Tag Archives: Literature

Spanish Lesson

By Carolina Garcia

Proverbs with Culinary Themes
A good way for Mexicans to remember their grandmothers is
with sayings and proverbs. Many of these refer to traditional
dishes. Here are some of the most popular and what they really
mean.
“Dar atole con el dedo”
Literal meaning: To feed someone atole (a hot drink made with
corn) with your finger , the way you would feed a baby.
What it really means: That you are talking to someone as
though they are stupid.


“Echarle crema a los tacos”
Literal meaning: To add cream to the tacos.
What it really means:
That someone is boasting ,bragging or exaggerating.


“A ojo de buen cubero”

Literal meaning: To watch the good barrel. Cubero is an old-
fashioned word for barrels that used to be used for water, oil

wine or rum.
What it really means:
To make an educated yet imprecise guess. To do something by
approximation.


“A darle que es mole de olla”
Literal meaning: Go for it because it is mole from the pot.
What it really means: That something needs to be done right
away.


“No se puede chiflar y comer pinole al mismo tiempo.”
Literal meaning: You can’t whistle and eat ground maize at the
same time.
What it really means: Stop multi-tasking.


All of us Mexicans have heard these proverbs from our
grandmothers at least once. Now with the passage of time they
are not as common to hear but they will always be present.

It Was A Very Good Year: Best Reads of 2022

By Carole Reedy

The incomparable Maria Callas said once of an opera, “An opera … becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I have left the opera house.”

I would use the same words to describe the way I feel about the books I read this year – each is unique in style, structure, and content. All of them enrapture and engage, while giving us food for thought long after we’ve finished reading. They are lush and contain all we hope for in a reading experience.

To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara
After turning the last page of this book in March, I knew it would be my top read of 2022. As with her earlier masterpiece, A Little Life (2015), Yanagihara dissects and analyzes while elaborating on the world she creates for the reader.

Yanagihara’s newest story is divided into three parts set a century apart. The first part starts in 19th century New York City, but not the New York we think we know. Yanagihara has designed a new entity out of the territories of the US following the Civil War. As a result, life is very different.

A century later, we are taken to Hawaii, and then a century after that to a new dimension. Although this is a lengthy book, you won’t need a list of characters or a family tree before you begin. As the flow and tension of the writing consumes you, the characters become evident in their placement in history.

Great Circle: A Novel, by Maggie Shipstead
I heard about this book through my book grapevine, which includes readers of all ages and backgrounds. Published in 2021, here’s a book that is widely admired and loved. And little wonder. The two stories at the center, one present day and the other 50 years earlier, are centered around strong women characters.

The current-day heroine is an actress, the counter heroine an airplane pilot. Their lives parallel in many ways, and the juxtaposition makes for a compelling, enjoyable, and even educational read.

The Marriage Portrait: A Novel, by Maggie O’Farrell
This historical novel arrives with great anticipation on the coattails of O’Farrell’s beautifully rendered Hamnet (2020) and it is a worthy successor. In The Marriage Portrait we live and empathize with the 16-year-old Lucrezia de Medici who lives her life in the lush Italian Renaissance world with all its conventions and excesses.

O’Farrell’s novel is said to have been inspired by the Robert Browning poem “My Last Duchess,” just as the author’s previous novel was based on the life of Shakespeare and his play Hamlet. O’Farrell relies on poetic justice to weave the intricacies of this story and period with a flair and sensitivity rarely found in historical novels.

Lessons: A Novel, by Ian McEwan
For me, this is McEwen’s magnum opus. In his lifetime’s worth of novels he has blessed us with a constellation of style, length, and personages. This surprisingly lengthy (449 pages) novel simply follows the story of a man across all the upheavals of time and history.

Through the characters we experience decades of disruption and tragedies brought about by war and man’s flaws. It is beautifully rendered and said to be quasi-autobiographic.

Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain, the young boy in the novel of the same name (2020), was the creation of Douglas Stuart based on his own life. There are few writers who can so adeptly transport us to an alien world and also break our hearts. In this book, Stuart generates an empathy rarely experienced by readers. I felt it a privilege to be taken into Shuggie’s sphere and life in 20th century Scotland.

