Writer promoted Zapotec culture

Times Staff Writer

Andres Henestrosa Morales, a prolific poet, essayist and journalist whose lyrical writings helped raise the cultural profile of Mexico’s indigenous people, particularly the Zapotec Indians of southern Oaxaca state, and whose wide circle of friendships and intellectual partnerships included Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Langston Hughes, died Thursday at his Mexico City home after a months-long battle with pneumonia.

He was 101, the same age attained by his Zapotec mother, who was the subject of one of Henestrosa’s two best-known writings, “Retrato de mi madre” (Portrait of My Mother), published in 1940.

His single most influential work, “Los hombres que disperso la danza” (The Men Scattered by Dance), is a folkloric collection of Zapotec legends and fables that Henestrosa had learned while growing up in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Oaxaca.

First printed in 1929, the book caught the spirit of post-revolutionary Mexico, in which the nation, following the violent social upheaval of the 1910-20 civil war, was attempting to forge a new cultural and political identity that tapped into the country’s pre-Columbian past. Prior to the revolution, Mexico’s indigenous people were treated as lower-class citizens; their native culture was disparaged as primitive and worthless by Mexico’s light-skinned elites.


Henestrosa, like artists Rivera and Kahlo, turned for inspiration to Mexico’s indigenous traditions, helping make them fashionable both abroad and within segments of the country’s leftist intelligentsia.

Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsivais, who knew Henestrosa since the 1950s, called him “a memorialist of the legends of his people” who “believed in the beauty” of the Zapotec language and whose work argued that Indian culture was still a vital presence, not a dead artifact, and should be treated with respect.”

“He decided to remember,” Monsivais added. “That was, let’s say, his claim to fame. He was always in remembrance of things past.”

Henestrosa was born Nov. 30, 1906, into a farming family in a village near the city of Juchitan, which for centuries has been marked by its distinctive matriarchal culture. Until his mid-teens, when he left Oaxaca to seek his fate in Mexico City, Henestrosa spoke only indigenous languages.


The Zapotec are known for having fiercely resisted both the dominating influence of other Indian cultures in the pre-Columbian era and, later, that of the Spanish conquistadors. Zapotec has long been a tongue of resistance, and Henestrosa joked to friends that he always cursed in Zapotec.

In a 2005 interview with Americas magazine, he described his ancestry as Spanish, black, Zapotec, Huave (another indigenous group) and “even a little Jewish.” That diverse background fed his lifelong interest not only in Indian cultures but in Mexico’s Spanish heritage and in the period of Mexican liberalism associated with the mid-19th century presidency of Benito Juarez, himself a Zapotec, often called the “Abraham Lincoln of Mexico.”

One of Henestrosa’s early sponsors was Jose Vasconcelos Calderon, the powerful Mexican education secretary who placed the young Henestrosa in school and gave him copies of classic books.

Even as his renown grew as a writer among Mexico’s intellectual classes, and he received a Guggenheim grant to study Zapotec culture in the United States, Henestrosa maintained a bohemian flair and the unpretentious charm of a “man of the street,” said Adolfo Castanon, a writer and member of the Mexican Academy of Language. In the 1940s, he would sometimes show up in cantinas and take off his shoes to dance.

In the course of his long life, Henestrosa collaborated with the artist Francisco Toledo and the photographer Graciela Iturbide and briefly shared a room with Hughes, the African American poet. He never tired of accompanying friends such as Rivera and Kahlo and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson on tours of Tehuantepec, or regaling them with endless tales of La Llorona, the mythical grieving woman of Mexican folklore.

Kahlo in particular became close friends with Henestrosa’s wife and companion of 55 years, Alfa Rios, whom he outlived; the couple had one daughter.

In addition to the dozens of books he wrote, Henestrosa penned articles and columns for several Mexican newspapers.

He also served as a federal deputy and senator for the state of Oaxaca as a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party that dominated Mexico for 71 years.


But his reputation finally transcended partisan politics, as has been evident in recent days from the outpouring of tributes from conservative Mexican president Felipe Calderon and the leftist Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, among many others.

“Henestrosa is a man of several bloodlines, a man of several worlds and a man of several cultures,” Castanon said. “The story of Andres Henestrosa is in a certain fashion the story of the Mexican age.”