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This Fall, I’m teaching “Introduction to Latin American Studies.” I’ve taught it before, but the twist this time is that I have some money to make videos to illustrate and enhance the course.

There will be three types of videos: 1) “instructor videos,” or mini-lectures that I write and deliver; 2) conversations with colleagues and others on specific topics; 3) student-made videos.

Everything will be made available (via YouTube) with a CC-BY-NC license. This means that anybody can re-use and even remake the material, so long as they attribute the original source, and so long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes.

They are far from perfect (we’re not professionals), but I’m pretty pleased with how they’re turning out so far. Each one gets a little better, at least in technical terms, I think, even though we also find ways to add new glitches we’d barely considered before.

We’ll have to wait, of course, for the student-made videos, but here are the first few instructor videos and conversations:

Instructor videos:

  1. Where is Latin America?
  2. The Meeting of Two Worlds
  3. The Colonial Experience

Interviews:

  1. Hugo Chávez in Context, with Max Cameron
  2. Modernity and Modernization in Mexico, with Alec Dawson
  3. The Mexican Revolution, with Alec Dawson
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conviviality

Alma GuillermoprietoWriting in 2000, a period during which the FARC still enjoyed state-sanctioned control of large swathes of South-Central Colombia marked out as a “zona de despeje,” a cleared zone, Alma Guillermoprieto notes the grubby normality of everyday life in this safe haven. In San Vicente de Caguán, “there are loud cantinas; fleshy women in too much makeup under the glaring sun; block after block of storefronts selling boom boxes, high-heeled shoes, glitter eye shadow, and telephones shaped like hot dogs” (Looking for History 55).

The guerrilla, as far as Guillermoprieto can see, spend their time mostly lounging about: buying mascara and nail polish; chatting with neighbours; watching TV, their FALs and AK-47s casually propped up in the corner of the room. Of course, the point about a safe haven is that it’s a good place for a little R&R; it’s not as though there’s no war on, and indeed with up to 20,000 people under arms, the FARC are able to carry out significant actions, “waging something very like real war against the Colombian state” (60). (And here’s a pretty good round-up of recent accounts of “Latin American’s Longest War”.) But even this war has become very much a habit among its combatants, some of whom have known little else than life as a guerrilla.

For instance, compañera Nora, “a trim, agreeable woman in charge of the FARC’s liaison with the public” (57) has spent well over half of her thirty-three years in the rebel ranks. Meanwhile, the insurgent leader, Manuel Marulanda or “Tirofijo”, has been out in the hills in one form or another since the “Violencia” of 1948 to 1958. In Colombia, civil war is very much a way of life, for some almost a lifestyle option: Nora is reported as saying that she joined the FARC, at the age of fifteen, after she had seen a guerrilla column with its “brisk young women, in uniform and carrying guns, and thought they were the most powerful and glamorous creatures she had ever seen” (59).

At the time of Guillermoprieto’s visit, the FARC and the Colombian government (under President Andrés Pastrana) were engaged in a “peace process,” though these are hardly exactly peace talks: they are rather a “ritual encounter” celebrated “on a regular basis, and call[ed] progress” (64). No real dialogue was underway, and in any case everyone knew that at the margins prowled the military and their comrades in (para)military arms, the so-called “self-defence” units.

DMZ mapBut in any case, such hope as Guillermoprieto entertains is based on the notion that the FARC’s experience in this demilitarized zone might bring about a rehabituation. In that they had not been granted sovereignty of this territory that was often misleadingly nicknamed FARClandia, Guillermoprieto notes that “”for the first time, the guerrillas are coexisting with the citizens of a small town, and even having to get along with its mayor” (66). The rebels are forced, in their downtime, at ease, to be “sharing social and political space with the inhabitants of San Vicente” (68).

For Guillermoprieto, then, the experience is a lesson in conviviality, that takes place at a level well below the comandantes non-negotiations with their official counterparts, and even well below the ideology that in any case is hardly the rebels’ motive force.

