The Restless Storyteller: An Interview With Laura Bolaños Cadena

Historia Semanal de Amor y Pasión (Weekly Story of Love and Passion) is one of those pocket-size Mexican comic books you may have read or seen—they’re called historietas. The covers are illustrated ...

Historia Semanal de Amor y Pasión (Weekly Story of Love and Passion) is one of those pocket-size Mexican comic books you may have read or seen—they’re called historietas. The covers are illustrated in eye-popping colors, and the drama inside is high and often fast. One of the most twisty and gripping issues I’ve read contained a car crash, coma, parental rejection, criminal conviction, and prison stay—in just the first 35 pages. Though fast-paced, the stories also deal with the powerful emotions in the undertow of daily life, and that’s why I love them. Tuesday is my favorite day of the week because that’s when the new issues come out at New York City subway newsstands. (I usually get them from Muhammad at Times Square, one level above the north end of the Q train platform.) After years of reading these stories, I felt I had to meet the people behind them, so on my last trip to Mexico I managed to secure an interview with one of the writers, whose name I was not told in advance. I imagined I’d be meeting a woman in her late 30s, which is what I guessed (correctly, it turns out) to be the gender and average age of the typical reader. But the person who came to meet me was Laura Bolaños Cadena, a classy and warmhearted woman in her late 80s.

Bolaños’s career in the historieta genre of illustrated stories started at age 17, when she was hired as a cover artist for Chamaco magazine; from there, she became a writer and director for Chamaco and El Libro Mensual (later El Libro Semanal). For the same magazine publisher, Novedades, she initiated La Novela Policíaca and a fotonovela called Novelas de Amor, and has written for such other magazines as El Libro PasionalEl Libro Sentimental, Fiesta, and Cuerpos y Almas. Bolaños was the main writer of Historia Semanal from its founding in 2007 until earlier this year, when it ceased publication for financial reasons.

In historieta magazines, Laura Bolaños Cadena writes under the name of “Abril,” or April. In addition to working in the historieta genre, Bolaños has been a political columnist since 1965, after having spent three years in revolutionary Cuba. She has worked at newspapers and magazines including Sucesos, El Universal, Quehacer Político, and Por Esto! Yucatán, where she still contributes two pieces per week. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, the novels Murió antes de partir (2009), which won the Jorge Ibargüengoitia Prize, and De ebrios, abstemios y osados negociantes (2010). She is now completing work on a book about her personal perspective on the golden age of the historieta and her role in it. Her hobbies include painting and poetry.


Paul VanDeCarr (PV): First tell me something of your own story, or your trajectory in the historieta form.


Laura Bolaños Cadena (LBC): I was born in Mexico City in 1925, to Mexican parents, and right in the middle of the middle class. When I was seven years old I would entertain my sisters and girls my age by telling stories that I made up on the fly. And when I could no longer find what to say, I would tell them, “Okay, to be continued tomorrow.” “Oh, no, keep going!” the others would say. “No, no, no, until tomorrow,” I’d say, because I would already have run out of material. I always liked to tell stories. When I was very young, women were told that, if we were reading, “you’re wasting your time.” But I was always fascinated with reading.

My father held the most conservative ideas regarding women. He would not let me go to college, which was what I wanted. My formal schooling went up to the first year of high school, but I did have a three-year career at the Free School of Art and Advertising, from age 16 to 18. My affinity for reading and life experience did the rest. My father did not want me to work either, because unconsciously he wanted to protect me as if I were a Little Red Riding Hood—he didn’t realize how things had changed. But I ran out and slammed the door, telling him to just try to tie me down. But that was only rebelliousness on my part, because he didn’t want me to work. Seeking an income, at age 17 I joined the magazine Chamaco as a cover artist. Later, commercial drawing no longer held my attention, and so I dedicated myself to writing stories. It was a favorable medium for my almost unbounded restlessness for telling stories.


PV: What changes happened under your direction at the magazine?


LBC: I was 24 years old when I became director of the magazine. [Previously] the stories published there were mostly adventure and police, and comics. The shift toward love stories wasn’t what I wanted then, but it was needed, commercially speaking, and it was a hit. Also, at that time, the magazines each had several ongoing stories. But at one point my husband, who was the sales manager—that’s where we met, classic, to meet your future spouse on the job—he said, “No, what people want are complete stories.” And so it was he who invented the magazine with a complete story in each issue. The circulation skyrocketed from 60 or 70 thousand to five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred thousand. For many years the historieta form was booming in Mexico. Later it began to decline and now the market is much smaller, but we are still up and working. Let’s hope it’s for a long time.


