Elena Poniatowska

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In 2013, Mexican journalist and author Elena Poniatowska won Spain’s Premio Cervantes Literature Award, the greatest existing Spanish language literature award for an author’s lifetime work. She is the fourth woman to receive such recognition. Poniatowska talks about her life and work as an author.


José Cárdenas: Good evening, I'm José Cárdenas. Tonight, we'll meet award-winning journalist and author Elena Poniatowska. All this coming up, straight ahead on "Horizonte."

Narrator: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. This week, renowned french-born Mexican journalist and author Elena Poniatowska was in the valley to kick off ASU's school of international letters and cultures' fall 2014 international artist lecture series with her talk "We Can All Be Writers". Poniatowska's works focus on political and social issues facing those considered to be disenfranchised, especially the poor and women. In 2013, she won Spain's Premio Cervantes Literature Award, the most prestigious award for Spanish language literature It recognizes an author's lifetime body of work, becoming the fourth woman to receive such recognition. Here now is Elena Poniatowska. Senora, welcome to "Horizonte." The jury that awarded the award described you as one of the most powerful voices in Spanish language literature these days. Do you agree with that assessment?

Elena Poniatowska: Well, it's very difficult for me to agree because I would be presumiendo, boasting if I did. But it was a real joy to receive that prize, and a real surprise also because I never expected it. So it was a good thing also for my country, no?

José Cárdenas: And yet you've received many, many awards over the course of your career, both from organizations in the United States. You've been recognized in chile and china, in Colombia, in many, many places. What is special about this particular award?

Elena Poniatowska: Well, it's called the Nobel Prize in Spanish. I mean, for Spanish-speaking, Spanish writing people, no? And only very few women have won it. And I was the only one who could speak on top of a púlpito, ¿cómo se dice?

José Cárdenas: Lectern.

Elena Poniatowska: The women who had received it before, they were in wheelchairs, they were old. They didn't even present themselves to receive the prize and I went there and it really was like a feast or a party because I took my 10 grand children and then my last little granddaughter, Carmen had a very charming conversation with a king because she asked him if he lived in a very big castle and he said yes, it's a very big castle, and then she said well why aren't you wearing your crown? And he said oh, I have it here in my pocket. And then she said is it nice to be a king? And he said sometimes.

José Cárdenas: Speaking as a king, we just showed a picture on the screen. You're dressed in the indigenous clothing of the women of Wajaca.

Elena Poniatowska: It was a dress given to me by the women of juchitan. They did it themselves, it's a very lovely red dress. And it has also the colors of Spain. Every time you get a prize or you receive a prize, you have to wear this dress so I did.

José Cárdenas: And almost every time you are recognized in this fashion or when people comment on your work, they talked about the juxtaposition of your quote/unquote aristocratic background and the fact that most of your writing, your journalism and your novels focus on the poor and the oppressed.

Elena Poniatowska: I think that's because I was born in Mexico, I came when I was 10 years old.

José Cárdenas: From France.

Elena Poniatowska: My mother's name is amor, paula. They changed it because it was better instead. And we came --

José Cárdenas: And she was from an aristocratic family in Mexico.

Elena Poniatowska: She married this very attractive and very good-looking Polish prince who was the descendant of the last king of Poland. So it's supposedly a royal family, no?

José Cárdenas: And you had to learn Spanish I understand. You learned Spanish from the servants.

Elena Poniatowska: Of course, in the streets. So I had a very peculiar Spanish during the early years and I made lots of mistakes, I suppose, but it made me, this language brought me near, very near people, very near, especially the poor people in the streets.

José Cárdenas: And you were educated for a period of time in the United States, high school is that right?

Elena Poniatowska: That's why I'm able to speak English with you, by the nuns in the sacred heart convent in a little town in Philadelphia. And the nuns were very nice. I don't know if the school was so good. I think I could have done better, but still they were very good people.

José Cárdenas: You returned to Mexico, you began your career as a journalist at I think the age of 18; is that right?

Elena Poniatowska: No, no, I was 21.

José Cárdenas: Some of the stories are wrong, but you were very young.

Elena Poniatowska: I was very young yes.

José Cárdenas: And you continued to write for newspapers.

Elena Poniatowska: Yes. Now, I continue, yes all I do I think now and especially now at my age, I'm 82, all I do really is work, and write. I can do nothing else because my children are already, they have their own families, they have their own children, no? So what I have to do is keep on writing, keep on working.

José Cárdenas: You talked about journalists in your remarks in Spain, both I think in acceptance of your award and then some other speeches you gave there and you talked about how difficult that position is, right now particularly in Latin America.

