Disclaimer: This essay just begins to scratch the surface of this topic. It contains generalizations, ideas borrowed from conversations with other people, some unorthodox proposals, and does not in any way represent the overarching opinions of the cultural authorities of Mexico. This essay represents some of the opinions of the author and, in the best case scenario, some of the opinions of people she shares these ideas with. It is not exhaustive in the very least, it is at most a glimpse into the future, scribbled onto the page with reckless abandon.
We come from a long literary tradition that has its roots in the Mesoamerican legends of different nations that populated the territory we now call Mexico—but that’s not news—all fantasy literature began in the realm of myth. Then the Spaniards showed up in the 16th century and bam, there’s a massacre, they institute the Spanish language and Catholicism—really just your run of the mill colonialism stuff.
But here’s where we need to jump forward in time to the seventeenth century (to his majesty’s viceroyalty township colony of New-Spain) and make a pit stop to check in on this lady dead-set on studying to be a nun, just so she can get some reading and writing done in peace, (or whatever peace looked like at that time). Some people with literary authority, like Gabriela Damián Miravete and Lola Ancira among others, make a special note in regard to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s Primero sueño (1692) because it’s a poem that can be read with a fantasy lens—with a speculative literature lens even. It’s the NoVo Hispanic equivalent of calling Mary Shelley the British mum of science fiction because of her Modern Prometheus.
In the next century, in 1775, the Franciscan friar Manuel Antonio de Rivas decides to follow the footsteps of Cyrano de Bergerac, Voltaire, and Luciano de Samasota by taking a trip from the Sovereign Sister Republic of the Yucatan all the way to the Moon in a text now considered to be a classic, and whose title is a true wonder to behold: “Syzygies and Lunar Quadratures Aligned to the Meridian of Mérida of the Yucatán by an Anctitone or Inhabitant of the Moon, and Addressed to the Scholar Don Ambrosio de Echevarria, Reciter of Funeral Kyries in the Parish of Jesus of Said City, and Presently Teacher of Logarithm in the Town of Mama of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the Year of the Lord 1775” (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, which is why it’s often referred to as simply “Syzygies” or “Syzygies and Lunar Quadratures”).
Then, in the 19th century, texts cut from the fantasy-cloth begin multiplying, like those of Ana de Gómez Mayorga or Amado Nervo, the latter who is considered a sentimental poet now, but who was writing stories at the time that were, well, to be honest, protoscience-fiction. Of course there’s also a strong tradition of legends that recount all sorts of matters related to ghosts, apparitions, buried treasure, will-o’-the-wisps, and crimes of passion, the most obvious example being la Llorona, but it’s crucial to underscore that the majority of these legends and much of the oral tradition that eventually finds its way into the burbs has origins in stories that date back to the pre-Hispanic world; what happens though is that these narratives are so imbedded in the popular imaginary that they are seldom recognized as capital L literature.
The twentieth century is chock-full of examples: Amparo Dávila, Hugo Iriart, Juan José Arreola, Guadalupe Dueñas, Carlos Fuentes, Inés Arredondo, Juan Rulfo, Elena Garro …Oh yeah! One important sidenote: these are all authors who are included in the annals of Serious Realist Literature bearing the official snake-swallowing-eagle seal of approval much to the pride of our glorious nation, but the official registers fail to mention an important detail about these authors: Every last one of them wrote about fantastical things—speculative, bone-chilling, celestial, demented, mythical things—which means they were also writing fantasy literature. I’m not saying that’s the only genre they wrote, but I am interested in highlighting this fact because Mexican literature, when observed from a certain angle, has a very solid base in fantasy literature try as it might to keep this fact on the downlow. The fact is, that Mexico’s ties to fantasy literature is hardly a secret to anyone. Here I’d like to focus on two quotes that help me ground what it is I’m referring to when I talk about this aspect of the Mexican literary tradition. The first is a quote from Magali Velaso, who explains how Mexican literature doesn’t always embrace its less-realist inclinations.
“Mexican literature has been predominated by the reflection of its narrative from a realist perspective. Literary criticism has zeroed in on narrative elements tied to historical events, national-level problems, indigenousness, social political criticism…Even though these elements are key to the story on a structural level, some critical theory neglects to acknowledge fantasy mechanisms at work, concentrating instead solely on the text’s metafictional tendencies.”
There are several examples of canonical texts that fall into the category of realism that, upon closer inspection, employ fantasy elements, even if they’re not openly written by sci-fi or fantasy writers.
