Recollections of Things to Come

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Recollections of Things to Come

by Elena Garro


A novel set in Mexico in the 1920s; published in Spanish (as Los recuerdos del porvenir in 1963, in English in 1969.


A small town in southern Mexico is gradually decimated by the forces of revolution and rebellion.

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

Elena Garro (1920-98) was born in Puebla, Mexico, to a Mexican mother and a Spanish father, but she spent most of her childhood in the nearby southern state of Guerrero. As a young woman she worked briefly as a reporter and took on the cause of society’s poor and marginalized. Garro showed particular concern for Mexico’s Indian population and, for one notable story, even had herself incarcerated in a women’s prison in order to expose the substandard living conditions endured by the inmates. In 1937 Garro married the Mexican writer and diplomat Octavio Paz, with whom she spent much of the 1940s and 1950s abroad, traveling through Europe and the United States. It was sometime around 1950, while weathering an illness in Switzerland, that Garro wrote Recollections of Things to Come. Set after the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and during the Cristero rebellion, the novel draws on history as well as myth, distinguishing itself especially in its portrayal of women caught in the circumstances of the era.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Porfinato

In the first part of Recollections of Things to Come, the people of the southern Mexican town of Ixtepec debate and reconsider the long series of intrigues, assassinations, and betrayals that resulted from the 1910 overthrow of president Porfirio Díaz, an event that signaled the formal beginning of the Mexican Revolution. The predicaments of the townspeople (caught in the murderous grip of a northern general) and of the agrarian Indians (who are hanged regularly from the town’s trees) stem from the complicated political struggle that had occupied Mexico for well over a decade by the time the novel begins. Diaz’s regime, referred to as the Porfinato, was essentially a dictatorship. He had been in office almost continuously since 1877, ignoring his own revolutionary call for “Valid Voting, No Reelection” by getting himself reelected seven times. He ruled over a period of vast industrialization and economic growth spurred on by foreign investment. Under Diaz 12,000 miles of railroad, built mostly with foreign money, crisscrossed the nation by 1900. He also encouraged the development of mineral resources (gold, silver, copper, and zinc) in Mexico, and opened the way for foreign investors to build factories there. Trade with other nations (especially the United States) increased exponentially.

These improvements, however, benefited only the very rich, leaving different factions of the nation’s middle and upper classes at odds with one another. Mexico’s resources, such as oil, sugar, and ore, were being exported by foreign investors, and as much as one-fifth of Mexico’s land was sold to non-Mexicans. Ultimately the Porfiriato satisfied neither the wealthy nor the poor. According to one study, “average purchasing power in 1910 was only one-quarter the 1810 level; this figure is probably much too low, but nevertheless points to the enormity of the economic problems plaguing Mexico” (Skidmore and Smith, p. 233). Illiteracy and infant mortality were certainly very high, and peasants who lost their land to large commercial concerns or to railroad development were left with few resources for self-support. Other sorts of laborers (miners and railroad workers, for example) staged bitter strikes to protest their exploitative working conditions. The stage was set for a revolution in the 1910s. Garro’s novel reflects on the revolution and traces the political and social ramifications of its aftermath in the 1920s.

The Revolution begins: Francisco Madero

Spiritualist, friend to the poor, tireless author of politico-historical books on Mexico’s past—Francisco Madero was responsible for deposing Diaz. The son of a wealthy hacienda owner who had political ties to Diaz’s government, Madero advocated a more equitable distribution of political power and publicly opposed the government’s anti-democratic measures; in particular, he upheld the principle upon which Diaz had trampled: “Valid Voting, No Reelection.” Madero had been educated abroad (in Paris, France, and at Berkeley, California) and had learned Christian philosophy, which inspired him to improve the lives of all Mexicans. Voicing revolutionary rhetoric from his San Antonio, Texas, headquarters, where he was living in exile after Diaz jailed him for a time, he instigated uprisings across the country and captured a major Mexican city (Ciudad Juárez). Díaz, at this point, recognized his imminent downfall, so he resigned in May 1911 and left the country. Francisco León de la Barra served briefly as interim president until Madero became president in November 1911, “through the freest election in Mexican history” (Krause, p. 263).

Although he started out as a hugely popular leader, Madero was soon much reviled in several quarters. Because of his agrarian reform platform, the nation’s elite hated and feared him, and he soon alienated the poor as well. He made a fatal mistake at the very beginning of his term: out of respect for the Mexican Constitution, he left Diaz’s “elected” officials in power. Although Madero instituted major changes in his brief presidency—he encouraged freedom of the press (in which, paradoxically, he was savaged), created new schools, built new highways, legalized labor unions, and instituted universal and direct voting throughout Mexico—he failed to attend fast enough to the issue of agrarian reform. Spurred on by a hostile press, strong opponents rose against him from the peasant class and accused him of ignoring their plight; how, they argued, could a wealthy and privileged man such as he understand or care about the predicament of the poor and exploited? That he had retained Diaz’s old cronies pointed directly to his reluctance to help the masses, or to recognize their political will, they argued. Led by Emiliano Zapata, the rural protest escalated into its own revolution. However, this revolution would not for long be directed at Madero, who, with the help of U.S. Ambassador Lane Wilson, was overthrown, assassinated, and then replaced by General Adolfo de la Huerta in February 1913.

