Over the last two years New Left Review has published a number of accounts—fictional and documentary—aiming to give the quality of life in an under-developed country: for instance Antonio Ferres’s story ‘Land of Olives’ (nlr 29) and Jan Myrdal’s description of life in a Chinese village (nlr 30). At the same time we have, with this number, published ten accounts by people in this country of what their work consists of and what it means to them. As a complement to this side of nlr’s interests we are happy to publish for the first time Oscar Lewis’s account of ‘A Thursday with Manuel’.
In 1961 The Children of Sánchez was published in the United States and in this country in 1962. The work of an American anthropologist, it consisted of the tape-recorded accounts of the lives of a family living in a slum in Mexico City. Five members of the Sánchez family recalled their lives as individuals and as members of a family. In a scrupulous and brilliant feat of interviewing, translation and presentation Lewis managed to produce a complex, moving history of a family and of a social situation, and disclosed a culture of poverty largely ignored by novels and novelists rooted in the middle class.
In Britain and in the United States the implications of The Children of Sánchez were seen mainly in a literary context. Its relation to the naturalist novel and indeed the way in which it transcended that genre were clear: and it can be seen now as one of a series of books, including Laing and Esterson’s Sanity and Madness in the Family, that is remoulding our ideas of what a novel might be and of what it could become. The Children of Sánchez was not published in Mexico until 1964. Its reception there was instructively different. The first edition was published in a run of 6,000 copies and was speedily sold out. The second edition was doing well when, in February 1964, at a meeting of the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics, both Oscar Lewis and The Children of Sánchez came under bitter attack. It was charged that the book was obscene; that it was complete invention; that it was defamatory of
Writers and leading intellectuals rallied to the book’s defence and the ensuing uproar accorded it a reception almost unparalleled in Mexican publishing. In April of that year the Attorney General’s office issued a statement clearing the book, the author and the publisher of all charges. Despite this the publisher was unable to get the Board of Directors of the Fondo de Cultura Economica (which included the novelist and present Minister of Education Agustín Yáñez; the present Minister of Foreign Affairs Carrillo Flores; and Ortiz Mena, the present Minister of Hacienda) to approve the production of the third edition: a third edition was eventually put out in the following November by another publisher, Joaquìn Mortiz, and almost 30,000 further copies have since been sold. The Children of Sánchez has forced the Government to devote more attention and money to the slum problem in Mexico City. Interestingly, it has also shifted the Mexicans’ vision of what an anthropologist might get up to. Anthropologists in Mexico had been associated with the contemplation of Indians and of rustic communities: the fact that an anthropologist might pursue his researches in a city slum came as a sharp surprise. Part of the intense reaction to the book in Mexico derived from a sense of bewilderment that a work with such evident literary qualities should also aspire to be a serious work of social anthropology and of disciplined investigation. Naturally Lewis’s work has also challenged conventional notions of what anthropology can and cannot be far beyond the specifically Mexican situation.
During the whole furore the Mexican press— Novedades to be precise—succeeded in identifying and photographing only one member of the family, Manuel Sánchez of the book. The rest of the family had left the vecindad and were dispersed in different parts of the city and of the Republic. Manuel did not appear to mind being identified; one motive for the disclosure of his identity being that he would thus assist Oscar Lewis to disprove the charge that the book was a fiction. Two years after the publication of The Children of Sánchez in English Lewis reconstructed with Manuel (who had always been the most fluent and dramatic story-teller of the family) the account of his day that follows. The Spanish edition had not yet appeared and Manuel had not yet read the book, though he had received, and shot at the races, his share of the royalties on the English edition.