I live in Mexico City. If I’d read the texts from Mexico collected on Words without Borders Campus over a year ago— that is, before late September and early October 2014—I would have read them differently than I do now. Many of the writings here refer to Mexico’s Aztec past, or are written by members of its indigenous minority, and describe native traditions and the hard but often spiritually rich rural lives those traditions are closest to—before, I might have considered some of these writings to be folkloric, or simply experienced them as interestingly distant from urban realities. Not anymore.
Ayotzinapa* changed all of that. The forty-three young students, still teenagers, most of them, who were studying to be rural schoolteachers at the Ayotzinapa Normal School and who were “disappeared” in Iguala, Guerrero, on the night of September 26, 2014, were mostly from Guerrero’s extremely poor, rural indigenous communities. The disappearances of those students—a crime of state, without a doubt—now defines and will forever define these years in Mexico.
Putting the remembrance of the victims ahead of the place where the crime occurred, we live in an abyss that most of us call Ayotzinapa, not in Iguala, where a corrupt mayor, police, a narco gang, and federal forces all colluded in the crime, while higher-up authorities have been engaged in what increasingly looks like a criminal cover-up. If "Todos somos Ayotzinapa" ("We are all Ayotzinapa,") as the slogan shouted out at so many protests marches and carried aloft on so many banners goes, then we are all poor indigenous normalistas now, and we are their families and neighbors, too. In reality, most of us are not them, of course, but in some part of our hearts, we are. That simple, poetic metaphor has now become a part of Mexican reality; it holds out the hope and promise of even greater transformation.
Nowadays, when we analyze and talk about what is happening in Mexico, we talk about Ayotzinapa, a state crime that now stands for and symbolizes so many other crimes—so many tens of thousands more disappeared people, for example—that have taken place across Mexico during these past terrible years. “Fue el Estado!"—It was the State—that’s another slogan regularly chanted at the protest marches over Ayotzinapa.
Probably whoever reads this collection of literature will be struck by how much violence it contains. Readers will undoubtedly understand that they are reading about a country that has fallen into a deep crisis of violence, lawlessness, government corruption and impunity. Nothing feels normal anymore, or right, here. We’ve kind of forgotten what normal should be like in Mexico, we only know that we can’t allow what we’re living through now to become a permanent normal.
Nowadays, we don’t talk about literature—about fiction, poetry, essays—as we normally would, which is to say how we usually would in better times, and this collection of Mexican literature, for the most part, reflects that emergency. For example, much of the writing included here focuses directly or reflects on the violence and horror that has become such an unavoidable feature of life in Mexico in recent years. But, of course, not all Mexican literature is a response to violence, far from it.
Mexico has a rich and varied literary tradition. It originates in the sacred writings and poetry of the Aztecs, Mayas and other pre-Columbian nations, of course. The Western narrative prose tradition, bringing the legacy of the sublime and unsurpassable Don Quixote, arrives in Mexico with the chronicles of the Spanish conquest, especially through that singular masterpiece, that real-life epic tale of chivalry, madness, violence, lust, greed, magic and horror, the Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, which the eminent twentieth century novelist Carlos Fuentes regarded as Mexico’s first great novel.
In the twentieth century, there is one very slender Mexican novel that towers over all others, Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, a novel that seems to speak from Mexico’s most ancient rural being in a poetic and distilled and formally innovative and time-altering way, a modern and universal masterpiece of world literature. Pedro Paramo has spawned several Mexican literary traditions all on its own: some that look inward into Mexico, others that look outward to the European and U.S. experimental avant-garde. For example, just a partial list of Mexico’s most important twentieth century novelists would include authors as varied as Rosario Castellanos, who often wrote about the indigenous Maya of her native Chiapas; the politically sharp Elena Garro; the titanically prolific Carlos Fuentes, author of the great Mexico City novel, Where the Air is Clear, and a classic portrayal of Mexican politics and power, The Death of Artemio Cruz; Rafael Bernal, who unforgettably Mexicanized the detective novel and “noired” the capital in The Mongol Conspiracy; and Josefina Vicens, closer in spirit to Beckett or Kafka, author of a masterpiece about an office worker who wants to write a novel but can’t, The Empty Book.
