Academic journal article
By Simmen, Edward
Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA) , Vol. 20, No. 2
Maria Cristina Mena holds a unique place in American literature: She is the first naturalized American from Mexico to write in English and publish in prestigious American magazines. Born on April 3, 1893, in Mexico City to a politically powerful and socially prominent family of Spanish extraction, Mena lived the life of a privileged young lady, being educated at the elite convent school in the Mexican capital, Hijas de Maria (Daughters of Mary), and later at an English boarding school. An unusually intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive child, she began to write poetry when she was ten years old.
As the result of the political turmoil in Mexico during the first decade of the twentieth century, Mena was sent at the age of fourteen to live with family friends in New York City. There she continued her studies and began to write in earnest. She was twenty when her first two short stories were published in November of 1913: "John of God, the Water-Carrier" in The Century Magazine and "The Gold Vanity Set" in The American Magazine. By 1916, Mena had published a total of eight stories and one biographical essay. "John of God" was reprinted in the October 1927 issue of The Monthly Criterion, a literary journal published in London and edited by T. S. Eliot. Edward O'Brien selected the work for his volume of Best Short Stories of 1928.
In 1916, she married a divorce6 twenty-six years her senior, Henry Kellett Chambers, a respected Australian-born playwright and senior editor and columnist for the Literary Digest. The couple traveled in literary circles and counted D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley among their friends. Chambers died in 1935, leaving Mena, much to her surprise, totally destitute. For nearly twenty years, they had lived an exciting if expensive life of elegance in a mansion on Long Island Sound. But with the death of her husband, Dona Marfa, as she now preferred to be called, became a virtual recluse. She was forty-two years old and penniless, forced by circumstance to move from Long Island to Brooklyn, where she lived for the remainder of her life on the charity of friends in a series of dingy apartments, ending up living alone in a cold-water flat, along with the ashes of her beloved husband which she kept in a coffee-can and guarded under her bed.
When she did venture out, it was to attend the regular meeting of the Catholic Library Association and the Authors Guild of New York. At such meetings, she was able to continue her friendships with editors, librarians, educators, and other writers such as Clare Booth Luce, Theodore Maynard, and Wilfred Sheed and where she made new friends such as Covelle Newcomb, a promising young writer from San Antonio. Mena continued to write children's novels publishing five books between 1942 and 1953, but they are mostly reworkings of her short stories. She died a pauper in Brooklyn on August, 3, 1965, cremated and buried with funds provided with funds supplied by her stepson, whom she never saw during her life. Fifteen people attended the funeral.
The period between 1900 and 1930 saw a great influx of Mexicans into the United States, many of them, like Mena, fleeting the turmoil of the Mexican revolution that began in 1910. During those early years in New York and even later, Mena dedicated herself to giving American readers vivid and true portraits of the many faces of the many Mexicos. As T.S.
Eliot noted when he re-published "John of God" in 1927, Maria Cristina Mena had "written perhaps the most comprehensive series of stories of Mexican life published in English." In her stories, she touches on the lives of the religious and the sacrilegious, the faithful and the hypocritical, the industrious and the lazy, the wise and the gullible as well as the native and the foreign (Simmen, 39-40).
Curiously enough, considering that the stories were written at the turn of the twentieth century, two of the themes most prominent in her fiction are both current and meaningful. …