Cross Currents

Cross Currents

K-dramas Flow into Latin America

A Look at Korea's Cultural Products

By: James A. Dettleff

I was at Chile's Santiago airport some months ago when I heard a group of young ladies chanting and cheering. I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, while running with short steps from one place to another. Their chanting continued in what sounded like Japanese or Korean, until I recognized some words: Super Junior. The k-pop group was leaving Chile after a successful and massive concert, and their fans were following them until their last moments in the country. The next day there was barely a note about it in an interior page of a Chilean newspaper, and only some seconds’ mention on a TV news program. How come a musical group with so many and loyal fans had no publicity in the media? Welcome to the hallyu experience.

Korean pop groups and television dramas broke frontiers and arrived on Latin American soil more than 15 years ago. Their popularity has increased thanks to the easy access to these products through the Internet, and to thousands of fans around the world who upload, classify, and share these songs and episodes to the delight of the South Korean government.

The Asian products have been part of the Latin American culture for decades. TV cartoons from Japan—animes—are part of the regular schedule since the mid 60’s when Astroboy was first broadcasted, followed by Street Racer (Meteoro, in Latin America), Knights of the Zodiac, Dragon Ball, Mazinger Z, Rurouni Kenshin, only to name a few that followed in the next decades. Martial arts films and video games from Asia also flooded the world, as did the comic books, known as manga. These products were mainly targeted at the male audience, but a few products—such as Candy Candy, Sakura Card-captors and some manga shojo—were aimed at the female audience. But at the turn of the century, that changed.

OK Drama
Yoon Eun-hye stars in K Drama.


Japan has been a huge production center of animes, TV shows, mangas, pop music and such. But by the end of the 20th century other production centers started to expand. South Korea was one of them, and cultural industries played a role as well as politics. After the country restated its political relationship with China, Korean TV dramas and pop music groups started to appear on China’s television and music venues. Up until then, Japanese doramas—TV fiction shows, called that after the English word drama—ruled the Asian market, as did the J-pop, Japanese boy band or girl groups that sang and danced catchy themes mainly attracting young audiences. South Korea’s entertainment industry also worked on training aidorus—after the English word idols—young men and women who became models, singers or actors/actresses. At the same time, new television stations changed the format of their dramas, shortening them and creating original soundtracks (OST) for the shows, which were usually performed by pop singers, creating a synergy between music and television industries, and later fashion and make-up industries. The Korean government supported them as a way to promote an image of a modern and dynamic Korea.

K Drama 2
K Drama.


To differentiate their national products from Japanese ones, Korean songs are known as k-pop, and their TV series as k-dramas. A performance in Beijing of HOT—a k-pop boy band—had a huge success, taking by surprise the Chinese media, which started to talk about the Korean wave: the hallyu was born.

Hallyu means wave or flow, and is used to describe the cultural phenomenon that includes music, television dramas and films from South Korea. These products didn’t only succeed in China but also in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and many other Asian countries. Thanks to the Internet they reached several other regions of the world, with young females as their main audience. Blogs and web pages started to appear offering episodes of k-dramas, and fans started to watch them even without speaking Korean. Some websites started a collaborative work to subtitle the episodes: the fansubs were born. Web pages that allow people to learn Korean were easily found, and in 2013 the applications to take the proficiency test in Korean had quadrupled compared to 2004.

Anime Sakura
Anime Sakura

K-dramas arrived to Latin America in the early years of this century, when Mexico started dubbing them. In Peru, the Korean embassy wanted to promote the country’s image in the context of the 2002 Soccer World Cup, and offered k-dramas to the national public broadcast station, TV Peru. Since there was no money to pay for the products, the embassy offered them for free if the station would also broadcast promotional videos of Korea. Since then, k-dramas continued to be shown in the country: until 2010 by TV Peru, then by Panamericana—a private broadcasting company—and since 2016 also by Willax, a small TV station that is trying to increase its share of the Peruvian television market.

One would imagine that these series are a huge success with the audience, but it isn’t so. They barely reach two points on the ratings, which is pretty low for what is expected on Peruvian television. So how have they survived more than 15 years on Peruvian television screens? On the one hand, k-dramas have young female die-hard fans who are willing to watch the series over and over, despite having watched it before in Korean, subtitled, or even on other TV stations. On the other hand, the broadcasting companies that have aired the k-dramas have low ratings, with these programs often being their most watched shows. The low cost of buying a k-drama compared to the audience the station gains seems to make it a profitable business. The problem of depending on these k-dramas is that it will not allow those stations to grow but just to survive, and there is always the risk that the audiences will start to fade away. But for now, we still see in Peru and other Latin countries young people dancing to the music of k-pop, buying magazines with news and pictures of their aidorus, or running around the airport to have a last glance when their Korean stars leave the country.


James A. Dettleff is an Audiovisual Professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, and a Ph.D(c) in communications at Universidad Católica de Chile, researching TV series and films as part of the cultural memory of the internal war in Perú.

How to Think Globally

Between China and Latin America

By: Andrea Bachner

The Hollywood action film Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro and released in 2013, features the Pacific as an abyssal gateway through which alien monsters from another dimension enter the world. The film’s human heroes fighting in giant robots in order to contain the aliens set on conquest and destruction show a rather skewed picture of our imaginary of the Pacific. The Pacific Rim invoked in the title, as the film suggests with its main protagonists, a U.S. American with his Japanese love interest, involves North America and Japan, while characters from Russia and China serve as expendable sidekicks. Pacific islanders are only precariously included—in the form of victims. In spite of Guillermo del Toro’s cultural roots, Latin America is completely absent from the picture—as if the Pacific’s rim did not extend south.

Most spectators would not have noticed this omission or would have dismissed it as unimportant. After all, del Toro’s Pacific Rim is not a geopolitical treatise or a reflection on cultural interactions in the Pacific, but a light-hearted action blockbuster. But that’s precisely the problem: some ways of thinking, some ways of mapping the world are so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to see beyond them. My own research trajectory is a case in point. In spite of having trained as a comparatist with a focus on Chinese literature and culture on one hand and Latin American studies on the other, only my third book project engages explicitly and in detail with both cultural traditions together.

