Fifty Years After Tlatelolco: “It’s troubling to come face to face with yourself.” An Interview with Luis Fernando
Luis Fernando has worked as a professional comic artist for more than forty years. Since 1979, he has published in papers like Unomásuno, El Universal, La Jornada, and Milenio Diario. He spoke to us about the evolution of Mexican comics and graphic art as a way to confront his own past.
Radmila Stefkova: How did you first get interested in creating comics?
Luis Fernando: I was always good at representing things. Early on, my interest became more than casual, there was something special there. My contact with comics started early, reading what came here from the United States and what was being produced in Mexico. I made my first comic strip when I was seven. Then I started studying comics, and in my twenties I started working professionally for the newspaper Unomásuno, in 1978. The paper was part of the avant-garde: they published nude photos, if there were swear words in an interview they got published, they started to break away from convention. Part of their ambition was culture. All the papers had a little culture section, like a decoration. In their case, they dedicated six or seven pages to culture, and they had the idea of offering a supplement with strips made by young people, with their stories. The real, authorial “comic” wasn’t a word back then. That was the scene when I came in. We started there with El Fisgón, Sergio Arau, who later left to make rock music. Then came Jis, Ahumada, Rocha. After three years, Unomásuno changed its style and direction, and the important creators left en masse to found La Jornada, which was practically all the same people. Once the paper was stabilized, they started putting out a comic strip supplement with the same premise. There, we kept on publishing with other collaborators for more than twenty years.
R.S.: You’ve been creating comics professionally for forty years. How do you see your own artistic evolution?
L.F.: The craft itself changes you. Maybe not radically, but it changes you as far as improving your technique, the way you communicate ideas on a page. My biggest change has been in a technical sense. Out of 39 years, I spent 33 of them with traditional tools, papers, inks, brushes, the smells of watercolor. But five or six years ago, digital art became so important, it earned its place. Before, the first problem was thinking about what you’re doing and then fighting against the deadlines, which are always brutal. Then came the third problem, which was, after getting it done on time, you had to go turn it in. Now, paper has disappeared from my job, that’s just assumed from the start.
R.S.: How have Mexican comics changed?
L.F.: The industry went into a crisis, but not just the comics industry, the media industry in general. Even La Jornada started cutting its supplements: comics, feminism, science, ecology, and so on. The creative impulse was there, but the publishing channel has changed a lot. Only comics from the U.S. are published on an industrial level. Authors started to take shelter in self-publishing and book presses. Ten years ago, or a little more, the graphic novel started to develop in Mexico, but only timidly. The big publishing houses, like the government with Conaculta, and also Sexto Piso, Océano, and independent publishers like Resistencia. Now there’s a graphic novel section in most big bookstores. After the crisis, the webcomic started to get popular, and that gave many young people the chance to publish. I also went into that world, and there I discovered many other authors, from Mexico and beyond. I spent almost two years on webcomics, which allowed me to keep creating stories.
R.S.: How do you see the dichotomy between comic/comic strip and graphic novel?
L.F.: The graphic novel is how comics got into the publishing world, and Mexico is no exception. It’s another doorway. Now, this format is very interesting because it opens a wider space. The graphic novel allows us to develop big projects, long and complex narratives, it eliminates the problem of space, which will always affect a magazine supplement. I see the graphic novel as a format, not a genre. It’s still a comic strip, nothing changes but the length. The same as the difference between a short film and a feature film, or between a short story and a novel. There’s no way to measure exactly. The short comic strip is like poetry in literature, its format is condensed. Among the geniuses of this form of expression are Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts or Charlie Brown. Of course, the term “graphic novel” puts a lot of weight on the word “novel,” but we mustn’t forget that the main weight still comes from the image. Of course, the comic strip is formed from two arts, one literary and one graphic, or plastic. But which of the two is dispensable? Or, which of the two is indispensable? The author Shaun Tan has a book called The Arrival, a wonderful graphic novel, a massive work, and there’s not a single word in it. Finally, the graphic novel allowed the comic strip to free itself of that common prejudice that claims it’s always a low-quality art.
R.S.: How did you get the idea for La pirámide cuarteada, evocaciones del 68 [The chopped-up pyramid, evocations of 68]?
L.F.: You always have ideas you leave lying around, but time passes and you never get around to them. This was one of those cases. I got the FONCA grant in 2014, which somehow obliged me to finish the story. The fact that it almost lined up with the fifty-year anniversary of Tlatelolco was pure coincidence. The project caught my interest simply because what I wanted to capture was the sensation of a totally innocent youth who runs into reality at such a powerful moment. Of course, there are plenty of books on the politics, the history of the movement of 68. This is not an essay, it’s not a space where I capture what 68 meant, it’s the story of the life of a normal young man. Beyond my personal experience, I wanted to represent a naive young man living in the Mexico of the time, when everything was limited, all information was strictly controlled, with a one-party government. I wanted to show how a middle-class young man realizes so drastically that there are other realities he’s not seeing, out on the streets.
