Poetry in Motion

Homero Aridjis, Mexico’s environmental conscience, fuses literature and activism

The first thing you notice about Homero Aridjis is the hands in constant motion, punctuating the air with intensity, fluttering toward his chest like wings coming in for a landing. As his hands seem to fill the living room of his home in Mexico City’s Chapultepec section, Aridjis is saying: “Inspiration for poets, painters, and composers has always come from nature. The task of poets, and of holy men, is to tell this planet’s stories – and to articulate an ecological cosmology that does not separate nature from humanity.”

“The task of poets is to tell this planet’s stories,” says Homero Aridjis.

There is probably no other poet alive doing more to make that ideal a reality than Homero Aridjis (pronounced ah-REED-jees). At fifty-eight he is a prizewinning author of twenty-six books of poetry and prose. His work has been translated into twelve languages. Two collections of his poetry have appeared in English (Blue Spaces and Exaltation of Light), as well as three novels (Persephone; 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile; and The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000). Last year Aridjis became only the second non-European and non-U.S. writer ever elected to the presidency of International PEN, an esteemed literary organization founded in 1921 as a writers’ community to promote literature and language and to defend freedom of expression. He has also served as Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland, received two Guggenheim fellowships, and taught at three American universities – Columbia, New York University, and the University of Indiana.

But Aridjis is also increasingly renowned as Latin America’s leading environmental activist, the founder and president of the Group of 100. The name derives from a declaration signed in 1985 by a hundred prominent Mexican artists and intellectuals. They initially sought to raise awareness about Mexico City’s dire air pollution. The group’s efforts forced the government to limit the circulation of cars, drastically reduce the amount of lead in gasoline, and publish daily reports on air-pollution levels. And elsewhere, far from the confines of the city, the Group of 100 is responsible for saving the country’s sea turtles, migrating monarch butterflies, and Lacandón rainforest from complete annihilation. Since January 1995 it has been at the forefront of an international campaign to stop a joint venture of Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican government from building a massive saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California, the last pristine breeding ground of the gray whale.

The American writer Pete Hamill, Aridjis’s longtime friend, says: “Homero has not felt, as Vaclav Havel has in the Czech Republic, that you either have a commitment to civil society or to art. He’s been able to continue to do both. In Mexico in particular, there’s a constant conflict between the issues of environment and the realities of the way business is done. Homero brings an amazing decency – and great effectiveness – to a subject that can make people absolutely cynical.” Yet, adds Hamill, Aridjis also manages to find the time and quiet necessary for writing. “His poetry has what I would call an innocent eye, the kind of talent that makes me think of Wordsworth. He’s not afraid to look at a landscape as if he’s the first person ever to see it, with an eye that’s not jaded – a direct encounter with what’s being observed. Reading Octavio Paz’s poetry, I get the sense there’s a professor leaning over his shoulder. Reading Homero, there’s a bird leaning over his shoulder.”

On this warm June evening, a welcome thunderstorm strikes as Aridjis walks downstairs from his third-floor study. He has just completed his bimonthly column for the newspaper Reforma, his latest subject being the fires that have devastated the nation’s countryside in recent months. Fueled by drought and El Niño, an estimated thirteen thousand fires swept across more than 1 million acres in numerous regions. In announcing a reforestation plan, the Mexican government revealed that most of the fires were originally set intentionally. Loggers, ranchers, farmers, developers, drug traffickers, and soldiers in pursuit of Zapatista guerrillas had all been looking to “clear” the land for their own purposes.

“This is one of the biggest tragedies in this century in Mexico,” Aridjis is saying, shaking his head and sipping a glass of Jamaica-flower water offered by Betty, his American wife of thirty-five years. “You can’t recover an ecosystem like the Chimalapas, the richest in biodiversity, that took thousands of years to form. All over Mexico, lakes and rivers are drying up, and we are going to have a terrible problem with lack of water this year and in the years to come.”

Especially painful to Aridjis is the fires’ effect upon the central-highlands area of Michoacán, where he grew up. One cannot understand the unusual fusion of poet and environmental leader that is Homero Aridjis without taking into account his childhood in the little village of Contepec. There, when he was ten years old, an experience occurred that resonates with the imagery of birds, death, and rebirth so important in Mexico’s ancient myths.

