José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776-1827)



José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi was born in the famous year of 1776 in Mexico City. He is often considered the author of the first Latin America novel as this literary genre has been known since the 19th century. (What actually constitutes a novel has long been the subject of much discussion, and there are many other candidates for the title of first Latin American novelist.) His intellectual world view was formed by the rationalism and anticlericalism of the French encyclopedists and philosophes.

He spent his childhood in Tepotzotlán. His father was a medical doctor in this small town that lies about 30 miles northeast of the capital. Then he studied a philosophy curriculum in Mexico City. In 1811, he began publishing short satirical pieces the newspaper Diario de México. The dangerous tone and ideas in these journalistic articles caused Viceroy Venegas to have him jailed. The following year he began publishing his famous series of articles titled "El pensador mexicano" (The Mexican Thinker), and he began using this phrase as his pseudonym. In 1816, during the Mexican War of Independence he began writing novels and plays as a way to avoid the official government's political censorship. In this year his most famous publication, a picaresque novel, appeared: El Periquillo Sarniento. When constitutional protections were restored in 1820 he returned to journalism, but his publications caused him to land in jail again in 1821, and, in 1823, the Church had him excommunicated. He died of tuberculosis in Mexico City in 1827.

Fernández de Lizardi was a poet (until 1812), journalist, satirist, and pamphleteer. In fact, he traveled throughout Mexico during the War of Independence with his own portable printing press, which he used to print many of his pamphlets. He possessed strong liberal sympathies, but he was not an ardent revolutionary. He did not think that Spain was the core perpetrator of evil in Mexico; rather, he opposed those institutions that stood against reason and liberty. In short, he was vehemently opposed to what he saw as the Inquisition and the Church's obscurantism. He favored radical social reform, and he attacked the corrupt customs he saw everywhere in Mexican society.

El Periquillo Sarniento (1816) was written in part to express opposition to the reestablishment of the Inquisition in Spain (Mexico was still officially a Spanish colony in 1816). It is a work of almost sordid realism, and, as such, it is one of the last typically picaresque novels in Spanish. One finds constant descriptive vignettes of typical customs of the time and place. In this sense, El Periquillo Sarniento is a precursor of the later development of the Spanish pre-realist prose genre of costumbrismo. The protagonist, Periquillo (Pedro Sarmiento), narrates his adventures in the first person: he undergoes a series of adventures, and he changes masters and jobs frequently. He has a weak character who is the victim of bad influences and who has an independent will he seldom exercises, yet the narrator does not deny that paths to achieve good works do exist. The work is salted with a number of moralizing sermonettes, which are part of the author's campaign to change society, not just to describe it. He expresses a preference to fuse Christianity with liberalism, which supports the view that Fernández de Lizardi is more moralizer than artist. Sermons are mixed with absurd snippets of moral advice, grotesque situations, a plethora of diverse characters, and caricatures of colonial institutions and the people who represent them.    

Among other prominent works of Lizardi's are "La Quijotita y su prima" (1819) and "Don Catrín de la Fachenda" (1825).

Click here to see a short excerpt from his novel: => El Periquillo Sarniento.