Jose Emilio Pacheco - World Literature

World Literature

Jose Emilio Pacheco


BORN: 1939, Mexico City, Mexico


GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction


‘‘You’ll Die Far Away’’ (1967)

Don’t Ask Me How the Time Goes By (1969)

‘‘You Will Go and Not Return’’ (1973)

‘‘I Look at the Earth’’ (1986)

The Silence of the Moon (1995)



Jose Emilio Pacheco. Victor Rojas / AFP / Getty Images



Jose Emilio Pacheco is considered the most mature and original of the generation of Mexican poets who began writing in the 1960s. Critical and ironic, self-conscious yet modest, socially aware and aesthetically impressive, his poetry provides excellent insight for the reader interested in contemporary Mexican literature and culture.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Collaborative Efforts from the Start. Jose Emilio Pacheco was born in Mexico City on June 30, 1939. His father was an attorney who had come from humble beginnings, and his mother came from a family of conservative and devoutly Catholic businesspeople.

In his teens Pacheco began studying law and Spanish literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1957. His twenties and thirties coincided with a boom in literary and artistic production in Mexico City. In the 1950s and 1960s, he moved in the same circles as Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes, and Octavio Paz, entering this set in 1957 by coediting with Carlos Monsivais a literary supplement for young writers in Seasons. This early collaboration with strong mentors began a life in journalism that yielded thousands of articles, book reviews, essays, and notes in several publications, including News, Mexican Literary Journal, Plural, and Return. He became a contributor to the literary supplement Mexico in Culture in 1958 and served as editorial secretary to the journal, among others. Pacheco’s best-known journalistic contribution is his long-running column of cultural criticism, ‘‘Taking Stock,’’ published weekly in Process beginning in 1976.

Working with Imagined Others. Pacheco’s first book, a slim volume of short stories titled The Blood of Medusa, appeared in 1958. This early work includes a section of ‘‘Approximations,’’ consisting of ‘‘translations’’ of imagined ‘‘original’’ versions of poems by such major figures as Gerard de Nerval and Arthur Rimbaud. This section demonstrates Pacheco’s early tendencies toward making poetry ‘‘collective.’’

Pacheco’s father died in 1964. Two years later Pacheco’s second book, The Repose of Fire (1966), was published. The work reflects the turbulence of the 1960s and considers the notions of the destructive passing of time. The poems, thick with disillusionment, began what was to be a central focus of Pacheco’s poetry for years to come. In 1966 Pacheco also collaborated with Paz, Homero Aridjis, and All Chumacero on the canon-forming anthology Poetry in Motion: Mexico 1915-1966. In 1967 he published the novel You Will Die in a Distant Land, which was critically acclaimed and won the Magda Donato Prize.

Responding to History. On October 2, 1968, riot police and soldiers opened fire on an antigovernment demonstration at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City. An estimated three hundred unarmed citizens were killed. This event led Pacheco in his next book, Don’t Ask Me How the Time Goes By: Poems 1964-1968 (1969), to begin to blend artistic sensibilities with ethics and to craft poetry with a clear social message. The book introduced one of Pacheco’s most effective poetic weapons against social injustice: poems that interweave historical texts with contemporary issues.

Pacheco’s next work was a short-story collection titled The Pleasure Principle (1972), which won the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia Prize. Next Pacheco coauthored with the director Arturo Ripstein the screenplays for the award-winning movies The Castle of Purity (1973) and The Holy Office (1974). By 1978 Pacheco had written two more books and had collaborated with the artist Rojo on Kindergarten, a limited-edition book/art object that includes the series of twenty poems of the same title that was later included in Since Then: Poems, 1975-1978 (1980). Kindergarten was the most autobiographical, or self-referential, poetry Pacheco had written to that point.

Gaining International Recognition. By the late 1970s Pacheco’s poems were receiving international recognition. Esteemed poets and translators Alastair Reid and Thomas Hoeksema worked translations of two of his books, and in 1980 Pacheco won the National Prize for Journalism and News for his ‘‘Inventario’’ column. Perhaps the most important sign of Pacheco’s stature at this time was the publication of Sooner or Later. This lauded volume appeared in 1980, shortly after the poet’s fortieth birthday.

In 1981 Pacheco published a hugely successful novel, Battles in the Desert. Another volume of poetry, The Works of the Sea, appeared in 1983. In 1984 Pacheco published the collection Century’s End and Other Poems and in 1985 the illustrated An Ark for the Next Millennium: Poems. Also in 1985, Jose Marla Guelbenzu edited a collection of his work as High Treason: Poetic Anthology, and Pacheco was elected to the National Academy of Mexico, one of the highest honors a Mexican intellectual can achieve.

