Years with Laura Díaz
By Carlos Fuentes
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
October 2000; 0-374-29341-4; 544 pages
I KNEW THE STORY. What I didn't know was the truth. In a way, my very presence was a lie. I came to Detroit to begin a television documentary on the Mexican muralists in the United States. Secretly, I was more interested in capturing the decay of a great city -- the first capital of the automobile, no less, the place where Henry Ford inaugurated mass production of the machine that governs our lives more than any government.
One proof of the city's power, we're told, is that in 1932 it invited the Mexican artist Diego Rivera to decorate the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. And now, in 1999, I was here -- officially, of course -- to make a TV series on this and other Mexican murals in the United States. I would begin with Rivera in Detroit, then move on to Orozco at Dartmouth and in California, and then to a mysterious Siqueiros in Los Angeles, which I was instructed to find, as well as lost works by Rivera himself: the mural in Rockefeller Center, obliterated because Lenin and Marx appeared in it; and other large panels which had also disappeared.
This was the job I was assigned. I insisted on beginning in Detroit for one reason. I wanted to photograph the ruin of a great industrial center as a worthy epitaph for our terrible twentieth century. I wasn't moved either by the moral in the warning or by any apocalyptic taste for misery and deformity, not even by simple humanitarianism. I'm a photographer, but I'm neither the marvelous Sebastião Salgado nor the fearsome Diane Arbus. I'd prefer, if I were a painter, the problem-free clarity of an Ingres or the interior torture of a Bacon. I tried painting. I failed. I got nothing out of it. I told myself that the camera is the paintbrush of our age, so here I am, contracted to do one thing but present -- with a presentiment, maybe -- to do something else very different.
I got up early to take care of my business before the film team set up in front of Diego's murals. It was 6 a.m. in the month of February. I expected darkness. I was ready for it. But its duration sapped my energy.
"If you want to do some shopping, if you want to go to a movie, the hotel limo can take you and pick you up," they told me at the reception desk.
"But the center of town is only two blocks from here," I answered, both surprised and annoyed.
"Then we can't take any responsibility." The receptionist gave me a practiced smile. His face wasn't memorable.
If the guy only knew that I was going farther, much farther, than the center of town. Though I didn't know it yet, I was going to reach the heart of this hell of desolation. Walking quickly, I left behind the cluster of skyscrapers arranged like a constellation of mirrors -- a new medieval city protected against the attacks of barbarians -- and it took me only ten or twelve blocks to get lost in a dark, burned-out wasteland of vacant lots pocked with scabs of garbage.
With each step I took -- blindly, because it was still dark, because the only eye I had was my camera, because I was a modern Polyphemus with my right eye glued to the Leica's viewfinder and my left eye closed, blind, with my left hand extended forward like a police dog, groping, tripping sometimes, other times sinking into something I could smell but not see -- I was penetrating into a night that was not only persisting but being reborn. In Detroit, night was born from night.
I let the camera drop onto my chest for an instant, I felt the dull blow over my diaphragm -- two diaphragms, mine and the Leica's -- and the sensation was repeated. What surrounded me was not the prolonged night of a winter dawn; it wasn't, as my imagination would have me believe, a nascent darkness, disturbed companion of the day.
It was permanent darkness, the unexpected darkness of the city, its companion, its faithful mirror. All I had to do was turn right around and see myself in the center of a flat, gray lot, adorned here and there with puddles, fugitive paths traced by fearful feet, naked trees blacker than this landscape after a battle. In the distance, I could see spectral, broken-down Victorian houses with sagging roofs, crumbling chimneys, empty windows, bare porches, dilapidated doors, and, from time to time, the tender and immodest approach of a leafless tree to a grimy skylight. A rocking chair rocked, all by itself, creaking, reminding me, vaguely, of other times barely sensed in memory ...
