Thursday, July 03, 2008

Other Places (Part II): Mexican Literature

Mexico is like a noisy neighbor you do your best to avoid. A lot of the noise is unintelligible; in a different language.

Politicians want to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out physically, but they might feel differently about our neighbors if language and culture were not the real barriers to that which might bridge the distance between us.


Mexican authoress Elena Poniatowska, for example, needs a translator. Barring calls from some important New York publisher seeking to enlist the scribe's bilingual talents, a brief discussion covering two of her books will have to serve as a small step toward the goal of mutual comprehension between our two cultures.

The writer was born Princess Helene Elizabeth Louise Amelie Paula Dolores Poniatowska Amor in France circa 1932. Her father was a Polish nobleman and her mother of Mexican nobility; something they must have had either prior to the revolution of 1910, or perhaps earlier, before the reforms of Benito Juarez.

She fled to Mexico during World War II and, in spite of her blue-blooded lineage, took up with the international left. This inclination comes forth loud and clear in her literature and in the columns she still pens for the progressive "La Jornada" out of Mexico City.

Her most famous work is "La Noche de Tlatelolco"; a journalistic work that recreates, through interviews and the perusal of public documents, the government's massacre of Mexican students in 1968.

In "El tren pasa primero" (Narrativa (Punto de Lectura)) (Spanish Edition)(The Train Passes First), Poniatowska delivers a narrative and nonfictional portrait of a railroad workers union leader named Trinidad Pineda Chinas.

Thanks to a review of the book on a Spanish-language Web site "La Pagina de Cuentos" (The Story Page), we can tell you the actual subject is a gentleman by the name of Demetrio Vallejo.

Like Benito Juarez, Mexico's first indigenous president, Vallejo was an Indian from Oaxaca who grew up speaking Zapotec and had to learn Spanish along his difficult and arduous life path.

According to "The Story Page," Poniatowska interviewed the union leader extensively back in '70s and that work served as basis for "The Train Passes First."

It is a story in line with another book of hers, Tinisimaabout the actress, photographer, Soviet spy, and hospital nurse Tina Modotti in its scrupulous renderings of how rebels and militant leaders suffer at the hands of power.

Vallejo, a self-taught intellectual and telegraph worker employed with the then-national railway lines, took up cudgels against the government and the unions it was in cahoots with by forming a truly effective syndicate that delivered on bread-and-butter issues its members demanded.

So effective was Vallejo that in 1959 he paralyzed the country with a strike, forced the government's hand, and was thrown in jail for 11 years where he spent a lot of time defying brutal beatings, organizing common criminals against prison administrators, and hunger-striking.

Poniatowska opts for a shuffled narrative; later events recounted first, his odd youth as an overweight mama's boy in the tropical jungle next, followed by a strange and poignant epilogue wherein, if our Spanish is up to snuff, Vallejo/Chinas rides off (by train) into the sunset with his niece and loyal supporter Barbara, carrying his baby in her belly.

It is the story of an incorruptible public man with many private shortcomings that may ring familiar to those linked with the famous or supremely driven. He goes through women like water, his only wife leaving one day with the children never to see him again.

Very resourceful, Vallejo/Chinas manages to get himself a sultry, curvaceous women friend while in jail, but after he gets out and returns to "the fight," she tires of the routine and leaves, too.

In both books, Poniatowska spends a lot of time listing names of union members and leftist militants long-forgotten and, perhaps, known only to their contemporaries in the first place.

She seems to understand that rebels and outcasts are, well, cast out, pushed to the shadows by those who won the battles they lost and that, in writing a book, she can in some small way, recuperate them; inscribe their legacies on pages born of her own fight.

Kind to the workers movements of Mexico, "El Tren Pasa Primero" is also a loving tribute to the railroad itself. Poniatowski weaves beautiful passages that remind us that before there was a union of workers, endless meetings, and unmet demands, there was the powerful steam engine that promised escape from the mosquito-infested waterholes populated by peasants only waiting to be touched by word of that wondrous Mexico diverso.

Peasants like Vallejo.

"Tinisima," is the superior book probably because, all his nobility aside, Vallejo/Chinas can't hold a candle to Modotti in the personal story category.

A fox lady by anyone's standards, Modotti migrated with her family from Italy to San Francisco in the 20th Century's first years. Grown up fast, Tinisima went to Los Angeles and made for a fabulous flapper in silent films, made a lover of photography pioneer Edward Westin, who made a fabulous photographer out of her in turn.

Together they traveled to post-revolutionary Mexico and befriend Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and other politico/cultural luminaries of that scintillating (or so Poniatowska makes it seem) place and era.

A rampant seductress, Modotti met her match in a Cuban exile and communist revolutionary assassinated by government agents as they walked arm-in-arm down a Mexico City street.

Leaving everything about her sexy past behind, except for the cigarettes, Modotti became part of the 1930s international communist ferment, moved to Russia, and barely escaped the Gulag before going to Spain where she worked in a war hospital on the Republican side.

Modotti was forced to flee the advancing fascist army over the Pyrenees into France, assisting the famous Spanish poet Antonio Machado to peace and sad death on the other side.

Being a player in history can suck, but Modotti's story, especially the Spanish chapter as rendered by Poniatowska, is one of the most heart-wrenching renderings to be found in contemporary lit.

From there, with a few more dramas betwixt, Tin-EEEEE-sima winds up on a boat full of Spanish Civil War refugees denied port entry the world over. Somehow she gets to Mexico, which was very kind to Spanish expatriates, and tries to reconstruct a life, while being disillusioned by what she sees as a betrayal of the revolution's promise.

Like the many cigarettes she smoked throughout every sacrifice and adventure, Modotti, 48, extinguished quietly in the back of cab, exhausted by the life Poniatowska masterfully transmits to print.

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