Last month, when I heard that Carlos Fuentes had passed away, I headed straight for my closet to dig through a cluttered box that I had been meaning to organize for years. After much feverish excavation, I finally found what I was looking for—an old cassette tape with a handwritten label—“Interview with Carlos Fuentes in the Car.”
Carlos Fuentes was the son of a Mexican diplomat, born in 1928 in Panama and raised in Washington D.C. He identified himself as a Mexican writer. His unique perspective as an insider and outsider within diverse cultures is reflected in his work, revealing a complex understanding of the clashes of Mexican history and modern day life. His novels interweave mythological events with real stories of corruption, greed, love, fear, and crises of identity.
In the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s these crises of identity were shared amongst numerous Latin American writers. Fuentes, along with Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, helped spark a momentous literary movement that caught on so quickly it became known as El Boom.
Since news hit on May 15, 2012 that Carlos Fuentes had passed away at the age of 83, there has been a global outpouring of grief for the loss of a man known as a great thinker and writer. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón announced, “I deeply lament the death of our beloved and admired Carlos Fuentes, a universal Mexican writer.” The New York Times referred to him as “one of the most admired writers in the Spanish-speaking world.”
When I interviewed Fuentes in 2006, he was already a legend in the literary world. I was then a graduate student in Dartmouth College’s Comparative Literature program, and I had spearheaded an effort to bring Fuentes to campus as a guest speaker. (The occasion was Dartmouth’s annual commemoration of Susanne Zantop, a professor who had been shockingly murdered in her home in 2001. Fuentes had known her when he taught at Dartmouth as a visiting professor.)
As I stood in the lobby waiting anxiously for Fuentes to appear, my heart raced every time the elevator doors opened. My apprehensions disappeared, however, when Fuentes emerged from the elevator with a radiant smile. He and his wife Silvia embraced me as though we’d known each other for years.
Fuentes, sporting his trademark mustache, was impeccably dressed in a tailored grey suit and tie. The three of us left together and walked across campus while Fuentes boyishly cracked jokes. As we crossed the vast lawns surrounding the campus, Silvia reminisced about their time at Dartmouth with vivid memories of their children playing there in the grass.
The following day, I would accompany them on a road trip to Providence, Rhode Island for another speaking engagement at Brown University. The interview was unplanned; I only knew that having three hours with Carlos Fuentes in the car was a once in a lifetime opportunity. What resulted was a remarkably candid discussion of his views on the role of the writer in political movements and society.
In his book This I Believe Fuentes says about death, “We live in an age that is ours, but we are also the ghosts of an older age, as well as the foreshadowing of an age that is yet to come. Let us not lose sight of these promises that Death holds.” Our conversation—about the role of art in politics, literature and exile, his identity as a Mexican writer, and his own influences—foreshadowed the very things he will be remembered for.
—Lilly Kanso for Guernica
Guernica: You’re an influential writer who has always been very outspoken and involved in current political issues. Here, on the contrary, it seems unlikely that a major poet, writer, or artist would ever hold public office. What do you think are the differences in attitude between the U.S. and Latin America with regard to the relationship between the artist, writer, and political system?
Carlos Fuentes: Well anything would be better in the United States than what you have. As a government it’s really very low quality, given the fact that this country produces eminent intellectuals, has great universities, and then the people who arrive in government are very mediocre. The Latin American situation has been very different in the first place, because writers have spoken for those who have no voice. The rate of illiteracy, poverty, joblessness in Latin America has been so great throughout our history that if the writers didn’t speak out for the people, nobody would. The governments were corrupt, etc. Things have changed now. We mostly have democratic governments in Latin America, so the position of the writer has changed. It is not as Neruda used to say, that a Latin American writer walks around with the body of his people on his back. Now, we have citizens, we have public means of expression, political parties, congress, unions. So, the writer’s position has changed, we now consider ourselves to be citizens—not spokespeople for everybody—but citizens that participate in the political and social process of the country.
