Homero Aridjis (born April 6, 1940) is a Mexican poet, novelist, environmental activist, journalist and diplomat known for his originality and independence.
Family and early life
Aridjis was born in Contepec, Michoacán, Mexico, on April 6, 1940, to a Greek father and a Mexican mother; he was the youngest of five brothers. His father fought in the Greek army during World War I and the Greco-Turkish War, when his family was forced to flee from their home in Tire, southeast of Smyrna, in Asia Minor. His mother grew up in Contepec amidst the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. After nearly losing his life at age ten in a shotgun accident Aridjis became an avid reader and began to write poetry. In 1959 he was awarded a scholarship at the Rockefeller Foundation-supported Mexico City Writing Center (Centro Mexicano de Escritores), the youngest writer to have received the award in the Center’s 55-year history.
Aridjis has published 48 books of poetry and prose, many of them translated into a dozen languages. His achievements include: the Xavier Villarrutia Prize for best book of the year for Mirándola dormir, in 1964, the youngest writer to receive the prize; the Diana-Novedades Literary Prize for the outstanding novel in Spanish, for Memorias del nuevo mundo, in 1988; and the Premio Grinzane Cavour, for best foreign fiction, in 1992, for the Italian translation of 1492, Vida y tiempos de Juan Cabezón de Castilla. 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He received the Prix Roger Caillois in France for his poetry and prose and Serbia’s highest literary honor, the Smederevo Golden Key Prize, for his poetry. In 2005 the state of Michoacán awarded him the first Erendira State Prize for the Arts. Most recently he received the Premio Internazionale di Poesia 2013, Premio Letterario Camaiore, Italy.
Twice the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, Aridjis was named Doctor Honoris Causa by Indiana University.
He has been a visiting professor at Indiana University, New York University and Columbia University, and held the Nichols Chair in Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of California, Irvine. He has been an editorial page columnist at the Mexican newspapers La Jornada, Reforma and El Universal since 1985, publishing hundreds of articles about environmental, political and literary topics.
Homero Aridjis has served as Mexico's ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland and to UNESCO in Paris. For six years between 1997 and 2003 he was President of PEN International, the worldwide association of writers. Personal life In 1965, Aridjis married Betty Ferber. They have two daughters, Eva Aridjis, a filmmaker in New York City (Niños de la calle, La Santa Muerte, The Favor, The Blue Eyes, “Chuy, el hombre lobo”) and writer Chloe Aridjis, in London (Asunder, Book of Clouds, Topografía de lo insólito).
Aridjis is increasingly renowned as one of Latin America's leading environmental activists. As a child, he would often walk up a hillside behind his village to watch the migrating monarch butterflies. As he grew older logging thinned the forest and his concern for the fate of the butterflies and the trees triggered his earliest public defense of the environment.
In March 1985 Aridjis founded and became president of the Group of 100, an association of prominent artists and intellectuals, including Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Rufino Tamayo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alvaro Mutis, Augusto Monterroso, Francisco Toledo, Leonora Carrington, Mathias Goeritz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Elena Poniatowska and others, devoted to environmental protection and the defense of biodiversity in Mexico and Latin America. Under his leadership the Group of 100 achieved in 1986 the official decree ensuring protection for the forests where the migratory monarch butterfly overwinters and in 1990 a permanent ban on the capture and commercialization of all seven species of sea turtle in Mexico. The Group was able to thwart the building of dams on the Usumacinta River that would have flooded 500 square kilometers of the Lacandon forest and submerged important Mayan ruins. For five years Aridjis spearheaded the defense of San Ignacio Lagoon, the gray whale nursery in Baja California, successfully preventing Mitsubishi and the Mexican government from building the world’s largest solar salt works at the lagoon. Thanks to Aridjis and the Group of 100 the government agreed to publish daily reports of air quality in Mexico City, leaded gasoline was phased out and lead content in pottery drastically reduced, construction of an airport extension which would have obliterated a bird and wildlife sanctuary in Lake Texcoco was halted, thousands of tons of powdered milk contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl were returned to Ireland before they could be distributed in Mexico and a program limiting the circulation of cars in Mexico City one day each week was put into practice by the city government.
In 1991 he conceived of, organized and presided over the first “Morelia Symposium: Approaching the Year 2000,” an international gathering of more than 40 prominent writers, scientists, environmentalists and representatives of indigenous peoples, to discuss the state of the planet and to establish a network for international cooperation. Among the participants were J.M.G. Le Clézio, Sherwood Rowland, Petra Kelly, Gert Bastian, Peter Raven, Lester Brown, and Augusto Roa Bastos.
In 1992 he presented the Morelia Declaration, a statement on the environment signed by more than 1000 writers and scientists from 66 countries, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where he spoke at the Global Forum with the Dalai Lama, Petra Kelly, Tom Hayden, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, among others.