This is not to say, however, that this process of conviviality is not connected in some way with the media–though it may not be mediated in any conventional sense. For Guillermoprieto ends her account with what we are to take as a hopeful sign: a sudden realization that comes to her on her last morning, as she is taking breakfast at a fonda, or small restaurant, abutting the local FARC headquarters. A television is on, as in Latin America one always is. And the programme playing was Xena: Warrior Princess, the TV industry’s ironized take on fighting women. But this irony establishes, perhaps, some common ground:

Two waitresses, as young as the guerrillas next door, were glued to the program. And then I realized that the guerrillas were too. The FARC videos were still playing just on the other side of the wall, but the kids were taking turns sneaking out of the headquarters to stand at the doorway of the fonda, watching Xena. (71)

Of course, as a postscript acknowledges, just a couple of months later the US Congress approved “Plan Colombia”. And by early 2002, the state withdrew its support for a demilitarized zone, the army returned, and so disappeared any hope for Xena-blessed conviviality.

Xena

seduction

Giaconda Belli

Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin documents both the euphoria and the disappointment of the Nicaraguan revolution. It’s also a meditation on the relations between power, affect, and knowledge. And it’s a seductive tale warning of the dangers of seduction.

Belli is in Costa Rica in the days leading up to Somoza’s downfall, frustrated about her distance from the real action. But thanks to her access to radio communications with rebel commanders on the front lines, she is able to follow the action if anything more closely than most of those on the ground: “It was mesmerizing to hear about the progress of the insurrection, to hear what was happening in real time” (234).

The final weeks and months of the Sandinista triumph went by astonishingly rapidly. Rather than leading, the Sandinistas were running to catch up with their impending triumph. Belli captures the “sensation of unreality” as victory finally, unexpectedly, raced up to meet them and the FSLN were thrust, blinking in the light, onto the world stage: “Sometimes it seemed as though they couldn’t be talking about my tiny country, abandoned by everyone and beholden to a bloody dictator for half a century, but about a major power, able to make policy decisions that would alter Latin America’s future” (236).

And then suddenly, almost anticlimactically, Somoza leaves office. And the Sandinistas, as much as anyone else, are left wondering what happens next: “Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Everyone’s eyes glittered with anticipation” (239).

Then the celebration: “Overcome with joy, we fell into one another’s arms. ‘Somoza left!’ we repeated to each other, as we kissed, danced and hugged.” And Belli echoes Neruda’s famous “Heights of Macchu Picchu” in her invocation of the dead reborn in triumph: “Multitudes of our beloved dead came to life among us with their empty eyes, their deaf ears, the dust of their bones that could never celebrate with us” (239). It’s a mythic time of (re)creation: “The 18th, the 19th of July 1979. [. . .] Two days that felt as though a magical, age-old spell had been cast over us, taking us back to Genesis, to the very site of the creation of the world” (241).

Such is the world-making power of revolutionary violence.

Ernesto Cardenal and multitude

Ernesto Cardenal and multitude

But Belli, closely associated with the cúpula of the FSLN leadership, is soon entrusted with part of the transformation of that constituent power into constituted power: the construction of a nation, reconstruction of the state. Her task is to represent the revolution, to produce the “victory issue” of a new newspaper, to be called Patria Libre. This task can only be completed from the distance that representation requires, the newspaper then imported into the newly liberated country.

Flying into Managua on a plane loaded down with newsprint, Belli finds the airport almost deserted: the action is elsewhere. Only an old school friend has turned up to greet her, but Belli turns her away, judging her guardianship of the papers to be more important. Here, even at arrival, is the first disappointment, the first betrayal, of the revolution: over the “eerie desolation” of the airport terminal “Justine’s face would be always superimposed. I managed to shake off my uneasiness. There would be time later on to explain things to Justine, to my parents, I said to myself. They would wait for me, they always did. But history wouldn’t” (246).

