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Inside the Statues of Saints: excerpt



January 1, 1994. As expected, the North American Free Trade Alliance is signed. A rosy economic future for Mexico, the United States and Canada is assured or lost or unclear–everybody’s hope, anybody’s guess. The treaty’s cultural impact goes largely unexplored.

January 1, 1994. In mountainous Chiapas the city of San Cristóbal is taken by an army of insurgents led by Subcomandante Marcos, a nose-to-chin masked figure.

“We were shaken, all of us, by this uprising,” the Mexican novelist María Luisa Puga said to me. “But we expected it. Not necessarily in Chiapas. Somewhere. It was ready to happen.”

In the following months Marcos orchestrated a cool campaign of incitement, charm, threat and instruction, winning Mexican and international sympathy with the élan of a master bullfighter turned diplomat.

March 23, 1994. Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate of the ruling party, is assassinated. NAFTA’s popularity wanes.

September 28, 1994. José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, Number Two man in the ruling party, brother-in-law of ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and brother of the man investigating Colosio’s death, is assassinated.

February 28, 1995. Raul Salinas, brother of Carlos, is arrested for being the “intellectual author” of the murder of Ruiz Massieu.

March 11, 1995. Carlos Salinas and his family flee Mexico, to settle in Boston, Massachusetts. And on to Montreal.

Mexico, our new partner. So far away. So near.

A decade ago I discovered Mexico, a different Mexico, and it was great affection at first sight. Over the years my passion grew, maturing to love, respect and fascination. Its people are more generous than any I have known. At one moment their values resemble our own, in the next they elude understanding. Mexico’s cultures are indigenous and European, American and pre-Hispanic, occult and telecommunicational. Its values, animating the memory and actions of its citizens, often perplex even those who have lived its history and culture. We norteamericanos, “distant neighbors” in Alan Riding’s phrase, when we care to think of Mexico at all beyond its sunny beaches and steep pyramids, are often baffled. Here, so close, is a remote civilization.

Mexico Desconocido, a glossy Mexican magazine, explores the byways of the nation, taking its readers to strange places and unexamined corners–natural sites, archeological discoveries, gastronomic wonders, historic settings. Much of this Mexico is inaccessible to its own people; to North American eyes, it is invisible.

Inside the Statues of Saints is a series of conversations with Mexican writers. I chose to speak with writers, mainly fiction writers, because in telling their stories they disclose a civilization. More–they reclaim, they sometimes create, their civilization. For example, many Mexicans believe their political and social consciousness was forged on October 2, 1968, in the Plaza of Tlatelolco, with the massacre, arrest and subsequent “disappearance” of thousands of protesters against the Mexican Summer Olympics. But only memorialized catastrophes retain power; the tragedy of Tlatelolco would long have faded without Elena Poniatowska’s La Noche de Tlatelolco, a collage of images and taped/transcribed testimonials of its victims and perpetrators. Without this single book, now in its fifty-first edition, the form and force taken by Mexico’s political self-awareness over the last quarter-century would be unthinkable.

In less dramatic ways the work of the other writers I spoke with has brought to and kept on the surface a range of hidden patterns in daily Mexican experience–novels, documentaries, stories and crónica that, with the clearest of strokes, sketch out segments of those beliefs, fears and hopes by which Mexicans perceive and practice their lives.

My intent has been to provide, through these profile-conversations, some insight into the daily life of Mexico’s people, and perhaps too an inkling of some of the patterns that give that life its shape and meaning.

Their books were my introduction to these writers. What follows, however, is not an elaboration of those narratives. True, at times I’ve borrowed a passage from one or another story to elaborate on a point in our conversation, but it seemed more important to hear them speak beyond and beneath their own writings–to address a North American audience in terms each felt comfortable with, appropriate to the task at hand. Their books are increasingly being translated to English. All speak English eloquently. All have read widely in the English-language literatures. They see and know our world far better than we understand theirs. I am using their insights the better to observe Mexico through them.

Elena Poniatowska, a renowned interviewer, has spent a lifetime revealing to Mexicans the inner make-up of their fellow citizens. Reading her interviews, in raw form and as stories that have grown from them, is a good introduction to Mexico; had they been widely translated, this present book would be less necessary.

I asked Poniatowska if she felt the moment of the rebellion in Chiapas was as important as the moment of the massacre in the Plaza of Tlatelolco.

“Certainly. It will change the course of Mexican history.”

“Do you plan to go to Chiapas, to conduct interviews, to meet with Marcos?”

“No need,” she said. “I would like to go. But only to see it for myself, not to write about it. Because Mexico’s eyes are open now. Chiapas, what has been happening there before the uprising, what it is now, it’s visible to all of us now.”

Two months later I received in the mail a set of clippings from La Jornada, a Mexico City daily: five long interviews conducted by Poniatowska with Subcomandante Marcos. He had written on Bastille Day, petitioning her to interview him:

Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional.


14 de julio 1994.

A: Elena Poniatowska.

México, D.F.

De: Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena-Comandancia General de EZLN.

Cuartel General.

Montañas del Sureste Mexicano, Chiapas.

Please accept, Your Ladyship, manifold and extravagant reverence. Let the fanfares cease their annoying salutations. Permit my Rocinante to trot all too clumsily up to your window, allow my fearless impertinence to arrive at your balcony, so that I, despite the peril of falling to the ground (on which storey does Your Excellency live? perhaps we could negotiate for the main floor? no? how about a swimming pool within a reasonable distance? or a gentle pillow with soft feathers? okay, a bedstead?), might proffer you this formal invitation, to set upon these rebellious and threatened lands your lovely foot. We could talk of many things and, most important, remain silent about others. Or maintain a distant air, and be serious. I assure you my devoted soldiers will offer you a thousand and one courtesies. A probable ur Common Wealth, that it threatens our very Dominion.