowska's five chronicles in Fuerte es el silencio [Silence is Strong, 1980]. Briefly, the first of these sketches the children who fly in and out of the capital selling chiclets or Kleenex and make their cardboard homes in the hundreds of “lost cities” surrounding it. She calls them “ángeles de la ciudad” (angels of the city) in a metaphoric strategy which makes visible those whom Mexico's miraculous “progress” brought into being and requires its proper citizens to ignore. We may recall the imaginative ingenuity by which Aunt Veronica transformed the furniture, but imagination is now and forever out of the house, discerning the vitality not of possessions but of the human dispossessed. The second chronicle traces the effects of 1968 in the next ten years, showing especially how Echevarría's attempt to co-opt the student movement without addressing its aims ended by reproducing 1968 in other forms; the picture of the PRI as a tightly-knit, self-indulgent family living in a blind fortress is fixed.
Poniatowska may have lived in crystal cages, but she never belonged to the PRI fortress. Through Jesusa's revolution and the students' brigades, she had glimpsed the promise of better “families.” Her remaining three chronicles are linked by her exploration of alternative organizations, the fragmentary “families” that emerged after 1968. Echevarria's equivocal liberalization worked both to politicize oppressed groups and to generate a stronger, more autonomous military. As student protests gave way to urban guerilla activities and peasant land seizures, Mexico learned practices—especially disappearance and torture—it had censured in dictatorships. In a third chronicle, Poniatowska tries through interviews to grasp the motives of jailed guerillas. In a fourth, the diary of a 1978 hunger strike, she describes the 4-day bivouac in the Cathedral of the capital by 83 mothers of disappeared persons. While this makeshift family arouses more of Poniatowska's sympathy than the guerillas do, she remains ambivalent. She appears to be groping toward a new form, as she permits her own troubled musings and fantasies to break the surface of documentary reportage. We feel again Monica's malaise over the tug between one's own life and that of others.
Far more successful as formal synthesis and as provocation to the reader is the last chronicle, the best in the book. While Poniatowska the interviewer disappears, she is perhaps more present than in any other work. The passionate force of this narrative derives partly from its temporary fulfillment of strivings expressed in other works. Here families of dispossessed “angels” find their home by making their own city in Morelos, the Colonia Rubén Jaramillo, (named for the assassinated peasant leader), as hundreds of Mexican groups were doing in the mid-seventies. The desire of the well-bred Señorita to slip her cage and make her home in the earth here combines with Jesusa's search for a true revolutionary family. Indeed the populist idiom and spirit of this chronicle is more than any other work like that of Hasta no verte Jesús mío.
The extraordinary figure, Florencio Medrano, who leads the group, bears some resemblance to the better known Ruben Jaramillo, and other peasant leaders Genaro Vásquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas killed in the seventies. Called “El Guëro” (the blond), he combines the intimate knowledge of recipes and remedies of a Jesusa with the charisma of a Zapata and a rare compassion. Using a strategy he developed during a visit to China, he led families in 1973 to form a commune on ejido land outside Cuernavaca as the first in a contemplated series of land seizures which would culminate in armed revolution.
In a series of vignettes, Poniatowska offers moments which suggest the range and complexity of her vision. El Guëro spurs thirty apprehensive families to leave Cuernavaca's slums for unused collective land; giving each a lot on condition they build their shanty in seventy-two hours and joining them in the work, he makes their very fear productive. In the name of Rubén Jaramillo, he then persuades them to divide their lots for latecomers. The guerilla patriarch inspires students to participate on his “Red Sundays” in construction of hospital, roads, and plumbing in the “first free territory in America” since UNAM. In perhaps the most powerful episode, when the terrified governor comes to promise the settlers light, water, all services, el Guëro shouts down their cheering, seeing in it evidence of their interiorized humiliation: “Don't thank them!” he insists. “The earth is yours, by legitimate right, you're not orphans, you're Mexicans, here you were sown and here you must grow … The light is yours, the water is yours, yours because they expelled you, don't go on being grateful, you have nothing to thank anyone for—nothing, nothing, nothing!—except yourselves and your own work.”16 And mysteriously his exhausted aspect gives those close to him an intuition of his death; it is as if the very absolutism of his claims for human justice promise to consume him.
Other episodes present growing contradictions. Over-confident, El Guëro tolerates suspected spies. Scheming about collecting arms, he neglects the colonia, imperiling it. In long evenings of talk with women, he persuades them to speak their bitterness, and to assume responsibility, but he becomes possessively jealous of Elena, his secretary and confidante. Finally he flees, with Elena, from the encroachment of the police, hiding in the mountains to pursue his revolutionary dream, now reduced to kidnappings. Although his followers cannot believe the news of his death, they lose their revolutionary verve. The chronicle ends with Poniatowska in 1980 watching a conventional beauty queen pageant, in which the children, without understanding it intone a song about the ultimate victory of Florencio Medrano. Only one in the crowd recalls Medrano and invites Elena Poniatowska to hear his story.
No other work of hers has more concentrated force and complexity than this. An explanation lies partly in her giving the intrinsically dramatic facts and particularity and emotional coloring of her own. As she could learn of only fragments of Medrano, she made him, she says, the way she wanted him to be.17 Wholly fictional is the sheltered and faded Elena who comes as a secretary to help and writes at nights about “el Guëro” and revolution, who learns the limitations of his scheme from the Colonia's thoughtful schoolteacher, and yet flees with him as his lover. As her name and her literary vocation broadly hint, she is a figure of autobiographical fantasy. But as Poniatowska both includes and goes beyond “Elena,” this chronicle as a whole both embodies Mexican romanticism and points to its limits. All Poniatowska's work discloses reservations about the romanticism it depicts and expresses; here her irony also analyzes it. The chronicle epitomizes Poniatowska's literary project: in naming and cultivating the lives and rights of others, the writer is naming integrating herself in ever more complex ways. One's own life is stronger but imaginative familiarity with others gives meaning to its strength.
This compelling fable makes us perceive the shape of a terrible historical impasse. Damned by their own state, the people of the Colonia would never have fought without the fearless leadership of a Medrano, but that very revolutionary zeal dictated that he sacrifice the Colonia and abandon it to its fate. Poniatowska both recognizes the heroic efforts of the marginated to move toward the center of their own lives, to displace the heartless state and—when those efforts fail—she salvages the drama to seek out the issues which Medrano's successors must begin by addressing. Medrano sweeps through the lives of the people like a wind, moving them forward and going beyond them. What are the alternatives? The practical wisdom of the teacher (whom Poniatowska did meet) could not command the loyalty of the people as El Guëro's daring could. With all that militates against them, can the people learn to define, and gain the strength to pursue, their own largest interests?
Poniatowska's work elicits such questions because her mixture of modes of knowing—investigative and empathetic—and of ways of telling—novelistic, testimonial, journalistic and confessional—engage the feelings and curiosity of the reader: the reader is implicated in pursuit of the story beyond its formal ending. To express it another way, Poniatowska herself practices a kind of alchemy related to that by which Jesusa derived great authority from her strong response to abuse. In Poniatowska's case an empty privilege is transformed into a full one—the fullest privilege is responsibility—but in the process, privilege and responsibility are stripped of their established social meanings. If Poniatowska's self-presentation is modest, her effect is not: for the reader, the conventional privilege is diminished as responsibility is enlarged.
In my first section below, I violate chronology to present Poniatowska's writings about women in an order which dramatizes her dissatisfactions with the situation of women in the upper classes and her sympathetic attraction to women in positions of struggle. The fact that she wrote about Angelina Beloff after writing about Jesusa does not alter my point; doubtless her understanding of Jesusa gave Poniatowska new insight into the limitations of Angelina's situation. Indeed the project of coming to terms with women's class conditioning is a lifelong endeavor. In my second section, I follow chronology in discussing Poniatowska's writing about society and politics.
De noche vienes (Mexico: Editorial Grijalbo, 1979), p. 29. This and all subsequent translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.
Ibid., pp. 63, 65.
Ibid., pp. 89–90; translation by Magda Bogin for this essay. I am grateful to Magda Bogin for our many conversations about Poniatowska's work.
Barcelona: Editorial Estela, 1970, p. 9.
Interview, Margarita Garcia Flores, Cartas Marcadas (Mexico; Difusion cultural, UNAM, 1979), p. 220.
From panel discussion at Wellesley conference, May 2, 1981.
Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1969, pp. 315–16. Translation by Madga Bogin. Her translation of this novel will be published soon.
Massacre in Mexico, tr. Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1975) is Poniatowska's only work translated into English.
“El movimiento estudiantil de 1968,” Fuerte es el silencio (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1980), p. 45.
García Flores, p. 229.
Ibid., p. 225.
Prólogo, Fuerte es el silencio, p. 11.
Ibid., pp. 227–28.
Prólogo, Fuerte es el silencio, p. 11.
SOURCE: “Horse-Trading in Female Ecstasy” in Nation, Vol. 243, No. 3, August 2–9, 1986, pp. 83–4.
[In the following review, Solomon draws comparisons between ecstasy and pain in Dear Diego.]
To appreciate what the gifted Mexican novelist Elena Poniatowska is up to in her extraordinary novella, Dear Diego, it helps to know an earlier classic, Ifegenia: The Diary of a Young Girl Who Was Bored, written in the early 1920s by the Venezuelan novelist Teresa de la Parra. In Ifegenia, which has never been translated into English, de la Parra examines the psychological and sensual state of a liberated Venezuelan woman just after her return from post-World War I Paris. Although Paris in the 1920s was full of North Americans, European culture didn't dominate them in quite the same way it did Latin American expatriates. In addition to the tango, wealthy Argentineans transported their cows to France so they could drink milk from the pampas while imbibing European culture. Their difficulties began when they had to return home to a far more stultifying society.
In her novel about one female exile's return, de la Parra leapt past the perennial feminist theme—a woman in search of herself—and established her character as already liberated and sophisticated. Ifegenia bobbed her hair, lived the bohemian life in Paris and learned to regard both sexual pleasure and intelligent conversation as her right. Using the technique of letters and diaries, de la Parra conveys the intensity of Ifegenia's rebellious voice, the range of her intelligence and the degree of her sexual obsessiveness. But de la Parra also anticipates Simone de Beauvoir's warning that brains and sexual liberation don't matter at all without a firm economic base. Sacrificed by her adored lover, who marries a woman with money, Ifegenia must also make a loveless bourgeois marriage in order to survive.
Elena Poniatowska's Dear Diego, set during the same period and reminiscent of de la Parra's Ifegenia, is about a heated ménage à trois between Diego Rivera, his Russian émigré common-law wife, Angelina Beloff, and the jealous third lover, art itself. Poniatowska's narrative—also a series of letters—blends real documents with her own imaginative reconstruction of Angelina Beloff's relation to Diego Rivera. Exactly how much of this is Poniatowska and how much is drawn from actual documents is not made clear, and since Rivera was a real person, the reader can't help filling the gaps in this impressionistic novella with what is already known about him. But whatever the proportion of fact to fiction, the novella is appealing because Poniatowska is so good at capturing the sadness of third-rate French hotels, the wet Paris fog and the cafard so familiar to bohemians long on soul and short on cash.
Sent to Paris to study at age 20, Diego Rivera stayed fourteen years, living the last ten with Angelina. He was a part of the group which included Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire, Élie Faure, Diaghilev and Ilya Ehrenburg. Angelina's letters start in 1921, just after Rivera abandoned both her and the Parisian art world. In Dear Diego he emerges as a real character, albeit a voiceless one. The reader senses Angelina's suspicion that Rivera's abandonment of Europe was caused by traumatic disappointment as well as practical advantage. Did she also suspect that he thought his Cubist work inferior to that of his friend Picasso? Certainly his decision that he needed neither the romantic Russian soul of Angelina Beloff nor the world of French Modernism was abrupt. In his next phase Rivera became his country's chief social realist, celebrating both Mexico's newfound national identity—Mexicanidad—and his artistic one.
Angelina's complex reaction to his total rejection provides Poniatowska with the true subject of Dear Diego, the psychology of female ecstasy. Angelina's ecstatic obsession with Diego is capable of being interrupted only by her obsessions about other lost love objects. She constantly resurrects vivid memories of her adolescent trance like adoration of the Russian Orthodox Church; even more significant, she turns normal mourning for the tragic death of her and Diego's infant son into an almost romantic obsession with grieving itself. The only form of ecstasy that she uses to release her (somewhat) from Diego is her desire to lose herself in her art. During the course of the novella Angelina shuttles back and forth between these competing passions. She reaches a high of sorts whenever they induce in her a fervid state of self-abnegation, often accompanied by extreme loneliness, hunger and cold.
Like Teresa de la Parra's heroine, Ifegenia, Angelina Beloff was an uncommonly liberated and intelligent woman. But like many bohemian women of her time she tried to “upgrade” her sex life from the simply carnal to the classier state of “free love” by infusing herself with soul and her lover with talent. I think that like many such women she secretly hoped that all that soul would bind her man to her in a union even more lasting than ordinary marriage. The romantic notion that a woman can liberate herself without economic underpinnings has proved every bit as dangerous as Isadora Duncan's romantic solution to the inhibitions of clothing; ironically, she died choked by her own diaphanous scarf. Women's magazines have often preferred to publicize women with a fondness for the sensational—women who have undermined the traditional domestic roles of their sex by pushing charismatic ecstasy in the form of artistic self-discovery, multiple orgasm, group euphoria and the like. That these magazines were able to get away with the startling omission of economics meant that they became fabulous horse-traders in female ecstacy.
Angelina felt she had sacrificed herself in order to nurture a genius and she was devastated when he broke their unwritten bargain and dumped her. In the first letter Angelina attempts to immolate herself: her talent, her sketches are nothing. Then she switches tactics and slyly insinuates that their Paris friends consider Diego a rat for leaving. Her trump card, her blackmail, is the argument that by deserting her, Rivera is also deserting what she sees as his “Art”—the formidable third member of their original trio.
Poniatowska's tone is perfect:
I love you, Diego, right now I have an almost unbearable pain in my chest. In the street, there are moments when I am suddenly struck by your memory and then I can't walk and I feel so afflicted that I have to lean against a wall. The other day a policeman came up to me: “Madame, vous êtes malade?” I shook my head and was about to answer that it was love, you see I am Russian, I am sentimental and I am a woman, but then I realized that my accent would give me away and French functionaries don't like foreigners.
Angelina's attachment to Diego is so great that in her trancelike states she becomes him: “For the first time in four long years I feel that you are not far away, I am so full of you—that is, of painting. I plan to return to the Louvre in the next few days.” Through her feverish painting Angelina believes herself possessed by Diego. She describes him as being inside her: she swells up, her breasts become engorged, she feels Diego on top of her. When not indulging in sexual imagery in her letters to him, she incessantly recalls the image of their dead son. At other moments, she conjures up her dreamscape (another version of him), Mexico.
Angelina uses every device to let Rivera know that she is, in the eyes of their friends, becoming pale with the sickness of love. She tells him that during a Russian Easter celebration in Paris, a fellow Russian takes pity on her poverty and her hunger, and gives her a Russian hard-boiled egg. Finally, braced up by memories of religious celebrations during her Russian Orthodox childhood, she begins to retrieve her sense of identity. With filial pride she reminds Diego of her excellent bourgeois liberal-radical parents. She shakes herself loose from him and asks her first coherent question: “Does my love now have an object?”
As Angelina regains her strength, she recognizes that she has lost Diego. She then describes to him a scene in which her current teacher, the artist André Lhote, in front of many students, pronounced the magic words to her: “You have an extraordinary talent.” She thus obtains permission from another powerful male to become an artist. She has also come to accept Rivera's power in the world outside Paris. In a new tone she writes to him: “Juan Gris is going to Mexico and he is counting on you for help.” And she adds that Élie Faure has said that Europe has dried up: the bohemians miss Rivera's fables about plumed serpents flying through the skies. Rivera never answers her letters, but he does send money. In a real-life postscript this book it is noted that Angelina Beloff's Mexican and European artist friends helped her to visit Mexico in 1935. Diego Rivera walked by her in a theater lobby without noticing her, and she chose not to intrude on him.
SOURCE: “Letters and Desire: The Function of Marks on Paper in Elena Poniatowska's Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela,” in Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers, Vol. 2, 1990, pp. 1–6.
[In the following essay, Paul examines the meaning of the words, etchings, and spaces in Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela, and how they are important to understanding Quiela's situation.]
In her novella, Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela, Elena Poniatowska sets her fictional narrative within an accurate historical context: the text consists of a series of twelve letters purportedly written by the Russian artist Angelina (“Quiela”) Beloff and addressed to her absent lover, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. After living in Paris with Quiela for ten years, Rivera has returned home to Mexico alone, since the two lovers can afford only one ticket. Rivera leaves, promising to send for Quiela at a later date. He writes her brief, emotionally detached letters for a period of time and then stops writing completely, continuing only to send occasional money orders. At the time of Quiela's first letter, she hasn't heard from Diego for some time, but she remains hopeful that he still loves her and that they will eventually be reunited in Mexico. She writes, reaffirming her love for him, asking for assurance of his love, recalling shared experiences, and informing him about her daily activities. She also sends him prints of etchings that she has been commissioned to do for the magazine Floreal.
Because the written word is, in structuralist terms, the signifier, the conveyor of meaning, it is of utmost importance in any text. But in this novel the act of writing, of putting marks on paper, is as meaningful as the words or marks themselves; the action itself signifies. The central structuring device of this narrative is the play between presence and absence: the relationship between the written words, or the marks on paper, and the blank page, the textual silence. In this paper, I will discuss the nature and function of the “written word,” the “marks on paper,” as well as the signification of the answering silence.
I am using the words “marks on paper” for a specific reason. In Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela two different kinds of marks on paper are present: the actual letters which we, the readers, examine along with Diego, and also the enclosed prints which Quiela describes in her letters. Both sets of markings are “codes” which signify to their “readers.” Both sets of markings are surrounded by “margins of silence,” which also signify in the text, and both are answered with silence.
Thematically, Quiela's letters represent a transparent effort on the part of the woman to recreate or recuperate her relationship with her lover, Diego. The woman desperately attempts to restore a lost relationship through the written recollection and recounting of shared experiences and time: Quiela repeatedly writes about their dead son Dieguito, about their joint artistic ventures, about their first meeting, and about her enduring love for Rivera.
The structure of the letters parallels and supports Quiela's overt attempt to recuperate the relationship. As well as reminding Diego of shared experiences, Quiela's discourse about their lives together serves to join the first person singular “yo” and the second person singular “tú” into the first person plural, the “nosotros.” The letters also contain recurring questions and appeals: requests which are intended to elicit answers and actions, to establish a dialogue, a communication between the self and the other. In this case, the written questions are aimed at eliciting not merely any response, but a written response. Throughout the text, Quiela longs for “una línea tuya,” a line from you. The dialogue or communication that Quiela yearns for is envisioned as an exchange of letters, of written words, not speech or physical contact.
By its nature, a question implies the presence of the other; it suggests the desire for and possibility of an answer. However, letters, by their nature, also imply the absence of the object. They are, of course, sent to someone who is not in the presence of the writer. In this novel, the act of writing letters to a silent other signifies on several levels: not only do letters imply both the existence and the absence of an other, but according to Todorov, all “words imply the absence of things, just as desire implies the absence of its object. … Words are to things what desire is to its object” (Todorov 105–06). In this text, Diego functions as the absent object of both the discourse and of Quiela's desire.
Therefore, these letters represent a structure that implies both the existence of an other, and, at the same time, the absence of the other. An other is being desired, addressed, and questioned; and the same other is physically absent and, in this case, silent. Not only do these letters present a play between the presence and absence of the object, they also suggest a similar ambivalence with regard to the narrator, the subject. Derrida has discussed at length the nature of the written word as orphan, as artifact, as able to “act” independently of the author (Derrida). The fact that this is a text, that we are reading letters instead of hearing speech, suggests the absence of the writer of those words. These particular written words are especially distanced from their author. Although Quiela's native language is Russian, she is writing in Spanish in order to communicate with Diego. Her use of a foreign tongue implies a surrender of identity, of self, and of identification with the other; Quiela has lost or abandoned her own words and must rely on the words of the other.
The other marks on paper, the etchings, suggest an alternative and an opposition to the written word. These marks on paper represent a signifying system or a code, as do the words. However, the language of the etchings is both more primitive or iconographic, and more intimate; they represent the personal language of the artist. This close relationship between artist and drawings is demonstrated by Quiela's vision of sketches as a sort of physical synecdoche, a piece of the artist which serves to imply his or her presence. She not only keeps Diego's brushes and canvases just as he left them, she also tells Diego that she treasures “hasta el más minimo papel en que has trazado una línea” (9). Quiela attempts to preserve Diego's presence by keeping his random sketches on paper, and in a similar vein, she envisions her own death as an act of erasure: “Siento que también yo podría borrarme con facilidad” (9).
The function of the etchings is also distinct from that of the written word: while the écriture constitutes Quiela's attempt to recuperate the dialogue between herself and Diego, the etchings represent her unintentional recuperation of herself. Decoded, these etchings trace Quiela's growing separation from Diego and her attempted reintegration with herself. Over the course of their relationship, Quiela surrendered herself completely to Diego. Not only did she adopt his language, she abandoned her own career as an artist, content instead to wash Diego's brushes and prepare his canvases. Not even the birth of her son changed her priorities: he was, significantly, named for his father, and Quiela confesses that she always valued her lover more than her baby. “Quise tener un hijo Diego, un hijo tuyo y mío. Sin embargo, siempre te preferi a ti” (61). Quiela expresses her changing attitude toward her lost life and her lost child as she contrasts her early years in art school with her present situation. She recalls seeing children on the street when she was younger and thinking of them only as models, as shapes and forms to be incorporated into her drawings. She recalls: “yo no veía al niño, veía sus líneas, su contorno, sus luces, no preguntaba siquiera cómo se llamaba” (38). After the death of her own child and Diego's departure, her vision undergoes a radical change. She now looks at children and wonders about their home and their mothers and sadly remembers her own lost son. Quiela comments on the children whom she sees, writing: “No son dibujos, son niños de carne y hueso” (39).
Quiela's new perception of children springs from her personal loss; the absence of Dieguito allows her to experience the full presence of the other children. Although she is now painfully aware of the reality of children and acknowledges their existence independent of her artwork, her response to this new awareness is to draw a child. Quiela describes the etchings that she is doing for the magazine Floreal, relating that she began the project by drawing still lifes, then moved to urban landscapes, and finally drew children's faces. She asserts that these faces were the most successful of the drawings, and concludes: “Es mi hijo el que se me viene a la yema de los dedos” (50).
Although Quiela realizes that children are more than lines on paper, drawing is the only way she can recapture her son and communicate her feelings about him. These drawings somehow enable Quiela to recreate and love Dieguito. They represent her child literally and symbolically: they both portray the features of the baby, and they are the woman's creation, her progeny. This time, Diego is excluded from the creation of the child; the drawings are Quiela's alone.
