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Elena Poniatowska, Miguel de Cervantes Prize winner

Elena Poniatowska

February 10th, 2022

Elena Poniatowska Miguel de Cervantes Prize winner

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You began your career as a journalist and then branched off into literature. How did the investigative side of the former (interviewing people, research, and travel) complement the development of your fiction, and do you think all writers might benefit from doing some journalism first, not only to gain life experience, but also make connections with the world at large?

EP: I do think it’s very important ... for me it was very important to be a journalist because it was a way of finding out about my country, Mexico, and since as I was very young, it was also a way of finding out about social conflicts I knew nothing about. I belonged to a privileged class. I was a girl scout. I was always praying in church. That was my work. And as a journalist, I started doing interviews, because as I was born in Paris, I came to Mexico when I was only ten years old. I was also studying in convents in the USA, in Philadelphia, and I knew very little about the life of my country. Of course, I knew about Zapata—Emiliano Zapata—in the Mexican Revolution, but nothing more. So when I started, I was accepted in this newspaper, which was the most important one at the time, Excélsior. I asked to interview some of the important figures of our time, and I was accepted to interview all the great Mexicans of that generation—first the painters like Diego Rivera, Tamayo, Siqueiros, who was always in jail, so I started going to jail, and then people like Octavio Paz, who was very young and had very blue eyes. And also, for instance, Alfonso Reyes. And then women .... Mexico is a macho country—no one paid any attention to women, so I interviewed Rosario Castellanos, who’s translated into English, and she wrote about the Indians in Chapas, and I don’t know if they did, but I’m sure that those who followed Subcomandante Marcos have read her in order to know what Chapas was like, what they were fighting for. So, for me it was a very good and very generous beginning—the people were nice to me; they were surprised at seeing a girl—at that time I was a girl (sounds like a long time ago)—but seeing a girl coming and asking questions ... a very ignorant girl who was nice and had nice blue eyes and asked questions.

DG: In a 1975 interview, published in the Latin American Literary Review, you state that in the beginning “I was my own obstacle,” mainly because society then “believed that being a journalist was a waste of time for a woman and that women writers shouldn't appear in newspapers.” It’s been forty-six years since that interview. If we compare the country to the US or Europe, for example, to what extent has Mexico changed in this respect, and are women writers basically treated the same as in other parts of the world, or do there remain very significant challenges?

EP: No, I think that women writers now have a better life—more possibilities to work. At the beginning, when I started, there was a very horrible column, pages and pages. I think the idea came from Cuba, from La Habana ... I don’t know ... very ridiculous ... that was all about weddings—this woman or this lovely young girl married this lovely politician, for instance. It was called Sociales (Society), so immediately when you arrived at the newspaper, and you were a woman, there was nothing else for you but Society, and at the end it was so boring that all the women working with me all left because it was said that they were working mientras me caso (while I get married). So no one paid any attention, but I stayed, I stayed, I stayed on. I remember going to see the houses ... visiting the houses of the politicians—they were all robbers, and they had the corniest and most ridiculous houses you can imagine. So I started making fun of their fur coats and their wives’ hair that was all curled—they had a sort of cake on top of their head; they took themselves very seriously. So, of course, what I wrote received attention—they said I was very impertinent and that I was a badly educated person. And afterwards, they asked me ... or I had the possibility to start covering politics, and that was a very good thing for me because in Mexico there was never anything about poverty. Poor colonies or people were never taken into account—they were never even photographed. Maybe they were photographed by Americans, but I remember that Carlos Fuentes, who was a very well-known Mexican novelist, told me that he was a censor (un censor) for American movies. Many American movies were made in Mexico because the cost to make them here was very low. Fuentes once told me “I had nothing to do but to sit in a chair that had my name in the back ... and the only thing I ever said, was once: “Corte, corte, este perro denigra México.” Because a stray dog ... very, very thin, very undernourished crossed the set, so they said it denigrated Mexico, and so they had to do the scene again because of this stray dog. And as my grandmother often picked up dogs in the streets, I remember bringing that dog home so he could have a good lunch; that was so many years ago, and then afterwards I really started doing reports all about poor colonies, poverty, and especially in 1968, the massacre at Tlatelolco.

