Read Redeemers Online

Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (12 page)


. . . still pending is an act of justice for those who died in the electoral campaign of 1929 . . . The national conscience knows, or should know, that we won the elections of 1929 and while this is not recognized publicly, and perhaps officially, I would not be able to accept any honor without the feeling that I was betraying truth and justice . . . Consequently, if my country does not decide to honor me as a political figure (which it should do) I prefer that it not concern itself with me in any way . . .


But he would accept every honor offered him. And it was clear that he no longer believed in democracy. In another one of his articles for
, writing of the benefits that would shower upon Latin America with the victory of Nazi Germany over the democracies (especially of course over the “perfidious” Anglo-Saxons), he said:


And in this new era the peoples of America will find renewed opportunity to organize in conformity with their tradition and their blood, and according to their Christian antecedents . . . An outcome that would award victory to the Allies would be the worst possible calamity for the inhabitants of this continent. It would simply immerse us in an odious and enslaving state of colonialization.


His growing fascination with dictatorships converged with a return to the religiosity of his youth (and of his mother). He would turn to a rigid version of Catholicism that now replaced his former loose, aestheticized conception of Plotinus. In 1943 he became a Franciscan lay brother, praising the contributions of that order “to the construction of New Spain and what is today our Mexican Fatherland.”

But the Franciscan principles were “too soft” for him. He switched over to the Jesuits: “At one time, I professed Franciscan exclusivism. But now I have understood that, for the brutality of the struggle we have to wage, San Ignacio de Loyola is superior.” He would later conflate his return to Catholicism with the principles and activities of his period of true grandeur, many years ago in the 1920s:


In reality, there is no difference between my position during the period, for example, during which I acted as a Minister of the Revolution and I often declared myself “a Christian in the manner of Tolstoy” and my earlier position, as a Catholic (which is the same as being a better Christian than Tolstoy) and my return to the orthodox truth.


On the fourteenth of March 1942 his long-suffering wife, Serafina Miranda, died. For almost forty years they had been united only through love for their children. His daughter Carmen would remember the funeral:


Vasconcelos had to rent two buses to carry all the people . . . She had always wanted to be loved by humble people. When the coffin was lowered into the ground, Vasconcelos sobbed bitterly. At that moment he must have known and felt who he really had as a wife; perhaps they were tears of belated repentance.


That same year, he remarried, to a much younger woman, the pianist Esperanza Cruz, with whom he had a son he named Héctor. The marriage would collapse, due to Vasconcelos's displays of jealousy and also because his daughter Carmen never accepted the new wife.

He would insist, more than once, that he had never been a Nazi sympathizer: “Me, a Nazi! I laugh at those who make that charge against me, because I am one of the few Mexicans who has struggled all his life against dictatorships. I sympathized with the cause of Germany because it had much to do with the liberation of a great people from the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.” It was a claim that did not prevent him—in 1955, only four years before his death—from contributing an enthusiastic preface to the second edition of
Derrota Mundial
(Worldwide Defeat), a justification of Nazism (and denial of the Holocaust) by the notorious Mexican Nazi Salvador Borrego Escalante. The preface, using the conventional, slightly coded language of neo-Nazi revisionism, showed no doubts about the value Vasconcelos placed on yet one more book, this one brimming for him with new “information”:


The lie achieved its objective. Entire populations were swept away to participation in the conflict, moved by sentiments based on information that, as was afterwards learned, were deliberately fabricated by the band that controlled world communications.


As for what had been the real center of his purely personal life, the love of women, he would respond to a reporter's question by saying: “I have lived by fleeing questions about sex,” and later, in his final years, to a friend, “The women I was involved with were total whores.”

He was ferociously anti-Marxist and yet, in the last year of his life, his obsession with the figure of the
and with the abstract affection for brutality and courage he had not shown in his critical hour of 1929 led him—still brandishing the banner of the Mexican Revolution and his own disappointment—to write to Fidel Castro, “Do not follow the example of Madero's weakness. Be hard; because, if not, you will have to swallow the reality of a people that will not respond to you.”

He would spend much of his final years in the garden and small library of a large house south of Mexico City. He used to remind people who visited him that he was the real president of Mexico. He would tell the beads of his rosary under the table and murmur occasional prayers. His new life of relative abnegation (a Plotinian recommendation he had always ignored) did not extend to his enjoyment of food and drink. He especially favored Chinese dishes, because they gave him the impression that they required “a thousand years of preparation.” The memory of 1929 pursued him to the end. He would never reconcile himself to his country, which, in his opinion, had lost so much by losing him. The cultural caudillo of the 1920s would die, still greatly honored and deeply embittered, on June 30, 1959, on the brink of the 1960s and a new decade of change and of upheaval.




José Carlos Mariátegui


In the 1920s, young Peruvians turned to Mexico, searching for a model they could apply to modify the outworn and unacceptable stratification, social and racial, that burdened their country. They were drawn by a social revolution, a nationalist constitution, an educational and cultural project that had rescued and revalued the Indian inheritance and presence in Mexico. And much of it was due to the efforts of a brilliant Mexican intellectual who had impressed the Peruvians and made many friends in Lima, during one of his periods of exile in 1916. He had now become the “Teacher of America,” and in October 1925 the admiration of young Peruvians for José Vasconcelos would be sealed in blood.

José Santos Chocano (1875–1934) was known in Peru as the representative of modernism in poetry. He was a heavily built man with a bristling mustache and an extraordinary opinion of his own worth (“Walt Whitman has the north, I have the south”). He was known as the Bard of America (
El Cantor de América
) and had become a very public supporter of the militarist and antidemocratic ideas that another modernist poet, the Argentine Leopoldo Lugones, had enunciated some months earlier. “There has sounded again, for the benefit of the world, the hour of the sword,” Lugones had said. In Mexico, José Vasconcelos had parted ways with the military and he severely reproved Chocano's position: “we have lost a poet and gained a buffoon.” The polemic between “the Bard of America” and the teacher of Latin American youth resonated throughout the intellectual life of the continent. The Federation of Peruvian Students defended Vasconcelos with an open letter published in the press and titled “Poets and Buffoons”: “We, the under-signed writers and artists feel a duty to declare
our intellectual and spiritual solidarity
with José Vasconcelos and our profound admiration for his work as a thinker and teacher.” Among the signers were the young writer Edwin Elmore and his friend, the already famous José Carlos Mariátegui. A few months later Mariátegui would begin to publish
, one of the most important intellectual and literary journals in the history of Latin America.

Elmore on his own wrote a piece attacking Chocano and defending democracy. He took it to the newspaper
La Crónica
but they refused to publish the text and covertly passed it to Chocano, who picked up his telephone and proceeded to insult Elmore profusely, including derogatory references to Elmore's father. Elmore refused to back down and took his article, expanded to include the recent insults, to the office of another newspaper,
El Comercio
. There he ran into Chocano. The Cantor de América had once been a secretary to Pancho Villa (who had dictated a preface for a chapbook of Chocano's poetry). He had been a speechwriter for the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera and had been crowned with golden laurels by the Peruvian strongman Augusto B. Leguía, whom he supported with articles in the pages of
La Crónica
El Comercio
. And he always carried a revolver.

It was October 31, 1925. Santos Chocano and Edwin Elmore stopped in their tracks and looked at each other in surprise. Suddenly Elmore grabbed Chocano's lapel and slapped him in the face. Chocano reeled back for the moment, then drew his gun and shot Elmore in the abdomen. He was rushed to a hospital, where he died two days later.

The apologist for military dictatorships had ended the life of the young democrat and socialist and follower of Vasconcelos, but Elmore's friends did not forget him, or his work. A year later, on the anniversary of Elmore's murder, José Carlos Mariátegui published an essay by him in the third issue of


Mexico has assumed—with its powerful generation of new men—the glorious responsibilities of today's ideals . . . The voice of Vasconcelos has filled the vastness of the continent with echoes in less than a decade . . . It is to the present generation of Mexicans that we owe the rebirth of pride and dignity in Latin-American politics. Mexico has vetoed the imperial and corrupting Dollar; she has hurled a resounding NO at the power of England; Mexico has demonstrated to all the countries of our America that they can speak in a masterful and imposing tone to the greatest powers on earth and that the days have arrived in which “the Spirit will speak for our race.”


