Elena Poniatowska

“Inside the Actor’s Studio” is a television program I enjoy watching. The one hour interviews hosted by James Lipton are insightful and respectful. The celebrities on the show look like they want to be there, and they speak freely about their views on a wide variety of topics. Mr. Lipton asks ten questions at the end of every interview, and sometimes he also adds:

If you could sit down to dinner with anyone, who would that be, and why?

The names run the full gamut – Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Katherine Hepburn – and so on. Admiration is usually the main reason for the actors’ choices.

Well, if I am ever asked that question, my choice will be Elena Poniatowska. Hands down.  And yes, admiration would definitely be one of my reasons for choosing her.

Elena was born in Paris, France on May 19, 1932. Her father was a Polish aristocrat; her mother’s family was among the elite who settled in Europe after the Mexican Revolution. When Elena was ten years old, World War II forced the family to flee from France. She moved to Mexico City with her mother and her brother.

E021She spoke French as a child and learned Spanish in Mexico. In her teens, she attended an American boarding school where she studied English. In 1953 she started working for Excélsior, a Mexico City daily. At first she was assigned the society columns, but she soon turned her attention to social and political issues – eventually she became the voice of those who have no voice. Her best known work is La Noche de Tlatelolco (the English translation is called Massacre in Mexico) It is an account of  the repression of the 1968 student protest movement in Mexico.

Dos Veces UnicaThe recipient of numerous honorary doctorates from universities in Mexico and abroad, she has been awarded every major decoration for literature, including Spain’s Premio Cervantes.  She is considered to be “Mexico’s grande dame of letters” and at 83, she is still actively writing. Dos Veces Única, her latest biography about the life of Lupe Marín (Diego Rivera’s wife before Frida Kahlo) has just been released. She autographed a copy for me last night, and when I asked her how many books she has written, she said, “close to fifty.” As well, she has thousands of articles, reviews and interviews to her credit. The sheer volume of work is amazing – that it is of such high caliber is mind-blowing.

Michael Schuessler's best known book, Peregrina
Michael Schuessler’s best known book, Peregrina

Last evening, my wish came true. My friend Michael Schuessler and I were invited to dinner at Elena’s home. We were joined by her son and three of her grandchildren. It is easy to see that Elena’s family is her greatest joy. The children had passed the afternoon with her, looking through her “treasure boxes”. I was reminded of times with my own grandmother, and later, with my Aunt Gisele. How I loved hearing the stories behind the keepsakes.

Michael Schuessler is a well known author too. He has just returned from Turkey and he brought our hostess a silk and velvet shawl. She put it around her shoulders right away and commented on how elegant it would look with a black velvet skirt she owns. She leaned closer to me. “I love the gifts that Michael brings me,” she said.

E002If possible, Elena Poniatowska’s persona is even more extraordinary than her work. Despite her fame, she remains unaffected, kind and thoughtful – with everyone. When I gave her a copy of my book, CIRCLES, she congratulated me and looked at every page. She complemented my illustrations and the design of the book. She told me she would begin reading that very night!

I also gave her a copy of Sidewalk Symphony, a book of bilingual poetry, written by my friend Marianne Kehoe. Elena was delighted with the poems and illustrations by Doug Greenwood. She then asked to be photographed holding both our books.

I must say that the time I spent with Elena in her home was the best possible end for my book tour – like being served a perfect piece of lemon meringue pie after a delicious meal.

I will savor the memory of last evening for a long, long time to come.


I had a window seat on the last leg of my Vancouver – Mexico City flight.  Usually I prefer being next to the aisle, but on this trip I craned my neck back and forth, fascinated by the illuminated blanket laid out below me.  For more than half an hour, we flew over large clusters of lights traveling up one side of the mountains and back down the other. The twinkling leap-frogged across what I thought might be bodies of water, and finally evened out as we touched down at Benito Juarez International Airport.

While our plane taxied to the gate, I reflected that only from the air is it possible to imagine an area big enough to house greater Mexico City’s population of twenty-two and a half million people.

I’ll be in this super-sized  place for the next five days giving my final book presentations, including one at the UNAM on Monday. However, I must say that I had mixed emotions about being here today – the anniversary of the student massacre at Tlatelolco.

On October 2, 1968, 10,000 university and high school students gathered at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, a huge public housing project, not far from the city center.  Their agenda called for speeches against specific government actions.

Since the summer, the students had staged other peaceful demonstrations and the politicians of the day had lost all patience with them. They feared that the protests would interrupt the carefully orchestrated plans for the Mexico City Olympics, due to begin in just ten days time .