Mexico City Earthquake. Pacheco had noted in Repose of Fire that Mexico City was constructed on the unstable dry bed of Lake Texcoco, in a valley rimmed by two volcanoes where three tectonic plates meet. The citizens of Mexico City are accustomed to tremors and seismic rumblings, but on September 19, 1985, the city was struck by an earthquake that measured eight on the Richter scale, claimed more than eight thousand lives, and caused an estimated $4 billion in damage. Pacheco, who was teaching at the University of Maryland at the time of the earthquake, recorded his reaction to the disaster in the poem sequence ‘‘The Ruins of Mexico,’’ which appeared in his I Watch the Earth: Poems 19831986 (1986). These sixty short poems, says critic Michael J. Doudoroff, were Pacheco’s ‘‘aftershock.’’

New Media, Professorship, Fighting the Fascist Within. In 1995 Pacheco saw the publication of The Silence of the Moon: Poems 1985-1993. The Silence of the Moon won the Premio Jose Asuncion Silva (Jose Asuncion Silva Award) as the best book of poetry written in Latin America from 1990 to 1995.

Since 1996 Pacheco has been distinguished university professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland. He also teaches at the National College of Mexico, where he became professor emeritus in 1990. He has lectured in universities across America as well, including University of California at Berkeley and New York University. In 2000 he received the Premio Alux a la Eminencia for his work as a whole, and in 2003 he was awarded the International Octavio Paz Prize for Poetry and Essay.



Pacheco's famous contemporaries include:

Robert Haas (1941—): An American poet, he has served two terms as U.S. poet laureate (from 1995 to 1997) and has contributed greatly to contemporary literature.

Stephen Hawking (1942—): A British theoretical physicist known for his important work on relativity, black holes, and radiation theory.

Carlos Fuentes (1928—): Mexican novelist whose works have been hugely influential in Latin American literature. His works include The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Old Gringo (1985).

Luis Echeverria (1922—): President of Mexico from 1970 to 1976.

Joe Orton (1933-1967): An English satirical playwright, he wrote risqué? black comedies that shocked and amused his audiences.



Pacheco was quite concerned with the sites of human failure. Here are a few works by other writers who have addressed themes of disintegration, ruin, and catastrophe:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. In this acclaimed work, the central theme is one of detachment—revealing the effect of war on soldiers.

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In this work of fiction the esteemed author explores unrequited love as well as themes of aging, suffering, and physical and emotional deterioration.

State of Siege (2002), a novel by Juan Goytisolo. This highly praised work explores human indifference and decline in war-torn Sarajevo.

The Waste Land (1922), a poem by T. S. Eliot. In this seminal work, the Nobel Prize-winning English poet explores the disillusionment, spiritual ennui, and social erosion of post-World War I European sensibility.


Works in Literary Context

Profound Influences. Pacheco is a largely self-taught man with an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history, and his work reflects a wide range of influences. He writes poems in traditions ranging from that represented by Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘‘Borges and I’’ (1960) to that of Heraclitus of Ephesus, with significant dips into translations of Matthew Arnold and Constantine Cavafy along the way.

Death, Destruction, and the Lethality of Time. Pacheco’s poetry often takes further influence for its themes from contemporary civic and political events and concerns—local catastrophes, the Vietnam War, the death of Ernesto ‘‘Che’’ Guevara, and Mexican politics. The war in Vietnam, for example, informs ‘‘Idyll’’ (1973), in which lovers unwittingly stumble onto the grounds of a chemical weapons plant (manufacturing chemicals to be used against the Vietnamese people; the use of the defoliant Agent Orange, in particular, has proven to have devastating long-term consequences for Vietnamese soldiers and civilians from affected areas alike, as well as for the invading soldiers upon their return home). The Mexico City earthquake of 1985 informs ‘‘The Ruins of Mexico’’ (1986).

The theme that ties all these pieces together, however, is a familiar one in the work of Pacheco—the theme of the insubstantiality of experience through time. Throughout his work the poet consistently deals with themes of world catastrophe, disintegration and change, and, especially, the destructive properties of time.

Common Speech Style. In moving toward a distinctive style of writing, Pacheco shared in a literary trend with a group of other young Mexican poets. This new development was known as colloquial realism: Its main objective was to bring Mexican poetry nearer to common speech. Pacheco's poetry is notable for such use of speech, just as it is most original for a multitude of new components he brought together—sets of short poems, satires, epigrams, quotations, letters, haiku, fables, bestiaries, and ‘‘approximations'' (Pacheco's word for his own free translations of others' works).


