interview by ALEPH MOLINARI and OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
greek-mexican poet, novelist, and environmental activist homero aridjis is known for his pantheistic imagination and poetic lyricism. at 81, he is a major figure of latin american literature, alongside octavio paz, carlos fuentes, and gabriel garcía márquez. the author of over 50 books, he incarnates the power of myth and words in a country with 69 indigenous languages
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel that your Greek origin blends with the Mexican pre-Hispanic tradition, both pre-dating Christianity? Is it the source of your universalism?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — I am the child of two mythologies, the Greek and the Mexican. I come from a small town in central Mexico that doesn’t have the strong culture of the Maya or Aztecs, but rather a mestizo culture. Because of my father, who was Greek, I also had the presence of the heroes and the Greek myths throughout my childhood. I had Apollo, Aphrodite, and Athena. There’s a difference between Greek and Mexican mythology. Greek mythology is humanist: it is about the beauty of the body and the spiritual. And Mexican mythology has to do with the gods. When I started to travel the world with my Guggenheim Fellowship, we visited Greece. I saw the archaeology and the mythology in person. This visit triggered a deep interest in Mexican mythology, which I did not fully understand. It was always difficult for me to grasp the bloody aspects of Mexican mythology, like human sacrifice. In a Greek sculpture, you see the human body, whereas Mexican mythology is shown as flat, as part of the architecture. Sculptures are integrated into the walls and facades of the temples. It’s a completely different aesthetic. It took me time to appreciate Mexican architecture.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you see a direct line between the pre-Hispanic conception of death and the cult of La Santa Muerte [Saint Death]?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes. La Santa Muerte is in reality a pre-Hispanic cult, observed by organized crime and the marginal. It’s fascinating because it fuses elements of religion, pre-Hispanic rituals, and contemporary violence. The cult of Holy Death interested me because I read a lot about the Middle Ages in Europe, where there was also a strong cult of death because of the plague and constant war. When I presented my book La Santa Muerte, nobody from the publishing house wanted to come because they were terrified.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Did the process of researching this book — visiting the temple of La Santa Muerte and reading about death in Mexico — change your conception of death?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes, because I came to realize that death is very alive in Mexico. It’s not a hypothetical, religious thing. It’s alive within the people; it is part of everyday life. When Edward Weston came to Mexico in the 1920s,
he said that in Mexico you can see the sweetest and kindest faces on the street, but then you can encounter a face that shows a cruelty that chills your blood, like a murderer in the making. It’s a contradiction. The same thing happened to me around the altar of La Santa Muerte. I saw some of these creatures praying to images of her. There’s a strange contrast in Mexico; a Mexican can be brutal, a warrior, but also very soft, with a love for flowers. It’s very curious. It was a very fine line. And still today, we see flowers in every market in Mexico.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In Greece, philosophy emerged as a response to the fiction of mythology. In Europe, philosophy was established as a critique of literature. Is there a philosophical tradition in Mexico that emerged against the tradition of the local mythology?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes, I think so. In Mexican mythology, art and poetry replace philosophy. I don’t find Mexicans to be very philosophical; they are not like the French in their Cartesian tradition. Mythology has been more prevalent. Mexicans live within a mythology of cruelty, of human sacrifice. Here, instead of Aphrodite and Athena, we have Coatlicue, a horrid image of a women with a skirt of snakes. She is one of the pillars of our culture of death, a matriarchal goddess similar to Kali. There was a Mexican philosopher named Jorge Portilla. He was a Mexicanista who wrote a book called Fenomenología del Relajo [The Phenomenology of Fun], which was an inspiration to Octavio Paz when he wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude. One day, I asked a friend why Portilla had stopped writing. His book was so interesting. What my friend said intrigued me and stuck with me: “Because he was afraid to think.” This is something that is very Mexican. They stop thinking once it gets too complicated. Daring to think, that is philosophy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As a writer, what’s your favorite aspect of Mexican culture?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — What most interests me is Mexican art because that’s where the mythology is. That’s where the culture is located, in the stone. I wrote a poem titled Vientos de Piedra [Winds of Stone], in which I tried to understand
Mexican architecture. The Mexicans put the most abstract concepts on stones, on the facades of temples. The serpent, the wind, a ray of light. Henry Moore understood Mexican art and architecture clearly; he was very inspired when he came here. Mexican art is full of oneiric plasticism. The pre-Hispanic peoples were great artists. This art still survives in folk art.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And there’s also a return to pre-Hispanic references, to arts and crafts, to retrieve the legacy of a Mexican heritage.
