Tierra Roja. La novela de Lázaro Cárdenas. Pedro Ángel Palou. Mexico City. Planeta. 2016. 376 pages.
The Mexican Revolution is over and a new era begins – one of building from scratch, resurrecting a land from its ashes. The surviving revolucionarios have left behind their bandoliers and horses and now drive through the capital dressed in suits. It seems like the entire world is enfolded between the streets of Mexico City, where Trotsky ponders the Russian revolution in the house of the Riveras, Bernard Shaw gives talks in local clubs, and Neruda represents the Chilean consulate.
Amongst this seemingly reborn cosmopolitan world, there is a man who still gazes toward the ones who still walk barefoot, miles away from the rising cities: Lázaro Cárdenas, the surviving revolutionary idealist trapped in the callous political wars of the 1940s. Pedro Ángel Palou’s new novel Tierra Roja [Red earth] brings life to the historical archives surrounding the life of President Cárdenas. The novel’s three segments – “Before 1932,” “Now 1934–1940,” and “After 1961” – each portray a crucial phase of Cárdenas’s career. Starting his career as a revolutionary, Cárdenas climbs the hierarchy of the caudillo system and goes on to serve as the republic’s president between 1934 and 1940, after which he serves as secretary of defense.
The presidency of Cárdenas is overwhelmed by internal struggles as this new government attempts to leave behind the caudillo system of power and tap into a democracy. Cárdenas is forced to rise against his own mentor when he finally exiles Plutarco Elías Calles. Even then, he is left with the ambitious project of land redistribution, a socialist reform which is not free of resistance. While the campesinos still go hungry, the capital witnesses the bloodshed of the Cristero War and the streets are overwhelmed by protesters from various labor unions.
The international political scene is shaken by the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascist Germany. Cárdenas struggles to bring social justice as he receives thousands of republican refugees from Spain, under the criticism of thousands who leave Mexico to work in the fields of the United States. His focus on the poorest classes of the country and the nationalization of oil resources provokes a severe reaction from local bosses, as well as American investors. Cárdenas’s socialist initiatives and public announcements further tighten political relations with the Roosevelt government.
The novel offers a glimpse into the daily life of the period with the parallel story of crime reporter Eduardo Téllez “El Güero” and his primary source, the undercover state agent Filiberto García, a personality comeback from Rafael Bernal’s detective novel The Mongolian Conspiracy. This intriguing friendship reveals the world outside of the political cabinets, the world lived on the streets, the local clubs and neighborhoods. Téllez and García investigate the most macabre crimes in the capital’s underground life. All the while, the story shows that daily life is not free from the sociopolitical events in the republic.
The novel sheds light on the more intimate aspect of Cárdenas, of the politician who Salvador Novo calls “the mystery President.” As a governor, Cárdenas rarely discusses his political moves, military acts, trips, or solutions. Palou’s novel therefore taps into the inner life of the president’s agendas, ideologies, and ambitions. The novel recuperates the personal archives of President Cárdenas and incorporates his letters and resourceful diary entries, where the President ponders, questions, strategizes, and complains. A rich inner dialogue finally comes forth to substitute the silence and reservation of the public figure.
Tierra Roja tells the story not only of a President, but also of a man who sacrifices friendships and family life to fight for something greater than himself. Lazarus – the lonely traveler on what seems like an endless journey toward the resurrection of his own land. A father – not only to his country, but also to his little son Cuauhtémoc. Perhaps the most tender image of Cárdenas is that of el tata reading to his little one before bed. The man who listens carefully, who “sometimes smiles and often cries.”
Palou’s novel offers a space to ponder the issues we still face today: poverty, education, social justice, imperialism, freedom of the press and oil exploitation, among others. The character of President Cárdenas comes forth as a model for leadership in an era of social crisis. Tierra Roja is an essential reading for contemporary discussion of the international political scene as we question and reconsider the role of authority and government.
University of California, Santa Barbara