The Death of Artemio Cruz

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The Death of Artemio Cruz

by Carlos Fuentes


A novel set in Mexico from 1889 to 1959; published in Spanish as La Muerte de Artemic Cruz in 1962, in English in 1964.


On his deathbed, a millionaire tycoon reviews twelve momentous days of his life.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in Mexico City in 1928 to a diplomat father, Carlos Fuentes grew up primarily in Mexico and the United States. He was living in Mexico in the 1950s, when his first two novels were published (Where the Air is Clear[1958] and The Good Conscience[1959]). His third novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, established him as an author of world renown. Fuentes began writing it in 1960 in Cuba, after Fidel Castro’s revolution there. At the time “almost the entire intellectual world of Latin America shared a fervor—or at least a sympathy—for the Cuban Revolution” (Krauze, p. 653). It especially touched Mexicans in Fuentes’s generation, who had been struggling to define their national essence and were disturbed by the course onto which their own revolution had veered.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Dual legacy

Fuentes’s novel begins during the reign of President Porfirio Diaz, first a fighter for reform but then a dictator who monopolized power for his own sake. In the 1870s Diaz seized control of the government from the legitimate president, going on to “win” reelection seven times. He governed for 34 years (1876-80 and 1884-1911) of painful poverty but also blessed peace. Before Diaz, Mexico had endured a century of armed disputes—the War of Independence (1821), the War of the North American Invasion (otherwise known as the Mexican American War [1848]), and the War of the French Intervention (1862). In collusion with conservative Mexicans, France had seized control briefly, but then internal tensions exploded into more armed conflict: led by Benito Juarez, liberal Mexicans wrested power from the conservatives and threw out the French in the War of the Reform (1867).

Diaz fought under Juarez. By the time Diaz himself was in power, two contrary traditions had emerged—a spirit of reform and a tenacious spirit of dictatorship. The 1800s had been dominated by military strongmen, or caudillos, which boded well for dictatorship. Preeminent among the strongmen was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who was president 11 times between 1833 and 1855. Owner of a vast hacienda (landed estate) in Veracruz, Santa Anna grew so enamored with power during his decades of rule that he had his minions call him “His Most Serene Highness.”

In 1857 the spirit of reform took over, and the liberals drafted a new constitution, a vain attempt to break the hold that a small minority of hacienda owners, army leaders, and the Catholic Church had over the nation’s wealth. At the time the Church controlled close to one half of all the land, and earned enormous income from rents and loans to its allies, the hacienda owners. The liberals tried but failed to loosen the Church’s grip. They auctioned off only a fifth of Church lands, and to little effect. The upper class grew slightly, enlarged by the few Mexicans who, like Artemio’s father-in-law, old Gamaliel Bernal, in The Death of Artemio Cruz, had the cash to buy the auctioned parcels.

Not at all happy about the 1857 reforms, which infringed on their monopoly of the country’s riches, the conservatives attacked the liberals, and Mexico descended into nearly 20 years of civil war. Meanwhile and afterward, the bulk of the nation remained impoverished. In fact, people grew poorer during Diaz’s reign, many of them losing their lands because of legal maneuvering, cause enough for revolution. Of 11 million rural dwellers, fewer than 3 percent of them owned any land by 1910. Hacienda owners let vast areas lie fallow year after year, while peasants went hungry and their lives were made even more miserable by rurales (rural police), who charged them “for living, for the hens, for the pigs” (Garcia in Krauze, p. 284). In cities and in the countryside, illiteracy was rampant: 75 percent of the Mexican population could neither read nor write.

Again the spirit of reform reared its stubborn head, or, in this case, hand. The spark that lit the Mexican Revolution came not from a rifle or a torch but from a book by a member of the educated elite—The Presidential Succession of 1910 by Francisco I. Madero. Madero declared Mexico’s problem to be the concentration of power in one man, and he prescribed a solution—a return to the Constitution of 1857, along with the principle of “Valid Voting, No Reelection.” A president, counseled Madero, should serve as head of the nation for only one term.

Diaz thought Madero’s ideas outrageous and proceeded to engineer an eighth reelection for himself and his deputies. Madero mounted an antireelection campaign against Diaz that attracted thousands of supporters, so in 1910 Diaz’s government decided to arrest Madero. From prison, Madero wrote the Plan de San Luis, calling for revolution: “Fellow citizens, do not hesitate, even for a moment! Take up arms, throw the usurpers out of power, recover your rights as free men!” (Madero in Krauze, p. 255). Released from prison, Madero took up arms. Diaz started his eighth term, but scattered uprisings and Madero’s capture of Ciudad Juarez convinced him to resign. Afterward, Madero became temporary president, demobilizing his own troops, and leaving Diaz’s federal army and congress in place. The strife had hardly begun.