Belli sets off, with her precious copies of Patria Libre, seeking to track down the history that the newspaper already claimed to represent. Her truck passes jubilant crowds: “their joy had the taste of sweet, red watermelon, its juice dripping down my chin” (247). But when at last they get to the city and reach the central plaza “there was no one left. That was when we realized that the crowds we’d seen on the road had been walking home after the celebration. All that was left in the great, deserted plaza were wrappers, trash” (248).

Henry Ruiz, aka Modesto

Henry Ruiz, aka Modesto

In place of this unpredictable, mobile multitude, the Sandinistas establish a militarized state as totem and fetish, positing its institutions and its leaders as the object of revolutionary desire–thus inverting the relationship constitutive of the triumph itself. Belli notes the demobilizing effect of this inversion, describing her lover Modesto and his “bodyguards, who only a month earlier had fearlessly confronted Somoza’s tanks, [and now] were docile and obedient in their leader’s presence” (266).

She observes the ways in which “military protocol had its grandiose, seductive side. [. . .] Modesto–comandante, member of the Sandinista National Directorate, maximum authority in Nicaragua both during and after the Revolution–would move calmly amid the soldiers hurriedly standing at attention” (266).

It’s not long before Belli also realizes that “the dazzling spell of power”–constituted power, we should clarify–also entails self-delusion among those who wield it: “these men had been seduced by the spell of their own self-image [. . .]. They felt eminently astute and capable, a cross between political bright boys and heroic, strapping knights-errant” (275).

The Sandinistas begin to believe their own myth of leadership, rather than learning from their experience of belatedness. The only indication of what has been lost in this transition is the lingering nostalgia that pervades Belli’s memoir, a “nostalgia for what we had been” (291) before the rigidity that set in with the state’s consolidation, and before the FSLN retrospectively branded everything in sight with their red and black logo.

See also The Country Under My Skin.

traje

indigenous womanAlicia Velásquez Nimatuj offers a stirring defence of Guatemalan indigenous dress or traje. She opens with an anecdote of how she was refused admittance to a Guatemala City restaurant solely (she tells us) because she was wearing K’iche dress. She argues that wearing traje “is not just a matter of standing up for our cultural rights. Since 1997, in post-war Guatemala, it has become a political challenge: that of breaking the various ideological, legal, colonial, and contemporary racist structures that exist in all spheres of the Guatemalan State” (“Ways of Exclusion” 158).

But if the survival of traje is an instance of both “historical resistance” and “everyday resistance,” indeed if in the history of Mayan resistance to colonialism “women’s regional dress has played a leading role” (159), then what to say of the fact that increasingly, and especially in the cities, it is now replaced by “fashionable jeans and jacket” (161)? For Velásquez Nimatuj, the shift from regional to conventional Western dress shows “how racism is internalized for some Maya women [. . . they] have come to accept what the dominant ideology has repeated over and over again, that our regional dress stands for ‘backwardness,’ ‘underdevelopment,’ ‘poor hygiene,’ ‘ignorance,’ and ‘living in the past'” (160).

On the other hand, the role of “Maya intermediaries” in “the folkloric exploitation and abuse of Maya women and their traditional dress” is equally “reprehensible” (162). Velásquez Nimatuj notes that “sadly” even “a few Maya” are involved in organizing Cobán’s annual folk festival that features a beauty pageant for indigenous girls in ceremonial costume (162).

In short, both wearing traje and not wearing it properly, treating it as semi-archaic folklore rather than as living resistance, are equally damned as something very close to ethnic betrayal.

Indigenous dress threatens both betrayal and counter-betrayal: in so far as it constitutes the performance of ethnic authenticity and resistance, it “betrays” the fact that its wearer will never be fully ladinized, that she is always treated as stubbornly subaltern to be banished to the margins of Guatemalan society; but by contrast, when the dress is put centre-state as the fetishized image of national identity, for instance in airport shops or tourist brochures and boutiques, another betrayal is afoot in this improper performance of authenticity.

