Elena Poniatowska

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Elena Poniatowska in 2015

Hélène Elizabeth Louise Amélie Paula Dolores Poniatowska Amor (born May 19, 1932), known professionally as Elena Poniatowska, is a French-born Mexican journalist and author, specializing in works on social and political issues focused on those considered to be disenfranchised especially women and the poor.


  • We women treasure faces; in fact at any given moment life becomes a single face that we can touch with our lips.
    • "State of Siege", included in A Necklace of Words: Short Fiction by Mexican Women edited by Marjorie Agosín and Nancy Abraham Hall, translated from Spanish by Nancy Abraham Hall

Interview with The Paris Review (2018)[edit]

  • I learned, as they say, by doing. I began as an interviewer for the society pages of Excélsior—the only sort of thing a young woman could expect in those days...Since Excélsior is a daily paper, I had to produce these pieces every day with almost no time for review. Then I would read them in print and see that I had spent too much time on things of little importance and failed to ask about what mattered most. And so,with frequent embarrassment, that is how I learned. One also learns ­humility doing interviews, because people may not want to give you much time and so keep you waiting in an anteroom or are dismissive or in a bad mood, and all this has to be accepted.
  • Of course, imaginative writing always contains elements of the writer’s lived experience, but there is a ­different sort of freedom in it than there is in reporting or in novels based on interviews.
  • style, as I see it, is not an adornment added to a work. It is more, as Buffon said, that “le style c’est l’homme même”—style is the man himself...That famous line is actually the conclusion of a longer thought—“Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste.” In my own words, I would say that style is a manifestation of the writer’s being, which, of course, changes over time but retains something essential of who he is...One does not develop a style. One develops oneself. Or, perhaps more accurately, one is born with a certain character and life shapes it. And then, if you write or paint or sculpt, you do those things with the person you have ­become. And that is style.
  • if I had been, say, a French writer, I would have been free to write whatever I wished, which would have been writing of an imaginative sort. But in Mexico, because of the suffering that is the result of centuries of corruption, there is a moral obligation to write of this. I could not ignore it, and, because I have become known for it and have refined my ability to write this way through practice, it became my principal work.
  • Boundaries, after all—of custom, of language, of what is and is not permitted—not only function to keep others out but also keep those inside from expanding.
  • It is one thing to identify oneself as a citizen of a country and to love its landscape, its people, its arts and culture. It is quite another thing to assess the workings of its social and political structure—the degree of freedom and opportunity enjoyed by its people, its standard of education and quality of life. A Mexican peasant has virtually no chance of becoming anything else. The standard of education was low fifty years ago and, if anything, is even lower today.
  • There is an immense abyss between the very few who have money and the vast number who are poor—and there is scarce concern on the part of those who have for those who do not. The politicians can be numbered among those who have. So my being a Mexican writer and loving my country has come to find its expression in opening up this reality to other Mexicans and to the larger world, expressed through the voices of the least empowered—women, especially, and poor people of both genders.
  • The question of being encouraged or discouraged by this or that event cannot be asked if one is to go on with a certain moral conviction.
  • The ultimate outcome of our ­actions cannot be known. But despite our limited awareness, I believe we must always act with compassion.

Las Soldaderas (1999)[edit]

  • Nellie Campobello, a great writer, published Cartucho (Cartridge) in 1931. Her explosive book was more like a grenade that laid bare the tragedy of the Mexican Revolution. In a succession of brief chapters, Nellie sketches a cruel, stark picture of the uprising as seen through the eyes of a little girl who was born before original sin. There are dead men-killed in battle or executed by firing squad-on every page. The girl eagerly watches from her window as men are shot down, and their corpses become her toys. When her favorite one is finally taken away, she misses it because it has entertained her for five days…If Nellie Campobello had not recorded her experiences, we would have been deprived of the most creative view of the Mexican Revolution ever written. Yes, I know, we have the writers Mariano Azuela, Martín Luis Guzmán, Rafael F. Muñoz, and the boring Francisco L. Urquizo, but there is no one as authentic as Nellie, no one who could say, as she did…Nellie Campobello-who wrote two novels, Cartucho and Las manos de mamá (A Mother's Hands)-was never granted the legendary status she deserves despite the fact that she is the only woman to have authored works about the Mexican Revolution. Her colleagues never acknowledged her nor paid her tribute of any kind, so much so that we are unsure exactly when and how she died.
  • According to the El Paso Morning Times, in 1914 there were seventeen thousand men and four thousand women in Pancho Villa's army, but there are many other statistics that show that, without the soldaderas, there would have been no Mexican Revolution.
  • The locomotive was the main protagonist of the Mexican Revolution, but the Adelitas and Valentinas came a close second.