Not only are these etchings the expression of Quiela's changing attitude, the act of creating them seems to be a vehicle for her transformation. It is through the process of marking paper that Quiela begins to recover the self that she had surrendered to Diego. Quiela writes that she was painting one night and “sonreí para mí misma al pensar que ojalá y hubiera una Angelina que cuidara de mí y me rogara interrumpir tan sólo un momento para comer un poco” (22). This passage suggests a temporary confusion between herself and Diego; she thinks briefly of Angelina as a third person who would care for her as she cared for her lover. Quiela has so much given herself over to Rivera that it seems that only by becoming him can she be herself.
She writes that this sensation intensified as the night went on, she felt that Diego's spirit had taken possession of her, that he was inside her, and that he was the source of her intense desire to paint. She writes: “Me volví hasta gorda Diego, me desbordaba, no cabia en el estudio, era alta como tú” (23). This attempt to become one with Diego, to paint as Diego paints, fails. Quiela falls seriously ill and cannot continue.
At a later date, Quiela returns to her etchings commissioned by Floreal. She has considered looking for better-paying employment, but writes that instead she will continue with her etchings because she derives so much satisfaction from them. She describes “la gran ilusión que siento por instalarme frente a mi mesa de trabajo, mejor dicho, la tuya, e iniciar los proyectos” (28). In this passage we see another instance of confusion between the self and the other; Quiela first refers to the work table as “mi mesa” and then corrects the possessive, changing it to “la tuya.” But this temporary claiming of the table marks a more substantial move towards the recuperation of self on the part of Quiela. She no longer becomes Diego, instead she reclaims the table, which is an artifact of Diego's presence, and uses it herself.
The different silences in the text signify as surely as the marks on paper. Diego's silence begins even before the artist's departure for Mexico. Recounting Rivera's reaction to the death of their son Quiela writes: “Tú estabas ausente, ni una sola vez me dirigiste la palabra, ni siquiera te moviste cuando te tomé del brazo” (18). The man's continuing silence gains meaning from Quiela's exhortations, from the questions which it leaves unanswered. It functions as the ultimate refusal; a refusal to speak even in order to deny, a refusal to engage in dialogue even in order to insist on separation, a refusal to be joined with Quiela even in a grammatical, structural sense, a refusal to respond to the woman's love in any active way whatsoever.
Quiela's letters are individually, and together, surrounded by margins of silence which also signify in the text. The spaces between letters are specific: they are conveyed by the dates which head each one. These pauses—a month between the first several letters, days between the following, and then a period of six months between the penultimate and the last—communicate the varying degree of trust, hope, and intimacy that Quiela feels toward Diego. Quiela announces in her twelfth letter that this will be her last, and even though she ends that letter with a question, she follows it with silence. Although Quiela continues to love Diego and desire a response, her silence expresses her recognition of the futility of her letters, an acknowledgment of Diego's departure from her life.
The narrator of Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela fails in her written attempt to communicate with the other, to engage the other in dialogue. Her borrowed words, themselves representative of a lost self, are met with silence. However, through a different act of narration, through drawing and etching, Quiela is able to recall herself and her lost child and begin to separate herself from Diego.
SOURCE: “Framing Questions: The Role of the Editor in Elena Poniatowska's La noche de Tlatelolco,” in Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 80–90.
[In the following essay, Jörgensen writes that Poniatowska's style of editing the various sources in La noche de Tlatelolco is superb and notes that this editing style gives the story more impact.]
Elena Poniatowska, French-born Mexican journalist and author, is widely recognized for her substantial contributions to the growing body of Latin American testimonial and documentary narrative. Her many published works include short stories, novels, hundreds of interviews, chronicles of contemporary life and book-length nonfiction texts. Characteristic of her writing is the imprint it bears of the dialogue which Poniatowska has actively sought out and sustained with all sectors of Mexican society throughout her more than 30 year career as a journalist. This dialogue with the other is both the point of departure for her investigation and a structuring device which informs the text. As a journalist she has had ample access to the most prominent figures of Mexican culture and politics. Palabras cruzadas (1961), a selection of her interviews done between 1954 and 1961, includes pieces based on conversations with Lázaro Cárdenas, Diego Rivera, Alfonso Reyes and Juan Rulfo. In the summer of 1982 she interviewed all seven candidates in the presidential election campaign, and those interviews have been published under the title of Domingo siete (1982). But it is her particular dedication to recouping the silenced voices of the marginalized and oppressed which has defined her position as a writer and her critical stance toward the institutions of political, economic, and cultural authority in Mexico. In works such as Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969), La noche de Tlatelolco (1971), Gaby Brimmer (Brimmer and Poniatowska, 1979), Fuerte es el silencio (1980), and Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor (1988), Poniatowska has opened up public discourse to members of oppressed communities.1
Literature of protest and denunciation is not, of course, a new phenomenon. However, Elena Poniatowska has demonstrated courageously a special capacity for facilitating the other's activity as a speaking subject, to avoid (mis)representing the other as a projected object of her own discourse. In this article I will explore one manifestation of this capacity to hear and to empower other, silenced voices by analyzing her best known work of testimonial literature, La noche de Tlatelolco. My analysis will focus on the role of the author as editor of the oral testimonies recorded in the text.2 I will use the concept of the parergon, or frame, as developed in an essay by Jacques Derrida (1979) to show how Poniatowska exploits her own considerable authority as a journalist to foreground the discourse of the oppressed.
This book, translated into English under the title of Massacre in Mexico, is a collective retelling of one of the most important and terrible political events of recent Mexican history: the 1968 student movement, which was headed by students of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional. Both the original Spanish title and its English version commemorate the massacre of hundreds of university students, school children, and curious passersby at a rally in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Ciudad Tlatelolco on October 2, 1968.3 The killings and the massive arrests that followed effectively silenced the movement, which had been active since July of that year and whose platform included such demands as the removal of the Mexico City police chief, disbanding of the granaderos or riot police, and freedom for Mexico's political prisoners. Beyond these specific demands, the student movement also embodied other, broader hopes for a more open, democratic society, greater rights for workers, and a freer dialogue between those in power and those who, 50 years after the Mexican Revolution, remained powerless. The government response to the protest activities organized by the students consisted of a series of repressive measures. Beginning with the harassment and arrest of individuals, these measures quickly escalated to include a two-week occupation of the University City by the army, an increasing use of violence against participants both in the streets and under police custody, and finally, the shooting of protesters in Tlatelolco on October 2.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Mexico City returned to an appearance of normality, to a state of silence and ignorance which, to Elena Poniatowska, signified a tacit complicity with the official violence.4 Poniatowska remembers how she first learned of the massacre and how the reaction of the general public affected her.
[The night of October 2] three women, mothers, came to my house and told me what they had seen in Tlatelolco. I thought, they're hysterical, it isn't true, this cannot happen while life goes on as usual all around. For that reason I went to Tlatelolco on October 3 and it shocked me to see all the shoes strewn on the ground, the tanks still there, and traces of machine gun fire everywhere. I even saw blood smeared on the wall, tracks of blood on the wall and all the windows shattered. Then I felt the indignation of knowing that such a thing had happened, and yet everyone was so calm watching the Olympics.5
In spite of the initial attempts at cover-up and censorship, in the years since 1968 the story of the student movement and the Tlatelolco massacre has insinuated itself into the political, intellectual, and artistic discourse of Mexico. A whole body of “Tlatelolco literature” has grown which includes essays, novels, poetry, documentary narrative, and theater.6 Elena Poniatowska's La noche de Tlatelolco is the most widely read of these works, and it represents one of the relatively early attempts to recuperate a kind of visión de los vencidos (vision of the conquered) of the confrontation between the movement and the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.7 Poniatowska accomplishes this necessary task of recuperation and dissemination by functioning as a mediating figure between the oral testimonies and the reading public. By respecting the authority of her many witnesses, Poniatowska, although not a member of the oppressed group, offers a positive model of the production of testimonial literature.
It is clear from the statement by Poniatowska quoted above that the victims of the violence themselves empowered the writer with the fundamental insight that led her to actively investigate the events of July to October 1968. The process of conducting the interviews and gathering the other materials which comprise the book can be seen as a constant give-and-take of discursive authority and responsibility among a variety of voices. On the one hand the speaking subjects of the testimonies are collectively the “authors” of the activities of the student movement and the language of its verbal recreation. On the other hand, a single compiler-writer, Elena Poniatowska, has transcribed, organized, and issued—authored—the history in written form. In tribute to this process Poniatowska casts herself in the text as an editorial figure and employs various strategies to efface her own individual presence. Nevertheless, she cannot wholly abdicate her mediating authority as the editor. The editorial figure is at once accessory and essential to the voices she records, and at once marginal and central to their story.
Visually, the book is structured as a montage of many fragmented discourses. Poniatowska deconstructs the eyewitness accounts gleaned from her interviews by fragmenting them and then recomposing the many voices into a complex composition which no single speaker can dominate.8 The fragments range from a few lines to half a page or a page in length, and interspersed among the testimonies are passages from a myriad of other sources: newspaper articles, speeches by government officials, protest songs and chants, graffiti, police records, and literary texts. The montage form, with its juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements, creates a multilayered, polysemous vision fraught with gaps, discrepancies, and contradictions, as well as startling moments of unanimity and consensus.
The apparent absence of a unifying, authoritative narrative voice, and its replacement by an elusive editor who appears and disappears, who slips on and off the page, is a crucial narrative strategy. Other readers of the text have commented on this, including Ronald Christ, who reviewed the book. “The narrator is no more visible here than a director who chooses what will be photographed or an editor who snips the what into the how we see” (Christ, 1975: 79). Of course this very snipping of the what into the how we see is itself a powerful wielding of narrative authority, suggesting as it does the deliberate manipulation of the many fragmented testimonies.9
One way of understanding the role of the editor in La noche de Tlatelolco is to study her as a parergonal figure, a kind of frame for the work, but a frame in the sense that Jacques Derrida proposes in an essay titled “The Parergon” (1979). In this essay Derrida deconstructs Kant's formulation of the conventional opposition in the terminology of aesthetics, parergon versus ergon, or frame versus work, in order to show how a frame, far from being supplementary or extra to the work itself, is an integral part of it and plays an active role in its structure and meaning. Citing the signifieds of the term parergon as “secondary or foreign object, accessory, frame, something exterior,” he goes on to say that “it is that which should not become, by distinguishing itself, the principal subject. … In the investigation of causes or the knowledge of principles, parerga should not be allowed to take precedence over the essential” (Derrida, 1979: 20). Having said this, Derrida dedicates the remainder of the essay to undoing this notion of the frame, to subverting the opposition parergon-ergon by showing that the exterior always penetrates into the interior and participates in its being. The drapery cannot be ripped from the statue, nor the colonnade from the palace, and so “it is not simply their exteriority which distinguishes them as parerga, but the internal structural link by which they are inseparable from a lack within the ergon” (Derrida, 1979: 24). I will view the editor of La noche de Tlatelolco, then, as this kind of framing figure, demonstrating some of the ways in which her intimate and essential connection to the testimonies is manifested.
In the superficial configuration of the text it is easy to distinguish the editor, as frame, from the “work itself.” The editorial figure, identified by the initials “E. P.,” is present only to collect and publish the essential voices, to let them speak and not to intervene in their narration. That each testimony does, indeed, apparently speak for itself is graphically reinforced by the fact that each fragment is separated from the next by a blank space. But this self-sufficiency of the testimonies is only apparent, because the existence of the work as a published text stems not from the independent energy of the testimonies, but from the authorizing labor of the frame, the editor, whose power is revealed in the very gesture of transferring it to the other. There is a necessary interdependence of work to frame, frame to work, which reminds us that the editorial function is not neutral or transparent, but charged with meaning and the making of meaning.
La noche de Tlatelolco begins with a series of photographs that capture images of the student movement: impressive views of mass marches, photos of the better known student leaders, photos of students being arrested, being beaten, pictures of Tlatelolco moments before—and moments after—the shooting began, and jail cells crowded with young people.10 This visual frame complements and confirms what the speakers will relate. The written body of the text is then set off by a second frame, three introductory paragraphs signed by “E. P.” and separated from the testimonies which constitute the work itself. In this introduction the editor establishes an emotional atmosphere and inserts herself into the scene as a listening, observing “I.” The atmosphere is cuphoric, festive, self-confident; a scene of children off to a street fair, arm in arm. But, as the introduction makes clear, it will be a festival of death, a bloody carnival in which “The guns in the shooting gallery are aimed at them, children-targets, wonder-struck children, children for whom every day is a holiday until the owner of the shooting gallery tells them to form a line, like the row of tin-plated mechanical ducks that move past exactly at eye level, click, click, click, ‘Ready, aim, fire!’” (Poniatowska, 1975: 3). The frame, then, has given away the ending, which is revealed as the unexpected but inevitable explosion of violence. The role of the frame is decisive from the start in preparing the readers' reception of the testimonies that follow.
In addition to these paragraphs, four other passages within the text are signed “E. P.,” including a newspaper article written by Poniatowska and an introduction to the second half of the book. The significance of her initials is double. On the one hand they are the sign of her presence and of her responsibility for the content of a few, specific fragments. They make the figure of the editor visible to the reader and establish her authority. But on the other hand, by announcing “here I am,” “I wrote this,” “this is my contribution,” they imply that she is absent from the great majority of the document, that she didn't intervene in a hundred other places. The initials are the means of a strategy which erases the editorial presence at the same time that it makes it very concrete, by pretending to limit it to a few appearances. These appearances serve to make the editor's absence more seemingly natural. To quote again from the essay “The Parergon,” “that which produces and manipulates the frame sets everything in motion to efface its effect” (Derrida, 1979: 33).
Another manifestation of the editor's presence is her occasional appearance as interlocutor within some of the testimonies. In the form of “usted,” “tú,” or “Elena,” the editor becomes a character within the narrative. Both of these examples of the direct intervention of the editor create confusion between the work and the frame, between the interior and the exterior. They are ways in which the parergon explicitly defines itself in contrast to the ergon and at the same time as intrinsically inseparable from it. The editorial function, apparently secondary as narrative frame, begins to take on a central value in the meaning of the text.
Perhaps the most important interpretive function of the editor, the way in which she is most truly essential to the work, is not, however, carried out by her overt interventions. Rather, it is in her accomplishing of the conventional editorial tasks of the selection and the ordering of the material included in the book. La noche de Tlatelolco is a very carefully structured piece of writing. First, in numbers alone, the selection of voices heavily favors the student movement as opposed to the government point of view. Second, the spokespersons for the movement include student leaders, rank-and-file activists, professors, blue-collar workers, citizens who observed from the sidelines, parents, and schoolchildren. By portraying the student movement as representative of a broad spectrum of Mexican society, the editor has confirmed from the outset the democratic claims made by the students, and she has thus already invested the text with meaning, creating an image of democracy in action.11 In contrast to the lively dialogue carried out among the recorded voices of the movement, the official line is often conveyed by quoting written documents, legalistic language, or formally delivered speeches, all of which are monologic discourses that refuse dissent. It is also interesting to note that the names of policemen, government officials, and prison guards are often omitted. Their anonymity, highlighted by the careful notation of the students' names, is an important dehumanizing strategy in the depiction of the government's actions.
The final organization of the oral history is based on a thematic scheme which respects only secondarily the chronology of the events portrayed. The first half of the book, “Taking to the Streets,” covers the period from the beginnings of the movement in July 1968 through the experiences of the imprisoned students one or two years later. This part develops several important subthemes in the following order: the origins of the student movement, the antiestablishment attitude of the young people and the lack of communication between them and their elders, the rallies and marches, the demand for a public dialogue with the government, the torture of prisoners by police, the betrayal of the movement by a few individuals, and prison life. There are many references to the Tlatelolco massacre in “Taking to the Streets,” but the story of October 2 is postponed until Part II, “The Night of Tlatelolco.” The effect of this delay is to create tension and a heightened sense of the inevitability of the massacre; furthermore, the second half of the book will be read with full knowledge of its multiple causes and consequences.
This overall arrangement of the testimonies is a crucial aspect of the interpretive labor of the writer who, although renouncing the privilege of direct commentary, nonetheless communicates a series of judgements regarding the authenticity of the testimonies. Within the basic thematic scheme she skillfully employs two additional structuring strategies to validate the vision of the defeated students. Repetition and juxtaposition are key devices by which the writer overcomes incredulity, combats the official li(n)e, and creates ironic moments which communicate her interpretation of the many conflicting accounts. Repetition by many witnesses of the same story, even of the same details, is especially important within the context of a Mexican reading public which, in 1971, had relatively little and incomplete knowledge of the massacre. Censorship of news reports, dispersal of the bodies among many morgues and hospitals, the isolation of political prisoners from the general population, the lack of a complete, public investigation into the massacre, and the lapse in time between the events of 1968 and the publication of books which attempt to record and explain them, all account for the impact of Poniatowska's work.
The accounts of October 2 and of the officially sanctioned torture are the most disturbing and problematic, then, in facing the possible vacillation of the Mexican public in accepting what the text purports to expose. Poniatowska incorporates a variety of documentary strategies to lend credence to the text. The photographs that appear at the beginning give powerful visual support to the testimonies that follow. Reiteration of coinciding versions of unspeakable acts of violence also overcomes the tendency toward disbelief. If one person, especially a politically marginal person, speaks of electric shocks, of blows to the legs, feet, stomach, genitals, of weeks of incommunicado detention, of sleep and food deprivation, that report can be dismissed as an aberration or an exaggeration, an isolated case of abuse of power. But the same story told by many individuals must be read as the institutionalization of violence and the systematic violation of human rights. In a text which renounces the investing of truth in a single, dominant voice, which indeed exposes the abuses perpetrated by monologic expressions of power, repetition is one way by which the collective voice claims the authority of its experience and denounces the role of the established press as an instrument of the government.
Finally, the deliberate and carefully chosen juxtaposition of material from different kinds of sources often creates, through a contrast of styles, an ironic effect that can heighten the semantic charge and the emotional impact of each fragment. In the following example a conversation between the author and her brother, Jan, is juxtaposed to a short newspaper article. The play of identity and difference effectively communicates the editor-narrator's judgement about the seriousness of the students' actions. This passage is also the only place where Poniatowska inserts her own experience in the form of a direct testimony, a witness on a par with the other voices of the student movement. Elena speaks first.
“Why did you get home so late night before last?”
“Because we were painting slogans.”
“On the Palacio. …”
“On the Palacio de Hierro?” [a department store]
“No, that wasn't where.”
“Well, on what Palacio then?”
“On the Palacio.”
“You mean the Palacio Nacional?”
“Good heavens! You're stark raving mad! You might get killed! What's the matter with you? You're out of your minds!”
“We're immortal. … And besides, we planned the whole thing very carefully—the time, who was going to be the lookout, the getaway car with the motor running, how much paint we'd need—you forget, old girl, we're experts at painting slogans.”
The dialogue continues for half a page more, and then this newspaper article follows.
On November 17, 1968, a nineteen-year-old student—Luis González Sánchez—was killed by a police officer who had caught him painting Movement propaganda on a wall near the freeway
(Poniatowska, 1975: 32).
A sense of the fragile immortality of these naive experts is one effect of this juxtaposition. The dry, impersonal tone of the newspaper article starkly contrasts with Jan's enthusiastic claims to expertise; and González Sánchez's death betrays the students' sense of invulnerability. Dialogue is silenced by the monologue of power, whether expressed by the policeman's bullet or by the journalist's report. Jan's impetuous voice flickers out in the realization that a life has been lost, that the festival is, indeed, a bloody one. Early in the book, when the student movement is still being portrayed as a coalition of high-spirited youth, the editor inserts a warning of the seriousness of their confrontation with the government.
The editor of La noche de Tlatelolco is, then, an eminently parergonal figure. She participates actively in the production of the work, but is careful to hide the evidence of her transforming labor. She exercises control over the material at the same time that she allows the individual voices to claim their own authority as witnesses and participants in the history told. Narrative authority is a power which the editor constantly wields and abdicates, and which has no single origin or destination. The authority to speak and to be heard rests neither solely with the students nor with the writer-journalist, but rather in the relationship among the testimonies and between these and the editor. Poniatowska, a nonparticipant in the 1968 student movement, in her role as “E.P.,” the editor-parergon who positions herself outside of the ergon, becomes an integral part of it, the essential extra who recuperates a silenced past and projects it into a possible future.
If one considers now Elena Poniatowska's other published works, it becomes clear that the figure of the editor as I have described it is emblematic of her stance as a writer in her adopted country. Once an outsider, a foreigner, through a constant and active searching out of the Other she has created for herself a Mexican identity. Mexico has supplied a lack she felt in herself, and in her work she has recuperated for Mexico a part of itself, a part it may consider extra, secondary, or subordinate: the silenced voices, the anonymous faces, the darkened pages of history; all are on society's margins, another kind of framing figure which in fact penetrates to the center of her nation's collective life.
Hasta no verte, Jesús mío is a fictional account of the life of a poor, illiterate Mexican woman living in the slums surrounding Mexico City. Gaby Brimmer, coauthored with the protagonist, Gabriela Brimmer, is a testimonial work based on the life of a young paraplegic woman Fuerte es el silencio is a series of chronicles of contemporary events in Mexican society including a hunger strike by mothers of the “disappeared” and the 1968 student movement. Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor is a collective testimonial account of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.
The relationship between the testimonial subject(s) and the writer (journalist, anthropologist, ethnographer), who records and edits the testimony for publication has been discussed in recent years. Many critics use Miguel Barnet's ( 1986) essay, “La novela testimonio. Socioliteratura,” with its concept of the self-effacing gestor as a point of departure for their analysis. Class, gender, cultural, and political differences may create a series of obstacles to the collaboration between speaker and interlocutor/writer. These are obstacles which must not be minimized in our assessment of a given text's effectiveness in conveying the speaker's vision of his or her own experience and agenda.
An exact accounting of the number of protesters killed, wounded, and imprisoned has never been possible due to the government's successful efforts to prevent a complete investigation of the events. Mexican news reports at the time were careful to quote the number of government soldiers killed and injured, but initially the most accurate estimate of the number of protesters killed was considered to be that based on an investigation carried out by a British newspaper, The Guardian. In his important essay Posdata, Octavio Paz quotes their conclusions that 325 people were killed and thousands injured (Paz, 1970: 38). In a talk given in San Antonio, Texas, in April of 1988, Elena Poniatowska spoke of 800 protesters killed on October 2, 1968.
The idea of an officially imposed and false sense of “return to normality” is a major theme of Nada, nadie as well. Poniatowska again makes it clear that in a situation of crisis the Mexican government acts principally to maintain order and a semblance of normality, even to the extreme of refusing offers of needed aid from the outside.
This statement was made during an interview that I had with the author in June of 1982. The translation from the Spanish original is mine.
For a discussion of the phenomenon of “Tlatelolco literature” and bibliographical information on the major works that are included under this rubric, see the article by Lanin A. Gyurko (1984).
The phrase “visión de los vencidos” is a deliberate allusion to the important anthology of sixteenth-century indigenous chronicles of the conquest, Visión de los vencidos, edited by Miguel León-Portilla and first published in 1959. In addition to describing the perspective represented and defended in La noche de Tlatelolco, the phrase recalls Poniatowska's incorporation of fragments of the indigenous chronicles into the account of the 1968 student movement.
