The Profession of Darkness: Notes for a Biography of the Sleepwalker of the Contemporaries

Mexican writer Xavier Villaurrutia.

This article proposes an approach to little-known elements of the biography of Xavier Villaurrutia; based on documents I have located in the Parochial and Diocesan Archives of Mexico City, I propose new possibilities in the interpretation of his work.

 

I. Between gunshots and Venetian mirrors

Xavier Villaurrutia González was born on March 27, 1903 in Mexico City, in the bosom of a family with a long lineage, distinguished in letters, political life, and society in general. His parents were José Rafael Villaurrutia Trigueros (1862-1915) and María Julia González Casavantes (1863-1952), who were married on September 7, 1887, according to Record 378 in the second book of marriage certificates of the city of Chihuahua, Chihuahua. José Rafael declared before Manuel R. de la Peña, judge of the Civil Register, that he was a prosperous commission agent, 27 years old, a bachelor, originally from the capital of the Republic but residing in the north due to contractual obligations from the family business: Villaurrutia & Hnos. His fiancée, María Julia, who proudly affirmed her birthplace in Guerrero, Chihuahua, was about to turn 23.

The marriage of Villaurrutia Trigueros to the legitimate daughter of Celso González Mendívil signified the union of a prosperous house of landowners, imbued with nobility as known descendents of Francisco Fagoga Villaurrutia, second marquis of Apartado. The latter’s mother, María Magdalena, wife of Fagoga y Arosqueta, was the sister of Jacobo de Villaurrutia, born in Santo Domingo, co-founder of the Diario de México together with Octavio Bustamante; he participated actively in the War for Independence, and he was even appointed president of the Supreme Court in 1831. His nephew, Mariano José Villaurrutia Ruvérriz, a cavalry captain for the Spanish throne who was born in the Viceroyalty of Buenos Aires, contracted marriage with Javiera Garay Arechavala on February 14, 1820, in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City. His son Agustín - the poet’s paternal grandfather - worked in public finance as director of the Tax Commission for the State of Chihuahua, where he worked along with González Mendívil. Villaurrutia Garay married Petra Trigueros Barrero, originally from Veracruz and the legitimate daughter of Ignacio Trigueros, a famous philanthrope, mayor of Mexico City and founder, in 1870, of the National School for the Blind.

The writer’s maternal lineage has been not been studied in such detail by researchers of Villaurrutia, although it is not lacking in importance. According to what has been documented thus far, his maternal grandfather, Ceslo González, was a commissioner of the Chihuahuan Mining Bank (1878), president of the Bank of Chihuahua (1889-1896), a member of the Chamber of Deputies on five occasions and substitute governor of that body. His daughter, María Julia González Casavantes, was the cousin - not the sister - of Abraham González, Vice President of the Republic in 1911, governor of Chihuahua, principal leader of the Anti-Reelectionist Party of Francisco I. Madero. The confusion is owing to the fact that Celso González Mendívil (Julia’s father) and Abraham (her uncle) contracted marriage with the sisters Josefa and Dolores Casavantes Domínguez, respectively. Xavier Villaurrutia was also the nephew of the modernist poet Jesús E. Valenzuela, from whose family he would acquire intestate properties, as well as a few original pieces by Julio Ruelas and Saturnino Herrán. 

There were a total of eleven Villaurrutia González siblings: Petra Ana Luisa (1888-1922), Julieta (1889-1934), Alfonzo (1891-1946), Agustín (1892-1928), Rafael (1894-1983), María del Carmen Sofia (1896-1981), María Teresa del Refugio (1887-?), María Cristina (1901-?), Javier (1903-1950), and a pair of twins, Félix (1906-1981) and Fernando (1906-1910), although the latter died at the age of four as a result of bronchopneumonia. Toward October of 1892, we can establish, according to birth certificates, that the couple had relocated from Chihuahua to Mexico City, with an address on Calle de Donato Guerra, preceded by brief stays at Bucareli and Ignacio Zaragoza, to settle once and for all near 1901, at the 3rd of Mina, number 5 in the Historic Center of a city that still recalled the provincial picture cards of the 19th century. The women slept on the top floor of their Porfirian stone house, in the shape of an “L,” and the men slept below; the construction included two balconies onto the street, a billiard hall, and a gymnasium,  as well as a great dining room where they showed off a set of Venetian mirrors that, in Salvador Novo’s opinion, were rather ugly.

