Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Buenas noches, don Carlos.



I met Carlos Fuentes as a freshman at SUNY Stony Brook.

It was spring and one of those poetically beautiful days. It was sunny and clear, warm with a hint of a chill in the air. It was the kind of day that awakens the inner child and also shatters inhibitions.

I was happy that day. I sashayed all day. I felt pretty and smart and invincible. Of course, I was 19 so I felt like that most of the week (except for the days I was convinced the weight of the world rested squarely on shoulders).

I know I had a sociology lecture that morning. I can tell you that I was wearing my Mexican pants. Oh yes, I had Mexican pants! Rich mustard yellow capris with a thick waistband with a hand-sewn zigzag design in multiple colors. I wore a lilac tank top (that matched the top line of the waistband) and my ballerina flats.

I was coming out of the library on my way to the student union for lunch when I ran into my friend Angel. He informed me don Carlos was giving a tertulia at the Center for Fine Arts that evening.

“We’re going,” he told me.

I did not need convincing, but Angel added, “They’ll be wine and cheese, and a chance to speak to him.”

“I’m already dressed for it!”

Don Carlos began by telling us he hated lectures.

“I have no desire to stand here talking at you. Don’t you get enough of that already?”

Instead, he told us, he wanted to have an intelligent conversation. He wanted us to drive that conversation and opened the floor for comments, questions, demands…

A brave soul shot up and asked a long-winded, compound question that sent don Carlos into angry rant. Of course he appreciated that we read his books. By doing so we’d contributed to his stab at immortality (a battle we’d all lose eventually but which, like Quixote’s ordeal, was well worth our best effort).  

But, he warned, to read his books simply to fulfill some requirement to satisfy the academic criteria for “learning” a genre over another was a complete waste of time. Reading, and writing, should be an experience towards finding a deeper message about the human condition.

Then he cut the whole thing short, to the palpable horror of the bigwigs in the English department and the school’s president, because “this format is not conducive to meaningful discourse.”

Before he relinquished the mike he also said something derogatory about American universities churning out insufferable pseudo-intellectuals who could neither write nor think, and something about artistic integrity and a social consciousness not being mutually exclusive.

“¡Ya, se acabo! I need a drink,” he announced. “If you have something interesting to discuss, come find me. The rest of you, enjoy the cheese and crackers.”

He quickly dispatched those eager to show their deft knowledge of lit theory and engaged those willing to talk about “things that are real.”

Don Carlos told me to read and expand my mind, to think with a critical eye, to live and love passionately and to create, because I was capable of it. He said the history of humanity was littered with stories of la lucha, “There’s always a struggle somewhere. Join a good fight!”

To this day, meeting Carlos Fuentes remains one of the most electrifying experiences of my life. As we retreated back to the library after our evening with our storyteller, snow began to fall. This was the one and only time when snow did nothing to erase the brilliance of my day; just like death cannot silence the brilliance in that fiercely smart and witty voice.

I am sad he left us but know even death won't silence him. I hear his voice clearly!

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