In the short story “Es que somos muy pobres,” Juan Rulfo describes a river bursting its banks. The river is brown and roaring, a destructive force ravaging the landscape and assaulting the senses. “You could smell it the way you can smell a fire,” the story’s nameless narrator recounts, “it’s so loud you can only see mouths opening and closing as if they want to say something; but you can’t hear a word.” For hours he stands with his sister at the edge of a ravine, watching as the river swells and grows dark, swallowing bridges and spilling into the homes and streets of their town.
Rulfo’s literary reputation rests on just two slim books—the short story collection El Llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames), first published in 1953, and the novel Pedro Páramo, released two years later. Pedro Páramo would arguably go on to become the defining novel of Mexico’s twentieth century, inspiring the writers of Latin America’s “Boom” generation and helping to usher in a new age of literature across the continent. The book’s sense of ghostliness and surrealism also helped plant the seeds that would later grow into magical realism, and was cited as a central influence by the likes of Gabriel García Márquez, who went on to win the Nobel Prize.
I first read Rulfo in college, for a class on the Latin American short story, and remember the experience of reading his work like I remember no other. I sat in a dark corner of the campus coffee shop in a deep couch and opened my course book to “Es que somos muy pobres.” Our course readings were all in the original Spanish, and the class marked the first time I was being made to read serious literature in the language spoken by my ancestors, a language never passed on to me, but which I nonetheless endeavored to learn as part of an unending search for reclamation.
I still remember sitting in that café as I read the story’s opening paragraphs, falling headlong into its simple, unadorned sentences. Despite a few linguistic barriers, I could feel Rulfo’s prose gripping me in a way I had never before experienced in my second language. The story’s central drama is that Tacha, the narrator’s sister, has lost her cow to the swollen river: a cow given to her by her father to serve as a dowry to help attract a decent husband, an animal that represented all the wealth and promise the family could muster. In a rural Mexico ruled by machismo, Tacha holds little agency, and her father is certain that, without the promise of a dowry, her maturing body will fetch only the worst kind of attention, the worst kind of men.
“Tacha cries when she thinks her cow won’t come back because the river has killed it,” her brother tells us. “She’s right here at my side, in her pink dress, looking at the river from the top of the ravine, unable to stop crying. Streams of dirty water run down her face, as if the river were inside of her. I put my arms around her, trying to comfort her, but she doesn’t understand. She cries even more. A sound similar to the one sweeping along the riverbanks emerges from her lips, making her shiver, and she trembles all over.”
These lines, coming at the end of the story, were the ones that hooked me on Rulfo: I had perhaps never read a more affecting description of how a landscape could be held within the body, or how it could flow out from it as well. A year later I would go to central Mexico for a semester abroad. During Semana Santa I traveled with a friend to the region where Rulfo was born, to the same towns and villages in southern Jalisco that shaped his prose, his sense of language, his stark worldview. We walked and hitchhiked and took buses across El Llano Grande, battling the heat of early March. We visited tiny cultural centers and met archivists schooled in the intricacies of Rulfo’s life. We found distant family members and town elders who pointed us toward sites and landmarks that figured in his books, wandering into fields and napping beside horses and cattle, and venturing, finally, up into the mountains, where we camped beside a dirt road that cut through the pines, sleeping on a bed of fallen needles.
Everywhere we went on that trip I looked for traces of the Mexico sketched in Rulfo’s books, hunting for images frozen in time: empty streets and crumbling buildings, fields of agave and maiz, rolling desert vistas and ruined haciendas. But the Mexico I sought was, of course, a fiction—an aesthetic more than a reality. Likewise, the figure I was chasing was not a real person, either, but the outline of a myth, the truth of which, I would later understand, lay hidden beneath the surface even in the places that most laid claim to his legacy.
I returned to Jalisco to reacquaint myself with the land of Rulfo this past January, arriving in Guadalajara late at night under a vast cloud of rain. The next morning, the bus to El Llano Grande left the station nearly empty, gathering more and more passengers as it approached the southern edge of the city. At the last stop before leaving the outskirts behind us, I was nudged by a man in a cowboy hat with gray sideburns and a dyed-black mustache, who asked timidly if he might take the empty seat next to me. Of course, I said, trying to seem generous. The man sat down and pulled out a plastic container of salad, devouring several forkfuls before turning to me to ask, with the utmost sincerity, if I wanted a bite. I declined, telling him I had already eaten, and offered him in return one of the dulce de leche candies I had purchased from a street vendor. He smiled widely, his mouth still full of salad. I shouldn’t, he told me, I’m trying to eat healthy.
