Saturday, November 22, 2008

A sad goodbye

I'll limit my sentimentality to my title.
I'll say I am happy to explore a relatively unexplored genre in the world of literature. Although it is a smaller genre, it addresses and gives life to the experiences of millions of people. This is what I thought was most important about this class; the life given to so many unheard voices by a select few. I listened in class to the comments of people who have been immigrants, and was interested to hear how well they identified with the stories. I saw in Carmen Rodriguez a woman who wanted to represent her people, to speak out where there was silence....and I was amazed to hear that the Chilean people's silence persisted long after the publication of the book because they were not ready to break the silence. This fact impressed me deeply; Rodriguez gave voice to the many people who had had the same experiences, because no one else had done or was ready to do so. I imagined all the Dominicans in New York, all the Mexicans in the Southwest, all the Chileans in Canada, and all the Latin Americans who look up to this big white north, which weighs heavily upon their more slender southern land. The immigrant experience is a relatively recent phenomenon, a modern expression of globalization, and as an increasing number of immigrants cross borders, an increasing number of stories need to be told. And we saw in this class that an increasing number of people are telling these stories on behalf of those who shared this experience with them. I found in Rivera's work an encouragement for these immigrants to find strength in each other and unite their voices in order to be heard, and thought it was a message all marginalized people should hear. I found in Alvarez' and Cisneros' books an encouragement of the acceptance of hybridity, of being neither one thing nor another, but both. I found in all of the stories (although to a lesser extent Rivera) a weighing of good things in the new culture versus bad ones and good things in the left-behind culture and bad ones. Marti's incredible description of the true liberty, the freedom of America countered his criticism of the materialism, the lack of class. These contrasts exist in all things.
My favourite writing was Marti, as you know, because of the beauty of the language, the power of the images, the purity of the idealism. Second place I will award to Sandra Cisneros, for the originality of her expression and imagery, and because of how much I identified with the Mexican aspect of it (how many times has my mother said, "Never marry a Mexican!", how many Mexican women I've seen who've been hurt by their men, how I agree that to love in Spanish is one thousand times more beautiful than loving in English!). And third place goes to Tomas Rivera, again for how much I love and identify with Mexico's culture as well as for the emotional power of his writing.
A note about the Wikipedia article, which created so much rage within me sometimes: this was an important experience for me because I am terrible at groupwork and I absolutely cannot do large projects gradually (I need pressure to function), and so I had to overcome these things. In the end, though, it feels cool to have contributed somehow to the general education of the WORLD haHAAA. I feel like I've done something to alleviate, if ever minutely, the massive ignorance of the modern world.
Y Basta.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

...y un cuerpo para recordar

The title of this book is an interesting choice; it got me thinking about the body, and its role in the stories. Why would Rodriguez title her book as such without some significance? Remembering with the body implies some comparison with mental memory. So far, in the stories, memory has played an important role. The first story, "Black Hole", explores extensively the concept of memory. Estela's memory of places in Santiago becomes intertwined, confused with images of Vancouver. Her daughters' memory of Spanish is becoming lost. These are mental memories, but there are also cases of bodily memories; the confusion between the smell of Chilean asados and Burger King, the physical memory of and yearning for being in her mother's arms. So it is not only the mind that remembers...the body remembers as well, and body memories are much, much stronger. In "The Mirror", the "perfume" and "image" of the fugitive linger, inside the perfume and image of the narrator herself. The memory of the woman she cared for takes root in her own sense of sight and smell, and this way her body remembers. In "I Sing, Therefore I Am" the woman's memory of her torture is a sort of out-of-body experience...she sees herself, legless, being raped, an external vision. The extreme pain her body is suffering disables her body's memory and her memory becomes purely mental. The birth of her son, however, is in her body's memory; she recalls pushing with her "skin, teeth, fingernails".
I find this distinction between body and mind interesting and profound, because it is not a separation. The violence of Pinochet's regime caused not only physical suffering, but also psychological pain from the pervading fear. Imprisonment and torture are not purely physical experiences either; they are mentally destructive (e.g. trying to make a woman betray her friends and her political and moral standing). And so surviving these violations is also not only physical, but also mental. When the prisoner is released on her crutches, without a leg, she is not only recovering her body, but also her family and therefore her heart.
Rodriguez seems to be emphasizing that memories are not only mental and emotional but also physical, and that military dictatorship is destructive not only of lives, but of people's hearts and therefore society as a whole.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In the second half of the book, to me there is more emphasis on the true identity of the Garcia girls. In the last part of the book, they are not the hybrid, dual-cultured, Americanized women that we know; they are 100% pure Dominican children, living a Dominican life. We see that identity is dynamic, that it has changed over time. Although they will never be completely American, at one point in time they have been completely Dominican. And although they feel later on in time that they no longer belong in the Dominican Republic, in childhood it was their whole identity. This feeling of completeness is reflected in the childhood stories. They are happy, innocent stories. The underlying ominousness of the political danger is not scary for them, since they do not grasp its full meaning. When they were children, they never questioned who they were or where they belonged, and this made for a generally happy childhood, with gifts and adventures and a big family and lots of wealth and support.
The fact that the story is told more or less backwards by Alvarez makes the understanding of the story an incremental process. With each chapter we know more and more about the past, and therefore understand more clearly the events in the "present". It is only at the end that we understand clearly the circumstances surrounding the Garcia de la Torre family's escape from the Dominican, and this clarifies very much the events that happen later on (timewise) in the story.
This novel definitely emphasizes the importance of family, of blood ties the support network that they provide. Although there will always be conflict between family members - misunderstanding, anger, resentment, difference of opinion - in the end, the family is the most important thing, and the only thing you can depend upon. This is a very Latinamerican way of seeing life.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Garcia Girls

