Category Archives: Latin America

Eduardo Lalo’s term as TORCH Global South Visiting Fellow

This blog post was written by Franklin, a second-year student studying Spanish and Portuguese. Here, Franklin tells us about Eduardo Lalo’s stay in Oxford and the way it shone a spotlight on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

Every term, a number of academics from countries in the ‘Global South’ – a term that refers to countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean whose economies are small to medium-sized – arrive in Oxford as TORCH Global South Visiting Fellows. TORCH, short for The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, collaborates with an Oxford-based academic to sponsor and support the academic whilst they are here hosting events to do with their research interests and current projects.

One of the academics Oxford welcomed in ‘Trinity’ term (summer term) was Eduardo Lalo, Professor of Literature at the University of Puerto Rico and a multidisciplinary artist, whose work spans creative writing, drawing and photography. Eduardo’s academic host in Oxford was María del Pilar Blanco, Associate Professor of Spanish American Literature and Tutorial Fellow at Trinity College; together, they devised a range of events throughout the term for him to showcase his work and engage with the local and university communities.

The first of those events was a seminar series entitled ‘The Mis-invention of the Caribbean’. In the three seminars that comprised the series, which brought together students, researchers and members of the wider Oxford community, Eduardo examined the literature of the encounter between the Caribbean and its peoples and Europeans, with key texts including Christopher Columbus’s journal, dating from 1493, and the edition of it annotated by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish cleric whose writings chart the first decades of the colonization of the Caribbean. The series reconsidered the historiography surrounding the ‘discovery’ of the Caribbean, revealing that, at the heart of Columbus’ journal, lie a number of problematics and points of contention, and that, as a text, it cannot always be taken at face value. Beyond Columbus, Eduardo explored works by English travellers in the nineteenth century – texts by such figures as James A. Froude and Spenser St. John – and how they relate in style and content to Columbus’s fifteenth-century diary. In particular, Eduardo analyzed the recurrence of the cannibal as a figure that European writers return to again and again to represent their cultural others.

Alongside his three-part seminar series, Eduardo led a separate creative writing workshop for a group of ten students. After a short question-and-answer session, Eduardo, through a range of exercises, invited seminar-goers to consider the importance of the notion of writing in space (the space of a page of a book, for instance). Those in attendance enjoyed the opportunity to think creatively about, and move through, approaches to creative writing.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Ramiro Collazo on Unsplash

Aside from his more academic seminars and creative writing workshop, members of the Oxford community were able to attend an exhibition of his photography, entitled ‘Deudos’, or ‘Death Debts’, held at St John’s College. Eduardo’s black-and-white images of life in Puerto Rico, taken between 2012 and 2018, bring to the fore in powerful detail the realities of day-to-day life in what has been termed the world’s ‘oldest colony’ (Puerto Rico remains a commonwealth of the United States). Held over the course of the fourth week of term, the exhibition was well attended and its venue appropriate, in the light of the recent announcement by St John’s College’s that it will launch a new research project, named ‘St John’s and the Colonial Past’, to examine the role the college played in creating and maintaining Britain’s overseas empire. Eduardo’s exhibition seemed apt at a time when the Oxford community is opening discussions about decolonial approaches to art and scholarly work.

Eduardo’s term as a TORCH Global South Visiting Fellow, then, shone a spotlight on the relative lack of research that is done in Oxford on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, compared with that done on Spain and South America. His seminar series was a very useful follow-up to Professor Blanco’s lectures in ‘Hilary’ term (spring term) on ‘Literature of the Spanish Caribbean’, providing attendees with important historical context as far as the literary history of the Caribbean is concerned. Equally, it was enjoyable and insightful to explore new approaches to creative writing and to engage with photography, two aspects of the arts under-represented and under-explored in Oxford curricula:  approaches that challenge us to think of long-established canons from a decolonial perspective.