When I started research on the connections between Chinese and Latin American cultures some years ago, I was in for several surprises. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer wealth of relations and resonances between the two cultural realms that I began to encounter. Most people might have heard of the Manila galleons—carrying goods from China— with their direct trade route between the Philippines and Mexico from the 16th to the 19th century. But it is not common knowledge that voices in Spain were clamoring for a conquest of southern China as an addition to the empire in the sixteenth century. The fact that Chinese coolie laborers shaped the economy of 19th-century Cuba has been widely researched. But the important role of Chinese coolies in Cuba’s Ten Years’ War and the War of Independence, especially highlighted by leftist historians after the Cuban revolution, was news to me. Many Latin American writers were inspired by China—at least in their imagination--of what appeared as an exotic, far-away culture to most. We may think of Jorge Luis Borges’ imaginary of a Chinese novel that includes all possible decisions and their consequences in his “The Garden of Forking Paths,” or the excessive chinoiserie of Rubén Darío’s “The Death of the Empress of China.” But countering the Orientalist visions of China in Latin America, the first Latin American literary text (at least to my knowledge) to be translated into Chinese was selected out of a spirit of solidarity among weak nations: leftist writer and intellectual Mao Dun prefaced his 1923 translation of Darío’s “The Veil of Queen Mab”—rendered in Chinese from an English translation—by pointing to the shared marginal position of Latin American countries and China vis-à-vis Europe and the United States. In time, of course, Magical Realism was a Latin American export success that inspired writers all over the globe, not least in China. But it is more than a fascinating detail that the Sino-Tibetan Tashi Dawa (writing in Chinese) chose to reflect critically on Magical Realism and the dynamics of world literary emulation. He started his 1985 novella “Tibet: Souls Tied to a String” by having his persona inspired by the globally circulating song “El cóndor pasa” to compose an imaginary (and highly metafictional) Tibetan scene.

And on and on it went. Until my brain, my copious hand-written notes, and my computer were crisscrossed by a complex tangle of connections between the two cultures: ones that traced routes taken by people and ideas, ones that tracked literary influences, but also ones that probed exotic fantasies of the cultural other or that marked surprising analogies. Rather than a picture of harmonious mutuality, what emerged was a cacophony of felicitous intersections and superimpositions, but also of cultural frictions, unequal exchanges or mistranslations. And yet, for me, the multiple, dynamic, relational constellations at work testified to the power and productivity of intercultural work against all odds.

As I was unearthing new relations between Latin American and Chinese cultures, I felt profound unease at having been taken by surprise to begin with. Why hadn’t my work discovered and explored this comparatist motherlode earlier? True, I didn’t precisely custom-design my formation in comparative literature with a view to working on Chinese-Latin American connections. Instead, I kept adding new languages and cultures to my comparatist’s portfolio depending on time and opportunity, and driven, above all, by the fuzzy criterion of personal fascination. But upon further reflection, something else was at play here, something that had very little to do with my own serendipitous intellectual development. Instead, what I had happened upon pointed to an intellectual problem beyond the specific examples of China and Latin America that I had singled out for an analysis of alternative Pacific networks. Our way of mapping the world was in need of updating. As we are busy either complaining about or lauding globalization, the very logic of thinking about different parts of the world is profoundly biased, provincial rather than global. After all, why are some places widely represented while others receive next to no attention? And why do we find connections between some countries and regions self-evident but imagine other spaces as if they were disconnected islands? And what assumptions determine the comparisons we trace between different cultures?

Artist 1
Vuelta de Rocha, La Boca, Buenos Aires, January 2015. A multitude of entranced spectators surround the illuminated edges of Riachuelo de La Boca, the old port neighborhood of fishers and humble workers in the south of Buenos Aires. A spectacle of movement and dance accompanies the forms in movement and the lit-up landscapes in the sky and on the water. The Chinese fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang has transformed this spot under the title “Life is a milonga: Fireworks Tango for Argentina.” Cai conceived this explosive project, inspired in the history of tango, as a dialogue between cultures in which elements of nature are integrated into the human landscape in an unpredictable, fluid and open manner. (Text by Verónica Flores; Photo by Tatsumi Masatoshi, courtesy of Cai Studio.)


Artist 2
Fundación Proa, La Boca, Buenos Aires, December 2017. Ai Weiwei disembarks in Buenos Aires. There, where in yesteryears, the painter Benito Quinquela Martín observed the arrival of cargo ships from his studio while he painted the daily life of immigrant workers. In the historical and colorful context of Caminito, right in front of a prow looking out on the river, Ai installed a monumental mass sculpture, made of 1,254 steel bicycles, referring both to the most traditional form of transportation in China, but with a playful nod to conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. Architecture in movement, a metaphor for permanent change in the culture, this gigantic work recontextualizes daily objects to reveal the dissolving force of mass industrial production. The wheels spin infinitely, surprising passersby, while they evoke the creative spirit of the artist and his capacity to act for social transformation. (Text and photo by Verónica Flores)


Artist 3
San Telmo, Buenos, Aires April 2015. Eighteen intertwined bodies pose silently, making up a long fixed chain. They wear various shades of yellows and tans, the colors of the tiny soybeans whose presence in the background slowly becomes apparent. It is an optical illusion carried out for this photo-performance through the mimicry of the models and the camouflage techniques meticulously designed by the Chinese artist Liu Bolin. The powerful living image is a subtle and ingenious invitation by the artist to reflect on the forms of invisibility and dehumanization created by the global economy. An incessant line of spectators—sometimes up to 500 people—went to look at the installation. (Text by Verónica Flores; Photo courtesy of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires.)


Of course, Latin America and Chinese cultures represent merely one of many cases of a biased global imagination. But I have found this example particularly instructive. For one, both regions are no longer (or have never really been) peripheries to Europe’s center or appendixes to North American power, as they have come to occupy important geopolitical, economic and cultural roles. And yet, on many people’s imagined map, Asia and America still seem to occupy the opposite ends of a flat, discontinuous space, embodying the antipodes of East and West. Concurrently, increased stress on the North-South division within the American continent has transformed the border between the United States and Mexico into “la frontera” (the frontier) par excellence, bracketing reflections on the connection between Asia and the South of the American continent. Overshadowed by the conventionalized binaries of East and West and North and South, as well as divided by the boundaries of disciplines and areas, comparative work on Asia and Latin America, though of increasing interest to scholars in history, sociology and economics, still occupies a marginal position in cultural and literary studies.

This work falls outside of disciplinary boundaries or is severely curtailed by them. It is also marked by the politics and positionalities of academic traditions. For instance, scholars within Latin American studies have long studied literary Orientalism and have begun to focus more attention on diasporic circuits. But until recently, most of their research has been limited to sources in Spanish and Portuguese. Scholars in China and Taiwan, while increasingly competent in the languages of Latin America, are often bound by disciplinary expectations: for instance, to produce ambitious surveys rather than fine-grained analyses. Literary scholars are often too caught up in histories of translation, literary influence, or the intercultural experiences of individual intellectuals to look at a bigger global and interdisciplinary picture. Historians, who have done much to allow us to think about Latin America and Asia together, for example, by reconstructing histories of immigration, do not account for the elusive yet important web of imaginaries that forge intercultural thinking. In addition, this kind of research moves uneasily even within more capacious frameworks. For the field of transpacific studies, some parts of China and Latin America are entirely too continental. And a world power such as China doesn’t quite fit into the category of the global South either. And what about all the cases that fall outside of neat patterns of geopolitical panoramas, economic networks, diasporic movements or literary influence?