Elena Poniatowska: To be a journalist in Latin America, yes it is, because, first of all, when I started being a journalist, you could never speak about poverty, because, for instance, Carlos fuentes, you know of him, they got jobs when they were young, especially Carlos fuentes, they got jobs as censors. There were so many movies made in Mexico, because it was less expensive than in the states, no? John Wayne came to Mexico and there were censors of these movies. For instance, if a stray dog and a very thin skinny dog went over the plateau or the set, fuentes used say stop! This dog denigrates Mexico. And they were paid for that. So at the same time, I think there was a lot of censorship. The image we had to give of Mexico was an image given by Walt Disney. The tres caballeros. I remember this movie and this idea of Mexico with pineapples on your head and women dancing and things like that, which doesn't exist anymore, but still censorship exists. It's very difficult to criticize in my country, yes. But I think it must be also very difficult to do it in Spain, especially intellectuals are asked to give their opinion in almost everything and in the states, it doesn't exist, I don't think, for instance, Susan sonntag who was a great woman writer, she was never asked to give an opinion of what the government was doing. And in Mexico, this happens with writers.

José Cárdenas: You mentioned in your remarks how dangerous it is to be a journalist because of the drug wars among other things.

Elena Poniatowska: Yes, because of drugs. At the frontier, at the north, it's very dangerous to be a journalist because everyone knows you and mostly I think we are the most dangerous for being, catalogado, cataloged, the most dangerous country in the world for journalists and I think this year, but not this year, but the last two years, I think more than 78 journalists have been killed, especially men and especially the ones who are linked and women also, but especially men the ones who are linked with drugs.

José Cárdenas: Now, you talked about the censorship at least back in the early days when Mexico was very concerned about its image and yet the work for which you are perhaps most famous for is one that portrays Mexico in a very unflattering light. You wrote about the shootings of the student protesters in the weeks before the 1968 Olympics.

Elena Poniatowska: That was many years ago. And it's a book called massacre in Mexico. And it's about the killing of students in 1968, yes, the night.

José Cárdenas: And you wrote that at a time when it was not a good idea.

Elena Poniatowska: When it was forbidden and when yes, it was very difficult to have the book published because even the publishing house received una amenaza, threats, saying they were going to put a bomb into the publishing house and the head of this publishing house was a Catalan, and he said I've been in the civil war in Spain, I've been in Spain, I know what bombs mean. And I'm willing to take the risk and I'm not afraid of bombs and this book is going to be published. And then afterwards, there was this rumor all over the city, I don't think the country, but yes, the city, saying that the book was going to be picked up, confiscated in all the libraries. And it was very good propaganda for the book because everyone wanted to get a copy before the army of soldiers would come and get the book. And then I was offered the prize saying that this book was the book of the year. And then, of course, I said well who's going to give a prize to the dead, you know? To all the dead. I declined the prize, I did.

José Cárdenas: And it was the interior minister who offered it.

Elena Poniatowska: He was interior minister during the killings.

José Cárdenas: Now, your version of events seem to have been corroborated many, many years later, I think in 2001, there were disclosures of documents that were made public that seemed to corroborate your statements, the version of events that you gave in your book that the Mexican soldiers had fired on the students and that the provocation had actually come from other Mexican undercover agents.

Elena Poniatowska: Yes. But you have to imagine, not imagine but this book is a book of voices. It's the voices of all the people who took part in this, even the students who went to jail, who went to jails. So it's their voices, the voices of the citizens, the voices of the leaders, and even the voices of people against the students movement saying why are not -- why aren't the students in front of their desks studying? Why are they out there in the streets? So it was a huge collage of voices and especially of the voices of many of the people, many of the students who were killed.

José Cárdenas: You talk about the voices of the people involved. Your writing has been described as testimonial writing, not just in that context but in other books that you have written. Do you think that's an accurate description?

Elena Poniatowska: It is a writing that comes out of what people say or what people care about. I've written many stories. Now, I've written stories like every other writer writes a story, using himself or using a friend or using whatever he thinks of life, no? But still, what I've done is really is maybe because I wasn't born in Mexico is to document my country. When I arrived as a girl, I remember I loved geography and I saw a map of Mexico and in this map, I saw many pieces of land, zones that had to be discover. Zonas por descubrir. France is a country where every little piece of earth is cultivated, there's something on every piece of earth in France, but not in Mexico. So what I started to do is try to know for myself, know my country the best I could, and then for others also. And there are still places in Mexico city that no one knows about. And people, especially people, indigenous people, that also no one knows about. Women, old people, and children.

José Cárdenas: And speaking of women, they tend to be at the forefront of many of your writings. You've written some stories about the women who fought in the Mexican revolution. And the thinking is -- you've been described as a feminist writer.

Elena Poniatowska: For instance, the soldaderas, the camp followers in Mexico, they were considered almost prostitutes, no? Women who just followed soldiers or followed the troops, but I think that without them, there would have been absolutely no revolution, because they cooked for the men, they followed him, they slept with him, they took care of him. And when the men died, maybe even could be a general, they would take the musket, they would shoot and even they would ride on horses. They were very extraordinary women and they were never taken into account. So that is why I have been so keen on giving women their place. Usually, Mexican society easily forgets its women. Easily. They know all about now - Frida Kahlo who's almost like the Virgin of Guadalupe. But they don't seem to know anything about women, no? And women have very little participation in, for instance, politics and when they do, they do whatever men tell them because it's the men who have brought them into power.

