Where the Air Is Clear

by Carlos Fuentes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765

Federico Robles

Federico Robles (feh-deh-REE-koh RROH-blehs), a wealthy and powerful business tycoon. Robles is born to peons working on the Ovando hacienda but has the opportunity to go to Morelia with a priest to serve as his sacristan. They go to the Zamacona hacienda, where Robles meets fifteen-year-old Mercedes Zamacona, with whom he begins sexual relations. After the lovers are found out, Robles flees and never again sees Mercedes, whom he made pregnant. Robles fights in the Mexican Revolution and later becomes a wealthy lawyer working for North American companies. Robles finally meets his son, Manuel Zamacona, who is later killed by an unknown assailant. Robles marries the beautiful Norma Laragoiti to complete his success. Robles begins a sexual and emotional relationship with Hortensia Chacón, whose Indian mother was a servant in the Ovando household. Although Hortensia is a typist in Robles’ office, they do not meet until he begins to visit her in the hospital, where she is recovering after being beaten by her estranged husband. Robles takes care of Hortensia, who is now blind. She later stands by him when he goes bankrupt as the result of rumors and the dirty dealings of other businessmen. Norma, crazed by the thought of losing her wealth and social position, threatens to leave him. After Norma dies in a fire, Robles marries Hortensia, who is pregnant. The two withdraw to the countryside to grow cotton. Robles represents the corrupt businessman who sheds his false self to return to an authentic existence.

Ixca Cienfuegos

Ixca Cienfuegos (EEH-kah see-ehn-FWEH-gohs), a mysterious Indian who appears everywhere and knows all the characters. As he moves in the various social classes, he listens to the characters’ life stories. He performs humanitarian acts but almost lets Norma drown in the ocean. He may have been responsible for her death, a sacrifice demanded by Teódula Moctezuma, his mother. After the fire, Teódula informs Ixca that he can go back to his true life, having performed the sacrifice. His wife is to be Rosa, Norma’s maid and the recent widow of a taxi driver. Ixca disappears for three years but reappears at the end of the novel. He waits for Rodrigo in the latter’s car and explains that Teódula believed that Norma’s sacrifice was necessary. He forces Rodrigo’s foot onto the accelerator but finally allows him to stop the automobile.

Norma Larragoiti de Robles

Norma Larragoiti de Robles (lahr-rah-goh-EE-tee), Robles’ wife, Ixca’s lover, and Rodrigo’s former girlfriend. Norma pretends to be the daughter of an aristocratic family that lost everything during the revolution, but her mother is a maid and her father had been a small businessman before his suicide. She becomes Ixca’s lover while married to Robles. Although she knows that he wants to destroy her, she loves him. After an argument with Robles about his bankruptcy, she locks herself in her room, throws herself on the bed, and laughs hysterically. When the house catches on fire, she is unable to find the key and dies.

Rodrigo Pola

Rodrigo Pola (rrohd-REE-goh POH-lah), a failed poet. When his father returned to the revolutionary troops, he left his bride of two weeks pregnant. Rodrigo is reared by his mother, who works hard to educate him. He falls in love with Norma, who later tires of him. He feels unfulfilled and often complains of his bad luck. Toward the end of the book, he begins to write screenplays of little value, but they make him rich. He is now respected and marries the aristocratic Pimpinela de Ovando

Pimpinela de...

(This entire section contains 765 words.)

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Pimpinela de Ovando (peem-pee-NEH-lah deh oh-VAHN-doh), a member of the fallen landed aristocracy. She is innocent, dignified, and well-mannered. She lives reasonably well but tries to get back the family’s lands. She falls in love with a young lawyer, Robert Regules, but does not marry him because her mother objects. She later regrets this decision when he becomes rich. She marries Rodrigo after he becomes wealthy.

Teódula Moctezuma

Teódula Moctezuma (teh-OH-duh-lah mohk-teh-SEW-mah), an Indian woman who represents the great mother figure of Aztec mythology. She keeps the coffins of her dead husband and sons in her house and performs Aztec rites over their cadavers. Believing Norma to be the victim of the sacrifice she demands from Ixca, she goes to Norma’s burning house and throws her ritualistic jewelry into the fire as she gives thanks for the sacrifice.


Gabriel, a border crosser who returns to Mexico with gifts for his family. He is stabbed in the stomach during a party.


