José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi

José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi

José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776 - 1827), Mexican writer and political journalist, best known as the author of "El Periquillo Sarniento" (1816), reputed to be the first novel written in Latin America.

Lizardi, as he is generally known, was born in Mexico City when it was still the capital of the colonial Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain. His father was a physician employed in and around Mexico City, who for a time supplemented the family incoming by writing. His mother likewise came from a family of modest but "decent" means; her own father had been a bookseller in the nearby city of Puebla.

The death of Lizardi’s father after a short illness in 1798 forced the young man to leave his studies in the Colegio de San Ildefonso and enter the civil service as a minor magistrate in the Taxco-Acapulco region. He married in Taxco in 1805.

The necessity of providing for a growing family led Lizardi to supplement his meager income as his father had, by writing. He began his literary career in 1808 by publishing a poem in honor of Ferdinand VII of Spain. Though Ferdinand VII later became a target of nationalist rage among pro-independence Mexicans because of his tendency toward despotism, his politics were still unknown in 1808, the year of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. With Napoleon’s brother-in-law usurping the Spanish throne and the legitimate king in exile, raising a public voice in his favor was a patriotic stance for a Mexican intellectual, and in line with Lizardi’s later proto-nationalist views.

At the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in November 1810, Morelos’s insurgent forces fought their way into Taxco where Lizardi was heading the local government as acting Subdelegado (the highest provincial government position in the colonial system). After an initial insurgent victory, Lizardi tried to play both sides: he turned over the city’s armory to the insurgents, but he also informed the viceroyalty of rebel movements. Judged in the context of his later writings, these actions do not appear hypocritical. Lizardi was always supportive of the intellectual aims and reformist politics of the insurgents, but was equally opposed to war and bloodshed. By peacefully capitulating Taxco to the insurgents, he aimed to avoid loss of life in the city then under his command. Following the royalist recapture of Taxco in January 1811, Lizardi was taken prisoner as a rebel sympathizer and sent with the other prisoners of war to Mexico City. There he appealed successfully to the viceroy, arguing that he had acted only to protect Taxco and its citizens from harm.

Lizardi was now free and living in Mexico City, but he had lost his job and his possessions. He turned now to full-time writing and publishing to support his family, publishing more than twenty lightly satirical poems in broadsheets and pamphlets in the course of the year. After a limited freedom of the press was declared in Mexico on October 5, 1812 (see Spanish Constitution of 1812), Lizardi quickly organized one of the first non-governmental newspapers in the country. The first issue of his "El Pensador Mexicano" ("The Mexican Thinker," a title he adopted as his own pseudonym) came out on October 9, just four days after press freedom was allowed.

In his journalism, Lizardi turned from the light social criticism of his earlier broadsheets to direct commentary on the political problems of the day, attacking the autocratic tendencies of the viceregal government and supporting the liberal aspirations represented by the Cortes in Spain. His articles show the influence of Enlightenment ideas derived from clandestine readings of forbidden books by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, a hazardous route to take in those hopeful but uncertain times. In the ninth issue of "El Pensador Mexicano" (December 1812), Lizardi attacked viceroy Francisco Javier Venegas directly, resulting in his arrest. He continued to issue the paper from his jail cell, but he dismayed pro-independence readers by suppressing his sympathies for the insurgents and muting critiques of the system that had imprisoned him. When a new viceroy, Félix María Calleja, was named in March 1813, Lizardi lavished praise on him; the viceroy responded by freeing Lizardi after seven months of jail.

Lizardi continued to write and publish his periodicals after his release, but increased attention from royalist censors and the Inquisition muted his critical tone. When victory over Napoleon in Europe led to the reestablishment of an authoritarian monarchy, the overthrow of the Spanish Cortes, and the abrogation of freedom of the press in 1814, Lizardi turned from journalism to literature as a means of expressing his social criticism. This social and political conjuncture led to Lizardi’s writing and publication of "El Periquillo Sarniento", which is commonly recognized as the first Mexican and indeed the first Latin American novel.

Though it is a novel in form and scope, "El Periquillo Sarniento" resembled Lizardi’s periodicals in several ways: he printed and sold it in weekly chapter installments throughout 1816; he wove extensive commentary on the political and moral climate of Mexico into the narration; and, like his periodicals, the novel was eventually halted by censorship. The first three volumes slipped past the censor, as Lizardi had hoped they would in their fictionalized guise, but Lizardi’s direct attack on the institution of slavery in the fourth volume was enough to have the publication stopped. The final sixteen chapters of "El Periquillo" were only published in 1830 - 1831, after Lizardi’s death and a decade following Mexican independence. Lizardi’s other works of fiction also appeared by installments during the years of renewed royalist repression that lasted until 1820: "Fábulas" (collection of fables, 1817), "Noches tristes" (novel, 1818), "La Quijotita y su prima" (novel, 1818–1819), and "Don Catrín de la Fachenda" (completed 1820, published 1832).

With the re-establishment of the liberal Spanish constitution in 1820, Lizardi returned to journalism, only to be attacked, imprisoned, and censored again by a changing roster of political enemies. Royalists repressed him until the independence of Mexico in 1821; centralists opposed to his federalist leanings attacked him after independence; throughout, he suffered attacks by the Catholic hierarchy, opposed to his Masonic leanings.

Lizardi died of tuberculosis in 1827 at the age of 50. Because of his family’s extreme poverty he was buried in an anonymous grave, without the epitaph he had hoped would be engraved on his tombstone: "Here lie the ashes of the Mexican Thinker, who did the best he could for his country."


This article is a revised version of the brief biography of Lizardi in the preface to the English translation of "The Mangy Parrot" (Indianapolis, 2004), which is used here by permission of the author. The primary work on the life of Lizardi is Jefferson Rea Spell’s "The Life and Works of José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi" (Philadelphia, 1931), reprinted in his "Bridging the G

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