Mexican Journalist Elena Poniatowska:
"Angel's wings and a smile"
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5115 Vilas Communications Hall
821 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706
Phone: (608) 263-4080
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Mexican Journalist Elena Poniatowska: "Angel's wings and a smile"
Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska (b. 1933) writes to create a sense of
"belonging." The lack of belongingDas a woman, a foreigner, an elite in her
countryDdeeply influences her writings. As a woman, her writings were criticized
and not taken seriously, especially since she began her career in journalism.
Poniatowska felt she had to prove she was a "real" journalist and her work
eventually received national and international recognition. Her sense of
insecurity, possibly arising from her association with male intellectuals in the
1950s, influenced her decision to use interviews and testimonial literature. In
these genres, Poniatowska's voice would be supported in the voices of others.
Her preoccupation with women and the poor in Mexico has placed her in a special
relationship to her adopted country. Poniatowska speaks more about herself,
women, and Mexico through a series of interviews from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Mexican Journalist Elena Poniatowska: "Angel's wings and a smile"
When artists draw Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska (b. 1933), they
"always put on angel's wings and a smile." In fact, for the cover of her book
El domingo siete, Rogelio Naranjo drew a caricature of Poniatowska as the
guardian angel of the Mexican people. This portrayal of one of Mexico's
outstanding authors and journalists as a smiling angel reflects her public image
and her relation to Mexico. During her more than forty-year career as a
journalist and writer, Poniatowska has become known as the voice of the
oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized. She also characterizes herself as a
feminist and writes about and for women. Poniatowska's Hasta no verte, Jes#s m!o
(1969) is now in its 35th edition and her book about the 1968 massacre of
students, La noche de Tlatelolco, is in its 50th printing. Poniatowska is also a
master interviewer, becoming in 1978 the first woman to receive Mexico's
National Journalism Prize for her work. "My style derives from my daily life,"
Poniatowska said. However, on the surface, her daily life has little relation
to the lives of the subjects in her books. A question then arises about how a
French-Polish "princess" becomes the "voice of the Mexican poor." To find the
answer to this and other questions, I turn the tables and look at the
interviewer when she becomes the subject of interviews. Fourteen published
interviews with Poniatowska and a handful of personal essays or speeches ranging
from the early 1970s to the 1990s comprise my main source of information. The
purpose of the paper is not literary criticism nor to synthesize what others say
about Poniatowska. Rather, I will explore what she says about herself, about
women, and about Mexico.
Poniatowska on Poniatowska
Elena Poniatowska was born into an aristocratic family in 1933 in Paris,
France. Her father, Juan Evremont Poniatowski Sperry, was a Frenchman of Polish
ancestry and her mother came from a family of wealthy Mexican landowners. Among
her ancestors was the last King of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus, and a Marshall
of France under Napoleon, Prince Josef Poniatowski. Her mother's family lost
their lands after the Mexican Revolution and during the L zaro C rdenas
administration they spent most of their time traveling in Europe. It was
during these sojourns in Europe that Elena's mother, Paula Amor, was born in
Paris. Poniatowska relates that her mother still speaks better French than
Spanish. Paula Amor could tell "incredible stories about what it was like to
have been a member of the landed gentry [in Mexico]. For example, the train was
routed through [the hacienda La Llave] just so her family could get off. They
were the only passengers who went to La Llave."
Elena and her sister were sent to the south of France when World War II
started. During the war, Poniatowska's mother drove an ambulance and her father
was a soldier. Once her mother was reprimanded for saving a donkey and putting
it in the ambulance. Her parents were "very young, very good-looking, very
irresponsible, and not very conscious of danger." Elena was first educated at
a parochial school: "we got special treatment because we were considered
princesses, because of my father's family name." Poniatowska remembers that
she got to know her mother when the family escaped war-torn France on a refugee
boat to Mexico in the early 1940s. "My grandparents and governesses had been
taking care of us before, and after that we had se$oritas." Elena's father
did not join the family in Mexico for seven more years. This early nomadic life,
reflects Poniatowska, later influenced her writing and her desire to belong to
just one country.
Once in Mexico, Elena began to learn Spanish even though her family thought
it unnecessary. "I learned Spanish because I didn't need to. To some degree, it
was thought to be the language of the colonized. It wasn't a language you really
needed to know, my household assumed." She learned Spanish from the servants
who worked in the house. "In fact, until recently I still used certain
expressions used by less educated people. . . .If you speak to me in the
language of Platero y yo or Cervantes, that Spanish is utterly unfamiliar to
Elena's family sent her to the English "Windsor School," the Liceo
Franco-Mexicano, and later to Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the Convent, said Poniatowska, "they
overemphasized religion. We spent too many hours in church. On your birthday,
your friends would give you a 'spiritual bouquet' as a gift, which meant
attending thirty masses and saying four hundred prayers, 'God bless XXX.' Each
girl would make a pile of little cards, write a little affectionate message, and
list all the sacrifices she'd offered. . . . I was a little reserved during the
first few months, but then I grew to like it because I enjoyed making
sacrificesDall those slightly masochistic things they'd make you do. I washed
all the dishes. I helped the sisters." Elena was educated to be "a child of
Mary, of God, or of the Holy Spirit" and given "the kind of old-fashioned
education that wasn't designed for thinking."
She finished high school and returned to Mexico, where she was told she
could be a trilingual secretary. At the time, she said she didn't have the drive
to do anything particular: "I thought I could be a journalist, but I could also
play the guitar, or I could sing." At one time, she even wanted to be a
cabaret singer. Poniatowska relates that she thought about journalism
"because I wanted to go to France to do interviews. I thought that through my
grandfather, who was a well-known writer, I could meet intellectuals and
interview them for the paper."
One day in 1954, "my mother took me to a cocktail party for the U.S.
ambassador [Francis White]. The next day, I interviewed him. It was a big break
for me because this man hadn't even held a press conference until I interviewed
him. Furthermore, Excelsior, one of the major newspapers in Mexico City, was
pro-American at that time. With what was a stroke of luck, they published my
interview. And they asked me to do another. I didn't know who to interview.
Excelsior was located near the Hotel del Prado. I saw that a singer, Amalia
Rodrigues, who sang Portuguese fados, was staying there. I went to her room to
see her, she let me in, I did the interview, and that's how I got started."
That first year she did 365 interviews, one every day: "corr!a como una rata
atarantada por toda la ciudad buscando a mis entrevistados." Poniatowska was
not only an untrained writer, she was completely unfamiliar with Mexican history
and culture. She would ask famous writers and artists questions such as "why are
you so fat?" or "why do you have baby teeth?" "En M xico hab!a mucho formalismo,
mucha solemnidad. Se trataba a las grandes figuras, a los pintores se les tomaba
mucho en serio, hac!an declaraciones siempre para la posteridad y talladas en
piedra, a m! me parec!a raro. Yo ven!a de un convento de monjas de Estados
Unidos y no sab!a qui n era Diego Rivera y le preguntaba: 'Y esos dientes, (son
de leche?'D'S!, y con ellos me como a las ni$as,'Dy a partir de eso arrancaba
una entrevista bastante est#pida y lo publicaban. La juventud lo salva a uno de
todo." Her style of interviews and reporting broke with previous
journalistic traditions in Mexico. "When I started going to these events,
however, I began to look at what was really happening, and if the President
tripped, I would write, 'The President almost fell flat on his face at the
entrance to the Chamber of Deputies.' Although this made my reports sound very
disrespectful, it also gave them a sort of validity. I used to say things like
'The President's wife wore a horrible hat,' without the least awareness of what
I was doing and without any idea of who was powerful and who was not. So, this
created a style that gave greater freshness, and in some measure greater
accuracy, to the interview and the chronicle." Even though Poniatowska
maintains that she would write about the rich and powerful "without the least
awareness of what I was doing," others say that it wasn't so much na vet as it
was a display of her genius and later political position. Writer Sara Sefchovich
said that the questions Poniatowska asked in interviews "son un alarde de
ingenio, que no de ingenuidad como se ha pretendido, y una toma de posici"n
contra lo que le parecen los excesivos elogios a quienes han cometido 'afrentas'
e 'ignominias.'" Poniatowska also suggested that her interviews were also "a
way of acquiring knowledge" because her educational studies were "so
Her family, of course, was opposed to the idea of her being a journalist
and hoped that she would soon tire of it. "Provengo de una familia donde la
gente aparece en el peri"dico, en Le Figaro, nada m s tres veces en su vida:
cuando nace, cuando se casa y cuando muere. Aparte de eso, su nombre s"lo se
publica en los diarios cuando quiere vender algo o es cabaretera. Para mi
familia fue duro, pero tuvieron paciencia pensando, yo creo, 'pronto se le pasar
.' A m! me educaron para otras cosas: tocaba el piano, la guitarra y cantaba La
Llorona y La Malague$a."
