by Juan Rulfo
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in rural Mexico from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s; first published in Spanish in its entirety in 1955, in English in 1959.
A man’s search for his father leads him to Comala, a ghost town filled only with voices and the dead, from whom he learns the tragic history surrounding his father’s death and the decline of the village.
Juan Rulfo (1917-86) was born in Jalisco, Mexico, where, as a child, he experienced the violence of the government-Church conflict that escalated into the Cristero rebellion (1926-29). Losing both of his parents at an early age, Rulfo lived in a Franciscan orphanage before studying at the University of Guadalajara. In 1942 he began contributing to the journal America and in 1945 published the first in a series of cuentos, or short stories, that would form part of what is now considered his only other significant work, El Llano En Llamas (The Burning Plains). In 1954 Rulfo published fragments of Pedro Páramo, which appeared in its entirety in 1955 and distinguished itself as remarkable for its innovative style and intimate look at rural village life.
Rural Mexico in the late nineteenth century
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Mexico was a predominantly rural and agricultural country in which feudalistic haciendas still prevailed. Self-enclosed and self-governing, these large estates manufactured their own products and paid their laborers extremely low wages that the peasants had no choice but to accept—private jails and terror kept the work force in line. On the hacienda “exploitation had deep, centuries-old roots and entailed the lifelong and hereditary serfdom of laborers forever indebted to their ‘master’” (Krauze, p. 219). Rural Mexico had been dominated by the hacienda and its predecessor, the encomienda, since colonial times, and not much had changed for the average peasant between Mexico’s independence from Spain (1820s) and the turn of the century.
During the regime of President Porfirio Díaz, who assumed power in 1876 and, by continuously reelecting himself, maintained his political hold until 1910, the situation took a turn for the worse. After a new land law was enacted in 1883, land concentration became more acute. Many of the rural Mexicans who had inherited ancestral lands but could not prove legal title to them lost their holdings to large land companies. In the five years after the enactment of the law, these companies gained almost 70 million acres of rural land; by 1894 one-fifth of Mexico’s territory had been absorbed by land companies. Whole communities as well as individual landowners had to forfeit territory. Because, by the turn of the century, most villages had lost their ejidos (comunally owned village lands) to either land companies or to the haciendas of a few hundred wealthy families, employment on haciendas became necessary for the villagers’ survival. Mexican peasants found themselves totally dependent for sustenance on the hacendado (hacienda owner), who might also be the local cacique (political strongman) making the political decisions that affected the daily lives of the peasants. In Rulfo’s novel the hacendado Pedro Páramo is also the local cacique, and has complete economic and political control over the village of Cornala.
Under President Diaz Mexico experienced some economic growth and modernization, but these benefits came only to a privileged few. He updated the railway system and electrified much of Mexico, bringing the country together in these ways. Still, the vast majority of Mexicans remained illiterate and impoverished, suffering poor working conditions on the haciendas and in the cities. This would not be radically changed by the revolution that was about to occur. By 1910, 45 percent of the inhabitants in the principal agricultural regions lived on haciendas. “The rest were relegated to a sharply reduced area of inferior land, often arid or on steep hillsides, where they made up an impoverished mass that could be drawn upon by the ordinary haciendas of Mexico … for casual labour” (Bauer in Bethell, p. 132). Although the labor of the rural peasants fueled the nation, the benefits of modernization did not filter down to these landless people. The rural masses living on or near the haciendas suffered greatly:
The contrast between the hacendado and those who worked the hacienda and made it live is so stark as to be absurd. … Within a mile of the grand hacienda house were miserable, one-room, floorless, windowless adobe shacks… . Twice a day a few minutes would be set aside to consume some tortillas wrapped around beans and chile… . Infant mortality on many haciendas exceeded 25 percent.
(Meyer, p. 464)
During Diaz’s regime the Mexican peasant earned low wages (about 35 cents a day, making him 12 times poorer than a contemporary U.S. farm worker); he was frequently forced into debt by the hacendado, who made all the decisions and orchestrated almost every part of the peasants’ lives. In control not only of the land but also the water supply and the local store, the hacendado often subjected his rural peasants, who had no real judicial rights, to corporal punishment. Aside from administering “justice,” he exercised control over other domains of the mini-society on his estate. He paid the local priest, maintained the local school, controlled the forces of law and order, provided medical attention, and imported domestic and foreign merchandise. Like the majority of rural Mexicans, the villagers in Pedro Paramo depend on the landed elite for their meager survival.
