Elena Poniatowska "reports"" the life story falling somewhere between fact and fiction, and based on a series of interviews of a poverty-stricken but amazingly independent woman


Elena Poniatowska, Here's to You, Jesusa!, Trans. by Deanna Heikkinen, Penguin Books, 2002. [1969.]           
Chapter One

A remarkable novel that uniquely melds journalism with fiction, by Elena Poniatowska, the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Cervantes Prize

Jesusa is a tough, fiery character based on a real working-class Mexican woman whose life spanned some of the seminal events of early twentieth-century Mexican history. Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, she finds herself at the Revolution's end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband and working menial jobs. So begins Jesusa's long history of encounters with the police and struggles against authority. Mystical yet practical, undaunted by hardship, Jesusa faces the obstacles in her path with gritty determination.
Here in its first English translation, Elena Poniatowska's rich, sensitive, and compelling blend of documentary and fiction provides a unique perspective on history and the place of women in twentieth-century Mexico.

Originally published in Mexico in 1969, this passionate and unflinching classic deserves a warm reception upon its belated publication in English. In the Latin American tradition of the testimonial novel, acclaimed Mexican author and journalist Poniatowska "reports"" the life story falling somewhere between fact and fiction, and based on a series of interviews of a poverty-stricken but amazingly independent woman. Left motherless and with a roaming father in impoverished turn-of-the-century Oaxaca, Jesusa is married at age 15 to an abusive cavalry captain during the Mexican revolution. Always a tomboy, she turns increasingly irascible, vindictive and opinionated, everything a Mexican woman of her time is not supposed to be. When her husband is killed three years after their marriage, Jesusa remakes herself repeatedly, taking on various trades to support herself. She repudiates modern life, has several run-ins with the law and takes comfort in an eccentric religion. As an independent woman at the beginning of the century, she is something of a pioneer and role model, though her eccentric ways leave her lonely and solitary. Because Jesusa, whose real name was Josefina B""rquez, didn't allow herself to be tape-recorded, Poniatowska painstakingly transcribed her story. The result is one long breathtaking monologue, its only plot the incredible life story of its protagonist. Poniatowska never intrudes, but the warmth she feels for Jesusa infuses the sentimental introduction and spills over into the text. Both women benefit from their unusual relationship, Jesusa validating Poniatowska's Mexican existence and Poniatowska saving Jesusa from anonymity. Loss, alienation and hardship are palpable in the narrative, ably translated by Heikkinen, yet faith in survival and self makes this a life-affirming tale. - Publishers Weekly