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Mexico City itself is a leading character in Where the Air Is Clear. In 1951, when the novel takes place, the city was already on its way to becoming the overcrowded, smoggy example of what all too many cities have become in the late twentieth century. Its unhealthy, murderous character symbolizes effectively the country itself as Fuentes sees it. Within its confines no one is capable of realizing himself as a complete human being, whether he is a regular at one of Bobo Gutierrez' parties or one of the many penniless Indians who are flooding in from the countryside. All are part of "the great flatsnouted and suffocating city, the city forever spreading like a creeping blot."

Fuentes himself is a member of the city's intelligentsia, and he portrays these people brilliantly. The poet Manuel Zamacona is first seen at one of Bobo's parties where he is a main attraction. Most of those invited are concerned with living the life of high society at its pleasurable best. They chatter and drink, and they never doubt that they represent the best that Mexico City has to offer. Fuentes' satirical eye sees them as useless ornaments in society leading lives that they have neither the ability nor inclination to examine critically.

Since these people dislike interruptions in their pleasures, they are very leery of another guest, Ixca Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is the novel's most controversial character. Some critics, notably John S. Brushwood, insist that his presence is a mistake in this novel, that he could be omitted with no loss whatsoever to what Fuentes is trying to say. But here he presents the deepest roots of Mexican life, the Aztec past. Ixca derives from the Nahuatl word for bake, or cook, and Cienfuegos, "a hundred fires," refers to the original time in Aztec mythology when the whole universe was lit by fires. Cienfuegos is as much a mystery to the other characters in the novel as he is to its readers. He is, at once, some sort of reporter and possibly the reincarnation of the Aztec war god. In the course of the book he acts as a social gadfly, trying to make contemporary citizens of Mexico City remember and accept their past, and as a destructive force. He is under the direction of his mother, Teodula Moctezuma, an old Indian woman who also functions as the powerful and bloodthirsty Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Ixca and Teodula believe that it is the mission of both modern and ancient Mexico to make regular sacrifices to the sun to enable it to keep moving. Otherwise mankind cannot survive. Human sacrifice is the only means for human redemption. Cienfuegos searches for victims in every strata of society and becomes in the process the confidant of the novel's leading characters. Teodula is convinced that they must find at least one very special sacrificial victim. As the only descendent of the last Aztec emperor, revenge may be part of her motivation. These semi mythical characters are given special roles in the novel.

Cienfuegos is a confidant of Federico Robles who has become a powerful financier as a result of the revolution. He fought at the battle of Celaya where the Carranza forces led by General Alvaro Obregon defeated Pancho Villa's Northern Legion. Whether he was ever really committed to the ideology of the revolution is uncertain, but he owes his wealth to his unscrupulous business practices and has ignored the principles for which most of the revolutionaries fought. He admits this. But in the chaos following the revolution, he and the other builders of a new Mexico had to make a decision: "But we had to face reality and accept the only political truth, compromise. That was the moment of crisis for the Revolution. The moment of decision to build even if it meant staining conscience. To sacrifice ideals for the sake of tangible achievement. And we did it and well." It does not bother him that he uses the same rationalizations as Porfirio Diaz, the dictator against whom the Revolution was fought. Once successful, he needed a wife who could help him enter the high society of Mexico City. Robles had begun life as a peon on the hacienda of Don Ignacio de Olvando, and his wife, Norma Larragoiti, was the daughter of a small storekeeper, but she was raised and educated by a well-to-do uncle in Mexico City. Beautiful and at ease in society, she married Robles because of his wealth and position.

Cienfuegos sets out to destroy both Robles and Norma. He has an affair with Norma. His lovemaking is passionate but totally lacking in tenderness. He almost drowns her by steering his boat into high seas off Acapulco. His fate at that point is uncertain, but he seems to have died and been reborn. He spreads false rumors about Robles's finances, contacting Pimpinella de Ovando first, the daughter of the patron for whom Robles first worked. She is more than willing to help ruin the nouveau riche Robles and his wife. She tells her friends, including Roberto Regules. A financier with even fewer scruples than Robles, he contacts investors and other businessmen. Robles goes under rapidly. Rejected by Norma, he turns to his blind mistress, Hortensia Chacon, an Indian like himself. He marries her, and they go North to become cotton farmers. Norma dies in a fire which consumes the mansion she and Robles had occupied. Teodula Moctezuma declares her death a sufficient sacrifice which will enable the sun and nature to continue as the gods intended.

