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Carlos Fuentes embraced Chicago

Updated: June 29, 2012 9:17AM

Internationally acclaimed Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes loved The Drake. Every time he came to Chicago, Fuentes always stayed at the legendary hotel.

In 1999, I met Fuentes for an interview there, where he came to a meeting room elegantly dressed. We talked briefly about Chicago’s world-class architecture and literature. He told me he admired novelist Nelson Algren and that Chicago was his favorite American city.

Fuentes was in Chicago then to present his latest novel at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen and to participate in a symposium on the Spanish language at Loyola University. A few days before, his 25-year-old son, Carlos Fuentes Lemus, had died of complications from hemophilia.

During the interview, Fuente’s demeanor was somber, but he nonetheless eloquently answered my many questions about literature, culture and politics — not only in Mexico but in the United States as well.

On Tuesday, Fuentes died at age 83 in a Mexico City hospital. Condolences have poured in from fellow writers — and also from presidents — around the world.

A prolific writer, Fuentes published his first novel at 29. He and fellow novelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez became central figures in the flourishing of Latin American literature known as “El Boom” in the 1960s and ’70s. Among his most popular books are The Death of Artemio Cruz and Where the Air is Clear.

Fuentes wrote to the very end of his life. The same day he passed away, he published an essay on the new government of France in a Mexico City daily.

The son of a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes was born in Panama City and grew up in Washington, D.C., until he was 16. His ability to speak fluent English was well known. Carlos Tortolero, the president of the National Museum of Mexican Art, where Fuentes appeared three times, told me he was impressed with the ease the Mexican novelist transitioned from Spanish to English.

In 2006, Fuentes came to Chicago again to meet the students of the United Neighborhood Organization charter school that bears his name. He took pictures with students, teachers and parents.

Fuentes had an intricate and passionate relationship with the United States. His support of Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1960s drew the ire of American officials, but he later became a critic of the Castro regime’s lack of democracy.

Fuentes also was critical of the United States intervention in Latin America. He passionately defended the government of Salvador Allende in Chile and later the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Fuentes foresaw the growth of the Latino and Asian communities in this country. In his interview with me, he said “the historical problem of the United States is to admit that it is a multiracial and multi-ethnic nation.”

“The United States has written the white history of the United States. It now needs to write the black, Latino, Indian, Asian and Caribbean history of the United States,” he said. “That diversity is what gives strength and greatness to this country.”

Fuentes predicted the United States would become “not only bilingual but trilingual” in the 21st century, and he pointed to the example of Europe, where people speak several languages.

Fuentes won every literary award imaginable. It is just too bad that the Nobel Swiss Academy waited too long.

I will always remember Carlos Fuentes at The Drake.

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