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Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes
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Carlos Fuentes Interview

Author, Scholar & Diplomat

June 2, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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  Carlos Fuentes

What was your childhood like, growing up as the son of a diplomat?

Carlos Fuentes: Well, it was packing and unpacking a great deal. Also, a challenge to your capacity of adaptation.

Being the son of a diplomat, you are constantly forced as a child to change schools, language, friends, ambience. So I had to go from Spanish to English to Portuguese, back to Spanish, back to English, make new friends -- but it was challenging. Well, it makes you a person. I'm not unhappy about my childhood. On the contrary, I am grateful for it.

What kind of a kid were you?

Carlos Fuentes: I was a very studious young man. As a little boy, I read a lot. That was solitary in a way, because I knew my friends wouldn't last more than two or three years, then another change, new friends. So I had to build my own inner world through reading, movies, radio at the time. Radio was so important in the life of kids in the United States in the 1930s, when I was growing up here. So it meant really, in a word, building up your own personal world and traveling with it.

Can you recall books or radio programs or movies that were important to you?

Carlos Fuentes: Oh, yes. Very much so.

I belong to two cultures. That means that the books you read as a child were different in the Anglo-Saxon world and in the Latin American world. We were reading, as children, books that have never been read in the United States, Italian swashbuckling stories of The Black Corsair by Emilio Salgari, the swashbuckling French tales of the Pardaillan. These were not read. Here you were reading Nancy Drew, and the Dixon Boys I remember were read very much at that time. But there were the common classics that you found in all cultures: Jules Verne; (Alexandre) Dumas, The Three Musketeers; Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. Mark Twain was immensely popular throughout the world -- Huckleberry Finn.

So there were common readings. There was also on my part a great passion for film. Living in the United States in the 1930s, my father loved film, and once a week he took me to films. And I became very versed in films. I remember there was a moment when several movie stars were declared "box office poison." They were the likes of Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn! And people started to shy away from the movies, for some reason.

I went to all the movies, and when you left the movie, you were handed a questionnaire. And if you answered the questionnaire correctly, well, you won some money. It so happened that I won in the children's category, and I got $50 for it, which was immense! It was like $5,000 today. So I said, "There's money in movies." That's as far as I went in money-making in movies. And there was radio. Sometimes I feigned I was sick, so I wouldn't go to school, and listened to Terry and the Pirates, Don Winslow of the Navy, all these great serials that were meant for housewives who were at home doing the work and hearing the radio programs. I was fascinated by all these melodramas that went through. So that formed my imaginary life in the United States in the 1930s to a big, big measure.

We've read that you spent summers in Mexico with your grandmother, who was a storyteller.

Carlos Fuentes: I had two grandmothers, and both were storytellers. One was from Vera Cruz, on the gulf coast; the other one was from Mazatlan in Sinaloa on the Pacific Coast. So I had two oceans at my disposal. I spent my summers with my grannies in Mexico. My father was counselor of the Mexican Embassy in Washington at the time. I think that I became a writer because I heard those stories -- all the stories that I didn't know about Mexico, about my own land. They were the storehouse of these great tales of migrants, revolution, highway robberies, bandits, love affairs, ways of dressing, eating -- they had the whole storehouse of the past in their heads and their hearts. So this was, for me, very fascinating, this relationship with my two grannies -- the two authors of my books really.

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Carlos Fuentes Interview Photo
The radio shows you enjoyed were also a kind of oral storytelling, where you had to use your imagination. Do you think you benefited from that?

Carlos Fuentes: Yeah. You had to use your imagination. Now you see men landing on the moon, or you see the bombing of Baghdad, and that's it! You don't have to imagine anything. We had to imagine everything. We heard the great speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, the fireside chats. We had to imagine the man who was saying these warm, beautifully enunciated words.

You were in Washington when Mexico nationalized its oil industry. Was your father involved in those negotiations?

Carlos Fuentes: Not my father. He was simply the legal counselor of the embassy. The negotiation really went on at the top.

It went between President Roosevelt of the United States and President Cárdenas in Mexico. It was a turning point in the history of relations between the U.S. and Latin America, and between the U.S. and Mexico, which until then had been fraught with confrontation, dangers, war, interventions, invasions, all kinds of troubles. When Cárdenas nationalized Mexican oil in 1938 -- President Cárdenas -- Roosevelt decided to respect that decision and said, "Let us sit with the Mexicans and negotiate with them. We're not going to confront them. They have a right. But we will negotiate repayment of the companies and all that." So began the new era in Mexican-American relations which thankfully has lasted to this day. We have never come to blows. We know how to negotiate.

As a boy, were you aware of what was going on?

Carlos Fuentes: Very much so.

I was 10 years old at the time, so I was very much aware, and it was the topic around the table -- the dinner table at home or with the other colleagues of the embassy who were all talking about these things. Very conscious of them. Very conscious of the Mexican situation, of the New Deal, of the Spanish Civil War, of the rise of Hitler and Nazism, of the coming Second World War. You were extremely conscious of this. You saw the newsreels, which were also extremely important to see the images, the actual images of the führer or children being taken to camps in the countryside to avoid the bombing. All these things become a part of your life in the 1930s and '40s.

So you were introduced to politics at a very young age.

Carlos Fuentes: Very young age. It was dinner table talk.

Were you affected by these negotiations?

Carlos Fuentes: Yes. In the sense that...

When Mexico nationalized the oil in 1938, I became unpopular at school, when I had been popular, because there were these great banner headlines, "Mexican Communists Steal Our Oil!" So therefore, I was not the favorite. Then -- American kids are quite nice -- so eventually they forgot I was a Communist and they brought me back into the fold.

Were there any difficulties for you being a Mexican?

Carlos Fuentes: No. No, no, no. Just a cold shoulder sometimes, or suspicions or, "Who is this man? We thought he was like us. He's different. He's from another country." Which was good for me to realize that, indeed, I was not a gringo. I was a Mexican. I belonged to another country, another culture. Okay. I lived with that very comfortably.

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