Last reviewed: June 2017
French-born Mexican author and journalist.
May 19, 1933
Author Elena Poniatowska is perhaps best known for her journalistic work, a career launched by chance when, in 1954, she interviewed the US ambassador the day after meeting him at a cocktail party. Poniatowska has dedicated her writing to recording a wide spectrum of Mexican life, from the country’s power elite to its marginalized peasant populations. In 1978 she became the first woman in Mexico awarded the Premio Nacional de Periodismo (national journalism award), the country’s most prestigious prize in journalism.
Dialogue serves as a foundation for most of her literary production. Poniatowska’s first collection of interviews, Palabras cruzadas (Crossed words, 1961), includes such varied subjects as Spanish film director Luis Buñuel, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. By contrast, Todo empezó el domingo (Everything started on Sunday, 1963) celebrates the mundane Sunday outings of working-class Mexicans. The attention Poniatowska gives to the cross-section of social classes in Mexico reflects aspects of her own background. Elena Poniatowska.
Poniatowska was born Hélène Elizabeth Louise Amelie Paula Dolores Poniatowska Amor in Paris, France, in 1933, to French-born parents, both of whose families had been displaced by political upheaval. Her mother, María de los Dolores Amor de Ferreira Iturbe—better known as Paula or Paulette—came from a Mexican family of hacienda owners who left for Europe when the government of Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated their land and instituted agrarian reform after the Mexican Revolution. Her father, Jean Poniatowski, was born into a family of Polish aristocrats who had settled in France after fleeing Poland during World War II.
When her own family moved to Mexico, Poniatowska was about nine years old and spoke only French. She never studied Spanish in school, instead acquiring the language from housemaids. She attended French and English schools, one of which was a convent school in Pennsylvania.
Although Poniatowska grew up among the Mexican gentry, the household help exposed her to the problems of the working-class poor. Furthermore, since from an early age Poniatowska had witnessed her parents’ civic involvement and wartime service (her father fought in World War II, while her mother drove ambulances), it is not surprising that much of her journalistic work documents national crises. The October 1968 clash between police and student protesters at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City prompted Poniatowska to record the bloodbath in La noche de Tlatelolco (1971; Massacre in Mexico, 1975). Fuerte es el silencio (Strong is the silence, 1980) incorporates other national concerns, such as the influx of peasants into the capital in search of work, the miserable shantytown housing of these urban dwellers, the “disappeared” victims of political repression, and the struggle of rural communities to improve living conditions. The very title suggests the voicelessness of the unrepresented poor, a social ill Poniatowska denounces in her writing. In Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor (1988; Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake, 1995), Poniatowska turns from social inequities to natural disaster by recording the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Typically her journalistic texts feature mixed media, including accounts from news clips, eyewitness accounts, interviews, author narrative, and photographs.
The interviews of the seven 1982 presidential candidates compiled in Domingo siete (Sunday seven, 1982) suggest the importance of politics in Mexican society. The country’s intelligentsia also command a space in Poniatowska’s writing. The essays in ¡Ay vida, no me mereces! (Oh life, you do not deserve me!, 1985) delve into the work of prominent contemporary writers Rosario Castellanos, Juan Rulfo, and Carlos Fuentes. As a feminist, Poniatowska shows a predilection for Castellanos’s writing that takes a stand on women’s issues.
Themes relating to women’s issues predominate in Poniatowska’s fiction writing. Her first book, Lilus Kikus (1954; Lilus Kikus and Other Stories, 2005), consists of short vignettes about the titular protagonist’s nonconformity with typical female socialization. Lilus likes to play outdoors and explore nature, but society dictates otherwise for girls.
After Lilus Kikus, Poniatowska's fiction took a back seat to her journalism until the publication of the testimonial novel Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969; Here’s to You, Jesusa!, 2001), which is based on a year’s worth of conversations with Josefina Bórquez, an extraordinary peasant woman. A staunch feminist by modern standards, Jesusa Palancares—as Poniatowska renames her in the novel—fights in the Mexican Revolution alongside her father and husband, stands up to their abuse, liberates herself from male tutelage, and leads an independent life.
Again drawing from real life to construct fiction, in Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (1978; Dear Diego, 1986) Poniatowska writes the series of letters that she imagines émigré Russian artist Angelina Beloff would have written to her lover, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, when he left Paris and returned to Mexico in 1921. The heartbroken Quiela’s emotional dependence on Diego contrasts dramatically with the polygamous wife in the title story of De noche vienes (You come at night, 1979). Esmerald, a nurse by profession, epitomizes the traditional caretaker role of females—so much so that she manages to keep five husbands until getting caught. Poniatowska applies a humorous feminist spin to machismo’s double standard.
Autobiographical similarities abound in La “Flor de Lis” (Fleur de lis, 1988). An aristocratic child, Mariana, lives in France surrounded by luxury and servants until World War II changes her family’s lifestyle. Mariana’s French father leaves for the war, while her Mexican mother sets off for exile in Mexico with two young daughters. The narrative focuses on the class and gender traditions that shape Mariana’s cultural identity in the new country. Whether focusing on the uniqueness of one woman, as in Tinísima (1993; Tinisima, 1996), the fictionalized biography of early twentieth-century photographer and political militant Tina Modotti, or of many village women, as in Juchitán de las mujeres (Juchitán of the women, 1989), Poniatowska’s writings typically inscribe the cultural contributions of the underrepresented in Mexican society.