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Cultural alienation and colonial desire in "Alienacion" by Julio Ramon Ribeyro.
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Ribeyro, the recipient of the highly regarded 1994 Premio de Literatura Juan Rulfo, echoes the Mexican literary icon in his exquisitely concise prose, which relies on a strong emotional charge that transpires through his realistic texts, and in his concern for the lives of the wretched. In the same vein, Ribeyro exhibits a strong interest in every aspect of the experience of marginalization, be it spatial (as in living on the border, or markedly outside the metropolis), physical (concerning one's appearance, which inevitably encompasses social and cultural limitations as well), and finally existential, oftentimes being the result of one's inability (contested or not) to interiorize predominant cultural norms. This disorienting paradox of 'otherness,' of feeling foreign within the realm of the familiar, while at the same time sensing sameness in a territory of difference, shows in the story "Alienacion" the effects of what Roberto Fernandez Retamar terms the infection with the ideology of the enemy, where the Latin American subject is "but a distorted echo of what occurs elsewhere" (3). The story offers an ironic and ultimately tragic insight into the life of Roberto, a mixed-race limeno, whose dream is to become a white American from the United States. As part of this frustrated project of assimilation, he strives to transform himself physically, dresses like a US tourist, and seeks to learn English. He eventually relocates to New York, where after months of poverty he enlists in the US Army, where things end tragically.
The very first sentence of the story encapsulates the protagonist's multi-layered marginalization within Lima's society. Roberto is a zambo--which implies his social inferiority--and his name, Lopez, locates him within the most common and the lowest sector of a society whose elite traditionally boasts foreign-sounding last names. While Roberto looks like a zaguero de Alianza Lima, a football club traditionally associated with blacks and mulattos, he aspires to resemble a blond futbolista from Philadelphia. This dissonance between Roberto's appearance and his projected fantasy of origin and identity reveals that he has been afflicted by what Homi Bhabha would call "political and psychic violence within civic virtue" (43), a self-hatred in this case disseminated by the racist discourse of North American imperialism and interiorized by its colonial subjects. The signs of Roberto's marginalization in relation to the other actors of the story reach further, since he lives on the very edge of his generally white neighborhood, in "el ultimo callejon que quedaba en el barrio" (262), thus physically occupying a peripheral space as well. In sum, Roberto's looks, his origin, and his economic status marked by his modest living quarters and his mother's lowly profession of washerwoman place him at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. This markedly inferior status complicates the development of his bodily schema, where instead of seeing himself for what he is, he begins to evaluate himself in terms of what he is not. Such a disturbance of his own frame of reference caused by desiring to be the idealized Other, while at the same time perceiving himself as a non-identity, shatters Roberto's very essence as an individual or, as Bhabha observed when examining the same phenomenon described in Franz Fanon's writing,
What these repeated negations of identity dramatize, in their elision of the seeing eye that must contemplate what is missing or invisible, is the impossibility of claiming an origin for the Self (or Other) within a tradition of representation that conceives of identity as the satisfaction of a totalizing, plenitudinous object of vision. (46)
Roberto's desire to move beyond his subaltern position reaches new levels when he suffers his first adolescent heartbreak. Like the wealthy boys from the neighborhood, he frequents the plaza Bolognesi to stare at Queca, a local beauty. Even though, as the narrator stresses, the girl does not exactly fit into the privileged community, since her father is "un empleadito que iba a trabajar en omnibus" and her house is adorned with geraniums rather than the more prestigious roses (263), the boys, blinded by Queca's unquestionably good looks, choose to ignore her lower status and court her, hoping in vain that she will finally grace them with her attention. One day Roberto gets a one-time opportunity to return to her a runaway ball, and this brief contact between them irreparably deepens his inferiority complex and his immeasurable desire to become the hegemonic Other. It is so because Queca's gaze has long absorbed the attitude of the colonialist Self who objectifies and negates the worth of the colonized. Sensing that her own higher social status is tantamount to her proximity to the whiter, and thus more prosperous, class in Lima's hierarchy, she violently rejects Roberto's attempts to befriend her:
Queca, que estiraba ya las manos, parecio cambiar de lente, observar algo que nunca habia mirado, un ser retaco, oscuro, bembudo y de pelo ensortijado, algo que tampoco le era desconocido, que habia tal vez visto como veia todos los dias las bancas o los ficus, y entonces se aparto aterrorizada ... "Yo no juego con zambos" (263-64).
Queca's contempt for Roberto, not so much as an individual but rather as a representative of what she apparently considers the despicable class of zambos, patently goes against Vasconcelos's hope for "la raza cosmica" or Jose Marti's canonical celebration of Latin America's rich racial mixture, of what he called "our mestizo America," to refer to this unique culture of descendents of indigenous Americans, Africans and Europeans. Embodying the colonized subject who accepts the whole array of imperial cultural expectations, Queca aspires to racial homogeneity at the expense of the internal diversity that has always surrounded her. Her elitist attitude mirrors the US racial politics described by Fernandez Retamar, where "the white population (...) exterminated the aboriginal population and thrust the black population aside," and where western and Tarzan films disseminated into the world "the monstrous racial criteria that have accompanied the United States from its beginnings" (4).
