The October 2, 1968 killings of hundreds of protesters by army soldiers in Tlatelolco, north of Mexico City is that country's Kent State and JFK assassination rolled into one. Mexico never reached full closure. Elena Poniatowska's 1971 book La Noche de Tlatelolco, an oral history of the social movement that led up to the protests and the aftermath of the protests helped.Poniatowska was in her mid 30s back then. Through novels, essays, and continued reporting, she's become one of Mexico's most sought after intellectuals. Poniatowska was moved by an invitation from Los Angeles cultural promoters Violeta Pineda and Esteban Leon to deliver a speech at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts in Spanish for working class residents. Pineda and Leon are Mexico City natives who over the last two decades have seen a growing hunger for all things Mexico City in L.A. They organize a series of trova concerts at the same center.
This year, on the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, Poniatowska's talking mostly about the uprising's unsung heroes, the soldaderas. They were the women who accompanied many of the soldiers who died in the conflict.
I spoke to Poniatowska a few days before her talk in Eagle Rock and here are some excerpts.
Why is it important for you to come to Los Angeles to deliver a speech in Spanish to immigrants and Mexican Americans?
First of all Los Angeles is the place with a huge Mexican and Central American population that continues to be loyal to their home countries, they continue to think about those countries. They've also produced very significant work. I'm thinking about Sandra Cisneros, with her book The House on Mango Street, I'm thinking also of Luis Valdez's play "Zoot Suit." Likewise, the painters and muralists, they're very important and the other artists who paint about their faith on the walls with depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In certain ways they've rid themselves of the social constraints and rules we live by in Mexico. A Mexican would never dare paint the Virgin of Guadalupe with a mini-skirt, high heels, walking on the street. In the U.S. they do.
How has your opinion of Mexican Americans changed over the years?
It's been more or less the same. There was a conference many years ago in Tijuana for female Mexican and Chicana writers. That's where I met Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, and Lucha Corpi. Broadly speaking the Chicanas and Mexicanas didn't mingle, perhaps because of a wide class divide. In general, the Chicanas were the daughters of farm workers, of people who'd been forced to leave Mexico for economic reasons. The Mexicanas were of a social class that allowed them the time to write comfortably at home. I think that for the Mexicanas it was surprising to find women who were so much more daring. U.S. culture had shaped this point of view. Many of them openly said they were lesbians, something that didn't happen in Mexico. They were very ahead of us.
What's the influence of Chicanos in Mexico?
Carlos Tortolero of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago wants to open a museum about Chicanos in Mexico City. I hope it happens because the Chicano influence in Mexico is very important. Mexicans living in the U.S. need some kind of recognition from Mexico City and from the entire country for that matter. I mean, they left the country to seek a better life and they've succeeded, through their own hard work.
You'll be speaking about soldaderas, why is it important to know about them?
Anthony Quinn, you know the actor, his mother was a soldadera. He was Mexican American. In general women are cast aside. The soldaderas were called, galletas de capitan [captain's cookies], colchon de tripa [pillows made out of guts], of the soldiers. Some were sent out to the front lines. Many picked up guns from dead soldiers and fought on. They've never been fully acknowledged. Undoubtedly without them soldiers would have deserted because the women cooked for them. In Mexico women are rarely recognized.
How should the Mexican Revolution be remembered?
Most of what we know about the Mexican Revolution is from books such as those of Martin Luis Guzman, or Los de abajo by Mariano Azuela. In regards to the women there's little to nothing about their contributions. It's always important to talk about forgotten people, people who have not been taken into account, people who've given their lives.
Women who go into power, real power, it's because they always follow the laws of the men who put them in power so they don't dare do anything else. I think this happens in the whole world. When you see Indira Gandhi, she didn't do much for other women. Even Golda Meir, she didn't do much for women, she did a lot for her country though. Margaret Thatcher, she completely forgot about women. Why was that? Because the men who put them in power have certain rules and they have to follow them or they wouldn't be in power.
What's been the reaction in Mexico to the new immigration enforcement law in Arizona?
There's an interesting phenomenon taking place. In the end, through immigration tactics Mexico is recovering the territory it lost. Those who invade the states north of the Rio Grande are the poorest Mexicans. They're advancing and mixing little by little in that famous melting pot. Undocumented Mexicans pushed out of the U.S., will always find a way around.
Your characterization of the dynamics as a re-conquest angers many Anglo Americans, who also perceive illegal Mexican immigration as a re-conquest?
There are U.S. Anglos who reject Mexicans because they don't understand how and why they arrive. They call them "Little Mexican Jumping Beans" and treat them poorly. There's a sector of Anglos who want nothing to do with Mexicans and others who fully accept them.
Are Mexico and the U.S. relations destined to be shaped by immigration and border clashes?
Remember that life is cyclical. I'm 78 years-old, I remember having interviewed little old men, poor farm workers near the border who told me, 'I used to go to the U.S. in the morning to do gardening, then when the sun set I crossed the border to go back to my house and that was no problem.' What's happening now is that this invasion of Mexicans, people who risk life and limb, has become a tragedy.
Does Mexico seem unstable from within Mexico?
The fight against drug trafficking is a horror. The U.S. remains the huge drug consumer driving this war. It's a problem that's breaking down society and unweaving Mexico's social fabric. People in Mexico are left wondering who's taking care of us? Who's worried about us? What kind of government do we have? How did we get to this point?
What gives you hope?
The Mexican character, their tenacity is admirable. It's something that's in evidence all the time. The Mexicans you see in marches are overwhelmingly kind. I remember in Santa Cruz, California meeting a poet, a dark-skinned Mexican with a mustache who told me he grew up in a family of eight in one room. He repaired cars then got a job as a gardener at the university. He'd eavesdrop on classes until a professor talked to him and said, 'Why don't you come in?' Now he has his doctorate. He told me, 'In Mexico I would have spent my life as a gardener.'
What do you want people to come away with after your talk?
I never think about messages, I'm not the Pope, I'm not the President. I just reflect what people are living and saying. I mostly listen to people. I'm always looking for answers. I'm a person full of questions. I've been like that ever since I was a young journalist. I would like people to think that Mexicans are not worthless, they had a revolution, fought in the revolution, and they're still fighting. I wasn't born in Mexico. I was born in Paris, I consider the Mexicans, even the ones who are underfed, to be the noblest people that I could ever meet.