Two writers have prominent roles in the novel. Manuel Zamacona is an established poet who has chosen as his purpose in life the task of defining what it means to be a Mexican. He is shown struggling with this theme in his writing, and debating the issue with Federico Robles who views him with amused contempt, and with Ixca Cienfuentes whose role has been predetermined by his commitment to the principles of the ancient religion he and his mother represent. Zamacona is murdered on the outskirts of Acapulco simply because a man at a gas station does not like the way the poet looks at him. Rodrigo Pola's father was executed during the Revolution after betraying the whereabouts of his comrades. He could not bear to die alone. Rodrigo cannot bear being alone either, so he is a regular intellectual poseur at Bobo's parties, where he tries to impress the others with poetic quotations memorized before he appears there. He has no real concept of his own identity, much less of his country's. He becomes a hack writer for grade-B film scripts, thus betraying whatever ideals he has a writer.

Many other characters in the novel meet violent deaths. Juan Morales, a taxi driver, dies in an accident. Two braceros, or "wetbacks," Gabriel and Beto, are murdered in a bar shortly after returning from California. Feliciano Sanchez, a union organizer, is shot in the back by the police at the request of Federico Robles. Most of the regulars at Bobo Gutierrez's parties seem untouched by the violence of their city. Ironically, their useless lives seem permanently fixed, despite the constant changes the city undergoes.


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Beto Beto is a happy-go-lucky cab-driver and Gabriel's friend with a shady past: he spent some time in prison for "knocking off" someone.

Pierre Caseaux The aging seducer of the upper class, Pierre (the fashionable translation of ‘‘Pedro’’) is a wealthy Epicurean fully aware of the power of his money and status. He frequently "updates" his relationships with always-younger, ambitious beauties.

Hortensia Chacon Hortensia is another representative of the low social class; an illegitimate daughter of an Indian servant, the girl grows up with poverty and silence in the de Ovando household. Hortensia marries a clerk who gives in to alcoholism, prostitutes, and severe abuse of his silent wife due to his growing discontent with his job and social status. Hortensia finds a job as a typist and leaves him, taking the children along, but the husband blinds her in rage. Her employer Federico Robles visits her at the hospital; the two fall in love. Hortensia is similar to Ixca in her spiritual, wordless connection to the ancient past; her love redeems Federico.

Ixca Cienfuegos The novel opens and ends with Ixca's narration, a poetic and poignant description of Mexico City's decadence. As a character, Ixca is not very clearly defined; however, he connects the narratives of the other main characters as he visits them and inquires about their life stories. Confident, handsome, mysterious, tall, dark, with black eyes and Indian features, Ixca comes from the spiritually rich background of the ancestral Mexico, embodied in the mystical character of his mother Teodula. His profession and social position is undefined: the jet set believes he is ‘‘the brain behind a great banker’’ as well as a ‘‘gigolo and a marijuana addict,’’ but nobody really knows what he does.

Ixca reveals Mexico's social corruption, alienation, and misery in each class, as he asks various characters about their memories. His main agenda, however, is to find a blood sacrifice among the new Mexicans to appease the ancient Indian gods: Ixca tries to push his friend Rodrigo into committing suicide, throws his mistress Norma into the stormy sea, and brings about the political downfall of Norma's husband Federico Robles, one of the country's wealthiest and most powerful men. Ixca pursues the authentic, pre-Hispanic Mexico underneath the layer of the new culture; after Norma's death, he obeys his mother and goes to live in poverty with her Indian widow neighbor; but after three years, he leaves and almost gets Rodrigo into a car crash.

Bobo Gutierrez The host of the city's wildest jet-set parties, Bobo is a snobbish, flamboyant entertainer who gathers the creme de la creme at his fashionable house and always greets his guests—aristocrats, intellectuals, and "queers"—with the same exclamations.

Librado Ibarra Librado was a law student and Robles's colleague who became the union attorney in his dream to reinvent Mexico after the revolution—but ended up in prison instead. Once released, Librado becomes an associate at Robles's factory where he works to keep afloat financially, but gets his foot caught in a machine and the company refuses to give him compensation. Librado knows a lot about Robles's criminal business schemes and confides in Ixca.

Junior A representative example of the post-revolutionary generation, Junior is the son of the nouveau riche: a youth who has never earned a penny, but gets his wealth from his conservative father.

Gabriel Gabriel is a young man from the city's social underbelly, who illegally works in California during the year to support his family. He is the embodiment of ambition without a venue to succeed, searching for an escape from his circumstances through violence and various ways to make himself feel alive and free. He is killed by a street gang.

Charlotte Garcia A self-proclaimed international society whore, Charlotte is a beautiful woman who spends her life in affairs with members of the world's jet set.

Gladys Garcia Gladys is an aging Indian prostitute who appears at the beginning and the end of the novel, symbolizing the unchanging social hopelessness of the lowest class. She has one regular customer and the memory of another, the cab-driver Beto, with whom she had a personal relationship. After a night of work, Gladys retreats to church for spiritual recovery. She envies the nouveau riches.

Norma Larragoiti de Robles Norma is an ambitious, extremely beautiful woman in pursuit of wealth and status, who develops impeccable taste and personality to match her jet-set goals; she marries Federico Robles and trades her elegance and high-class skills for his money.

Norma's father, a small businessman, committed suicide when his business collapsed due to the post-revolutionary changes in the national economy. The mother sent Norma to live with her aunt and uncle in Mexico City, where the girl develops high social aspirations. A ruthless social climber, Norma tells her new friends that she also comes from an aristocratic family and throws away the pictures of her family, ashamed of their poverty and low class. She manages to handle occasional pangs of conscience, but the love affair with Ixca and the close encounter with death make her re-examine her life: she abandons the social role-play with her aristocratic friends and defies Federico. Norma dies in the fire that marks her husband's social downfall.

Teodula Moctezuma The embodiment of ancient mysticism, Teodula is a character who represents the eternal, mythological world under the rule of blood-thirsty Aztec gods, the spiritual and authentic Mexico before the Spanish conquests. She practices the old traditions, always wears her wedding jewelry, calmly awaits death because she believes in rebirth as the natural cycle of life, and performs death rituals on the skeletons of her husband and children that she keeps buried in her cellar. Ixca relies on her teachings and vows to find a human sacrifice for her, so that the ancient gods may be satisfied. After Norma's death, Teodula makes Ixca renounce the modern world and live with Rosa, her widow neighbor.

Rosa Morales Rosa becomes a widow when her husband, cab-driver Juan Morales, dies in a car crash. They were returning from a lavish family dinner, a celebration of Juan's win of 800 pesos in a horse race; he plans to turn his life around, get a daytime shift, and spend more time with his family. After the tragedy, Rosa has to support the family and finds a job as a maid in Norma's household. Two of Rosa's children die shortly after.

Natasha An aging beauty queen, St. Petersburg singer, and ‘‘the monarch of Mexico City's international set,'' Natasha is an occasional advisor to the incoming young women; she instructs them on using their sexuality and elegance to create a place for themselves at the top.

Dona Lorenza Ortiz de Ovando Pimpinela's old aunt, Dona Lorenza, a member of the old aristocracy that sought exile in the United States and Europe during the turmoil of the revolution, stands as the epitome of the once-ruling decadent class now refusing to accept the changes. She continues to live by the same impossible standards, willing to die rather than join the lower social classes and work for a living. Dona Lorenza returns to Mexico impoverished with her grandson, a spineless, weak, and idiotic man in his twenties reared to live in the past with his grandmother. She is eternally bitter about the opportunistic class that succeeded her at the social peak.

Pichi Pichi is a beautiful, shallow young woman, an example of "female meat on the market'' trying to make it into the highest social class with her looks, meager education, and relationships with upper-class men.

Gervasio Pola Gervasio is Rodrigo's father but they have never met. At the time of his wife's pregnancy, Gervasio was in the Belen war prison; he escaped with three other prisoners. In their search for a Zapata camp they could join, the fugitives separated; Gervasio was caught first and told his captors where to find his friends, because he didn't want to die alone.

Rodrigo Pola Rodrigo is an unsuccessful, self-conscious poet who desperately hangs onto the high-class lifestyle. After his father's death in the revolution, Rodrigo grows up in poverty under the tentative eye of his controlling, clinging mother. During his school days, he befriends Roberto Regales who shows him the power of lies and manipulation in achieving one's goals. Shaken by the experience, Rodrigo turns to the idealistic world of poetry and finds a temporary niche among young existentialist poets at the university. However, after the publication of his first book of verses, he is expelled from the group. In the meantime, Rodrigo leaves home after a conflict with his mother, and falls in love with the young Norma, who dates him for a while but rejects him for someone with more money and better prospects.

Rodrigo's self-pity and identity crisis are a reflection of his struggle between conformity and rebellion: he must choose between mastering the modern success of making money, or sticking to his old-fashioned principles and staying poor. Finally, he turns his back on existential ideals and starts to write movie scripts that achieve great commercial success. He marries an impoverished aristocrat, Pimpinela de Ovando, trading his money for her class, and fully joins the jet set.

Prince Vampa Another cardboard figure in the makeup of the Mexican high class, Prince Vampa gains his prestigious position with lies and the right attitude: he is actually a cook. His success in the group testifies to the new jet set's need to "strengthen" its position with blue blood.

Betina Regules Betina is the next generation of the Mexican top society; the rich and beautiful daughter of the attorney Regules, she falls in love with a poor poet and law student, Jaime. However, when she brings him to one of Bobo's parties, the other women advise the young girl that he is too provincial for her status and money. Betina's character shows that society doesn't change.

Roberto Regules Roberto, a powerful lawyer, a political shark, and a social climber, manipulates everybody around him in order to maintain and improve his own social status. As a schoolboy, he destroys a teacher with false accusations; as an adult, he facilitates Robles's collapse and arranges to profit from it. Roberto marries his secretary Sylvia and gives her the prestige of upper-class living, but their marriage is a loveless one.

Federico Robles An example of rags-to-riches success, Federico, a son of Indian peasants who worked on the land of Don Ignacio de Ovando, has vivid memories of the unbearable living conditions of the low class, the talk of strikes that eventually inspired the revolution, and the hardships and abuse his family had to endure. Young Federico was sent to live and study with the local priest, but was thrown out when the priest caught him sleeping with his niece, Mercedes Zamacona. He ends up joining one of the generals in the revolution and fighting his way across Mexico for years, witnessing countless atrocities of war, and learning about power. Federico becomes a war hero at the battle at Celaya.

In the country ripe for changes after the revolution, Federico enters the competitive field of bourgeois development. He studies law, becomes a provincial attorney, commits ruthless crimes for the post-revolution government, and manages to create great wealth and power through business machinations in a lawless economy, becoming a modern tycoon over night. Because he lacks class, he marries Norma to bring elegance and appropriate social status to his public life; but he finds love with his blind Indian mistress.

Sentimental and cruel at the same time, Federico believes in the self he had created through the revolution and rejects his Indian origins; but when his world crumbles, his identity takes a hard blow in a recognition of corruption. He withdraws from city life and capitalism, marries his mistress, and becomes a cotton farmer in northern Mexico.

Rosenda Zubaran de Pola Gervasio's wife and Rodrigo's mother, Rosenda is another person profoundly changed by the revolution: a spoiled and naive girl raised on milk candy, Rosenda marries the young colonel Gervasio and spends a year in a household with increasing social standing and wealth, as her husband prospers under President Madero. However, she becomes a widow within a year after the wedding and all the money disappears in the revolution. Pregnant, rejected by her family for losing everything because she married a soldier, Rosenda starts a new life with her son: she earns enough to sustain them and raises Rodrigo as a replacement for the husband who abandoned her. As the son grows, she becomes more depressed with her loss of youth and vitality, and jealous of his other contacts with the world. Upon finding Rodrigo's poetry, Rosenda tears it up and tells him that nobody can choose his or her own way of life, because the world is stronger than the individual. She dies wanting to see her estranged son once again.

Pimpinela de Ovando One of the socially valuable remnants of Mexican aristocracy, Pimpinela brings blue-blood prestige to the nouveau riches (newly rich people) of the new Mexico. While the revolution was gaining momentum, Pimpinela's father made sufficient changes, selling haciendas and buying real estate, to ensure a comfortable life for his family; however, the aristocratic lifestyle is forever changed after the revolution. Pimpinela's mother tries to protect the girl from the "mixing" at the top of the social ladder and takes her to Europe.

Upon her return to Mexico, Pimpinela longs to use her status for social connections; she offers the class granted by her company in exchange for financial and business favors, because the family funds are running low. She arranges a dinner to introduce her aged aunt and Norma, so that Norma's husband will give de Ovando's cousin a job at the bank. Eventually, Pimpinela marries Rodrigo, who solves all of her financial problems.




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