Agrarian reform: Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano Zapata hailed from a relatively privileged Mexican Indian background. Beginning with a small local revolution in the southern state of Morelos, in which he reclaimed ancestral land, Zapata devoted his life to pressing for the return of appropriated land to the Indians who had farmed and lived on it for generations. When the Revolution first began in earnest, he led his troops in support of Madero against Diaz. Eventually, though, he began to distrust Madero’s commitment to agrarian reform and to the welfare of the Indians. When Madero finally reacted with hostility to the latest of Zapata’s many demands for the return of land, Zapata drafted his Plan de Ayala, which was issued in December of 1911. The Plan called for the restoration of ancestral lands and denounced Madero as a traitor to the people of Mexico. When the Zapatistas (as Zapata’s followers were known) backed up their threats with violence all over the southern state of Morelos, Madero responded with force. Towns such as the one Garro describes in her novel were caught in the crossfire of the two warring factions. As the novel opens, old Dorotea recounts how her house was burned by the Zapatistas; despite this fact, however, she is loyal to their memory, especially because the alternative—the federal soldiers represented in the novel by Francisco Rosas and his men—have proven so much worse.

The Zapatistas continued their resistance to the Mexican government during Huerta’s regime and during the U.S.-supported rebellion that forced Huerta to resign on July 15, 1914, and then to disappear into exile. However, it was primarily Zapata’s less idealistic northern counterpart, Pancho Villa, and future presidents Venus-tiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón, none of whom Zapata fully trusted, who led the Mexican Revolution. Indeed, when Carranza took over the presidency later in 1914, he and Zapata found themselves immediately at odds to such an extent that Carranza set out to crush Zapata’s agrarian movement. Even more disheartening for Zapata, though, was the internal dissent that threatened to destroy the Zapatista movement from within. Now that they faced other revolutionaries rather than a dictator’s troops in battle, Zapata’s followers became less committed to and more discouraged by the fighting. By April 1919 much of the Zapatistas’ battling was internal, as key leaders of the movement assassinated each other. Zapata himself was assassinated in an ambush by Carranza’s federal army. After his death, as shown in Recollections of Things to Come, his revolutionary troops continued their activities.

The Northerners

Venustiano Carranza, Zapata’s nemesis, was born in 1859 and raised in wealth in the northern state of Coahuila. Carranza showed little interest in social or economic reform, which he argued would impede individual rights and a free-market economy. After Huerta’s defeat, however, Mexico’s leaders were as divided as ever. To appease the Zapatistas, Carranza approved the Decree of January 6, 1915, which allowed villages to buy back a few parcels of land from the hacienda owners who had benefited from land seizures begun in 1856. The reform was limited in that the decree applied only to those haciendas that abutted villages, and the dispossessed hacienda owners, unlike the peasants who had originally lost the lands, were to be compensated for their losses. Of course, Zapata was not satisfied with these concessions and so continued his battles. It is perhaps the feud between Carranza’s government and southerners such as the Zapatistas that brings Francisco Rosas to Ixtepec in the novel; earlier in the Revolution of the 1910s Rosas had served under Carranza, switching allegiances to him from the popular northern general Pancho Villa.

Carranza’s regime oversaw the drafting and partial implementation of the Constitution of 1917, which, in addition to introducing land reform, addressed the continuing problems of labor unrest and government conflict with the powerful Catholic Church. Carranza himself shied away from making any truly radical changes, but those who attended the constitu-tional conference that he called (in May 1917) had other ideas, and redrafted the Mexican Con-stitution in significant ways. Article 123 sought to free peasant workers from labor conditions of near enslavement. It put limits on the length of a workday, established a minimum wage, health


At least one prominent historian has pointed out that Francisco Madero was the victim of wide-ranging and venal plots by the military and the Diaz-era political elite, aided and abetted by such forces as the national press, the U.S. ambassador, and the surging tide of agrarian resentment in the South (Krauze, pp. 264-73). At heart, however, Madero’s policies were just, his intentions respectful of the Constitution, and his overall philosophy one of confidence in and optimism for Mexico’s future. He furthermore deserved credit for overthrowing the dictator Diaz, it is not surprising, then, that he was a controversial figure in life and death, and that Mexicans in the immediate aftermath of his slaying struggled to assign meaning to his presidency. In Recollections of Things to Come, the townspeople of Ixtepec are at odds about Madero’s legacy:

“Our troubles began with Madero,” [doña Elvira] said…

“The forerunner of Francisco Rosas [the general who has occupied the fictional Ixtepec] is Francisco Madero,” said Tomás Segovia sententiously… .

“Since we assassinated Madero we have had a long night of expiation,” Martín Moneada exclaimed, still with his back to the group.

His friends looked at him virulently. Hadn’t Madero been a traitor to his own people? He belonged to a wealthy creole family, and yet he had headed the rebellion of the Indians. His death was not only just but necessary. He was to blame for the anarchy that prevailed in the country. The years of civil war that followed his death had teen atrocious for the mestizos who resisted the hordes of Indians fighting for rights and lands that did not belong to them.

(Garro, Recollections of Things to Come, pp. 64-65)

The people of Ixtepec are precisely those who stood to gain the most from many of Madero’s new policies; that some of them mouth the idea of his being “a traitor” illustrates how successfully those responsible for his downfall convinced the nation of their own legitimacy.

insurance, and employer liability for accidents, and prohibited child labor. For the first time in Mexican history, workers were permitted the right to organize and strike.


