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Pavane for the Red Princess

21 May 2012

Elena Poniatowka celebrated (and Mexico celebrated) her 80th birthday on Saturday. But more importantly, next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the transformation of Princess Hélène Elizabeth Louise Amélie Paula Dolores Poniatowska Amor  from “su altessa” into something much more impressive… “nuestra Elena”, queen of Mexican journalists.

Reading Michael Schuessler’s informative, intimate, opinionated (in the best possible way) and witty Elena Poniatowska: An Intimate Biography (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2007), I was amused and more than a little relieved to learn that Poniatowka herself attributes her long and successful writing career mostly to not being trained to do anything particularly useful.

Although being royalty is, I suppose, a job in itself, it’s not likely the Polish monarchy will be restored (she is the heir to throne that has been vacant since 1798), nor the French one (Louis XV’s consort, Marie Leszczyńska was another relation), nor the first Mexican Empire (through her mother, she is ALSO descended from Augustin Iturbide, Emperor Augustín the First… and last).  Still, there’s a place in this world for pretty, intelligent and well-brought up titled women, especially in Europe where such things still matter to people.

Born in France, where her family has been established since Józef Antoni Poniatowski was appointed a Marshall of France by Napoleón Bonaparte, she should have been whisked around to the various family estates for her early training, but the German invasion forced her mother to take refuge with her grandfather in the south of France, where she attended the local school.  The outcome of the war being in doubt in 1942, Princess Hélène’s  father, Prince Jean, dispatched his wife and daughters to the relative safety of Mexico.

There were a handful of other royals rattling around Mexico due to the war, and a bit of exoticism in the upbringing wouldn’t hurt when it came time to enter the royal marriage market.  Despite the odds, she did learn a useful skill while sitting out the war.  Her mother, not expecting the stay in Mexico to be more than an unfortunate sojourn, sent her  children to a British school rather than one for upper-class Mexicans.  As a result, Princess Hélène to this day speaks the earthy, common Mexican Spanish she learned from her nanny.

While the war was over, France was in ruins, and it seemed wise for the family to remain in Mexico, where the family’s financial situation was more settled, and where there was an upper class that gave deference to European titles.  Despite its reputation for a shocking level of tolerance and crass materialism, the United States was considered the proper place to educate the children of the Latin American elite… within certain strictures.  Princess Hélène and her sister were packed off to a convent school in Pennsylvania.

While it is easy to make fun of such schools, they are intellectually rigorous as a rule, and the school she was being prepared for a college education.  Which — between the fall of the peso in the early 1950s, coupled with political and economic problems in France— had to be put on hold.  I don’t think even the most creative of nuns could have figured out a way to justify giving a foreign princess a scholarship and one can’t imagine royalty going into a Pennsylvania bank and asking for a student loan.  Still, with the expectation that marriage to a rich, if not titled, husband was the most likely scenario in the not-too-distant future, Princess Hélène was packaged as a debutant and … as a backup in case she needed to actually God Forbid take a job for a time …  took some secretarial classes, adding typing and shorthand to her relatively marketable English and French language skills.  And as it is, she never married a prince, finding her life’s partner among more stellarn regions … astronomer Guillermo Haro.

As it turned out, the typing and shorthand were useful, but what got her a job was that title… and knowing the right people who knew the right people.

When the Revolutionary Party became the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1949, it signaled more than just the Revolution was here to stay.  It also meant that the new social order — with a mix of those for whom “the Revolution did them justice”… i.e., prospered, as well as the pre-Revolutionary elites who’d held on to their wealth or status (or both) were somewhat legitimized in what had been a radically socialist and leveling society.  Being somewhat insecure, and new at being high society, there was a tremendous need for confirmation of their place in the social scene.  The Mexican press needed society page writers.

Poniatowska, under a couple of different pseudonyms in the early years, was particularly well suited to the task, and reinvigorated the form, basically, as she cheerfully admits, because she really had no idea of what she was doing. Royals, after all, feel their place in the social order is secure and have no reason to read about themselves, and the peer group to which she belong was pretty tiny.  Being naturally curious, it wasn’t so much a question of asking how the “other half” lives, but how the other 99.99 percent of Mexicans live.

While she interviewed (and still occasionally interviews) the luminary or the legitimately celebrated, she discovered her true vocation in interviewing the less known, seemingly unimportant Mexicans who are worthy of celebration and acknowledgement.  Her famous friendship with the irascible  Josefina Bórquez, who Poniatowska found as fascinating and worth-while an acquaintance as any any society lady or film diva or intellectual, and whose hard-scrabble life-story was fictionalized as that of Jesusa Palancares suggests what side of the growing political divide in Mexico Poniatowka would end up.  With Tlatelolco, as a journalist, the Princess felt she had no choice but to be on the side of the students, against the elites to which she belonged, but were bent on destroying their own, and denying they were going about it.

Not that high society doesn’t have its uses.  Teaching a “writers workshop” for the ladies-who-lunch when the city in was plunged into chaos by the 17 September 1985 earthquake, some of her students found themselves not just serving sandwiches, or buying shovels.  The ineptitude of the official response was obvious, but someone had to record it.  The ladies who lunch were sent out with pencils, paper, their eyes and their ears.  The city was short of everything, including journalists, and more than a few society ladies found themselves lauched on a meaningful career.

The earthquake drove the writer now famous as “Elena” (the French “Hélène”) further to the arms of the people.  Working on a crew moving rubble, she was struck by the the punk rockers in her brigade.  They didn’t defer to her because of her title, or her social standing, but simply because she is a tiny older woman willing to work.  It reminded her, as she mentions in Shuessler’s book, that essential nobility and chivalry are not the province of those to the manor born, but of the Mexican people in general…. and who were given voice by Poniatowska in her 1988 Nada, nadie. Las voces del temblor (Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake)

An unnatural disaster… the Salinas administration and NAFTA… has pushed her firmly into a political position on the left, which she sees as the side of those noble and chivalrous Mexicans.   She is not a Communist, but having written a novel about Communist organizer Tina Modotti, and with her identification with the Mexican political left, her European relations have taken to calling her the “Red Princess”.

While I cannot take a political stance in the upcoming presidential election, let me just say that in the next Administration, I certainly hope that Secretaria de Cultura Poniatowska continues to write, continues to introduce us to the true nobility among us, for many more years to come.

(Photo Credit: El Universal)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 January 2015 5:13 am

    Un autre d閠enu qui demandait sa mise en libert? hier matin, a v閏u un cas similaire avec un dossier qui s’閠ait perdu entre le palais de justice et le greffe de la maison d’arr阾?!

  2. 10 January 2015 7:05 am

    Alexander Wang Rockie Duffel

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