One of the most exciting insights for me has been the sheer polarity that marks how we think of China and Latin America together—or rather apart: on the one hand, they have often been treated as antipodes, situated at opposite ends of the world map and thus embodying divergent negative mirror images of Western imagination: China’s inscrutable, decadent civilization versus Latin America’s unchartered barbarity. On the other, since Columbus’s erroneous superimposition of China and the Americas, we have not ceased to fantasize about Latin America and China as closely linked; for one, in the periodically resurfacing hypotheses of common cultural roots between pre-Columbian cultures and China or early contact and interaction between them. Too close for comfort and yet worlds apart, the imagination that thinks both cultural regions together also embodies the extremes of thinking comparatively, pitting sameness versus total difference.

Between uncanny closeness and unbridgeable distance, Latin America and China are spheres multiply connected by histories of migration, commerce and collaboration, as well as tied together by analogies, cultural resonances, and cultural fantasies. In my work, I use the complex networks of intersections between China and Latin America as a laboratory for rethinking intercultural analysis. This involves a radical reimagining of comparison—as flexible and multi-focal, as an operation that assumes that its objects are internally hybrid and fuzzy rather than clearly delimited, and as a method that often has to work with uneven dialogues, weak links, hallucinatory superimpositions, and tenuous affinities. I view this work not merely as the methodological navel-gazing of the field of Comparative Literature in which I situate my research. Instead, such an approach forces us to critically reassess how we think globally. After all, to define what is comparable and what incommensurable forms the basis for an understanding of cultural difference and, potentially, the grounds for an ethics of interculturality.


Andrea Bachner, associate professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University, is the author of Beyond Sinology (2014)
and The Mark of Theory (2018). Her third book, After Comparison: China, Latin America, and the Politics of Sameness, is close
to completion. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard in 2007.

Living Between Distant Shores

A Decade Reading Latin American Literature in East Asia

By: Manuel Azuaje-Alamo

Esta mecánica, [la de depender del estado] de alguna manera, desoreja a los escritores mexicanos. Los vuelve locos. Algunos, por ejemplo, se ponen a traducir poesía japonesa sin saber japonés y otros, ya de plano, se dedican a la bebida. (2666 161-162, my italics) (This dynamic [of depending on the state], somehow, emasculates Mexican writers. It makes them crazy. Some, for example, set out to translate Japanese poetry without knowing Japanese, and others, quite simply, take up drinking).

The lines above take place in Mexico City. We are in the world of the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece of a novel, 2666, and a Mexican character is describing—to his interlocutors, literature scholars from Europe—that one of the signs of the intellectual malaise that afflicts some Mexican writers is an inexplicable desire to translate Japanese poetry without knowing any Japanese. The lines quoted above are only a tiny fragment of a massive novel, and yet they have has stuck with me all throughout my graduate studies.

The scene from this novel takes place in the Mexico of the 1990s, but I read it neither in Latin America nor at Harvard, but years ago, when I was still a Master’s Degree student at the University of Tokyo. The café where I immersed myself in Bolaño’s world was in the middle of Tokyo, on an avenue facing the outer moats of the Imperial Palace. Less than a five-minute walk from that intersection, there stands the Tokyo branch of the Centro Cervantes, where, back then I—a Spanish-speaking student living in Japan—used to borrow a weekly dose of Latin American fiction from its vast library. The Centro Cervantes at Tokyo is a six- story building, housing a library and, one floor above it, a Spanish restaurant where you could have one of the best paellas in Tokyo. I would go there Saturday mornings for a literature fix, and then take the stairs one flight up to eat a Spanish lunch while listening to flamenco music.

The author poses in front of the Chinatown gate in Nagasaki, Japan.


Back then, as a Master’s student, I had no idea of what the future held, but some years later—after I became a Ph.D. student at Harvard—I visited all the other Centros Cervantes in East Asia: the stately branch in Beijing, an annex of the Spanish embassy; the branch in Shanghai, embedded in one of the fanciest parts of the French Concession, within walking distance of that odd block where the American and Iranian consulate almost face each other; and the minuscule branch in South Korea, comprised of a couple of rooms in a university office, a budget operation that opened during the recent years when the Spanish economy almost collapsed and has thus remained—regrettably—stunted.

Those centers are my reflections of Latin America and East Asia. Like walking into an air-conditioned room in the middle of a sweltering summer or huddling into a reading room with a fireplace to escape from the Cambridge winter, walking into these centers from streets with signs written in letters such as 浮浮浮浮, or meant more than a change in location: it was a change in mindscape, a complete reversal, soothing, coming back—however far away—to the mother tongue even as for the past 20 years I had lived in voluntary exile from the Venezuelan regime.

Olympic Bird Nest Stadium
Olympic Bird Nest Stadium in China.

But I get ahead of myself. I was writing about Bolaño’s 2666, and that passage where the Chilean-born novelist says— unprompted, untriggered, and out of the blue—that Mexican writers who write translations of Japanese poetry without knowing any Japanese have one too many loose screws in their heads. What was Bolaño talking about? Bolaño was writing about Octavio Paz. Or, rather, he was mocking Octavio Paz.

At least that is what—after having read hundreds of pages by both Bolaño and Paz—my dissertation research is increasingly suggesting. Se ponen a traducir poesía japonesa sin saber japonés, Bolaño would know: he was still living in Mexico City in 1970, the year in which Paz published the greatly edited—and much more widely sold—second edition of the book that was the Mexican writer’s longest translation from Japanese literature: his Spanish-language translation of Matsuo Basho’s classical haiku narrative The Road to the Deep North, or, in Paz’s Spanish, Las sendas de Oku.

Yonsei University
Yonsei University historical site in Seoul, Korea.


Octavio Paz’s fascination for East Asian poetry predated the 1970 edition of Las sendas de Oku by at least two decades, and his interest in East Asian culture goes back even further. Having lived in India and Japan for the first time as a diplomat between 1952 and 1954, Paz met a young Japanese diplomat in Mexico in 1955 who would go on to help him translate into Spanish the haikus of Matsuo Basho. The little book came out in 1957, but it was not until 1970 that Paz—now, after all those years, working alone—revised the translation of the book and recreated many of its haikus, made them his own poems. Without knowing any Japanese. Octavio Paz: Mexico’s one and only Nobel-prize winner, its national poet, was bête noire for Bolaño and the poets of his coterie; no wonder Bolaño would feel inclined to mock his translational overreach.

