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Walking in the Minefield - Maria Elena de Valdes speaks with Elena Poniatowska

This interview took place in November 1998 at Elena Poniatowska's home in Mexico City.

MEV: This past Fall, the world remembered the tragedy of Tlatelolco of thirty years ago when the Mexican government massacred hundreds of students who were taking advantage of media presence for the upcoming Olympic Games to protest government corruption and tyranny. On the 2nd of October, Canadian national television presented a documentary which brought back those events which are so distant in time and space from present-day Canada. Your book, Massacre in Mexico, continues to be the most influential source of information on what happened on October 2nd, 1968. It has been noted that you limit your narrative presence in that text to a minimum. Was this decision taken from the start?

EP: Massacre in Mexico consists of numerous testimonials about the night of the massacre, but also about the period that immediately preceded it. I think my voice does appear, and more than as a minimal presence. In this book, many of the testimonials are not signed by me nor do I indicate that they are mine with the initials E.P. In organizing the entire book, in selecting who I would include, who I would leave out, what I would use from diverse sources, and what I would not use-these all indicate my authorial presence. This is how I am in the book. This was my decision. I wanted to take the least space possible for myself in order to give an opportunity to those who had been the true witnesses of the events.

MEV: Your method of structuring this book has been described as a testimonial collage. How did you work out the form of the text? What criteria did you use in organizing the material?

EP: When I began, I did not know it was going to be a book. I was interviewing the people who had been there and I was writing articles for the Mexican daily newspaper, Novedades, until the moment came when they told me that they would not publish anything that I had written about this event. It was then that I kept my articles and went on to interview the participants who were in the Lecumberri prison. These were people who had been held in Military Camp #1. Many were very young students; there were also many housewives who, I must say, were the bravest of all. The young people all asked me not to use their names, not to take their photographs; they were enormously afraid of being sent to prison by the government for an indefinite period or of being hunted down or, worse yet, of being sent back to Military Camp #1 where they had been tortured. I understood this very well; I changed their names to such a degree that today I would not be able to distinguish who is who. I say to myself when I look at the texts and photographs: "Who is this one? Who are the students I interviewed?" What did remain exactly the same as I received it was the testimony of the political prisoners; they were already in prison and they had nothing to lose if I used their real names or if their testimony appeared under their name in my book. The authorities could not do anything more than they had already done to these people. The same was true for the housewives. They would tell me: "They have killed my son. They have abducted my daughter. What more can they do to me? I do not have anything more to lose. Put my name in your book."

The extraordinary thing was that, after the book was published, many people came up to me and said, "Why didn't you interview me? I had so much to tell you, scenes far more terrible than the ones which you present. Why didn't you interview me?" But what they choose not to remember was that at the time I put together the book, there was an atmosphere of sheer terror. What people wanted was to hide, to remain silent, not to say anything. After the book came out and now, thirty years later, there are a great many people who say they would like to give their testimony. And, of course, in the intervening years many articles and books about Tlatelolco have been written.

MEV: The proximity of your book's publication (in 1971) to the events must have put you in a difficult situation with the Mexican authorities. Many newspaper people have suffered grave consequences for publishing material of far less significance to the government. Were you not afraid of reprisals? Has your personal commitment to social justice created obstacles in your professional life? Have you felt betrayed by colleagues, friends, and others because of the public stand you have taken?

EP: Yes, the publication of the book did put me in a position of jeopardy, but I did not take notice of it or, if I did, it didn't register. It had no effect on me. Perhaps because I have an enormous capacity to ignore such situations.

I remember that when I went to the United Nations with a mother of a desaparecido, Jesús Piedra Ibarra, to denounce the political disappearances in Mexico (her name is Doña Rosario Ibarra de Piedra), we were walking along the corridor in the airport and suddenly a mass of photographers appeared and began taking pictures. I felt myself to be a diva, a movie star; I smiled, I posed, I fixed my hair, and I said, "Look, Rosario, how popular we are. Everyone is taking our photograph." She said, "Oh, Elenita, don't be naive. Those photographers are from federal security; they are taking our photograph for their files." All of my vanity was crushed.

Everything that happens to me has been a little like this; I just do not take notice of what is happening to me. The authorities have come here to my house; they have parked cars outside full of federal agents-not to protect me, but to intimidate me. They are out there, night and day, four to a car, drowsy, sleeping like elephants. One day I went out to them and asked them if they would like some coffee. They were astonished, but I said to them: "Well, what are you poor fellows doing here, hour after hour after hour? The least I can do is offer you some coffee."

