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And thank you, Elena Poniatowska!

12 December 2006

The Alpine Public Library isn’t a very big place, but, like any public library, it has its discoveries. I’d never read Poniatowska’s classic, “Hasta no verte Jesús mío” until I stumbled across the English translation (“Here’s to You, Jesusa!”, Farrar Strauss, 2001) looking for something else entirely.

Lyn has written elegantly, and movingly on the soldadaras of the Revolution. “Jesusa” — in reality Josefina Bórquez – was one of those tough, pistol-packin’ mamas. Pistol-packin’ anyway. Given her … uhhh… brutal lifestyle, it was just as well she wasn’t a mother in anything but name.

In 1964, Bórquez was an irrasible, anti-social tough old lady in the Penitenteria (not in prison, but the Mexico City neighborhood near Leucumberri – then the city prison, now the National Archives) living in a single room with cats, canaries and chickens. She claimed she had no friends, and to hate children. It was her pride and dignity. So many of her friends had left her or died horribly (one grusomely when she was hit by a train). The foster son who called her “mama” broke her heart.

By the time she was 11, Bórquez been a peddler, a fisherwoman and a cook in the Oaxaca woman’s prison (her stepmother was warden) when her feckless father joined the revolution and brought her along. It got her out ofOaxaca anway…

“Jesusa” spent her adolescence tramping the length and breadth of Mexico… and buried her 18 year old husband (who regularly beat her, convincing her never to tie herself to any man) in Marfa Texas. The Revolution was the highlight of her irregular and violent life: despite losing not only her husband, but the two men she truly loved – her father and her older brother — …if there ever was another revolution, and I had the opportunity to go to war, I’d be there in a second. I want to travel again.

A captain’s widow at 16, and for a short time a capitana herself, the Tehuana Zapotec ended up – like so many rootless young Mexicans – in the Capital. She got by – somehow. In this country, if we need a job, we figure out what we already know how to do. Not Mexicans. If there’s a job – or you can make a job – they’ll do it. But Jesusa’s resume was a little more varied than most. Besides soldiering, Bórquez was variously a maid, a nurse, a dance hall “hostess”, a factory worker, a barber, a professional drinker, a furniture maker, an ambulanta, a butcher, an “apache dancer” in a circus and a medium. And a grumpy old lady who managed to keep going into her late 80s.

Sometimes homeless, but never completely alone, though she’d argue otherwise, “Jesusa” was a hell-raiser prone to getting into fist-fights with strangers until she got got religion: in her case, becoming a devout member of the Obra Espiritual, professing a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary, AND… Anton Mesmer the hypnotist, 19th Century French psychologist Pierre Charcot, reincarnation, karma and the teachings of Roque Rojas, who was reborn as the Messiah in his backyard ditch in Mexico City in 1866. In some ways, it was the knowledge that she was working off some bad karma that kept her going until 1987. She asked Poniatoska, the day before she died, to throw her body to the dogs (she found it comforting that her father’s unburied corpse was picked clean by vultures), but the author, more conventional than otherwise, paid for Josefina Bórquez’ conventional burial

It was an unlikely friendship… the former Princessa Helena de Poniatoska and a tiny old woman who made her living scrubbing down printing presses with gasoline by day and scrubbing grease out of workers’ coveralls on the roof and feeding her chickens by night… but somehow the two remained friends for 20 years. Borquez was still alive when Poniatoska published her book in 1968. At the time it was called a “novel” … but like Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night” or Tom Wolfe’s “new journalism” whether we are reading journalism by an artist, or an artist’s attempts at journalism. In the end, as Josefina – or Jesusa — would say, “pues, who the fuck cares?

Jesusa on her military career:

A lot of people got killed out of stupidity. I think it was a misunderstood war because people simply killed each other, fathers against sons, brother against brother: Carrancistas, Villastas, Zapatistas, we were all the same ragged people, starving to dealth. But that’s somethat that, as they say, you keep to yourself.

On herself – a Zapotec in Mexico City:

If I had money and property, I’d be Mexican, but since I’m worse than garbage, I’m nothing. I’m trash that the dog pees on and then walks away from. A strong wind comes along, blows it all down the street and it’s gone… I’m garbage because I can’t be anything else. I’ve never been good for anything. My whole life I’ve been this very same germ you see right in front of you… When I was left alone I intended to go back to my homeland. I’d have a better life in Salina Cruz or in Tehuantepec…”

Maybe so, “Jesusa…” but what would Mexico City have been without you? You were not the stereotypical Chilango I like to write about, nor one I hung around with. But so very real… tough enough to get through anything, resourceful beyond all reason, and a survivor. In that, Jesusa you were not garbage… but a real Chilanga.

Thank you Jesusa! Thank you Elena Poniatoska!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lyn_2 permalink
    15 December 2006 10:36 pm

    What a brutal and raw introduction to a facinating woman and her life. Your article leaves me wanting to know more.

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  1. ¡Mujeres con moral de vencedor! « The Mex Files

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