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BOOKS Listening to the Voice of Mexico BY PAMELA MARIA SMORKALOFF Here’s to You, Jesusa! By Elena Poniatowska Farrar, Straus and Giroux 303 pages, $24. ver 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 BOrquez, 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 collectivethe 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 writerchronicler 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 soldaderasthe women who followed the troops and fought alongside them during the Revolutionthe 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 ” 0 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/3/01