Authors: Elena Poniatowska

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

French-born Mexican author and journalist.

May 19, 1933

Paris, France

Biography

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.

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By Rodrigo Fernández, CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Nonfiction: Palabras cruzadas, 1961 (interviews) Todo empezó el domingo, 1963 La noche de Tlatelolco: Testimonios de historia oral, 1971 (Massacre in Mexico, 1975) Gaby Brimmer, 1979 (with Gaby Brimmer; Gaby Brimmer: An Autobiography in Three Voices, 2009) Fuerte es el silencio, 1980 La casa en la tierra, 1980 (with Mariana Yampolsky) Domingo siete, 1982 (interviews) El último guajolote, 1982 Pablo O’Higgins, 1984 (with Gilberto Bosques) ¡Ay vida, no me mereces! Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, Juan Rulfo, la literatura de la onda, 1985 Estancias del olvido, 1986 (with Mariana Yampolsky) Tlacotalpan, 1987 (with Mariana Yampolsky) Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor, 1988 (Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake, 1995) Juchitán de las mujeres, 1989 (with Graciela Iturbide) Todo México, 1990–2003 (8 volumes; interviews) Manuel Álvarez Bravo: el artista, su obra, sus tiempos, 1991 Luz y luna, las lunitas, 1994 Guerrero Viejo, 1997 (bilingual) Me lo dijo Elena Poniatowska, 1997 (interviews) Cartas de Alvaro Mutis a Elena Poniatowska, 1998 (correspondence) Juan Soriano, niño de mil años, 1998 Octavio Paz: Las palabras del árbol, 1998 Las soldaderas, 1999 (Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution, 2006) Las mil y una—: La herida de Paulina, 2000 Las siete cabritas, 2000 Mariana Yampolsky y la buganvillia, 2001 Miguel Covarrubias: Vida y mundos, 2004 Amanecer en el Zócalo: Los 50 días que confrontaron a México, 2007 Jardín de Francia, 2008 No den las gracias: La colonia Rubén Jaramillo y el Güero Medrano, 2009 El universo o nada: Biografía del estrellero Guillermo Haro / Elena Poniatowska, 2013 Las indómitas, 2016 Long Fiction: Hasta no verte, Jesús mío, 1969 (Here’s to You, Jesusa!, 2001) La “Flor de Lis,” 1988 Tinísima, 1993 (Tinisima, 1996) Paseo de la Reforma, 1996 La piel del cielo, 2001 El tren pasa primero, 2005 Leonora, 2011 (Leonora: A Novel, 2015) Dos veces única, 2015 Short Fiction: Lilus Kikus, 1954 (expanded 1967 as Los cuentos de Lilus Kikus; Lilus Kikus and Other Stories, 2005) Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela, 1978 (Dear Diego, 1986) De noche vienes, 1979 Tlapalería, 2003 (The Heart of the Artichoke, 2011) Llorar en la sopa, 2014 Hojas de papel volando, 2015 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: México visto a ojo de pájaro, 1979 No es el león como lo pintan, 1979 La Adelita, 2006 (Fernando Robles, illustrator) El burro que metió la pata, 2007 (Fernando Robles, illustrator) Boda en Chimalistac, 2008 (Oswaldo Hernández Garnica, illustrator) La vendedora de nubes, 1979, reprinted 2009 (with Magda Montiel Solís; Antonio Esparza, illustrator) Sansimonsi, 2013 (Rafael Barajas “El Fisgón,” illustrator) El niño estrellero, 2014 (Fernando Robles, illustrator) Poetry: Rondas de la niña mala, 2008 Fruncida estrella, enséñame tu ombligo, 2010 Drama: Melés y Teléo, apuntes para una comedia, pb. 1956 Bibliography Chevigny, Bell Gale. “The Transformation of Privilege in the Work of Elena Poniatowska.” Latin American Literary Review, vol. 13, no. 26, 1985, pp. 49–62. Studies how both the writer’s privileged background and the experience of living in Latin America have influenced her authorial voice. Franco, Jean. Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico. Columbia UP, 1989. In the chapter “Rewriting the Family: Contemporary Feminism’s Revision of the Past,” discusses the unconventionality of both protagonists and genre categories. Jörgensen, Beth Ellen. The Writing of Elena Poniatowska: Engaging Dialogues. U of Texas P, 1994. A study of the whole range of Poniatowska’s work, focusing on how Poniatowska’s work as a journalist informs her fiction. Medeiros-Lichem, María Teresa. Reading the Feminine Voice in Latin American Women’s Fiction: From Teresa de la Parra to Elena Poniatowska and Luisa Valenzuela. Peter Lang Publishing, 2002. Focuses on Poniatowska’s fiction. Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art, and Representation in Modern Mexico. U of Arizona P, 1992. Explores Poniatowska’s use of the epistolary genre in reconstructing true-to-life protagonists. Schuessler, Michael Karl. Elena Poniatowska: An Intimate Biography. U of Arizona P, 2007. A comprehensive biography that includes photographs and an annotated bibliography of Poniatowska's works.

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