As the drive wore on, the man asked if I was from Guadalajara, and acted surprised when I said no, that I was from Arizona.
You know, he told me, I spent thirty years en el otro lado, working in fields all over the country. He began to list the states where he had worked: Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, even Nebraska. I worked in Arizona too, he said, in cotton, citrus, lettuce. But that was a long time ago, back in the seventies.
I chuckled and told him that, as someone born in the eighties, the country he’d seen in those days would have been foreign even to me. I glanced out the window at the open highway and a vast field of sugarcane. Things must have been so different back then, I said—it’s hard to even imagine.
The man shrugged. No place stays the same, he said. Then he pointed out the window into the far distance, where the gray outline of a volcano could be seen on the horizon.
As the bus approached San Gabriel, winding down from tree-studded mountains into a vaguely familiar valley below, I noticed the pull-off for a wide overlook on the side of the road, oriented around a massive brass statue of a mule driver pointing into the distance with a traveler standing beside him. A huge sign read mirador vine a comala, and I realized that the statue was meant to depict, on an amusement-park scale, the opening scene from Pedro Páramo. Fifteen minutes later I exited the bus in the town of San Gabriel and walked to the sunny town plaza, where I was greeted by a statue of Juan Rulfo with one hand in his jacket pocket, standing professor-like as he surveyed the town. Across from the square was the newly remodeled Páramo Hotel, my home for the next four nights. Each of its rooms, I discovered after checking in, bore the name of one of the characters from Rulfo’s novel—the largest rooms being named, naturally, for Pedro Páramo himself and the love of his life, Susana San Juan. My room, the most economic option available, was named for one of the novel’s most obscure figures, Anita Rentería, niece of the town priest.
After dropping off my bag, I headed to the nearby cultural center, where I was met by a plainspoken cronista who immediately began to recite well-rehearsed facts about San Gabriel’s most illustrious former resident. Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaíno, he told me, was born on May 16, 1917, in the nearby community of Apulco. After registering his birth in the town of Sayula, his parents soon moved to San Gabriel, where Rulfo spent most of his childhood, attending school at the nearby Colegio Josefino. When I finally managed to mention to the cronista that I had been to San Gabriel fifteen years earlier, he reacted enthusiastically, interrupting his history lesson to hand me all sorts of cultural literature and brochures.
I asked the cronista about the newfangled Rulfo sites—the statue of the author on the town square, the massive overlook, the Páramo Hotel—and he told me they had all materialized in the last several years as part of a government plan to develop a tourist route in the region—“La Ruta Cultural Juan Rulfo.” The project, I would read later, had received an injection of twenty million pesos in federal and municipal funding in 2016 (about one million USD), an investment that had been lauded by one federal legislator—a former telenovela star and chair of the congressional Culture and Cinematography Commission—as a model effort to “conserve, promote, and strengthen cultural patrimony and the roots of our identity as a nation.”
The cronista felt that the initiative was good for the region, helping to boost Rulfo’s profile and bring visitors to small towns that might not otherwise receive tourists. In San Gabriel, he told me, they used to maybe get one or two Rulfo visitors each month—but now the numbers had gone up to at least five. And the town’s yearly cultural festival dedicated to Rulfo, which they had been celebrating for more than two decades, was growing every year. Last May, he said proudly, more than two thousand people came to San Gabriel, people from all over Mexico and across the world. Before I left, the cronista recommended I walk in a loop around the town to visit the many sites that figured in Rulfo’s stories and novel, handing me a booklet—“El Recorrido de los Murmullos”—which, he said, I could even download as an app on my phone.
As the late afternoon faded into evening, I followed the prescribed route, past a large mural of Rulfo’s face, past his family home marked with a plaque, past the chapel whose bells tolled for the death of Susana San Juan in Pedro Páramo. Looking up and down the streets, I searched for some sense of familiarity leftover from my last visit here, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I had come, instead, to a new place altogether.
If Juan Rulfo’s work had to be reduced to its most singular, enduring impression of Mexico, it would arguably be of a countryside hollowed out by violence and social change—first from the toll of the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War, then by successive waves of industrialization and urbanization. In Rulfo’s view, these forces were not just external to rural Mexico, arriving under the guise of progress or neoliberal transformation; they grew from within as well, exacerbated by a social order in which local strongmen, known as caciques, wielded total power over communities and regions long insulated from state government, often demanding fierce loyalty from their subjects while implicating them in brutal cycles of reprisal. The titular figure in Pedro Páramo is Rulfo’s rendering of the prototypical Mexican cacique, but unlike many of the writers who came before him, Rulfo was uninterested in producing a portrait of a strongman or in fictionalizing recent political history. In an interview with Joseph Sommers, Rulfo instead insisted that his is “a novel in which the central character is the town. Of course, some critics consider the central character to be Pedro Páramo. In reality, it’s the town itself.”
