Many students of Latin American literature will have run across Carlos Fuentes in their readings, or perhaps as the narrator of a video on Mexican history. A Mexican writer with universal appeal, Fuentes traveled the world writing in Paris, London, Buenos Aires and, of course, Mexico City throughout his life. He died on Tuesday at Angeles del Pedregal hospital in Mexico City at age 83. The causes of his death have not yet been released, although the Associated Press states that he was originally admitted to the hospital to treat heart problems.
He was a central figure of the magical realist literature of the late twentieth century, often paired with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from Colombia, and Jorge Luis Borges, from Argentina. His many novels and essays, including “The Death of Artemio Cruz,” and “A Change of Skin,” often reflected on the state of the Mexican government and central epochs and themes of the country’s past, such as the Mexican Revolution.
His writing career took off in the 1950s when he published his first novel, “La region mas transparente” (“Where the Air is Clear”), in 1958. Many other novels followed throughout the 60s and 70s as his writing gained traction on the global stage. Perhaps one of his most famous works is “The Old Gringo,” which documents the upheaval and shifting sense of identity caused by the Mexican Revolution. The novel was eventually turned into a film starring Jane Fonda.
Fuentes served as an ambassador for England and France during different periods of his life and always remained an outspoken and candid critic of governmental abuses of power, even when that stance garnered him harsh criticism. He stepped down from his post as ambassador to England after the brutalities of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. He was also accused of having Communist sympathies and was barred from the U.S. for a period of time. His outspoken views garnered him worldwide praise and he won the Cervantes Prize in 1987.
As the son of a diplomat, he spent his childhood traveling around the world. He utilized his writing, which combined elements of grounded critique with unique and specific cultural references to Mexican history, to make insightful commentary that he felt would have been censored had he published them in a non-fiction format.
Fuentes possessed a powerful presence that left a strong impression on those around him. He was often asked to narrate history and educational programs, speaking in clean, nearly perfect English and, of course, Spanish. He wore a signature thin moustache and a mane of white hair which lent him a distinguished and graceful carriage. His charismatic demeanor probably served him well in the career of ambassador and cultural critic.
Fuentes saw himself as a citizen of two cultures, the Latin American world and the Anglo-Saxon world, because he grew up moving around the globe with his parents. He spent his youth imagining entire worlds through novels and films. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 2006, Fuentes said:
I was a very studious young man. As a little boy I read a lot. That was solitary in a way, because I knew my friends wouldn’t last more than two or three years, then another change, new friends. So I had to build my own inner world through reading, movies, radio at the time.
Fuentes was also a controversial character, with a tendency to speak candidly about global political issues. He was critical of the handling of deaths in Mexico due to current drug wars. He was also openly critical of the war on terror led by the United States, according to the Associated Press’s obituary of the author.
His prolific career as a noted and respected writer produced a long list of memorable and provacative novels, such as “Aura.” The novel was banned in Puerto Rican high schools because of its discussion of race and sexual encounters, according to the Associated Press. He also produced hundreds of critical articles and essays. He was still publishing insightful critiques into 2012. He will be greatly missed in the creative and literary worlds. Even Mexico’s current president mourned the loss of Fuentes on Twitter, hoping the author will “Descanze en paz,” or “Rest in peace.” He served as a bright and inspirational light that challenged the world and demanded we look at our own histories and identities with scrutiny and care.
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