Walking Beside the Dreamers: The 2013 Cervantes Prize Lecture

April 24, 2014
translated by George Henson
Elena Poniatowska
Photo: Spanish Ministry of Culture

The 2013 recipient of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, Elena Poniatowska Amor, delivered her acceptance speech yesterday (April 23, 2014) on the anniversary of Cervantes’s death, which is also World Book Day. The Cervantes Prize is “the highest recognition granted to the creative work of Spanish and Latin American writers whose work has contributed to the notable enrichment of the literary heritage of the Spanish language.” One of Mexico’s leading journalists and authors, and a nominee for the 2012 Neustadt Prize, Poniatowska’s work focuses on the disenfranchised. She is the thirty-ninth recipient of the prize and the fourth woman to receive it. 

Your Majesties, Mr. President of the Government, Mr. Minister of Education, Culture, and Sport, Mr. Rector of the University of Alcalá de Henares, Mr. President of the Community of Madrid, Mr. Mayor, city, state, autonomous, local, and academic authorities, friends, ladies and gentlemen. 

I am the fourth woman to receive the Cervantes Prize, created in 1976. (There have been thirty-five men.) María Zambrano was the first, and we Mexicans consider her our own because, due to the Spanish civil war, she lived in Mexico and taught at the Universidad Nicolaita in Morelia, Michoacán.

The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote that putting down roots is perhaps the most pressing need of the human soul. To María Zambrano, exile was an unhealable wound, but she was an exile from everything except from her writing. 

The youngest of all Latin American poets during the first half of the twentieth century, the Cuban Dulce María Loynaz, the second woman to receive the Cervantes, was a friend of García Lorca and hosted Gabriela Mistral and Juan Ramón Jiménez at her country house in Havana. Years later, when asked why she did not abandon Cuba following the Revolution, she replied, “How could I leave if Cuba was an invention of my family?”

I met Ana María Matute, beautiful and unbelieving, at the Escorial in 2003. I felt an affinity with her obsession for childhood and her rich and fierce imagination.

María, Dulce María, and Ana María, the three Marías, shaken by their circumstances, had nowhere to turn, yet now they are the women of Cervantes, like Dulcinea del Toboso, Luscinda, Zoraida, and Constanza. However, unlike them, many gods have protected me because in Mexico there is a god beneath every rock, a god for the rain, another for fertility, and one for death. We have a god for each particular thing, not just one who because of so many obligations may overlook some believers.

On the other side of the ocean, in the seventeenth century, the Hieronymite nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz knew from the first moment that the only worthwhile battle was the battle for knowledge. Quite rightly, José Emilio Pacheco described her: “Sor Juana / is the trembling flame / in the viceroyalty’s night of stone.”

Her Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz is a treatise in defense of freedom, the declaration of an intellectual against whom censorship was wielded. Is there another woman in literature who, upon observing the lunar eclipse of December 22, 1684, essayed an explanation of the origin of the universe, which she undertook in the 975 verses of her poem First Dream? Dante held Virgil’s hand in order to descend into hell, but our Sor Juana descended alone and, like Galileo and Giordano Bruno, was punished for loving science and reprimanded by prelates who were vastly inferior to her.

Sor Juana relied on telescopes, astrolabes, and compasses for her scientific search. The culture of poverty, however, is also a repository of unexpected riches. Jesusa Palancares, the protagonist of my testimonial novel, Here’s to You, Jesusa!, only had her intuition to look out of the sole opening in her house and see the night sky as a priceless and inexplicable gift. Jesusa lived on the edge of a cliff, so the starry sky in her window was a miracle that she attempted to decipher. She wanted to know why she had come to Earth, what everything that surrounded her was for, and the ultimate meaning of what she saw. Because she believed in reincarnation, she was convinced that many years before she had been born a bad man who victimized so many women that she now had to pay for his mistakes among thistles and thorns.

My family members were always train passengers: Italians who end up in Poland, Mexicans who live in France, North Americans who move to Europe. My sister Kitzia and I were French girls with a Polish last name. 

My mother was not aware of the country she was giving me when we arrived to Mexico, in 1942, on the Marqués de Comillas, the same ship with which Gilberto Bosques saved the lives of so many Republicans who took refuge in Mexico during the government of General Lázaro Cárdenas. My family members were always train passengers: Italians who end up in Poland, Mexicans who live in France, North Americans who move to Europe. My sister Kitzia and I were French girls with a Polish last name. We arrived “to the immense life of Mexico”—as José Emilio Pacheco would later say—and to the people of the sun. Since then our lives have been transformed, and, among other enchantments, we were swallowed up by the dream of turning inns into rich castles with grillwork of gold. 

The certainties of France and its desire to always be right paled beside the humility of the poorest Mexicans. Barefoot, the men walked beneath their sombreros and the women beneath their rebozos, hiding so that shame could not be seen in their eyes. At the service of whites, their voices were sweet, singing as they asked: “Would you mind teaching me how to serve you?”