Edwin Elmore, Mariátegui wrote, would have been one of the contributors to
He had died in defense of Vasconcelos. He did not live to see the strange conversion of his hero to the ideas of Chocano. Nor would Mariátegui live to lament it. But the few years of life that remained to him would be enough to write one of the broadest, deepest, and most enduring works of the Latin American century. Because if Vasconcelos (in line with the Hispanic-American nationalism of Rodó) was like a Hegelian fantasist on the destiny of Latin America, Mariátegui brought those ideas down to earth. In a way, he was our necessary leftist, a kind of Marx to Vasconcelos's Hegel, a practical ballast for our sometimes loosely moored republics. But his contributions extended far beyond his politics.



José Carlos Mariátegui La Chira was born in the small city of Moquegua, on June 14, 1894; José del Carmen Eliseo was his baptismal name. He himself never learned the truth about the place and exact date of his birth. We know that he changed his name very early and that later he himself would handle the legal process needed to officially become José Carlos. The mystery of his birthplace would nevertheless accompany him for the rest of his life. The secrecy may have been due to a constant fear on the part of his mother, connected with the issue of social prestige in a complex society troubled with old colonial leavings. María Amalia La Chira Ballejos had him believing that he had been born in Lima, the capital of Peru and of course an important place, where his father lived. Francisco Javier Mariátegui Requejo was descended from an eminent creole partisan of independence (it should be remembered that creole—
—in the Spanish-American world means a Latin American of pure Spanish descent). Especially in the stratified society of Peru, his political and racial ancestry automatically gave Francisco a measure of prestige within
high society.

Three children were born from the Mariátegui–La Chira marriage. José Carlos, Guillermina, and Julio César. Then his father abandoned the family. It appears that José Carlos never really knew him and the issue of his father's identity became a constant search and a source of shame for him during his infancy and adolescence. María Amalia, his mother, was a descendent of
, a Quechua appellation for lower Inca nobles. But in Peru, it meant that she was Indian or mestizo and her ancestors were not of a sufficiently high Inca lineage to permit her a possible entrance into higher Peruvian society and the opportunities that such a cachet might have meant for her sons. Some biographers of Mariátegui suggest that María Amalia, a devout Catholic, did not know that the father of her husband had been a liberal excommunicated by the Church for his anticlerical ideas, a realization (if she came to learn the truth) that would have led her into shame and silence. When the father left the family, their economic situation turned precarious. From Lima, where they had gone, they were forced to move again, in 1899, to the provincial city of Huacho, where María's family resided.

The human and family drama was now fully in place, with its ethnic, social, economic, and religious components. In 1901, José Carlos begins school and the following year, only eight years old, he has a serious accident. His left leg is badly injured. It takes him four years to recover, and the injury will leave him lame for life. He has to abandon his formal education but he becomes a voracious and obsessive reader. He absorbs the stories of Moses, Christ, Siegfried, and the Cid and he goes on, precociously, to Anatole France and Francisco García Calderón. He will finally exhaust the small library left by his father. Fueled by his readings, suffused with his mother's Catholic piety, the introspective José Carlos takes his first literary steps, composing poems with a religious and mystical charge.

Solitude and poverty, sadness, religion, and constant pain. Nevertheless, he struggles against his condition, he perseveres and thinks and reads and writes. His entire life will be a struggle against adverse circumstances, waged with an optimistic but never ingenuous or self-deluded spirit. He will live his life of thought and practice bounded by the texturing of his ideas and a will toward precise and effective political action.



At the beginning of the twentieth century, Lima was still a city that thoroughly represented “creole superiority.” In its central plaza stands the supreme symbol of this hierarchy, the equestrian statue of Pizarro the Conquistador. The monument was erected in 1935, but it shows the lingering feeling of “creole superiority.” (In Mexico there is not even a single street named after Cortés.) But Lima, like many other capitals of Latin America, also showed very clear signs of modernity. When José Carlos returned as a young adolescent to Lima, he was fascinated by the electric lights, the streetcars, the cinema. All the technology excited him. And also the culture. He now had a linguistic tool to help him absorb much of what was most current. During his seemingly endless convalescence, he had taught himself French and he always felt proud of his grammar and pronunciation.

