In Contepec, the village where I was born, I was ten years old when I came home from playing soccer and saw a shotgun that a friend had lent my brother to go duck hunting propped against the wall. I tucked the gun under my arm and went to the backyard, where my parents were building a new kitchen. Shotgun in hand, I clambered up a pile of bricks and scanned the sky.
I pointed the gun at a flock of birds silhouetted against the blue, but when I pulled the trigger I aimed away. These free-flying birds reminded me of the caged birds my mother kept, whose singing woke me every morning, and I couldn’t bring myself to kill them. I let the gun drop and the butt hit the bricks. A volley of shot pierced my belly and hand. My body was on fire.
My parents came running when they heard the news. They bundled me into Contepec’s only taxi, and we drove to the nearest town. Luckily for me, the local doctor was out, probably on a drinking spree. Eight hours passed before we reached the city of Toluca. At the first hospital my father found, the doctor who was on call told him to take me home, as I was going to die, and there would be a lot of red tape getting my corpse out of Toluca. My father pleaded with him to operate.
I opened my eyes the next afternoon in a hospital room. My parents were staring down at me as if I had returned from the dead. During my recovery, I read King Grisly Beard by the Brothers Grimm and Sandokan, a pirate swashbuckler by Emilio Salgari that my father had bought in Toluca’s only bookstore.
Nineteen days later it was a different Homero, one who had seen the face of death, who returned to Contepec. My childhood had been split in two. I spent all day reading and writing and playing chess instead of soccer, since sports were now forbidden to me. Perhaps because my father was Greek, my brother gave me The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Years later, while walking with my wife and daughters on Altamirano Hill, a peasant called out to me, “Homerito, I read your book and I liked it very much!”
“Which book?” I asked.
“The Iliad, Homerito, The Iliad; they made us read it in school. When are you going to write another book?”
“I’m already writing it.”
“What’s it called?”
Contepec is a long way from any ocean or jungle and nearly ten thousand feet above sea level. I had never seen whales or dolphins, or tigers or lions, or scarlet macaws or sea turtles, but these animals soon filled my imagination and became part of my childhood mythology. My first lion was a colored illustration in a boring story. My elephant was a clay figurine I had won at a ring-toss game at the fair held every October in honor of Saint James.
But one day a sad old elephant, the star attraction of a traveling circus, came to Contepec. I did not know then that the fabulous elephant was being slaughtered in Africa for its tusks. I had no idea that wild animals were being killed for their skins, flesh, organs, and eggs, or for the mere sport of taking their lives, but I had already learned the lesson that on this Earth, in the sphere of the living, there is no greater luxury than life itself, for humans and for animals and for plants and for the birds that I had thought of killing on the day when I almost killed myself.
My accident led me to books and to writing; my near-death experience permeates my life and sensibility as a writer, and the birds sparked a passionate concern for the environment. I understood that somehow my own survival was connected to theirs.
Like so many other Mexicans, I left my hometown for the big city, in my case to study and to write poetry, but my dreams always took place in Contepec, my natural sanctuary.
While I was Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands in the 1970s, the seeds of conflict between my personal convictions and my official duties were sown when I sent President José López Portillo letters we had received protesting the slaughter of sea turtles in Oaxaca. He replied angrily, asking me why I bothered him about turtles when there was important work to do, such as selling Mexico’s oil, uranium, and natural gas.
A few years later I moved back to Mexico. One smoggy day in February 1985, a philosopher friend, Ramón Xirau, wrote to the Unomásuno newspaper complaining about the pollution. I knew no one would pay attention to one small voice, but I thought that if many of us denounced Mexico City’s deadly air pollution, we stood a chance of being heard. I wrote the text, friends made phone calls, and on March 1 a declaration signed by one hundred prominent writers and artists came out in the Mexican and foreign press, stating that “this pollution is killing us all.” The Group of 100 was born. Coming from Mexico, where writers are public figures whose opinions are respected, and where they are expected to play an active part in the country’s affairs, championing human rights and the environment, advocating social justice, and fighting corruption, whether through literature or through their actions, I took both roads.
In the winter of 1987, as the city suffocated under a blanket of smog, in the Alameda Park downtown I gathered dead birds that had fallen victim to the poisoned air we were all breathing. We compelled the government to publish daily reports of air pollution levels and to remove lead from gasoline. Thanks to us, a program was started called “Hoy no circula”: “Don’t drive today.” We stopped the filling in of a migratory bird sanctuary in Lake Texcoco to enlarge the international airport. And when we found out that a government company called CONASUPO had imported thousands of tons of powdered milk contaminated by fallout from the nuclear plant accident in Chernobyl, we prevented its distribution in Mexico.
