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In spring 1997 I found my way, pretty much by accident, into an upper-level college course at Rutgers University, called “Historical Fiction in Latin America.” I knew little about the instructor, other than the fact that he wrote critically-acclaimed fiction, often about two singular figures in the history of Argentina: Juan and Eva Perón.
Little did I know that until my graduation and for many years to come, Tomás Eloy Martínez would single-handedly influence, give shape and inspire my obsession with journalism and my desire to practice it in Latin America. With his patience and kind and humble wisdom, he encouraged me every step along the way.
We read books and short stories voraciously, discussing them long after the class period ended. Arráncame la Vida by Angeles Mastretta was a particularly memorable one; Tomás knew her personally and reveled in sharing with us a mix of unofficial and scandalous truths and fictions about her life. We also read The Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig, and Operación Masacre by Rodolfo Walsh, which still sends chills down my spine every time I think of it, and which opened my eyes to the important role of journalists as champions of human rights, critics and witnesses.
Like Rodolfo Wash, Tomás had been a victim of political persecution in his native Argentina. But unlike Walsh, he made it out alive, and went on to write about the injustices of the military dictatorship. Tomás was a film critic, reporter, editor, teacher, and mentor, having been involved in the creation of newspapers in Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela.
But his greatest passion was reserved for writing novels about real-life characters—whether they were Juan and Eva Perón, his beloved Buenos Aires or even himself. In our last email exchange in June 2009, Tomás told me, “I’ve been writing a lot, and have published three novels in the last five years.” I knew he was sick at the time because he also mentioned recurring doctor visits, but I didn’t believe he would leave so soon; he had many more books left in him, and I’m sure he knew it.
I am having a hard time imagining the future of journalism and literature in Latin America without Tomás. At a time when the media and publishing worlds are undergoing such an identity crisis, and we’re all scrambling for ways to keep newspapers and books relevant, Tomás personified the best advice: perseverance. I, for one, will do my best to keep that little obsession alive. Thank you as always, Tomás, you will be missed.
*Ruxandra Guidi is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org based in San Francisco, California. She is Communications Director for the San Francisco-based non-profit Amazon Watch, and one half of the collaboration group, Fonografia Collective.
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