In other words, though Velásquez Nimatuj wants to tell us that dress somehow expresses the intimate essence of ethnic identity, “the visible proof and cultural marker that locates us in the category of ‘Indians'” (160-161), not only does she therefore collude with the restaurant doorman who likewise interprets clothing as ethnicity, but she is also forced rather futilely to police the evident fissures between the two. She insists that studies focussing only on the material aspects of indigenous weaving are insufficient, but this is surely because now traje has become for her a political style on which she, like any other self-appointed arbiter of fashion, has set herself up to judge.

By contrast, then, I find Carol Hendrickson’s more nuanced analysis to be also more persuasive. For Hendrickson, wearing regional dress is best understood as strategy rather than essence, allowing “Guatemalans acting within a given social moment [to] contemplate and adjust their own appearance (if only momentarily and on an extremely small scale) and hence the social role assigned to them” (“Images of the Indian in Guatemala” 303). As a strategy, then, the consequences of traje are never fully predictable. It is an always uncertain risk, which may bring rewards as well as stigma, benefits as well as losses. “This is particularly true when the situation is anything more than routine and when it is not obvious which image of the Indian will come into play for any particular circumstance” (304).

Velásquez Nimatuj prescribes pre-destined resistance, whose limits she claims to legislate as native anthropologist/informant. But Hendrickson presents dress as a terrain of corporeal experimentation and investment, which may or may not lead to politically significant incorporeal transformations, in a contested field in which identity traits are at least partially dislocated and so still up for grabs.

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez PenaGuillermo Gómez Peña and Coco Fusco

delinquency

Three short articles–crónicas–on contemporary urban violence in Colombia and Venezuela.

BAE memberFor José Roberto Duque, it is still the state that’s at issue. He describes a police murder: a raid on a house in a poor Caracas neighbourhood, the special forces storming up the stairs to their target, the body thrown out of the window, the witnesses coached to say the victim was a “bully, a delinquent,” the falsified autopsy and death certificate. Everything conducted smoothly enough, an efficient exercise in limpieza, cleansing. People play along. “Nobody wants to get in trouble, right?” (“A Small Mistake” 123).

The problem, however, is the “small mistake” of the title: while the police are still conducting their operation their informed by panicked relatives that they have the wrong address. “No, sir. This is house number 20, but on Ricuarte Alley. La Vuelta del Mocho is about eight blocks up.” The police response: “Ah, shit.” But too late, because the bureaucratic machinery of law enforcement can’t be halted so easily. After all, it operates according to its own logic, at some remove from reality. The drugs and weapons have already been planted. The original victim is infinitely replaceable; the objects of state repression are “whatever” victims, their individual names interchangeable and ultimately irrelevant. Due process and procedure can’t be derailed by these small details of individual identification.

But this depersonalized, common object of state repression is also, in José Navia’s piece from Bogotá’s marginal urban slums, a common subject he terms the “multitude.” And if for Duque the barrio is the site of random death, for Navia the multitude makes it also a place in which that institutionalized death drive faces the forces of life. The “rest of the city” slumbers while “a multitude begins to stir in the narrow, labyrinthine, unpaved alleys of Ciudad Bolívar” (“Ciudad Bolívar: Brush Strokes against Death” 125). Though “stigmatized by death” (125), the multitude are “youths on their feet, united, demanding a future, building a life [. . .] they invite life to be created in the place of death” (126).

Finally, however, Alberto Salcedo Ramos’s vision is much darker. Here it’s not so much the state versus the subaltern, margin lined up against the periphery, as an urban environment saturated by danger and violence. Mobility is no salvation, indeed it only invites further risk: “hailing a taxi on a Bogotá street at night–or even during the day–turns us into Russian roulette players.” Salcedo Ramos goes on to suggest that “the only defensive manoeuver we have left is hoping, sometimes with ingeniousness, sometimes with arrogance, that the fatal shot doesn’t hit us” (“The Drive-By Victim” 130). Of course, his perspective is partly that of the educated professional expressing the fear that his own city has become a no-go area in which any even semi-ostentatious display of privilege is pounced upon. He describes his experience being subject to a taxi-jacking, and describes himself as “a presumptuous animal that didn’t know the laws of the jungle” (131).