Confronted with such merciless rejection brought on by his ethnicity, Roberto, who has lived with the expectation of the acceptance of the Other, now feels that he has no inherent values of his own, nor that can he aspire to be somebody unless he reinvents himself. And reinvent himself he does, by finding his inspiration precisely in Queca's gaze, meaning in the elsewhere-directed desire of his harshest critic so far. As it becomes evident that Queca consciously seeks out the imperial model of a blond American, and since her partners are lighter-skinned each time, finally ceding to a red-haired and freckled American from Kentucky, Roberto, too, draws his inspiration from the very source of colonial fantasy, by deciding to become a fair-skinned Yankee himself. His reaction, perhaps inexplicable at first sight, is consistent with Fanon's lament about the dark-skinned colonial subject who, limited in his possibilities, has "no choice between inferiority and dependence" (93). Tired of feeling discriminated against locally, Roberto thinks big as he decides to assimilate to the foreign model regardless of how many sacrifices this transformation might entail.
From the psychoanalytical perspective, Roberto reflects what Rene Girard has called mimetic desire, a hypothesis that rests on the existence of the subject and the object of the desire with a third element, the socalled mediator, placed in between. The need that the subject has for the object--in this case, Roberto's hunger for self-legitimization within his own community--is no other than his desire for the prestige that he attributes to the status enjoyed by Queca. Queca disregards not only poor dark-skinned boys like Roberto but even wealthy Peruvian admirers, setting her gaze instead upon the Americans, whose country in her colonized mind represents the epitome of social advancement and stability. Thus, he too grows to crave the distant, idealized metropolis. (2)
The irony in Ribeyro's story reaches new depth as we follow Queca and Roberto on their separate journeys towards self-identification with the dominating North American Empire, the principal ideological unifier across class and other social divisions in the Americas. Feeling peripheral to North American values and at the same time accepting their centrality, Queca and Roberto use distinct methods to achieve physical proximity to the metropolis, in order to finally live their colonial fantasy--Queca by marrying and Roberto by emigrating illegally. Queca offers her body in exchange for a new address in her dreamland, by becoming the wife of the middle-class Billy. Soon, however, the disenchantment takes its toll on her, when her spouse begins to drink heavily, gamble, cheat on her, and abuse her verbally and physically. Sadly, "la linda, inolvidable Queca" (274), yanked out of her own environment, where she had been an unquestionable queen worthy of the best, ends up becoming one of the countless victims of domestic violence, silenced not only by her husband's brutal fists but also by the cultural estrangement she experiences in the southern US.
Meanwhile Roberto, broken by Queca's racially motivated hatred and enslaved by his inferiority complex ever since, continues to see himself through the eyes of the colonizer, where, as Fanon muses, "[c]onsciousness of the body is solely a negating activity" (110). Now fully dependant on the hegemonic Other, Roberto self-imposes regulatory manipulations in order to hide what he considers the signs of his savagery, while consciously masquerading as the quintessential American (read, US) Man:
[Roberto] tuvo que empezar por matar al peruano que habia en el y por coger algo de cada gringo que conocio. Con el botin se compuso una nueva persona, un ser hecho de retazos, que no era ni zambo ni gringo, el resultado de un cruce contranatura, algo que su vehemencia hizo derivar, para su desgracia, de sueno rosado a pesadilla infernal. (262)
Clearly, Roberto understands that the integration to the dominant culture can only be achieved by prior massive suppression of his inherent qualities. This process, described by Bhabha as mimicry, is thus a site of double articulation where, by striving to appropriate and visualize the Other, one disavows his or her own roots, and ultimately transmutes them into something different, a hybrid (86). Similarly, Roberto's hybridization cannot, by definition, encompass total resemblance to the origin, but rather it develops into a strange construct positioned on the margins of metropolitan desire: no longer resembling his peers, not quite "yanqui" either, he stands in the undetermined threshold. With bleached hair and powdered face, he also adopts the dress code of the American tourist, by wearing Hawaiian shirts and jeans that have become popularized in movie westerns. Conscious of the power that comes from re-appropriating the colonizer's language, for as Fanon notes, "[t]o speak a language is to take on a world, a culture" (38), Roberto turns to the ultimate colonizing tool, American cinema, the transmitter and disseminator of metropolitan ideology. From there he learns not only popular English expressions but also body postures stereotypically attributed to the over-drawn characters of cowboys and gangsters, thus becoming an even more elaborate and caricaturesque representation of what he deems ideal. Bhabha teaches that mimicry can harbor a mockery of the origin's imposed norms, since through its blurred reproduction of the colonizer --of being "almost the same but not quite" (86)--it discloses the ambivalence of colonial discourse and disrupts its authority (88). Likewise, Roberto unwittingly disturbs the normality of the dominant discourse by means of his own physical and behavioral 'inappropriateness.' Regardless of how well he manipulates the hegemonic language and repeats the image of the colonial origin from the site of the dominated, Roberto keeps intensifying the tension between the two cultures, rather than eliminating the gap. He ostentatiously flaunts the new man that he has become, the one "elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards" (Fanon 18). But in response, his compatriots laugh in his face: "pues la primera vez que lo vimos en esa pose [de un vaquero] nos reimos de el en sus narices" (269), and his only friend who shares the same passion for gringos experiences equally wide-spread contempt: "es cierto que la ciudad no los tragaba, desarreglaban todas las cosas, ni parientes ni conocidos los podian pasar" (270).
