The following is a guest post by journalist, Alice Driver, who interviewed Mexican author Elena Poniatowska for the Library of Congress’ PALABRA Archive in March of 2023.
“I have one good eye,” said Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, 91, when I interviewed her at her home in Mexico City in March 2023 for the Library of Congress’ PALABRA Archive. Poniatowska, who is tiny, wore a grey track suit, her white curls framing her face like a halo. She walked from her house, where the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books, into her garden, surrounded by cactus several times her size and flowering fuchsia bougainvillea. Her eyes to the sky, she said she continued to write novels, nonfiction, and journalism, which gave her strength and made her feel lucky.
I first discovered Poniatowksa’s work in 2001 as a student at Berea College in rural Kentucky. I read La noche de Tlatelolco (1971) about the 1968 massacre of student protestors by government snipers in Mexico City. At the time, I knew that I wanted to be a writer and to become fluent in Spanish, and Poniatowska’s work gave me a vision for work engaged with social movements and justice. I didn’t know how to make money writing, so after graduating from Berea, I worked at a coffee shop. Eventually I made my way into a Ph.D. program at the University of Kentucky to study Latin American literature. In 2012, I received a postdoctoral fellowship to study at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.
After the fellowship, I stayed in Mexico and began working as a freelance journalist, publishing in English and Spanish. In 2017, I attended the International Women’s Day march in Mexico City with over 50,000 women. Nearing the Zócalo, the largest square in the city, I got hungry and separated from the crowd to look for tacos de canasta. Walking down the street, I saw a diminutive woman with bright red lipstick and white hair, and without even thinking, I shouted, “Elena, Elena!” and ran towards her. Reaching her, I told her how much her work had influenced my life and writing. She told me she was walking to a photography exhibit by her friend Flor Garduño and invited me to join. I accepted, and she put her hand in mine to keep her balance as we entered the exhibition.
Poniatowska and I kept in touch, and from time to time, she invited me to coffee at her house. We talked about books and translation, and she told me that sometimes a translation could be better than the original. I liked that she saw translation as a literary act. It was surreal to me that I, a girl from rural Arkansas, had befriended my literary hero in the streets of Mexico City.
In 2023, I had the opportunity to interview Poniatowska for the Library of Congres. Normally, the Library asks writers to read their own work, but because Poniatowska was blind in one eye, she requested to be interviewed. We sat in her living room on her yellow couch and she said she had been writing for as long as she could remember. “When I began to work as a journalist in 1953, I realized that nobody took women seriously.” At that time, she was told she could work as a journalist MMC “mientras me caso” or until she got married. But she kept writing after getting married, publishing fiction and non-fiction, and covering the major social movements in Mexico with a focus on the role of women.
Poniatowska began her career as a journalist at 19, conducting interviews at Lecumberri Prison. There, she met painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was imprisoned in 1960 for “social dissolution” because of his involvement in the 1960 student protests. Poniatoswka remembered, “Famous prisoners like Siqueiros had two cells, one for sleeping and one for painting…There were even prisoners who visited a lover in one cell and a wife in another.” Siqueiros later exhibited the work from Lecumberri in the exhibition “My Prison Painting.”
Talking about her most famous work La noche de Tlatelolco, she said, “The mothers of students called me and told me they wanted to see me. They were indignant and said, ‘well, if they have already imprisoned or killed my son, what more do I have to lose?’” To put the risks she took in perspective, for nearly three decades, the Mexican government was silent about its role in the massacre.
In the novel Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (1978), Poniatowska imagined the letters Diego Rivera’s first wife, Russian artist Angelina Beloff, wrote to him. In our interview, Poniatowska said of her desire to write the novel, “I think that women, and especially with a person as famous and larger-than-life as Diego Rivera, the woman had a good chance of being put in second place. Right? Or being left behind.” She read about Beloff in The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera and said, “I identify with her not because my life is similar but because she was honest about her struggles. I admire her.”
As dusk fell, Poniatowska said, “I can no longer see your face.” Reminiscing on her will to write, she noted, “Writing, in a certain way, demands that you to lock yourself in, demands you to write. You can’t do that if you are out in the street all day.” I told her that I wanted to be like her, to write until my last moment. “Hasta el último momento,” she added. And then she invited me to tea, noting with levity and humor that she had plenty of time because most of her friends were dead.
Listen to Elena Poniatowska in the Library’s PALABRA Archive:
• Interview with Mexican author Elena Poniatowska (2023)
• Mexican author Elena Poniatowska reading from her work (1976)
The PALABRA Archive, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. With recorded authors from all over Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, the Caribbean, and other regions with Hispanic and Portuguese heritage populations, this archive has to date nearly 850 recordings, a portion of which are available for online streaming. The majority of the recordings from this collection are in Spanish and Portuguese, but the archive also includes sessions in English, French, Dutch, Creole, Catalan, Basque and Indigenous languages like Náhuatl, Zapotec, Quechua, and Aymara.
Additional Resources / Recent blogposts:
• “The PALABRA Archive Releases New Streaming Recordings”
• “The Poet Laureate Explores the Library’s Historic PALABRA Archive”
• “Meg and Maria: How the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Connected with Sonia Manzano”
• Learn more about Elena Poniatowska and her work by consulting the Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS).