The well-known Zapotec author, poet, journalist, and politician, Andrés Henestrosa, died last Thursday, January 10, in Mexico City at the age of 101 after a lengthy illness. The President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, paid tribute to Henestrosa as “a universal Mexican and a writer who through his poems, narratives and essays promoted an appreciation for indigenous culture and Mexican history.”

Henestrosa was born on November 30, 1906, in Ixhaulán, Oaxaca State, into a traditional Zapotec family. His mother considered him to be the most promising of her seven children, so she encouraged him to leave home and make something of himself. He began his education in the town of Juchitán, and left for Mexico City at age 15 to further his schooling—though he could still only speak Zapotec. An article by Caleb Bach about Henestrosa in the March/April 2005 issue of Americas magazine (p.38 – 45), which is available in many libraries, gives a detailed account of his life.

Once he arrived in the capital, he avidly pursued his studies, reading everything he could get his hands on. He had the good fortune to make connections with an affluent, divorced lady who allowed him to live in her mansion so he could study in her huge library. She soon realized he was writing as well as studying for the law. He had been especially charmed by the folk stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book and a collection of folktales edited by José Ortega y Gasset called Las Musas Lejanas.

Stories in the latter work inspired him, especially fables about rabbits and coyotes, which were also common characters in the tales of his home village. He decided to write down the stories he had heard as a youth. He told the author, Mr. Bach, about the collection of stories as it grew: “The first was about the adventures of the rabbit and the coyote, of which there are many episodes. In the Isthmus the rabbit is considered an intelligent rascal, while the poor coyote always ends up his victim (p. 42).”

His patron assisted him with his written Spanish and helped him make connections with a publisher. On his 23rd birthday, November 30, 1929, his first book was published. The small printing, 500 copies, of Los Hombres que Dispersó la Danza, (A Nation Scattered by the Dance) became a landmark work in Mexican letters, reprinted many times over the decades since the first publication. While much writing in Mexico until the 1920s had followed European models, the Mexican Revolution fostered a new wave of visionary writers, painters, and musicians who were proud of their national and indigenous roots. Due to the growing popularity of his collection of folk tales, Henestrosa quickly became part of that up and coming generation of creative writers.

Over the course of his lifetime, he published more than 20 collections of essays, autobiographical works, and historical volumes. He became best known for the journalistic essays he wrote for major Mexican newspapers, primarily on historical topics. He also taught at UNAM, the Mexican national university, and he was elected to the Mexican national legislature, as a deputy from Juchitán and then as a Senator from Oaxaca.

One of his greatest passions was collecting books. He decided to donate his entire collection to Oaxaca City, more than 40,000 works, and on his 97th birthday, in 2003, he was present at the formal dedication of the Biblioteca Andrés Henestrosa. In his comments on the occasion, he thanked the guendas, the spirits of animals that the Zapotec believe serve as their alter egos, for helping him realize his next to last wish. His last wish, he admitted, was to live to be 100. He made it, and then some.