Elena Poniatowska’s testimonial novel is based on extensive interviews carried out between 1963 and 1964, with Josefina Bórquez, an elderly Mexican woman. Through the novel, Josefina morphs into the character Jesusa Palancares as Poniatowska pieces together her ethnographic field-notes into a narrative that shifts between Spiritualist visions and surreal recollections of a life lived in bars and on the battlefield. Jesusa works as a domestic servant, in factories making boxes, and as a professional drinker, betting on herself to out-drink the men. At night she makes a space for herself where she can: in a woman’s prison, on the frozen ground of the army camp, along a narrow balcony, or in the corner of a stranger’s courtyard.
In such a precarious life, there are few moments of rest, as Poniatowska discovers when she tries to interview Josefina. There is no time to talk, only time to work (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: viii). She alone ensures her survival (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 101, 132).
Survival means staying afloat, breathing calmly, even if it is only for a moment in the evening when the chickens no longer cackle in their cages and the cat stretches out on the trampled earth. (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xiii)
Jesusa is a fighter, ‘fiercer than a female fighting cock’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 155). She endures life on the battlefield, first with her father and then with her abusive husband, neither of whom survive the Revolution. She relishes the tough life of a soldadera (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 212, xvii), and returns to army life when the opportunity presents. Her father once gave her gunpowder water to make her brave (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 5), and it seemed to work.
Her dignity is essential to her survival. She is fiercely proud, refusing to drink coffee grounds or eat bean soup (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 241), to be treated as poor. Neither charity nor friendship suit her: ‘Her isolation is striking’ (Franco 1989: 179). At the end of her life, she does not falter: ‘She died as she lived, rebellious, obstinate, fierce. She threw the priest out, she threw the doctor out’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xx).
Nevertheless, Poniatowska, in her account of the interview process and the two women’s cautious friendship, recalls moments of tenderness and tranquility: settling the chickens on the narrow bed; examining the dolls Josefina bought for herself but kept wrapped up; the exchanging of postcards while Poniatowska travels to France. More than anything else, Josefina is revived by the telling of her story:
On Wednesday afternoons, as the sun set and the blue sky changed to orange, in that semidark little room, in the midst of the shrieking of the children, the slamming doors, the shouting, and the radio going full blast, another life emerged – that of Jesusa Palancares, the one that she relived as she retold it. Through a tiny crack, we watched the sky, its colors, blue, then orange, and finally black. A silver of sky. I squinted so my gaze would fit through that crack, and we would enter the other life. (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xiii)
Through the construction of her own version of events, Josefina places herself at the centre of her world. After a life lived in the shadows, dismissed by those a few rungs up the social ladder, she is able to speak her truth, account for her actions. Once the book is published, Josefina asks Poniatowska for twenty copies to give to men in the neighbourhood, ‘so they’d know about her life, the many precipices she had crossed’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xx).
As a testimonial novel, Here’s to You Jesusa is concerned to honour and enable the voices of those absent from the literary canon. Testimonial literature seeks to represent the social and political experience of the illiterate, the prisoner, the slave descendent, the trade-unionist, the member of the pueblos originarios, the slum-dweller, etc.; in short, all those who exist at the margins of Latin American society. Through testimony, such works seek to raise awareness and to promote social and political change. - earthandstarrs.blogspot.hr/2009/02/elena-poniatowska-heres-to-you-jesusa.html

This is a phenomenal story of a woman's search for identity in the volatile years of the Mexican Revolution. The story follows Jesusa from her earliest memories in a countryside with her family, to the life of a working-class elderly woman in the maze of Mexico City. The reader sees it all, from the peace of childhood to the discovery of her spirituality to industrialization. It seems as though Poniatowska creates Jesusa's narrative to serve as a metaphor for Mexico and what it is experiencing politically, socially, and psychologically at this time. Jesusa is the heroine of the story and, although she is at times so outrageous and difficult to understand, her strength, humor and sense of self give the first-person narrative such an overwhelming authority. For instance:

"Me, imprisoned in my pots and pans, but I'm not much of a fighter anymore or as mean on the streets now, because I got old and now my blood doesn't boil and I've lost my strength and my hair fell out and I just have pegs for teeth, I'd scratch myself, but I don't have any fingernails left after so many came out in the laundry sink. And here I am now, just waiting for it to strike five in the morning because I can't sleep and it all comes back to me, everything I've been through since I was little and I walked around barefoot, fighting in the Revolution like playing blindman's bluff, being beaten, more unwrapped each time in this fucked up life."
Poniatowska is most famous for a collection of memories from surivors of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, "Massacre in Mexico." Because of her career as both a novelist and journalist her works combine fiction and documentary forms such as archival pictures, oral histories, and interviews. The introduction of Here's To You Jesusa! has a detailed account of interviews between Poniatowska and a woman that Jesusa's character is based on. This is an extremely compelling and heart-wrenching novel and I highly recommend it. - 7sistersbooknook.blogspot.hr/2006/11/heres-to-you-jesusa.html

Elena Poniatowska, Massacre in Mexico, University of Missouri; Reprint edition, 1991.

Elena Poniatowska's gripping account of the massacre of student protesters by police at the 1968 Olympic Games, which Publishers Weekly claimed "makes the campus killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 pale by comparison."