This second novel is equally worthy. Here the teenage Mungo suffers the trials of poverty and being different in a society struggling with religious conflict. Once again, Stuart’s lyricism captures the essence of this world and brings it clearly into our hearts and minds.

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott
While awaiting the world to return to normal as the calendar changed from 2021 to 2022, I read this novel by an author I didn’t know, but I knew immediately it would be on this list at the end of the year.

We book enthusiasts love to read about books, publishing, and even the whirlwind author tours. While telling this story, the author takes us on a double journey, with the writer/protagonist performing the tasks expected of his publisher, but also tackling the ghosts of his past.

Watt deservingly won the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction for this most engaging novel.

Babysitter: A Novel, by Joyce Carol Oates
This is the Joyce Carol Oates I love, a novel reminiscent of her 70s masterpieces. It is frightening in its spot-on depiction of a rich suburban housewife and her emotionally charged, rash decisions. Every fiber in your body wants to shout “Don’t do that!”

A supporting sub story tells of another suburban nightmare: the threat of a serial killer in the midst of a closed, pristine community. As always, Oates tightly knits the daily chaos of our modern world into a compelling story, a talent she’s mastered over the years.

Oates has been writing for more than 50 years and has produced more than 100 written works, from short stories and essays to many of our favorite novels. Her early novels – Them (1969), A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968) – and a couple of decades later, We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and Blonde (2000) have assured her a prominent place in the history of American literature.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Alan Hochschild
Published in 1998, this is the sole nonfiction book to make my list. To me, it reads like a novel in its detailed plot and character development.

The story is told through main characters who are involved in the corruption and dismantling of the Congo by imperialist Europeans in the late 19th century. It is probably one of the most disturbing books I have read, depicting the greed and divisiveness of white men in their attempts to protect the status quo and their white empires. King Leopold II of Belgium desired exceedingly to head an empire, and the jealousy he feels toward his counterparts and cousins in other European countries who had their own empires leads him to take over the Congo, depleting the area of its valued ivory and rubber, making the rich even richer and the poor dead.

Alan Hochschild also has described the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War in his recent well-regarded book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2017). He depicts the Americans who traveled to Spain to participate as freedom fighters against the dictator Franco. Both books are fine examples of how fact and history can entertain as well as educate.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
This author’s name seemed to come out of nowhere, and now you see it everywhere. Justifiably, the waitlist is lengthy at the Chicago Public Library to obtain any of her novels, including her book of short stories, Homesick for Another World (2017). Moshfegh’s attraction is her style, which I would describe as “patient.” In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published in 2018, as in her novels Death in Her Hands (2020) and Eileen: A Novel (2015), the protagonist’s dilemma is resolved only after a careful and thorough rendering of the situation.

This book isn’t quite as easy-going as the title suggests, and the approach is even more complicated. What appears simple is complex, as the writer takes us slowly through each step of the protagonist’s recovery.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a name to remember. She’s an American of Croatian and Persian descent. I am sure we will see more of her work in the future.

Trust, by Hernan Diaz
As I wrote this entry, I coincidentally received the news that Trust had won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction for 2022 (Kirkus is a commercial book review service that covers an enormous range and number of books).

Trust comprises four manuscripts, in varying states of completion, that explore the capacity of money “to bend and align reality.” There is a novel-within-a-novel about a Wall Street tycoon who benefited from the 1929 stock market crash and his wife, who ended up mentally ill in a Swiss sanitarium; the partial memoir of a second Wall Street tycoon; scraps of some diaries by the wife of this second tycoon; and a long memoir by the ostensible ghost writer of the second tycoon’s memoir. Kirkus recognition is often heavy on plot, short on praise, and never gushes. Here’s what they say about Trust:

“The novel overall feels complex but never convoluted, focused throughout on the dissatisfactions of wealth and the suppression of information for the sake of keeping up appearances. No one document tells the whole story, but the collection of palimpsests makes for a thrilling experience and a testament to the power and danger of the truth—or a version of it—when it’s set down in print. A clever and affecting high-concept novel of high finance.”

