American Dirt

american-dirtA place-holder for some of the many articles written as part of (or about) the controversy over American Dirt:

There’s a lot more, of course.

Latino/Chicano Literature

tijuana-border-signSome posts about US Latino/Chicano literature, to go with a course by that name:

The Shape of Now

shape-of-nowAlmost exactly half-way through Manuel Correa’s fascinating and important new documentary, The Shape of Now (La forma del presente, 2018), we hear Philosopher of Mathematics, Fernando Zalamea, tell us that politics is like “the surface of the sea [. . .] the waves, which overwhelm us, overpower us, while we should try to seek something deeper that might allow us to escape these waves. It’s a struggle between surface and depth. It’s on the surface that you find, particularly, ‘post-truth’ [. . .]. In fact, truth is to be found in the depths.” Here the film image, which had been a shot of noisy, rushing waters, shifts to the silent depiction of torchlight playing over what seem to be trees or undergrowth, picking out branches or patches of foliage without ever stopping atill in any one place. Is this meant to illustrate what it means to search for a truth found somewhere below? If so, it is not obvious in fact that any greater clarity is achieved by means of this restless highlighting of particulars that emerge from and just as quickly recede back again into the darkness.

Indeed, taken as a whole Correa’s film can be seen almost as a systematic refutation of Zalamea’s thesis. For this is a movie that is for long periods captivated by what appear to be superficial details. The camera, almost always static, lingers on exteriors (a café, an apartment building, a street scene, some kind of government palace) or on the everyday activities around or within (kids playing in a churchyard, a cook kneading dough in a kitchen, a woman sewing, a man having his haircut, a rather lugubrious birthday dance, a bubble rising in a water cooler). Interviewees are presented in long shot and wide angle, with long takes giving the viewer’s eye time to wander and examine the objects that surround them (newspapers, books, teacups, an elaborate candleholder, tables and chairs). What they have to say often threatens to be drowned out by ambient noise that seems at first to be a distraction but then comes to be an object of interest in its own right. At the very end of the film, in fact, there are a couple of shots in which we see people speaking, as they dismantle a stage set, but we don’t hear their voices, which have been replaced entirely by incidental sound that may or may not correspond to the scene before us. There are no depths here, just more surfaces that overlap in parts and at times but never quite coincide.

The topic that the movie addresses is the legacy of Colombia’s decades-long civil war, which began in the 1960s and nominally came to an end in 2016 with the signing of peace accords between the government and the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. In all (the film tells us at the outset) some 260,000 people died in the conflict at the hands of the rebels, the state, paramilitary forces, or drug traffickers. A further 82,000 were forcibly disappeared. Now that there is some kind of peace in the country–a “partial peace” as someone in the film notes, which is better at least than all-out hostilities–people are trying to come to terms with what happened, and to come to terms with each other, as they embark on what the movie calls “the impossible task of agreeing on a shared past.” In some sense, then, the waves are the entire point: an endless set of singularities, of histories that may have a common root but ceaselessly collide. Any sense of calm is simply an illusion of scale, like the long shot of a lake that also illustrates the professor’s disquisition: from a distance the turbulence disappears, but this movie is fascinated by the ways in which larger forces are expressed and play out on a small scale, in a bar or an office, in a scientific study or a theatre troupe.

The theatre troupe is perhaps the central piece in this fragmented montage of disparate elements. The players are all survivors of the war (they claim to refuse the labels of either victims of perpetrators) who have lost relatives to forced disappearance. They act out their own histories, or histories that could have been theirs: panicked attempts to escape when word has it the military or the guerrilla are coming to town; anxious conversations when a loved one doesn’t return from a trip or an errand. Their performances are decidedly amateur, but in a way that’s the point; they don’t want to be lost in their characters, but to maintain their distance from the trauma that they are re-enacting. They take their show to the jails, to perform in front of prisoners who may have been sentenced for the very crimes that they somewhat ham-fistedly represent. To some extent the play is a ruse: they simply want to meet the “other side,” whether to understand them or to be understood by them is not entirely clear; they also suggest that this may be a good way to have the inmates confess informally to the location of clandestine burial sites. Either way, the entire exercise surely demonstrates what we might call the “powers of the false.” Everyone is trying out new roles, with more or less conviction. Meanwhile, an inmate eyes the camera suspiciously, as if to ask what the film is registering. Unblinking, patient, mostly unmoved, the apparatus takes in these surface events and challenges us to do something with them.