Zunilda Gertel (1984: 58) speaks of the “deconstruction and reconstruction of fragmentary languages which an editorial voice recomposes” in her comments on the creative and interpretive labor of the editor in La noche de Tlatelolco. (Translation from the Spanish original is mine.)
David W. Foster also refers to the “authorial presence” as being limited to “the not insignificant ordering of the material that we read” (1984: 45–46).
In the English translation these photographs are placed in the middle of the book between “Taking to the Streets” and “The Night of Tlatelolco.”
It should be noted that although La noche de Tlatelolco as a whole presents a perspective favorable to the student movement and highly critical of the Mexican government, the text also includes views critical of the movement. This critical attitude is expressed by a variety of sources within the movement and outside of it. The “visión de los vencidos,” then, is not monolithic but diverse and self-critical.
 1986 “La novela testimonio. Socio-literatura,” pp. 280–302 in René Jara and Hernán Vidal (eds.), Testimonio y literatura. Minneapolis, MN: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature.
Brimmer, Gabriela and Elena Poniatowska 1979 Gaby Brimmer. Mexico City: Grijalbo.
Christ, Ronald 1975 “The author as editor.” Review 15 (Fall): 78–79.
Derrida, Jacques 1979 “The parergon.” Translated by Craig Owens. October 9: 3–40.
Foster, David William 1984 “Latin American documentary narrative.” PMLA (January): 41–55.
Gertel, Zunilda 1984 “La mujer y su discurso: conciencia y máscara,” pp. 45–60 in José Anadón (ed.), Cambio social en México visto por autores contemporáneos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Gyurko, Lanin A. 1984 “The literary response to Nonoalco-Tlatelolco,” pp. 45–77 in C. Gail Guntermann (ed.), Contemporary Latin American Culture: Unity and Diversity. Tempe, AZ: Center for Latin American Studies.
León-Portilla, Miguel (ed.) 1959 Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Paz, Octavio 1970 Posdata. Mexico City: Siglo XXI.
Poniatowska, Elena 1961 Palabras cruzadas; crónicas. Mexico City: Era.
———. 1969 Hasta no verte, Mexico City: Era.
———. 1971 La noche de Tlatelolco: testimonios de historia oral. Mexico City: Era.
———. 1975 Massacre in Mexico. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking Press.
———. 1980 Fuerte es el silencio. Mexico City: Era.
———. 1982 Domingo siete. Mexico City: Ediciones Océano.
———. 1988 Nada, nadie: las voces del temblor. Mexico City: Era.
SOURCE: An interview in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter, 1991–1992, pp. 41–4.
[In the following interview conducted in May 1991, Conde and Poniatowska discuss the female protagonists in Poniatowska's stories.]
Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska was a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz campus last May when she spoke with Susana Conde.
Elena Poniatowska was born in Paris in 1933, to a Mexican mother and a French father of Polish origin. During the Second World War, her father was a soldier and her mother drove ambulances. At eight, Elena and her family emigrated to Mexico. Because she then spoke only French, her first acquaintance with Spanish came through servants in her household. That first connection with poor or marginalized people influenced her writing deeply. In La ‘Flor de Lis,’ a highly autobiographical novel, Poniatowska presents an account of the contrast between the imported French Enlightenment culture in Mexico and the existing Mexican culture.
As well as being a journalist, novelist, and essayist, Poniatowska is one of Mexico's most important interviewers. Her book Todo Mexico (1991) includes interviews with such notables as Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, Mexican actress María Félix, and Spanish torero Manuel Benítez. Her journalistic interest prompted her to write La noche de Tlatelolco, a record of the October 1968 massacre of protesting students at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco; Fuerte es el Silencio, a chronicle of the unsung everyday heroes and martyrs of Mexico; and Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor, an account of the devastation generated by the 1988 earthquake in Mexico City.
The testimonial character of her works appears in one of her earlier and most accomplished projects: Hasta no verte, Jesús mío, a first-person narrative engendered by personal interviews in 1966 with an Oaxacan woman whose life spanned eighty tumultuous years of Mexican history. This novel is an example of the testimonial literature prevalent in Latin America at the time of its publication (in these works a literate writer interviews a nonliterate person and takes down the story of her or his life, preserving that person's voice in the resulting written account).
[Susana Conde:] In your works of fiction you display an uncommon ability to give your characters an authentic, resonant voice. Do you think that your experience as a journalist has given you that aptitude?
[Elena Poniatowska:] I believe that I owe almost everything to journalism, through which I learned to handle dialogue. Listening to so many voices throughout thirty-five or forty years has helped me to capture men's and women's voices, an essential process in the writing of fiction.
It has been said that it is not Jesusa's voice but that of Elena Poniatowska that is heard in Hasta no verte, Jesús mío. Do you think that is true?
The voice is almost always Jesusa's. Jesusa was a real person I interviewed in 1966. We spoke every Wednesday for a year, at the end of which I wrote the novel; but there are passages that were not part of her testimony. She rejected the novel when I wanted to read it to her. “Those are all lies. You didn't understand anything,” she said. “You are no good. How is it possible, all that study, all that schooling, and you don't understand things?”
Do you think that it is more important in testimonial literature to attempt accuracy or artistic unity?
Accuracy may compromise the artistic unity of the work—something that happens in the testimonials in which the author writes exactly what the interviewee says. In the case of Jesusa, there were Wednesdays in which she spoke about how bad the owner of the building was, that the neighborhood was very dirty, and that the gutters flooded when it rained. Because I was mainly interested in the story of her life, I deleted those tiresome tirades.
That may have been the reason for her telling you that what you wrote were all lies.
Yes. Besides, she resented that I had said so little about her “spiritual work,” which is a practice based on mesmerism and communication with the supernatural.
Was that a kind of spiritualism?
It is a doctrine that many Mexicans follow. It is called Marian Trinitary Spiritual Doctrine. This religion is very gratifying for women, because they go to holy places where they can be priestesses. They can deliver homilies, as well as perform spiritual cures: they “sweep” people with bouquets of baby's breath in order to eliminate their bad spirits and their infected humors. They also perform spiritual operations: they open the stomach and remove tumors and appendices. They use a perfumed lotion called Siete Machos (Seven Males) that they say cleans the brain and makes it lighter, more apt for thought. But the best thing for Jesusa is that she saw this work as the psychoanalysis of the poor. The “protector” comes from the sky and penetrates the top of the woman's head; as she closes her eyes, she talks about all her aches and pains as well as about all that makes her feel ill or depressed in her life. As she does this, she rocks back and forth, and thus empties herself in a sort of catharsis.
And what does the Catholic church say about all this?
Many of those temples are registered with the secretaries of state. And because many of their rites are similar to those of the Catholic church, it does not object.
Just as you were interested in recording the voice of Jesusa, a non-literate, marginalized Mexican woman, you also gave voice to a woman belonging to the literate, Europeanized Mexican society. Is Mariana, in your novel La ‘Flor de Lis,’ a purely Mexican protagonist?
Mariana does not reflect the reality of many Mexican women. Mexican women have a warmer home. In general, the Mexican extended family forms a clan that gets together on Sundays and holidays. I don't know if this happens in your native country as well.
Families function like a large tribe. What one adult does not give a child, maybe another one will. Children always have their favorite aunt, or their cousin, with whom they may temporarily fall in love. In the case of Mariana, we have a child who is not born in Mexico, who loses her childhood somewhat, and who enters her adolescence in a very rigid and rejecting world. She is the victim of the transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nobody talks to her about a career, and married life is her only hope.
So that she is not representative of the modern Mexican woman.
No, because the modern Mexican woman is born, frankly, after the 1950s. Today's young women, as well as couples, have changed a lot. Although there are still traditional couples where the woman stays at home to raise children, the young couple who attends the university is very different: If they have a child, they both take care of it; they also take turns attending the university and doing the household chores.
What is the meaning of the persistent sadness of Mariana at the end of the novel?
That is the sadness provoked by her departure from her childhood world. In Mariana's time, the Mexican woman thought that she had to take life as it came and that she could not be the captain of her destiny because in any case life would see to it that her decisions were never realized. When a woman wanted to study medicine in Latin America, she was told that it was a man's profession; if a woman thought of being an engineer or an architect, she was mocked. A woman was always relegated to the professions that had traditionally been linked with her gender: nurse, teacher, secretary. This has totally changed. In Latin America, women now practice the professions of their choice, for the most part.
The protagonists of some of your novels, for example Lilus Kikus and Mariana, go through a time of confinement, control, and frustration. Do you believe that these are necessary stages or experiences for the revelation of a personal interior force in fictional characters?
Those who have had a Catholic education have been told that resurrection is achieved through personal sacrifice. Like the phoenix, if one goes through sacrificial stages, eternal rewards will follow. Not too long ago, women were still tying ropes to their waists to push the barbs into their flesh. They also flagellated themselves or they wore bras made of a coarse material as a ritualistic penance. I studied in a convent in Philadelphia, and I remember that when we played hockey, the nuns made some of us do sacrifices so that our team would win. And I always volunteered, masochistically, to kneel on an anthill with tiny pebbles, until they penetrated my skin. During Holy Week the nuns were particularly ill-tempered. An image is clear in my mind: after eating blueberry pie, all of us would have blue lips, of course, but not the nuns, who would sacrifice and skip dessert. In this way a feminine culture around the need of sacrifice for spiritual growth was transmitted to us. But no human being needs confinement, control, or frustration. It's no good for anyone.
Do you believe that there are differences between masculine and feminine themes in literature?
Female writers deal with themes that male writers don't. Because women's point of departure in our society is different from men's, we arrive at a point that men don't reach. I don't believe that the result can be called feminine writing, but it is writing based on feminine interests. Men can write and have written splendidly about feminine characters: Flaubert and Stendhal, for example. But some topics have been dealt with only by women. No man has written about lesbianism, for example, the way Gloria Anzaldúa or Cherie Moraga have.
But homosexual men have written about their experiences.
Men often do not deal with it as deeply as do women. Chicanas, for example, write about their mothers and say that they don't want to be like them, and they accuse and reject their fathers. They tell of the drunken father hitting the submissive mother, and also accuse the mother for having stayed in such a situation. Some lesbians don't want to choose another possible father, another drunken, unscrupulous man who will abuse them. They want to choose a woman, and through that woman save the mother that they carry inside.
Is the function of the female writer different from that of the male writer in our time?
That depends on the writer. There are those who are interested in social problems, and see their writing as a way of exerting some influence. In general, Latin American women writers have allied themselves with the cause of the oppressed. Marta Traba, the Argentine writer who later declared herself Colombian, or Luisa Valenzuela, who lives in New York, have written about torture. Marta Traba, in Conversación al sur (Conversation in the South), has written about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who protest the “disappearances” of friends and family. These writers have been linked with a very important social movement for Latin America. “Disappearing” people is a political phenomenon that we seem to have invented in Latin America, and it is one of the most atrocious forms of torture.
The idea of a writer living in an ivory tower would be rather strange in Latin America now, wouldn't it?
The idea of the ivory tower was fashionable in the fifties. Nobody talks about it in Latin America now.
In A Room of One's Own, written in 1929, Virginia Woolf says that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write fiction. For the vast majority of women that aspired to a life of writing, that was an impossibility. In the intervening sixty-three years, has the situation changed for the majority of women who want to devote their lives to letters? Is the situation different in Mexico or in Latin America from that in the United States?
The situation of women in Mexico and in other Latin American countries is different. We live in countries that suffer a very high index of illiteracy. Frequently, women who aspire to become writers belong to the bourgeois class: they do have rooms of their own and the means to buy typewriters and paper. Often these writers become interested in the lives of women of little or no means, and they lend them their literary skills so that their voices can be heard. This happened, for example, with Yo soy Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (I … Rigoberta Menchú) by Rigoberta Menchú, edited by Elizabeth Burgos Debray; or Carolina María de Jesús in Brazil, who wrote her own novel; but, in general, Latin American women writers are women of some means. The case of the Chicanas is different: they do not belong to the bourgeois class.
What they have done has great merit because through literature they have been able to spin straw into gold.
What is your advice to Latin American or Anglo American women who want to devote their lives to letters?
Their integration with their lives in the present, what life gives them, what they see everyday is most important. Latin American women tend to believe that reality is placed in their navels. The more a woman opens herself to other realities, the wealthier she is.
Works By Elena Poniatowska
La noche de Tlatelolco/Massacre in Mexico (1971) Translated by Helen R. Lane. University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Fuerte es el sílencio/Silence Is Strong (1980)
Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor/Nothing, Nobody: Voices of the Earthquake (1988)
Compañeras de México/Women Photograph Women (with Amy Conger) University of Washington Press, 1990
Líus Kikus (1954)
Hasta no verte, Jesús mío/Until, I Don't See You, Dear Jesus (1969)
Querido Diego, te abrara Quiela/Dear Diego (1978)
De noche vienes/You Come at Night (1979)
La ‘Flor de Lis’/The ‘Fleur de Lis’ (1988)
Gaby Brimmer (with Gaby Brimmer) (1979; this book was the basis for the movie Gaby, about a woman who suffered from cerebral paralysis)
SOURCE: A review of Todo México, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No 2, Spring, 1992, p. 318.
[In the following review, McMurray rates his interest level in the various interviews that make up Todo México.]
Elena Poniatowska (see WLT 66:1, p. 76) began her career as a journalist and achieved success with her interviews of internationally known celebrities. Todo México reproduces nine lengthy conversations which, in their entirety, not only convey considerable information about the interviewees but also reveal Poniatowska's skill as a journalist. The following personalities are portrayed in this first of a series of volumes: Luis Barragán, the prominent Mexican architect; Luis Buñuel; Manuel Benítez, better known as El Cordobés, the Spanish bullfighter; Jorge Luis Borges; María Félix; Gabriel García Márquez; Yolanda Montes, known as Tongolele, a cabaret dancer; Rodolfo Guzmán, alias El Santo, a Mexican wrestler; and Lola Beltrán, la reina de la Canción ranchera in Mexico. Each interview is followed by several pages of biographical information about the interviewee. All the interviews were conducted in the 1970s except those with El Cordobés (1964) and Lola Beltrán (1990).
Poniatowska's conversation with García Márquez (1973) is, in my opinion, the best of the group, because instead of asking trivial questions about his life, Poniatowska elicits fascinating information (now well known but fresh in 1973) about the writing of Cien años de soledad. Of least interest to me personally are the interviews with Félix, Tongolele, and Beltrán, all of whom describe their roads to success, their daily routines, and their opinions of other celebrities. Still, these pieces might well have been the most avidly perused by Mexican readers and thus the reason for Poniatowska's extraordinary success as a journalist. An eye-opener for me: Tongolele is an American from Spokane.
SOURCE: A review of Tinísima, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 90–1.
[In the following review, Ferreira–Pinto states that although lengthy, Tinísima is an excellent depiction of Tina Modotti's life.]
A common element in the work of the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska (see WLT 66:1, p. 76) is the commitment to portray her country, its society and culture, and to interpret Mexico's social and political history, most notably since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Oftentimes this portrayal and this interpretation take place through the voices of women and minorities, for Poniatowska has always shown in her writing a deep concern for those who have been silenced and marginalized by the dominant social order. Another characteristic of her work is the merging of the nonfictional and the fictional, and many of her books bring together the work of the journalist and that of the writer of fiction. These two elements—the social concern for Mexico and for the marginalized voices of its people, and the blending of fiction and journalism—are present in Poniatowska's latest novel. The book started out as a simple movie script, but during ten years of work, and after much research and innumerable interviews, the initial project developed into a novel of some 663 pages.
Tinísima is the story of the life and trajectory of Tina Modotti, an Italian woman who lived in Mexico in the 1920s and who participated actively in the cultural, intellectual, and political life of the country. Modotti was a photographer, social militant, and member of the Communist Party in Mexico, who later worked as an agent of the Soviet government and as a “María” (a Mexican term for a nurse in Spain) during the Spanish Civil War. The narrative completes a full circle, following Tina from her first years in Mexico, through her imprisonment and expulsion by the Mexican government in 1930, her life in Europe and in the Soviet Union, and the Spanish war, to her return to Mexico and her death there in 1942 at the age of forty-four.
During her first period of residence in Mexico, Modotti had relationships with the North American photographer Edward Weston (with whom she lived for many years), with the Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Xavier Guerrero, and with the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. The novel also narrates her friendship and contacts with other people whose names are well known among the Mexican intelligentsia of that day, such as Alejandro Gómez Arias and Miguel Covarrubias, and with foreigners who were in Mexico at one time or another, like the Nicaraguan revolutionaries Augusto César Sandino and Faribundo Martí. Thus Poniatowska composes a vivid portrait of Mexico at the time: the culture, the ideals, the political fights, the revolutionary struggle, the hopes and disillusionments. The novel is also a declaration of the author's love for her country expressed through the characters' voices, as when the narrator quotes what Weston writes in his diary: “Oh, México, lo tocas a uno desgarra-doramente.”
Mexico is an important presence in the narrative, achieving in a certain way the status of a protagonist. Tina's story follows the story/history of the country, or vice versa, and the fact that Mexican history is told through the perspective of a woman and a foreigner is highly meaningful. Poniatowska offers the reader a vision of Mexico that is seldom exposed, just as the story of Tina herself has been all but forgotten, hidden behind a male-dominated; “official” history. Another element that plays a significant part in the novel, not only for its impact on Tina's development but also for its historical consequences, is the Spanish Civil War, its hopes and its horrors. Poniatowska is careful in depicting in detail the participation of women in that conflict from the two fighting sides, but especially from the Republicans, again bringing to the fore a marginalized group often ignored by the dominant perspective.
In her portrayal of Mexico and of Spain, following Tina around Europe and the former Soviet Union in the years leading up to World War II, Poniatowska invites the reader to reflect on social and historical events that certainly have had a great impact upon the shaping of today's Mexico and the world. Likewise, Poniatowska's portrayal of Tina as a woman grappling with problems of identity, love, social acceptance, aging, et cetera, invites the reader to reflect on the condition of women within the dominant patriarchal order. Tinísima shares a common theme with many contemporary novels by women in that Tina is a woman in search of her true self, trying to define an identity: “No quisiera morir en el papel equivocado. … Quisiera morir con mi rostro verdadero habiendo encontrado lo que me toca hacer sobre la tierra.” It is quite troubling, however, to see how she repeatedly seeks to define herself through the men with whom she has relationships. In this respect, we may not say that Tina is a feminist, although she is indeed an avant-garde woman, in her work, in her social commitment, in her behavior, in the way she lives her sexuality without guilt.
A feminist awareness comes somewhat late for Tina. It happens as an epiphany when, after she has returned to Mexico, her friend Concha Michel gives her a little book entitled Dos antagonismos fundamentales, the antagonism between men and women. Reading the book, Tina realizes the position of subordination to men in which she and so many other women lived, a subordination that not even communism, to which Tina gave so much of her life, addressed adequately. Michel's book also allows Tina the awareness that, as a human being, she is constantly changing. Her struggle to find her role in society, her search for an identity, is, then, a never-ending process.
In the more than six hundred pages of the novel there are few occasions when the reader comes across passages that seem unnecessary or irrelevant to the narrative. A few passages, especially in the first part of the book, are somewhat long: for example, the dialogue between Diego Rivera and the Mexican journalist Pérez Moreno. Rivera as a character here borders on the stereotypical, and the whole passage has a slightly comic effect, diluting the dramatic nature of the situation. Nevertheless, Tinísima is a novel that certainly involves the reader. It stimulates much reflection, and the issues it addresses, through its portrayal of a woman, a country, and a time, are disturbingly contemporary.
SOURCE: “Subtextuality in Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte Jesús mío,” in Hispania, Vol. 77, No. 2, May, 1994, pp. 215–24.
[In the following essay, Williams psychoanalyzes Jesusa, the main character of Hasta no verte Jesús mío.]
During the last two decades critical attention has turned increasingly to women writers in Spanish America and the articulation of gender issues in their work. Along with Isabel Allende of Chile and Luisa Valenzuela of Argentina, Mexico's Elena Poniatowska is part of what might well be termed an emerging canon of Spanish American women writers. Her testimonial novel Hasta no verte Jesús mío (1969) is based on material gathered in a series of tape-recorded interviews, from which she produced a written version of the life of a real working class Mexican woman whose fictional name is Jesusa Palancares and who is the narrator of the story.
Poniatowska's declared interest in the feminist appeal of Jesusa's story is an indication of the ideological imperative that guided the interview and editorial processes.1 She presumably prompted her subject in ways that allowed her to emerge as a non-traditional woman, an extra-textual consideration that would justify a gender analysis of the novel. However, Hasta no verte Jesús mío is open to interpretation from a variety of perspectives. For example, in addition to the feminist implications of its subversion of gender norms, Jesusa's character can be understood in socio-economic terms. As pointed out by Poniatowska, her testimony, albeit not consciously so, is the testimony of millions of Latin American men and women who live and die without hope, trapped in the eternal cycle of poverty and political oppression (Davis 227). Bell Gale Chevigny, on the other hand, highlights Jesusa's role as rewriter of the official version of Mexican history (Chevigny 55).
Readings of this novel that have focused on issues of social-class, genre or gender, have tended to be illustrative and appreciative.2 Although these analyses have covered important critical ground offered by the work, they mainly attempt to establish a coherent framework for understanding its meaning. In the process, they do not explore the novel's subtext—the areas of silence and contradiction, the relationship between the conscious and unconscious motives of the protagonist-narrator, which can elucidate the complex process of construction of her identity.3
In order to explore this “hidden” dimension of the novel, it is useful to refer to the theories about the nature and development of human subjectivity elaborated by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan based on his reading of Freud. Lacan posits the notion of the human subject as constituted by a split between the ego (consciousness) and the unconscious (repressed desire). One of the functions of the ego is to provide the human subject with an illusorily integrated self-image; the ego “misrecognizes” itself. In order to maintain its dominance the ego must constantly repress the refractory unconscious impulses that constantly threaten to disrupt the imaginary unity of the individual's selfhood.
Psychoanalytical theory has displaced the ego as the center of self and has postulated the primacy of the unconscious in human behaviour, despite the fact that it functions at imperceptible and deeply subliminal levels of the psyche. According to Lacan, “the unconscious is that part of the concrete discourse … that is not at the disposal of the subject in re-establishing the continuity of his conscious discourse” (49). The linguistic implications of this discontinuity is that in speaking of the self the ‘I’ that the subject pronounces (the perceived ‘I’) is to be distinguished from the ‘I’ that does the pronouncing (the ‘I’ that perceives). This revisioning of subjectivity has led to the current view of the human individual as not coherent and harmonious but rather plural and contradictory.
An examination of the identity and character of the protagonist of Hasta no verte Jesús mío in psychoanalytical terms reveals the subliminal realities that her ego either represses or ignores in her self-representation. Displacing the Jesusa's ego as the center of critical focus and resisting the notion that her character is intelligible only in the terms in which it is constructed by her conscious self makes it possible to demonstrate the complex process by which she both conceals and reveals her identity. This critical approach exposes the contradictory, ambiguous or hidden elements in a narrative that presents itself as coherent and transparent.
