Announcer: Conversations with Other Writers,
with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist C.M.
C.M. Mayo: Michael
K. Schuessler is Professor of Humanities at the Universidad
Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City where he teaches
courses dedicated to Latin American art and literature, pre-Columbian
Mexico, and Colonial Mexico. He earned his PhD in Hispanic Languages
and Literatures from the University of California Los Angeles,
where he specialized in the literature and arts of Colonial Latin
America, particularly New Spain. He's the author of many articles
devoted to the interpretation of Latin American literature and
culture, as well as several books including the biography, Guadalupe
Amor: La undécima musa, published in Mexico in
1995, and the biography of one of Mexico's best known journalists
and writers, Elena
Poniatowska: An Intimate Portrait, published by University
of Arizona Press.
In 2007 the University
of Texas Press published his edition of Alma Reed's long lost
autobiography entitled Peregrina:
Love and Death in Mexico. In 2011 with his co-editor,
Ámparo Gómez Tepexicuapan, Schuessler published
Tuyo hasta que me muera
Epistolario de Alma Reed y Felipe
Carrillo Puerto, a collection of letters, love letters, between
Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, who was the socialist governor
of the state of Yucatan.
Our conversation took place in March of 2012.
I'm in the Fondo de Cultura bookstore called the Rosario Castellanos
in Colonia Condesa and this is the most cool, biggest, beautifullest,
most happening bookstore in Mexico City. It's noisy because there's
music. There are not too many people. It's early in the morning,
but they're shelving books, so you're going to have some ambiance
there with the thumping of the books. I'm here with Michael K.
Michael K. Schuessler:
I'm so happy to be here.
I'm really excited. I have so many questions for him because
he has so many books, but I think of all his many books the ones
that we can probably fit into our conversation today are the
two that have to do with Alma Reed and Pita Amor. Maybe we should
start with Pita Amor because I understand that that's why you
came to Mexico.
Michael K. Schuessler:
Well, to a
certain extent I came to Mexico with a group of graduate students
from UCLA in 1992, and met a wonderful man who is no longer with
us, named Ángel de la Cruz who used to dance at the Cabaret
de Leyva where Pita Amor and María
Félix and Dolores
del Río would mix with Frida
Kahlo and Diego
Rivera and lumpen of the low life, etc., and he really
interested me in the life and the work of this extraordinary
woman, who by the way turned out to be Elena Poniatowska's aunt.
So it's a very interesting family in that degree.
I came to Mexico City
and I found her. She was living in a kind of ramshackle hotel
called the Hotel General Prim in the Colonia Juárez, and
I remember that I entered the lobby and asked about her and got
a kind of strange response from the woman at the reception desk,
but she pointed to an orange telephone and said, "well,
you can call her if you want," and I did. Her booming voice
came across on the other line and "¡qué
quieres!" what do you want!
Since I could speak Spanish fairly well, she thought that was
interesting, but she was really excited because I had read her
work and I didn't just know of her persona. So she asked me to
meet that very evening.
The persona... I have to tell you, I've been here over 25 years,
but when I started writing poetry and translating Mexican poets
in the early 1990s, I started to hear about her. I never met
her, but she sounded scary.
Michael K. Shuessler:
Well, she was
kind of scary, especially in her old age. She died in 2000 and
I met her, as I said, in 1990 actually, not 1992, I met her before
that. She was the youngest daughter of a rather large Porfirian
family, that is, a family that had lost a lot of its wealth due
to the Mexican Revolution. She was a young girl who always got
her sisters' hand-me-downs and was always trying to attract attention
to herself. And that was something that never ended, you know
this cultivation of her persona.
But she didn't have much of formal education. Her beautiful home, which is now a store
that sells auto parts on Obra Abraham González street
in Colonia Juárez, had a library. She started reading
poetry of the Spanish Golden Age, and with her father she would
recite poetry with her sisters and her brother at the dining
room table. And I think that's how she got her start. That's
why her poetry has always retained that classical structure,
the rhythm and the rhyme of the Spanish modes that aren't necessarily
as well known in English, although some of them are like the
sonnet, the décima, the lira, etc., the kind of poetry
that was written by Santa Teresa de Ávila or by San Juan
de la Cruz or by Lope
de Vega, and all of those great poets of Spain's Golden Age.
This really, I think, is a great achievement of your biography
of Pita Amor, who actually, if you were going to Google that
book, you'd look up Guadalupe Amor: La undécima musa,
The Eleventh Muse, as Salvador Novo called her.
When I first started to hear about her in the '90s she was really
a ridiculous figure. She was someone that people gossiped, "oh,
can you believe she did this? Can you believe she said that?
Can you believe she wore that?" She wasn't someone taken
seriously. And what you've done with this biography is looked
at her entire life, and her entire work, and given it a context
and shown the seriousness and the accomplishment of what she
really did as an artist.
Michael K. Schuessler: I tried to unearth the Guadalupe
Amor of the past, the woman whose work was published by Spain's
foremost publishing house, Aguilar, in the 1950s, the poet who
was compared to the great authors of Spain's Golden Age, and
I looked carefully into her writing and also into her persona.
But Pita cultivated that image of decadence and perhaps craziness
to such an extent that I think that it took over her own being.
When I met her she would almost refuse to speak in anything but
verse. She would not talk about the past. She would not
allow herself to be touched. She had terrible reactions
towards Mexico's middle and lower class citizens.
To put it mildly! [Laughs]
Michael K. Schuessler:
and all these horrible things she would call people, but I think
I saw through that, unlike many Mexicans who had seen her on
televisionshe had these programs in the
1950s where she would recite Spanish mystical verse wearing a
very deeply cut dress, let's say, and one time one her breasts
fell out on television and that was a terrible scandal! The League
of Women called Mexico City's television stations to complain.
