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.

Feb 132017
 

Mexican author Ramón Rubín Rivas (1912-2000) wrote a novel set at Lake Chapala: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza. He wrote more than a dozen novels and some 500 short stories over a lengthy career and this work, first published in 1951, is considered one of his finest, though it has never been translated into English.

Rubín was a particularly keen observer of the way of life, customs and beliefs of Mexico’s many indigenous groups. His writing is based on extensive travels throughout the country and prolonged periods of residence with several distinct indigenous groups including the Cora/Huichol in Nayarit and Jalisco, the Tarahumara (raramuri) in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, and the Tzotzil in Chiapas. His novel about Lake Chapala, which we will look at in more detail in a future post, is the story of an indigenous fisherman who wants to acquire a canoe, set against the background of a lake facing serious problems. During the 1950s, Rubín was an ardent campaigner for the protection of the lake when drought and overuse threatened its very existence.

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

The early history of Rubín’s life is hazy. His “official” biography states that he was born to Spanish immigrant parents in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on 11 June 1912, and that the family moved to Spain when Rubín was two years old. However, some researchers have found evidence suggesting that he was actually born on that date in San Vicente de la Barquera in northern Spain, and subsequently “adopted” Mazatlán as his birthplace as he became known as a Mexican writer. Rubín would apparently respond to questions about his birthplace by saying that his only source of information had been his parents, and they had said he was born in Mazatlán. The lack of a Mexican birth certificate is not surprising given that the public records in many parts of Mexico were destroyed during the early years of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted in 1910.

Wherever he was born, Rubín attended school in Spain until 1929 when, at the age of sixteen, he relocated to Mazatlán in Mexico. It was while taking typing classes in Mazatlán (as a means of earning a living) that he wrote his first stories, allegedly because he was sitting too far from the blackboard to copy what the teacher wrote as practice exercises. The teacher agreed that he could write whatever he wanted, provided there were no typing errors, and Rubín’s literary career was under way.

Working as a salesperson, Rubín traveled widely in Mexico. When he settled for a time in Mexico City, he had several short stories, based on his travels and experiences, published in Revista de Revistas. He later became a regular contributor to newspapers, especially to El Informador and El Occidental. Rubín’s direct approach to narrating stories owes much to his childhood, when he was entranced by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and by the adventure novels of Emilio Salgari.

In the Spanish Civil War (1938), Rubín enlisted as a merchant seaman on the side of the Republicans. While not formally a member of the International Brigades, he took a cargo of arms and ammunition to Spain and was lucky to escape alive. Franco’s forces dropped 72 bombs on his ship, none of which hit their intended target.

Rubín enjoyed a measure of literary success in 1942 with the publication of the first of an eventual five volumes of short stories, all entitled Cuentos mestizos (“Mestizo tales”). Later short story collections include Diez burbujas en el mar, sarta de cuentos salobres (1949), two volumes of Cuentos de indios (1954 y 1958), Los rezagados (1983), Navegantes sin ruta: relatos de mar y puerto (1983) and Cuentos de la ciudad (1991).

Rubín had traveled to Chiapas for the first time and lived among the Tzotzil in 1938. He put this knowledge to good use in his first novel, El callado dolor de los tzotziles {“The silent pain of the Tzotzil”) (1949). Literary critics consider this to be a seminal portrayal of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The novel goes far beyond mere description or adulation of indigenous lifestyles and is a genuine drama about the intolerance of an indigenous community towards a couple who are unable to have children. In line with tribal tradition, the woman is banished to the mountains, the man leaves the community to live for a time among the mestizos. When he returns, his mental state altered by his experiences, he spirals downwards and seeks refuge in alcohol.

In a later indigenous novel, entitled La bruma lo vuelve azul (“The smoke turns blue”) (1954), the main character is a Huichol Indian named Kanayame who is rejected by his father, stripped of his indigenous roots in a government school, and turns to banditry. Rubín’s other indigenous novels include El canto de la grilla (1952), La sombra del techincuagüe (1955) and Cuando el táguaro agoniza (1960).

