Biography of Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan Poet and Nobel Laureate

Miguel Angel Asturias
Miguel angel Asturias, 1967 Litterature Nobel Prize read his awarded book "Mulata de Tal" (Mulatta and Mr Fly), 19 November 1967.

AFP / Getty Images

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974) was a Guatemalan poet, writer, diplomat, and Nobel Prize winner. He was known for his socially and politically relevant novels and as a champion of Guatemala's large indigenous population. His books were often openly critical of both Guatemalan dictatorships and American imperialism in Central America. Beyond his prolific writing, Asturias served as a diplomat for Guatemala in Europe and South America.

Fast Facts: Miguel Angel Asturias

  • Full Name: Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales
  • Known For: Guatemalan poet, writer, and diplomat
  • Born: October 19, 1899 in Guatemala City, Guatemala
  • Parents: Ernesto Asturias, María Rosales de Asturias
  • Died: June 9, 1974 in Madrid, Spain
  • Education: University of San Carlos (Guatemala) and Sorbonne (Paris, France)
  • Selected Works: "Legends of Guatemala," "Mr. President," "Men of Maize," "Viento Fuerte," "Weekend in Guatemala," "Mulata de tal"
  • Awards and Honors: William Faulkner Foundation Latin America Award, 1962; International Lenin Peace Prize, 1966; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1967
  • Spouses: Clemencia Amado (m. 1939-1947), Blanca de Mora y Araujo (m. 1950 until his death)
  • Children: Rodrigo, Miguel Angel
  • Famous Quote: "If planted to eat, [corn] is sacred sustenance for the man who was made of corn. If planted for business, it is hunger for the man who was made of corn." (from "Men of Maize")

Early Life

Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales was born on October 19, 1899 in Guatemala City to a lawyer, Ernesto Asturias, and a teacher, María Rosales de Asturias. Fearing persecution by the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, his family moved to the small city of Salamá in 1905, where Asturias learned about Mayan culture from his mother and nanny. The family returned to the capital in 1908, where Asturias received his education. He entered university to study medicine at the University of San Carlos in 1917, but quickly changed to law, graduating in 1923. His thesis was entitled "Guatemalan Sociology: The Problem of the Indian," and won two awards, the Premio Galvez and the Chavez Prize.

Early Career and Travels

  • Architecture of the New Life (1928) - Lectures
  • Legends of Guatemala (1930) - Collection of stories
  • The President (1946)

After finishing university, Asturias helped found the Popular University of Guatemala to offer educational access to students who couldn't afford to attend the national university. His leftist activism led to a brief imprisonment under President José María Orellana, so his father sent him to London in 1923 to avoid further trouble. Asturias quickly moved on to Paris, studying anthropology and Mayan culture at the Sorbonne with Professor Georges Raynaud until 1928. Raynaud had translated a sacred Mayan text, "Popol Vuh," into French, and Asturias translated it from French into Spanish. During this time, he traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East, and also became a correspondent for several Latin American newspapers.

A Mayan woman making pottery, 1947
A Mayan woman making pottery by hand in the fashion of her ancestors, 1947. Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images

Asturias returned to Guatemala briefly in 1928, but then left again for Paris, where he completed his first published work, "Leyendas de Guatemala" (Legends of Guatemala) in 1930, a recreation of indigenous folklore. It is considered to be an example of the famed Latin American literary style magical realism, and would set the tone for many of his later works in its use of indigenous spirituality and supernatural/mythical elements and characters. The book received an award for best Spanish-American book published in France.

Asturias also wrote his novel "El Señor Presidente" (Mr. President) during his stay in Paris. Literary critic Jean Franco states, "Though based on incidents that occurred during Estrada Cabrera's dictatorship, the novel has no precise time or locale but is set in a city where every thought and every move comes under the surveillance of the man in power, an evil demiurge surrounded by a forest of listening ears, a network of telephone wires. In this state, free will is a form of treason, individualism spells death." When he returned to Guatemala in 1933, the country was being ruled by another dictator, Jorge Ubico, and Asturias could not bring the still-unpublished book with him. It would remain unpublished until 1946, well after the Ubico regime collapsed in 1944. During the period of the dictatorship, Asturias worked as a radio broadcaster and journalist.

