José Revueltas, posing in a cell at Lecumberri Prison.
The Hole begins with the description of what an eye sees through a confined space: the small hatch of a punishment cell that opens onto the corridors of Lecumberri Prison in Mexico City. The Hole is at once a piece of fiction and a deposition: José Revueltas wrote it between February and March of 1969, while in jail for participating in the 1968 student movement.
Revueltas was not a student in the late sixties. He was then fifty-four years old and, in fact, had never attended university: in 1932, when he was seventeen and should have been thinking about college, he was already serving his second term in prison, as a result of his militancy in the then illegal Communist Party of Mexico.
By the late sixties Revueltas was a well-known leftist writer and activist with views that suited the student movement’s demands for a less vertical government, having maintained his vocal socialist advocacy and strong links to the trade-union movement, while at the same time vigorously denouncing both the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s government (which had ruled the country with absolute authority for more than forty years) and the Mexican totalitarian Stalinist organizations that opposed it. The students considered him a natural ally: the weight of his reputation offered credible ideological shelter for a movement demanding respect for civil liberties and fresh attention to the perennial problem of inequality in Mexico.
The place of The Hole’s creation is important. Lecumberri Prison, where the manuscript is dated, is an outsize symbol in the Mexican imagination. It was inaugurated in 1900 as a triumphant demonstration of the “progressive” rationalist ideology that dominated the government’s discourse at the turn of the twentieth century. Porfirio Díaz, the liberal dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1884 to 1911, built the prison to keep all opposition to his regime locked up and under close scrutiny in more or less humanitarian conditions; designed by the architect Miguel Macedo, it adopted Jeremy Bentham’s model of the panopticon—as set out in his letters from Russia in 1797.
According to Bentham—whose works Revueltas, well versed in political philosophy, had no doubt read—the panopticon is simultaneously a jail and a theater. The greater the visibility of its inmates, the greater the benefit a society obtains from their punishment, which keeps the prisoners out of circulation while transforming them into an example and a spectacle. At the center of Lecumberri Prison was a watchtower from which seven wings radiated outward, every one constantly visible from its hub. Read More