In the first months, Poniatowska said, Excelsior paid her very little money
for the interviews and "then when I said something that I wasn't supposed to,
that is, that wasn't in the interests of the newspaper, they fined me." 
Poniatowska had to prove to the editors and other journalists that she was
committed to her work. "At first they said, 'That girl isn't serious, let's see
if she has the spirit to continue for a month.' They seemed to think I was doing
it just for pleasure. As they got to know me they said: 'Let's see how long she
can last.' Then when they saw that I was very serious about my work, that I was
sticking to it and all that, they began to pay me better." After a year at
Excelsior, she changed to the newspaper Novedades, where she worked for more
than thirty years.
In the 1950s, Poniatowska also began to publish other works. She wrote a
short novel, Lilus Kikus (1954), a satiric play Meles y Teleo, and Palabras
cruzadas (1959), which contained a series of her interviews including those of
Fran ois Mauriac, Luis Bu$uel, L zaro C rdenas, and Fidel Castro. Other books
included Rojo de vida y negro de muerte, Todo empez" el domingo with painter
Alberto Beltr n, and Los cuentos de Lilus Kikus. During this time, Poniatowska
married astronomer Guillermo Haro, who died in 1987, and began her family. She
eventually reared three childrenDEmmanuel, Felipe, and Paula.
The fundamental turning point in her life, Poniatowska writes, was in 1963
when she met Josefina B"rquez. From several years of interviews with
Josefina, Poniatowska constructed her novel Hasta no verte, Jes#s m!o (1969),
which won the Mazatl n Prize in 1970. The events in the life of the main
character Jesusa Palancares, a soldadera in the Mexican Revolution, were loosely
drawn from the experiences of Josefina, Poniatowska said. Since her early
childhood the world of the servants and that of Josefina always fascinated
ElenaDprobably because it was so alien to her own upbringing. "I must say
that no one from my own social class or milieu has enriched me as much as Jesusa
Palancares, a woman I found extraordinarily fascinating, because her world was
so different from mine. In fact, I based a character in one of my novels on her,
which she didn't recognize as herself. When I tried to read her the novel, she
said I had made everything up and none of it was true." Jesusa's language
was a composite of many servants she had known since her childhood. "Es el
lenguaje en general que utiliza la gente pobre, la gente que trabaja. . . . Yo
creo que eso me acerc" mucho a ese mundo, e inclu! en el libro este mundo que yo
conoc!, con el mundo de la Jesusa y lo mezcl . Este inter s en ellas fortaleci"
mi inter s en la Jesusa." From her experiences with Josefina, Poniatowska
became aware of the situation of the poor people in Mexico. Josefina also taught
her important lessons about life: "Es una de las gentes que m s amo porque me ha
dado lecciones muy importantes de fuerza, de entereza, de rigor."
Poniatowska and her writings became "politicized" and she began to write about
social problems in Mexico. Ever since then, all her writings have had a bit of
Jesusa or Josefina in them. "Yo creo que ella tuvo una influencia muy decisiva
en m!. Siempre siento que todo lo que pienso y hago, que mis libros, lo que
escribo, todo est un poco repitiendo a la Jesusa . . . Ya antes sab!a de las
injusticias sociales y todo eso, pero en realidad fue a ra!z de ella que sent!
que se comet!a una gran injusticia con la gente muy pobre de M xico."
The publishing of Hasta no verte coincided with the 1968 student movement
in Mexico and the death of her brother Jan in an automobile accident in December
of that yearDall events that fundamentally changed her. Poniatowska was not
directly involved with the student movement because she was pregnant with her
second son, Felipe, at the time. However, she followed the events closely as the
students protested in Mexico City. She related how she found out about the
massacre in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas: "El 3 de octubre vino a verme una
amiga muy queridaDMar!a Alicia Mart!nezDy me cont" lo que vio en Tlatelolco.
Primero pens que exageraba pero luego, conforme supe m s cosas, me impresion"
tanto el relato que me fui a Tlatelolco: vi los vidrios rotos, la gente haciendo
cola, los elevadores donde se ve!an los impactos de las balas, manchas de sangre
en la piedra. Empec a apuntar todas esas cosas, pero sin pensar que estaba
preparando un libro." After many of the students and leaders were arrested
she began to visit the prisons every Sunday. Some of her friends and her
husband's friends from the universities were also in prison, such as Dr. Eli de
Gortari. Since the guards did not allow visitors to bring in writing materials
and tape recorders, Poniatowska listened closely and then returned home to write
down the stories. She did not think of writing a book until one day when she
talked to some friends at the publishing house and told them she had collected
notes on the massacre. They encouraged her to put them in book format and La
noche de Tlatelolco [Massacre in Mexico] was published in 1971. Even though
the book was extremely critical of the Mexican government, the book won the 1970
Xavier Villaurrutia Literary Prize. In an open letter she refused the award,
asking who was going to give prizes to the dead. She was further appalled that
President Echeverr!a was going to give the award since he was Secretario de
Gobernaci"n in 1968 and would have known and been responsible for the massacre.
"Entonces yo dije que yo rechazaba ese premio, que yo no quer!a ning#n premio,
que no era un libro para festinarse ni para festejarse, no. Era un libro de la
muerte, que era un suceso terrible, una masacre y que no se pod!a dar el
premio." In retrospect, Poniatowska said that the 1968 movement changed her
in several ways. She became a nationalized Mexican citizen to avoid the threat
of deportation, she began to actively participate in politics, and she learned
to love her adopted country even more. "En primer lugar me hizo querer m s a mi
pa!s, participar activamente en la pol!tica. Me hizo nacionalizarme; entonces yo
era una pinche francesa y a ra!z de La noche de Tlatelolco me llamaron de
Gobernaci"n para informarme que ten!a problemas con me FM-2, y como estaba
casada con Guillermo Haro, me nacionalic de inmediato. Por eso, no exagero al
decir que el movimiento me arraig", profundiz" mi conciencia de lo que era ser
mexicano." Through La noche de Tlatelolco Poniatowska also developed her
style of testimonial novels, a style she uses in many of her best-known books.
In the following years she continued to actively work in journalism, which
she found to be completely absorbing. "Your work comes out on the following day,
by which time you're already writing something else which is going to be
published the day after. One day you write and the very next day it's out, and
so you find yourself living in a kind of snowball of unconsciousness and
contentment. It's difficult to leave that state by choice and, of course, when
you do come out of it you're always elated, at least until you find yourself
entering the most absolute depression." She took her profession very
seriously and based her actions on what she thought the "ideal journalist" would
do. For example, she felt that as a journalist she should be a witness to
historic events. "No student movement was repressed or annihilated as violently
as the Mexican one. So I thought that anyone who wanted to be called a
journalist had to write on this event which was fundamental in the lives of so
many." After the 1985 earthquake she went with friend to a Red Cross center
and her friend couldn't stop crying when she saw all of the people suffering. "Y
yo pensaba: '(A m!? Yo s muy bien c"mo hago las cosas.' En Auschwitz, con mi
mam , vimos este campo de concentraci"n y me dijo mi mam , 'No quiero ver. No
puedo.' Hab!amos visto lo que est primero, un museo con grandes vitrinas llenas
de rastrillos, aparatos ortop dicos, cabellos, brochas para enjabonarse la
barba, anteojos, todo. Entonces mi mam dijo, 'Te espero, yo no sigo.' 'Ay no,
yo soy periodista, yo s! voy, tengo que ir a ver, porque yo soy periodista.' Ah!
fui, y despu s, toda la noche vomit , durante tres d!as. Mi primera reacci"n
era, 'Yo puedo verlo todo, soy periodista.' Y no es cierto. Era horrible. En el
terremoto, fui a todo, vi todo lo que hab!a que ver."