The cacique—rooted in the indigenous tradition of the Aztec tlatoani (speaker)—arose as a prominent force in the years following the Wars for Independence, won in 1821. As Mexico was being shaped into a nation, the cacique filled a political vacuum created by years of fighting and political instability. Because of the vastness and geographic isolation of Spanish America, these political strongmen were able to establish strong nuclei of local power within rural Mexico. Since the colonial period the term “cacique” has “conveyed the idea of absolute—almost theocratic—authority” (Krause, p. 132). Caciques had to be extremely wealthy in order to wield this kind of power, and so, like Pedro Páramo, were usually hacendados as well, passing their power on to their heirs and establishing dynasties that cemented their authority. By sustaining the surrounding community through his wealth and provisions (in exchange for hard labor), the cacique was able to create a dependent situation that, coupled with violence and terror, might allow him and his family, in effect, to enslave the peasants on his hacienda, or those in his village, indefinitely.
A 1729 Spanish dictionary defined caciques in this way: “the first of his village or republic, the one who has more authority or power and who because of his pride wants to make himself feared and obeyed by all his inferiors” (Chevalier, p. 30). This definition applies also to the caudillo, who functioned like the cacique, but on a national, rather than local, scale. While a cacique ruled men, caudillos ruled men and caciques. Both types of strongmen functioned as dictators, the only difference between them being one of station. The caudillo would often try to incorporate a cacique into his own government—if he found the cacique limiting his own power, however, he might attempt to destroy him. As the nation became more unified, a president like Diaz protected and invigorated these mostly petty tyrants in order to centralize his own political control. Diaz, in fact, came to be acknowledged as the “Great Cacique” (Chavez Orozco in Chevalier, p. 39).
Two significant historical events, the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero rebellion, provide some of the backdrop to Pedro Páramo. The Mexican Revolution began as a reaction to the conditions of inequality, peasant exploitation, and land concentration that had been perpetuated and exacerbated under the Diaz regime. In the summer of 1906 Mexican intellectuals met and devised the Liberal Plan, which, among other things, called for the redistribution of lands. Under this plan the state would redistribute all uncultivated lands to the peasants, and restore the ejido lands that had been taken away from the native Indian communities. When Francisco I. Madero, a wealthy northerner, published The Presidential Succession in 1910—a document calling for both an end to reelection of the same president and the formation of an opposition party—he set into motion the events that would lead to the outbreak of revolutionary violence in 1910. After President Diaz managed to reelect himself yet again in 1910, Madero published another text, the Plan of San Luis Potosí, which declared the election “illegal” and called for citizens to “rise in arms” against the “tyranny that oppresses them” (Madero in Meyer and Sherman, p. 499). Fighting soon broke out as rebel armies and peasant mobs took up weapons. At this point all the rebels had one thing in common: they were convinced that getting rid of Diaz would be a change for the better.
Diaz’s federal armies reacted to the peasant uprisings, but their efforts to quell the outbreaks were generally unsuccessful. Unlike the federal army, the small rebel units had the sympathy of the people. Many of these peasants rallied under the leadership of charismatic regional leaders like Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón—all of whom are mentioned in Pedro Páramo. After Diaz resigned in 1910 most of these leaders’ physical and political fighting became directed primarily towards each another, and the revolution deteriorated into factionalism.
Support for individual rebel leaders not only came from idealists but also (and perhaps more often) from opportunists, who would side with the faction that seemed most likely to win. Pedro Páramo alludes to this trend of opportunism when the titular character dines with a faction of rebels and co-opts them by providing them with men, money, and a new leader, El Tilcuate. Páramo tells El Tilcuate to join sides with whomever is winning, and, though Paramo’s men initially join Pancho Villa’s faction, they then switch over to the faction led by Carranza and Obregón, who have only recently “made peace” with each other (Rulfo, Pedro Páramo, p. 115). This “peace” is probably a reference to the fallout from the Convention of Aguascalientes, held in 1914 by the leaders of the military factions to determine Mexico’s future course. Ironically, the convention only crystallized the battle between the camps of Villa and Carranza. A month after the convention General Obregón opted to side with Carranza, becoming the military spearhead of his contingent. Outside of this rivalry but still a formidable presence was Emiliano Zapata’s southern-based agrarian reform faction.
