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Ink, alcohol and a whiff of gunpowder: Heriberto Frías

17 April 2014

Editorial Mazatlán plans to publish in the next year the first English-language translation of a minor Mexican classic… “The War Against The Gringos”, a 1901 didactic (and highly… er… “colorful”) study of the U.S. invasion and occupation (and partition) of Mexico in 1846-48, written by Mexican journalist and author, Heriberto Frías. Sabina Becker, who learned her art translating into English the bombastic, nationalistic and populist stylings of some of Latin American’s more eloquent politicians, had to pull out all the stops to get this manuscript ready for editing. Given that the author was a reporter in country where reporters even now are given to flowery language, euphemisms and allusions… and, when they are paid by the word, tend to hammer home a point by saying it again, and again, and again… even an excellent translation like Sabina’s requires editorial intervention. Being something of an editor’s nightmare in that I, too, am given to convoluted sentences and allusions (and… yes… a tendency towards the “decorative”), I guess it’s karma that I’m editing this work. I must say, I am enjoying it… although the Mexican-American War – and Mexican geography – is a blank to most readers north of the border, and it means I’ll have to dig in and write footnotes… lots of footnotes.

And, an introduction. Here’s a first draft of a biographical sketch of the author:

I’m not sure what Heriberto Frías would have made of contemporary Mazatlán. The late 19th century author, playwright and newsman was a notoriously hard-drinking, “bohemian” whose antics might not unduly raise eyebrows had he cruised today’s Malecón and tourist haunts, and… having arrived in the Pearl of the Pacific under something more than a cloud… might have found himself perfectly suited to his environment. On the other hand, as a bombastic and… er… colorful nationalist, which I am afraid our foreign tourist and “expat community” might have found an uncomfortable neighbor.
08And, in our day, one can’t help but think Frías would have “owned” the internet, and the foreigners are probably just as well off that Frías never wrote in English.
Born in 1870, the scion of a military family, he was destined for the family trade … oppressing the masses. However, when his father died in 1884, when Heriberto was a student at the national preparatory academy. Without enough money to continue his education, he took a job as a compositor and printers’ devil. An honorable beginning to many a 19th century writing career, to be sure, while his job forced him to read, and read continuously, the hours were long, and the lighting was poor.
A sixteen year old boy, with deteriorating eyesight, if he wanted to continue his studies, he would need a job with more flexibility. However, he seemed to overlook the small detail that his new, intended career probably required even more attention to detail than printing. But, it was as a failed burglar that Frías began his career as a popular author. While serving an eight month stretch in prison, as the only literate inmate in his cell-block, he discovered he had an innate gift for florid expressions, for the allusive phrase was appreciated by his fellow unsuccessful criminals, who avidly handed over what money they had for love letters… heartfelt promises of reform…pleas for mercy or remission of sentence. And of course, letters to mom.
Including his own, who had returned to her native Queretaro with the younger children when her husband died. Though upon his release, Heriberto had found work as a theatrical ticket seller — and he would, in later years, become a prolific playwright — his mother still hoped her son would have an “honorable” career. Though her Army and family contacts, arrangements were made to overlook Heriberto’s “youthful indiscretion” and enroll him in the prestigious Colegio Miliar. Despite constant bullying as a weaking and “four-eyes”, Frías finished his training, and was commissioned as a “subtenient” (Second Lieutenant) in January 1889, just short of his 19th birthday.
He quickly earned the respect of one General … Sóstenes Rocha… who wanted to give a more “literary” tone to Combat, the military magazine he edited. Military poetry, though, is not the same as military discipline. Frías, during his incarceration “being less educated in the ways of the underworld, had learned to enjoy their vices”, as one biographer daintily puts it. In other words, Subtiente Frías was in and out of the military prison at Santiago Tlateloco. Patriotic and enthusiastic as he was, discipline was something he never did quite get the hang of.
Having by necessity turned to crime as a boy, his lack of personal discipline did not interfere with his sense of justice. Like Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence specialist who exposed atrocities in Afghanistan, Frías was the less than ideal soldier who sacrificed his career… and risked his life… to inform the public of his own army’s unjust, and immoral, actions. In 1892, he saw service in the Tomochic Rebellion. As much a religious revival as a peasant revolt, what was later seen as an early precursor of the Revolution, was put down with brutality. The advice he gave himself was to start drinking heavily, which was going to change the situation, nor to bring any justice to those who were slaughtered. Writing about it might.
With no publisher daring to unvarnished truth, Frías wrote the story within the conventional frame of a love story about a conflicted army officer and a peasant rebel girl. And, although Tomóchic was published without the name of an author… and the publisher claimed HE was the author… Frías was too well known as a writer/officer to avoid being identified. It was only because his patriotic verse was well-known, and appreciated by military men, that he avoided the firing squad for “disseminating military secrets”. He did serve a few months in the military prison, then quietly allowed to leave the Army.
At a loss what to do, he turned to journalism… and alcoholism. With his progressively worsening eyesight to boot, he was on a downward spiral even by the loose journalistic standards of his time. Antonia Figueroa … his landlady and would-be girlfriend… turned him around, forcing him not only to clean up his act, but to start writing (and dress like proper Mexican gentleman) … deserves the credit for re-booting what would have been an aborted literary career.
Toñita doesn’t figure in most biographies (no more anyway, than, say, we hear about Margarita Maza de Juarez when we read about her husband, Benito — the 19th century Mexican woman’s power was exercised through her husband even more than it is today) … but the Frías who emerged after his marriage was the successful, nationally respected journalist, editor, author and champion of human òrights. While none of his subsequent novels had the success that Tomóchic did, he returned several times to the trick of sneaking in the unpleasant truth in the guise of fiction… notably in his “El Triunfo de Sancho Panza” based on his ringside seat as editor of the Mazatlán Correo de Tarde of corruption, abuse of power and outright thievery by city leaders.
As an anti-establishment insider, Frías saw no contradiction between fighting the powers that be and patriotism. To him, they were the same thing. In that vein, he wrote a series of didactic works, meant to instill both national pride in the masses, and outrage at their betrayal by their own leaders throughout history. In 1901, a series of articles were published under the title Episodios militares mexicanos, his highly colored view of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 later appearing under the title La Guerra contra los gringos.
By 1909, he was the leader of the journalists association in Mexico, and – as one would expect – a supporter of the Madero reformists. He accepted a post as under-secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Madero Administration… which got him sent back to prison under the Huerta dictatorship. Knowing full well that his health – undermined by his years of alcohol abuse — and his increasing blindness would make it impossible for him to survive even the short jail term, the faithful Toñita shared his cell.

Freed after six months, he joined the Constitutionalists, supporting Alvaro Obregòn (who shared Frías’ taste for bombastic writing, and, like the journalist, was a military man known to write poetry). When Obregòn gained the Presidency in 1920, he rewarded Frías with a sinecure as Mexican consul in Cadiz, although the by now all but completely blind and increasingly ill writer, never would be at ease in a foreign country. He soon resigned his post, and returned to live out his last few years in Mexico City.

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