National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Sun, Stone, and Shadows

Sun, Stone, and Shadows

by Jorge F. Hernández

The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared… Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence.

Temple of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Copyright Mark Segal/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Mexico is a country filled with stories, some true, others pure fiction. Those united in Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories represent a sample of the best Mexican fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century, featuring some of the most important writers of Hispanic-American literature. Those included in these pages compose a literary geography: their birthplaces span nearly all of contemporary Mexico's regions, climates, and cultural zones. The historical perspective, too, is far from narrow, with authors born as early as the final decades of the nineteenth century during the long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Hearing these voices is vital to understanding those to follow.

Once the first shots of the Mexican Revolution were fired, a renewed creative spirit took hold of Mexico's writers and other artists. Such painters as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros covered buildings with murals, recognizing the wealth of Mexico's past and all that had been disdained by the previous dictatorship. Writers inherited a culture with deep traditional roots, yet saw their works cross artistic borders. Creative minds drew on a cruel irony: while the revolutionary government of Mexico oversaw the consolidation of a modern nation, many politicians continued sowing the seeds of corruption and abuse.

Writers such as Alfonso Reyes and Martín Luis Guzmán suffered firsthand the bloody revolutionary days, but later saw their works widely translated and appreciated. Those in the next generation, such as Octavio Paz or Juan Rulfo, were born to survivors of the Revolution. The next generation included Carlos Fuentes and José Emilio Pacheco, who wrote and lived through Mexico's opening up toward the modern world, braved the fears of the Cold War, and bore witness to the tragic massacre of 1968.

The stories collected in Sun, Stone, and Shadows are gathered into thematic areas, from an exploration of "The Fantastic Unreal," through images of a tangible Mexico, and concluding with an examination of the "Intimate Imagination." Though strong individually, taken together these works offer a glimpse of Mexico's varied faces, its flavors and colors, the echoing screams or bygone murmurs that define an infinitely diverse and complex nation.

"The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared; it speaks to us in the hermetic language of myth, legend, forms of social coexistence, popular art, customs. Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence."
—Octavio Paz from his 1990 Nobel Prize acceptance lecture

Mexican Surrealism

The artistic movement known as Surrealism first emerged in France, partly as a reaction to the slaughters of World War I and the advent of Freudian psychology. As an artistic movement, whether in literature, film, or the visual arts, Surrealism tried to recreate the workings of the unconscious mind, especially as it is experienced in dreams. Combining illusion and reality, a loose affiliation of poets, novelists, photographers, painters, sculptors, and filmmakers helped shape Surrealism's haunting imagery of the unconscious.

Considered the father of Surrealism, French poet André Breton visited Mexico in 1938. He returned to Paris convinced he had been to a land that lived and breathed Surrealism on an everyday basis. According to legend, Breton once ordered a table from a carpenter, describing the measurements he needed by drawing it in perspective. Two weeks later, the carpenter delivered a beautiful piece of woodwork in triangular form, with two very long legs on one side and a pair of very short ones on the other. He had built exactly what Breton had drawn and, in his defense, muttered that if the foreigner wanted a table he should have said so in the first place.

Once in Mexico, Surrealism quickly took root in unexpected ways. In literature, Octavio Paz, Juan José Arreola, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and others avidly incorporated its parallel worlds and striking, often comic imagery into their work. Such painters as Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo embraced Surrealism as Salvador Dalí had in Spain, granting themselves license to imagine landscapes obedient to dream logic, yet almost photorealistic in their detail. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who had collaborated with Dalí on the landmark Surrealist film Un chien andalou (1929) in Europe, fled the Spanish Civil War and wound up in Mexico, where he made such classics as The Exterminating Angel (1962).

As depicted in the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada, the phantasmagoric dreams of Kahlo, and the murals of Diego Rivera, Mexico is a land where death matters as much as life. In connection with the Catholic holy days of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (November 1 and 2), Mexicans commemorate the dead by bringing food, drinks, flowers, or photographs to graves of their loved ones, a time known as El Día de los Muertos(Day of the Dead). It is customary to give all living friends and neighbors skulls crafted from sugar, as a reminder of the destiny that awaits us all. No wonder European Surrealism and such gifted practitioners as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Luis Buñuel found their purest expression an ocean away, in Mexico.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, the Queen of Mexico

Twelve years after Spanish explorers landed on Mexican soil, the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe was recorded. In 1531, a dark-skinned mother of Jesus appeared several times to a peasant Indian man named Juan Diego, a Catholic convert. She asked to have a church built on the site. After Diego told a bishop what had happened—only to be turned away—a colorful image of the Virgin was emblazoned on Diego's cloak to validate his story. This miracle led to the conversion of about nine million of Mexico's Indians to Catholicism. The Vatican officially recognized the miracle of Guadalupe in 1745, and the image now hangs above the altar in the Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

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