Márgara Averbach received her Doctorate in Literature from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she teaches United States literature. She is an author of three books on African American and Native American Literature and over seventy articles in specializes publications. A translator of over fifty novels from English into Spanish, she also published books of fiction for children and adults. Email:
This article reflects on the problematic of being an Americanist, but not an American in the widest usage of the word. I am a scholar who studies the United States without being a United States citizen or living in the United States. First, I would like to stop at the word “American,” which we Americans who belong to the large American continent but are non-American Americanists, strongly object. I will in the following analyze the study of the US from the perspective of scholars who live and work in Latin American countries and who also define themselves as “Americans.” In Latin America, Americano (American in Spanish) means both a person of the continent and it also refers to someone denoting “the enemy.” This essay describes both the difficulties and the advantages of studying the US from different regions of the continent that are southern to the US border, especially Latin America and the Caribbean, in the context of globalization and transnational discourses.
Looking at the Center from the Margin(s)
Transnationalizing the study of any culture is an exercise in cross-fertilization. As an Argentine who teaches US literature in Argentina (I am deliberately avoiding the word “American”), I am interested in the ways in which such cross-fertilization may be used to understand Latin America’s position in the world with the argument that the exercise may also be useful for US scholars. One of the advantages of the knowledge of foreign cultures is that it helps one to de-naturalize its own world view. Yet, the winding way that brings scholars from the foreign culture they study back to their own culture proves sometimes difficult and even dangerous, especially if they study a world-dominant society while they belong to a marginal one.
The cross-fertilization process seen uncritically can give birth to several socio-political problems. While studying Native-US literary works and works by Latin American and Caribbean authors, I have frequently come across imminent issues of racism and a tendency to minimize peoples, cultures, places and/or countries. These visible sites enabled me to understand what is at stake in studying US literature in a country like Argentina. The issue might sound out of fashion in Brazil, where the debate over the mainstream and the margins, as well as over majority and minority is quite old. In teaching US literature, Brazilian universities have always emphasized “African American” and “Latino” literatures, because of the similar historical slavery systems and bi-racial ethnic structures in the history of the US and Brazil. But in Argentina US mainstream literature is mostly the only one included in the curriculum. The literature of the US “margins” is not so commonly taught.
When students, teachers, and scholars study or teach the US white, male literary canon, they investigate the cultural production of only one social group, which, as opposed to minority writers, possesses (central) power. According to George Lipsitz, writers who belong to a marginalized minority construct a “countermemory,” which is a mixture of history and myth that explicitly rejects the Western dominant binary thinking, and constitute a potential combination for change (1990, 211-32). The investigation of US minority works not only reveals the internal tension between the cultures from the margins and the leading, mainstream canon, but can also teach us about tensions between peripheral national (Argentinean, in this case) and dominant foreign (US) cultures.
In Argentina, when teaching literatures written in the US, we generally focus on mainstream authors and their works. To make matters worse, as a result of their wide exposure to the Hollywood cinema and to popular TV series, students are knowledgeable about the culture that produced the dominant literature they are reading more than they are familiar with any other foreign culture. At the same time, most of our students voice considerable anti-US opinions, especially after 2002, believing that the US, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were responsible for the destruction of Argentinean economy, and yet, paradoxically, this does not work against the growing influence of popular culture that comes from the US on young people. The hope is that through reading and analyzing diverse literatures produced in the US, students will be able to reflect on how strongly US mainstream culture shapes their world view. Teaching non-canonical literatures helps building up critical attitudes to the images of minority and marginal groups that US mainstream films and TV constantly transmit. African-US culture, for example, is mostly understood in Argentina in terms of how conventional films represent it.