And yet, in Latin American letters Octavio Paz is not alone. During the 20th century, for a Latin American writer to be interested in Japanese literature was not an oddity, but a common step in his or her poetic development. Jorge Luis Borges, in an early book review of a translated Japanese novel, is casual enough to write, in his usual off-hand manner, that “Hacia 1916 resolví entregarme al estudio de las literaturas orientales” (“Around 1916 I decided to dedicate some time to the study of Oriental literatures”): 1916, that is to say, when Borges was merely 17 years old. Fittingly, during the 1980s, nearly 70 after that early encounter with Asian literature, Borges paid two visits to Japan. By then he had completely lost his sight, but this did not impede his perception of his beloved Japanese culture; as he would say in an interview during the 1980s, he could not see the temples, nor see the stone steles and their inscriptions, but he could touch them, and this tracing of his blind fingers over the smooth wood and rock provided a more intimate contact with Japanese culture. Blind, Borges composed his late-period poetry mnemonically inside his head, relying on poetic forms to hold already-composed verses in suspension while he went on to work on the new lines. This is how he wrote the original haikus collected in his last poetry collections, The Cypher and The Gold of the Tigers. This, by the way, is also how he translated a classic from Japanese literature, Sei Shonagon’s highly allusive essay collection The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Working from an English version, Borges and his wife would sink everyday into the world of the medieval Japanese court—described in the English language that Georgie had learnt as a boy from the British side of his family—and come out at the end of the day with pages of Borges’s succinct and elegant Spanish.

Like Borges, Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos, debuting in the decade of the 1950s, was also fascinated with Japanese poetry, especially by the Chinese characters that it used in its writing system. He had a radical approach to poetry, and, along with his brother Augusto de Campos and the poet Décio Pignatari, founded the movement poesia concreta in Brazil. The Chinese script so fascinated de Campos that in 1977 he collected, edited and translated a whole volume collecting essays on the poetics of East Asian characters, Ideograma: Logica Poesia Linguagem (Ideogram: Logic Poetry Language). Some 15 years later, he would also translate—likewise without speaking Japanese—the Noh theater piece, The Feather Mantle. The renowned Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti also composed poetry based on Japanese models. His late poetry collection Rincón de Haikus—fittingly published in 1999, as the new Asian century was about to begin—became a bestseller not only in his native Uruguay, but also in other parts of the Latin American continent.

Why did Japanese literature attract so many fans from the ranks of eminent Latin American authors?

There are limits to my ability to explain why it attracted them, but I can explain why it attracted me. It all started with the Chinese Cultural Revolution (no, really, it did). One of my parents’ closest university friends was a Venezuelan of Chinese descent. This man’s last name was that of a Chinese dynasty, so here I will just call him “Tang.”

Tang was like an uncle to me, an uncle from faraway lands. He would often visit our house, and stay over talking with my parents until the wee hours of the night. As a five-year-old, I was convinced that he was related to either Bruce Lee or Ultraman, or both, and I always asked him to spar with me, a request that he would often brush away with a hearty Latin American laugh. For us, in my family, he was el chino Tang, even though he had never put his foot on any part of the Asian continent, and even though Tang’s father, scarred from his exile, had not made enough of an effort to teach his son any Chinese. The el chino moniker was given to him in the Venezuelan manner, without racial overtones, the same way that in my family I was called el negro, and my cousin el rubio.

Of course, Tang was not alone; there have been whole generations of Chinese and other East Asian immigrants to Latin America. I know about that now, but back then I was still a kid, living in the surreal peaceful family life of pre-Bolivarian Revolution Venezuela, and el chino Tang was the only Asian person I knew, and, man, was he interesting. Following that, my family moved to the United States for some years. I picked up English, and, in the way that many do, in picking up a new language I also picked up, without noticing, new ways of seeing. And before I knew what happened, my family moved back to Venezuela during middle school, and there was a parilla with el chino Tang, and there was his Hong Kong story.

Hong Kong. After many Hong Kong movies, three Hong Kong visits, and the whole oeuvre of the director Wong Kar-Wai, my heart is convinced, even as my mind knows better, that the best neighborhoods of Caracas—those neighborhoods built in the modern style and which were, once, the promise of a better tomorrow now betrayed—were trying to copy the now nostalgia-ridden modernism of Hong Kong architecture: skyscrapers built on a tropical island fighting the marine wind and water. El chino Tang traveled to that city for the first time in his life when he was close to 40 years old, to meet the estranged side of his family that his own side had not met since the Cultural Revolution. In Hong Kong, my uncle Tang explained, all sorts of Asian and Chinese people gathered, and many of them did not speak the local dialect, so in order to communicate they would trace Chinese characters with their fingers on the palms of their hands. Speaking, writing, to each other in this way, a sort of communication was achieved. With no Mandarin or Cantonese, uncle Tang lived for a whole season in Hong Kong, and when he returned to Venezuela he marveled his nephew with stories of the island. “You could live there too,” he said to me one of those times. “You would just need to know a dozen of Chinese characters to get by. They would look at your face and think you’re from deep in Inner China. You would just need to know some characters.”

Now, decades later, I know “some” characters, or just about enough to read novels in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Japan is now my adopted home, having lived here for more than a third of my life. But it all started because one evening uncle Tang traced some Chinese characters on the palm of his hand, and then on the palm of mine. I would like to think that past writers from Latin America also have had experiences like this, and that is why they came back, now and again, to the Asia of their imagination.


Manuel Azuaje-Alamo holds an M.A. from the University of Tokyo and from Harvard University. He is currently a Ph.D.
Candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature of Harvard University, and is writing his doctoral dissertation in
Tokyo. He can be reached at

See also: Venezuela

Shared Sentiments Inspire New Cultural Centers

Wuayusa and Incense

By: Yuan Wang and Theodore MacDonald

Burning incense to welcome the return of their ancestors’ spirits.


In the early afternoon of January 3, 2018, in the mountainous village of Shicang, Zhejiang Province, China, firecrackers burst into the air and flags waved in the wind as a parade of Clan Que members stepped out of their newly built ancestral temple. Behind them marched a band of local drummers, and cymbal players and suona trumpet performers played high-pitched folk music. Headed by Que Guande, a respected clan member and village chief, they walked through the gates, marching to village shrines and temples where, with incense burning, they paid tribute to the local spirits. They then carried the spirits’ statues to the new ancestral temple, informing these divinities that, in the evening, the Clan’s ancestor souls would return. It had been 172 years since the first Clan Que ancestor temple had been inaugurated—and 46 years since it had been removed. The marchers’ faces were solemn and proud. They were the patrons of this temple where their souls would remain after death, join their ancestors, and enjoy worship by their descendants in a rapidly changing world.

Four days earlier, and several hours before dawn, in the Ecuadorian Amazonian community of Arajuno, Margarita López, a teacher and eldest daughter of a famous shaman (yachaj), and her husband, Cesar Cerda, former president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP), sat with their children to drink wayusa tea, a daily ritual linking them to the spirit world. They were at the foot of Pasu Urcu, the hill that houses local spirits, and inside the Puka Rumi Community Center, which was created to illustrate the harmony between their Kichwa community and the biodiverse, spirit-laden forest which surrounds it. They were not alone. For the next several days, other leaders of the local ethnic federation, ACIA (Association of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno), elevated the domestic ritual to a large public event, Wayusa Upina, inviting people from the surrounding communities. The celebration seeks to restore Sumak Kawsay, the good life, that requires communal and spiritual ties as well as a degree of political and economic self-determination, amidst rapid environmental and political changes. In most ways Shicang and Arajuno could not be more distinct. They are literally worlds apart—geographically, culturally and historically. But both now share sentiments about cultural and spiritual losses and a desire to rebuild some of that communal life while adapting to inevitable, often positive but sometimes alienating, economic and political changes. The two sentiment-sharing communities did not connect through spirits, shamanism, or anything magical. The similarities were simply noted by the authors, who have worked separately for years in one of the areas and, recently, were fortunate enough to visit the other. Comparisons were obvious. Each village was originally settled by migrants with a strong sense of community and spiritual ties. Both were later challenged by national “modernization” policies, leaving a spiritual vacuum of sorts. Each is now actively restoring local history, spirituality and agency amidst growing national and globalized economies. Their new cultural centers are a shared way of saying “Let’s decide some of the future through the past, as we did before.”


