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Elena Poniatowska: Hasta no verte, Jesus mío (Until We Meet Again; later: Here’s to you Jesusa!)

Elena Poniatowska saw a poor woman in a public washing area and was fascinated by her way of speaking. She interviewed the woman several times, though the woman was suspicious and wondered why Poniatowska wanted to interview her. This woman’s story is the basis of this novel. It tells the story of Jesusa Palancares (not the name of the woman interviewed). The story starts with her later life, when she has had a religious conversion and is now in a religious sect but the story soon starts from her childhood and tells her story more or less in chronological order.

Jesusa is one of five siblings, living in the Tehuantepec Her mother dies when she is young. Her father, who works as a stevedore and guard in the port, is left to bring up the children who are still at home. He does this with a succession of girlfriends, the first of whom he moves in just eight days after his wife’s death. Jesusa does not generally get on with her”stepmothers” and, with one, even drives her out physically. But, even though she is still young, she is expected to work and work she does, often getting up in the very early hours to do the housework and then working till late in the evening. But she is a tough girl, a tomboy. She enjoys fighting and boys games and is not interested in dressing up or other traditional girl pursuits. Her siblings have their problems. Efrén is an alcoholic and abuses his wife. He will die in a drunken stupor. Her sister, Petra, is married to an army corporal who locks her up and beats her up. A helpful neighbour finally intervenes and the man is arrested. The neighbour, Cayetano, then becomes her boyfriend but then he, too, becomes violent and he is only prevented from killing her by the action of Jesusa and her brother, Emiliano. Emiliano, who becomes a soldier, will be shot dead while guarding Carranza, leaving Jesusa devastated. Jesusa moves to Salina Cruz to become a nursemaid.

The Mexican Revolution will play a key part in this book, apart from the death of her brother. Jesusa meets Emiliano Zapata – she likes him and he treats her well. She will marry a soldier, Pedro Aguilar, (he is seventeen, she fifteen)but she does not like him, as he tries to control her and abuses her. She will also be affected by by an earthquake and have to go and live temporarily in a women’s prison as a result. Her husband is called off to fight and when he returns, he finds that she is running a local bar, as he left her no money. He is furious and says that next time he goes off he will take her with him, which he does. She (and other women) go off with the army. She is armed and, as a tough woman, not only survives but, when her husband is killed, she takes command of his unit.

After the war and, indeed, for the rest of her long life, she drifted around. She has a whole succession of jobs – from working in a vineyard to being a laundress, from making boxes to being a waitress. She never remarries, preferring to keep her independence. However, when not working she loves going out, dancing and getting drunk. This will get her into a certain amount of trouble, as she is jailed quite a few times for drunkenness and fighting but, despite it all, she manages to pull through, never letting it get her down. She travels the country, meets many people but still remains her own woman, right up to the end. She does have a bout of religion, joining a religious group but, even then, she is going to stand up for herself and will not let the group members put her down.

Poniatowska creates a truly original character in Jesusa. She is not a feminist but she certainly can be seen as a proto-feminist, standing up for herself, doing, when she can, what she wants to do and, in particular, more or less, not letting herself be controlled any more than necessary. Does she have a happy life? Probably, to some degree, though not perhaps our perception of ideal happiness but she does a least remain in control of her own life, within the limits that she is given by her situation. Amazingly, this book is still in print in English in the USA and the UK and that is certainly most welcome.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones Era in 1969
First published in English in 1988 (as (Until We Meet Again; later: Here’s to you Jesusa!) by Random House, in 2001 (as Here’s to you Jesusa!) by Farrar, Straus and Giroux