“With His Pistol in His Hand” I

paredes_coverThe first half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” is about the construction and reconstruction of truth on the US/Mexican border. Part One opens with a historical panorama of the Lower Río Grande Border, previously “the old Spanish province of Nuevo Santander, colonized in 1749 by José de Escandon” (7), and continues with a narrative that combines history, geography, and anthropology from the colonial era to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe and on to the early twentieth century. But right from the outset, Paredes manifests his discomfort with what he calls “those documented old men’s tales called histories” (xi). It is not simply that written history lies or is biased–though that is true, too, and Paredes quotes “the most distinguished historian Texas has produced” as claiming matter-of-factly that “The Mexican warrior . . . was on the whole inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan” (17). It is more that Paredes claims that by introducing a multiplicity of sources, ranging from contemporaneous newspaper accounts of specific events to folk memory, oral history, and cultural manifestations such as the border ballad, we gain access both to multiple points of view and also to the broader truths that the very fact of variation and deviation reveals.

Paredes’s case study here is the tale of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican American who, the bald facts tell us and all renditions of the story agree, in 1901 shot and killed a US Sheriff and was then pursued on horseback and foot hundreds of miles by various posses of Texas Rangers before being captured, tried, and convicted of murder. Finally, however, after many years in jail his sentence was overturned as he was judged to have shot in self-defence.

But Paredes begins not with the bald facts or with what he can ascertain about the truth of the tale (this comes later), but rather with an extended version of the “legend.” This legend, he notes, never comes complete: it is an “amorphous body of narrative” (108) that is told in parts that are often inconsistent or contradictory. There is “no standard version.” As such, the compilation Paredes gives us is necessarily his “own version,” which he has constructed by combining “those parts that seemed to [him] the furthest removed from fact” and that yet (he implies) are for that very reason “the most revealing of folk attitudes” (109). For it is the inconsistencies and changes that ultimately provide surest evidence of continuities and certainties. It is precisely the “extreme elasticity of reminiscence and oral report” that makes the tale of Gregorio Cortez a suitable vehicle for the articulation of long-standing and deeply-embedded attitudes, affects, and beliefs about conflict in the border region.

Take for instance the very basic question of Cortez’s physical appearance, on which there is little if any agreement among the many variations. And yet there is a certain consistency depending on who is telling the tale’s. In the first instance, “Those who knew him describe him as opposite to themselves. Short men describe him as tall; tall men say he was short. Fair men call him dark; dark men call him fair” (11). But second, and “more interesting still,” Paredes tells us, “those who did not know him describe him as like themselves. A short, very dark man told me that Cortez had been just a little dark man, chiquitito y prietito. [. . .] A fair, blue-eyed Anglo-American [. . .] remembers him as fair” (111). Likewise when it comes to Cortez’s occupation: “The laborer made of Cortez a laborer, the farmer a farmer, the vaquero a vaquero, the suspected smuggler a smuggling suspect–each applying his own situation, his own disagreeable contacts with the Anglo-American, as the reason for Cortez’s defending of his right” (113). As a result, therefore, the plasticity and malleability of the oral production and reproduction of the story, handed down in bits and pieces on diverse occasions, give us “a synthesis of the Border Mexican, who saw himself collectively in Cortez” (113). The figure of Cortez comes to combine the particular (a name, a place, an event, a date) with the general (the situation and position of an entire community) and even aspects of the universal as the Chicano border legend resonates with similar stories told for instance on the Celtic frontier where England meets Scotland.

In the complex amalgamation of “fact and fancy,” of both “exaggerations” and “purely folkloric elements” (114, 115), it would be wrong to try to eliminate the fantastic, to pare down the story to the bare bones of whatever historical “truth” might still be identified. Indeed, to do so would be also to eliminate and misunderstand history itself, in that the legend is not simply a (foggy, distorted) version of what “really” happened, but it also helped to determine the events that it represents. As Paredes concludes Part One of his book, in what at first sight is a strange inversion of temporality and causality: “It was as if the Border people had dreamed Gregorio Cortez before producing him, and had sung his life and deeds before he was born” (125). The issue is less whether the legend matches the facts, but that border culture was waiting for the arrival of facts that might, more or less or closely enough, match the legend already in gestation and looking for a form of expression.

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.

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.

Testimonio and the Politics of Truth


This semester I’m teaching what my university designates as a “research-intensive” seminar, and figured that this would be an opportunity, among other things, to thematize and question the practice of “research” itself. This I am aiming to do by means of an investigation into Latin American testimonio and the “politics of truth,” with current events in the USA and elsewhere as an ever-present backdrop to our discussions.