On the one hand, much of Rulfo’s writing, especially his short stories, could be seen as attempts at preservation, efforts to enshrine into literature the tales and oral histories he was exposed to in his youth in rural Jalisco, while capturing the distinct language and landscape that shaped him. As a child, Rulfo told Elena Poniatowska, “People told me many stories: about ghosts, about wars, about crimes…I always lived with country people, people that when the sun goes down light a corn-husk cigarette and suddenly tell whosoever may be near them, ‘Do you remember?’ And even if the listener does not answer, they begin to remember.” As someone preoccupied with the marginalization of rural life, transforming this kind of folk storytelling into fiction was perhaps Rulfo’s way of writing against the dismissal of a people abandoned by the cultural zeitgeist. Latin American literature, he felt, continued to suffer from outsized Spanish influence, from a stiffness that flowed from colonialism. “Perhaps this is why I use unassuming characters,” Rulfo suggested, “characters from the countryside, townspeople, and not urban characters, as a rejection.”
Rulfo endeavored to recreate his home region with such hyper-specificity that it would be transformed, counterintuitively, into a universal backdrop. In much of his writing, southern Jalisco seems a terrain outside of time, a place where biblical struggles play out on a profoundly intimate scale. His novel, especially, carries the aura of spoken lore from its very first lines, some of the most famous in all of Mexican literature: “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him.” When the novel’s narrator arrives in Comala (a name that stems from the word comal, a kind of earthenware griddle used in Mexico for heating food over an open fire), he finds a town populated only by specters, and a son’s search for his lost father, a lost youth, becomes a descent into a Paradise dashed.
For Rulfo, the archetypal outlines of the novel were both personal and historical, directly inspired by his own confrontation with the idealized setting of his childhood in San Gabriel, a town he remembered as being rich with green fields and crops, boasting a population of thousands. When Rulfo returned there as an adult, he recalled in one interview, “I found a town that was abandoned, a ghost town.” Its residents, fleeing the rule of a local cacique and swept up by the urbanizing forces of the day, had left the town nearly empty. “I already had in mind the idea for Pedro Páramo,” Rulfo explained, “and a town inhabited by beings that, it could be said, are already dying beings, souls that are still alive, and I was given the idea, right there, of passing into a world of the dead.”
Rulfo’s choice to render the Mexican countryside as a terrain populated by subjugated, unreckoned-with ghosts ultimately came to define how rural Mexico would figure in the consciousnesses of generations to come. But even as his work began entering the literary canon, Rulfo abruptly turned away from publishing. He maintained, in his own humble way, that this was “not because of success, fear, or any of those things,” but rather his feeling that, “I am not a professional writer.” On one occasion, Rulfo even quipped, “Well, it’s because my Uncle Celerino died, and it was he who told me the stories,” suggesting the extent to which someone’s consciousness, and the consciousness of an entire country, can often hinge upon a single storyteller.
Shortly after publishing Pedro Páramo, Rulfo quickly returned to earning his living from nonliterary ventures. In 1955, he briefly joined the Papaloapan Commission project at the invitation of the government of President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines. Dispatched to the Papaloapan River basin in Oaxaca, Rulfo deployed his considerable skills as a photographer and his writer’s eye for detail to document life in the remote villages slated for inundation upon completion of a massive dam and hydroelectric plant. In her marvelously strange and wide-ranging book on Rulfo, Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué, Cristina Rivera Garza catalogs how the author’s observations were packaged into a now-obscure government document promoting the project, which would ultimately transform the region into one of the largest artificial bodies of water in Mexico. “Rulfo,” she writes, “had to use his talent for words and cameras to produce a desolate landscape and an auspicious future.”
This short chapter in Rulfo’s life led Rivera Garza to look upon him as a figure akin to the one depicted in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the painting that inspired Walter Benjamin’s theory of history, which suggests that humankind is perpetually situated with its back to the future, preoccupied with the impossible task of reconciling the ever-accumulating calamities of our past. “Melancholy or maybe furious,” she writes, “he looks backward, bearing witness to the ruin and the loneliness, the indifference and the cataclysm of mid-twentieth-century Mexican modernity. Meanwhile, the wind tangles around his torso and arms, paralyzing him and pulling him forward at the same time. Toward the future. Toward progress.” Despite his great efforts to preserve the lost dignity of places hollowed out by modernity, Rulfo was destined to become an agent of progress himself. In Oaxaca, he participated firsthand in the relocation of the indigenous communities that would be displaced by rising waters. “Rulfo remembered perfectly,” Rivera Garza tells us, “being on the Papaloapan River, loading people into boats with their chickens and other goods when the dam started to fill.”
