Juan Rulfo’s international reputation rests on only two slender volumes published in his thirties. In contrast to the novel of the Mexican Revolution, with its descriptive realism and nationalism, Rulfo introduced the new Mexican narrative that would lead to what has been called the boom in Latin American literature, an outpouring of innovative fiction. Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez claimed Rulfo as one of his greatest influences. The Mexican poet and Nobel winner Octavio Paz praised Rulfo as “the only Mexican novelist to have provided us with an image—rather than a mere description—of our physical surroundings.”
The isolation and desolation of the rural Mexican desert landscape of his stories provide a setting where human characters have as little hope or possibility as the landscape has fertility. Just as the sterility of the desert is broken only by the implied violence of snakes and buzzards, so too are Rulfo’s stories studded with vengeance and violence, death and despair. Several critics have suggested that Rulfo’s preoccupation with violence stems from the violent death of his father when he was only seven and the violent condition of a Mexico still in turmoil after a revolution that ended in 1920.
The journey, which is often a physical journey combined with a symbolic quest (inevitably doomed to failure), is the dominant theme and organizing principle in many of Rulfo’s stories. The relationship between father and son, or the absence of a father, is a recurring motif. Other recurring themes include poverty and power, such as the poor versus the government, or the poor versus the local cacique, or landowner-boss.
“Because We Are So Poor”
Like all of Rulfo’s stories, “Es que somos muy pobres” (“Because We Are So Poor”) reveals much about the lives of Mexico’s poor campesinos, or rural people. A first-person narrator, the boy in a poor family, tells his story in the present tense to an unnamed listener, which creates a sense of immediacy, as if events are unfolding along with the narrative. A series of disasters has affected this family: Aunt Jacinta just died and was buried; the rains came unexpectedly, without giving the family time to salvage any of their rye harvest, which was stacked outside to dry in the sun; and now the cow his father gave his sister Tacha for her twelfth birthday has been swept away by the newly overflowing river. Tacha is the last of three sisters. The other two “went bad” and became prostitutes. Tacha’s cow was her only hope for a better life; without her cow she has nothing to attract a man to marry her. Tacha’s dowry and the only bank account she will ever have has washed away in the floodwaters of the river. As the boy observes his sister crying, he notes that her “two little breasts bounce up and down as if suddenly they were beginning to swell, to start now on the road to ruin.” Tacha is devastated by the loss of her cow, but she does not yet understand the depth of her loss nor what seem to be the inescapable consequences of that...
(The entire section is 1274 words.)
SOURCE: "Juan Rulfo: Contemporary Mexican Novelist," in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Winter, 1965-66, pp. 293-318.
[In the following excerpt, Harss stresses Rulfo's significance as a regionalist writer, contending that his short fiction successfully incorporates political and cultural themes without using propaganda or exaggerated sentiment.]
The current of regionalism, once a tidal flow, though somewhat diminished lately, continues to run strong in our literature. A lot of what it hauls along is old-fashioned stuff of little more than pictoric interest. The old regionalists who started producing the bulk of our literature toward the end of the nineteenth century were medíators between man and nature. Their function was less literary than agricultural. Their eye was innocent: it alighted only on surfaces. There was a wilderness to be tamed, an unmarked land to be given man's image and imprint. There were remnants of tribal cultures to be explored, catastrophes to be recorded. Literature was part of a collective effort.
Social conflicts—in feudal fiefs, mines, tropical plantations—gave this literature urgency and momentum. A branch of it, perhaps the sturdiest, taking its cue from the venerable Alcides Arguedas, who denounced the exploitation of the Indían in the Bolivian highlands in his epochal Raza de Bronce (Race of Bronze, 1919), found its cause in protest. Another, eminently represented today in the work of Peru's José Maria Arguedas, a fine sociologist, subordinated the epic to the interpretive. A third, the least fruitful—one thinks of El Salvador's juicy humorist, Salarré—petered out into folklore. But whatever the emphasis, the basic characteristics of this literature were always the same. It gave a picture, not a portrait. Its lines were general and usually at once roughly drawn and overly stylized. It had poetic moments in Peru's Ciro Alegría, a pleasant truculence in Salarrué, a militant force in Ecuador's Jorge Icaza. It became experimental with Mexico's Agustín Yañez, highly expressive with José Maria Arguedas, and even rose to mythological altitudes with Guatemala's Miguel Ángel Asturias, who eclipsed all his contemporaries in the genre. Recently it has had new life breathed into it by a talented Paraguayan storyteller, Augusto Roa Bastos, an excellent stylist who has known how to make regional literature carry the cross of human suffering with grace and dignity.
