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


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


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.



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.


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


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


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.


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.


José Piedra’s “Hip Poetics” is a dense web of analysis and allusion, tracing the double displacement of the rumba, from Africa to the US (and so the world) via Cuba, the first of a wave of “Afro-Latin rhythm[s] serving and eroticizing the world” (113). Piedra is particularly interested in the sexual politics of this dance dialogue, which is both a complex exchange between male and female dancer, and a spectacularization (and commodification) of the female, Afro-Latina, body. He argues that

ultimately, what the rumba contributes to the deadly challenging course, intercourse, and discourse of the marginal is a tradition of awareness tucked away in a poetics of desperation that is capable of generating a subversive hip poetics both at the national and international level. (108)

His reference to the “desperation” of those who use this often seedy, ostensibly demeaning dance to establish some sense of place in the world indicates that Piedra’s intent is far from simple celebration: “the rumba is not, per se, a solution to feminist calls for liberation; it remains a choice and a challenge for certain women who pay dearly for it” (108).

Hence the rumba’s “heroines” (from the now anonymous prostitutes who popularized the dance in Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s to Carmen Miranda, Celia Cruz, or Gloria Estefan) are also “‘martyrs’ of a desperate language of convulsive bits, beats, and bites” (113).

Celia Cruz
“In the realm of the rumba,” Piedra claims,

women superficially hyperact, and thus subversively claim for themselves and counteract demeaning traits that have been traditionally assigned to, revoked from, and theatrically imposed upon them by a predominantly male-run establishment. (124)

In other words, Piedra’s argument is (not so far from Diana Taylor’s) about the ambivalent possibilities of performance, of what he here terms “hyperact[ing],” to put into sharp, and so critical, relief the gender roles to which subaltern women are condemned.

Encoded within the rumba, or rather encoded within its masculinist code as “a hidden code within another code” (122), Piedra finds embodied self-assertion. The dance’s characteristic jutting hip serves as “a feisty source of poetics” (96) and also warns patriarchy that, in the words of an Akan proverb, “women’s violent shakings of the hips kill (that is, give them power over men)” (98). The rumba “turn[s] a meaningless body part into a signifying bodily attitude, compliance into defiance” (96).

But why “signifying”? Surely, as Piedra himself suggests when he notes the ways in which “the man’s movements become the signified to the woman’s signifier” (103), signification is itself the capture of affect by social order. It is precisely in so far as the dance’s bodily affect is in excess of such signifying codes that a counter-code–or, better, decoding–is effected.

It is because this Afro-Latin rhythm is not exhausted either by its commercialization or by its patriarchal interpretation that it can preserve affective memories of the African deity Sikán, “a central anticolonialist source/force” and “the ultimate model for the transatlantic rumba” (120). Hence, beyond the critical distance that the fact of performance interpolates between subject and image,

the rite of the rumba advocates a performance and presence of women’s rights that should be sensed rather than felt, filled, or otherwise fulfilled–that is enough reason for her not to be named or otherwise rendered obvious, readily intelligible, or easily had other than as a scornful stripper on the other side of the lights. (123)

On the other hand, however, this article raises many doubts. I’m not convinced by the display of etymological roots and so rootedness that traces such a linear transmission of meaning from West Africa to the Miami Sound Machine or Carnegie Hall.

Nor am I convinced by Piedra’s own refusal of the “obvious” or the “readily intelligible,” his (desperate or other) attempts, by writing so allusively and eclectically, to appear himself so very “hip.”


MadreDiscussing the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine women who stood up to their country’s military regime of the 1970s and 1980s, demanding evidence about the whereabouts of their disappeared children, Diana Taylor suggests that “the Madres embodied ‘pity’ while the military males staged ‘terror.'” Taylor continues:

But pity and terror are inextricably linked. As the Greek theatre scholar Gilbert Murray notes in his foreword to The Trojan Women, “pity is a rebel passion. Its hand is against the strong, against the organized force of society, against conventional sanctions and accepted Gods . . . it is apt to have those qualities of unreason, of contempt for the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices, of recklessness, and even, in the last resort, of ruthlessness . . . It brings not peace, but a sword” (7). The military, quick to pick up the threatening quality of the Madres’ pitiful display of their wounds-as-weapons, branded the rebellious women emotional terrorists. (Disappearing Acts 200; emphasis in original)

Pity and terror are linked, above all, because both are affects; both pity and terror sidestep “the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices”; both are excessive, unreasonable, qualitative and intensive rather than quantitative or extensive.