The splendor of the Villaurrutia González family came prior to the events unleashed by the Mexican Revolution, although all the data we have suggests that they managed to ride out the turbulent socioeconomic life of the capital with a certain decorum during that time. We know, for example, that the older brothers had a sort of small finance company on Calle 5 de Mayo: the Banco Popular Mexicano, where the young Xavier received a fixed allowance for his personal expenses. We also know they played tennis at Chapultepec on Sundays, and even that the women were tennis champions. They formed part of the Círculo Fronterizo Chihuahuaense that met regularly at Bucareli Hall. This leads us to suppose that the writer, like the rest of the younger siblings, grew up among stories of his long lineage: “We had two coaches with a set of horses and a driver,” Teresa recalled to Jean Meyer. “On Sundays [my parents] went on a stroll through Plateros. I was never allowed, but that’s what I heard.”

The coming of the revolutionary struggle stripped the family of the majority of its property, except for houses in Cuautla and Tlalpan where they spent their autumn vacations. The children witnessed the violence unleashed during the Ten Tragic Days. The troops of General Bernardo Reyes battled in February of 1913 against Madero’s supporters in the Ciudadela: the soldiers claimed all the streets from Lecumberri and El Apartado to Santo Domingo; they continued down Medina and Santa Veracruz streets to the second of Soto, then went down Mina, Rosales, and Bucareli. The troops’ arrival in the capital brought with it a food shortage, and the family barely got by thanks to the grandparents’ aristocratic heritage. Obliged by the inconvenient sociopolitical activity, the Villaurrutia González family underwent a sort of self-exile from its immediate environment, arranging for the youngest members to be educated at the Colegio Francés de México until their father’s death in 1915.

Giving credit to all available information regarding this family, we must indicate that among its members there were marital tragedies, suicides, dispossessed inheritances, as well as lamentable nervous breakdowns that I have been able to confirm relatively easily by revising death certificates. I believe, above all, in the reports from March 10, 1922, after the death of Ana Luisa Villaurrutia, which omit the day and time when the deceased passed away, “wounded by a bullet from a firearm”; the supposed “intoxication” of Alfonzo in 1942, caused by inhaling carbon monoxide fumes; or the “fulminant heart attack” that ended the poet’s life on Christmas Morning of 1950. It was while investigating under the direction of Dr. Ángel Fernández Arriola in the Parochial Archives of Mexico City, in search of more precise and intimate information to assemble this brief genealogy of the “marquises of Apartado,” that I unexpectedly came across two separate registers of the baptism date of Xavier Villaurrutia.

The simple duplication of this data represents a rare occurrence for students of Mexican ecclesiastical history, which in itself justifies the intention of revealing these documents. The possibility that we are dealing with a complex system of coincidences should be discarded, since the child’s data coincides perfectly with other data that we know to be correct: the parents’ names, the place and date of birth, and even references to other characters surrounding the family. I do not mean to unravel any absolute truth about the life of the Sleepwalker of the Contemporaries… if I proposed such a task, I could not achieve it; I will simply reveal a series of documents that might be able to contribute in some way to the formulation of an explanation of a series of unknowns, mysterious or misunderstood biographies centered on a fascinating poetic oeuvre.