The Mexican Revolution—an overview

Mexico’s was the first of the momentous revolutions of the twentieth century. Lasting more than a decade (1910-24), the Revolution led to subsequent Mexican upheavals, from civil conflicts in the 1920s to radical economic changes in the 1930s. During the war years, the number of men-in-arms at any one time was never great. In 1915, the most factious year, fewer than 100,000 soldiers fought in a nation of over 15 million. Still, the overall human and economic costs of the Revolution were astronomical—240,000 dead in combat and 750,000 dead from related diseases, plus destruction to mines, factories, haciendas, and railroads. And there was also an untabulated cost—the dissolution and betrayal of burgeoning democratic ideals, as reflected in the novel by Artemio and his fellow army officers.

Madero served as president for less than a year. Within months of his victory, federal soldiers, under Victoriano Huerta, staged a counterrevolution that included Madero’s assassination (February 22, 1912). Huerta became president until pro-Madero rebels and trouble with the United States drove him into exile in 1914. Three caudillos emerged among the pro-Madero rebels—Francisco “Pancho” Villa, General Alvaro Obregon, and Governor Venustiano Carranza. In the south, a fourth caudillo, Emiliano Zapata, promoted his Plan de Ayala, calling for restitution of land to its rightful, deed-carrying owners. These four caudillos took on distinct personae: Zapata became champion of the landless; Villa, though not concerned with land, won renown as a Robin Hood-style fighter out to ravage the rich for the benefit of the poor; Carranza was the landowner-reformer; Obregon was the military genius.

Villa, Obregon, and Carranza met at the Convention of Aguascalientes to hammer out a future government for Mexico, but there was an ominous break between Carranza and Villa. Remaining uncommitted for the moment, Obregon finally sided with Carranza. It was a politically astute choice, since Governor Carranza operated under an aura of legitimacy, in contrast to the renegade Villa.

Exercising his military prowess, Obregon went on to defeat Villa. The great battles of 1915 were fought in the Bajio, the fertile central basin north of Mexico City. A fierce warrior and an expert horseman, Villa’s fame spread all the way to the movie capital of the world—Hollywood. Needing the $25,000 that was offered him, Villa allowed the Mutual Film Corporation to film his Division del Norte (Northern Division) in action. For the sake of the camera, he fought during the daytime and postponed executions from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Villa was clearly preoccupied with fighting, but there were idealists in his camp, too—men like Felipe Ángeles, who promoted the spread of education and democracy.

The 1915 campaign in the Bajio proved fatal to Villa’s forces. Against Angeles’s advice, Villa insisted on frontal cavalry charges. He sent one cavalry charge after another against Obregon’s soldiers, who had entrenched themselves in ditches surrounding the battleground. In a fateful battle, Obregon’s troops fought a defensive war from the trenches, then faked a retreat, after which their reserve forces rushed at the enemy in an offensive attack. The statistics speak for themselves. Obregon’s losses totaled 200 dead, wounded, or captured; Villa’s totaled 10,000, and his men began deserting in droves. Villa continued fighting, but with a shrunken force of 3000. Wiping out Villa’s strongholds in the state of Sonora at the end of 1915, Obregon’s troops reduced Villa to guerrilla warfare thereafter. Villa’s forces continued to plague the north for years (during which time Carranza served as president). In 1920 the renegade Villa finally surrendered—only to be assassinated in 1923, along with a car full of unfortunate bysitters.


The contest was the 1928 election, not a military campaign, but guns still figured into the equation. An attempt was made on General Alvaro Obregon’s life in 1927. President earlier in the decade (1920-24), Obregon ran for reelection in 1928. This not only threatened the right of the sitting president (Plutarco Elias Calles) to designate his own successor, but it also violated the Revolution’s commitment to “Valid Voting, No Reelection. As the contest approached, the number of murders escalated, including 25 generals and 150 others. Obregon was elected, only to be assassinated a few months later (July 17, 1928), Subsequently Calles met with Mexico’s 30 most notable generals to request their support, a gathering that is mirrored in The Death of Artemio Cruz by the meeting of Artemio’s war cronies at a whorehouse. Artemio persuades them to switch loyalties to the new man in power, after which they appear at the new man’s offices to profess loyalty to him.

Villa’s 1915 defeat spelled disaster for Zapata in the south, whose own movement dwindled. He himself retained a religious zeal for his cause—the return of Mexican land to its rightful owners—but the federal army killed 508 of his followers in 1915 and 1916, and finally tricked Zapata into a 1919 meeting that resulted in his murder. Zapata’s movement has been described as an independent rebellion, a cause apart from the others, though he briefly joined with Villa. Yet Zapata was bent on justice for his whole village and other pueblos like it. In contrast, after the first assassination—the killing of Madero—most of the Revolution’s strongmen seemed out for themselves. In The Death of Artemio Cruz, the protagonist winds up in jail with Gonzalo Bernal. Bernal warns him that one day he will have to choose between Carranza and Obregon, foreseeing that their alliance will not last. Artemio makes it clear that Obregon is his man. A few years later, as the 1928 election approaches, a police officer threatens Artemio’s life unless he switches his allegiance from General Obregon. Now a congressman, Artemio recalls the oath of loyalty he swore to the general in years past but then dismisses it and behaves like the opportunist he has become, a man loyal, above all, to himself. He agrees to switch allegiances, aligning himself, as always, with the strongest scoundrel, siding with “the emerging leader against the fading leader” (Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz, p. 129).