Through journalism she also developed a literary career. Poniatowska
published a number of books including Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (1978)
[Dear Diego], a series of love letters from Angelina Belot to Diego Rivera; Gaby
Brimmer (1979), the life history of a girl with cerebral palsy; De noche vienes
(1979), a collection of short stories; La casa en la tierra (1980), a
photographic essay; Fuerte es el silencio (1980), a series of four accounts of
the desaparecidos and the poor in Mexico; El #ltimo guajolote (1982), accounts
of Mexican traditions; El domingo siete (1982), interviews with presidential
candidates; -Ay vida, no me mereces! (1985), accounts of contemporary Mexican
authors; La "Flor de lis" (1988), a semi-autobiographical story of a young girl;
Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor (1988), about the 1985 Mexico City
earthquake; and Tin!sima (1989), a biographical novel about Tina Modotti.
Poniatowska won the Mazatl n literary prize the second time with Tin!sima.
Nada, nadie follows the tradition of La noche de Tlatelolco and Fuerte es
el silencio in its criticism of the Mexican government. Speaking about Nada,
nadie, Poniatowska said in the days following the earthquake she talked with
everyone she could, asking for their stories. "Hablaba con todo el mundo. Ni
siquiera sab!a. No preguntaba si quer!an hablar, nada, nada. No buscaba a nadie
ni les dec!a que era periodista ni nada. Llegaba yo, que qu pas", qu les hace
falta. Uno dec!a que ten!a mucha hambre, entonces !bamos por una torta mientras
platic bamos. Y todo era as!. Mientras habl bamos, mientras est bamos en esos,
hac!a las entrevistas." In retrospect, Poniatowska said, it was easier to
write about the 1968 massacre than it was to write about the 1985 earthquake
because of the emotional and physical stress she experienced.
Poniatowska helped start two feminist magazines, fem and Debate feminista,
in Mexico; she also was a founder of Editorial Siglo Veinti-uno and Cineteca
Nacional. She teaches writing classes and lectures in Mexico, the United States,
and other countries. Poniatowska says she is influenced by many writers
including Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo who were "friends, protectors, and guides"
when she was a young writer. Her circle of friends in Mexico includes Carlos
Monsiv is, Jos Joaquin Blanco, Aguilar Camini, Margo Glantz, Mar!a Luisa Puga,
and Sylvia Molina.
Through her writing, Poniatowska attempts to explain the events around her.
She also sees her writing, especially with interviews, as a learning
process. "Whenever I interview people I always think they are going to give
me the solution to the mystery and tell me what needs to be done. I continue to
be an absurdly candid person, as I have been all my life. I always believe in
others more than I do in myself, so interviews are always a search for
solutions." Poniatowska hopes to pay her debt to the world with her writing
and "justificar mi presencia, justificar mi estancia, pagarme mis viajes al
cielo, justificar la vida que tengo."
Poniatowska on Women
When Poniatowska first started practicing journalism in the 1950s she felt
like she was entering a desertDher characterization of this male-dominated
profession. She recalls that in one 1954 story she tried to write from a man's
point of view: "En ese cuento quise ser hombre, transformarme en hombre, (no? Y
el personaje que se llama Rosa, lo escrib! desde el punto de vista de un
hombre." However, since that time she has not only developed her own writing
style, but also became an active supporter of the women's movement in Mexico.
This change is probably a result of her interaction with Josefina as well as her
constant struggle to work in journalism. Unlike many Latin American women,
Poniatowska openly defines herself as a feministDand has done since the early
1970s. "I feel considerable solidarity with women," Poniatowska now says, "and I
want women to have the same opportunities men have with their bodies and with
their work, as well as equality of salaries and the same possibilities for
advancement." Poniatowska often comments on the broad societal status of
Mexican women, as well as dealing more specifically with women writers and her
Even though Mexican women have not obtained equality, Poniatowska says, it
is obvious that their position today is better than that of their
grandmothers. However, "me angustia mucho la vida de las mujeres
mexicanas." Still in Mexico, a woman is "la se$or de. . . Eres la
pertenencia, la cosa de. Entonces, el status legal en muchos aspectos depende
simplemente deDo depende totalmenteDde la capacidad de la mujer de adquirir
independencia econ"mica, es decir, de saber hacer algo." The economic
problems contribute to the marginalized status of women. Poniatowska said that
older middle or lower class women will stay in abusive relationships because
they need the financial support, especially when they are 55 or 60 years
old. However, she does not believe "que el destino de la mujer sea el que le
haya impuesto la sociedad, ni tampoco el destino del hombre. Yo creo que las
cosas han evolucionado." The so-called "feminine attributes" such as
submissiveness, said Poniatowska, are imposed from society and are not a
"natural" part of a woman's character. At times, Poniatowska becomes bitter
when she speaks about the challenges women face in Mexico. "The Mexican macho is
always ready not only to dominate a woman, but also to squash her if he can;
when he has squashed her and rubbed her into the floor, then he says, 'Now you
need me.' Then he picks up that human garbage, that mop on the floor, and then
she is his woman who will wait on him, bring him coffee, take care of him and
more or less take care of his children, because he has taken all of her blood,
all of her will and desire to do something in life other than serve him and be
his self-sacrificing little wife. . . . It happens to any woman in Mexico who
wants to do more than be a self-sacrificing wife, because Mexican husbands in
any field will not tolerate a woman who does more than that. It is a problem of
competition, and of custom, and also because many women accept it." Despite
the problems, Poniatowska enthusiastically admires Mexican women and their
struggles for justice. "Creo que hay algunas absolutamente admirables, como
Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, que organiz" a las madres de desaparecidos pol!ticos;
como Evangelina Corona, que es la l!der de las costureras y ahora es Diputada en
la C mara, y una serie de mujeres, realmente de primera, (no? Las ha habido a
trav s de toda la historia de M xico, en general de las clases sociales m s
At the same time Poniatowska speaks out against injustices, she constantly
denies that she is a social critic of machismo or patriarchy. "Nunca he podido
criticar ideas [such as machismo] as!. Yo creo que nada m s retrataba lo que yo
ve!a." Despite this pronouncement, she criticizes the social structure by
highlighting the problems women writers face in Mexico and Latin America. Women
are marginalized in literature and intellectually, Poniatowska says. Latin
American women face twice the problems because they run into barriers both as
women and as Latin Americans. "Era doble el trabajo que ten!a que hacer ella
para ser aceptada." She feels that men are preferred to women writers and
that women continue to have a harder time in publishing their books. "En
general, las propias mujeres se han sentido siempre muy, muy marginadas dentro
de la literatura." Speaking in 1990, Poniatowska said, "hasta hace muy poco,
a lo que hac!a la mujer, se le daba mucho menos valor que a lo que hac!a el
hombre." Another problem is that women are not respected in their
professions. "Siempre se suele decir, en M xico, que ha conseguido tal o cual
puesto por ser la amante de tal o cual personaje muy principal. Las luchas por
salir adelante las han tenido todas las mujeres." The hardships women
writers face in society contributes to their high rate of suicide, Poniatowska
maintains. She once said that society killed the writer Rosario Castellanos like
it kills all the women who try to do something. As evidence, she constantly
lists the many Latin American women writers who have committed suicide:
"Alfonsina Storni drowned herself, Antonieta Rivas Mercado shot herself in front
of the altar of Notre Dame, Rosario Castellanos electrocuted herself, and, more
recently, Violetta Parra and Alejandra Pizarnik killed themselves, too."
Poniatowska says that this reflects larger problems in society. "Es culpa de una
sociedad hostil que no ayuda a la mujer desenvolverse -para nada!"
When she talks about her own experiences as a woman writer in Mexico, her
first reaction is to say that she has never experienced any discrimination. In
1978 she said, "Jam s he sintido que me rechazaran o me discriminaran por ser
mujer." However, earlier she spoke about the difficulties she faced.
Well, one falls victim to one's own obstacles. At first, when I
began in journalism, the biggest obstacle was a certain kind of
criticism. That was about twenty years ago, when I was only twenty.
They said: "But how do they let that girl walk around by herself!
Something's going to happen to her! It's very dangerous." They also
said that being a journalist was a waste of time for a woman and that
women writers shouldn't appear in newspapers. Of course the bulk of
such criticism was due to the social ambiance. But besides that, I
didn't have any real writing experience or preparation for a career.
And so I fell victim to my own obstacles; I was my own obstacle. I
didn't feel that there was much discrimination because the terrain was
very virgin and very deserted. By now there should have been many more
good women journalists, at least fifteen or so, but I don't see any
women who are passionate about journalism. That's why I feel it's
still a desert.