 

II. Janus… was a girl?

The first reference to Villaurrutia must be sought in the record of baptisms of legitimate children (1900-1904), number 12, page 58r, of the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a church whose construction began on Calle de Héroes around 1887, in front of what is now the market of Martínez de la Torre in Colonia Guerrero. Here, I present a paleographed version of record 3037, dated Thursday, November 5, 1903. I have modernized the document’s punctuation and extended the abbreviations to make it easier to read:

“[In the] parish chapel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, on the 5th of November of nineteen hundred and three, I, father Eulalio Briseño (Venia Parrochi), solemnly baptized a boy eight months of age, whom I named Javier Villaurrutia, legitimate son of Rafael Villaurrutia and Julia González, who live at the 3rd of Mina, number 5. Godparents were Javier Villaurrutia and Santos González, whom I informed of their obligations and spiritual parenthood, I sign and affirm. E. Briseño” [Rubric]

It is curious that the parents chose the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to baptize the young Javier, who was precisely eight months and two days old when they presented him before Briseño. It seems that this was the first time the family turned to the recently inaugurated parish to practice the sacrament: the rest of the children were taken to the parish of the Santa Veracruz, at the southwest of Colonia Guerrero. This was the case for Agustín (baptized in 1893), Rafael (1894), Carmen (1896), Teresa (1897), and Cristina (1901).

Speaking of the godparents, I must emphasize that the poet’s namesake was none other than Javier Villaurrutia Trigueros (1858-1923), Rafael’s older brother and one of the family’s closest uncles. He not only lived with them at the 3rd of Mina, number 64, but also was a witness at the wedding of Ana Luisa to Norberto Días Mateos in January of 1916, shortly after the death of the bride’s father. We know little of Santos González Casavantes (1854-1934), Julia’s sister, accept that she lived a long life and died in the capital at the age of 80. We find ourselves, therefore, before a document that offers valuable information regarding the writer’s intimate life: a ceremonial life, taking place “behind closed doors,” surrounded by close relatives and friends, just like the protagonists of his plays.

One of his “enigmas” or “certified mysteries” is the fact that three days later, on Sunday, November 8, 1903, in the book of baptisms of legitimate children (1902-1904), volume 88, page 84r of the parish of the Santa Veracruz, the record indicates that the aforementioned presented another infant, of the same age, naming her María Javier. Here is a paleographical version of record 543 in which, as above, I have modernized the punctuation:

“In the parish of the Santa Veracruz of Mexico, on the eighth of November of nineteen hundred and three, with the permission of the head priest, Don José María Cáceres, I, father Vicente Espinosa, vicar of this church, solemnly baptized a girl born on the twenty-sixth day of last March at the third of Calle de Mina, number five; I gave her the name María Javier, legitimate daughter of Rafael Villaurrutia and Julia González. Godparents were Javier Villaurrutia and Santos González, whom I informed of their obligations and spiritual parenthood. I affirm. /José María Cáceres / Vicente Espinosa E.” [Rubrics].

This documentary discovery suggests multiple possible interpretations. To consider the first, we must discard the possibility that we are faced with a case of duplication. In reality, it is not impossible to find in the parochial archives some transcriptions of birth certificates, above all if we take into account that this was the only way to create backups of information. What is strange here is that we should find a copy so similar to the original; what’s more, it bears no clarification on its cover or the first pages of the book of baptisms in question. We should add that a duplication would not explain all the errors of the copyist, who in this document manages to assign an incorrect gender to the newborn on four occasions (“una,” “niña,” “hija,” “legítima”), and annotates the name as María. It would be even harder to explain how this “error” could be ratified by all the witnesses present.

Another possible explanation resulting from my reflection is that we have here an amended version of the document.  In Porfirian society, just as in practically all of colonial Mexico, a certificate of baptism was still a document of tremendous importance to contract marriage or, even more importantly, to prove the social condition to which one belonged. “He once told me he was Catholic,” remembered Octavio Paz about Villaurrutia, during a conversation in which he hastened to add, “but Catholic by fate, by birth, not by choice.” Precisely, a sense of “fate” in this document would justify the urgency of correcting, at the Santa Veracruz, any error that may have been present in the documents from the Immaculate Heart. But in this case, the original should have the prelate’s annotations in its margins, or written - as in other cases - above the body of the text, indicating the record’s invalidity. This reading, as if this were not enough, would support the legitimization of the second document, which presents a female child.

