Elena Poniatowska is the author of more than 50 books that span almost every literary genre. Despite her wide-ranging production, she is best known for the genres she reinvented in Mexico: the chronicle and the testimonial novel. An outstanding example of the former, Massacre in Mexico (first published in English in 1975), is a collective account of the bloody 1968 assault on students by government forces in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas (also known as Tlatelolco Plaza), in which dozens of demonstrators—and perhaps as many as several hundred—were killed.
Massacre in Mexico is a collage of desperate voices that are at the same time the work’s content and form. It is also a systematic condemnation of the Mexican government’s brutal response to the emboldened students who wished to take advantage of the international publicity generated by the Olympic Games (hosted for the first time by Mexico) by inviting foreign reporters to witness various acts of civil disobedience, including peaceful marches, demonstrations, and rallies. The students’ demands were judicious and well-defined: They asked for the dissolution or expulsion of the right-wing student groups supported by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed Mexico for over 30 years; indemnification for the families of those killed or wounded in previous skirmishes with the granaderos (riot police); the immediate release of all jailed students; the disbanding of the granaderos and other repressive police units; and the abrogation of Article 145 of Mexico’s penal code, which allowed for imprisonment based on the crime of “social dissolution.”
Although Poniatowska—who in 2014 was awarded the Cervantes Prize, considered the Nobel of the Spanish-speaking world—has enjoyed enormous success as a writer and journalist, for many years she found herself somewhat excluded from elite Mexican literary circles. Working as a reporter day and night, Poniatowska rarely had time to participate in the activities of local cafe society. Moreover, she was still quite young when she came to the conviction that the only books worth writing were useful ones, books meaningful to her country. (This once prompted the novelist Carlos Fuentes to exclaim, “Look at poor little Poni! There she goes in her beat-up VW Bug, on her way to interview the head of the slaughterhouse.”) Poniatowska’s attitude regarding the subject matter of her growing body of fiction led her to write what many consider her most significant novel, Here’s to You, Jesusa (1969, first published in English in 2001). At once testimony and fiction, the book tells the story of an admirable yet cantankerous woman who fought in the Mexican Revolution, whom Poniatowska discovered one morning when Jesusa was cursing from the rooftop of her humble vecindad apartment.
For Poniatowska, the price of chiles and tomatoes, and the reports of evictions and land invasions, were much more meaningful than the often voguish ideas of the contemporary literary vanguard. Yet far from belonging to Mexico’s underclass, Poniatowska has a royal pedigree: She’s descended from the last king of Poland, Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski, and Prince Josef Ciolek Poniatowski, a marshal of the empire in Napoleonic France. Among its illustrious ancestors, her family includes an archbishop, a composer, an astronomer, and several writers, including her Aunt Pita—Guadalupe Amor, the astonishing poet who proclaimed herself “the absolute queen of hell.” Given Poniatowska’s strong left-wing inclinations, which were in opposition to what she calls her “absurd nobility,” some people in Europe have dubbed her “La Princesse Rouge.”
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Mexico 1968: The Night of Tlatelolco
In October 1968, a crime of epic proportions abruptly cast a long shadow over Poniatowska’s literary endeavors. The government-planned attack on a group of students holding a peaceful rally at the Plaza of the Three Cultures will live forever in the collective memory of all Mexicans, especially those who personally experienced what was later christened “The Night of Tlatelolco.” Such was the case with Poniatowska, at that time 36. Many years after the events of that afternoon, and still visibly moved, she recalled the immediate sense of denial, which gradually turned into outrage, that the news of these senseless acts incited in her:
I heard about the massacre at 9 o’clock that night, when María Alicia Martínez Medrano and Mercedes Olivera [both active in Mexico’s civil society] came to my house…. I thought they had gone mad. They told me that there was blood on the walls of the buildings, that the elevators were perforated with machine-gun bullets, that the glass windows of the shops were destroyed, that tanks were inside the plaza, that there was blood on the staircases of the buildings, that they could hear people shouting, moaning, and crying.
Early the next morning, Poniatowska decided to see for herself. What she witnessed she would never forget, in particular the surreal image of dozens of pairs of shoes that were piled throughout the plaza’s archaeological site. She also recalled hearing a soldier speaking on a pay phone, insisting that he wanted to hear his child’s voice on the line—certainly to confirm that, unlike many students, his son was safe. Thus began the compilation of Poniatowska’s most polemical work and, at the same time, her most celebrated chronicle, which was first published in Spanish in 1971 as La Noche de Tlatelolco: Testimonios de Historia Oral, with over a half-million copies sold to date. As she recalled:
At 7 o’clock in the morning I went to Tlatelolco. There was no running water and women were lined up around a hydrant. There was no electricity and the soldiers were also lined up in front of the phone booths. Among the pre-Hispanic ruins, next to the building that houses the Ministry of Foreign Relations, I saw the shoes of those who had been able to escape. I returned home and felt extremely indignant, along with my husband, Guillermo Haro, the founder of astrophysics in Mexico, and my eldest son, Mane. Then I began to gather testimonies. I typed up everything that María Alicia told me, as well as everything I had heard from Mercedes Olivera. I interviewed Margarita Velasco, who had lost track of her son that night, but found him the morning after.