Brazil Week

This week’s blog post was written by Franklin, a second-year student in French and Portuguese from scratch. Here, Franklin tells us about this year’s ‘Brazil Week’…

In Week Six of Hilary Term every year, the Portuguese Sub-faculty organises ‘Brazil Week’, a series of free events – talks, performances and film screenings, to name just a few – which are open to members of the University and local community. The aim: to raise awareness of the richness and diversity of Brazilian culture. Events, though organised from within the Modern Languages Faculty, are designed to underline the wide variety of disciplines in which aspects of Brazil and Brazilian life are being researched: politics, history, theology, anthropology and sociology, for example. Each year promises to be an engaging and exciting week, and this year’s Brazil Week – whose theme was ‘Brazil Now’, in light of the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency – was no exception.

The week began with a focus on film. On Monday evening, St Peter’s – one of the more than 30 colleges that comprise the University – hosted a screening of Flávia Castro’s Deslembro, a film that explores themes of identity and memory through the lens of the experiences of its teenage protagonist, Joana. The following day, we welcomed Dr Maite Conde, Lecturer in Brazilian Studies at Cambridge University, who spoke about her recently published book, Foundational Films: Early Cinema and Modernity in Brazil. Maite’s book discusses the reception of cinema in Brazil in the early twentieth century and explores how early films sought to represent cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, in a similar vein to European capital cities, notably Paris, and her talk was particularly insightful for final year students studying Brazilian cinema.

Photo by Davi Costa on Unsplash

Later on Tuesday, in what was perhaps the standout event of the week, the Brazilian writer and activist Anderson França gave a talk which touched on his 2017 collection of crônicas, Rio em Shamas (or ‘Rio in Flames’). Attended by students and staff of the University and members of the Portuguese and Brazilian communities in Oxford, Anderson’s talk highlighted the reality of growing up in Rio de Janeiro, how tourists don’t see the real Rio, and the precariousness of the political situation in Brazil.

A theatre workshop for students with the actor and director Almiro Andrade on Wednesday morning marked the halfway point. In it students were able to discuss ways of staging two canonical Brazilian plays, Auto da Compadecida and Morte e vida severina, both of which are studied in first year. Later that day, St Peter’s hosted a well-attended seminar, organised by postgraduate Andrzej Stuart-Thompson, for all those doing research into aspects of Brazil. Thursday saw the University’s Latin America Centre host Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke and Peter Burke, who delivered a lecture on the influential Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, whose work all Portuguese undergraduates come across at some stage in their studies, and, just as it started, the week drew to a close focussing on cinema, with a roundtable, chaired by Professor Claire Williams, involving three specialists in Brazilian cinema.

Overall, the week was a great success, spotlighting the vitality and diversity of Brazilian culture and showcasing the breadth of research focussed on Brazil being carried out at Oxford. Brazil Week is one of many opportunities that students of Portuguese can get involved with to expand their knowledge of the Portuguese-speaking world and be introduced to cutting-edge research. Other events that the Sub-faculty organise include the Research Seminar, which regularly welcomes academics from around the world to speak about their latest work. This year, we have had talks entitled ‘Lima Barreto: An Afro-Brazilian Crusader’, ‘Memórias íntimas marcas: post-war transnational dialogues in Angolan art’ and ‘Critical futurities and queer-disabled existence in Mozambican, Ugandan and Zimbabwean political cultures’ amongst many more, reflecting the global nature of Portuguese as a language and the richness and vibrancy of the cultures of the Lusophone world.

 

How much is too much reality?

In May The Oxford Centre for Comparative Criticism and Translation, and St Anne’s College hosted a discussion between two of the best-known novelists writing in Spanish today, Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Beginning as an introduction to their recent publications, the conversation evolved into an exciting reflection on the role of storytelling in a post-truth age…

Javier Cercas at the Gothenburg Book Fair 2014. Photo by Albin Olsson, from Wikimedia Commons

Javier Cercas gave an insight into his 2014 novel, El Impostor (The Impostor), which tells the story of Enric Marco Battle, a trade unionist who became famous in Spain as a survivor of the concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg. Battle became a spokesperson for Spanish survivors of the Holocaust and was a prominent voice against Fascism. However, in 2005 it was revealed that Battle had deceived the public about his experience of the war and had never been held in a concentration camp. He was, in effect, an impostor.