Poniatowska also talks about the difficulties in organizing her personal life so
she can work. "The life of a housewife is hard for meDto have the responsibility
of children and the house and, in addition, to try to work. Very difficult to
relate the two things. But I think it's that way for any woman." Another
problem, said Poniatowska, is that people do not take a woman writer seriously.
"For example, my friends phone and always ask, 'Is madam busy?' Then, if the
servant says, 'She's writing,' they say, 'Oh, tell her to come to the phone.'
But if the servant were to say, 'She's taking a bath' or 'She's in the kitchen
preparing a dessert,' then they'd say, 'I'll call back later.' But if I'm just
writing, that doesn't matter to anybody, it doesn't impress anybody, and I have
to go to the phone immediately. Apparently, they don't consider it an
interruption. In fact, it's an absolute lack of respect for the woman writer.
They imagine that a woman is just writing her memoirs or perhaps a stupid letter
to a girlfriend or that what she has to say can't be important to anybody except
to herself, and so is of little consequence. It's a very tough battle,
terrifying and tragic."
Poniatowska sees her writing as part of the battle to prove that what she
does is of consequence. At the same time, she is constantly fighting her own
feelings of insecurity about her writings. She tries to avoid criticizing the
major male literary figures in Mexico, but she is aware of the societal
constraints they impose on women. "Mira que yoDte hablo de m! porque parto de mi
realidad, (no?Ddespu s de los cincuenta a$os, me had dado cuenta . . . siempre
pens que yo deb!a estar al servicio de los escritores hombres. Yo me dediqu
toda mi vida a hacer entrevistas a Octavio Paz, a Carlos Fuentes, a Juan Rulfo,
a toda la literatura mexicana y latinoamericana. Pero esto encantada de hablerlo
hecho. Me encantaba porque es parte de mi trabajo y aprend! mucho. Fue un enorme
aprendizaje. Fue una escuela viva y les debo mucho. Yo le debo mucho a Paz. Le
tengo mucho reconocimiento. Pero de todos modos, decidir que yo tengo algo que
decir, ese paso me cost" mucho. Es, haste cuenta, atravesar un precipicio. Y
caerme adentro del precipicio y volver subir." Speaking of the intellectuals
in Mexico during the 1950s, Poniatowska said, "Querer es un decir. Se quieren a
s! mismos. En general no quieren a las mujeres." This can be seen, she said,
in how they extensively criticize women writers. In retrospect, Poniatowska said
she did not feel any discrimination as long as she was in the service of the
intellectuals or as long as she did not question or threaten their position.
Yo no sent!a resistencia mientras yo hiciera lo que los
intelectuales pensaban que deb!a de hacer, es decir su propaganda. Me
dediqu a entrevistarlos durante much!simo tiempo, y eso les pareci"
siempre bien. Era muy d"cil, y sigo siendo muy d"cil. Escrib!a las
entrevistas y los art!culos que me ped!an, estaba realmente a su
servicio. Mientras lo hice hubo reciprocidad en el cari$o. Pero
durante muchos a$os result" tan absorbente el periodismo que te chupa
todo el tiempo. Adem s cre!a que deb!a de servir, y lo que yo quer!a
verdaderamente, hacer una novela, pasaba a segundo lugar. Escrib! muy
poquito. Todo el tiempo hice periodismo, con verdadero delirio, porque
escrib! much!simas entrevistas. Incluso durante un tiempo traduj
art!culos pol!ticos para una revista pol!tica que se llamaba El
Espectador, que hac!an V!ctor Flores Olea, Carlos Fuentes, Jaime
Garc!a Terr s y Enrique Gonz lez Pedrero. A m! no me dijeron jam s,
"Oye, t# misma escribe un art!culo."
The social ambiance and her unequal relationship to the male intellectuals
contributed to the feeling that what she writes is not important, that her words
have to be supported in others, that she must speak through other people. It is
extremely difficult to change this attitude, says Poniatowska, "porque es un
proceso interno, de cambio interno, y es un cambio interno muy duro. Y m s en
Latinoam rica porque uno tiene la formaci"n religiosa cat"lica. Entonces tiene
una la formaci"n tradicional de Am rica Latina que es muy dif!cil. Sobre
nosotras pesa la Conquista, pesa la religi"n, pesa toda una sociedad que est
conformada de tal manera que la mujer est muy bien . . . Nos pesa la indolencia
y la conveniencia. Es mucho m s f cil estar casada con un se$or y o!rlo, y que
te d dinero cada semana para el gasto, que lanzarte t# sola a resolver tus
problemas. -Es un esfuerzo terrible!"
Poniatowska may have chosen the genre of testimonial literature and
interviews because of the insecurities she felt as a woman writer in Mexico.
"Dej de hacer mis libros por falta de seguridad en m! misma. Creo que me
refugi en el periodismo porque necesitaba que mi voz estuviera apoyada en
otra." Throughout her career, male critics have reinforced the insecurities.
After she published Hasta no verte, the critics praised the work, saying that it
was good enough to be written by a man. Although at the time, Poniatowska
said that was "high praise," she now challenges the idea that such a work could
have been written by a man. Women, she maintains, often have a specific
voice when they write. Her ability to talk about women's writings has developed
over the years along with the growth of the feminism in Mexico, although she
pointed out that she was writing about women long before people started talking
about "feminism." In the early 1970s, she said Hasta no verte could not have
been written by a man simply because it was about a woman. In later
interviews, Poniatowska said that "there is a difference between a book written
by a woman and a book written by a man. . . . I think that structurally we write
differently and our themes are those that men sometimes wouldn't choose."
Male writers in Mexico, she said, do not or cannot create worthwhile female
characters. Women also "have a more extensive language than men because women
have not yet given all they can give, as they are very insecure and don't
believe their own words. When women finally cut loose, they'll give us a
language which will flow like a river." Women journalists, moreover, have
contributed to the profession by changing the rhetorical language and taking up
issues of human rights and minorities. As a woman writer in Mexico,
Poniatowska still feels that she must fight for recognition and respect in a
male-dominated society. Her personal experiences with discriminationDdespite her
early denials of its existenceDalong with the struggles of other Mexican women
are defining influences in her writings and personal activities.
Poniatowska on Mexico
Poniatowska's works, said Sefchovich, can be seen as one long interview
with Mexico: "Los libros de Elena son una sola y larga entrevista para conocer
M xico o, como dice ella, 'para saber qu diablos somos y qu diablos es nuestro
pa!s.' Una larga entrevista y un largo testimonio." Poniatowska frequently
speaks about her love for her adopted country. Mexico, she says, "is in my guts,
it beats within me, it is born within me, it is a country that I chose to love
and never leave." It is special to her not only because it is her mother's
country, but because she consciously chose to become a citizen.
The purpose of her writing is to give voice to those who have none, to
speak on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized. Many people have written
about other aspects of Mexico, but she feels a personal responsibility to the
poor. She did not focus on her potential audience, but on the subjects of her
writing. "Hay muchos M xicos. Y yo rescato los que tienen menos acceso a la
publicidad y a los peri"dicos: el m s adolorido, el m s humilde, el m s sufrido,
el m s oscuro, el menos conocido. Pero hay much!simos M xicos que han sido
rescatados por otros, (no?" On another occasion, Poniatowska said she writes
for "los que no tienen acceso, no tienen ni voz, los que est n siempre
silenciados." Part of the reason, Poniatowska says, that she writes about
the poor is that these people often are illiterate and do not have access to the
mass media. "Giving a voice to those who have none has always been one of my
goals as a journalist." Although this statement may be a bit problematic in
its assumptions about who has power to "give" a voice, the idea defines most of
Poniatowska's writings. Throughout her career, Poniatowska explains, she
documented the major events in her country. It is more important to write about
what is happening out in the street than to create fiction or write about
personal experiences. In fact, she said she dedicated about thirty years of
her writing career to social causes. She did not emphasize her own fiction or
literary career "porque no eran #tiles para mi pa!s."
