Mermaids and Other Fetishes: Images of Latin America

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Beginning with Columbus, visitors to Latin America have been seeing what wasn't there and missing much of what is. Lit-crit and personal reflection on perceptions and changes in Latin America, including enounters with young Sandinistas in Nicaragua when the revolution was still fresh and vulnerable. This text appeared in Translating Latin America: Culture as Text. Translation Perspectives, VI, 1991: 135-144.
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  Mermaids and Other Fetishes:  Images of Latin America by Geoffrey Fox Columbus' mermaids On January 9, 1493, on his wayback to Spain from his first trans-Atlantic voyage, ChristopherColumbus noted in his journal thathe had seen three mermaidswhich rose high out of the sea.But they were not as lovely asthey have been described, lookingrather more like men in the face. Nearly a century and a half later,in 1632 in the sea of Chiloé off the coast of Chile, according to acontemporary account, many Spaniards and Indians saw a beastapproaching the beach which, protruding from the water, showed by thefront part of its head, the face and breasts of a woman, of pleasingappearance, with long, loose blond hair or mane; she carried a child in herarms. And when she dived they saw that she had a tail and back of a fish,covered with thick scales, like little shells.  They had probably frightened a dugong, and what Columbus had seen inthe Caribbean and on an earlier voyage to Africa were probably manatees-- related varieties of large sea mammals, today called sirenians, thatnurse their young at a pair of mammary glands on the chest. There are no known varieties with long, loose blond hair or mane or a pleasing face of a woman. Seeing and believing The world was so new that many things still lacked names, and tomention them, one had to point with a finger. (Gabriel García Márquez,Cien años de soledad) The men of Chiloé, and Columbus before them, had two perceptualproblems when confronted by something strange. First was to find acategory by which they could apprehend it, and second to describe it sothat others would understand: to name, and to explain. Columbus used the  only word available -- sirenas , or mermaids -- even though, as he noted,they were not quite the way sirenas were supposed to be; thus, whateverhis private reservations, sirenas they would be to whoever read hisreports. The men of Chiloé, in contrast, were so excited by the beast thatthey gave it all the attributes that tradition said it was supposed to have. The myth of Latin America operates in much the same way -- thevocabulary for naming and explaining associates it with a tradition thatmakes it hard to see what is really there. Latins and mermaids  The term Latin America – coined by a Chilean writer and sociologist,Francisco Bilbao, in about 1865 – was popularized in the mid-nineteenthcentury by French propaganda. The new sciences of linguistics andevolutionary biology were being used to construct such supposed races as Latins, Slavs, Teutons, et alii, in which national character wasthought to be passed down along with language. For Napoleon III, LatinAmerica implied a special connection between Latin France and thoseNew World lands where the elites spoke Spanish or Portuguese. Thepeople of England and the United States, in contrast, were said to be Anglo-Saxons -- an opposing race, with a dissimilar soul and destiny.Napoleon's ideology implicitly scorned the polyglot and multicoloredmasses in the Americas, and the masses returned the sentiment. InMexico they routed his army of occupation and shot his satrap, Maximilian,at Querétaro in 1867. But eventually -- after the problem of Maximilianwas taken care of -- urban elites in Spanish America came to accept the Latin label for their own reasons. It declared their unity against acommon enemy more dangerous than France: Latin America was anassertion of identity against the hegemony of Anglo America. Also, ithelped the light-skinned elites deny their other heritages, indigenous andAfrican, of which they were ashamed. Even Porfirio Díaz, a Zapotec Indianwho had fought against the French, became a Latin and Francophileduring his long presidency of Mexico (1876-1911, with brief interruptions).For the English and North Americans, however, the concept of Latin America served, and continues to serve, a different psychological function.It dumped all the diverse peoples south of the Río Bravo into a ready-made anti-Latin myth, going back at least as far as the Reformation -- thebreak from the Roman, or Latin, church -- and the long imperial conflictbetween England and Spain. Latins, as Englishmen saw them, were romantic (from romance, anovel written in a romance language) and Roman Catholic, which meantthey were superstitious, mysterious and irrational. Though craven, they  could be provoked to extreme violence if the odds were in their favor;otherwise, they could be held in the most abject subjugation indefinitely. They were cruel (the Inquisition was a favorite element in images