Signs Preceding the End of the World

by

Yuri Herrera

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Signs Preceding the End of the World Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Yuri Herrera

Born and raised in the town of Actopan, Hidalgo, Yuri Herrera had writerly ambitions from an early age. But, believing the best writers generally studied something else, he moved to nearby Mexico City in 1989 to study Political Science at the prestigious UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). He completed an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.  Herrera cites his frequent journeys back and forth across the border (to study in El Paso and to visit his family in Juárez) as an important influence on his work. In 2009, he completed a Ph.D. in Hispanic Language and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and he published Signs Proceeding the End of the World in the same year. During graduate school, Herrera also founded and edited the short-lived literary magazine el perro. He had already won literary fame in Latin America with his first novel many years prior, in 2004, which won the previous year’s Frontera de Palabras / Border of Words” Binational Novel Prize for young writers. Although yet to be translated to English, Herrera’s most recent book is a work of nonfiction, El Incendio de la Mina El Bordo (The Fire at El Bordo Mine), which reconstructs an important, local forgotten history in Herrera’s native state of Hidalgo. The political themes that run throughout Herrera’s work point to his background in political science and firm belief that literature inescapably has political consequences. As of 2019, although he continues to write fiction, he also teaches at Tulane University and writes extensively for literary magazines, prominent newspapers, and academic journals alike.
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Historical Context of Signs Preceding the End of the World

Signs Proceeding the End of the World is inextricably embedded in the recent history of Mexican immigration to the United States. By emphasizing the indigenous roots of his protagonist Makina, Herrera points to the long, living history of indigenous civilization in present-day Mexico. It is impossible to understand Signs Proceeding the End of the World without looking at the historical template for Makina’s journey: the Mexica (Aztec) underworld, Mictlán, which is understood only because of the sparse texts that survived the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán. There was no dearth of contact and exchange between the indigenous peoples of present-day Mexico and the American southwest, and indeed much of the current United States was Spanish and then Mexican territory until the Mexican-American war in 1846, which culminated in the United States forcing the Mexican government to cede huge swaths of land in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. For more than a half-century, movement across the newly-created border was common and unrestricted, with Mexican labor forming a cornerstone of the Western United States’ economy. Since the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, however, the United States has strictly limited migration from Mexican migration with few exceptions. The current policy of violently deporting undocumented immigrants began in 1954, although it has expanded dramatically since the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, a period during which immigration from Mexico also steeply dropped off due to a combination of socioeconomic factors. Emigration from Mexico to the United States remains common, and Herrera wrote his novel at the peak of this phenomenon. The constant flow of working-class male migrants from rural areas of Mexico to the United States in part accounts for the apparent barrenness of Makina’s native town, in which there appear to be almost no men besides gangsters and the young men who work for them, many of whom have already gone to, and returned from, the United States.

Other Books Related to Signs Preceding the End of the World

Herrera’s distinctive voice is, of course, best appreciated in his two other novels: Trabajos del reino (Kingdom Cons) and La transmigración de los cuerpos (The Transmigration of Bodies). As important influences and sources of inspiration, Herrera has cited the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis (best remembered for Dom Casmurro), American “hardboiled” detective literature (like the work of Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley), the Mexican school of poets commonly known as Los Contemporáneos, and medieval literature like Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina, which Herrera considers significant because of its influence on the formation of literary genres. The literature about the U.S.-Mexico border, both scholarly and fictional, is incredibly extensive and impossible to adequately summarize through a short list. However, a few key fictional works on the subject include Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Ana Castillo’s The Guardians, James Carlos Blake’s In the Rogue Blood, and Christina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans. Important histories of the U.S.-Mexico border include Timothy J. Dunn’s The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992, and Claire Fox’s The Fence and the River: Culture and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border. Gloria Anzaldúa’s feminist classic Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is also a landmark memoir and study of how the border produces hybrid identities. U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s numerous books of poetry, fiction, and theater in Spanish, English, and often both have made a profound contributions to the articulation the Mexican American (or Chicanx) identity that Herrera explores in Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Key Facts about Signs Preceding the End of the World
  • Full Title: Signs Preceding the End of the World
  • When Published: 2009
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Latin American
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Mexico and the United States
  • Climax: Makina descends to the “Obsidian Place” and receives a new identity before declaring herself “ready” for whatever is to come next.
  • Antagonist: The trials of Makina’s journey, U.S. security forces, racist police officers
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Signs Preceding the End of the World

Forbidden Language. Many readers immediately note that, while Signs Preceding the End of the World is clearly a book about Mexico, the United States, and migration, none of those words ever appear in the book. Yuri Herrera has explained that this is a deliberate tactic to help readers see a world they think they already know with a new, critical distance. Before beginning each of his novels, he carefully draws up lists of words to use and words to avoid.