Méndez Cuesta, Concha

Concha Mendez Cuesta

Poet, playwright and pioneer in the defense of women’s rights, she was born in Madrid on July 27, 1898 and died in exile in Mexico on December 7, 1986. She was part of the Generation of ‘27. A restless traveler, her adult life was a constant coming and going from one country to another until the Civil War forced her to a stable and lasting exile in Mexico. She belonged to Las Sinsombrero, the group of women creators who in the 1920s and 1930s rebelled against a misogynist society whose norms they did not hesitate to transgress as often as necessary. In 1919, she met Luis Buñuel in San Sebastian, with whom she had a sentimental relationship that lasted seven years. In 1932, she married the poet and editor Manuel Altolaguirre with whom she undertook numerous literary adventures in different countries. Witnesses to their liaison were Juan Ramón Jiménez, Luis Cernuda, Federico García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre and Jorge Guillén. Lorca gave them a selection of his Songs which they later edited. He lived with Altolaguirre until, in 1944 in Mexico, he left her for the Cuban María Luisa Gómez Mena. His work focuses on poetry (his first book Concerns was published in 1926) and theater (he signed a dozen dramatic pieces).

Concha Méndez took every advantage of being born into a wealthy and liberal family to ensure her independence. Her youth was marked by sports: she was a champion in gymnastics and swimming. After her love affair with Buñuel, she began a journey that took her to London, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. On her return to Madrid, she frequented the Granja El Henar café where she met García Lorca and other members of the Generation of ’27. Her advanced ideas on women’s rights made her a pioneer since 1926, when she founded the Women’s Lyceum Club, directed by María de Maeztu. There Méndez organized recitals by Lorca and Alberti.

She belonged to Las Sinsombrero, the group of women creators who in the 1920s and 1930s rebelled against a misogynist society whose norms they did not hesitate to transgress as often as necessary.

One day, in that Madrid of the 1920s, under the shadow of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, Concha Méndez and her friends, in particular the painter Maruja Mallo, decided to stand up to that misogynist society by taking off their hats during a stroll through Madrid to the scandal of the most timorous and conservative passers-by. The pioneers of that rebuff were Federico García Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Margarita Manso and Maruja Mallo.

Tribute to Luis Cernuda in 1936.
Banquet offered to Luis Cernuda (presiding the table) at Los Galayos, then Casa Rojo, on April 29, 1936. Seated, from left to right: Eugenio Imaz, (unidentified), Helena Cortesina, Manuel Fontanals (hidden behind Cortesina), Santiago Ontañón, María Antonieta Agenaar, Concha Méndez, La Argentinita and J. E. Morena Báez. Standing, from left to right: Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca, Pedro Salinas, Rafael Alberti, Pablo Neruda, José Bergamín, Manuel Altolaguirre, María Teresa León and Víctor María Cortezo / Photo: FGL Foundation.

Concha Méndez herself told it in the book of memories (Spoken Memories, Armed Memories) that at the end of her life she dictated to her granddaughter Paloma Ulacia Altolaguirre: “We were very well dressed, but without a hat to walk along the Paseo de la Castellana. If we had worn a hat, Maruja [Mallo] said, it would have been a gas balloon: the balloon tied to our wrists with the hat on. The moment we met someone we knew, we would take the hat off the balloon. The thing is that sinsombrerismo aroused murmurs in the city.” They were joined by María Teresa León, Ernestina de Champourcín, María Zambrano and Rosa Chacel, among others. Méndez reproached Gerardo Diego for not including any women in the first edition (1931) of Spanish Poetry. Anthology 1915-1931 which brought together the creators of ‘27. In the second (1934) Josefina de la Torre and Ernestina de Champourcín appeared.

 

Manuel Altolaguirre and Concha Mendez.
Manuel Altolaguirre and Concha Mendez.

Between 1933 and 1935, Méndez and Altolaguirre, who had married after launching the Héroe magazine, moved to London where they lived a tragic experience: Concha lost the child she was expecting, although she soon became pregnant again with her daughter Paloma. A year after their return to Madrid, the Civil War broke out. The couple did not hesitate to side with the Republic, although they went abroad with their daughter. Shortly before the end of the war, she joined her husband in Barcelona and began an endless exile in France (where she learned of Federico’s assassination through Francisco García Lorca), Cuba and Mexico. Concha Méndez continued editing the magazine Hora de España founded in Valencia by the intellectuals of the Second Republic and helping Spanish exiles in Mexico. Luis Cernuda lived in his house for about a decade.

“At that time I had not done any reflection on poetry; poems came to me all the time and everywhere without intending to.”

While all this was going on, her poetic work continued to grow. Child and shadows (tribute to the lost child: “The angel of faith is useless”);Linked rains; Poems. Shadows and Dreams, and Christmas Carols, are the titles appeared from the beginning of the war to exile. “At that time I had not done any reflection on poetry; poems came to me all the time and everywhere without intending to. That’s why I think that now it comes out because it does; he who is born, is born,” she recalls in her memoirs. From 1944 to 1979, she stopped publishing. Her last book was Life or River.

In 1991, her oral memoirs appeared, a set of recordings induced by her granddaughter Paloma Ulacia.

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