Poniatowska has created a narrator-protagonist who projects a very credible illusion of self-effacement. The novel appears to afford the reader unmediated access to Jesusa's psyche. Jesusa provides the center of consciousness through which reality is constructed and filtered to the reader. The entire narrative is centered on her ego. Hers is the vantage point from which the story is told, hers the consciousness that controls the discourse; hers are the world view and sensitivity that inform the work.
Jesusa is a “self-reflexive” protagonist-narrator: in recounting her life experiences she is also concerned with defining herself and establishing the authority of her narrative voice. In so doing she attempts to restrict the reader to that angle of vision from which she appears in a unified, non-contradictory light. Her will to harmonize the conflicting aspects of her character and to preserve the unity of her selfhood is outstanding.
Jesusa's self-representation often takes the form of self-affirmation, as when she boasts of her incredible strength:
… yo era fuerte, de por sí soy fuerte. Ya mi naturaleza es así. El cuerpo está acostumbrado a la necesidad de la vida. … Si no comía, pensaba: Bueno, pues al cabo yo no tengo hambre.
(109, emphasis mine)
She likewise asserts the magnitude of her will-power:
Yo tengo la voluntad muy fuerte. … Cosa que decido que nunca voy a volver a hacer, nunca la hago. … Me costó dejar de pelear y dejar de beber, pero teniendo buena voluntad no hay vicio.
She expresses her strong will to resist domination: “Por eso yo soy sola, porque no me gusta que me gobierne nadie” (153). She maintains this resistance most stoutly in the face of male domination:
Los hombres son siempre abusivos. Como si eso fuera ser hombre. Esa es la enfermedad de los mexicanos: creer que son muy charros porque se nos montan encima. Y se equivocan porque no todas somos sus yeguas mansas.
This rebellious spirit endures even in her old age: “Con todo y lo vieja que estoy, todavía no me dejo de los hombres” (213). In addition, she underlines her spirit of independence and self-reliance, her self-acceptance and resilience, and is careful to emphasize her liberal understanding of those individuals considered deviants by society, as in the case of the homosexual Manuel and the transvestite Don Lucho (186–88).
On some occasions, however, Jesusa's declarations about herself appear to be self-criticism. She lays no claim to goodness, confessing, in her wryly humorous manner, that she is exceedingly vengeful: “Por mi cuenta soy rencorosa, hasta las cachas. El que me hace, me la paga. Y con todo y réditos, porque en eso de los odios soy muy usurera” (197). She passes negative judgement on her tendency towards aggression: “Yo era un animal muy bruto, una yegua muy arisca” (161), and in speaking of her past she notes that hers was “la vida de la víbora” (177). The harshness and emotional austerity of her character are also frankly admitted: “Yo no soy querendona, no me gusta la gente. Mi carácter ha sido muy seco. Nunca me aquerencié con nadie. Soy muy regañona, hablo muy fuerte” (282).
Jesusa constructs much of her identity in both oppositional and hierarchical terms. Her comparisons of herself with others constantly underscore difference. She is especially insistent in her assertion that she is not only different from but also superior to traditional women, and she expresses contempt for the stereotype of the passive Mexican woman (which Octavio Paz describes so well in El laberinto de la soledad):
Desde que vine a México se me quitó lo tarugo. Dije: “Bueno, relativamente mientras más se deja uno, más la arruinan.” Y las que se sigan dejando, pues eso y más se merecen, que las pongan como burras enquelitadas.
In other instances Jesusa's declarations about herself take the form of ironic self-deprecation that translates into oblique self-affirmation. One example is her representation of her powers of perception and observation as a “shortcoming”: “yo tengo el defecto de que todo lo que oigo se me queda en el pensamiento” (161). A similar impulse underlies her comparison of herself with Doña Adelina:
Doña Adelina era una señora muy melosa con los clientes y la mera verdad yo no. Era de las que les gustan los bufidos de los hombres. … Yo tenía mi carácter y no me dejaba de nadie.
Through irony she also expresses an inverted pride in her rejection of the role of submissive wife, subverting thereby the traditional model of the “good” woman:
Pedro se volvió más bueno desde que lo balacié. … De por sí, yo desde chica fui mala, asínací, terrible, pero Pedro no me daba oportunidad. … Cuando Pedro me colmó el plato ya me dije claramente: “Me defiendo o que me mate de una vez.” Si yo no fuera mala me hubiera dejado de Pedro hasta que me matara.
Such statements are expressions of calculated irony that depends for its effectiveness on complicity between narrator and reader who both know that the narrator means the opposite of what she says about herself. This underlying ironic intent resolves the apparent ambiguity of self-affirmation and self-criticism, so that these ostensibly self-deprecatory statements do not violate the imaginary unity of Jesusa's self-image.
As the putative source of truth, Jesusa constructs for herself an essential and unalterable identity. With the exception of the brief period when she admits to playing the role of the submissive, abused wife of Pedro Aguilar, she strives to maintain the integrity of her image as a woman endowed with a “genetic” inclination to resist domination. In reporting her stepmother's response to a complaint made by Jesusa's employer about the latter's recalcitrance even as a child, she further reinforces this self-constructed image: “Pues así es, señora. Nació para no dejarse” (59–60).
For Lacan, speech and, in particular, what it silences, is the fundamental medium of psychoanalysis. He characterizes as “empty” that kind of speech “where the subject seems to be talking in vain about someone who, even if he were his splitting image, can never become one with the assumption of his desire” (45). Jesusa's descriptions of herself may be viewed in this light. They succeed in creating an illusion of candour and comprehensive self-knowledge, and impose an image of the speaker as a model of the non-traditional woman. But the suspicious reader will seek to question the truth-value of her version of reality, especially the adequacy of her self-understanding and self-representation.
By probing beneath the textual surface of the novel and integrating Jesusa's silences into her narcissistic discourse, we are able to produce a version of her identity that is somewhat less coherent than she imagines. The displacement of her ego as the only source of truth becomes the means, therefore, of disrupting the unified image, of releasing her unconscious or submerged impulses and enabling the emergence of her refractory identity which refuses containment in a single mould.
One area of silent operation of the unconscious is Jesusa's interaction with Poniatowska as interviewer. In the interview process, Poniatowska plays an active mediating role as interrogator, prompter and interlocutor, but she is also involved as listener. One possible effect of this more subtle form of mediation is that, despite the apparent freedom of her narration, Jesusa might have felt constrained by her consciousness of her interlocutor to express particular views and ideas and to stifle or conceal others. The virtual effacement (or illusion of effacement) of the author encourages the reader to accept Jesusa's story as the “truth” of the text, but does not preclude either a questioning of what she presents as truth, or a recognition of the divergence between Jesusa as speaking subject and Jesusa as presented by herself.
There is an apparently “unconscious” irony in the work involving complicity between the author and the reader. Both can perceive a reality of which the speaker is not aware and which is the opposite of what she states. In the text one finds gaps, contradictions, ambiguities, indications of unconscious motivations and desires, which belie Jesusa's explicit statements about herself and which are symptomatic of her misrecognition (or misrepresentation?) of her own identity.
Certain strategies of self-presentation recur in Jesusa's narration: overemphatic denial or assertion and its opposites: evasion, flippancy and silence. The resisting reader, refusing to be induced to accept the narrator's version of truth, will look with suspicion upon her motivation for using these strategies. For example, in her account of her actions she presents herself repeatedly as one who is ruled by reason rather than emotion. This is apparent early in the novel when she is abandoned by her father. Despite the close relationship that had developed between them, she describes her response as one of cold practicality (56). This seems designed not to affirm her emotional strength but also to preempt any impression of weakness.
Unconscious motivation also seems to determine Jesusa's judgement of her physical appearance and racial identity. As a mestiza she displays an unconscious rejection of the Indian side of her ancestry. In tracing her family history she dwells on the French origins of her father while glossing over the Indian roots of her mother (220–21). Racial self-hatred also manifests itself in her eagerness to establish that she is not dark-skinned: “Petra era trigueña, más prieta que yo. Yo tengo la cara quemada del sol pero no soy prieta pero ella si era oscura de cuerpo y cara. Salió más indita que yo (31).” On the occasion that she refers to herself as Indian, she does so in derogatory terms: “Siempre que me peleaba con Pedro le decía:—Siquiera cuando se meta a hacerme guaje, búsquese una cosa buena, que no sea igual a mí de india. … Una cosa que costiée [sic]” (104, emphasis mine).4 Another of her references to her physical appearance expresses the self-contempt of non-white peoples who have internalized the ideology of white aesthetic superiority (Fanon 42–43):
Yo no era bonita, era lo que menos tenía y he tenido. Que me dijeran reina de Sóchil era un dicho, una plática, pero que no me echaran flores ni que me chulearan nada porque me daba vergüenza.
Such a frank admission appears to be a sign of both Jesusa's ability to confront the reality of her selfhood and her deviation from stereotypical female vanity, which serves to enhance the credibility of her self-representation. Taken in the context in which it is uttered, however, this aesthetic self-devaluation may also be interpreted as a subliminally apotropaic gesture, a strategy for protecting herself from sexual interaction with men. This view gains strength from her repeated and insistent desexualization of her relationships with the other sex, which she construes as an unwillingness to submit to male domination. Jesusa also expresses her desire to be a man, attributing it to her recognition of the social advantage enjoyed by the male (186). But again this expressed desire appears as a mere camouflage for her fear of intimate relationships with men. Emphatic denial in this case functions as a pre-emptive gesture and a strategy for the continued repression of a disquieting psychic truth.
Because of the overriding concern with maintaining the integrity of her self-proclaimed identity, Jesusa must frequently resort to disguise and pretense to conceal or repress desires which she finds disturbing.5 This is evident, for example, in her account of her experience of sexual intimacy with her husband:
Yo nunca me quité los pantalones, nomás me los bajaba cuando él me ocupaba, pero que dijera yo, me voy a acostar como en mi casa, me voy a desvestir porque me voy a cobijar, eso no, tenia que traer los pantalones puestos a la hora que tocaran: “íReunión, Alevante!,” pues vámonos a donde sea. Mi marido no era hombre que lo estuviera apapachando a uno, nada de eso. Era hombre muy serio.
Ostensibly, she seems to be pointing to, and even protesting, her husband's lack of affection and her sexual objectification in the marriage. But simultaneously she seems anxious not to pass judgement on her husband. In fact, she mitigates her criticism by attributing the unceremonious nature of their sexual activity to the exigencies of the wartime situation. Her unconscious motive appears to be to subtly dispel the implication that she yearned for this affection. To admit to this need would be to admit to feelings of sexual desire, and it is this that Jesusa would deny at all costs.
On a subsequent occasion she refers to the absence of love in her sexual relationship with her husband, but again she is eager to pre-empt the idea of lament on her part:
Nunca anduvo [Pedro] con esas adulaciones de que mi vidita yo te quiero, que mi vida, que mi vidita yo me muero. íAy, esos disparates que les dicen ahora! Tampoco me besó. No estoy acostumbrada a los besuqueos pues sólo Judas besó a Jesucristo, y ya ve lo que resultó. íQué figuretas son ésas! íQué hagan lo que tanto les urge pero que no lo adornen!
What strikes the reader in this revelation is not so much Jesusa's awareness of lack of affection from her husband but her pretense that she is not disturbed by this knowledge and her claim of her own aversion to demonstrations of affection. Despite her cavalier dismissal, however, one apprehends a yearning for this very love and affection lurking beneath the surface of her words. Her scoffing reference to displays of love as “disparates” and “figuretas” is one indication of the discomfort that she feels with intimacy with the other sex. But by representing her response as a conscious one she succeeds in both suppressing her secret desire and affirming her agency and control.
The discomfort and ambivalence displayed in these instances are symptoms of Jesusa's repressed sexuality. A dream in which she marries a bullfighter (188) subverts her declared lack of sexual interest in men (156). This dream makes manifest the conflict between her ego and her unconscious, and is a classic illustration of the Freudian theory of dreams as symbolic fulfilments of unconscious desires.
The variability of Jesusa's references to her educational deficiency is another indication of her tendency towards prevarication. In acknowledging her lack of formal education she both simulates and rejects the perceptions of others, describing herself as “burra pero muy contenta” (202). By disclaiming discontent with her educational status despite its inadequacy, Jesusa establishes some degree of control over her situation. But the stability of this consciously assumed position is undermined by her earlier inadvertent admission of remorse over her educational deficiency (52).
Jesusa's declarations serve equally to reveal and to mask aspects of her character. But occasionally the mask is lowered to reveal another side of her person. This is the case in her lengthy confession of her feeling of marginalization and exile in Mexico City:
… yo no tengo patria. … No me siento mexicana ni reconozco a los mexicanos. Aquí no existe más que pura conveniencia y puro interés. Si yo tuviera dinero y bienes, sería mexicana, pero como soy peor que la basura, pues no soy nada. … Soy basura a la que el perro le echa una miada y sigue adelante. … Soy basura porque no puedo ser otra cosa. Yo nunca he servido para nada. Toda mi vida he sido el mismo microbio que ve. … Aquí se me ha dificultado mucho la vividera. Pero no estoy triste, no. Al contrario, vivo alegre. Así es la vida, vivir alegre.
Significant in this utterance is the incongruity between Jesusa's admission of feelings of victimhood and dispossession, on the one hand, and, on the other, her relentless attempt to gloss over these feelings in order to convince her interlocutor, and more so herself, that she is happy.
The reader who is attentive to that image of the self that Jesusa consciously projects might, with reason, decry rather than admire those attributes and attitudes that separate her most clearly from the traditional woman. Jesusa, in fact, not only stands out because of her strength but qualifies as a female macho driven by a desire not only to resist domination but also to dominate others: “a mí que me gusta gritar yo, no que me griten a mí” (153); “Yo los acostumbro a todos, a los niños, a los animales, a los policías” (182). Her tendency to control natural impulse, to deny emotion and other traditionally held indices of female weakness, her propensity to physical violence, her cold practicality and apparent hardheartedness are characteristics that make her appear less than human. However, the disclosure of other underlying dimensions of the narrator's personality leads the reader to modify this impression.
Jesusa's caring side which her ego seeks constantly to deny, asserts itself in actions such as her treatment of and attachment to an assortment of animals (114, 182–83, 295). Her repeated expressions of empathy with the suffering or misfortune of others, especially those whom society ostracizes or neglects (184, 185, 273, 284), also conflict with the image of aloofness that she consciously projects.
Several subtle indicators show that Jesusa wears a psychological mask for the purpose of the interview. Her actions often show that the reality is the opposite of what she states. Jesusa is not only capable of feeling but she is capable of feeling deeply:
A la mamá de Prisca … la quise muchísimo. … La he extrañado todos estos años y la extraño hasta la fecha, pero no podemos ser amigas de nuevo porque yo no sé rogar con amistad. Hasta la fecha no sé por qué nos apartamos. … No necesito de ella porque si estoy enferma me atranco bien atrancada y aquí me estoy revolcando, sola, solita.
Conflicting desires collide in this account. Firstly, Jesusa demonstrates her capacity for emotional engagement with another woman, which she elsewhere denies (“Yo no tengo amigas, nunca las he tenido ni quiero tenerlas” (182). Her cynicism, one may conclude, is born out of bitter experience rather than natural antipathy or aversion. Secondly, and even more surprisingly, her protestations notwithstanding, she betrays her need for friendship. Thirdly, her confession reveals how excessive pride leads to repression of this psycho-emotional need and to consequent loneliness which is, nevertheless, an option she claims to have chosen. Such as affirmation of self-sufficiency may be attributed to her deep psychological need to appear to conform at all times to that narcissistic image of strength that she has created.
Nowhere is the stark opposition between the text and the subtext, between ego and unconscious more dramatically illustrated than in Jesusa's attitude toward children and her relationship with them. Not only is she childless but she professes an aversion to children bordering on hatred: “Lavar es pesado, pero según yo, es más pesado cuidar niños. A mi, los niños nunca me han gustado. Son muy latosos y muy malas gentes” (280). She expresses her aversion with even more emphatic violence:
… esta vecindad está llena de criaturas, gritan tanto que nomás me dan ganas de apretarles el pescuezo. Lo malo es que como en todas partes hay niños, yo no puedo acabar con ellos. Pero ganas no me faltan.
But a large gap exists between these expressed sentiments and Jesusa's unacknowledged desire to love and nurture children. This nurturing instinct is possibly her strongest unconscious motivation. Time and again, and spontaneously, she assumes responsibility for disadvantaged or motherless children. In one instance her maternal concern outstrips that of the natural mother (213). Yet, in characteristic fashion, she conceals her maternal feelings in her version of her mothering experience.
Signs of these feelings appear, for example, in the vocabulary of her account of her custody of Angel, the little son of her neighbor. Her description of his death betrays her emotional attachment to the child: “Se nos murió de pulmonía fulminante. Y ya no tuve muchachito” (182, emphasis mine). But her rationalistic ego immediately asserts itself to smother this eruption of unconscious desire: “A mí no me dio tristeza de que se muriera. … Ni me senti sola. Ni eché de menos la lata porque a mí nadie me da lata” (182). However, the essentially caring Jesusa is the image that endures in her final comment: “Me quedé con tres camisitas de ese niñito Angel. Todavía las tengo” (182). What is evident here is the conflictive relationship between Jesusa as narrator and Jesusa as protagonist/actor. In admitting to those feelings which she has already defined as “weak,” Jesusa as narrator would be seen to do violence to her ego–identity. When Felícitas dies Jesusa takes on the responsibility of caring for her children, but she represents this as a moral duty: “¿Qué hago? íNi modo de echarlos a la calle!” (276). Refusing to admit to deriving any emotional benefit from this arrangement, she advances instead a pragmatic explanation: “Estaban chiquillos, necesitaban calor y se acercaban los dos a mí” (277).
The most moving episode in the work is the account of her relationship with Perico, the shiest of Felícitas' children, whom she singles out for special attention and eventually rears as a son. Again, in playing the role of mother, Jesusa is reluctant to acknowledge her own emotional interest in the relationship. This is evident in her version of the development of the bond between them: “Se me engrió el pinacate” (272), which signals her denial of her own agency and her projection of her unconscious desire on to the child. She offers instead a completely altruistic version of her motives (280, 312).
Nevertheless, Jesusa's account betrays definite signs of a deep and sensitive love for Perico. One measure of this is the effort and sacrifice she puts into giving him an education to make him better than herself. It is an education which, though harsh by some standards, seeks to inculcate the values of discipline, good manners, independence and self-reliance, to make him “un hombre de vergüenza” (288). The bond between them is reciprocal: Jesusa's self-denial in rearing Perico is matched by his devotion to her.
Jesusa's account of the manner in which she is eventually abandoned by Perico is filled with pathos:
Me regresé con Tránsito y Perico se quedó afuera en la banqueta. Cuando salí lo alcancé a ver a media cuadra. Luego dio vuelta y allí voy yo siguiéndolo, detrás, detrás. Dije: “Pues ya me esperará a la subida del camión.” No me esperó ni vi por dónde se metió. En ninguna puerta lo encontré escondido. Pensé: “se iría a pie. …” Después de un rato tomé el camión. Llegué a la casa, me estuve esperándolo, me dieron las once de la noche, las doce y la una, hasta que me acosté. “Ya vendrá,” pensé. Pues no vino. Yo me acordaba todo el tiempo del pastel: “Ya vendrá a comérselo en la noche.” Pues no volvió.
However, in order to preserve a façade of emotional strength she suppresses any demonstration of mourning and presents instead a picture of dispassionate disengagement:
Seguí trabajando de lavandera. Aunque me haiga puesto triste, ¿qué gano? Él andaba divirtiéndose. ¿Me caigo para atrás? Pues no. En la casa arreglé un veliz con ropa. Dije. “Ya no quiere estar conmigo, que se vaya.” Se me quedó la ropa y poco a poco la fui vendiendo.
The Perico affair constitutes the strongest challenge to the unified self-image that Jesusa has constructed. The true feelings she conceals are betrayed by many tell-tale signs, such as the fact that even after Perico's disappearance she follows his movements and waits for the return of the proverbial “prodigal son.” She admits to continuing to remember him but stoically denies that this causes her anguish:
En las noches en mi cuarto me acordaba de Perico, pero con un recordatorio natural. … Yo no tenia por qué estar triste. … Yo nunca le dije que fuera triste, le dije que era triste la vida que he llevado, pero yo, no. La vida sí, la vida sí es pesada pero ¿yo triste?
As in the case of little Angel, Jesusa's too insistent disavowal of emotional pain functions counterproductively to cast doubt on the sincerity of her claim. And so, in spite of her determination to defend the integrity of her self-created image of emotional strength, what Jesusa betrays is precisely her emotional vulnerability.
When Perico returns, Jesusa feeds him and eventually takes him in again. She even allows him to exploit her, although she is well aware of the opportunism in his motives. At the same time, she subordinates her feeling of profound hurt and disillusionment to her frustrated desire for revenge: “Yo le tengo cariño, sí, pero ya sé que él no me buscó porque me quería. … No me pesa darle la tortilla, lo que me pesa es ver la ventaja que lleva” (313, emphasis mine). Here Jesusa reveals her very human need to be loved for herself. This unfulfilled desire, residing in the dim recesses of her unconscious, haunts her but surfaces as anger: “Sé que está aquí por mis pertenencias, no porque me quiere. Me acuesto pero no me duermo. Siento coraje. Todo viene de muy lejos de muy dentro” (314, emphasis mine). She insists that she is happy with her solitary mode of existence: “Soy muy feliz aquí solita. Me muerdo yo solita y me rasguño, me caigo y me levanto yo solita. Soy muy feliz. Nunca me ha gustado vivir acompañada” (295). Yet she seems to harbour Perico with the hope of restoring the old bond.
Despite such incontrovertible evidence of her willingness and ability to assume the maternal role, in reflecting on the Perico affair Jesusa claims: “Yo nunca he deseado hijos, ¿para qué? Si con trabajos me mantengo yo” (312). The maternal desire she denies here emerges paradoxically in an incident in which she rejects, with unexpected violence, the offer of a gift on Mother's Day by a girl for whom she had become surrogate mother (304–05). In characteristic fashion she rationalizes her response:
Yo lo hubiera recibido si desde niñas agarran la costumbre de darme aunque fuera un plátano. … Ya tenía veintidós la muchacha cuando se acuerda de venir a darme coba. … Y nada menos que el día de la madre. íDe la madre seca, porque yo fui como las mulas!
This over-reaction appears to be less an index of a genuine aversion to being cast in the mother role and more an involuntary expression of the deep anxiety Jesusa feels because of her barrenness.