The four-part novel is clever but not manipulative. And it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Now, on to another year and the anticipation of new books. What joy!

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

I love books. I can easily conjure up the memory of the feel of the carpet at the Children’s Library where I sat for hours as a girl. A few years ago I started keeping track of my reading and I average about forty-five books a year.

“How do you read so many books?” I have been asked. The secret is that I am rarely without a book at hand. Sitting in the car while gas is being pumped, lines at the bank, waiting for a friend in a restaurant – these are all slivers of opportunity to slip into another world.

If you have been to my restaurant on Christmas Eve you know how much I love books. For many years we have gifted each guest a random book. Inspired by the Icelandic tradition Jolabokaflod (Christman book flood), I like to tell people that they will get the book that is meant for them.

While I have lived in Mexico for more than half my life, I am a little disappointed to tell you that I haven’t read that many Mexican writers, but this issue is so full of fascinating writers that I can’t wait to read. I have read some Mexican writers and here are a few of my favorite books that aren’t mentioned in this issue.

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli (2019)
The story of a woman, her husband and two children traveling from New York to Arizona. Touching upon the horrors of children being separated from their parents while searching for a different life. This novel examines identity and questions our humanity. Also check out her first novel The Story of My Teeth (2015)- it is a humourous and surreal tale that is primarily set at the Jumex Museum in CDMX.

Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel (1990)
I was first introduced to Mexico by watching this film in a Montreal movie theater on a cold winter evening. It was easy to fall in love with this revolutionary love story that centers around food. The novel is a fun read and includes recipes.

Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2009)
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli notices that her small town is devoid of men because they have all gone north. She heads north to find her father and to find men to return to save the town.

What all these novels have in common is the ability to weave the surreal into the every day giving the reader a different perspective on life- much as Mexico itself does.

Happy Reading,

Jane

Carmen Boullosa

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Carmen Boullosa is one of the most prolific and thought-provoking Mexican writers of our times. Her award-winning works include 19 novels, several collections of short stories and poems, four plays and a screen play. The many historical subjects on which she focuses range from Cleopatra to Montezuma to 17th-century pirates of the Caribbean to children in contemporary Mexico. Currently, she has two homes – one in the Coyoacán district in Mexico City and one in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to her prodigious output of books and scripts she also writes a regular column for El Universal, a major newspaper in Mexico.

Boullosa was born in Mexico City on September 4, 1954. She was educated in a Catholic girls’ school there, where she became inspired to later write about themes that were forbidden or at least suppressed by her teachers, such as sensuality and feminism. She went on to study for four years (1972-76) at the far more liberal Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). There was essentially no hiatus between her academic studies and her publications, beginning an impressive stream of literary works.

After her marriage to author Alejandro Aura, domestic life seemed to stimulate Boullosa’s artistic productivity rather than hamper it. Her second novel, Antes (Before), a coming-of-age story, was published in 1989; Antes was the novel for which Boullosa was awarded Mexico’s highly prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia Award. In an interview with one of her translators, Samantha Schnee, Boullosa described a rather idyllic life as a young mother writing novels: “My earlier novels all have young girls as the main characters; in the late eighties I once said in an interview that I could never even create a male character. Back then I had two small children, lived in a beautiful house with a garden that had trees growing figs, pomegranates, and bananas … I had lots of friends and no economic problems (we owned a successful theater-bar).”

She obviously inculcated a love for theater in her children Maria and Juan. Juan is a film producer perhaps best known for his production of Rent. Maria has had roles in over a dozen films, almost a dozen plays, and numerous TV productions. However, the idyll ended when her marriage to Aura, who had been married three times before he met Boullosa, also ended in divorce.

The divorce seems to have freed her to pursue an independent academic life as well as continuing her authorship of novels and other works. In 2001 she held the Andrés Bello Chair in Latin American Cultures and Civilizations at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University. She has also been a visiting professor at Georgetown University and San Diego State University, writer in residence for the city of Berlin, and held the Alfonso Reyes Chair at the Sorbonne in fall 2001. She was a Visiting Professor at Columbia in 2003-04 and then a Distinguished Lecturer at City College, CUNY, until 2011. Between 2004 and 2005 she received awards for the best book of poems in Mexico and the best novel in Mexico. Boullosa has traveled widely as a sought-after university lecturer who challenges students to think beyond the ordinary and normative.

