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Carlos Fuentes and His American Life

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes on Oct. 13, 2008. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/GettyImages.

Carlos Fuentes had aged so beautifully you might have subconsciously assumed he would live forever, like a character in a Latin American novel. He moved easily through the complicated world of the second half of the 20th century, at home in multiple languages, crowned in a silver mane, his voice easy to listen to, laughing easily and well. Fuentes was sophisticated, worldly, and whip-smart, defining his country for his countrymen and Mexico to the world.

Ray SuarezHis father’s diplomatic career made Fuentes a Mexican abroad through many of his formative years. Born in Panama, he lived in several South American capitals before arriving in Washington, D.C., at age 8. During his Washington years he acquired a command of English that eludes most native speakers. A deep affection for the United States, if not always for its governments and policies, would remain with him for the rest of his long life.

Fuentes came to Mexico to live full time as a teenager. Following a legal education in Switzerland and Mexico he followed his father into the diplomatic corps, while quietly nursing his ambition to be a writer. He published his first novel at 30 years old, in 1958, and “Where the Air Is Clear” won wide attention and acclaim. Before long, he left foreign service and turned his titanic creative energies to writing.
He wrote everything: novels, short stories, essays, columns and commentaries. He filled a huge space as a public intellectual in Latin America, North America and Europe.

For me, his appeal was rooted in his expansive, hemispheric idea of the word “America.” He was ready to stand in the heart of the Spanish Americas and say to people from Chicago to Chile’s southern tip that they were all heirs of Spain’s cultural deposit in the Western Hemisphere.

In his book “The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World,” Fuentes reminded his readers that Latin Americans were created by a once-in-history collision of indigenous cultures, imperial adventurers, refugees and conquerors.

For decades, the argument had raged about the place of Spanish, Catholicism, ancient empires, the United States and European empires in who Latin Americans became. Fuentes dismissed it as a pointless argument, offering in its place Francisco Goya’s searing Caprichos and the Olmecs and Incas: You, Latin American, don’t have to choose between graffiti in East Los Angeles, ancient civilizations, and Arabic, Jewish, and North American influences shaping the culture. Throw open your arms. Throw open your head. They all belong to you.

It is a sad footnote to the Fuentes story that he was barred from the United States during a part of the Cold War because of his leftist sympathies. I have always believed a great country shows its greatness when it demonstrates its fearless exposure to its critics.

His early support for the Castro regime in Cuba faded with the strongman’s increasingly authoritarian rule. His support for the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua also was tempered by events.

His critics in Latin America dismissed him as a political lightweight. Mexican commentator Enrique Krauze called him “the Guerrilla Dandy.” Writer, editor, teacher, and fellow Mexican Ilan Stavans disagreed: “He was not a romantic. He did not follow the underdog wherever they went without criticizing.”

In her appreciation, Marjorie Miller of the Associated Press wrote of a conversation in Los Angeles with Fuentes about the accusation that he was anti-American. “To call me anti-American is like saying I am anti-Semitic because my wife is not Jewish,” Fuentes replied.

“It is a stupendous lie, a calumny. I grew up in this country. When I was a little boy I shook the hand of Franklin Roosevelt and I haven’t washed it since,” he added with his characteristic good humor. “I’ll never forget his smile. I had great respect for him and I remember how he said that society grows from the bottom up. I had great respect for the New Deal.

“I went to school here. I read Faulkner, listened to jazz, saw American movies. I get along very well with the gringos.” You can hear the wink in his voice.

During a one-hour interview I did with the author in the late 1990s his love and appreciation of his own people never crowded out the real admiration of the United States, and all that it had meant to the remarkable trajectory of his own Pan-American life.

On Wednesday’s NewsHour, Ray Suarez talked to Ilan Stavans of Amherst College about the life and legacy of Carlos Fuentes. Here is the continuation of their conversation that Ray mentioned on the program:

Their on-air conversation is here.

Follow Ray Suarez on Twitter.

This entry is cross-posted on Art Beat.

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