During the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, 10,000 students gathered in a residential area called Tlatelolco to peacefully protest their nation's one-party government and lack of political freedom. In response, the police and the military cold-bloodedly shot and bayoneted to death an estimated 325 unarmed Mexican youths. Now available in paper is Elena Poniatowska's gripping account of the Tlatelolco tragedy, which Publishers Weekly claimed "makes the campus killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 pale by comparison."
"This is a story that has not been effectively told before," said Kirkus Reviews. "Call it the grito of Tlatelolco, a cry of protest and the subjective manifesto of Mexico's suppressed, potentially explosive, middle-class dissenters." In this heartbreaking chronicle, Elena Poniatowska has assembled a montage of testimony drawn over a three-year period from eyewitness accounts by surviving students, parents, journalists, professors, priests, police, soldiers, and bystanders to re-create the chaotic optimism of the demonstrations, as well as the terror and shock of the massacre.
Massacre in Mexico remains a critical source for examining the collective consciousness of Mexico. As Library Journal so aptly stated, "While the 'Tlatelolco Massacre' is the central theme of this study, the larger tragedy is reflected, and we see a nation whose government resorts to demagoguery rather than constructive action while it maintains and protects the privileged position of the new 'revolutionary' elite." Octavio Paz's incisive introduction underscores the inability of the Mexican government to deal with the socio-economic realities of the Mexican nation.
Students and scholars of Mexican culture, historians, sociologists, and others who seek to interpret aspects of that country's national reality will find this book to be invaluable.

On the Tlatelolco massacre, Poniatowska achieves two things. One, is that she documents the utter chaos of the killings. Second, she makes clear the immense level of organization there was to the killings. Lets start with the chaos. This comes mostly from the initial reactions of those who were there. There is the anthropologist, Magarita Nolasco, who can’t wrap her head around the amount of blood that is spilled. She uses the word “sticky”, and indeed to track the amount of times the word “blood” is used in her account helps that detail “stick” in a reader’s mind. Nolasco also notes the indistinguishable bodies piling up, how she thought any one of them might be her son. Then, there is Jose Ramiro Munoz’s story of his confusion when his friend never returned from the Plaza. One mother, Elvira B. de Concheiro expressed how dumbfounded she was when the helicopter began firing-like in a movie. She stated, “I wandered around in a daze….until finally someone grabbed me by the arm and stopped me” (Resistance, 143).
The above referenced accounts all evoke chaos. There is lots of gunfire, lots of blood, bullets, bodies, people running in all directions. Certainly, it is traumatic to imagine hiding behind a pillar while those around you are shot to death. It is horrifying not to know whether your son is dead or not. The chaos of the massacre that Poniatowska captures highlights half of the horror from the killing.
The other horrific half is the organization of the events on October, 2, 1968. Most notable is the soldier, Ernesto Morales Soto’s, account. He gives details of the night as if it was a grocery list. For him perhaps it was, because it was simply his orders. He was ordered to wear white gloves to distinguish himself from civilians, and seal off two entrances to “prevent anyone from entering or leaving” (Resistance, 141). These were his orders. The killing was planned. That in itself is horrific, haunting, and calculated. Then, there is the business of the helicopter that uses tracer bullets. It dumfounded Elvira B. de Concheiro. The fact that these were tracer bullets only further solidifies how horrifically organized the massacre was. The bullets weren’t blindly fired, but fired with intent- with a target they were programmed to find.
So, there are two halves to the horror of the Massacre. A chaotic half and an organized half. Poniatowska’s decision to supply excerpts from interviews on the massacre gives us both those halves. Perhaps there is little opinion to her essay, but it is certainly effective. There is no way to read these excerpts, even the Soldier’s claim that he was only following orders, and not feel disgust at what happened October 2, 1968. Poniatowska’s “A Massacre in Mexico” is effective, because it does not beat around the bush. It points out what exactly happened, and needs no help in illuminating the cold horror of it all. -