Carlos Fuentes: A Conversation With the Great Novelist

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In this episode of World of Ideas, Bill talks with Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who has created a role for himself as interpreter of North and South America, explaining each to the other, looking at their conflicts from both sides of the border.

Raised in Washington, DC, where his father was a Mexican diplomat, he is a man of and between two worlds. His novels include The Death of Artemio Cruz, A Change of Skin, Distant Relations and The Old Gringo.



Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. The story is told of a high school student who decided to study Latin. When her parents asked her why, she answered, “Because I want to talk to people from Latin America.” As the National Geographic Society reported recently, Americans’ ignorance about the globe is almost as great as our influence on it. The decisions made every day in Washington ruffle a whole world most of us can’t even picture in our minds. A celebrated writer from Mexico has something to say about that. “Cultures that live in isolation,” he says, “perish.” And he’s not speaking Latin. Join me in this visit with Carlos Fuentes.

When Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, comes to the United States, he is both foreign visitor and native son come home again. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father was a diplomat. Throughout his own career as writer, teacher and diplomat himself, he has remained a man between two worlds. He is an interpreter for North and South America, explaining each to the other, looking at their conflicts from both sides. We met in New York City, near Gramercy Park, at the National Arts Club. The club honored Fuentes this year with its Medal of Honor for Literature. To this cosmopolitan man, New York is a favorite place.

Somebody said New York is not an American city. Chicago’s an American city, Dallas is an American city, San Francisco’s an American city, but New York is not.

Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes

CARLOS FUENTES: It belongs to all of us. That’s right. That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Do you feel at home here?

CARLOS FUENTES: I feel at home here but probably I am lulled into feeling at home. I remember once, in Mexico City, I was finishing a novel, A Change of Skin, and having a lot of trouble. I couldn’t finish the novel. I was distracted, nervous, so I said I had to go to New York and get away from Mexico and finish it. I arrived in New York, I went to live at the house of a friend of mine, Roben Wohl, on Central Park West. It was wonderful, it was very energetic at that time in the-’64, ’65, New York was in the discotheque era and the ’60s were so vibrant in the city. And I danced and went out with girls and had energy for writing every morning and finished the novel, wrote a hundred pages, went to Paris with the finished novel, showed to my friend the Argentinian writer, Julio Ponazar. He read it and said, “Yes, it’s great except for the last hundred pages. They have nothing to do with your novel.” And I re-read it and said, “Indeed, this part of my novel was not written by me, it was written by the City of New York.” You become a vessel for the incredible energy of New York City which writes novels through you, through myself.

BILL MOYERS: If you were describing New York in the scene of a novel in which you were setting the atmosphere of the place, trying to characterize the city, what would be the force of that characterization? Energy?

CARLOS FUENTES: No, I would go to an absolute counterpoint, what is most sedate in New York, to what people do not associate New York with. I think that’s what writers always do. You look for things that are not the stereotype, not the clichÈ and from there you try to find a new truth, a new reality . You try to go beyond the accepted truths.

BILL MOYERS: Have you found this new truth?

CARLOS FUENTES: Oh, no, no, I never find a truth and if I found a truth, I would ICII you and you would have me shot. I believe in people who are looking for the truth, not people who have found the truth. I hope that you and I are looking for the truth. We won’t find it and if we say we have found it, we won’t believe each other, would we?

BILL MOYERS: No, I did find something recently, though. I was back in my home state of Texas. A colleague and I were doing a documentary about the border of Texas, the border between my pan of North America and your part of Latin America. We called it, in fact, One River, One Country, because what we found there on the Rio Grande River is a country that hasn’t existed before, at least in my description of it, a country that is neither Mexican and a country that is neither Anglo, neither Texas nor Mexico, a new country. Do you think we were exaggerating when we say that there’s one river, one country growing up between the United States and Mexico?

CARLOS FUENTES: No. No, no. I admire — I read a long time ago this very extraordinary book by Garreau called The Nine Nations of North America and I took from him the idea which I incorporated into my last novel, Christopher Unborn, where Mexico is dismembered more or less in the year 1992, and in the frontier there is a new nation, one hundred miles north of the present frontier between Mexico and the United States and one hundred miles south and it’s called Mexamerica. And it’s a country of confusion of language, it goes from San Diego on the Pacific and Auntie Jane, which is Tijuana to Kilmores, which is Matamoros, and Cafecitoville, which is Brownsville. There’s a great mixture of Spanish and English. It’s a new nation that has said, “A plague on both your houses,” to Washington and Mexico City. They protect human rights, they let refugees go by, they let migrants go by, they have their own industries, they have their own drug-smuggling organizations. It thrives. It thrives on its own. It’s a new nation.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that’s happening?

