Here's to You, Jesusa!


A remarkable novel that uniquely melds journalism with fiction, by Elena Poniatowska, the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Cervantes Prize

Jesusa is a tough, fiery character based on a real working-class Mexican woman whose life spanned some of the seminal events of early twentieth-century Mexican history. Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, she finds herself at the Revolution's end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband ...

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A remarkable novel that uniquely melds journalism with fiction, by Elena Poniatowska, the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Cervantes Prize

Jesusa is a tough, fiery character based on a real working-class Mexican woman whose life spanned some of the seminal events of early twentieth-century Mexican history. Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, she finds herself at the Revolution's end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband and working menial jobs. So begins Jesusa's long history of encounters with the police and struggles against authority. Mystical yet practical, undaunted by hardship, Jesusa faces the obstacles in her path with gritty determination.

Here in its first English translation, Elena Poniatowska's rich, sensitive, and compelling blend of documentary and fiction provides a unique perspective on history and the place of women in twentieth-century Mexico.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
In this stunning biographical novel, acclaimed Mexican writer Poniatowska gives voice to one of her country's humblest citizens, an eighty-seven-year-old laundry maid named Jesusa Palancares de Aguilar. Beginning with her mother's untimely death, Jesusa recounts a lifetime of wanderings from town to town, as she takes a variety of jobs, including a factory worker and a dance hall matron. Underlying the episodic plot is the author's concern for Mexico's dispossessed, men and women who must continually reinvent themselves in order to survive. Poniatowska spent several years interviewing the real-life Jesusa in Mexico City, where the author first gained an understanding of "real poverty." But this novel is far from exploitative; Jesusa remains self-sufficient and dignified to the very end. Devoid of self-pity, the laundry maid declares, "You have to pay for everything during this lifetime." For the first time since its publication in 1969, Heikkinen has translated this important work into English, recapturing the gruff, plainspoken beauty of Jesusa's speech and the resilience of her spirit.
—Susan Tekulve

