Disobedient Autobiographies of Las Desobedientes

Mujeres de Nuestra America

by | Dec 22, 1998

From the quasi mythical conquista-age Malinche to contemporary women such as Rigoberta Menchú and Rosario Castellanos, Las Desobedientes restitutes the women of Latin American history, recognizing their importance in the construction and in the questioning of the political and cultural institutions in which the live(d). Accepting a very wide definition of disobedience, Las Desobedientes is a celebration of the diversity of women and of women’s work in Latin America, rather than an exhortation to or prescription for any particular type of revolutionary action.

Currently well-known women such as Frieda Kahlo and Rigoberta Menchú receive attention alongside those who have been and are still most often forgotten: Mexican revolutionaries and arms manufacturers, the Narváez Bautista sisters, and the quilters of Puente Alto who did not want their last names mentioned for fear of repercussions, to name a few. Women from a wide variety of class, ethnic and educational backgrounds are included, although bisexuals and lesbians are notably absent, even from those essays where sexual disobedience is mentioned.

The book, edited by Maria Mercedes Jaramillo of Fitchburg State College and Betty Osorio of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá (Panamericana Editorial Ltda., Bogotá, Colombia, 1997, ISBN 958-30-0290-9, 576 pages), is described as a collection of “biographies.” However, this word is taken in its loosest sense to create a marvelous variety of subjects and focuses, from cultural history to literary criticism. The text’s willingness to extend the category of “biography” to works which have had to invent as much as to record the lives of their subjects shows Las Desobedientes to be not only a celebration but also a performance of disobedience.

Few comparisons are made to European or North American women or women’s movements, attesting to the truly Latin American figurations of these women who have effectively been disobedient on their own terms throughout the history of Latin America, not simply the example or extension of their Northern cousins.

While all of the essays are excellent, the detailed mention of a few can give a feel for the extent of the book. Las Desobedientes begins in Mexico with Sandra Messinger Cypress’s article on La Malinche. Cypress brings together the many different versions of the Malinche story, from Cortez’s own journals to Rosario Castellanos, with a focus on the “real live” woman at the base of the stories and the difficulty of the contradictions she had to negotiate in her life and in her mythologization. This is one of the few essays which includes extensive reference to Chicana authors as participants in the tradition of disobedient Latin American women.

The chapter on Argentine author and politician Juana Manuela Gorriti by Mary G. Berg, who teaches translation and Hispanic Studies at the Harvard Extension School, stands out for its own beautifully crafted style and images. It follows, as Berg so eloquently puts it, Gorriti’s literal and metaphoric path. While the body of this chapter features a celebration of Gorriti’s marital disobedience and her intellectual and political accomplishments, the brief remarks on her writings tease us with a brilliant suggestion of an interpretation of the disobedience of Gorriti’s style as well as of the content of her writings. (Berg also has an interesting article on 19th century Argentine journalist and critic Clorinda Matto de Turner in the same volume.)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s biography written by Nina Scott follows closely after La Malinche’s. A historical and literary biography of Sor Juana as an intellectual in a time and place when women were not allowed that identity, Scott’s chapter contains a wonderfully selected sampling of Sor Juana’s most important writings. However, Scott’s commentary on those selections seems a little lacking in that same audacity with which she so wonderfully characterizes and describes Sor Juana’s life.

One of the few pieces consisting primarily of literary criticism, Ofélia Ferrán gives an outstanding interpretation of Costa Rican author Yolanda Oreamuno’s revolutionary role in the authorization of disobedient female sexuality, while at the same time situating her in a tradition which both precedes and follows her. Ferrán demonstrates the balance of creation and criticism in Oreamuno’s work. Showing her conception of female sexuality and politics to be situated in a desiring, creating body, Ferrán looks at how Oreamuno both incarnates Hélène Cixous’s concept of feminine writing and makes it distinctly her own and distinctly Latin American.

An insightful treatment of the accomplishments of Ana Marí­a Condori, Willy Muñoz’s article situates the role of the woman who captures in words the story of another less comfortable with the written word in an indigenous and completely positive context. This is a wonderful light to turn on it, but Muñoz’s article is absent any significant questioning of the editing of the “listener.”

Las Desobedientes ends with two biographies of groups of women, the quilters of Puente Alto and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In doing so, it shows the progress of disobedient women form an isolated few to growing numbers spreading across boundaries and borders, and ends in disobedience with the conventions of traditional biography.

Winter 1998
Keja Valens is a second year graduate student in the department of Comparative Literature. Her passion, and therefore her area of focus, is contemporary Latin American, Francophone African and Caribbean, and American lesbian erotic and pornographic works.

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