Although she is perhaps best known for her depiction of women in her fiction, Boullosa has not confined herself to that genre. In 2004, she married historian and author Michael Wallace, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of New York City. Together in 2015, they coauthored A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War”, a controversial treatise on the roots of the drug wars in Mexico and the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S. Boullosa is also known for her art, which has been displayed in museums in New York City and Mexico City.

It is not surprising that this exceptional mundivagant woman should write about other exceptional women … both actual historical figures and fictional characters. But Boullosa’s imagination is so fertile that she can bend time and circumstance so that her women characters overcome situations that were barriers in their lives, real or fictional. Cleopatra and Anna Karenina are seen through different eyes and times. In her latest novel (El Libro de Eva, 2020, to be published in English in March 2023), she recreates the biblical book of Genesis, with its heavy overlay of masculinity, in ten chapters written from the perspective of Eve. Boullosa’s entire cast of novel characters is so engaging that from the opening lines of her books one willingly enters her worlds. Some readers are charmed, others incensed by Boullosa’s flamboyant feminism. But no one is bored.

In addition to her own work, she has fostered the work (and lives) of others. Along with Salman Rushdie, Boullasa founded the Mexico City refuge for persecuted writers. She is reportedly exploring the possibility of opening another facility for persecuted writers in New York City.

If you want to know more about Carmen Boullosa, check out the libraries at major universities for her writings in Spanish or English or the scores of essays and Ph.D. dissertations of which she is the subject. Experience the richness of this most notable Mexican author’s creativity.

Sandra Cisneros

By Julie Etra

I knew nothing about Sandra Cisneros when my Spanish teacher in the United States suggested I read La Casa en Mango Street (The House on Mango Street). Cisneros is a Chicago born Chicana, so the 1984 book was originally written in English when Cisneros was 30. I read it in Spanish as part of my ongoing study of Mexican culture and language; there have been at least three Spanish translations – one in 1994 by the renowned Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska. Coincidentally a great article and interview with Cisneros was recently published in the The New Yorker in September of this year http://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/sandra-cisneros-may-put-you-in-a-poem). To save you from fighting with The New Yorker’s paywall, I’ll be quoting from the article.

Cisneros is perhaps best known for her poetry, although I am a fan of both Casa and the collection of short stories Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991; translated by Liliana Valenzuela in 1996 as El arroyo de la Llorona y otros cuentos).

Although I read both of these books in Spanish, Cisneros has the unique bilingual knack of bridging the two languages, inserting Spanish translations of the English. The 2021 bilingual paperback Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo, is written in English on one side but the reader can flip the pages to read the Spanish translation. Clever.

Technically speaking, Cisneros is not a Mexican writer since she was born in the United States. She grew up in a poor neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, the only daughter of a Mexican father and Mexican American mother, surrounded by six brothers. According to Cisneros, she felt isolated as a child and was lumped in with her brothers, described as siete hijos instead of seis hijos y una hija (seven boys instead of six boys and a girl) by her father. Her father was an upholsterer, her mother a book lover.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s her father took the family back and forth to Mexico on a frequent basis; thus she developed the self-identity schism between the two cultures. This was further exacerbated when in 1976 she entered the writer’s program at the Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences where she continued to feel like a misfit. She went on to write Casa and then began teaching in San Antonio where she lived for 15 years and founded the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, named after the fictitious town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Cisneros never married nor had children, her rationale being that she did not want to be distracted from her writing and that she was a bit old fashioned in her belief in the sanctity of marriage in that she didn’t want to have a future divorce. According to The New Yorker, she is relieved and apparently happy that she never selected the wrong guy: “It’s hard to live with someone, and it’s hard to live alone. But I prefer living alone. … I’ve never seen a marriage that is as happy as my living alone. My writing is my child and I don’t want anything to come between us.” She has said that the greatest love of her life was her dog Chamaco.

