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Ask an American to name the most tumultuous events of 1968 and we'll recall the King and Kennedy assassinations and the rioting at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Ask about international upheaval and we'll add the Soviet invasion of Prague and the student uprising in Paris. Prod us further—what about Mexico City?—and most of us will come up with the moment when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists to protest racism in America as they were awarded Olympic medals.
What we'll probably forget is that ten days before those Olympics began, thousands of university students and other civilians gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City's Tlatelolco area to protest the repressive measures the government was taking to guarantee tranquility during the games. Police and army helicopters flew overhead, tanks closed in, snipers opened fire, and when order was restored more than 1,300 people had been arrested and some 45 to 300 were dead. (Decades later it would come out that the CIA was feeding the Mexican authorities intelligence from inside the student ranks.)
The Mexican government official directly responsible for this crushing of dissent was Luis Echeverria, the secretary of the interior. His reward came two years later when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional—which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000—chose him to succeed Gustavo Diaz Ordaz as president. Echeverria took office in December 1970 and set out to govern as a populist, the gust of fresh air Mexico dearly needed, and in 1972 his office invited a bunch of American reporters to fly down, behold, and admire. One invitation came to the Sun-Times and the editor tossed it my way. Mexico was paying for everything, and we didn't say no to a junket.
A couple weeks before I made that trip, another junket took me to Paris. Hoping to impress the stylish young Mexican woman I ran into checking out Monet's water lilies in the Orangerie, I told her I'd soon be a guest of her president. She scribbled a name and a phone number and said, Call her! And that's how I met Elena Poniatowska.
It turned out Poniatowska was a sort of den mother to young women such as my new friend—rich, cosmopolitan liberals. They talked the talk; she walked. A descendent of an aristocratic Polish family, she'd lived in Mexico since her mother fled Paris to escape World War II, her father staying behind to join the resistance. Elena grew up and became a writer, and in 1968 she'd gone out to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas while the blood was still wet on the stones and begun interviewing survivors. Three years later she published The Night of Tlatelolco, a study of the massacre that for decades was the only alternative to the government's self-serving narrative. But after the PRI fell from power official files were opened and Poniatowska's account was confirmed, and in 2000 a special prosecutor charged Echeverria with genocide. (He was acquitted in 2006.)
The articles I wrote in '72 were nothing special, but although I got to observe Echeverria gusting jauntily around Mexico quickening the pulses of the faithful, at least I didn't swallow the Kool-Aid. The reason was the radiant yet blunt Poniatowska, who'd invited me into her home, made me feel like her newest best friend, and talked to me plainly about her country and its sins. In 1975 I returned to Mexico and again she and her husband, astrophysicist Guillermo Haro, had me over for dinner. After that we were out of touch. But when Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art announced that Poniatowska would be speaking there on May 15, I reserved a seat. I wanted to say hello to her; after all these years I needed to thank her.
The occasion was a big deal. It was Poniatowska's first public appearance since April 23, when the king of Spain gave her the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in Madrid. The Cervantes, awarded by Spain's Ministry of Culture since 1976, is a lifetime-achievement award for authors who write in the Spanish language and it's accompanied by a check for 125,000 euros. Aside from the Nobel, no literary prize is higher. For whatever reason, Gabriel Garcia Marquez never did receive the Cervantes before dying this year; Nobel Prize winners who have include Octavio Paz of Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, and Camilo Jose Cela of Spain.
The king called Poniatowska's collected works "brave and rebellious." Accepting the prize, Poniatowska recalled arriving in Mexico by boat at the age of ten, and learning Spanish by immersing herself in the street life of "the people of the sun."
I learned Spanish in the street with the cries of hawkers and with a few couplets that always related to death.
"Sweet orange / Celestial lime / Tell María / not to lie down. / María, María, / now she laid down, / Death came / and took her away."
"Naranja dulce,/ limón celeste,/ dile a María / que no se acueste. / María, María / ya se acostó, / vino la muerte / y se la llevó."
Or this one, which is even more frightening:
" . . . Cuchito, Cuchito / killed his wife / with a little knife / the same size as he. / He tore out her guts / and was selling them. / - 'For sale: Tripe / of a bad woman!'"
"Cuchito, cuchito / mató a su mujer/ con un cuchillito / del tamaño de él./ Le sacó las tripas/ y las fue a vender./ —¡Mercarán tripitas / de mala mujer!"
Even today feminine guts are being sold. Last April 13 in Ciudad Juárez, two women were killed with several gunshots to the head: one was 15; the other was over 20 and pregnant. The first body was found in a dumpster.
Poniatowska has published over 30 books of every conceivable type—novels, poems, essays, histories, reportage, biographies, translations (Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street) . . . Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of the Mexican museum, introduced her simply as someone who didn't need to be introduced, and this was clearly true; before she could say a word her audience was on its feet cheering. She read her speech in English for 40 minutes or so, and then answered questions that were all in Spanish. The line we form snaking up to the stage for a word with her and her inscription in whichever of her books we carried was very long and slow, and I was near the end of it. She wanted to chat with everyone who approached, and almost everyone asked her to pose for a picture. I carried a Spanish edition of The Night of Tlatelolco that I'd just bought in the museum's bookstore. Most of the people in line around me looked like graduate students.
Tortolero compares Poniatowska's celebrity to Oprah Winfrey's. "Every college-educated Latino knows who she is," he told me in a conversation a couple of days later. "I've been with her in Chicago so many times. She's walking down the street and people do double-takes. Elena! Elenita! And she's talking to people, hugging complete strangers." But Poniatowska's stature as an artist and public intellectual sets her above and beyond. "We don't have anybody like that in the U.S.," Tortolero went on. "Oprah Winfrey is not Elena Poniatowska. She's the one who wrote about the murders in Tlatalolco. That was very dangerous to do. It was super-dangerous to speak out against the government at that time. She said, 'I'm four feet nine in heels and it'd look very bad if they killed me, don't you think?'
"If we had Elena Poniatowska in the U.S.—oh my God! There isn't a woman in the U.S. who comes close to her. We've lost Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Monsivais. She's the conscience of Mexico. She's the soul of Mexico."
In her generosity of spirit and standing as a writer, I'd rather compare Poniatowska to Studs Terkel.
On taking the stage, Poniatowska plunged into her critique, faulting the U.S. for the sins of size and indifference that we will probably go on committing forever, and Mexico for its corruption, hypocrisy, and inability to face up to its failings. Tortolero would tell me he'd given Chicago's mainstream English-language media a heads-up about Poniatowska's appearance—famous Mexican author speaks in Chicago after winning coveted international honor—but none of them showed up to interview her or cover her. "The U.S. is culturally ignorant," Tortolero shrugged. Perhaps there's no room in our newspapers any longer for stories that first have to explain who someone is before they can get to whatever it is that someone has to say. Or perhaps a story about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that's set among the intelligentsia instead of blue-collar illegals and drug smugglers isn't one they know how to handle.
When I got to the front of the line, her smile was as broad as I remembered it. But she didn't remember me. I asked about her husband (deceased) and dropped a name or two she recognized, and she gladly took me at my word that she'd once befriended me. But the occasion escaped her. ("I've met so many people," she told Tortolero afterward, describing our conversation.)
But being thanked by strangers for old kindnesses you can't remember isn't the worst thing to happen when you're beyond the age of 80. She was delighted, and I drove off happy. I'll write something nice and post the URL on her website, I was thinking. Maybe this time I’ll stick.