In 1916 the rebels, attempting to legitimize the Revolution, organized a congress for the purpose of designing a new constitution, which was proclaimed in early 1917. The Constitution included articles that foreshadowed the direction the domestic in-fighting would take in the 1920s and 30s. Anticlerical and pro-land reform, the Constitution called for, among other things, a reduction of Church powers and the restoration of lands taken from the peasants during the Diaz regime. The ideals that the Constitution attempted to realize, however, would not materialize under the presidency of Carranza, newly elected in 1917. His government practically ignored the land reform promised in Article 27 (a mere 450,000 acres of land were distributed) and responded to workers’ strikes by having them violently put down. Many of the revolutionary groups in Mexico grew extremely disillusioned; the Zapatistas were especially affected after their charismatic leader was assassinated in 1919. Zapata never saw the mass land distribution called for in his famed Plan de Ayala (with which he hoped to free peasants from the tyranny of the hacienda) and life for the great majority of Mexicans failed to improve in the unstable years directly following the onset of the Revolution. Carranza himself was assassinated in 1920, and real land reform did not materialize until the presidency of Lázaro Cardenas, who assumed office in 1934. Many hacendados remained largely untouched in the decades following the Revolution. For the fictional Pedro Páramo, the Revolution is but a minor nuisance, and he easily remains unaffected by it.
The Cristero rebellion
Another important historical event that affected the life of the author and inspired events in Pedro Páramo is the relatively short-lived Cristero rebellion, which took place in Mexico between 1926 and 1929. In 1926, after a period of escalating tensions between Church and state, the archbishop of Mexico, José Mora y del Rio, stated that Roman Catholics should not accept the new, anticlerical Constitution. Mexican president Plutarco Calles, a long-time enemy of the Church, reacted forcefully, introducing even more anticlerical measures, such as the deportation of foreign priests, the forbidding of religious teaching, and the mandatory registration of priests with the government before they could work. In a counter-move the archbishop of Mexico in July 1926 declared a strike, and all Catholic baptisms, weddings, and masses came to a halt for the first time in four centuries.
Catholic leaders began organizing the peasants, especially in Juan Rulfo’s native state of Jalisco, and these Catholic guerrillas, or Cnsteros, rebelled violently against the government. “For them, the ‘cause’ was clear: They were fighting to bring back masses, they were fighting to defend religion” (Krauze, p. 422). The Cris teros burned government schools, murdered teachers, dynamited trains, and staged other acts of violence in support of their cause. Of course, the violence was far from one-sided. In their efforts against the Cristeros, the government’s federal troops contributed to the destruction by burning villages, killing lay people, and sometimes hanging priests. More than 70,000 lives were lost in the Cristiada (another name for the rebellion), agricultural production dropped by almost 40 percent, and over half a million rural Mexicans fled to the cities or to the United States. In 1928 newly elected president Alvaro Obregón was assassinated by José de León Toral, a Cristero. An impending peace agreement was postponed by the assassination, but was eventually concluded in 1929.
Pedro Páramo follows the journey of Juan Preciado, who, at his dying mother’s request, travels to the hot and arid town of Comala in search of his father. Cornala, he slowly realizes, is a lifeless town populated by ghosts, voices, and murmurs, where the memories and whispers of the dead fill the streets. Juan Preciado has three guides on this morbid journey: Abundio, who leads him into Cómala; Doña Edu-viges, who offers Juan Preciado a spare room for the night; and Damiana, who arrives at Doña Eduviges’s home and invites Juan Preciado to accompany her. More than guides, these three companions are storytellers, sharing their memories with Juan Preciado and offering insights into his family’s and Comala’s past. All three guides, Juan Preciado realizes after each has left, are dead.