Poverty is very visible in Mexico, Poniatowska explained to one
interviewer. "Apenas se llega a M xico lo primero que uno ve en la calle es la
mendicidad, la cantidad de ni$os que est n pidiendo limosna y las madres
ubicadas en la mitad de la calle vendiendo chicles, kleenex. Yo creo que
cualquiera que ve ese panorama siente preocupaci"n social." When she returns
to Mexico from visiting the United States or other countries, she sees the stark
contrasts and the poverty. This should be enough motivation for anyone, says
Poniatowska, to become politically active and try to change society. "Cuando
llego a mi pa!s, desde que llego empiezo a sentir la opresi"n de decir 'Ay, mi
pa!s, pobrecito de mi pa!s.' Empiezo a ver todos los cerros pelones, pelones,
pelones. Hay rboles secos, secos, secos. No es como Israel que se hace un
vergel, una cosa de verdor y un bosque. Luego veo esas casitas tan chiquitas,
chaparritas, que los hombres parecen salir de all! como de perreras y me duele
mucho, porque yo quisiera tener lo mismo que hay aqu! [in the United States]. No
es por envidia; es simplemente por justicia humana."
One example of her relation to Mexico can be seen in the account of the
1985 earthquake. Poniatowska did not personally feel the earthquake very
strongly. However, as soon as she discovered all the damage in Mexico City, she
began to work with the rescue operations, helping day and night. She recounts
how some of her friends called her and asked why she was not using her writing
talents to record the events. With this incentive, Poniatowska spent the next
three months writing about the earthquake. The newspaper articles were later
collected and published as Nada, Nadie.
En los d!as que siguieron fui a lo Colonia Guerrero, en el
centro, y a otra colonia en San Antonio Abad. Una noche me llam" Julio
Scherer, de la revista Proceso, y me dijo, "Oye, (qu est s haciendo,
Elena?" Y yo, "Pues, estoy haciendo lo que todos hacen, (no?" Me dijo,
"Acabo de hablar con (Carlos) Monsiv is y dice que (qu est haciendo
la mejor cronista de M xico sentada en su casa?" "Ay, pues no estoy
sentada en mi casa pero no puedo escribir. De qu serve escribir; hay
que ayudar con las manos." Entonces me dijo, "Tienes que hacer lo que
t# sabes hacer, Elena, y no andar cargando cubetas que otros pueden
cargar." Luego ya me habl" Monsiv is y me dijo, "Ponte a escribir."
Empec a amargar al peri"dico Novedades, hasta que me dijeron que ya
no les diera los art!culos, porque, yo creo, hab!an recibido una orden
del gobierno. Me dijeron, "-No! Eso deprime much!simo a la gente y ya
no hay que hablar de eso." "Pues, a m! lo #nico que me importa es
hablar de eso." "-Ay, no, no!, no hay que hablar de eso, eso ya no
interesa." Ese d!a que me lo dijeron, ten!a yo el art!culo en la mano,
estaba La Jornada del otro lado del Kentucky Fried Chicken de Novedades
, y me fui a La Jornada. Y me lo publicaron. Entonces empec a
publicar diario, diario, diario, durante casi tres meses. Y me acuerdo
que a los tres meses, ya me dije, "No, ya esto lo voy a parar, porque
ya es cerca de la Navidad."
The dialog here illustrates how Poniatowska is often "asked" to write about
certain topics. "I generally write all my books on request." In fact,
she characterizes her works as assignments or mandas.  "Es que yo siempre
tengo como encargos o mandas. En M xico se hacen mandas a la Virgen de
Guadalupe, al Santo Ni$o de Atocha; as! vas, y entonces vas a rezarle a tal
santo. Yo as! hago mis libros, como mandas." A manda is a promise or a vow
made to God or a saint in the Catholic religion. In a similar fashion,
Poniatowska sees herself as making promises to Mexico and other people to write
about certain topics. She treats these promises as seriously as if they were
promises to God. She internalizes the events about which she is writing so they
become very personal, especially with La noche de Tlatelolco and Nada, nadie.
"Well, as you can see, I can't stand it, for example, with Nada, nadie I got
sick and it took me a long time to recuperate. If there is a third tragedy here
in Mexico, I won't be able to chronicle anything, it will have to be someone
younger. I won't be able to get involved at all because I know that would be the
end of me; no, it is too much already."
Poniatowska's most famous works are very strong political critiques of the
Mexican government and society. However, she repeatedly states that she is "not
a political expert." Rather, "the only posture that I have maintained
through the years is my defense of the weak and oppressed of this earth. I
believe that everything is political, and as such it should concern all of us.
Authors who claim they don't deal with politics in their work are being na ve,
because even that is a political stance." Poniatowska says she wants people
around her to be happy and that her goal would be to know that everyone had
eaten as well as she had.
Even though Poniatowska says all her writing is political, she does not
associate with one specific political party. In the early 1980s, Poniatowska
related that she was often labeled a Communist; however she would characterize
herself as "a reactionary romantic" or "a feminist, a socialist." These
political ideas have "nothing to do with indoctrination or initiation," but
arise from "the guilt feeling of the bourgeoisie." Poniatowska says, "I'm
more interested in real people, attracted by a major event and people than by an
idea. Ideas come later." Since she is not a politician and "doesn't have
the answers," all she can do as a journalist and writer is denounce the
injustices in Mexico. This political stance was formed, as noted earlier,
through her experiences with Josefina, the 1968 student movement, her work as a
journalist, and her associations with other women and the poor.
Unlike many critics of the Mexican government, Poniatowska said she has
never suffered reprisals for her works. This may be because she has a very
active guardian angel. "Yo tengo un ngel de la guardia como del tama$o del
mundo. Nunca me ha tra!do ning#n problema. Al contrario. Por ejemplo, La noche
de Tlatelolco, que se dijo que era un libro muy en contra del gobierno, cuando
me quisieron dar un premio, me dieron el premio Villaurrutia." On further
reflection, Poniatowska said, "Well, they've never given me an important
position, I will never be a millionaire, never anything, but they have never put
me in jail." Another possibility, she said, is that she has "a tremendous
lack of awareness or excessive candidness which has been preserved over
time." Despite her denials, she has had some opposition. For example, there
was a bomb threat against the publisher of La noche de Tlatelolco. Another time,
she gave a speech on freedom of the press and said that it didn't exist in
Mexico: "Pues pienso que hay libertad de prensa hasta que lo mata a uno, como en
el caso de Manuel Buend!a que lo asesinaron y todav!a no se descubre qui nes
fueron sus asesinos." After that statement, a police car followed her for
several days. One possible explanation for the lack of reprisals is that the
government may not see Poniatowska as much of a threat because of her social
status and marginalized position as a woman in Mexico.
As I noted earlier, perhaps the most striking feature of Poniatowska's life
is the contrast between her role as an elite woman and her role as a "voice of
the oppressed." In one interview, Poniatowska said she wouldn't characterize
herself as a "spokeswoman for the Mexican people," but that she was "interested
in working-class people." The gap between her class and the class of her
subjects often becomes apparent in her conversations and writings. For example,
since the 1960s Poniatowska has been working on a book about labor activist
The whole thing has been an enormous amount of work because I'm
not familiar with the working-class milieu. I know nothing about
unions. And he personally bores me because he talks in clich s and,
like every fighter, he doesn't want to say anything about his personal
life. So it's taken a lot of time and effort to immerse myself in that
environment and invent characters and sentiments for those characters.
I don't even know how they think. I don't even know what they like or,
rather, I do know what they think and it's not interesting to me.
That's my problem. "La Jesusa" in Hasta no verte always surprised me,
said things which seemed completely incomprehensible, from another
world, and had a kind of magical quality for me which the thing I'm
working on now doesn't have. Vallejo's wife, for example, tells me
that what she wants most in life is a breakfast room. Do you
understand? A place to have breakfast. Vallejo doesn't even want to
possess a chair, and here she yearns to have a breakfast room. Well,
since breakfast rooms are not my own ambition, it's difficult for me
to really get inside that type of character. So I tear out my hair and
decide that I'm just not going to do it. I invent a thousand pretexts
to avoid working and progress only very slowly.