In Recollections of Things to Come, the southern Catholic town of Ixtepec is occupied by a troop of contemptuous federal troops, led by the northerners Francisco Rosas and Justo Corona, who enforce the Calles government’s shutting of churches and execute Indians and other agrarian reformers. As historians point out, there was a vast difference between north. erners and southerners in 1920s Mexico. In the South, in “old Mexico” the mestizos and Indian peasants were generally devout Catholics who lived traditional lives; in the North, particularly in the state of Sonora, people lived more secular lives and, perhaps because they lived on the recently created U.S. border (1868), had a more warlike and international perspective:

They described themselves as the Californians of Mexico, who wished to transform their country into another California. Once they took on the gigantic task of controlling national resources of water and land, they were astonished to find that the centre and the south of the country were quite different from their own far north-west… . [W]hen they realized what kind of life was led by the peasants of traditional Mexico, they decided that the peasants were not men in the true sense of the term, as they kissed the hands of the great landowners and the priests, did not understand the logic of the marketplace, and frittered away what money they had on alcohol and fireworks.

(Bethell, pp. 155-56)

In the novel such sentiments are uttered by Colonel Justo Corona, who complains of the people of Ixtepec: “Up north we’re different. Since childhood we’ve known what life is and what we want out of it. That’s why we’re open and above board. But the people around here ate dishonest. You never know how you stand with them.(Recollections, p. 103).

The most controversial articles of the new constitution moved to limit the influence of the Church by declaring it subject to civil authority and by forbidding it to provide elementary education. An inflammatory new provision, Article 130, defined priests as professionals who were subject to secular law. Though these articles would not be enforced for several more years, they set a hostile tone for government-Church relations. As Recollections of Things to Come demonstrates, this hostility would erupt in widespread violence in the second half of the 1920s, in the conflict called the Cristero rebellion.

Despite Carranza’s attempts to legislate reform, his popularity was eroded by Zapata’s assassination and by his own failure to sponsor revolutionary change. When the President’s term expired in 1920, Alvaro Obregón clearly intended to run for the office, but Carranza wanted to pick his own successor. Instead of acquiescing to this, Obregón, a former garbanzo-bean farmer who had seen his family’s business prosper under his direction, took his campaign on the road. He formed alliances with labor and the Zapatistas, and gained popular support. Once Carranza realized the strength of his opposition, he agreed to step down and proceeded to flee, only to be assassinated by his own former guards as he tried to evade federal troops on his way into exile.

Obregón was elected almost unanimously and served out his full term (1920-24), with policy changing very little from the days of Carranza. The major accomplishments of Obregón’s regime include the hiring of new teachers, particularly in rural areas, and the implementation of programs designed to foster literacy. He encouraged a revolution in the arts that displayed the new Mexican nationalism. Indian and mestizo features rather than European ones emerged in paintings and murals, many of which depicted the Revolution itself. Among the most notable of these artists were Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom the government employed to fulfill the objective.

Obregón’s personally selected successor was Plutarco Elias Calles, a former school teacher, an avowed atheist, and an unpopular member of Obregón’s cabinet who was known for his inflexibility and his lack of humor. In effect, this business of hand-picking one’s successor violated the Revolutionary promise of a return to “Valid Voting, No Reelection,” and some legislators of the time refused to tolerate it. Prompted by the matter of Obregón’s successor, Obregón’s secretary of the treasury, Adolfo de la Huerta, led a rebellion that began in December 1923, and gained some popular support. Obregón, however, had the help of the United States and ultimately put down the rebellion, forcing de la Huerta to flee into exile. On December 1, 1924, Calles, the illegitimate son of a Sonoran landowner and a former schoolteacher, became Mexico’s president, remaining in office until 1928, with Alvaro Obregón continuing to wield influence from behind the scenes. As the narrator of Recollections of Things to Come notes, “in those days the fatherland bore the double name of Calles-Obregón” (Recollections, p. 255).

The Cristero rebellion

The Constitution of 1917 greatly limited the power of the Catholic Church, but the government did not strictly enforce the constitution’s anti-clerical provisions at first. By 1926, however, Church-state antagonism had grown to unprecedented levels. Among other positions, the deeply conservative Church vehemently and publicly opposed the increasing socialism of the federal government and supported the de la Huerta rebellion against the openly atheist Calles. Calles, who had always resented the social and political power of the Catholic Church, and who, as governor of Sonora, had expelled all priests from the state, resolved to assert the government’s authority, and began to apply Article 130. Before July 2, 1926, schoolchildren were often taught by priests or nuns according to Catholic doctrine; on this date the nation’s elementary schools became secularized. Moreover, all priests had to register with the government so that it could enforce a ratio of one priest for every 5,000 inhabitants. The authorities deported foreign priests and nuns, and closed monasteries and convents. Church land and the buildings on it were declared to be the property of the Mexican government. In response, the Church immediately ceased all religious services and urged Catholics to “paralyze in every way possible the social and economic life of the country” by purchasing only bare necessities (Soto, p. 114). Armed conflict followed shortly after. The Cnstiada (War for Christ) had begun.