CARLOS FUENTES: In a way, yes. You know, I’m convinced that cultures that live in isolation perish and it is only cultures that communicate and give things to one another that thrive, that live. I’m not afraid of communication with another culture. You have an influence over the culture of Mexico but we have an influence over the culture of the United States. When you get a proposition in California to vote the English language as the official language of the state of California, this only means one thing and it is that English is no longer the official language of the state of California. Something has happened. I want to be a Greek, not an Aztec. Greeks communicated. They felt the presence of the other, the presence of the foreign, the menace of Persia, of Asia. They had to fight with what negated them. The Aztecs didn’t know the world existed outside the boundaries of the Aztec empire. When the Spaniards arrived, they died of fright. I think what conquered them was fright and astonishment that there was another world they had never thought of. They were paralyzed to death.

BILL MOYERS: So you’re not afraid of what my late friend Joseph Campbell called “a mighty multicultural future.”

CARLOS FUENTES: I am not at all. I am not at all. I think that having an identity means that you can accept challenges and influences from everywhere.

BILL MOYERS: If you were a young novelist today, Carlos-

CARLOS FUENTES: I am a young novelist. What do you think I am?

BILL MOYERS: I mean not spiritually, I mean if you were 20 instead of in our 50’s, where would you go to find what Hemingway found in his day in Spain and Steinbeck found in his day in southern California? Where would you go?

CARLOS FUENTES: You ask me a terrible question because when these days I am asked, “Where do you live?” I say, “On Clipper Class of Pan American Airways.” I’m just moving around too much. I have to settle down.

BILL MOYERS: I would have thought you might have said that if I were an aspiring young Hemingway or Steinbeck that instead of going to Spain or to California, I would have gone to Mexico, I would have gone to this new frontier down there on the border, this Mesoamerica that you talk about, this no-man’s-land, everyman’s land between Brownsville and Mexico City.


BILL MOYERS: Because it seems to me something very extraordinary is happening there.

CARLOS FUENTES: Well, yes, all of Latin America is changing in such an extraordinary fashion, you know. One sees the debt, the crisis, but one doesn’t realize that this is part of a huge growth, very disordered and anarchic growth which you can bring down to a few statistics and it is that the population of Latin America has doubled since the 1950’s and will double again to 400 million by the end of the century, and it is a very young population. Half of it is 15 years old or less. It is an urban population. Most Latin Americans today live in cities. It is a population anxious for jobs, for social care, for opportunities. Every single Latin American who will demand a job by the year 2000 has already been born, Bill. And every single Latin American child who is born today is born owing $1,000 to a foreign bank. That is also true.

BILL MOYERS: Do people with whom you deal down there have any understanding of the extent to which the scene as it is looked at from this part of the world is frightening? That Americans do get concerned about “their national security” when they look at this enormous burgeoning population of young people, unemployment very high, poverty very rampant, that they look and they’re scared?

CARLOS FUENTES: Well, they’d better start thinking about solutions instead of getting scared because getting scared we’re not going to get to first base. But if we start thinking about solving problems together in cooperation and not in dominance and without the solutions coming from the United States and being imposed unilaterally upon us but by recreating a policy of consultation, respect for working together, for finding solutions together, respect for Latin American initiatives, we might stand coping with these problems which you’re mentioning which have to do with migration and jobs and debts and drugs, we can solve these problems together. I’m not afraid of that

BILL MOYERS: And yet in your novel which is being turned into a film, The Old Gringo, you write that “this border is not really a border, it’s a scar, a deep scar.” What do you mean by scar?

CARLOS FUENTES: By that, I mean that you have here a border which is unique in the world. It’s the only border between the industrialized world and, in this case, the most powerful industrialized nation, the United States and the emerging, developing, non-industrialized world. It’s the only place, I think, that it exists. It is the border between two cultures. It is the border between the northern, Protestant, capitalistic culture of the United States and the Southern Mediterranean Catholic culture of Latin America We’re very conscious in Mexico that Latin America begins at that border, not only Mexico but the whole of Latin America, so we feel a great responsibility, in a way, in representing all of Latin America It’s a heavy charge. But also it’s a scar because, of course, it’s the place where we lose half our territory to you in the War of 1847-48 and we don’t forget that. And neither do the workers-

BILL MOYERS: Really, you don’t forget that?