Anyway, I didn't get
all of that. I didn't have that imagery. When I met her, I saw
this woman wearing this jeweled gown, stumped over, with four
rings literally on every finger, and with a cane, who came over
and looked at me and announced her presence, and then turned
around and sat at a different table, that's when my understanding
of the other Pita would begin. And I followed her to the table
and I sat down and I asked if I could tape her, and she allowed
me to do so, so I treasure that recording from way back when.
She began to spin together
so many different poems by many different authors, including
herself, of course, and really not talking that much about the
day-to-day Pita, just kind of become engrossed in her literature.
I acquired all of her books and I studied them. I've been fortunate
enough to do my PhD at UCLA in Latin American literature, so
I kind of had some perspective. [Sound of a thump.] Oh, there
goes a book.
That was a book!
Michael K. Schuessler: That was Pita, I'm sure. [Laughs]
Hay fantásmas. [There are ghosts.]
Michael K. Schuessler: Hay fantásmas.
[Laughs] Sí, dijo [that is what he said].
You have a little interview, a Q&A with her, at the back,
the last interview [in the biography], and it's just an extraordinary
thing to read. I'm not going to read it since it's in Spanish
and I think most of our listeners are hearing in English, but..;
She said things like, "I'm divine, but I don't believe in
God. I'm a friend of the devil."
Michael K. Schuessler:
She lived by her contradictions, you know. She was never really
easy to pigeonhole that way. I'd ask her what she'd think about
Juana Inés de la Cruz, Mexico's premiere woman poet
of the Baroque period, and she'd say, "she's dead and I'm
alive, therefore I'm victorious," and that sort of thing.
Really it was difficult that her personality didn't eclipse,
let's say, her own writing. And her writing didn't evolve. It
didn't take part in the different modes of contemporary or modern
poetry, as others might have, but it retained that very classical
format, which to many people, is disagreeable.
Let me read a short poem that she wrote to you.
Michael K. Schuessler:
Oh my goodness.
And this is a little bit that will be in Spanish.
"A Mike," To Mike.
Al titán de los volcanes,
de las veladas secretas,
de las misterias grietas,
al titán de los afanes
titán de los huracanes,
titán de mares convulsivos,
y de nocturnos impulsos,
capitán de capitanes
even if you don't understand Spanish, you can hear the music
in that poetry.
Michael K. Schuessler:
And the vigor, because she was very emphatic about
everything that she said. She had a very particular way of saying
poetry. She didn't like to declaim, or let's say, to declare
poetry, or recite, as you would say in English. Only to say poetry,
but boy, she would say it in a very interesting manner. But at
times, because I did know her for 10 years and we did kind of
hang out, you know, she would like to drink a very typical Mexican
concoction which is eggnog with a bit of liquor in it...
Michael K. Schuessler: Rompope. And after
drinking some rompope she would talk about her past and
about her relationship with Frida Kahlo and with Diego Rivera,
and her often very negative opinions about their personas, and
other writers of the time and such. So I felt that I was very
fortunate because I got just the tail of a group of very
extraordinary individuals that worked and created in Mexico's
post-revolutionary culture. She kind of extended a bridge in
that sense because she outlived many of them, if not all of them,
and she opened herself to me and she allowed me to accompany
You know, she accused me of stealing one of her medallions at
one point, and then later I came back and she was screaming out
the balcony that she'd found it hidden against her left breast,
and she gave me these drawings as kind of like a consolation
prize. So I did have to suffer certain embarrassments, let's
You must have been an angel of patience!
Michael K. Schuessler: I did have to be very patient.
When she would look in her little boxes, she had about 47 of
them on her coffee table, and open and close the lids up to 87
times for each one before we were able to leave, and then ask
me to lock the door. And if I said I thought it was locked, she
would make us go all the way up the stairs again to make sure
that it was locked. So you had to learn her ticks and her ways
But again, that's what would outshine her literary creation.
I think that at one point
maybe we could translate some of her early poetry, her book of
short stories, her autobiographical novel, which was fascinating
because she divides her life by the spaces that occupy that home
where she grew up, so she'd talk about things related to the
hall, and related to the dining room, and that way kind of weave
together her own story.
None of these have been translated?
Michael K. Schuessler: Nothing to my knowledge by
Pita Amor has ever been translated.
wow. We're in March 2012. That is an amazing statement.
One of the most important poets of the twentieth century in Mexico.
Michael K. Schuessler:
I think that
it's also, to a certain extent, understandable because she really
viciously defended her independence and she would have no problems
attacking the major players in Mexico's cultural and political
regime. And therefore she was isolated by many of them.
She used to call up
Paz and literally scream her poetry into his ears, and he,
I guess, would pass the phone on to his wife and his wife would
say, "Bravo Pita, bravo Pita, I like it
very much." Then on television shows being asked about
him, said "Octavio Paz? He rings a bell."
She would just refuse to play that game, and I think that's a
very admirable thing because so many Mexican women creators have
been lost in the male shadow until they're rediscovered. Think
about Frida Kahlo, who only had one or two exhibits in her whole
lifetime, or Tina
Modotti who died in a taxicab utterly forgotten.
Frida Kahlo now is just so ubiquitous. But when I came here in
the mid '80s she was not the figure she is now. Now you go anywhere,
and everywhere there are Frida keychains, Frida this, Frida that.
I live in Coyoacán, there is a trolley that goes down
the main street. It's the "Frida and Diego" trolley.
[Laughs] Nobody would question now that Frida Kahlo is a major
Mexican artist, but that was not always the case.
For those who are listening who are not that familiar with the
Mexican literary scene, I think it would be impossible
to overstate the power that Octavio Paz had in his lifetime.
And so for someone to attack him and expect to be published was
Michael K. Schuessler:
Yes. And then
she'd really go out on a limb by stating on the television that
she couldn't stand Carlos
Monsiváis, a very famous Mexican writer and chronicler,
and that her family still had the lances that they used to murder
his horrid race, you know. [Laughs] That would really get her
into terrible trouble because she was such a racist and such
a classist. That I hold against her.
