Why Carlos Fuentes Matters

May 15, 2012
10:12 pm

“Yo no soy mexicano. Yo no soy gringo. Yo no soy chicano. No soy gringo en USA y mexicano en Mexico. Soy chicano en todas partes. No tengo que asimilarme a nada. Tengo mi propia historia.” ― Carlos Fuentes 

“To call me anti-American is a stupendous lie, a calumny. I grew up in this country. When I was a little boy I shook the hand of Franklin Roosevelt and I haven’t washed it since.” ― Carlos Fuentes

Today, Carlos Fuentes died at 83 years old.

To us, Fuentes will always be one of the world's greatest writers. Punto. No matter the language. He was one part of the "El Boom's" Holy Quartet , who along with García Márquez, Cortázar, and Vargas Llosa, transformed literature and our appreciation for it. Yes, Fuentes was Mexican, but he was also a Latin Americanist, as well as a citizen of the world. As proud a Mexican as he was, Fuentes thought beyond that, understanding that politics can be corrupt and ugly, while humanity can be beautiful and complex. And he wrote, even at 83 years old, he wrote.

Fuentes was born in Panama City in 1928, the son of a diplomat, and really didn't come back home to Mexico until he was 16. As a child, he lived in Montevideo, Washington (where he learned to speak fluent English in a public school), Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Quito, and it is ironic that one of Mexico's most beloved writers was almost a stranger in his own country when he came back with his family in 1944. In today's obituary from The New York Times, Fuentes credits his grandmothers' stories from Mexico as the main inspiration for his becoming a writer. We knew that story from the lit classes we took years ago, and at a time when authors of Mexican American descent are being banned by school districts in the US, it is people like Fuentes who remind us why we write in the first place. To keep our stories alive, and our history vibrant.

There was something badass about Fuentes whenever he was asked to comment about his country's political and social ills, or his disdain of Washington politics, or the absurdity from the cult of personality that is Latin American politics. Here was this bilingual man who could tell you to f-off with a little intelligence ("What the United States does best is to understand itself. What it does worst is understand others.") and back it up with prose that would rival anyone else in the world. Sure, there will always be those who think Fuentes was rich, a Mexican elitist, an author who just wrote and never did a lick to make this world better, but that is where his critics are wrong. Because his prose crept into the minds of his readers, his words inspired others and to many, the sight of a Mexican man sharing such eloquence and intelligence when discussing topics that mattered, was powerful. You want to break down stereotypes? Write like Carlos Fuentes, write with an honest voice, and just tell stories.

One of our most memorable Fuentes stories (outside of his accounts regarding his body of work) occurred in 1977, two years after he was appointed Mexico's ambassador to France. Once former Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz became ambassador to Spain, Fuentes quit. The reason? It was Díaz Ordaz who, as Mexico's president in 1968, had ordered force on student protesters in Mexican City. We are trying to think of what other famous authors at the height of their career would be so public about their beliefs. In this day and age, not many.

Tonight, we went back and checked our Fuentes collection tucked away in our libraries, from a worn copy of a highlighted La muerte de Artemio Cruz to the mural-covered Cambio de piel (we opened it up again tonight and read a passage that screamed 1960s cosmopolitan Mexico, like a freaky lounge scene from Mad Men). Fuentes mattered to us, and we think he will always matter to many.

Fuentes said something once that will always resonate with us: "Don't classify me, read me. I'm a writer, not a genre.” In a world where everyone wants to label you and put you in the box, Fuentes tells us, screw the box, kick yourself out of the box. Just write. Never stop writing, and never stop writing about what YOU want to write about.

No one can define you, you can only define yourself. That is Fuentes to us.