As Recollections of Things to Come demonstrates, women played a major role in the Cris-tiada, most famously in the Brìgadas Femininas (Feminine Brigade). The Brigadas Femininas, whose membership at its height reached 10,000, mostly unmarried working-class women, fought on the side of the primarily rural, generally poor Cristeros (Catholic guerrillas)—the main contribution of these women was to carry munitions and other supplies to the men at war (Soto, p. 115). The amount of female support garnered by the Cristeros was enough to make the federal government reluctant to pursue women’s suffrage and other equal rights legislation. Women were deemed to be in the thrall of the Catholic Church and hence not trustworthy of the vote.

Both sides of the Cristiada committed atrocities. Recollections of Things to Come records the violence done to protesting churchgoers by government forces: “Under the almond trees there were women whose heads had been shattered by gun-butts and men whose faces were mangled by kicking” (Recollections, p. 157). The federal army burned villages, executed priests, and hanged


In 1928 a young man named José de León Toral shot and killed Alvaro Obregón just before he was to serve a second term as Mexican president. Toral had been inspired by Madre María Concepción Acevedo de ta Uata, or “Madre Conchita,” as she was known. Madre Conchita was the abbess of a convent in Mexico City, and often held anti-government meetings at her home, including gatherings at which Catholics discussed how to assassinate either Calles or Obregôn. The nuns were embittered by such policies as the Calles government’s closing of the convents, which put many nuns at risk not only of deportation, but of physical abuse and even death. They also knew that Obregón was very likely to carry on Calles’s policies, as the men were ideologically so close. At one gathering of Cristeros at Madre Conchita’s home, conspirators are known to have discussed the following assassination scenario: “A hypodermic needle containing poison was the planned instrument of death. The assassination plan called for a girl with a needle hidden In a bouquet to dance with one of the men, and then to inject the poison” (Soto, p. 116). The eventual slaying of Obregón was, in fact, much simpler: Toral shot the president-elect at a restaurant, Garro’s novel reports that “the death of Álvaro Obregôn, which left him slumped over his plate at a greasy banquet, gave us great joy” (Recollections, p. 151). Madre Conchita and 20 nuns were arrested for the crime along with Toral. While he was condemned to death, it was illegal to execute a woman in Mexico, so Madre Conchita received a 20-year prison sentence. Eventually, she married a fellow prisoner.

suspected Cristeros. The Cristeros, too, committed violent crimes, attacking government-appointed teachers, destroying government buildings, and on one occasion dynamiting a train and killing 100 people on board. By the rebellion’s end, as many as 70,000 had died in the fighting.

In March 1928 Calles sought to resolve the conflict by drawing up an agreement sanctioned by the Vatican in Rome. Obregón’s assassination derailed the plan and, although the “official” end of the Cristiada came in June 1929, with the reopening of churches, in fact Church-state relations remained inimical well into the 1930s.

Women’s struggle for equal rights

The women in Garro’s novel live under the thumb—sometimes the heel—of the men in Ixtepec. Isabel and Conchita wait about listlessly for marriage; Julia Andrade is beaten by her lover; doña Elvira reflects on the oppressive years of her marriage and rejoices in her widowhood. Their situations were in many ways typical for women in 1920s Mexico. In retrospect, women contributed greatly to the Revolution—they risked their lives carrying supplies to battlefields, traveled with revolutionary armies, sometimes engaged in battle, published and wrote newspaper articles, organized protests, and acted as spies and couriers. Yet the rights of women to vote and exercise other rights as citizens were denied them by the very parties and politicians that they had so vigorously and courageously supported. Chauvinism had much to do with this, but so did basic political expediency. Liberal factions did not wish to allow women—assumed to be unthinkingly loyal to the Catholic Church—to swell the ranks of Mexico’s conservatives. Thus, at the Constitutional Congress of 1917, called by President Carranza (himself the beneficiary of massive female support), women’s suffrage was hardly discussed. Worldwide, the women’s rights movement was gaining ground (women in the United States, for example, would gain the vote in 1920), but Mexican women remained without many basic rights of citizenry. Wives, for instance, had to obtain the consent of their husbands before taking up a profession, and unmarried women under the age of 30 could not leave their father’s house without approval.

This is not to say that women were neglected by revolutionary legisl ation altogether. The Decree of December 29, 1914, legalized divorce as well as a woman’s right to own property. The 1917 Constitutional Congress ratified Article 123 of the Constitution, giving working women rights and benefits pertaining to hours worked, maternity leave, and minimum wage. (The article, however, often inconsistently enforced and misinterpreted, did little for many female workers.) The Law of Domestic Relations (April 9, 1917) allowed married women to enter into contracts and legal suits and gave them equal rights in matters relating to child custody. However, largely because of the Cristero rebellion and the events leading up to it, little attention was paid to women’s rights legislation in the 1920s, when Recollections of Things to Come is set. There were health and education programs that attempted to improve conditions for Mexico’s women, and four Mexican states granted women’s suffrage (two of them revoked this right before the decade’s end) in their elections, but a combination of tradition and fear kept women from making much progress. It was not until 1953 that Mexican women would finally achieve national suffrage.

