MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Elena Poniatowska, the 85-year-old Mexican human-rights author and investigative journalist, made two public appearances at Middlebury College during the summer of 2017, and the talks she gave were vastly different in tone and message.
On July 20, she delivered a lecture in Spanish to more than 300 people in Wilson Hall as a guest speaker during the week-long celebration of the Spanish School’s Centennial. With Mexico’s consul general, Emilio Rabasa Gamboa, in attendance, Poniatowska launched into a review of the terrible consequences visited upon her country by the war on drugs, said Roberto Véguez, professor emeritus.
“After almost an hour of relentless testimony on the complicity and corruption of the Mexican government, which she illustrated in detail, and speaking as both a novelist and a journalist, she claimed that no work of fiction could or would be able to describe what the press reports almost daily,” Véguez reported.
That lecture in July contrasted with the uplifting message she delivered on August 18 as the principal speaker and recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Letters at the Language Schools Commencement. Speaking in English, the trilingual Poniatowska made a direct connection between language and humanity as she reflected on recent events in Charleston, S.C., and Charlottesville, Va.
“Hate of this kind would have never occurred if people used language as a way of communication, not only of ideas but of common beliefs, thoughts, and, above all, history – the history of humanity,” she said in her brief prepared remarks. “…If you listen to someone’s voice and try to understand his or her words, you will become a better man or woman. If you learn another language, you will be able to keep up with what is happening in the world.”
While one message was dark and foreboding, the other was hopeful and inspiring, and in both instances Poniatowska – the 2013 recipient of Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes Prize for lifetime achievement in writing – received a standing ovation from appreciative Middlebury audiences.