By Andres Oppenheimer
MEXICO CITY — If you look at the culture pages in Mexico’s newspapers these days, there is little question about what’s the talk of the town in literary circles — old men having sex with young girls.
In addition to headlines about filmmaker Roman Polanski’s recent arrest in Switzerland over 1970s U.S. charges that he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, Mexican intellectuals are embroiled in a bitter debate over whether a planned movie based on Gabriel García Márquez’s book Memories of my Melancholy Whores would glorify the sexual exploitation of children.
Earlier this month, the Latin American and Caribbean Regional Coalition Against Child Trafficking, which says it represents 300 organizations, filed a lawsuit in Mexico to stop the movie’s production.
The filming was set to begin Oct. 26 in the state of Puebla, sponsored among others, by the state government. Puebla Gov. Mario Marin, who had been at the centre of a political scandal for allegedly protecting a convicted child abuser four years ago, withdrew his state’s $1.6 million support for the $8 million movie after the lawsuit was filed. The shooting has now been temporarily postponed, producers say.
Memories of my Melancholy Whores tells the story of a 90-year-old-man who, as a birthday present to himself, decides to have sex with a 14-year-old virgin. He asks the owner of a brothel to find a girl, who is drugged in order not to resist her rape.
Teresa Ulloa, head of the coalition that filed the lawsuit, told reporters that the movie would reach a much wider audience than García Márquez’s book, and would thus do more harm. Ulloa’s group filed the lawsuit under Mexican laws prohibiting the promotion of child prostitution.
According to children’s rights advocacy groups, more than 80,000 girls under 15 are currently being exploited as prostitutes in Mexico, most of them in Mexico City. Many of them — much like in García Márquez’s book — are brought from the countryside by brothels, at the request of clients.
But unlike most cultural debates, in which intellectuals tend to side against religious or civic groups advocating censorship, this time there is a split among the literati.
Lydia Cacho, an award-winning columnist who has exposed child trafficking rings in Mexico, wrote a column in the daily El Universal last week lashing out against García Márquez and the movie producers.
“Why did García Márquez accept taking to the screen Memories of my Melancholy Whores just at a time when the world is fighting against the growing commercial exploitation of girls?’‘ Cacho asked. “This is not about censorship or prudishness, but about the need of an in-depth debate about the ideological support for child exploitation.’‘
In a telephone interview, Cacho told me that while other renowned authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and Yasunari Kawabata wrote novels about child prostitution, their fictional characters faced internal struggles about their sexual urges and almost invariably ended up badly.
Conversely, in García Márquez’s novel, which she described as “mediocre,’‘ the old man and the girl end up in love, she said.
Cacho added that just as freedom of expression groups have condemned the intentional glorification of torture or racial hatred in art works under certain circumstances, there should be an open debate on whether to also condemn prominent authors who glorify the exploitation of minors by presenting it as romantic relationships.
Several other writers countered that prohibiting the movie would amount to censorship, which would set a precedent.
Author Juan Villoro told the daily Reforma that García Márquez’s book does not advocate pedophilia, just like Shakespeare’s Hamlet did not advocate killing one’s stepfather. Works or art should not be seen as “manuals of conduct’‘ but merely as depictions of life, he said.
My opinion: I hope the Mexican courts rule against the petition to stop the movie’s production because it would set a dangerous precedent. But I also hope that the movie’s producers put a few lines in the script to somehow portray the grimmer side of the story.
In the end, this is a healthy debate, which will draw public attention in Mexico to the growing problem of sexual exploitation of minors, which has rarely been a top issue here. In that sense, everybody wins.