Touring archives at Mexico’s Ministry of Finance in 2008, Catherine Mansell, who goes by her penname, C.M. Mayo, came across a little book called Manual espírita by Bhima.
“Who’s Bhima?” she asked. None other than Francisco Madero, the Mexican statesman who kicked off the Mexican Revolution and served as president of Mexico from 1911 to 1913, before he was assassinated.
At that moment, Mayo, an accomplished novelist, memoirist, poet and translator, knew “instantly and absolutely” that she would translate this secret, never-before-translated work.
Translating this obscure book, which Mayo described as barely big enough to merit a spine, seemed like a “lark of a project” that would take a couple of weekends. Instead, the work was more like climbing Mount Everest.
Mayo was already a great admirer of Madero, who she described as someone who “blazed into Mexican history like a comet and profoundly changed it.” Many Mexicans consider him a Lincoln-like figure, their “Apostle of Democracy.”
In addition, Mayo was intimately familiar with the Mexican Revolution and its period. Nevertheless, she began her new project by doing more research, which she says always makes her “happier than a cat after mice.” The research led her to reading on topics and places as far afield as late 19th century Paris, remotest Coahuila and a region of central upstate New York called the Burned-Over District for its religious radicalism. And it led her to explore topics as diverse as Spiritism, cognitive dissonance and Swedenborgism.
The result is Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual (Dancing Chiva, 2014). Much more than a translation, this book places Madero’s work in context and helps explain Madero and his brief but spectacular political career, as well as the launch of the Mexican Revolution.
Madero was not only a devout Spiritist but he was a medium himself, channeling both inspiration and counsel from the dead. He considered his political career—from activist to candidate to political prisoner to revolutionary and, finally, to President of Mexico—as the realization of his moral duty in this earthly incarnation.
“The book is also a narrative of my personal odyssey in coming to understand Madero’s metaphysics, the meaning of the Mexican Revolution and the strange and surprising ways that the histories of the United States and Mexico intertwine so differently from the ways they are usually presented in official or mainstream narratives,” Mayo says.
Ending up in the right place
Studying economics at the University of Chicago (AB ‘82; AM ‘85) may not seem like good preparation for a bilingual literary career, but it made sense to Mayo. “Whatever one majors in, the College offers a solid liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on critical reading and writing,” she says. “This has served me as well as anything could have to go off and write memoirs, novels, poetry, whatever.
“As an American writer living in Mexico, I try to give back by translating what I can when I can,” Mayo adds. Her translations have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including Best Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive, 2009). Her own anthology, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2006), is a portrait of Mexico in the works of 24 Mexican writers, many translated for the first time.
In 1986, Mayo married graduate school classmate Agustin Carstens (MA 83; PhD 85), who is Mexican. For many years they have lived in Mexico City, which she describes as “crazy, frustrating, fantastic and a cross between Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Paris and Sao Paulo. It's always changing, so I don't think I'll ever get to the end of exploring it.”
Most educated Americans have not heard of any Mexican authors other than Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, Mayo laments. “This is especially dismaying given that Mexico has a stunningly rich literary heritage and contemporary literary scene and shares a nearly 2,000-mile border with the United States.”
A voracious reader, Mayo says that reading prompts writing. “The more I read, the stronger and sharper the impulse to write.”
When Mayo began to write in Mexico, Carstens worked at the Bank of Mexico and she taught economics at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). She had already written a book, Las Nuevas Finanzas en México (Editorial Milenio, ITAM, IMEF, 1992) under the name Catherine Mansell Carstens that was used as a textbook for international finance classes. She would soon write another, Las finanzas populares en México (Editorial Milenio, ITAM, CEMLA, 1995), a path-breaking work about how low-income Mexicans use financial services, both formal and informal. Therefore, Mayo adopted her mother’s maiden name as a nom de plume. “I didn’t want my literary endeavors to get mixed up in politics or finance,” she explains. Ironically, Madero wrote Manual espírita under a pseudonym, as well. (Bhima is a character from the Bhagavad-Gita, a sacred Hindu text.)
Mayo also wrote The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books, 2009), a novel based on the true story and named a Library Journal Best Book for that year. Currently, she is writing a book about Far West Texas, the region from El Paso to the Big Bend, roughly speaking. She sees it as a companion to her book, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (Milkweed Editions, 2007). “Few Americans think of Baja California and the Big Bend as having anything in common but in fact they have so much in common...well, I shouldn't say more, I've got to write it!”
As a member of the Division of Social Sciences’ Visiting Committee, Mayo returns to campus frequently. In 2013, she made a special trip back with her husband (now Governor of the Bank of Mexico), who won an Alumni of the Year Award.
Meanwhile, Mayo is hosting the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project: Exploring Marfa, Texas, and the Big Bend in 24 podcasts (www.cmmayo.com/marfa).