R.S.: The story’s teen protagonist has no name. How biographical is this character?
L.F.: One hundred percent. The other characters are also portraits of my family, my friends. There were no photos, so many of my friends look how I remember them from a distance. Especially the last image, with which the book closes, is a portrait of someone I remember, since I have no photo of him. Besides the apparitions of gods in dreams, no one is made up. That’s the only oniric moment in the book, but it has its intention.
R.S.: What’s the role of this oniric element?
L.F.: It was very intentional, and a little provocative too. It’s a risky element that might seem ridiculous, but I needed to put it in there. Even if it’s oniric, it tells of the real, it strengthens the environment of what’s going on. Now I think about it, I really admire Fellini and Buñuel, directors who allowed for an interruption of the unreal in very real situations to affirm, to underline. They influenced me, even if I didn’t know it. Pre-Hispanic cultures are also a fascination of mine. That’s where I got the book’s title, La pirámide cuarteada, in this case the pyramid of the government that had no opposition. They operated with impunity for more than seventy years. The protests of 68 didn’t topple them, that wasn’t their intention, their proposals were more modest, smaller-scale. But 68 did bring about a change, adjustments were made. Little by little, reforms started to happen in the PRI, the communist party (which had always been illegal) was legalized, and the voting age was lowered to eighteen. People realized that mobilization can make an impact. Before, since there were very brutal repressions of teachers, workers, and campesinos, no one went out into the streets in urban areas. 68 was very different: the urban classes mobilized, the middle classes, because in the end, who were the students? Generally speaking, middle-class youths were the ones who made up the movement. That’s what I wanted to illustrate.
R.S.: Tell me a little about the documentary aspect of the book. Where did you get these archives?
L.F.: All the documents, all the photos I included are from a collection of flyers that I kept. I still have most of them. I don’t have photos, but I did keep newspapers, lots of flyers from the movement that they handed out. Even this Mexican peso, still made of paper, that no longer exists, that says “¡Pueblo despierta!” [People wake up!]. I still have it, it’s real too. Many of the photos come from magazines I kept, they were magazines from the margins. The anecdote in the book is real: I bought these magazines and saw images that traditional media didn’t let you see. As I walked away with my magazine, I saw how a car full of cops pulled up and rounded up all the magazines, stand after stand. These photos appear in Life magazine.
R.S.: You wrote this story almost fifty years after living through it. How would you describe this process of putting your memories on paper?
L.F.: This is my first totally autobiographical work: consciously, deliberately autobiographical. I fantasized a lot about this book, and I had plenty of notes, but it’s very different when you start thinking about it seriously. And it really was an interesting phenomenon, it paralyzed me. I told myself it was just one more graphic comic strip out of the thousands I’ve made, but there was something there that’s difficult to put into words. I felt conflicted, a new internal phenomenon. Confronting myself and how to express it, not because anything was holding me back, but because it’s very unusual and very troubling to come face to face with yourself. As a person who always makes up one character or another, you’re suddenly drawing yourself. It was an interesting process, full of fluster and full of shock. And you know how I solved it? If you look closely, I always mention the main character as the teenager, the young man. All the others have a name, even if it’s just an initial. He’s me, but at the same time I pull back. This simple creative technique made it easier, and I liked it as a creative, artistic resource. It allowed me to see myself more objectively. Maybe it was hard for me to see myself. I was moved by many things, and I was forced to face all that, to remember it, although I’ve never forgotten it. The images were very simple to make. For example, creating the images of when I see the first march was almost like copying a photo. I remember the faces, the ladies who were crying with excitement, the young men who were raising the strike banner. How could I forget that? Then seeing the fake images in the newspapers, where they even added an image of Che. All of them are pangs of reality. All these scenes are very alive, very much alive. I didn’t have the strength to recreate all of those moments because they were so intense, they’re still very present in my mind.
R.S.: Where did you get the impulse to talk about Tlatelolco after so much time?
L.F.: For a long time, the 68 movement was denied, demonized. It wasn’t researched, and although it was recognized, there was a strong desire to forget it immediately. A few months ago, albeit symbolically, they even mentioned the martyrs of 68 in the Chamber of Deputies. It survived through resistance, until the left came to power in Mexico City and a few other districts. That was how the vindication began. It started with symbolic acts, like a moment of silence, lowering the flag to half-mast, and recognizing the names of those who are known to have fallen that day. The building that was once the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, from which they both fired and filmed, is now a memorial. The government ceded the building to the University, and now it’s a cultural center. You can see photos, videos, papers, investigations. On the other hand, the language of the comic strip has the ability to capture these experiences, which are still so vividly alive as images. Comics definitely have their place in this discussion.
December 1, 2018
Radmila Stefkova (Lale) is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches and conducts research on contemporary Mexican literature, publishing, and media. She is a regular contributor and editor for the Spanish and Portuguese Review. Her non-academic work includes advertising and promotion, human rights advocacy, and translation. Lale holds a Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.