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes. For example, Mexican food still comes from the pre-Hispanic world. It’s a link to the past. Mexicans have elaborate regional foods; people communicate through it.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Homero, last time we spoke you told me about your pantheistic vision. Was your ecological awareness born out of this view?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes, of course. My father was Greek and would tell me that everything is full of gods. And I have taken this and translated it as everything is full of Being, of animals, of gods. This comes from Euripides, Sophocles, and Homer himself. I am a pantheist really. I love the Earth. And I see trees as living creatures. The rivers, the water, the elements are divinities. It is animism. And this why I suffer so much with the ecological problems of today.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And how did this ecological awareness develop into a more structured activism?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — When I was a child, every fall, the monarch butterflies would fly into my hometown in Michoacán. Clouds of butterflies would cover the streets and roofs of the town. It was a presence that was almost metaphysical, supernatural. A symbol of the divinity of nature. Because of corruption and organized crime, the forests where the butterflies lived were being cut down, decimated. I took it upon myself to defend the forest in Michoacán. I have spent my entire life defending the monarch butterflies. I did many things in the past as an activist that I wouldn’t be able to do today.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you feel that now is the time to take a more urgent approach to resolving these environmental issues?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes, it is more urgent than ever. The great civilizations of today are nothing but hypocrites. We come from ecology but live exploiting it. This equation does not work. Albert Camus said: “We are not guilty of history because we have inherited it, but we are not innocent when we continue it.” And I think that’s the problem. Our civilizations continue with the destruction of habitats and ecosystems, with pollution, with the production of bombs.
ALEPH MOLINARI — In some ways, all poetry is ecological; it comes from the Dionysian, from Pan, and the ancient rituals in nature. Can poetry bring us closer to nature and to an ecological awareness?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Of course. I have always tried to integrate the ecological into my poetry because since Greco-Roman times poetry has been closely linked to nature. Virgil, Homer, and the Greek poets have all been poets of nature. Poetry is to experience the spirit, art, and music. I believe in the poetry of nature and in the poetry of life. I am a true pantheist in that sense. I have a phrase in my studio that says, “Vivo en un estado de poesía” [I live in a state of poetry]. Not a state of government but of being.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Mexico has one of the widest varieties of sacred plants in the world. Do you feel that the use of sacred plants can get us closer to a heightened ecological awareness?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — I wrote a novel about María Sabina [Magdalena García] titled Teonanacatl [Flesh of the Gods]. She was actually seated on that sofa, right where you are seated now. This fantastic woman would float instead of walk.
She was the first person I knew that was from another world. During her rituals with mushrooms, she would say, “I am the spirit woman. I am the woman of water. I am the star woman.” It was a form of feminist animism that some took as a credo.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Which poets do you respect today?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — I declare my ignorance of other poets; this country is too vast. But I respect the women’s rights movement. It was born out of an active and extraordinary conviction. They confront politicians, the police, and society. I call it the Rebellion of the Adelitas [women who fought in the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20], these courageous and brave women. This is a Mexico that is fully present, not on TV or the news but within the people in Mexico. This is the poetry of life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about the planet. We are facing a massive global crisis. During the pandemic, the planet breathed a little, and now everything is coming back to the same violence, the same destruction. Could Mexico be a place for a new kind of ecological fight or ecological activism?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Not at the moment. The devastation has not stopped in Mexico. We are living through an ecocide. The current president’s absurd idea of a train in the Maya Peninsula is destroying the jungle, the habitat of the jaguar, and emblematic places like Calakmul. Here in Mexico City, Chapultepec is one the oldest parks in the world. It’s where the Aztec emperor Moctezuma had his Palace of Birds, a nature reserve for birds where he would take his baths. And this president wants to destroy that area to make room for an urban development with no trees. I can remember the smell of the pine forest entering Mexico City as a child. They have destroyed everything, and next is Chapultepec. I have been very vocal about it, but they have censored me. In a recent appearance on national television, I was censored when I said that the Chapultepec project is a stab in the green heart of Mexico City. The program never aired.
ALEPH MOLINARI — How can we can find a spiritual and ideological transformation to point us in the right direction?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Through the human spirit and the education of children and new generations. This country is sustained by an ancient spirit and by its indigenous traditions. This is what still makes Mexico great, this mythic and ritualistic history that is so profound and that is present all over the country, above the violence and the corruption of politicians, which is abominable, almost diabolical. But what ultimately saves Mexico is its spirit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And so, you still believe in literature and writing and poetry as a means of saving the planet?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Exactly, my mantras are poetry, the spirit, ecology and my personal behavior. I know at the same time that it’s an impossible fight because one cannot change this massive machine and the mentality behind it. But even if everything is lost, we have to continue. Collectively, through our individual behavior, we can save
ALEPH MOLINARI — Through micro actions?
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Yes, and through an ecological morale. If every child chose one animal to protect, to save, then the world could be saved. It’s just a question of reorienting through education. I have faith.
ALEPH MOLINARI — So, the solution is local.
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Completely. You have to think globally and act locally. It’s the locals who have to defend their ecosystems. They have to achieve a sustainable ecology and understand the value of nature. I cannot be defending the entire country and remote areas. The problem is the twisted people who are willing to sell anything and lie to the local people. It’s a social distortion.
ALEP MOLINARI — It’s a moral aberration.
HOMERO ARIDJIS — Completely.
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