Mexico’s kaleidoscopic mirror
Carlos Monsiváis, born 1938 in Mexico and one of Latin America’s most resolute and brilliant intellectuals, is a recognised authority in his home country. Apart from writing innumerable essays in daily newspapers, anthologies and cultural magazines, he has also published more than a dozen books on all imaginable aspects of culture and politics. They include standard works on cinema and literature, chronicles of “typical” Mexican politics and culture (“Amor Perdido”, 1976), the mobilisation of civilian society (“Entrada Libre”, 1987), the love life of Mexicans (“Escenas de pudor y livianidad”, 1988) and the phenomena of (post-) modernism in Latin America (“Aires de Familia. Cultura y sociedad en América Latina”, 2000). His extensive work has been honoured with numerous literary and journalistic awards.
“Mexico City is a feeding bowl and drinking trough, is the choreography of unemployment at the traffic lights, is a theatre of omnipresent scenes, is the rubbing together of bodies in the metro, is the historical depository of smells and irritations, is a first communion months before the wedding, is the longing for one’s own room, is the dazzled family in front of the television, is the taxi drivers crossing themselves when nearing the Temples, is the delighted and desperate plunge into the nightlife, is the visit to voluntary and involuntary museums, is a campaign of duty-free activities that emphasises the alarming and fraudulent similarity with a North American city.” (From: Carlos Monsiváis: Lugares comunes, sitios inesperados, www.tierramerica.org/ciudades/autmonsivais.shtml)
As a journalist, essayist, chronicler and writer Carlos Monsiváis focuses his astute and sarcastic gaze on political, cultural and daily life in Mexico. The cultural critic Gerardo Ochoa Sancy aptly characterised him as a “kaleidoscopic mirror” and “todologo” (from todo, everything). (quoted after: taz, 5 January 2002)
Carlos Monsiváis, who never imagined himself as anything other than a professional reader and writer, studied philology and economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). From 1956 to 1958 he worked as editorial secretary for the magazine Medio siglo and from 1957 to 1959 for the magazine Estaciones. He developed programmes for Radio UNAM, for instance “El cine y la crítica” (1960-1970) and headed its record collection “Voz viva de México”. From 1972 to 1987 Monsiváis was editor-in-chief of various magazines including Siempre.
He was highly recognised as a specialist in literary studies in 1966 with his anthology “La poesía mexicana del siglo XX” (“Twentieth Century Mexican Poetry”) which is still considered one of the most detailed panoramas of contemporary Mexican poetry. In addition to this Monsiváis has made a name for himself as a translator of North American poetry.
Monsiváis is one of the most important representatives of the 1968 generation noted especially for opposing the repressive and corrupt policies of the PRI. In his chronicle “Días de guarder” of 1970 he studied the calendar of national life including the national holidays. The chronicle begins with the bloody suppression of the Mexican student movement by the military on Plaza Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 2 October 1968 which Monsiváis addresses with sharp criticism.
As a political commentator Monsiváis is a merciless critic of Mexican power structures and a champion of the rights of indigenous population groups. In his narrative “Nuevo catecismo para indios remisos” (“A new catechism for negligent Indians”) of 1982, he ironically criticised the Christian ethic and the associated practices in colonial times. When the Zapatista uprising took place in Chiapas, southern Mexico at the beginning of 1994, he took up a decisive position in detailed factual reports on the movement in various Mexican newspapers and journals. In his articles he appealed to the governing bodies to seriously address the demands and rights of the indigenous Mexican people. (see: www.ezln.org/entrevistas/20010108.es.htm). At the same time Monsiváis maintains a decidedly critical attitude towards the Zapatista. Perhaps more than any one else he succeeds in “weighing up between solidarity and dissent, between respect for the rebelling Zapatistas and incisive criticism, for instance, of militarism and discussions on martyrdom. (Anne Hufschmid, in: taz, op. cit.)