Well, she liked to push everybody's buttons.
Michael K. Schuessler:
She did, she
did. And she didn't leave anybody out. She would make fun of
her niece, Elena Poniatowska, who's such a wonderful, valuable
woman here in Mexico today. But she was clear in her convictions,
and her life was poetry, and she wasn't going to let go of that,
but she wasn't going to be brought down by these powers that
be. She'd have interesting conversations with the President of
Mexico when he stood before her nude portrait and she said, "You
know, that's a painting of my soul," and he replied,
"Well, you have a nice little pink soul, now, don't you?"
Which President was this?
Michael K. Schuessler: This was Ávila Camacho.
[Laughs] Ávila Camacho, oh my God, that was back in the
Michael K. Schuessler:
That was back
in the '50s. That was a Diego Rivera portrait.
Moving on to...I would like to talk about Pita Amor for 10 hours
actually, but moving on to Elena Poniatowska, her niece.
Elena Poniatowska, for those not familiar with the Mexican literary
scene, I think it would be fair to compare her to Margaret Atwood...
Michael K. Schuessler:
Yes, or Susan
Sontag. She's a major, major figure, but not only is she a major
literary figure in Mexico, but she has a very unusual personality.
recently at a press conference together, you and I, and Elena,
and some others, to promote the San Miguel Writers'
which took place in February. I was just amazed to see how Elena
is so sencilla, very unpretentious. Literally, over the
period when she speaking, you could just feel the energy in the
room. All these sort of journalists, just kind of on their conveyor
belt I guess, doing what they had to do, covering another press
conference, and I could see how she just conquered them.
She just conquered them with her sencillez, but also she
has this heart, this enormous heart. It's really just energetically
extraordinary to see.
Michael K. Schuessler:
Elena is also
a story of contradictions because she is really a princess and
her mother as well, but she's turned against that ever since
she came to Mexico.
Literally, she's a descendant of the King of Poland.
Michael K. Schuessler:
Poniatowski. She was born in Paris, France and never knew that
her mother was actually Mexican until she was informed that they
would be heading with her sister, fleeing World War II, back
to Mexico where her grandmother lived. Her grandmother had this
huge dog sanctuary in the Zona Rosa area where she had over 60
dogs, and a very interesting character herself, but Elena immediately
became interested in her roots. She
learned Spanish from her nanny, Magdalena, and that's why she
speaks like an everyday Mexican would speak Spanish. It's hot
a hoity-toity kind of accent that she has. She's always been
out to protect the underdogs, and lately has been interested
or very much involved in Andrés Manuel López Obrador's
compaign, and for that she receives horrible phone calls at three
o'clock in the morning because her name's in the phone book.
She's very sincere, like you say, but she's an icon in Mexico
and she's the woman who wrote the book about the massacre
of students in 1968 in Tlatelolco.
La noche de Tlatelolco, which is Massacre in Mexico.
Michael K. Schuessler:
And she wrote,
let's say the book, about the Mexico City earthquake of 1995,
Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake. She
wrote this incredible historical novel about Tina Modotti who
came to Mexico with Edward Weston. [Tinísima]
She's been fundamental in exploring and recreating the lives
of these extraordinary individuals and also of being on the beat
as a reporter. She first and foremost considers herself a journalist
and interviews hundreds and hundreds of people to put together
a book of many voices like the two that I just mentioned, for
She wrote a wonderful
little book [Querido
Diego, te abraza Quiela] about Angelina Beloff, who was
Diego Rivera's first wife and the mother of his child who died
of meningitis when he was less than a year old, if I'm not mistaken,
and brought her to the fore even when Diego Rivera walked
by her in Mexico City and didn't even recognize her. So she's
been a voice of the underdogs and one who would tell you that
Mexican women, especially the creative types, have either lost
their minds, like Pita Amor, or have died in very strange circumstances,
like Rosario Castellanos.
Rosario Castellanos was the ambassador to Israel and she died
in a household accident... kind of a digression...What was that?
Michael K. Schuessler:
I've been told
that she had arrived from a trip and gone into her house. She
did not have her shoes on and that there had been a bit of a
flood in the house, and she stepped in a pool of water and turned
on a lamp and was electrocuted to death.
Oh my God.
But you don't get one story. She lived a very unpleasant life
with her husband and she was always made de menos, to
feel less, and a very unhappy woman who wrote incredibly lucid
and brilliant examples of what she lived and what many people
in Mexico lived. Elena has been very important in that way of
rescuing these figures and bringing them out in recreated form,
let's say, in the form of a historical novel or an epistolary
novel, like is the case of Angelina Beloff. And unlike her aunt
Pita, many of her works are available in English.
You also know a lot about Mexican women writers going all the
way back to Sor Juana, speaking of writers who had an unpleasant
Michael K. Schuessler: Sor Juana Inés de la
Cruz was a child prodigy. She grew up near the volcanoes of Popocatépetl
and Ixtaccíhuatl in what is now the State of Mexico in
Nepantla. Because of this extraordinary intelligence that she
had, she finally convinced her mother, you see that she was born
out of wedlock and her father disappeared, he was supposedly
from [?], a part of northern Spain, and she was allowed to go
live in the home of her wealthy aunt and uncle in Mexico City,
the de Mata family.
From there she became
a lady in waiting in the court of the Viceroy in Mexico and there
became very close to one of the vicereines who was there at the
time and who became her Maecenas and her sponsor when she decided
that her only option as an illegitimate daughter of the Mexican,
let's say middle class, was to become a nun. She had her dowry
and she entered a convent that was rather strict and rigorous,
which she couldn't stand. She hadn't had the best of health since
she was a child. She ended up in the Jerónimas Convent
here in Mexico City and that's where she lived and died and wrote
all of her work, from charming plays to incredibly profound poetic
works like "The Dream," for example, her sonnets, her
metaphysical, her love poetry. She's extremely multifaceted and
a fascinating woman to investigate from all of those myriad angles.