On another occasion, a rumour spread throughout the city that I had been shot, but these were just rumours, also intended to make me back off. What did have substance, what did happen, was that the Era publishing house was told that it was going to be bombed because it had published Massacre in Mexico. The editor, Don Tomás Espresate, told the caller: "Look, I have been in the Spanish Civil War, I know what war is, I know what bombs can do. Go ahead and bomb me if you want." Nothing happened to the publishing house. And to me, to date, nothing has happened.

What all these rumours did accomplish was to make my Massacre in Mexico a best-seller; it was selling like freshly baked bread. For the first time in the publishing history of Mexico, four editions were sold out in a single week. Then there was a new printing each week after that because the rumour kept spreading that the stock in the publishing house and bookstores was going to be confiscated by the authorities. People were running to the bookstores to get their copy before it was too late. It was, without question, the greatest publicity campaign a book can receive. There have been sixty reprintings. It is a book that has had an enormous publishing record. As it is said in the trade, it has also pulled some of my other books, like Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (Here's to you kid, Jesus). It is the only Mexican book that has a large number of pirate editions; they were sold on downtown streets by itinerant vendors as if they were from the publishing house.

MEV: In the present situation in Chiapas, you are on record as a supporter of the Zapatistas. Although this political activism on your part is nothing new, are there differences between this cause and the others you have defended? I am thinking of your books, Nada, nadi (Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake) and Fuerte es el silencio (Strong is Silence). Is there anything new in the way that official media characterizes you in Mexico? You are a writer who has openly criticized the exercise of absolute power. Without a doubt, your journalism frequently is very critical of the government and this continuously places you in danger and also makes you stand out in Mexican journalism. Where do you find the courage?

EP: As I said, I have an enormous capacity for ignoring the circumstances of my action. Nothing has ever happened to me; on the contrary, I have been sought out by the government and politicians. As a result of the publication of my book on Tlatelolco, Francisco Zendeja, a Mexican literary critic, called me to offer me the Javier Villarrutia National Prize for Literature. I responded: "How is this possible? This is not a book for an award. Who is it that will give me the award? Who is going to give an award to those who died? I cannot accept any prize." Since then I have been solicited often by the authorities. Perhaps because of this book, perhaps because there are always politicians who want to get even with others or perhaps because politics, as everything else in life, changes. It does not change very much, but from one six-year mandate to another, it does change.

And with regard to Chiapas, it was sub-commandant Marcos himself who wrote asking me to go to Chiapas because of what I had published in the past. It was because of Massacre in Mexico that he knew of me. I went to Chiapas. And the situation, you put it very well in your question, the situation is different from 1968. But, at the same time, it is still a situation of oppression and persecution.

If you look closely at Mexico, after a while you will deduce that Mexico is a racist country. We are racists against ourselves. How can you explain that out of thirty-two states in the Mexican Republic, there has only been one indigenous governor, Eladio Ramírez of Oaxaca? I remember that when I began to work in journalism there were numerous jokes going around about the Carrillo Flores brothers-Antonio Carrillo Flores was the Minister of External Affairs, Nabor Carrillo Flores was President of the National University of Mexico, and their father, Julián Carrillo Flores, was a distinguished musicologist. You will remember that the Carrillo Flores family was very dark-skinned and was the butt of many jokes because of it. I heard many remarks that were fundamentally racist and the startling discovery was that they also prevail amongst the indigenous people themselves.

The indigenous people of Latin America are a subjugated population in the service of their fair-skinned fellow citizens. Countries with large indigenous populations have made slaves or at best servants of the indigenous people. The non-Indian, the so-called white man, who is in power, who forms the elite, makes his livelihood on the backs of the indigenous people. In reality, throughout Latin America the indigenous people have not yet emerged from a state of slavery.

In Chiapas, the landowners have had to step aside because suddenly the indigenous people said to the previous Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, "You claim that you are going to modernize Mexico, that you are taking Mexico into a new era with the North American Free Trade Agreement, but what are you going to do about us, the indigenous people of Mexico? Are you going to kill us all? Ten million indigenous peoples-how are you going to get rid of us?" The government's response was to send in the army. This is an issue that interests me profoundly; I am as passionate as any young person, although I am not a young person.