Civil strife in the 1920s

In 1917 the civilian caudillo Carranza oversaw the drafting of a new constitution, a document that turned out to be far more radical than he himself anticipated. There was widespread hostility toward the Church, whose property had been desecrated in the 1910s by Obregon’s troops. Soldiers “drank out of chalices, paraded wearing priestly vestments, built fires in confessionals, shot up sacred images, converted churches into barracks, carried out mock executions of the statues of the saints” (Krauze, p. 356). The hostility found its way into the new Constitution. Article 130 required all priests to register with the government, authorized each state to limit its number of priests, and prohibited clerics from criticizing the law of Mexico.

But the movement to punish the Church was far from universal. In 1926, when President Calles set out to apply Article 130, a portion of the population rose up in defense of the priests. The conflict escalated, breaking out into a savage three-year war between the federal army and Church defenders, known as the Crìsteros. “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ the King!) they shouted in the Cristiada (War for Christ; also referred to as the “Cristero rebellion” [1926-29]), which spread to 13 states and claimed more than 70,000 lives. Cristeros were hanged, villages burned, and priests killed. In the novel an official informs Artemio, “Tomorrow they shoot the priests” (Artemio Cruz, p. 122). Altogether 90 priests were executed during the Cristiada. The Cristeros, in turn, burned government buildings, blew up trains, and brutally killed teachers and other government workers.

Another internal conflict of the 1920s involved the Yaqui Indians. In the novel, Villa’s troops capture a daring Yaqui along with Artemio. Tobias, the Yaqui, demonstrates a courage that reflects the real-life reputation of these Indians, who fought for Obregon with such bravery that, according to some historians, they enabled him to defeat Villa. The Yaquis expected afterward to be rewarded with restitution of their land in Sonora, as promised. Instead, a decade after the Yaquis helped him defeat Villa, Obregon led 15,000 soldiers in a campaign against these Indians (October 1926-April 1927), betraying his revolutionary debt to them.

Radical economic change and war abroad

President Calles (1924-28) became less of a reformer and more of a dictator over the years.

Hundreds of his enemies were jailed… and a large number were reported to have “committed suicide.” Moreover, he and his close associates became… millionaires. Their lavish estates in the Lomas district of the capital [where Catalina lives in the novel] were referred to as “palaces of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

(Miller, p. 314)

The spirit of reform resurfaced in the 1930s during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (under whom Fuentes’s own father was a diplomat). As president, Cardenas distributed 44 million acres to Mexican peasants, mostly to ejidos—communal landholding units—which was not always to the liking of the peasants themselves, as Cardenas later admitted. Still he distributed far more land than his predecessors had, destroying the oppressive class of hacendados (hacienda owners) in Mexico. Article 27 of the new Constitution identified the nation, not private property holders, as the owner of all minerals and oil beneath Mexico’s lands. In 1938 Cardenas invoked this article to appropriate the subsurface oil that foreign, mostly United States, companies had been exploiting.

Wild with enthusiasm, Mexicans banded together to help the government compensate the oil companies for their losses. Of course, not all Mexicans welcomed such change. From 1914 to 1920 General Manuel Pelaez had profited from the old laws, charging foreign oil companies a combined $ 15,000 a month to protect them from the central government. Pelaez’s kind would soon find their way around new laws. A mineral edict of 1934 declared that concessions would go to applicants with the most economic and technical resources, provided that the applicants were Mexican this anti-foreigner emphasis continued in 1935, when terms for concessions to foreigners became so stiff that, to set up operations, they needed front men who were Mexican. In the novel Artemio serves as such a front man for a pair of U.S. sulfur miners and, in the tradition of the real-life oil-mogul Pelaez, charges them $2,000 just to arrange the concession.

Global affairs exploded during Cardenas’s presidency, beginning with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). There was a leftist government in power in Spain at the time (the Second Spanish Republic), and some right-wing officers set out to topple it. Mexico backed not the army officers but the legitimate government, as did Spain’s liberal citizens. Thousands of Spanish intellectuals sought refuge from the war in Mexico. Traveling in the other direction, 330 Mexicans enlisted to fight on the side of the Spanish Republic. Only 59 would survive the war, so the chances of someone like Artemio’s son, Lorenzo, coming out alive were slim. The volunteers sailed to Spain from Veracruz, as Lorenzo does in the novel, on freighters called Magallanes, Motomar, and Mar Cantabrico.


On the eighteenth of March, the day of the great sensation! He nationalized the oil then! The Chief of our Nation!

(Krauze, p. 475)

In winter 1939 the Spanish Republic was losing the war to the army insurgents under Francisco Franco, who seized the city of Barcelona in January. Madrid fell to them in March, ending the civil war. In the novel Lorenzo leaves for Spain in February, when the fighting is nearly over. Germany, supporting Franco, has been using Spain as a kind of testing ground for World War II, trying out night and bad-weather bombing. It is a gray, dismal day when Lorenzo confronts a barely visible German bomber, and, in one of the novel’s most gripping scenes, goes down fighting like a “real macho,” while his Spanish companion Miguel rants about the craziness of Lorenzo’s courage.