The Squatter and the Don II

ruiz-de-burton_squatterIn the second half of Ruiz de Burton’s novel, almost all the characters find themselves, at one point or another, struck down by some debilitating illness or accident. Mercedes, for instance, collapses as she vainly tries to call back Clarence as he precipitously leaves the Alamar residence under what he feels is a cloud of disgrace: “’Oh my darling is gone,’ said she, and the ground swelled and moved under her feet, and the trees went round in mad circles, and she knew no more” (262). This fainting spell, what is more, leads to a fever and months of bed rest; “I think the parting with Clarence has nearly killed her,” observes family friend, George Mechlin (267). Clarence’s sister, Alice, succumbs at the same time, running up a “high fever” and becoming “delirious” while “calling for Clarence most piteously” (271). Then George is shot and injured by the squatter, Mathews. Don Mariano contracts pneumonia (“followed by a lung fever” [294]) after being caught in a snowstorm while herding his cattle, bought by Clarence, towards Clarence’s mines. The same snowstorm leaves Victoriano, Mariano’s son and so also Mercedes’s sister, with a “strange malady” (294) that apparently weakens his extremities and makes him unsteady on his feet. Both father and son continue to be affected for the next year or so: in Victoriano’s case, “every two or three months he had attacks more or less serious of the same lameness which deprived him of the use of his limbs” (300). At the same time, William Darrell (the squatter and Clarence’s father) is equally incapacitated, in the wake of the confrontation with the Alamars that provoked all this disruption in the first place: he has bruises that only get worse; he can “scarcely walk”; and he has “a fever to intensify his pains” (277). Not to be undone (though unaware of the sickness and incapacitation that he has left behind), Clarence himself soon succumbs to something or other, exacerbated by the heat of Arizona where he is inspecting his mines, and ends up “with a raging fever that seemed to be drying the very fountain of his young life” (278).

It is no wonder, then, that when Mercedes’s (and Victoriano’s) brother Gabriel is down on his luck in San Francisco, his wife, Lizzie, who is also George’s sister, hesitates before relaying the news to those back home in Southern California “for it was a noted fact, well recognized by the two families, that misfortunes made them all more or less physically ill” (339). But she can no longer keep quiet when, forced into the menial labor of a hod-carrier by financial desperation, George then slips and falls while working on the construction site of a Nob Hill mansion. As an entire social order once anchored by the Californios’ possession of land now disintegrates, the disaster is registered on the bodies of those affected. It is as though, if the plight of the Alamar family and by extension all other Hispanic Americans cannot find words (for, as Mariano observes early on, “the conquered have always but a weak voice, which nobody hears” [17]), it must still find expression, physically and affectively if necessary.

The problem is that not everyone is equally moved, not everyone’s bodies are sufficiently sensitive to register the affective impact of the Californios’ slow-motion dispossession. On the one hand, the families of squatter and Don alike show themselves attuned corporeally to their surroundings. This is demonstrated most often in blushes and tears; there is more blush in this book than in your average make-up store, and there are tears enough to fill a good-sized swimming pool. It is Mary, Clarence’s mother, who opens the blushing in Chapter I (11). Then Mercedes, when she first meets Clarence (“Her face was suffused with burning blushes” [54]), who is affected in turn (“her blushes being immediately reflected on Clarence’s forehead” [56]) and soon “blushe[s] redder yet” (56). Indeed, blushing tends to be contagious: Mercedes, for instance, “could never see any one blush without doing the very same thing herself” (135). And so when her would-be suitors from the East Coast blush–and they do, of course–so does she. But again, even if she is the most prodigious of blushers she is hardly alone: later it is “Doña Josefa’s turn to blush” (152); likewise, both Lizzie and Gabriel (340). Tears, on the other hand, are regularly and copiously drawn from Mercedes and Clarence (with Mercedes’s “lovely face often bathed in tears” [242] such that Clarence even fears “she would make herself ill with weeping” [359]), but also Mercedes’s sister, Elvira (90, 286, 343), Doña Josefa (341), Mrs Mechlin and her daughter (Lizzie’s sister), Caroline (343), Lizzie herself (354), and at one point the entire Alamar family (336). Even Mr Darrell both blushes (198, 283) and weeps (345, 358), a sign that he is not all bad. Indeed, the fact that both squatter and Don can be moved is what distinguishes them, and ultimately cancels out their antagonism, in the face of the pernicious lawyers (the worst of whom, Roper, is repeatedly described as “unblushing”) on the one hand, and monopoly capital on the other. For the “mighty monopoly” of the railroad represented by Leyland Stanford and others is by contrast a “soulless, heartless, shameless monster” that has “no heart for human pity, no face for manly blush” (314).

