By Carole Reedy
Both Elena Poniatowska and Leonora Carrington planted roots in Mexico in 1942, Elena as young girl of ten and Leonora as a well-traveled and rebellious woman of 25. Despite the differences in their ages, both emigrated for reasons sparked by World War II in Europe. In addition, both became Mexican citizens and, ultimately, two of the most influential, powerful, and famous women of Mexico.
Young Elena arrived in Mexico from France with her sister and her Mexican mother, whose porfiriana family fled Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Elena’s father, of Polish royalty descent, remained in France to fight in the war before joining them.
Being well educated and bien educado led Elena to a career in journalism, writing, and involvement with politics. Her writing often tackles Mexico’s difficult moments in history, such as the 1968 slaughter of protesting students in Tlatelolco and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. In both cases, she interviewed extensively the people and victims who lived through these tragedies. Biographical sketches, novels, and short story collections are also found among her vast trove of publications.
Poniatowska is one of the founding writers of La Jornada (The Work Day), a major Mexico City newspaper since 1984. Despite not explicitly espousing feminist beliefs, in 1976 she co-founded Fem, the first feminist magazine in Latin America; she was a founding member of Siglo XXI, a prestigious Mexican publishing house, and Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional, the national film archive.
In contrast, Leonora Carrington’s childhood leading to her emigration to Mexico was adventurous, troublesome, and daring. Before she reached the age of 20, she had escaped her prestigious English aristocratic home and her domineering father to be with artist Max Ernst. She and Ernst lived in various parts of France in the early 1940s, but Ernst, being a Jew, was soon detained by the authorities.
Leonora left France for Spain, where she escaped from a mental hospital (an internment that had been orchestrated by her distant father) and fled to Portugal. As an exile, she eventually met and married Renato Leduc, a Mexican poet and writer. The couple, like many others wanting to escape the war, traveled to New York and then Mexico, where Leonora lived for the next 70 years, until her death at 94 in 2011.
The surrealist paintings of Leonora Carrington are found in museums and art exhibits around the world. When she moved to Mexico, knowing no one and not speaking Spanish, she was fortunate to make friends with photographer Kati Horna and painter Remedios Varo, originally from Hungary and Spain respectively. At last, with fellow women artists at her side, she was able to pursue the talent she had demonstrated since a young girl in Great Britain. She rubbed elbows with the likes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Joan Miró, and Peggy Guggenheim.
Many people are unaware that Carrington was also an accomplished writer. Like those surreal masterpieces hanging in the world’s museums, her books take on the surreal panache of the author. Drawings, stories, and fantasies all inhabit the long-lived career and life of Leonora Carrington.
Both women led full lives, which they shared with husbands and children.
The first novel I read cover-to-cover in Spanish was Poniatowska’s Leonora, the fictionalized biography of the famous artist/writer (2011). It’s very accessible, even for those for whom Spanish is a second language, and it is of course a compelling story.
In another fictionalized biography, Tinisima (2006), she tells the story of the short (just 46 years), fascinating, and daring life of Tina Modotti, the famed photographer who kept company with the likes of Edward Weston and Diego Rivera and traveled the world studying spiritual and sexual liberation, militant communism, rigid Stalinism, workers’ revolution in Germany, and the Spanish Civil War, among other causes. A story and life, a book not to be missed.
Poniatowska’s first book, written in 1954, is a collection of short stories called Lilus Kikus. It marks the beginning of her illustrious career.
One of Poniatowska’s most-read and poignant books, La Noche de Tlatelolco: Testiomonios de historia oral (1971), was born out of the police slaughter of university students on October 2, 1968. For this book, she interviewed dozens of observers, parents, and others to give the world an accurate and objective report of the events that left Mexico and the world in shock.
If you’re curious about the details of the 1985 earthquake and its effects on the population, be sure to pick up Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor (1988) to read first-hand accounts of the tragedy. You will understand the fear earthquakes generate here in the city, especially for those who experienced this tragic event.
Poniatowska’s writing is clear, precise, accurate, and full of poignant imagery. Read one of her books and you will be hooked!
Leonora Carrington’s books will not surprise lovers of her surrealist paintings, as they fall right in step with the style of her art. The Hearing Trumpet (1974) is her most famous work. Read and translated worldwide, it has been called a companion to the beloved Alice in Wonderland.
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington issued in 2017 to mark the centennial of Carrington’s birth, is a compilation of her surreal short stories and is filled with magic!
Joanna Moorhead, a cousin of Carrington, recently wrote a very personal biography of the famous artist/writer: The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (2017). Having befriended Carrington as an adult, she visited her in Mexico, coming from England several times before Leonora’s death. It’s a good read that admirers of Carrington will enjoy.
Down Below is Leonora’s personal memoir, written in 1988, of her descent into madness as a young woman. A short book, not to be missed – republished in 2017 in the Classics series of the New York Review of Books.
Both Leonora Carrington and Elena Poniatowska, each in her own way, have had a tremendous influence on the cultural and political life in Mexico. Tell your sons and daughters about them, read their books, celebrate their lives!