The next day I went to find Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist, who was at the French Hospital because she also had been shot. I found her in a wheelchair, very upset, but with no major wounds…. [Later] she placed a long-distance call to the Italian Parliament, requesting that the Italian delegation boycott the Olympic Games as an act of repudiation directed at the government of Mexico. She said that she had been a war correspondent in Vietnam, and that there at least a siren sounded a warning before the bombings or shooting began, so that people could take refuge, and that Mexico was the only country where she had ever seen soldiers shooting point-blank at civilians. Besides, they were inside a plaza, trapped, unable to escape.
I took my interview to the newspaper Novedades, but they turned it down because there were orders not to publish a single word about the incident. From that moment on I became more concerned and went to the Military Camp No. 1 to see what had happened to the students. The soldiers would not let me in, so I went to the Lecumberri jail many times to interview the student leaders.
From the people she interviewed—parents of the dead and of those whose whereabouts were unknown; leaders of high-school and university unions; intellectuals, poets, and others whose only connection was that of being, to a greater or lesser degree, involved in the violence in Tlatelolco—Poniatowska assembled a chorus of eyewitness testimonies, slogans, and songs, combined with snippets of news coming from official outlets and from the ranks of the institutional bureaucracy, that resulted in the book that remains the definitive account of the events of that awful night.
Massacre in Mexico is an unsparing examination of the bloody actions of the Mexican government. Given the political circumstances, Poniatowska’s book received almost no publicity; José Emilio Pacheco, one of Mexico’s leading poets, wrote the only published review. Nonetheless, the book was advertised by word of mouth among professors and university students eager for an explanation of the events. According to Poniatowska:
The book sold many copies because it was rumored that they were going to pull it from circulation, that agents of the Federal Security Agency had entered the bookstores to buy up the copies. Some readers would purchase 10 or 20 copies at a time. Prior to that, the publisher received a letter claiming that a bomb would be placed on the premises if the book were published. My editor, Tomás Espresate, along with his daughter, Neus, responded that they had been in the Spanish Civil War and that both of them perfectly grasped the meaning of battle. The book finally came out and many legends were spread about it, and all those rumors only benefited the book.
Demonstrating absolute cynicism, the upper echelons of the Mexican government decided that the most efficient way to reduce the book’s impact was to canonize it. They did so by conferring upon its author a coveted literary award. As Poniatowska tells it:
One day, [the journalist] Francisco Zendejas called to inform me that I had won the Xavier Villaurrutia literary prize. Fausto Zapata, President [Luis] Echeverría’s private secretary, told me that he was pleased that I had won it. I declined it through a letter to the newspaper Excélsior, where I demanded: “Who will award prizes to the dead?” It is not a book of celebration. It is a work of condemnation.
Poniatowska, now 86, compares the Night of Tlatelolco with the mass kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students near the town of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, on the night of September 26, 2014. She considers this event even more appalling, because there has still been no satisfactory official explanation of what happened, despite the parents’ unrelenting demands that the government carry out a full investigation into the fate of their children, all of whom were attending the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. With one exception, not even the students’ remains have been discovered, which would at least help these parents find some small amount of closure to this despicable crime.
Poniatowska alludes to one commonly held theory: that the government is reluctant to fully investigate the disappearances because the army was directly involved. According to this theory, the army was instructed to intercept the students by a local official, José Luis Abarca, whose wife was holding an event that Abarca didn’t want to see ruined by a group of unruly students commandeering public buses for a protest. (It should be pointed out that, as odd as it might seem, this is a tradition in student protests in Mexico, with the buses always returned later to their owners.) Many believe that the military then handed the students over to a local drug cartel, which murdered them and disposed of their remains.
Despite this apparently hopeless situation, Poniatowska believes that, given the dramatic sea change in government with the recent victory of left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, justice might finally be served for the loved ones of the disappeared students. Indeed, after meeting with Mexico’s president-elect, Poniatowska stated that his sweeping victory has awakened feelings of hope, something like a collective catharsis. When asked if she has always supported López Obrador, she offered a categorical response: “I have supported him since the day he was born, and he could be my son.”