On my second day in San Gabriel, I found a local driver named Laurentino who agreed to take me to the town of Tuxcacuesco, across El Llano Grande. As we turned onto the open highway, I began making conversation, telling him that I was hoping to visit the Juan Rulfo museum, another site established with the help of literature-bolstering government funds.
I have to be honest, Laurentino said, I’ve never really understood people’s fascination with Rulfo. I read his books in school, sure, but to me the stories are just ordinary. Y la novela, Pedro Páramo? Well, it doesn’t really make any sense, does it? I don’t think anyone understands it. Look, I know the town cronista, he’s the expert on these things, and even he told me you have to read the book three times to understand it. But who wants to read the same book three times!
Laurentino looked at me.
It’s true, I replied, it’s a difficult book.
Órale, he said, even you admit it.
As we made our way down the highway, we passed by a car parked at a dirt turnoff with two young men crouching beside it.
Did you see that? Larentino asked. Those guys are sicarios. You know what a sicario is, right?
I gave him a puzzled glance. Those guys are hitmen? They look like a couple of teenagers trying to change a tire or something.
Laurentino shook his head. They’re waiting for someone. Besides, a sicario can look like anyone, son como tú y yo.
I stared at him, still not sure if I was understanding correctly.
I actually know those kids, Laurentino went on, they live in my neighborhood. Honestly they’re just like any other neighbor: they live with their relatives, they offer help if you need something, you might even run into them out on the street, walking with their families. In the barrios, you see, we all have to live together—their work is just different than ours, that’s all.
I sat with his assertion for a moment, and then asked if cartel violence had ever broken out in town.
Nah, he said, wrinkling his face dismissively. Se pelean entre sí, nada más.
Soon he changed the subject, asking if I had heard where Rulfo got the idea to use the name “Comala” for the fictional setting of Pedro Páramo. I had heard dozens of theories, but I was eager for a new one.
Well, he said, you’ll notice driving across here that there’s all these dips in the plain. They’re like basins, little craters leftover from when this whole place was volcanic. He pointed at Nevado de Colima and Volcán de Fuego poking up from the horizon. Apparently, he continued, they used to call them “comalitos” because it gets so hot down in there it’s like living on the surface of a griddle. He shrugged. Maybe those places are closer to the heat that runs under the surface, he suggested, donde pasa la lumbre del volcán.
We drove into a narrow valley and along a shimmering river until we reached the first buildings of Tuxcacuesco, a town that claims inclusion in the Rulfo canon as the scene of one of his short stories and the setting of Pedro Páramo in early drafts of the novel. Laurentino dropped me off at the town plaza and I bade him farewell, telling him to be careful on the road. In front of me a nativity scene spilled out from the steps of the gazebo, and a statue of Rulfo sat with his legs crossed on a park bench, his back turned to baby Jesus.
A block and a half from the square, I found the Juan Rulfo museum with its door bolted shut. As I peered through the windows into the dark interior, someone yelled at me from across the street. I turned and saw a shirtless man sitting in a plastic chair. No está! he shouted, motioning for me to come over. His bare belly shined brightly in the sun.
El Profe isn’t here yet, the man told me, scratching his ribs. You’ll just have to go over to his house. He gestured down the street and suggested I ask for Professor Hugo at the pharmacy three blocks away, then ushered me forward with the back of his hand.
The pharmacy was staffed by a girl no older than twelve, who advised me that Profe Hugo was out of town. I slowly made my way back down the street until I heard the gravelly voice of the shirtless man, shouting again, this time from under the shade of an enormous camichín tree. Profe Hugo is away, I told him. He thought for a moment.
Well, he said, why don’t you just get the key from the boy who cleans the museum, el hijo de Fernando?
Before I could answer, he threw up his hand and whistled at a man loading boxes into a pickup truck half a block away.
Escúchame, Joel! the shirtless man shouted, as loud as he could. Show this man where Don Fernando lives! Joel slumped his shoulders and motioned for me to come his way.
Joel and I walked in silence past the square and up an adjacent street that looked out to the eroded cliffs at the edge of town. It’s hotter here than in San Gabriel, I said, trying to make conversation. He nodded and held his eyes closed for a moment, as if trying to find words. It’s because we’re stuck in a depression, he said—the wind doesn’t reach us here.
After rounding another corner, Joel walked up to the open window of a home and called out to a woman sweeping inside. Buenas tardes, Joel, she said, leaning on her broom. How’s it going?
