Laureation address: Professor Laura Beatriz Esquival Valdés

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Dr Catherine O'Leary, School of Modern Languages

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Professor Laura Esquivel Valdés.

Before us we have Mexico’s most popular, best-known, and widely read present-day novelist. Her 1989 novel Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) transformed her overnight into a household name and a major force in contemporary Mexican and Latin American literature. Spending more than a year on the New York Times’ Bestsellers List, it has been translated into 36 languages and was subsequently turned into a multi-award-winning blockbuster film in 1992. Combining magical realism with the historical novel and a love for cookery, Como agua para chocolate offered a highly original take on the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, mixing the narrative with food recipes, whilst offering a feminist corrective to the, until then, male-dominated Latin American magical realist literary tradition.

She is the author of nine truly innovative yet immensely popular novels, most of which have gone on to win an impressive array of highly prestigious literary prizes. Author of best-selling trend-setting magical realist novels, Laura Esquivel has become rightly famous for her extremely moving stories, her strong female characters and her mouth-watering recipes. Her latest work: Tita’s Diary, is a sequel to Like Water for Chocolate, the translation of which will come out later this year. She tells me she is currently working on My Dark Past, the third part of the Like Water for Chocolate trilogy.

Laura was born in Mexico City in 1950. Although at the age of 16 she wanted to become a teacher, by 1977 she was working in children’s theatre and had founded the Children’s Literature and Theatre Workshop for the Mexican National Department of Education. As a result of her work in the theatre she started writing children’s television shows, and one wonders whether the magic that permeates so much of her work, whilst embedded in the Latin American magical realist literary tradition wherein fantastical occurrences are presented with a deadpan narrative, and accepted as part of everyday life, might not actually stem from Esquivel’s years working with and for children.

Her passionate commitment to bring about social justice, so evidently shared by some of the leading characters of her novels, has found expression in her work in education, politics and the arts. She was Secretary for Culture for the Coyoacán borough of Mexico City between 2009 and 2011, and since 2015 has been the first congresswoman for the political party MORENA, the national regeneration movement, serving as Secretary of Congress’ Culture and Film Committee.

Laura Esquivel is as profoundly and inherently Mexican as the very ingredients that feature in her character Tita’s recipes: serrano chilies, lime, coriander, mole, achiote, maize tortillas, epazote... And yet her stories are as universal as the relationships her characters struggle with: forlorn lovers, rival sisters, mothers and daughters, mothers and fathers. The turbulent historical times that serve as backdrop to some of her most critically acclaimed novels, be that the fifteenth-century Spanish Conquest of Mexico or the Mexican Revolution, whilst deeply rooted in her country’s past, do not prevent her work from resonating with readers across the world.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to world literature, and Mexican culture, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Laura Esquivel Valdés.

Response from Professor Laura Beatriz Esquival Valdés

I want to thank the University of St Andrews for this recognition that fills me with pride. It’s such a great honour for me to receive it. Thanks to Professor Sally Mapstone, Vice-Chancellor; thanks to Catherine O’Leary, head of the Spanish Department for her kind words; and thanks to Professor Will Fowler for his enthusiasm; and to all of you who received a degree alongside me on this day.

This is the day to remember. This ceremony binds us in brotherhood and sisterhood. It connects and conjoins us forever. Right now in this moment in time, here at this place, we are nothing if not a conference of knowledge and history. May the energy that binds us this day become manifest in each and every one of our future actions and works, for the good of all.

[The rest of the response was spoken in Spanish. Below is the translation followed by the response.]

Ladies and gentlemen:

I am going to allow myself to say these words in Spanish, my mother tongue, because what I need to express to you must come from my soul, and what first comes from the soul, and without difficulty, are precisely those words we learnt as children, the ones we listened to from inside our mother’s womb, the ones that have helped us say goodbye to, and welcome each one of our siblings, parents, and friends. And I am going to allow myself to say these words in the Spanish that we speak in Mexico, that subtle mix of so many languages and intonations - European, Arabic, Nahuatl, Otomí, Zapotec, Mixtec; our Spanish: a language that is as mestizo as my skin and my soul.

We Mexicans, like the people of any culture, have lived searching for who we really are, looking for what defines us in our daily lives and transcendental moments, in our everyday meals and in the building of our monumental pyramids, Baroque cathedrals and megalomaniac cities, and in our quotidian sweet and generous treatment of others (despite the violence that has forced us to live on the fringes of the drug trade and its inhuman rules). We Mexicans have searched to find our voice and that is what I have tried to express in my work: my voice and that of my people.

Our voice is in the Language. The Language that comes from the soul, from living every day. And that is what I have dedicated my work and life to, and it is why I am determined to invest all my energy into bringing about a change that makes Mexico a better place.

I come here to bring you a taste of my mother tongue, of my land and my food, of my embroideries, and of the work and sensitivity of many generations of men and women who have tirelessly knitted and planted so that our maize remains our symbolic and physical sustenance.  

I come here in the name of all of those characters that feature in my stories, so many women, men, young and old, who have wanted to live out their destinies with great passion and who have expressed the nature of their souls through the Spanish language.

For them, for my family, for my city and for my country I dedicate this recognition.

Long live Scotland!

¡Viva México!

Señoras y señores:

Voy a permitirme decir estas palabras en español, mi lengua materna, porque lo que tengo que expresar a ustedes me debe salir del alma y del alma lo primero que sale sin dificultad son las palabras que aprendimos a decir desde niños, las que escuchamos desde el vientre de nuestra madre, las que nos han servido para despedir y para recibir a cada uno de nuestros hermanos, padres y amigos. Y me voy a permitir también decir estas palabras en el español que hablamos en México, esa sutil mezcla de palabras y entonaciones europeas, árabes y náhuas, otomíes, zapotecas, mixtecas y tantas otras más, nuestro español: lengua mestiza como mi piel y mi alma.

Los mexicanos, como cualquier otra cultura hemos vivido en la búsqueda de nuestro ser, el de la vida cotidiana y el trascendente, el de los guisos de cada día y el constructor de pirámides monumentales, catedrales barrocas y ciudades megalómanas y del trato cotidiano, dulce y amable (a pesar de la violencia que nos ha orillado a vivir el mercado de la droga y sus reglas inhumanas). Los mexicanos hemos buscado nuestro decir y eso he tratado de expresar en mi obra: mi decir y el de mi pueblo.

Nuestro decir está en la Lengua. La lengua viene del alma, del vivir de todos los días. Y a eso he dedicado mi obra y mi vida y por eso mismo estoy empeñada también en invertir todo mi esfuerzo para que se genere un cambio que mejore a México.

Vengo aquí a traerles un pedazo de mi lengua materna, de mi tierra, de mi comida, de mis bordados, de la sensibilidad y el trabajo de muchas generaciones de hombres y mujeres que incansablemente han tejido y sembrado para que el maíz siga siendo nuestro sustento simbólico y físico.

Vengo aquí en nombre de todos esos personajes que están contenidos en mis historias, tantas mujeres, hombres, jóvenes y viejos que han querido vivir sus destinos con una gran pasión y han expresado el ser de su alma por medio de la lengua española.

Para ellos, para mi familia, para mi ciudad y para mi país va este reconocimiento.

¡Viva Escocia!

¡Viva México!