There is sense to Lorenzo’s action, however, in light of how the Mexican male regards death.“La vida no vale nadar (Life is worth nothing!) is a familiar cry before mortal combat, meaning that the way one dies is worth everything. The idea is to hombrearse con la muerte (face death like a man), which is what Lorenzo has done, and also what Artemio does in the novel by reviewing his whole life—even the painful memories that until now he has repressed—at the moment of his death.

Official betrayal—1940-1950s

Much has been made of the fact that a democratic revolution that was begun to overthrow Diaz’s dictatorship ended up creating an equally autocratic government. The president became all-powerful in post-Revolutionary Mexico, handling public property as if it were his own, doling out funds and favors as he chose. Meanwhile, senators and deputies like Artemio Cruz rubber-stamped his decisions, failing to represent their districts yet invoking revolutionary rhetoric. Public officials tried to disguise selfish motivations as benevolent gestures for the good of the people. But no one was fooled. The peasants, an aide informs Artemio in the novel, “realize that you gave them land only good for dry-farming and kept the watered land for yourself. That you go on charging interest on the loans you made them, just like… before” the Revolution, but they do not complain because “as bad as things are, these people are better off now” (Artemio Cruz, p. 90).

Murals by two Mexicans—Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco—depicted the promise and betrayal of the Revolution. Rivera’s murals portrayed the promise; Orozco’s, the reality of sacrifice and betrayal. Businessmen and politicians invoked Rivera’s images, using them as a flimsy cover for the abuse of power that raged through society, especially during the presidency of Miguel Aleman Valdes (1946-52). Aleman managed to protect private property from being redistributed to peasants, amending legislation that had been passed by Cardenas. Committed to industrializing the nation, Aleman also adopted a policy of replacing imported with Mexican goods. The upper and middle classes grew wealthier as a result; meanwhile, “the scale of corruption attained by [the president’s own circle of friends] was something that had never been seen before” (Krauze, p. 556). After becoming public officials, businessmen sold their goods to the government at prices they themselves deemed fit. They learned of upcoming construction projects and purchased nearby land, whose value was sure to rise. And everyone bribed government workers. Life in Mexico seemed splendid at first glance. The newly rich “raised mansions like Hollywood film sets, held bacchanalian parties, poured out rivers of money,” but Aleman failed to put anything over on the poor who, like the painter Orozco, perceived the grim reality of ongoing inequity in society (Krauze, p. 556). A post-Aleman poem by Jorge Hernandez Campos captures this reality: “I’m the most excellent Mr. President Don So and So of Something/and when … I shout Viva Mexico!/what I really mean is Viva me!” (Krauze, p. 564). The industrialization had not brought general progress, but a limited variety, of benefit to a few small pockets of the population.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel opens on April 10, 1959, the day of Artemio Cruz’s death. Prostrate in bed, the ailing multimillionaire has visitors—his estranged wife, Catalina; his embittered daughter, Teresa; his son-in-law, Gerardo; and his devoted secretary, Padilla. A priest enters, and Artemio’s granddaughter, Gloria, appears. Doctors come and go.

Meanwhile, Artemio muses about 12 pivotal days in his life, out of chronological order. His story emerges slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces are laid out in the following sequence:

July 6, 1941: Cruz negotiates a partnership in Mexican sulfur mining with some U.S. investors.

May 20, 1919: A veteran soldier, Artemio insinuates himself into the family of a dead wartime acquaintance, Gonzalo Bernal.

December 4, 1913: Artemio’s first love, Regina, is hanged by enemy soldiers.

June 3, 1924: Artemio and his wife, Catalina, an uncommunicative couple, have a pivotal argument; he takes a young mistress, Lilia.

November 23, 1927: Artemio, now a congressman, switches allegiance from his wartime superior to the new powerholder.

September 11, 1947: A middle-aged Artemio brings his mistress, Lilia, to the honeymoon spot of the ‘40s—Acapulco; she cheats on him with a fellow vacationer, but Artemio takes her back.

October 22, 1915: Villa’s retreating troops capture Captain Artemio Cruz and his fellow-in-arms, a Yaquis Indian; after meeting a third prisoner, Gonzalo Bernal, Artemio parleys with the enemy in a way that allows him to save himself from a firing-squad fate.

August 12, 1934: Artemio’s lover, Laura, gives him an ultimatum that he turns down, opting to stay in his unfulfilling marriage.

February 3, 1939: Artemio’s beloved son, Lorenzo, perishes in the Spanish Civil War.

December 31, 1955: The aged Artemio throws a lavish New Year’s Eve party at his home in Coyoacan, where he lives with Lilia.

January 18, 1903: A neighboring landowner threatens to separate 13-year-old Artemio from his guardian/uncle, Lunero; Artemio murders a man to prevent the separation.

