Mirror Of The Soul:
Juan Rulfo's Mexico
Photographer Juan Rulfo's Mexico is a haunted place. His black and white images capture the soul of a strong people and country who have lived through an often violent and tragic past. Huge open spaces, stillness, loneliness, life and death are the focus of these often eerie photos of rural Mexico, a place where time seems to stand still.
Rulfo was born to an upper-class family in Sayula, Jalisco on May 16, 1918, during the midst of the Mexican Revolution. His father was murdered by highway bandits when he was six years old, his mother died of a heart attack a few years later. The family lost most of their fortune in the Revolution. He writes, "My parents were hacendados....Our hacienda, San Pedro, was burned four times, while my father was still alive. They murdered my uncle, and they hung my grandfather by his thumbs, which he lost; there was much violence and everyone died at the age of 33. Like Christ. Thus I am the son of moneyed people who lost everything in the revolution...."
With the death of his parents, Rulfo was sent to Guadalajara to attend a boys school. Jalisco, and most of Western Mexico were in the heart of another bloody upraising, the Cristero Revolution. It was during this time that he began reading veraciously and developed an affection for observing life through the lens of a camera.
Rulfo was a quiet, withdrawn boy traits which he carried with him into his adult life. He lead a bohemian life-style, staying up all night reading and listening to music, locked away in a world of his own creation, surrounded by photographs, books and records.
Perhaps best known as a writer and collaborator for principal national publications, he produced two works of enormous impact in Latin American literature; El Llano En Llamas (The Burning Plain) in 1953 and Pedro Páramo in 1955. As with his photography, the works are powerful and ghostly interpretations of rural life in Mexico, a social commentary of strength and suffering.
Rulfo headed the editorial department of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista in Mexico City. His writing and photography always kept the country people in mind, exploring the day to day existence of a society afflicted with what he considered to be an "illegitimate nationality."
He shyed away from publicity, uncomfortable about being in the limelight. He preferred traveling without being noticed, taking odd jobs here and there, snapping photographs of ruins, churches, cirrus streaked skies, peasants and indigenous workers. Friend and once neighbor Fernando Benitez writes, "His fame bothers him. Being perhaps better known in Spain and in South America than in Mexico, he has had to employ a special technique for avoiding reporters. He studies the architect's plans of the hotels in Lima or Buenos Aires, I have seen him evade the packs by taking hidden passage-ways or service elevators." He was a simple, country man at heart.
Juan Rulfo died on January 7, 1986. During his lifetime he received several awards for his photographic works, including the Premio Xavier Villaurrutia in 1956; Premio Nacional De Letras, 1970; and Premio Príncipe De Asturias, 1983. His two books have been translated into English, French, Italian, Swiss, Dutch, German and Czech.
Experience the world of Juan Rulfo's Mexico, where life and death pose side by side in black and white shadows. The photographs included in this article are unedited and attributed to Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaino, (1918-1986).