|Biography of Juan Rulfo (1917-1986)
Juan Rulfo was a Mexican author of both novels and short stories. On May 16, 1917 he was born in the town of Sayula, in the state of Jalisco (in the western part of central Mexico). Jalisco is a Nahuatl word that means “sandy plain” and this is precisely the hot, arid, imposing terrain where nearly all of Rulfo’s narratives take place.
Rulfo’s birth certificate bore the prodigious name “Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaíno,” and he spent a great deal of his childhood in the house of his paternal grandparents in San Gabriel. During this time he was granted access to the library of a priest who stored his books in the grandparents’ home, and he would always fondly remember devouring these texts which proved to be fundamental in his literary development.
In order to understand Rulfo’s novel and short stories, it is important to be aware of the two events which were determining factors in Rulfo’s childhood: the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), without a doubt the most influential event in Mexican culture and history in the 20th Century, and the Cristero War (1926-1929), a struggle between the government of Plutarco Elias Calles and Catholic militias over the restricted rights of the Church. The latter event was particularly notable for Rulfo because during this time a number of his family members died, leaving him an orphan. In particular, the death of his father in 1923 (apparently killed by a young man with whom he had a conflict) and his mother in 1927, shortly after Rulfo had been sent to boarding school, would have a lasting effect on Rulfo and his work.
The Mexican Revolution greatly altered Rulfo’s childhood home of San Gabriel, which had been a thriving town ever since the colonial period. After the Revolution, the town became poor. San Gabriel is much like the “ghost towns” that Rulfo writes about in many of his short stories, a place where the promised reforms of the Revolution never materialized.
Rulfo’s literary production is relatively limited. In his lifetime he only published two narrative works, though each were of immense importance. The novel Pedro Páramo (1955) is recognized as one of the greatest works of Latin American literature, and The Burning Plain (1953) (El llano en llamas) is a collection of short stories. Short as both these works are, they had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Mexican writers.
While Rulfo belongs chronologically to the “Generation of 1952,” his works (especially Pedro Páramo) are often classified as belonging to the period of the Latin American literary “boom” in the sixties and seventies during which novels from this part of the world gained international recognition, allowing prominent novelists were able to begin to make a living from their craft.
Rulfo held a number of different writing, culture and art-related jobs during his lifetime. He worked as an archiver, an immigration agent, a travel agent, and as an editor in the National Indigenous Institute in Mexico City for twenty-four years. Another aspect of his work as an artist is apparent in the significant photography exhibit he presented in 1980 in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Two years after publishing Pedro Páramo, Rulfo retroactively won the Premio Xavier Villaurrutia of 1955. He also received the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras in 1983 and was posthumously awarded the Premio Manuel Gamio of 1985. He died January 7, 1986 in Mexico City.