You also speak of holding [governmental] posts, which used to be a distinguished position writers had. Most writers in Mexico have had posts as ambassadors, secretaries—that is no longer the case. Now a writer can live off writing. He has an audience: there are publishing houses, there are newspapers—so the situation is not as terrible as it used to be when there were no means, no outlets for the writer to make money and he had to go into government service, be an ambassador or a cabinet minister, etc. So, things are changing in the sense that the civil society is now the protagonist. The writer therefore occupies a different position, but no less influential than in the past, in a new, democratic society.
Guernica: Do you consider yourself a writer in exile?
Carlos Fuentes: I have never considered myself a writer in exile because I grew up outside of my own country, because my father was a diplomat. Therefore, I grew up in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, the United States, I studied in Switzerland—so I’ve always had perspective on my country—I am thankful for that.
Our greatest novelist ever, Juan Rulfo, the author of Pedro Páramo, never left Jalisco and the states of Mexico where he sold tires and drove around and heard stories—he is the great example of a writer very much bred, rooted in the country, that transforms all he has heard into great art. My position was very different because I had a perspective on Mexico since I was a child. I was a boy of ten when President Cárdenas expropriated the oil holdings of foreign companies, and there was a wave of anti-Mexicanism in the United States. There were big headlines, “Mexican Communists Steal Our Oil,”—then I lost friends at school (I was in grade school), I was looked upon with suspicion. And I was the son of a diplomat; when I heard the news from Mexico I sided with Mexican causes. I grew up in a kind of exile until I was fifteen years old, always outside of Mexico, but always very conscious that I was a Mexican. Yet that gave me a different consciousness of being Mexican from someone who had never left Mexico—so, it worked both ways.
For a moment there I could have become Argentinean or Chilean—I was very bound to my friends, my schools in Santiago and Buenos Aires, but no—no, Mexico has won me over, and do you know why? Because Mexico always was and always will be a mystery for me, a big question mark. What is this country all about? How can I understand it? You know, when García Márquez doesn’t understand the baroque political situation in Mexico, he goes to the National Museum of Anthropology, and stands before the Coatlicue the Mother Goddess of the Aztecs, the gigantic sculpture of block, of serpents, headless, tremendous, of a goddess saying, “I am a goddess not a person—don’t try to find personality in me. I am not Venus—I am Coatlicue, the goddess of serpents.” And when he has stood five minutes in front of Coatlicue, he says, “Now I understand Mexico,” and leaves.
It’s a very complex, mysterious country. I will never understand it fully, and that’s why I write so much about it, in order to try to understand it.
Guernica: On the issue of exile, you have spoken a great deal about a particular writer in exile, who is also a great friend of yours, the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo.
Carlos Fuentes: I have a lot of comments on Juan Goytisolo. I think, frankly, directly, that he is the greatest living author from Spain. But, I have always refused to call Goytisolo merely a Spanish author, an author from Spain. I consider him part of the Hispano-American literature. For a long time, Goytisolo was not published in Spain. Franco’s censorship would not let him, so he was published in Mexico, he was published in Buenos Aires. He is really the typical example of the unity of the Spanish language, the fact that we are 500 million people who think and speak in Spanish.
I consider Goytisolo a Spanish-American writer, along with García Márquez, or Cortázar, or myself. And, certainly from any measure a worldwide writer, a universal writer of the highest caliber. A man capable of extraordinary experiments; he takes fantastic risks, he is never content with what he does, which is always the sign of a good writer. Once you’re contented with what you are doing and feel comfortable in your writing, I think something is wrong with you. You have to be very angry, very discontented, and always looking for different things. I think he is the prototype—more than me, more than any one of us; Goytisolo is the great experimental, daring, risk-taking author of the Spanish language.
Guernica: Goytisolo is a Spanish writer who rejects Spain and embraces the culture of the Arab world. He writes a great deal about the seven centuries of Arab occupation in Spain. What are your thoughts on his position?
Carlos Fuentes: Juan Goytisolo is in the truest league that exists between Latin American literature and the Arab World. In the world of Arabic literature, he has been the intermediary between the Spanish language culture and the culture of the Arabic language. Forty percent of the words that we use in Spanish are from Arab origin. The Arabs spent seven centuries in the Spanish peninsula; they brought us water, they brought us architecture, they brought us music…they brought us cleanliness, because the Spanish didn’t bathe, but the Arabs did. There was water in the Arab World and in Spain there was no water. So, we have an immense debt to them and Goytisolo is the bridge, the intermediary, between a culture that we tend to forget in Latin America and the Arab World.