Faced with these arguments, I have decided to argue in relative seriousness that a girl named María Javier Villaurrutia González did exist. The birth of a sister for the writer, a paternal or fraternal twin, would not be a unique case in the family (remember Fernando and Félix). Nonetheless, I lack information about the existence of a “twelfth” sibling, about whom I have found no reference in the poet’s personal archives in the Archivo Xavier Villaurrutia or in the newspapers of the day; neither in the cited interview that Jean Meyer conducted with Teresa Villaurrutia in 1975, nor, much less, in a birth certificate - which, in the case of twins, should have been filed immediately before or after the writer’s certificate, and indicated in the margin of record 344 of the Civil Register of Mexico City - or a death certificate, in the case of death during infancy, which would explain why we have not known about her life until now.

It is certain that, if María Javier is not an unusual name for a girl (what’s more, surely the name is derived from that of great-grandmother Javiera Arechavala), it is certainly unusual for a boy.

 

III. In Villaurrutia, one is always two

    Xavier Villaurrutia’s homosexuality is no secret, nor is that of various others of the Contemporaries, including Carlos Pellicer, Salvador Novo, Elías Nandino, Agustín Lazo, Carlos Luquín, and Roberto Montenegro, among others. What’s more, they are recognized for affirming their own singularity outside of conventional morals in a society that still sought to silence the gunshots of the Revolution under the unanimous cry of masculinity, as much in art as in public life.

Villaurrutia himself was bothered on multiple occasions by representatives of a coarse nationalism. Writers, journalists, and intellectuals saw in his poems a catalogue of “regressive ingredients” for the youth of Mexico: a poet with an aristocratic surname, keen on tennis; a little boy living in his mother’s house with his sisters, who attends salons in the Café París in the company of other “introverted” elitists to write “dark poems” of “shameful content,” and whose idea of an alliance, as Sheridan explains, was not between writers and revolutionary artists, “but the alliance of young men who fancy him in Plaza Garibaldi so he can take them to his studio and submerge them in his soul.”

One of many insults that arrived at the poet’s lodgings came from Manuel Maples Arce when, in 1934, he insisted in the name of moral integrity that a Committee of Public Health should “purify” the government of counter-revolutionaries. If the presence of fanatics and reactionaries in public offices was combatted, then why not the presence of hermaphrodites, incapable as they were of identifying themselves with the business of national reform? (See the gender chronicles of Monsiváis.) The same current affected both morals and art; the Veracruzano’s reading of “Nocturna rosa” [Nocturnal rose] revealed to him, after five years, that this poem of unsuspected originality was marked “by the fatalities of sex.” For obvious reasons, I found this observation suggestive in the light of the documents we have revised. Villaurrutia’s rose is not the rose of any other poet; his is a particular rose, created or discovered by the poet himself in one of his most intimate and vital literary sketches:

I also speak of the rose.
But my rose is not the cold rose
[...]
It is the half-open rose
from which shadow flows,
the rose entails
it must fold and expand,
evoked, invoked, exposed,
it is the rose of lips,
the wounded rose.
[...]

I have written barely a few lines here, since I have no interest in revealing any particular truth: I stand by that. But I must accept that, inevitably, a text of this nature sooner or later pushes one toward the imperious need to find within the poetry that vital component that all writers transfigure within their work. And, in Villaurrutia’s case, perhaps with greater difficulty, we can think of one without the other. In this brief article, I have sought to show, through the documents I have found in the Diocesan and Parochial Archives of Mexico City, a little-known facet of the author - as familial as it is literary - about which I can conclude nothing beyond the fact that a poetic oeuvre of this measure always reveals the human background that allows for its existence: the nocturnal side, unilluminated, immaterial, in which we seek to attain thorough consciousness of the expression of a drama that is at once poetic and personal. We should read Villaurrutia’s poetry in the light of these fruits of chance.

 

Diego Lima
Foundation for Mexican Letters

Translated by Arthur Dixon

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LALT Vol. 1 No. 2
Number 2

The second issue of Latin American Literature highlights the Caribbean and queer literature from across Latin America, featuring dossiers of revolutionary Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel and Mexican author Yuri Herrera as well as a special section on literary voices from Cuba.

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