National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Sun, Stone, and Shadows

Sun, Stone, and Shadows

by Jorge F. Hernández

The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared… Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence.


Temple of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Copyright Mark Segal/Digital Vision/Getty Images)



Juan Rulfo (1918–1986)

Juan Rulfo is considered one of Mexico's greatest writers despite having published only two books: the influential short-story collection The Burning Plain (1953), and the immensely celebrated novel Pedro Páramo (1955). In 1970, Rulfo received Mexico's National Prize for Literature and, in 1983, the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award in Spain. Born in the western state of Jalisco in the town of Sayula, Rulfo grew up to capture in words the atmosphere and landscape of his roots.

Not until late in his life did Rulfo become a full-time writer and photographer, and he kept a job at the National Institute for Indigenous Studies even after his books had received international acclaim. He also worked on several film projects. His work has been translated into languages the world over, but Rulfo always preferred to shy away from the limelight and gossip of the literary world.

Rulfo's literature blends the many voices of everyday Mexican life in a prose that also honors the quiet murmurs of the human soul. He transformed this particular world into universally recognizable characters and stories. His life of watchful silence and shadows ended with his death in Mexico City in 1986, but his widespread influence continues to grow.

Octavio Paz (1914–1998)

Octavio Paz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, the only Mexican writer so honored to date. Born in Mexico City, Paz soon became a brilliant student and a promising member of important literary circles and publications. He participated in the founding of Taller, a magazine that marked the dawn of a new literary sensibility among many young writers.

In 1943, Paz left Mexico for Los Angeles, where he became acquainted with American modernist poetry. He entered the Mexican Foreign Service in 1945 and was posted to Paris, where he collaborated on projects with prominent Surrealists such as writer André Breton. In 1962, Paz was named Mexico's ambassador to India, an experience later reflected in several of his most important books. He resigned from his post in 1968 to protest his government's murderous repression of the student movement at the Plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico City.

Paz later founded and edited two other very significant literary magazines, Plural and Vuelta, and became one the most brilliant critical and poetic voices of modern Mexico. As an essayist, he published many important books, among them The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), which remains unsurpassed for its evocation of the Mexican character. Paz died in Mexico City on April 19, 1998.

Rosario Castellanos (1925–1974)

For centuries, poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz remained the only celebrated example of women's contribution to Mexican literature. In the past century, however, Rosario Castellanos wedged open a door for such contemporary writers as Laura Esquivel and Angeles Mastretta.

Castellanos was born in 1925 in Mexico City but grew up on her family's ranch in Comitán, Chiapas—an environment reflected throughout her considerable work. She was a poet, novelist, essayist, and a translator of Emily Dickinson. She won the Chiapas Prize for her autobiographical novel Balún Canán (1957); three years later, she received the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia National Prize for her novel Ciudad Real (1960).

An advocate of the culture and folklore of Chiapas, Castellanos worked at the Institute of Science and Arts in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and directed the indigenous puppet theater of the Center for Tzeltal-Tzotzil Culture. She dedicated the last years of her life to the Mexican Foreign Service and became ambassador to Israel. The last novel she published was The Book of Lamentations (1962), which recreates an Indian rebellion near San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. Tragically, she died from an accidental electrocution while trying to plug in a lamp at her home in Tel Aviv on August 7, 1974.

Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012)

Carlos Fuentes served as Mexican ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977, and through his writing, he became Mexico's foremost literary ambassador to the world. Fuentes was born in 1928 and, owing to his father's diplomatic career, spent his childhood in Chile, Argentina, Washington, DC, and other international postings. In college, he co-founded the magazine Universidad de México in 1955, which soon grew into the influential Mexican Review of Literature. In 1957, he also founded and directed the Department of Cultural Relations of the Mexican Foreign Service.

Fuentes published his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear, in 1958, and took his place alongside Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and José Donoso in El Boom, the international explosion of Latin American literature in the 1960s. His later novels include The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), Aura (1962), and The Old Gringo (1985). In his stories and essays, Fuentes consistently opposed injustice and authoritarianism, championing the individual through a literature composed of many cultures and voices. He died in Mexico City on May 15, 2012.

"From today on, I’ll be whatever I choose to be at the moment..."
—Rosario Castellanos, from her short story "Cooking Lesson"

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