Tired of living in San Antonio, and in particular provincial Texas, she returned to her mother’s Guanajuato roots and now resides in San Miguel de Allende, México, immersing herself in Mexican culture, but not without challenges. She did not take much time to explore the town before she moved there following an auspicious visit.

When the interviewer from The New Yorker remarks, “So you decided to move to San Miguel de Allende,” Cisnero answers, “Yes, I came here. I didn’t know the town was colonial and had a very colonial writing program, all white and expensive and structured in a very colonial way. I didn’t realize it was San Miguel apartheid, and, when I told them that, they were offended and shocked, so I lost my enthusiasm for the book fair. I’m going to be onstage there next spring. I’m only going to do it if I can donate my honorarium to the Spanish-language portion of the fair, so, you know, that’s my way of making my peace with them. I came because this is the land of my mother’s people. I wanted to investigate those roots.”

She named her house in San Miguel Casa Coatlicue. In Nahuatl it means “Serpent Skirt”; Coatlicue is the Nahua mother goddess, symbol of the earth as both creator and destroyer, mother of the gods and the goddess of childbirth, fertility, life, and death, and one of the most important Aztec or Nahua gods. A fitting name for a house of this remarkable and independent woman.

One of my favorite short stories in Woman Hollering Creek (a real creek located behind her house in San Antonio) is “Ojos de Zapata,” (Eyes of Zapata), as told by Inés Alfaro Aguilar, the primera mujer (first woman) of the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Reports indicate that Zapata had anywhere from 9 to 16 “wives” (some of whom he may actually have married); he did not marry Inés, with whom he fathered at least three sons and one daughter.
(That of course stimulated my interest in both Zapata and Inés and led me down the rabbit hole of a chapter of Mexican history before I eventually returned to Cisneros’ next story.) “Ojos de Zapata” is fascinating not only from Inés’ perspective as the neglected “wife” of this famous revolutionary general, but for its sensual descriptions of a time, a place, and a relationship.

Back to The New Yorker interview regarding her residence in San Miguel:
Interviewer: “Is this it? Do you think you’ve finally found home?”
Cisneros: “I think I have one more house in me.”
Interviewer: “Where would it be?”
Cisneros: “Oaxaca, maybe.”

Zapotec Writers:
Not as Boring as History Class Led You to Believe

By Brooke O’Connor

An issue about Mexican writers would be remiss if we didn’t include some original writers in Mexico: the Zapotecs. Although Spanish is the legal and most widely spoken language, Zapotec is still one of the largest indigenous language groups spoken, comprising 58 different variations among different communities.

Many dialects and traditions are being lost to modernity, but there are some champions of Zapotec, publishing bilingual and trilingual books. More on that later.

The earliest preserved Zapotec writing is from 600 BCE, and we know this Mesoamerican script was used for well over 1,500 years. Just as they do today, Zapotec peoples had many uses for writing in the ancient thriving society. However, time has left us more monolithic billboards than personal journals.

The earliest known inscription comes from San José Mogote, northwest of present day Oaxaca City; San José Mogote reached its political peak before the establishment of Monte Albán, southwest of and closer to Oaxaca City (more writings have been preserved from Monte Albán than from San José Mogote). Many of the large engravings from San José Mogote detailed competitions and the development of urban life. They chronicled the succession of leaders and winning of battles. This led archeologists to believe that writing during this time was used mostly for political and civic education. They’ve since found those conclusions to be false.

The earlier (600 BCE to 200 ACE) writings in San José Mogote appear to be related to sacred topics; self-sacrifice, the proper oral invocation of ancestors to ensure success in warfare, the taking of captives, ritual combat with captives, and how-to manuals on burning humans alive to petition for agricultural and human fertility. Political topics included strategies and plans written by members of the elite class, designed to create division in society with the aim of developing more power as leaders.

In addition, these elites promoted an elaborate ideology that centered on a primordial covenant between humans and the divine; the ideology depended, of course, on the populace following the elites. The authors masked the inequalities between the classes, and used these ideas to create messianic movements, binding the people to one political party or another. There are other writings showing resistance to these movements, and how the elite plans didn’t always unfold as expected.