From Abundio, Juan Preciado learns that his father, Pedro Páramo, is dead, as are the rest of Comala’s former inhabitants. Juan Preciado’s guides narrate the story of his deceased father and of Comala, explaining why and how it has become the deserted ghost town that it is. Interspersed between their narrations are the thoughts of the deceased Pedro Páramo, snippets of conversations between other deceased townspeople, and their memories of key events in the town’s history—all presented in fragments sprinkled throughout the narrative. Juan Preciado himself dies in Comala of sheer terror: the voices of the lingering souls that remain in Comala, transforming it into a worldly purgatory, are enough to kill him. Juan therefore learns much of this tragic story of Comala posthumously, while sharing a coffin with a female companion, Dorotea, who states that she had died of hunger after the onset of the Cristiada.
Pedro Paramo’s story begins with his childhood love for Susana, who left Comala as a youngster. Never forgetting Susana, the dead Pedro even now reminisces about their childhood games. The story continues with the death of Pedro Paramo’s father, after which Pedro begins his own economic ascension by absorbing, through violent coercion, intimidation, marriage, and even murder, the lands surrounding his hacienda. Juan Preciado learns that Pedro married his mother, Dolores, because of her large property and in order to cancel a substantial debt that he owed her family.
As Pedro’s hacienda grows, so does his political and social authority as local cacique. His power appears limitless and he is able to act with impunity. He proceeds, among other things, to make free use of women of the area for his own sexual satisfaction, fathering many an illegitimate child (including Juan Preciado’s first guide, Abundio, who leads him into Comala). The town priest, Father Rentería, delivers one of the illegitimate children, Miguel, to Pedro Páramo.
Juan Preciado learns that Father Rentería becomes guilt-ridden about having delivered this bad seed to Pedro and feels responsible for the decline of Comala. When Miguel accidentally dies, the priest at first refuses to give him the needed blessing because Miguel killed the priest’s brother and seduced his niece. Yet Pedro’s power is so all-encompassing that he is able to persuade the priest to offer the blessing, paying him a handsome sum in exchange. The priest, overwhelmed by shame, weeps as he realizes that he too is a sinner for having accepted the bribe of a rich man, while at the same time denying many of the poorer people’s requests for absolution: “My fault. I’ve betrayed everybody who loves me, and they still trust in me and ask me to intercede for them with God” (Pedro Páramo, p. 28).
When Pedro’s wife, Dolores, leaves Cómala one day to visit her sister, Pedro is content to be rid of her and never invites her back, leaving her fate and that of their child, Juan Preciado, in God’s hands. Eventually Pedro Paramo’s childhood sweetheart, Susana, returns to Comala because “there were strange winds blowing in those days. It was said that a revolution had broken out” (Pedro Páramo, p. 81). Her father, fearing for her safety in the desolate mountains where they had been living, returns her to Comala. Pedro then weds the widowed Susana, who, stricken by grief and madness, is nothing like the child Pedro remembers and reveres.
It is at the height of Pedro’s power that the Mexican Revolution erupts. After his foreman dies at the hands of rebels threatening to take his land, Páramo shrewdly offers the rebels money and men in support of their cause. With this offer he is able to avoid any violence, and immediately wins the rebels’ favor:
“We’ve rebelled against the government and against people like you because we’re sick of putting up with you. Because the government is rotten and because you and your kind are just stupid crooks and bandits. I won’t say any more about the government because we’re going to do our talking with bullets.”
“How much do you need for your revolution?” Pedro Páramo asked. “Maybe I can help you.”
(Pedro Páramo, p. 97)
And thus the Revolution passes over Pedro Páramo, so to speak; his hacienda and his position of power as cacique are left intact. His power, in this respect, is greater than that of the Church, the state, or the Revolution.
Comala’s ruin is brought about when Susana dies, and the solemn tolling of the bells prompts the villagers to throw a party, complete with circus and musicians. Whether or not the townspeople misinterpret the tolling or indeed celebrate Susana’s death is ambiguous. However, Pedro—enraged at this festive display—vows revenge on the town: “’I’ll fold my arms and Comala will starve to death.’ And that was what he did” (Pedro Páramo, p. 115). One day a drunken Abundio comes to ask Pedro for money for his own wife’s funeral. Pedro refuses and Abundio, it seems, stabs him to death.
