In Memory of Carlos Monsiváis (1938-2010)
By Dr.Claire Brewster, UK (Published in Issue 11)
When Jack Little, editor of The Ofi Press, approached me with a view writing an article on a topic of my choice he was drawing on his Newcastle roots. It therefore seems appropriate to expand on these ties in this short essay: Mexicans and Mexicanists form part of the Newcastle University-based Americas Research Group, a multi-disciplinary group of academics and individuals who are interested in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Photo: The Ofrenda at Newcastle University
One of the Americas Research Group projects is designed to offer a taste of Mexican culture to the general public. From 29 October to 6 November 2011 Newcastle City public library housed a Day of the Dead exhibition. It included an ofrenda, several artefacts, and explanatory posters offering brief details of the origins of this celebration of life, and the significance of the objects on display. Photographs of Mexico’s more famous revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa were placed on the ofrenda and, as it was situated in a library, some images of leading Mexican literary figures who are no longer with us. Of these, the inclusion of Carlos Monsiváis gives both sorrow and pride.
Although Carlos Monsiváis (“Monsi”) needs no introduction to Mexicans, I presume to suppose that most Mexicans do not know the full extent of his tremendous contribution in offering a greater understanding of Mexican political, social and cultural life. This is because although Monsiváis was a great and often entertaining public performer, on a personal level he was rather shy and extremely modest about his incredible literary output. Moreover, although he published many books, the majority of his essays and comments were published in newspapers and cultural magazines and until these are digitised, they are far less easy to classify and count than reading and re-reading his books.
Monsiváis has claimed that he was never in any doubt that he would become a writer: as a schoolboy he wrote parodies of his friends and while a student he published articles and essays for his university newspapers. In depicting events to which he was politically attracted and people to whom he was attached, Monsiváis nonetheless managed to maintain a critical distance: an attribute that would characterise his work for over half a century. This is not to suggest that he did not hold strong political views, nor that he was detached from the issues he portrayed: naturally on the left-of-centre, Monsiváis’s deep commitment to causes that he believed to be just can be seen through his immediate and continued support for victims of political repression (such as the students of 1968); people without a voice in society (for example, those who lost relatives and were made homeless by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City) and his commitment to a peaceful democratic transition for Mexico. While this brief account may not reveal any new aspects of Monsiváis’s work to those who know it, it hopes to offer a little more detail about the role that he played in disseminating details about the Mexican student movement of 1968, both at the time that it was taking place, and how he subsequently worked to keep the students’ cause in the public consciousness.
Of the many causes that Monsiváis supported and sustained throughout his life, that of the students of 1968 is perhaps the greatest and for which he is best remembered. Yet his book, Días de guardar (Days to Preserve), published in December 1970, provides just a snapshot of the tremendous work he had done at the time to promote the students’ cause and to make the Mexican public aware of the violent means being taken against it by government forces. This was before the movement ended abruptly at Tlatelolco Plaza on 2 October 1968 in a massacre, the brutality of which even Monsiváis had not foreseen; a shameful event that left hundreds of students dead, many more injured, and thousands of students imprisoned. As its title suggests Days to Preserve, Monsiváis’s chronicle of 1968, is a celebration of the Mexican student movement. Although he could not fail to discuss the violence directed at the students, Monsiváis does not dwell on this painful topic. He also gives much attention to the spirit of democratic change that he believed the students promoted. In doing so, Monsiváis was working to ensure that the movement’s tragic end did not completely overshadow the hopes of wider participation in political life that the students had generated.
