Listening to the Voice of Mexico

Here’s to You, Jesusa!

Over there where Mexico City starts getting smaller, where the streets get lost and are deserted, that’s where Jesusa lives. It’s so warm there’s no ice left in the freezers, just water, and the Victoria and Superior beers just float around. The women’s hair sticks against the nape of their necks, beaten down by sweat. Sweat dampens the air, clothes, armpits, foreheads. The heat buzzes, like the flies. The air in those parts is greasy, dirty; the people live in the very frying pans where they cook garnachas, those thick, filled tortillas covered in chile sauce, and potato or pumpkin-flower quesadillas, the daily bread that the women heap on tables with uneven legs along the street. The dust is the only dry thing, that and a few gourds.”

In the 1960s, Mexican writer and journalist Elena Poniatowska began spending Wednesday afternoons “over there… where the streets get lost and are deserted. ” She listened to a remarkable woman she called Jesusa Palancares tell the stories of her life, tracing a history of Mexico from the inside out and the bottom up. Through dialogue and memory she created a novel that demystifies the official version of events. Reading Here’s to You, Jesusa!, it’s impossible not to draw a parallel between the revolutionary process in Mexico, with its great initial potential and its ultimate degeneration, and the life of Poniatowska’s informant, whose real name was Josefina Bórquez, and who died in 1987.

Originally published in Mexico in 1969, the work belongs to what is known in Latin America as novela-testimonio, more a movement than a genre, strictly speaking, a form in which the novel and social history intersect. Testimonio emerged in the 1960s, in the general cultural and intellectual climate of radical questioning of received ideas. Testimonial works are most often composite works, a “team effort.” As a result, the text’s elaboration often becomes problematic, forcing the reader to re-examine the relationship between nation and cultural identity, print culture and oral tradition, individual and collective–the very concepts of “minority” and “majority” within institutions, communities, societies and nations as they are defined, and in turn, define and redefine themselves. Here informant-narrator Jesusa, and writer-chronicler Poniatowska, join forces across a divide of culture and class, to document the undocumented, plumbing oral history and other non-traditional sources for raw material.

Poniatowska, whose vision creates and structures the work, organizes, without the slightest paternalism, the stream of consciousness of Jesusa’s memory. She incites Jesusa to reconstruct all the stages of her life and struggles, first as a soldadera and combatant with the revolutionary army, a woman in a man’s world, then as a member of the incipient proletariat, forging a place for herself in a society of landed gentry and peons, displaced from the countryside to the city, like so many other campesinos in the fragmented society of post-revolutionary Mexico.

We hear and feel the need for a collective history that will endure after Jesusa is gone; one that will explain events and confront the “lies” Jesusa has heard all her life on the radio. By privileging the voice of Jesusa, Poniatowska grants the soldaderas–the women who followed the troops and fought alongside them during the Revolution–the place that had been denied them in literature. Jesusa unmasks the falsified biographies of Pancho Villa heard on the radio, the falsified images offered up in Mexican cinema, and above all, the many myths of the revolution wherever they are found.

The work’s 29 episodes offer a panoramic vision and describe in great detail all of the institutions, sectors and layers of Mexican society of the day. In each episode, Jesusa provides a running commentary, a colorful and unabashed critique of the role of the Church, the penal system, education in general and the literacy campaign in particular, doctors, the army, marriage, land reform and, as central theme, Mexican national identity before, during and after the Revolution.

Jesusa’s rebellious nature develops and defines itself in opposition to a series of stepmothers who serve as negative role models. Early on she rejects traditional female roles. She associates women’s domesticity with alienation and dehumanization, with the loss of freedom and ultimately, of one’s humanity. As an illustration, Jesusa relates the story of her sister Petra’s untimely death, after being carried off by a peon at 15. Following Petra’s demise the family moves to Tehuantepec in southern Oaxaca. There Jesusa’s father takes a new wife, another stepmother for the protagonist to clash with. This stepmother is director of a prison, and Jesusa and her family take up residence there. It is 1911 and Madero has just entered Mexico City. Jesusa joins the revolutionary troops, first as a soldadera, but one who quickly becomes an active participant, breaking with the romantic legend of the submissive female camp follower whose life unfolds on the margins and revolves around feeding the troops. With Jesusa Palancares we explore the immensity of a nation in arms, in transition–just as she is. From the battlefield to the poor neighborhoods of the capital, Jesusa never allows cynicism to take over in her relationship to her social milieu. Her stance is always one of rigorous questioning of the values, institutions and traditions of her society. Poniatowska masterfully recreates Jesusa’s critical vision of the history she has helped forge and from which she is, in the end, excluded.

During the Revolution, Jesusa marries Pedro Aguilar, a 17-year-old general, and observes that a man orders his wife around in the same way that a general orders his troops. The rules of conduct in marriage were the rules of military conduct: beat or be beaten. More degrading than the blows received was the sensation of being suffocated, of living under Pedro’s constant vigilance. Only at night or when the troops rested, and Pedro read to her, could Jesusa imagine a union based on equality. Pedro would read, ask her questions, read once more and explain, with infinite patience, while Jesusa displayed the frustration, shame and shyness–which she only displayed on such occasions–of those who cannot read and write. The ability to read, to form and inform oneself through reading, is one of the few things Jesusa respects unconditionally. And it seems clear in Jesusa’s mind that had she been literate, she would have been better prepared to tackle the question of violence, the vicious cycle of institutional, structural violence that plagued her family, her marriage, her military and civilian life. The origins of her fierce anticlericalism lie within her own experience, the illiteracy that resulted from her miseducation by the nuns; nuns who taught her how to pray but not how to read. Into old age, she still grows indignant when she thinks of them. Jesusa Palancares never becomes resigned. It is her capacity for indignation, coupled with an innate sense of justice, that carries her on the journey through post-revolutionary Mexico, into towns and cities, factories, taverns, domestic service, seeking a place for herself.