Joel shrugged. They’ve been sending me on errands all morning—this guy needs to get into the museum and Profe Hugo isn’t around.
The woman called for her son. Bring your keys, mijo. A boy of about fourteen emerged from an open door and came to the window. He dangled the keys through the bars and I looked at his mother.
You can let yourself in, she said, just bring them back when you’re done.
The boy nodded. You have to pull the door tight when you leave, he added, or else the lock won’t latch.
Back in front of the museum, I found the shirtless man now sitting in front of his doorway. I walked over to thank him for his help, grinning as I dangled the keys between my fingers. He brushed my gratitude aside. Everybody helps each other out around here, he said. Look at me, I couldn’t do anything without help! He smacked his legs and I realized that perhaps he could not walk. He leaned forward and gestured at the houses around him. My friends here are helping me all the time, he told me. They bring me food, cooking oil, soap, whatever I need. They even bring me a bolita de cristal each month to help with the pain, because look at me, I can’t do anything. The man began to scratch his side again as it dawned on me that cristál meant meth.
What about the cartels? I blurted out. They aren’t a problem here?
The man scoffed. Everyone here knows one another, he said, so there’s no violence. He flashed his near-toothless grin and I began to wonder how long I should remain in this conversation, how long I should linger in the dark museum down the street. The man kept smiling. Todos somos amigos, he told me, y los amigos son pa’ayudarte.
In Rulfo’s work, violence is depicted almost as a force of nature, as commonplace as a roaring wind or crippling heat. In his short story “La Cuesta de Las Comadres,” among his earliest publications, Rulfo paints the picture of the Torricos, two brothers who wield power over an isolated and shrinking community of campesinos by manipulating land rights and robbing mule drivers on a nearby highway. The story describes several deaths, but hinges on one in particular: After one of the Torricos is murdered during a dispute in a nearby town, the story’s unnamed narrator, a friend and sometimes accomplice of the brothers, is visited at night by Remigio, the surviving brother. The narrator is outside his home mending a sack with a large harness needle as Remigio begins to angrily accuse him of the murder:
I saw him moving in the direction of a hawthorn and that he grabbed the machete I always kept there. Then I saw him coming back with the machete in hand.
But when he moved away from in front of me, the moonlight shone brightly on the harness needle I had stuck in the sack. And I don’t know why, but suddenly I began to put great faith in that needle. That’s why, when Remigio Torrico walked over to me, I pulled out the needle and without waiting for anything else I stabbed him with it near his navel. I plunged it in as far as it would go. And I left it there. […]
Then I saw his face grow sad as if he had started to feel sick. I hadn’t seen such a sorrowful look for a long time and I felt pity. That’s why I decided to take the harness needle out of his navel and stick it in a little higher, where I thought his heart would be. And yes, it was there, but he only gave two or three jerks like a decapitated chicken and then became still.
As is typical of Rulfo, this horrifying moment is distilled into short, simple observations. The killing is not without provocation: We understand that the narrator is acting not only in self-defense, but also in accordance with a kind of violence that has long surrounded him, both systemic and specific in nature. Regardless of its roots, the act of killing seems to come quickly and easily, and the closest the narrator comes to expressing any sense of emotion is his brief admission that “I felt pity”—a feeling which conversely provokes him to re-thrust his weapon into his victim’s heart. At the close of the story, Rulfo’s narrator washes bloodstains from his harvesting basket in a nearby creek. “I was going to need it very often,” he explains, “and I wouldn’t have liked looking at Remigio’s blood every time.” His attempt to wash away the blood is both a quiet gesture of remorse and, at the same time, an attempt to detach himself from the slaughter.
In an oft-cited quote, Rulfo stated that “In my life there are many silences. In my writing, too.” Rather than fill these silences himself, Rulfo explains, he preferred for them to be taken up by the reader. This is, undoubtedly, part of what makes Rulfo’s stories so affecting: The emotion felt by his characters is only gestured at, left in large part for us to feel ourselves. But with regard to violence, the technique perhaps poses a risk: If a reader’s encounter with bloodshed is followed by silence, what are they to make of it? It is certain that Rulfo wished to spotlight the everyday cruelty of life in rural Mexico, but it becomes difficult, perhaps, to accomplish this without producing work that further perpetuates its normalization. In Rulfo’s universe, violence becomes not only inescapable, but inevitable—something literally and metaphorically woven into the atmosphere itself.