He also, perhaps deliberately, considerably underplayed his own part within the movement. As he underlines, he was not a student in 1968, but Monsiváis was working at the National University and, like several of his colleagues, he supported the students’ cause. He helped to draft some of the student manifestos and produced radio programmes for the movement. At that time he was also editor of the literary publication La Cultura en México, the cultural supplement to the weekly political magazine Siempre, and was thus in a good position to publicise the events. Although many would write in support of the students in the years following the brutal suppression of 2 October, Monsiváis was among the first to applaud the students’ courage and commitment in taking to the streets and to condemn the harsh measures used against them by government forces. The official notion was that the students were disobedient, unruly, disloyal citizens and/ or that they were being manipulated by forces intent on discrediting the Mexican government. Through articles, photographs and comments, Monsiváis offered a perspective of the street protests that was different: these were largely peaceful protests and the students’ claims for greater participation were just. Moreover, in the style that would later become very much his own, Monsiváis distanced himself from his reports by using the words of others to state his cause and illustrating his work with photographs that could leave no doubt that these were peaceful, orderly protests and that any violence or unruly behaviour was committed by government-ordered forces. Monsiváis would maintain this stance for the rest of his life.
His continued interest in the students of 1968 was evident in April 1977 when Monsiváis was among those who again took to the streets, this time to protest against the appointment of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz as ambassador to Spain. Díaz Ordaz, who had been president of Mexico in 1968, was and remains largely blamed for the massacre at Tlatelolco. The announcement of his appointment as the first Mexican ambassador to post-Franco Spain was greeted with shock and horror in many Mexican circles and led to mass demonstrations on the streets of Mexico City. Díaz Ordaz resigned shortly afterwards. The official reason given was that a detached retina made it impossible for him to fulfil his duties.
Monsiváis’s strong ties to the students could be seen again in September 1993 when the students of 1968 invited him to become a member of a Truth Commission. Rather than appoint blame, the Commission was to collect testimonies and to draw general conclusions regarding what had happened on 2 October 1968. This was timed to coincide with the release of government documents twenty-five years after the student massacre. In the event, no papers were released: drawing on the notion that students had been manipulated by outside forces, the Secretary of Interior explained that this was an international affair; hence the archives would be opened in 1998 in accordance with international law. Monsiváis nonetheless pursued his enquiries. In 1999 he and Julio Scherer, who had edited the major Mexican daily newspaper Excélsior in 1968, published their book Parte de guerra: Tlatelolco 1968 (War Dispatches), which reproduces some of the documents of the then Secretary of Defence, Marcelino García Barragán.
Whether or not one agrees with his politics, there can be no doubt that Monsiváis was a man of strong beliefs and opinions; moreover he remained true to these convictions throughout his life. He also remained true to his mission to chronicle life as he saw it. While in hospital during his last illness, he continued to write: copies of the notes he made while undergoing treatment were reproduced in Proceso magazine as part of his obituary. 
Carlos Monsiváis, then, takes his place on the ofrenda in the public library in Newcastle upon Tyne. As the modest man he was, would he approve? Perhaps. According to one of his aunts, he maintained, “I am of, and belong to, the people.” If, according to Mexican tradition, his soul were to return and speak to us what would he say? We already have the wealth of wisdom of his work. And if we had the opportunity what could we reply? Many, I am certain, would say, “thank you, thank you”.
Claire Brewster, Newcastle University
Dr Claire Brewster is a senior lecturer in Latin American history at Newcastle University. Her books include: Claire Brewster, Responding to Crisis in Contemporary Mexico: The Political Writings of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Monsiváis, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005); Keith Brewster and Claire Brewster, Representing the Nation: Sport and Spectacle in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).
 Carlos Monsiváis, Días de guardar, (Mexico DF: Ediciones Era, 1970).
 Despite much discussion and debate there has not been an investigation into this tragic episode of Mexican history and even if there were it is unlikely to reveal the “truth” as so much evidence was destroyed at the time.
 Julio Scherer García, and Carlos Monsiváis, Parte de guerra, Tlatelolco 1968, (Mexico DF: Nuevo Siglo Aguilar, 1999).
 See various articles in Proceso, 27 June 2010.
 Carlos Monsiváis quoted in Jenaro Villamil, ‘La tía Marta’, Proceso 27 June 2010, pp.63-64.