And then the Church said, you can't write anymore.
Michael K. Schuessler:
That's being reconsidered now by certain scholars who say that
because there was no mention of a plot against her, that there
was a plot against her, so others would say that there is no
evidence so we can't show this. However, I always just bring
up her reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz, who was actually a man
who was a monk and a bishop, and he would write to these different
nuns, and I think that he got some sort of a, let's say erotic
arousal out of these exchanges with the nuns. And she replied to him in what is
really an autobiographical format about how God had made her
this way and she had been punished for being such every step
of the way and didn't feel that this was correct. But her books
were taken away from her. She did sign a vow in blood with her
own blood that she would dedicate herself to religious thoughts
towards the end of her life. She did die a tragic death, a victim
of the plague, one type or another, we're not sure which, in
She had a library that was famous.
Michael K. Schuessler:
She did. She
had a very famous library and a collection of, let's say, pseudoscientific
instruments and I think a certain quantity of pre-Hispanic objects
that she had probably acquired from her friend, Carlos
de Sigüenza y Góngora, who was a former Jesuit
and a true intellectual in Mexico. He was someone who questioned
Father Kino's statement that the different comets that passed
by were actually God's anger and wrath in the form of divine
flatulence, and really looked into the fact that the Chinese
had documented these comets and that they were, let's say, some
sort of a scientific phenomenon.
Her own library, yes,
was considered the largest in the New World at the time and it
contained many different volumes of religious treatises, of philosophical
treatises, and perhaps even some dangerous books like Athanasius
Kircher, for example, who was a Jesuit universalist, a fascinating
character, who tried to relate everything in the known world
into one sort of an axis. For example, he would be the one that
with Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora would say "oh,
atl is water in the Mexican native language, and that's
just like Atlantis, and therefore this must be the lost Atlantis,"
for example. That's just one of many, so she was involved in
all of that.
We would consider it
now to be like pseudoscientific research and thought. She's still
geocentrical in her science, let's say. It was against the modes
of the Catholic Church to go beyond what Aristotle and St. Thomas
Aquinas had determined, but she would do it to a certain extent.
In her poem, "The Dream," she would say that she was
almost separated from her bodily chain because she knew that
your chain had to be there until you were dead, and if it wasn't
it was heresy. So she was very aware of that and she talks about
not wanting ruido con la Inquisición, noise with
the Inquisition, because she's toeing a very fine line.
That was a very scary time in Mexico.
Michael K. Schuessler: She had to confront a terrible,
misogynist archbishop whose name was Aguiar y Seijas who thanked
God that he was nearsighted so he didn't have to see the face
of the woman, who threatened to tear up the flooring of his home
if he'd known it was stepped upon by a woman.
A troubled individual.
Michael K. Schuessler:
and he also wore a hair shirt, I think is what they're called,
and he didn't bathe. I guess that only his closest servants could
stand being near him. He was one that was fundamental in taking
Sor Juana and putting her, let's say, in her place. That's Octavio
Paz's interpretation. That is the general interpretation. There
is a new school that is accused of wanting to, like, canonize
Sor Juana and doesn't see that there was any sort of a plot against
her by what they would call the princes of the Catholic Church
in Mexico. I don't subscribe to that interpretation.
Wow. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, we could talk about her
for about five hours, too. She's an amazing figure. And you have
so many books and the one I really want to talk to you aboutand here we are, we're about
probably close to halfway through the interview The one I most want to talk to you about
is actually the book by Alma Reed that you discovered and you
edited and introduced. It's called Peregrina:
Love and Death in Mexico, and the other book that just
came out, when did it come out?
Michael K. Schuessler: Just about three months ago.
This was the collection of letters between Alma and her fiancé,
Felipe Carrillo Puerto, who was the Red Governor of Yucatan who
was executed by firing squad.
Michael K. Schuessler:
I feel very fortunate because now that I think about it, a lot
of my "discoveries" have been the result of friendships.
It's because of the friendship that I established with an older
woman of Polish descent, curiously enough Lisette Parodi, that
I learned of a man named Richard Posner, who at that time lived
in Brooklyn, who turned out to have been the best friend of Alma
Reed. When I met him I was interested in another Mexican writer,
Novo, with whom he had worked because they were both interested
in English language and theater, but he would mention Alma Reed
and say, there's a story there, and kind of not understand
my lack of interest, until I went to Yucatan and I met a woman
who was doing research on popular music and she was very
interested in a song called "Peregrina," pilgrim, because
it was created for and dedicated to Alma Reed, who is known in
Mexico as "La Peregrina."
We have the opening lines of it in the book. I won't read the
whole thing, and I don't even know the tune.
Peregrina de ojos claros y divinos
y mejillas encendidas de arrebol,
peregrina de los labios purpurinos
y radiante caballera como el sol.
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right, and we could
take advantage of this technology and I can send you a little
music file so you can hear [singing:] Peregrina, de ojos claros
y divinos. And it's sung today by so many trios here in Mexico
City. If you go to the San Angel Inn, for example, they'd be
happy to sing it to you. I'm going to Merida tomorrow and let
me tell you, they all know the song in Merida, Yucatan.
to Estela Nuñez singing "La Peregrina"]
But to make a very complicated story short, he told me that after
her death he had gone to her apartment because he was officially
her literary heir. And I guess what he did was take all the papers
that were on her desk and files and he put them into this very
appropriate henequen bag that Alma had I'm sure bought in the
Yucatan, and he had left it in his apartment since 1966 which
was a year before I was born.
was the year she died.