In 1994 he organized and presided over the second “Morelia Symposium: Approaching the Year 2000.” Among the participants were J.M.G. Le Clézio, Rita Dove, Kjell Espmark, Bärbel Bohley, Bei Dao, W.S. Merwin, John Ralston Saul, Bill McKibben and Breyten Breytenbach. The Second Morelia Declaration was presented at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Aridjis obtained funding for both meetings from the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 2000 he organized and presided over “The Earth in the Year 2000,” a joint International PEN—UNESCO symposium of writers and scientists in alliance for sustainable development.
As a pioneer of Mexican civil society, Aridjis played a crucial role in raising environmental awareness and promoting public participation for solving environmental problems, as well as defending freedom of expression about environmental matters.
While still in his thirties Homero Aridjis served as Mexico's ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland. In 1980 he founded the Michoacán Institute of Culture, and as its Director General held an historic international poetry festival, established public libraries throughout the state, founded Mexico’s first Museum of Mexican Masks, oversaw restoration of historical buildings, the recovery and restoration of colonial art, protection of cultural heritage, and promotion of cultural diversity in traditional celebrations throughout the state of Michoacán.
Besides the Morelia (Michoacan) Festival in 1981, Aridjis also organized and presided over two international poetry festivals in Mexico City, in 1982 and 1987, bringing to Mexico poets such as Jorge Luis Borges, Seamus Heaney, Günter Grass, Vasko Popa, Allen Ginsberg, Kazuko Shiraishi, Ted Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Andrey Voznesensky, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Lars Forssell, Marin Sorescu, Tadeusz Rozewicz, André du Bouchet, Eliseo Diego, Mazisi Kunene, Günter Kunert, Breyten Breytenbach, W. S. Merwin, Rita Dove and Paul Muldoon.
In 1997, a coalition of seventeen centers led by American, Japan, Swedish and Belgian (Dutch-speaking) PEN nominated Aridjis for International President of the worldwide association of writers, and he was elected President at the International PEN Congress in Edinburgh, winning a second three-year term at the Moscow Congress held in 2000. He is the first PEN President living in Latin America. During his presidency he oversaw a complete revision of PEN’s constitution, achieved acceptance of Spanish as PEN’s third official language and led the organization in bettering its governance and accountability. In 2003 he was elected International PEN President Emeritus.
From April 2007 until the abolition of the post in January 2010 he was Mexico's ambassador to UNESCO, where he was a staunch defender of human rights, freedom of expression and cultural diversity and an outspoken critic of lack of transparency and accountability in the UNESCO bureaucracy.
Visiting professor, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1969. Visiting professor, New York University, 1969-1971. Visiting professor and writer-in-residence, Columbia University, 1979-1980. Nichols Chair in Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of California, Irvine, 2002. Poetry workshop at the Social Security Institute in Mexico City from 1986-1988. Inaugural J.H. Tans Lecture, University of Limburg, Maastricht, The Netherlands, 1991. Cecil Green Distinguished Visiting Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, 1993. Professor, “The Contemporary Novel” at Salzburg Seminar Session 354, Salzburg, Austria. Writer-in-Residence, The Sweet Briar Seminars 1999-2000 International Writers, Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Virginia. Professor, Bennington Writing Seminar, Bennington College, Vermont, 2002. Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida, 2007.
Awards and honors
As a writer:
Fellowship from the Mexican Writers’ Center (1959–60) Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for best book of the year, for Mirándola dormir (1965) Chosen by Henry Kissinger to take part in the International Seminar for Politics and Humanities, Harvard University, 1966. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1966–1967 and 1979–1980) French government fellowship (1966–1968) Guest of the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst in West Berlin (1986 and 1988). Diana-Novedades Prize for Memorias del Nuevo Mundo, for the outstanding novel in Spanish (1988) Grinzane Cavour Prize for 1492, Vida y Tiempos de Juan Cabezón de Castilla, best foreign novel translated into Italian, 1992 1492: Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile, New York Times Notable Book of the Year Doctor Honoris Causa in Humanities, Indiana University (1993) Residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy. (1994 & 2010) Festival de Poesía Ramón López Velarde, Zacatecas, Mexico, held in his honor, 1995. Prix Roger Caillois for the ensemble of his work as a poet and novelist, France (1997) Smederevo Golden Key for Poetry, Serbia (2002) First Erendira State Prize for the Arts, Michoacán, Mexico (2005). Premio Internazionale di Poesia 2013, Premio Letterario Camaiore, Italy Emeritus Member, National System of Creative Artists, Mexico, since 1999 Honorary member, Hellenic Authors Society.
As an environmentalist:
Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Program on behalf of the Group of 100 Latin Trade magazine’s Environmentalist of the Year José Maria Morelos Medal, the state of Michoacan’s highest award John Hay Award from the Orion Society "for significant achievement in writing that addresses the relationship between people and nature", bestowed during a colloquium of writers and scientists in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico Natural Resources Defense Council Force for Nature Award
•Green Cross Millennium Prize for International Environmental Leadership, given by Mikhail Gorbachev and Global Green (also awarded to his wife, Betty Ferber)