The second quote is the definition of literatura de la imaginación (or the fantastic imagination), a term coined by Alberto Chimal which: “aims to express certain human experiences, especially in relation to our interiority—our desires, fears, dreams and nightmares—using the imagery of what we consider to be irreal to question what we define as the truth, who taught us to think that way, and what other possibilities exist for imagining not only the fictional world, but our everyday realities.”
I like Chimal’s term for several reasons, because it’s not a rehash of foreign phrasing, it steers clear of some of the more commercial labels for literature (bring on the applause and confetti, because that’s already a feat in itself) and also because it functions as a sort of umbrella term that applies to all types of literature that exists on the periphery of the canon. That is the heart of this essay, really, everything that is fantasy, sci-fi, horror, speculative, unusual, unreal, weird, supernatural, monstrous, unsettling and unclassifiable. I’ll clarify again that, for the most part, when I talk about the fantastic imagination in this text, I intend for that term to encompass all points on the spectrum, from sci-fi based in factual science all the way to surrealism; although sometimes it refers specifically to speculative, fantasy, or horror, which of course are in themselves distinguishable categories.
But I should probably get to the point already. Where was I? Oh yeah, that Mexican literature has a dirty secret: by day it’s uptight realism (probably wearing a tie and uncomfortable dress shoes) but by night it sheds its disguise to get down with its dark side—perhaps its more authentic self, the fantastic imagination.
Let’s take another leap through time space—I mean, after all, what is linear time but a convention? 1984, the year writer and academic Celine Armenta creates the Puebla Prize for Science Fiction, the only such prize that still continues today (in 1998 the name was changed to the National Story Prize for Fantasy and Science Fiction). From that incomparable year to 2002, sci-fi and genre literature in general experienced an unprecedented boom in Mexico and there was a lot of action: Underground projects dedicated to horror and vampire lit sprang up, at least three editorial imprints exclusively for genre fiction were created, a daring advancement the likes of which has not taken place since even though nearly twenty years have gone by. There were conventions, zines and professional publications (or professional enough anyway) flew out of printers, national culture magazines were dedicating whole issues to science fiction, national media outlets ran special features, a whole slew of genre prizes were created and then fizzled out, like the International VID Prize for Science Fiction and Fantasy, held for the first time in 1997 and running for just five cycles. I think you could call it a movement, perhaps an informal sort of movement, but a movement, nonetheless. In the nineties especially, books that had been written the previous decade were being published as well as the first works by authors who today have solid writing careers. Several anthologies came out too. I’m going to restrain myself and pick a few at random to mention because otherwise the list would never end: Mas allá de lo imaginado (1991), edited by Federico Schaffler (this is the first of three editions of the nineties’ most important sci-fi anthology, really a panoply of Sci-fi across Mexico at the time); La primera calle de la soledad (1993) by Gergardo H. Porcayo; Xanto: Novelucha libre (1994) by José Luis Zárate; Técnicamente humanos (1996) by Cecilia Eudave; Si volviesen sus majestades (1996) by Ignacio Padilla (RIP); Auliya (1997) by Verónica Murguía; Gente del mundo (1998) by Alberto Chimal; and Lo era de los clones (1998) by Blanca Martínez (all of these books had at least two printings). As mentioned, this list is not exhaustive, but cataloguing all the most important writers would be like being forced to sit through twenty minutes of credits at the end of a CGI movie with three film teams and shoots in ten cities.
Since 2002, maybe 2004, the scene has calmed down some and, instead of being a raging flame, genre lit is holding on with a slow burn. It still has an audience, mostly in anthologies, but the moment has arrived once more to jump through time and zero in on our present moment (2020, more or less).
2018, February. The Mexican-American artist John Picacio (who needs no introduction) is the guest of honor at Worldcon 76, and becomes the founder of the Mexicanx Initiative:
“As Artist Guest of Honor of the upcoming 76th World Science Fiction Convention, I’ve decided to create ‘The Mexicanx Initiative’ — an effort to sponsor Worldcon attending memberships and award them to FIFTY Mexicanx artists, writers, filmmakers, culture shapers, and fans. We need more Mexicanx representation in science fiction and fantasy, and together with my incredible sponsoring teammates, we aim to do that at this year’s convention.”
Then in August of that year, a group of more than forty Mexicans and Mexican-Americans participated (myself included) in the 76th World Science Fiction Convention, something we never would’ve dreamed possible. As part of the Mexicanx Initiative, a bilingual and hybrid anthology was released, Una realidad más amplia, cuentos desde la periferia bicultural / A Larger Reality, Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins, which is available to download for free here.