Rulfo’s vision of death was largely in step with the existentialist fiction that influenced him, like that of Juan Carlos Onetti and Northern European giants like Knut Hamsun and Halldór Laxness, both winners of the Nobel Prize. To appropriately interrogate his gaze, however, it is perhaps most useful to examine the work of one of Rulfo’s female predecessors, Nellie Campobello. Born in 1900 (or possibly 1909) in the state of Durango, Campobello moved with her family at a young age to nearby Parral, Chihuahua—a town that would change hands more than ten times during the Mexican Revolution. It was there that Campobello witnessed, over the course of a decade, some of the war’s most gruesome fighting—leaving a profound impression on her that would later be expressed in her singular novel Cartucho. Campobello, writes novelist and literary critic Jorge Aguilar Mora, “did not describe battles or political positions; she did not exhume the extensive testimony of combatants. She went to her memory to recreate the moments that would be most forgettable to others, but were most vivid for those who saw them.”
Dismissed by the Mexican literary establishment because of her gender, Campobello was one of the least known writers of the Mexican Revolution. Nevertheless, Aguilar Mora points out, Cartucho pioneered many of the stylistic traits that Rulfo would later deploy to reshape Mexican literature: the use of silence and short elliptical sentences, fragmented structure, precise attention to the regional intricacies of language, and a deep sense for the brutality and frailty that connect the human and natural world. But while Rulfo’s characters seem almost resigned to violence, Campobello’s child protagonist, despite being surrounded by death, never comes to regard it with acceptance. Even as bloodshed becomes incessant, she continues to look upon it again and again with repulsion and awe, as something that is by turns fascinating, terrifying, strange, and—above all else—impossible to turn away from.
In one scene, Campobello’s young narrator observes an execution from her window. The man’s corpse is left discarded next to her house, and “since he lay there for three nights,” the girl recounts, “I became accustomed to seeing the scrawl of his body, fallen toward the left with his hands on his face, sleeping there, next to me.” His dead body, she admits, became “my obsession.” The girl comes to dread the moment he will eventually be taken away, regarding the dead man as something precious, a possession all her own. Then, one day after dinner, she goes to the window to find his body vanished. “That night,” she remembers, “I went to sleep dreaming they would shoot someone else and hoping it would be next to my house.”
Instead of wiping clean the reminders of savagery that surround them, Campobello’s characters are utterly unable to detach themselves from it. In Campobello’s fiction, instead of being transmuted into the atmosphere, violence becomes something internal—lodged within the consciousness to be obsessed over until it overwhelms and perverts her characters’ and her readers’ vision of the outside world.
Exposure to carnage does not normalize violence for those living in close proximity to it; rather, it warps everything else, redefining lived experience in ways that are seldom spoken about but that nevertheless reorient the collective memory of entire families, towns, and cultures. Looking at the blood on the basket, again and again, Campobello might argue, is the only way to ensure that the death of another is held close enough to prevent it from being rendered into something ghostly left to haunt a landscape, a nation, a people.
I had heard from several locals that members of Rulfo’s extended family still made their home in the town of Tonaya, about thirty minutes west of San Gabriel. Arriving there in the early afternoon, I was soon given the name of Socorro Santana, an eighty-year-old woman believed to be Rulfo’s cousin. After finding Socorro’s home, I was invited into the courtyard by her middle-aged son as he went inside to fetch his mother. The old woman soon emerged from a dark doorway, walking with a slight hunch and smiling as soon as I mentioned Rulfo’s name. Rulfo, she explained, was her great-uncle once removed. We used to see Juan during the visits he made to his brother Severiano, she began to tell me. I remember the two of them would spend hours walking in the hills outside of town. Juan was always thought of as quiet or shy, but he loved to laugh and joke with his brothers and cousins, his nephews and nieces. He liked hearing about what went on here. He always found a lot of inspiration in this place.
Soon Socorro’s son interjected. You know, he said, when I was in school, we read Rulfo’s books. I read El Llano en llamas and there were several places where I remember stopping and thinking: I’ve heard this story before. Some of his stories were the same ones still being told by the old folks here in town.
He watched me as I jotted down a few notes.
You know, he continued, I can see you’re a writer, and you must be a great reader, too, a lover of Rulfo, someone who’s very educated. He gestured at his mother. My mom, though—she doesn’t like it when I tell people this—she barely finished elementary school. As you can tell, that hardly matters at all, because of how smart she is. People here come to her all the time to help them read various documents, to help them write letters and stuff like that. Even educated people like you come to see her. She’s read everything by Rulfo, too, just like you, but here we have a different understanding of his stories.
