1904-80 · Politician and Novelist
Agustín Yáñez is most frequently offered cultural and critical recognition as the author of Alfilo del agua, a landmark novel published in 1947 that uses a collective protagonist, interior monologues, and multiple viewpoints in order to describe scenes of daily life in an anonymous Jaliscan village immediately prior to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The mujeres enlutadas that move lugubriously through the pages of this novel and so help create its funereal atmosphere were immortalized in 1977 when, in recognition of the novel's status and the author's achievement, a statue of them was erected in Yahualica, the birthplace of Yáñez's paternal grandparents and unmistakably the model for the fictional village of the novel. This honor was undoubtedly well deserved. In the historical development of the novel genre in Mexico, it is precisely the fusion of traditional content with modern innovative forms that makes Al filo del agua the key text that brings to an end the series of novels dealing with the Mexican Revolution—a cycle that had begun with Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo in 1915—and simultaneously opens the way for the development of the new narrative by a younger generation of writers. In fact, the most revealing cultural praise for this achievement has been provided by other writers who have knowingly absorbed Yáñez's influence. Rosario Castellanos, for instance, once described him as "maestro y precursor" of her entire generation; Juan Rulfo considered him one of the "fundadores" of the Mexican novel; and Carlos Fuentes has classified this novel as "la primera visión moderna del pasado inmediato de México."
In addition to his success as a novelist, Agustín Yáñez also held two influential political posts during his lifetime: the first was as governor of Jalisco State from 1953 to 1959, a post he was invited to stand for by President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, and the second was as secretary of public education under the presidency of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz from 1964 to 1970. In both posts he acted as a representative of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional ( PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party). During the former period of office, one of Yáñez's main concerns, and one of the concerns of the national administration, was to start to resolve the problems being caused by the regional dominance of armed and violent caciques (local and regional strongmen) along the Pacific coastline of Jalisco. Part of Yáñezs response to this situation was to proclaim in public speeches the importance of establishing a new style of politics characterized by respect for human life and by reasoned negotiation. In the words of Yáñez himself. "Hablando se entienden las gentes (speaking people understand each other)." Although some claimed, comically and anecdotally, that Yáñez mistakenly arrived in Guadalajara to take up his post as governor of Jalisco with a copy of Al filo del agua under his arm rather than a machine gun, it is clear that his marcha al mar (march to the sea) program for coastal development contributed significantly to the growth of tourism and the elimination of violent caciquismo in his native state of Jalisco. It thereby facilitated Jalisco's greater integration into the national economy and also quickly produced improvements in basic standards of living in villages where roads were built and electricity was made available for the first time. By contrast with this, however, Yáñez's period of office as secretary of public education is remembered less for his achievements than for his resounding silence that followed the deaths of an undisclosed number of students in the Tlatelolco tragedy of 1968, when student protesters were gunned down by the military in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Yáñez's decision at that time not to make any statement nor to resign his post in condemnation of a brutal act of government repression led to many criticisms of him as an unswerving supporter of an authoritarian administration and also, in the case of Octavio Paz, to a diplomatic refusal to pass comment. A political career that started with regional success ended in the shadows of a national disgrace.
Overall it must be said that Agustín Yáñez was both a distinguished writer and a dedicated politician, but his influence in Mexico has been felt far more in the country's cultural life than its political development. There is little to lead us to believe that Yáñez was an outstandingly influential politician either at a regional or a national level, but the very fact that he participated in regional and national political life in two important posts is both overtly and implicitly reflected in his trilogy of rural novels ( Alfilo del agua, La tierra prddiga; and Las tierras flacas) and his trilogy of urban novels ( La creación, Ojerosa y pintada, and Las vueltas del tiempo). These six texts, written and published over a period of some 30 years from the 1940s to the 1970s and spanning the period between 1910 and the early 1960s in their temporal settings, narrate the decline of caciquismo in rural Jalisco, the national cultural renewal of the 1920s, and the multiple frustrations of everyday life in the capital city. In so doing they document the social, political, and economic impact of Revolution and of Revolutionary government on Mexican society in the first half of the twentieth century using a variety of innovative narrative techniques. This, more than anything else, is what makes them so crucially important in any