On the whole, regionalists today are literate writers. Their work has reached an acceptable level of achievement. But, in spite of subtle refinements in methods and techniques—which never transcend basic limitations—they are essentially in the old pamphleteering tradition. They still tend toward either the tract or the travelogue. They work from set situations which, needless to say, are often as real today as they were fifty years ago, but from a literary point of view have long been exhausted. Their faceless characters, sometimes colorful enough, but rarely more than silhouettes with a few generic traits, are soon forgotten. The stress they put on local díalect helps their work date fast. There are few exceptions. Perhaps the only one is Mexico's Juan Rulfo.
Rulfo, a thin man with a lean look, was born on May 16, 1918, in a rocky land: the state of Jalisco, some three hundred miles, as the wind blows, northwest of Mexico City. The northern part of the state, where mountain goats cling to high ledges, is densely populated, but his area, extending south of the capital, Guadalajara, is dry, hot and desolate. Life in the lowlands has always been austere. It is a depressed area long gutted by droughts and wildfires. Revolutions, crop failures, soil erosion have gradually displaced the population. Much of it has moved to Tijuana in hopes of finding migrant work across the border. It is a population largely made up of hardy Creoles—the Indíans who occupied soon exterminated—who trace their ancestry back to Castille and Extremadura, the more arid parts of Spain, and are therefore, as Rulfo says, "accustomed to work ten times harder than the farmer of central Mexico to produce the same." They are a dour people reduced to a bare subsistence, who have nevertheless given the country a high percentage of its painters and composers, not to mention its popular music. Jalisco is the cradle of the ranchera and the mariachi.
Says Rulfo in his sorrowful voice: "It's a very poor state. But the people work a lot. They produce a lot. I don't know how they manage to produce so much. They produce too much. Jalisco is the state that produces the most corn in the whole country. It's not a very large state. I think it's the eighth state in size in the country. But it produces enough corn to feed the whole of Mexico. It has more cattle than any other state. But as soon as you leave the capital, there's a lot of misery. Corn is a great destroyer of the soil. So there's no good soil left. In some areas it's completely worn out."
He sits hunched in his chair in our hotel room, off the clattering Paseo de la Reforma. The lines of his gaunt face are drawn tight, his long hands with big veins like raw nerves awkwardly folded on his lap. He talks quickly, in nervous haste, frowning painfully. He is what is known in his land as a "slow starter," he says, like one of those rifles with delayed action that often backfire. He is like his land: prematurely aged, deeply furrowed, careworn. There are blanks in his past. Rugged terrain fades into a hazy background.
"I was born in what is now a small village, an agglomeration that belongs to the district of Sayula. Sayula was an important commercial center some years ago, before and even after the Revolution. But I never lived in Sayula. I don't know Sayula. I couldn't say what it's like. . . . My parents registered me there. Because I was born at the time of the Revolution, or rather, of the revolutions, because there were a series of them. . . . I lived in a village called San Gabriel. I really consider myself to be from there. That's where I was brought up. San Gabriel was also a commercial center. In the old days, San Gabriel was a prosperous town; the royal road to Colima passed through there." San Gabriel was on the highway that led inland from Manzanillo, the port of entry used in Colonial times for imports from the Orient; in its hey-day, there was such wealth that the stores were measured by the number of doors they had. "San Gabriel and Zapotitlán were the most important towns of the region from the seventeenth century down to the Revolution." They were first settled under the "encomenderos": usually soldiers who were granted lands by the Crown in reward for their services, with the local population thrown into the bargain. These "encomenderos" concentrated the population into a few main urban centers that were relatively easy to administer. That was how San Gabriel and Zapotitlán were formed, also Tolimán, Tonaya, Chachahuatlán, San Pedro, etc. But that was long ago. Since the Revolution, there have been years of sunstroke. Nowadays, "in that zone, there are five or six villages left. They are hot lands, between 2,500 and 3,000 feet high." Changing trade routes, desert winds, have swept them into decay. There is little hope of improvement. The process is irreversible. Some villages still seem alive; but on closer inspection, nothing is going on there any more. The few superannuated inhabitants are stolid and tightlipped. "They are a hermetic people. Perhaps out of distrust—not only toward strangers, but also among themselves. They don't want to talk about their things. Nobody knows what they do, how they make a living. There are villages devoted exclusively to graft. The people there don't like to be asked any questions. They settle their affairs in their own private and personal way, almost secretly. . . ." The landscape itself—forty-five per cent of Mexico is sheer desert—is decrepit. The living are surrounded by the dead.