April 9, 1889: Artemio is born to a peasant mother who has been raped by the hacendado Atanasio Menchaca.

“Image not available for copyright reasons”

The novel alternates among three voices and tenses, with Artemio employing the first-person Í and present tense for thoughts about his physical deterioration on his deathbed; the second-person you and future tense to judge his past actions and entertain alternate choices he could have made; and the third person he and past tense to narrate the course of his life events. His own voice is interrupted occasionally by his wife’s thoughts and by a chapter on his son’s experiences in Spain.


Without a commissary or medical corps, the armies of the Mexican Revolution depended on women to forage for their food, wash their clothes, and nurse their wounds. Loosely speaking, a soldadera was any woman who followed her man when he left home and joined an army. Soldaderas anticipated the troops’ movements, waiting for their arrival at the next campsite with refreshments at the ready. “In the abandoned battlefield they carr[ied] water to their wounded masters and despoilfedl the dead of their clothing” (Macias, p. 41). They did not, as a rule, wage war themselves. Nonetheless, all the movement often put them in harm’s way. Rape followed by murder was commonplace.

Born in Veracruz in 1889 on a hacienda called Cocuya, Artemio is the child of a wealthy hacendado who raped Artemio’s mulatta mother and, after the birth, ran her off the estate. Rescuing the infant, her mulatto brother, Lunero, raises the green-eyed boy until he is 13. The uncle and nephew remain in their shed on the decaying hacienda, crafting and selling candles and canoes. Artemio’s father, the hacendado Atanasio Menchaca, has been killed and the surviving Menchacas have fallen on hard times. They lead listless, unproductive lives in the main house.

One day a neighboring tobacco grower threatens to take Lunero away. To prevent this, 13-year-old Artemio kills a man. Before he and his uncle can rendezvous to escape, Lunero is shot dead. The boy flees northward utterly alone, then enters into another emotionally important relationship with Sebastian, who teaches the unschooled Artemio how to read, write, and count. Sebastian inspires Artemio, at age 21, to join the Mexican Revolution. He fights in Sonora and Sinaloa, where Artemio one day rapes an unwary young woman, as he and fellow soldiers have done so many times before. This time the lustful encounter grows into love. The young woman, Regina, weaves a fiction about how they met to spare Artemio the shame of it and he plays along with her, in one of the many deceptions that will riddle his lifetime. For seven months, Regina is Artemio’s soldadera, anticipating the movements of his troops, meeting him in this town or that, so that the two of them can grasp a few precious moments together.

In 1913 Artemio is fighting Huerta’s federal soldiers. He abandons an unknown wounded mate on the battlefield to save himself for Regina’s love, then finds that she and nine others have been hanged by Huerta’s federates as punishment for a town’s having supported the rebels.

Two years later the rebels are fighting among themselves. Artemio has been promoted to captain under General Obregon. Pursuing the retreating troops of Pancho Villa, Captain Artemio Cruz and a fellow soldier, a Yaqui Indian named Tobias, are caught. The Yaqui daringly helps Artemio try to effect an escape, but to no avail. Both end up in prison, alongside a young lawyer, Gonzalo Bernal, who feels that the Revolution has been lost no matter who wins because the rebels, the supposed “good guys,” have sold out to their own self-interests. Bernal reveals a few details about his life—he has a sister, Catalina, and a father, Don Gamaliel, who inhabit a hacienda of their own in Puebla. Outside the jail cells, the enemy offers Artemio a deal; he can escape the firing squad if he reveals his troops’ plans. Opting to relay some bogus plans and save his skin, after trying in vain to save his fellow soldier Tobias, Artemio watches as Bernal and Tobias are executed.

In 1919 the army discharges Artemio who, now a colonel, finds his way to the home of Gonzalo Bernal. On the flimsy strength of having shared Gonzalo’s final moments, he latches onto the father’s dwindling fortune. The Bernal hacienda has lost control of its workers and is in decline. Employing shrewd, if ruthless, business tactics, Artemio loans money to the workers at low interest and collects debts owed to old Bernal for a share of the take. He marries Catalina, with whom he has fallen in love. Pushed into the marriage, a vengeful Catalina reciprocates his love but does not allow herself the luxury of showing it to a man she believes deserves her wrath, a man she suspects is somehow involved in the death of her brother and whom she blames for the ruin of her father. Artemio shrewdly convinces old Don Gamaliel that it would be to their advantage in revolutionary Mexico to turn over some of his unfertile plots to the peasants on his hacienda. Thereafter, Artemio is regarded as a hero of Mexico’s agrarian-reform program.

Five years later Don Gamaliel has died and left his estate to Catalina and Artemio. She reflects on their passion by night and their lack of communication by day, still refusing to reveal her affection for him. Artemio is elected to congress, largely on the strength of his supposed “contribution” to agrarian reform. There is a rift in the marriage when Catalina fails to stick by his side during the election, and Artemio takes a mistress, a young Indian girl, Lilia. Yet Catalina remains with Artemio, because, he thinks, of his money. He and Catalina have two children—a daughter, Teresa, and a beloved son named Lorenzo.

