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Biography of Juan Rulfo (1917-1986)

Juan Rulfo Juan Rulfo

Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaíno, known professionally as Juan Rulfo, was born on May 16, 1917 in the town of Sayula in the state of Jalisco, located 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 are set. Rulfo 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 his grandparents’ home. These texts were fundamental to his literary development.

Though a strike at the University of Guadalajara prevented him from enrolling, Rulfo was able to audit literature lectures in Mexico City. He later cofounded the literary journal Pan with mentor Efrén Hernández. He traveled extensively throughout the 30s and 40s, and eventually had stories published in Pan and another Mexican magazine. In 1948, Rulfo married Clara Angelina Aparicio Reyes and they had four children. A fellowship he earned in 1952 allowed him to write his two published works - El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain) (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955).

In order to understand Rulfo’s novel and short stories, it is important to be aware of two defining events which occurred during 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 was impoverished. 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 is recognized as one of the greatest works of Latin American literature, and The Burning Plain is a notable collection of short stories. Despite their short lengths, they had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Mexican writers. Although technically written in the 1950s, Rulfo's works (especially Pedro Páramo) are often classified as belonging to the period of the Latin American literary “boom” in the '60s and '70s during which novels from this part of the world gained international recognition, allowing prominent novelists to begin to make a living from their craft.

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.

Besides his writing, Rulfo held a number of different culture-related jobs during his lifetime. He worked as an archivist, an immigration agent, a travel agent, and, for twenty-four years, an editor in the National Indigenous Institute in Mexico City. Rulfo was also an accomplished amateur photographer. In 1980 he presented a significant exhibit of his work in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. He died January 7, 1986 in Mexico City.

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