By refusing a position of complicity with the narrator, the reader is able to foreground other textual indicators of the psycho-emotional aspects of Jesusa's personality which she does not choose to highlight because they conflict with the dominant image she seeks to project. Such an instance is the deep love for her brother which is manifested in her reaction to his death (62–63). She also discloses, somewhat more ambiguously, her experience of an emotional outpouring of cathartic proportions, the significance of which is hidden from her consciousness: “Lloré mucho allí en Pocito, lloré como sólo Dios sabe. Tenía sentimiento, no sé qué cosa tenía, que tanta agua me subió a los ojos. Lloré mucho (257, emphasis mine). The deceptive placement of this outstanding example of the eruption of the unconscious in the context of a spiritualist session is further evidence of the extent of Jesusa's lack of understanding of the psychic tension arising from her repression of desire. Other indications of the limits of Jesusa's self-understanding are present in the narration. She traces the origins of her unaffectionate personality to her emotional deprivation during her early development: “Pedro no se casó conmigo porque yo le gustara. … No nos hablábamos. Por eso no reconozco cual es el amor, nunca tuve amor” (108). She is, of course, not capable of recognizing in Lacanian terms that the root of her psychic dilemma is the struggle between ego and unconscious desire.
Jesusa's psychology may bear the affects of socio-economic deprivation insofar as her preoccupation with surviving has made work the dominant imperative in her life and caused her to relegate her emotional needs to the margins of her consciousness. She has developed an extraordinary degree of self-control and her tendency to restrain natural impulse makes her appear hard. It is also tempting to view Jesusa as an embodiment of androgyny, implying thereby the harmonious coexistence within her of both stereotypically male and female traits (e.g. strength and tenderness).6 But to maintain such a view is to de-emphasize the conflict underlying the harmonious façade. Her unified identity is no more than a fragile illusion that she has created. The complexity and contradictions of her psyche are a more reliable index of her human identity. In the final analysis, Jesusa Palancares may be memorable for those exemplary feminist values and attitudes that she proclaims and exhibits, but no less so for the human feelings, yearnings and anxieties that she seeks to hide.
Both the reader and the author of this novel share a privileged position in relation to the character-narrator, insofar as they perceive both textual and subtextual discourses as well as their ironic relationship to each other. Subversion appears on various levels in Hasta no verte Jesús mío. Jesusa's narrative is subversive of the official version of Mexican history. Jesusa's voice is the voice of the lower class woman who has been silenced both socially and in the high literary tradition. No less significant is self-subversion—the subversive effect of her unconscious desires on her self-constructed image.
A psychoanalytical reading of Hasta no verte Jesús mío does not compete with feminist or sociological readings, but rather complements both, thus expanding the range of meanings in the novel. The vigilant critic will disclose, by probing beneath the surface of the ego, which the text privileges, the unconscious that lies concealed in the subtext, thereby providing a more complete sense of the complex nature of the “truth” of the work.
Lisa Davis quotes Poniatowska's feminist proposition: “I wanted to highlight the personal qualities of Jesusa that distinguish her from the traditional image of Mexican women: her rebelliousness, her independence” (Davis 226–67).
According to Catherine Belsey (126–27), studies in this critical mode tend to focus on the truth or the expressiveness of the text and to view the finished product with admiration or awe. This approach appears in studies of Hasta no verte Jesús mío by Joel Hancock, Maria Inez Lagos-Pope, and Margarita Fernández Olmos.
Lisa Davis and to a greater extent Lucille Kerr have directed their critical commentaries to such problematic areas. Lisa Davis (235) discloses the anomaly of an anti-female or anti-feminist attitude in Jesusa. Lucille Kerr's examination of the issue of truth in the novel focuses on the fallacy of the notion of authorial detachment. Cynthia Steele's wide-ranging essay on the novel also points up contradictions and ambivalence in Jesusa's narrative and in her character.
This self-hatred also manifests itself more obliquely in her racial definitions of others, such as Juan Espinoza of whom she says “era un indio negro, estaba feo el viejo. … Eso sí, tenía una mujer bonita, bonita y güerita” (93, emphasis mine).
For this notion of disguise I am indebted to Kerr who, in her essay on the novel, construes Jesusa's use of a male physical disguise during the Mexican Revolution as an act of simulation (pretending to be what she is not) and dissimulation (pretending not to be what she is) and relates it to authorial role and truth-value in the novel.
Hancock (353) proposes this view.
Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Methuen, 1980.
Chevigny, Bell Gale. “The Transformation of Privilege in the Work of Elena Poniatowska.” Latin American Literary Review 26 (1985): 49–62.
Davis, Lisa. “An Invitation to Understanding Among Poor Women of the Americas: The Color Purple and Hasta no verte Jesús mío.” Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of Literature of the United States and Spanish America, ed. Bell Gale Chevigny and Gari Laguardia. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 224–41.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.
Fernández Olmos, Margarita. “El género testimonial: Aproximaciones feministas.” Revista/Review Interamericana 11 (1981): 69–75.
Hancock, Joel, “Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte Jesús mío. The Remaking of the Image of Woman.” Hispania 68 (1983): 353–59.
Kerr, Lucille. “Gestures of Authorship: Lying to Tell the Truth in Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte Jesús mío.” MLN 106 (1991): 370–94.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.
Lagos-Pope, María Inés. “El testimonio creativo de Hasta no verte Jesús mío,” Revista Iberoamericana 140 (1990): 243–53.
Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1976.
Poniatowska, Elena. Hasta no verte Jesús mío. Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1990.
Steele, Cynthia. Politics, Gender and the Mexican Novel, 1968–1988: Beyond the Pyramid. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992.
SOURCE: A review in Hispania, Vol. 77, No. 3, September, 1994, p. 459.
[In the following review, McMurray comments that although he enjoys Tinísima, he finds that the novel is weighted with too much unnecessary information.]
Tina Modotti, for whom Tinísima is named, was an Italian photographer who as a young girl immigrated to San Francisco in 1913 with her family. Attracted to California's thriving art community, she briefly pursued an acting career in Hollywood and married a painter whose work took them to Mexico in the early 1920s (he died of smallpox soon after their arrival). Feeling more at home in Mexico than in the United States, Tina soon emerged as a popular figure among Mexican artists and intellectuals. However, her relations with Edward Weston, a successful American photographer, and her interests in left-wing politics would determine the course of her life.
Under the tutelage of Weston, Modotti gradually attained prominence as a professional photographer, preserving for posterity scenes of the Cristero Rebellion and images of Mexico's suffering poor, with whom she identified. At the same time she found herself under the influence of Communist Party organizers in the Mexican capital. These included Julio Antonio Mella, a young Cuban Marxist with whom Modotti fell in love. The book begins in 1929 when Mella, stalked by thugs working for the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, is assassinated on a thoroughfare while he and Modotti are returning to their apartment. The novel then flashes back to Modotti's earlier life in California, her marriage, and her move to Mexico City.
Poniatowska states in her Agradecimientos that she spent ten years of research on Modotti's life, including her interviews with Vittorio Vidali, an Italian communist who became Modotti's second husband. Vidali and Modotti met in Mexico and left for Europe in 1930 when Modotti was expelled from the country because of her communist activities. (She had joined the Communist Party in 1927, after which she had become increasingly militant.) They spent most of the following six years in Russia working for the Socorro Rojo Internacional, an agency that sent them, together and separately, on political missions to Germany, France, Austria, and Spain. Modotti's ability as a polyglot enhanced her standing with the Soviet bureaucracy and in 1936 was a deciding factor in her participation in the Spanish Civil War. She first served as a nurse in Madrid and then, when the Republicans suffered defeat after defeat, in other parts of the country.
With General Franco's triumph, Modotti and her husband returned to Mexico, where her altered appearance, brought about by ailing health and years of hardship, enabled her to conceal her identity. She died early New Year's Day, 1942.
Tinísima is at times a riveting life story well worth telling; indeed, Modotti emerges as a fascinating personage, talented, idealistic, and engaging. In addition, Poniatowska has managed to capture the vibrant political and intellectual ambience of the 1920s and 1930s, both in Mexico and Europe. The text is replete with anecdotes about and cameo appearances by well-known painters, writers, and politicians. However, the reader of Tinísima has the impression that after investigating this period in such depth, the author was simply unable to prune enough of the vast volume of material she uncovered. Thus, her novel includes far too many digressions from the principal subject at hand. The details of Trotsky's assassination in 1940, for example, although scarcely related to Modotti's life at the time it occurred, are at least historically relevant and interesting, but other details are not. The elimination of many obscure characters and episodes would have enhanced the artistic merits and dramatic impact of the book. One of Mexico's finest writers, Poniatowska has demonstrated once again that the nonfiction novel can be a viable art form.
SOURCE: “Gender and Class Relations in De noche vienes,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. 72, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 111–21.
[In the following essay, Shaw examines two themes prevalent in De noche vienes: the romantic relationships that women have with men and the relationships that women have with women of different social standing.]
Elena Poniatowska is best known for her chronicles of political injustices suffered by Mexicans, and for her testimonial novel, Hasta no verte Jesús mío (1969), which provides a semi-fictional biography of a poor woman, struggling to survive in twentieth-century Mexico.1 She is less known for her more obviously fictional work, and De noche vienes in particular has received scant critical attention, despite its literary quality and its concern with what in feminist terms are highly political themes.2 In all her work she deconstructs the public/private dichotomy by examining the effects of power structures on people's everyday lives, and this is particularly the case in De noche vienes. In this collection of short stories she does precisely what she has praised in the work of Rosario Castellanos and transforms ‘las banalidades de la vida en materia memorable’.3
De noche vienes is a collection of sixteen short stories written over a period of time; each story is self-contained and highly original, yet each is linked to the others through a concern with the inner workings of Mexican daily life, and the gender and class relations at the root of the unequal power relations which permeate Mexican society through multiple layers.4 In the stories I have chosen to study Poniatowska takes her readers inside homes and minds to show us how upper class women relate to their servants, and how women and men relate to each other, focusing particularly on the drama of the everyday which constitutes so many women's realities.
In this paper I want not only to draw attention to class and gender relations within Poniatowska's largely neglected short stories, but also to analyze how the author's perception of women takes on two very different forms within the same collection. She either sees women as constituting a universal archetype or as subjects rooted in a specific cultural and social historical context. The former conceptualization is most apparent in women's romantic relationship with men, where the female characters are often nameless personifications of ‘lo femenino’, while the latter can be seen in the stories which examine mistress and servant relationships where Poniatowska provides more complete, complex studies of women whose subject formation is as much informed by gender as by class (and nationality).
These two ways of perceiving female identity correspond to two periods in feminist theory, and an examination of the principal beliefs of these periods can help to give a theoretical framework to Poniatowska's treatment of her women characters, and place her ideas within the wider context of feminist tendencies. From the 1970s until the mid-1980s theorists tended to conceptualize women as forming a universal sisterhood, and commonalities among women were emphasized in order to sustain the belief in a shared form of oppression. This period was characterized by a certain blindness to non-gender issues as feminists felt that a monolithic patriarchy, to which all men belonged, was responsible for all the ills suffered by women. This form of conceptualization came to be seen as reductive by feminists of the mid 1980s to the present, for whom identity can no longer be limited to gender alone.5
The ‘woman’ feminists sought to rescue was felt increasingly by feminists, influenced by postmodernist and poststructuralist tendencies, to correspond to the white, middle-class paradigms of the women who were rescuing them. Those who were excluded from this position of privilege began to raise their voices and to demand ‘expanding the category of gender.’6 It was understood that to assume that all women experienced shared conditions of oppression was to assume a false universality which was seen as being detrimental to the specific needs of working-class women, women of ethnic minorities and lesbians. As Barrett and Phillips write, the consensus of 1970s feminism was interrupted by ‘the increasing tendency to theorize the so-called “triple oppressions” of gender, race and class in a more cultural and symbolic mode’.7 The catchwords of this new postmodernist feminism are plurality and difference, and ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are seen as categories artificially created by meaning systems, with gender viewed as only one category which interacts with those of class, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and nationality to produce the key elements which constitute what we understand as identities.
The fact that Elena Poniatowska incorporates both visions of women in one collection of short stories seems to denote inconsistency, for the two positions are hardly compatible. However, her perception of women is determined by the situations in which she places her female characters. She is only able to present woman as a feminine archetype in her characters' ‘romantic’ relationships with men; when she examines women's relationships with each other she concentrates on the differences between them, differences which are determined predominantly by class. Poniatowska, given her biographical circumstances, could hardly be insensitive to the enormous inequalities among women of different social classes in Mexico: she was born into the haute-bourgeoisie, daughter of a Mexican mother whose family fled to France after losing their land in the Mexican Revolution, and a Polish father of noble lineage.8 Her only contact with ‘ordinary Mexicans’ was with the house-servants with whom she first learnt Spanish, and of her relationship with them she writes:
descubrí un mundo que no existe en Francia. Me interesó muchísimo y eso me hizo ir hacia los problemas sociales de los cuales me he ocupado en mis libros.9
Her servants show her a world characterized by difference from hers, yet by searching for some form of commonality with them, expressed through political solidarity, she finds a sense of belonging in her adopted country.10 Poniatowska's comments on her relationship with Jesusa, protagonist of her biographical novel Hasta no verte Jesús mío, are illuminating; as her meetings with Josefina Bórquez (the woman upon whom the character of Jesusa was based) continue, her sense of belonging grows:
Lo que crecía o a lo mejor estaba allí desde hace años era el ser mexicana; el hacerme mexicana. […] Una noche, antes de que viniera el sueño, después de identificarme largamente con la Jesusa y repasar una a una todas sus imágenes, pude decirme en voz baja: ‘Yo sí pertenezco’.11
This sense of identification allows Poniatowska to appropriate Josefina Bórquez's words, to edit, fictionalize and transcribe them, and finally to claim authorship over them. However, while she identifies with Jesusa, she makes no attempt to minimalize what is specific to the experiences of a poor woman in Mexico, and documents all the hardships she faces. What unites ‘author’ and ‘character’ for the ‘author’ is their condition as women when seen in relation to men, and it is not without significance that Poniatowska chooses to concern much of the narrative with Jesusa's resistance to male aggression. As women they are both oppressed, and in examining women's relationships with men she claims a place with all other Mexican women.
In De noche vienes women's romantic relationship with men is the theme of three stories, “La ruptura,” “La jornada” and “La felicidad.” The fact that Poniatowska intends to depict universals can be seen in the way that the characters of “La jornada” and “La felicidad” have no names, and there are almost no clues as to their class (only in “La ruptura” are we told that Manuela is a university lecturer, but this is seen to have little relevance in her relationship with Juan which follows what Poniatowska sees as the universal rules of the ‘mating’ game) and no factors other than the characters' gender are considered when examining their behaviour. The male and female characters in the three stories fit the model of strong, active man, and weak, passive woman. The ‘shes’ are vulnerable, dependent, frightened of abandonment, and convert the ‘hes’ into the centre of their world. While the ‘hes’ are the sole object of the female protagonists' need, the women are for them merely vessels used to fill with their seed before moving on to further conquests. All three men in the stories, in one way or another, eventually abandon the women who dote on them.
The imagery used in the stories also fits classic ahistorical notions of masculinity and femininity. In “La jornada,” imagery of the womb and childbirth is associated with the female protagonist, while violent phallic symbols are used to describe the men who are portrayed as caricatures of machistas:
Deseé habitar casas como placentas, cuevas que se amoldaran tibias a mis deseos, pero me tocó un mundo de empistolados, de hombres que Ilevan su pistola al cincho golpeándoles la cadera y otra pistola, más fea aún, boca abajo entre las piernas.
She chooses her man precisely because he does not appear to carry a weapon (and because he is the only man to look at her eyes not her body), yet he too, unable to escape his male condition, will impose his violence upon her through his words which invade her. She in her silence and passivity is compared to the earth, another classic feminine metaphor, while he takes the form of the phallic sword, cutting her open:
El me decía que la tierra sólo es buena cuando está abierta; entonces creí adivinar tras de sus gestos el cuchillo del hombre.
Violent imagery is also used to describe Juan in “La ruptura,” yet this imagery is Manuela's; it is born of her desire to be attacked, and dominated. She associates passion with pain and destruction, clearly influenced by Catholicism and the flames of hell reserved for those who reject the suffering of denial.13 After confessing her attraction for Juan, who has become a tiger in her sexual imagination, she reinterprets the priest's instructions:
Manuela rezó el rosario y las jaculatorias: ‘íTigre rayado, ruega por mí! íOjos de azúcar quemada, rueguen por mí! … íColmillos de marfil, muérdanme el alma! íFauces, desgárrenme por piedad! íPaladar rosado, trágame hasta la sepultura! íQue los fuegos del infierno me quemen! íTigre devorador de ovejas, llévame a la jungla! íTruéname los huesitos! íAmén!’
She desires a vicious tiger who will devour her, lead her to her death and to hell, while she sees herself as a fat, tender fly, drunk on the sweetness of love and ready for swatting (14). She is the willing victim, and he, in her fantasies, is the predator. A holy way of life would mean repressing any form of sexual passion, so this has to be found in the flames of hell and in her own destruction. Manuela rejects the religious ecstasy of the mystics in favour of a direct pact with the devil.
In “La ruptura” Poniatowska reveals a disturbing side to the archetypal woman: passivity is taken to its extreme, dark underside and revealed as masochism. Her protagonist is shown to be dependent on man for any pleasure, yet she is only able to achieve this pleasure if it brings with it her own torment and destruction.14 At one point in a masochistic delirium she cries out to an imaginary Juan/tiger: ‘íCúbreme de nuevo de llagas deliciosas!’ (14). Her image of Juan is built on conceptions of men formed largely from Catholic mythology. In order for the woman to be the willing victim, she needs the man as the archetypal beast, the untamed ravisher, bursting with animal passion.15 She is so dependent on this paradigm that when it begins to collapse, with Juan revealing himself as a gentle cat who saves his tiger persona ‘para otra Eva inexperta’ (15), it is suggested that she destroys both herself and him.16 The open-ended last line ‘sería tan fácil abrir otro poco la llave [del gas] antes de acostarse, al ir por el platito de leche’ (15), implies that she prefers death to a life without sadomasochistic passion.
The imagery reflected in the language of the female protagonist in “La felicidad” also follows classical paradigms of masculinity and femininity. She is desperate to construct herself within the norms of the model heterosexual couple as it is only to them that she believes happiness is granted. She insists as if to convince herself, ‘somos la pareja, el arquetipo’ (68), while her use of imagery shows how her place in the archetype is in the margins while his is at the centre. She describes herself as his nag who can no longer gallop (66), while for him she is a locust, a grasshopper and a flea (67), insects which suggest that she is small and has little significance. He, by contrast, is at the centre of her world, large and powerful: she repeats over and over ‘mi vida, mi cielo’, and while he is her ‘hombre necesario’, she recognizes ‘no tengo nombre a tu lado’ (66).
She, like Manuela, takes on the role of willing victim as she believes pain and suffering is a necessary accompaniment to passion, and it is here that the imagery is most powerful as Poniatowska examines the depths of the Catholic woman's drama with which she herself is so familiar. The protagonist compares herself to the butterflies crucified by her man, adding ‘estoy abierta a todas las heridas’ (69) and juxtaposes these images with those of dusty spiders’ webs, half-open doors and brooms, symbols of the world of nuns and the convent she has left behind. The two major influences behind her use of imagery are Catholicism and notions of romantic love which idealize the heterosexual couple. She sees her suffering and her wounds in terms of sin and divine punishment yet conceives of herself as happy as long as she forms part of the model man/woman couple. She believes she has left behind the repressive world of the convent, not realizing that she has exchanged sexual repression for gender oppression, and that both are part of archetypal patriarchal notions of woman as self-sacrificing. Sexual passion within Catholic ideology leads to torment, while the passivity required of women in the discourse of romantic love is once again seen in its extreme form as masochism.
In “La ruptura,” “La jornada” and “La felicidad” women and men give flesh to traditional gender symbolism rigidly divided into masculine and feminine. Women are associated with nature, with the unimportant and with suffering: they are masochistic and build their world around men who are associated with violent phallic symbols, or the central images of the sky and the sun. Poniatowska presents the reader with rather stereotypical depictions of male and female: the women in the three stories could be the same woman, the men the same man. She, in effect, creates her characters in accordance with transnational, traditional notions of masculinity and femininity and pays little attention to specific issues of class, nationality and alternative expressions of sexuality. By exposing the cult of abnegation of women in romantic relationships with men, and the dominant role they allow men to take, Poniatowska denounces the classic paradigms of heterosexuality. As with much feminist work from the 1970s until recent more postmodern trends, the author assumes universal experience in the area of sexuality in which gender is the sole determining factor. Differences among women and among men are flattened, and while the stories provide effective feminist criticism of power imbalances in gender relations, the assumption of universal experience succeeds in affirming rather than challenging the archetypes.
This conceptualization of women changes radically when Poniatowska moves away from the theme of romantic love to address the issue of class relations between women. Here the dissimilarities between two women of different social classes are far greater than any commonalities they may share. In her two stories which have as their theme the relationship between mistress and servant, Poniatowska adopts an approach which would win approval from contemporary feminists who have adapted elements of postmodernism to feminism.17
In “El limbo” and “Lovestory” the women characters are carefully located in time, place and by class. In both stories the protagonists are upper-class women of contemporary Mexico City who are examined in their relationship to their servants, poor women, of whom we know little. Mónica, the protagonist of “El limbo,” is drawn with the benefit of Poniatowska's own experience as an upper-class woman with a sense of herself as an outsider.18 She is an individual in a postmodern sense, attempting to navigate her own way through meaning systems. Her subject position is informed by the meaning her class and gender have in Mexico, yet there is no attempt by the author to have her represent ‘woman’ or even all upper-class women. She, for example, finds herself at odds with her mother and grandmother when she expresses her concern at the lack of social rights for the poor, with the latter criticizing her for acting like a Bolshevik (43). This awareness of the complexity in class relations between women is also apparent in the characterization of the two servants, Hilaria and Rosa. There is no attempt to see both as faces of essentially the same oppressed ‘woman’; rather, Poniatowska examines chains of oppression expressed through a hierarchical structure with the grandmother, ‘la señora grande’, at the top and Rosa at the bottom: Hilaria takes her allotted place as senior servant of the house, and is thus entitled to look down upon Rosa, the young newly arrived servant.
Mónica, an adolescent, has yet to establish her place formally in the hierarchy and this is why she finds herself in limbo. She ‘knows’ that she is superior to the servants of the house, yet at the same time has a strong sense of (her own perception of) justice: these two subject positions prove to be contradictory and provide the dramatic tension behind the narrative. Mónica is initially secure in the belief in her superiority, seeing servants as nobodies who do not count (32). She takes charge of the survival of Rosa's baby, as he is seen as an ‘inocentito’ somehow separated from his mother whose condition or wishes she remains entirely insensitive to. It never occurs to Mónica to examine the social reasons behind Rosa's attempt to strangle her baby as she simply does not exist beyond her role as servant, a fact made clear in the author's comment: ‘el cuerpo de Rosa … había contenido un niño sin que nadie se diera cuenta porque a nadie le importaba’ (35). Her concern for the baby takes her outside the home to the local hospital where the reader sees the hierarchy of the home reproduced in macrocosm, and it is here that her ambivalence towards her own class position is seen most clearly. Her sense of injustice is aroused as she realizes mothers have to wait for their dying babies to be seen to (she of course does not have to suffer such treatment; her insistence, and her blue eyes, ensure she receives immediate attention), and she is stirred to rebellion when she hears that a baby has died due to a nurse's mistake. She cannot, however, escape from the prejudices of her class and her sympathy is laced with contempt for these women resigned to their fate. Poniatowska's ironic reflections on her fantasies of saving these women reveal this ambivalence:
Algún día, Mónica las sacudiría, las tomaría de los hombros … ella la jovencita primeriza, la del baño diario y las tres hileras de perlas, ella picaría con sus espuelitas de oro a esa manada de vacas y se aventarían en tropel contra Palacio Nacional.