Teresa grows up away at school and later by her mother’s side, far from Artemio. At age 12 Lorenzo, to whom Catalina is devoted, is taken from her by Artemio. He rebuilds for his son the hacienda in Veracruz where he himself was born. The boy grows up with a passion for horses and an enjoyment of the countryside. At 19 he ships out for Spain’s Civil War, invoking his father’s originally pure ideals at the outset of the earlier Mexican Revolution. This touches Artemio deeply and also becomes one of his most haunting memories, as demonstrated by a refrain that crops up repeatedly throughout the novel: “That morning I waited for him with pleasure. We crossed the river on horseback” (Artemio Cruz, p. 82).

In Spain, after a defeat, Lorenzo and a fellow soldier named Miguel encounter some young women also fleeing the area. Lorenzo and the young woman Lola dare to lead their small group across a possibly mined bridge. Thankfully, they survive and share a night of passion before joining a long line of France-bound refugees. Lorenzo and his companions fall in step with women carrying mattresses, men hauling mirrors, and carts lumbering toward the border. They are trudging along when a Nazi bomber suddenly fires on them. Instead of putting his own survival first, Lorenzo tries to shoot his rickety old rifle at the menacing bomber. But the worn-out weapon fails to fire, and Lorenzo is killed.

Back in Mexico, Artemio, blocking out his feelings as best he can, goes on to increase his fortune through various means, which include sulfur domes, logging concessions, interest on railroad loans, his take as a front man on behalf of U.S. miners, a daily newspaper of his own, and assorted real-estate investments. He owns some vacant lots, his reward for switching allegiance from Obregon to the current power brokers in government, and he also has a cool $15 million stashed away in U.S. and European banks.


In the novel Artemio owns a Mexico City newspaper and has a vested interest in the nation’s railroads, to which he has made loans. He therefore orders his employees to make sure not a single line about police repression gets into his paper during a 1959 railroad strike. There actually was strife in Mexico’s railroad industry in 1959. Labor leader Demetrio Vallejo inspired work stoppages to press for higher wages and new union elections to replace corrupt officers. The unrest led to a 16.66 percent pay increase for all but two companies, whose workers proceeded to go on strike. It was Easter week, a time of increased travel, and the government quickly quashed the strike, arresting its leaders and firing 13,000 workers. A few days later all Mexican railroads went on a sympathy strike, and 10,000 more workers were arrested. When a leading rebel, Román Guerra Montamayor, died at the scene of a protest, authorities painted his lips and nails red to brand him a communist, then threw his corpse across a railroad track.

Revolution was very much on everyone’s mind, since Fidel Castro had just staged a successful one in Cuba (January 1, 1959). Information about it filtered into Mexico, with people relying on word-of-mouth rather than newspapers. It was generally known that paper owners slanted the news to suit their purposes. They were more concerned with not offending the current strongmen than with reporting facts. So readers could find trustworthy details about parties, bullfights, religious gatherings, and crimes of the heart, but not about hard news. A paper’s “news” was affected also by business interests. Mexico City papers grew into rich enterprises, and their owners into tycoons because of advertising, not the number of papers sold. All the large businesses “had to pay up in one way or another or else they might read ‘Coca-Cola is bad for your health’” (Revel in Krauze, p. 598).

Artemio’s marriage has become meaningless—he and his wife live in separate residences. Five years before Lorenzo’s death, while traveling abroad, Artemio began an affair with Laura, a woman of refined taste who cared little for his money. Their affair continued in Mexico, but one day Laura gave him an ultimatum—Artemio must choose his wife (and current life) or her. Artemio forgoes Laura’s love, returning to his mistress, Lilia, and pursuing an empty but convenient relationship with her. The by-now aging congressman takes Lilia on a trip to Acapulco, where she has a brief affair with a younger man. Artemio notices but ignores the betrayal. She is with him in 1955 when he throws a New Year’s Eve party at his mansion in Coyoacan, a remodeled convent furnished in the finest of taste. The “Mummy of Coyoacan,” they call Artemio, a fact of which he is well aware as he sits regally at the party without letting any of his guests get too close. Surrounding the “mummy” are his hard-won possessions—“my paintings, my wines, my comforts, which I control the same way I control all of you” (Artemio Cruz, p. 259).


In the novel Artemio complains that he is dying at the “wrong” house, the one in Las Lomas, where his wife lives, not at his own house in Coyoacan. Mexican social history recounts the flight of upper-class residents from downtown Mexico City in the 1920s and ‘30s to suburban colonias (communities) like Las Lomas. Distinctly modern, these colonias contrasted sharply with old Spanish-built towns like Coyoacan, which was located farther outside the city in the Valley of Mexico.

