Kevin Smullin Brown on Héctor Azar

Mexico City is a Spanish Habsburg capital built from the volcanic stones of the Aztec settlement of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec city-state floated on a lake. The Spaniards wanted solid ground for their roads; their intervention means that the city is forever sinking. To walk across the floor of some of the oldest Spanish buildings requires one hand on a rope banister. Of late, buildings have been raised to level by the Mexican government, enriched by its oil exports and by its 118 million inhabitants. Mexico City is the largest city in North America.

As with any large city, there are immigrants. There have always been immigrants, from within the Americas and from overseas. Gabriel García Márquez lives in Mexico City; his second son is Mexican by birth. Joaquín Pardavé, one of the best known faces of the early years of Mexican cinema—its Golden Age—was the child of immigrants from Spain. And as with any Habsburg city, there are snobs. In one of his early movies, Pardavé plays an immigrant, a successful businessman, whose son wishes to marry the daughter of a proud and insolvent family from the Mexican aristocracy. You can imagine what follows.

The movie's origin lies not in Mexico but in Argentina. It is based on a story written by a Jewish Argentine about "El Gringo Baratieri," an Italian immigrant. In Pardavé's adaptation, El baisano Jalil, the immigrants are Lebanese. Pardavé's character starts as a merchant without a fixed address and rises to become a department store magnate; the path followed by the father of Carlos Slim, a man who sometimes is wealthier than Bill Gates. The Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek is also of Lebanese descent.

Another child of Lebanese immigrants made a name for himself not as a billionaire or as a celebrity but as a playwright and novelist. The primary founder of theaters and theater programs in Mexico in the twentieth century, Héctor Azar (1930 – 2000), might not be well known outside of Mexico, but he should be.


Héctor Azar wrote twenty-six plays for Mexican audiences. (He also wrote in French and English but never mastered Arabic.) They are filled with language games; exuberant polyphonic tragedies and melancholic farces, layered with confusions between languages, with characters sometimes baffled by even the smallest, most domestic, seemingly most familiar aspects of modern life in Mexico. These details of Mexican life cross with an absurdity that comes from the caprices of autocrats who decide people's fates unseen. The Gods from Olympus are convenient foils for the bureaucrats from Mexico City.

For most of Azar's life, one political party governed Mexico. As any subject of arbitrary masters knows, playful diversion can be a calm, rewarding grace. Azar's plays combine religious allegory, mystery plays, and social satire. He always kept in mind the medieval heritage of Mexico, Spanish and Aztec, reiterating their intellectual and textual traditions as well as the visible aspects of rebuilt cities like the capital. His stagings, too, alluded frequently to the physical space of Mexico. For satire, he liked to expose class anxieties.

Olímpica, Azar's first major play, tells the story of an adolescent girl in Mexico City. Set within the architecture of the city, in a small garden off Hidalgo Street, beside the Church of the Holy Cross, a now-sunken but level building first constructed in the sixteenth century from Aztec volcanic stones by a fraternal order that Hernán Cortés founded. The church contains an equally old white-skinned image of the Virgin Mary known by the indigenous Nahuatl name "The Gachupina," the Aztecs' slur for the Spanish. It is a workaday Mexican coming-of-age tale, woven through with the story of the House of Atreus. The Mexican characters carry the perspectives of Greek mythology: the Furies disrupt, the Atreides guide and lament:

Words, words, words;ancestral mechanismand me in a daze.The suffering have antennasand wires that run from mouth to mouthor heart to heart.Words, words, words;Vessels of pain,when an instant in your lifecannot transform into an eternity in love.Words, words, words;to poison the calm of my soul,to descend to the unpronounceableto transmit the impunity of evilwhich gets to take me on my back.
Azar's theories of theater were influenced by other media, especially radio, television, and film, and by the artistic theories of the sculptor Alexander Calder. His interests included world theater, ethical theater, and theatricality—such self-reflexive game-filled work was his specialty. Calder liked to think of his sculptures as if they were gymnasiums, and Azar brought the idea of spaces for exercise to his theater. The characters moved through all parts of the theater, the audience could be brought into the play, the staging might reference local details of the city, but its physical form would be a bare structure resembling and used as gym equipment. Characters and their words also served double roles.


Héctor Azar kept four offices in Mexico City and moved between them. Outside of three other offices where he would often need to wait for an appointment, he set up tables for himself in the hall. Much of his writing in later years was completed while waiting for meetings in the Secretariat of Public Education. It was here that he would write most of his novel.

Las tres primeras personas has not been translated; neither has it received the international attention it deserves for its linguistic playfulness and for its insights into Mexico and migrants. Azar wrote one-acts, plays, essays, stories, and reviews on various themes, many of them allegories for experiences in Mexico. But for the novel, he believed, he should write only on the theme of the Lebanese. The novel was meant to honor the immigrants in his family, especially his mother, who had died ten years earlier. Perla, also called Lúhlu, was the first person he admired as a storyteller.

