Octavio Paz, Mexican Poet, Writer, and Nobel Prize Winner

Mexican writer Octavio Paz
Mexican writer Octavio Paz.

 Richard Smith / Getty Images

Octavio Paz was a Mexican poet and writer considered to be one of Latin America's most important literary figures of the 20th century. He was known for his mastery of a wide range of writing styles, including a prolific collection of poetry and non-fiction works, and for his contributions to the cultural history of Latin America. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Fast Facts: Octavio Paz

  • Full Name: Octavio Paz Lozano
  • Known For: Prolific Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat
  • Born: March 31, 1914 in Mexico City
  • Parents: Octavio Paz Solórzano, Josefina Lozano
  • Died: April 18, 1998 in Mexico City
  • Education: National Autonomous University of Mexico
  • Selected Works: "Sun Stone," "Configurations," "Eagle or Sun?," "A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems," "The Collected Poems 1957-1987," "A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems from India 1952-1995," "The Labyrinth of Solitude"
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1990; Cervantes Prize (Spain), 1981; Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1982
  • Spouses: Elena Garro (m. 1937-1959), Marie-José Tramini (m. 1965 until his death)
  • Children: Helena
  • Famous Quote: “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.” 

Early Life

Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City to a prominent family in 1914. His father, Octavio Paz Solórzano, was a lawyer and journalist who also served as legal counsel to Emiliano Zapata, taking part in Zapata's agrarian uprising in 1911. His childhood was spent in the nearby village of Mixoac, where he was raised by his mother, Josefina Lozano, and his paternal grandfather, who had been a writer and intellectual and owned an impressive personal library. After Zapata's assassination in 1919, the family was forced to flee Mexico and live for a time in Los Angeles. The family eventually returned to the Mexican capital, but had lost all their wealth during the Mexican Revolution.

Early Works and Political Ideology

Paz published his first book of poetry, "Luna Silvestre" (Wild Moon) in 1933 at the age of 19. He was attending law school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and found himself drawn to leftist politics. He decided to send some of his work to the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who praised Paz and encouraged him to attend a congress of anti-fascist writers in Spain in 1937.

Spain was in the midst of a brutal Civil War (1936-1939), which would lead to four decades of dictatorship by Francisco Franco. Paz, like many other international volunteers, decided to join the Republicans fighting against the fascist-leaning Nationalists. Upon his return to Mexico in 1938, he advocated for the republican cause and founded an important journal, Taller, which published emerging poets and writers. In 1943, he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to study American modernist poetry, and spent time in Berkeley, California, and other American cities.

Octavio Paz at Cornell University, 1966
Mexican poet Octavio Paz, Visiting Lecturer at Cornell University, with students.  Al Fenn / Getty Images

His time abroad led to him being offered a post as Mexico’s cultural attaché to France in 1946, where he met major figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. For the next two decades he served as a Mexican diplomat in Switzerland, Japan, and India. Throughout this period, he continued to write, publishing dozens of works of poetry and prose. In 1968, he resigned his post as a statement of protest against the Mexican government's suppression of student demonstrations during the Olympics.

Notwithstanding his leftist views and unlike some of his contemporaries, like Gabriel García Márquez, Paz did not support either the socialist Castro regime in Cuba or the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Even more significantly, he didn't support the Zapatista uprising in 1994. A Poetry Foundation article quotes Paz as stating, "Revolution begins as a promise... is squandered in violent agitation, and freezes into bloody dictatorships that are the negation of the fiery impulse that brought it into being. In all revolutionary movements, the sacred time of myth is transformed inexorably into the profane time of history."

Paz's Prolific and Diverse Literary Works

Paz was incredibly prolific, publishing dozens of works in various styles. Many of Paz's books of poems have been translated into English. They include "Sun Stone" (1963), "Configurations" (1971), "Eagle or Sun?" (1976), "A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems" (1979), and "The Collected Poems 1957-1987" (1987). He also published a number of essay and non-fiction collections.

In 1950, Paz published the original, Spanish-language version of "The Labyrinth of Solitude," a reflection on the cultural hybridity of Mexicans as mixed-race ancestors of native Indians and Spanish colonizers. It established Paz as a major literary figure and it became a critical text for students of Latin American history. Ilan Stavans writes about Paz's perspective: "He saw little point in a one-sided portrayal of Spaniards and other transatlantic newcomers as 'abusers.' After all, their impact on native culture was ubiquitous, undeniable, and indelible. He did not settle for the easy liberal polarity oppressor/oppressed but attempted to understand the side effects of the historical encounter between the Old World and the New."

Another aspect of Paz's work often recognized was "his tendency to maintain elements of prose—most commonly philosophical thought—in his poetry, and poetic elements in his prose." "The Monkey Grammarian" (1981) demonstrates the ways Paz integrated elements of poetry with non-fiction writing. Similarly, his 1982 book on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun writing poetry in New Spain (colonial-era Mexico), was a cultural history as much as it was a biography.

Paz's writing was also greatly influenced by his work as a diplomat. For example, living in India as the Mexican ambassador between 1962 and 1968 introduced him to eastern spirituality, which made its way into his writing. The 1997 anthology "A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems from India, 1952-1995" includes poems in ancient Sanskrit, and Paz was praised by critics for his thorough understanding of Indian culture. He also met his second wife, French artist Marie-José Tramini, in India. In 2002, "Figures and Figurations," a collaborative book that features her artwork and Paz's poems, was published.

Octavio Paz with his wife Marie-José after winning the Nobel Prize
11th October 1990: After winning a Nobel Prize for literature, Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz, seated in an armchair holding papers, laughs while his wife Marie-Jose stands behind him in a suite of the Drake Hotel, New York City.  Fred R. Conrad / Getty Images

The Nobel Prize

In October 1990, Paz received news that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Mexican to do so. Apparently, he had been in the running for several years before this as a finalist. The following year, he published an important literary criticism book called "The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry" (1991), where he analyzed contemporary poetry and critiqued postmodernism and consumerism.

Legacy

Paz’s death in 1998 was announced by then Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, who stated, “This is an irreplaceable loss for contemporary thought and culture—not just for Latin America but for the entire world.” He was also honored with a memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Paz left his large literary archive to his widow, Marie-José. When she died in 2018, the Mexican minister of culture declared Paz's work a "national artistic monument" in order to guarantee that his archive would remain in Mexico.

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