The title of this novel, "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents", implies that this novel is about how the Garcia girls lost their most blatant foreign characteristic and became Americanized. In the beginning, they had accents; they were obviously from somewhere else and didn't belong. But growing up in America, the forces of the overpowering culture upon teenagers who just wanted to fit in took over and the accents were lost. But to look deeper into the story is to realize that it was the girls' father, the proud Dominican, who wanted them to lose their accents and therefore sent them to a fancy prep school for this reason. The story isn't just an account of a loss of culture and identity at the hands of a new one. It's more about looking for opportunities, and doing what's necessary to succeed, and being unique. Each chapter is a clear mix of American and Latin influences, and Alvarez doesn't favour one influence over the other, neither does she reject any elements of either culture. She celebrates the fact that each family, and beyond that each person, is a completely unique mix of everything they have ever experienced and everything that runs in their blood. There is no strict purity of culture; culture is a dynamic hybrid that constantly changes and adapts itself. Each of Alvarez' characters is very unique, and their differences are celebrated in the end, despite some initial reluctance by other characters and themselves.
So the novel isn't about a loss of culture. The only thing that's lost is the girls' accents, but in this process they find their identities and their directions in life.

Friday, October 24, 2008

La Gritona 2

I found "Eyes of Zapata" to stand out as the best and most resonant story in the book. It was also the longest. It shows how Cisneros can write outside of her modern Chicana persona, and take on the voice of a completely different woman in a completely different time and place. The protagonist of this story is purely Mexican, a woman of the Revolution. Even Emiliano Zapata, hero of the Revolution, hero of Mexico, does not escape Cisneros' criticism. This story sees a much less political side of the Revolution...I don't want to say the female side because Cisneros would be enraged if I implied that females don't understand politics; this isn't what I mean....I mean that it is a more domestic and human view of the Revolution, which takes love and family and everyday life into account. Even in this story, the man continues to be the intangible, the unreachable, the elusive beauty and strength in the woman's life. Her descriptions of his body, his hands and feet, border upon idolatry. She worships him and his beauty, and she needs him. In her love, she is blinded and trusts him, which is always a mistake according to Cisneros. When he betrays her, she is hurt, but when he comes back to her again and again, she realizes that in the end, she also holds power over him. Perhaps the woman's love for Emiliano is intensified because of his intangibility, whereas he is able to detach himself from her because he has possessed her from the beginning, since he kissed her under the tree. Again Cisneros emphasizes the difference of a woman's love and a man's love...women are possessed by men, and men are solely possessors and never possessed.
However, the recurrent theme of mystical or primal female power is also prominent in Ines, the protagonist. Her ability to see things in dreams, her ability to leave her body and fly over the countryside, all-seeing, a spirit, these attest to her depth of wisdom and power. To Cisneros, women are magical, and their power is often one misunderstood by men.
This misunderstanding results in suffering for women; Ines' mother was a bold and mystical woman and was killed for it.
In the end, despite the fact that he leaves her time and again, Emiliano returns to Ines time and again, and she accepts her fate. Despite her magical strength and wisdom, she is still resigned to suffer at the hands of the man she worships and loves.
And Emiliano is oblivious to it all. Throughout the whole story he is asleep, at peace, while she has turmoil inside of her. While she watches him from the skies in another woman's bed, he is oblivious. This seems familiar to Cisneros; her other stories reflect similar male attitudes.
This story and all the stories we have read in class are really interesting to me because my mother is Mexican...she came to Canada when she was 20. And many of the female attitudes in the books we've read are something I have grown up with my whole life: the adaptation of Catholicism into a slightly mystical, folkloric religion mixed with elements of Aztec and Maya beliefs; the belief in supernatural or spiritual power in women; the feeling of oppression by men and the culture of machismo (how many times has my mother told me, just like in the novel, "never marry a mexican!"; the idolatry of men on the other hand; and a very colourful, generous way of loving. To me, Cisneros' book rings very true.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