From that book, Julia Rios compiled an online scrapbook with articles and essays written by participants and then that material became a finalist for the Hugo Awards in the category of Best Related Work. It was the first time a Mexican woman (uh, I’m talking about myself here *monkey covering its eyes emoji*) has ever been nominated for a Hugo. The only other Mexicans who have been nominated are Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, who both won Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, for Pan’s Labyrinth (2007) and Gravity (2014) respectively. For years, Mexican fantastic literature has been published mostly in Spain and some in Latin America, but to a lesser extent. Language barriers and publishing politics have influenced the fact that Spanish language genre lit remains almost unknown to English language readers. Despite that fact, the Mexicanx Initiative invitation and the subsequent group trip to San Jose, California had a huge impact on how Mexicans are now approaching English-language markets. In this write-up of the event by E.M. Markoff, the author points out that, “an entire reading and some panels were done solely in Spanish - 100% en español. This might not seem like a big deal, but it is.”
In May of 2018, the online magazine Latin American Literature Today published a dossier on Latin American speculative fiction (edited by Alberto Chimal) that included the sci-fi short story by Gabriela Damián Miravete, “Soñarán en el jardín,” here’s the Spanish version, and here’s the English version, “They Will Dream in the Garden”, translated by Adrian Demopulos. This story won the 2019 James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award, (which has since been renamed the Otherwise Award). It was the first time a woman, not just a Mexican woman, but any female author writing in Spanish, has won this prize.
Between the beginning of 2018 and November of 2020, fantasy and speculative literature has been totally killing it. Plenty of work has been published, more and more authors have a presence in the English-language world, there are more avenues opening up between México and other Latin American countries, and there is a push from all corners of the world to strike up international conversations. Here I’m biting my tongue again because it’s impossible to do justice to the deluge of fundamental names and projects, but I fear I might be edging into movie-credit territory and you can rest assured that at the end of this essay you’ll find an appendix with specific examples. Before we get there, I do want to point out that the majority of those books have found homes with publishing houses that are, for the most part, far removed from most corporate publishing conglomerates.
2020 has been a ______ year (insert your preferred term here). I keep looking for an adjective that begins to describe it: Brutal? Intense? Interesting? Unprecedented? All of the above really, but 2020 also had some unexpected positive consequences. There was a strong Mexican presence at conventions and international forums. As book fairs and literary festivals have all shifted online, there is plenty of sci-fi and speculative lit being presented; in 2018 the first Festival Abismo (Abyss Festival) took place, and then there was Naves y monstruos (Ships and Monsters). In many parts of the country indie projects and electronic publications have teamed up together. The fact that quarantine has limited our face to face interaction has transformed into an opportunity to connect remotely, continuing or beginning new conversations virtually. The first thing that comes to mind is La Mexicona: Imagination and Future, a series of roundtable discussions (which began as an idea at a convention) that Gabriela Damián, Iliana Vargas, Andrea Chapela and I organized with other writers from Mexico, Latin America and Spain, where we were able to hash out all sorts of topics related to the theme of “The future and speculative genres in the world of Spanish-language literature from Mexico and other planets.” I think the most exciting thing about our current moment is that genre literature is being shared in a collective way, not just by literary groups popping up here and there. Our ability for connection has only grown due to the fact that online conversations are open and welcome to anyone who wishes to participate. There are also writing workshops; some hosted by bookstores (crucial meeting points that are fundamental when building community), by publishers or by groups tied to academia, all of them dedicated to the genre literature we’ve been talking about here.
If these ideas all seem increasingly entangled it’s because talking about the present is a tricky pursuit—everything’s happening simultaneously and in hyper speed, but from where we’re standing I do think it’s possible to look toward the future with hope. This special feature on Mexican fantastic imagination by Strange Horizons is a great example of the interest other countries have been taking in Mexican speculative and fantasy literature. Another one is Clarkesworld, which is going to start accepting work written in Spanish, and then there’s Constellation Magazine which has a core staff consisting of four women from Latin America and Spain, completely Spanish/English bilingual from the get-go. A publication like this maybe wouldn’t have been possible three years ago, and in 2020, it seemed unlikely, but despite everything it opened its reading period this year, fighting tooth and nail against the odds. I’m convinced that the work being written in Mexico is in conversation with other countries and languages now more than it ever was before.
