Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
The Old Gringo is a novel fashioned as a tribute by one writer to the memory and courage of another, the cynical American journalist and storyteller Ambrose Bierce; the book offers a fictive speculation about Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in Mexico in 1913 during the civil war. Carlos Fuentes imagines that Bierce, at first referred to only as the “old gringo,” went to Mexico seeking Pancho Villa. His motives for going are ambiguous. He is seeking a new frontier and the adventure of fighting for the revolution, but what he seems to be seeking most is a heroic death. As Fuentes repeatedly states, the “old gringo came to Mexico to die,” preferably with dignity.
The story is grounded in a factual framework. Bierce crossed the border at El Paso, Texas, in November of 1913. On December 26, he wrote that he intended to ride a troop train to Ojinaga seeking Pancho Villa. He was never heard from again. According to one legend, Bierce found Villa, became a senior staff adviser, and was later shot as a deserter, alienated by the bandit’s cruelties. Fuentes works a variation on this legend.
Though named for the old gringo, the novel is mainly the story of Harriet Winslow, a spinster who leaves her mother in Washington, D.C., and goes to Mexico to work as a governess for the wealthy, landowning Miranda family, teaching English to the three Miranda children. She is seeking liberation, adventure, and independence, but she is manipulated by the Miranda family. They put her in the middle of the revolution by summoning her to their hacienda as they are making plans to depart themselves; the family uses her to create a diversion. She is also manipulated by General Tomás Arroyo, who uses her to gain entry to the Miranda estate. The Mexicans who exploit her consider her a fool. The story is framed by Harriet’s memory.
The old gringo has concluded, to his shame, that he had also been manipulated and exploited during his career as a muckraking journalist by his employer, William Randolph Hearst. Bierce has contempt for his own accomplishments, done in the service of a millionaire who has profited by his talent. He describes himself as a “contemptible, muckraking reporter at the service of a baron of the press as corrupt as any I denounced in his name.” He also considers himself a personal failure and blames himself for the deaths of his sons. He has turned his back on his country and on his former life. He is a would-be idealist, as Fuentes imagines him, who carries in his saddlebags a copy of the story of Don Quixote. Significantly, though, he has not yet read the book as he leaves El Paso to go tilting after windmills in revolutionary Mexico.
The gringo goes looking for Pancho Villa but instead finds General Tomás Arroyo, whom he antagonizes with his brutal honesty. His courage is unquestionable, and he is useful to Arroyo during the siege of the Miranda hacienda. Arroyo, himself a bastard son of the Mirandas, is conflicted. His quest to kill his father, Miranda, is frustrated by the family’s escape, but after he has conquered the estate, he is derelict in his duty to return his army to Villa. He discovers Spanish documents that he believes to be sacred, for he thinks that whoever possesses the documents owns the land. The gringo has a more sophisticated understanding of political power than Arroyo, and he attempts to teach Arroyo that the documents are in fact worthless. When Arroyo refuses to believe him, the gringo burns the papers, and Arroyo, in a rage, shoots him in the back, killing his spiritual father, which the gringo has become.
Harriet Winslow is also searching for a father. Her own father deserted the family to serve in the Spanish-American War and never returned. Harriet confesses to the gringo that her father had not died in combat, as her mother prefers to believe, but remained in Cuba to live with a black woman. She and her mother had reported him dead in order to collect his pension: “We killed him, my mother and I,” she confesses, “in order to live.”
Harriet, too, becomes conflicted in Mexico; she is torn between the young Arroyo and the seventy-one-year-old gringo, who treats her with both respect and affection. She surrenders herself to Arroyo, claiming that she did so to save the gringo’s life, a rationale that the gringo refuses to accept or believe. His humor is always to force those around him to face the truth. Arroyo, therefore, has exploited Harriet sexually, and she comes to hate him for that. She gets her vengeance, however, by reporting the gringo’s death to the United States consulate, claiming that the gringo was her father, and demanding that his body be returned to Arlington National Cemetery for a military burial.
This lie creates a political problem for Pancho Villa, who is liable to be held responsible for the death of a captain of the United States Army. Politically, Villa and his allies will need the support of the United States government if their revolution is to succeed, and Villa must take measures to rectify the situation. The body of the gringo is exhumed, propped up against a wall, and shot by a firing squad at Villa’s command. Arroyo is ordered to administer the coup de grace; he is then executed by the same firing squad. Harriet claims the body of the gringo and takes it home, where she continues to live with her memories. “She sits and remembers,” Fuentes explains repeatedly.
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