I am passionate in support of Marcos. He has been in prison for years and still dares to speak out. He shares in the terrible living conditions of the indigenous people of Chiapas even though he is not one of them; because this man, when the day is done, and all of the others in the Zapatista movement can go home to their wives, children, families, he does not. He is there, alone. He is plagued with intestinal infections because he is not accustomed to the jungle; he has respiratory problems which are aggravated in the humid climate of the Lacandonian jungle. All of this seems to me remarkable and I wanted to know more. That is why I wanted to write about the Zapatistas and go to the jungle. In my mind, the Zapatista movement has been very good for Mexico: it has given us dignity we did not have.

MEV: A Canadian documentary entitled A Place Called Chiapas was presented at the 1998 International Film Festival of Toronto and then broadcast on national television. There is in Canada, as you can see, some awareness of the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas. What opinion do you have of the on-going peace negotiations between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government?

EP: At the present time, the Zapatistas do not want to have anything to do with the Mexican government. They have made a call to the general public of Mexico and the world to become engaged in this issue. They want everyone in society, not only the government, to take part. They have sent out five thousand delegates throughout Mexico to consult on the future of the indigenous people. The Zapatistas are no longer interested in talking to the government, but I hope that they will relent and enter negotiations and I hope they do so before the next elections in the year 2000. As you know in 1999 all the talk will be about the coming elections.

MEV: You are referring to the presidential elections of the year 2000 when the successor to Ernesto Zedillo will be elected?

EP: Yes. I hope that by the year 2000 the Chiapas problem will be resolved. Five years have already passed since the beginning of the movement; these years have been very interesting because it has been a time of awakening for very many Mexican youths. An enormous number of young people pay their own way, go without any backing, to Chiapas to see if they can help out. They go in caravans, one after another, after another. It is continuous. In the same way, I was surprised and impressed by the silent march of protest of October 2nd, 1998-to see so many young people, thousands and thousands of them, who were not yet born in 1968, committed to a better Mexico. They are very young but they are profoundly interested in knowing what is going on and in participating in the future of their country.

MEV: Is there a new spirit of social conscience?

EP: Yes, I believe there is. For the first time, there is an atmosphere of wanting to know what happened, why it happened, and how it happened. This is very good for Mexico.

MEV: I would like to change the topic and ask you some questions about your career as a journalist and writer in Mexico. You are considered one of the most influential and widely-read writers. How do you see the present situation in Mexican journalism, in Mexican literature? Do you think that whatever Elena Poniatowska says will have consequences inside and outside of Mexico?

EP: My position here has two sides. On the one hand, I feel that Mexican critics do not consider me a literary author; they consider me a journalist; they always say, yes, she is a good journalist. Perhaps this is so because all of my books are based on the reality of life in Mexico; perhaps it is due to the fact that I was not born in Mexico, that I came when I was eight years old, and that I have dedicated myself to journalism in order to get to know my country. For whatever reason, everything that I write, including fiction, is always characterized as journalism. If I write a novel, I am asked, "Is this character your mother, your father or is it someone else?" My writing is always linked to my biographical situation. I am therefore in their eyes, merely a journalist.

It is also a way of telling me, you do not have the slightest capacity to create a work of literature, you do not have any imagination or creativity. The critics refer to me sparingly but they never refer to me as a literary author. When I take up political issues, like Chiapas for example, like the march of October 2nd, as I have done in the past with so many other political issues and with the development of testimonial literature, they always tell me that I am too political; I am after all a cultural journalist, a political journalist...

On the other hand, whatever they say, my intentions, my aims, are to write about Mexico. There is no denying that I have been made a writer through my long apprenticeship in journalism. I am completely confident that I am a writer and that I have written literature as well as journalism. I will continue to be a literary author, especially next year, when I will... I always say, "next year", in order to keep the momentum going. This does not mean that I will not also write for newspapers.

MEV: Is the appeal from journalism constant?

EP: It is constant. There are so many requests and they are immediate. They demand a response to tragedy. It is as if, now, right at this moment, someone were to knock at the door carrying a child covered with blood, and I would throw them out and slam the door in their face. This is the everyday reality of Latin America; naturally I must open myself and respond. There is a shortage of water, medicine, alcohol, bandages, and I must respond. I dedicate myself to what I see as a pressing situation and it has nothing to do with what critics may or may not think; I have always walked in the minefield. Writing is not only fiction or journalism, it is above all keeping faith with oneself. I always think: "This could have been you." I would like to be doing something else at this time, but I cannot refuse the emergencies of life in Mexico.

I want to write a great book, one that captures what I have done and what I have felt, and every day that passes I have a clearer idea of this book. But it also goes without saying that I have had to tear up many plans because of pressing situations. For the moment all I can do is unhook the telephone. But then people tell me: this happened... this is happening now... you have to go... we are waiting for you, we need you... and off I go again because I would feel like a criminal if I had refused.

