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Elena Garro: Rewriting the Past Through Fantastic Literature

By Luigi Rapisarda-

«—This is the end of man —I said.

—So it is—he answered, his voice above mine. And I saw myself in his eyes and in his body.»

Elena Garro, La culpa es de los tlaxcaltecas (1964)

Elena Garro (Puebla, México, 1916 - Cuernavaca, 1998) has been described as one of Mexico’s most important and controversial literary figures of the 20th century. She studied Literature at the UNAM (The National Autonomous University of Mexico) and worked as a playwright and choreographer for the university theatre. However, after marrying the famous Mexican writer and poet, Octavio Paz, she interrupted her studies to devote herself to her private life, as requested by her husband. She learnt to write through journalism, a profession she began to practise from the age of 25, but her career as a journalist was always intermittent; what really interested her were literature and theatre. After separating from Paz in 1959, Garro was finally able to focus on her literary career, which was no longer compromised by her former husband and his own literary legacy.

In Latin America, the 1960s were a time in which the novel underwent a re-evaluation as a result of certain historical and cultural changes that led to a radical break in the way authors perceived themselves and literature. Among others, there were events of historical importance such as the Cuban Revolution or the Alliance for Progress that brought Latin America into contemporary history. In literary terms, Realism (representing subject matter truthfully) was replaced by a more experimental, unrealistic style of writing in which many characters were based on popular figures and fantastic elements were used to tell the story (broadly associated with the term Magic Realism). The moment of greatest change, known as the "Latin American Boom”, came with the emergence of several writers who began to make a name for themselves in the mid-1960s, receiving awards and recognition for their experimental and innovative novels. In some cases, the beginning of the “boom” is linked to the period of the avant-garde, since in both cases a new language was sought and there was a conviction that a new type of literature could be written. The “boom” represents the culmination of needs that had developed decades earlier, but it is considered a new beginning because of the renewed historical time and the talent of its protagonists. The predominant names are those of Julio Cortázar from Argentina, Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru, Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia and Carlos Fuentes from Mexico.

Elena Garro and the Fantastic

Although Garro’s writing is sprinkled with fantastic elements, she has always rejected the label of Magic Realism: she is not part of the canon that came from the “boom” of Latin American literature in the 60s, yet she was one of the few women who was included in the anthology of Latin American fantastic literature in its second edition (Antología de la Literatura Fantástica [1965]), at a time when Latin American literature was dominated by male voices. Garro's writings deal with the exclusion of minorities from the national culture and the oppression of women by a male-dominated society. Specifically, she is very interested in the part of the population that was ‘ignored’ by Mexican society of that time. The main settings of her stories are often the rural areas of Mexico, which goes against the main point of the “boom” writers who, for the most part, depict urban landscapes such as Ciudad de México or Buenos Aires; she distances herself from the big centres, turning her gaze to marginal areas and marginalised people.

Although Garro's prose is impregnated with fantastic elements, the fantastic element also manifests itself through her choice of language. In this regard, her use of the fantastic is not a supernatural element that breaks the rules of Realism in the story (as is the case in Magic Realism), instead, the fantastic is presented with the hesitation of language, showing precisely certain transgressive uses of language that create the uncanny: the level of writing creates an atmosphere based on ambiguity. The narrator plays a key role, as he or she acts as the supervisor of what is narrated and is the witness of the weird so that the tale becomes a “narrative of perception”, where the writer creates, in a way, an illusion/unbalance of the real.

In the following section, I will analyse two short stories by Elena Garro which deal with the theme of indigenous people and their relation to their past during the Conquest of Mexico, and the conflicts of class, gender and race in contemporary Mexican society.

Analysing Garro’s Indigenous World and Beyond

I have decided to analyse two short stories by Elena Garro: “La culpa es de los tlaxtlaltecas” and “El arbol”, in which it is possible to see the relationship between the Mexican middle-class of the ‘50s and the indigenous people on two levels: in the first tale, the indigenous world, is a more symbolic element; in the second, it can be construed as a more tangible element.