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Originally published in Mexico in 1969, this passionate and unflinching classic deserves a warm reception upon its belated publication in English. In the Latin American tradition of the testimonial novel, acclaimed Mexican author and journalist Poniatowska (Dear Diego; Tin sima) "reports" the life story--falling somewhere between fact and fiction, and based on a series of interviews--of a poverty-stricken but amazingly independent woman. Left motherless and with a roaming father in impoverished turn-of-the-century Oaxaca, Jesusa is married at age 15 to an abusive cavalry captain during the Mexican revolution. Always a tomboy, she turns increasingly irascible, vindictive and opinionated, everything a Mexican woman of her time is not supposed to be. When her husband is killed three years after their marriage, Jesusa remakes herself repeatedly, taking on various trades to support herself. She repudiates modern life, has several run-ins with the law and takes comfort in an eccentric religion. As an independent woman at the beginning of the century, she is something of a pioneer and role model, though her eccentric ways leave her lonely and solitary. Because Jesusa, whose real name was Josefina B rquez, didn't allow herself to be tape-recorded, Poniatowska painstakingly transcribed her story. The result is one long breathtaking monologue, its only plot the incredible life story of its protagonist. Poniatowska never intrudes, but the warmth she feels for Jesusa infuses the sentimental introduction and spills over into the text. Both women benefit from their unusual relationship, Jesusa validating Poniatowska's Mexican existence and Poniatowska saving Jesusa from anonymity. Loss, alienation and hardship are palpable in the narrative, ably translated by Heikkinen, yet faith in survival and self makes this a life-affirming tale. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This, Poniatowska's best-known novel, was first published in Mexico in 1969 and has been available in Spanish ever since. It is the "true" life story of Jes sa Palancares de Aguilar, born in Oaxaca, whose life spans the events of 20th-century Mexico. She loses her mother at an early age, follows her father into the Mexican Revolution, and marries a soldier who abuses and abandons her. After the Revolution, she ends up in Mexico City, where she works and grows old, as poor as she was born, continually on the edge of society and continually irascible. Poniatowska, who interviewed Jes sa over a period of several years, pushes the novel format and the frictions between authorship and collaboration with this testimonial. A prolific writer, she is best known in this country for her nonfiction Massacre in Mexico and her novels Dear Diego and Tinisima. Jes sa's novel, if novel it be (it reads more like a documentary), boasts a main character who is complex and interestingly contradictory; she doesn't like being subjugated to men, but she's not really a rebel. Ultimately, though, this telling of her life is less than absorbing. Extremely popular in Mexico because it spoke to the national consciousness, this work belongs in larger public and academic libraries, especially where Hispanic studies are important.--Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
ea. vol: 12p. (Coleccion Palabras Series). (Madrid: Susaeta Ediciones, 1984). series ISBN 84-305-1385-X. $3. PreS-Gr 1 Nine board books that are characterized by simple, clear color illustrations of common animals, objects and words. The selection of items familiar to young children makes this series especially useful for preschoolers.
Kirkus Reviews
First English edition of a 1969 novel by the renowned Mexican author (Tinisima, 1996): a fictionalized life of a soldadera who followed the Mexican Revolution's soldiers on campaign that reads like a poorly edited oral biography. The story is based on the experiences of Jesúsa Palancares de Aguilar, a cantankerous old woman in her 80s when Poniatowska, an experienced journalist, interviewed her. She presents Jesúsa's lengthy narrative with almost no historical or social framework, apparently assuming readers' intimate knowledge of the Revolution's politics and warring factions. Even Poniatowska's introduction to this edition provides little beyond her impassioned description of Jesúsa's poverty in the 1960s, when the interviews were conducted. Perhaps something is lost in the translation, or maybe time has softened the urgency of Jesúsa's plight. Certainly her experiences could be the raw material for a great historical novel: her mother dead, five-year-old Jesúsa is left with a shiftless, philandering father whose one act of kindness is making her a doll from a dead squirrel. She accompanies him when he goes off to fight with General Venustiano Carranza and is forced at age 14 to wed a 17-year-old soldier who beats her repeatedly. Jesúsa describes the day-to-day difficulties and atrocities of life during the Revolution but rarely comments on its political aspects. Captured by the Zapatistas, she's escorted home by Zapata himself, whom she describes as"a good-hearted man [not] interested in being president like all the rest." Pancho Villa fares less well:"He didn't fight like a man . . . that Villa was an ape." Jesúsa'stravailsand privations following the Revolution culminate in her espousal of a bizarre brand of spiritualism, the Obra Espiritual, that encompasses her belief in reincarnation. She claims she was an evil queen in an earlier existence and accepts this life's miseries as her just punishment. Ho-hum as either fiction or history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142001226
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 266,393
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Elena Poniatowska is a journalist and the author of more than forty works, including the classic Massacre in Mexico and the novel Dear Diego. The recipient of the 2013 Cervantes Prize, she lives in Mexico City.
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Read an Excerpt

This is my third time back on Earth, but I've never suffered as much as I have now. I was a queen in my last reincarnation, I know, because I saw my train during a revelation. I was standing in a beauty shop and there were these huge, long mirrors that went from floor to ceiling and I saw my dress and the train. It stretched back really far, and way back there almost at the end, at the tip, there was a triangle of marbled black and yellow tiger stripes. My clothing was all white, like a bridal gown, except for that forked piece of tiger skin, tike the very tip of the devil's tail. Columbine and Pierrot peered into the mirror on either side of me, both dressed in white with those black polka dots they always wear.

    I told them about my revelation at the Obra Espiritual and they said that the royal white clothing was what I was supposed to wear at my final judgment hour, and that the Lord had allowed me to see what I'd been like one of the three times that I came to Earth.

    —That spot on the train of your dress is all you have left to whiten, and if you don't, it will devour your innocence.

    I was wearing a queen's dress with wide sleeves covered with trim. Pierrot and Columbine were my servants but they didn't attend to me as they should have; they spent the whole time fooling around with each other. Queens are always alone. I also told them at the temple that I'd seen a large valley full of spotted cows:

    —It's the herd that the Lord has entrusted to you and you must return them to Him cleansed.