Shortly before 6:00 pm, 5,000 soldiers and 200 armored vehicles surrounded the plaza. The troops’ advance left dead and wounded in their wake. In the dark hours that followed, soldiers and police continued searching for more students in the apartment buildings around the square.

There are no reliable accounts of how many people lost their lives that night and in the days that followed. But it is clear that the scars left by Tlatelolco have not healed.

While here, I am staying with my friend Suzi, a fellow Canadian. For reasons (that were later proved to be justified) she and I decided not to go to the Plaza of Three Cultures for today’s commemoration of the tragedy. Nonetheless, we wanted to mark the day in a meaningful way.  We chose to visit the recently-opened Tuvie Maizel Jewish Museum.

No one can fail to be moved by the terrible account of the Nazis’ systematic extermination of six million people. But this museum also presents the stories of Jewish survivors who came to Mexico after World War II. They settled throughout the country, especially in the capital, and built new lives.

Suzi and I left the museum in a reflective mood. We could not help thinking of the current exodus of Syrian refugees from their homeland. It is estimated that during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries 160,000,000 people have died in wars around the world . That is about eight times the number of people living in this megatropolis. It would have taken four hours to fly over a distance big enough to contain that many people.

And this does not even take into account “national conflicts” –  like Tlatelolco.

Will we ever learn?

My bags are packed; I’m ready to go…

The two and a half weeks I’ve spent in Canada have passed so quickly, and in a few hours I will commence a full day of travel to Mexico City. I’ll stay there for five days before returning to Merida.

In La Capital, I’ll be meeting with other writers I know, and I will present CIRCLES at:

The Center for North American Studies at the UNAM

Monday October 5, 2015

12:00 pm

Sala de Seminarios, piso 7,

Torre II de Humanidades, Ciudad Universitaria

Moderator: Silvia Núñez Garcia – CISAN-UNAM

Commentary: Claire Joysmith – CISAN-UNAM

The event is open to all, so if you are in Mexico City, please come.


Regular readers of Writing From Merida will remember that the last time I traveled from Canada, I returned home with the doll house my grandfather made for me. He gave it to me on my first Christmas, and now I plan to pass on the restored doll house to my granddaughter.

Today my anxiety level is once again high because I will be carrying back the little chair that Granddad owned as a boy. It is close to 150 years old and I pray it will arrive intact. I have it stowed in an extra suitcase, well-padded by rolled-up clothes and sixty hand-knit caps that my Aunt Alice is contributing to the International Women’s Club of Merida (IWC). The caps will be added to the stockpile made by IWC volunteers.


The Merida knitters call themselves, “The Gorro Girls.” They meet at the Merida English Library every 15 days to knit and crochet caps for children at the cancer hospital who are undergoing radiation treatments. The soft little beanies keep the small shaved heads warm. The club also gives the kids activity books, crayons, story books and toys that help to pass their lonely days in the hospital.

Like Auntie Alice, even if you are not a member of the IWC, you can help the Gorro Girls. For more info, please contact Marianne.


For the next stop on my book tour, my sister Anne and I did not exactly enjoy stretch-limo transportation. In fact, we rode the Greyhound to Merritt… along with a whole busload of sleepy black leather-clad, horn-sprouting AC / DC fans who traveled from up-country to Vancouver for the AC-DC concert on Tuesday night.

45,000 crowded into BC Place to hear the Aussie head-banging band band known for its loud, no frills rock and sweet piercing vocals. With three other major events also taking place that night, there was no room for all at the Vancouver inns.

And so, after partying all night, the rocked-out gang snored-away in their seats as the big skies whizzed by.

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I have been so focused lately on my book, CIRCLES, but yesterday, I was caught up with bookends.

I went to one of my favorite places in the Vancouver area – Horseshoe Bay. And I was joined by two of my favorite people in the whole world.

Heather and I go back to high school. Oh the stories I could tell – but won’t!

Mary and I met just a few years later, in Lima, Peru – more stories!

I have known both of them for more than 40 years.

I’ve shared so much with these two women. We have laughed together and certainly we have cried. Most of the time, we have simply “been there.” Although we live thousands of physical miles apart, I always feel close to these two.

As we sat together, I was struck by how much people passing by don’t see. To their eyes, we surely seemed like three ladies “of a certain age”, spending a pleasant day together. But we are so much more than that.

Again, stories not told.

I was reminded of the song, Bookends, by Simon & Garfunkle. It was popular then. I still love it now.

Time it was and what a time it was it was…
A time of innocence a time of confidences
Long ago it must be, I have a photograph 

22 OCT 09

Preserve your memories
There all that’s left of you.

Writing and Intercultural Living…


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