The dead haunt Rulfo. Perhaps because like so many people of his antediluvian region he has been uprooted and has lost his tracks in the sand. He remembers how his childhood village was gradually depopulated. "There was a river. We used to go bathe there in the hot season. Now the river has run dry. . . ." One of the reasons why the water no longer flows is that the woods in the surrounding mountains—which enclose the area in a monolithic horseshoe—have been cut down. Most people have migrated. Those who have stayed behind are there to keep the dead company. "Their ancestors tie them to the place. They don't want to leave their dead." Sometimes when they move they actually dig up their graves. "They carry their dead on their shoulders." Even when they leave them behind, they continue to bear their weight.
So with Rulfo, whose ancestry seems remote, therefore perhaps doubly cumbersome. He has also dug up old family graves in search of his lost origins. "My first ancestor came to Mexico around 1790, I think, from the north of Spain." "Historical curiosity" has sent him browsing, usually in vain, through libraries, bank vaults and civil registries. Mexico is a country of missing files and misplaced documents. Particularly his area, which is buried in administrative confusion. "It was an area that didn't belong to Jalisco originally. Jalisco was called Nueva Galicia. It was conquered by Núñez de Guzmán in 1530. But my area was called the province of Ávalos. Because it was conquered by Alonso de Ávalos, the man who pacified Colima and the southern part of Jalisco. The province of Ávalos was part of Nueva España, in other words, of Mexico City, the capital of the vice-royalty. Though it was near Guadalajara, the capital of Nueva Galicia, it had no political or religious connections with Guadalajara. For many years the documentation of the province of Ávalos was lost, because most of those villages were decimated by plagues and fevers, sometimes by the Conquerors themselves. One of my ancestors on my mother's side was called Arias. . . . There's a curious fact here. Most of the Spanish conquerors were adventurers, jailbirds: monks who weren't monks, priests who weren't priests, people with criminal records. They gave themselves names that don't exist. For example: Vizcaìno. I'm called Vizcaìno on my mother's side. But Vizcaìno is a name that doesn't exist in Spain. There's the province of Vizcaya. Here the name of the province was used to coin a surname. In other words, all the Vizcaìnos were outlaws. It was very common among those gentlemen to change their name. They dropped their patronymic and named themselves after their province instead. That's where genealogy breaks down." The díagnosis holds good for most families of "high birth" in Mexico today, he says. If you trace them back far enough, you invariably end up with either a priest or a criminal. "That's why 'highborn' dynasties are false, formed entirely on the basis of wealth. It's hard to draw the lines here. In Ávalos it's impossible. There the villages were razed by the Revolution; the archives were burned. The only documents available were copies on file in Mexico City. So it was difficult to get down to the bottom of things. Now, many facts can be found in banks in the U.S. Because the expeditionary forces that occupied California set out from Ávalos. So the banks there have collected the documents of the period for their own information. They have the best files. Because it was a chapter in the history of California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona." Rulfo has carried his search to all those places.