    I have a lot of things going on right now and I don't know when I'm going to get my herd together to remove their stains, if it'll be in this lifetime or in the next, when I evolve again ...

There are still a number of spiritually ill Christians whom I have to cure, but since I haven't, we all keep suffering. The Ojo Avisor—the watchful eye inside its divine triangle—is following me everywhere through the antennae of its eyelashes. It's the all-powerful eye of the Creator, and if I don't complete my task, there's no point in asking the saints to pray for us because I'll be forgotten at the hand of God. That's why I go through so many purifications. Why did I come back as a poor woman this time if last time I was a queen? My debt must be really heavy, for God took my parents away when I was a child and left me alone to pay for my sins like a leper. I must've been very bad, which is why the Ser Supremo, the supreme being, has left me out here so long, to purge myself of corrupting, harmful influences.

    To traverse the spiritual path we have to go through many trials and tribulations and much pain and suffering. The protector who guides us reveals himself through them, but sometimes you must return to Earth several times, depending on your debt. In my first reincarnation I lived with Turks, Hungarians, and Greeks. I saw myself wrapped in a purple cloak like the Virgin of Sorrows; my head was covered in white and I wore a heavy white robe that fell to the floor. I was standing in an empty place when I counted twelve camels approaching; he was riding on the last one. He was dark-skinned, with large, curly-lashed eyes, dressed in white and wearing a turban. He reached out his hand to me and I thought it would be brown like his face, but no, it was silver. He gestured for me to climb up on the camel. I was scared and pulled back. He had to let go of me, and I started to run. I put my hands up in the sign of the cross, and it must have worked, because he couldn't catch up to me on his swift camel. I kept running, but he took out a pistol and killed me. When I woke up I heard his name: Luz de Oriente, Light of the Orient.

    The following day I went to the temple and told Padre Elías, who is also known as Roque Rojas, about my revelation. He comes down to Earth the first Friday of every month. Several different beings pass through the medium's aura after they receive the light, then the interpreters explain the revelations to the people. I told him that I'd seen that silver-skinned man on his camel. The Ser Espiritual asked me through the medium, Trinidad Pérez de Soto, who is now my godmother:

    —Don't you know who he is?

    —No, I don't.

    —Don't be afraid, he's your brother ... He was your companion the first time around.

    —What do you mean?

    —He was your husband back in that primitive time when you came to Earth. You must acknowledge him; he is your third protector and is with you wherever you go ... He hasn't abandoned you. He continues to guide you into the present. That's why the Lord showed him to you as he looked in his first reincarnation.

    —Oh ...

    —You mean you didn't love him?

    —Yes, I loved him.

    —He's your husband, and watches out for you ...

    I didn't say anything else, but later I studied my dream on my own and I realized who he was and why he'd killed me. He is suffering now because he wasn't a good husband. He turned out to be like Pedro Aguilar, who said that he wouldn't leave me alone and alive on Earth, so he always took me along with him. At least he warned me:

    —If I see we've lost, I'll send you on ahead and kill you ...

    God didn't let him know he was going to die; so I'm still here. When Luz de Oriente couldn't take me, he wanted to kill me, but I was afraid of him and that fear saved me. I lost my fear when my father and I started traveling with the troops. At first, when I heard shots, I'd scream, and the commanding officers would get angry because we were on the firing line and my screaming would give our position away. My father slipped gunpowder in my water without telling me:

    —Go ahead, hijita, drink this little sip of water ...

    Since I drank any kind of water, even from puddles, it didn't taste bad to me. They didn't tell me that it was gunpowder water for bravery until later.

Luz de Oriente is still paying. The mediums tell me that when he enters them and possesses their body, he weeps, and tells them:

    —It's my fault ...

    They say his speech is very refined; that he sends me his regards and asks me not to forget him; that he watches over me because the Lord has entrusted me to him.

