How José Revueltas Wrote His Way Through Hell in Islas Marías

José Revueltas remains a seminal figure in decoding the Mexican political landscape, his life a crucible of ideological commitment and struggle. In his gripping novel “Muros de Agua,” he unflinchingly portrays the dark depths of human degradation within Islas Marías' penitentiary system.

How José Revueltas Wrote His Way Through Hell in Islas Marías
A vintage photograph of José Revueltas, whose penetrating gaze seems to transcend time, offering a window into the mind that crafted 'Muros de Agua'. Credit: IMER

José Maximiliano Revueltas Sánchez stands as an indomitable figure etched into the fabric of Mexican political and literary history. Born on November 20, 1914, in Santiago Papasquiaro, Durango, Revueltas emerged just four years after the crucible of the Mexican Revolution had erupted—a temporal coincidence that presaged his life of ideological commitment and struggle.

His credentials are many: Communist Party militant, founder of the Leninist Spartacus League, journalist for El Dia and El Popular, and a prolific author whose works span titles like “El luto humano,” “El apando,” and “El Lecumberri.”

It is vital to underscore that Revueltas paid the price for his convictions, as evidenced by his three imprisonments—twice on Islas Marías in 1932 and 1934. While imprisoned, he penned the novel “Muros de Agua,” a work that not only reverberates through literary annals but has real-world implications, inspiring the Centro de Educación Ambiental y Cultural Muros de Agua – José Revueltas.

The Book “Muros de Agua”

Set within the penitentiary system of Islas Marías, “Muros de Agua” is an incisive commentary on the depths of human degradation. The characters—five young people imprisoned for their Communist beliefs—are subject to appalling conditions. Revueltas describes a Hobbesian world of “the law of the strongest,” where abuses range from forced labor to psychological torment. The book doesn't hold back on painting a visceral tableau: men are oppressed, women violated, and human life reduced to a throwaway commodity.

Yet, the narrative isn't all bleakness. It highlights resilience and organization among the oppressed, lauding the medical professionals who offer a semblance of humanity within the labyrinthine system. In this, Revueltas captures the dialectic nature of reality, a concept that he elaborates on in a 1961 prologue, revealing its evergreen relevance—even in the era of COVID-19 and the so-called “new normality.”

Revueltas discusses the notion that reality has its own “internal movement,” a “biting side,” where dialectics come into play. He asserts that to truly grasp reality, one must understand its fundamental direction, “to which point it is directed.” The “true movement of reality,” Revueltas argues, obeys laws where “contrary elements interpenetrate and quantitative accumulation is transformed qualitatively.” This theoretical understanding is not merely an intellectual exercise; it is a lens through which to view societal upheavals and crises, whether they be pandemics or authoritarian regimes.

The haunting landscape of Islas Marías, the backdrop of 'Muros de Agua,' where Revueltas was imprisoned.
The haunting landscape of Islas Marías, the backdrop of 'Muros de Agua,' where Revueltas was imprisoned—its barren terrain symbolizing the struggle for human dignity against all odds.

Real Life Narratives

To drive home the grim realities within “Muros de Agua,” it's worth considering the story of José Ortiz Muñoz, alias “El Sapo,” a multiple murderer who ended up in Islas Marías and met Father Juan Manuel Martinez Macias, known as “El Trampitas.” Their friendship and ultimate tragedy provide a heart-rending subplot to the island's oppressive system. It serves as an allegory of futile attempts to escape a brutal environment, even when a sliver of humanity shines through.

On a logistical note, even access to water in Islas Marías is fraught with complexity. The water from the island's wells undergoes purification through reverse osmosis and evaporation, turning even this basic resource into a commoditized entity sold to the staff. It symbolizes the continual challenge of access to basic needs within the oppressive system.

José Revueltas remains a seminal figure in decoding the Mexican political and social landscape. His life and works, notably “Muros de Agua,” offer nuanced perspectives that go beyond their historical context. They serve as cautionary tales and educational blueprints for grappling with the dialectic nature of reality—a reality in which oppression and resilience perpetually collide and transform one another. In today's uncertain times, the wisdom embedded within Revueltas' narrative and theoretical musings is not just valuable; it is indispensable.

Source: González Madruga, C. D. (2020). Islas Marías libro-guía de turismo (1st ed.). Secretaría de Turismo.