Feb 202017
 

Novelist Ramón Rubín (1912-2000) lived much of his life in Jalisco and was a staunch defender of Lake Chapala. Rubín never actually lived on the shores of the lake but his novel, La Canoa Perdida: novela mestiza (“The Lost Canoe: a mestizo novel”), reveals an excellent understanding of the people and places that make the lake such a special place. Sadly, the novel has never been translated into English.

In the early 1950s, Lake Chapala was in serious trouble. The lake level was going down rapidly, year on year, mainly due to a prolonged period of lower-than-average rainfall throughout the basin of the River Lerma, the main river feeding the lake. At the same time, the Jalisco state government was seeking to channel more water from the lake to satisfy the thirst of the ever-growing city of Guadalajara and federal authorities were prepared to give permission for wealthy landowners to reclaim farmland by draining sections of the lake. (This scheme would have echoed that in the early part of the twentieth century when a massive area of the lake was reclaimed for agriculture).

The hydrology of Lake Chapala is discussed in more detail in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Rubín had grown up by the sea and loved the lake. He had traveled widely throughout Mexico and seen some of the adverse impacts of so-called “development” schemes. In about 1948 he had seen dredgers working near Ocotlán on the north-east shore of Lake Chapala. Local people had no idea what was going on, which caused Rubín to investigate further. That research became the basis for the excellent geographical understanding demonstrated in the early chapters of La Canoa Perdida, first published in 1951.

As the lake’s problems intensified, Rubín became more politically active and in 1952 presided over Comité Provisional para la Conservación del Lago de Chapala, a committee formed to defend the lake. This organization morphed into the Comité pro Defensa del Lago Chapala and played a decisive role in preventing the implementation of any further reclamation schemes and opposing greater use of the lake for the inhabitants of Guadalajara. Heavy rainfalls in the second half of the 1950s eventually restored the lake to its rightful level.

In addition to his novel, Rubín published several later articles designed to draw attention to the lake’s problems. The most interesting of these, from our perspective, is his 1959 story, “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos” {“The Dredger, an almost-real story in three acts and three times”).

The lake’s outflow powered hydro-power generators immediately below the Juanacatlán Falls that supplied electricity to Guadalajara. In “La Draga”, an “ecological” story, a worker at the Hydro Company tries to convince people of the benefits of draining the lake further, claiming it would help avoid depriving central Mexico of power [a smaller lake meant less evaporation, an increased average depth and a greater head of water] while simultaneously giving farmers a bonanza when the former lake bed was transformed into productive farmland. In the story, this creates three new millionaires in a single season at Jamay [a town on the northern shore, mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca]. The story ends with an apocalyptic vision of the future in which the Lerma River is dry, only little meandering rivulets of water still flow, and most of the region now looks like the arid Chihuahua desert far to the north. The fact is, “we killed the lake, and now we’re paying for our crime.”

In La Canoa Perdida, as historian Wolfgang Vogt rightly points out, the extended descriptions of the lake in its early chapters are among “the best ever written about the lake”. But what about the book’s plot? The protagonist, Ramón Fortuna, comes from a ranch between Chapala and Ocotlán. Fortuna is an impoverished fisherman who supplements a meager income by hunting birds. He dreams of buying his own canoe.

One day he stumbles across two ringed birds (with tags from Winnipeg, Canada) and learns that each tag is worth the princely sum of 5 dollars. This unexpected good fortune gives him the chance to win the heart of “La Guera Hermelinda, the ambitious daughter of a neighbor and woman of his desires. Fortuna writes to claim his reward, but fails to include any return address, and therefore waits in vain for any money to arrive.

Incidentally, Rubín includes a wonderful line in his narrative comparing “gringos” to Mexicans, saying that the former write short letters but wage long wars, unlike the latter who do the opposite.

Fortuna decides to change career and goes to work at the hydro company at El Salto (giving Rubín the opportunity to explain the changes of rural life engendered by industrialization). Fortuna also turns his hand to clearing lirio (water hyacinth) and is part of a plan using dynamite to blow up the thick, clogged masses of aquatic weed.

At one point or another, Rubín introduces many of the famous Chapala legends and tales into his novel, including the story of El Señor del Guaje in Jocotepec, the history of Mezcala island, the sinking of the lake steamer at Ocotlán in the late nineteenth century and the presence of oil deposits in the lake.

Fortuna eventually saves enough money to buy a canoe named Amanda, but then discovers that it has gone missing from the shore where he left it. Did the waves come up the beach and float it away? Has it been stolen? Has it been taken by his rival in love? Fortuna searches desperately all over the lake for his canoe, allowing Rubín the chance to include detailed descriptions of many north shore settlements from Jocotepec to San Pedro Itzican, and all along the south shore, complete with their varied degrees of environmental damage. At one point, convinced he’s found it, he starts to row it away from a village, only to discover as the rightful owners pursue him, that it’s not really the right boat!

Eventually Fortuna finds his canoe on Mezcala Island (Isla del Presidio) where it has been hidden by a local. He steals his canoe back, almost sinks on his return trip to the shore, but finally gets home, only to find that his girlfriend has married his rival.

Like millions of Mexicans, Fortuna has had a constant struggle to make a living and to “be someone”, in a social and cultural environment that is hostile. This is a novel that can be read on so many different levels that it is worth reading and re-reading. It is one of the earliest novels in Mexico with an overtly ecological theme. At the same time, it is a sociological study of fishing communities that no longer exist. Rubín’s insightful narrative digs deep into the psyche of the many individuals – campesinos, engineers, technicians, hunters, mariachi musicians, traders, etc – that constitute the cast of characters in La Canoa Perdida.

This is a novel whose message resonates far beyond the immediate confines of Lake Chapala.

Sources:

  • Ramón Bustos, Luis. 2001. “Donde la sombra de Ramón Rubín“. Jornada Semanal, 16 de septiembre del 2001.
  • Rubín, Ramón. 1951. La canoa perdida: novela mestiza (Guadalajara: Ediciones Altiplano); illustrations by Víctor J. Reynoso. 483 pages. Reissued in 1993 by Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico, D.F.
  •  Rubín, Ramón. 1959. “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos”, in Xallixtlico, 1, 1 November 1959, pp 28-36.
  • Vogt, Wolfgang. 1989. “El Lago de Chapala en la literatura”. Estudios Sociales. (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara), Año II, #5, 37-47.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

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