Asturias' Diplomatic Posts and Major Publications

  • Men of Maize (1949)
  • Temple of the Lark (1949) - Collection of poems
  • Strong Wind (1950)
  • The Green Pope (1954)
  • Weekend in Guatemala (1956) - Collection of stories
  • The Eyes of the Interred (1960)
  • Mulata (1963)
  • Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends (1967) - Collection of stories

Asturias served as a deputy in the Guatemalan National Congress in 1942, and would go on to hold a number of diplomatic posts beginning in 1945. The president who succeeded Ubico, Juan José Arévalo, appointed Asturias as the cultural attaché to the Guatemalan Embassy in Mexico, where "El Señor Presidente" was first published in 1946. In 1947, he was transferred to Buenos Aires as a cultural attaché, which two years later became a ministerial post. In 1949, Asturias published "Sien de Alondra" (Temple of the Lark), an anthology of his poems written between 1918 and 1948.

That same year, he published what is considered to be his most significant novel, "Hombres de Maiz" (Men of Maize), which drew heavily on pre-Colombian legends. His next three novels, beginning with "Viento Fuerte" (Strong Wind), were grouped into a trilogy—known as the "Banana Trilogy"—focused on American imperialism and U.S. agricultural companies' exploitation of Guatemalan resources and labor.

In 1947, Asturias separated from his first wife, Clemencia Amado, with whom he had two sons. One of them, Rodrigo, would later become, during the Guatemalan civil war, head of the umbrella guerilla group, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity; Rodrigo fought under a pseudonym taken from one of the characters in Asturias' "Men of Maize." In 1950, Asturias remarried, to Argentinian Blanca de Mora y Araujo.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz and associates after U.S.-backed coup, 1954
Guatemalan President Jacobo was forced to resign after a CIA-backed coup overthrew his reformist government. Left to right: Dona Maria Villanova de Arbenz, wife of the President of Guatemala; President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman; Carlos Aldana Sandoval, Minister of Communications and Public Works; and Alfonso Garcia, Mayor of Guatemala City. Bettmann / Getty Images 

The U.S.-backed coup that overthrew democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz led to Asturias' exile from Guatemala in 1954. He moved back to Argentina, his wife's native country, where he published a collection of short stories about the coup, titled "Weekend in Guatemala" (1956). His novel "Mulata de tal" (Mulata) was published the following year. "A surrealistic blend of Indian legends, [it] tells of a peasant whose greed and lust consign him to a dark belief in material power from which, Asturias warns us, there is only one hope for salvation: universal love," according to NobelPrize.org.

Asturias served in a number of diplomatic roles again in the early 1960s in Europe, spending his final years in Madrid. In 1966, Asturias was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize, a prominent Soviet award previously won by Pablo Picasso, Fidel Castro, Pablo Neruda, and Bertolt Brecht. He was also named the Guatemalan ambassador to France.

The Nobel Prize and Legacy

King Gustav Adolf Presenting Asturias with Nobel Prize
King Gustav Adolf of Sweden (left) presents the Nobel Prize for Literature to Guatemala's Dr. Miguel Angel Asturias during Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 10. Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1967, Asturias was was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Nobel lecture, he stated, "We, the Latin American novelists of today, working within the tradition of engagement with our peoples which has enabled our great literature to develop—our poetry of substance—also have to reclaim lands for our dispossessed, mines for our exploited workers, to raise demands in favour of the masses who perish in the plantations, who are scorched by the sun in the banana fields, who turn into human bagasse in the sugar refineries. It is for this reason that—for me—the authentic Latin American novel is the call for all these things."

Asturias died in Madrid on June 9, 1974. In 1988, the Guatemalan government established an award in his honor, the Miguel Ángel Asturias Prize in Literature.

Sources

  • Franco, Jean. An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • "Miguel Angel Asturias – Facts." NobelPrize.org. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1967/asturias/facts/, accessed 3 November 2019.
  • Smith, Verity, editor. Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.