The Old Gringo (Spanish: Gringo Viejo) is a novel by Carlos Fuentes, written from 1964 to 1984 and first published in 1985. Inspired by the historical disappearance of American writer Ambrose Bierce amidst the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, the novel addresses themes of death, cultural exchange, and Mexican identity, among others. Its English-language translation became the first novel by a Mexican author to become a U.S. bestseller.
The novel is framed as the reminiscence of an unnamed female character ("now she sits alone and remembers"), presumably Harriet Winslow.
An elderly American writer and former journalist for the Hearst media empire, who can be shown to be but is not named as Ambrose Bierce, decides to leave his old life behind and seek a glorious death in the midst of the Mexican revolution, taking with him only slight provisions and copies of two of his own works, as well as a copy of Don Quixote. A widower whose two sons are both dead (at least one from suicide) and whose daughter refuses to speak to him, this unnamed old man seeks out part of the Army of the North under Pancho Villa. This particular group, led by "General" Tomas Arroyo, has just liberated a massive land holding hacienda from the wealthy Miranda family, killing the family's remaining servants and destroying much of the hacienda itself (apart from the dance hall with many mirrors, which Arroyo has symbolically kept in order to allow his army, composed of commoners, to see their reflections). Arroyo is mestizo, the product of the rape of his mother by his Miranda father, and carries Spanish papers (which he himself cannot read) granting land to the natives of Mexico as a symbolic justification for the Revolution. The elderly American persuades Arroyo to let him join Arroyo's force by successfully shooting a hole through a tossed silver peso; since the American states that he was in the Indiana Volunteers, his Mexican allies refer to him as "Indiana General."
At that same hacienda, the old man meets Harriet Winslow, a 31-year-old woman from Washington D.C. hired to tutor the young Miranda children. Winslow has left Washington after her older "beau," an army official named Delaney, has become involved in an army financial scandal. However, by the time she arrived there, they had long since fled with their parents from Arroyo's army (it is speculated that Winslow was hired merely as a smokescreen for the flight of the Mirandas). Winslow refuses to leave the hacienda, insisting that she has been paid and will wait for the family's return. At first, she refuses to call Arroyo "General" (insisting that he has merely given himself the title), and has a patronizing view about the revolutionary army and the Mexican people, saying,
"What these people need is education, not rifles. A good scrubbing, followed by a few lessons on how we do things in the United States, and you'd see an end to this chaos." "You're going to civilize them?" the old man asked dryly. "Precisely."
Winslow is committed into the care of the elderly American, who subsequently falls in love with her. The elderly American displays considerable courage under fire, risking what seems like obvious death (to indulge his desire to die) only to perform heroic feats and survive. However, his refusal to obey Arroyo's order to shoot a captured federal soldier (choosing instead to shoot one of the pigs eating corpses on the battlefield) means Arroyo could have him executed. Although Arroyo instead executes the captured officer himself, he parlays his control over the "Indiana General's" life into a sexual relationship with Winslow. Although Winslow is coerced and the novel indicates that she "never forgave [Arroyo]" for actions surrounding the sexual activities (forcing her to admit she enjoyed it, and refusing to ejaculate in her mouth), it is implied that Winslow also desired Arroyo sexually. Arroyo's partner, a woman referred to as "La Luna" whom the Revolution has liberated from an abusive landowning husband, accepts his infidelity as necessary. The elderly American finds Winslow's sacrifice ironic, stating that she has not, in fact, saved him, since he came to Mexico to die.
As the novel progresses, Winslow begins to learn to accept the truth of her past: contrary to her father's supposed death in the Spanish–American War in Cuba, he in fact deserted to live with another woman there. Although her attempts to rebuild and restore the hacienda are largely ignored, she also begins to appreciate the Mexican culture she finds around her. By the close of the novel, she returns to America, but refuses to testify in front of Congress as part of a journalistic campaign to encourage the U.S. to "civilize" Mexico, and decides that instead of attempting to change Mexico, as she had wanted to earlier, she wants "to learn to live with Mexico".
The novel climaxes with the deaths of both the old man and General Arroyo. When the 'old gringo' burns the historical land-granting documents, Arroyo responds by fatally shooting him in the back. Later, after Winslow presses for the return of the American's body falsely claiming it is her father (so that he may be buried at Arlington), Pancho Villa faces criticism for an alleged cold-blooded murder of an American by his troops. Villa has the American's body "executed" by firing squad, encouraging Arroyo to give the "coup de grace" to the dead body. As he approaches to do so, Villa orders the firing squad to shoot Arroyo as a means of preventing any further American response.
Like many of Fuentes' works, The Old Gringo explores the way in which revolutionary ideals become corrupted, as Arroyo chooses to pursue the deed to an estate where he once worked as a servant rather than follow the true goals of the revolution. However, as Arroyo had stated to Winslow and the elderly American that he feared the Revolution's success would cause him to become dictatorial in part of an endless cycle of repression and rebellion, and that therefore he hoped to die young, his death as a revolutionary (shouting "Viva Villa!") can be, and is seen by Winslow as, a triumph.
In 1989, the novel was adapted into a film called Old Gringo starring Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, and Jimmy Smits. The film received mixed to negative reviews, with a 45% "Freshness" rating at the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and was a box-office failure.