Among the approximately 6,000 Shicang villagers now spread along the Shicangxi River, more than 4,000 belong to Clan Que. These ethnic Hakka arrived during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1912) dynasties. They migrated out of the densely populated Shanghang County in nearby Fujian Province after lands in Zhejiang Province opened up because of rebellion, warfare, and population displacement. Initially, the Que Clan members settled in small huts and worked as subsistence farmers. In time some noted nearby iron deposits and began smelting. Several were quite successful and shifted from small farmers to manufacturers. By the mid-Qing Dynasty (1800s), the Que Clan’s change in status was displayed in more than thirty ornate estates which copied, and often embellished, the rich ornamentation of the wealthy original inhabitants. However, the Que Clan retained the basis structure of their ancestral Fujian houses. That was essential. The most important household space was the central incense hall, used for worshiping the ancestors. Associated responsibilities and duties were not merely obligatory tasks but, rather, a foundation underlying the moral values of the village.

In 1846 Que Tiankai, a rich Que Clan businessman, constructed the first community ancestor temple. While tracing the genealogy and constructing the temple, Clan Que elders dispatched a four-person team back to Fujian’s Shanghang, their original hometown. There this delegation acquired the ancestral spirits’ incense burners and furnace ash. Holding the incense burners in their hands to assure continuous burning and climbing the numerous mountains along a trade route, they carried the ancestor incense and its spirits to Shicang. After that was done, all the members of Clan Que placed their ancestors’ tablets, or the tablets of the newly deceased, inside the temple. They lived comfortably amidst their history for a while. However, as iron commerce grew nationally and globally, prices dropped and wealth declined.— reflected clearly in architectural history. Without funds to build new houses, families crowded into the old estates. In 2006, when we historical researchers first visited Shicang, it was obvious that several generations of the same family were living in the same house, sharing the courtyard and passageways. And they continued joint responsibilities for the maintenance of the incense halls. In 1972, however, the status of the community temple and related aspects of spiritual life changed against their will. And after 1989, as the Deng economic opening was introduced, many gradually took advantage of modern housing.


About 8,000 people now live on the right bank of the Arajuno River in the recently established municipality of Arajuno, with parks, stores, bank, bars, churches, schools and several large government offices. Claims on these ancestral lands, however, began in 1912 at the foot of Pasu Urcu. At the time, Pasu Urcu was simply an ancient rest stop with no permanent residents on a trail linking Kichwa settlements across various rivers. Some communities crafted small drums, violins and woven bags to trade for blowguns, poison for their darts, and salt. Each exchanged shamanic skills and provided ritual curing.

Two such travelers, Domingo Cerda and Roque Volante Lopez, well-known shamans, left their main settlement on the Upper Napo River and set up temporary residence near Pasu Urcu to enjoy the hunting and fishing, and to escape feuds. Compared to the more densely populated areas to the north, Pasu Urcu’s environs were ideal. Fish and game were plentiful. And at the foot of Pasu Urcu, a large section of the adjacent river’s flood plain, the isla, provided a relatively large and fertile site for subsistence gardens. Later, the new residents cleared a plaza whose obligatory maintenance, organized by the shaman through communal labor, or minga, architecturally centered the developing community.

Unlike Que Clan, Arajuno’s original settlers were not a single lineage. Families from various parts set up houses nearby, became friends and later intermarried, resulting in residence-based kindred known as muntun. It was not that ancestors and lineages did not matter; on the contrary, kinship, as well as place, formed the sense of community, provided identity, and shaped relations. But large family groups and settlements were often broken up by sudden illness and death, frequently attributed to shaman feuds. Some kin groups were also separated by abusive labor demands, ranging from public works to rubber gathering to debt servitude, all under the control of government officials or local patrons.

Parading to local spirit temples, inviting them to new Ancestor Temple.


Feuding, though conflictive between groups, nonetheless tightened relations within the muntun, where the yachaj’s ties to spirits, supai, were understood to insulate and protect muntun members. And while some Kichwa from the Upper Napo were hauled off as far as Peru to gather rubber or obliged to work on local farms and ranches, most of those who settled in Arajuno were fortunate enough to obtain essential manufactured objects (tools and cloth) and pay off the related debts to Upper Napo patrons by panning for gold along the river banks. Though the patron-client economy was truly exploitative, the residents were able to farm, hunt, and fish locally. To do so successfully, local yachaj had to establish close ties with the Pasu Urcu supai, who were understood to own and provide access to these essential resources. As the spiritual ties increased and relations intensified, Kichwa understanding of territory became coterminous with the supai’s control over resources. A territorial agreement developed, which tied muntun members to their land and consequently to each other, through spirits. Arajuno residents, though far less focused on tight genealogies and ancestor worship than Shicang dwellers, nonetheless developed a strong sense of kin-based community and self-identity grounded in spirit-based links to place and family.

But in the 1970s, spiritual ties and community bonds in both Shicang and Arajuno were challenged by government policies. The Chinese and Ecuadorian governments, coincidentally and for radically different reasons, mandated changes which produced disruptions to community and the spiritual world.


Today in Shicang, as in most Chinese villages, many young adults leave to work in the cities and send the money back to their parents and children who remain in the village. New red-brick buildings with modern amenities have sprung up with government support. Shicang’s local government has also built a parking lot, a bus station and public toilets. It has widened the road, enabling daily shuttle buses between the county seat and the village. Material life has improved. Some of the crowded, deteriorating old estates are being converted into museums and tourist attractions, with trained tour guides.

The Que Clan’s priorities were illustrated during one of our visits. A regional ministry had dropped off plans to convert the old houses into tourist attractions, based on attractive but inauthentic designs drawn up by an external architect. For the Shicang residents, there was a sense that something was missing...the spiritual and moral links to ancestors. Community leaders spoke to the author, an architectural historian, who then met with regional officials to express disagreement with the alien design. Fortunately, for budgetary reasons, the drawings did not become architectural reality.

Another, more serious, concern was political. In 1972, the old ancestor temple of Clan Que in Shicang was demolished and replaced by a primary school. Though not clearly stated, it was fairly obvious to community members that the move reflected the Maoist/Cultural Revolution’s (1966 to 1976) opposition to, and elimination of organized religion. Community spiritual concerns persisted when, in 2004, the primary school building was declared to be structurally dangerous. The school was temporarily relocated. The Que Clan responded gradually.