"A Question Mark Engraved on my Eyelids" (1992)[edit]

In The Writer on Her Work (1992), translated from Spanish by Cynthia Steele

  • I write in order to belong.
  • Widows used to go around the way the poet Jaime Sabines would like them to: "There is one way, my love, that you could make me completely happy: die." Now widows are not even merry.
  • I absorbed Mexico through the maids. A system still persists in Latin America which consists of privileged people having at their beck and call the poorest of the poor.
  • Without realizing it the maids provided me with a version of Benito Juárez; they were all like Benito Juárez. Like him they vindicated themselves: "Dirty foreigners." Like him they defended Mexico, as stubborn as mules. Like him they had no roof of their own and had eaten only poor people's food, and for me, a girl raised on French mashed potatoes, discovering them meant entering into "the other."
  • To this day, if I ask so many questions, it is because I don't have a single answer. I believe I will die like this, still searching, with a question mark engraved on my eyelids.
  • in Latin America reality surpasses fiction.
  • Life is very resistant. People-the same cannon fodder that nourishes great universal misfortunes, "the wretched of the earth," as Frantz Fanon called them. Suddenly, during an earthquake, one of them saves a life.
  • I would like to return to earth because I love life.
  • Carefully I asked them questions, visited them in their crowded neighborhoods, watched their kites cross the sky in February, treated them like kites, because that's how testimonial literature is. It fills one with anxiety, with insecurity. One handles very fragile material, people's hearts; their names, which are their honor; their work; and their time. And one tries to turn it into memorable material.
  • I have always responded to challenges, followed apocalyptical personalities, apostles, Rasputins, Joan of Arcs who hear voices that come from Heaven, illuminated guides of humanity, holders of truth, priests.
  • I live to the rhythm of my country and I cannot remain on the sidelines. I want to be here. I want to be part of it. I want to be a witness. I want to walk arm in arm with it. I want to hear it more and more, to cradle it, to carry it like a medal on my chest. Activism is a constant element in my life, even though afterwards I anguish over not having written "my own things." Testimonial literature provides evidence of events that people would like to hide, denounces and therefore is political and part of a country in which everything remains to be done and documented.
  • I have always had questions, and to this day, I don't have a single answer.
  • I have always been drawn to characters like Jesusa Palancares. María Sabina, the one who performed the ceremony of the sacred mushrooms (LSD in Oaxaca), Juan Perez Jolote (the Chamula peasant from Chiapas), Demetrio Vallejo (the railroad leader), all popular heroes, even if they are not recognized. I admire them because of their wisdom and the way they impart it, with great patience, great prudence, with respect for the ignorance of the person who asks the questions.
  • That the poorest Mexicans don't deserve their ruling class is a truth that leaps out at once.
  • We have all been made bad, we are all needy, all unwanted guests around the feast, invited at the last minute. In recognizing this lies our creativity.

Quotes about Elena Poniatowska[edit]

  • Like the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, I have tried to tell the stories my characters would tell if they were writers
  • In light of her later books, we tend to read irony into Elena Poniatowska's claim of meek docility, but the lesson of her early interviews predicts Audre Lorde's eloquent and cautionary charge that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."
    • Beth E. Jörgensen, The Writing of Elena Poniatowska (1994)
  • I would suggest that in its depiction of Mariana and Luz, La "Flor de Lis" offers a concrete and particularized version of what Adrienne Rich describes as the terrible ambivalence-love, anger, rivalry, desire, rejection-that the daughter feels for the mother in patriarchy.
    • Beth E. Jörgensen, The Writing of Elena Poniatowska (1994)

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