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The Contemporáneos Group

[ Latin American Studies ]

The Contemporáneos Group

Rewriting Mexico in the Thirties and Forties

By Salvador A. Oropesa

Salvador Oropesa offers original readings of the works of five Contemporáneos--Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, Agustín Lazo, Guadalupe Marín, and Jorge Cuesta--and their efforts to create a Mexican literature that was international, attuned to the realities of modern Mexico, and flexible enough to speak to the masses as well as the elites.

2003

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 191 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71715-2

In the years following the Mexican Revolution, a nationalist and masculinist image of Mexico emerged through the novels of the Revolution, the murals of Diego Rivera, and the movies of Golden Age cinema. Challenging this image were the Contemporáneos, a group of writers whose status as outsiders (sophisticated urbanites, gay men, women) gave them not just a different perspective, but a different gaze, a new way of viewing the diverse Mexicos that exist within Mexican society. In this book, Salvador Oropesa offers original readings of the works of five Contemporáneos—Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, Agustín Lazo, Guadalupe Marín, and Jorge Cuesta—and their efforts to create a Mexican literature that was international, attuned to the realities of modern Mexico, and flexible enough to speak to the masses as well as the elites.

Oropesa discusses Novo and Villaurrutia in relation to neo-baroque literature and satiric poetry, showing how these inherently subversive genres provided the means of expressing difference and otherness that they needed as gay men. He explores the theatrical works of Lazo, Villaurrutia's partner, who offered new representations of the closet and of Mexican history from an emerging middle-class viewpoint. Oropesa also looks at women's participation in the Contemporáneos through Guadalupe Marín, the sometime wife of Diego Rivera and Jorge Cuesta, whose novels present women's struggles to have a view and a voice of their own. He concludes the book with Novo's self-transformation from intellectual into celebrity, which fulfilled the Contemporáneos' desire to merge high and popular culture and create a space where those on the margins could move to the center.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Neo-Baroque
  • 2. Gay and Baroque Literatures
  • 3. Satiric Poetry
  • 4. Agustín Lazo (1896-1971): Xavier Villaurrutia's Shadow
  • 5. Guadalupe Marín: The Madwoman in the Murals
  • 6. Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Frank Dauster and Merlin H. Forster in the United States and Octavio Paz and Guillermo Sheridan in Mexico, among several others, taught us about the importance of the writers of the Contemporáneos. Little by little these literary critics were able to rewrite the Mexican canon and give these authors the place they deserved in Mexican letters.

In spite of the significance of the Contemporáneos, the novel of the Revolution in literature, Diego Rivera's murals in painting, and the movies of the golden age ended up representing the essential and official Mexico. But the poems, short stories, and plays of the Contemporáneos remained impassive by the sanctioned texts, with their skewed look, giving modern readers not just a new perspective but a different gaze, a new way to view reality—like Marcel Proust—and a new approach to perceive the different Mexicos. Theirs was not the Mexico of the beautiful Aztecs of the murals and the stylized serapes of the movies; theirs was the Mexico of the enlightened bourgeoisie and the alemanista middle class. The Contemporáneos knew well the literature and art of the Western world and decided that Mexican letters had to play a significant role. They studied colonial and modern Mexican literature not from a nationalist perspective but as a process of legitimization of modern Mexico and its true leaders, businesspeople and civilian presidents. The Contemporáneos were not afraid to utter the names of countries like Spain and the United States; they recognized all Spanish literature as their own and integrated the literature of the United States as part of their canon, the new classics like Edgar Allan Poe and the avant-garde literature from the Imagists and black poets. They also enjoyed U.S. popular culture like the movies and glossy magazines that came from the other side. The Contemporáneos realized that the new forms of capitalism could create a massive middle class that could spend money and time for their own enlightenment and to give meaning to their leisure. Although they did not succeed completely in their efforts to create a literature independent of the state, at least they tried to harmonize public and private art. Another goal was to bridge the different types of culture, to create a porous national literature in which different cultural forms could merge; their aim was not just to start literary journals for the elite, which they did, but to write magazines for the middle class and movie scripts for the masses.

In this book I want to bring to the reader's attention a few important developments in the wonderful literature of the Contemporáneos. The first is their fascination with baroque literature. They did a very good reading of the texts of the seventeenth century and learned from them that literature is a necessary instrument of power and legitimization; absolute and democratic governments need literature to reproduce their ideology. The writers of the Renaissance brought literature back to the court, to the privileged minority. The humanists did the first modern, Western reading of the classics: they pillaged them, they translated, and above all they chose what fit their artistic and ideological needs and tossed away what they did not want. Then the writers of the following century, the so-called baroque, took the literature away from the palaces and made an urban commodity out of it. These archaic middle-class writers were bureaucrats from the lower steps of nobility, libertine clerics, protofeminist nuns, theater people, and academics of literary salons and literary taverns—writers who could do filigree literature, twist mythology, hide obscene references, and merge Latin and the slang of the slaves. They even wrote the first queer—and homophobic—modern literature.

