Juan María Montalvo

Juan María Montalvo (1832-1889) was an Ecuadorian writer. Perhaps the most outstanding polemicist of Hispanic literature, he had a wide appeal in Latin America for his denunciation of dictatorship.

Juan Montalvo was born on April 13, 1832, in the provincial town of Ambato. His grandfather was a Spanish retail merchant, and his father, Marcos, followed the same trade. His mother, Josefa Fiallos, owned some land. Two elder brothers of Juan moved to Quito and came to occupy high positions in education and government.

Montalvo studied in Quito (1846-1854) but dropped out of the university without earning a degree. The connections of his brothers with Gen. José María Urbina, a Liberal who dominated Ecuadorian politics in the 1850s, resulted in Montalvo's appointment to a minor diplomatic post in Rome (1857). The following year he was promoted to secretary of the Ecuadorian legation in Paris. He returned to Ecuador in 1860. By then the Liberals had been ousted by the Conservatives, led by Gabriel García Moreno, and Montalvo was excluded from public employment.

In January 1866 Montalvo published in Quito the first number of a pamphlet series against García Moreno—then out of power—under the title of El cosmopolita. Three years later, on the dictator's return to the presidency, Montalvo fled to Colombia, settling in Ipiales.

Montalvo spent his years in exile, in the words of one of his biographers, "in exasperating moral and economic conditions." He received economic support from another exiled Liberal, living then in Panama, Eloy Alfaro. During this period Montalvo's writing consisted mostly of vitriolic and defamatory attacks on García Moreno. When the latter decided to stay as president for a third term, Montalvo wrote La dictadura perpetua, which Alfaro published in Panama (1874). The pamphlet circulated in Ecuador. Though it did not produce the hoped-for revolution, on Aug. 6, 1875, a Colombian former mercenary, backed up by a small group of young drifters who had read La dictadura, hacked García Moreno to death with a machete. Although the assassin had acted for personal reasons, on hearing of the President's death, Montalvo exclaimed jubilantly: "My pen killed him!"

Montalvo returned to Quito in May 1876 and started to publish El regenerador, a pamphlet series in which he attacked President Antonio Borrero's government. By September he was in Guayaquil, backing a Liberal military revolt led by Gen. Urbina and Gen. Ignacio Veintemilla. The latter, a fellow exile of 1869, soon sent Montalvo to Panama for his opposition to the general's dictatorial ambitions. He was allowed to return after 4 months, thanks to his attacks against Borrero, which also assured his appointment as deputy to the constitutional convention of 1878. But in June he turned his guns on President Veintemilla, deploring that a great man like García Moreno should have such a despicable successor. Before long, Montalvo was back in Ipiales, where he wrote his Catilinarias. This attack on Veintemilla is Montalvo's outstanding polemical work.

In 1881 Montalvo returned to Paris. He stayed there for the remainder of his life, except for a trip in 1883 to Spain, where he was very well received by distinguished figures of Spanish letters and politics. This last period was marked by the publication of his best works: Siete tratados and Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes. He died on Jan. 17, 1889.

Montalvo's fame rested on the stylistic qualities of his writing—much in vogue until the beginning of the 20th century—and on their political content, for which he was hailed by liberals all over Hispanic America. His name is still venerated in Ecuador, even though his writing has much declined in its appeal because of changes in stylistic preferences and in political outlook.


Further Reading on Juan María Montalvo

There are discussions of Montalvo's life and work in Enrique Anderson-Imbert, Spanish-American Literature: A History (1954; trans. 1963; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1969), and German Arciniegas, Latin America: A Cultural History (1965; trans. 1967). See also Hubert Clinton Herring, A History of Latin America: From the Beginnings to the Present (1955; 2d rev. ed. 1968).