Just to extrapolate a little, I can also say that Mexican speculative literature is going to be seeing more female authors, more books published by indie presses (meaning, outside of the transnational consortium), and more authors that openly accept their affiliation with our band of freaks (“One of us! One of us!”). Perhaps there will be more published work, but also more non-traditional mediums like podcasts, bots, and other hybrid forms (electronic literature has no reason to be narrative, linear, or reliant on written words). Another important aspect about this new open-endedness is that people are operating in more horizontal power structures rather than the old vertical, false-meritocracy of publishing. This implies that there’s a specific interest in reading voices that haven’t been present in those traditional spaces, i.e. women, but also members of the LGBTQI+ communities, people who write in indigenous languages—which bring along with them different understandings of narrative and new ways of articulating what we consider to be literature—, work written by young people who have yet to “break into the literary field,” work by people who wish to contribute solely as readers—which in itself is an act of literary creation. All this to say, I think the literary scene on the horizon will be more multifaceted and diverse, more collaborative and horizontal in power structure, friendlier, and why not just come out and say it, more just and equitable.
Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean author who wrote the best fantasy literature of the twentieth century, said, “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” Following this principle, I believe that those who write speculative literature and fantasy in Mexico are creating their own precursors (also in the literal sense because we are often discovering their work as we go). As we continually adjust our understanding of literary work from the past we’re also molding literature to our vision of the future.
Bonus section with extra names and links to specific projects
Still not overkill to say it again, this appendix is not exhaustive. Here are just a few examples of specific works, names, and publications that can be found on shelves or online and that are the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people. Hopefully, these sources will lead you to other sources and then those sources to even more sources, and so on:
- Halfway between our jump from 2002 to 2018 it’s worth mentioning that that the book, Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic (2012) came out with Small Beer Press (perhaps it can still be purchased online in ebook format here). This is an anthology of more than thirty Mexicans authors translated into English, edited by Chris N. Brown and Eduardo Jiménez Mayo. It was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2013.
- Also in 2013, Verónica Murguía won Spain’s Gran Angular Prize with her fantasy novel, Loba. Veronica is an author who, like Martha Riva Palacio Obón, Raquel Castro, or Jaime Alfonso Sandoval, has established a stable career mostly in the realm of young adult literature (YA). A lot of fantasy elements have seeped into YA, in both anthologies and novels, and not just in YA books that are “simple” or “easy.” I specify here because YA is another literary genre looked down on with scorn by purveyors of high Literature, because it is often considered too commercial or simple for the enlightened adult mind.
- For more bilingual examples, here’s the link to Latin American Literature Today’s dossier on speculative Latin American fiction.
- Additionally, a book called the Route of Ice and Salt (in Spanish, La ruta del hielo y la sal, (1998)), by José Luis Zárate was just released, translated by David Bowles and edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
- And in the beginning of 2020, Alberto Chimal didn’t just publish The Most Fragile Objects (originally Los esclavos, (2008)) with Katakana Press, but he also published two stories in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, the veritable doorstopper edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer for Vintage Books.
- They’re still at it in Spain, publishing fantastic Mexican literature, like Yo no voy a salvarte, by Iliana Vargas, forthcoming with Eolas Ediciones or Diez planetas, by Yuri Herrera, which came out with Periférica at the end of 2019.
- Andrea Chapela recently won the Gilberto Owen Story Prize and the José Luis Martínez Essay Prize, which are both for “general” literature and, in the case of the Gilberto Owen, Chapela won with her latest collection of sci-fi stories, which just so happens to have recently been published by Almadía, Ansibles, perfiladores y otras máquinas de ingenio. One of the stories can be read in English on Samovar.
- In the world of lit journal/magazine publishing, Penumbria has been in the game a long time. So has Espejo humeante and The Fiction Review, or there’s the newbies Primero Sueño
- There’s also such a thing as reading collectives who focus on the work of female genre writers, such as Morras Cifi and Especulativas Mx, as well as other groups that are female-author forward and have recently been incorporating genre-lit writers, like Libros B4 Tipos.
- It’s definitely worth taking a look at these international conferences which have made space for Mexican authors lately: Futurecon: The future happens everywhere and the International Literary Festival of Relampeio.
- Lastly, I’ll leave you with two anthologies that are open access and totally free: Aparato CiFi. Ciencia ficción escrita entre el río bravo y el río suchiate, de 1692 (Back before this territory was called Mexico) a 1947”, which begins with, you guessed it, a fragment of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño. The second anthology is bilingual Spanish/English with more than fifty collaborators, including visual artists, writers, programmers, and science communication specialists all wrapped up in a dynamic project that can be played as an MUD videogame or downloaded as an ebook. Just the table of contents itself is a good demonstration of how many people are working on different manifestations of speculative lit these days. Un universo en el que no nos extinguimos. Una realidad más amplia 2.0 / A Timeline in which We Don’t Go Extinct. A Larger Reality 2.0.
 Magali Velasco, “De mi sentimiento de lo fantástico” from El cuento: la casa de lo fantástico, México, Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2007, pp. 15-16.
 Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors” from Other Inquisitions.