An Enlightening Experience

August 16, 2010

An  Enlightening Experience

Elena Poniatowska is one of Mexico’s premier journalists. Born in Paris in 1933, her mother Paula Amor was from a Mexican family living in France and her father, Jean Poniatowska was French of noble Polish ancestry. In 1942 she left Paris with her mother and moved to Mexico City. Her father followed five years later. The family spoke French and she learned English at a private British school. Her Spanish language acquisition came mainly from speaking with the domestic help in her home. From them she also learned about the life of the Mexican working class. Elena greatly admired the customs and culture of Mexico. She understood the difficulties of the common people and much of her career has been dedicated to giving a voice to their issues.

She began her life’s work inauspiciously in 1953 and has said that what she was exposed to as a young journalist made her feel truly Mexican. Within ten years she had the reputation of a socially conscious, honest journalist. Her acceptance in high society and also amongst disadvantaged groups gave her access to many more sources than most of her contemporaries. Over the course of nearly 60 years as a prolific investigative journalist, essayist, novelist and poet, she has been named for many awards including the prestigious “Javier Villarrutia Prize.” She won this for her chronicle “La Noche de Tlatelolco” (1971; Massacre in Mexico) However, she refused to accept it because she was opposed to the government leaders who lauded the award. Two of her other famous chronicles are “Fuerte es el Silencio” (1980; Silence Is Strong), and “Nada, Nadie: las Voces del Temblor “(1988; Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake).

Last Thursday August 12th) I attended a lecture given by Dr. Tanius Karam, a Professor of Communications from the Autonomous University of Mexico City, who discussed four of Elena Poniatowska’s major socio-political chronicles.  

  • “Todo Comenzó en Domingo” (1963 It Began on a Sunday), a collection of vignettes that depicts everyday life in Mexico City.
  • “La Noche de Tlatelolco” (1971; Massacre in Mexico), her compilation of many interviews she conducted with a large cross section of Mexico City’s citizens who had been involved in the student riots of 1968.
  • “Nada, Nadie: Las Voces del Temblor” (1988; Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake) is an anthology of personal testimonies recorded after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.
  • “Las Mil y Unas: La Heridas de Paulina” (1990 Paulina) This controversial chronicle depicts the tragic case of a 14 year old girl who was raped and denied an abortion.

Dr. Karam analyzed the different interviewing techniques the author used and how each was most effective to the theme of her reporting.  The sensitivity and respect that Elena Poniatowska pays her subjects is what makes her work exceptional. No matter how polemic the case may be, it is never sensationalized.  As a writer, I found this presentation to be fascinating and enlightening.

The following day, Jorge and I enjoyed a couple of hours speaking with Dr. Tanius Karam.  As he is a professional in Communications, I was interested to know his views about the negative press Mexico is receiving. Why is this country portrayed as crime capital of the planet?

He pointed out that the relationship Mexico has with other countries is complex and this is especially so when it comes to the United States. Because the two countries share a 3,000 kilometer border, there is bound to be a constant power play going on.  The USA is a much larger, richer and more powerful country and so naturally they have the advantage. Mexico is forced to accept certain American decisions – like it or not. And laws that are in place must be upheld until such time as new ones are voted in.

Of course there are many (of both nationalities) who for one reason or another do not follow the established protocol… Illegal immigration, drug running and consumption, money laundering, arms dealing and many other illicit activities are thriving on both sides of the border. This is counter-productive to both American and Mexican societies. And because human nature is what it is – each tries to blame the other through negative press and over reactions.

But even if this behavior is somewhat understandable, it makes life extremely difficult for the people of the maligned country. Because of negative press, Mexico’s tourism industry and other commercial activities are very depressed. Many citizens have lost their jobs and productivity is extremely low. It’s a chain effect and nearly every sector is suffering. So… what to do?

Our discussion concluded that there would be little gained by a grand scale public relations campaign. As the negativity towards Mexico is more reactionary than intellectual, the best results will be achieved with the sustained effort of people just like us.

Perhaps the following suggestions will be useful:

  • When over-the-top news appears in the press, write to the editor and show where the article / segment / installment / report / video clip or whatever is biased. State  your perspective as a resident of Mexico
  • Comment likewise on blogs and social networks
  • If you are an American citizen write to you senator and congressman
  • If you’re Canadian, do likewise with your member of parliament

We live in a beautiful place with kindhearted people. It is important to explain our lifestyle to our friends and family who do not live here. I know it’s difficult for them to understand that, warts and all, we’re living in the place we want to live. Maybe it would help to invite them for a visit so they can see for themselves that our world is more peaceful and enjoyable  than they imagined. Hopefully they’ll pass on the message to their circle back home.

*** Images: All but two (Dr. Karam and Birders) are from Google Images

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Filed under Vida Latina, Writing

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