In the late spring of 2013, after a five-hour drive from Shanghai, the author returned, still impressed by the old residential houses with their rammed earth walls and black tiles, a rural landscape which was distinct from the “modern world.” She later attended a meeting held by Clan Que Committee for Ancestral Temple Reconstruction to discuss her rendering (architectural drawings) of an ancestral temple plan based on the older villagers’ memories. The Que Clan liked the plan, and then moved quietly towards recreating the ancestor hall, temporarily calling it a “culture center.”

In January, 2016, Que Longxing, the organizer of the ancestor temple project, showed the author a booklet “Records on Rebuilding the Weizeng Tang Ancestor Temple” prepared by the villagers. Many Clan Que members also wrote to government officials. Two letters were even sent to the national prime minister. Receiving no response from any government office, a few members of Clan Que moved a huge iron incense burner into the vacant lot to demonstrate the right of occupation. The villagers called all these actions the “Baoji Campaign (Protect the Base).” Some were then arrested and detained for a night. The Communist Party’s secretary of the village (also a member of Que family) was later removed from his position for failure to prevent the protest. Nevertheless, under the pressure of Clan Que’s actions, the local government decided to leave the disputed site alone. Nonviolent action and community mobilization won the day politically. And the ancestor hall began to fill a personal spiritual gap, which many sense in current-day China.

Kichwa drummer
Traditional Kichwa wedding drummer/chanter and violin player, now electronically amplified.



Beginning in the 1960s, as part of the agrarian reform that took place throughout Latin America, the Ecuadorian government encouraged colonization of Amazonian lands. Unaccepting, or at least unaware of indigenous perceptions of territory, government officials regarded the forested areas around villages like Arajuno as tierras baldías, idle lands, and thus available to settlers. A few colonists moved in and acquired government-awarded, 50-hectare plots near the center of town. Some indigenous residents also began to request and receive such plots. But initially there was little impact on the old sense of territory and community. The spirits were alive and well.

However, a more aggressive, national-economic, agrarian reform took place after 1972, when oil development began in the Amazon. By 1974, as property owners, the Kichwa of Arajuno were required to visibly exploit their land holdings. They were told that it was best (i.e., highly visible) to raise cattle, and were provided with bank credit to do so. Consequently, land use patterns in

Arajuno changed radically. By 1975 portions of every 50-hectare plots were converted to pasture. While the broader sense of territory and spirit ties did not disappear, private property became the primary concern, challenging the earlier sense of communal territory.

The induced privatization created tense social and political relations with colonists and among the Kichwa as well, confusing the indigenous sensibilities that had formed the community. To illustrate, in 1975, while surveyors from the agrarian reform agency were working in Arajuno, some members of the community became angered by the principal yachaj’s efforts to acquire more land on the riverside garden area, the isla. They suggested that a large section of that communal land be divided in half— one section, including the plaza, would go to the yachaj and his family while the other section would remain for communal agricultural use. Although the division would have given the yachaj a large piece of land, he reacted violently, arguing that members of the muntun should be made to realize their obligation to maintain the plaza, which reflected the organization of the muntun, where he was the internal authority figure.

At the time it struck me as ironical, yet understandable, that this spiritual leader, who daily seesawed between subsistence horticulture and production for the market, private property and communal land, the muntun and government initiatives, should rage at actions that whittled away at the symbols of his previous authority and status, while at the same time acting in a manner that encouraged such behavior. He was caught between contradictory desires to maintain his previous role and prestige, while also attempting to maximize his personal economic condition. Many shared that confusion, as individual families began to experiment with independent forms of social and economic life, away from the unifying spiritual and communal ties. Fortunately, perceptions changed in 1979, when young leaders founded ACIA, an organization inspired by other indigenous ethnic federations that emerged throughout the Amazon as oil and agribusiness interests, as well as expanding colonization, increased threats to indigenous territories. The organizations regularly battled with colonists and oil developers. And in 1992 Arajuno residents participated in a massive, multiple-day, protest march from the provincial capital of Puyo to Quito. Shortly thereafter, the government formally recognized indigenous rights to a number of large territories, including Arajuno. Gradually the presence of colonists and cattle diminished, and communal land holdings re-emerged. As in Shicang, nonviolent protest redirected government actions and resuscitated spiritual life.


These changes are not a movement backward in time. Like the incense wafting in Shicang’s ancestor hall, Arajuno’s guayusa upina ceremonies and Puka Rumi Culture Center, are not simple folkloric answers or utopian responses to current and future needs. Throughout China ancestor worship is on the rise, not in opposition to any economic development or government planning, but simply to fill a perceived gap in people’s lives. In Amazonian communities the new language of Sumak Kawsay, the good life, also expresses a need by communities to take more control of future economic development. It suggests a pause, time and space to allow thinking and encourage discussion as oil and logging companies now sit perched at the edge of Arajuno’s territory. ACIA members, consequently, are asking the government to recognize their territory as a CTI, circumscripción territorial indígena, a space for exercising self-determination. And at home they are ceremoniously linking themselves to the past, as when the founding yachajs first linked themselves to the supai in 1912.

In both Shicang and Arajuno, new culture centers are linking old communal sentiments to changing worlds. They do so in positive ways, by providing a sense of order and culture that, communities agree, is often lacking as states rush to modernize, or even revolutionize economies and societies. The two communities are not unique in China or Latin America. They were observed by coincidence, and the underlying sentiments invite future cultural comparisons as China’s presence in Latin America expands.

Wedding dance
Villagers at a wedding dance.



Yuan Wang, an architectural historian, was a 2011 Harvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar, and is an Associate Professor,
Department of History, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China.


Theodore Macdonald, an anthropologist, is a Lecturer in Social Studies and a Faculty Affiliate at DRCLAS, Harvard. Although
he began working in Arajuno in the mid-1970s, his current interests were rekindled as his Harvard Social Studies student Megan Monteleone (now an Associate in the Latin America Division at Human Rights Watch) researched her DRCLAS Hammond Prize-
winning thesis, Guayusa Upina.


Telluric Connections, Bodies in Transit

Un Cuerpo en Fukushima in Santiago de Chile

By: Ana Paula Kojima Hirano

On a summery morning in Santiago,Chile—January 20, 2016—my mother and I decided to go to the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center. My mother was returning to Brazil the next day, and I was going off on a solo trip to the south of Chile before returning to Cambridge. As we explored the architecture of the space and its many rooms, we encountered an exhibit called “A Body in Fukushima.” Fukushima was for me the birthplace of my ancestors from my mother’s side, and by a stroke of luck she was there with me. We entered a dark silent room, with its walls painted black. The white frames with pictures of the now phantasmagoric abandoned town and its debris stood out. The lower stage of the exhibition, with its ivory bound screens, accentuated the colorful futons carried by a pale, black-haired woman wearing opaque colored kimonos.