    How many hundreds of years must have passed and he still protects me with his whole caravan! I haven't seen him only in a revelation; there's a painting of him in the temple on Luis Moya Street, which used to be called Calle Ancha. In the painting his eyes are open wide and really black, livid, black as coal. He's wearing a turban with a shiny rhinestone in the center and a spray of feathers coming out around it.

The Ser Supremo sends us to Earth to cleanse our souls. Because He made us clean, before we can return to Him we must be as we were when we first arrived. How are we supposed to cleanse ourselves? Through pain and suffering. We may believe that He's mistaken, but we're the ones who are wrong; we don't hear, we don't understand, we don't want to recognize the true path. If people would recognize God's clean path, there wouldn't be abusive men or women who allow men to abuse them. When I'm alone at night I think: "Ay, Señor, give me strength to endure the pain that you've sent!" And now that I'm old and I take medicine, I think: "I really shouldn't be using it. The whole point is to truly feel the purification that He sends me."

    In this reincarnation God didn't send me back with a silver spoon in my mouth. Now I eat if I can find something, otherwise I don't, and that's the way it is. God said: "You must fight alone. You must suffer to know what it means to love God in the land of heathens." Even though I'm ignorant, I've sorted through what has been revealed to me about my past life. I've delved so deeply that my head hurts, as though I had this calamitous world inside it. Uy, no! I could've gone crazy! But you have to figure these things out, because they've been inside you from birth. If you think about them at the right time, they'll become clear. We all have many eyes inside our brain, like a string of stars. To be able to see clearly, you have to keep your eyes closed tight, even at night when there's no daylight. I don't have a gift for words but I can say this: I've surmounted many obstacles in my lifetime. Only God knows all that I've suffered since my mother died and what's still ahead. I have to keep walking even though my final hour is far away. My stepmother in Tehuantepec had a book that enabled one to interpret signs. Your whole life was written down there in little numbers. She was a learned and wise person. She made me close my eyes and point with my finger at the book, and then she looked up what it meant. The book said I owe one hundred and two years, so I have a long road ahead of me. At my age that means there's a big chunk left. I don't know how many times I'll be reincarnated, or in what form, but I've asked God not to send me back to Earth for a while so I can stay in space and rest. But that's like asking Him to make blind men see and hunchbacks straight. He's the only one who knows what I actually owe, but it must be a lot, because in this last reincarnation I've been quite mean, physically abusive, and a drunk. I can't say that I've been good. I really can't say anything.

I had a friend, Sister Sebastiana, who sold tomatoes. She had a big stall at the market, but then she got sick and couldn't work it. She fell apart; she got very, very large, but I don't think it was fat, I think she just swelled up. Her feet were like sponges and she couldn't get around. God only knows what her debt was, but she suffered a lot. Then someone told her about the Obra Espiritual and she came to the temple.

    —I'm so tired, beaten down, my body has forsaken me. Please cure me. The last time I was pregnant, the child turned cancerous inside me and I almost died. My insides are rotted now and the doctors don't think I can be saved.

    —What's in your heart?


    When she accepted the Obra Espiritual, she began to get better. They did spiritual surgery on her. There were no babies inside her, but they took out the rot. She began to go to classes there and one time the Lord granted her a gift; she saw it with her eyes open, without feeling the sting. The visions went back through the centuries, and hidden things were revealed to her. Sister Sebastiana saw many hands reaching for her, surrounding her:

    —All these hands are threatening me!

    —Don't you recognize them? the Lord asked.

    —They're young women's hands ...

    —You must analyze and study what I reveal to you ...

    The Lord wanted her to realize that she'd been a man in the previous reincarnation and that the hands belonged to all the women he'd wronged; and they now wanted revenge. For a long time she did penance and gave donations to the Catholic Church, but she didn't heal. At the Obra Espiritual they explained that those rotted children belonged to the women whom she had abandoned in the past reincarnation. Then Sebastiana knelt and asked the Ser Supremo for forgiveness.

    —I agree to continue suffering, but have pity on me.