It is interesting that Mónica uses elements of a masculinist, patriarchal vocabulary in her fantasies of a crusade to save these women: she sees herself as the herdsman violently leading her stupid herd of cows. Poniatowska appears to be suggesting that women's relationship with subalterns has clear parallels with men's relationship with women of their class, with both characterized by violence and arrogance. Mónica's certainty in her superiority is only challenged when she is forced to accept that this is not a perception shared by her ‘inferiors’. For them she is naïve, ignorant, entirely superfluous to their lives and an outsider (her blonde hair and blue eyes and her insistence that they rebel have them accuse her of being a Protestant ).
Mónica is, then, in limbo: despite being firmly rooted in the attitudes of women of her social class, she becomes aware of the injustices faced by women in positions of subordination who do not enjoy the privileges she does. This awareness alienates her from the world of her upper-class family, while the world of the working-class Mexican women whose plight she begins to grasp remains deeply foreign to her. Mónica is a complex character full of contradictions: as an adolescent she is still forming a subject position, and while the fact that she is an upper-class Mexican woman informs this position it never entirely determines it. Poniatowska's story shows that a questioning of the social formation of the subject is the first step to transcending its limitations. This is suggested by Mónica's final realization: ‘la vida de uno es más fuerte que la de los demás’ (45). While Poniatowska certainly mocks Mónica as a ‘niña bien’, she does at the same time show that there are possibilities for escaping expected behaviour patterns.19
“Lovestory” which also has as its subject the relationship between women at opposite ends of the social spectrum, is even more original in its treatment of the characters. The story analyzes the dynamics of a mistress/servant relationship; both characters are marked by their social positions which are determined by class and ethnicity, yet at the same time their relationship is highly individual. Poniatowska subverts traditional notions of the servant/served dichotomy with Lupe rejecting the submissive role expected of her and refusing to be recreated in Teleca's image of the ideal servant, and Teleca becoming completely obsessed with Lupe to the extent that their relationship gives meaning to her life.
“Lovestory” provides a highly sophisticated analysis of this obsession. Teleca depends on Lupe for her identity and relies on her to provide a reflection of the self she would like to believe is hers. She is only able to see herself as an upper class lady of noble breeding if Lupe's behaviour reflects this perception.20 Lupe's systematic denial of her mistress's superiority consequently has a destabilizing effect on Teleca, illustrated beautifully in the following extract:
(Lupe) la miró y Teleca le vio el árbol rojo de rencor en los ojos.
Sírvame el desayuno.
No se contesta así sino, ‘sí señora’.
Diga usted ‘sí, señora’—casi gritó Teleca.
La mujer permaneció en silencio; luego pareció decidirse:
Teleca salió de la cocina golpeando la puerta. En su recámara no pudo sino dar vueltas, agarrar un objeto y otro, cambiarlo de lugar, extraviarlo, ir y venir junto a la puerta cual león enjaulado.
Teleca's obsession is born of a frustrated desire adequately to take her position as great lady of the house, a desire frustrated by Lupe's defiance. The identity she attempts to fill is built upon the fragile foundations of undeserved power, and once this power is challenged she begins to ‘crack up’, to use an appropriate idiom. Teleca objectifies Lupe in order to believe in her individuality, and despises her Indianness in order to believe in the innate superiority of her own whiteness (86, 87). Lupe, however, engages in the ultimate rebellion (and provides a humorous and highly original literary ending). She discharges herself from her unbearable employer, leaving her a little gift on her white, hand-embroided bed linen:
una enorme cagada que se extendía en círculos concéntricos, en un aterrador arcoiris, verde, café, verdoso, amarillento, cenizo, caliente.
Any illusions Teleca may have had about her servant's regard for her are here dramatically shattered.
In the stories selected for the purposes of this study Poniatowska examines Mexican women's position in society. A vision of women as oppressed unites the stories despite the fact that the oppression changes in nature depending on the situations in which she places her characters. By reading the stories within the context of feminist theory it has been possible to find a language with which to express these different perceptions of class and gender, and to place the author within feminist tendencies. Poniatowska's work, which covers a range of genres from political chronicles, semi-fictionalized biographies, newspaper articles to fictional short stories, testifies to her concern for gender and class issues. In the stories selected here from De noche vienes it is clear that while she is deeply sensitive to the social factors which divide women, she turns to more traditional feminist beliefs to find a common sisterhood which allows her to transcend class divides and identify with the notion of woman as a universal category. De noche vienes is a powerful collection of stories which, as well as being highly readable, provides valuable analysis of gender and class relations in Mexico. Poniatowska gives the reader a deep insight into the Catholic woman's problematic position within the heterosexual couple, and provides an in-depth analysis of the relationship between bourgeois women and their domestic servants, a much ignored theme in Latin-American literature.
Her best known chronicles are La noche de Tlatelolco (1970) which chronicles the massacre of student protestors by government forces in 1968, and Fuerte es el silencio (Mexico City: Era, 1980) which examines the political repression in Mexico after the 1968 massacre and focuses on the dispossessed of Mexico City.
Elena Poniatowska, De noche vienes (Mexico City: Biblioteca Era, 1985). All subsequent references will be to this edition. Other critical works which analyze some of the short stories in De noche vienes are: Katherine C. Richards, ‘A Note on Contrasts in Elena Poniatowska's De noche vienes’ (Letras Femeninas, XVII , Nos. 1–2, 107–11); Monica Flori, ‘Visions of Women: Symbolic Physical Portrayal as Social Commentary in the Short Fiction of Elena Poniatowska’ (Third Woman, II , No. 2, 77–83); and Cynthia Steele, ‘The Other Within: Class and Ethnicity in Mexican Women's Literature’, in Cultural and Historical Grounding For Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Feminist Criticism, ed. Hernán Vidal (Minneapolis: The Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature, 1989), 297–327.
Elena Poniatowska, íAy vida, no me mereces! (Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1990), 76.
Only ‘Castillo en Francia’ is not set in Mexico, although it too, with its analysis of the decay of the aristocracy, has class concerns at its centre.
For an analysis of the weaknesses of 1970s feminism and the potential of a later feminism influenced by postmodernism see: Destabilizing Theory Contemporary Feminist Debate, ed. Michèle Barrett and Anne Phillips (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992) and Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson (London: Routledge, 1990).
Bell Hooks, ‘A Conversation about Race and Class’, in Conflicts in Feminism, ed. M. Hirsch and E. Fox Keller (New York/London: Routledge, 1990), 62.
Barrett and Phillips, Destabilizing Theory, 4.
See Magdalena García Pinto, ‘Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska’, in Historias íntimas. Conversaciones con diez escritoras latinoamericanas (Hanover: Ediciones del Norte, 1988), 175–80.
Margarita García Flores, ‘Entrevista a Elena Poniatowska’, Revista de la Universidad de Mexico, XXX (March 1976), 25.
Of this phenomenon Cynthia Steele has written: ‘both in fiction and history, female solidarity across lines of class and ethnicity at times has grown out of a common experience—from opposite ends of the power dialectic—of female exploitation’ (‘The Other Within’, 298). Poniatowska has shown her political commitment to domestic servants in a one hundred and sixty-page prologue to Ana Gutiérrez's book Se necesita muchacha (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económico, 1985).
Cited in Julia A. Kushigan, ‘Transgresión de la autobiografía y el Bildungsroman en Hasta no verte Jesús mío’, Revista Iberoamericana, CXL (1987), 677.
It is interesting to note that pistola is a synonym for penis in Spanish slang; see Cristina Peri Rosi, Fantasías eróticas (Madrid: Temas de Hoy, 1991), 46, for other words used for male and female sex organs.
There are clearly autobigraphical elements in this story; Poniatowska was a pupil at a convent school and of this experience she writes: ‘Los primeros meses [fui] un poco reticente pero luego me gustó, porque me gustaba hacer sacrificio. Toda esa cosa un poco masoquista que te hacen hacer’ in M. García Pinto, Historias íntimas, 184.
Luce Irigaray has explained women's collusion in ‘the enactment of sadomasochistic fantasies’ thus: ‘that she may find pleasure there in that role, by proxy, is possible, even certain. But such pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar state of dependency upon man. Not knowing what she wants, ready for anything, even asking for more, so long as he will “take” her as his “object” when he seeks his own pleasure’ (extract from This Sex Which Is Not One in Feminisms, an Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. R. R. Warhol and D. Price Herndl [New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers U. P., 1991], 351).
There are clear echoes here of Don Juan and vampire myths born of the same repressive Christian sexual morality.
The reference to Eva suggests that all women are variations of the same and as such share the same desires.
Cynthia Steele has written of the historical context behind the large numbers of women in domestic service: ‘during the past three decades, massive, predominantly female, immigration from the countryside to Mexico City, along with the incorporation of middle-class women into the work force, has ensured the survival of this seemingly anachronistic institution, which is characterized by the exploitation of the peasantry by the urban upper and middle classes, of Indians by mestizos and whites, and of women by other women’ (‘The Other Within’, 297).
Poniatowska has drawn attention to the autobiographical elements of the stories in an interview; she writes ‘yo siempre he hecho libros, salvo De noche vienes, que no tienen nada que ver conmigo’ (M. García Pinto, Historias íntimas, 183–84).
Guadalupe Loaeza has published her excellent satirical observations on the condition of the ‘niña bien’ in Mexico in two books: Las niñas bien (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1992) and Las reinas de Polanco (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1992).
The relationship of these two women at opposite ends of the social hierarchy corresponds to Luce Irigaray's analysis of women as men's mirrors; men, Irigaray argues, are only able to believe in their power, and in a unifíed self if their subordinate's reflection of them corresponds to their idealized self-perception: ‘Woman will be the foundation for this specular duplication, giving man back “his” image and repeating it as the “same”. If an other image, an other mirror were to intervene, this inevitably would entail the risk of mortal crisis’ (extract from Speculum of the Other Woman  in Feminisms, ed. R. R. Warhol and D. Price Herndl, 404).
SOURCE: “Elena Poniatowska: Search for the Voiceless,” in A Dream of Light and Shadow: Portraits of Latin American Women Writers, edited by Marjorie Agosín, University of New Mexico Press, 1995, pp. 237–51.
[In the following essay, García states that Poniatowska's writing demonstrates her love for Mexico and all Mexicans.]
I write in order to belong. Elena Poniatowska belongs to Mexico, to women, to the poor, to the oppressed, to the people of the world.1 She belongs to the cooks, the seamstresses, the students, the servants: people she immortalized in her books on the massacre of student demonstrators in 1968 and the earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985.
I absorbed Mexico through the maids, following them around as they made the beds and mopped the floors, listening to their chatter as they prepared the hot tortillas. Elena's mother was the daughter of a Mexican landowner who lost his hacienda in the Mexican Revolution. Her mother's family traveled throughout Europe, never seeming to belong anywhere. Her father was a descendant of the last king of Poland, who was exiled to France after the partitioning of his country. Sometime during their travels, her parents met and settled briefly in France, where Elena was born in 1933. During World War II, when Elena was nine years old, she moved to Mexico with her mother and sister; her father, who was fighting at the front, joined them after the war. Elena wanted desperately to belong to this vast, rugged country, and she quickly began to create roots for herself.
One way of belonging was to listen, to see faces, to take them into oneself, to observe laps, hands. Elena learned Spanish and much about Mexican life from the maids, watching all they did and asking endless questions. Her questioning became a way of life. I believe I will die like this, still searching, with a question mark engraved on my eyelids.
Mexico adopted Elena. Her own parents were elusive and secretive. My mother, the most beautiful of all women, is the one who most inspires my love, because I have never been able to reach her. Elena's mother was always rushing off somewhere, leaving Elena behind with the sound of the slamming doors echoing in her ears. Suddenly I look at her and she's not there. I look at her again, she's defined by her absence. She has gone to join something that gives her strength and I don't know what it is. I can't follow her, I don't understand the invisible space where she has gone.
Although Elena's father was a war hero, she never heard stories of the war. My father was my son, just as today my son Mane is my father … He never knew how to ask anything of anyone. In Mexico his heroism was his secret. He never formed part of any chorus. One had to grasp him intuitively. It was on the piano that he expressed himself best, but at age 70 he stopped believing even in musical notes. When he died I knew that he was inside me, that I would become him, as all my dead are in me.
Into that parental void have tumbled all the people of Mexico. Elena has an uncanny ability to connect to people immediately, and to have them tell her their innermost secrets within minutes of meeting her. She uses her writing as a way to delve into other people's reality, to hear their accounts of abuse, torture, natural disasters, and despair. Writing is also a way to relate to others and to love them. What I cannot say out loud because I am too timid, I write.
The first time I went to Elena's house to interview her, she took me up her winding staircase to a tiny, womblike study, and we sat facing each other, almost touching knees. There were no preambles, no small talk. She mentioned a novel she plans to write about a North American woman who has a romance with a Mexican man, and immediately asked me about my former marriage to a man from Guanajuato. My list of questions fell to the floor as the stories tumbled out and the pain, joy, and confusion flowed out of me and were absorbed by Elena's soft eyes, two whirlpools of compassion that pulled my experiences out of me and transformed them into literary grist. Thus I entered her writing as she has entered mine: two lives, two works intertwining. Dearest Kay, Thank you for the articles you sent me. I'm working on the novel about the scientist, with lots of daily interruptions, my children and grandchildren, presentations of books, prologues, interviews, articles, and trips. In March I'm going to Italy, in April to Tucson, Arizona, in May to the Canary Islands. I work a lot and I'm happy but I would prefer to shut myself up in a home in the country and just write, sleep, read, eat, and write. Wouldn't you like that? Of course that's an impossible dream, but it's worthwhile dreaming it. I think your book is going to be very useful and informative and I'm very honored to be included in it. I'll write you more later. Your friend who loves you, Elena. P.S.: Don't forget you have to tell me more about your Mexican love, for my next novel.
Elena is a beautiful woman, in the deepest and truest meaning, with a sense of sturdiness in spite of her slight stature. Her thick blond hair is laden with gray, and her eyes are heavily underlined by her own suffering and that of others. Her courage to publish criticism of the government is remarkable considering the fate of so many journalists in Mexico: 60 Mexican journalists were killed at work between 1970 and 1990, and during those same years another 366 reporters were attacked while on the job. Well, they've never given me an important position; I will never be a millionaire, never anything, but they have never put me in jail. They allow me to write and to publish, and they have never done anything to me, so I am not afraid. It's no use being afraid.
For Elena there have been consequences for chronicling Mexico's tragedies, however. The catastrophes weigh her down, they accumulate. As you can see I can't stand it, for example, with [my book on the earthquake] I got sick and it took me a long time to recuperate. If there is a third tragedy here in Mexico, I won't be able to chronicle anything, it will have to be someone younger. I won't be able to get involved at all because I know that would be the end of me; no, it is too much already. Even if I recuperate and try to forget, and even though time is a marvelous healer, when something happens it opens the old wound that was still very tender, very rotten, or fragile, and then I can't go on.
Elena attended French and English schools in Mexico, and the Sacred Heart Convent in Philadelphia, where her formal schooling ended. After returning to Mexico, she started writing newspaper articles and interviews for the cultural supplement of the Mexico City newspaper Novedades, and she was so successful that soon she was publishing an interview a day, including conversations with celebrities such as Diego Rivera, Luis Buñuel, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez. She also directed cultural programs for radio and television, and published poems, short stories, essays, chronicles, and novels. She traveled to Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, the United States, Europe, Czechoslovakia, and Vietnam. All this she managed to do while being married to the astronomer Guillermo Haro, and having three children, although it was not easy.
Alcohol has a strange effect on me because the red wine is throbbing in my temples, it surges through my veins, it stirs me up and then at night I curl up on the bed waiting for sleep and staring at the emptiness. I look for (my husband) Guillermo's valiums; I can't find them so I roll myself up into a ball again; it's useless, all I can do is wait for it to be six-thirty in the morning when I have to get ready to take the children to school. All of my Polish atavisms are circulating in my blood.
Elena's books have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian. She was awarded the National Journalism Prize in 1978, and the Mazatlán Literary Prize for her novel Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (Here's to you, Jesus). She rejected the prestigious Villaurrutia Prize, which was awarded to her for La noche de Tlatelolco (translated as Massacre in Mexico), asking President Luis Echeverría in an open letter if someone was going to give a prize to all those killed in 1968. She was also named the Mexican Woman of the Year and given a prize called the Coatlicue by the magazine Debate Feminista in 1990, in honor of her work in support of women writers.
Unlike many Mexican writers who claim to be feminists, Elena is open about her affiliations. It would be absurd to say that I am not a feminist. I am completely on the side of women, I want women to progress. She is also quite clear about her attitude toward traditional Mexican men. The Mexican macho is always ready not only to dominate a woman, but also to squash her if he can; when he has squashed her and rubbed her into the floor, then he says, “Now you need me.” Then he picks up that human garbage, that mop on the floor, and then she is his woman who will wait on him, bring him coffee, take care of him and more or less take care of his children, because he has taken all of her blood, all of her will and desire to do something in life other than serve him and be his property. That happens to any woman in Mexico who wants to do more than be a self-sacrificing wife, because Mexican husbands in any field will not tolerate a woman who does more than that.
Elena has written prologues for women's works, she presents their books, and she has given workshops for and about women writers, both at the University of California-Davis and at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has been a mentor to many women writers, and many of her characters are strong, independent women. Elena sees a connection between her writing and that of women from all over the world. There is a new language throbbing in the writing that for good or for bad has been called women's literature, that which we all weave together, forming an interdependence that could put an end to patriarchal domination, intertwining our words and our lives, in Colombia and Nicaragua, in Peru and Cuba, in El Salvador and Paraguay, in Puerto Rico and Brazil, in Chile and Argentina, in the United States and Canada, in Palestine and Venezuela, in Uruguay and in France and in Spain, spinning our intuitive, visceral threads that unite us all and that should be taut and fierce, just as taut, fierce and intense as is our hope.
Elena refers to her characteristic manner of narrating as “testimonial literature,” which combines methods of oral testimony with elements of history, fiction writing, and new journalism. She grapples with doubts about her writing, and with a pervasive sense of guilt that underlies much of her reporting. She is very aware of the contrast between her own comfortable existence and that of the people she interviews.
In the summer of 1968 Elena followed the student demonstrations with trepidation, unable to attend because she was expecting a baby. On October 3, three women came to her home and told her that the army and police had massacred many men, women, and children in the plaza of Tlatelolco, in Mexico City. I believe that the plaza of Tlatelolco is just like any other public square in the world, don't you think so? Elena thought the women were hysterical, so the next day she went to the plaza to see for herself. There she saw all the bullet holes on the walls, the blood still not washed away, the army still there; many people had abandoned their homes around the plaza, and personal items were scattered on the ground. She started listening to the stories of those who wanted to talk, and the result was her book Massacre in Mexico, which is now in its forty-ninth printing.
They come down [the streets of Mexico City], laughing, students walking arm in arm in the demonstration, in as festive a mood as if they were going to a street fair; carefree boys and girls who do not know that tomorrow, and the day after, their dead bodies will be lying swollen in the rain, after a fair where the guns in the shooting gallery are aimed at them …
In Massacre in Mexico Elena juxtaposes declarations from speeches by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (Peace and calm must be declared in our country. A hand has been extended: it is up to the Mexican citizens to decide whether to grasp this outstretched hand) and his successor Luis Echeverría (Mexico is endeavoring to maintain a rule of freedom that is almost without parallel in any other country) with hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the government's actions (We were looking down from the speakers' platform at the chaos in the plaza, the waves of people that tried to escape and couldn't, the mobs running back and forth, the walls of bayonets). Elena also uses newspaper articles, picket signs, banners (Soldiers, don't shoot, you are the people, too), slogans from buttons, chants (Freedoms for political prisoners! Freedom, freedom!), and shouts captured on a tape recorder (Down with the mummies!). Fragments of songs, poems (Worms are crawling through the streets and the squares / and the walls are spattered with brains … With these deeds / we have lost the Mexican people), and stories from modern Mexico and from different times and places are woven into the intricate tapestry of the text to establish parallels between the present oppression of Mexican citizens and that of our people throughout history. (Bye bye love / bye bye happiness / Hello loneliness / I think I'm gonna cry.)
Having provided these heterogeneous means of communication with a historical, social, and political context, Elena has managed to create a collage of voices that describes events from the victims' point of view and makes a mockery of the pompous, hollow words of the official discourse.
Young targets, just children, children who marvel at everything, children who see every day as a holiday, until the owner of the shooting booth told them to line up one beside the other like a row of little silver ducks that moves along, click, click, click, click and is right at eye level. Aim, fire!, and they fall back brushing against the curtain of red satin.
In the final pages of Massacre in Mexico, Elena provides a brief chronology of the events described throughout her text. Skirmishes between the police and students began in the summer of 1968 and increased in intensity with the approach of the Olympic Games, scheduled to begin on October 12 in Mexico City. Government officials did not want the games marred by the student protests, and they were particularly fearful of bad publicity as foreign correspondents began to arrive in the country. Students fanned out across Mexico City to hand out flyers that stated their six demands: freedom for all political prisoners, revocation of the law against “social dissolution,” disbandment of the corps of riot police, dismissal of the chief and deputy chief of police, indemnities for the families of those killed and injured since the beginning of the conflict, and determination of the responsibility of individual government officials implicated in the bloodshed. Underlying this specific agenda was a deep desire for change that connected the Mexicans to the youth protest movements of the sixties in the United States, France, and many other parts of the world.
The owner of the shooting gallery gave the rifles to the soldiers and ordered them to shoot at the target, and there were the little silver dolls with astonished eyes and open months, facing the barrels of the rifles. Fire! The green lightning of a flare. Fire! They fell down but they didn't spring up again so they could be shot at once more; the mechanics of the fair were different; the springs were made of blood, not wire; a slow, thick blood that formed pools, young blood trampled in this destruction of life all over the Plaza of Three Cultures.
On October 1a group of students announced a demonstration the next day in the plaza of Tlatelolco, in defiance of a government-ordered “truce” to precede the Olympic Games. The October 2 demonstration began peacefully but was interrupted by a green flare launched from a helicopter, a signal to the soldiers stationed around the square to begin shooting. People panicked and ran from one side of the square to another, trying to escape, but they encountered police blockades and gunfire from all sides. More than four hundred people were killed; thousands were wounded or arrested.