In addition, Rubín wrote the novels La loca (1949), La canoa perdida (1951), El seno de la esperanza (1960) and Donde mi sombra se espanta (1964). Some of his work has been translated (into English, German French, Russian and Italian) and several stories have been adapted for the stage. Rubín also wrote a short autobiography – Rubinescas – and several screenplays, none of which was ever made into a film, though Hugo Argüelles’s 1965 film Los cuervos están de luto is a plagarized version of Rubín’s original story “El duelo”.

Given that Rubín’s books have a wide appeal – cited as valuable sources of information about people and landscapes by anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and geographers – and were acclaimed by famous contemporaries, including his good friend Juan Rulfo, and literary historians, including Emmanuel Carballo who saw fit to include him in his Protagonistas de la literatura mexicana – why is it that Rubín is not much better known?

First, many of his books had small print runs, and were often self-financed, not the work of major publishers. Many of his books are, therefore, very difficult to find.

Second, Rubín was very much an individualist and neither living in Mexico City nor a member of any mainstream literary group.

Third, according to the author himself, his public disagreements with another famous Jalisco novelist, Agustín Yáñez, who served as Governor of Jalisco during the crisis affecting Lake Chapala in the 1950s, led to him being denied support by any of Yáñez’s numerous friends. Rubín was a vigorous opponent, on ecological grounds, of many of the “development” (drainage) schemes proposed during Yáñez’s administration.

Indeed, when he was chosen as the recipient of the Jalisco Prize in 1954, he declined to accept it on both intellectual and moral grounds, not wanting anything to do with the Yáñez administration which he believed had failed to do enough to protect Lake Chapala. (He was eventually awarded the Prize in 1997).

Rubín was proud of the fact that his work was based on travel and first-hand research, and did not derive from library sources or from his imagination while sitting at his desk. His writing shows that action and plot are more important to him than relaying introspective thoughts or feelings. However, he disliked the suggestion, sometimes made by literary critics, that he was Mexico’s Hemingway.

Rubín lived the bulk of his creative years (1940-1970) in Guadalajara. He taught at the University of Guadalajara and owned two small shoe manufacturing companies in Jalisco, both of which he eventually gave to his employees. In the early 1970s, he spent three years in Autlán, in the southern part of the state, before moving to San Miguel Cuyutlán, near Tlajomulco, for a decade. He then lived in a seniors’ home in Guadalajara for two years. Notwithstanding the many websites that claim he died the year before, Ramón Rubín Rivas died in Guadalajara on 25 May 2000.

Rubín did not win as many awards as might be expected from the quality and originality of his work, but he was awarded the Sinaloa Prize for Arts and Sciences in 1996 and the Jalisco Literary Prize in 1997. Prior to either of those awards, he had been recognized in the U.S. by the award from the New Mexico Book Association in 1994 of their “Premio de las Americas”, as the writer “whose work best exemplifies the common humanity of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere” – a truly fitting tribute to this man of the people.

Sources:

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.

Dec 122016
 

In my on-going quest to document the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala, I occasionally come across individuals about whom very little is known. In most cases, diligent research eventually unearths a few savory tidbits, even if I sometimes still lack sufficient material to compile a formal biography.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapala

Salomón Zepeda is an exception. I have found absolutely nothing about this writer, beyond the fact that he is the author of La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”), a 149-page Spanish-language novel published in 1951 by Imprenta Ruíz in Mexico City. The cover art appears to be by “Magallón”.

I know there are a small number of copies in libraries in the U.S., including one in the “Southern Regional Library Facility” of the University of California Los Angeles. If you have a copy, or access to a copy, or know anything about this author, please get in touch!

