Earlier this year, the Juan Rulfo Foundation withdrew from its plan to participate in the 9th annual Book and Rose Fair at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The Foundation objected to Cristina Rivera Garza’s scheduled presentation of her new book on Rulfo, Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé que (There was a lot of fog or smoke or I do not know), which it considered to be “defamatory.”
Garza’s book offers Juan Rulfo as an embodiment of modernity’s double bind. Known primarily for El Llano en Llamas (The Plain in Flames) a short story collection from 1953 and his novel Pedro Páramo from 1955, Rulfo worked also for Goodrich-Euzkadi, a transnational company responsible for expanding the tourism industry in Mexico. He was also an advisor and researcher for the Papaloapan Commission, the state organization charged with extracting “natural resources” from Southern Mexico; most notably, the commission installed the Miguel Alemán Dam in Nuevo Soyaltepec in Oaxaca. Rulfo legitimized the emblematic projects of Mexican modernity in the mid-twentieth century even as he memorialized the very peoples that his work risked erasing in his writing and photography. Rivera Garza compares Rulfo’s vision to that of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History: a retrospective gaze that observes—even relishes—all the details of the disaster caused by the winds pulling it toward the future.
Modernization and memorilization coincided in Rulfo’s position as head of publishing at the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI), a state institution created to look after the needs of all indigenous Mexicans. Founded in 1948 with the goal of integrating indigenous peoples into “national” culture by “acculturating them,” and thus “elevating their condition,” INI’s policies were characterized by a homogenization of Mexico’s “ethnic groups. This understanding of indigenity as a problem to be solved is what links Goodrich-Euzkadi, the Papaloapan Commission, and the INI, which combined to threaten autonomous life and community work in the name of development and modernization. In the 1950s, the euphemism “reacomodo,” which means “rearrangement” or “reshuffling,” was coined to designate indigenous extermination while obscuring the colonial matrix.
That Rivera Garza’s contradictory portrait of Rulfo would be considered defamatory is itself representative of modernity’s colonial blind spot, which, like Freud’s neurotic, cannot bear to hear its past openly or honestly discussed. An active agent of the Mexican state’s modernization project and a passionate believer in progress, Rulfo’s reports to the Papaloapan Commission amplified 1950s attitudes about Oaxaca as one of Mexico’s “backwards” regions, whose natives were seen as primitive and thus nonexistent. Their territory was officially qualified as “virgin” (or empty). Describing the living conditions of Chinantecos and Mazatecos in the Soyaltepec Valley region, Rulfo took an active, first-hand role in their reacomodo, helping to justify the government’s efforts to displace and dispossess them. Nevertheless, Rivera Garza also portrays Rulfo as an advocate working in solidarity with indigenous communities, looking melancholically at their ruin and misery though his photographs that document the imminent loss of vital, indigenous material culture.
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