The legacy of a mid-20th century Mexican writer revered in Spanish-speaking countries but little known everywhere else, was celebrated in a Mott Haven gallery last week with a 24-hour marathon event that included readings, visual arts and theater.
Juan Rulfo’s influence among Latin American authors far eclipsed his meager published output, but his shadow extends over more acclaimed authors like Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chile’s Isabel Allende, among many others. Marquez acknowledged that without Rulfo’s influence, he would not have written his critical masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. The May 27-28 event commemorated what would have been Rulfo’s 100th birthday.
Although Rulfo’s published output amounts to a few hundred pages—-the 1955 novella Pedro Páramo and the 1953 short story collection The Burning Plain are each well under 200 pages—-the weight of his impact bore enough heft to outmuscle authors who published far more. His narratives, while simple and stripped to the bone, are written in arid prose mixed in with the colloquial language of the peasants of Mexico’s mountainous central region, and straddle a line between the simple but metaphorical dialogue of hardscrabble farmers and Old Testament allegory.
The curators of the show “Nothing is a Dream: 24hrs with Juan Rulfo,” which ran at the AAA3A Studio and at ID Studio Theater, said their connection with Rulfo goes bone-deep.
“He was the only author whose language reminded me of the way my grandparents spoke when I was growing up,” said Blanka Amezkua, who runs AAA3A out of her Alexander Avenue apartment and grew up between Los Angeles and Cuernavaca, Mexico.. Rulfo’s sparse output helped make the event possible, she added. “The books are so short that we could do that. Each sentence has weight. His prose is like sculpture.”
Though the narratives embrace universal themes of government corruption, vengeance and the displacement of the rural poor by the powerful, it is rarely simple. Pedro Páramo, for example, shifts constantly and without warning between dreams and real observation, between present and past, as the narrator seeks his dead, philandering father—a man he has never met—in a parched, uninhabitable landscape so hot that when its residents descend to Hell after dying, they have to return home for their blankets.
The show’s curator, Virginia Grise, said she read Pedro Páramo in college in her native Texas when a lover gave her a copy, and its impact remains.
On opening night, 10 readers read the entirety of Pedro Páramo in Spanish, English and German, aloud in AAA3A studio. Andrea Negrete, a 20-something playwright who lives in Brooklyn, remembered reading it while growing up in South Texas. She read in English. Mott Haven resident Max Reinhhold, read a segment in his native German. Andrea Thome, who lives in Inwood, read in Spanish. Reading aloud moved her. “It’s something primal that we don’t do anymore,” said Thome.
A performance of the short story Diles que no me maten (Tell Them Not to Kill Me) at the ID Studio Theater at 311 East 140th Street closed the event on Sunday. In Rulfo’s typically terse prose, it tells the story of an old shepherd pleading for his life after being sentenced to death by firing squad, decades after murdering his friend. The military colonel whose life mission it is to stalk the now-frail man and ultimately order his murder, turns out to be the late murder victim’s son.
Isis Mireles, 36, moved to Harlem from a tiny village in the highlands of central Mexico 20 years ago. Hearing Rulfo’s language read aloud reminded her of home, she said. She came to AAA3A to hear the readings, though she had never read the author’s work before.
“The way his characters speak is just the way I remember people speaking back home,” she said.