Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Digital Media < Podcasts < Conversations with Other Writers <

Recorded in March 2012, Librería Rosario Castellanos, Mexico City

Main (Notes)
. Podomatic . iTunes + Transcript


Announcer: Conversations with Other Writers, with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist C.M. Mayo.


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.


C.M. Mayo: 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. Schuessler.

Michael K. Schuessler: Good morning. I'm so happy to be here.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: To put it mildly! [Laughs]

Michael K. Schuessler: "Mango-nosed" 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.

C.M. Mayo: That was a book!

Michael K. Schuessler: That was Pita, I'm sure. [Laughs]

Bookstore clerk: Hay fantásmas. [There are ghosts.]

Michael K. Schuessler: Hay fantásmas. [Laughs]

C.M. Mayo: [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: That's right. 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 Sor 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.

C.M. Mayo: Let me read a short poem that she wrote to you.

Michael K. Schuessler: Oh my goodness.

C.M. Mayo: 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

So even if you don't understand Spanish, you can hear the music in that poetry.

Michael K. Schuessler: Absolutely. 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...

C.M. Mayo: Rompope.

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 her.

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 say.

C.M. Mayo: 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 of being.

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.

C.M. Mayo: None of these have been translated?

Michael K. Schuessler: Nothing to my knowledge by Pita Amor has ever been translated.

C.M. Mayo: Wait, 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 Octavio 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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 just unthinkable.

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.

C.M. Mayo: 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?"

C.M. Mayo: Which President was this?

Michael K. Schuessler: This was Ávila Camacho.

C.M. Mayo: [Laughs] Ávila Camacho, oh my God, that was back in the '50s.

Michael K. Schuessler: That was back in the '50s. That was a Diego Rivera portrait.

C.M. Mayo: 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...

C.M Mayo: 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. We were recently at a press conference together, you and I, and Elena, and some others, to promote the San Miguel Writers' Conference 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.

C.M. Mayo: Literally, she's a descendant of the King of Poland.

Michael K. Schuessler: That's right, 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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, Nothing, 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 example.

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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: Oh my God.

Michael K. Schuessler: 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.

C.M. Mayo: You also know a lot about Mexican women writers going all the way back to Sor Juana, speaking of writers who had an unpleasant end.

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.

C.M. Mayo: And then the Church said, you can't write anymore.

Michael K. Schuessler: That's right. 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 1695.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: A troubled individual.

Michael K. Schuessler: Very troubled, 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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: That's right. 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, Salvador 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."

C.M. Mayo: 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.

[Listen 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.

C.M. Mayo: That 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 year 2001.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: [Reading aloud:]

"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."

Elena 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 many levels...

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.

C.M. Mayo: A massacre.

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.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: That's in your book, or rather the book you introduced by Alma Reed, "La Peregrina."

Michael K. Schuessler: That's right, and after New York she went to California with him and then came back.

C.M. Mayo: With Orozco?

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 hanging.

C.M. Mayo: Right. 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 employer.

C.M. Mayo: But 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.

C.M. Mayo: It 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.

C.M. Mayo: And 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 Chichen Itza.

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.

C.M. Mayo: I 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 there!

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.

C.M. Mayo: And that is when she met Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

Michael K. Schuessler: That is right. He was the socialist governor of Yucatan.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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 slavery.

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.

C.M. Mayo: 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 the country.

C.M. Mayo: 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 more.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: Which 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?

C.M. Mayo: Debt 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 Carrillo Puerto.

C.M. Mayo: The 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.

C.M. Mayo: The collection of letters between Alma Red, "Pixan Halal," which is Alma Reed in Mayan, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, "H’Pil 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: [Laughs] you can also the development of her Spanish, yes.

C.M. Mayo: Then his are typed in red ink...

Michael K. Schuessler: Hmmm...

C.M. Mayo: On 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, he says.

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.

C.M. Mayo: Very scary. [Laughs]

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.

C.M. Mayo: Well, 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.

C.M. Mayo: Oh really?

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.

C.M. Mayo: He'd had an affair with Katherine Anne Porter, the writer?

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.

C.M. Mayo: It 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.

C.M. Mayo: It 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.

C.M. Mayo: That 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."

C.M. Mayo: Tell 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 that time.

C.M. Mayo: That would be a wonderful thing to publish.

Michael K. Schuessler: What other 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.

C.M. Mayo: It's 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 Carlotavery different 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 movie.

Michael K. Schuessler: Well, you know, there is a movie, and curiously enough Alma Reed is played by Sasha Montenegro.

C.M. Mayo: Sasha Montenegro!

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!

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: To 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.

C.M. Mayo: That reminds me of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard!

Michael K. Schuessler: There you go.

C.M. Mayo: The 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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 came through.

C.M. Mayo: So 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 things happen.

C.M. Mayo: I'm sure the world is much more complex than we can see or hear.

Michael K. Schuessler: Absolutely.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: I'll 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]

C.M. Mayo: Thank you, Michael.

Michael K. Schuessler: Thank you so much, Catherine.

C.M. Mayo: 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.

C.M. Mayo: 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 important.

So please come visit his website and check it out!

Thank you, Michael.

Michael K. Schuessler: Well, thank you, and all back to you. I say the same.



Announcer: Visit again for more Conversations with Other Writers as well as other podcasts with your host, C.M. Mayo at www.cmmayo.com/podcasts.