MEV: Do you have any preferences among the many books you have published?

EP: No, I do not think so, because in my mind the book I am working on at the time is the best work I have done. I do realize, however, that I have a kind of nervous tension that propels me to do another. For example, in 1998 alone, my book about the Mexican painter, Juan Soriano, Un niño de mil años, will be presented at the Guadalajara Book Fair at the same time as my book on Octavio Paz. I have published five books in total this year. I have given numerous lectures: I was in Berkeley for four and a half weeks, and in Colorado for six weeks. This was a very long time for me to be outside of Mexico. I was teaching classes, preparing workshops, giving lectures-this has been a year of intense work.

MEV: Which is the book that has given you the most satisfaction?

EP: I do not have any because I am not satisfied with anything I have done.

MEV: You are terribly demanding of yourself.

EP: Yes, I am autocritical; I do demand more from myself than I have been able to achieve.

MEV: Are you aware of your influence on younger writers? I know you have helped a great many who gratefully acknowledge your support.

EP: For many years now I have been giving a writer's workshop on both creative writing and newspaper writing. A number of women writers have been formed in these workshops. I have been, and still am, a good friend of many women writers in Mexico. A great many young people have approached me: they are constantly asking me for a prologue, a letter of recommendation or that I intercede on their behalf with a publisher; and I do it. This is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it is said that I recommend everyone. Just the other day I heard it said that it is enough for Elena Poniatowska to recommend someone for the National Council Award for them not to get it because thirty-five letters of recommendation are received for the thirty-five candidates, all from me. But what can I do? All of these people come to me asking for a recommendation and I spend an enormous amount of time writing them.

On the other hand, I have a close working relationship with some young writers, both men and women, and more so now because I am getting old and I want to help as many young people as I can. I like to do it because in this way I keep abreast of what young people are thinking and writing. I know the literature of the younger generation of this country very well. I know the work of the youngest group the best.

MEV: A number of people have read La "Flor de lis" as quasi-biographical. Is it? In what sense can we say that this novel is the testimonial of Elena Poniatowska's adolescence?

EP: It is basically autobiographical but there are many, many things in it which are pure fiction.

MEV: In Canada you are known primarily as the author of Massacre in Mexico. Does that bother you? What works of yours would you like to be known?

EP: Tinísima is now available in English. Even though it is a very abridged version of the original, I like the translation; it was published in New York in 1996 but I do not know of its accessibility in Canada. It has not had much impact, I think, because of the extreme abridgement. Also because, perhaps, there are many other books on Tina Modotti which compete with it.

MEV: When the film, "De noche vienes"/"She comes by night", was shown at the 1997 International Film Festival in Toronto, the director, Hermosillo, explained that it was based on your short story. Some members of the audience were surprised to learn that you also write fiction. Why do you think that your short stories have not been translated into English?

EP: Well, some have been translated and published in anthologies, but they have not been published as collections, for which they were written, you are quite right. Amongst my books, what has been translated into English besides Tinísima and Massacre in Mexico, are Dear Diego (1986) and Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (1995). I can understand why the audience would be surprised that I write fiction. The short story that Humberto Hermosillo used, "You come by night", is clearly fiction although fiction linked to reality. Some time ago I read a newspaper account of a nurse who had a husband for every day of the week and who devoted her weekends to her father. It was a bit of a joke but I took it as a good start to write a story that was comical and enjoyable to read.

MEV: What links do you have to Canada in addition to collaborating in the University of Toronto's history of literary cultures of Latin America? We are delighted to have your essay, "From the spoken to the written word".

EP: I have been to Canada a number of times. First in Quebec. The Québécois writer, Nicole Brossard, invited me. She is a wonderful poet who came to Mexico. But in comparison to other places, I have been less to Canada. It has been so because of lack of time. I remember with pleasure the trip with José Emilio Pacheco to your meeting in Toronto. I enjoyed it immensely and remember with great pleasure and interest the superb collection of Henry Moore sculptures at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Toronto is a interesting city. I was very pleased to be able to contribute an essay to the collaborative history that you and Mario [Valdés] are editing [for Oxford University Press-MEV]. This is the kind of project that draws us closer together as Latin Americans and also gives us the opportunity to reach out to people in all parts of the world. Another link with Canada is the intellectual and personal bond I have formed with you and Mario. I am very grateful for the careful study you have published of my work in your book [The Shattered Mirror-MEV].

