All 9 entries tagged Latin America

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August 03, 2010

CWWN Conference: Panel on Chicana/Latina Writers.

Title: “Chicana/Latina Writers Decolonizing Spirituality, the Body, and the Self

This was a very entertaining panel. The first paper from Christina Grijalva was on the performance artists Elia Arce and Grijalva talked about Arce’s use of inbetween spaces and places of transition in her performances. Born in LA, Arce lived from the age of two in Costa Rica and spoke Spanish. Returning to the US, Arce felt more like a resident than a native, but from this space of detachment, Arce is able to critique US institutions. This is the purpose of the performance The Fifth Commandment which riffs on the dictum ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in order to challenge the assumptions and routines at the heart of the US army.

Next Irene Lara’s talk discussed the mythical “Goddess” of the Americas, seeking to discover a Latina womanhood beyond the virgen or the puta. Lara focussed on writings in the anthology Goddess of the Americas edited by Ana Castillo. This book collects together the writings of women on Our Lady of Guadalupe, a mythic figure that has become in Central America not so much a counterpart of the Virgin Mary as a symbolic avatar of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The Virgin of Guadalupe is, as Lara Medina paraphrases:

Tequatlanopeuh (She Whose Origins Were in the Rocky Summit), Tlecuauhtlaupeuh (She Who Comes Flying from the Light Like an Eagle of Fire), Tequantlaxopeuh (She Who Banishes Those That Ate Us), Coatlaxopeuh (She Who Crushed the Serpent’s Head), Mother of Mexico, Mother of Orphans, Our Lady of Tepeyac, la Santa Patrona de los Mexicanos, Empress of the Americas, Mother of the True God, Mother of the Giver of Life, Mother of the Lord of Near and Far, Mother of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, Mother Who Never Turns Her Back, Sister in Suffering, Subversive Virgin, Undocumented Virgin, la tele Virgen, “the sustainer of life, the one who protects us against danger, the one who comforts our sorrows,” she who “understands everything,” Our Lady of the Cannery Workers, Vessel of the Indigenous Spirit, Madrecita, la madre querida, la Morenita, la Diosa, Guadalupe-Tonantzin, Ms. Lupe, la Virgencita, la Virgencita tan bella, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Irene Lara discussed in detail the story ‘Virgencita, Give Us a Chance’ by Liliana Valenzuela and ‘Guadelupe the Sex Goddess’ by Sandra Cisneros . In both texts, women’s sexuality is reframed, so that desire is possible beyond the dichotomy of the whore and virgin. As Valenzuela writes:

La Virgencita swims, Venus in the water, her light robes appear and disappear. ... The monks in their white habits pray, raise banners, the miracle of the vulva is back.

Like the French feminists, the women writers discussed speak from the banocha to find a new language for women’s desire.

Last to speak was William A. Nerricio who also drew on the French feminists beginning his talk with a quotation from Luce Irigaray. He presented an entertaining paper on mirroring in the paintings of Remedios Varo , the diaries of Frida Kahlo and the novels of Cristina Rivera-Garcia . I’ll be excited and interested to read the final version of this when it is written up.

March 28, 2007

'Suicide of a Moderate Dictator' by Elizabeth Bishop

For Carlos Lacerda

This is a day when truths will out, perhaps;
leak from the dangling telephone ear-phones
sapping the festooned switchboard’s strength;
fall from the windows, blow from off the sills,
—the vague, slight unremarkable contents
of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers
like ink from un-proof-read newspapers,
crocking the way the unfocused photographs
of crooked faces do that soil our coats,
our tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths.

Today’s a day when those who work
are idling. Those who played must work
and hurry, too, to get it done,
with little dignity or none.
The newspapers are sold; the kiosk shutters
crash down. But anyway, in the night
the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets
and sidewalks everywhere; a sediment’s splashed
even to the first floor of apartment houses.

This is a day that’s beautiful as well,
and warm and clear. At seven o’ clock I saw
the dogs being walked along the famous beach
as usual, in a shiny gray-green dawn,
leaving their paw prints draining in the wet.
The line of breakers was steady and the pinkish,
segmented rainbow steadily hung above it.
At eight two little boys were flying kites.