Here come the youngsters, they're coming toward me, there are a lot of them, no one has his hands up, nobody has his pants down to be frisked, there are no surprise knife wounds or blows with a stick, no humiliation, no vomit from being tortured, no piles of shoes. They breathe deeply, they walk confidently, with determined steps. They come towards me with picket signs in their childlike hands, because death makes hands more infantile; they are pale and a little blurry, but happy. There are no more walls of bayonets, no more violence; I see them through a curtain of rain, or perhaps it is tears, and I hear their voices, I hear their steps, step, step, step, steeeeeep, steeeeep …
The Mexican newspapers reported the deaths of twenty to thirty people, blaming everybody but the government. Due to a massive cover-up, most of the Mexican people outside the capital were unaware of the massacre until they talked to an eyewitness, or read Elena's book. It was not until ten years later, in a chapter on the student movement included in her book Fuerte es el silencio (Strong is the silence), that Elena could speak of some positive consequences of the violent repression. The student movement was the detonator that broke the traditional Mexican mutism and allowed the resentment handed down from generation to generation to be expressed. According to Elena, this explosion destroyed the official image of Mexico as a country above the rest of Latin America and thus incapable of the brutal repression that has plagued this continent for centuries. The massacre provoked the formation of new leftist organizations in Mexico, and served as a catalyst for the radicalization of many intellectuals. The student movement provided leadership and consciousness-raising opportunities for women, and pressured President Echeverría to include young people in both state and federal government unprecedented numbers.
Like the lives of many individuals, Mexican history was divided by the massacre: before and after October 2, 1968. The lessons learned, however bitter, have not been forgotten. The dialogue established by Elena's book continues, as new articles appear (see the October 3, 1988, issue of Proceso) and new movies are made about the student movement and the massacre of 1968 (such as Rojo amanecer, produced by Cinematográfico Sol). Many recent books have references to Tlatelolco, which indicates that the tragedy still lives in the collective consciousness of the Mexican people. One such book is Elena's Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor (Nothing, nobody: Voices from the earthquake).
On September 19, 1985, an earthquake hit Mexico City, and Elena served once again as the voice of the people. First she participated in the rescue work, carrying buckets of debris from the ruins and helping at the shelters, but then she received a message from the journalist Carlos Monsiváis: “What is the best chronicler of Mexico doing sitting in her home? Start writing.” Elena published articles in the newspapers for fifty days, first in Novedades and then in La Jornada, until she was told that they were too depressing to publish. Outside, “operation ant” (digging with picks and shovels) does not cease, each minute that passes is precious; covered with dust, the rescuers stop to drink water; here under the umbrella (the roof of the building where the National Reconstruction Committee is meeting), time is the same as before the earth-quake, political time: slow, rhetorical, anachronistic, devious, personalist and usurious. The speakers string together phrases that don't mean anything and nobody says what we hope to hear.
Suspecting that the government had pressured the newspapers to stop publishing her articles, she began gathering them into a book. Students enrolled in her literary workshop helped with the rescue effort also, and then contributed articles and testimony to Elena's book. She spoke with everybody that she could, without taping the stories, but rather writing them down at night by memory. She couldn't just write, however—she would go find her interviewees a wheelchair, some food, or medicine—she just couldn't isolate herself from the problems she was recording. And I also die even though I might pass a comb through my hair or even take out lipstick to form another mouth on mine, a mouth which now moves in front of me, the eyes that now cloud over in front of my eyes, the thin skin which reddens, the grimace of crying, the nervous hands that try to stem the crying and those trembling, salty lips that rain salt and are distorted and they are mine and they are Gloria Guerrero's. Gloria Guerrero, Gloria Guerrero, whose 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter Alondra died.
The people told her stories of government ineptitude, lack of preparation for disaster, a blatant corruption. They asserted that the federal soldiers sent to facilitate rescue missions actually impeded the rescue in many cases. (“Attention survivors in section D as in dog, please knock ten times.”) The soldiers were equipped with rifles rather than shovels, and many abandoned their posts to carry off loot from the rubble. (“Survivors, we know you are there; don't despair, we are working and we are going to get you out.”) The government did not provide maps of the disaster areas, and there were no floor plans of the destroyed buildings to guide the rescuers. Volunteers did not know where they were needed, and once they arrived at a crumbled building, there was nobody in charge to organize their efforts. (“‘No, I'm going back in for my television.’ We tried to stop him but he dove down into the tunnel where we had dug him out. The walls collapsed and he died.”) Some of the volunteers were arrested or beaten up, just for trying to help. This chaos prevailed for days after the catastrophe, and many victims who could have been saved died due to lack of an organized emergency plan utilizing the help of local volunteers and foreign experts, who at first were not even allowed to enter the country. (“The government showed that it was more prepared to repress the people than to rescue them from disaster.”)
Violations to the building code had been routinely ignored by the government, resulting in the collapse of many building that should have been condemned, including the Nuevo León building in the plaza of Tlatelolco. (First there was the massacre in Tlatelolco, now it is the Nuevo León building: corruption is also a crime.) Elena connects the two disasters by mentioning that many of the volunteers in 1985 had been student demonstrators in 1968. (The plaza of Tlatelolco was covered with shoes, like trampled flowers, as it had been on October 2, 1968.) In Nada, nadie, Elena quotes an Aztec poem about the conquest, the center of which is reproduced in Massacre in Mexico also (Worms are crawling through the streets and the squares …), juxtaposing the disasters of 1521, 1968, and 1985. The unifying elements are greed, violence, and the desire for control, and the implication is that in all three instances the people were victims of those in power.
When she was so exhausted that she couldn't work on the manuscript any longer, she turned it over to her publisher, and Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor was born. It is a tribute to the Mexican people and an expression of Elena's profound love for her adopted country. Nevertheless one can find something positive in all this. We ought to question the old feeling of inferiority that we Mexicans have. We Mexicans are not inadequate, the system is. We saw that if we work together we can do it well.
In addition to the works already mentioned, Elena has published the following collections of her interviews: Palabras cruzadas (Crossword); Domingo 7 (Sunday the seventh), in which she interviews the presidential candidates; and Todo Mexico (All of Mexico). Her essays are profoundly personal, getting to the center of the human being that she is interviewing, as well as revealing her own developing identity. A visit to the architect Luis Barragán becomes a study in contrasts between his concrete reality and her dream world. For years I have doubted everything, I walk with the weight of many voices, sounds tangled up in my head; I want to trap this contagious city. The rest exercise their fascinating power while I sleepwalk, hypnotized; I live in such confusion that the orange glow around Luis seems like a halo, and I've always been attracted to light. Luis is contemplative. His interior and exterior are one. He is his houses, his sense of time and space are his mystic reality. He operates within a solid notion of reality. For me, since I live on illusions, on possible alternatives, on dreams within dreams, being in his presence is a profound surprise.
Elena has also published a collection of literary essays, íAy vida!, no me mereces (Oh life, you don't deserve me), a labor of love and gratitude to Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez, Rosario Castellanos, and other authors that have nourished her work. The story of a woman with cerebral palsy who manages to educate herself and to adopt a child is told by Gaby Brimmer. In more tributes to her adopted homeland, she published El último guajolote (The last turkey), about disappearing Mexican traditions; Todo empezó en domingo (Everything started on Sunday), about the celebrations of the poor; and La casa en la tierra (The house on the earth), about the homes of poor people in the country.
She also has published two collections of short stories: Lilus Kikus (The name of a girl) and De noche vienes (You come by night), many of which have been translated into English and published in anthologies and literary journals. The first is noteworthy for its extraordinary expression of a young girl's view of life. The second collection brings to Mexican literature some of its first female characters that don't pay homage to La Malinche or the Virgin of Guadalupe, such as Manuela in “Ruptura,” who collects a lover as she would a fine piece of china, or Esmeralda, the nurse in the title story who is happily married to five men. (Mondays were for Pedro, Tuesdays for Carlos and so forth through the week, and Saturdays and Sundays she washed and ironed clothes and cooked something special for Pedro, the pickiest of them all. They all accepted the situation, just so they could see her, and the only condition she insisted on was not giving up her career as a nurse.)
Elena has received the most recognition from literary critics for her novel Hasta no verte, Jesús mío, which is a long monologue by the protagonist, an impoverished woman who had an active role in the Mexican Revolution. Jesusa Palancares was a soldier in the Mexican Revolution who doesn't have the so-called feminine characteristics; she is not self-sacrificing nor submissive, she's not even a mother. On the contrary, when she gets hit it's because she has already struck twice.
Another work of hers that has received a lot of attention is Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (Dear Diego, affectionately, Quiela), which may be published in English with the title “Dear Diego.” This is an epistolary novel, a collection of fictional letters that the Russian painter Angelina Beloff wrote to Diego Rivera after living with him in Paris for ten years and having his son. When Diego returned to his native country, he promised to send money to Angelina so that she could join him. He never did send any money, and when she finally traveled to Mexico and spoke to Diego on the street, he passed by without recognizing her. Angelina did not ray to contact him after that humiliation. This anecdote inspired Elena to write the novel, to illustrate the contrasting public and private images of a famous man.
One of Elena's most autobiographical works is the novel La “Flor de Lis,” which tells of her childhood in France and Mexico, and the complex relationship that she had with an inspirational Catholic priest.
Her latest work is the enormous novel Tinísima (Very, very Tina), based on the life of the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, who spent part of her life in Mexico. Dearest Kay, Here is my Tinísima, which has had such good luck. It is taking giant steps all by itself; it has won the Mazatlán Literary Prize and it is first on the list of sales, so I am very pleased. A big affectionate hug for you and your family, Elena.
Besides Elena's obvious success in literary and journalistic circles, she has had a profound effect on the people of Mexico, who know their government and their country better because of her work. Her courage and her honesty are inspirational, and she is deeply revered by even those who have not read (or could not read) her books. The taxi driver who took me to her house warned me that I might be followed as I left the premises, but he said so with respect, even awe.
The essence of Elena is her love of all human beings, and her love of life. She feels a deep connection to all parts of the universe. I have always walked. I think as I stroll along: How much of me there is in these faces that don't know me and that I don't know, how much of me in the subway, in the steps that pile up, how much of me in the rain that forms puddles on the pavement, how much of me in the Colonia del Valle-Coyoacán buses that rush along until they crash and form part of the cosmos. Our connection is interrupted by loud knocking and a confident voice at the door. “I'm here to pick up my wife.” He doesn't say former wife. I haven't seen him for nine years, and he's here to pick up his wife. Elena looks at him, takes him in, and as he stands there with the rain dripping off his jet-black hair and that impatient gleam in his eye, he is transformed into one of her characters. She sees the dark little room at the back of my heart where he will always reside, and she smiles. She knows.
And as I walk out onto the streets of Mexico City, I remember Elena's last wish at the end of one of her books. All that I ask I that I be allowed to accompany the last wild turkey, that I may walk with him through God's streets, the streets of my city, until my knees go numb and my eyes blur and I keel over like Sergeant Pedraza in an improbable Olympics, with my early full of the street vendors' calls and chants, and Mexico, Mexico, rah, rah, rah. (Ah, and my belly full of shredded-beef tacos!)
Then turning to my companion, I walk out of Elena's story and into my own, a drama that Elena will some day immortalize. Elena, Elenita, with your angel's wings and halo as they draw you in the newspapers; Elena, with your confusions and insights and intuitive connections, your courage and fortitude and never-ending sorrow, you have touched us all, and we have touched you.
Portions of this chapter have appeared in Kay Garcia's Broken Bars: New Perspectives from Mexican Women Writers Spanish America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).
SOURCE: “Power and Resistance in De noche vienes,” in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 285–96.
[In the following essay, Vargas studies the constant changes in power that occur in De noche vienes.]
As the bulk of her fiction, her testimonial literature,1 her public lectures, and the criticism of her work attest, Elena Poniatowska concerns herself mainly with giving a voice to the disenfranchised and denouncing social problems in Mexico City.2 In works such as Hasta no verte Jesús mío and Fuerte es el silencio she speaks out for the destitute, the homeless, the children who sell gum and newspapers on the streets, and those who have disappeared, among others. In Gaby Brimmer she relates the difficulties of a young woman with cerebral palsy; while in Todo empezó el domingo she recuperates the daily activities of the poor, the places they visit, and their traditional customs. La noche de Tlatelolco denounces the massacre of hundreds of students in 1968, and Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela condemns the prevalence of machismo. While for the most part these works presume an oppressor and a victim, others evidence society as a complex system which cannot be so easily divided into the haves and have nots. Referring to Jesusa, the protagonist of her novel Hasta no verte Jesús mío—and by extension to Josefina Bórquez, the woman after whom she models Jesusa—Poniatowska states:
La Jesusa sí es una mujer oprimida, pero no lo es tampoco. Es una mujer oprimida porque viene del nivel más bajo de la sociedad, pero no está oprimida porque ella se salva sola. Ella tiene tal carácter y tal fuerza que quizás nosotros seamos más oprimidas que ella en muchas circunstancias. Ella es un fenómeno aislado y solitario que reúne características que no son las de la mujer mexicana.
In her description of Jesusa, Poniatowska juxtaposes the weakness of her character's low social status with the strength of her personality, thus exploring a type of power relation that brings to mind Michel Foucault's ideas on power and resistance. Instead of focusing exclusively on hierarchical structures which would turn the disenfranchised into irrevocably oppressed beings, she highlights a type of power play that Foucault calls “multidirectional,” as it operates “from the top down and also from the bottom up” (Dreyfus 185). Foucault also claims that absolute power is non-existent, and that while power relations may not be egalitarian they are, however, “mobile” (Dreyfus 185). Therefore, they never remain in a specified domain nor can they hypostatize into a pyramid, for example.
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault formulates his concept of power by using Jeremy Bentham's panopticon as his paradigm.3 The idea behind this architectural plan is to create a situation in which the observer (the guard) becomes the observed, and thus the distinction prisoner/guard disappears. The system intertwines everyone in its disciplinary mechanism; there are no innocent bystanders nor is there any supreme being who oversees the entire project from the outside.
Using the panopticon as a metaphor of society (a society in which there is little or no differentiation between the oppressors and the oppressed), helps us to focus on the specific elements in Poniatowska's short stories that make shifts of power possible and at the same time make it difficult to determine who is in control. With the panopticon in mind, then, the objective of this paper is to show how the mobility of power relations operates in Poniatowska's De noche vienes. To elucidate these issues I chose three stories: “Love Story,” “La casita de sololoi,” and “Métase mi prieta, entre el durmiente y el silbatazo.”
“Love Story” systematizes the mobility of power through the relationship between two women, Teleca (the boss) and Lupe (the servant). Their relationship is twofold: that of boss/servant and that of lover (as in one who loves) and loved one. The first paradigm falls within the limits of hierarchical structures preferred by tradition,4 a tradition that makes it easy to find villains and victims, that sanctions blaming others, and that frees the “victim” of any responsibility. The second one, however, allows for a possible shift in power because it is the powerful figure who is in love with the servant.
As boss, however, Teleca continues to be reassured by a society that grants her power over Lupe. Given this reassurance, Teleca expects unconditional obedience and respect from Lupe and exerts her authority by requesting Lupe's presence at any given moment, demanding immediate compliance with her specific orders, and requiring a polite form of address. Nevertheless, caught in the continuous shifts of power, she is also aware that Lupe exercises an unquestionable influence over her: “Secretamente, Lupe debía percibir el dominio que ejercía sobre su patrona, porque fruncía el ceño y paraba la boca en un gesto altanero, malhumoriento” (85). Aware of Lupe's control, Teleca, in order to maintain a superior position, creates a greater distance between the two by depersonalizing Lupe. She refers to her as “esta gente,” “india patarrajada,” or “animal”. Lupe responds to her boss's strategy to disarm her as if she were aware of the advice Elizabeth Janeway's gives victims of abuse in Powers of the Weak:
Reject the definition of yourself put forward by the authorities; a subhuman creature, a flittering ghost in a nightmare world, incapable of thought or action, and always isolated from the peers you have betrayed. Hang on to the ability to observe and to judge. If dissent must be silent, dissent nonetheless.
Lupe does dissent, and her dissension disarticulates the possibility of a hierarchical structure. Only in an ideal society, one that would have practically invisible servants or automatons incapable of emotional responses, would authority rule unproblematically hegemonic. But Poniatowska does not design a utopian world for Teleca, and as Foucault points out, “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (History 95). Thus, despite Teleca's attempts to maintain her authoritative position, her love for Lupe frustrates it: “nada le interesaba sino Lupe, saber qué pensaba Lupe, seguirla, pararse junto a ella frente al regadero, mirar sus brazos redondos y macizos, … oír su joven voz, jugosa como sus manos” (85). Teleca's need for Lupe's presence and her lack of interest in anything else, manifest a weakness on Teleca's part that is never perceptible in Lupe.
Whereas Cynthia Steele reads the above passage as an “apparent interest in the maid [that] masks voyeurism and an impulse to confirm the differences between the two, in order to implicitly reassure herself of her own superiority” (The Other 313), I contend that Teleca has been genuinely overtaken by Lupe. Proof of it is her inability to be without Lupe, for as soon as she wakes up, she wants to know every move Lupe makes:
Teleca no pudo permanecer en la cama: … Se asomó por el balcón. La calle vacía se le echó encima.
—Entonces ha de estar encerrada en el baño. Lo hace porque sabe que me molesta.
… Lo malo es que no podía pensar en otra cosa, nada le obsesionaba tanto como su relación con Lupe cuyo chancleo no tardó en oír en la cocina.
Once comforted by Lupe's pitter-patter, indicative of her presence, Teleca can get up and attempt to have a life of her own. A visit with friends, however, shows that Teleca is unable to be away from Lupe. During her visit she not only finds a way for the conversation to center around maids (87), but she also looks for any excuse to call home to hear Lupe's voice. That same day, while out with her friend Arturito, she is anxious to get back home: “Arturito se lanzó en una larga disertación sobre la Conquista, … No era eso lo que ella buscaba. Nadie le daba lo que ella buscaba, nadie, sólo Lupe. Ojalá y Arturito terminara para poder irse, …” (89). Teleca's obsession with Lupe—revealed by her inability to be separated from Lupe for any length of time, even in her own home—illustrates the invisible power that Lupe exerts over Teleca.
The above description can easily be construed more as weakness on Teleca's part given that Lupe is not directly involved in overpowering her; yet, in their relationship at home, it becomes explicit how power produces the occasion for resistance. Lupe accepts that her job entails serving, but through the manipulation of specific expressions, she refuses to succumb to Teleca's tyranny. When Teleca demands, “Sírveme el desayuno”, Lupe responds, “Ajá”; when Teleca corrects her, “No se contesta así sino, ‘sí señora’”, Lupe acknowledges with a simple “Umjún”. And when again Teleca yells, “Diga usted ‘sí señora’”, Lupe first remains silent and then eventually concedes to answer properly (83). Subsequently, though, she undermines Teleca's authority once again by answering with her usual, “Ajá …” (85). In addition to responding to Teleca with little deference, Lupe carries out her boss's demands on her own terms. For instance, when Teleca suggests that she bathe frequently, Lupe complies, but she does so during working hours, thus finding a way for the order to backfire on her boss.
Via such strategies of resistance (impolite responses and contrary actions) and by reserving her more powerful ammunition for the end, Lupe manages to survive alongside Teleca. Once tired of her subservient position and her boss's continued oppression, Lupe gathers her things and leaves the house while her boss is out. This action not being enough, she leaves behind a surprise for Teleca:
Teleca estiró los brazos para jalar hacia abajo la hermosa, la pesada colcha de damasco que había sido de la cama de sus padres; lo hizo lenta, cuidadosamente y de golpe, ahí sobre el lino blanquísimo, a la altura de la A y la S bordadas a mano, entrelazadas bajo el escudo de familia, vio el excremento, una enorme cagada que se extendía en círculos concéntricos, en un aterrador arcoiris, verde, café, verdoso, amarillento, cenizo, caliente.
Lupe could have not made a stronger statement. To defile the family's coat of arms, the emblem of homogeneous authority, illustrates the mobility of power relations. Even though as a servant Lupe holds the lesser of the two positions, her actions show that she possessed survival techniques of her own and that she actually exerts more power over her boss than Teleca did over her. Teleca has power over Lupe as long as nothing disturbs the binary boss/servant, but Lupe has the upper hand warranted by the freedom to leave at will and to love whomever she chooses.
In her prologue to Ana Gutiérrez's Se necesita muchacha (Maid wanted), Poniatowska analyzes the boss/servant relationship in general and reinforces the freedom servants possess. As in “Love Story,” Poniatowska marks the oppression of the lower classes in her essay, but she adds that in some respects they are better off than their bosses:
… la sirvienta es libre, puede irse y a la hora de que decide “me voy” no hay quien le ponga el alto. Se va … En cambio ella, la patrona tiene que quedarse a cuidar la casa, a cerrar la puerta con llave, a pagar la última boleta del impuesto predial, a atender al señor, a aguardar la quincena. No tiene días de salida, ni puede cambiar de amo, no se atreve a echar sus cosas dentro de una caja de cartón y largarse.
Both situations point to the plan of the panopticon, for the controller (the boss) is not as free as one would assume. However, one must keep in mind that the shift in power illustrated above is only temporary, as the universal binary boss/servant will always be respected. David Couzens Hoy explains this phenomenon by stating: “power is never manifested globally, but only at local points as ‘micro-powers’,” emphasizing Foucault's idea that power is not “something possessed by those who exercise it … power is not a property, possession, or privilege,” but rather something that is in constant flux (History 134).
This constant flux or mobility is underscored at the end of the story as Arturito attempts to recapture the authoritative position of the upper classes. Even though Lupe's triumph over Teleca seems unalterable, Arturito undermines her act of resistance by labeling it a mere prank. He goes as far as to reject the possibility of Lupe being the culprit claiming that “los indios no eran escatológicos ni vulgares” and suggesting that perhaps one of Lupe's acquaintances had done it (92). Thus, Arturito's mediation helps to restore traditional values, at least until the occasion for resistance is called for once again.
“La casita de sololoi” resembles “Love Story,” in that it presents a resistance to and subsequent restoration of traditional values. Reducing the story to its bare minimum, Laura, the protagonist, is a housewife who reaches the end of her rope and must temporarily leave her home to put some distance between herself and her present role. Given her situation, two paradigms become possible: woman/society or individual/herself. The first opposition elicits an examination of all the conventions which forced women into the private sphere of their home and kept them out of the public domain reserved for men. The second paradigm exposes an individual who is a victim of her own choices. Considering the character's oppressed condition, it would be feasible to explore only the first paradigm, but that would imply conducting an unfair and partial reading of the story. While it is true that the monotonous role of mother and housewife are to blame for Laura's feeling of entrapment, the story also shows that she has other alternatives; and having the freedom to choose is vital, for as Poniatowska points out in reference to a young man's decision to live amongst the poor in Brazil: “Ningún pobre escoge voluntariamente su pobreza. El hijo del rico la escoge y esa sola opción hace toda la diferencia” (Gutiérrez 75). Unlike the disenfranchised, but like the young man, Laura had options. She could have had a successful career in writing, but chose marriage instead. According to Silvia, an old friend from high school, her decision was a mistake: “‘Yo te había dicho que una vida así no era para ti, una mujer con tu talento, con tu belleza. … haz algo por ti misma, piensa en lo que eres, en lo que han hecho contigo’” (95). In spite of her “mistake,” the story indicates a strong link between Laura's oppressed condition and the adversities of adulthood: the burdens of children, a household and/or a job outside the home, a spouse, and the irreversible passing of time.
