Tell Them Not to Kill Me!

by Juan Rulfo

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Juan Rulfo, a twentieth-century Mexican writer, published the short story collection El Llano en llamas, in English, The Burning Plain and Other Stories, in 1953. Taking place in Jalisco, the Western Mexican state the author hailed from, the collection detailed the struggle and strife of his childhood home. The Burning Plain sheds light on the reality of life in Jalisco during and immediately after the Mexican Civil War, the period in which Rulfo grew up. The seventeen short stories of the original edition play to these themes, repeating events of Rulfo’s own life, such as the deaths of his parents at an early age, his upbringing in a faraway city by relatives, and their loss of land and resources to outside forces. Rulfo is notorious for his highly efficient brevity, relaying hard-to-swallow truths and bleak realities from a place of painful personal experience. Drought, poverty, crime, violence, broken families, and harsh environments figure heavily into the collection, and “Tell Them Not to Kill Me” is no different.

The story's title is interesting in that the character is not only pleading to his son to save him from incarceration but to those around him to save him from the consequences of his misdeeds. His one act of killing another man had essentially imprisoned him for the remainder of his life; Juvencio cries out one last time, full of regret, for a higher power to liberate him from the nightmare he created many years before. The story centers around an act of murder committed thirty-five years in the past. It follows the capture and eventual execution of the murderer, Juvencion Nava. At first, the now-elderly murderer is a pitiable figure, and his cries for mercy leave readers feeling sympathetic for his cause. When he falls to remorseless reminiscing, readers realize the nature of his crime and support the calls for justice. “Tell Them Not to Kill Me” is a realistic portrayal of the difficulty of “ranchero” life that quickly transforms from a simplistic tale of rural struggle to a discussion of the complex nature of capitalism, pride, and morality.

Rulfo writes from Juvencio’s perspective, occasionally switching from the first-person point of view to a third-person omniscient point of view to indicate flashbacks and current events, respectively. Much of the story unfolds through an extended flashback, illustrating Juvencio’s dire economic straights and the extremes his situation led him to. The landowner that Juvencio killed was by no means a saint, but the deed that Juvencio committed provokes the question of whether anything can justify killing someone. In that regard, another question arises: are modern readers applying their era's laws and social rules to a time and place that had different customs?

Murder should never be an acceptable recourse. However, looking at the era and locale of Rulfo’s work complicates the moral clarity of this claim. The rancher culture of the early- to mid-twentieth century had a set of hyper-localized, unofficial but broadly accepted laws, such as the execution of cattle thieves by hanging during the frontier days of Mexico and parts of the American Southwest. “Tell Them Not to Kill Me” reprises this era of frontier justice, and the execution of the main character explores the intricate dynamic between justice as it aligns with man-made laws and expectations and morality as it reflects the subjectivity of individual perspective. 

The story’s moral arc reaches its pinnacle as readers encounter the colonel who facilitated Juvencio’s capture and, fortuitously, turns out to be the son of Don Lupe, who was orphaned thirty-five years ago by Juvencio’s actions. His perspective—filled with the rage of a man raised without parents due to the callous actions of the man before him—inspires conflicting emotions in readers. The murderer deserves justice, yet the colonel’s justice seems more akin to revenge than fair sentencing. However, as the colonel describes becoming an orphan, growing up without a father, and dealing with the psychological trauma of his father's death, it is difficult for the reader to feel sympathy for Juvencio.

Emotional extremes litter the narrative, and it is hard to tell who the reader should align themselves with. Conventional ideas of what constitutes justice blur, and Juvencio’s death feels at once vindicating and immoral. Rulfo asks readers to walk the fine line of moral actions alongside his characters, intermingling necessity with violence and murder with justice. It is a complex tale with no clear answers, indicating the stark realities Rulfo was surrounded by as a child and grappled with as an adult.

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