Guernica: Do you spend time with Goytisolo on a regular basis?
Carlos Fuentes: Yes, my wife Silvia and I […] spent a week in Marrakesh with him, going around the city—he knows the city in such a way that if you’re not guided by Goytisolo, you will be lost forever—you will never be heard from again. So, we receive him in Mexico, we meet in Spain, in Paris, in Marrakesh—it’s a very, very strong friendship we have, I am very grateful for that friendship.
“I see trains loaded with Mexican workers going north, I say why are they not doing the work that is needed in Oaxaca, in Tabasco, in Chiapas, in Yucatán, everywhere. Why? Why? Why?”
Guernica: I’d like to ask your thoughts on the issue of immigration in the United States.
Carlos Fuentes: What is happening is a double-edged sword. There is a U.S. responsibility—the United States needs these workers. I mean, the United States would not eat, it wouldn’t have breakfast without the Mexican workers. They pick up the oranges, the tomatoes, they do the work nobody else wants to do—but somebody wants to do it. I hope that someday Mexico will give full employment to our workers, then the United States will have to look for these workers in another place. In Papua New Guinea, the North Pole, I don’t know where—but it will need these people to do the work nobody else will do in a post-industrial society that does not want in some instances to recognize itself as such. The United States still thinks that it is a nineteenth century industrial society. It isn’t that any longer, it has to adapt to a new reality. But we have a grave responsibility in Mexico, which is to give work to our own people. As long as we have a system that denies work to 50 percent of the population, you’ll have immigrants coming to the United States.
When we have a better, more social, more responsible, less egotistical, less corrupt system, we’ll be able to give work to the millions of Mexicans who have to build our roads, our dams, our sewers, our schools, all the things that are left undone in Mexico while we have the manpower. I see trains loaded with Mexican workers going north, I say why are they not doing the work that is needed in Oaxaca, in Tabasco, in Chiapas, in Yucatán, everywhere. Why? Why? Why? There is something very bad going on, on both sides of the border. But the worker is a worker, not a criminal, he or she are not criminals. So, I am in favor of a solution such as the Kennedy-McCain proposals that make it clear what steps have to be taken to accept the fact that the United States needs foreign workers. I’m not specifying Mexican workers, but foreign workers to do the work that nobody else wants to do. There has to be some legal solution, some peaceful solution which is not the criminalizing of the worker.
Guernica: Are we facing a situation [in the United States] that could promote a climate of fear among the Latin American community?
Carlos Fuentes: Well, what I see is the contrary of fear—I see extreme courage. When I see millions of people [protesting] in the streets of Los Angeles, of Seattle, of Omaha of all places, what I’m seeing is an act of courage, not an act of fear. Some of them, I read today, have been penalized for taking part in the marches—they’ve been thrown out of their jobs. They will come back, or somebody else will come, because the work has to be done. It’s as simple as that. But, I think there is no fear. On the contrary, this is comparable to Cesar Chavez’s movement, when all these workers came out of the shadows, into the streets. Now the immigrants are also coming into the streets, and the worst that could happen is the apocalyptic day without Mexicans, in which this country would come to a standstill. It would then ask for Mexican workers to come back as soon as possible—because this country would not feed itself, it would not educate itself, it would not transport itself, without the Mexican worker.
“The left has abandoned the revolutionary solution proposed by Che Guevara and has taken the democratic path.”
Guernica: Could the United States create a sort of class system in which foreign workers are denied citizenship rights but granted working rights? If something like this happened, wouldn’t these workers feel like modern day slaves?