Here again mistakes can be made, and here again those mistakes are somehow irrelevant: “If I wasn’t rich but merely a poor copy, all the worse for me, not for them” (132). But the people who hold him up haven’t quite made a mistake: he does after all have a savings account, he can after all procure money from a cash dispenser. And he has three cigarettes left, that the thieves can’t pass up: “We smoke, too” (137).

But even Salcedo Ramos recognizes the sense of honour that runs through delinquency. It’s a common trope, of course, of criminal society as equally, perhaps even more, rule-bound than the sovereign normality against which it rebels. “‘We’re thieves, man, not killers,’ said the fat one, in a tone of offended dignity” (136). The middle classes have simply to learn this code of conduct, and abide by it. It’s a world turned upside down, of course, but it has its logic. Salcedo Ramos ends up feeling grateful to his kidnappers, precisely because they maintained their calm and composure and stuck to their rulebook even as he himself tried to dodge and feint. When they release them he says “If I didn’t shake their hands and invite them to breakfast the next day, it was because I wasn’t brave enough. [. . .] And I thought that we are so screwed in this country that the only option left to us in the end is thanking the thieves” (137).

Isn’t that because the country owes what little cohesion it has to the old-fashioned pragmatism of delinquency, so baldly opposed to the neoliberal state’s mechanistic administration of bare life?

Ciudad BolivarSee Philippe Revelli’s excellent photo series on Bogotá youth

visuality

Magali M. Carrera emphasizes the way in which the shift from a colonial regime of power in Latin America also implies the constitution of new “kinds of time” (“From Royal Subject to Citizen” 32). Late eighteenth-century writers “transfer the reader out of the fixed present of New Spain into alternative realms of time: the non-chronological, allegorical and futuristic time of utopia” on the one hand “and the legendary, idealised past” of foundational fictions on the other (32).

For a postcolonial society even to be envisaged, that society must be placed within historical time, and allocated both a destiny and an origin.

Benedict Anderson’s point about the temporality of national consciousness is similar. Anderson writes that it is “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time [that] is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (Imagined Communities 26).

But where Anderson argues that this temporality is particular to the novel and the newspaper, and so to print capitalism, Carrera wants to show ways in which it was also visualized, depicted in the art as well as the literature of the nascent Spanish American republics.

So whereas Anderson traces a shift from a medieval culture in which “the figuring of imagined reality was overwhelmingly visual and aural” (23) to the novel and the newspaper as “forms [that] provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation” (25), Carrera shows how the iconography of Empire was replaced with an alternative visual imagination specific to national self-determination. From “casta paintings” that map social hierarchy indelibly onto biology, to historical narratives of social invention such as José Obregón’s The Discovery of Pulque.

Casta painting
The Discovery of Pulque
Painters such as Obregón, then, contest the ways in which the art of Empire “laid out the static sociopolitical territory of the royal subject’s body visually.” They therefore “revise and transform the eighteenth-century political and social construction of the royal subject into that of the nationalist body” (19).

From a categorization of ideal types, as found in the casta paintings, in which each limb or organ of society should know its rightful place, to the historicization of identity as part of a dynamic social whole. Obregón takes the calcified representations of the indigenous, “remove[s] them from the present and place[s] them into an originating and allegorical time” (32).

Of course, the price that the indigenous pay is that, restored to history by the mestizo state, they are also marginalized and rendered invisible in the present.

dangerous

Reinaldo ArenasReinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls, the gay Cuban writer’s memoir, is saturated by death. It is as though, as far as Arenas is concerned, Castro’s revolution ushers in a reign of death.