March 07, 2007

Humboldt’s Electric Eels

Electric Eel

I have written about Humboldt’s “electric eel” experiment in the Amazon previously on this blog (Baron Von Humboldt and the Electric Eels ), but here is the account from the man himself.

“Under the name of tembladores (‘which make you tremble’) Spaniards confuse all electric fish. There are some in the Caribbean Sea, off the Cumaná coast. [58] […] Other tembladores, proper electric eels, live in the Colarado and Guarapiche rivers and several little streams crossing the Chaima Indian missions. There are many of them in the great South American rivers, the Orinoco, Amazon and Meta, but the strength of currents and the depths prevent the Indians from catching them. They see these fish less often than they feel their electric shocks when they swim in the rivers. But it is in the llanos, especially around Calabozo, between the small farm of Morichal and the missions de arriba and de abaxo, that the stagnant ponds and tributaries of the Orinoco are filled with electric eels. We wanted first to experiment in the house we lived in at Calabozo but the fear of the eel’s electric shock is so exaggerated that for three days, despite our promising the Indians two piastres for each one. […]

“Impatient of waiting, and having only obtained uncertain results from a living eel brought to us, we went to Can~o de Bera to experiment on the water’s edge. Early in the morning on the 19th March we [59] left for the little village Rastro de Abaxo: from there Indians led us to a stream, which in the dry season forms a muddy pond surrounded by trees, clusia, amyria and mimosa with fragrant flowers […] The Indians decided to fish with horses, embarbascar con caballos. It was hard to imagine this way of fishing; but soon we saw our guides returning from the savannah with a troop of wild horses and mules. There were about thirty of them, and they forced them into the water.

“The extraordinary noise made by the stamping of the horses made the fish jump out of the mud and attack. These livid, yellow eels, like great water snakes, swim on the water’s surface and squeeze under the bellies of horses and mules. A fight between such different animals is a picturesque scene. […] Several horses collapsed from the shocks received on their most vital organs, and drowned under the water. Others panting, their manes erect, their eyes anguished, stood up and tried to escape the storm [60] surprising them in the water. They were pushed back by the Indians, but a few managed to escape, stumbling at each step, falling onto the sand exhausted and numbed from the electric shocks.

“In less than two minutes two horses had drowned. The eel is about 5 feet long and presses all its length along the belly of the horse, giving it electric shocks. They attach the heart intestines and the plexus coeliacus of the abdominal nerves.” (58 – 60)

Alexander Von Humboldt. Jaguars and Electric Eels. Trans. Jason Wilson. London: Penguin, 2007.

January 30, 2007

Myths and Customs in the Amazon


Mãe de Peixe
Mãe de Peixe is ‘a chimera of many guises which looks after fish populations’ (81). She is sometimes a caimun, other times a pirarucú or even a cobra grande depending on the tribe.

‘[H]unters and fishermen must contend with panama, a hex that prevents people from catching fish or killing game. Panema is far more serious than a temporary bout of bad luck. Unless properly treated a person can remain empanemado indefinitely. Given the importance of fish and game to the regional diet, and as a source of income in the case of fishing, rural folk are understandably concerned about avoiding panama.’ (101) Pirarucú fishermen are particularly susceptible to panama due to the huge size of the fish and this may be due to fears about the loss of such a useful species (112).

A large fish that can be as long as two metres and weigh up to 100 kilograms (20). The pirarucú is valued for its, ‘high value and savoury taste’ as well as for its ‘byproducts’. Strips of meat can be stored for months, its fifteen centimetre long can be used as a grater while its scales, the size of credit cards, can be used in woodwork too.

The Yara, ‘appears before bachelors, and young men who are about to marry. If they hear yara’s enchanting voice and linger to catch a glimpse of her, they later become ill’ (85). Yara have been spotted in waterfalls (Tarumã falls near Manaus) and in trees (the Peruvian Amazon). The Yara is often blonde.

Smith, Nigel J.H. The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest: Stories from a Vanishing World. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996.

