Distant Neighbors: Twentieth-Century Mexican Literature

M exico’s twentieth-century literature reflects the effort to forge a new national culture in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-40). This great social movement toppled the dictatorship of General Porfirio Diaz, plunged the nation into two decades of civil war, and resulted in profound and contested social reforms that changed the identity of the country. Revolutionary fervor abated after 1940 and was replaced by a semi-authoritarian, one-party political system that ruled for the rest of the century. The new urban, industrial nation that emerged left rural and indigenous people far behind.

Since 1910, Mexican writers have struggled—and continue to struggle—to make sense of la Revolución and to define this new Mexican national culture. Some writers and intellectuals have become critical of Mexico’s revolutionary legacy, particularly its failed social programs, its lack of democracy, and its corruption. Their writings frequently look past what they see as the forced construction of a national culture and focus on more universal modern and post-modern themes.

In 2000, free presidential elections finally led to the demise of the “revolutionary” system. Mexicans now face an exciting yet uncertain future. The shift towards democracy and away from the revolutionary legacy has allowed writers to reevaluate the nation’s troubled past. At the same time, they now draw on a wealth of cosmopolitan themes that reflect Mexico’s new position in an increasingly global culture. The six books in this series offer perspectives on twentieth-century Mexican history and culture from the early days of the Revolu-tion to the end of the century. They invite us to become better acquainted with the experiences, values, and expectations of our “distant” neighbors to the south.

Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs ( Los de abajo, 1915) is widely considered to be the great novel of the Mexican Revolution. A doctor with Francisco Villa’s revolutionary forces, Azuela came by his knowledge of the Revolution firsthand. His novel depicts the military exploitation of the underprivileged—their hope for a more just society and the eventual disappointment of that hope—in a series of linked and sharply realistic sketches that reflect the author’s own disillusionment with the revolutionary cause.

Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Balun-Canan, 1957) is a hauntingly beautiful evoca-tion of life in rural Chiapas during the early post-revolu-tionary era. The author reflects her own childhood ex-periences through the eyes of her seven-year-old narra-tor as she watches her once-wealthy family forced from its land by land-reform policies. In her concern for the plight of Mexico’s Native Indians and of Mexican women in general, Castellanos raises issues that seem at the same time “historical” and frankly contemporary.

In Laura Esquivel’s first novel, Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate, 1989), Tita, the youngest daughter of a Mexican family, uses her knowledge of food and its mysterious power to assert her own identity and importance in a world generally content to see her the victim of tradition. The novel’s magical realism combines romance, sensuality, supersti-tion, and traditional recipes to make food and food preparation a potent symbol of Mexico’s past and the place of women in it.

In Tula Station ( Estación Tula, 1995) by David Toscano, three interwoven and thematically linked narratives explore love and striving in past and present Mexico. Juan Capistran’s historical pursuit of the elusive Carmen both echoes and comments upon Tula’s quest to assure its place in history and the contemporary writer Gomez’s struggle to comprehend modern life. The novel’s traditional weaving together of historical and fictional characters and events and its spare style and multiple narrators combine to create a striking mixture of the old and new in Mexican literature.

Set against the bloody complexities of the Mexican Revolution, journalist Angeles Mastretta’s second novel Lovesick (Mal de amores, 1997) offers both a love story and a panoramic view of Mexican history in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Emilia, the daughter of a progressive Puebla doctor and eventually a physician herself, is torn between love for Antonio, a stable and devoted colleague, and Michael, a childhood friend turned revolutionary. The richly detailed love story played out against the backdrop of revolutionary tur-moil led Kirkus Review to call the novel a “south-of-the- border Gone With the Wind.”

The eight stories in Francisco Hinojosa’s collection Hectic Ethics ( Cuentos héticos, 1998), the first translation into English of the author’s works, suggest the extent to which postmodernist ideas and structures have emerged in contemporary Mexican writing. Minimalist in characterization and plotting, Hinojosa’s cleverly conceived stories explore the complexities of human values and relationships from darkly humorous satiric perspectives. All too often, the worlds Hinojosa’s ironically distorted characters inhabit begin to look uncomfortably like our own.

Suggested Further Readings

For further exploration of twentieth-century Mexican literature, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. The Wyoming Council for the Humanities cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in this series.

Homero Aridjis, 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile
Arturo Azuela, Sounds of Silence
Gabriella De Beer, Contemporary Mexican Women Writers: Five Voices
Rosario Castellanos, City of Kings, The Book of Lamentations
Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, The Moon Will Forever Be a Distant Love
Laura Esquivel, The Law of Love
Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz, The Years With Laura Diaz, Where the Air is Clear
Guadalupe Loaeza, Debo, Luego, Sufro
Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes, El Indio
Barbara Jacobs, The Dead Leaves
Angeles Mastretta, Mexican Bolero
Carlos Montemayer, Blood Relations, Gambuscino
Fernando del Paso, Palinuro of Mexico
Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
Elena Poniatowska, Here’s to You, Jesusa, Tinisima
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
Gustavo Sainz, The Princess of the Iron Palace
Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Just Passing Through, No Happy Ending


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