Works in Critical Context

In addition to being adamantly private and modest about his life and work, Pacheco has also stated that he believes that no text is ever fully complete; therefore, he tends to edit and even to rewrite his poems so that a poem that appears in one of his collections may reappear in different versions in subsequent editions of that book and in other collections. Bibliographers and critics thus have difficulty in making definitive statements about many of the poems. Nevertheless, critics of late have made efforts to identify the intellectual and moral precision that enables Pacheco to create a poetic form for his vision. One work that demonstrates Pacheco’s style and skill is ‘‘The Ruins of Mexico.’’

“The Ruins of Mexico’’ (1986). Critics like Michael Doudoroff have called this piece ‘‘perhaps his most important single poem since The Repose of Eire’ In this first and longest poem of I Look at the Earth (1986), Pacheco responds to the devastating event of the Mexico earthquake of 1985 by discarding the ironic and detached tone of most of his mature work. At the center of the poem is a real human calamity, approached from every possible point of view: The poem is written from a geological angle, the standpoint of specific images of destruction, and the point of view of the spectator responding to destruction and personal loss. It also features perspectives that question reality and perception, make predictions after the fact, and discuss personal historical markers promising a reattachment to reality.

Critics are in agreement that Pacheco's strengths are the authenticity of his poetic voice and his creation of new poetic forms, such as his ‘‘approximations’’ and his combining of sets of related poems and associated texts into one Pacheco poem.


Responses to Literature

1. The ‘‘approximations’’ that appear in Pacheco’s books range from very precise and formally exact translations to extensively rewritten interpretations. One of his approximations in I Look at the Earth, for example, is a translation of American poet Ezra Pound’s translation of a Japanese version of an ancient Chinese poem. Consider in a group the importance of translations (in this case, a fourth-generation translation). What effect does a poem from a different language have on readers today? Who would find different translations beneficial?

2. Pacheco’s poetic quotes, translations, and rewritings reflect his view of poetry. He sees poetry as essentially social and transient, with no single meaning enduring through all ages and cultures and, in a sense, no single author. To better appreciate his intentions, decide how poetry is ‘‘social.’’ Then, discuss how poetry can be transient—moving from one place to the next and having no roots in any one place. What are some examples of how Pacheco treats poetry as a collective creation rather than the work of a single author?

3. Pacheco’s work sometimes includes ‘‘found’’ poems—fragments of prose texts from many sources. Found poems can also derive from movie scenes, dialogue, or even overheard conversations. Go out in the world and ‘‘find’’ some poetry. Listen to a conversation on a bus. Pull a technical book from the shelf. Take ideas for colors from a famous painting. Jot down anything you find striking and turn your findings into a poem.




‘‘Jose Emilio Pacheco.’’ Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Gale Research, 1996. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.

Hoeksema, Thomas. ‘‘Signal from the Bonfire: The Poetry of Jose Emilio.’’ In The Bonfire and the Wind: Jose Emilio Pacheco Faces Criticism, edited by Hugo J. Verani. Mexico City: Era, 1993.

Poniatowska, Elena. ‘‘Jose Emilio Pacheco: Shipwreck in the Desert.’’ In The Bonfire and the Wind: Jose Emilio Pacheco Faces Criticism, edited by Hugo J. Verani, 18-34. Mexico City: Era, 1993.

Soto, Lilvia. ‘‘A Paper Reality: Masks and Voices in the Poetry of Jose Emilio Pacheco.’’ In The Bonfire and the Wind: Jose Emilio Pacheco Faces Criticism, edited by Hugo J. Verani. Mexico City: Era, 1993.

de Villena, Luis Antonio. Jose Emilio Pacheco. Madrid: Jticar, 1986.


Cluff, Russell M. ‘‘Inmutable Humanity within the Hands of Time: Two Short Stories by Jose Emilio Pacheco.’’ Latin American Literary Review X, 20: (1982) 41-56.

Doudoroff, Michael J. ‘‘Jose Emilio Pacheco: An Overview of the Poetry, 1963-86.’’ Hispania 72.2 (1989): 264-76.

Gullon, Agnes M. ‘‘Dreams and Distance in Recent Poetry by Jose Emilio Pacheco.’’ Latin American Literary Review 6.11 (1977): 36-42.

Hoeksema, Thomas. ‘‘Jose Emilio Pacheco: Signals from the Flames.’’ Latin American Literary Review 3.5 (1980): 143-56.

Web sites

The Academy of American Poets Poetry Exhibits. Jose Emilio Pacheco. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

Casa Poema. Jose Emilio Pacheco: Alta traicion/High treason (Bilingual presentation). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

Groupo Radio Central. Audio: Jose Emilio Pacheco (in Spanish). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from MALZ-5KKVDQ.