A Note on the Second Conquest of the Amazon

The Amazon Basin

In considering the oppressed indigenous peoples of the Amazon, David Maybury-Lewis recommends a macroscopic approach and he notes that this method, ‘is the only way in which one can set about examining what is happening to the peoples of Amazonia—or indeed, to minority peoples anywhere in the world today’ (127). Maybury-Lewis notes that some see the Amazonians in terms of neo-Darwinism believing that it is simply the fate of indigenous peoples to die out. Some Marxists see the Amazonians as, ‘out of step historically’, according to Maybury-Lewis, but to be in step dictates that, ‘their way of life is doomed’ (128). Maybury-Lewis disagrees with both of these views and he is adamant that the Amazonians are rather, ‘suffering from the simple ability of stronger peoples, nations, institutions to overpower weaker ones’ (128).

Differing views on indigenous peoples can be typified, says Maybuy Lewis, by the dialogue between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas. In a junta ordered by Charles V of Spain, Las Casas argued against Sepúlveda that Indians had souls. Maybury-Lewis notes that for men like Sepúlveda, indigenous peoples, ‘were cannibals and therefore not deserving of human compassion’ and he notes that because indigenous peoples, ‘abused the weak in their society’, their government had to be replaced by Spanish rule which supposedly did not exploit the weak in the same fashion (128). Maybury Lewis describes such excuses as ‘self-serving’ and he presents an argument against the need for an imposed Spanish rule (128).

Even if they were [cannibals], it is not obvious why the ritual eating of people should be any worse than flaying them alive, or enslaving them, or torturing them judicially, which was customary procedure in the seventeenth century. Nor is it clear why it should justify any peculiarly draconian actions against them on the part of Europeans. (128)

Similar flawed arguments supporting the usurpation of indigenous government still prevail, yet now as Maybury-Lewis notes, the desire is to ‘civilise’ Indians. Nineteenth century anthropologists used ‘the backwards peoples of the world’ as a lever for their own ‘higher rationality’ (129). Now indigenous people must make way not for rationality, but development. Maybury-Lewis argues that a second conquest is now taking place in the heart of Amazonia, its goal being Indian land. The argument for such a conquest is utilitarian and it assumes that the Indian cannot adapt and that the extraction of wealth from the land will be worth it. According to Maybury-Lewis, the Indian is often seen as, ‘a threat to nation-building’, ‘an ideological challenge’ and ‘a challenge to [a nation’s] mainstream values’ (132).

Maybury-Lewis, David. ‘Demystifying the Second Conquest’. Frontier Expansion in Amazonia. Ed. Marianne Schmink and Charles H. Wood. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. 127-134.

A Short Definition of Indigenismo

Nelly Arvelo-Jiménez describes the policy of indigenismo as, ‘a system of policies pertaining to indigenous peoples in which the relation of the state and Indian peoples is defined’ (105). She explains that indigenismo was in the colonial past a means to excuse the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples and the denial of their rights. Arvelo-Jiménez explains that indigenismo was, ‘the ideology that “legalized” or “normalized” the condition of domination that was introduced in order to impose a Latin or European way of life’ (105). Arvelo-Jiménez notes that such a policy is still being adopted by the Venezuelan government and she explains how the indigenous people’s rights to land and freedom have been denied by:
• missionary indigenismo which changed the education of indigenous peoples “civilising” them;
• and state indigenismo that fails to stop ‘land grabbing’.

Arvelo-Jiménez, Nelly. ‘The Politics of Cultural Survival in Venezuela: Beyond Indigenismo’. Frontier Expansion in Amazonia. Ed. Marianne Schmink and Charles H. Wood. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. 105-126

Baron von Humboldt and the Electric Eels


Born in Berlin, the capital of Prussia (14th September 1769), Alexander von Humboldt was destined to become an explorer of the Amazon. Influenced by a friendship during university with Georg Foster (who had travelled around the world with Captain Cook), Humboldt was very interested in exploration. Humboldt was initially the Assistant Inspector of mines and also conducted biological experiments. Eventually Humboldt embarked on an expedition to South and Central America arriving in the New World in 1799 (July 16th) entering the port of Cumaná.