Mexico and race

“If only we could exterminate all the Indians! They are the disgrace of Mexico!” is the sentiment among much of Ixtepec’s mestizo, or mixed Spanish-Indian, population (Recollections, p. 21). The novel explains that the mestizos hate the Indians because the Indians make them feel a kind of self-loathing based on the idea that the mixed-race people “were without a country and without a culture, leaning on some artificial forms that were nourished only by ill-gotten gain” (Recollections, p. 21). Only Nicolas Moneada is unashamed of his Indian blood. When he tries to make others acknowledge the plain fact that all mestizos have Indian blood, they deny it in bitter anger. It takes the hanging death of Ignacio, a fixture in Ixtepec, and a well-liked person, to make some of the townsfolk reconsider their hatred of the Indians.

The existence of the mestizo class in Mexico dates back to 1522 when Princess Malintzin, the Indian mistress chosen by the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, bore one of the first mixed-race children. The newborn Martín Cortés would be acknowledged, at least symbolically, as the very first. Thereafter, the pure Indian population decreased steadily, and the new mestizo racial strain grew exponentially. Meanwhile, the Spanish conquerors declared themselves privileged because of their fairer skin, which, to their minds, indicated racial purity. They created a hierarchy based largely upon skin color that would persist in forthcoming centuries.

While some Spanish fathers legitimized their mestizo children, many did not. Mestizo children enjoyed fewer social and economic opportunities than children with fairer skin. However, there was far less discrimination against the mestizos than against the Indians, who lived mostly in rural poverty. The sale of lands during Diaz’s pre-1910 dictatorship had deprived many Indian peasants of their homes and work, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Some landowners forced Indian laborers to work not for wages but just for inadequate food and shelter. Such marginalization encouraged the Indians to keep their own cultures intact; there was no incentive for them to attempt assimilation into the world of the Spaniards. Their having being dispossessed by Diaz also encouraged them to join the Revolution against him in massive numbers.


In the novel doña Elvira takes a look at a picture of Calles in the newspaper and says: “What a face! What a face! See? He never smiles. He was born to read death sentences! … What can you expect of a Turk like Calles?” (Recollections, pp. 150-51). Rumor had it that Calles was a Moslem—a Syrian, actually—and he never addressed the question, because he was ashamed of his illegitimacy. He was not, incidentally, a “Turk” (the general name that Mexicans gave to all people from the Middle East), but was the son of a down-at-the-heels member of the once-prosperous Elfas family of the northern state of Sonora (Krauze, p. 412). As for the deaths to which doña Elvira alludes, they were legion. Beginning in 1926 Calles rid himself of 25 opposing generals and had 150 other opponents shot (Krauze, p. 435). He had the reputation of an iron-willed killer.

In the 1920s, when Recollections of Things to Come is set, skin color and wealth still determined social standing (and still does to a great degree). The Indians in the novel are all poor members of the peasantry, while mestizos comprise the upper and middle classes of Ixtepec. The breakdown reflects a widely held belief of the time that people of European heritage were favored genetically, thereby explaining their greater wealth and education. While this belief was not universally shared, it allowed some Europeans and mestizos to justify their distinctive treatment, or mistreatment, of Indians, and the exclusion of dark-skinned peoples from the upper reaches of Mexico’s government.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Garro’s tale is told in two distinct but closely related parts. Part One takes place in the 1920s, after the height of the fighting in the Mexican Revolution, and concerns the strife between federal troops and the town from which they intend to weed agrarian reformers and sympathizers. Part Two takes place in the midst of the Cristero rebellion that pitted the government against the Church and its sympathizers in the late 1920s. Each half is narrated by a voice that is the collective memory of the southern Mexican town of Ixtepec, in which the novel is set.

The opening of the novel introduces the children of the Moneada family. Isabel Moncada and her two brothers, Nicolás and Juan, are the indulged yet thoughtful children of increasingly impoverished, though genteel, mestizo parents, doña Ana and don Martín. Martín, who has the clocks in their home turned off at night, sees his life as suspended between two kinds of time. On the one hand, there is anecdotal or linear time—the time charted on calendars and recorded by clocks; on the other hand, there is circular or mythical time, which allows both lived and collective memories to free people from the insubstantiality of immediate experience. As the novel relates, “[i]n that time one Monday was all Mondays, words became magic, people changed into incorporeal personages, and landscapes were transmuted into colors” (Recollections, p. 15).


“[Garro] understands memory as related to both past and I future and emphasizes the repetitive nature of human action” (Muncy, p. 268). In other words, Garro understands that time exists in more than one category. What many critics have called “pre-Hispanic or, sometimes, “mythical” time, is more eternal than linear time and encompasses not just the present, but the past (what is recalled) and the future (what is to come) as well—hence Garro’s title, Recollections of Things to Come. Incorporated in her novel is the notion that the past and the future are always already part of our everyday experience.

The brooding and violent northerner, General Francisco Rosas, dominates Ixtepec. With his government troops, he has come to impose “order” on the town. In other words, he is there to quash any incipient rebellion and to ferret out suspected revolutionaries still loyal to the zapatista cause of agrarian reform. Before the arrival of the government forces, Ixtepec was occupied and looted by Zapatistas. Most of the townspeople lament the replacement of these local revolutionaries with the much more brutal and oppressive government troops. Dorotea, the old lady who lives next to the Moneados, says of the Zapatista forces that once rampaged in Ixtepec: “They were very poor and we hid our food and money from them. That is why God sent us Rosas, so we could miss them. You have to be poor to understand the poor” (Recollections, p. 10). Now familiar with much worse oppression, the townsfolk have idealized the Zapatistas and long for them to return and drive away the new occupiers who decorate the town’s trees with hanged agrarian reformers.