In the end (as Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita also note), the opposition between squatter and Don fades as they are both portrayed as suffering, sensitive victims of a corporate capitalism that shows neither qualms (at bribery and corruption, for instance) nor sympathy of any kind. What happened to the Californios, Ruiz de Burton is arguing, will also happen to the Californians as a whole unless they can make common cause and find some “Redeemer” (375). But we end the novel with no great hope that this will happen any time soon. The sickness can only spread.

The Squatter and the Don I

The title page of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s first novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), omits mention of any author, though Rosaura Sánchez and Beatriz Pita tell us that in the Library of Congress it is listed under Ruiz de Burton’s married name, “H. S. Burton” or “Mrs Henry S. Burton.” No doubt there are good reasons why the first Mexican-American novelist to publish in English–a woman, what is more–should wish to be coy about her identity, not least (Sánchez and Pita point out) because “the novel is a bitingly satirical novel, a caustic parody of the United States during the period of the Civil War” (12). It may have seemed wise to hide behind the protection of anonymity, or at least to stress the author’s association with her husband Burton, an officer in the US Army who had led a detachment of volunteers during the Mexican-American War, and later served as commander of the military garrison at San Diego, just north of the new border drawn between the USA and Mexico in the war’s aftermath.

ruiz-de-burton_squatterThirteen years later, for her second novel, The Squatter and the Don, Ruiz de Burton employs a pseudonym that both occludes and hints at her identity: the book was published, in San Francisco, under the name “C Loyal.” As Sánchez and Pita explain, “The ‘C.’ stood for Ciudadano or ‘Citizen,’ and ‘Loyal’ for Leal, i.e. Ciudadano Leal, a ‘Loyal Citizen,” a common letter-closing practice used in official government correspondence in Mexico during the nineteenth century” (13). So here, while the author’s gender is hidden (or left ambiguous), the fact that the initial “C” stands in for a Spanish word, and that the phrase as a whole alludes to a Mexican practice, suggests–at least to the reader already somewhat in the know–that the author may not be so straightforwardedly an American citizen. Indeed, for all the protestations of loyalty, the hybrid formulation, half-English and half-Spanish, is perhaps better read as a double betrayal, or at least as indicating a position that straddles the line that newly demarcated the divide between Mexico and the swathes of territory (including all of what is now California) that, under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it ceded to the United States.

The Squatter and the Don is all about the consequences of that treaty, and the ways in which (in Ruiz de Burton’s view) the USA subsequently reneged on the guarantees it gave to the former Mexican citizens who stayed put while the border crossed them. Specifically, the novel is concerned with the property rights of the Californio landowners, represented here by the “Don” of the title, one Don Mariano Alamar, who has a large ranch outside of San Diego. The problem is (as Ruiz de Burton details at length) that post-war legislation determined that all existent property claims in California should be subject to lengthy legal investigation. While this investigation (and any appeals that it might generate) is under way, other potential claimants are permitted to establish themselves on the land, marking out their own territory, building a house and ploughing fields etc. These squatters (who may well see themselves as legitimate “settlers,” simply carrying out the US state’s expansionist drive) wreak havoc on the economy of the ranches they take over, legally corralling or illegally but with impunity killing any of the ranchers’ cattle that are drawn to their growing crops. As the legal limbo drags on, even if they ultimately are able to prove their rights, the original landowners gradually lose the basis of their livelihood while they hemorrhage funds on taxes and legal fees. This is the fate facing Don Mariano, who when the novel opens has still, almost quarter of a century after the signing of the treaty that supposedly guaranteed his rights, not finally established definitive legal proof of the status of the property on which his family has been living since long before the border moved south.

