A Review of Landscapes of Devils, Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco

by | May 15, 2005

Landscapes of Devils, Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco By Gastón R. Gordillo Duke University Press, Durham & London 2004, 296 pages.

Gastón R. Gordillo’s portrayal of the Toba aborigines population from the Gran Chaco is a deep and thoughtful insight into the minds of the men and women of that region and the memories and demons that make up their world today.

This journey to the land of the Toba, into the western Argentinean Chaco, limited by Paraguay and Bolivia to the north, unravels how the forest- bush came to be seen in the eyes of the Toba as the result of “a complex network of practices and memories.”

The spatial definition of the bush is simultaneous to the actual incorporation of the autonomous Toba within the Argentine nation-state in the early 20th century. This fact provides the context for Gordillo, former DRCLAS de Fortabat Visiting Scholar (2000-2001), to investigate this entanglement of space, history and subjectivity that helped define the Toba population as they are today.

Landscapes of Devils is the product of Gordillo’s extensive fieldwork and the result of direct memories of many Toba who lived in “ancient times.”

By giving detailed accounts of the components that make up the bush—the impenetrable forest of western Chaco—Gordillo is able to portray the contradictions that helped define the modern Toba. His description of the Toba’s seasonal work at the sugar plantations and the foraging that takes place within the forest, reinforces the eternal contradiction faced by the Toba when it comes to defining their dependency and relationship with the outside world.

Part of the Toba’s contradictory experience is culturally expressed by the existence of devils or evil spirits that acquire different features in different places, which would explain how the same spirit that would kill in the plantation would have healing powers in the bush.

Gordillo demonstrates the embedded relationship between the Toba and their geography through his accounts of people’s social, cultural and political behavior. Through his description of the way the Toba interacted with the Argentine Army at the beginning of the 20th century, their work at the sugar plantations, their time at the Anglican missions and their relationship with political figures during Carlos S. Menem’s presidency in the 1990s, the author gives us a detailed view of the different political and economic settings that have helped to define the Toba.

The use of everyday stories told by the “ancient ones,” those who lived at the time of the Chaco War (in the 30s) or worked in the plantations or lived at the missions, gives a detailed description of the relationship that the Toba have with their environment.

It is precisely in these contradictions, implicit in the social memory that the Toba have of the bush and life within and outside of those limits, that Gordillo finds the driving force of his book, which enables us to see the different patterns that have defined these people’s lives through time. The book is vivid, although sometimes chaotic in the wealth of information that Gordillo presents.

Gordillo’s description of Toba suffering at the hands of the state or in the hands of their patron—employer—in the sugar fields allows us to see how the memory of these events are deeply related to the Toba’s perception of the bush as a safe haven from the outside world.

While Gordillo’s account of the morally strict life at the Anglican Mission or the exploitation at the sugar plantations introduces the reader to the suffering of the Toba in the outside world, it also gives way to the description of the forest as a place of resilience, where the tribe can counteract all the threats of dominance, terror and poverty.

On the other hand, while showing the continual contrast that set Toba apart from the rest of the world, Gordillo does not overlook the constant cross referencing by the Toba with the outside world. Gordillo goes as far as to show how at the time of the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1970s, the Tobas were using the term “disappeared,” generally used in regard to those who were made to disappear by the government, to characterize Toba who went to the outside world, but never returned.

In his book, Gordillo sets out to support the premise that “places are produced in tension with other geographies and that these tensions are made tangible through the spatialization of memory.” It is precisely in his nuanced analysis of Toba experiences that Gordillo is able to sustain such an idea. His detailed accounts of the geographical changes of the Pilcomayo River; the new boundaries resulting of the Chaco War in the 1930s; the coming and going of different types of labor in the sugar plantations, among others, have helped define the spatial composition of the Toba and have given us a closer look into the land of Toba spirits.

Spring/Summer 2005, Volume IV, Number 2

Ángeles Mase is an Argentine journalist who recently moved back to Buenos Aires after living in the United States for five years. She has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University, New York.

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