CARLOS FUENTES: Oh, it’s in the Mexican mind, totally impressed on the Mexican mind-

BILL MOYERS: Like the man whose leg has been amputated but he remembers it?

CARLOS FUENTES: Yes, who still-it still aches. h still aches.

BILL MOYERS: Let me tell you how Mexico looks to a lot of North Americans. A one-party state, a corrupt party, a party where union officials, government officials, the police, are all eminently available to bribes, a party where journalists -there’ve been a dozen journalists killed in Mexico in the last year for speaking up against the official policies of the state. A country that hasn’t come to grips with its population explosion, a country that isn’t facing up to the mature responsibilities of modem nationhood. Now, that’s how, to many North Americans, Mexico looks. Fair appraisal?

CARLOS FUENTES: Shall I tell how the United States looks to many Mexicans? A corrupt-

BILL MOYERS: I have a feeling you’re going to.

CARLOS FUENTES: A corrupt country where officials are constantly indicted – look at all the people in the Reagan Administration, Watergate, all the systems of corruption – a country that is indebted, highly indebted, more than Mexico, Brazil and Argentina; that cannot take care of its trade deficits, that cannot handle its economy seriously, that is incapacitating generations to come in order to get a quick fix and live off credit and borrow, and borrow, and borrow, with total irresponsibility for the coming generations, a country that cannot take care of the demand of drugs that creates the drug problem in Latin America, it cannot take care of its homeless, of its old people. Wow, when are you going to get your house in order, gringos, uh? So we have problems. We both have problems, you see.

BILL MOYERS: I’ll tell you what’s good about Mexico, as I see it, and then you tell me what you think is good about the United States. When I go there, what I see there, I love the feeling of life, I love the literature. I love the care that seems to exist among families, I love the faith that people have in life, the love of life that seems to exist. I see a country rich in tradition. I find people who are gentle to us and patient with us and kind to us. I find a culture that, I think, if I were a young Hemingway or I were a young Steinbeck, I would go to instead of Spain or southern California I like the buoyancy of those people and dislike the indifference of their government. But that’s good about Mexico to me. What’s good about this country?

CARLOS FUENTES: Oh, so many things. The capacity for self-criticism of this country is admirable. Constancy to its literature, its press, its institutions, the vitality of the civil society in this country and of its institutions to identify problems, to propose solutions for the problems. All this I find extremely admirable and I’ve been trying to communicate this to my fellow Latin Americans for a long, long time.

BILL MOYERS: Can the two meet-


BILL MOYERS: Or is this history that you’ve described in so many of your novels, is it a barrier? Is it-

CARLOS FUENTES: No, no, no. I don’t think it’s a barrier at all, any more you should have a barrier with France or with Japan or with China or with the Soviet Union or with India, with anybody.

BILL MOYERS: So the border is passable, psychologically?

CARLOS FUENTES: Oh, of course.

BILL MOYERS: The wound is healable?

CARLOS FUENTES: You can build bridges. In The Old Gringo, this novel of mine, where the image of a bridge over the Rio Grande suddenly bursting into flames, you don’t know why. Of course, you can build a bridge, you can also bum it but you can build a bridge. I think we are entering an era in which you should be building bridges. We have a lot of problems to solve from here to the year 2000, the United States and Latin America. We’d better get down to it and slop losing time and-stupid wars and the Contras and all the things that we’ve lost time with in the last ten years.

BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t the United States have a legitimate national security interest in Central America?

CARLOS FUENTES: Yes, yes, but that is something that can be arranged. I think there’s a basic quid pro quo in inter-American relations and it is, you give us non-intervention, we give you security guarantees and we both give each other cooperation, how about that?

BILL MOYERS: There is this fear that the Sandinistas, being Marxist in mentality with ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, that somehow the Soviet Union gets a beachhead in Central America to go with the one in Cuba, that Mexico’s vulnerable, as you yourself have said, with all of these problems, and that suddenly we find the balance of power between the two super powers has shifted.

