Seeing Truth Through the Lens of Juan Rulfo

Associate Professor of Spanish Douglas J. Weatherford discusses one of his latest publications, an English translation of Juan Rulfo’s El Gallo de Oro (The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings).

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 13, 2017)—Although Juan Rulfo helped to usher in the Latin American literary boom, until BYU associate professor of Spanish Douglas J. Weatherford took on the project, one of Rulfo’s novels, El Gallo de Oro had never been translated into English.

Rulfo is best known for his novel Pedro Paramo (1955) and collection of short stories El Llano en llamas (1953). Through his literature, Rulfo questioned the optimism of the direction of his country, including government–funded art. Spurred by a desire to create a distinct identity after the 1910 Revolution, the Mexican government sponsored a variety of painters and filmmakers who celebrated the nation’s cultural heritage through works that often romanticized the past and present. By the 1950s, however, some writers and artists—Rulfo included—began to push back against this idealized view of the national reality in favor of a more realistic depiction of the lack of opportunity experienced by contemporary Mexicans of the day.

Weatherford first became interested in Juan Rulfo as an undergraduate student at BYU after reading Pedro Paramo for a Spanish American literature class, and later, as a young scholar, he noticed that the plot, structure, and characters of the novel were reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941), arguably one of the greatest works of cinematography.

In researching Juan Rulfo’s connection to film, Weatherford examined the 1964 movie El gallo de oro which was based on Juan Rulfo’s second novel. That’s when he realized that no one had ever translated the novel into English. Titled The Golden Cockerel in English, El gallo de oro (c. 1956) was a novel destined to become a movie since its inception. “Juan Rulfo wrote The Golden Cockerel as a novel, but with the idea that it would be adapted to the big screen. It wasn’t just a script,” explained Weatherford, a smile spreading across his face in excitement. “It reads like a novel . . . many historians dismissed it as not a novel simply because it was believed that after writing Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo retired to pursue other interests and never wrote another book.”

The Golden Cockerel tells the story of Dionisio Pinzon, a poor man from rural Mexico who, with his mother, is on the verge of starvation. The only occupations available in town to sustain the poor were laborers or farm hands, but Dionisio’s disfigured arm makes this type of labor impossible for him. Hoping to better his meager life as a town crier, Dionisio becomes involved with cock fighting and games of chance, gaining a fortune with the help of his love Bernarda, who served as his good luck charm. Unfortunately, as Dionisio’s wealth grows, so does his unhappiness, culminating in his unfulfilling death.

Originally reading a summary of The Golden Cockerel, it can seem like it is a type of moralizing tale about the follies of gambling, but that was not Rulfo’s intent. Instead, it reflects the mid-twentieth-century lack of opportunity experienced by rural Mexicans. “I think it is also a critique of those who gained power during the Revolution. . . . He condemns their opportunism and their presentation of Mexico as something greater than it is,” Weatherford said.

Another interesting feature of the book is that a specific mode of travel is never mentioned. The reader does not know if Dionisio travels on foot, horseback, car, or train. Without this information, the reader does not know when Dionisio lived or during which era this story took place. Because of this lack of specificity, The Golden Cockerel becomes not only a critique of post-Revolution Mexico, but of any time period where there are a few who become rich and leave no opportunities open for others.

The influence of this realist perspective is very clear in Latin American literature like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez or the writings of Carlos Fuentes. The Golden Cockerel and Juan Rulfo’s other writings opened the door to other understandings and interpretations of history and reality. Most importantly, his writings remind the reader to look past the glorifications imposed by institutions and focus instead on what is visceral, real, and actually in front of their eyes.

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Image: Cover of the publication, provided by Dr. Weatherford