What he knows about his family is that his paternal grandfather was a lawyer, his maternal grandfather a landowner. His parents were from the more densely populated northern part of the state, known as Los Altos (The Heights). "It's an overpopulated, very eroded zone inhabited by people who started moving south around the turn of the century. How my parents reached the south, I don't know. The highlander, besides being from the highlands, is tall. 'Longback,' people call him, because of his long waist." Rulfo inherited this trait. He wears his trousers low on slim hips. He also has light eyes. They are common in his region, where the countrygirls are often blonde and blue-eyed. They are also poor. They go barefoot. "There were never any big landholdings in that area. There were always small properties. The countrypeople have always been very poor. The only time they put on their shoes is when they go into town. . . . The habits in those villages are still matriarchal. There woman commands. As a matter of fact, the power of the matriarchy made itself felt during the revolt of the Cristeros. It was the women who led the revolt."
The hardships of the time—starting around 1926, under President Calles, a centralizer who tried to impose constitutional uniformity on the country—are one of Rulfo's childhood memories.
"The revolt of the Cristeros was an internal war that broke out in the states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacán, Magarit, Zacatecas and Guanajuato, against the federal government. There was a decree that enforced an article of the Revolution, according to which priests were forbidden to mix in politics and the churches became the property of the state, as they are today. A set number of priests was assigned to each village, in accordance with its population. Of course, people protested. Those are very reactionary, very conservative villages—fanatics. There was a lot of conflict and agitation. The war, which was born in the highlands, in the state of Guanajuato, lasted three years, until 1928." By then it had extended to Rulfo's area. In the very first days of the war, he lost his father. Six years later, he lost his mother. He had been sent to Guadalajara to study at the age of eight, and when she died he was taken in by French Josephine nuns, who ran schools in almost all the important towns of Jalisco. He had relatives in Guadalajara: "the Rulfos, a very prolific family, especially on the female side." But somehow no one seems to have claimed him. His grandparents were all dead, except for a maternal grandmother—an old lady descended from "an Arias family that had come to settle in the area in the sixteenth century, probably from Andalucía"—who was illiterate.
Rulfo remembers the orphanage as a sort of reform school. He boarded there for several years. He says softly, lowering his eyes: "That's very common in Mexico. Still today many people in remote villages who want to educate their children and have no one to entrust them to, send them to boarding schools."
Perhaps closer to his true feelings is that line in one of his stories where he might well be evoking the loneliness of the orphanage when he says, with typical understatement: "It's difficult to grow up trying to cling to something which is dead at the root."
It was a hard struggle for the melancholy country boy transplanted among the relative splendors of a pseudo-metropolitan Guadalajara, a stiff-necked town with aristocratic pretensions which was actually, as he says, little more than an outpost of provincial snobbery living off the frayed remnants of its colonial pride. After grade school, hoping to become self-supporting, Rulfo went into accountancy. Accountants always managed to make a living, even in the most run-down times. But soon he had to cut corners. "With a cousin of mine, one of the Vizcaìnos, I'd just gotten into high school when a general strike was declared. The university closed down for about three years." To continue his interrupted studies, Rulfo moved to Mexico City. That was in 1933 when he was fifteen years old.
What the first months or years must have been like in the bustling capital for an impoverished youngster without friends or connections, is something Rulfo does not talk about. But they left their mark on him. It was an itinerant life of odd jobs, always hand to mouth. Besides accountancy, Rulfo studied some law—"very irregularly." In his free time, he attended literature courses at the university. In 1935 he landed a job with the Immigration Department—an obscure, but therefore, presumably, more or less safe, bureaucratic post that he occupied for ten years. It was no sinecure. When the Second World War broke out, with Mexico keeping to the sidelines, but nevertheless sympathizing with the Allied cause, he helped process the crews of impounded refugee boats—mostly tankers—of Nazi Germany. The boats were docked in Tampico and Veracruz, and the crews, which were treated more or less as war prisoners, were interned in military camps in the interior, often near Guadalajara, which became a great center of foreigners. It was unpleasant work, and in 1947, glad to be done with it, he switched to publicity work with Goodrich. He was in the sales department there until 1954. In 1955 he was with the Papaloapan Commission, formed to implement an irrigation program near Veracruz. It was a pet project of President Miguel Alemán, who aspired to create a sort of Mexican TVA in the region. On a river with a seasonal overflow that swept away local villages, the Commission built a power center. It plotted highways. But, because of mismanagement and lack of funds, the ambitious project failed. Back in Mexico City in 1956, Rulfo helped himself along doing scripts and adaptations for commercial movies. He had hopes that something of value could be done in the medium. But that was another chimera. "The result was not too positive," he says, shrugging. In 1959 another change occurred. He worked in TV in Guadalajara. With the backing of the new Televicentro, which subsidized his effort, he began compiling yearbooks of historical illustrations that were another attempt to piece together the missing evidence of the past. "The thing is, in Guadalajara the only cultural activity is a bank, the Industrial Bank of Jalisco, which publishes a history book every year as a gift to its clients. So I had an idea: to try to incorporate the whole history of Jalisco from the days of the early chronicles, and bring it out regularly, once a year, as before, in book form. To make up for the poison people were being fed on television, they'd be given a book." It was worth a try.