Michael K. Schuessler: She died November 20, 1966,
the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, which is very emblematic
for reasons that, of course, you could find out about in the
book. So that's where, after several tries, I found it in the
In the closet!
Michael K. Schuessler: In the closet of this apartment
which had been uninhabited since 1984 and it was full of grime
and mildew, but he still paid the telephone bill. My mother said
it was like a time warp because he had all his clothes, and they
were like from the disco period, in his bedroom, and there was
canned food in the refrigerator. We went twice and looked in
file cabinets, land looked in book shelves, and everywhere you
would consider that this probably could be located.
Finally I called him and,
he was pretty old, not senile but a little bit unpredictable,
and he said, "I'm seeing a green bag." I said,
"A green bag? What do you mean?" He said, "Look
for a green bag." We went back and that time we had
the key to the bedroom which was the only space that we could
not investigate, and we couldn't find anything. At the very end
I said I'm going to look one more time in that bedroom. I reached
up behind these horrible towels and sheets that had been
there for 20 years, or I don't know.
Oh, they must have smelled.
Michael K. Schuessler: They were terrible! And something
kind of prickled me and I pulled it and it fell down on the floor
and it was that bag and it was full of all of these file folders
and each one of them was a chapter of the story. One of them
said LETTERS AND MAYA POEM. That was just a few of the last letters
sent by Carrillo Puerto to Alma Reed that she had been using,
I believe, to finish the last chapters of her book, because it
wasn't until I would meet another individual who had the entire
final version, for some reason I don't understand, that I could
complete this edition and write my introductory study.
It was a wonderful
adventure meeting people who knew her, and going to the Yucatan
and finding her tomb, and realizing what a fascinating figure
that she was. Because after her experience in the Yucatan and
the tragedy that she lived, I mean, they told her about his death
by giving her a telegram when she was rehearsing for her wedding
in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. It was a week before the
wedding that she found out about all of this, and even so, put
her life back together, headed to the Middle East, worked in
archeology, met a childhood friend named Eva Sikelianos, came
back to the United States to New York City and founded the Delphic
Society and, in that context, and thanks to Anita
Brenner, she met José
Clemente Orozco for whom she would become Maceanus and bootlegger
and godmother, I think that's how she defined herself.
It's similar to what you've done for Pita Amor in showing us
that this is actually a major figure on many levels, and yet,
Alma Reed towards the end of her life was not known. I just want
to, indulge me to let me read the first half of the opening paragraph
from the foreword by Elena Poniatowska.
Michael K. Schuessler: Of course.
"I remember Alma Reed well. During the 1950s and 1960s
we would often share the elevator going up to the editorial offices
of The News, a U.S. daily associated with the Mexico City newspaper
Novedades. She used to sing to herself during the ride up from
the first to the third floor, keeping her eyes closed, and only
opening them when it was time for both of us to get off the elevator.
She wore old-fashioned dresses always covered with lace and frills,
and when she wore black she looked quite lovely because her face
was quite pale and the dark apparel made her seem still more
distinguished. Some mornings I would happen to ride up standing
in between Alma and Yucatecan poet, Rosario Sansores. They seemed
to be engaged in a duel of hats, and theirs were always covered
with veils, flowers of all sorts, and even stuffed birds."
goes on in this beautiful, beautiful foreword that she wrote
to explain that she had no idea who Alma Reed was. She had absolutely
no idea, and yet here was this major figure who not only had
this tremendous love affair with probably one of the most charismatic
figures in Mexican politics of the twentieth century. She was
within a week of becoming the First Lady of the Yucatan, which
would have, I think, probably changed things in many ways. She
also was someone who wrote important books about Mexican art.
She received the Aguila Azteca which is the Aztec Eagle, Mexico's
highest award for a foreigner. She was an important journalist
in her own right. I mean, her life has many chapters where she's
influenced policy. She's just had so many achievements at so
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. She had really
been forgotten and was working in the 1960s for that English-language
daily that was mentioned by Elena Poniatowska. Some people would
accuse her of trying to spin and to live by her legend, but as
Richard Posner would tell me, "Well, that's all that she
really had" because she lived a freelance and rather precarious
existence before Mexico City and of all places, Mobile, Alabama,
where she had a radio program and created a group that was called
The Friends of Mexico, for example. But indeed, she had this
relationship that went beyond, let's say, the romantic.
Even though some of the
letters are quite cursi, as you might say in Spanish,
in this collection a lot of them have to do with a vision for
the future of the people of Yucatan and the way in which they
were to enrich the lives of those people who had been so oppressed
by the hacendados, the Divine Caste people of the Yucatan
peninsula, and by the Catholic Church, which of course embraced
it and supported it. So they were real trailblazers of that time,
and it was a terrible thing that the de la Huertista rebellion
caught up with Felipe Carrillo Puerto that he was killed along
with four of his brothers and his assistant.
Michael K. Schuessler: A massacre in January of 1924.
So on the one hand, we have a document which is her autobiography,
which is, let's say, the official version of her life, the victim
of the de la Huertista rebellion, which just put her life on
hold for a while, but she regrouped and she got to New York.
She started the Delphic Society and then she opened a Delphic
Studios Gallery which was essentially dedicated to José
Clemente Orozco. She was the person who got him his commissions
for all of his U.S. murals.
He was a major Mexican painter, one of the most important muralists,
and her help at a crucial point in his career was fundamental.
Michael K. Schuessler: I believe so. You know, they
talk about the big three Mexican muralists of the twentieth century,
Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Sequeiros.
Some people would just say Orozco, Orozco and Orozco, because
he is considered the greatest of the three, a new expressionist
painter who did murals, who also of course did work with oil
on canvas, and drawings and prints.
But yes, he was a depressive
personality. He was in one of his melancholic modes, let's say,
when Alma tracked him down on Riverside Drive at a rather decrepit
studio that he rented, and she was the one that got together
the works for his first exhibition in New York City.
