José Joaquin Fernández de Lizardi

José Joaquin Fernández de Lizardi (1776-1827) was a Mexican Journalist and novelist, commonly known by his pen name, "El Pensador Mexicano," or "The Mexican Thinker." He is regarded as the father of Mexican journalism.

José Fernández de Lizardi was born in the city of Mexico to a lower-middle-class family. Nevertheless, Fernández's parents managed to send their son to the University of Mexico, where he matriculated in the College of San Ildefonso in 1793. Five years later he withdrew without receiving his bachelor's degree, possibly because the death of his father deprived him of financial support.

Beginnings as a Journalist

Without inheritance or profession Fernández de Lizardi was forced to live by his wits, which, as it transpired, meant political journalism. It was a natural occupation for him: he had an agile and restless mind which could not help but be stimulated by the political revolutions in Spain and Mexico. It was also an occupation which involved considerable risks since political revolution fired political passions.

Lizardi's hazards were enhanced by his incapacity to identify for any length of time with any particular party or movement. He was a representative of the Enlightenment who believed that man is basically good and that society corrupts him. He was for the ideals of liberty, justice, and humanity and against slavery, oppression, intolerance, venality, and hypocrisy. Since neither contending royalists nor insurgents nor the factions that succeeded them met his standards, he found himself in perpetual opposition and the victim of almost constant suspicion and persecution.


Publisher of Political Satire

Although Lizardi had published earlier a substantial quantity of prose and verse satirizing Mexican society, his fame as a journalist began in 1812, when a decree of the liberal Spanish government establishing freedom of the press encouraged him to found his first periodical, El pensador mexicano (The Mexican Thinker). In it he attacked the vices of colonial government so vigorously that the viceroy suspended the decree and Lizardi was jailed for some 7 months. He continued to publish his paper until absolutism and rigorous censorship were restored in 1814, but his experience in prison and the surveillance of the Inquisition, which he had offended, induced him to turn to fiction as a less risky medium for his opinions.

Between 1816 and 1820 Lizardi wrote several novels, of which The Itching Parrot (El perequillo sarniento) became the most famous. Appearing serially, it ran into trouble with the censors, and although Lizardi managed to finish it, it was not published in full until 1830, 3 years after his death.

In 1820 the restoration of constitutional government and freedom of the press in Spain prompted Lizardi to establish a new periodical, El conductor eléctrica (The Lightning Conductor), in which he attacked the enemies of the constitutional system; but conservative forces were still powerful in Mexico, and after 24 numbers he could no longer find a printer. The following year insurgent and royalist forces under the leadership of Col. Agustin de Iturbide proclaimed independence, and Lizardi was summoned to operate their press. After the victory of the liberating army, however, his criticisms of Iturbide and the Church led to his excommunication and temporary imprisonment.

Lizardi had one more chance at respectability and security. In 1825, after the overthrow of Iturbide's short-lived empire, Mexico's republican government made him editor of its official gazette, but his incorrigible propensity for criticism soon caused him to fall into disfavor with its leaders. Two years later he died in poverty and obscurity.


The Itching Parrot

Lizardi is remembered as the father of Mexican journalism, but his most lasting claim to fame rests on The Itching Parrot, a novel of the Spanish picaresque genre. Its antihero, Perequillo, is a rogue, a scoundrel, and something of a buffoon whose life consists of an unrelieved series of escapades and misfortunes in the teeming streets, tenements, taverns, jails, and hospitals of Mexico City. Perequillo never learns from his misadventures and invariably emerges unrepentant.

The novel also has a pervasive didactic quality conveyed by digressive moral preachments and reflections on the vices of rich and poor. Its appeal to readers of successive generations, however, lies not in its narrative style or in its social and moral content but in the clarity and faithfulness with which it evokes the sights and sounds and smells of the popular culture of Mexico City at the end of the viceregal period.


Further Reading on José Joaquin Fernández de Lizardi

The fullest English version of Fernández de Lizardi's most famous work, The Itching Parrot, translated with an introduction by Katherine Anne Porter (1942), omits the sermons which constitute over half of the work. The most complete study of Lizardi in English is Jefferson Rea Spell, The Life and Works of José Fernández de Lizardi (1931). For general background see Carlos Gonzalez-Pena, History of Mexican Literature (1940; trans. and rev. ed. 1943).