Sunday, May 20, 2012

Carlos Fuentes, Graciela Limón y Mi Familia on Both Sides of the Border

Literary Observations Regarding Both Sides of the Border 
By Amelia M.L. Montes (

My childhood was a transnational one -- living in Mexico in the summer, sometimes returning the day before the new school year began in the U.S.  We would either drive or fly to various parts of Mexico, staying with familia:  Torreon, Coahuila; Guadalajara, Jalisco; Leon, Guanajuato etc.  It was an education I will forever be grateful I was given because it gave me a unique perspective of both nations through the eyes of all of my many family members from both sides of the border. 

Here's how it would play out most of the time--aqui te va:  when we would arrive, for example, in Torreon, Coahuila, aunts, uncles, cousins would all migrate to one house, usually Tio Abelardo's house--a big crowd awaiting there for our arrival.  They would take our bags, lead us through the house and to the backyard where everyone was all the while greeting this cousin and that aunt.  A bit later, the elders, mi Tio Abelardo and tia Virginia, would show up con la tequila and there was also sangria too (lovely colorful chopped mango y manzana, naranja y fresas in the sangria bowl).  Tio Abelardo would pour the first shots for mi mama y papa and then they would toast a welcome.  After the first shot was consumed, then a long, lively discussion would ensue regarding the state of Mexico, and the state of “Norteamerica.”  My uncle would admonish mi mama y papa for continuing to stay por alla en “Norteamerica” and he would defend his opinion with copious examples of that year’s U.S. corruption and scandals.  Then mi papa y mama would respond with a list of Mexico’s own scandals and corruption.  The conversation would go back and forth, back and forth.  No one ever seemed to win.  My uncle Abelardo would inevitably bring me in by saying, “Y la niña—ai esta aprendiendo los modos de los gringos!”  And then my parents were obliged to discuss the bad habits his children were picking up in Mexico.  The rigorous banter never ended badly though. This was lively, humorous, witty and smart political and popular culture sparring.  More toasts would spontaneously occur, then hugs, kisses on both cheeks, followed by a most sumptuous homemade feast in the backyard. 

I was fascinated, confused, embarrassed (when I was brought into the conversation), and also inspired by my parents’ and uncle’s/aunt’s knowledge of what was happening in both countries, and their critical observations. Their healthy debates taught me to be an astute observer of both countries—to love both without being the blind patriotic romantic, to continually seek to understand both sides of the border because, as my Tío Abelardo would tell me in private, "Eres de los dos, mija.  Tienes que entender como es el Mexicano y tambien el Americano [but then he would add] pero mas el Mexicano, eh?  No te olvides!"

It is not surprising, then, that in college (Loyola Marymount University) I chose to double-major in British/American literature and in Spanish/Mexican literature.  I read Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Cervantes at the same time I was also reading Chaucer and Shakespeare, working my way up to more contemporary literature in these areas such as Federico García Lorca and Juan Rulfo. I did notice along this literary path, that female authors seemed to be in the minority.  At the time, Gloria Anzaldúa,  Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, etc.-- were not in print yet.  The rise in Chicana literature was not even a blip on the radar yet.  But luckily I had a strong feminist guide in the reading of the male peninsular and Mexican canon:  Dra. Graciela Limón.   

During my junior and senior year, I finally reached the “contemporary period” in literature and began working with Profesora Graciela Limón (who is now a well-known Chicana novelist).  I enrolled in her “Contemporary Mexican Literature” course.  She was unrelentingly thorough and knowledgeable about Mexico and its authors:  Octavio Paz, Elena Poniatowska, Carlos Fuentes y mas.  

Novelist, Dra. Graciela Limón
I read Carlos Fuentes’ La Muerte de Artemio Cruz at the same time as I read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!  in my American literature courses.  The characters of Thomas Sutpen and Artemio Cruz:  two patriarchal characters whose corrupt histories mirror the larger political Mexican and American complex heritage that we, querida Bloga readers, all carry with us. 

Years later, I was fortunate enough to meet Carlos Fuentes at a small literature conference at UCLA.  He was how Anthony DePalma (New York Times) and other North American journalists have been describing him this past week:  “Mexico’s elegant public intellectual.” He was rousing in his lecture, inspiring, and breathtaking in his vast literary and political knowledge, slowly and deftly imbricating his arguments. His personality took me back to Torreon and mi familia sparring political rhetoric in ways that I have not ever seen north of the border (only in Spain and France where I have also spent time).  The moniker "elegance" can be applied to a person of class privilege, but my family was not privileged.  Their elegance was in their ability and passion for knowledge, in their humor, their "dichos" which also are often political and having to do with the human condition, their interest in ideas of all kinds.  

Even though I did not and still do not agree with all of Carlos Fuentes’ writings (and the point is not to simply agree, but instead to read, observe, witness) this one observation he made of the United States stays with me:  “What the United States does best is to understand itself.  What it does worst is understand others.”  Reading Faulkner, one could conclude that Faulkner might well agree with                                      Fuentes.  Interestingly, Fuentes spoke of Faulkner as “The great tragic writer.  He’s the only Latin American writer I’m going to name.” (Fuentes laughed after proclaiming this.)

Carlos Fuentes
 What affects me most about Carlos Fuentes’ death is the loss of an impassioned writer who was equally active in the political arena. It is not unusual for Latin American writers to be journalists and novelists/poets as well as ambassadors, legislators, presidents, etc.  Unfortunately, that has not been the case for “Norteamerica.”  The opposite is true.  Elegant intellectualism is not prized on this side of the border from which I write and I continually find that devastatingly alarming.  We are in an election year.  I wonder if we could have a presidential debate where the format would include asking the candidates what novels/authors have influenced their thinking and why?  On the college level "en norteamerica" I also always found it odd that our university studies continue to be often segregated:  one is either choosing to be a student of creative writing or an "academic" (literary criticism).  Luckily there are more universities now in this country that offer a program in both disciplines.  

As a side note, I feel very lucky having had Dra. Graciela Limón as a professor and now reading the many novels she has published since she left full-time teaching Spanish and Mexican literature at Loyola Marymount University.  Fuentes’ focus was always on the Mexican male experience.  Limón often took Fuentes to task for that in our discussions.  Her novels, then, help to equalize the focus by taking historical events and refocusing the lens to privilege the female perspective.  In fact, one could teach Fuentes’ La Muerte de Artemio Cruz and/or Aura with Limón’s The Song of the Hummingbird or her new novel, The Madness of Mamá Carlota.  That would be an interesting discussion—kind of like being in the backyard con toda mi familia. 

Que en paz descanses Carlos Fuentes.  Gracias for your passionate love of literature.  May there continue to be more (not less) elegant impassioned lovers of the word on both sides of the border because if we do not read, if we do not discuss, if we do not write our literary passions, we lose our collective heritage, our sense of empathy.  And empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is key to our survival.  

Sending you all, estimadas/estimados bloga readers, buenas energias y saludos!


Suzette said...

Fabuloso! Que suerte haber conocido a Carlos Fuentes. Uno de los grandes de nuestra cultura.

Martha Durán-Contreras said...

Pega rndryiI was a student of Dra.Limón during the mid seventies at LMU. She was working on her PhD focusing on Juan Rulfo. If I ever publish a novel it will be dedicated to her, and even if I never publish, the dedication remains the same. As for Carlos Fuentes, his autograph hangs in my bathroom.