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The Man Who Lived to Tell the Tale

19/03/2009 La ministra de cultuta de Colombia Paula Moreno y el escritor colombiano Gabriel Garcia Marquez fueron los encargados de entregar el Mayahuel de Palata a Victor Gaviria

Last Thursday, the world lost one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. At the age of 87, Colombian author and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in his Mexico City home, after years of battling cancer and suffering from senile dementia.

The public outpour of grief over his death has reached immense proportions. As the multitude of obituaries, Facebook posts and tweets show, Garcia Marquez’s work – inspired almost entirely on his experiences living in Colombia – touched the lives of millions of people across the whole world. He managed to transcend his own time and space to become one of the few authors that captured the soul of Latin America as a whole, while also channeling it through a unique literary voice and projecting it onto regions and generations far beyond his own.

Like many of my friends, I realized the extent of his literary genius in senior-year Spanish Lit back in Puerto Rico, where his classic 100 Years of Solitude was required reading pretty much everywhere. I was excited about the book even before I started reading, as it seemed that all the adults whose opinions I admired and respected had unanimously decided that Gabo – as Garcia Marquez’s readers endearingly call him – had written the singular text of their generation. My dad read it when he was in high school, finished it, and started it again the same day. My mom would talk about it endlessly whenever Garcia Marquez was brought up in conversation. My grandmother fondly remembers the day a friend told her about the new novel that would change the face of Latin American literature. After all the familial praise, reading 100 Years was almost an existential necessity.

It took me a while to understand why this book and this author had captured the imaginations of so many of those close to me, more so than any other writer. I later realized that we all loved Garcia Marquez not just because he was a great author, but also because his works expanded on a pan-Latin American identity that, in the Puerto Rican context, had become politicized.

The characters and stories Garcia Marquez wrote – especially in 100 Years of Solitude – were both familiar and wonderfully exotic. They reflected many of the social tropes we knew from growing up in Puerto Rico, while also contextualizing them as typical experiences across the Latin American continent. For people living in a weird limbo between a Hispanic national identity and US political and economic control, this literary jewel from the South helped to reaffirm a sense of cultural closeness with the region while showing us that Latin American authors were capable of producing literature that could rival or surpass anything produced in the English-speaking world.

“Garcia Marquez once said, “Any interpretation of reality in literature must be political. I cannot escape my own ideology when I interpret reality in my books; it’s inseparable.” Through his work, he developed the political corollary to pan-Latin American solidarity: opposition towards American imperialism and a defense for the social and political movements that were rising to counter it. He was a vocal individual within the sociopolitical framework of 20th century Latin America. Like so many other intellectuals, he truly became invested in the region’s politics with the onset of the Cuban Revolution. A journalist as well as an author, he journeyed to Havana during the early days of the revolution when he was offered a job at a news agency. He was still working there when the Cubans intercepted coded CIA messages in preparation for the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. After personally meeting and befriending Fidel Castro, Garcia Marquez was tasked with launching a Bogota bureau for Prensa Latina, a Cuban-sponsored international news service meant to counter American influence in the region.

He eventually quit Prensa Latina, but maintained close ties with Castro as his career developed. Later on he became a staunch defender of the Allende government in Chile when it was threatened and taken over by Pinochet. He also offered support for the left-wing Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. Throughout it all, Garcia Marquez was a strong believer in the region’s self-determination, an optimist with a tendency to romanticize movements for social justice and equality. In his Nobel lecture, he asked of his European audience:

“Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions?”

The author’s critics would say that these different methods eventually devolved into another kind of oppression, particularly in Cuba. Indeed, many have called Garcia Marquez’s relationship with Castro the greatest stain on his otherwise grandiose legacy.  However, critics tend to ignore the political effervescence that characterized the author’s formative experiences, as well as those of the many people who made up the Latin American Left of the mid-20th century. They were the product of a specific historical moment, when the region was beset by US-backed dictatorships, violence and inequality. Third World counter-culture movements and new political frontiers were being tested out for the first time.

Many decades have passed since then, but books like 100 Years of Solitude transmit the same energy and sense of urgency that the would-be revolutionaries of the past felt. By projecting this past onto the present, Garcia Marquez’s writing resonated with the struggles that my grandmother, my mom, my dad, and countless others faced across various generations, and contextualized them as part of a regional narrative.

Garcia Marquez was one of the last remaining luminaries of an ageing Revolutionary Left that has slowly receded into myth and memory. The socially just utopia he yearned for may have not materialized, and the struggles he romanticized may not have turned out as he expected. But for my 17-year-old self, isolated both geographically and psychologically from the region and eager to reaffirm my Latin-Americanism, his words opened a window into a reality that was just as magical as his novels. He was – and will continue to be – a link to a Latin America that, despite its turbulent past, is still fighting for unity and progress its in own unique way.


About the Author

Francis, Class of '16, is a BPR columnist and International Relations concentrator from San Juan, Puerto Rico, with an interest in Latin American politics. He also enjoys playing guitar, salsa dancing and keeping up with the Latino indie music and film scene. Perpetually in search of a Puerto Rican-themed food truck.