With their microscopes they, and their respective ladies, examined lice of many varieties found in the ladies’ hair. They measured plant growth, which exceeded far anything in Europe. They heard of and then found a man suckling a child with his own milk. On their first foray inland they encountered the oil-bird, or guacharo. This cave dwelling species, slaughtered for its fat, was quite new to science. They also took advantage of a solar eclipse in late 1799. (Smith, 230)

It was in 1800 that Humboldt was to begin a proper inland expedition. Anthony Smith describes Humboldt’s encounter with ‘gymnotids’ or electric fish in Calabozo. The fish were not exactly eels but they, ‘swam in eel-like manner and possessed an eel-like smoothness’ and they could produce 600 volts. Humboldt had already experimented with electricity and was fascinated by the creatures, so he decided to proceed with an experiment:

The locals had a technique [for catching the fish] which Humboldt was to call picturesque. A large number of mules and horses were driven at speed into a marsh where the fish were known to be resting in the mud. This violent act brought them out into the water, and their electricity caused the mules and horses to leave it speedily. With bamboo sticks the Indians sent the frightened animals back again. There they lunged about, terror in their eyes. A few succumbed, falling into the water and even drowning. The others continued to thrash until the gymnotids exhausted their battery-like supply. With dry lengths of wood acting as insulators the fish were then coaxed from the water. (232)

Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon .London: Viking, 1990.

May 08, 2006

Notes on the Warao and their Music

Warao Violin

From_ Olsen, Dale A. Music of the Warao of Venezuela : Song People of the Rain Forest . Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

One poem that I am interested in analysing of Pacale Petit's in 'Self–Portrait as a Warao Violin'. Perhaps these notes will shed light on this poem.

Ideas About the Warao Violin

Dakotu – a dance song, sometimes played on the violin. (35)
Sekeseke – a kind of violin that uses a viola de gamba bow (convex curve), played somewhat like a lute.

For Amerindians it is 'the song–text that is believed to carry the weight of evoking the spirits’. (17)

‘Stringed instruments or chordophones have been documented for the Warao since the nineteenth century. […] [Descriptions presented by Hillhouse, Bernau, Roth of stringed instruments.] […]Regardless of the particular provenance of this ancient Warao chordophone, the concept of a string instrument has been so embedded in Warao culture that today they consider their European derived violin, called sekeseke, to be one of their traditional instruments. This phenomenon also prevails among the Mexican Huichol, who claim that their violin is as ancient as their culture […]. As explained by the huichol and as I interpret its presence among the Warao, a musical bow was the forerunner of the violin in both cultures. With the arrival of the Spanish the violin replaced the musical bow as a sound maker, while the musical bow’s ancient function as a shaman’s instrument remained among the Huichol and disappeared among the Warao.’ (104)

Olsen quotes Wilbert in discussing the uses of the musical bow, who writes that ‘the Warao hunter uses his bow and arrow as a lure to attract his prey. […] With the animal in shooting range, the hunter quickly converts the musical bow into a deadly weapon and lets fly.’ (qtd in Olsen, 105)

The Origins of the Warao Violin

Olsen goes on to tell a folk tale that explains how the first violin came to the Warao tribe. (106 –110 )The story tells that a creature – half–man, half–monkey – named Nakurao brought the violin from a foreign country. Nakurao learned how to make the sekseke in a dream; he found a cedar growing nearby, carved the sekseke’s shape and made notches for the strings to fit. When he woke, he knew that he had to make his dream sekeseke and he decided to make a boat, so that he would astonish the people of the country where he was living.

So Nakurao began to carry out the actions of his dreams. He found the cedar and though the ‘real’ wood was not as good as that in his dreams, he began to carve a violin shape using his machete. He put holes where holes should be and he attached a bridge. Eventually he strung it with four strings and its name came from that four – seke–seke. Then he made a bow and when he drew it across the strings, it made a pleasant sound.

Meanwhile, the jaguar had decided that Nakurao was lazy and useless. He had not heard of Nakurao’s endeavours and decided that he was going to eat the monkey. At dawn, the jaguar sent a message: ‘My friend, monkey, I am going to eat you today.’