After her husband’s death, Jesusa arrives in Mexico City, disenchanted with the revolution and military life, with no husband, no pension and no belongings–her luggage was stolen along the way–but ready to reinvent herself yet again in this new context. She finds work as a domestic servant but when the family does not pay her she leaves and heads for the factories. From that moment on Jesusa becomes part of the nascent urban, female proletariat, and her meticulous descriptions of factories, shops and types of jobs performed are a valuable chapter in Mexican social and labor history. As wage laborer, Jesusa never loses track of monies earned and spent on a daily basis; how many cents for the tortillas she eats, the atole she drinks, the petate, or straw mat, she sleeps on and the blanket she covers herself with. The details matter; they constitute the material trail of Jesusa’s life. From there, her narrative delves further into the past. As she reflects on the life she lived, Jesusa, now in old age and a convert to the Obra Espiritual, a religious sect, regains her unbroken spirit, her untamed rebelliousness. She preaches resignation while she reconstructs for us, piece by piece, a life of resistance. It’s as if we were hearing two opposing voices: the voice of the elderly Jesusa, alienated, defeated, fatalistic, contradicting all that she did, stood for and thought in her youthful years of rebellion against hypocrisy, opportunism and corruption. We never learn exactly how she came to take refuge in the sect, but we can clearly see that her progression from soldadera to factory worker to laundress was one of progressive marginalization. At each stage, society seems to curtail the options available to Jesusa and, as a result, she becomes increasingly more isolated and solitary–but never self-pitying. In the second half of the work, Jesusa recounts her life after abandoning the factories; how she learns to varnish furniture, works in a circus, in a hospital, starts a pig-slaughtering operation, all in order to remain independent. She comments on the revolt of the Cristeros, the rise of the labor unions, Lázaro Cárdenas and agrarian reform, the migration of the first braceros to the United States.

In her more than 40 years as a journalist, novelist, short story writer and essayist, Elena Poniatowska’s work has chronicled the crucial events of her native Mexico, either through collective movements or individual lives as they unfold in and shape social history. Born in Paris in 1932, she returned with her mother to Mexico in 1942, and continues to live in Mexico City. One of Mexico’s most renowned and prolific writers, Poniatowska is a committed chronicler of her country, an advocate of the notion of cultural democracy evident in all of her oeuvre, fiction and non-fiction. This English translation of Hasta no verte, Jesus mío is long overdue and much welcomed, making a seminal work in the Latin American literary canon available to English-speaking readers for the first time.

Note: During the Revolution Jesusa fought alongside her husband, traveling from southern Mexico to the the Texas border, where Pedro was killed by Pancho Villa’s soldiers. In this excerpt, Jesusa describes Pedro’s burial in Marfa, her confrontation with her commanding general, and the train station robbery that kept her in Mexico City instead of returning to Oaxaca.

“I got there when it was dark and the coyotes were already eating Pedro. He didn’t have hands, or ears, pieces of his nose were missing and part of his neck. We picked him up and took him to Marfa, Texas, in the United States to bury him, near Presidio, and that’s where he stayed.

It made me really mad that our general had gone over to the United States. I told him that since we still had weapons and ammunition he had no reason to take his ass up north. He should have ordered us to pursue the enemy until we couldn’t anymore.

-Jesusa, there wasn’t any other choice. There were so many Villistas and they pushed me back here.

-At least you could have given a counterorder so all of us could have come together, and not just leave us behind. My husband was killed between Ojinaga and Cuchillo Parado. He’d be here if you weren’t such a coward…Now I understand what they mean when they say your motto is “If there are a lot of them let’s turn and run, if there are few we’ll use caution, and if there isn’t anyone coming then let’s move forward, sons of Coahuila, we were born to die…!” That’s some way to fight a war, General.

He bowed his head and said:

-There’s no choice now.

-There’s none for you, General, and we’re prisoners because of what you chose to do, but I belong on that side of the river, not here. I’m not trying to show you up, but come on!

We were in Marfa for a month, until General Joaquín Amaro asked the gringos to return us to Mexico. I said goodbye to Pedro and we crossed the bridge….

I wasn’t even eighteen years old when Pedro was shot through the heart. He always said that when it looked like things were over, he was going to kill me. He wanted to send me on ahead, but it didn’t happen that way. I’m still here raising hell.

I had to change trains in Mexico City to go to Tehuantepec. I handed my four suitcases through the window to a porter standing on the platform at the station. All the clothes I owned, my husband’s and mine, the shirts I had sewed for him-because in those days the wife made the man’s clothes-my pay, which like a fool I’d put in one of the suitcases, the money I’d tied up in a handkerchief, the leather boots, four suitcases full of stuff, I lost all of it. I never saw that porter again.

Each of the other women took off for home, but since I’d been robbed at the Buenavista station, I stayed there alone, abandoned, in Mexico City, scratching myself with my nails. I looked like a turkey that’s lost her chicks, stretching out her neck and looking all around, crying, “Gobble…gobble…gobble…”

Pamela Maria Smorkaloff is co-editor of The Cuba Reader (forthcoming from Duke University Press), and is working on Ajiaco and Sancocho: Culture and Cuisine in the Spanish Antilles (Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic).

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