Fuentes Criticized Power Before It Was Fashionable

Mexican author Carlos Fuentes died Tuesday at age 83. He was a prolific novelist whose work was read by everyone from the Mexican elite to the working class, making him one of the country's most influential social critics. Host Michel Martin speaks with OC Weekly columnist Gustavo Arellano about Fuentes' influence, both in Mexico and abroad.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today we want to take a few minutes to honor the writer Carlos Fuentes. He started writing when he was seven years old and he never stopped. His last published essay came out yesterday, the same day Fuentes died in Mexico at the age of 83.

During his he became known as one of Mexico's greatest - not to mention - most prolific writers and social critics. His influence was also felt here in the U.S. and around the world.

We wanted to know more so we've called upon Gustavo Arellano. He is also an author. He writes that tongue-in-cheek "Ask A Mexican" column for the OC Weekly, and he's with us now from his home office.

Thanks so much for joining us.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Gracias for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all wine with Carlos Fuentes such an important writer in Mexico and outside of Mexico?

ARELLANO: Fuentes was one of the great public intellectuals of Mexico. One of the big threes - los tres grandes. And it's hard to explain to Americans the importance of public intellectuals in Mexico. It's, you know, their corollaries would be say like Cornell West or Noam Chomsky here, except, you know, The New York Times isn't publishing West's weekly column like say, the major newspapers in Mexico City would, and as Fuentes would have a weekly column in the national papers and international papers.

And on top of that, Fuentes would write essays, fiction, nonfiction. Fuentes would even write plays and all of his work just went into all the levels of Mexican society. So just imagine a man with an intellect of Fuentes but also with the pervasiveness of oh, let's say Anderson Cooper on CNN.

MARTIN: You know, it's funny. To that end, he kind of talk about this as kind of common sense. I'll just play a short clip from an interview that he did with NPR back in 2002. Here it is.

CARLOS FUENTES: Of course, my father listen Carlos, a writer in Mexico will die of hunger. You'd better have a law degree. So I got a law degree and am very thankful for having studied law because it has permitted me to do journalism and to understand the world better, but they helped me as a writer. I'm very happy that I have two professions, actually.

MARTIN: Now Gustavo, was he kind of being a little modest there - that he really had a deep passion both for writing and also for, as you said, kind of, participation in public affairs?

ARELLANO: Oh, but definitely a man of participatory journalism. And not only that, he was somebody who criticized power long before it became fashionable in Mexico. He was a longtime critic of the PRI, of course, a party that ruled Mexico for about 75 years. He was a sympathizer of the Zapatista movement down in southern Mexico, not so much for the sake of criticizing power, but always making sure that whatever his critique, it was well argued, well-crafted like a lawyer. No one's going to remember him for being a lawyer, of course, but in terms of using that intellect to craft these arguments and really call it how it is, that's where he made his mark. And, of course, he was not above criticizing those on the left. He was a fan of Fidel Castro until, you know, when the heart of Castro's regime came about and also some of the other leftist politicians in Latin America.

MARTIN: And how would he best be known to English-speaking American audiences? I think it is worth noting that he was the first Mexican writer to make an appearance on The New York Times Bestseller List. And one of his novels, "The Old Gringo," was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck. How do you think he is best known by English primary speakers in the United States?

ARELLANO: Well, it's definitely for his fiction, "The Death of Artemio Cruz," "The Old Gringo," of course, that's probably how most people are going to remember him. Another way though, that I don't think enough people will remember to cite is his longtime role as a professor at Brown University. He was a mentor to so many professors. Fuentes was so approachable, such a down-to-earth man. I had the honor of meeting him once at a book signing I want to say about a decade ago, maybe nine years ago, and Fuentes, again, the lines were like literally three hours long and he took his time to meet everyone, to shake their hands to, you know, customize his autograph. He was just that energy in the air was just so magnificent, and yet, Fuentes was so down to earth.

MARTIN: Gustavo Arellano writes that tongue-in-cheek "Ask A Mexican" column for the OC Weekly. His latest book is "Taco USA." He was kind enough to join us by phone from Santa Ana, California to remember the writer Carlos Fuentes who died yesterday at the age of 83.

Gustavo, thank you so much for joining us.

ARELLANO: Gracias, for having me.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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