Nakurao asked, ‘Who would attack me today?’ The answer came: ‘The jaguar.’

Nakurao replied: ‘Well, at least I have made my sekeseke. If he comes to eat me, no matter. I can still make beautiful music for me. He can eat me later.’

The jaguar decided at last that the time had come. ‘Now I will go and eat that monkey’, he said. So the jaguar arrived, but the monkey had his music prepared. ‘This is the last day of your life, friend monkey’, the jaguar said. ‘It’s true’, replied Nakurao, ‘but just give me a little time. Before you eat me I am going to play you some music. Then you can eat me.’ So Nakurao began to play and all agreed that it was the best music that they had ever heard. Many animals began to dance: all kinds of birds, the jaguar, the deer and the howler monkey. They danced until they could not take another step.

‘Oh stop’, cried the jaguar. ‘We’re tired, but such beautiful music. My friend monkey, I thought that you were lazy and useless. I did not realise that you were a musician.’

‘It’s true my friend’, replied Nakurao. ‘I have been a musician since childhood. I made the sekeseke, the bow, the music, the song. So you must not eat me.’

‘Certainly not’, replied the jaguar ‘as you are a musician.’

Olsen analyses the story and states that ‘Music (in this case instrumental music) has the power to pacify the animals and alter Brutish behaviour.’ (418)

Further Reading

Bernau, Rev. JH. Missionary Labours in British Guiana . London: J Farquhar Shaw, 1847.

Hillhouse, William. ‘Memoir of the Warrow Land of British Guiana.’ Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London . 1934. 4.321–333.

Roth, Walter E. ‘An Enquiry into the Animism and Follore of the Guiana Indians.’ Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute . Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1915. 103 386.

Wilbert, Johannes. ‘The House of the Swallow Tailed Kite’. Animal Myths and Metaphors . Ed. Gary Urton. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985. 145–182.

Notes on Yanomami (Yanoama) Amerindians

A few notes here on the Yanomami Amerindians as I am in the process of thinking about a poem by Pascale Petit entitled 'Self–Portrait as a Yanomami Daughter'.

Notes on the Yanomami

From Nugent, Stephen. ‘The Yamomami: anthropological discourse and ethics’. The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas . Ed. Pat Caplan London: Routledge, 2003. 77-95. [This is a kind of review of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon .]

‘[T]he distressed prospects of indigenous peoples around the world are rarely newsworthy and the likelihood that the current coverage will enhance the life chances of the Yanomami are not great.’ (79)

‘Of all the Amazonian societies still extant, the Yanomami are exceptional: they are numerous by Amazonian standards (around 20,000) despite the fact that they occupy a remote locale which is non–riverine (i.e. away from the main course of the Amazon River).’ (79)

‘The bald charge […] is that […] Neel intentionally inoculated Yanomami with a measles vaccine (Edmonsten B) which would strip out from the Yanomami population non–Alpha males.’ (80) [Nugent explains that Neel and Chagnon, the anthropologists criticised in Tierney's book, had a neo–Darwinian theory about the survival of the fittest and the Yanomami men.]

Reason for the book’s popularity: ‘the Amazonian backdrop is that of Conan Doyle’s Lost World, resolutely pre–modern and cliché–ridden, the nineteenth century naturalists’ playground in which limiting case primitive society is contained by green hell doctrinal nastiness.’ (81)

‘A particular Amazonia is presented: ‘frontier Amazonia of stone–age Amerindians, virulent disease, poor transport, isolation, adventurers and heroic explorers, hallucinogens and visions, larger than life characters, depraved anthropologists, tropical licentiousness. All in all, a standard Hollywood account.’ (81)

Further Reading
Chagnon, Napoleon. — The Fierce People . (1968)
Studying the Yanomami People [HC 9000.C4]
Marcus Colchester, ed. The health and survival of the Venezuelan Yanoama . (1985) [JD 145.V3]
Smole, Joseph William. The Yanoama Indians: A Cultural Geography . (1976) [HC 9074.S6]
Tierney, Patrick. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon . (2000)


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