Nowadays—on a job he has held since 1962—Rulfo works at the Instituto Indigenista (Indían Institute), an organization devoted to the task of protecting and integrating primitive Indían communities bypassed by progress, which has pushed them to the fringes of Mexican life, where they become fodder for political agitators. It is tiring and depressing work that keeps him constantly on the move. He disappears for days at a time on some lonely mission into the misty backlands, and returns looking haggard, as if back from a lost weekend. Every trip is an added blow to him. On off-days, he sits humped over his desk in his antiseptic office on an upper floor of the Institute, starting every time the phone rings anywhere in the building and reaching for the receiver next to him as if the call were always for him. He is forever under the pressures of waiting. At any moment he might jump up and vanish. Around him are glass walls that shake and clatter as workers bang away in the hall. When no one is looking, he slips out of the office like a shadow, rides the elevator down in silent concentration, and ducks around a street corner. Visitors who catch him on the way out, suddenly unavoidable, become honored guests. He makes an endless bustle, opening doors and pulling out chairs for them. He is excruciatingly shy, gazing out of frightened eyes at his guests. Installed at his desk in his dark suit, kneading his nervous hands, looking perpetually worried and disoriented, he is like a harried village priest at the end of a long day, sighing in the solitude of his confessional. On those rare evenings when he has time to devote to his writing, he floats out into the thin mountain air, full of whispers that drive him to the penitence of nightlong work. Though of medium height, his stoop makes him seem slight: a wisp of a man on a devious course through the shifting colors of nightfall, to a hard labor that may yield a few finished lines or simply become a sleepless cramp. He writes very little—his reputation rests on two books—probably because of some monumental block in him. Perhaps his life is not his own. Somewhere along the line—he was married in 1948, and lives in a house with many children—it fused with the life of his country, beat fast when the pulse was strong, then stopped with it. He says: "Stability in Mexico is deadlock. We've come to a complete standstill."
On a late afternoon in June, after hunting him down for a week, at home and at work, only to keep losing track of him—he has been called away, he is unavailable, he breaks an appointment—we finally meet him in the lobby of our hotel, where he arrives in trepidation, with a long shadowy face and darting eyes. He is late—by several hours—he has been held up, and is dismally embarrassed. Upstairs he sits in a low chair, staring at the floor. He is ready to make for the door. He has a thousand things to do. Besides his missions for the Institute, he has been working on an experimental film with a theme of social protest. He describes it as a series of sketches interspersed with Vivaldi music, perhaps not unlike Buñuel's famous Las Hurdes. Overcoming his shyness, he wanders off on a meek man's compulsive monologue, stringing disconnected thoughts together, touching on everything and nothing, then falling into a tongue-tied silence. Again and again the conversation trails off. We are in a state of suspended animation. "I only know how to express myself in a very rudimentary way," he says with a gentle smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes.
He is a man who does not quite know how he came to literature—a somewhat belated vocation with him—except that one day he simply woke up in it. Perhaps the one to blame for this is the village priest of San Gabriel, back in the days of the wars of the Cristeros. For a time, Rulfo stayed on a family farm with his grandmother, a pious lady who could hardly read anything outside her prayer...