Of course, you know, Orozco's wife, Margarita, wasn't very happy
with all of this as you could imagine down in Mexico City, and
accused Alma, amongst many things I suppose, of just wanting
to market, like, the Mexican curio aspect of Orozco and just
wanted to show paintings of the Mexican Revolution. But history
doesn't bear that out. If
you look at his
work at Dartmouth College, Prometheus Bound, if you
look at his work at Pomona College or at the New School in New
York City, you'll see that he was influenced by many things,
but one of the important factors were the ideas that were brought
by Alma Reed and Eva Sikelianos from Greece where they had started
these Delphic festivals with Angelos
Sikelianos, who is considered a very important modern Greek
poet, who of course is long deceased, and brought that to New
York City and attracted a very interesting group of people, amongst
them Kahlin Gibran, who drew her portrait.
in your book, or rather the book you introduced by Alma Reed,
Michael K. Schuessler:
and after New York she went to California with him and then came
Michael K. Schuessler: With Orozco, yes, for the
Pomona commission, and there they met Ansel
Adams and they brought Ansel Adams, and his first exhibit
ever was at the gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City.
She also I'm going out of order but
was one of the first people that would write positively about
the Mexican government under Obregón and she would publish
dozens of editorials in different newspapers around the United
States. Curiously enough, after a year of that publication, the
U.S. finally did recognize Mexico's new government and on her,
not let's say application, but on a text that was put together
by her supporters, that's one of the things that's mentioned
as to why she should receive Mexico's Aztec Eagle Award.
But before that, let me just say, that the reason she became
known in Mexico in the first place is that she saved a boy from
Samuel Ruíz in San Francisco.
Michael K. Schuessler: In San Francisco, Samuel Ruíz,
who was underage, who was involved in what was an attack on his
he didn't speak English.
Michael K. Schuessler: He did not speak English.
They would not assign him a translator or an attorney that spoke
English. He was just told what he was to do. He admitted his
guilt, even though it turned out that he wasn't guilty, and he
was on death row, and that's where Alma would find him.
She worked at the newspaper,
The Call, in a very curious position as "Mrs. Goodfellow,"
and she'd write columns about the needy and the disadvantaged
people in San Francisco. I always felt that that might be how
she came into contact with Mexico and the Mexicans, and I should
say her father, because of his businesses, did too, and knew
a bit of Spanish, etc. But that's why Obregón invited
her down in 1922.
was a VIP trip. The President received her. Just to put some
context here, because of that journalism, that activism, they
actually changed the law in the United States so that minors
could not be executed.
Michael K. Schuessler: That is correct. It's called
the Sailor Bill or the Boy Hanging Bill, and it's on the books
up until today, and that's because of the crusade that Alma organized
in San Francisco under her pseudonym of Mrs. Goodfellow.
then she came back a second time to Mexico in 1921, right? Because
she was hired by the New York Times to cover the archaeological
digs in Yucatan. Edward Thompson was excavating the cenote at
Michael K. Schuessler: That is correct. I think the
date was rather 1922 or even 1923. I have to check my sources,
but basically it's true. She was assigned by Adolph Ochs, who
was the director of the New York Times in that period,
to accompany a group of archeologists from the Carnegie Institute
to the Yucatan peninsula, and in particular, to document their
excavations at the Maya classic site of Chichen Itza.
Now, unbelievably at
that time, it was owned by this man, he was an amateur archeologist,
named Edward Thompson not Eric Thompson who is a
very important professional archeologist of the Maya of more
or less the same period. And he had been dredging that holy well,
that sacred cenote at Chichen Itza for years, since the late
1800s when he arrived with his wife and his family and had been
sending the objects through diplomatic pouch, of course illegally,
to the Peabody Museum in Massachusetts at Harvard University.
And Alma, I don't know because of her charm or because he felt
certain confidence with her, would be the first person that he
told this to, and Alma would break the news and create of course
an international scandal, where Mexico required either the return
of those objects or a million dollars. That suit went on for
quite a few years.
think eventually the Peabody won the suit in the U.S. courts
and gave back some of it. I'm sure there's a whole book right
Michael K. Schuessler: Yeah, there's a whole book
right there. Some of those things were returned. Alma never let
go and tried to get that done, let's say, in a just manner, but
to a certain extent it wasn't until the 1970s, and it was with
trade that they would return some gold pieces for some jade pieces
that were given by the Mexican government, which doesn't seem
very fair to me, but at least Alma exposed the situation.
that is when she met Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
Michael K. Schuessler: That is right. He was the
socialist governor of Yucatan.
A very close ally of President Álvaro Obergón.
Michael K. Schuessler: A very close ally of Obergón.
He had fought with Zapata in the Mexican Revolution in the state
of Morelos, so he had a lot of knowledge about what this revolution
was all about. He was one of the people that implemented his
ideals in a most thorough fashion in all of Mexico, and this
is way out in Yucatan where you could only get there basically
by taking a boat from Veracruz.
It's a very isolated place and it's hard to imagine what it really
was like at that time. The economic organization was basically
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. It was indentured
slavery on the sisal and henequen haciendas, and that's the reality
that Alma encountered when she went and I think was just so enamored
of this well, Greek god, as she called him.
She called him a Greek god?! Now when I looked at his picture,
you can see the charisma. It's an extraordinary charisma. I think
also not only was he a revolutionary hero, the first democratically
elected governor, way ahead of his time and place in many regards,
he was a feminist...
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. His sister,
Elvia, set up Leagues of Women in the Yucatan. They were the
first to vote in Mexico's history. They had rights regarding
birth control and things that were unheard of in the rest of
Yeah, and this was a place where traditionally it had been ruled
by la casta divina, the descendants of the Conquistadors
from Spain, very conservative, very Catholic. But another thing
about him is that in pretty much any state in Mexico, the governor
is a kind of god. They're very, very powerful people; the state
is a kingdom in a way. And he was considered or said to be the
direct descent of Nachi Cocom, the last cacique of the
Mayapan Federation, so he was considered by the local people
a kind of prince.