of Spainand Spanish America). They were oversexed, or -- more precisely --underrepressed, which was why they had so many babies and why Anglosfound them so seductive. The imagined Latin was the sum of the delicious temptations that an Anglowas supposed to resist, beckoning as the Sirens had beckoned Odysseusto crash against the rocks. Sightings of Latin America The truth is beyond reach; it's in all the lies, like God. (Tomás EloyMartínez, La novela de Perón) Those of us who write of Latin America for an English-language audienceface the same challenge as Columbus in 1493: to name and explainsomething strange, in a vocabulary freighted with the falsely familiar.Because Latin America is strange to us, stranger than we think. This is not just because the history and traditions of our countries are different, orthat their political assumptions may be startling or their economies muchpoorer. There is the more fundamental question of language, which is tosay, the way people think.At a first level of difficulty, some words or phrases in one language haveno near equivalents in the other -- caudillo, for example, or gauchada, or,la puta que lo parió. Or, in the other direction, call-girl, whistleblower, self-help. More importantly, the clusters of associations around each word, theassonances and puns, the grammar itself (word order, the subjunctivemood, the gender of adjectives) suggest particular sequences of images. These then shape courtship rituals, ideological constructs, interpretationsof disaster, or any other action or expression that develops from the freeplay of the imagination. A stream of consciousness or an inspired reparteewill take a very different direction in, say, Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Trestristes tigres, about prerevolutionary Havana nightlife, than could everoccur to an author writing in English.Most writers avoid these difficulties by writing about the alien imaginationrather than from within it, as DeFoe wrote about Friday. In Englishlanguage novels set in Latin America, the most fully imagined charactersare most commonly other English-speakers: the priest, the spy and thenun in Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise, the consul in Malcolm Lowry'sUnder the Volcano, and so on.  For those who do try to write from the alien viewpoint, the most commonerror is to assume that, at bottom, they are just like us, becausehuman nature is universal and immutable. The priest and the policeman inGraham Greene's The Power and the Glory, for example, are Mexican onlyin their props and setting. This view of the essential sameness of humanbeings, generally associated with a liberal political outlook, masks orignores the true relations of power that shape personalities and makethem capable of inflicting, resisting, submitting or enduring in particularways. And of course, if we cannot see these relations of power, we cannotact consciously to change them.A pair of novels on the recent (1976-1983) terroristic regime in Argentinawill make the point. In Imagining Argentina, Lawrence Thornton imaginedas a protagonist a liberal minded, middle class Argentine as nice as Mr.Rogers (like Mr. Rogers, he works with children) whose wife is suddenly disappeared by military goons. The story evokes our empathy preciselybecause the protagonist, Carlos Rueda, is so much like the probablereader, and because the Argentina that Thornton imagines is also familiar-- vaguely like small cities and farmland in the United States. The bad guys, however, are completely opaque, their motives no clearerthan those of the troll in Billy Goat Gruff. Thornton's imagined place isnot really Argentina at all, but the magical kingdom of fairy tales wherespirit triumphs over fear by the appropriate gesture of an individual.An Argentine novel, The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis by HumbertoConstantini, gives a much more precise sense of what was happening toArgentines at the time. This is a comical, horrifying tale of an apoliticalBuenos Aires bookkeeper whose low-level lust, nostalgia and a sense of decency cause him to fall into a trap set by the military torturers. AnEnglish reader can follow Francisco Sanctis' predicament quite well in thetranslation, but it would have been impossible to imagine if the author hadnot been able to think as his character thinks, in the peculiar dialect andlogic of his corner of Buenos Aires.From Thornton, we get the impression that the evil of a military regime in,say, Argentina is simply its kidnapping, torture and murder. Turkey, Chile,the Philippines or a totally invented country might have served hisnarrative purposes quite as well. The true insidiousness of the Argentinerightists' actions -- how they exploited and manipulated the assumptionsof their Argentine victims, in a code of terror of many subtle gradationscalculated to reproduce itself far beyond the direct victims and so tochange the nature of discourse in the entire society -- is knowable only in awork, like Constantini's, that makes that code transparent.
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