General Rosas himself is a surprisingly young man who controls the town through fear. His murderous rampages are worse when he drinks and after he fights with his mistress, the beautiful Julia, whom the people of Ixtepec blame for Rosas’s actions. She and the mistresses of the other officers are kept in rooms at the local hotel, where they cannot talk to the townspeople. Some envy them and some pity them, but most are fascinated by these women who were either abducted from their homes or chose of their own free will to live as kept women. Julia is the most aloof of them. She acquiesces to Rosas’s wishes, but she does not offer him the affection and interest that he craves. His frustration often culminates in murderous rages.

One day a mysterious stranger arrives in Ixtepec and heads for the hotel where he speaks with Julia, who does not seem surprised to see him. When Rosas arrives, he immediately drives the stranger away with a lash of his whip. The man, whose name is Felipe Hurtado, is befriended by Juan Cariño, a kind but mentally unbalanced man who lives in the local brothel and insists upon being called “Mr. President.” Cariño directs Hurtado to the home of Joaquín and Matilde Meléndez, the Moneado children’s aunt and uncle. Don Joaquín and doña Matilde take Felipe in, despite the fact that he has put himself in danger by talking to Julia. Hurtado seems to have known Julia before—he knows her last name, “Andrade”—and the townsfolk whisper among themselves that he has come to Ixtepec for her. He soon charms much of the town, including Isabel Moneado, whose brothers have left Ixtepec to work in the nearby mines. Hurtado listens to the voices of the townspeople who complain about the Indian rebels as well as landowners like their own Rodolfito Goribar, who uses the corrupt government to increase his holdings, having the Indians who used to live on them hanged as agrarian reformers. Hurtado’s response to these complaints is to introduce theater to Ix-tepec—he believes that people are happier when they have illusion.

Meanwhile, Rosas’s relationship with Julia becomes more and more frustrating for him; he hears the rumors about Julia and Hurtado, and steps up violence against Ixtepec’s peasant population, whom he accuses of treason. As he becomes increasingly jealous, Rosas savagely beats Julia for looking at Hurtado in public and is suspected of having one of his officers shot when he fears that the drunken man may be planning to abduct her. Finally Julia flees her hotel prison and seeks out Hurtado at the Meléndez home. They spend a dangerously long time together before Julia returns to the hotel to face Rosas, who immediately sets out to murder Hurtado. But, before he is able to capture the stranger, “time stopped dead” (Recollections, p. 138). Ixtepec is frozen in night even while day has broken all around it, and into this strange timelessness Hurtado escapes. The people of Ixtepec later learn that he was last seen riding out of the dark town into the daylight with Julia in his arms.

As Part Two begins, the town and General Rosas mourn the loss of the beautiful Julia but are soon distracted. Calles’s government has entered into a period of seriously strained relations with the Catholic Church and has begun to enforce anti-clerical constitutional measures, which has led to a suspension of all religious services. The general and his troops burn the church’s statues and take over the building. Meanwhile the priest, Father Beltrán, mysteriously disappears. One night two soldiers viciously stone don Roque, the sacristan, in front of doña Matilde’s house but his body cannot be found the next morning. The people of Ixtepec blame the government for using religious repression to divert attention from the issue of land redistribution. Still, they slyly revolt on behalf of the Church.

We did not want to let the church fall into the hands of the soldiers. What would we do without it, without its feast days, without its statues that listened patiently to our laments? And would they condemn us … to die like stray dogs, without a whimper, after living a miserable life?

“It’s better to die fighting!” a man shouted throwing his hat into the air.

(Recollections, p. 153).

Soldiers are killed during the night and the Cristero slogan: “Long Live Christ the King!” begins appearing in windows.

Rosas and his men are desperate to assert their power, so they search the Meléndez home and others for the body of don Roque, but find him nowhere. They strengthen their resolve and place the town under constant surveillance. One day three townswomen appear at Rosas’s office. He and his soldiers think that they have had enough and are going to return don Roque’s body, but instead they offer a token of peace, and invite Rosas and his officers to a fiesta planned in their honor at the home of the town doctor. They claim to seek reconciliation; General Rosas warily accepts.

The fiesta is preceded by calm in the town of Ixtepec while elaborate preparations are made. On the night of the party, Isabel and some other young women are sent to escort the officers to the doctor’s home. Once there, they dance with the men, and the people of the town join in the revelry. Suddenly, however, the festive mood becomes tense as General Rosas and his men try to leave against the protests of their hostess. Rosas insists that the party continue until he returns, allowing only Isabel, with whom he shares an attraction, and her family to go home. So, with one of the officers enforcing the general’s orders, the party continues. The band plays, and the guests dance well into the next day, until one of the musicians finally collapses. Exhausted, the townsfolk are forced to stay and suffer the heat until Rosas returns. He has uncovered the plot that the fiesta was designed to disguise. Four of the partygoers are arrested and, along with Nicolás Moneada, Father Beltrán, and Juan Cariño, are charged with treason and sedition. On the night of the fiesta, they had conspired in the escape of the priest and the sacristan. Juan Moneado, Dorotea, and the owner of the brothel died in the attempt. Soldiers had searched the houses of the conspirators and seized Cristero documents and posters as evidence of sedition.