Four years later, physically ill, his insides exploding, Artemio lies on his deathbed, reviewing the course of his life, justifying and blaming himself, reflecting on his marriage, recognizing in these final feeble moments that Catalina does love him after all, mourning his son, and ignoring his daughter but mentally thanking her for bringing his granddaughter to his deathbed. He acknowledges his all-consuming quest for power and takes responsibility for having disregarded his effect on others. The multimillionaire Mummy of Coyoacan tells himself that he is who he is because he knew how to violate other people before they could violate him. In retrospect, he realizes that over the years this approach to life has made him betray significant relationships and cheat himself of love. It is too much for a body to take, and Artemio dies, ostensibly, according to the doctors, of mesentery infarct.

National search for an elusive identity

“Is there a single Mexican who believes in me?” wonders Artemio as he negotiates with U.S. sulfur miners. “If the gringos were the only ones willing to finance the explorations, what was he supposed to do?” (Artemio Cruz, p. 20). A shrewd businessman, a capitalist through and through, he cements his partnership with the U.S. investors, telling himself,

You turned your eyes northward and lived with the regret that a geographical error kept you from being part of them in everything. You admire their efficiency, their comforts, their hygiene, their power, and you look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.

(Artemio Cruz, pp. 26-27)

Artemio, however, is not to be taken at his word. His actions and feelings speak louder. He chooses to live not in modern Las Lomas but in Coyoacan, a Spanish-built town from Mexico’s colonial past. He represses feelings of indebtedness to Sebastian (the teacher who inspired him with revolutionary ideals), of shame at abandoning a wounded soldier in 1913, and of guilt for not facing the firing squad with his fellow prisoners in 1915. Artemio kills their murderer, but this does not, in his own eyes, atone for his failure. In hindsight, he admits wronging other Mexicans, building his fortune on their decline, facilitating the exploitation of Mexico’s resources by Americans, and having his newspaper defend brutal dictators like the Dominican Republic’s General Rafael Trujillo. Yet Artemio is not a clear-cut villain. Though merciless and cruel, he is also “endearing, admirable, [and] pitiable”; the man “cheats, but catches himself at it” (Harss and Dohmann, p. 300). A product of complex circumstances and fateful choices, he suffers remorse on his deathbed, spending his last moments in desperate search of himself, a task in which the reader must also engage. “I am not going to say everything I have to say,” warns Fuentes. “I am going to leave a door open, so that the reader can complete and collaborate with me in the creation of the novel” (Fuentes in Gazarian Gautier, p. 104).

The flitting between three voices—the I, the you, and the he—underscores Artemio’s struggle to find himself. In fact, his (and the novel’s) concern for self-definition reflects a real-life preoccupation of intellectuals in mid-20th-century Mexico. In 1950 Octavio Paz published The Labyrinth of Solitude (also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times), a landmark essay positing that the average Mexican disguises the person that he really is. He remains distant from everyone, including himself. This proposition had been tendered before. Paz’s essay, however, took it a step further, arguing that the Mexican man prefers not even to acknowledge the existence of the person behind the mask, the reality that he disguises.

At the root of this reality is the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes, the Spaniard who received as a gift from the Indians one of their own, a princess named Malintzin, alias Marina (her Christian name), alias La Malinche (her legendary title). She became Cortes’s mistress, gaining folkloric stature over the centuries, growing into a symbol of violation and betrayal because she is said to have gone into Cortes’s arms willingly. In 1522 Malintzin and Cortes had a son, Martin. Regarded as the first mestizo, Martin would become the symbolic ancestor of contemporary Mexico. People thought of him as a child of violation and betrayal. Preferring to have no legacy rather than this one, argues Paz, the Mexican male denies his past and breaks with tradition. He is left adrift in this broken state, a fragmented being, as reflected in the novel by the three-way split of Artemio Cruz. Paz speaks also of a word derived from La Malinche, malinchista, used in modern Mexico to denounce anyone corrupted by foreign influences, the way Artemio is.

Blocking out the past, the average mid-twentieth-century Mexican male aspired to a masculine ideal. Society steered him into becoming the macho, the strongman who retreated into himself and remained a private being. The ideal encouraged him not to share his true feelings with his wife or anyone else. Women too negated their true selves to play a role prescribed for them by society, acting stoical, denying their own desires to fulfill the feminine ideal—absolute service to the needs of everyone else in the family. Even mothers showed disappointment at the birth of a daughter, prompted by the widespread belief that a baby girl was worth less and would surely grow up to suffer more than a boy.

In the novel both parents fawn over their son, Lorenzo, and even Catalina ignores their daughter, Teresa, until she matures. This mother-daughter dynamic is consistent with a real-life syndrome of the time: “As the girl grows older,” explains one social historian, “she is drawn into a conscious and highly verbal complicity with her mother against her father” (Barber, p. 27). So hostile are Teresa’s outbursts against the dying Artemio that they drive even her mother to distraction.