By the novel’s midpoint, Don Mariano’s legal suit is finally (it seems) at an end. But there is no guarantee that the gang of squatters who have taken residence on his land will be in any mood to respect the judgment. Meanwhile, a new figure has entered the scene and increasingly taken center-stage: one of the squatters’ sons, a Mr Clarence Darrell, has fallen for and become engaged to one of Mariano’s daughters, Mercedes. Moreover, unlike his father (and the other squatters), Darrell not only is prepared to socialize and even inter-marry with the Californios, he also indicates that in any case there are other ways to make money than either ranching or small-holding. He has invested in mining, and now is minded to found a bank in San Diego, to take advantage of the economic activity that will arise when the railroad arrives and an East-West axis replaces North-South tensions. He suggests, in short, that the semi-feudal ways of a Don such as Mariano are inevitably doomed, not simply because of unjust laws or avaricious carpet-baggers, but because of the industrial modernization that is always the ace in the United States’s hand. In the meantime, or for the time being, Ruiz de Burton’s novelistic sympathies are interestingly balanced between the virtues of “Spano-American” tradition and manners, and the generative possibilities of honest entrepreneurship incarnated in Clarence, a fantasy of the American Dream if ever there was one.

El delirio de Turing I

paz-soldan_delirio-de-turingA tale of cyberspace, crypto-security and hacktivism set in Bolivia? At first glance, the idea is counter-intuitive. The country is by some measures the poorest in South America (with a per-capita GDP of only just over $8,000) and is more often associated with ancient indigenous cultures than with contemporary hyper-modernity. Yet Information Technology and the Internet, and everything that comes with them, are part and parcel of globalization, which by definition breaks down oppositions between First and Third Worlds, Centre and Periphery. Your cellphone battery may well contain lithium from the salt flats of Uyuni. Global forces shape La Paz or Santa Cruz as much as they do New York or Montreal.

Of course, in some ways there is nothing new about this. Even the most remote Andean villages have long been part of global circuits. If now it is lithium that makes the world go round, once it was silver from the mines of Potosí. So there are continuities as well as changes in this latest phase of globalization, and Edmundo Paz Soldán’s novel El delirio de Turing is as interested in the ways in which new technologies ultimately confirm old patterns as he is in the new dimensions of politics and protest that open up when power and resistance are as palpable online as on the streets.

The “Turing” of the book’s title is on the one hand a reference to Alan Turing, the celebrated British mathematician and early pioneer (and theorist) of computing who was also associated with the World War Two efforts at Bletchley Park to crack the code of the Nazi Enigma Machine. On the other hand, however, it is the codename given to one Miguel Sáenz, who is in charge of the Archive at the Bolivian state’s shadowy department dedicated to electronic surveillance and counter-terrorism nicknamed the “Black Chamber.” And just as Sáenz (bespectacled civil servant) becomes Turing (“implacable tracker of coded messages” [13]), as he crosses the portal to his top-secret job deep in the security state, so Paz Soldán is interested in the ways in which we can become other on the Internet: shaking off our humdrum everyday identities to become anonymous or to take on new roles and act out forbidden fantasies.

Most everyone in the Bolivia that the novel depicts (which is only slightly displaced from the Bolivia we know) has an account with a virtual environment known as “el Playground,” which is some kind of “Second Life.” Here, you can take on an avatar and meet, socialize, flirt and fight with others who are also acting out their dreams from their keyboards or touchscreens. The only thing you can not do, at the risk of summoning up the Playground’s own (virtual) security forces, is acknowledge the “merely” digital nature of the environment, or make reference to the so-called “real” world. The condition of entry, in other words, is that you must act online as though the fiction were both real and fully sufficient.

Yet Paz Soldán is equally interested in the extent to which we can never fully shake off our terrestrial histories and identities. That, after all, is in large part the mission of a crypto-analyst such as Sáenz/Turing: to locate and decipher the digital fingerprints on any disruption in the online system and track them back to real-world individuals who could then (if the state deems it necessary) be arrested and disciplined. But Sáenz/Turing is just as vulnerable as anybody else: he cannot fully leave his domestic preoccupations (a wife and daughter from whom he is increasingly distant) at the door to the Black Chamber. What is more, the plot gets going as somebody seems to have accessed his otherwise secure email to send him an all-too-easily decipherable coded message: “Murderer, You Have Blood On Your Hands.”

And by halfway through the novel, we are beginning to have an inkling of what this missive may mean, as we hear the testimony of Sáenz’s wife to an investigative Judge who seems to have the current regime in his sights: for all that Sáenz/Turing sees his work as an intellectual exercise, an interesting game, he may well be complicit in disappearances and tortures, the very visceral and corporeal consequences of his playing with bits and bytes. However much the online world offers liberation and reinvention, and however much contemporary globalization introduces new opportunities and political paradigms, behind everything lurks state violence and a tendency towards totalitarianism.