People wrote on many media – wood, pottery, leather, cloth and paper bark. These items were more portable for trade, as well as written communication between elites in all areas of ancient Oaxaca. Unfortunately, the soft nature of these media makes them highly perishable. With the ravages of time, most are lost to us.

A few items survived, or were documented when the Spaniards came. Translation can be tricky, and sociologists are taking a second look at Spanish accounts of ancient writings. It seems there may have been some creative liberties taken, to promote the narrative that “Savages need to be tamed.” The friars sent information back to Spain, and the more exotic and titillating the better.

The characters of early written Zapotec were not like the written language seen today. Many symbols represented an idea, rather than denoting the phonic sound of a letter, group of letters, or a syllable. Numbers were portrayed with lines and bars.

When the first Spaniards came, the indigenous wanted to communicate freely (arguably more than the Spaniards did), so as early as the late 16th century, Zapotec peoples appropriated the Spanish alphabet to render their own language graphically. They wrote stealthily about their traditions though. They hoped to come to an amicable agreement for the Spaniards to leave, in peace, after learning a bit about the culture. By subverting the colonial gaze, they were able to keep intact some of the important cultural identity and family issues, and still talk about exploitive political practices. Lucky for us, the Zapotecs have continued to use the alphabetic script today, and we can begin to understand more of this rich culture.

Zapotec language is full of imagery and deep meanings. It is formal and respectful, particularly to elders and people not in your immediate family. It’s a language that commands a level of humility on the part of the speaker. The natural world is invoked regularly. There is a sense of connection to the earth, the ancestors and human kind.

If you want to experience this magical, dream-like writing I highly recommend Red Ants by Pergentino José, who was born in 1981 in the Zapotec village of Buena Vista in the municipality of San Agustín Loxicha, in the mountains a couple of hours north of Zipolite. He writes both poetry and prose in Loxichan Zapotec, which he has described as “the Zapotec of the coast,” and Spanish. In 2006, he wrote the bilingual Spanish/Zapotec Y supe qué responder /Nyak mbkaabna (I Knew What To Answer); in 2013, he published a tri-lingual (Zapotec/Spanish/English) collection of poems, Ndio dis mbind /Lenguaje de pájaros /The Language of Birds. The volume is beautifully illustrated with paintings by Raga Garcíarteaga. It is difficult to find as a book, but you can download it from the publisher: http://www.avispero.com.mx/storage/app/media/libros/lenguaje-de-pajaros.pdf.

Red Ants was first published in 2012 in Spanish as Hormigas Rojas, but included expressions in Loxichan Zapotec; it was translated to English in 2020 by Thomas Bunstead, who chose to keep the Zapotec passages. Red Ants is the first ever translation of a Zapotec author. It’s a collection of short stories that are neither linear nor logical, but rather surreal, with an intoxicating perfume of culture and connection to the land. Each story builds on the last, from a different angle and perspective. There are underlying themes in these modern stories that speak to the Zapotec people’s experience through history: forced change, imprisonment, longing for a simpler time, loss of autonomy, grit to overcome even when bruised and broken, but never losing connection with the natural world.

I invite you to take time reading this. Think about the complexities of translating one language to another. Translation is always less about the actual words, and more about meaning in a sentence. Hence, translated into stoic English, we have a mystical sensation, with animals and imagery expanding in ways we may not immediately grasp. Sit with it, and let the ancestors of this land breathe understanding into you.

If you’re interested in hearing what Zapotec sounds like, and see some of the work being done to preserve and understand these languages, check out this site from the Zapotec Language Project of the University of California at Santa Cruz: https://zapotec.ucsc.edu/. The University offers an online dictionary, monthly language classes, and audio samples of native speakers. For example, this “scary story” spoken by Samuel Díaz Ramirez: https://zapotec.ucsc.edu/slz/texts-query.php?lg=&content=&query=match&text=SLZ1089-t1&parse=no

ELENA AND LEONORA:
Two Mexican Writers with European Roots

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.

Their lives
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.

Their books
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!