I learned Spanish in the street, among the cries of hawkers and ballads that always spoke of death. “Sweet orange, / heavenly lime, / go tell María / not to go to bed. / María, María / already went to bed, / death came / and took her away.” Or this even more terrifying one: “Stumpy, stumpy / took a little knife / the same size as him / and killed his wife. / He cut out her guts / and took them to market. / They’ll trade the little guts / of a bad woman.” 

Even now there are those who trade in women’s guts. Last April 13, two women were murdered by multiple gunshots to the head in Ciudad Juárez, one fifteen and another twenty, pregnant. The body of the first was found in a dumpster.

This immense and frightening and secretive country called Mexico, into which France would fit three times, lay barefoot and dark before my sister and me and dared us: “Discover me.”

I remember my amazement the first time I heard the word gracias, which sounded much deeper to me than the French merci. I was also intrigued by the spaces painted yellow on the map that read “Parts Unknown.” France is a small world of gardens; everything is cultivated and within reach. This immense and frightening and secretive country called Mexico, into which France would fit three times, lay barefoot and dark before my sister and me and dared us: “Discover me.” Its language was the key to entering the Indian world, the same world about which Octavio Paz spoke, here in Alcalá de Henares in 1981, when he said that without the Indian world we would not be who we are.

How was I to travel from the word Paris to the word Parangaricutirimicuaro? I delighted in being able to pronounce Xochitlquetzal, Nezahualcóyotl, and Cuauhtémoc, and I wondered if the conquerors had realized whom they had conquered.

Those who gave me the key to open Mexico were the Mexicans of the streets. Since 1953 there have appeared in the city many everyday characters like those whom Don Quixote and his faithful squire encountered along the road: a barber, a goatherd, Maritornes the scullery maid. Before, in Mexico, the mailman wore a brushed cotton uniform and a blue cap, and today he no longer announces his arrival with his whistle; instead, he simply tosses under the door the letters he removes from his worn-out bag. Before, the knife sharpener would appear, pushing a big stone mounted on a cart, the product of working-class ingenuity, without the benefit of a grant from the National Council of Science and Technology, which he would wet with water from a bucket. As he turned it, the knife would shoot sparks in the air and cut hairs in two; the hair of the city that in reality is none other than his wife, whose nails he files, teeth he brushes, cheeks he polishes, whom he watches sleep, and, when he sees her grow old and faded, does her a great service by plunging a long, sharp knife into her trusting back. Then the city cries quietly, but there is no cry more arresting than the lament of the sweet potato vender, which left a mark on the soul of Mexican children, whose carts sounded like the train whistle that stops time and causes those who open furrows in the cornfield to look up and leave their hoe and shovel and call to their child: “Look, the train, the train is coming, there goes the train; someday you’ll ride the train.”

Tina Modotti came from Italy, but she could well be considered the first modern Mexican photographer. In 1936 she changed professions and worked as a nurse for Dr. Norman Bethune in Spain, assisting him in the first battlefield transfusions. Thirty-eight years later, Rosario Ibarra de Piedra rose up against a new form of torture—the disappearance of people. Her protest predates the uprising of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wore a white handkerchief on their head to represent each child disappeared. “They took them alive, alive we want them.” 

The last surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, could have chosen to live in New York alongside Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim’s circle, but without even knowing Spanish, she chose to travel to Mexico with the poet Renato Leduc, the author of a sonnet about a time I plan to tell later if life gives me time for such things.

What one learns as a child remains indelible in one’s mind. I went from colonizing Castilian to the splendid world that the conquistadors found. Before the United States aspired to swallow the whole continent, the indigenous resistance raised golden shields and plumed crests of quetzal and lifted them high when the women in Chiapas, once downcast and silent, declared in 1994 that they wanted to choose their men for themselves, look him in the eye, have the children they wanted, and not be traded for a jar of alcohol. They desired the same rights as men.

“Who’s there?” “No one,” Octavio Paz recorded in The Labyrinth of Solitude. Many Mexicans erase themselves. “No one’s here,” the maid replies. “And who are you?” “I’m no one.” They do not say this to belittle themselves or to hide; rather, it is part of their nature. But neither does nature say what it is or explain itself; it simply bursts. During the earthquake of 1985, many young punks, those who paint their eyes black and their hair red, wearing vests and bracelets covered in tacks and studs, arrived in the affected areas, buildings turned into sandwiches, and spent the whole night with picks and shovels to remove rubble that they later carted away in buckets and wheelbarrows. At five in the morning, as they were leaving, I asked their names, and one of them answered: “Just put down Juan,” not because he didn’t want to stand out or was afraid of rejection but because, like millions of the poor, his silence is also a silence of centuries of oblivion and marginalization.

We have the dubious privilege of being the largest city in the world: almost nine million inhabitants. The countryside is emptying, everyone is coming to the capital that soils the poor, tramples them into ash, and scorches their wings even though their resistance knows no bounds. They come from Patagonia to ride the train of death called “La Bestia,” their only goal is to cross the border of the United States.

Many times I have asked myself if that great mass that walks slowly and inexorably from Patagonia to Alaska asks itself today to what extent it depends on the United States. I believe that their cry is a battle cry, and it is overwhelming; it is a cry whose first literary battle was won by the Chicanos.