Translations pose further problems. With the translation into Spanish, students miss the original texts’ linguistic quality. Especially with African-US literature, translators often fail to transmit the equivalent of a specific slang or jargon in Spanish. At the same time, however, translations may demonstrate how cultures can cross, influence, and erase each other (Cheyfitz 3-40). For example, film subtitles create a special distance between the original US cultural context and the signification of the given movie and the culture that produces the translation. The erasure of the vernacular through translation implies also the erasure of the cultural differences. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues in Signifying Monkey, erasing equals with destroying, Europeanizing, and westernizing the work’s vernacular signifiers (22-43). Malcolm X trying to straighten his hair in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie Malcolm X reflects that process. Translations may help awareness of the distance between the original culture and one’s own. The awareness of such distance is beneficial and makes us compare cultures and grasp the power relations involved in cultural contacts.
Environment and Racism
Environmental problems represented in literature offer an important expression of cultural relations between the center and the margins. When I teach US minority cultures and literatures, the exercise of comparing cultures itself becomes a complex mirror dance that ends up proving Lipsitz’s idea on cultural alliances and the need to embrace both locality and universality (Lipsitz 2008). To him, “environmental racism” refers to the acts of polluting localities and spaces inhabited and used by non-white peoples. Corporations usually take advantage of the lack of control in those areas and the low fines they are required to pay become “acceptable expenses” for violations. After reading and analyzing novels, poems, and plays written by Native-US authors, one is struck by their constant reference to resistance against environmental racism. In the moment of the peak of the conflict I am going to speak about, many of the students in Argentina analyzed this phenomenon by thinking about this situation in the Southern Cone (the Southern part of South America).
There are currently two types of environmental conflicts taking place in the Southern Cone. The first one is the clash over paper mills, in particular one recently built by a Finish company on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River. The city of Gualeguaychú, on the Argentinean side continues to fight this mill. Another paper mill, which was eventually moved further away from the border, was originally started by a Spanish company. The question of the mills has caused protests and tension between Argentina and Uruguay until the new Uruguayan president, José Mujica was in office. Other conflicts involving natives’ protest in Argentina have been lead by tribes in various provinces against mining. The Mapuches, for example, object to the gold mines planned by Canadian companies in Esquel, Patagonia, where most of the town inhabitants voted in a referendum in opposition to the mining operation. Similar conflicts have developed in Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca, La Rioja, all provinces on the Andes Mountain Range. Although this problem takes place in South America, the crisis has also involved the governments of Finland, Spain, and Canada, because they support their national companies.
These conflicts between Latin America and Europe and Latin America and North America are center-periphery confrontation and they appear constantly in the works by Latin American writers. For example, in the Argentine novelist Eduardo Belgrano Rawson’s in Noticias secretas de América, the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de América Latina, El libro de los abrazos, Memoria del fuego, Patas arriba: escuela del mundo al revés, Espejos, and fiction writer Pauline Melville (Guyana)’s The Migration of Ghosts. All these books talk about environmental racism. These struggles that Latin American writers narrate are similar to those depicted by Native-US authors in Almanac of the Dead by the Laguna Pueblo Leslie Silko or in Mean Spirit and The Book of Medicines by the Chicasaw Linda Hogan; in The Light People by Gordon Henry of the White Earth Band group, in Ponca War Dances, Cowboys and Indians Christmas Shopping, and An Eagle Nation by the Osage poet Carter Revard, as well as in Woven Stone and Out There Somewhere by the Acoma Pueblo tribe’s poet Simon Ortiz.
Many authors from the margin use their writings to warn that the intentions of the centers of power to profit from polluting the marginal regions of the world will destroy not only the world’s periphery but, at the end, also the world’s centers (Gilmore 15-24). These works analyze complex power struggles relations between Native-US peoples and the white European majority over local and global pollution. Natives of the Americas fight to defend their regions and settlements against threats by international corporations. Even in the cases where, in Latin American countries, these corporations are run by locals, the firms enjoy the protection of the US and European governments. Environmental issues are always a matter of global importance because the survival of the entire planet is at stake. The problem with pollution – a problem ‘forgotten’ or put aside by contaminating companies and the countries that sponsor them, including the US, which has not ratified the 1997 Kyoto Agreement on climate change – is that it makes any division between North and South absurd, since the only geographical category that matters is the planet itself. Corporations, governments, and persons in power in the dominant centers may think it is profitable to contaminate areas in the margins. Since it is cheap, and they operate and live far away from marginal regions, they find it easy to overlook the fact that as inhabitants of the planet the pollution they are causing will eventually be a problem for them, too.