Fields of solitude, withered hill, my schoolboy memory repeated while my hands picked up my camera and my mental hand went from snap to snap, photographing Mexico City, Buenos Aires if it weren't for the river, Río if it weren't for the sea, Caracas if it weren't a shithole, Lima the horrible, Santa Fe de Bogotá losing its faith, holy or otherwise, Santiago with no saint to cure it. I was photographing the future of our Latin American cities in the present of the most industrial city of all, capital of the automobile, cradle of mass production and the minimum wage: Detroit, Michigan. I made my way shooting all of it, old, abandoned jalopies in lots even more abandoned, sudden streets paved with broken glass, blinking lights in shops selling ... selling what?
What could they be selling on the only illuminated corners in this immense black hole? I walked in, almost dazzled by the light, to buy a soda at one of those stands.
A couple almost as ashen as the day stared at me with a mix of mockery, resignation, and malign hospitality, asking me, What do you want? and answering me, We've got everything.
I was a little dazed, or it might have been habit, but I ordered, in Spanish, a Coke. They laughed idiotically.
"Stands like this, we only sell beer and wine," said the man. "No drugs."
"But lottery tickets we do sell," added the woman.
I got back to the hotel by instinct, changed my shoes, which were dripping all the waste of oblivion, and was just about to take my second shower of the day when I checked my watch. The crew would be waiting for me in the lobby, and my punctuality signaled not only my prestige but also my discipline. Slipping on my jacket, I looked out at the landscape from the window. A Christian city and an Islamic city coexisted in Detroit. Light illuminated the tops of skyscrapers and mosques. The rest of the world was still sunk in darkness.
We, the whole team, reached the Institute of Arts. First we crossed the same unending wasteland, block after block of vacant lots, here and there the ruin of a Victorian mansion, and at the end of the urban desert (actually right in its heart) a structure in kitschy pompier style from the early years of the century, clean and well preserved, spacious and accessible by means of wide stone stairways and tall doors of steel and glass. It was like a memento of happiness in a trunkful of misfortunes, an old lady, erect and bejeweled, who has outlived her descendants, a Rachel without tears. The Detroit Institute of Arts.
The enormous central courtyard, protected by a high skylight, was the setting for a flower show. It was there the crowds were gathering that morning. Where'd they get the flowers? I asked a gringo in our team; he answered by shrugging his shoulders and not even glancing at the plethora of tulips, chrysanthemums, lilies, and gladiolas displayed on the four sides of the patio -- which we crossed with a speed that both the team and I imposed on ourselves. Television and movies are the kind of work you want to get away from fast, as soon as quitting time comes. Unfortunately, those who live on such work can imagine nothing else to do with their lives but to go on filming one day after another after another ... we're here to work.
Here he was. Rivera, Diego, Diego María of Guanajuato, Diego María Concepción Juan Nepomuceno de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, 1886-1957.
Pardon me for laughing. It's a good kind of laugh, an irrepressible guffaw of recognition and perhaps of nostalgia. For what? I think for lost innocence; for faith in industry; for progress, happiness, and history joining hands thanks to industrial development. To all those glories Rivera had sung praise, as you'd have to in Detroit. Like the anonymous architects, painters, and sculptors of the Middle Ages who built and decorated the great cathedrals to praise God -- one, everlasting, indivisible -- Rivera came to Detroit as pilgrims long ago went to Canterbury and Compostela: full of faith. I also laughed because this mural was like a color postcard of the black-and-white setting for Chaplin's movie Modern Times. The same machines, smooth as mirrors, the perfect, implacable meshing of gears, the confidence-inspiring factories that Rivera the Marxist saw as an equally trustworthy sign of progress but that Chaplin saw as devouring jaws, swallowing machines, like iron stomachs gobbling up the worker and at the end expelling him like a piece of shit.
Not here. This was the industrial idyll, the reflection of the immensely rich city Rivera saw during the 1930s, when Detroit gave jobs and a decent life to half a million workers.
How did the Mexican painter see them?
There was something strange in this mural, with its teeming activity and spaces crowded with human figures working at shining serpentine, unending machines like the intestines of a prehistoric animal that was taking a long time to slouch back toward the present age. It also took me a long time to locate the source of my own surprise. I had a displaced and exciting sensation of creative discovery -- very rare in television work. Here I am in Detroit, standing in front of a mural by Diego Rivera because I depend on my audience just as Rivera, perhaps, depended on his patrons. But he made fun of them, he planted red flags and Soviet leaders right in the very bastion of capitalism. On the other hand, I wouldn't deserve either the censure or the scandal: the audience gives me success or failure, nothing more. Click. The idiot box turns off. There are no more patrons, and what's more no one gives a fuck. Who remembers the first soap opera they ever saw -- or, for that matter, the last?