Vásquez introduced his 2015 novel, La forma de las ruinas (The Shape of the Ruins), which traces two political assassinations in Colombia’s history: that of General Rafael Uribe Uribe, a senator and civil war veteran killed in 1914; and that of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a leader of the Liberal party and presidential candidate at the time of his murder in 1948. Vásquez’s novel includes a character called Carlos Carballo, a conspiracy theorist who believes the two crimes are linked, not only to one another, but also to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez at the Hay Festival 2016. Photo by Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), from Wikimedia Commons

Both novels, then, might to some degree be considered historical fiction, taking their storylines from history but marrying this with the imagination to create a version of the past that is closer to what we might expect from fiction. However, the two writers use their novels to problematise this genre, questioning the role fiction can play in an era of alternative facts.

The writers consider the figure of the fantasist, asking what motivates a fantasist to invent alternative scenarios and why such figures are believed. This begs the question, is the novelist a kind of fantasist? And if you can have a factual novel, what is it that makes it a novel, a work of the imagination?

Vásquez suggests that fantasists are fascinated by stories, by creating narrative out of the past as a way to meet their personal objectives. They are detectives of a kind, and the novel is a means of probing reality and humanity. As Ford Madox Ford said, the novel is a ‘medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.’ Cercas, meanwhile, draws a distinction between the different fantasists presented in the two novels: on the one hand, Battle, who distorts history to amplify or falsify his own role within it; on the other, Carballo, who cannot accept that history doesn’t make sense and is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth), and therefore looks endlessly for connections in an effort to find the meaning in history.

What do both fantasists tell us about our relationship to narratives of the past though? Perhaps that history becomes more palatable when it is presented in the form of a story. Between the lack of a story and a lie, we prefer the lie and, to go a step further, when we are dealing with the worst elements of history, we try to mask it with narrative.It is for this reason, Cercas suggests, that General Charles de Gaulle aimed to convince French people that they had all been ‘résistants’ during the war, for, he said, ‘Les Français n’ont pas besoin de la vérité’ [French people do not need the truth].

In the current climate, we find other words for lying, referring to distortions of the truth as ‘alternative facts’. Social media allows us to create alternative chains of events and, for the first time, we have the impression of being able to choose the version of reality we want to hear. Consequently, people who are adept at manipulating storytelling have power. Vásquez points out that the German writer and philosopher Novalis asserted that ‘novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.’ The novel goes where history cannot, reframing history as a narrative that can be edited, manipulated, and used to dominate the political moment. This is because, in the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

It seems, therefore, that our present moment is defined by narratology, by storytelling. What do you think – are we facing a battle for the story?

A Chilean Year Abroad: from terremotos to chilenismos

This post was written by Hector Stinton, a third-year Spanish & French student at Keble College.

As an undergraduate reading French and Spanish, I have chosen to spend my year abroad working in Santiago de Chile (August 2017 – June 2018) and Paris (July – September 2018) as a British Council English teacher and Assistant Film Producer, respectively. In the summer before starting the Spanish half of my year, I set myself three main objectives: to enhance my understanding of Hispanic culture, to improve my Spanish, and to challenge myself professionally.

Being embedded in life and work in Chile has given me great insight into Latin culture. For example, in England, flying or wearing our flag is uncommon and has nationalistic associations, even on St George’s Day; whereas in Chile, La Estrella solitaria is seen far more frequently, especially on Independence Day in September. Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that it is still a legal obligation, though rarely enforced, to fly a flag from every house or tower block – a hangover in the constitution written by Pinochet, demonstrating his pervasive legacy. At the other end of the spectrum, and typifying the wry sense of humour, the beverage of choice – a litre of sweet fermented wine with pineapple ice-cream – is called a terremoto (‘earthquake’), despite the fact that tremors regularly raze towns and villages, and have left the capital without any pre-modern architecture.