As he leaves the party for the second time, General Rosas calls to Isabel Moneado, making it clear that she is to accompany him back to his room; in this way he asserts that his will reigns supreme in the town. After they spend the night together, she takes Julia’s place in the hotel. The town hopes that she is trying somehow to trick Rosas but fears that she has betrayed them by becoming his mistress. In fact, although she hates herself for it, Isabel does love Rosas. Rosas, however, immediately regrets having made Isabel his lover, and considers her a poor substitute for Julia, whom he still loves. It slowly maddens him to even look at Isabel because, with eyes so similar to those of his prisoner, her brother Nicolás, she is a reminder of his own cruelty.

The prisoners are prosecuted and most, including Nicolás, are sentenced to death. At the last moment, Isabel pleads with Rosas for her brother’s life, even as Nicolás determines to die for the Cristero cause. Rosas gives in to Isabel and orders her brother set free, but Nicolás refuses the pardon and is executed with the others.

When Isabel learns of this, she allows Gregoria, the Indian servant who has tended to her since her arrival at the hotel, to bring her to the shrine of the Virgin Mary to absolve her sins. They walk for hours but before they arrive, Isabel flees in order to be with Rosas. She loses her way and falls. By the time that Gregoria finds her, Isabel has been transformed into a stone onto which Gregoria carves her tragic story.

Sources and literary context

Recollections of Things to Come is one in a long series of Mexican novels to examine the social and political ramifications of the Mexican Revolution. The tradition began with the 1915 serial newspaper publication of Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo (The Underdogs), which deals in part with the defeat of Pancho Villa and the victory of Carranza; Azuela also wrote a 1937 novel about the Cristero rebellion, El comararda Vantofa (Comrade Pantoja). Garro may have been influenced by the many truth-speaking madmen that people Azuela’s novels when she created the character of Juan Cariño, who, imagining himself to be the president of Mexico, stands up to Rosas (Foster, p. 267). Other prominent Mexican writers to treat the Revolution include Martin Luis Guzman, whose The Eagle and the Serpent (1928) examines the cruelty and lust for power of the generals Villa and Obregon, whom the author himself knew. Like the roughly contemporary (1955) Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo (also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), Garro’s novel infuses the historical recounting of the Revolution and Cristiada with magic—both novels play with time, the dead, and unconventional narrators. Agustin Yarez in The Edge of the Storm (1947) uses the trope of the collective narrator to tell his tale, as Garro does in her 1963 novel. Recollection of Things to Come, however, stands out from all of these others in its attention not only to the forces of history and the violence of men, but also to the effects of such forces on the lives of women.

La Malinche and her heirs

One of 20 women baptized and given to Spanish men to fulfill their sexual needs, the mistress of the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes is known by many names—Princess Malintzin, dona Marina, and the most enduring epithet, La Malinche. She played a pivotal role as middle woman between the Spaniards and Aztecs, serving as translator and diplomat, facilitating communication and relations between the two groups. Among her other roles, she gave birth to a mestizo (Indian-Spanish) child with Cortes, who gave her some property and married her off to one of his soldiers, Juan Jaramillo. She died at the tender age of 24.

Through time, La Malinche would become greatly maligned. In the 1500s the Indians portrayed her as powerful, serious, beautiful, loyal, and well respected. It was an image that would do a 180-degree turnabout when the Mexicans won independence from Spain in 1821. La Malinche suddenly became a scapegoat for 300 years of exploitive Spanish rule, attaining a reputation as the Indian woman who sold out to the white men. “In a wink she was demoted from crucial interpreter and counselor to wily lover and mistress, traitor of her race, mother of the mestizo” (Schroeder, Wood, and Haskett, p. 297). Thereafter, La Malinche became ensconced in the Mexican consciousness as a symbol of deceit, an image that endured to the time of Garro’s novel. In keeping with this image, in 1926, a year in which the novel takes place, the Mexican artist Jose Clement Orozco painted Cortez and Malinche naked with the corpse of an Indian beneath her feet. The painting, in other words, holds her partly responsible for their deaths.

Garro uses the figure of La Malinche to elaborate and complicate themes of deceit, betrayal, and gender politics in Recollections of Things to Come. Both Julia and Isabel, mistresses of the stranger who has “conquered” Ixtepec, bear the brunt of the townspeople’s anger and hatred toward Rosas and his troops. Julia is held responsible for her lover’s murderous rages and military cruelties; when men are found hanging from trees, the deaths are called “more sins for Julia,” even though she clearly has neither the power nor the political will to have ordered such actions (Recollections, p. 8). Yet Julia serves not only as the scapegoat for the miserable and oppressed of Ixtepec, but also as the focus of their love and admiration for her great beauty. This paradox, points out Sandra Messinger Cypess, is inherent to the La Malinche legend, for, although she is viewed as a traitor, she is also the archetypal sexual object, mother of Mexico (Cypess, p. 118). Isabel Moncada, too, takes on the La Malinche role when she replaces Julia as Rosas’s mistress. She, even more obviously than her predecessor, is a “traitor,” who betrays her family for love of the enemy. The townspeople are never certain whether they ought to think of her as a whore, complicit with the deaths of her brothers, or as a heroine who will redeem Nicolas by giving herself to Rosas. Gregoria, however, is certain: on the stone that was once Isabel Moncado, she inscribes: “I caused the unhappiness of my parents and the death of my brothers Juan and Nicolas” (Recollections, p. 288). Recent history has shown similar uncertainty about La Malinche. Was she indeed a traitor or was she a heroine? In some circles, La Malinche has begun to re-emerge as a positive figure, a woman whose cooperation with the Spaniards helped preserve her race. Like the female characters in Recollections of Things to Come, hers is a perplexing image.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Church and state in the early 1960s

