The author and journalist Elena Poniatowska, who gained fame in Mexico for her chronicles of social injustice and government repression, is this year’s winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish language.
Poniatowska, 82, has penned more than three dozen books, including several novels, children’s books, essay collections, and works of nonfiction, including “La Noche de Tlatelolco,” (“The Night of Tlatelolco”) a groundbreaking oral history of the 1968 army massacre of student protesters in Mexico City. She'll receive the prize Wednesday in a ceremony in Madrid.
“This is an opening for many women, because there are many more women who deserved this more than I did,” Poniatowska said in a Mexico City news conference before leaving for Madrid. She’s only the fourth woman to win the Cervantes in its 39-year history.
The daughter of French-Polish immigrants to Mexico, Poniatowska began her career writing for the newspaper Excelsior. In an interview with the Madrid newspaper El Pais this week, she recounted how the painter Diego Rivera called her the “little Polish girl who asks too many questions,” ("polaquita preguntona").
“I will always be that way, I was always asking too many questions and I’ll be that way until I die,” she said.
Throughout her life Poniatowska penned works of journalism that focused on the struggles of the poor, and on the activists who resisted the power of the one-party government that dominated Mexican life for much of the 20th century.
Reporters in Mexico today are still living in “difficult and terrible situations, because Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist,” she said.
Poniatowska herself received threats in 1971, when she released her book about the Tlatelolco massacre (the book is available in English as “Massacre in Mexico”). It was the first account to challenge the official version of events that night, and implicated army troops in the killing. Her Mexico City publisher, an exile from Spain’s right-wing dictatorship, received many threats.
“They told him they were going to burn down his office,” Poniatowska told El Pais. “He answered: ‘Look, I was in the Spanish Civil War. I know what war is, and this book will be published.’ Then they spread the rumor that the army was going to seize his business, but it was just propaganda. The whole world ran out to buy the book. Four editions were printed in one month. It was crazy.”
Throughout her career, Poniatowska has written often about the indigenous peoples of Mexico. She told reporters in Mexico that she will attend Wednesday’s ceremony wearing a red and yellow indigenous dress that was given to her during a recent visit to Oaxaca.