José Cárdenas: Speaking of women and politics, when you accepted the award, you commented on the women who were part of the movement in 1994. And you talked about what this meant to them.

Elena Poniatowska: Yes, because women, indigenous women, for instance, they said they wanted to drive a car like the men did, like the men or the other soldiers. They said that they wanted to look in the eyes of the men they chose, not to be chosen or changed for alcohol, which happened before this they didn't want to be taken to the house of the -- it's not foster parents, it's their suegros.

José Cárdenas: The in-laws.

Elena Poniatowska: Their what?

José Cárdenas: In-laws.

Elena Poniatowska: And spend the night there. They said they really wanted to have the children and that they could have and that they could bring up and they said especially we want to drive a car like the men do. So it was a change. It was an enormous change because women usually, they hide like this, they hide their face, they're always praying, they have about 10 children, it's a very difficult life for women in Mexico. And suddenly for them to say things like that, it was almost like a miracle. No it was so surprising and so touching and it was very important for women in Mexico, all kinds of women, rich women also.

José Cárdenas: Overall, do you think the lot of women in Mexico has improved in the years that you've been observing their situation?

Elena Poniatowska: Well, what improves any human being is education. What we need in Mexico most of all, we need to be fed, we need not to feel hungry. We have to fight hunger. But mostly we need education. And if all women have education at the university, for instance, now, which is one of the biggest -- you know, it's better -- it's one of the biggest universities in this continent, and it's a good university, also. There are many women in philosophy, literature, for instance, and women who stand out and are very extraordinary, but still, for instance, in politics, women have done nothing, which is important.

José Cárdenas: Let me ask you about your views of the United States and its immigration policies. I read a number of years ago when President Obama was elected, you expressed a great deal of hope about what that might mean for improving relationships with Mexico for immigration and so forth. He has come under a lot of criticism most recently for postponing some immigration reforms that he had promised to make. What's your view now of the relationship between the United States and Mexico as regards to immigration, Arizona in particular, and President Obama?

Elena Poniatowska: It's a very complex -- it's a very complex situation, especially for Mexicans because now the Mexicans who are not received in the United States, who are kicked out so to say and go back, they all stay in Tijuana and there's a big franja, a big like an avenue of people in, for instance, Tijuana and all the towns at the border, of people who are waiting who don't want -- who are not capable to come back to their homes, and I think they're in a horrible situation and they're very badly treated, badly treated, they were badly treated, of course, when they were sent back by the Americans, and they're very badly treated by the Mexicans and, for instance, Mexicans have a reputation of treating also immigrants very badly because of all the ones that come from Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador, now they won't let them go on top of the roof, on top of the roof, but they are treated by the Mexican authorities, the Mexican police and the Mexican soldiers or whatever, the army, they are treated as well, I think they say they're treated worse than the Americans treat the Mexicans.

José Cárdenas: We're almost out of time. Let me ask you about your lectures at ASU. You're going to talk about I think the title of your speech or your lecture is we can all be writers. Is that really true?

Elena Poniatowska: In a way it's true, of course, if we work. We can all be writers if we really dedicate our time to it and if we work. But I think writing is a way of expressing once, it's a way of speaking out. It's a way of observing. You have to look at what's happening. And you have to look at others, you have to look at people in the eyes. You have to be -- you have to watch, which is I don't know if it's a good word for this, but I think writing has to do with living and when you live, you write down, you can write very easily right now what you've seen during the day at night, you know.

José Cárdenas: You've written dozens of books.

Elena Poniatowska: Yes.

José Cárdenas: And I know this is a difficult question for any writer but is there one in particular that's your favorite?

Elena Poniatowska: The one I'm going to write or the one I'm writing right now.

José Cárdenas: Is that always the case?

Elena Poniatowska: It's always the case because if I didn't love it, or I didn't believe in it, I wouldn't do it and I have to believe in it. I make myself believe in the book I'm going to write, I'm writing, so to give it life and to push it out.

José Cárdenas: And we're almost out of time. I know you're working on a book right now, can you give us a preview?

Elena Poniatowska: It's a book on Diego Rivera, everybody speaks about Frida Kahlo, but there was another woman, Lupa Marie, Rivera's second wife before Kahlo. She bore him two daughters who died of cancer, and I think she was an extraordinary person because she wasn't a good women. What one considers a good woman.

José Cárdenas: This is a book about their relationship?

Elena Poniatowska: Not about relationship with Diego, but she wasn't -- she wasn't a good mother, she wasn't a good wife. She wasn't good, which is very interesting.

José Cárdenas: On that note we're going to have to end the interview. I'm sorry we're out of time. Thank you so much for honoring our show.

Elena Poniatowska: Thank you for inviting me.

José Cárdenas: That's our show for tonight. From all of us on "Horizonte" and eight, thanks for watching. I'm José Cárdenas, have a good evening.

Narrator: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight. Members of your Arizona PBS station.

Elena Poniatowska:Mexican Journalist and Author;

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