In fact, Poniatowska said that after she had written a draft of the book she
read it to Vallejo and he fell asleep. "Todo el libro sobre l ya est escrito
pero sali" muy aburrido. Para el propio Vallejo era tan aburrido que se dorm!a
mientras yo le le!a los cap!tulos. Le serv!a de somn!fero." By her own
admission, she does not understand the working class very well. The Left in
Mexico criticized Poniatowska for her lack of understanding of the workers and
Poniatowska uses several strategies to deal with the conflicts between her
class position and her concern for the poor. First, she is open and honest about
her position and her feelings of guilt and hypocrisy. "No me gusta hablar mucho
de mi politizaci"n porque . . . porque es muy f cil. Mira d"nde estamos. Estamos
en un cuarto precioso, acabo de comer un grilled cheese sandwich, un yogurt de
cherries y aqu! estoy hablando de la pobreza latinoamericana. Entonces se me
hace que cualquier cosa que yo puedo decir ser!a como Judas, como hip"crita,
como Tartufo. Ahora, yo te puedo decir que me preocupa much mi pa!s. Amo mucho a
mi pa!s." In a personal essay, Poniatowska talks about the contrast between
her world and that of Josefina. "On Wednesday afternoons I went to see Jesusa,
and in the evenings I accompanied my mother to some cocktail party at one
embassy or another. I always tried to maintain a balance between the extreme
poverty I shared in the afternoon and the glitter of the receptions. My
socialism was two-faced. Climbing into my really hot bath, I recalled Jesusa's
washtub, under her bed, in which she soaked the overalls and bathed herself on
Saturdays. . . . I have never gotten so much from anyone; I have never felt more
to blame." At times, she attempts to find links between her own experiences
and those of her subjects. For example, when she wrote about the 1968 student
movement, she brought in quotes from her brother Jan, who was a student at the
time. Even though Jan was not killed in the protests, emotionally she links his
death with those of the other students.
Secondly, in her day to day work she bridges the gap between rich and poor
with her sympathetic, empathic, and generous character. She has an incredible
talent to establish personal relations and talk with the people. "Siempre me ha
sido muy f cil entablar relaci"n con la gente, muy f cil. Con los intelectuales
a veces es mucho m s dif!cil, o con artistas. Pero con la gente nunca ha sido
dif!cil, en los mercados, en donde sea." She becomes personally involved in
people's lives. When she was collecting information about the 1985 earthquake,
Monsiv is criticized her for "sentimental" involvement with the people. "El me
dec!a mucho, 'Para qu estableces relaciones personales? T# escribe y se acab".'
No pod!a s"lo escribir, sino que iba por la silla de ruedas, por la cama, a la
despensa por el arroz para que tuvieran qu comer. Este tipo de cosas te
desgasta much!simo emocionalmente. Para escribir es nefasto involucrarse, y l
me lo dijo: 'No te metas tanto.'" The guilt she feels drives her to write
even more passionately about her adopted country. One example of this occurred
with Nada, nadie. "Trabaj bien las primeras p ginas, y despu s puse todas las
entrevistas como salieran porque me cans , me desesper , no pude manejar ese
material. Claro, en fr!o lo habr!a podido manejar quiz , tomar unos buenos tres
o cuatro meses para rehacer el libro. Pero ya no pude, no tuve fuerzas. (Para
qu estoy dale y dale con eso? Estaba muy cansada, muy exacerbada. Era como
decirle a M xico, 'Ya, tomen su libro, ah! est , yo ya no puedo, ya no puedo.' Y
tard" mucho en publicarse." In this case, she even personified Mexico and
offered her manda to the country.
"I write in order to belong," says Poniatowska. The lack of
belongingDas a woman, a foreigner, an eliteDdeeply influences her writings. As a
woman, her writings were criticized and not taken seriously, especially as she
began her career in journalism. Poniatowska felt she had to prove she was a
"real" journalist. Her work eventually received national and international
recognition. Her sense of insecurity, possibly arising from her association with
male intellectuals in the 1950s, influenced her decision to use interviews and
testimonial literature. In these genres, Poniatowska's voice would be supported
in the voices of others. "I have always wanted to lose myself in others, to
belong to other people, to be the same as them. It is always the others who are
right, who hold the key to the enigma. Since then, my capacity for entering the
lives of other people has been unlimited, to the point that I could no longer
hold myself back, define my limits, much less define myself. To this day, if I
ask so many questions, it is because I don't have a single answer. I believe I
will die like this, still searching, with a question mark engraved on my
As a foreigner, she adopted a country so she could have a place to belong.
She did not just adopt Mexico, but became an active parent, preoccupied about
her "children." As an elite, she continually negotiates her feelings of guilt
through her politicized writings. It is no wonder then, that Poniatowska is
portrayed as a smiling angel. She is located above the countryDuntouchable, of a
high social standing, an on-looker or observer of Mexican society. Her writings
are mandas, promises to keep with God, an attempt to pay for her sins of being
born to an elite family. However, her testimonial literature, her preoccupation
with women and the poor, give her a special role as a guardian angel. Since she
has negotiated the gap between rich and poor, Poniatowska brings the hope of
uniting the "many Mexicos" in her wings. And, of course, the smile represents
her genuine sympathy, her heart, and her honesty.
Bellinghausen, Hermann. "Los muchachos de entonces: Entrevista con Elena
Poniatowska." Nexos: Sociedad, Ciencia, Literatura (January 1988): 101-102.
Berger, Beatriz. "Elena Poniatowska: 'Rescato el M xico m s humilde, m s
adolorido.'" In Escritores de Am rica: 31 entrevistas publicadas en
"Revista de Libros" de El Mercurio. p.261-269. Santiago, Chile: Editorial
Los Andes, 1993.
Carmona, Krista Ratowski. "Entrevista a Elena Poniatowska." Mester 15.2
Dimitriou, Agnes L. "Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska." Letras femeninas
16.1-2 (Spring-Fall 1990): 125-33.
Egan, Linda. "Feminine Perspectives on Journalism: Conversations with Eight
Mexican Women." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 12 (1993):
Garc!a Pinto, Magdalena. Women Writers of Latin America. Intimate Histories
, trans. Trudy Balch and Magdalena Garc!a Pinto. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1991.
Garc!a, Kay S. "Interview Elena Poniatowska." In Broken Bars: New
Perspectives from Mexican Women Writers. Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, 1994.
Gautier, Marie-Lise Gazarian. "Elena Poniatowska." In Interviews with Latin
American Writers. Elmwood, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
Gonz les, Patricia, and Eliana Ortega. "Testimonios de una escritora: Elena
Poniatowska en micr"fono." In La sart n por el mango, encuentro de
escritoras latinoamericanas. Puerto Rico: Ediciones Hurac n, 1985.
M ndez-Faith, Teresa. "Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska." Inti 15 (Spring
Miller, Beth. "Interview with Elena Poniatowska." Latin American Literary
Review 4 (Fall-Winter 1975): 73-78.
Pacheco, Cristina. "A diez a$os de la noche triste de Tlatelolco: en charla
con Siempre! Elena Poniatowska revive las horas m s sombr!as de M xico."
Siempre!, no. 1320, 11 October 1978.
Poniatowska, Elena. "A Question Mark Engraved on My Eyelids." In The Writer
on Her Work: Volume II. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Poniatowska, Elena. "And Here's to You, Jesusa." Trans. Gregory Kolovakos
and Ronald Christ. In Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary
Latin American Authors. Ed. Doris Meyer. Berkeley, Calif.: University of
California Press, 1988.
Rosas, Lorraine. "Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska." Plaza 5-6 (1981-1982):
Sefchovich, Sara. "Elena." Nexos 13:151 (July 1990): 10-11.
Steele, Cynthia. "Entrevista: Elena Poniatowska." Hispam rica 18, nos.
53-54 (August-December 1989): 89-105.
Garc!a, Kay S. Broken Bars: New Perspectives from Mexican Women Writers.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
J rgensen, Beth Ellen. The Writing of Elena Poniatowska: Engaging Dialogues
. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Kerr, Lucille. "Gestures of Authorship: Lying to Tell the Truth in Elena
Poniatowska's Hasta no verte Jes#s m!o." MLN, 106, (1991): 370-394.
Manjarrez, H ctor. "La indiscreci"n de Elena Poniatowska." Cuadernos
Pol!ticos No. 24, January-March, 1981: 103-114.
Schaefer, Claudia. "Updating the Epistolary Canon: Bodies and Letters,
Bodies of Letters in Elena Poniatowska's Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela
and Gaby Brimmer." In Textured Lives: Women, Art, and Representation in
Modern Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
Starcevic, Elizabeth. "Elena Poniatowska: Witness for the People." In
Contemporary Women Authors of Latin America: Introductory Essays. Ed. Doris
Meyer and Margarite Fer ndez Olmos. Brooklyn: Brooklyn College Press, 1983.