CARLOS FUENTES: No, I think that in the first place, that particular issue you’re referring to is some-thing that could always be negotiated away. The Sandinistas were always willing to sit down and say no Soviet presence in Nicaragua, no Soviet bases, no Soviet aid and, as soon as there is a true semblance of peace, not even any Soviet arms. But then, we had reached another situation in which the Soviet is not about to salvage the revolution in Nicaragua or any other place in world, they have too many problems of their own. In the Gorbachev era, I don’t see the Soviet Union investing billions of dollars in Nicaragua, in the-they just have too many places, other frontiers to guard. Suddenly, this nation, which is a very paranoid nation — the Soviet Union, Russia — finds itself surrounded more than at any period in its history by challenges of an enormous nature. The Soviet Union under the present system, under the present methods, with the present economic system, its lack of economic performance will not be a great power in the 21st century. This is something that Gorbachev has understood, so his problem is transforming the Soviet Union into many, many savable countries for the 21st century. I don’t think he’s going to gamble it away on a faraway spot in Central America.

BILL MOYERS: Both the Soviet Union and the United States sometimes appear to me like two aging, overweight, exhausted prizefighters. They’re still in the ring, they’re on tour, they’re going twenty, thirty rounds but it’s slow motion, that they’re really not landing-

CARLOS FUENTES: It’s like Tony Galento and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom meeting forever, you know. You get bored with it. They’re punch drunk by now. And other centers of power are rising in the world. Other centers of power are rising. We’re going to a multi-polar world. We’re leaving be-hind the Age of Yalta.

BILL MOYERS: Yalta? The agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States?

CARLOS FUENTES: Where the agreement was made, more or less, to say, we have a condominium of power, the world will be ruled by two great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States and the rest of us will play secondary roles, cameo roles in the world as it were. This is over now. I think the rise of Western Europe as a power in itself, an economic power, the rise of Japan which is spectacular, of course, the rise of China, all these new centers of power assures that the 21st century will be the century of multi-polar and not bi-polar organization. So the Soviet Union and the United States will continue to be great powers, very important influences, but not as much as they have been since 1945. It’ll be different and they will have to adjust and some-time it difficult for a great power to adjust to a diminished position in the world. But I say, hey, join the human race.

BILL MOYERS: If you could write a one-paragraph letter to the next president of the United States, whoever he is, trying to say, “This is what you need to understand about what’s happening in my culture, in Latin America,” what would it say? What would be the essence of the letter?

CARLOS FUENTES: The essence of it would be the era of dominance is over, the era of cooperation is opening.

BILL MOYERS: But we’ve heard that for so long.

CARLOS FUENTES: No, no, but we have not done it for so long. We did it and it worked with Roosevelt. With Franklin Roosevelt, it worked. It’s the only policy that’s worked. I go back to it because it’s not as though we have to invent a new policy for relations between the United States and Latin America. We have had a policy that worked for twenty years under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

BILL MOYERS: But during this period of time, our governments were supporting [UNINTELL]. Roosevelt and Truman did not.

CARLOS FUENTES: They were also supporting the Mexican Revolution. I mean, what do you understand by support? No! It was an attitude on the part of Roosevelt of saying, “You, Latin Americans, deal with your Latin American problems. We don’t intervene. Whatever kind of government you give yourselves, okay, and we cooperate with everybody and-”

BILL MOYERS: Including Pinochet in Chile?

CARLOS FUENTES: Including Pinochet in Chile.

BILL MOYERS: Including the repressive Sandinistas, if they should come?

CARLOS FUENTES: Including everybody on the map, everybody, and this is the point. And this is what the moralistic and puritanical aspect of the United States -which is the most detestable aspect of the United States, the self-righteous, holier-than-thou aspect of the United States -will not count in this, it simply will have to deal with any kind of regime in Latin America. Look at Roosevelt. He dealt with Somoza. Cynically, he said, “Somoza is a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.” He dealt with Trujillo but he dealt also with Mexico under Cardenas, agrarian reform, expropriation of oil, resisting urges to boycott Mexico, to apply sanctions, to invade Mexico. No, we negotiate with the Mexicans. We may not agree with what they’re doing. He tolerated-not only tolerated, he dealt very well with the Estado Novo in Brazil, Gettilio Vargas, the fascist cooperative of the Stale. He accepted, dealt diplomatically with the Popular Front in Chile, made of Communists, Socialists and Radicals. He dealt with everybody on the scene normally, normally, saying, “We deal with everybody. We have trade with everybody, diplomatic relations with everybody and if problems arise, we negotiate them.” This is the policy I would favor, you see.