In 1979 Marta Traba published in Colombia a “Latin Homerics.” Its characters are the losers of our continent, the people of the street, those who dig in trash, the waste collectors of lost cities, the hordes who trample each other to see the pope, those who travel in packed busses, those who cover their head with straw hats, those who fear God in the land of Indians. These are its characters: those who take their dead children to be photographed in order to turn them into “little heavenly angels,” the throng that tramples barricades and topples platforms in military parades, that suddenly and effortlessly causes all the ill-intentioned Good Neighbor policies to fail, that anonymous mass, dark and unpredictable, which slowly populates the grid of our continent; the people of bedbugs, fleas, and cockroaches, the wretched people who at this very minute are swallowing the planet. And it is that formidable mass that grows and crosses the borders, works as waiters and busboys, helpers and shoe shiners—in Mexico we call them boleros. After returning from a North American university, the novelist José Agustín declared: “There, they think I’m a bootblack who’s moved up in the world.” It would have been better to say “a bootblack who’s moved down.” We have all moved down in the world, we are all in need, our strength lies in recognizing it. Many times I have asked myself if that great mass that walks slowly and inexorably from Patagonia to Alaska asks itself today to what extent it depends on the United States. I believe that their cry is a battle cry, and it is overwhelming; it is a cry whose first literary battle was won by the Chicanos.

The Mexicans who have preceded me are four: Octavio Paz in 1981, Carlos Fuentes in 1987, Sergio Pitol in 2005, and José Emilio Pacheco in 2009. Rosario Castellanos and María Luisa Puga weren’t as fortunate, but I invoke them, along with José Revueltas. I know that these seven accompany me now, curious about what I am going to say, especially Octavio Paz.

To end now, and because I am in Spain among friends, I would like to tell you that I had a great “platonic” love for Luis Buñuel because we went to the Black Palace of Lecumberri together—Mexico City’s legendary prison—to see our friend Álvaro Mutis, the poet and lookout, brother in arms of our indispensable friend Gabriel García Márquez. The prison, with its repeat offenders called “rabbits,” drew us toward a shared reality: that of life and death behind bars.

No event in my professional life is more important than this prize that the Cervantes jury awards to a female Sancho Panza, who is neither Teresa Panza nor Dulcinea de Toboso nor Maritornes nor the Princess Micomicona, whom Carlos Fuentes liked so much, but a writer who cannot speak of windmills because they no longer exist, speaking instead of unremarkable travelers who carry their grocery bag, their pick and shovel, who sleep wherever they manage to lay their head, and trust an impulsive chronicler who retains what they tell her.

Children, women, the elderly, prisoners, the grieving, and students walk beside this reporter who seeks, just as María Zambrano asked, “to go beyond one’s own life, to be in the lives of others.”

For all these reasons, the award is even more surprising and therefore the need to thank you for it is even greater. 


I am proud to walk beside the dreamers, the broken-down, the guileless.

Economic power rules not only in Mexico but everywhere in the world. Those who resist it, riding Rocinantes and followed by Sancho Panza, are fewer and fewer. I am proud to walk beside the dreamers, the broken-down, the guileless.

My granddaughter, Luna, who is present here, asked my daughter Paula: “Mamá, how old are you?”

Paula told her her age, and Luna insisted: “Before Christ or after Christ?”

It is right that I should clarify for my granddaughter today that I am an evangelist after Christ, that I belong to Mexico and to a national life that is written every day and every day is erased because the pages of a newspaper last only one day. The wind carries them away; they end up in the trash, or covered in dust in the archives. My father used them to light the fireplace. In spite of this, early in the morning my father would ask if the Excélsior had come, which back then we read as a family, when it was run by Julio Scherer García. Frida Kahlo, painter, writer, and Mexican icon, once said: “I happily await my departure, and I hope I never return.”

Unlike her, I hope to return, return, return, and that is the meaning I have wanted to give to my eighty-two years. I plan to go up into heaven and return hand in hand with Cervantes to help him, as his female squire, distribute prizes to young people who, like me today, April 23, 2014, World Book Day, will return to Alcalá de Henares.

In the last years of his life, the astronomer Guillermo Haro would repeat Jorge Manrique’s Coplas on the Death of His Father. As he stared at a flowering jacaranda, he opened my eyes to

How soon this life is past and gone,
And death comes softly stealing on,
How silently! (tr. H. W. Longfellow)

I have made that stargazer’s certainty mine, just as I believe the jacarandas are mine, which every year cover the sidewalks of Mexico with a purple carpet that is Easter, death, and resurrection.

Thank you for listening.


Translation from the Spanish
By George Henson

Editorial note: Based on an advance copy of the speech provided to the translator; the final Spanish version, delivered at the University of Alcalá de Henares in Madrid on Wednesday, may vary slightly.

George Henson is the author of ten book-length translations, including works by Cervantes laureates Sergio Pitol and Elena Poniatowska. His translation of Abel Posse’s A Long Day in Venice was longlisted for the 2023 Queen Sofía Spanish Institute Translation Prize. He is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.