Juan Rulfo was one of the most important Mexican authors of the 20th century, despite publishing only three books. BristoLatino’s editor-in-chief Helen Brown looks at his lesser-known career as a photographer, documenting the people, landscape and architecture of rural Mexico and Mexico City.
Juan Rulfo was born in 1917 in Jalisco, and in the early years of his life suffered through two violent episodes in Mexican history, the Mexican Revolution (approximately 1910-1920) and the Cristero war (1926-1929). The aftermath of these conflicts, a time of hopelessness and grief, inspired Rulfo’s fiction. Rulfo’s first book, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain and other Stories, 1953), a collection of short stories, uses harsh social realism to depict the demoralising life of rural Mexicans in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. In the story Nos han dado la tierra (They have given us the land), Rulfo illuminates the hypocrisy of the land reform promised by the government, in order to divide up Mexico in a fairer and less elitist manner. Rulfo depicts farmers walking for miles on the land they have been allocated, stretches of barren desert, searching for water and fertile land, and wishing for rain that never comes.
The Cristero war, a Roman Catholic revolt against the new Mexican government’s restriction of the power and rights of the Roman Catholic Church, claimed Rulfo’s father as one of its many victims. Rulfo’s mother died two years later, leaving him as an orphan by age eight. After the failed Mexican land reform, depopulation in the countryside was rife, as people fled to the cities to try and find work. In his second book, Pedro Páramo (1955), a young man travels to his mother’s home town in order to find his estranged father, but finds the town populated exclusively by ghosts. Through piecing together the fragmented narrative of the various ghosts he comes across, he finds that his father was a cruel landowner who maintained his power through cheating and intimidating others and cruelly arranging marriages to suit his megalomaniac needs. Using multiple narrators and switching between different time periods, the story becomes a portrait of the town itself throughout these tumultuous years, all its inhabitants, and the moral decline they suffer. Pedro Páramo was one of the first examples of magical realism in Latin America, and later, after a period of writers’ block, Gabriel García Marquez read this novel and found the inspiration to write One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Rulfo was a photographer before he became a writer. The subject of his photography is the same as his writing: the Mexican people and the Mexican landscape. In this way, Rulfo’s photography provides a visual setting for his fiction. The landscape Rulfo depicts is extremely varied, ranging from beautiful mountainous landscapes to dusty, arid terrains. In his photographs, people are often shown either working the land, climbing up mountains, sitting in a throne of cacti, or walking along dusty desert paths. One of his photographic projects, En los ferrocarriles, focuses on the railways and rail yards in the north of Mexico City. Rulfo’s photographs capture this area, with its stark railway tracks curling into the distance, before it was built up into a huge housing complex. In his project on Oaxaca, he took photographs of the daily lives and practices of indigenous people. Rulfo’s photography is an opportunity to see the Mexico of the 1940s and 1950s, preserved in stark black and white, through the same eyes as the man who narrated the troubles and pitfalls of this period so memorably in words.
Photo credits: Pinterest, Editoral RM, BOMB magazine, Lost at E minor, The art stack, Love amen magazine, BBC, Juan Rulfo Foundation, El comercio, hilobrow, los arciniegas