Socorro waited patiently until her son had finished. What Rulfo wrote down, she said, were the things he heard from the people in this region. His stories are testimonios, oral histories made into books. But you also have to understand that he helped create a certain idea about life here, about El Llano Grande. I’ll give you an example. There’s one of his stories, “Nos han dado la tierra,” about the land reform, with government agents giving out ejido properties on El Llano to some campesinos, but they don’t want it. The land of El Llano is sterile, they say, it’s infertile, there’s no water. With that story and many others, Rulfo put the idea in everyone’s mind that this area is nothing but a páramo, a wasteland. Socorro held up a finger. But there were people like my husband, for example, who always felt that there was something more here. She disappeared into the other room and came back with a framed newspaper article. Here you go, she said, handing it to me.
The article, published in 2000, begins by invoking Rulfo’s name: “The writer Juan Rulfo described the lands of an enormous Valley…with the phrase ‘A Plain in Flames’…Nevertheless, it was necessary that in those lands condemned by Rulfo, a visionary man would arise, a man filled with faith and hope…this man appeared, and his name was Simón García.”
I looked up at Socorro. Simón García was your husband?
The rest of the article narrated Simón García’s quixotic quest to find water beneath the scorched surface of El Llano Grande. While “the great majority considered him crazy,” García nonetheless purchased several acres of land and began to dig for water—twenty meters deep at first, then fifty, then one hundred. His neighbors told him to give up, reminding him that the entire region was nothing but “un llano en llamas,” but he remained undeterred. Finally, after months or maybe years, he reached a depth of 250 meters, where water appeared in great abundance. “The miracle of faith was realized!” the article declared. “The condemnation of Rulfo arrived at its end.”
Socorro beamed as I finished the article, shrugging with modest pride as I looked up at her. I began to describe the signs of agriculture I had seen during my ride to Tonaya: endless rows of corn and melon, sprawling greenhouses and vast fields of agave, lines of farm workers waiting for the bus at the crossroads.
It was your husband who uncovered the water that made that all possible?
Socorro took the framed article from me and clutched it close to her chest.
It’s true, she said. Él quitó la condena de Rulfo.
Long before his writing entered into the literary mainstream, Juan Rulfo spent years working in close proximity to the machinations of the modern Mexican state. As a young man, he spent an entire decade as an immigration agent for Mexico’s department of the interior, where he caught “undesirable foreigners” across the country. Then, just as Mexico was looking to integrate itself into the post–World War II global economy, Rulfo took a job with the Goodrich-Euzkadi corporation, a joint venture between the American and Mexican tire giants, where he worked as a traveling tire salesman and helped develop what would become one of the first major travel atlases of Mexico’s burgeoning highway system—the Caminos de México guide.
This period of time in Mexican history coincided with the beginning of the Eisenhower era in the United States, and was similarly defined by a push to popularize automobiles as the dominant form of transportation for a growing middle class. As Rulfo worked diligently to help shape the Goodrich-Euzkadi guidebook as a photographer, author, editor, and publicist, he also played a central role in fomenting the growth of a new tourism industry. The nation’s growing system of highways, especially the Panamérica Highway, which ran the length of Mexico, soon helped cement the self-image of an industrialized, post-revolutionary country that, despite stark regional differences, remained unified under an identity that now encompassed cultures and terrain made easily traversable from north to south. In the words of Cristina Rivera Garza, publications like the Caminos de México guide “were issued not only to materially and ideologically support the highway construction process, but also, and maybe most of all, to produce the very idea of a nation.”
It is perhaps fitting that, after helping to lay the foundations for a new chapter in Mexico’s national myth, Rulfo would go on to create a mythology all his own. Just a few years after leaving his job with Goodrich-Euzkadi, as he began to conceptualize his novel, Rulfo alluded in his journals to the intangibility of “Inventing a landscape / or a new landscape in Mexico.” But according to Jorge Aguilar Mora, Rulfo’s instinct for myth-making was defined by an underlying impulse for subversion. The final passage of his novel narrates the ultimate collapse of Pedro Páramo—Rulfo’s symbol of Mexican caciquismo, and of rural decimation. Fatally wounded, Pedro Páramo “watched the leaves falling from the Paradise tree,” and then, in the book’s final line: “He fell to the ground with a thud, and lay there, collapsed like a pile of rocks.” These closing images, Aguilar Mora suggests, amount to “the transformation of a symbol into its material,” a gesture that is “completely contrary to the process of Christian myth, and the entire myth-making process.”
Rulfo’s ambition to create this landscape ultimately amounted to a watershed moment in literature. Today his vision of Mexico is part of the lifeblood of the nation, and his shadow reaches deep into the cultural consciousness of the Spanish-speaking world. The product of Rulfo’s myth-inverting ambition has also been metabolized into the material of myth itself, a fact Rulfo did not fail to notice. When his novel was made into a film in 1967, with a screenplay adapted by the legendary Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, Rulfo complained that they had turned it into a Western—the most myth-perpetuating genre of them all.