In Almanac of the Dead Leslie Marmon Silko combines the notions of translation and countermemory, telling an extraordinary story about the pollution of Alaska. Lecha, one the characters in the novel, visits a small Alaskan Yupik community, where people often meet in front of the only one television set in the area. Rose, Lecha’s friend, translates the TV scenes from English into Yupik for the entire community, including the old Medicine Woman, the spiritual leader and the town’s healing person. The Medicine Woman is interested in the satellite weather maps that Rose interprets for her. The translation of a weather forecast the Yupik community has never seen before makes the old woman realize “the possibilities in the white man’s gadgets” (Silko 155). White people “could fly circling objects in the sky that sent messages and images of nightmares and dreams, but… [she] knew how to turn the destruction back on its senders” (idem). She refers to the cultural and environmental contamination of the tribe’s life and territory. To turn the destruction “back on its senders,” the Medicine Woman rewrites and transforms the weather maps in a ceremony that reorganizes the satellite images around a non-Western concept of representation. The ceremony makes use of traditions, such as reciting stories and rubbing a weasel fur against the TV screen. These acts evoke the Western notion of magic. To the old woman’s Yupik culture maps are not independent from the climate as a reality fact. She transforms what she sees on the screen into an act of resistance involving countermemory powers, which in Western culture would be called magic. The Yupik does not recognize the crack between words and things, as described by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things, and therefore representation possesses a magic power that can touch the world outside itself.
Through the ceremony, the old woman modifies the maps on the screen, and through this, she transforms the real Alaskan weather, intentionally creating sudden unexpected storms that cause the polluting company’s airplanes to crash. In the “plane-crashing spell,” the old woman
rubbed the weasel fur rapidly over the glass of the TV screen, faster and faster; the crackling and sparks became louder and brighter until the image of the weather map on the TV screen began to swirl with masses of storm clouds moving more rapidly with each stroke of the fur. Then the old woman had closed her eyes and summoned all the energy, all the force of the spirit beings furious and vengeful (Silko 156-7).
The spell joins two cultures together but the Yupik culture exercises power over Western white technology: it domesticates it, translates it into a different world, and uses it for its own purposes.
The purposefulness of the airplane destruction becomes evident when, on the old woman promises Lecha that her plan will not crash. On the way back, Lecha talks on the plane with a white man. The man works for an insurance company and shows her a map where he has marked the places where airplanes have recently crashed. He is utterly surprised by this story of tragic and sudden climate changes and compares it to the legend of the Bermuda Triangle (Silko 160). It is possible to read the old Yupik woman’s story as rewriting and counter-translating the legend of the Bermuda Triangle’s electromagnetic fields that make airplanes and ships ‘crazy.’ But Lecha thinks the opposite is true: the Bermuda story is another violent translation of resistance acts performed by healers in ceremonies, healers who produce electromagnetic fields with the intention of destroying the enemy.
White culture cannot translate – that is, understand – the story of the Bermuda Triangle for the Yupik woman because it lacks altogether a Western culture equivalent for this story. That is the reason why the insurance man fails to find signifiers to represent certain ideas. Thus, he denies these ideas or just translates them as lies. Magic, after all, is ‘a lie’ for most Westerners. “None of that stuff is true, you know. It can all be explained,” he says to Lecha (Silko 160). In the man’s mind, “explained” refers to rational, scientific thinking, the only way of thinking Western culture considers important.. Knowing better, Lecha understands that the explanation has to do with the wish for resistance and ceremonial power, ideas Western thought does not understand.
This episode illustrates the idea of employing translation, magic, and technology as weapons for resistance. After all, “Lecha had seen what the old Yupik woman could do with only a piece of weasel fur, a satellite weather map on a TV screen and the spirit energy of a story” (Silko 159). These are the components of the airplane crash: they are mestizo in nature. A weasel fur, white people’s technology, and the Amerindian power of representational narration. Representation can change the represented object, narration can change the world and they should be used to do exactly that.
