Paco Ignacio Taibo II on myths, essays, politics and borders

The Mexican historian and writer spoke with The Herald during his recent visit to Buenos Aires

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is drinking a can of regular Coke and chain smoking H. Upmann cigarettes in the Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE) bookstore in Buenos Aires, the Argentine branch of the Mexican state-run publishing house he ‘s essentially been running for the past five years. Taibo is in charge of practically everything, from publishing and decisions regarding public policy, as well as day-to-day operations. 

“We’re the last remnants of the international transnational left still on the planet,” he laughs. 

Taibo, who is 74, has a long career as a historian, writer, activist and politician – now, as he recounts all of this while explaining his daily tasks, he appears to only be interested in reaching the largest number of Latin American readers. He does not succumb to (reasonable) fears of a decline in reading, the financial challenges of distributing books in places like Cuba or the Mexico-US border, or to the signs that times are, indeed, changing, especially for his generation. 

In Buenos Aires, where he came to present his most recent book (Sabemos cómo vamos a morir, Planeta) and participate in the Buenos Aires Book Fair and the Proyecto Ballena festival organized by the Culture Ministry, Taibo talked incessantly about Argentina’s politics and economy (“it’s a monotheme,” he complained), the Mexican government’s cultural policies, and one of his favorite topics: Latin American literature. 

“I also wanted to speak to FCE managers in Argentina and Chile,” he said, recounting the week he spent in the city. After all, he’s running a colossal publishing project in Latin America: the FCE prints an average of a book and a half per day – 500 a year, and distributes them across all the Spanish-speaking world. 

His work is not limited to applying his decades of experience as a writer to publishing, but also trying to accomplish the FCE’s goals in a region that is in turmoil more often than not. “Real dollars, fake dollars, problems with wire transfers,” he said, detailing some of his daily challenges. He takes these goals seriously. “We’ve been lowering book prices for four years – I don’t care what anyone says, we need to do it, otherwise, we’d be leaving millions of Latin Americans without reading material.” 

The Herald spoke to him in the FCE bookshop, a three-story building with a cafe and an upstairs cultural center and auditorium where book presentations and workshops are held. The FCE is located right in front of the Plaza Armenia, in Palermo.

You came to take part in Proyecto Ballena, which this year is based on the concept of “political imagination”. What does that mean to you? 

My generation got its political formation by reading fiction. I’m a part of the generation of ‘68, a dinosaur – we read more Ho Chin Minh poems than texts by Mao. More books by Cortázar than [Soviet revolutionary] Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. We read [Argentine writers and political activists] Rodolfo Walsh and Osvaldo Bayer. Novels had an enormous political and narrative weight for us. Now, it ‘s hard to find [writer Osvaldo] Soriano’s books because there’s a generation that reads essays. His novels like Cuarteles de Invierno or No habrá más penas ni olvido were formative in the best of ways. They gave us a sentimental education. 

A key element of sentimental education is related to ethics and myths, to what a teenager sticks in his backpack. Is it Che Guevara or Dora the Explorer? These are meaningful decisions when you’re young. 

Do you worry that some right-wing parties in Latin America are becoming popular among younger voters?

I’m worried teenagers are losing their ability to read politically – that’s a troubling trend. As a publisher, FCE tries to address this. We propose reading things, like myths, that can lead to reflections and realizing we’re not alone. Myths are what make the invisible visible. Also, when you read, say, Isaac Asimov, there’s a potential political interpretation that can lead you to interact with others. To engage with them emotionally. 

Reading [Peruvian writer José María] Arguedas, for example, takes you to the Peruvian altiplano. It takes you on an adventure, into indigenous myths – that’s what I call “sentimental education”, a battle I know I’m going to lose, but I intend to fight in these upcoming years. I’m not going to stop. 

But what’s changed between the Soriano and Arguedas generation and this one? 

The Argentine dictatorship killed writers. In Mexico, we’ve become old. In Perú they were either deported or went into exile. That’s what changed. 

Journalism, reporting on reality, is the opposite of fiction.

There’s a type of journalism that does reporting but also tells stories. What’s frequently called “new journalism”. That’s a part of what I’m proposing. 

Thirteen journalists were killed in Mexico last year – would you say Mexican Presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador is addressing this issue? 

Journalists are getting killed for political reasons tied to the drug trade. For telling the truth. But if you only look at the surface of the problem, you won’t understand how deep it runs. The daily violence produced by the drug trade has flooded Mexican society. López Obrador is aiming for long-term solutions: providing alternatives to the bling offered by the drug trade, like opportunities for education and culture, scholarships, and jobs. This doesn’t solve short-term issues, or only does so partially. But the country will slowly move forward. 

What does the the future of this administration look like? 

We’ll win the 2024 elections. The right-wing has found a home in oligarchies, the judiciary and the media, but are rather dispersed when it comes to political parties. They have huge issues when trying to express themselves, and that contradiction will lead them to lose next year. 

I’d like to speak a bit about migration politics in Mexico. At this point, the government seems to be in sync with the United States, which mean that migrants who are deported or rejected on the border must stay in Mexico. 

It’s horrible. The road to “prosperity” goes through Mexico, which means that millions affected by violence, unemployment, poverty, and community destruction, choose this path to go north. It’s an incessant wave: a contemporary equivalent to the Berlin Wall. The only solution in the short run is for the US to stop putting barbed wire at the border, and start investing in the countries themselves: create jobs and boost agriculture instead of blocking their economies. 

For us it means that all of a sudden we find ourselves with eight Haitian camps in México. Congolese migrants, too. They don’t speak Spanish, so how can we help? I’ve called French-speaking middle schools and institutes, and asked them to send us children’s books. It’s like trying to empty a river with a glass, but we’re sending books to the border. 

When you buy a birthday cake, you have to know how many servings it has. If you have twenty-seven guests but the cake only feeds eight, that’s unfair and irrational. That’s what the US is doing with migrants, who are also their working class. 

Politics in Latin America has changed significantly over the past few years: Boric in Chile, Fernández in Argentina, Petro in Colombia, are all López Obrador allies. How has this impacted local politics in Mexico? 

Latin America has regained a bit of balance, but it’s not linear. History is not a straight line, that’s an utopia (or a bad interpretation of reading Marx). History sways, a wave that moves back and forth. Mexico will continue to be a leftist country. There are still two years left on the administration’s current term, and six more that will come following the next election.


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