Arenas reports that the fighting that preceded the Revolution was little more than a phoney war, “a war of words” whose “battles were more myth than reality” (43): Castro “won a war that had never been fought” (44). The killing, then, begins only once that war is over: “Many more were dying now than during the war that never was” (46).

So we’re told a series of stories almost all of which end, either integrally or as an afterthought, with an account of their characters’ demise. There’s the young man “escorted out of town and shot” for himself killing a young rebel (46). There’s Pedro Marinello, director of the course Arenas takes at the university, who “disappeared; he was said to be a CIA agent, the label pinned on anyone who shows any disagreement with Fidel Castro’s regime” (66).

There’s the Geography professor, Juan Pérez de la Riva, who tries repeatedly to kill himself but just when he had found happiness “got throat cancer; he no longer wanted to die, but die he did” (67). Arenas’s lover Miguel “was finally arrested and taken to a UMAP concentration camp. [. . .] I think they killed him at the concentration camp” (70). A Haydée Santamaría “ended up shooting herself” (71) while Héctor, Armando Rodríguez’s lover, “died in an accident while riding his motorcycle” (77).

Then the long episode describing Arenas’s time confined in the El Morro prison features a series of more or less spectacular demises, from those who jumped off the fortress rooftop to smash themselves to pieces on the rocks below (185) to La Macantaya, guillotined by other prisoners: “the headless body of the queer was discovered three days later because of the stench” (189). Another prisoner, La Maléfica, meanwhile, combines suicide and decapitation, swinging a “sharpened bar round and round and then, turning it with a fast sweep, cut[ting] his own throat. A self-beheading.” As Arenas rather dryly adds, “one witnesses such a scene once in a lifetime” (191).

But in fact he witnesses innumerable such scenes, such as the murder of Cara de Buey, stabbed in the back in the prison kitchen (194), or what happened to the boy nicknamed “El Niño,” killed while he slept by someone shoving “a metal rod into his back and it came out through his stomach” (195).

Through all this, somewhat ironically, the one person who seems unable to die is Arenas himself, despite attempting suicide once by taking a quantity of pills (“the doctor told me it was a miracle I was alive” [179]) and once by hanging himself on the end of his bed board (“the same prison doctor [. . .] told me, ‘You’re out of luck, you failed again'” [200]).

Arenas emerges as the great survivor, while all around him is death and destruction.

Of course, Before Night Falls was written in the shadow of Arenas’s own death, as his health declined from AIDS, and shortly before he finally (successfully) killed himself, in New York, in 1990. It’s no great surprise, then, that it should include such a meditation on death and on those who have died before him.

This biographical framing also, therefore, adds extra weight to the link that Arenas establishes between beauty and danger:

Sexual pleasure often exacts a high price; sooner or later we pay with years of sorrow for every moment of pleasure. It’s not God’s vengeance but that of the Devil, the enemy of everything beautiful. Beauty has always been dangerous. Martí said that everyone who is the bearer of light remains alone; I would say that anyone who takes part in certain acts of beauty is eventually destroyed. Humanity in general does not tolerate beauty, perhaps because we cannot live without it; the horror of ugliness advances day by day at an ever-increasing pace. (194)

Putting to one side, therefore, Arenas’s controversial anti-Castro stance, what’s interesting is the way in which he here raises his own (and others’) suffering at the hands of the Cuban regime to the level of a cosmic struggle between the Devil and beauty.

Beauty is precious and endangered: El Niño is killed because of his pristine innocence, his “face where terror had not yet left its mark” (194). Beauty is easily crushed by the restrictions of politics and confinement: “prison is a monstrosity where love turns into bestiality” (187).

Though his life could easily be seen as a tale of tragedy and waste–poverty, imprisonment, censorship, illness, suicide–and though his memoir scarcely flinches from horror, monstrosity, and death, Arenas suggests that these hardships have come from his perpetual struggle for life, for beauty. That he has always rather been true to his “own being’s innermost desires” than be “a poor, resigned creature full of frustrations with no urge for rebellion” (197).

And that, in the end, his has been a life well lived.