“A Body in Fukushima,” performed by Eiko Otake and photographed by William Johnson in the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi Reactor reminds me of images from the film Dreams by Kurosawa. The photographs, taken in a ghost town, seemed to have come out of an incubus. The spaces portrayed in the pictures existed, the town existed, the people once existed, but they were all washed away by the tsunami. Any life that was spared had to flee from the town, as the radiation was everywhere and remains still there with its invisible and silent poison. Eiko, as the angel of history, wanders around trying to make sense of what was left. Her body, dressed in traditional Japanese clothing, kimono, stands out in the frames amidst emptiness and horror. In some pictures, she carries with her a bright colored futon—sometimes red, other times purple. It stands out as a silent scream, while Eiko’s pale face seems to be grieving with a quiet sorrow. She is the phantom who perambulates aimlessly in this haunted place where it is forbidden for any human being to enter. This was one of the most beautiful and horrifying experiences I had in Chile.



After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the following meltdown in the nuclear plant, Fukushima will be remembered as the place of one of the most dreadful disasters in history. Nearly 20,000 people died, and about 2,500 went missing, and these numbers do not include the possible future deaths caused by diseases associated with this catastrophe. The Kurosawa dream, in which families are running away trying to escape radiation, came true.

Un Cuerpo en Lugares


My mother was actually born in Fukushima. Sometimes I forget it, since she went to Brazil when she was only a few months old, on a 56-day trip to the port of Santos. Her boat, Santos-Maru, crossed the oceans full of Japanese immigrants who came to work in the coffee plantations. My grandfather loved nature, and he wanted to be able to work the land, planting fruits and vegetables, and start a new life with his family in Brazil. My grandmother didn’t want to go, but she did not have a choice. She left Fukushima behind without knowing if she would ever go back. Baby Toshimi almost did not make it, since she contracted measles, a highly contagious disease, and was almost thrown overboard for it. Luckily, she survived, and here I am telling this story of bodies in transit and telluric connections.

On that day at the cultural center, I thought “what a surprise and an extraordinary bit of serendipity to have an exhibition on Fukushima in Chile!” It was something of a shock to find this exhibit by chance in Chile when the largest population of Japanese heritage outside Japan is in Brazil; however, I could only see this exhibition when I went to Chile. Why Chile and not Brazil? Brazil is located on the South American Plate and it is out of the reach of significant earthquakes. The same cannot be said for our “neighbor” without shared borders. The haunting disaster in Fukushima, echoed in Chile, a country that shares the same fear as Japan. This upside-down-reflected country is also susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis. Japan and Chile—both very long, narrow countries— are the farthest from each other among the countries that share the Pacific Ocean. Nonetheless, the
fear of natural disasters affects both the Japanese and the Chileans, who both might wonder from time to time why their ocean is called Pacific.

Un Cuerpo en Fukushima


A year before the accident in Fukushima, Santiago de Chile had been struck by a terrible earthquake, 8.8, which became the subject of Juan Villoro’s book 8.8: the fear in the mirror: A Chronicle of the Chilean Earthquake. Villoro was in Santiago for a conference on children’s literature when the earthquake struck. He had already experienced the 1985 earthquake in Mexico—one that left more than 10,000 dead, thousands of injured, and hundreds of thousands of homeless. As he puts it, “We Mexicans have a seismograph in our soul, at least the ones of us who survived 1985.” He lived once again in his body the fear and the trauma one can feel when the earth shakes one’s spirit. The 2010 Chile earthquake and tsunami caused more than 500 deaths. Villoro also mentions Japan on his writings on the earthquake. He remembers having read instructions, in a Japanese manual, on how to survive violent tremors. They recommended keeping a kit handy with a flashlight, a whistle, and a pound of rice. The Japanese, as well as the Chileans and the Mexicans, know what it is like to live with the possibility of having their lives interrupted by seismic waves. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi saw the aftermaths of the 2010 Chilean earthquake from space and sent a message to Chile “We pray for y[ou].”

Witnessing “A Body in Fukushima” in the context of Chile and with my mother made me think of different kinds of bodies, of narratives of displacement, fear, death and “disbelonging.” This moment of displacement—the earth moving under us shaking the soul of the ones who lived on it, and in the context of this exhibition—touched me in a soft spot removing me from an unstable zone within myself. The connection with my Japanese family was fading away. My mother is one of its last links, but it is a very fragile link, since she cannot really speak Japanese and is not in contact with her relatives still in Japan. She embraced Brazil in a way that makes me forget her place of birth.

The year I went to the exhibition was after the passing of my grandparents. I was never able to tell them that I also appreciated the culture and the place where they came from. All the bullying and prejudice that I suffered while growing up, and I still suffer, for being Asian, made me try to suppress and filter anything that could be associated with them. I rejected that “other” culture, without understanding that I didn’t have to deny their Japanese connections and their race. Why is it so hard for us Latin Americans to understand that Brazilians, in the same way as Chileans, or Mexicans, or many other Latin Americans, or North Americans, are in part Asian, physically, but also in some ways culturally? What are we Americans, if not a mix of several different cultures, ethnicities, races, and even, languages?

The beauty of the performing art, and in this specific case, “A Body in Fukushima” is that it can trespass frontiers, it can touch the audience through the senses and make us understand sorrow, pain, fear, even without writing or saying those words. All surfaces—from the water to the earth, from the photos to the mirrors and windows, from the concrete to the glass, from the confines of our skin to our soul, and from the imaginary boundaries created by us humans, to the walls, all those surfaces—can be fragile and ephemeral. Seeing Eiko wandering around in a land that lost its soul, as a ghost who is trying to understand what is left of humanity, made me think that the body that carries our soul shouldn’t be a barrier for us humans to have empathy with each other, and yet, being a minority in this world can be a reason for a lot of sorrow and pain. The body that carries our soul is also as ephemeral and in transit as the earth.

Eiko Othake says about her performance “By placing my body in these places, I thought of the generations of people who used to live there. Now desolate, only time and wind continue to move.”

I read her comment only after writing my own impressions on this exhibition, and it resonated greatly with me and my family, but I am sure it also resonates with many of the souls in transit in this world. William Johnston, who photographed Eiko’s performance in Fukushima, says “By witnessing events and places, we actually change them and ourselves in ways that may not always be apparent but are important. Through photographing Eiko in these places in Fukushima, we are witnessing not only her and the places themselves, but the people whose lives crossed with those places.” In the same way that Villoro was able to connect with the fear and the sensation of dislocation during the earthquake, Raul Zurita was able to connect with the dreams of Kurosawa. Zurita’s “Dreams for Kurosawa” is full of dead bodies within the geography of Chile, going from the Atacama’s desert to the sea. Bodies that disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship—it could also have been the dream of Kurosawa or the bodies and lives that were washed away by the tsunami in Fukushima.