Rulfo’s work, rooted in parsing out regression and progress, violence and suffering, was perhaps always destined to be reduced and repackaged, just as the murderous frontier expansion of the United States was reshaped into romanticized and easily reproducible emblems of the American West. “How is a national identity forged?” Rivera Garza asks in her study of Rulfo: “By forging originals, that’s how. By making such masterful versions of a copy that they produce, in the making, an original that never existed, but which we all believe in.” The same could be said, of course, of Rulfo himself—an author who, with each mural, plaque, and statue, becomes less of a man and more of a myth.
On my final day in Jalisco, I arranged for Laurentino to pick me up early in the morning at the Páramo Hotel so we could drive to a handful of nearby mezcal distilleries—a day off from the Rulfo trail. Outside the hotel, I spotted what looked like Laurentino’s car, but with a teenager sitting in the driver’s seat. The kid, after catching my eye, leaned over to roll down the passenger window. Soy Carlos, he shouted out at me, hijo de Laurentino. I walked over and the kid explained that his father wasn’t feeling well, so had sent him to take me instead.
As Carlos drove us through the town center, I anxiously noted his habit of composing text messages on his phone even as he approached busy intersections. I finally decided to start up a conversation, thinking it might be safer for both of us. Do you drive people often? I asked blithely. Carlos replied that driving was essentially the family business—his father started out as a driver for the local taxi company, but had recently branched off on his own. Me and my dad share the load, he told me, and when things get busy I jump in to pick up the extra riders. There’s nothing like Uber out here, so it’s just the taxi company and a few families like ours. Besides, he said, everyone knows each other here, so why would anyone use an app?
Carlos asked me if I had come to San Gabriel for vacation, and as I explained that I was following in the footsteps of Juan Rulfo, his face lit up. We read his books in high school, he told me. He writes a lot about this place, El Llano en Llamas. I assumed he was referring to Rulfo’s short story collection, but after repeating the phrase several more times, I realized he was using it to refer to the region itself, not as “El Llano Grande,” but as “El Llano en Llamas,” transposing its actual name with the title of Rulfo’s book. For members of Carlos’s generation, it seemed, Rulfo’s metaphor had completely transcended the literary, defining the place wholesale.
Nearing the edge of town, it dawned on me that Carlos was just barely younger than I had been when I came here during my first Rulfo pilgrimage. As we passed by a ruined bridge, he gestured at the river and asked if I had heard about the floods.
Hmm, I said, I think the cronista mentioned them. It happened in the summer?
Carlos nodded grimly. The sixth of June, he said—nadie se olvida de esa fecha. It rained so much upriver that the reservoir overflowed, and all the water came down into our town. For several moments Carlos remained silent as we continued driving along the river, and then, gesturing at the homes on the opposite side of the street, he asked if I could see the stain, the brown line that reached a third of the way up the walls.
That’s how high the water came? I asked.
Carlos nodded. The river was filled with mud and sticks, he told me, even tree trunks. It destroyed our bridges, it came into people’s homes, and for two days you heard nothing but screaming and fighting in the streets. The water carried off six people, I think, some of them were even little kids. Carlos stared straight ahead, his face rigid. The people who live on this street, they say that at night, around one or two in the morning, you can still hear the screams of those who were taken.
When we finally reached the highway, our conversation turned to brighter subjects. He pointed out the irrigated fields as we passed, and told me I should come back in May, when the growing season would be at its peak. There are crops everywhere, he said, y en estos meses hay mucho trabajo, mucho negocio. In May, if you look out at these fields, you’ll see chile ripening on the vines, you’ll even smell it in the air. It’s enough to make you cry.
Carlos smiled. You know, he said, if you do come back, there’s a lot of other interesting places you should visit. There’s an old hacienda people like to see out in the hills. I went on a field trip there with my class. It’s abandoned, but they still use it as a film set. I think they even filmed Pedro Páramo there, you know, the movie. And if you like to be outside, there’s plenty of places to hike and swim. But you have to be careful where you go—there’s legends about some of these places. Carlos’s face became serious again. For example, there’s a place called Agua Fria. The water there is freezing cold, no matter what time of year. They say if you go, you have to get into the water no matter what. If you don’t, the place takes something from you.
I looked over at him to try to gauge whether he bought into the legend, but he just stared out at the road, expressionless.
You know how these things are, he said, it’s probably just a tale people tell. But that’s what they say—if you leave without giving yourself to the water, you’ll never be the same. A part of you just stays out there, until you come back for it.