BILL MOYERS: And you’re saying that if we see blatant examples of abuse of human rights, if we see opposition in Nicaragua, Guatemala, that we just say that’s pan of-

CARLOS FUENTES: None of your business. None of your business. Let us deal with our problems. If we see opposition in the United States, if we see abuses of human rights, if we see your prisons, if we see your homeless, do we rush in and invade you and tell you what to do and insult you and- No! It’s your problems. If we do not define your internal policies, don’t try to define ours. The concern of citizens is another problem. We can manifest ourselves through writing, through the press, giving interviews, doing this and doing that. What is not possible is for any government to believe that it has a right to intervene in the internal affairs of another government and this is our essential principle in Latin America and if the next administration, whoever is in it in the United States, docs not understand this principle, again, once more, it’ll be in trouble in Latin America.

BILL MOYERS: But you don’t – but isn’t that denying a substantial sentiment in America among people who are your friends who say, “If the political prisoners of Cuba cry out, we cannot turn our back on them. If the Sandinistas repress, we can’t turn our back upon its victims. If Pinochet oppresses, we can’t turn our backs upon this; that we in the United States have to take a stand for the cry of the oppressed, the cry of the prisoner, the cry of the fallen, the wounded?”

CARLOS FUENTES: And we do the same in regard to your problems, you know, your own people, your homeless, to your drug-ridden communities, to all these problems you have in the United States, your blacks. Okay, we can do the same and it’s okay, as long as the citizens do it. What I don’t see is a coalition of Latin American governments creating a Contra force to come into the United States to see that the prisons are humane or that the roofless get a roof. This is what is not possible, you sec. There we have a big, big difference and unless this is understood, we’re going to have bad relations.

BILL MOYERS: So in your book, the Monroe Doctrine, 145 years later, is still in effect! Europeans, stay out-

CARLOS FUENTES: No. No, no, on the contrary. I think that we can cooperate, not intervene. We are not asking the United States to roll over and play dead. What we’re asking is not to go abroad in search of monsters, as John Quincy Adams once wrote. Don’t go, don’t do this. We are asking to cooperate. Is this so difficult to understand?

BILL MOYERS: In principle, I agree, but in practice you confront me with a very difficult situation. Take Guatemala, which for a number of years was run by a murderous group of military butchers. You know that Argentina, when the civilians were disappeared, run by the military. The Argentinians, the Guatemalans say, “Help us, America. Tell these people that they’re wrong, they’re unjust.” Now, are you saying that it’s all right for Japan to go in there and just trade with them and just close the eye to this butchery and the United States should do the same?

CARLOS FUENTES: Yes, you have a very strong civil society, very strong organs of public opinion that can take care of that. That is not the function of a government. You speak of Guatemala? The genocide that has occurred in Guatemala has an origin in the American intervention of 1954. For ten years, the Guatemalan Revolution was able to organize itself on a democratic basis to create public education, to create public corporations, to create workers’ rights and suddenly the United States, the CIA, marches in, topples the duly elected government and opens an era of thirty years of repression and of military dictatorship in Guatemala, so this is the result of interventionism, exactly what you are denouncing. Or you pour three billion dollars into El Salvador and what do you get? Death squads and the Arena Pany and repression, so you’re not solving anything through intervention-

BILL MOYERS: So is trade all that matters? Trade, commerce-

CARLOS FUENTES: No, no, it’s good relations and settling of differences, selling of actual differences through diplomatic means. If not, we get into the same trouble we’ve seen in Central America, in which you close your eyes to what goes on in El Salvador but you denounce what goes on in Nicaragua. You forget what goes on in Honduras. It’s a choosy thing. It’s difficult for a nation to go on playing goody-two-shoes all the time while actually keeping some skeletons hidden in the cellar. No, it’s better if you finally act as a responsible, serious stale, as a nation that is serious in its diplomatic arrangements and doesn’t go around as the puritan moralistic preacher of this world. Come on. There are different systems in the world, there are different nationalities, there are different Cultures, there are different personalities. I mean, there are many people that are not like me on the streets but that doesn’t mean I can’t communicate with them. On the contrary, it’s a challenge, it’s a wonderful challenge to be able to communicate with what is not like you. What is terrible is when a nation with power says, “What is not like me should be ex-terminated.” Germany, Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, things like that That was really frightening. But as long as you say, “I am what I am but that doesn’t mean I’m better than any-body else, it means I’m different and the other one is different, too, and we can understand each other, we can talk, we can communicate,” that is the basic altitude, I think, that makes life civilized and diplomacy possible as the expression of civilized concourse between nations.

BILL MOYERS: {voice-over} From the National Arts Club in New York City, this has been a conversation with Carlos Fuentes. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 26, 2015. It may contain some errors. The DVD of this interview and others from the World of Ideas series is available at Amazon.

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