Homero Aridjis as a boy.

The son of a Mexican mother and a Greek father, Aridjis was the youngest of five brothers. Early one afternoon he discovered a shotgun his siblings had left leaning against his bedroom door. He picked it up and climbed onto the roof. Above him flew a small flock of birds, some of the nearly one hundred mockingbirds, solitaires, and canaries his mother fed daily. Homero aimed the gun. Then his conscience was stricken: “Every morning I awake to hear them singing to the light. Why do I want to kill the birds I love?” As he lowered the butt of his gun to the ground, the weapon went off. A shot pierced Aridjis’s stomach. His parents rushed him to a nearby village, but the doctor wasn’t there. Eight hours after the accident, treatment was finally found at a general hospital many miles away. For nineteen days the boy hovered between life and death. For the rest of his life, he would retain images of the birds that had soared in and out of his semiconsciousness.

In an Aztec legend set down by the conquering Spaniards, the feathered warrior Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself, and “from his ashes rose all the precious birds, the coringa, the spoonbill, the parrots…. Then the heart of Quetzalcoatl rose into heaven and … was transformed.” The Aztecs, too, believed in the power of poetry to express the lasting truths.

Now, as parrots squawk in his backyard garden, Aridjis remembers how he began to write poems during his recovery. No library or bookstore existed in his village, and, he has said, “culture came for me as a personal conquest.” Every afternoon he would walk to a hill near his home. During the winters “the sky would be aflame with red, orange, yellow, and black.” Thousands of monarch butterflies would alight on the fir trees covering the hill side. In those years scientists had not yet realized that the monarchs of North America migrate many hundreds of miles, some from as far away as southern Canada, to reach their seasonal nesting place in Mexico’s oyamel forests. Aridjis awaited them every year “as if their arrival marked the beginning of a prolonged fiesta.”

Later, during the fifteen years in the 1960s and 1970s that he lived abroad as a diplomat and teacher, Aridjis would make an annual winter pilgrimage back to his hill. As the trees were cut for firewood, the presence of the butterflies diminished. “I felt that my own childhood was being killed,” Aridjis recalls, “my memory of a natural beauty that had once overwhelmed me. The possibility of my village becoming a wasteland, a silent country without wind in the trees or animal sounds or birdsongs, made me feel desperate. Butterflies became for me a symbol of life’s fragility.” So it is not surprising that one of the first crusades of the Group of 100 resulted in the establishment of five protected sanctuaries for the monarchs in 1986.

For Aridjis, political awareness came long before the Group of 100. He had risen to fame at twenty-four when his first novel, Mirándoladormir (Watching Her Sleep), won the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for best book of the year. In 1966, at the invitation of Arthur Miller and Lewis Galantiere, he helped organize a PEN conference in New York. It made literary history by presenting Latin American writers such as Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Sábato, and Mario Vargas Llosa to a U.S. audience. Aridjis spent most of the 1970s in Mexico’s diplomatic service. Then, in 1980, he was appointed director of a new Cultural Institute in his home state of Michoacán. There Aridjis organized a remarkable poetry festival, including Allen Ginsberg, Jorge Luis Borges, Günter Grass, and Seamus Heaney.

“Other people in the cabinet were very jealous of Homero because he was doing so much,” his wife remembers. “There was a lot of intrigue.” When the state government abruptly canceled his second scheduled festival, Aridjis went ahead with it anyway. He changed the venue to Mexico City and enlisted artist friends to sell some paintings to help cover expenses. Thousands of people attended. “After that, Homero was more or less on the blacklist for several years,” says Betty. “It was actually providential, because his time was his own, and that’s when he wrote 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile.

This novel, which the New York Times said “succeeds in magisterially re-creating that woeful and bizarre period of Spanish history that prefigured the discovery and conquest of America,” received the Premio Grinzane Cavour award for best foreign fiction in its Italian translation. (A few years later Aridjis also received the Diana Novedades Literary Prize for the outstanding novel of 1988 in Spanish, Memorias del Nuevo Mundo.)