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. He was considered,
let's say, as a continuation of resistance because it took quite
a while for the Spaniards to overtake, to conquer, the Mayas
of the Yucatan peninsula, and Nachi Cocom was one of those revolutionary
leaders that tried to get away from Spanish domination centuries
back. He was also almost six feet tall, or maybe a little bit
Where people tend to be very short.
Michael K. Schuessler: Where people tend to be very
short, but he did speak Yucatec Maya ever since he was a child.
He translated the Mexican constitution into Yucatec Maya so it
could be understood by the people.
is not what la casta divina would have wanted.
Michael K. Schuessler: No, no, not at all, as a matter
of fact, because they did hold those poor Maya Indians in a type
of slavery, what do they call that?
slavery and debt peonage where you can only buy your food and
supplies from the company store, you can't buy them elsewhere
and the prices are such that you're just in debt forever.
Michael K. Schuessler: That's exactly right. So he
was up against all of that which was certainly a terrible reactionary
state of things/affairs in the Yucatan. Well that, to a certain
extent, explains his tragic demise because he represented a very
scary change, an unacceptable political/economical change for
the powers that be, or that were at least, in that state.
It's terrible the way by little drips and drabs that Alma starts
realizing in these letters, you can see it, that things were
not going well. And at the very end he says, "Please
send me your next correspondence in code. There are bombs exploding
outside my office." Those were the last words of Felipe
letters you have in the new collection the title is Tuyo hasta que me muera,
I'm Yours Until I Die.
Michael K. Schuessler: That was what he wrote in
his last letter to her.
collection of letters between Alma Red, "Pixan Halal,"
which is Alma Reed in Mayan, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, "HPil
Zutulché," from March to December 1923, at which
point they ended. But not only do we have the transcriptions
and an introduction to these letters, but we see reproductions
of some of them. I'm looking at one right now from Alma that's
written on the stationery of the Waldorf Astoria: "Dragonito
encantadoro," enchanting little dragon. [Laughs]
Michael K. Schuessler:
can also the development of her Spanish, yes.
his are typed in red ink...
Michael K. Schuessler:
the stationery of the, it says, Correspondencia Particular
del Presidente del Partrido Socialista de Yucatan, the personal
correspondence of the President of the Socialist Party of the
Yucatan. "Inolvidadle Alma," unforgettable Alma,
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. She received
those letters at the reception desk of the Waldorf Astoria and
the person in charge would kind of give her a fishy eye when
he handed over these letters and envelopes that had red ink all
over them, which of course at that time was a clear sign of communism,
something that just couldn't be.
Well it was a sudden thing. He was actually married to someone
else, and in your collection here you show the documents that
he had in fact gotten divorced.
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right, in part because
I would like to set the record straight, because you'd be surprised
and shocked as to the negative attitude that still is held against
Alma Reed in the Yucatan peninsula.
I can imagine. He was married with children.
Michael K. Schuessler: He was married with children.
His divorce was in process. He had developed laws that were very
liberal in the sense that either one of a couple could decide
to ask for divorce and wouldn't have to have the permission of
the other. People would say that he set that up just to be able
to divorce his wife and to marry Alma, but it happened, it was
in process before he met Alma Reed, so that's not true.
Michael K. Schuessler: Yes. To a certain extent,
people will say that he never divorced his wife. This is just
not true. And that's why I included two different copies of the
divorce decree. But I do recognize that he was able to do that
without his wife's permission.
But was it a real love? Because the Yucatan will say that she
was just an easy gringa who was out for an adventure that was
kind of like, wanted to go up certain political levels, a climber,
a social climber.
had an affair with Katherine
Michael K. Schuessler: Yes, that's interesting. Yeah,
that was before Alma Reed. In Mexico City he would take her to
dance at different places around Mexico City, and Alma and Katherine
never were friends. I kind of see it as Alma was the one who
took the prize even though that prize was so tragically destroyed
when he was murdered.
seems to me though from reading Alma's autobiography and the
letters that he really did very much intend to make her a First
Lady. The attraction was something genuine, but it also had a
dimension of the political to it. And I think that that
makes these two works especially important in understanding the
history of the Yucatan in the first part of the twentieth century.
Michael K. Schuessler: I think that's true. Because
of his tragic demise there wasn't time for a whole ideological
construct to be developed, but Alma, because she demands, she
sometimes begs, for more information, has documented a lot of
it that I think that otherwise would have been lost. He criticizes
her and says "Oh, Mrs. Manager, Mrs. Journalist, I'm
just going to call you in that way from now on because all you
can think about are those newspapers of yours." He wants
more romance. He wants more lovey-dovey. But she wants pictures
of the excavations around the Yucatan peninsula, and she wants
to know about his house for the children that's inspired by Plato's
Republic. She sees, I think, a soul mate in Felipe Carrillo Puerto,
but she's very clear. She wants that divorce. She wants to be
able to marry him legally and she can only do it with that document.
He has a home that he has purchased for them to live in. It's
a very incredible mansion, it's not what you think for a Socialist
couple, but there you have it, La Villa Aurora, that still stands
in Merida today. Lots of contradictions, but really these incredible
intentions to raise the Maya race from generations of ignorance
and repression and recreate the society in which they lived.
would have been a very interesting history had he lived and had
she become First Lady of the Yucatan.
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. She was actually
planning to write a book called Details of the Life of a Socialist
Leader. Of course because of his tragic death, that could
never happen. She says very moving things towards the end of
her own introduction, and maybe it's kind of a way to end ourselves.
I could read that to you.
would be wonderful.