It is said that if you can speak Castilian in Chile, you can speak it anywhere in the world, since Chilean Spanish has a fearsome reputation for its thick accent, fast delivery, and plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos. Separated from Peru and Bolivia by the Atacama Desert to the north, from Argentina by the Andes to the east, and surrounded by ocean to the south and west, Chile’s geography has seen its language develop hermetically. Even when Chile became more accessible, wars with her neighbours, and continuing mutual suspicion, have made the distinct speech a point of national pride. For this reason, Chilean vocabulary has been particularly enriched by its immigrant and native communities: ya (‘yeah’) from the German ja, ¿cachai? (‘you know?’) from the English ‘to catch one’s drift’, cancha (‘field’) from the Quechua kancha. The grammar, too, prefers the Italian ai or ei ending to the Iberian as or es when using the informal tu form in the present tense, and rejects completely the peninsular vosotros ‘you plural’. Acquiring all these subtleties, and many more besides, has made me a more complete linguist.

Professionally, working at the biggest language school in Santiago, the Instituto Chileno-Británico de Cultura, has presented its own set of challenges. On Friday evenings, I teach an advanced one-on-one student who happens to be the philosophy chair at the top university, and is preparing to deliver a series of lectures at Yale. A few hours later, on Saturday mornings, I go from feeling more like a tutorial student with the aforementioned academic, to helping a class of six-year-old girls colour and annotate big A3 sheets with titles like ‘My Zoo’ and ‘My Favourite Food’. ‘Variety’ is certainly the watchword at the ICBC, because every day I engage with and adapt to a huge range of different ages, backgrounds and abilities.

Thus far, I would go as far as to say I’m meeting or exceeding the objectives I set myself at the beginning of the year, thanks to an opportunity in Chile made possible by the British Council and Instituto Británico. Now I might even have time for some of my secondary objectives: learning to dance, learning to cook, and learning Portuguese…

Chilean Spanish: A Surprise and a Delight

by Hector Stinton, a third-year undergraduate in French and Spanish at Keble College

Embalse el Yeso (‘Yeso Dam’) in the Andes.

Chilean Spanish is the most idiosyncratic Hispanic variant, and it’s partly why I applied to work as a teacher in Santiago for my year abroad. Its earliest phonetic influence was from Andalusian conquistadores, who brought to America yeísmo (/y/ and /ll/ pronounced the same) and seseo (soft /c/ and /z/ pronounced as /s/, itself unpronounced word-finally), but it developed into a more distinctive accent with the conversion of /j/ into aspirate /h/ and the elision of /d/ in words like ciudad. Chile’s geo-political isolation made its patois evolve rapidly and hermetically: separated from its neighbours by the Andes and the Atacama until the 19th century, and with relations soured by conflict and suspicion since then, Chileanese became a point of national pride.

A huaso (‘cowboy’) at a rodeo during the Fiestas Patrias in Ñuñoa, Santiago

As in other Latin countries, the diminutive –ito/a is used to express affection and diminish the urgency, directness or importance of something, e.g. making something annoying seem more pleasant, and the voseo (use of vos as a second person singular pronoun instead of tuteo) forms the bottom two of the four grades of formality, below and usted. Interestingly, however, among friends, Chileans prefer the Italianate –ai or –ei ending to the Iberian –as or –es when using in the present tense. More unusual still is the replacement of nuestro ‘our’ with de nosotros, and the rejection of vosotros in favour of ustedes for ‘you plural’.

But above all, Chilean-speak is known for its plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos; look in any Spanish dictionary, and you will see they predominate over all other vernaculars. There are three broad categories: Argentine / Rioplatense / Lunfardo (argot from Buenos Aires and Montevideo) terms carrying either covert prestige or criminal Coa undertones (hacer perro muerto ((literally, ‘to do a dead dog’)) – ‘to dine and dash’); Mapudungun / Quechua loanwords (copihue – Chile’s national flower, huaso – ‘cowboy’); and French / (Swiss-)German / English / Croat loanwords (confort – ‘loo paper’, lumpen – ‘lower class’, cachar – ‘to catch one’s drift’, corbata – ‘tie’). Together, they further enrich the Chilean dialect, which never fails to surprise and delight.

Some Chilenismos

hacer perro muerto – to dine and dash
huaso – cowboy
confort – loo paper
cachar – to catch one’s drift

Feeding time at the fish market in Coquimbo (pelicans, stray dogs, sea lions)