MEV: We would be very interested in knowing something about your daily routine. Do you write every day? How do you manage the flood of invitations, petitions, requests which descend on you every day?

EP: In truth, I am here in my house to write. The only thing I think I do well is write, with perhaps a few other things thrown in for good measure. I write whenever I can. In the morning, in the afternoon, it depends. I try to write every day. When I travel, obviously, I do not, but even then I read and take notes. When I am in Mexico, I try my best to respond to the invitations I receive and to meet with persons who have requested it. Today I had to give a lecture on Octavio Paz at noon, then I have to present a new book, Santitos, by María Amparo Escandón at 7 p.m. Everyday I have activities of this sort, all connected with my writing. It is just as if I went to see the circus but was also the acrobat in it.

MEV: How do you explain your success, being a woman in such a macho country?

EP: I believe that in today's world, women have a great many options that they did not have before. When I began in journalism it was a completely different situation. I was working at it full-time and I was asked to do a little of everything: sweep the floor, clean this desklamp, write a chronicle, do this little article... The situation has changed, for the better.

MEV: Many of your fellow Latin American writers spend a considerable amount of time outside their country and some establish their permanent residences in first world countries. You have not had a lack of invitations and opportunities to do so. Why is it that you have maintained your permanent residence in Mexico? Are you ever tempted to live in Paris again? To relive the experiences of childhood in that city?

EP: Yes, I have had many invitations and I have been abroad as much as two months at a time, but to tell you the truth, I am not interested in more than that. I write about the reality of living in Mexico. What interests me most is here, in this country, to be fully aware of what is going on. There is also a feminine element in my decision-the fact that I am a woman and that my grandchildren and my children and my mother are here is of great significance. To absent myself from Mexico and from them for any length of time would be extremely difficult. Years ago I spent what was the longest stay abroad-four months in the United States. But four months in the United States meant that I could come to Mexico on long weekends and during breaks in the academic program.

The idea of setting up residence in another country has never entered my mind. Perhaps deep down, because I still have a fear of losing my sense of the language. I often think that if I go to France for any length of time, I will of course speak French, which is my native language; if I speak only French for any length of time, however, I fear I that would lose my feel for Mexican Spanish. I think of myself as a Mexican and I write in Spanish. Therefore, although, these fears may be unfounded, they are nevertheless real. I cannot risk my sensibility to the language.

MEV: Your father is a descendant of the last King of Poland and your mother belongs to the Mexican aristocracy. Do you think that your aristocratic background has been important in forming the person you are today, your social conscience, your great facility for communicating with the diverse social classes of Mexico? I think that the perspective you have of inside and outside has given you a privileged position from which to examine and understand Mexican life. What is your opinion?

EP: I am always aware of the fact that I was not born in Mexico. What has interested me most from my earliest memory of this country is to understand this unknown, enigmatic Mexico. I was never interested in my mother's friends or my school friends or my father's friends or the friends of my sister because I knew how they would react to my interests. I knew what they were going to say. I was not in the least interested in their talk about the clothes they were going to wear for such and such party, the jewellery, the lingerie... I knew it all by heart. But what attracted and fascinated me totally was the unknown world outside my house, the city, the country, the people on the street, the world of people like Jesusa Palancares. No one has given me more in life than Jesusa Palancares, the protagonist of Hasta no verte, Jesús mío. Why? Because what she had to say was completely new to me; what she thought about life, her way of describing life-they were totally different from the perspective I was surrounded with in my family. Therefore, it was by a natural inclination that I was drawn to Mexico and also because I liked it. I did what I enjoyed; I tasted what was unknown, which is, above all, the people of Mexico.

In retrospect I believe that my social class is the most conventional and least creative part of society. I remember when I was seventeen years old, what I wanted above all was not to have dinner at home because I knew that the conversation would bore me to tears. I wanted to meet and talk with people who talked about literature, painting, the book they had just read. In my house they spoke of everything and of nothing. I developed a kind of mental rejection for the social circle in which I lived. It was so trivial to hear talk about whether my aunt had bought a new car, or my other aunt had made a faux pas at a cocktail party, or my cousin had gotten drunk. I did not care to know what they had done. This moved me to search for and discover Mexico.

MEV: Thank you very much for your time. 

Maria Elena de Valdés is Administrative Director of the Literary History Project at the University of Toronto. Her recent book is The Shattered Mirror: Representations of Women in Mexican Literature (University of Texas Press, 1998).


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