But what would make the one a “rebel passion” and the other an instrument of state power?

Surely the key here is in the distinction between embodiment and staging that Taylor invokes by stating that “the Madres embodied ‘pity’ while the military males staged ‘terror'” (my emphasis). Embodiment and staging are two modes or aspects of performance (and Taylor’s book is ultimately about the politics of performance in Latin American contexts), but they are quite different ways of thinking the performative.

“Staging” refers first and foremost to the instrumentality of performance, the distance between actor and act, between agent and identity. Both the military and the Madres performed in this sense. Above all, the Madres performed motherhood. In part this was to justify their activism as springing not from some political agenda, but from maternal instinct. But as a result, Taylor notes that they also played into a “bad script,” an “Oedipal framing of events” that suggested that “equality and power [. . .] could only be regained by means of the restitution of the missing member,” the absent son, “the lost phallus” (203).

Staging is the performative politics of identity: the Madres’ presentation of themselves as pitiful (in both senses of the term) complemented rather than challenging the military males’ narrative that only they could save the nation, could take the paternal role of reinstalling order.

Chris Burden's ShootEmbodiment, by contrast, refers to the fact that performance is also an affective and bodily investment. An actor puts his or her body on the line: when a character takes a tumble, so does the actor who plays him or her. Performance artists have experimented with this non-representational danger incarnated in the performative, not least Chris Burden in works such as “Shoot” and “Deadman”.

The Madres knew only too well the risks that they were taking: as Taylor reports, in 1977 the military “infiltrated the Madres’ organization and kidnapped and disappeared twelve women, including the leader of the Madres, Azucena de Vicenti” (187).

Embodiment, then, is performance without reserve: this is the reckless pity (the Derridean hospitality?) that know no bounds, that refuses the cost-benefit analysis that strategizing and instrumentality require.

There is a connection here to the distinction between constituent and constituted power, between the Spinozan power that knows no distance between possibility and reality (in fact, the virtual and the actual), and the sovereign Realpolitik that bides its time and chooses its moment, its victims.

But I’m reluctant simply to valorize reckless affect over either the strategy of war or even the “strategic essentialism” associated with Spivak’s reading of the subaltern. There was, after all, something suicidal, hasty, and pitiful (something that went beyond a strategic miscalculation) about the Argentine junta’s decision to invade the Malvinas/Falklands. Recklessness and investment without reserve is not the sole prerogative of the powerless. It can also be the state’s most deadly transmutation.


Maria Luisa BombalMaría Luisa Bombal’s “The Final Mist” (“La última niebla”; a Spanish version can be downloaded here) opens in the aftermath of a storm, a storm that “had shaken loose the roof tiles of the old country house” so that, the narrator tells us, “when we arrived, the rain was leaking in every room” (3).

The story’s un-named narrator thereafter perpetually finds that she has somehow missed out on life’s Sturm und Drang, but tries to make the most of what gaps she can find in the barriers that pen her claustrophobically in.

Beyond, however, all is enveloped in a bewitching and befuddling mist that blurs any distinction between sleep and wakefulness, desire and drudgery: “I cross the garden almost at a run, open the fence gate. But outside, a fine mist hangs over the landscape like a veil, and the silence is even more immense” (7).

The narrator is trapped in a loveless marriage with her cousin Daniel. Neither offers the other any real affective contact. They know each other too well; they hardly know each other at all. Daniel, who initially casts his wife “the kind of hostile expression with which you always greet a stranger” (3), is before long “indifferent as a brother” (20); she for her part recognizes that he is still mourning the death of his first wife, but “move[s] away from him, trying to convince [her]self that the most discreet reaction is to pretend absolute ignorance of his pain” (5).

Even when her husband shows some little sign of affection, the narrator’s constant feeling is asphyxiation, a sense that she is half-drowning in the water-saturated air of her fogbound environment:

For the first time since our marriage, Daniel fluffs the pillows for me. At midnight I wake, suffocating. I twist in the sheets for a long time, unable to return to sleep. Each breath leaves me gasping for a little more air. Rising, I open the window, lean out–but the atmosphere outside is just as intolerable. (13)

At least Daniel has a public identity, tasks to undertake, a social role, a name. His wife never attains these markers of belonging, of recognition. Much like the narrator of Bombal’s The Shrouded Woman (La amortajada), her social position is liminal at best. She is in limbo.