La Gritona

Much like Tomas Rivera, the many voices of Chicanas in this novel fuse together and become one voice which qualifies their existence. Unlike Rivera, it is a purely female voice.
A central issue in this novel is power struggle between men and women. To Cisneros, the chasm between the sexes is a deep one. There is little harmony. No man can be completely trusted; even grandfathers, fathers, have done their share to make mothers, wives, suffer.
But in bittersweet, poetic language Cisneros recognizes how much women can need men, and worship them, and how they can give all of themselves knowingly to someone who will hurt them, to watch them as they sleep and hold them after they've been hit. It's painfully beautiful and very real. Not always is the man abusive, weak, or cowardly, but he is never as strong as the woman. Cisneros' women love their men more than their men love them and they know it. They accept humbly that a woman's way of loving is much more vast and hurts so much more.
If you read the "About the Author" section, it says, "she is nobody's mother and nobody's wife". Like her characters, it seems Cisneros is portrayed as some sort of survivor, who in the end can only trust herself.
Underlying every story there is a recognition of woman's primal power..."You're nothing without me. I created you from spit and red dust"(75), says one of her characters to a man, emphasizing with imagery the power of creation that women hold above men.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hasta ahora...

Hasta ahora tengo que decir que la mejor cosa que hemos leido ha sido lo de Jose Marti. Simplemente porque es la lectura que me hizo sentir algo mas profundo que las otras. Cuando escribi mi blog de Jose Marti, estaba llena de sentimientos, pasiones, ideas que corrian por mi cabeza. Las imagenes que pintaba Marti eran las mas bellas, las mas reales, las mas humanas, y el las describia con su profundo talento literario y filosofico. Y aunque el era cubano, ni Chicano o imigrante a los Estados Unidos, el entendia realmente, perfectamente, lo que era America y lo que sigue siendo hoy....vio el pasado de America, el presente, y tambien el futuro que vendria. A veces la vista del exterior es mejor que la interior; Marti entendia mas claramente el espiritu de America que los Americanos que observaba.
Asi que releyendolo no me cuesta demasiado.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Criticism of religion in "y no se lo trago la tierra"

Unquestionably, Tomas Rivera is criticizing the role that religion plays in the lives of the migrant workers. Since religion is an inherent part of the lives of the characters, it is inevitably a part of almost every story. And Rivera seems to think that religion is one of the oppressive factors keeping the migrant workers in the vicious cycle of a troublesome life full of exploitation and suffering. He criticizes the Church on a moral level: the chapter in which the protagonist sees the nun and the priest making love in the sastreria puts emphasis on its hypocrisy. The young man is trying to find out who he is, his place in society, and religion is a huge obstacle to this. Taught that sex is a sin, something dirty and base, he is told to deny himself and one of the core elements of his identity. He criticizes religion at a grassroots level - where priests find it more important to take donations for the parish fund than to address problems in the community, the problems that Rivera is describing for us.
Rivera takes a very existentialist view on life: the protagonist must make his own live, take control of his own destiny, and break away from the vicious migrant cycle which is partly imposed by religion.
The protagonist questions good and evil...he asks: what is good? what is evil? He curses God and calls out for the Devil, and sees that life is arbitrary, that religion doesn't have control of his life. He questions his mother's belief that there is really a God out there who will grant your wishes if you are good and punish you if you are bad. What kind of God is that, he asks?
In the very end, when he climbs out from under the house, he is free from this oppression...he smiles because he realizes that he is free, he is in control, it is his life to live and no one else's...that he hasn't lost anything, and that everything is related....therefore that everything is in his control.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"Es que duele"