Given that the oppressor is an abstract notion rather than a concrete entity, Laura is limited to the same acts of resistance typically associated with men: domestic violence, drinking, and household abandonment. Her children's disobedience and the accumulated years of frustrations force her to resort to violence. She unconsciously beats one of her daughters with a brush: “un relámpago rojo que hizo caer los cepillazos desde quién sabe dónde, desde todos esos años de trastes sucios y camas por hacer y sillones desfundados, desde el techo descasacarado: …” (94). The pain in her own arm makes her realize the magnitude of her action and urges her to abandon her house and family.
By leaving and not even bothering to turn back, Laura resists and defies the stereotypical image of the mother as the pillar of the home. Away from the daily responsibilities and her bleak existence, she begins to penetrate a world of fantasy, of creativity:
Salió de su colonia y se encaminó hacia el césped verde de otros jardines … Las casas, en el centro del césped, se veían blancas, hasta las manijas de la puerta brillaban al sol, cerraduras redondas, pequeños soles a medida exacta de la mano, el mundo en la mano de los ricos.
The markers of wealth—greener pastures and shiny doorknobs—distance her from her present reality and bring her closer to an unforseen future. Her visit to Silvia, recreates the past and rekindles the possibility of a promising future. At Silvia's house she is surrounded by a luxury foreign to her personal experience:
todo el baño era un anuncio; enorme satinado como las hojas del Vogue … sobre la cama, una cama anchurosa que sabía mucho de amor, un camisón de suaves abandonos (íqué cursi, qué ricamente cursi!) y una bata hecha bola, la charola del desayuno, el periódico abierto en la sección de Sociales.
The sharp contrast between these carefully designed rooms and her own house, simultaneously impress and dismay Laura:
¿Por qué en su casa estaban siempre abiertos los cajones, los roperos también, mostrando ropa colgada quién sabe cómo, zapatos apilados al aventón? En casa de Silvia, todo era etéreo, bajaba del cielo.
Thus, Silvia's presence and her luxurious world serve to illustrate Laura's “attempt to leave an alienating lower middle class marriage and to regain her former way” as Mónica Flori appropriately suggests (81).
Laura takes money from Silvia to get her hair done in preparation for a dinner party Silvia is hosting that night, but instead of going to a beauty salon she enters a ladies bar and has four whiskeys. Before she decides to go to the bar, however, there is still a slight possibility that she will resist and refuse to return to her life as a housewife: “Sin duda alguna, había que irse para triunfar, salir de este agujero, de la monotonía tan espesa como la espesa sopa de habas que tanto le gustaba a Beto (her husband),” (97). Nevertheless, after appeasing herself, and still under the influence of the alcohol, she chooses the road of least resistance and returns home.
Laura's resolution to go back constitutes a shift in power which she attributes to “los invisibles hilos del titiritero” (100), in other words, to her children's needs, and indirectly to her friend Silvia's shallow life. The authority granted to an over-powering force that from above manipulates every move with invisible strings classifies Laura as an oppressed being without escape; but her decision to be with her children and the tacit realization that a life like Silvia's does not represent much of an option, put her back in control. Consequently, though her return reinstates the original paradigms—and her acts of defiance (violence, flight, drinking) remind us of their status as “micro-powers” which are always “locally, not globally, expended”—, the story suggests the possibility of resistance, especially because Laura's latent ability to write provide her with much needed ammunition to maintain a sense of self.
Whereas the resisting characters in the two previous stories fight for dignity (Lupe) and freedom (Laura), Pancho Valverde—the protagonist in “Métase mi prieta, entre el durmiente y el silbatazo,”—fights for his right to maintain a sense of worth as employee of a railroad company. Thus, this story suggests the duality individual/system. The story illustrates Pancho's displacement as conductor of an old steam engine and his confrontation with the company to recuperate what he considers his. Pancho opposes the company's decision to replace the steam engines with diesel engines. He regards the discarding of the old engines as a personal affront because of the relationship he had established with the one he previously ran. Emotionally, he seems more disturbed when he loses the engine than when Teresa, his wife, leaves him for another man. Upon her abandonment he seeks refuge at the train station and shows more reverence for the machine than for his former companion:
Pancho … optó por ir a la estación y aventarse dentro de la cámara sombría de su otra mujer, guarecerse en su vientre que aun en tierra parecía estar meciéndose, y dormir hecho un ovillo en contra de la lámina diciéndole lo que nunca le había dicho a Teresa: ‘Prieta, prietita linda, mi amor adorado, mamacita chula, prieta, rielerita, eres mi querer, prieta coqueta’ …
His devotion to la Prieta,5 his engine's name, grants him the necessary courage to confront his adversary. Nevertheless, after he realizes that his enemy is not the powerful railroad company, but rather an abstract notion called progress, Pancho agrees to drive one of the new engines. Convinced of its “might” and “nobility,” he takes on the challenge of getting to know it better hoping that this will help him forget both Teresa and the old steam engine. But with the change of engines there is also a change in the structure of the system: drivers are no longer allowed to have their own machines, instead they have to drive whichever one is scheduled for the particular run. Once again, the antagonist becomes tangible and Pancho defies the company announcing that he is moving to Apizaco, the town to which “la Prieta” had been sent.
Unwilling to listen to a friend's warning that he will lose his retirement pension, he leaves to reunite with the old steam engine. The company spends months looking for both of them unsuccessfully and, once convinced he must have fallen off into a precipice, they stop searching for him. Only when a telegram arrives—saying “Métase mi prieta, entre el durmiente y el silbatazo”—from an insignificant railroad station, do his friends realize that Pancho and his faithful lover are still alive:
El Gringo que andaba en la chancla de la estación se enteró y fue el único en sonreír. Pero como ya no le gustaba platicar no dio explicación alguna. Tampoco la dio Alejandro Díaz, empleado de confianza.
El Gringo's and Díaz's reaction to the telegram, along with the insinuation that some railroad workers might have seen Pancho and “la Prieta,” but had pretended otherwise, emphasize the relational nature of power. While it is true that the officials of the company had the power to order a search, they had no control over the outcome of the investigation. Thus, Pancho, with the support of his fellow workers, escapes the company's oppression and resists progress by keeping the old steam engine in a small and underdeveloped town. His choice, however, implies social ostracism: he must live in anonymity and give up company benefits.
Even though each of the stories generates a different paradigm—boss/servant, individual/society, and individual/system—all three delineate an interplay between power and resistance. The defense mechanisms that the oppressed parties display, allow them to challenge authority. Lupe, in her subservient role, uses disrespectful language and unexpected behavior as a form of retort against her boss's abuse. Laura, driven by a strong desire for freedom, defies the traditional values imposed on women and experiments with means of protest generally reserved for men: domestic violence, drinking, and household abandonment. Pancho, in his rebellion against change, confronts his employer to preserve his self-esteem.
Therefore, this particular reading of the three stories—which manifest a resistance to change, to established mores, and to social structures—reveals that there is no fixed power, no form of discipline that goes unchallenged. On the contrary, as Foucault claims, “discipline increases the skill of each individual, coordinates these skills, accelerates movements, increases fire power, broadens the fronts of attack without reducing their vigour, increases the capacity for resistance …” (Discipline 210). Thus, Foucault's ideas on power help us to elucidate how—in addition to recording “the lives and struggles of poor women and victims of political repression (Steele 320)”—Poniatowska advocates a writing that scrutinizes the inextricable relationship between figures of power and oppressed beings.
For a discussion of the various alternatives to this term, see the first footnote in Lucille Kerr's article on Hasta no verte Jesús mío.
Edward Erazo refers to Poniatowska's presentation at the 1987 Modern Language Association conference to indicate that “sus personajes son ‘seres recogidos’ de la vida actual, sobre todo ‘gente que no tiene voz’” (1). In an interview with Lorraine Roses, Poniatowska repeats something similar: “En realidad he escrito libros para los que no tienen acceso, no tienen ni voz, los que están siempre silenciados” (52).
Mónica Flori, in her analysis of three stories in De noche vienes, upholds the dichotomy of oppressed/oppressor by alleging that Poniatowska's “close-up view of the female body” is a “criticism of society nurturing the victimization of women throughout the whole social spectrum, casting them in roles and situations that assure the perpetuation of an exploitative, male oriented social order” (82).
Paul Rabinow summarizes Foucault's description of the panopticon as a large courtyard, with a tower in the center, surrounded by a series of buildings divided into levels and cells. In each cell there are two windows: one brings in light and the other faces the tower, where large observatory windows allow for the surveillance of the cells. The cells become’small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.’ The inmate is not simply visible to the supervisor; he is visible to the supervisor alone—cut off from any contact. This new power is continuous and anonymous.
The architectural perfection is such that even if there is no guardian present, the power apparatus still operates effectively. The inmate cannot see whether or not the guardian is in the tower, so he must behave as if surveillance were perpetual and total. If the prisoner is never sure when he is being observed, he becomes his own guardian. As the final step in architectural and technological perfection, the panopticon includes a system for observing and controlling the controllers. Those who occupy the central position in the panopticon are themselves thoroughly enmeshed in a localization and ordering of their own behavior. (19)
Other dualities which implicitly privilege the first element by its mere position and, therefore, create a hierarchy include: master/slave, man/woman, up/down, etc.
Literally prieta means the dark one, but in Mexico it is a term of endearment equivalent so honey, sweetheart, darling, etc. In the story the protagonist refers to both his engine and his wife as prieta.
This essay is an extended and revised version of a paper I read at the NCCLA (North Central Conference of Latin Americanists) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 13, 1989.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.
Erazo, Edward. “La sicología femenil en la obra narrativa de Elena Poniatowska.” Master's Thesis UT El Paso, 1988.
Flori, Mónica. “Visions of Women: Symbolic Physical Portrayal as Social Commentary in the Short Fiction of Elena Poniatowska.” Third Woman 2.2 (1984): 77–83.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. NY: Pantheon Books, 1977.
———. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. NY: Pantheon Books, 1978. Gutiérrez, Ana. Se necesita muchacha. México: FCE, 1983.
Hoy, David Couzens. Foucault: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1986.
Janeway, Elizabeth. Powers of the Weak. NY: Knopf, 1980.
Kerr, Lucille. “Gestures of Authorship: Lying to Tell the Truth in Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte Jesús mío.” Modern Language Notes 106 (1991): 370–394.
Poniatowska, Elena. De noche vienes. México: Grijalbo, 1979.
———. Domingo 7. México: Oceano, 1982.
———. Fuerte es el silencio. México: ERA, 1980.
———. Gaby Brimmer. México: Grijalbo, 1979.
———. Hasta no verte Jesús mío. México: ERA, 1969.
———. La noche de Tlatelolco. México: ERA, 1971.
———. Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela. México: ERA, 1978.
———. “Testimonios de una escritora: Elena Poniatowska en micrófono.” Eds. Patricia Elena González y Eliana Ortega. La sartén por el mango: encuentro de escritoras latinoamericanas. San Juan: Ediciones Huracán, 1984: 155–162.
———. Todo empezó el domingo. México: FCE, 1963.
Rabinow, Paul, Ed. The Foucault Reader, NY: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Roses, Lorraine. “Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska.” Plaza 5–6 (Fall-Spring 1981–1982): 51–64.
Steele, Cynthia. “The Other Within: Class and Ethnicity as Difference in Mexican Women's Literature.” Ed. Hernán Vidal. Cultural and Historical Grounding for Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Feminist Literary Criticism. Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature, 1989: 297–328.
SOURCE: A review in Nation, Vol. 263, No. 13, October 28, 1996, p. 52.
[In the following review of Tinísima, Stevens praises Poniatowska's ability to bring out the many facets of Tina Modotti's life.]
Tinisima is many books in one: a voluminous novel about the notorious Italian photographer and activist Tina Modotti (1896–1942); a travelogue; a photo album; an annotated collection of Modotti's correspondence; and a catalogue of the innumerable personalities she came across during her stints as a Communist in France, Spain, the Soviet Union and the Americas both north and south of the Rio Grande. That Elena Poniatowska, Mexico's foremostiemme de lettres, almost succeeds in annealing these elements into a smoothly tempered whole is testament to her huge talent as a fiction writer and amateur historian.
Poniatowska's objective is not to scrutinize Modotti's heavy-handed Stalinism or correct center-right intellectuals like Octavio Paz, who have all but dismissed her photographic legacy. The novelist is after something altogether different: apprehending the inner life of a suffering woman obsessed with rebellion, both on the street and in the privacy of her bed. Modotti wasn't a prolific photographer, and neither was she a very original one. Her images, compared with those of Lola and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, the foremost Mexican photographers of her era, or with those of her teacher and lover Edward Weston, are tame and superficial. But they are unsettling: Modotti thrived in exploring the status quo and used her lens to express anger at the social iniquity she witnessed. She became a cause celebre and today is ranked alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eliot Porter, Paul Strand and Weston as among the most imaginative foreigners ever to photograph Mexico. She might not have been the most genuine of artists, but her explosiveness paid off.
This only partly explains why Poniatowska and other contemporary Mexican intellectuals are fascinated by Modotti. Since the early eighties, she has been the subject of a spate of essays, retrospectives, plays, films and television documentaries in Mexico. Her status is now not unlike that of Frida Kahlo—a kind of south-of-the-border equivalent of Camille Claudel. Both Kahlo and Modotti have been turned into postmodern heroines who belong to les annees folles, the romantic period that extended from the twenties to World War II and served as a stage on which female idealists sacrificed everything—their bodies, their souls, their talents—to endorse macho causes. They were women who loved their men too much (Weston, Diego Rivera, Auguste Rodin) and ended up paying a heavy price; they also perceived themselves as the eclipsed half of the relationship, even when they were both sun and moon to their male lovers.
The difference between Kahlo and Modotti, of course, is that Kahlo made an art of exhibiting her own suffering. Modotti's photographs are only occasionally autobiographical, and she rarely turned the camera on herself. Furthermore, Modotti's art seems secondary to her political odyssey, in which she was used, abused and even turned into a scapegoat by friends, government and press. Modotti has all the attributes of martyrdom—and martyrs, after all, embody a sense of sacrifice and loss. In this respect, the recent renaissance can be seen as the nostalgia of contemporary Mexican intellectuals for a time when the intelligent urban left truly mattered.
Poniatowska starts with Modotti's most scandalous year, 1929. Julio Antonia Mella, her lover, an exiled Cuban activist, is assassinated on the streets of Mexico's capital, and as he lies dying on the pavement he accuses the dictator Gerardo Machado of plotting his end. It is an unstable epoch for the nation and a dangerous season for foreign militants: Armed insurrections have taken place not long beforehand, and Alvaro Obregon, running for a second chance as president, has been killed by a fanatic; as a war is openly declared against Communists, seen as traitors and anti-nationalists the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, the forerunner of today's ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional, is founded.
In this atmosphere, Modotti, well-known for her licentious sexuality and for her radical politics, is accused of complicity in Mella's death. The Mexican press, in particular the powerful daily Excelsior, makes her case look like a preview to O. J. Simpson's: Excerpts from police interrogations are published regularly, as are photographs real and concocted, interviews true and imagined, and other forms of yellow journalism. Modotti is quickly turned into a symbol. As loyalists counterattack the government-sponsored campaign against her, she takes refuge in Tehuantepec, but soon after, in 1930, is publicly accused yet again, this time of plotting against the newly elected president, Pascual Ortiz Rubio. She is convicted, and after a brief stint in prison is asked to leave the country immediately. Thus ends Modotti's most artistically productive and politically vociferous period.
Thus, also, begin the most enthralling sections of Tinisima. About a third of the book is set in Europe and the Soviet Union, where Modotti lived after her departure from Mexico. Poniatowska plaits in her early life as well, from her period as an actress in Hollywood (in 1920 she was cast in The Tiger's Coat, directed by Roy Clements) to her affair with Weston, in whose studio she studied in Los Angeles. After a lack of commitment on both parts the couple moved together to Mexico City, settling in 42 Veracruz Avenue, on the corner of Tampico, a house-turned-shrine where, as I write, an enlargement of Weston's famous 1924 photograph of Modotti's bare-breasted torso hangs to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of her birth. The pathos of her story, though, lies in her late Mexican days, as she shakes hands with luminaries who changed the nation and the world. Although Poniatowska doesn't waste energy injecting this section with a unique narrative cadence, to readers interested in the crossroads of art and ideology in the Hispanic orbit, and particularly the Muralist era in Mexico, this portion of the novel is stellar.
Poniatowska's research is estimable: Modotti's liaison with the Mexican Communist Party and her collaborations in its organ, El Machete; her friendship and subsequent confrontations with Jose Clemente Orozco, Rivera and Kahlo; her multiple and multifaceted lovers, native and foreign; and her links to other left-wing Latin-Americans and to Marxist groups in France, Germany, Italy and Spain are littered with cameo appearances of all sorts, proving that Mexico between wars was the ultimate meeting ground of dreamers. At one point D. H. Lawrence passes by, and so do Jean Charlot, Augusto Cesar Sandino, Vladimir Mayakovsky, B. Traven, Sergei Eisenstein and the Peruvian Jose Carlos Mariategui. This parade ends with Pablo Neruda's eulogy to Modotti, the first stanza of which reads:
Tina Modotti, sister, you do not sleep, no, you do not sleep. Perhaps your heart hears the rose of yesterday growing, the last rose of yesterday, the new rose. Rest gently, sister.
If the abundance of references seems often overwhelming (novel and index usually preclude each other, but I vote in favor of attaching one to the paperback of Tinisima), it hints at the method by which Poniatowska composed her book: Highly regarded in what has come to be known as literatura testimonial, a genre perfectly suited to the Hispanic reality in that it gives voice to the voiceless, she is responsible for the classic Massacre in Mexico, a pastiche of news clippings, poems, photographs, transcriptions of interviews and other paraphernalia about the 1968 government-sponsored slaughter of hundreds of students in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in Tlatelolco Square, Mexico City. The technique of cut-and-paste is also apparent in her prolific journalism, published in the newspaper La Jornada, as well as in her miscellaneous book of anecdotes and news reports on the 1985 earthquake in Mexico's capital. Poniatowska's fiction is almost always historical, its characters drawn to resemble closely their real-life counterparts (as in Dear Diego, an epistolary fiction about Angelina Beloff, Diego Rivera's first wife). Facts are presented as such—Poniatowska's interest lies not in blurring genre distinctions but in using the novel as a means through which to rehumanize our view of legendary characters and explore their vulnerabilities. Her most remarkable work of fiction has not appeared in English translation. Titled Hasta no verse, Jesus mio, it is an exploration of early twentieth-century Mexico from the eyes of a stolid lower-class woman of admirable character—a counterpoint to Tinisima in that the two visit the same period from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
Modotti's letters, her photographs which open most chapters, the frequent quotes on top of quotes, the news reports—these make for a demanding revisionist read. If Poniatowska can be a master of polyphonic documentaries that are funny and moving, she can also be wordy and repetitious, and this book showcases both extremes: The plot is poignant and its presentation insightful but also challenging in its redundancies. Given Poniatowska's proclivity to overemphasize, to accumulate data, to turn narrative into archive, however, the good news is that the English translation by Katherine Silver may be seen as something of an expurgation. After all, the 1992 Spanish original ran to 663 pages. Something was gained in translation: The basic plot remains but unfolds with fewer obstacles.
The novel is a welcome addition to what is already becoming a trend: volumes of fiction and nonfiction from Mexico attempting to limn the labyrinthine paths of the nation's ever-disoriented left. The results are mixed: Some, like the thrillers of Paco Ignacio Taibo II, particularly those with his private eye Hector Belascoaran Shayne as protagonist, are at once parodic and consciously derivative; others, such as The Mexican Shock, by Jorge Castaneda, or New Time for Mexico, by Carlos Fuentes, are impressionistic studies, some more personal, others more scholarly, attempting to understand the present challenge and intellectual roots of figures like Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and Subcomandante Marcos. Poniatowska's Tinisima stands alone among them: It focuses on the most daunting period of Mexican left-wing utopianism, is ambitious in scope and places full attention, for a change, on the feminine. The picture of Tina Modotti that emerges is that of a romantic protofeminist misunderstood and abhorred by the macho society around her, a woman whose camera mattered far less—to her and her contemporaries—than her tragic fall from grace. It is a telling picture, one that says much about Mexico's turbulent past, and about its nostalgic present.
SOURCE: A review of Nothing, Nobody, in Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 1, February, 1997, pp. 141–42.
[In the following review, Coerver notes that although Nothing, Nobody: Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake is hard to follow due to its lack of organization, it remains a compelling story that makes a strong impact on readers.]
Elena Poniatowska—prominent journalist and prolific novelist—provides a compelling account of the Mexico City earthquakes of September 1985 through the recollections of the city's inhabitants. The much-maligned Mexican capital not only serves as the background against which the human drama unfolds; it is also a protagonist in its own right. The work is another example of the “testimonial literature” of Poniatowska, whose earlier book, Massacre in Mexico (1975), used eyewitness accounts to describe the events leading up to the violent government repression of the demonstration at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco on October 2, 1968.
Out of this chaotic collection of voices, several themes emerge. Government officials—from local police to cabinet ministers—are corrupt, inept, and more concerned with exercising power than promoting rescue and recovery. Government agencies at all levels come across as totally unprepared to deal with the scale of the natural disaster confronting them. The real heroes and heroines of the tragedy are the volunteers, often organized into “brigades,” who triumph over both physical and governmental obstacles. Natural disaster gives birth to new popular organizations and a new “civil society.” The voices often speak of the need to learn from the current disaster and to plan more thoroughly for future ones. There are also frequent criticisms of the news media for intruding into personal misfortunes and even impeding rescue efforts.
Nothing, Nobody is full of vivid scenes. The organizing committee for the World Cup “Mexico 86” hastens to assure the International Soccer Federation that the earthquake has not damaged the playing venues. Uniformed waiters from the posh Camino Real Hotel carry trays of hors d'oeuvres to feed rescue workers. A woman looking for survivors cannot find a high-rise apartment because she makes the mistake of looking up instead of down.
As testimonial literature, the work suffers from a lack of organization. Its kaleidoscopic, stream-of-consciousness approach leads the narrative to jump back and forth between scenes, narrators, and time periods. It has no chapter divisions—indeed, little organizational scheme at all—for more than three hundred pages of text. The book reflects its origin as a series of articles in the Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada and its nature as a compilation assembled from 18 different writers who recorded the testimonies. Testimonies is the proper word, because the Mexican government is clearly on trial, and most accounts favor the “prosecution.” The narrative defends this approach on the grounds that government officials had ready access to the media to justify their actions.
The work has numerous, excellent photographs, although the captions are quotations from the voices rather than identifications of the scenes. The one map also lacks the detail that fills the narrative. This is a work that can be difficult to follow, but for emotional impact it is hard to surpass.