DG: In the fall of ‘91, you gave a lecture at Hampshire College, where you analyzed the struggle of Chicanos and Chicanas in search of an identity. I would like to quote a passage: “The Chicanos created a new language .... Rejected by both Mexicans and Americans, they had no one to turn to except themselves, their backs always wet ... their back or neck always hurt, and their ribs, over which the bridge can be built, is also a passage across the border.” Many people equate “Mexicans” and “Chicanos” as being one and the same, but they’re not. Can you talk about some of the linguistic, cultural, and social differences that exist, and also, whether Mexican perceptions of Chicanos have changed over these last twenty years?

EP: Chicanos used to come back quite frequently to Mexico; they used to come for Christmas, or for the date of a patron saint, or because they had sent money to build a church in their little or big town. And this has changed because now everyone—instead of coming back—wants all their relatives to go to the United States, so they all go over there, or they all try, and they stay even without papers, even if it’s very dangerous, even without what they call the Green Card. And the United States needs them to do the work that they don’t want to do themselves—to pick the crops, to pick the grapes in the country, all that the Earth gives us, the Mexicans harvest it, and this allows them to live and often gives them the opportunity to be exposed to education, universities. I remember when I went to Stanford in order to give a conference, there was a gardener that was always sweeping in front of the windows of the school room in order to hear what the master was saying, and the master was intelligent enough to tell him: “Come in, come in, you can come in and listen.” So he made a teacher out of him because he was a very intelligent individual ... so they had opportunities that Mexico didn’t give them ... and so, opportunities like that gave them a better life, but now I don’t know if they come back as frequently, although they’re very keen on voting, and very keen on participating in politics in Mexico, which is a good thing for the country.

DG: In many ways, your own upbringing and history mirrors the Chicano experience—having lived in Europe, the US, and Mexico, your identity exists on a sort of Anzaldúan “borderland—”

EP: Of course, I was very taken by works of Chicano writers, and as no one translated women, I also admired Sandra Cisneros, who had a great impact on me with The House on Mango Street, a wonderful piece of Chicano literature, and so I was invited to meetings and conferences ... I was very interested to hear what they had to say about the country they had left behind. And they didn’t come back—they didn’t really come back. They came back for special or important occasions, but all the opportunities for them were in the United States.

DG: Given all this, can you talk a bit about your fascinating family history and how it influenced your outlook on life, on writing? In other words, do you actually believe in the geographic/cultural division of a New and Old World, or do you think all our experiences are basically the same, and all writers living everywhere are basically trying to express the same grand metaphysical ideas of love, sorrow, faith, and deceit?

EP: I think the grand ideas are always a subject, a wonderful subject, but I think, as I’ve said, I’m an example of all kinds of mixtures because I come from a family which is related to Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last king of Poland. And so I’m Polish because of this king, but afterwards we went to France as all the Poniatowskis had become French ... if you go to Paris, there’s a boulevard called Józef Poniatowski because he was with Napoleon, and instead of giving himself up to the Russians (the Poles don’t like the Russians or the Russians don’t like the Poles) ... so instead of surrendering he jumped into a river called Elster and everyone followed him, so he drowned, and his beautiful horse drowned as well. Afterwards, many of my family members, my father, they all fought in the Second World War ... but my grandmother was American. Her name was Elizabeth Sperry Crocker. She came from California, and there’s a museum they built there in Sacramento [Sacramento Museum of Modern Art1]. So imagine, my identity, what am I?