Spanish Lesson:
Masculine/Feminine

By Julie Etra

Spanish is a gender-inflected language, which means that the forms of nouns, adjectives, and articles change according to whether someone or something is considered masculine or feminine. In general, but not always, an ending of ‘o’ indicates the masculine, and an ending of ‘a’ indicates the feminine. Sometimes the word for an obviously gendered noun is completely different in the masculine vs. the feminine.

The very language is macho in that Spanish favors things and people being male – if there is one boy present in a group of girls, just ONE, they are all niños or hijos, etc. Now, linguistically speaking, that’s not really offensive, because the masculine gender includes words that in another language – e.g., Latin, from which Spanish is descended – would have been neuter. The feminist perspective, however, finds it really offensive. Efforts at language neutrality in Spanish are underway in Argentina, but that’s a long and complicated story for some other time!

Baby: el nene, el bebe (masculine), la nena (feminin- also means girlfriend, like babe), la bebe
Boy/girl: muchacho/muchacha. Muchachos can also equate with fellas, boys, as in ‘let’s go boys’: ‘vamos muchachos’
Kid(s): chavos/chavas,chamacos/chamacas, esquincles/esquinclas
Child: el niño, la niña
Man/woman: el hombre/la mujer
Son/daughter: el hijo/la hija
Son-in-law: yerno
Daughter-in-law: nuera
Stepson/daughter: hijastro/hijastra
Male/female dog: macho, hembra.

Here’s a funny story on the sex of dogs. Many years ago, before I spoke Spanish, we drove down the Baja Peninsula with our male dog. When the cops asked us if the dog was macho, which was obvious as he was intact, I thought they meant aggressive. So I answered, “No es macho, es muy amigable” (“He’s not male, he is very friendly.”) No wonder the cop looked confused!

Next month I’ll continue with other family members and friends. Maybe more animals.

B. Traven – A Mexican Writer with A Mysterious Past

By Randy Jackson

I was first introduced to the works of the Mexican writer B. Traven in a Spanish class. We were assigned a short story by Traven, titled “Dos Burros.” I found the story compelling. There was something about both the story itself and the style of narration that appealed to me. So, of course, I googled B. Traven, and immediately plummeted down a curiosity rabbit hole about this strange and enigmatic writer.

In 1952, the Mexican government granted citizenship to Berick Traven Torsvan, a person who, by then, was a well-established writer, living in Mexico and writing under the pen name of B. Traven. How Mexican citizenship was granted to a person as fictitious as a character in one of Traven’s own novels is a mystery in itself.

To confuse his identity further, in Mexico Traven never appeared as Traven, but represented himself as Hal Croves, a supposed friend and agent of B. Traven. When the Hollywood producer John Huston paid for the movie rights to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he handed the cheque to a person claiming to be Hal Croves, a person with Power of Attorney for B. Traven. Both Huston and the main actor in the film, Humphrey Bogart, later claimed they always thought Hal Croves was B. Traven himself.

But why all this subterfuge? There are many reclusive writers, J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher In The Rye, for one, and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, for another – there are many more. But Traven wasn’t the reclusive type. He actively sought to deceive others about his true identity. After his death (March 26, 1969, in Mexico City), we learned the identity Traven was trying to hide was that of Ret Marut, a wanted man with a death sentence on his head.

The Hidden Past of B. Traven

The early days of the Weimar Republic in German (following World War I) were tumultuous, especially in the state of Bavaria (later leading to the rise of Hitler). In April of 1919, a Bavarian Socialist Republic was proclaimed following a communist uprising. Ret Marut became a committee member of that new Socialist Republic. He was arrested just one month later by a Berlin-based militia, which crushed the upstart socialist republic. Ret Marut was put in with a group of prisoners who were being summarily tried and shot. Before his name was called, a sympathetic guard allowed Marut to escape. Marut found his way to London where he was imprisoned for a time for not registering as a foreigner. Eventually Marut found work shovelling coal on decrepit steam ships destined to be scuttled for insurance proceeds. That work brought him to Mexico in 1924.

In Mexico, Murat began using the name Traven Torsvan, writing stories under the name B Traven. Within about a year his stories began to be published in Germany, starting with the serialised The Cotton-Pickers (Die Baumwollpflücker, 1925, published as a novel called The Wobbly [Der Wobbly, the short name for Industrial Workers of the World union] in 1926).

