Books are part of every human being’s internal life. To have a book next to your bed is to have a friend, a word of advice, and assured support. – Cervantes Prize-winning author Elena Poniatowska
When I was a refugee child starting life anew in Miami, I used to close my eyes and imagine waking up in Spanish. If only in my mind and soul, I was home.
As much as I love English and consider it my language now, I still crave to hear, read and exist in Spanish. Finely crafted Spanish, that is — not the wildly disjointed tongue we’ve invented in the United States, Spanglish, to blend our initial alienation and eventual acculturation into a practical yappy patter.
Spanish-language books take me deep into that internal place Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska speaks of — and the parallel universe of the Miami Book Fair International’s Spanish-language program is like a cocoon where I don’t need to close my eyes to feel at home.
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The formidable Poniatowska — journalist and novelist, at 82 basking in the appreciation that comes with winning the Cervantes, the highest honor in Spanish letters — took me there Sunday during the fair’s opening night.
Her trademark sharp wit, her power to move people through storytelling, and her indefatigable fight for justice, all were present.
Born in Paris to a French-Polish father and a Mexican mother whose family was exiled during the Mexican Revolution, Poniatowska was first educated in French, but the family moved to Mexico when she was 10. She fell in love with her new homeland — “I wanted to belong,” she says — and felt that Mexico was where she could make the biggest contribution.
“How presumptuous of me,” she quips.
But she did make history giving a literary voice to the humblest protagonists of Mexico’s tragedies and putting a focus on the “abysmal” differences between the haves and have-nots and the wholesale disfranchisement of women.
In the process, she became the first woman in Mexico to be awarded the highest national prize in journalism and the fourth in the world of Spanish letters to win the Cervantes.
Poniatowska didn’t miss a beat addressing the September massacre of 43 university students in the southern Mexican province of Guerrero, calling it a “tremendous” travesty that the world has largely ignored. She has been putting together biographies of these young people who were studying to become educators and were murdered and “burned like trash.” She wants to show the world their humanity, not the stuff of grand resumes but mundane, universal traits: the T-shirts they wore, the music they listened to, the teams they cheered, whom and what they loved.
Asked what else she had left to accomplish, the grand dame of Mexican letters said to thunderous applause: “I still have dying to do — and other books to write.”
For one night, as one man put it, there was “a little piece of Mexico in Miami,” and a lot of essence for Spanish-language lovers.