If anything, indeed, the “shrouded woman” of Bombal’s other major work is better placed than the narrator of “The Final Mist.” She at least has children, and servants and retainers; she also has a personal history, youthful excesses to recall and relate; and she finds a strange power as she lies in her coffin, her dead form the object of attention, remorse, and regret, while she awaits “the death of the dead” that follows “the death of the living” (La amortajada 116).

In “The Final Mist,” by contrast, though “death seems a more accessible adventure than escape” (14), the narrator can’t even die, and her attempt to kill herself is a failure full of un-noted pathos: “What more repugnant and useless gesture than the suicide of a woman approaching old age!” (46).

If the mist that drenches this story is neither one thing nor the other, neither liquid nor air, our protagonist can at least find some respite in the fully liquid environment of her garden pond, where “warm currents caress and penetrate” her while “the fresh breeze kisses the nape of [her] neck, cools [her] feverish forehead” (10). The pond is a

mysterious world where time seems to stop, where light is solid as a phosphorescent substance, where my movements acquire a knowing and cat-like gracefulness as I carefully explore the dark windings in that cavern of silence. (23)

Here her identity can dissolve, as she becomes one with her surroundings, “sink[ing] down,” leaving only the trace of her presence, “a gentle eddy on the surface” (23).

The pond has its dangers: the gardener’s son, Andrés, sweeping dead leaves off its surface, tells her “How pale you are. You may faint if you don’t get out of the water soon” (25). But it is Andrés whose “livid corpse” is dredged up from the water, Andrés whose “ruined, putrid lips [. . .] death had rendered silent and water and time all but effaced” (34). And the narrator’s reaction is to ask “now, how will I go on?” (34).

For the boy has been the one link, the one witness (she imagines) to the story that the narrator perhaps half-invents, half-dreams, half-experiences, a story of release, of one night of real sensation, real life. Inspired and interpellated by her sister-in-law’s spectacular displays of desire and active sexuality, she tells a story of one night in the city when, out late walking, she met a young man whose shadow looms out of the fog, with whom she shares a wordless, consummated passion:

Under his attentive gaze, I lean back, a gesture that fills me with intimate well-being. Locking my arms behind my head, I cross and uncross my legs, each gesture bringing me intense pleasure, as if at long last my arms, my neck, my legs had a reason to exist. If this joy were the only end of love, I would consider myself well rewarded! (17)

So if Daniel has his mournful memory of his first wife, now the narrator has her own joyful remembrance of the one encounter that might make her life worthwhile: “with nothing but a single memory one can endure a long and tedious existence” (19).

But as time passes, and the fog of doubt and forgetfulness falls on her story, the narrator’s fear is that she may in fact have imagined or concocted this memory from her own unfulfilled desire. Back in the city, she searches out the house to which she recalls her lover had taken her, only to find it inhabited by a widow whose blind husband died many years earlier. She flees the scene and wanders the city

unable to distinguish anything through the fog [. . .] abandoning all further struggle against my fate. The house and my love and my adventure–all had disintegrated in the dark swirling vapor that now blotted out the moon. (43-44)

There’s no happy ending here. Bombal’s is a story of frustrated desire, of languor and ennui, of a life that is no more than germinal, that never rises above the habitual except in the narrator’s brief fantasy, cruelly dashed by the reality principle. “Perhaps that is best,” she concludes, reunited with her husband, “following him”:

Following him toward an infinity of insignificant tasks; toward a thousand trifling amusements; following him to live correctly–to cry from habit and smile out of duty; following him to die, one day, correctly.

Around us the fog settles over everything like a shroud. (47)

Or perhaps, perhaps the point is that her life does rise, all too briefly and inconclusively, above the germinal; that the narrator is interpellated, above all by her sister-in-law Regina, for whom she “feels envious of her suffering, her tragic love affair, envying even the possibility of her death” (45). By choosing to envy a melodramatic narrative of bourgeois adultery, rather than dwelling in her elemental pool, the narrator never achieves the true limbo of Bombal’s “shrouded woman,” never accedes to the immanence that Deleuze describes as

a moment that is only of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a “Homo tantum” with whom everyone empathizes and who attains a sort of beatitude. (“Immanence: A Life” 28-29)