    About eight years ago I saw her in the plaza. She still had her stall, but she was unrecognizable. She was raising other people's children, and they all turned out bad; they never helped her, and they never loved her. Each person pays their debts a little at a time and gets credit on Earth for all the debts that the Ser Supremo has written down up there. That's why one returns so many times. It's something that those of us who are in the Obra Espiritual understand, because our protectors drill it into us. I have three protectors. The first is old man Mesmer, the second is Manuel Allende, and the last one is Luz de Oriente, who is the handsomest of the three, but I love them all the same. It's just that Luz de Oriente looks at me hungrily; with desire in his eyes all the time, which makes me wonder. They're the great ones, but the three greatest are the Eternal Father, our Father Jesus Christ, and our messenger Elías, or Roque Rojas as he's known in this world, he's the Third Person, the Holy Ghost. The Catholic Church says the Holy Ghost is a little dove, because they don't explain things there. The priests do things differently. They know the Obra Espiritual, but they don't want to go into it any further because they're selfish. They don't want the people to figure it out, because that would kill the goose that lays the golden egg; they make a lot of money saying masses and performing weddings and christenings. In the Obra Espiritual they enlighten the people, and the whole congregation supports the temple; the priestesses, the mediums, the pedestals, and the columns all work together to hold it up. They never ask for charity. They don't tell the people: "It will cost you this much for such and such." In the Catholic Church they say: "We'll say mass for you, but you'll owe us your place in the kingdom in Heaven." At funeral services they merely bring in a fake coffin, make gestures, and swing incense around. They don't even call for the poor soul who's suffering in space. I know, because I used to have a mass said for my poor mother every Day of the Dead, but when she spoke to me through the Obra Espiritual I realized that she was totally blind and didn't know me. When she received the light she was glad that I'd finally remembered her, but I had remembered her many times before that. The priests had simply pocketed the centavos I paid them for the masses, but they didn't say them for her or for my father. And like a fool I kept paying them three pesos a crack. They probably didn't even say masses for their own mothers.

    My mother hardly remembered that she had children. They took me back to when I was very young right there in the temple of Chimalpopoca. They put her spiritual hand on my face so she'd recognize me: "Awaken from your drowsiness—they told her—and remember your daughter." She let out a long sigh and said:

    —Praise be to God. You have enlightened me and reminded me that I had a child.

    —You didn't just have one. You had five and they're all there with you. Jesusa is the only one left on Earth.

    Then her eyes were opened and she went to round up my brothers and sisters from among the dead souls that wander around in space. She called their names, but only two came forward from the celestial rows: Petra and Emiliano. Efrén, the eldest, didn't appear, and finally they assumed that he must have been reincarnated again. I don't know if the dead newborn baby had ever been baptized. I was glad to see Emiliano because he was always so good to me. He took care of me for years when I was a drunk and hung out in dives. He'd appear in other people's minds or in some other man's body and say to me:

    —Let's go.

    I'd stare at him:

    —Pues let's go, I would answer very obediently.

    We'd leave the cantinas, and while we were walking he'd disappear in the crowd and I'd look around for him. When he revealed himself at the Obra Espiritual, Emiliano asked me: "

    —Do you remember when I took you out of the Tranvia? Remember when I left you on Mesones Street?

    I didn't say anything. "Ay, my poor little brother, how he suffered protecting me!" I was a black sheep who didn't want to get on the right path. My sister Petra didn't say a word to me in the revelation. She spoke even less in space than she did on Earth, she was always a little slow. She finally accepted the little bit of light that she could. Emiliano still follows me, though I don't see him; sometimes I can sense when he's in the room, and sometimes I can't. When I close my eyes I can see his face.

    My mother started crying:

    —God bless you, God bless you, child, for calling me after so many years. I'd lost my family but we've finally found each other.

    Her children in space calmed her down. They told her to say goodbye to me. She kept insisting:

    —Thank you, child, for remembering me ...

    There are many left in the darkness and they stay buried there until a charitable soul calls for them.

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