Visibility and Invisibility
When we attempt to study the US from a Latin American perspective, the notion of distance is important, especially because we have been increasingly ‘colonized’ by US culture. The distance between the cultures of the colonizer and the colonized must be noted and discussed so as to de-naturalize the too close familiarity Latin American students have with US culture. Hollywood films and US television are everywhere in Argentina. Until recently, there was nothing done in Argentina that could be compared to the way France defends its national cinema and even now, the measures taken by Argentina’s government are insufficient in the race with the strong influence of US popular culture.
US cultural impact has manage to change certain characteristics of Argentine culture. Here is an example: my generation, born in the 1950s, did not understand the ideas behind the words “winner” and “loser” because our culture paid little attention to material “success” in the sense mainstream US culture gives to the words. My children not only understand the concept but they also use it, although when they talk about it they pick the English words, instead of their Spanish translations. This is even more frequent among people of the higher classes. Visiting an elite primary school to talk about my books for children, I was very surprised when most of the students’ questions were about the money the books earn or whether I was “famous”. I was irritated by these questions which are still not usual in public and middle-class schools. But that is changing in Argentina. Yet, there is still resistance: my middle-class children say “loser” in English, acknowledging linguistically that the original notion of the word does not come from our country or culture; they still use another language to express it, thus emphasizing the “distance” between them and the idea.
When Argentines prefer to see subtitled films (not dubbed), they are in fact defending this distance. A general rejection of dubbed foreign films exists here in spite of efforts to impose them. As a colleague from Spain pointed out to me, it is important to preserve the mark of language as a symbol of the difference between the culture on the screen and the culture in the movie theater. When TV and films are dubbed in TV, this distance is erased. n the cinema, in spite of watching Hollywood films frequently, subtitling keeps us aware that what we see does not take place in our midst, but is culturally foreign to us. On the other hand, the wide presence of the English language in ads and commercial store names works precisely against this distance.
As teachers of a foreign culture, I think we should not abandon our “difference”, nor should we accept as positive facts that US mainstream culture minimizes South and Latin American cultures, ignoring them or depicting them as marginal or criminal. In this filed, there is plenty to learn from the study of minority literatures and arts. Once the owners of the entire land of the Americas, Native peoples or, as they are called in Argentina, “pueblos originarios” (original peoples), have almost been ignored, not only in the US but also in South America, including Argentina. Latin American Natives have been largely disregarded unless they have found a way to make themselves visible through indigenous movements of resistance.
For us in Latin America the term “America” refers to the continent as a whole, the United States being only one country in that universe. Nevertheless, the dominant culture of the center has chosen to use the name America as a synonym for the US, therefore making the rest of the continent invisible or negligible. Prior to the rising popularity of Neoliberalism in Argentina during the 1990s, the word “americano” was never used to refer to a US citizen (they were called either “yanquis” or “estadounidenses”). Nowadays, because of careless translations of films and television series, and the naturalization of the English language in city streets, among young people and people from the upper classes the word “americano” has finally come to mean “estadounidense,” a person from the US. Sometimes I ask people who use the word in this way: “If ‘americanos’ are people from the US, what are we?” However, among academics, intellectuals, and artists of my generation today “americano” still means everyone who belongs to the American continent. Probably with a similar thought in mind, Argentinean songwriters Armando Tejada Gómez and César Isella foresaw this in their 1973 famous song “Canción con todos” (“A Song with Everyone”). This song describes South America poetically through the refrain: “Sing with me, sing, American brother/free your hope with a shout in your voice.”
Language can makes us disappear, especially in the context of globalization, Native peoples have also been partially or totally erased from the conscience of their American countries. Globalization cannot be equally read and interpreted from the center of power or from the margins. At the center, people think they can eliminate or diminish the margins without significant consequence. On the contrary, if they want to resist erasure and survive, marginalized peoples must observe and understand both themselves and the center. In the following passage from Patas arriba: la escuela al revés, Eduardo Galeano describes the erasure of the Southern Hemisphere by discussing the commonly used world map:
We learn world geography through a map, which does not show the world as it is but as its owners decide it is. On the traditional world map used in schools and everywhere, the Equator is not at the center: the North occupies two thirds and the South one… This map, which makes us smaller, symbolizes all the rest. Stolen geography, plundered economy, falsified history, daily usurpation of reality: the so called Third World, inhabited by people who are considered third class, occupies less, remembers less, lives less, says less. And not only does it occupy less on the map; it occupies less in newspapers, television, radio.” (Galeano 1998, 85, translation mine)
Galeano explains how mainstream languages and the major communication media forbid marginal groups to tell their own story and thus, their own history. When we examine the literatures of Latin American and US minority groups, we not only discover the (literary) strategies they use to uncover and recover their pasts, but also to tell their histories from their own perspective.
Studying US marginalized groups from an Argentine perspective, helps us, scholars and readers explore the strategies of marginalized periphery groups hidden or erased by the dominant center. If writing is an action taken by authors within certain political struggles, studying the literary works of minorities is in itself an act of resistance. There is much to learn about the similarities and differences between artistic and representational strategies and fortunately, the area of US Studies seems nowadays increasingly dedicated to the analysis of complex relations between authors and marginalized groups.
In an essay written about over ten years ago, the US literary scholar Doris Friedenshon defined the process of understanding the tendencies in the relations between center and periphery as “transnationalization” (167-83). It is helpful for US academics to become familiar with the ways in which US literatures are studied outside the US, because it could help them understand their country and culture from the perspective of others. Yet, this is a difficult and courageous project for a society which is just getting accustomed to looking at the margins while being seemingly less interested in the rest of the continent/world. Transnationalization can hold a different mirror for the US: it can show how US culture has been largely isolated as a society, has always looked at itself only in a long history of constant monologues. Changing those monologues into dialogues, as Friedensohn argues, is part of our duty as scholars. Transnationalization can hold a different mirror in front of the USA, a mirror marked with a long history of constant monologues coming from the North. Changing those monologues into dialogues, as Doris Friedensohn said, is part of our duty as scholars.
I want to end with a literary example of such a mirror: in the impressive Saga de los Confines, a fantasy trilogy where Argentine author Liliana Bodoc recreates the conquest of America by Europe, her not totally invented continent does not include the territory of what is now the US. In the book, the Fertile Lands (as the “Americas” are called), seen from the Southern “confines”, extend from Argentina to Mexico only, and they join very different cultures to save the planet from the magic of the Old Lands (Europe), a magic based on hierarchies, the despising and destroying of Others and an enormous thirst for conquest. Bodoc’s erasure of North America is an extreme proposal, but it mirrors the way our end of the continent is generally erased from the world vision of the North.
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- Belgrano Rawson, Eduardo. 1991. Fuegia. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana.
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- Henry, Gordon. 1994. The Light People. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.
- Hogan, Linda. 1990. Mean Spirit. New York: Ivy.
- Hogan, Linda. 1992. The Book of Medicines. Minneapolis: Coffee House.
- Lipsitz, George. 1990. “History, Myth and Counter-memory: Narrative and Desire in Popular Novels.” In Time Passages, Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 211-232.
- Lipsitz, George. 2008. “Unexpected Affiliations: Environmental Justice and the New Social Movements.” Unpublished essay.
- Melville, Pauline. 1998. The Migration of Ghosts. London: Bloomsbury.
- Ortiz, Simon. 1992. Woven Stone. Tucson: U of Arizona P.
- Ortiz, Simon. 1992. Out There Somewhere. Tucson: U of Arizona P.
- Revard, Carter. 1980. Ponca War Dances. Norman, Oklahoma: Point Riders.
- Revard, Carter. 1992. Cowboys and Indians Christmas Shopping. Norman, Oklahoma: Point Riders.
- Revard, Carter. 1997. An Eagle Nation. Tucson: U of Arizona P.
- Silko, Leslie. 1991. Almanac of the Dead. Harmondsworth: Penguin.