Contemporary Mexican writers, too many to list here, have shaped their prose into every form imaginable, addressing every conceivable theme and setting: rural, urban, the U.S.-Mexican borderland, psychologically inward, social, maximalist, minimalist, upper class, working class, realist, surreal, fantastic, fabulist, sci-fi, experimental, sorrowful, playful, you name it. In this anthology, Aura Estrada’s haunting and spare "A Failed Journey" is the one piece that gives us a glimpse of the middle class Mexico City that I more or less live in, and that so many of Mexico’s contemporary writers actually grew up in. But its voice of childhood loneliness and yearning is universal, as is its evocation of an absent working mother, and of the global economy’s depressing lure and façade.
Mexico’s poetic tradition has if anything been even more universally celebrated than that of its prose; here, if Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz doesn’t quite tower over the landscape as formidably as Juan Rulfo does over the Mexico of prose, it’s because Mexico’s abundance of poets and poetic movements and traditions is overwhelming and mercurial and fragmented, and just much too vast for any one shadow to uniformly fall across it. Depending on where you are standing, maybe it is a fecund young genius, practically a poet rock star, such as Luis Felipe Fabre, who seems to characterize this moment. Or no, maybe it’s the extraordinary, verbally and conceptually fecund Coral Bracho. But what about Sara Uribe’s harrowing, brilliant, Antigone Gonzalez, a book-length poem that narrates a woman’s search for her disappeared brother, a hybrid work that borrows from forms as seemingly unpoetic as journalism, and brings us deep inside the traumatized spirit of the violent and tragic contemporary Mexico so present in the literature collected here?
The cronica, the nonfiction form that rose to prominence with the first mass-produced newspapers, has ever since been an important Latin American genre, but has especially remained vital in Mexico. Part personal essay or memoir, part journalism, sometimes more one than the other, the cronica looks outward—at violence, at the teeming city, at the daily lives and occupations of others, at social mores, popular culture, and so on—often in order to also look inward, expressing these realities in a personal and individual way, so that many good cronicas are like nonfiction short stories, while others try to explore the impact of those outer phenomena on a collective consciousness. The late Carlos Monsiváis was perhaps the most celebrated twentieth-century master of that form. But some of the country’s contemporary masters, as indispensable to us now as Monsiváis was to his readers twenty years ago, are published in this online collection: Fabrizio Mejía Madrid and Juan Villoro. Anybody who wants to understand how the current crisis was triggered in Mexico and so quickly and devastatingly overtook us only needs to read the two cronicas included here.
Villoro’s terrifying, staggering, exhaustive piece, written in 2010, which reads and deciphers all the signs of a descent into hell, seems, regarding what lay ahead, both prescient and heartbreakingly innocent. Villoro writes:
Many say: ‘It'll end in three years' time anyway, when the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional] come back into power,’ because they are convinced that we are embroiled not in a national struggle but in a presidential one. This belief is based more on resignation than on hope. The party that governed the country for seventy-one years is seen as the anti-hero we need to restore order. A piece of graffiti sums this up: ‘We've had enough of incompetence, bring back corruption!’
The PRI, under President Enrique Peña Nieto, did indeed regain power in the 2012 elections. The politicians of the PRI brought Mexico Ayotzinapa. They brought both incompetence and corruption. Mexicans no longer think of their government as being ineptly and disastrously engaged in a war with the narco cartels. They know that whether at the local level, such as police, or nationally, Mexican authorities, politicians and criminals have, in too many parts of this astoundingly beautiful and noble and hard-working country, become one and the same. Mexico is now more terrifyingly “adrift in uncharted waters,” as Villoro wrote, than ever before, its most powerful criminals still “intent on going unpunished.”
This Words without Borders collection provides an urgent introduction to and insight into the Mexican crisis. But even in the worst of times, very distinct artists flourish, or react to their times in highly idiosyncratic ways. Try to remember that many of Mexico’s greatest literary works were written in a Mexico that was, frankly, better than the one Mexicans are living in now. Hopefully, someday, the crisis will end. In the meantime almost all the writers I’ve mentioned in this piece are available to readers in English. Check some of them out, too.
Update April 2016: The New York Times summarizes the findings of an international panel of experts who concluded a year-long investigation of the Ayotzinapa case. -- Eds.
Update May 2018: The A.P. reports, "Thousands Protest Brutal Killings of 3 Mexican Film Students." Commenting on the targeting of young people by drug cartels, organizers said: "Our dreams and our voices will not be dissolved in acid."
Supplementary Reading: Spanish-language authors and English-translated works mentioned in this essay
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote
Bernal Diaz del Castillo: The Conquest of New Spain
Rafael Bernal: The Mongol Conspiracy
Josefina Vicens: The Empty Book