Bell Gale Chevigny (essay date July 1985)
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 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...
(The entire section is 6368 words.)