Caught up at the intersection of two territories and two cultures, Roberto and his friend, two exemplary clients (or victims) of the colonial repertoire, decide to skip town to finally live the American dream up North. After various obstacles they land in New York, expecting to fit right into the metropolitan scheme thanks to their extensive prior manipulation of the body politic. But as they follow in the steps of Ribeyro's typical protagonists who, according to Angel Esteban, live in a "tension entre una realidad frustrante y unas expectativas ilusorias a las que la cruel evidencia se impone" (25), they get a lesson on how colonial power really operates: countless copies of American wannabes swarming all over the cold and distant metropolis reproduce the imperial discourse through their body and language manipulation:
en Nueva York se habian dado cita todos los Lopez y Cabanillas del mundo, asiaticos, aztecas, africanos, ibericos, mayas, chibchas, sicilianos, caribenos, musulmanes, quechuas, polinesios, esquimales, ejemplares de toda procedencia, lengua, raza y pigmentacion y que tenian solo en comun el querer vivir como un yanqui, despues de haberle cedido su alma y haber intentado usurpar su apariencia. (272)
What this satirical enumeration underlies is that New York, the unquestionable metropolis for all the desirous colonized, is but an imaginary space of possession that no one subject can fixedly occupy. It is an illusory construct upheld and disseminated by the state apparatuses--such as Roberto's beloved Hollywood films--whose fundamental role is to allure and to enslave those who fall into its false promise of social advancement and overall happiness. Rather than incarnate the very core of what supposedly true Americanism is all about, Ribeyro's New York turns out to be a gathering place for the scattered periphery seduced by colonial allure. Thus, with his depiction of the center empty of cultural meaning, Ribeyro dismantles the center/margin model of culture, and deconstructs the validity of the origin. He then brings this irony to the extreme, when his protagonist and the friend, both forced by the poverty experienced in the Big Apple, enlist in the American Army to fight in the Korean War in exchange for room and board and longed-for American citizenship. This is where the vicious circle completes itself, and where the imperialistic manipulation comes fully to the surface: it is not so much that the periphery depends on the metropolis, but that the metropolis needs the dependant Other as a primary means of its own self-definition. After all, how could it exist, and how could it feed its own voracious appetite for dominance, without the expandable hordes of the colonized who flow in uninterruptedly, eager to perform dangerous or menial duties in exchange for their colonial dream?
Albeit unwittingly, Roberto and his friend become part of the imperialist scheme, where they must in essence perpetuate colonization in order to become legitimate in the US. Reinforcing the absurdity of the colonial fantasy, Ribeyro does not hesitate to kill off his protagonist in the very first days of his colonizing mission, while allowing Roberto's friend to go back to Lima with his right arm blown off by a bomb. Ribeyro's message then, as always, becomes profoundly pessimistic but not devoid of deep humanity, (3) since he unearths, as Julio Ortega notes, "hasta que punto la modernizacion capitalista demanda una liquidacion de la conciencia no solo solidaria sino de la autoconciencia del mismo sujeto" (130). The colonial condition, which estranges the very nature of humanity, does not allow the possibility of positive resolution. Quite the contrary, its physical imprint on the now-deceased Roberto and his crippled friend shows that it forebodes exclusively disenchantment and/or destruction. Perhaps the only way to succeed is to think outside of imperial mechanisms, for, as Retamar stresses, "our culture is--and can only be--the child of revolution, of our multisecular rejection of all colonialism. Our culture, like every culture, requires as a primary condition our own existence" (38).
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Esteban, Angel. "Julio Ramon Ribeyro y el cuento hispanoamericano en la perspectiva del 'boom.'" La palabra del mudo. Antologia. Lima: Ediciones Peisa, 1992. 3-27.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967.
Girard, Rene. The Girard Reader. Ed. James G. Williams. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.
Minardi, Giovanna. La cuentistica de Julio Ramon Ribeyro. Lima: La casa de carton, 2002.
Ortega, Julio. "Los cuentos de Ribeyro." Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 417 (1985): 128-145.
The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Retamar, Roberto Fernandez. Caliban and Other Essays. Trans. Edward Baker and Forward by Fredric Jameson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.
Ribeyro, Julio Ramon. "Alienacion." La palabra del mudo. Antologia. Lima: Ediciones Peisa, 2002.
(1) I apply the term 'post-colonial' as considered by the editors of The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, meaning, not referring only to the period after the colonies became independent but "to designate the totality of practices, in all their rich diversity, which characterizes the societies of the post-colonial world from the moment of colonization to the present day" (xv).
(2) As Girard puts it, "The impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator; in internal mediation this impulse is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or perhaps possesses, the object" (39).
(3) See Giovanna Minardi, 21-22, Ortega, 130.
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