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.”