Steele, Cynthia. Politics, Gender, and the Mexican Novel, 1968-1988: Beyond
the Pyramid. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Sternburg, Janet. The Writer on Her Work: Volume II. New York: W.W. Norton,
 Sara Sefchovich, "Elena," Nexos 13:151 (July 1990): 11.
 Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier, "Elena Poniatowska," in Interviews with Latin
American Writers (Elmwood, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989), 204.
 Gautier, 204; Magdalena Garc-a Pinto, Women Writers of Latin America.
Intimate Histories, trans. Trudy Balch and Magdalena Garc-a Pinto (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1991), 163.
 Garc-a Pinto, 164.
 Ibid., 165.
 Ibid., 164. In Polish, a name ending -ski is masculine while -ska is the
 Ibid., 165.
 Ibid., 166.
 Patricia Gonz les and Eliana Ortega, "Testimonios de una escritora: Elena
Poniatowska en micr fono," in La sart_n por el mango, encuentro de escritoras
latinoamericanas (Puerto Rico: Ediciones Hurac n, 1985), 159-160.
 Garc-a Pinto, 170.
 Ibid., 171.
 Lorraine Rosas, "Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska," Plaza 5-6 (1981-1982):
 Gautier, 202-203.
 Garc-a Pinto, 172.
 Gonz les and Ortega, 160. [I ran around the whole city like a restless rat
looking for my interviewees.]
 Ibid. [In Mexico there used to be a lot of formality, a lot of solemnity.
The great figures, the painters were treated or taken very seriously. Their
declarations were made for posterity and carved in stone, which was strange to
me. I came from a convent of nuns in the United States and did not know who was
Diego Rivera and I asked him, 'And those teeth, are they baby teeth?' 'Yes, and
with them I eat little girls.' And from this I pulled quite a stupid interview
and they published it. Youth saves one from a lot.]
 Gautier, 206.
 Sefchovich, 11. [. . . are a display of ingenuity, not na<vet_ like has
been supposed, and take a position against the excessive praise given to those
who have committed indignities and disgraceful (acts).]
 Garc-a Pinto, 177.
 Cristina Pacheco, "A diez a_os de la noche triste de Tlatelolco: en charla
con Siempre! Elena Poniatowska revive las horas m s sombr-as de M_xico,"
Siempre!, no. 1320, 11 October 1978: 59. [I come from a family where people
appear in the newspaper, in Le Figaro, no more than three times in their life:
when they are born, when they marry, and when they die. Other than this, your
name is only published in the newspapers when you want to sell something or if
you are a cabaretera. It was hard for my family, but they were patient thinking,
I believe, 'this will soon pass.' I was educated for other things: I played the
piano, the guitar and sang La Llorona and La Malague_a.]
 Beth Miller, "Interview with Elena Poniatowska," Latin American Literary
Review 4 (Fall-Winter 1975): 76.
 Elena Poniatowska, "A Question Mark Engraved on My Eyelids," in The Writer
on Her Work: Volume II, ed. Janet Sternburg (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 87.
 Beatriz Berger, "Elena Poniatowska: 'Rescato el M_xico m s humilde, m s
adolorido,'" in Escritores de Am_rica: 31 entrevistas publicadas en "Revista de
Libros" de El Mercurio (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Los Andes, 1993), 264.
 Pacheco, 59.
 Gautier, 205. Poniatowska did not use the real name until after Josefina's
death in 1987. In earlier interviews and writings, she would call Josefina by
the character's name, "Jesusa." In later interviews, she would sometimes use
 Gonz les and Ortega, 159-160. [It is the language in general that the poor
people, the people who work, use . . . . I believe that this language drew me
closer to this world, and I included in the book this world I knew, with the
world of Jesusa, and I mixed them. This interest in [the language of the poor
and their world] strengthened my interest in Jesusa.]
 Pacheco, 59. [She is one of the women that I love the most because she
taught me important lessons about strength, fortitude, rigor.]
 Teresa M_ndez-Faith, "Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska," Inti 15 (Spring
1982): 57. [I believe that she had a very decisive influence on me. I always
feel that everything I think or do, that my books, what I write, everything is
repeating a bit of Jesusa. . . . Before I knew about the social injustices and
all that, but in reality it was because of her that I began to feel that a great
injustice had been committed against the very poor people of Mexico.]
 Hermann Bellinghausen, "Los muchachos de entonces: Entrevista con Elena
Poniatowska," Nexos: Sociedad, Ciencia, Literatura (January 1988): 101.
 Pacheco, 58. [October 3 a very dear friend came to see me Mar-a Alicia
Mart-nez and told me what she saw in Tlatelolco. At first I thought she was
exaggerating, but then as soon as I found out more, the account made such an
impression on me that I went to Tlatelolco: I saw the broken windows, the people
standing in line, the elevators with the bullet holes in them, blood-stained
stones. I began to note down all these things, but without thinking I was
preparing a book.]
 Rosas, 63. [Then I said that I rejected this prize, that I didn't want an
award, that this wasn't a book to celebrate nor to be celebrated. This was a
book about death, a terrible event, a massacre, and it couldn't be given an
 Bellinghausen, 101. [In the first place, it made me love my country more
and actively participate in politics. It made me become nationalized; at the
time I was a low-class French girl and as a result of La noche de Tlatelolco the
government called to inform me that I had problems with my FM-2 (documents), and
since I was married to Guillermo Haro, I was nationalized immediately. Because
of this, it isn't an exaggeration to say that the movement strengthened,
deepened my awareness of what it was to be Mexican.]
 Miller, 76.
 Gautier, 209.
 Cynthia Steele, "Entrevista: Elena Poniatowska," Hispam_rica 18, nos.
53-54 (August-December 1989): 102-103. [And I thought, 'Me? I know very well how
to do things.' In Auschwitz, with my mother, we saw this concentration camp and
my mother said, 'I don't want to see any more. I can't.' We had seen what was
first, a museum with great glass cases filled with playing pieces, orthopedic
devices, hair, shaving brushes for beards, eye glasses, everything. So my mother
said, 'I'll wait, I'm not going farther.' 'No, I'm a journalist, I'm going, I
have to go and see because I'm a journalist.' So I went, and after, I vomited
all night and for three days after. My first reaction was, 'I can see
everything, I'm a journalist.' This isn't true. It was terrible. After the
earthquake, I went to see everything, I saw everything there was to see.]
 Berger, 268.
 Steele, 103. [I talked with all the world. It didn't matter with whom. I
didn't ask if they wanted to talk, nothing, nothing. I didn't look for people
nor tell them I was a journalist, nothing. I came and asked what happened, what
they needed. One person said he was hungry, so we went for food while we talked.
Everything was like that. While we talked, while we were in the middle of
everything, I did the interviews.]
 Bellinghausen, 101.
 Gautier, 210.
 Garc-a Pinto, 179.
 Berger, 268.
 Gautier, 210.
 Sefchovich, 10. [. . . justify my presence, justify my existence here, pay
my way to heaven, justify the life I have.]
 Steele, 91. [In this story I wanted to be a man, transform myself into a
man. The person who is named Rosa, I wrote about her from a man's point of
 Garc-a Pinto, 180.
 Pacheco, 58.
 Sefchovich, 11. [ . . . Mexican women's lives trouble me a lot.]
 Agnes L. Dimitriou, "Entrevista con Elena Poniatowska," Letras femeninas
16.1-2 (Spring-Fall 1990): 129. [ . . . the lady of . . . You are the belonging
or the possession of (someone). So, the legal status in many aspects simply or
totally depends on the women's capacity to acquire economic independence, or to
know how to do something.]
 Ibid., 130. [ . . . women's destiny will be that imposed by society, nor a
man's destiny. I believe things have changed.]
 M_ndez-Faith, 59.
 Kay S. Garc-a, "Interview Elena Poniatowska," in Broken Bars: New
Perspectives from Mexican Women Writers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico
Press, 1994), 26-27.
 Berger, 267. [I believe there are some absolutely admirable women, such as
Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, who organized the mothers of the disappeared; like
Evangelina Corona, who is a leader of the seamstresses and now is a
representative in the House, and a series of women, really first-rate. They have
been there throughout Mexico's history, and generally in the lower social
 Steele, 98. [I have never been able to criticize ideas (like machismo). I
believe that I just record what I see.]
 Dimitriou, 125. [A women has to do twice the work to be accepted.]
 Ibid., 126. [Generally, women have felt very, very marginalized in
 Ibid., 127. [Even a short time ago, a women's work was not prized as
highly as that of a man.]
 Berger, 266. [It is often said, in Mexico, that she has such and such
position because she is the lover of such and such important person. The women
have had to fight to move ahead.]
 Gautier, 213; Dimitriou, 126.
 Berger, 266. [It is the fault of a hostile society that doesn't allow a
women to develop.]
 Pacheco, 59. [I have never felt rejected or discriminated against because
I was a woman.]
 Miller, 74-75.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid., 76-77.
 Dimitriou, 128. [Look I speak to you about myself because I am speaking
from experience after fifty years, I realized . . . I always thought that I
should be in the service of male writers. I dedicated all my life to
interviewing Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, all Mexican and Latin
American literary figures. I was delighted to have done so. It was good because
it was part of my work and I learned a lot. It was a huge time of learning. But
in accounts, to decide that I had something to say, this step took a lot of
effort. It is, note this, to cross a cliff. And fall and return to climb.]
 Steele, 90. [Like is a saying. They like themselves. In general they don't
 Ibid., 90-91. [I didn't feel any resistance while I did what the
intellectuals thought I should do, which is to say, their publicity. I dedicated
myself to interview them over a long period of time, and this pleased them well.
I was very docile and I continue to be docile. I wrote the interviews and the
articles that they asked, I was really at their service. While I did so, they
reciprocated the affection. For many years, journalism was so absorbing that it
sucked away all the time. Even more than that, I believed that I should serve,
and what I really wanted, which was to write a novel, moved into second place. I
wrote very little. I did journalism full-time, with true frenzy, because I wrote
many interviews. I even translated political articles for a time for a political
magazine called El Espectador, that was published by V-ctor Flores Olea, Carlos
Fuentes, Jaime Garc-a Terr_s, and Enrique Gonz lez Pedrero. But they never once
said to me, 'Hey, why don't you write an article.']
 Dimitriou, 128. [ . . . because it is an internal process, an internal
change, and a very hard internal change. Even more in Latin America because one
has a Catholic religious education. So you have a traditional Latin American
education that is very difficult. The Conquest weighs us (women) down, religion
weighs us down, a society that is comfortable with the way women are weighs us
down. Laziness and conformity weigh us down. It is much easier to be married to
a man and listen to him, and have him give you the money each week for the
expenses, than it is to go out by yourself and resolve your problems. It is an
 Pacheco, 59. [I stopped writing my books because I lacked self-confidence.
I believe I took refuge in journalism because I need my voice to be supported by
 Miller, 75.
 M_ndez-Faith, 58.
 Miller, 75.
 Garc-a, 24.
 Gautier, 214.
 Linda Egan, "Feminine Perspectives on Journalism: Conversations with Eight
Mexican Women," Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 12 (1993): 181-182.
 Sefchovich, 11. [Elena's books are one long interview to get to know
Mexico, or as she says, 'In order to know the devils we are and the devils of
our country.' A long interview and a long testimony.]
 Gautier, 215.
 Berger, 264.
 M_ndez-Faith, 57.
 Berger, 264. [There are many Mexicos. I rescue those who have little
access to publicity and the newspapers: the hurting, the humble, the suffering,
the obscure, the little known. Aren't there many other Mexicos that have been
rescued by others?]
 Rosas, 52. [ . . . those who don't have access, who don't have a voice,
those who are always silenced.]
 Gautier, 209.
 Dimitriou, 129-130.
 Ibid., 130. [ . . . because these weren't useful for my country.]
 Berger, 265. [As soon as you get to Mexico, the first thing you see in the
street are the beggars, the large number of children who are begging and the
mothers in the middle of the street selling gum, Kleenex. I believe that whoever
sees this panorama is preoccupied with society.]
 Rosas, 62. [When I come to my country, as soon as I get there I begin to
feel the oppression and say, 'Oh, my country, my poor country.' I begin to see
the bare, bare, bare hills. There are dry, dry, dry trees. It isn't like Israel
which is a garden, a place of green and a forest. Later I see these houses so
small, tiny, that the men appear to come out of them like out of a dog house and
it hurts me a lot because I would like to have the same that there is here (in
the United States). This isn't because I am envious; it is simply for human
 Steele, 102. [In the days that followed it went to the Colonia Guerrero,
downtown, and to another colonia in San Antonio Abad. One night Julio Scherer,
from the magazine Proceso, called and said to me, 'Hey, what are you doing
Elena?' I said, 'Well, I'm doing what everyone is doing.' He said to me, 'I just
talked to Carlos Monsiv is and he says, what is the best reporter doing sitting
in her house?' 'Oh, I'm not sitting in my house, but I can't write. What good
would writing do; you have to help with your hands.' Then he said to me, 'You
have to do what you know how to do, Elena, and don't go around carrying buckets
that others can carry.' A short time later Monsiv is talked to me and said,
'Start writing.' I began to spoil the paper Novedades until they told me I
shouldn't give them any more articles, because, I believe, they received an
order from the government. They said, 'No, this depresses the people too much
and now you should talk about it.' 'But this is the only thing that I think is
important to talk about.' 'Oh, no, no! You shouldn't talk about it, it isn't
interesting.' The day they said that, I had an article in my hand and La Jornada
was on the other side of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Novedades, and I went to La
Jornada. They published the article. Then I began to publish daily, daily, daily
for almost three months. I remember after three months I said to myself, 'Now
I'm going to stop this because it is close to Christmas.']
 Gautier, 208.
 Ibid., 209.
 Sefchovich, 11.
 Rosas, 64. [It is that I always have commissions or mandas. In Mexico
mandas are made to the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the Holy Child or Atocha; there
you go, and then you pray to such a saint. This is how I write my books, like
 Garc-a, 23.
 Gautier, 206.
 Ibid., 207.
 Garc-a, 31.
 Garc-a Pinto, 178.
 Ibid., 178-179.
 Rosas, 62.
 Ibid., 62-63. [I have a guardian angel the size of the world. I never
have had a problem. To the contrary. For example, La Noche de Tlatelolco, which
was said to be a very anti-government book, when they wanted to give me a prize,
they gave me the Villaurrutia award.]
 Garc-a, 22.
 Gautier, 214.
 Berger, 265. [Well, I think there is press freedom until they kill
someone, such as in Manuel Buend-a's case, who they assassinated and still
haven't discovered his killers.]
 Gautier, 205.
 Miller, 74.
 Steele, 91. [All of the book about him is written, but it is very boring.
Even for Vallejo himself it was so boring that he slept while I read the
chapters to him. It was like a sleeping pill for him.]
 See H_ctor Manjarrez, "La indiscreci n de Elena Poniatowska," Cuadernos
Pol-ticos No. 24, January-March, 1981: 103-114.
 Rosas, 61-62. [I don't like to talk much about my politicization because
. . . because it is very simple. Look where we are. We are in a lovely room,
just finished eating a grilled cheese sandwich and cherry yogurt and here I am
talking about Latin American poverty. This makes it seem that whatever I say
could be like Judas, like a hypocrite, like Tartufo. I can tell you that I am
very worried about my country. I love my country a lot.]
 Elena Poniatowska, "And Here's to You, Jesusa," trans. Gregory Kolovakos
and Ronald Christ, in Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin
American Authors, ed. Doris Meyer (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California
Press, 1988), 152.
 Steele, 103. [It has always been easy for me to strike up a conversation
with the people, very easy. With the intellectuals at times it is much more
difficult, or with artists. But with the people, it never has been difficult, in
the markets, wherever.]
 Ibid., 104-105. [He often said to me, 'Why do you begin personal
relationships? You write and that's it.' I couldn't just write, but I had to go
get the wheelchair, go to the bed, to the pantry to get rice so they could eat.
These types of things wear you out emotionally. It is disastrous for your
writing to get mixed up in other things, and he said to me, 'Don't get so
 Ibid., 104-105. [I worked well on the first pages, and after, I put down
the interviews just as they came out because I was tired, I was desperate, I
couldn't work with that material. Clearly, looking back now perhaps I could have
worked with it, taken a good three or four months to rework the book. But then I
couldn't, I didn't have the strength. Why am I working so much with it? I was
very tired, very exasperated. It was like saying to Mexico, 'Here, take your
book, there it is, I now can't, I can't.' It took a long time to get published.]
 Poniatowska, "Question Mark," 82.
 Ibid., 85.