You can check out the course website, but here’s the blurb, and below it are links to posts I’m writing in connection with the course…

“The question of ‘truth’ and its importance (or its unimportance) is at issue now more than ever. Oxford Dictionaries have declared that their ‘word of 2016’ was ‘post-truth.’ The idea of ‘post-truth’ is that people are less concerned with whether something is true or not, than with how it makes them feel. It is argued that some of the most decisive political events of the past year–not least the rise of President Elect Donald Trump in the USA–can be explained by this phenomenon.

“If research (fact-checking, investigation) no longer seems to count, or to make much difference to how people think or act, its usefulness or legitimacy is now in question.

“So we will not simply be practicing research in this seminar. We will also be thinking about what it means to do research, what is the point of doing research, and how our ideas about research might have changed over time.

“As a way to think about these issues, we will be reading a series of texts from Latin America that deal with testimony, witnessing, and historical investigation. They include Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre, Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón, Elizabeth Burgos and Rigoberta Menchú’s Me llamo Rigoberto Menchú, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador. These often deal with issues of great importance for ordinary people: state violence, human rights, cultural identity. But their truthfulness has also been questioned, or they have even questioned what we think to be true. We will look therefore at the controversies and debates that these texts have provoked. And we will research them, but we will also ask ourselves about what we are doing (and why) as we do such research.”

La noche de Tlatelolco


One of the repeated chants of Mexico’s student movement in the 1960s, among the many reproduced in Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, is a demand for dialogue: “DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE.” As one of her informants puts it, this is because “the government’s been talking to itself for fifty years now” (30; 38); or as another puts it, “The PRI,” the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, “doesn’t go in for dialogues, just monologues” (86; 90). Hence no doubt the form of Poniatowska’s own book, composed as it is of a multitude of snippets (of interviews, pronouncements, chants, newspaper articles, and so on) from all sides. Dialogue proved impossible in the real world, on the streets or in council chambers, as it was cut short by the violent repression of the student movement, the imprisonment of its leaders, and particularly by the massacre at Tlatelolco, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, that gives this book its title. But it is as though that impossible dialogue were now (almost) realized on the page as slogans face headlines, and witnesses from a variety of backgrounds speak of their experiences, one after another. Moreover, as Poniatowska makes little overt effort to impose a unified narrative or reconcile disparities (though there is no doubt that there is artfulness and intention in the ordering and placement of the various fragments), it is almost as if we catch that dialogue in midstream, any conclusion endlessly postponed.

But I say that this fantasy of dialogue is only almost realized on the page, not merely because it is in the nature of testimonio (as we have seen for instance with Biografía de un cimarrón) that the written word betrays, by fixing and so deadening, oral expression. It is also that the extreme fragmentation here threatens to undermine any attempt to make sense at all, refusing not only the forced coherence of the authoritarian state but also any unity to which the student movement itself might aspire. Even the chant itself, as it is printed here, breaks down the demand for dialogue into its constituent syllables and no longer respects either the unity of the word or its separation from any other: “DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO.” In the frenetic repetition of the march, meaning slips away to be replaced by sheer sound, by elements that could be recombined in more than one way, to more than one end or effect. The onus then is on the reader to pick up and combine the pieces, but even so it is not clear that any single narrative could ever gather together all the fragments and make them cohere. But then surely this is part of the point: if ever there had once been a chance for dialogue, now not even literature (or testimonio) can bring that moment back.

Poniatowska does not claim to establish the truth of what happened at Tlatelolco. Even as she effectively undermines the official version of events, she makes little attempt to substitute it with a new, more authoritative, version. She wrests the monopoly of the truth from the state, without presuming to claim ownership of it herself.

For hers is less a fact-finding mission than a therapeutic howl that puts language to the ultimate test. As she says in one of her very few editorial interventions, halfway through the book, even to consider delving for the truth would be somehow offensive to the victims: “Grief is a very personal thing. Putting it into words is almost unbearable; hence asking questions, digging for facts, borders on an invasion of people’s privacy” (199; 164). Instead, what she aims to provide is a space for the expression of that inexpressive grief that makes the animal within us (bare, unqualified life) come to the fore, as with the mother that Poniatowska describes as “so stunned that for days and days she uttered scarcely a word, and then suddenly, like a wounded animal–an animal whose belly is being ripped apart–she let out a hoarse, heart-rending cry, from the very center of her life.” This is “the sort of wild keening that is the end of everything, the wail of ultimate pain from the wound that will never heal” (199; 164). As such, even to call La noche de Tlatelolco an exercise in therapy is to say too much, as it would imply that healing can someday come–a claim as offensive and intolerable as the high-handed notion that there is some relationship between truth and reconciliation, or even that either were ever desirable. No. What matters is less what these fragments say than what they can never say, or what they say only by revealing the insufficiency and arrogance of any claims to truth or certainty. These pages, if they express anything, are the place for “the mute cry that stuck in thousands of throats, the blind grief in thousands of horror-stricken eyes on October 2, 1968, the night of Tlatelolco” (199; 164).

See also: Testimonio and the Politics of Truth.