Perusing your friends’ bookshelves, there are always a handful of familiar names that stand out: Salinger, Hemingway, Woolf — authors you first discovered (or were forced to read) in high school. Whether you love them or hate them, have read their books once or until the spines have come undone, as writers they all have the unique quality of relating to both the adolescent and adult you.
Below are five Mexican authors who occupy the same hallowed space on the bookshelves of Latin America’s 20-something-year-olds. Comprised of one-hit wonders and national heroes, these are the Mexican writers you didn’t read in class.
1. Elena Poniatowska
One of Mexico's best known journalists and authors, Poniatowska was born in 1932 in Paris to parents who left Mexico during the Revolution. Before her 10th birthday, her family would flee again, this time leaving war-torn Europe for Mexico. Having already escaped two wars, without a degree and working in what was very much still a man’s world, she began to write for the newspaper Excélsior in 1953.
Poniatowska is best known for her 1971 work The Night of Tlatelolco about the repression of the 1968 student protests and subsequent massacre in Mexico City. To this day, her writing focuses on social and political issues centered on the disenfranchised, especially women and the poor. Poniatowska is the author of several works of both fiction and nonfiction, and thousands of articles and essays, as well as biographies on Nobel laureate Octavio Paz and artist Juan Soriano.
2. José Emilio Pacheco
Having passed away just this year, Pacheco was considered one of the most vital Mexican poets of his generation. He is well known for his entire oeuvre, from essays to short stories to the 1981 coming-of-age novel that made him famous, Battles in the Desert. In Battles, the protagonist’s life mirrors that of the author: a young man growing up in Mexico City, a place that would soon become unrecognizable as the largest metropolis in the world. In 2009, Pacheco was awarded the Cervantes Prize for his literary contribution to the Spanish language — the highest prize in Spanish literature. He died at 74 on January, 26 2014 from cardiac arrest.
3. Jaime Sabines
Sabines was one of the most prolific and celebrated Latin poets in the 20th century. Before he began his literary career, he studied medicine but soon left to focus on documenting the everyday life of the Mexican people. He is thought to have revolutionized Spanish poetry by a turning away from the romantic toward the prosaic. No one work made him an overnight star of the literary world, but in his lifetime (1926 to 1999), Sabines would publish 10 volumes of poetry, many of which have been translated into other languages. Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz considered him “one of the greatest contemporary poets of our language.”
4. Juan Rulfo
There’s a chance you actually did read Rulfo in school. His fame as a 20th century Mexican writer is matched only by Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. While far less prolific than others on this list, his two seminal works — 1955’s Pedro Páramo and 1953’s The Burning Plain — would solidify his importance for the rest of his life. Like his contemporary Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Rulfo obtained a fellowship at the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, where he was able to write both books in quick succession. Rulfo is also beloved for his continued commitment to social awareness in his lifetime (1917 to 1986). He worked closely with the Mexican government to help the socioeconomic development of the settlements along the Papaloapan River, and for more than 20 years, he worked as editor for the National Institute for Indigenous People.
5. Jorge Ibargüengoitia
Known for his political and social satires, Ibargüengoitia wrote numerous novels, short stories and plays. Famously popular in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, his first novel, The Lightning of August, written in 1964 parodies the veterans of the Mexican Revolution and those who achieved power afterward, launching him as a star on the Latin literary scene. Due to his controversial subject matter, Ibargüengoitia did not receive the critical success of some of his contemporaries, but several of his novels have been translated into English, and he won both Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships in his lifetime. He died in a plane crash on November 27, 1983.
It’s only fitting that we profile five writers on the fifth day of the fifth month, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’d love to hear from those who did read Mexican authors in school or from those who have a favorite novelist now. Let us know about the authors we missed out on in the comments below.
Elizabeth Karp-Evans is a New York-based writer and editor. Recent editorial roles include work on the publications Doug Aitken: 100 YRS and Damien Hirst’s Freedom Not Genius. In her free time, she enjoys going to galleries, eating Mexican food, occasionally playing her clarinet and watching other people’s dogs play in the park.
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