Uno de los abuelos de un amigo mexicano, que vivia en Washington, sabia desde que era muy pequeno lo que queria hacer con su vida. Quiera ser peluquero. Su familia le pregunto, "porque tienes un deseo tan fuerte de ser peluquero?", y el les dijo que cuando era pequeno habia ido por un corte de pelo y habia esperado y esperado y esperado, mientras que el peluquero ayudaba a los otros clientes. Cuando le pregunto al peluquero porque tenia que esperar tanto, el peluquero le enseno el letrero en la puerta de la peluqueria:"No Mexicans". Desde entonces, el queria ser peluquero.
Estuve muy sorprendida cuando vi la replica de esta historia en "...y no se lo trago la tierra". Lo pense y me di cuenta de que estas experiencias han de haber sido muy comunes para los Mexicanos que trabajaban y vivian en los Estados Unidos hace medio siglo. No nos damos cuenta del sufrimiento que ocurria en ese mundo.
Este libro es un cuento de horror, de perdida de creencia, de ignorancia y desesperacion .
Los trabajadores de la historia viven en un lugar indeterminado, entre Dios y el Diablo, entre Mexico y los Estados Unidos, entre la pobreza y los suenos. Explotados por los americanos que los emplean y hasta por otros mexicanos que tratan de enganarlos por dinero, se sienten traicionados por la promesa de la vida y algunos por Dios mismo.
Las imagines del libro son muy fuertes; la de los ninos quemaditos, de los campos de trabajo y la enfermedad del sol, del Diablo, de los viajes de noche al norte en la parte trasera de un camion. Estas imagines son muy dolorosas, muy reales, a veces espantosas.
La ultima pagina, en la cual el narrador ve una palma en el horizonte y se imagina que alli hay alguien trepado viendolo a el, y agita sus brazos para que esta persona vea que el esta alli, es un consuelo final. Buscandose los unos a los otros y compartiendo su experiencia es la salvacion de estos Mexicanos perdidos (Chicanos), que les dara fuerza.

Monday, September 22, 2008

El hombre se muestra bueno

Que no nos perdamos en quejarnos de lo complicado y descriptivo de los ensayos de Marti. Nos tenemos que perder en los ensayos mismos, y se nos abraran los ojos a un mundo que es simultaneamente colorido, absurdo, loco, doloroso y maravilloso. Tenemos que dejarnos ir con la corriente de las palabras, que fluyen tan naturalmente y con tanta velocidad, y absorber la pureza de la descripcion y del sentido. Estas obritas de Marti son perfectamente humanas. Reflejan la condicion humana con el fluido del tiempo corriendo descontroladamente a su alrededor, y las adaptaciones del humano a la modernidad.
Leer las descripciones de America segun Marti es darse cuenta de lo que es el espiritu de America (lo que era entonces, pero la America contemporanea se deriva de este mismo espiritu), algo que era entonces y es todavia una novedad para el mundo. No siempre es buena la representacion de este espiritu....hay cosas malas y buenas de la cultura Americana que siguen influyendo la direccion del mundo moderno....pero todas son unicamente Americanas, y Marti las retrata en una de las formas mas puras que he visto en la literatura. Las descripciones de la feria en Coney Island, de las costumbres, absurdas para los Cubanos para los cuales escribe Marti, de las mujeres y los hombre y los ninos que pasan los dias alli. De el "feeling" que impregna el la falta de clase y moralidad de un lado, que Marti compara con su unica gente, "Aquellas gentes comen cantidad; nosotros clase"(Coney Island)....a lo esplendido que es la innovacion, la libertad, el capitalismo debajo de todo. Que los hombres, en la faz de la dificultad, del dolor, del caos de la vida, salen adelante.
Este espiritu tambien sale en "El Terremoto de Charleston", en el cual los hombres, blancos y negros juntos, vencen a la destruccion (fisica y emocional) de la terremoto, y despues de algunos dias de desesperacion, se encuentran trabajando juntos para seguir la vida. Que luchan encontra de la naturaleze y salen muy humillados, pero adelante (Esto tambien se discute en "Nueva York Bajo la Nieve"). Que el hombre se muestra bueno, despues de todo el dolor que inflige sobre el mundo (e.g. la discusion de esclavitud).
Otros temas en los ensayos: el de construccion, destruccion, y recontruccion (El puente de Brooklyn); el de la modernidad moral (discusiones de libertad en "Fiestas de la Estatua de la Libertad); el del racismo; el de la lucha entre el hombre y la naturaleza; el de la lucha entre el hombre y la historia; el de la hypocresia.
No creo que las descripciones de America en esta epoca sean totalmente negativas. Son verdaderas, eso es todo.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I'm feeling highly unsatisfied by the end of the novel. A lot of loose ends are left flapping in the breeze. And that nice grunt of satisfaction I emit when I finish a book refused to rise to my lips.
I'm not saying all literature has to have a neat, perfect ending in which everyone gets what they deserved and all plot lines are closed. Authors may use their artistic license as they please. But I certainly expected the classical Jane Austen-style writing of Ruiz de Burton to deliver as it had promised.
Mr. Hackwell sort of fades into the horizon, his retribution seeming mild. I wanted to see him suffer....he was no ambiguous, conflicted villain; he was clearly possessed by greed and lust, he was capable of the worst treachery without thinking twice. He should have been disgraced in front of society, made to plead and cry and feel the pain he inflicted upon others.
The reunion and imminent romantic bliss of Julian and Lola was left largely unmentioned, apart from a few basic sentences. The whole novel, I longed for them to have some explosion of passion and joy after so many trials...I'm not saying I wanted a sex scene (it can't be expected from a book like this, sadly), I just wanted all their goodness to come back to them, for them to be rewarded for being so pure and kind and moral.
The return of Doctor Norval, the beloved and benevolent patriarch, was hardly described. The mystery of his disappearance was left a mystery. His reactions to all that had happened in his absence, which I awaited eagerly, were omitted. He was such a big character in the first half that I expected much, much more.
On a lesser level, the weak and greedy Cackles continue their shenanigans in the government without any recognition of their blatant idiotic political ladder-climbing, and Ruth gets to marry a rich Cackle and continues with her superficial life.
Only Mrs. Norval losing her mind satisfied slightly my hunger for retribution. Even in her insanity, the kind Doctor protects her and keeps her from going into a mental institution.
And don't ask me WHAT was the deal with the last few pages.....Ruiz de Burton's political commentary getting out of hand and taking over the plot and becoming tedious. A bit of a disappointment.
But maybe Ruiz de Burton's intent was for us (or people in those days) to see that this stuff would continue on and on...that the bad guys don't always get what they deserve and neither do the good guys. That corruption and materialism and inequality are realities that transcend all time periods. And I see her point. I just wanted a Hollywood ending.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sound familiar?