In “La culpa es de los tlaxtlaltecas” it is an “Indio” who is the “fantastic element” of the tale: throughout the story, we follow the adventures of the main character, Laura, a privileged Mexican woman who finds herself divided in “two worlds” and “two identities”: the one she is living in the present (contemporary Mexico) and the one in the past, where she was part of the indigenous population during the Conquest of Mexico. In the past, Laura witnesses the destruction of the indigenous pueblos at the hands of the Spaniards and is overcome with a sense of guilt and betrayal of her people.

The story is based on the episode of “La Malinche”, an indigenous woman who acted as translator and interpreter for the Spanish colonists (and also as Hernán Cortés' lover), and was the link between the conquerors and the Tlaxcaltecas people, the traditional enemies of the Aztecs. Historically, Malinche has been perceived as a negative figure, a traitor to her people and, in the course of Garro's narrative, the protagonist-who embodies Malinche- realises her betrayal and takes the blame for it. But this is where Garro's narrative becomes interesting because she rewrites the role of women in a new light: instead of being seen as a traitor, the female protagonist is depicted as the prisoner of a patriarchal and colonial system that does not allow her to have a choice. The female protagonist is not solely portrayed as a victim either; Garro also gives Laura, who embodies Malinche, a sense of agency by allowing her to take control of, and shape, her own narrative and identity. Therefore, unlike her historical portrayal, Malinche’s fictional portrayal is given a voice, and redemption takes place in the present whilst the coloniser is criticized instead.

In “El Arbol, we also see a direct criticism of Mexican society of the time. Garro narrates the relationship between two women, once again a white, middle-class woman, Marta, and an indigenous woman who works as a maid, Luisa. The story focuses on Luisa who seeks refuge from her violent husband and although Marta receives her, she does not believe the maid's words, and defends her abusive husband, insulting Luisa for her ungrateful attitude. The point of connection between the two is represented by the indigenous maid who is a frequent and connecting element between the Indigenous and the New Mexican population. In Garro's first story, Laura’s cook, Nacha, is a close companion with whom she creates almost a sisterhood intent on confronting contemporary middle-class society. In contrast, in “El Arbol”, Martha has no compassion for Luisa, is indifferent to her and shows no empathy, but instead sets herself on a level of superiority. The middle-class woman's hatred and disgust for the indigenous woman, simply because she is of a lower social class and indigenous, is repeatedly expressed in the text.

This text mirrors the relationship between the new Mexican middle-class and the indigenous population who were victims of the conquerors: just as Marta, without affection or empathy, can only give Luisa food, likewise society can only give the “Indios'' a job, not social status. Therefore, if, in the first story, the conflicts of class, gender and race are resolved through an alliance of the two women as subjects who are both victims of a patriarchal society, in the second story, the two women do not recognise each other as similar subjects and there is no sisterhood. Instead, the middle-class woman's lack of empathy prevails and the only thing these two women have in common is their shared feelings of hatred: Marta towards the indigenous woman, and Luisa towards her violent husband- a metaphor for the inequalities and conflicts within Mexican society at the time.

Fantastic literature offers an escape from certain dimensions of reality, inventing possibilities for redemption in the past, and a repudiation of the present within middle-class and patriarchal societies. And this is precisely how Elena Garro uses the fantastic in her stories: to be able to deal with historically complicated and controversial topics, such as the relationship between the colonisers and the indigenous populations, and with issues of gender and class in Mexican society. It is these critical reflections on the past that make Elena Garro an eclectic and modern author that has not yet received the full recognition she deserves, both as a Mexican writer and as a female writer in a traditionally male-dominated space, who has been instrumental in shaping Latin American fantastic literature.


Bibliography and videography

Elena Garro, La semana de colores (1964)


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