Living up to the male and female ideals made genuine communication between a man and woman difficult, if not impossible. The ideals militated against a mutually satisfying love relationship, so that Artemio and Catalina were not as atypical as a reader might assume. The result was loneliness for the woman, who took refuge in her children, and for the man, who gravitated to extramarital relationships. Since his macho behavior continued, these relationships often failed too. The man who divulged his true feelings opened himself up to possible scorn, too great a risk in a society whose highest value was manliness—the ability to impose one’s will on others. “To the Mexican,” says Paz, “there are only two possibilities in life: either he inflicts the actions implied by chingar[to violate] on others, or else he suffers them at the hands of others” (Paz in Barber, p. 64). Artemio, who has lived by this principle, dies a powerful but lonely man, having attained the Mexican ideal.

Sources and literary context

Fuentes’s novel centers on the betrayal of the initially high values of Artemio and of the Mexican Revolution itself. In the long line of stories that have been written about the Revolution, his novel is not the first to speak of betrayal. Most prior sagas, however, combined fiction with reportorial-style narrative, producing chronicles of local warfare and its combatants. In contrast, Fuentes’s novel belongs to a new wave of Latin American fiction that transcends this regional focus. The Death of Artemio Cruz also reaches beyond the earlier novels by extending into mid-twentieth-century Mexico, exploring the Revolution’s aftereffects and their impact on the Mexican character. In doing so, Artemio Cruz coincides with the attempts of other mid-century works, like Paz’s essay cited above, to sift out and define the essence of being Mexican. The novel, furthermore, follows the lead of stories such as Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilich by placing its protagonist at the end of his life, a vantage point from which he reviews and weighs the value of his days. Among other influences on The Death of Artemio Cruz is Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, a film in fragmentary style about the death of a newspaper tycoon who became a symbol of his nation.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Return to the goals of the Revolution

Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban Revolution inspired self-reflection in Mexico, especially among intellectuals. Many believed that even though the democratic intentions of their own revolution had been extinquished, they could be reignited. In 1962, when The Death of Artemio Cruz was published, Fuentes wrote an article for Siempre! Much to the chagrin of Mexico’s government (which pulled its advertising from the magazine), the article described the recent murder of Ruben Jaramillo, a peasant who, like the war hero Zapata, had pressed for redistribution of land to the thousands of Mexicans with legal claims to it. The killers, as Fuentes’s report shows, murdered not only Jaramillo but also his wife and sons, “certainly with the agreement of the President” (Krauze, p. 642).

They pushed him down. Jaramillo… threw himself at the party of murderers; he was defending his wife and his children, and especially the unborn child; they brought him down with their rifle butts, they knocked out an eye. … [A son] cursed at them. . . . While he was still alive, they opened his mouth… and laughing filled it with earth. After that … the submachine guns spat on the five fallen bodies. The squad waited for them to stop breathing. But they went on living. They put their pistols to the foreheads of the woman and the four men. They fired the finishing shots.

(Fuentes in Krauze, p. 642)

Intellectuals of mid-twentieth-century Mexico spoke out against this and other outrages. They decided that it was time to get back on an ethical track, to call attention to betrayals of their ideals and to resume the genuine revolution, with the help of works like Artemio Cruz.


The Death of Artemio Cruz was favored by critics in Mexico and abroad, though not without some reservations. Various reviewers complimented the rounded portrait of Artemio. There is something “irresistibly heroic” about this “complex, witty, divided” man, declared one such critic (Eberstadt, p. 158). Others applauded the effect achieved by the shifting points of view and use of past, present, and future tenses, although the novel’s fragmented style troubled at least two scholars: “Fuentes is at his best in ‘straight’ narration. The most effective passages in Artemio Cruz are linear” (Harss and Dohmann, p. 301).

These and other critics nevertheless deemed The DeathofArtemio Cruz to be a novel that approaches masterpiece status. Reviewing it for Mexico’s Siempre! Fernando Benitez would at times have liked to see some themes more fully developed (“a veces. . . no desarrolla los temas”), but he praised the rhythmic prose and profound force of a novel described as courageous and exceptionally beautiful (Benitez, p. II). The consensus is perhaps best reflected by the conclusion of one of England’s reviewers—“This is a difficult book, but an enormously powerful and rich one, well worth the reading” (Bradbury, p. 359).

—Joyce Moss

For More Information

Barber, Janet. “Mexican Machismo in Novels by Lawrence, Sender, and Fuentes.” Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1972.

Benitez, Fernando. Review of The Death of Artemio Cruz. Siempre! no. 465 (May 23, 1962): II.

Bradbury. Malcolm. Review of The Death of Artemio Cruz. Punch (September 1964): 359

Eberstadt, Fernanda. Montezuma’s Literary Revenge. Commentary 81, no. 5 (May 9, 1986): 35-40.

Fuentes, Carlos. The Death of Artemio Cruz. Trans. Alfred MacAdam. New York: Noonday, 1991.

Gazarian Gautier, Marie Lise. Interviews with Latin American Wnters. Elmwood Park, 111.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.

Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann. Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American Writers. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Krauze, Enrique. Mexico: Biography of Power. Trans. Hank Heifetz. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Macias, Anna. Against All Odds: The Feminist Movement in Mexico to 1940. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982.

Miller, Robert Ryal. Mexico: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Powell, T. G. Mexico and the Spanish Civil War. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981.

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The Death of Artemio Cruz

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