A Life

Pedro Martinez: A Mexican Peasant and His Family

by Oscar Lewis, Drawings by Alberto Beltrán
Random House, 507 pp., $8.75

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez; drawing by David Levine

Oscar Lewis’s new book is the life of a Mexican peasant, now seventy-four years old, his wife, and their son, as told by the actors themselves and preserved by Lewis on tape. It follows Pedro from his birth in 1889 through his childhood, his young manhood as a peón in the brutal cacique-system of his native “Azteca,” his marriage to Esperanza in 1910 (the year of the revolutionary explosion against the Díaz dictatorship), the birth of the first of twelve children, his life in Emiliano Zapata’s agrarian army, his fight for the welfare of his people after the Revolution, the political infighting between radical and conservative groups in the village, his flight to Mexico City when local conditions are adverse to his faction, his return and conversion from Catholicism to Seventh Day Adventism, his social rise—of sorts—when he becomes a judge in the village, his life as an old, widowed man. Most of his children die young. Some manage to evade their traditional tragic destinies and become schoolteachers. Esperanza, his wife, leads on the surface the life of the dominated Mexican woman, the victim of a double sexual standard: a life of being made love to mechanically, giving birth, rearing children as she can, suffocating in a shack with the smoke of braziers. Yet like most Mexican women, she seems to draw strength from her husband’s vibrant contact with the outer world. It is Pedro who must drink both the milk and hemlock of the world, and if this makes him the stronger one outside his house, it is Esperanza who, within the home, seems the more secretly powerful: Pedro lives by the rule of force, Esperanza by the demands of love. Their life together, the claims of the outside world and of their inner feelings, their illusions dreamt and lost, their relations with their children, form the subject matter of Pedro Martínez.

It is not fiction, even if the author has naturally edited the flow of memory and wisely structured these lives with an eye not only on clear chronology but on mounting tension and dramatic conflict. It is not factual reporting, for Lewis, during his twenty-year relationship with Pedro Martínez, his family, and his world, has evidently developed bonds that go beyond the cold ease of the reporter. It is not strictly scientific anthropology, since it is obvious that Lewis himself has become entangled with the life of Pedro Martínez and is as much a subject of the campesino’s humor, wiles, affection, and suspicion as Pedro is the subject of Lewis’s tape-recorder.

The result is literature as statement, as the ground upon which the twin trees of history and personality grow. For the life of Pedro Martínez is a striking example of the dramatic clash between history and personality in the underdeveloped world. In the highly developed societies of the West, perhaps a balance has been struck between the muted…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.