He wrote of her stories:

(She) embroidered mementos, strung together nostalgias, sewed evocations and words, words and nostalgias in a language strange and fully sensual; infinite Lebanese nostalgias, of tangible geometry, so much so that her children would become astonished Harlequins covered with diamond-shaped patches from head to toe. It was Perla's blue period in which her skies, as well as her seas, took on an intense color of green and blue broken by golden sunflowers. Perla smelled of orange and basil.
Decades after the novel, and not long after his first and only trip to his parents' Lebanese village, Héctor Azar gave an interviewer an account of the history of his family's immigration—the story that he would fictionalize for Las tres primeras personas:

I am the son of Lebanese immigrants. My mother, at nine years of age, together with her sister of seven, came with their father, driven by necessity. They arrived before the Revolution, in 1906. At that time there was a fellow Lebanese, Domingo Kuri, and when a boat arrived with immigrants from Lebanon, and docked at Veracruz, they would approach him and make a fairly brutal deal: they would be asked to change not only their name but also their destination; Domingo would ask them which village in Lebanon they came from and according to their reply, send them to a place in Mexico where there were people from the same village. My grandfather and his two daughters were sent to Pachuca . . . In Pachuca my mother met my father, who also came from the same village.
The young couple went on to Mexico City, where Azar's older siblings were born, then to Teziutlán, where his sister was born, then to Atlixco, where Héctor was born and where, not much later, his father died. At one point Azar's widowed mother went into business for herself with a shop called El Puerto Libanés, but by the time he was nine the family had to leave Atlixco. They moved to Tacuba, in Mexico City, to live with his mother's sister, who was married, financially stable, and lived opposite the district's market. In that marketplace Azar began to watch lives that he would write into theater.

Las tres primeras personas is a novel as idiosyncratic as Azar's works for the stage. It opens with three testimonies—from a mother, an aunt, and a grandfather. These first-person narrations tell of emigration by boat from Lebanon to Mexico. Thirteen narrative sections follow, as well as an inset of photographs and a glossary. In a mixture of Spanish, French, English, Italian, and Arabic, the novel contains two major plot lines, an epistolary section, and an interpolated history of the Lebanese in Mexico, written in French.

Inasmuch as a trip is an experience for the traveller and a novel is an experience for the reader, Azar conflates what the reader experiences moving through the pages of the novel with what its migrant characters experience as they settle into their new country. The narrative of the fictional family follows that of Azar's own family, including the death of Azar's father and the economic struggles of his mother. It concludes with Musa, the grandfather, in his daughter's store El Puerto Libanés in Atlixco, Puebla, giving Arabic and Spanish spelling lessons to his young grandson, the native-born Mexican. Some heroes of Mexican history (including Porfirio Díaz and Emiliano Zapata) are implicated in the lives of the characters, alongside other, less touchstone persons. Anna Gould, an actual American heiress who lived in Mexico, provides the second major plotline in the novel when she takes a cousin of the family as her lover, and has the chance and ability to financially assist the family of immigrants.

Azar put everything he could into this novel: photographs from his family, reproductions of their letters as well as his own recollections of their past and their language. His novel is akin to a work of theater; its closest relations, though, are Azar's own plays. Most of the latter are available through the website his son maintains. The novel, on the other hand, is much harder to find. There might be a copy tucked away somewhere in the bookshops of Calle Donceles, behind the main square in Mexico City. But chances are slim.

In the handsome courtyard house Azar converted into his private theater school CADAC, near his old office where his diplomas and awards still hang on the wall, there is a closet shelved with books. At least two hundred of those books are copies of Las tres primeras personas. That is an option, although it might be easier to contact his son directly. It would certainly be worth it. For with Héctor Azar, it helps to immerse oneself in the fullness of his vision. The more one knows of his life and work, the more his idiosyncratic novel resounds.


The migrant's journey, for Azar, was a a metaphor for the points in time when life's narrative breaks and begins to reproduce itself with pity and blame in the person's need to remember the time before the rupture. He likened its logic to theology of original sin, and its character to the lamentations of the Psalms.

In a review of another novel about a Lebanese immigrant family in Mexico, Azar made clear that the point of arrival was the source of meaning and disruption for the migrant and his or her descendants:

"Yes, time passed and descendants came to realize that their grandparents and parents were not the same now as those who left late/early in the century from their country. That upon arrival in America, in one way or another, the past begins to perform, to become inclement, poignant. That's when, disembarking the steamship that led to L'Amérique, to La Méxique, it really begins; the transit of the past returned as historical present, where, in some port or station, one life began different from what it was and what it inevitably will be."

In Las tres primeras personas, the ancestor's arrival in the new country brings forward the linguistic confusion of the past and the present, in a moment of confusion like those Azar produced in his theater. When asked to identify himself in the Veracruz port, Musa responds "—Ana, Musa, men Djounieh, Libnen, menhén mn'el atráck uil'inglís, un'hamme men el'francewille." The basic Arabic of "I, Musa, from Junieh, Lebanon" turns into a jumble of Arabic and French: "from wherein where are the English paths, un homme from [France]." Azar's attempt to relate the unknown Arabic in Mexico creates a drama out of the situation. The conflict of will between the Mexican official who wishes to ask his bureaucratic question and the immigrant who needs to assert and prove himself to be himself. Both men have an impossible wish, and only the descendants can write both sides of the story.