As time went on, the economic condition of the family did not improve, and the remote possibility of an encounter with his father vanished for good when Francisco Mariátegui died in 1907. The young José Carlos, only fourteen, had to bring in some income. He went to work at the newspaper
La Prensa
, in a low-level job. Some say he worked as a stockboy for a linotypist, but that would have been difficult work for a slightly built boy handicapped by his bad leg, since it would have required handling heavy boxes full of lead type. However that may be, his personality and intelligence enabled him to move up a notch and he became an assistant to the linotypist Juan Manuel Campos, who was an anarchist and, obviously impressed with José Carlos, would introduce him to the distinguished anarchist intellectual Manuel González Prada.

González Prada was the founder of Peruvian leftist activism and would be remembered as its central figure were it not for the achievements of his disciple, the young boy who now met him for the first time. Years earlier, in 1888, González Prada had delivered his celebrated
Discurso del Politeama
(Address in the Amphitheater), in which he had denounced the incompetence and corruption of the Peruvian ruling class (and its military instrument, the army) and stressed that the lingering effects of ignorance and servitude were underlying factors in the subjection of the peasant masses. And he had even called on the youth of Peru to fight against that situation. His major concern was the unjust condition of the Indian peasants, oppressed by the expansion of the great estates controlled by the
(the Andean word for the powerful landowners, whom not even the Peruvian state could control, with the result that they functioned—as Mariátegui would later define them—as feudal lords).

For the young Mariátegui, González Prada seemed the epitome of moral and intellectual commitment. But he, the young José Carlos, was still a worker without a contract, liable to the vagaries of uncertain employment.

One of his duties at the newspaper was to collect the original articles produced by the staff reporters or other contributors and carry them to the layout tables, where the typography was composed and the articles then assembled in the correct order for publication. He had moments of free time en route from the writers to the linotypist. And he made use of them. He inserted an article of his own, signed with the pseudonym of Juan Croniqueur, and passed it along to the typographers. It was published the next day. Who wrote this? asked the director of the newspaper. Mariátegui admitted what he had done. He was reproved but had also gained his opportunity. The article was well written and displayed a sharp and fresh intelligence. As a result he moved up the ladder. From now on he would be an aide, not to the production staff but in the daily work of the newspaper, assisting the contributors and especially attending to the teletype. He was fascinated by this apparatus that supplied information from all over the world. Modernity enchanted him.

From 1914 on, at the age of twenty, he began to publish in
La Prensa
, using his lucky pen name of Juan Chroniqueur. By 1915 he was an assiduous contributor to various journals:
Mundo Limeño
(The World of Lima),
El Turf
(devoted to horse racing and notes on high society), and
(where he published poems, social reportage, and short stories). One year later, the young journalist with a growing reputation met one of Peru's most famous writers, Abraham Valdelomar, and together they started a new magazine called
. Mariátegui would later describe this period of his life as his “stone age,” when he was “an author polluted by turn of the century decadence and Byzantinism.” Nonetheless, despite his inclination at the time toward the aestheticism of Gabriele D'Annunzio, he would recognize that he had already absorbed the social teaching of González Prada and learned “to reject the presence of the spirally packaged aristocratic mentality and its academicism.”

His major discovery in those years was the impression that the authentic Peru was the indigenous Peru. Valdelomar wanted to raise the Inca past to stylistic heights—not only in literature but in the visual arts and in music. His literary models were Pierre Louÿs (with his polyvalent eroticism) and the more complicated (and greater) writer Gustave Flaubert, whose life work had moved from a “decadent” romanticism into a new, precisely phrased form of realism. The writer Julio Baudouin was one of Valdelomar's circle of literary friends. He had written the libretto, both dialogue and lyrics, for a short operatic piece (the Spanish form is called a
), not at all lighthearted but very serious, about a tragic confrontation between Indian workers in an Andean mine and their Anglo-Saxon managers. The music of
El cóndor pasa
(“The Condor Passes,” also known as “Flight of the Condor”) was by the composer Daniel Alomía Robles and its final melody, with the same title and based on a Quechua love song, has become an unofficial, internationally known symbol of the people of the Andes. (The Peruvian government in 2004 officially declared it a Cultural Patrimony of the Nation.)

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