DG: Let’s turn to human rights, more specifically your work, La noche de Tlatelolco, translated as Massacre in Mexico in English. It’s a polyphonic work, featuring images, interviews, eye-witness accounts from established reporters, and even poetry by the likes of Octavio Paz, who wrote the introduction, where he compared your account of 1968 to the testimony of Singuenza y Góngora, writing that Góngora’s testimony of the 1692 Mexico City riots were “as impressive as Elena Poniatowska’s.” I would like to quote some of the accounts:

“The majority of the corpses were lying face down, swelling in the rain, but there were also some lying face up. They looked like trampled flowers, like the mud-spattered, crushed flowers planted around the Chihuaha building.” —Pila Marín de Zepeda, grade-school teacher “My daughter's blood was tracked all over the Plaza by the shoes of youngsters running from one end of it to the other.” —Dolores Verdugo de Solís, mother of a family “The municipal sanitation workers / Are washing away the blood / On the Plaza of Sacrifices.” —Octavio Paz “Tlatelolco? I hear it's always been a place where human sacrifices were offered.” —Francisca Ávila de Contreras, eighty-year-old resident of the Calle de Neptuno, near the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco Bridge

Octavio Paz wrote that “Almost all historians regard these riots of the year 1692 as a forerunner of the battles for Independence a hundred years later,” and while independence was successfully achieved, Paz also writes later that without democratization and a humble will on the part of the ruling class to listen “to what Mexico is really saying,” the country may be obliged to hold off on freedom “for yet another century,” as happened in 1692. Can you talk about what has changed in Mexico since 1968 in terms of protecting human rights, and more generally freedom?

EP: Now you have young people in the government. There are changes, there are possibilities, and not just for the old politicians that stay on and on and on. We have a women called Claudia Sheinbaum. She’s Jewish. And so, I think young people have had opportunities in this government. I don’t know if it’s going to be a good government, but there’s certainly a lot more trust in the work of young people, and on change. I think old ways are very difficult to get rid of, especially in a country which is so traditional like Mexico. Yesterday, here, was the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and despite the fact that they told people not to come to Mexico, not to attend church or the basilicas, they all came—they weren’t allowed to go in, but they all came, and they all sat down, and they all prayed there for hours for miracles that perhaps, maybe happen ... maybe what we’re doing now, at this moment, is a miracle ... it could be because it’s so impressive and so unlikely. When I was a little girl, I never thought I would talk to a person called David through a screen. As everywhere, everything is very relative in this country, but religion, in fact—the Catholic religion—is really important in Mexico because it symbolizes the “fatherland,” and so religion is “fatherland” in Mexico. And for me, I had this very strong impression ... ever since I was a little girl ... I became a girl scout ... when you become a girl scout ... it has something to do with religion and helping others ... maybe you never help anyone ... maybe you’re the one who needs help. I’m the one who needs help now because I’m 90 years old.

DG: Has globalization, the internet, and technology in general made protests a more or less effective strategy to protect human rights, or is social revolt/revolution more a thing of the past in your view?

EP: I think technology has been wonderful in uniting people who fight for social justice and change. For instance, Haiti, without the social knowledge about what was happening in Haiti, I think Haiti would have disappeared—would have disappeared from the face of the earth. And I think solidarity, things like Solidarnosc, but also solidarnosc in the general sense, I think are very important. I think it’s one of the good things—the very good things—we have gained, at least, as people. I don’t mean to say that we are better than before, that we are very good people, you know, it’s not true—we’re not. But still, there is a system in the world, an atmosphere in the world that we have gained which allows us the ability, in many cases, to help each other. This is important ... I think that San Francisco (Saint Francis), with his dog on the right, his hat on the left, and his lion and elephant ... I think he would be pleased.

DG: How has the pandemic changed the plight of minorities such as women and the indigenous populations in Mexico, and has the impact of COVID been more pronounced or less so compared with the rest of the Latin American region, and countries like the US, for example?

EP: In Mexico, I think it’s important to discuss the pandemic in relation to hunger. What’s important to know about pandemics in general, but also this one, is that they often greatly affect those who are hungry, but they aren’t a horrible danger in and of themselves, at least today. We are a country that is poor ... my wish ... my wish really is that everyone could go to bed at night having eaten more or less the same, and this doesn’t happen in my country.

DG: With the unlawful detainment and now subsequent release of Patrick Zaki (an Egyptian graduate student studying in Italy who was detained for twenty-two months in Egypt upon his February 2020 return to visit family in the country), and the 2016 murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian scholar in Egypt, it seems that the safety of neither student activists nor independent researchers has improved over the years. The work remains dangerous, but to some extent it must be done. What message do you have for journalists working in dangerous environments and scholars at risk?