The wandering souls of Comala are unable to find rest, Juan Preciado learns, because they are full of sin, and the prayers of the living survivors are not enough to grant them forgiveness and lead them out of purgatory. Besides, the living themselves are too full of sin to be of any help; the only survivors Juan Preciado encounters before his death are an incestuous brother and sister living as a couple. As noted, even the town priest, Father Rentería, had fallen from God’s grace while Comala was still “alive.” Because his own hands “aren’t clean enough” either, a priest in neighboring Contla denies Rentería absolution for the sin of having “sold his soul” (Pedro Páramo, p. 69).
Popular Catholic belief holds that, when a person dies, a prayer session is necessary to allow the dead person’s soul to rise to heaven. In Mexico this prayer session, the Nove-nano (nine continuous days of prayer), normally takes the form of a religious mass conducted by a priest. At the time of the novel, it was not uncommon for the deceased to be dressed in a habit so that he or she would resemble a saint as closely as possible; such clothing, many believed, would help shorten the soul’s stay in purgatory (the limbo between heaven and hell where worldly sins are purged through suffering) and bring it closer to heaven. Like Pedro Paramo’s Father Rentería, many priests were known to deny services of absolution, or pardon, to the poor who could not afford to buy a mass. In such cases the relatives would pray the Novenario at home to help the soul of the deceased bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven. Popular belief held that prayer had the power to lead the soul out of purgatory; the number of people praying for a particular soul was especially important—the more people praying, the less time the soul would spend in purgatory.
In Pedro Páramo Comala becomes a worldly purgatory for the lingering souls who sometimes approach the living to ask for their prayers. As Damiana, though dead herself, says,
Just tonight I came across a wake. I stopped to say a paternoster [Our Father], and while I was saying it a woman left the others and came over to me. “Damiana! Pray for me, Damiana!” She opened her rebozo and I saw she was my sister Sixtina … you wouldn’t know, but my sister Sixtina died when I was twelve years old.
(Pedro Páramo, p. 40)
The burden of their sins condemns the lingering souls of Comala to remain in this worldly purgatory. One Comala survivor has resigned herself to sharing her town with the dead:
There’s so many of them, and so few of us, we don’t even try to pray for them so their souls can rest. Our prayers aren’t enough for all of them. Perhaps a bit of the paternoster might reach them, but it wouldn’t do them any good. We’re too full of sin. There isn’t one of us living here who’s in the grace of God. We can’t even raise our eyes without feeling them burn with shame. And shame doesn’t cure anything. At least that’s what the bishop said when he came by here a while back for the confirmations. I went up to him and confessed everything. “That can’t be pardoned,” he said.
(Pedro Páramo, p. 50)
Race in post-colonial Mexico
Since the time of the colonial regime, when Spaniards distinguished between people born of Indian and European blood, Mexicans have been divided along racial lines. Colonial Mexicans—whites, mestizos, Indians—experienced variable treatment. There was even a distinction between different kinds of whites—peninsulares, who were born in Spain (or elsewhere in Europe) and creóles, who were the children of Europeans born in the New World. The most privileged positions were reserved for the peninsulares. More generally, in respect to the three racial groups, only whites and mestizos had substantial access to power and property.
by the late eighteenth century, the term “Indian” did not refer simply to an ethnic group, but, more generally, to many Mexicans of low socioe-conomic status. During the Diaz regime, “’racial’ labels were still applied,” even though “all Mexicans stood as formally equal citizens before the law” (Knight, “Racism,” p. 73). In fact, most Mexicans were mestizos of mixed ancestry, but the labels “white” and “Indian” were loosely and subjectively applied and based mainly on non-biological characteristics like language, social class, culture, and economic status. Those considered “white”—a race associated historically and economically with ownership, wealth, and power—maintained the real privileges. In the so-cio-symbolic order of the early twentieth century, “white” Mexicans still enjoyed a preferred status.