But that sensation of surprise in front of such a well-known mural wouldn't let me alone or let me film as I wanted. I scrutinized things. I used the pretext of wanting the best angle, the best light. Techies are patient. They respected my efforts. Until I figured it out: I'd been looking without seeing. All the American workers Diego painted have their backs to the spectator. The artist painted only working backs, except when the white workers are using goggles to protect themselves from sparks thrown by the welding torches. The American faces are anonymous. Masked. Rivera saw them the way they see us, Mexicans. With their backs turned. Anonymous. Faceless. Rivera wasn't laughing then, he wasn't Charlie Chaplin, he was only a Mexican who dared to say, None of you has a face. He was the Marxist who told them, Your work has neither the worker's name nor his face, your work is not your own.
In contrast, who is looking out at the spectator?
The blacks. They do have faces. They had faces in 1952, when Rivera came to paint and Frida checked into Henry Ford Hospital, and the great scandal was a Holy Family that Diego introduced into the mural ostensibly as a provocation, although Frida was pregnant and lost the child and instead of a child gave birth to a rag doll and the baptism of the doll was attended by parrots, monkeys, doves, a cat, and a deer ... Was Rivera mocking the gringos or did he fear them? Was that why he didn't paint them facing the world?
The artist never knows what the spectator knows. We know the future, and in that mural of Rivera's, the black faces that do dare to look outward, who did dare to look at us, had fists and not only to build Ford's cars. Without knowing it, by pure intuition, Rivera in 1932 painted the blacks who on July 30, 1967 -- the date is burned into the heart of the city -- set fire to Detroit, sacked it, shot it to pieces, reduced it to ashes, and delivered forty-three bodies to the morgue. Were those the only people who looked out from the mural, those forty-three future dead men painted by Diego Rivera in 1932 and killed in 1967 ten years after the death of the painter, thirty-five years after being painted?
A mural only appears to disclose itself at a glance. Actually, its secrets require a long, patient look, an examination which does not wear itself out, not even in the space of the mural, but which extends to all those who prolong it. Inevitably, the mural's context renders the gaze of the figures eternal, along with that of the spectator. Something strange happened to me. I had to direct my own gaze outside the mural's perimeter in order to return violently -- the way a movie camera can move like an arrow from a full shot to a brutal close-up, to the detail -- to the faces of the women workers, masculinized by their short hair and overalls but, no doubt of it, feminine figures. One of them is Frida. But her companion, not Frida but the other woman in the painting -- her aquiline features, consistent with her large stature, her melancholy eyes with shadows under them, her lips thin but sensual in their very thinness, as if the fugitive lines of her mouth were proclaiming a superiority that was strict, sufficient, unadorned, sober, and inexhaustible, abounding in secrets when she spoke, ate, made love ...
I looked at those almost golden eyes, mestizo, between European and Mexican, I looked at them as I'd looked at them so often in a forgotten passport found in a trunk as outdated as the document itself. I'd looked at them just as I had at other photos hung up, scattered around, or put away all over the house of my young father, murdered in October 1968. Those eyes my dead memory didn't recognize but my living memory retained in my soul decades later, now that I'm about to turn thirty and the twentieth century is about to die; trembling, I stared at those eyes with an almost sacred consternation which lasted so long that my team stopped, gathered around -- was something wrong with me?
Was something wrong with me? Did I remember something? I was staring at the face of that strange beautiful woman dressed as a worker, and as I did, all the forms of recollection, memory of whatever you call those privileged instants of life, poured into my head like an ocean whose unleashed waves are always yet never the same: it's the face of Laura Díaz I've just seen; the face revealed in the hurly-burly of the mural is that of one woman and one woman only, and her name is Laura Díaz.