PV: Yes, let’s hope. How do you begin to develop a story? What are the first steps?


LBC: I have an idea of the theme, of how it will start and how it will end, whether the story takes place over a short period of time or over several years. And then I make a list of characters and note how old they are, what kind of education they have, their line of work, and what social circle they belong to.

Most of all I have to know what the characters are like, how they react. For me, it is not the story that drives the character but the character that drives the story, and that sometimes has obliged me to change the ending of a story.

When I was directing the magazine, I assembled its writing team. Interestingly, it ended up being almost all women. The writers would ask me, “Where do you get your characters from?” Characters are all around you, you just have to pick them out but they’re already there. Then you move them as you want within the story.

An author in whatever genre is in part like an actor: she has to understand and get into other people’s experiences. She has to be capable of—without stopping being herself—talking and reacting like the different characters in a story, or otherwise we’d be in [the genre of] autobiography.


PV: I understand. And yet, I have to ask, have you put your own life experiences into the stories?


LBC: I have inserted many personal experiences and events in my historietas. Perhaps the place where I tell a more complete episode from my life—though subject to the historieta mold—is in “Amorous.” When I was very young, I was in this group that every couple weeks would go on an excursion on the outskirts of Mexico City. Naturally, I made up the story of “Amorous,” but the characters are like people I knew in that group. The central character, who is the love interest, was based on a charming young man who was my boyfriend. [In real life] I didn’t want to marry him because at that time I rejected traditional marriage. Eventually I married Marino Carrera because he didn’t want me to be just a homemaker dedicated to waiting on him. We were a pair of free beings. Once married, I went in one direction and then another: I was a journalist, I was involved in political activity, and so forth.


PV: So you’re in the magazine in another way, if I may say so. Most of the protagonists are women, and, like you, often have liberated attitudes.


LBC: When I started, everything in the magazines would advise women about resignation and self-sacrifice and submission. I said to the writers, “Those stories where women suffer a lot because their husbands left them for another woman, and they suffer and suffer and suffer and their prize is that the husband returns—that and pornography are not allowed here.”

At such a conservative time as that was, I do not know how we managed to put out a magazine where the women were so liberated—within the confines of that historical moment, but still, they would move forward and they weren’t begging the man and waiting to see if he would come back. No more Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and Cinderella. We would put women with character into the stories, and women who knew how to get ahead.

And we painted a wonderful array of male characters—because it wasn’t against men, not at all. We were always punishing the bad men, without abandoning a critique of women, in particular for being submissive. There was tough critique of women who reproduce that kind of ideology.


PV: Did that resonate with readers? Do fans ever write to you to give their reactions?


LBC: There was a time when they would write to us; now, people don’t take much time to write. But several times I have had the satisfaction of readers telling me directly, “April”—that’s my pseudonym—“changed my life.” One of them told me, “I got a divorce when I started reading the magazine, I ended up kicking out the guy who was already unbearable.”


PV: So it wasn’t just one issue of the magazine that changed that reader, but the magazine in general. Is there a central message that runs throughout all the stories?


LBC: From the time I took over the magazine, the main message has been the dignity of the couple, and the dignity of the human being. To show that humans have different facets, and that they can change from good to bad or bad to good. Before that, love stories had never been published that featured conflicts over adultery or divorcees that remarry. That hadn’t been published until I put my hand in: stories with strong conflicts of conscience, but always with a strong ethical sensibility.


PV: The people in your stories do change. And yet sometimes they seem stuck in being who they are. There’s a saying that “character is destiny.” Do you believe that?


LBC: “I am myself and my circumstance,” said a Spanish philosopher. If, instead of being born and growing up in Mexico, I had been born and grown up in the United States, my destiny would not have been the same. I would have gone to university and would have made millions as a writer. In the historietas, I have tried to make people see that they can improve within their circumstances, and above all, that they need not surrender their dignity to achieve well-being, much less love. My idea has been to seek the dignity of women without crushing the dignity of the couple.


PV: Right off, some stories occur to me that deal with this theme of dignity. But can you give me an example?