In Pedro Páramo, for example, Pedro Paramo’s lawyer explains how he deals with the village women who have borne Miguel Paramo’s children: he simply explains that they “ought to be glad [their babies will] have light skin” (Pedro Páramo, p. 103). In order to understand the significance of this statement, it is necessary to know that the whiteness of Paramo’s offspring may have indeed carried with it some form of privilege, symbolic if not always concretely so-cioeconomic. The illegitimate children are considered lucky by the lawyer precisely because they descend from a rich, powerful hacendado.
Sources and literary context
Pedro Páramo stands out in literary history not only because of its themes—it has been described as an offshoot of the “novels of the Revolution”—but also because of its radical departure from traditional nar-
MEXICO’S DAY OF THE DEAD
Mexicans traditionally spend the first day of November celebrating their dead relatives who, it is believed, return to their earthly homes at this time. This Day of the Dead is one of the most important celebrations of the Mexican year, especially in rural areas where months are spent in preparation for it. Though the occasion has a public aspect—shops fill with materials for the rituals, and skeleton figures decorate windows and the streets—it is essentially a private affair, celebrated in private by individual families who create huge altarpieces to honor their dead ancestors. Families set up cloth-covered tables framed by suspended arches decorated with green leaves, flowers, and fruits. On the tables are incense, more flowers, food, drink, pictures of religious figures, and, most prominently, photographs of deceased relatives. The deceased return to their homes on this day in order to enjoy the lavish feasts, or offerings, their living relatives have prepared for them. Often the tables will be covered with the dead relatives’ favorite foods, as well as sugar figures, candied fruits, meats, and other delicacies-The conviction is that although the dead cannot eat the food, they are able to enjoy its essence before returning to the other world. The families consume the feast in a loud celebration, in this way communal ties are reaffirmed and relatives are kept alive in memory. According to popular lore if one fails to honor his or her dead relatives, the outcome might be sickness or death.
Many writers have discussed what they see as Mexico’s special relationship to death, evidenced in large part by this annual celebration. Octavio Paz (see The Labyrinth of Solitude , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), for instance, argues that death is not the same source of terror to modern Mexicans that it is to other cultures:
To the inhabitant of New York, Paris, or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favourite playthings and his most enduring loves.
(Paz in Carmichael and Sayer, p. 10)
rative form and style. Pedro Páramo relies not on one narrator’s unified and chronological account of events, but, rather, on a series of narrative voices—both first-person and third-person—told in discontinuous fragments of time. The novel is furthermore based upon a series of stories threaded together by Juan Preciado’s guides, who in many ways function as oral storytellers.
The reader is transported in time by these various storytellers as they chat with Juan Preciado before and after his death. However, Pedro Páramo does not present time as a straightforward totality, but relies rather on the scattered memories and recollections of the individual storytellers. Reality itself is fragmented and ambiguous, and boundaries between it and the imagination fade so that there is no clear contrast between life and death, or between the physical and spiritual worlds.
These apparent contradictions, which contribute to the original and fantastic flare of Pedro Páramo, are based on Mexican mythological traditions rooted in pre-Columbian as well as Catholic beliefs. Juan Rulfo’s literary vision incorporates Aztec mythology and popular culture, both of which hold that death is merely the continuation of life, and therefore not final.
Some of the events depicted in Pedro Páramo are loosely based on historical events and characters in Juan Rulfo’s life. The Cristero rebellion, for example, had a direct impact on the life of Juan Rulfo and made a significant mark on his childhood. In fact, some have said that Rulfo was first exposed to literature when a Catholic priest was forced to hide Church books in Rulfo’s childhood home. Also, the name Media Luna, given to Pedro Paramo’s hacienda, is taken from a real-life hacienda, as are the names of Damiana Cis-neros, whom Juan knew as child, and of the village Sayula, which is the city where Rulfo’s birth is registered. Perhaps coincidentally, an actual community named Comala exists near Colima; this community is not necessarily the setting of the novel.