Feminism....Racism....Materialism...The absurdity of war....Government corruption...
Could be today.
Maria Ruiz de Burton's modern way of thinking has me impressed and smiling on almost every page. She's making these sharp, witty observations on many universal, transcendent issues that exist in today's society as well as in the 19th century. For a book written in 1872, the commentary is years ahead of its time, and all expressed with hilarious satirical flair.
It's not just that the issues she discusses still exist today. Her voice expresses opinions that are completely modern.
On women's role in society, Maria brings to our attention the power and strength of women in the family and in the war (Mrs. Norval, Lavinia Sprig), the ability of women to deal with political issues in a thoughtful and rational way, and the regular dismissal and scorn with which they are treated in attempts to express these things (Lavinia Sprig's encounter in Washington and the derision of Mr. Blower). She ridicules the old stuffy men who are against the franchise. All these things are very much a modern reality....and now women can vote, too.
On racism, Maria portrays the "bad" or "roguish" characters as racists, and the good as tolerant. Constant references by Mrs. Norval (the evil stepmother) and Ruth, her vacuous daughter, about "Indians" and "niggers" are contrasted by Lola's fair and kind treatment at the hands of good characters like Julian and the Doctor. The Confederates are the bad guys. Today, we condemn racism as superficial and illogical, as Maria has pointed out more than 100 years ago.
On materialism (a plague of today, in my opinion) Maria shows criticism of the Misses Norval's obsession with a certain lifestyle, especially clothes, and their idolatry of these things above what really matters (Ruth goes so far as to hope her brother Jules doesn't die so she doesn't have to wear black....she really wants to wear her new silks).
The absurdity of war is a timeless choice....we're dealing today with the same false heroes (like the Cackles, like Hackwell, who become heroes for their stupidity), the same creation of "enemies" using fear (Julian ponders the issue of killing his own countrymen), the same use of war policy by the government to achieve innoble aims (Blower's bizarre explanation to Lavinia about starving the enemy and thus their prisoners).
Government corruption is everywhere in the story. Men make their way to government posts through family connection and money. Members of respected institutions (like the Church...yes, this doesn't go under government but I will put it here) are frauds and hypocrites (Hackwell etc.)
Maria's criticism of these is expressed as a modern writer would express it.
This is what literature is about: the transcendent, the universal, the timeless.
I'm loving it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Who would have thought.....that the bookstore would run out of Ruiz de Burton's book?

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Hi, my name is Valerie...I'm an Economics major with a Spanish minor. I just came back from a year-long exchange to Barcelona, which I could probably call the best year of my life so far. mmmmhhmmm.