Recollections of Things to Come focuses on the battle between Church and state in the 1920s. In the early 1960s, when the novel was written, these two factions were again engaged in political struggle, although by no means as serious or as deadly a struggle as the predecessor. In places like Puebla and Morelia, cities with strong Catholic traditions, Catholic interests, which tended to be associated with wealth and with business, were challenged in riots by socialist-leaning students and educators. These protesters and others like them were impassioned by Fidel Castro’s successful Cuban Revolution in 1959, and began to unite behind the idea that the Mexican Revolution had benefited only the wealthy.

The Church, however, was not entirely the stodgy bourgeois institution it was portrayed to be. While firmly opposed to Soviet-style communism and wary of Marxism in general, it was nonetheless moving to the left. This situation can be attributed to some extent to the events of the Cristero rebellion; given the anti-clerical measures imposed by President Calles, future Mexican priests were trained abroad (mostly in the United States and Italy). This training exposed them to the populist philosophies of Vatican II (an international Church council that tried to address the spiritual needs of the modern world) and worldwide leftist politics in general. Out of such exposure came the birth of “liberation theology” in Latin America, which attended to the spiritual, economic, and political needs of the poor. A new clerical focus on Mexico’s peasants, rather than the wealthy, began to influence the balance of political power throughout the nation.

The Revolution revisited

Some 50 years after the Mexican Revolution began, its vestigial traces could still be seen in Mexican national politics. In 1962, a year before Recollections of Things to Come appeared, Mexico saw agrarian revolt and suppression as in the 1920s. In Emiliano Zapata’s home state of Morelos, government forces murdered Rubén Jaramillo. A Methodist preacher and agrarian reformer, Jaramillo was an outspoken critic of the government and caciques (local political strongmen), and demanded that land be redistributed to the peasants who had a right to it. Jaramillo began to organize the peasants, forming a Committee for the Defense of the Sugarcane Workers, whereupon the government tried to reason with him, offering him fields of his own and money. Nothing, however, weakened his commitment to the cause of returning lands to the peasants. In the end, he and his family were killed, by consent of then-president Adolfo López Mateos, on March 23, 1962 (Krauze, p. 642). Contemporary novelist Carlos Fuentes, whose The Death of Artemio Cruz (also covered in Latin American Literature and Us Times) is also set during the Revolution, wrote an exposé of the murder in the journal Siempre! López Mateos went on to redistribute land to Mexico’s rural poor: 16 million hectares in all. His critics, however, pointed out that he had not distributed useful or arable land, but only “mountains and crags” (Krauze, p. 658).


Recollections of Things to Come was well received in its Spanish-language edition, earning Garro the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia prize in 1963. One critic called it a great accomplishment, “a novel of reality and unreality, of life and death. What the reader understands of these circumstances comes from the extended, magical communication that Garro achieves” (Brushwood, pp. 52-53). This same author, however, critiqued Garro’s use of the town as narrator as striking a false note. Jean Franco, however, defended the strategy:

The choice of this collective protagonist has the advantage of giving voice to all the marginalized elements of Mexico—the old aristocracy, the peasantry (and former supporters of the assassinated revolutionary leader Zapata), the indigenous, and women; in sum, all those left behind by modernization and the new nation.

(Franco, p. 134)

In their praise, reviewers deemed the novel to be “a masterful portrayal of the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution as seen through women’s experience”; turning to its prose, they complimented the mix of “passages of haunting lyricism and beauty” with “sharp, monstrous evocations of violence and death” (Pope in González Echevarría, p. 244; Gyurko in Foster, p. 266).

—Amy Garawitz and Lorraine Valestuk

For More Information

Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Brushwood, John S.Mexico in its Novel: A Nation’s Search for Identity. Austin: University of TexasPress, 1966.

Cypess, Sandra Messinger. “The Figures of La Malinche in the Texts of Elena Garro.” In A Different Reality: Studies on the Work of Elena Garro. Ed. Anita K. Stoll. Lewisburg, Penn.:Bucknell University Press, 1990.

Foster, David William. Mexican Literature: A History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Fowler-Salamini, Heather, and Mary Kay Vaughn, eds. Women of the Mexican Countryside, 1850-

1990. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.

Franco, Jean. Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Garro, Elena. Recollections of Things to Come. Trans Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969.

González Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo Walker, eds. The Cambridge History of Latin Amencan Literature. Vol. 2. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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

Schroeder, Susan, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett, eds. Indian Women of Early Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Skidmore, Thomas E., and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America.4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Soto, Shirlene. Emergence of the Modern Mexican Woman. Denver: Arden Press, 1990.