It was in 1985, not long after this first skirmish with the government, that the Aridjises read a letter to the editor written by a philosopher friend, Ramon Xirau, calling for action against pollution. It was a particularly smoggy day in Mexico City, and Homero and Betty conceived a plan: a declaration signed by the cultural elite. Aridjis discussed drafts over the phone with the poet Octavio Paz; writer and artist friends gathered signatures. “We were attacking pollution as the effect of political corruption,” Aridjis recalls, “going to the forces behind what people are suffering. The government was shocked.”

From the start, there have been efforts to blunt the sword of the Group of 100. At first, Aridjis was offered bribes, business deals, his own television program, and further ambassadorial posts. He soon found that officials took his criticisms personally, deluging him with telephone calls (after which the phone often went mysteriously out of order, sometimes for weeks). There are now parts of Mexico where Aridjis can no longer go, “because I am public enemy number one. The poachers and loggers recognize me.” Since late 1997, after death threats were left on the Aridjises’ answering machine while they were visiting their two grown daughters in New York, they have been forced to have two government-appointed bodyguards. “We don’t know the origins of this,” Aridjis says. “In Mexico, environment, politics, organized crime, everything goes together.” Today, Aridjis cannot so much as walk his German shepherd without being shadowed by the security men.

Jacob Scherr, an NRDC staff attorney who has worked closely with Aridjis, describes him as “extraordinarily courageous, willing to speak out in circumstances where he’s really put his own well-being on the line. This is someone who doesn’t have to do this. Homero is one of the planet’s great environmental heroes.”

Homero and Betty Aridjis met in 1963. Betty has translated three of Homero’s novels and serves as international coordinator of the Group of 100.

As the years have passed, the Aridjises have increasingly become the heart and soul of the Group of 100. The nonprofit organization operates out of their home, without budget or salaries, with the government still refusing annual requests for tax-deductible status. Betty, who met Homero on a vacation to Mexico in 1963 and abruptly canceled her plans to enter graduate school at Columbia, not only has translated three of his novels but also serves as the group’s international coordinator. Their primary liaisons are with NRDC, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the International Wildlife Coalition, the Animal Welfare Institute, Earth Island Institute, and numerous scientists throughout the world who provide free advice.

The Group of 100’s greatest contribution, Aridjis believes, has been “changing social awareness in Mexico about the environment.” Politicians now integrate ecology into their programs and speeches. Media coverage has increased dramatically. On the street, from taxi drivers and worried families, there is recognition and thanks. But for Aridjis personally, the greatest satisfactions come in private visitations with the butterflies and gray whales, or while touching the sea turtles along the shoreline: “Perhaps you are alive because we did a little in your defense.”

Aridjis generally writes in the morning (“When I don’t write, I become very neurotic”) and devotes his afternoons to environmental work. He finds that his activism has only added to his creative life. “It’s given me a different reading of the world. All kinds of people, good and bad. Idealism and betrayal. Confrontation. Ecology, like poetry, should be practiced by everybody.”

Asked to name the writer he most admires, Aridjis responds without hesitation: “One of my models is Dante, because he’s a moral poet who took an active role in his time.” His wife smiles and adds, “I often think Homero would also like to put certain people in various circles of hell.”

Now, in his book-lined living room, Aridjis rises and proudly points out the drawings of a monarch butterfly and a sea turtle given to him by his late friend, the acclaimed artist Rufin Tamayo. He walks past the collections of traditional Mexican dance masks and exvoto paintings, up the stairs to his study with its panoramic view of Mexico City. Here, he is working on an autobiographical novel, Butterfly Mountain, and revising the epilogue of a recently published treatise that views millennialism through an ecological prism. “I am very pessimistic about the planetary environment,” he says. “But at the same time, I believe that no matter how difficult the problems are, human beings have to fight for life. Always.”

Aridjis opens a door onto a balcony where a tree extends its branches toward him. “It’s full of fruits for the birds;” he says. “And it’s one of my privileges. Every morning I can walk outside and touch the treetop.” .

Borders, Cages and Walls

We pin dates to shadows,
wire-in the present.
Shut a body into a schedule,
into brick birdcages.
We put shoes on the imagination,
shirt and pants on the open air.
We narrow the outlook,
haul in the passions with our nets.
Manacle the hands,
and blinker the eyes, shrink
the sunbeams down to size.Life keeps its distance,
love holds its tongue,
and poetry comes up where it can.