Michael K. Schuessler: She says:
"Throughout all the years that have passed since that fateful
dawn of January 3, 1924, Felipe Carrillo has retained for me,
and for all who truly knew him, his creative force in the living
present. I find no yesterdays at journey's end, for the images
that have vanished from physical sight still dominate the inner
prospect and are more intelligible for heart and mind than the
concrete realities of the passing hour. That which was can never
cease having been. These words of the sixteenth century Spanish
philosopher, Saavedra de Fajardo, are now recalled with fresh
poignancy in the ceaseless quality of everything that relates
to Felipe Carrillo. Though while his spiritual presence and influence
function in continuum for the Maya race, the Mexican people,
and for tomorrow's world, the date at which it all began for
me is clearly noted between the purple leather covers of my 1923
diary. As I read its pages, memory reconstructs this beginning
and all the unutterable magic and pain that followed as distinctly
as though I were viewing the sequence on a television screen.
And so my story begins."
me about these books. The one that I'm looking at right now,
I have it in my hand, Peregrina: Love and Death in Mexico
by Alma Reed with your introduction and the foreword by Elena
Poniatowska, that came out with the University of Texas Press.
It's an absolutely exquisite hardcover, a real collector's item.
Michael K. Schuessler: I was very lucky to get a
hardcover. In Spanish language it's available in paperback, and
I might add that it's an edition that has pictures in color,
has a lot more illustrations. When I read that last segment,
I mentioned that Alma mentions the covers of this diary from
1923, and I want to just end by saying how what a magical experience
this has been and that I was asked for a documentary program
to recreate how it was that I found this document in that abandoned
apartment. I got permission to go again and they told me, "Now,
let's pretend that you're looking for the manuscript one more
time, so why don't you go through the furniture and such,"
and the first drawer that I open I see this purple bound diary
that says DIARY 1923, and it was the one that Alma Reed had used
to recreate her own life story. It is now in my possession and
I'm beginning to transcribe it
it's very difficult
to read in this 1920s handwriting and perhaps publish an edition
of her diary which gives a very different perspective, a very
intimate perspective on all that was going on in her life at
would be a wonderful thing to publish.
Michael K. Schuessler:
person has this, I guess, good fortune, or maybe not, of having
her official life story found and published, her personal correspondence
found and having been published now, and now the most intimate
part of all, which is her diary, in which she mentions things
that I still don't quite see how fit into the whole scheme of
things, but I think it will come out in the process.
a story that, once told, I think will be told and retold over
literally centuries, and I think that it has a lot in common
with the story of say, Maximilian and
figures, very different political persuasions, a different century.
Just this tremendous love and the early death of one of the partners,
and the political and historical importance of both of them,
the visual dramayou can imagine
the movie. She's wearing the huipil, there's Chichen Itza,
there ars the parrots and the flowers and this charismatic Greek
god, Yucatecan prince. I think that it would make a marvelous
Michael K. Schuessler: Well, you know, there is a
movie, and curiously enough Alma Reed is played by Sasha
Michael K. Schuessler: That's right, and it is called
"Peregrina" and it was done by Antonio Aguilar in the
mid 1970s. Of course, it's only available in Spanish. It's an
interesting attempt... but there's so much more that could be
done. To be honest there was a project to make a movie based
upon her autobiography, but I think that it was shelved because
of the economic collapse of 2007/2008. But you never know, maybe
I'll get a phone call or a fax one of these days that'll say
the project's on!
I'm sure you will.
Michael K. Schuessler: I think it's a great story.
What I was happy to do was to at least in part help set the record
straight and say that, no, she wasn't John Reed's sister. No,
she wasn't a screaming gringa from California that had no political
knowledge or ideology. She was a very complex human being, and
if at the end of her life she really tried to get as much out
of her relationship with Carrillo Puerto as she should, was because
Richard told me, it's all she had left.
give her more credit, I think that she probably was very aware
of the historical importance of what she lived through with him
and what he stood for. She probably also realized if she didn't
bring it forth, who else would?
Michael K. Schuessler: That's true, and that was
why it was sitting on her writing desk the day that she died
because that was what her plan was, to send the final manuscript
off to Crown Publishers in New York, which did receive the manuscript
a couple months later and denied publishing. They decided that
it wasn't worth publishing.
reminds me of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard!
Michael K. Schuessler: There you go.
publishers didn't know what they had!
Michael K. Schuessler: No, they didn't, and I'm so
glad that it was saved because it's been a miraculous story.
But to tell you the truth the apartment was flooded.
I know, I was going to ask you about that.
Michael K. Schuessler: Yes, it was flooded in a terrible
rain storm and a lot of things were thrown out, especially those
things that were in the closet because that's where the water
you got it just in the nick of time!
Michael K. Schuessler: I've always felt that Alma
really wanted her story to be told, and I'm not that much
of a mystical person, but sometimes I do think that she's there
and she's kind of coaching me and she's making sure that these
I'm sure the world is much more complex than we can see or hear.
Michael K. Schuessler: Absolutely.
I'll bet she was, I'll bet she was helping you.
Michael K. Schuessler: She's here with us right now
in her big feathered hat.
bet she is. I hope Pita Amor is not being too rude to her!
Michael K. Schuessler: No, no, no. I think that they'll
have to have mutual respect. [Laughs]
Michael K. Schuessler:
Thank you so
If people want to read more about your work and your books they
can go to your website, right?
Michael K. Schuessler: Yes, its www.michaelkschuessler.com.mx.
Thank you, Michael, from the bottom of my heart. I admire your
work more than I can say and I think anyone who wants to know
more about Mexico, particularly twentieth century Mexico, really
needs to come and read your books about Pita Amor, Elena Poniatowska,
Alma Reed, but also you have many other books which are also
So please come visit his website and check it out!
Thank you, Michael.
Michael K. Schuessler:
you, and all back to you. I say the same.
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