The Writing Career of B. Traven

The stories of B. Traven quickly became popular in Germany (almost all his published works were written in German and published in Germany). He was seen as an adventure story writer. His writing was reminiscent of the very popular works of the American writer Jack London (1896-1916). Traven’s first major success as a novelist was in 1926 with the publication, in Germany, of Death Ship (Das Totenschiff). As a testament to this book’s enduring popularity, years later Albert Einstein is reported to have said it was the book he would take with him to a desert island. Death Ship is seen as autobiographical for Traven. It portrays the life of an international undocumented seamen who is treated like a slave, no doubt derived from Traven’s own experiences in getting to Mexico in 1924.

In 1927, Traven published his most famous novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Der Schatz der Sierra Madre). This was the first of Traven’s novels to be published in Mexico (1931). Later it was also the first Traven novel to be published in English (1934). This story was made into the award-winning film of the same name, now considered a classic, by John Huston in 1948. The story of two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico who follow a prospector in the search for gold is well-known, especially for an inaccurate version of the lines delivered by the Mexican bandit Gold Hat, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

Through the 1930’s Traven published a series of six novels that are generally referred to as The Jungle Novels. These books tell stories of repressed Mexican indigenous people, and their ill-fated attempts to push back against the harsh dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz, leading up to the Mexican Revolution. It is for these Jungle Novels that the Peruvian novelist Luis Alberto Sánchez (1900-94) labelled B. Traven the author of the Mexican Revolution.

The last of the Jungle Novels, General from the Jungle (Ein General kommt aus dem Dschungel) was published in 1940, seemingly marking the end of Traven’s most productive period. His final four novels before his death in 1969 were Aslan Norval (1960; rediscovered after Traven’s death and translated to English in 2020), Stories by the Man Nobody Knows (published in Mexico as Cuentos de B. Traven, 1969), The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (published in English in New York, 1968), and The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories (published posthumously, in English in New York, 1975).

Macmillan Publishers now reports that books by B. Traven have sold over 30 million copies and have been translated into 30 languages.

The Stories of B. Traven

As mentioned, my introduction to the writings of B. Traven was the short story “Dos Burros.” What I found compelling was his clear, down-to-earth narrative about a time and place in rural Mexico that were unfamiliar to me. I later read a number of his other short stories, the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I re-watched the movie made from the novel. I wish I had the skills to properly articulate what it was that attracted me to Traven stories. However, when I came across this description of Traven’s prose in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I thought this nailed it:

Traven’s works are harsh, filled with descriptions of danger, cruelty, and physical and emotional suffering, but his lean, direct prose has a hypnotic immediacy, and the narratives and themes are clear and compelling.

In the world of literary criticism, there is a perennial unresolved question: Do we need to know anything about a writer to bring more meaning to the works of that writer? Traven, who so desperately wanted to distance himself from his past, certainly had an opinion on this issue: “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” I wonder whether Traven was aware of how his past and his world view so clearly impacted the stories he told. Probably the best example of this is his novel The Death Ship, which emerged from Traven’s own experiences. Traven (Ret Marut) was an anarchist with clear political leanings towards the underclass and social injustices, and against capitalist exploitation and greed. The Jungle Novels in particular clearly demonstrate these sentiments.

There are no happy endings in Traven’s stories. Of my readings of B. Traven, all the stories ended with my feeling as if things were left up in the air. Nobody ever seemed to come out ahead. A good example? The ending of the novel and movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, when the main character Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) is killed and the gold dust blows away in the wind.

It is characteristic of Traven to never come down on anyone’s side, there are no winners in his stories. In “Dos Burros,” for example, a landless peasant is befriended by a wild donkey so ugly and unruly that nobody wanted him. But once people saw that the donkey was working for this peasant, two different people claimed the same donkey (dos burros), and the peasant ended up with no donkey at all.

No matter his up-in-the-air endings, or characters that never come out on top, B. Traven is read for the content of his stories, the adventure of his tales, the richness of his hapless characters, and his compelling narrative voice. B. Traven is a Mexican writer well deserving of his literary popularity.