Carlos Fuentes: Like criminals, first of all. Also, like slaves if the employers are taskmasters. But, I feel that, thanks to these manifestations we have seen lately, there is a great sense of community between migrant workers. This is an opportunity. Migration is an opportunity, not a problem. And in the sense that it is an opportunity, it starts with a unilateral law from this country, the Kennedy-McCain Act let’s say—it goes on to a bilateral agreement, between Mexico and the United States, the United States and El Salvador, the United States and the Dominican Republic, whatever you wish, and, finally, it has to be a multilateral, international event. I am in favor of an international union of migrant workers that really takes on the problems that affect Europe, with the migrants coming from Africa and the Arab countries, and the United States with the migrants coming from Mexico and Latin America. It has to be considered an international question, with international solutions, and with no problems national or international.
“Democracy is not something that can be exported like Coca-Cola. It has to be bred from the inside, according to the culture, the conditions of each country.”
Guernica: This year saw several major elections in Latin America with a remarkable shift to the left. North America has tried to intervene and has even become antagonistic toward Latin America’s political leaders. Is this shift in politics a direct response to U.S. intervention?
Carlos Fuentes: No, the United States has nothing to do with the shift, nothing whatsoever. This is something that has happened because the military dictatorships of the Cold War that existed with United States backing. For Pinochet, or the Argentinean juntas, it sufficed to say “we are anti-communist,” they received the backing of the United States immediately. When the Cold War was over, the dictatorships had no raison d’être. Democratic forces came forth: democratic elections, democratic parliaments, a free press, a series of important democratic conquests, all the way from Mexico to Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Now, there is a second stage in which people are saying these democratic freedoms are OK, they’re great, we want to preserve them—but when do we get to work? When do we get to eat? When are we going to be educated? When are we going to have opportunities?
Now the masses of Latin America are electing governments they feel can take forward the democratic reforms of the last 20 years, and transform them into social and economic reforms. This is, I think, extremely important, because it also means that the left has abandoned the revolutionary solution proposed by Che Guevara and has taken the democratic path. Everybody has come through elections, even Hugo Chávez, whom I do not consider to be to the left, I consider him to be a right-wing fascist disguised as a leftist. Evo Morales has been elected, Lula has been elected, Kirchner has been elected—nobody has arrived at power through violent means, and this is a great gain, to have the formal freedoms of democracy in place, and now to demand the material, concrete well-being that democracy is supposed to have.
Guernica: On the topic of democracy, I’d like to move our conversation to a different part of the world. When there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, the North American Administration shifted their stance by stating that their primary goal was to promote democracy. How do you feel about the American promise to promote democracy in other countries? Do you think this is possible?
Carlos Fuentes: I am a Mexican. The United States lived seventy-five years with the one party system in Mexico—the PRI—without batting an eyelid, never demanding democracy of Mexico. Democracy came because Mexicans fought for democracy and made a democracy out of our history, our possibilities, our perspectives. Democracy is not something that can be exported like Coca-Cola. It has to be bred from the inside, according to the culture, the conditions of each country. There will be Arab democracies on Arab terms, according to Arab faith, Arab customs, Arab history, Arab antecedents. You cannot impose it, it is a self-fulfilling failure to try to impose democracy. Is Condoleezza Rice going to impose democracy on Hosni Mubarak in Egypt? Or are the Egyptian people going to find a democratic way out for Egypt? Obviously, it’s ridiculous to think that the United States can impose democracy. The United States lived with Somosa, Trujillo, Batista, Castillo Armas, the worst dictators we’ve had in Latin America were all puppets of the United States—what democracy are we talking about? It will come from us, not from them.
Guernica: Do you enjoy being on the road and visiting universities to talk to students?
Carlos Fuentes: Listen. I am a writer, and, as Silvia knows I spend all my day sitting before a notebook with a pen in hand, writing and writing and writing and reading and reading and reading. This is my life. From time to time I need a break. Giving lectures, traveling, going to the universities is a way of coming out of the solitude of writing, which I enjoy, I like, but I have to break it from time to time, and it is getting to know new people and young people, without consequences. So, it’s not bad. It’s simply my spring break.
Guernica: What are your favorite books?
Carlos Fuentes: Oh no, I read so much I would exhaust you if I told you.
Guernica: Where do you call home?
Carlos Fuentes: In London, and part of the year in Mexico, and part of the year traveling in Europe or in the United States. It’s a diversified life. As [Silvia] knows we have to pack bags all the time.
Hear the unabridged interview here: