Rewriting History: Colonial Latin American Women in Historical Fiction

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Review of female characters of Colonial Latin America (Malintzin in Mexico, Inés Suarez in Chile, and Sierva María de Todos los Santos in Colombia) in contemporary historical novels of Latin America: Laura Esquivel's "Malinche" (2006),
  Early Modern Women:An Interdisciplinary JournalVol. 12, No. 2 •  Spring 2018 136 Rewriting History: Colonial Latin American Women in Historical Fiction R Q-AInés del alma mía. Isabel Allende. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. 367 pp. $10.62. ISBN 978-0-06-116155-1.Malinche. Laura Esquivel. Buenos Aires: Aguilar, Altea, Taurus, Alfaguara, 2006. 196 pp. $20.00. ISBN 978-04-0363-8.Del amor y otros demonios. Gabriel García Márquez. Barcelona: Mondadori-Grijalbo Comercial, 1994. 190 pp. $10.00. ISBN 84-397-1955-8. T he quincentenary in 1992 of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas elicited a highly diverse set of social, political, philosophical, and artistic responses to this historic encounter of peoples from both sides of the Atlantic. These responses informed the creation of historical fiction in literature, fine arts, cin-ema, and media. In the years leading up to the commemoration, Latin American authors began focusing on the colonial history of their nations, in order to recre-ate them in historical novels. In Latin American Novels of the Conquest  (2002), Kimberle López points out that most late twentieth-century historical fiction about colonial Latin America is written from the perspective of a European or criollo  (a Latin American of Spanish descent) male character whose life exempli-fied the deeds of “great men” in the New World. At the same time, the novels examine cultural differences and practices such as miscegenation with the inten-tion of deconstructing the rhetoric of the Spanish Empire. Gender roles, how-ever, while present in Latin American historical fiction, are seldom studied as a   137 Rewriting History central theme, and even less frequently are women — whether Spanish, Spanish American, or indigenous — are placed at the center of the narratives. The three novels reviewed here, however, bridge this thematic gap by featuring women as the major protagonists.The authors of these novels are all acclaimed Latin American writers: Gabriel García Márquez published De amor y otros demonios  ( Love and Other Demons ) in 1994, while Isabel Allende’s Inés del alma mía  ( Inés of my Soul ) and Laura Esquivel’s Malinche  first appeared in 2006. All three novelists are identified as writing in the genre of magic realism, although Allende and Esquivel, as we shall see, differentiate their works from García Márquez’s. All three novels allow the readers access to the historical, yet fictive, woman’s voice in the text. Voice, in this context, is the woman’s expression of agency, her intent to participate in the narrative and its representation of events from her own viewpoint. I will address in this review how these historical novels treat women’s voices and the female gaze in the authors’ recreations of colonial Latin America.The usual approach to female characters in Latin American historical fiction is to portray them as admirable women — either courageous Spaniards or victim-ized indigenous — who eventually return to the daily tasks and roles expected of them. Their victimization, eroticism, and exoticism constitute rhetorical devices that create fictional representations in accord with the author’s own image of women. In this context, one might ask whether these representations respond to a contemporary patriarchal gaze of women, or if they are intended to reinvent female voices and images of women who inhabit an unfamiliar historical past.Although splendidly written, García Márquez’s novel, set in eighteenth-century Cartagena de Indias (Colombia), does not provide much in the way of a colonial woman’s voice and gaze. Its main character, Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, is an unruly girl whose eccentricities call for the intercession of Cayetano DeLaura, a priest appointed to care for her soul. Sierva María is the daughter of a Spanish aristocrat and his wife who live together in a loveless marriage. Rejected by her mother and ignored by her father, household slaves raise the girl; she learns to speak an African dialect and cherishes their religious beliefs, yet her apprecia-tion of the African elements of her surroundings perplexes and aggravates her parents. The bite of a rabid dog sets into motion a series of events that disclose Cayetano’s sinful attraction to the young girl and the Inquisition’s view of her as the target of evil forces. Confined in a convent against her will, Sierva María is represented by García Márquez as an exotic and erotic child-woman who barely  138  EMWJ Vol. 12 No. 2 •  Spring 2018 Rocío Quispe-Agnoli speaks Spanish and behaves like a wild animal. Only Cayetano’s passionate love gives her some relief until Church officials separate them permanently. Sierva María’s voice is rarely heard; when she speaks, it is in an unknown African lan-guage. More importantly, others speak for her: her parents, her lover, the nuns of the convent, and the Inquisition. Victimized for her affinity with African slaves and their customs, the girl’s exoticization extends beyond her death, converting her into an icon of oral history and a godlike figure that is worshipped in the Caribbean. All these features are presented to the reader as signs of magic realism. In a short prefatory note, García Márquez relates the story of a young girl’s corpse, found in an old crypt, whose red hair kept growing after her death, ultimately reaching a length of twenty-two meters and eleven centimeters. Magic realism intersects with history by combining historical reality with the fictional anecdote of the hair’s growth, highlighting in this way the improbable, yet not impossible chain of events when a young girl’s life is told, not by herself, but by others.Magic realism was a predominant feature of Isabel Allende’s earlier novels that feature women as their protagonists ( The House of Spirits , Eva Luna ). In Inés del alma mía  ( Inés of my Soul ), although the Chilean author closely follows the tenets of the contemporary historical novel, she offers a subtle twist in the repre-sentation of a sixteenth-century Spanish woman. Written as a fictional autobiog-raphy of Inés Suárez (1507–80), the first Spanish woman to travel to Chile and an eyewitness to its conquest, the novel tells Inés’s story of knowing, domesticat-ing, and conquering unknown territories at the same time that she engages with new lands and their inhabitants through her gaze. This gaze achieves two literary objectives: the first is to mimic the genre of Hispanic travel literature and provide information about the New World; the second, to narrate a woman’s life through her own visual experiences and thus create a representation of herself. In contrast to García Márquez’s Sierva María, Inés Suárez is a historical figure who crossed the Atlantic and participated in the conquest of Chile while accompanying Pedro de Valdivia. Spanish and Chilean historians portray her as a heroic conquistador, a mother, and a matriarch. The novel conceives a woman traveler who scruti-nizes new places and peoples turning them into objects of desire. Through her gaze, Inés attempts to learn, tame, control, and own the unknown and hostile places and peoples of the New World, all the while seeking the affection of men such as her husband, Juan de Málaga, and later on Pedro de Valdivia. Early on, the protagonist also reveals that she is the author of her own memoir; she has learned to read and write, and is writing her life for her stepdaughter. Eventually   139 Rewriting History she portrays herself as an aging woman as she regards her own image in a mirror. The image she sees is not what she expects, but one that has changed over time. Her still-youthful soul and heart are trapped in a seventy-year-old body that her sensual gaze examines. Inés’s confrontation with her aging body compels her to reflect upon the boundaries between life, death, and memory.Like Allende, Laura Esquivel abandoned in Malinche  the magic realism of her 1989 novel, Como agua para chocolate  ( Like Water for Chocolate ) to write about the history of the Spanish arrival in Mexico from the perspective of a Nahua woman. The main character, Malinalli, also known as Doña Marina by the Spaniards and, pejoratively, as Malinche by the Mexicans, narrates her life story, which includes the oral traditions told by her grandmother; Nahua reli-gious beliefs; the worship of Tonantzin, the Aztec mother of gods and men; her mother’s abandonment of her; and her subsequent sufferings during the Spanish conquest. The interpreter and mistress of Hernan Cortés, Malinalli is exoticized by her communion with the natural world and her knowledge of native territories and peoples. She is also eroticized as a young woman fascinated by the conquista-dor until she realizes the horror of the Spanish war against Mexico. Like Allende’s Inés, Esquivel’s Malinalli appears as a woman whose passion for a conquistador explains her collaboration. Eventually, however, both women are abandoned by their lovers and marry other Spanish men whom they learn to love and with whom they have children.The female characters in Allende’s and Esquivel’s novels, and the way they are fictionalized, contrast with García Marquéz’s representation of a young woman. De amor y otros demonios  offers a magic realist rendering of a woman whose voice is hardly heard and whose story is told by others. By contrast, the main character’s success in taming the unknown New World in both Inés del alma mía  and Malinche  provides a fictional alternative to the male gaze that prevails in most modern historical narratives. This male gaze perceives the conquest of the Americas as an almost exclusive male enterprise, and relegates the participation of early colonial women to the archives, impeding its becoming a part of official history. Allende’s and Esquivel’s novels, despite their fictional nature, provide an alternative representation of colonial Chilean and Mexican history as it would have been seen through women’s eyes.
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