The Contemporáneos writers had read romantic literature and the sentimental versions of symbolism that recycled romanticism at the end of the nineteenth century. But they were not interested in their añoranza, the Porfiriato's nostalgia about itself when it still was a young regime full of possibilities. They were interested in the urban vision of Leopoldo Lugones. They added Buenos Aires and Argentina on their map of the literary world. After Lugones came the Mexican Ramón López Velarde, a poet who could make poems of the conversations in the streets and create characters in his poems to analyze himself.

In this study I center my interest on baroque literature because it was a literature of crisis, of unending social, economic, and ideological crises where the extremes of individualism and an oppressive absolutist state were always in conflict. New Spain also gave Mexico its first important writers in Spanish, the patriarchs of Mexican letters; and in an unbelievable act of transvestism, the father of Mexican literature was a woman.

I also pay special attention to satiric literature because there is a tradition, especially when studying colonial satire, of reading it as liberal and subversive literature. After the seminal study published by Dustin Griffin in 1994 by the University of Kentucky Press, we can perform a better, more moderate and accurate reading of satire. I also pay attention to figures of speech. Contemporary critics neglected them, but they stressed the joy of literature as a game of erudition and witticism.

The two main writers I have chosen to study are Salvador Novo and Xavier Villaurrutia, the generation of two. The reasons for my choice are easy to understand: they wrote first-class literature, enjoyed their social standing, had similar literary taste, and embarked on a renovation of Mexican literature. The novel of the Revolution and Rivera's murals gave the impression that they were the only voice of Mexico. They were outstanding but dogmatic art. Novo and Villaurrutia aimed instead to be important voices of a polyphonic Mexico. When Novo discovered indigenous literature, he learned Nahuatl; he did not intend to represent it or to engage in indigenismo. Novo and Villaurrutia were also gay writers, like many others of the avant-garde all over the Western world. This is important because it brought new topics to their literature, including a new way to represent desire. It also made them more aware of the need for individual rights and for a liberal-conservative capitalism to rule Mexico's economy, a political system that could develop niches for difference and otherness. In this kind of political environment dissident groups could survive better and move from the margin to the center.

The second part of the book is dedicated to two little-known writers who have been associated with the Contemporáneos. The first is the painter Agustín Lazo, Xavier Villaurrutia's partner. I analyze two of Lazo's fine plays and a third text that he may have written in collaboration with Villaurrutia. What Lazo brings to Mexican theater is craft, the taste for very well constructed plays which are part of a complex machinery that is dismantled in front of the spectator and reconstructed again to teach the viewer new topics. Two of these are the representation of the closet and Mexico's history from the point of view of the new middle classes of the alemanismo so that they could learn how they were related to the Second Empire and the porfirista era of the haciendas.

The second writer is Guadalupe Marín, wife of Diego Rivera and Jorge Cuesta. She wrote two novels that I would label literary documents. They are not first-class literature, although they read better than Jaime Torres Bodet's avant-garde novels, which are part of the canon. The very few people who read the novels considered them mere personal revenge, and they soon disappeared from shelves and literary discussions. But these texts are very important because they represent women's struggle to have a voice, to move from being the object of the masculine and heterosexual gaze (Lupe was the encuerada nacional of Rivera's frescoes) to a desperate attempt to have a view of their own. After marrying Cuesta, Lupe was involved in the identity gender crisis of some of the Contemporáneos writers, who had to struggle to give a voice to their homosexuality and gayness in their literature in the context of Mexican machismo and compulsory heterosexuality. Lupe explores illness and madness, normalcy and aberration, the construction of gender and how it is related to the construction of national identity. She may not be the most skilled writer, but with her energy and originality she adds an important element to the history of the Contemporáneos that justifies her inclusion in this study.

The last chapter is another variation on the meaning of the writer as a public figure in modern society. It analyzes Novo's journey from the status of intellectual to that of celebrity. He abandoned what he called his grandiose obra and immersed himself in the world of popular culture: op-ed articles, gossip, radio, and television. Novo started a new type of novel or soap opera in which he was the protagonist and a number of invited guests and celebrities formed his supporting cast. This café society with an intellectual patina was a huge success. For the first time in history the new mass media could create a kind of national backyard, and Novo intended to be at its center.

Salvador A. Oropesa is Associate Professor of Spanish at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.