The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes is of the opinion that the leader of the Zapatista movement, Sucomandante Marcos, was born in the spirit of Carlos Monsiváis. Whether or not this is true is open to debate. It is, however, correct that Sucomandante Marcos and Carlos Monsiváis share a close relationship which meant that Monsiváis was able to conduct several interviews with the Zapatista leader (in: Autodafe, The censored library, www.autodafe.org/autodafe/autodafe_02/art_06.htm).
In recent years Carlos Monsiváis has repeatedly taken up a critical stance towards globalisation. He condemns the mass poverty endured by half of the Mexican population as “the worst form of exclusion”, and to him the idea of the uniform open market is “one of the worst kinds of fundamentalism” (quote after: taz, op. cit.) In his opinion a ray of hope and a contrasting world are offered by contemporary literature and life in the small Mexican villages which he sees as sources of physical and moral regeneration (in: Satiria – república de las letras, www.satiria.com/libros/anus_2002/opinion/opinion_reves_monsivais.htm).
Monsiváis continually returns to address themes of popular art and culture. He has carefully dissected virtually every phenomenon of everyday life ranging from dance halls and TV series to rock music and cinema. “Rituals of chaos” (“Los rituales del caos”, 1995) is the title of a collection of essays on consumer sensationalism in Mexico City. In his chronicle published in 1981 “Escenas de pudor y liviandad” (“Scenes of shame and lasciviousness”), for which he received the Jorge Cuesta Literary Award, Monsiváis gives his readers the impression that life in the Mexican capital is like a great soap opera.
Author: Gabriele Stiller-Kern
Carlos Monsiváis was born on 4 Mai 1938 in Mexico City and studied philology and economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). From 1956 to 1958 he worked as editorial secretary for the magazine Medio siglo and from 1957 to 1959 for the magazine Estaciones. Carlos Monsiváis developed programmes for Radio UNAM, for instance “El cine y la crítica” (1960-1970) and headed its record collection “Voz viva de México”.
One of his first most celebrated works was his anthology of modern Mexican poetry (“La poesía mexicana de siglo XX, 1966”). In his essay collection “Días de guarder” of 1970 he deals with Mexico during the 1960s, dissecting the myths artificially created from the country’s culture and politics. “Amor Perdido” of 1976 contains a series of portraits of popular Mexican heroes and artists. His anthologies and chronicles “A ustedes les consta” of 1979 and “Entrada libre. Crónicas de la sociedad que se organiza” of 1987 unite almost two centuries of journalistic chronicles. He has worked as author and co-author on numerous publications, essays and chronicles covering Mexican history, art, politics, and literature.
Carlos Monsiváis co-founded and worked for numerous Mexican newspapers and magazines including Proceso since 1976, Nexos since 1978 as well as the daily papers Unomásuno since 1977 and La Jornada since 1984. In addition to this he also published articles in the newspapers Reforma and El Financier, Excelsior, La cultura en México, México en la cultura, El gallo ilustrado and Personas, to name only the most significant. He also worked and carried out research at the National Institute for Anthropology and History at UNAM.
He lectured and led conferences at numerous Mexican and North American universities on topics such as film, culture, art and Mexican literature.
Carlos Monsiváis’ work has already been acknowledged by numerous national and international literary awards. Some of his works have been translated into English.
Carlos Monsiváis lives in Mexico City.
1962-1963 and 1967-1968 – Grant from the Mexican Writers’ Centre
1965 – Grant from the Center of International Studies at Harvard
1977 – National Journalism Award
1987 – Mazatlán Prize for Literature
1988 – Manuel de Buendía Prize for Literature
1988 – Jorge Cuesta Literary Award for “Escenas de pudor y
1994 – Member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores Artísticos (SNCA)
1995 – Francisco Zarco Journalism Award, conferred by the
2001 - Anagrama International Literature Prize for the essay “Aires de
2006 – Premio de Literatura Latinoamericana y del Caribe Juan Rulfo
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
The Mexico-festival in Berlin
(15 September 02 - 01 December 02)
Web page in Spanish with article/bibliography
web page in Spanish with article/bibliography of/about Monsivais