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

Nov 132016
 

A significant section of Al Young’s novel Who is Angelina?, first published in 1975, is set at Lake Chapala, where Young had spent some time in the mid- to late-1960s.

young-al-where-is-angelina-3The plot of Who is Angelina? is relatively simple. Angelina Green, an intelligent, 26-year-old, life-loving woman living in Berkeley, after the hippie phase, goes to Mexico to find herself. In Mexico City, she meets, and has an affair with, a tall, charismatic, enigmatic character named Watusi.

They then house-sit in Ajijic for a while (for friends of Watusi) before Angelina receives news that her father has been attacked in his home, in Detroit, and is hospitalized.

Angelina races north and is forced to reexamine old family ties and friendships. After her father recovers, Angelina returns to California, takes up transcendental meditation and finds a job at an “alternate” school. Unexpectedly, Watusi shows up, but their connection has inevitably and irrevocably changed.

The novel was generally well-received, though Roberta Palm, in a review for Black World (September 1975), writes that “Young is as alienated from his character [Angelina] as she is described to be from herself and her peers.” She thought that Angelina remained “an ambiguous shadow in the novel”, despite Young’s “perfect ear for dialogue” and the fact that his characters spoke “with realistic tone and in genuine cadence.”

Young’s writing shows that he is a keen observer of life in Mexico, with a good ear for Mexican Spanish. Leaving Mexico City, the couple travel to Guadalajara by overnight train and stay in the Hotel Francés for a day or two before taking a bus to Chapala, and then a taxi to Ajijic. As Watusi observes, this is a time when, “Bebop done played out. Beatniks done played out … Bomb shit done played out. Psychedelic shit done played out. Bullshit revolution done played out. Hippies done played out and, look here, I’ll tell you somethin–nigger shit done just about played out too!”

In passing, the novel offers some insights into what Ajijic and Chapala were like in the 1960s. As Watusi and Angelina arrive in town, “All the Mexican passengers who’d ooo’ed an ahhh’d at the sight of water as the bus wound around Lake Chapala a little ways back were now scrambling to line up for the grand central get-off. One Indian woman was carrying a live chicken under one arm.” (81)

Once in Ajijic, Angelina asks Watusi if there are many hippies in the village. “Use to”, comes the reply, “but the Mexican government done just about shut the door for good on that jive. They tolerate the native hippies cause all of em come from upper-class families that’s got a lotta power and pull, but long-haired freaks from Gringoland got to straighten up when they step cross that border cause these crazy people down here don’t be playin! It used to be a gang of em layin out round here in Chapala and Ajijic but… the local people got to where they couldnt put up with they shit no longer and teamed up with the law and run they doped-up boodies clean out the state.” (86-87)

The room in which the couple share a joint and make love has a “quaint hip poster left over from the Mexico City Olympics” which “rounded out the homey effect”. (91) This is a reference to one of the series of posters designed for the Olympics Committee by Austrian artist Georg Rauch, whose studio was in Jocotepec.

Among the many footloose characters that Angelina and Watusi encounter at Lake Chapala are two stereotypical foreigners: an elderly English couple writing travel articles for British and American magazines, and an American girl in her late 20s, a former New York junkie who married a Mexican traveling salesman and is writing her memoirs. Another character they meet is a middle-aged freelance photographer who works in Guadalajara but lives in Chapala. (97)

While Who is Angelina? may not be Al Young’s greatest ever novel, it is still an interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Book details: Who is Angelina? First edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975. First paperback edition: University of California Press, 1996.

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

  • Charles Embree: A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900)
  • D. H. Lawrence: The Plumed Serpent (1926)
  • Arthur Davison Ficke: “Mrs. Morton of Mexico” (1939)
  • Ramón Rubín: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza (1951)
  • Ross MacDonald: The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
  • Eileen Bassing: Where’s Annie? (1963)
  • Barbara Compton: “To The Isthmus” (1964)
  • Willard Marsh: Week with No Friday (1965)

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

error: Content is protected !!