LBC: There are so many at this point that they’re counted in the thousands, but there is one called “The Abandoned.” It’s the story of a young rancher, and in this case he is the one who is suffering. First because of a conflict with his crafty sister-in-law, who wants to sleep with him; he doesn’t want to and then she accuses him of trying to rape her, and they kick him out of the house. Later, he gets involved with this ranchero singer, and it’s her story, too. She was involved with a guy who mistreated her and beat her until she, in desperation, gets a pistol and kills him. Later, she runs to take refuge with this rancher, but she is badly injured, the guy defends her from the people who come for her, and she dies there.


PV: Oh my god! So in that case the characters refuse to sacrifice their dignity, at great cost. Many of the stories deal with death, war, neglect, and other big experiences. But are there topics that even today can’t be touched, such as abortion, homosexuality, and the like?


LBC: I put abortion in one storyline, albeit in a sort of sideways way. I also wrote the story of a love between a heterosexual girl and a homosexual boy. The story begins when the mother throws him out on the street and says, “Go away, I don’t want any fags in my house.” So the story begins there, and later the boy and girl meet as teachers at a school. The boy is already in his early 20s, and a girl who is pursuing him romantically accuses him of trying to take advantage of her. The teacher who is becoming friends with him, defends him. And so the friendship between them develops—a friendship close to love, but an impossible love, let’s say. That story is called “Don’t Reject Me.” I have that written in literary form, but I haven’t published it. Maybe someday it will be published.

Stories of love between homosexuals exist, but it’s another thing whether it’s commercial. I don’t think it is. I went ahead with that story because it’s the story of a young homosexual man and how he has been discriminated against and disgraced and how he has this tender relationship with the girl.


PV: Many stories take place over the course of years or decades, even a lifetime. Why is that?


LBC: It depends on whether the story demands it. A story has to have a dramatic progression, that is, the things that happen have to add something to the story, because sometimes there are stories where a lot goes on but nothing happens, and the story is stalled. And, similarly, you can’t put all the meat on the grill in the first act, right?


PV: I remember one story called “Let Me Cry,” about a family of two sisters and two brothers, and it starts when they are children, and ends when they are very old. One of the brothers repeatedly, and mostly successfully, tries to block his sister from marrying.


LBC: Yes, and at the end she reproaches the brother who didn’t allow her or her sister to get married. That’s a true story. Those are some cousins of my mother, and the brother really did foil his sisters. Though in reality, it’s very comfortable that the unmarried sister takes care of her brother’s children. The woman’s reproach at the end didn’t actually happen in real life.


PV: For me, the message of that story was not to tolerate that kind of control.


LBC: Precisely. To see what he did to them and how he dominated them. And that kind of thing still exists, even if not to the same degree. Industrialization is what allows for this progress in relationships. Because the moment you open schools and universities but especially jobs, everything changes.


PV: Considering these social changes, what will the Historia Semanal
of tomorrow look like?


LBC: Naturally, we can’t guess the future, but they’ll have to be different. If I look at the stories I wrote many years ago, despite having the same spirit they were another thing altogether, because circumstances have changed. So today we can’t do stories where a woman can’t get divorced because her husband won’t allow it—that doesn’t exist here anymore, or at least in Mexico City it’s not necessary that the other party agrees to the divorce. All of this is changing and you have to adjust to that in the stories.


PV: Has there been, or will there be an historieta about Mexicans in the US?


LBC: That was already tried and it doesn’t work as a theme because we are not in that environment, and from here we could only portray a Mexican who was very mistreated or who puts on a Superman act. We don’t know the reality there. We would make a filthy mess, something really terrible if we started inventing things out of whole cloth. We once did an historieta with storylines from outside of Mexico, including exotic ones from long-ago times and from Egypt and Greece. But what’s more successful is stories about Mexicans in Mexico. People want to see themselves reflected in the stories.


PV: You’re still writing regularly. How do you feel professionally speaking?


LBC: In my literary work, I do not, strictly speaking, write love stories, but for the magazine I do and I find it very entertaining. I’ve been in historietas many years and to date this is my modus vivendi because I earn more on one historieta script than I do on the royalties from my books.

In spite of not having achieved everything I would have liked to achieve as a writer, I have had enough satisfactions to make me feel triumphant within a modest context. Even the great sorrows of my life, like the death of my husband and the loss of my son, are an unavoidable part of life.

When I was director of the magazine and all the historieta writers would get together to meet—we became very good friends—the recurring theme was complaints about husbands and lovers. One of the ladies once chided me: “Laura’s the only one who doesn’t air her laundry.” I answered with a saying: “Los pueblos felices no tienen historia (Happy nations have no history).” icon