December 21, 2014
Poniatowska shines in Cervantes Prize speech
Mexican writer/journalist Elena Poniatowska yesterday received the Cervantes Prize at the University of Alcalá de Henares — Autonomous Community of Madrid. The award was presented by King Juan Carlos of Spain, who said that “the necessity of giving voice to the ignored, to evidence the contradictions of progress, to denounce social discrimination and all types of injustice constitutes the spirit of her literary production”.
He also added that “the conquest of freedom and equality have in her work a universal aim, it transcends the limits of class and gender […] In this way, social struggle turns into a defense of mutual understanding.”
Well-known for her constant advocacy on the socially vulnerable, Poniatowska gave an acceptance speech in which she claimed to be “a feminine Sancho Panza” proud of “walking along the gullible, the rickety, the frank”. With many references to Cervantes, the author added that “financial power rules not only in Mexico, but in the whole World. The ones who resist — mounted on Rocinante and followed by Sancho Panza — are constantly decreasing”.
Poniatowska is the fifth Mexican to ever win the award, next to Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Sergio Pitol and José Emilio Pacheco. In addition to that, she is also the fourth woman to receive it, alongside María Zambrano, Dulce María Loynaz and Ana María Matute, “the three Maries, swayed by their circumstances, didn’t had any saint to entrust themselves to, in spite of that, they are — today — the three women of Cervantes, just like Dulcinea del Toboso, Luscinda, Zoraida and Constanza. Contrary to them, many Gods have protected me, because in Mexico there’s a God underneath every stone” she said.
The speech had a strong presence of distinguished women, in fact, the acclaimed author mentioned the 17th century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “who knew, since the beginning, that the battle for knowledge is the only battle that counts.”
Poniatowska also highlighted the struggle of Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, who “rose against a new form of torture, the disappearance of people; her protest preceded the uprising of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, with their white handkerchief on their heads for each disappeared child. ‘Alive they took them, alive we want them.’”
With a celebrated career trajectory that spans over 50 years, Poniatowska is probably best known for her recollections on the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco (compiled in her book The Night of Tlatelolco). She was also one of the first journalists to interview Subcomandante Marcos, the most “visible” head of EZLN (the Zapatist Army for National Liberation). As an entrepreneur, she founded a publishing house (Siglo XXI), a feminist magazine (Fern), a newspaper (La Jornada) and Mexico’s National Film Institute (Cineteca Nacional).
Born in France but based in Mexico due to WWII, Poniatowska always felt closer to Latin America, “[I] belong to Mexico and to a national life that writes and erases itself everyday because the paper sheets of a newspaper last for a day: they are taken by the wind, end up in the trash or full of dust in forgotten archives” she said.
Speaking of her native country, she said that “the certainties of France and it’s eagerness to always be right languished beside the humbleness of Mexico’s poor people […] Bare-footed, they walked beneath their hats or their humble garments. They hide themselves so the shame in their eyes could not be seen”.
Near the end of the speech, Poniatowska quoted Frida Kahlo, who said “I happily await the exit and I hope to never return.” Unlike her, Poniatowska hopes to “return, return return, that’s the meaning I’ve been wanting to give to my 82 years. I pretend to go up to heaven and return hand-by-hand with Cervantes to help him hand out —like a feminine squire — awards to young people that —just like me today, the 23 of April, 2014, International Book Day— arrive here at Alcalá de Henares. ”