EP: Well, I think they are heroes, like we all think. They devote, and sometimes give their lives for an idea ... they are akin to people we can call saints, heroes, and also people who have un ideal, una conciencia de lo de que otros ... the fact of giving, linked to death, is really a very difficult thing to accept, and more difficult even to define. My father was in the war, the Second World War, and he suffered a lot ... he spoke very good English because his mother was American, so I didn’t see him for six years in Mexico. And now I think of this young man who cannot see his loved ones ... and if he had gotten nearer to the cause he was fighting for, he would’ve been maybe horrified. Maybe he would’ve said: “What am I fighting for?” “I don’t know.” It’s like a wound—you can’t put your hands into a wound. All I can tell you is that it’s very horrible to think that someone who’s an idealist, un idealista, un héroe idealista, should find death—this aparición. Your question hurts me and I don’t know what is the answer. If you have the answer, give it to me.

DG: It was your great fortune, and in your own eyes perhaps even a misfortune, to have interviewed Diego Rivera—twice. His all-too-arrogant condescension, along with the disagreements you had with him about the role of women, politics, and the philosophical implications behind the word pueblo, inspired you to reassert your authority by titling the second interview “Diego Rivera no tiene remedio” (Diego Rivera is a hopeless case). Can you talk about the events which led up to both interviews, the interviews themselves, and how your understanding of the man who was Diego Rivera changed as a result?

EP: The first thing I can tell you is that he was a generous, a very intelligent, and an extremely talented man. He was, of course, Frida Kahlo’s husband, and she overtook him—she became much more important and famous, and people began talking more about Frida Kahlo than they ever did about Diego Rivera, who actually painted an aunt of mine, a Mexican aunt, Guadalupe Amor [Pita Amor]; he painted her absolutely naked. In the painting, she looked like a little pink fish ... she was short ... and so that there would be no doubt it was her, it said at the end: Yo soy la poetisa Guadalupe Amor (I am the poetess Guadalupe Amor), and she caused quite a scandal because the painting was enormous, it was huge—and a great show, a great Diego Rivera exhibition was curated to showcase his life’s work, and this painting was the most important one.

And so when I interviewed him, I had many things against him, but he was nice. He asked me—he told me that he needed a little Polish face for his painting, and I said: “No, because you already painted my aunt completely naked.” I said no, but then I introduced him to María Félix ... of course, he was the husband of Frida Kahlo, and when she became much more famous than he was, I think his family got mad. They said ... but it doesn’t matter—all this is small talk about painting in Mexico. He was certainly a part of the Mexican Revolution—in the sense that his paintings of all the wars in Mexico were a way of bringing history to people who did not know how to read or write ... it was a vocation, and it was very, very important for the story, history, and culture of our country. Of course, we were able to go and see the pyramids anytime we wanted because they’re so near Mexico City, but we saw them painted on the walls, we saw the story of Cuauhtémoc, we saw history through him and also David Alfaro Siqueiros, and also through the greatest of them all, who is Orozco, who came from near Guadalajara, and who painted the cupola of the Hospicio Cabañas (la cúpula del Hospicio Cabañas), and there he painted “El hombre en llamas” (también conocida como El hombre de fuego)—the “Man in Flames,” which is possibly the greatest painting in Mexico City—no, not only in Mexico City but in the whole of Mexico. So they were very important figures responsible for teaching history, for instilling love and admiration towards the country through murals, and this why the muralistas, the muralists, are so important. Then other people came over afterwards, like Jean Charlot, from my France, and Marion Greenwood and her sister, who painted in un mercado (a market), and it was really a renaissance—a way of having a painting go into the streets, and go into the lives, and into the minds of Mexicans who didn’t think the pyramids were so important, or that our past even wasn’t so important. And so I think they did a huge favor for Mexican life.

DG: Do you think we should forgive great artists today—those as talented or perhaps even more talented than Rivera—for their machismo and condescending attitudes, simply because they’re geniuses, or do you find that society’s romanticization of the creative impulse, at least to such a reckless extent has become a tiresome cliché?

EP: I think this is a very religious question, and I’m no pope, I’m no priest, I’m not a nun either, but I can tell you that you’re forgiven ... you are forgiven. Facts are facts ... they’re like volcanoes—they erupt, they do evil, they kill people, and people are burned to death—it has to do with nature.

DG: Yes, that’s interesting because a volcano is something we admire, but it has the ability to cause great destruction, so these painters, these artists were sort of like volcanoes—they had incredible power, incredible depth, but at the same time they had the capacity, capability to cause great damage. In this respect, taking account this inherent duality of individuals, do you tend to view the future generation with optimism or pessimism, and why?

EP: In my country, Mexico, I can tell you that more and more children are going to school, more and more people ... not even domestically ... there are, for instance, more Mexican scientists than before. My eldest son, Emmanuel Haro Poniatowski, he’s a physician, he received a doctorate in the United States, and also from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris also, so he has all these possibilities, and he’s very involved, and my other children are also very concerned about culture—this is, of course, the case of my family, but I see it in many other places, in feminism, for example; there are many female doctors who defend women, and there’s no more beating of women in Mexico, at least publicly, that we know about. No more hurting of women or children in Mexico ... I don’t see children like stray dogs in the streets anymore. I think there is an advancement, which gives me great confidence ... I sound like a stupid politician, I’m sorry, but I really do think things are better. Every child that goes to school, at least in Mexico City, is given breakfast, lunch, is given a banana, is given chocolate milk, a sandwich—he eats every day, at least. He’s not asleep in class. I think there are things done for the children and for women, which is an advancement in our country. I care about humans. Of course, I care about trees not being cut, or I care about the seas not being polluted, and all this, but I do think that one of the things that’s important, the beginning, is taking care of children, and they do have this possibility, even in the country, even if they are peasants ... and now everyone has clear, clean water, and this is a good thing. And of course, there are assassinations, there are murders, there are injustices, and things that belong to third world countries. We are a third world country. Either De Gaulle or Sauvy created this concept of le période troisième monde, and it is true, there is a troisième monde and Mexico still belongs to it, but I think today things are better. Corruption, which still exists, is one of the biggest inhibitors of Mexico’s development, and bad politicians exist, and bad funzionàrios, people who work in the government, still exist.

DG: Who are some of the living Mexican writers you read with great pleasure today, and who are some from abroad?

EP: I enjoy reading young Mexican authors, but also authors like Jose Augustin. I also enjoy reading The Catcher in the Rye, and also books in Mexico which are similar to that. But I read more sociology ... I’m very interested in sociology. Also, I often read Susan Sontag, because I knew her ... I loved her. And I read also in French, because of my origins ... for me it’s easy to read in French, but really I read anything that’s important. I read newspapers very carefully because I’m a reporter. I read mis contemporáneos (my contemporaries), both men and women. I’m lucky enough to be able to read in French because it’s my maternal language, my first language, and also in English because I was sent to a religious school, to Eden Hall. It was there in Philadelphia; there was a school which burned down—the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Catholic. And there was a jail to the right and an insane asylum to the left, so I had no possibilities ... I could’ve eloped with a madman or with a prisoner, but I didn’t have the opportunity.

DG: And lastly, is there anything you’re working on these days?

EP: Well, I wanted to know more about my ancestors, and I just finished a novel about the Polish prince (el príncipe polaco), Stanislaw Poniatowski—there are many similarities between Poland and Mexico, even if the countries are very far apart. And now I’m going to start working on a novel about a woman. I like writing on the subject of women because they are usually the forgotten individuals of history; they’re always out of history—except Frida Kahlo.


1 Traci Roberts-Camps, who, in 2001, conducted a personal interview with Poniatowska in Mexico City writes: "Elena's paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Sperry Crocker, was from the United States, born in Stockton, California, near San Francisco. She came from an enterprising family, and there are still reminders of the Crocker family in that part of California, as they built the San Francisco Railway, the Pacific Railway, and the Sacramento Museum of Modern Art." (185). —“Elena Poniatowsk and Her Connection to the Central Valley,” from Dialogues on the Delta: Approaches to the City of Stockton edited by Martín Camps


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