“A Body in Fukushima” was part of a larger project entitled “A Body in Places.” Eiko is lending her body and her performances to build bridges and connections between the viewers and the places. Chile and Japan seem to be very far from each other, but they share many ties, including some Japanese Chileans going as far back as 1860 when a Japanese ship docked in Chilean shores. There is also a deep and telluric tie through their earthquakes, a connection through the fear and through the possibility of having a whole city destroyed together with the lives and bodies of the people in it. What makes this exhibition also universal, is that it touches on something that all of us will face one day, death and solitude.

Sometimes you have to be in contact with the disaster and horror to realize that there is a thin line that separates the ones who are still in this world and the ones who have vanished away. Time is implacable, and the “angel of history” wanders around, trying to make sense of the destruction. Being in front of these pictures with my mother in Chile made me have to face again a past that I wanted to forget. Villoro said in his book that he had to go to the end of the world to find another “first occasion” to write about the earth that opens up. I also had to go to Chile and see “A Body in Fukushima” to be able to speak of the traumas of my body, and have another chance to be able to connect with Japan.


Ana Paula Kojima Hirano is a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. As a Ph.D. student, her studies have focused on Latin American literature and film theory and the intersection between history and fiction, and her thesis is on Brazilian filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho. She also co-directed One Day We Arrived in Japan, a documentary film about immigration from Brazil to Japan.

Transoceanic Traveling Trash

Garbage Truck


By: Ilana Boltvinik and Rodrigo Viñas (TRES)

Objects with Chinese characters float up on beaches in Mexico and Peruvian bottle caps land in distant Australian sands. Since 2014, the Mexican art-based research group TRES has been devoted to collecting and investigating marine debris in its Ubiquitous Trash Project. Much of the oceanic realm still remains a mysterious abyss on which hundreds of millions of objects and various lifeforms hitch rides and travel from one location to another—including from Asia to Latin America and back again. Trash is one of these privileged objects that can still move freely in the vast sea if it has the appropriate weight which will determine the direction of movement, utilizing currents or wind. “Trash moves, all the time,” writes Maite Zubiaurre in her article on garbage for the 2015 winter issue of ReVista. Zubiaurre was referring to trash on land. We wish to expand her statement by concentrating on the arguably vaster and less controlled regions of national and international waters.



Moved by ocean currents and winds, marine debris composed mostly of plastic can travel enormous distances. One famous example involved a cargo ship that lost 28,800 colorful plastic bathtub toys (notorious for the rubber duckies, that render them very identifiable) en route from Korea to Washington. The Ocean Conservancy Report of 2010 asserts that sixteen years later, many of these items had drifted as much as 34,000 miles, enough to circle the planet almost one-and-a-half times. Not only does plastic travel far, but, as Shakespeare said of truth, it lives long after; beyond our lives. Plastic will linger on earth long after human beings have disappeared, and probably will be able to visit more corners of the globe than any of us. Eight of the top ten countries that filled the oceans with plastic in 2010 are Asian: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, according to an article published in the February 13, 2015 Los Angeles Times. The trend continues today. What part of this ends washed up on Latin American beaches? Exact data are incomplete and difficult to obtain. Studies on these movements are almost nonexistent, particularly in the global south, because of lack of resources. The graphic simulation (Fig.1) created by the Physical Oceanography Laboratory in UNAM, Mexico City, in collaboration with the Ubiquitous Trash Project, shows that a piece of plastic on the Island of Lantau, Hong Kong, can end up in the coasts of Chile and with patience in the Atlantic Ocean via the circumpolar current of the Antarctic.

Figure 1
The movement of the currents.


Many citizen based initiatives around the world have committed their time to tracking marine debris. During the last 12 years, the Australian Marine Debris Initiative and the community organisations and individuals involved in the collection and provision of data, detected 143 items from Latin America. Water, milk, detergent and shampoo bottles; an even higher sum of bottle caps; whole chicken packages; a plastic crate; car wash and solvent containers from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay, washed up on the Eastern seaboard and particularly on the northern shores of Australia. Although some items come from shipping, some of these objects have traveled via ocean currents many miles and countless years.

This is equally true for certain marine organisms, in particular some species of bryozoans, a strange and fascinating tiny (typically about 0.5 millimeters) hermaphroditic aquatic invertebrate that happens to thrive on plastic. Sometimes referred to as moss animals, bryozoans proliferate on ocean plastic fragments, which become vessels that can carry them to other continents. After the 2011 Japanese tsunami, an astonishing transoceanic biological migration was set into motion. An article published in Science Magazine in February 2018 documented the 289 living invertebrate and fish species from Japan that arrived during a five-year period in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean (on coastlines from Midway Atoll to Hawai‘i Island, and from south central Alaska to central California). Millions of objects, from small plastic fragments to whole fishing vessels, served as transportation for these critters. Certainly if the study was continued southward, many more items would have been found in Latin American terrain. This information inevitably leads us to question the prejudices and knowledge we have about the relationship between plastic and life, mobility and travel.

We at TRES investigate the traces and stories that these objects and organisms have to tell. For this art team, trash embodies, among other amazing qualities, a hidden code for understanding post-capitalist distribution and consumption patterns in the world, as well as a supplementary alternative: that of free trajectories on ocean currents and the mobility this provides for diverse objects and species. In an interdisciplinary effort, TRES has collaborated with specialists in biology, sociology and archeology, amog others, to map out the possibilities of this paradoxical material we named plastic, so present and useful in our daily lives, but that simultaneously produces much disdain.

Our obsession with traveling trash began in Hong Kong. Some beaches of Lantau Island resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape that took our breath away; a short distance from the impact made by the 19th-century painting The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse) by Théodore Géricault. Not because “the evil that men do lives after them,” citing Shakespeare once again, but because the beach became the setting for endless entanglements of correlated information, amalgamations and proof that we are all connected: Asia and Latin America, humans and non-humans. What we do in China affects Latin America, what is done in Hong Kong marks Australia, Finland, Russia and Mexico—thus the name Ubiquitous Trash.

Trash has the capability of voyaging through water at local and global scales. It has no clear frontier. Trash from anywhere can be found everywhere. The beach, in its very nature dissolves boundaries—anything can wash up, from anywhere—and, what does wash up tells us a great deal about not only what people leave behind, but also who and how we are: a collective message in a bottle. Once upon a time the oceans separated us from faraway lands; now they seem to bridge us together.

Cart in trash
A cart in the middle of garbage dump, Mexico, 2007.


Trash 2


Ghosts of the dump Hong Kong lighter.

TRES (Ilana Boltvinik + Rodrigo Viñas, Mexico City) is an art research collective founded in 2009 that has focused on exploring the implications of public space and garbage through artistic practices that concentrate on the methodological intertwining and dialogue with science, anthropology, and archaeology, among other disciplines. Of particular interest has been the inquiry on the subject of garbage as a physical and conceptual residue that entails political and material implications. They are the 2016 recipients of the Robert Gardner Fellowship for Photography at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard with which they are currently investigating Australian beaches.