The cameraman, Terry Hopkins, an old -- even if young -- friend, gave the painted wall a final illumination, filtered through blue accents, perhaps as an act of farewell (Terry is a poet), for his lighting blended in perfectly with the real sunset of the day we were living through in February 1999.
"Are you crazy?" he asked. "You're walking back to the hotel?"
I don't know what kind of look I gave him, but he didn't say another word. We separated. They packed up the annoying (and expensive) film equipment. They went off in the van.
I was left alone with Detroit, a city on its knees. I started walking slowly.
Free, with the fury of a teenage onanist, I began to take pictures in all directions, of black prostitutes and young black policewomen, of black boys wearing ragged woolen caps and thin jackets, of old people huddled around a garbage can turned into a street fireplace, of abandoned houses -- I felt I was getting inside all of them -- the misérables with no refuge, junkies who injected themselves with pleasure and scum in corners, I photographed all of them insolently, idly, provocatively, as if I were traveling down a blind alley where the invisible man wasn't any of them but me, I myself suddenly restored to the tenderness, nostalgia, affection of a woman whom I never in my life met but who had filled my life with all those kinds of memory that are both involuntary and voluntary, both a privilege and a danger: memories that are simultaneously expulsion from home and return to the maternal house, a fearsome encounter with the enemy and a longing for the original cave.
A man with a burning torch ran screaming through the halls of the abandoned house, setting fire to everything that would burn. I was hit on the back of my neck and fell, staring up at an upside-down, solitary skyscraper under a drunken sky. I touched the burning blood of a summer that still hadn't come, I drank the tears that won't wash away the darkness of someone's skin, I listened to the noise of the morning but not its desired silence, I saw children playing among the ruins, I examined the prostrate city, offering itself for examination without modesty. My entire body was oppressed by a disaster of brick and smoke, the urban holocaust, the promise of uninhabitable cities, no man's home in no man's city.
I managed to ask myself as I fell if it were possible to live the life of a dead woman exactly as she lived it, to discover the secret of her memory, to remember what she would remember.
I saw her, I will remember her.
It's Laura Diaz.
© 2000 Carlos Fuentes
In this radiant hope-filled new novel, Carlos Fuentes gives us a richly painted portrait of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of Laura Díaz -- a woman who becomes as much a part of our history as of the Mexican history she observes and helps to create. Filled with brilliantly colored scenes and heartbreaking dramas, the epic story of The Years with Laura Díaz is also a novel of subtle and penetrating psychological insight.
As in Fuentes's masterpiece The Death of Artemio Cruz, the action begins in the state of Veracruz and then moves to Mexico City, tracing a migration during the Revolution and, its aftermath that is an important element in Laura Díaz's life as well as in Mexico's history. This extraordinary young woman, born in 1898, grows into a devoted wife and mother, becomes the lover of great men , and, before her death in 1972, is celebrated as a politically committed artist on whom none of the poignant paradoxes of Mexican life been lost. Significantly, her life story comes to us thanks to her Chicano great-grandson, inheritor of both her gifts and her paradoxes: the novel opens in Detroit and closes in Los Angeles with him.
Laura Díaz is a complicated and alluring heroine whose brave honesty and good heart prevail despite her losing a brother and a grandson to the darkest forces of Mexico's turbulent, corrupt politics, and a son to the ravages of a disease that consumes him before his greatness can be fulfilled. Yet in the end she is a happy woman, despite the tragedy and loss, for she has borne witness to and helped to affect her country's life, and she has loved and understood with unflinching honesty.
In this most
important novel in decades, Carlos Fuentes places the complex world of
the twentieth century firmly in the hands of a heroine who is sure to
become a lasting emblem of Mexico's -- and our -- recent past.
Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
Carlos Fuentes, born in Panama in 1928, spent his youth in Washington, DC, where his father was posted as a Mexican diplomatic representative. As a teen, Fuentes lived in Argentina and Chile, as well as Mexico. He completed his university studies in both Mexico City and Geneva. A diplomat who has served as his country's ambassador to France, he has received many awards for his accomplishments as a novelist, essayist, and commentator, among them the Cervantes Prize in 1987. He is the author of more than twenty books. He divides his time between Mexico City and London, and lectures frequently in the United States.