Early in 1990, I published five newspaper articles in La Jornada about the slaughter of sea turtles in Mexico. These articles became the basis for an international campaign to halt the killing. In May 1990, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced a ban on the capture of sea turtles that swim in Mexican waters and nest on Mexican beaches and on trade in sea turtle products. My book Searching for Archelon: Odyssey of the Seven Sea Turtles, featuring a female leatherback turtle who leads six of her fellows on a journey through today’s oceans in search of Archelon, ancestor of all sea turtles, has been called a Lord of the Rings of the seas.
Contepec nestles against Cerro Altamirano, which is home every winter to millions of monarch butterflies. Well before the Group of 100 was founded, and before 1975, when scientists “discovered” that the butterflies flew from as far away as Ontario to the oyamel fir forests in the states of Michoacán and Mexico, I had written in The Child Poet about the monarchs,who were part of the landscape of my childhood. After I moved away, I would return every year to climb the mountain, and during those visits I learned about logging and fires on Altamirano and at the other monarch sites. In April 1986, I convinced President Miguel de la Madrid to protect the monarch butterfly forests, including Cerro Altamirano. In 2008, as Mexico’s ambassador to UNESCO, I was able to get the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve listed as a World Heritage Site. Now the monarch’s survival Depends to a certain extent on the drug traffickers who operate in the state of Michoacán. My novel Butterfly Mountain was inspired by my life in Contepec and my relationship with the monarchs.
In March 2000, five years after I denounced a plan by Mitsubishi and the Mexican government to build the world’s largest solar saltworks in Baja California Sur, on the shores of San Ignacio Lagoon, a pristine breeding and calving haven for the gray whales that migrate down the Pacific Coast from Alaska, President Ernesto Zedillo canceled the project in the face of widespread international opposition spearheaded by the Group of 100, giving as his main reason that it would alter the landscape.
Since 1985 my articles in Mexican newspapers have given me a platform to voice my opinions, but my visibility has been a lightning rod as well as a shield, because politicians and businessmen who feel targeted often view environmental activism as a subversive activity. Over the years I’ve made many enemies, and I’ve received death threats for defending dolphins from tuna fishermen, denouncing loggers in Michoacán and Chiapas, and stopping dams from being built on the Usumacinta River that would have meant flooding up to five hundred square miles of the Lacandon rain forest and Mayan ruins and displacing indigenous communities. In 1997, midway through the long fight to save San Ignacio Lagoon, the threats made to me and my family were serious enough for me to accept full-time bodyguards, who shadowed us everywhere for a year. I will never know whether the government supplied the guards to protect me or to spy on me, as Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas hinted to us shortly after his election as mayor of Mexico City that year.
Perhaps because I learned about the fragility of life at an early age, the possibility of a man-made apocalypse has always haunted me. My first millenarian fantasy was the play A Spectacle of the Year Two Thousand, when a Divine Light appears in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park during the last instants of the year 1999. Next I wrote The Last Adam, a reversal of Genesis in which all Creation is destroyed in six days and the last man and woman join in a final coupling on Earth. Not long before his death, the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel wrote to me that he was sorry he was too old to make a movie based on my book, saying: “That the apocalypse will be the work of man and not of God is, for me, an absolute certainty. Therein lies the difference between the apocalyptic delirium of Aridjis’s The Last Adam and Saint John’s mediocre apocalyptic descriptions. Obviously, man’s imagination has been enriched over the centuries.” The final installment of my apocalyptic trilogy is the play The Grand Theatre at the End of the World, a re-imagining, when the world no longer exists, of their favorite episodes of history by a group of actors who have survived a nuclear hecatomb.
I traveled back to the end of the first millennium in The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000, when the appearance of a blood-red comet was interpreted as heralding the end of days. My growing obsession with a Last Judgment finally resulted in a book-length reflection on the last one thousand years that I called Apocalypse with Figures, in homage to Albrecht Dürer’s series of woodcuts.
Constant immersion in the grim reality of Mexico City inspired me to write The Legend of the Suns, a mythological-environmental thriller and mosaic of daily life in Mexico in the year 2027. According to Aztec legend, the era of the Fifth Sun, which is the present era, will end with earthquakes, and the tzitzimime, or monsters of twilight, will devour the remains of humankind and take over the world. The companion piece to The Legend of the Suns is Who Do You Think About When You Make Love? Both are set in Ciudad Moctezuma (a metaphor for Mexico City). When you live in a megalopolis like Mexico City-Tenochtitlan-Federal District, you know that myths can come true.
As leader of the Group of 100 I have often felt like Sisyphus, confronting the same environmental problems over and over again, or Cassandra, prophesying disaster, or Don Quijote, because we sometimes seem like madmen tilting at windmills. Although the plant and animal species we defend, or the rivers and forests, will never know we defended them, often at risk to our lives, “In dreams begins responsibility,” as William Butler Yeats wrote, and for me there is nothing more tyrannical than a dream.
(From News of the Earth, Homero Aridjis, translated by Betty Ferber, Mandel Vilar Press, 2017).