Mexico during the 1950s
When Pedro Páramo was first published in 1954, Mexico was enjoying a period of relative economic prosperity and growth. The Revolution had been abandoned, and the government had redefined itself in a move away from rural agrarianism and towards urbanization and industrial growth. The presidency of Miguel Alemán, who assumed office in 1946, was significant in this shift from agrarian land reform to urbanization. Alemán’s administration funded urban development, industry, and tourism, and Mexico experienced an impressive industrial growth accompanied by an unprecedented rise in population, much of which was absorbed by the urban centers. Drawn by the promises of industry, rural Mexicans flocked to the cities by the hundreds of thousands in search of work during the 1950s, and many a rural village and hacienda was depopulated. In Rulfo’s novel, however, only Pedro Paramo’s revenge leads to the ruin and depopulation of Comala:
Some say it was because he was tired, and others because he was disillusioned, but the one sure thing is that he sent everybody away… . After that the fields all went to ruin… . That was when people began to leave. The men went first, to look for other work.
(Pedro Páramo, p. 78)
By 1960 Mexico had become a predominantly urban nation, with more than half of its population living in cities. Both the hacienda system and the rural cacique had declined. As the twentieth century progressed, political stabilization, federal controls, urbanization, and the decline of the hacienda system all contributed to the cacique’s decline. Under the presidency of Aldolfo Ruiz Conines, caciquismo took its last breaths. Ruiz Cortines “quieted them all, he attracted them all to him, he kept them calm, and he made them collaborators of the government” (Aguilar in Krauze, p. 613). Many critics suggest that Pedro Páramo, published during the administration of Ruiz Cortines, traces this decline of caciquismo in Mexico.
Although Pedro Páramo was not well received initially by some critics because of its unusual narrative structure, reviewers eventually recognized the novel as a masterpiece. By 1967 Pedro Páramo had received almost universal acclaim. Critics emphasized its originality, describing the novel as a refreshing work that breaks away from the traditional novels of the Mexican Revolution (novels that typically feature realistic character types in straightforward chronological time). Above all, Pedro Páramo won acclaim for its poetic language and revolutionary technique, and is now widely recognized as a major influence on subsequent Latin American literature.
More than one U.S. critic compared Juan Rulfo to William Faulkner, mainly because of the “magically realistic” tendencies of Pedro Páramo. Other critics, including Carlos Fuentes (see The Death of Artemio Cruz , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), discussed Pedro Paramo’s links with Greek mythology. Still others praised the novel as social commentary, noting how it traces the decline of Mexican caciquismo, comments on the failures of the Revolution, and illustrates the significance of death in Mexican society. “A book as truly original as this one is,” acknowledged one reviewer “is perhaps bound to make special demands on the reader … [and] it rewards those demands… . It exerts, throughout, a powerful fascination; its episodes are vivid and haunting; its style is a triumph” (Wickenden in Davison, p. 1160).
During World War II Mexico collaborated with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in allowing Mexican braceros—temporary manual laborers—to work in the agricultural region of the southwestern United States. When the work force in the United States was depleted because of the draft, Mexicans stepped in to harvest the crops. They were recruited by U.S. labor agents, who looked to Mexico for the thousands of workers needed by U.S. farmers Begun in 1942 and formally sanctioned by legislation in 1951, the bracero program drew an average 350,000 workers from Mexico to the United States before its end in 1964, despite an interval (1954-58) in which several million U.S. residents of Mexican descent were deported. The resulting ghost towns, explains the author, helped spark the idea for Pedro Páramo:
The town where Í discovered solitude, because everyone goes away as braceros, is called Tuxcacuesco, but it might be Tuxcacuesco and it could be another one. … I hit on a realism that doesn’t exist, on people who never existed.
(Rulfo in Benitez, pp. 13-18)
Benitez, Fernando. “Interview with Juan Rulfo,” In Inframundo: The Mexico of Juan Rulfo. Mexico:Ediciones del Norte, 1983.
Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Chevalier, François. “The Roots of Caudillismo,” In Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America. Ed. Hugh M. Hamill. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Davison, Dorothy P., ed. The Book Review Digest, I960. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1961.
Knight, Alan. “Racism, Revolution, and Indigenismo: Mexico, 1910-1940.” In The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870-1940. Ed. Richard Graham. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
_____. “Popular Culture and the Revolutionary State in Mexico, 1910-1940.” Hispanic American Historical Review 74, no. 3 (1994): 393-444.
Krauze, Enrique. Mexico: Biography of Power. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Meyer, Michael, and William Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
Schwartz, Kessel. A New History of Spanish American Fiction. Vol. 2. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1971.