Early life and education
Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in Guatemala City on October 19, 1899, the first child of Ernesto Asturias Girón, a lawyer and judge, and María Rosales de Asturias, a schoolteacher. Two years later, his brother, Marco Antonio, was born. Asturias's parents were of Spanish descent, and reasonably distinguished: his father could trace his family line back to colonists who had arrived in Guatemala in the 1660s; his mother, whose ancestry was more mixed, was the daughter of a colonel. In 1905, when the writer was six years old, the Asturias family moved to the house of Asturias' grandparents, where they lived a more comfortable lifestyle.
Despite his relative privilege, Asturias's father opposed the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who had come to power in February 1898. As Asturias later recalled, "My parents were quite persecuted, though they were not imprisoned or anything of the sort". Following an incident in 1904 which, in his capacity as judge, Asturias Sr. set free some students arrested for causing a disturbance, he clashed directly with the dictator, lost his job, and he and his family were forced to move in 1905 to the town of Salamá, the departmental capital of Baja Verapaz, where Miguel Ángel Asturias lived on his grandparents' farm. It was here that Asturias first came into contact with Guatemala's indigenous people; his nanny, Lola Reyes, was a young indigenous woman who told him stories of their myths and legends that would later have a great influence on his work.
In 1908, when Asturias was nine, his family returned to the suburbs of Guatemala City. Here they established a supply store where Asturias spent his adolescence. Asturias first attended Colegio del Padre Pedro and then, Colegio del Padre Solís. Asturias began writing as a student and wrote the first draft of a story that would later become his novel El Señor Presidente.
In 1920, Asturias participated in the uprising against the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. While enrolled in El Instituto Nacional de Varones (The National Institute for Boys) he took an active role, such as organizing strikes in his high school, in the overthrow of the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera. He and his classmates formed what is now known to be “La Generación del 20” (The Generation of 20).
In 1922, Asturias and other students founded the Popular University, a community project whereby "the middle class was encouraged to contribute to the general welfare by teaching free courses to the underprivileged." Asturias spent a year studying medicine before switching to the faculty of law at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in Guatemala City. He obtained his law degree in 1923 and received the Gálvez Prize for his thesis on Indian problems. Asturias was also awarded the Premio Falla for being the top student in his faculty. It was at this university that he founded the Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios (Association of University Students) and the Asociación de estudiantes El Derecho (Association of Law Students), in addition to actively participating in La Tribuna del Partido Unionista (Platform of the Unionist Party). It was ultimately the latter group which derailed the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera. Both of the associations he founded have been recognized as being positively associated with Guatemalan patriotism. In reference to literature, Asturias' involvement in all of these organizations influenced many of his scenes in El Señor Presidente. Asturias was thus involved in politics; working as a representative of the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios (General Association of University Students), and traveling to El Salvador and Honduras for his new job.
Asturias' university thesis, "The Social Problem of the Indian," was published in 1923. After receiving his law degree the same year, Asturias moved to Europe. He had originally planned to live in England and study political economy, but changed his mind. He soon transferred to Paris, where he studied ethnology at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) and became a dedicated surrealist under the influence of the French poet and literary theorist André Breton. While there, he was influenced by the gathering of writers and artists in Montparnasse, and began writing poetry and fiction. During this time, Asturias developed a deep concern for Mayan culture and in 1925 he worked to translate the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuh, into Spanish, a project which he spent 40 years on. He also founded a magazine while in Paris called Tiempos Nuevos or New Times.
In 1930, Asturias published his first novel Leyendas de Guatemala. Two years later, in Paris, Asturias received the Sylla Monsegur Prize for the French translations of Leyendas de Guatemala. On July 14, 1933, he returned to Guatemala after ten years in Paris.
Exile and rehabilitation
Asturias devoted much of his political energy towards supporting the government of Jacobo Árbenz, successor to Juan José Arévalo Bermejo. Asturias was asked following his work as an ambassador to help suppress the threat of rebels from El Salvador. While his efforts were backed by the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, the rebels succeeded in invading Guatemala and overthrew Jacobo Árbenz' rule in 1954. When the government of Jacobo Árbenz fell Asturias was expelled from the country by Carlos Castillo Armas because of his support for Árbenz. He was stripped of his Guatemalan citizenship and went to live in Buenos Aires and Chile, where he spent the next eight years of his life. When another change of government in Argentina meant that he once more had to seek a new home, Asturias moved to Europe. While living in exile in Genoa his reputation grew as an author with the release of his novel, Mulata de Tal (1963).
In 1966, democratically elected President Julio César Méndez Montenegro achieved power and Asturias was given back his Guatemalan citizenship. Montenegro appointed Asturias as ambassador to France, where he served until 1970, taking up a permanent residence in Paris. A year later, in 1967, English translations of Mulata de Tal were published in Boston.
Later in Asturias' life he helped found the Popular University of Guatemala. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where he died in 1974. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Asturias married his first wife, Clemencia Amado, in 1939. They had two sons, Miguel and Rodrigo Ángel, before divorcing in 1947.
Asturias then met and married his second wife, Blanca Mora y Araujo (1903-2000), in 1950. Mora y Araujo was Argentinian, and so when Asturias was deported from Guatemala in 1954, he went to live in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. He lived in his wife's homeland for eight years. Asturias dedicated his novel Week-end en Guatemala to his wife, Blanca, after it was published in 1956. They remained married until Asturias' death in 1974.
Asturias' son from his first marriage, Rodrigo Asturias, under the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom, the name of an indigenous rebel in his father's own novel, Men of Maize, was President of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). The URNG was a rebel group active in the 1980s, during the Guatemalan Civil War, and after the peace accords in 1996.