Latin American Women Traveling and Writing

In Memorias de Espana 1937 (Memories of Spain 1937, 1992), Mexican author Elena Garro remembers her first overseas travel. She was twenty years old and she had just married poet Octavio Paz when she shipped from Mexico to Barcelona via New York and Paris during the Spanish civil war. Her husband, a literary celebrity by then engaged with socialism, was invited to present a paper in the Second International Conference of Writers for the Protection of Culture, organized by the republican Spanish government. Instead of a conventional honeymoon in Europe, as it might be expected for a middle-class Mexican bride as she was, Garro experienced a close confrontation with the horrors of war. This confrontation was marked by her gender and class, as she would recall in diverse scenes in her memoirs.

Garro was one of the few women in the group of intellectuals traveling around Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona, and one of the youngest ones. Within the narrative, she uses an ironical tone of voice to stress her difference. She recalls small everyday details about their life there, with a critical view upon the intellectuals aiming to support social causes while maintaining their privileges, like living in luxurious hotels or enjoying great banquets while others were starving.

Another difference stressed by the author is her expected role as a woman. She was addressed by her peers as a naive bourgeois woman who knew anything about their political discussions. The environment outside her social circle was not so different, as it was rare to see women on their own. One night, for instance, she and her friend Lolita went out for a walk in Barcelona’s China town and a group of women asked them for an identification card. Elena and Lolita wondered what kind of identification they wanted and they said “the prostitution identification” (2011: 48).

The female body plays a significant role in this kind of narratives, as the travel experience is never the same as that of a man. Garro’s image of a white, blond, elegant young woman made people doubt about her leftist ideology, and she was frequently confused with American.

Aware of the social position she had while traveling in 1937 in a conservative Spain, Garro remembers and writes from a different time and position. By 1992, when her memoirs are finally published, she was living in Spain with her daughter, already divorced from Paz. She had lived in several countries, exiled after her involvement in the 1968 student protests in Mexico.

There is a fracture between the conventional female subject and the writer’s self-representation, as exposed in memoirs about a sort of political coming-of-age. By creating a narrative voice who seeks to represent herself at twenty, a seventy-nine-year-old Garro is able to bring past to present and to recover, and uncover, some episodes of a historic event from a fresh and unique female perspective. Nevertheless, Garro chronological account seems to ignore the time passed between the represented subject and the writing time. The reader knows the differences between narration and publication times only from paratextual information (e.g. book cover, introduction, author’s biography).

It would take another generation of Latin American female authors to expose in a more evident way the process of becoming. This trend is particularly evident in memoirs about social revolutions or ethnographiclike travels during the 1970s; for example, in Beatriz Sarlo’s Viajes. De la Amazonia a las Malvinas (Travels. From the Amazons to the Falkland Islands, 2014), Alma Guillermoprieto’s La Habana en un es-pejo (Dancing with Cuba, 2004), and Gioconda Belli’s El pais bajo mi piel (The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, 2001). In these works, there is a first-person self-reflecting female narrator who alternates memories from her younger past with those their writing present. These two different styles toward representing the past through literary acts of remembering (memoirs) can be analyzed as two modes of response for a time of individual and collective crises.

German historian Jorn Riisen (2014) considers history to be as a way of making sense of a given period of time. For this purpose, crises are essential in the writing of history. Moreover, he identifies three modes of crises that correspond with diverse possibilities of narration. Of course, Riisen focuses on historical discourse and the tools that a given society


Garro’s and Guillermoprieto’s narrations seem to follow Simone de Beauvoir’s approach to the cultural history of women in The Second Sex (1949), for their texts highlight a self-consciousness of their education and social background and the reader is guided to understand their particular position in society as females as a part of their process of identity. Although Beauvoir was an essential reading for Latin American female writers in the 1970s, there is no direct allusion to her influence in their writings.

in a given time have to interpret certain historical events. Nevertheless, I consider his classification of crises to be useful for analyzing how certain (literary) authors also make sense of historical events in which they had a more or less active role. This is particularly important for memoirs focused on events that have been deliberately forgotten or misinterpreted from official history, as have happened frequently in the history of social movements in Latin America.

According to Riisen, a “normal crisis” uses conventional narrative responses to make sense of the contingency. I believe this is the case of Garro’s memoirs, which are narrated in lineal past tense, with rare allusions to the future-present of the author. Clearly, the Spanish civil war was a milestone in her life, as it is shown in Memorias de España, but also in those fiction works in which sensations of paranoia and environments of persecution and displacement play a central role in the plot, like the novels Reencuentro de personajes (Reunion of characters, 1982), Testimonios sobre Mariana (Testimonies about Mariana, 1981), or ¥ Matarazo no llamó ... (And Matarazo did not call ..., 1991). The author does not experiment with innovative modes of narration; she uses traditional storytelling techniques to tell her first-hand account of the war. Her memory acts as a synchronic cut to history: by the means of language she is able to go back in time, taking the reader with her. In a Proustian style, she tries to recover the past by constructing a twenty-year-old self-referenced narrator: her own past self as a young and naive woman.

The other authors mentioned above can be read as a response to the second type of Rüsen’s taxonomy of crises: a “critical crisis.” This kind of crisis claims for a new framework under which it can be understood. Particularly, this can be the case for both Guillermoprieto and Belli, who decided to alternate times in their narrative, so the reader can experience a diachronic memory: a testimony of the change of events across time, but also of their own identity evolution. Even when they call their books “a memoir” - in both cases the phrase is part of the title - their narrative also involves an account of their present, as if they could make sense of history only through acknowledging the contrast between past and present.

There is no doubt that dictatorships and other similar contexts of political repression in Latin America have generated specific testimonial narrative modes. These narratives have reshaped contemporary literature in the region and helped the victims to make sense of highly violent acts against human rights. Nonetheless, it is difficult, or at least polemical, to put these narratives on the same level of the Holocaust, which for Jörn is the most radical example of the third type of crises. The “catastrophic crisis” is trauma, that is, a crisis that destroys the framework of reference upon which historical sense is constructed without any change of creating a new one (Jörn 353-354). Holocaust is the “black hole of sense” (355); it is an experience for which there is no narrative possible because nothing make sense after it. Therefore, any narrative based on memories demonstrates that at least some degree of sense is possible through language.[1] In the particular case of the narratives analyzed here, I believe that even when the narrator experienced what can be commonly called “traumatic events,” the fact that the author-character survived change the interpretation of the event as traumatic. As the author moves apart from the traumatic place, her narrative becomes possible. This single act offers a historical sense for herself and her generation. A single testimony becomes communal when it is able to connect with similar accounts or similar times. In this sense, any survival narrative contains at least a small amount of hope for a future in which the narrator is able to speak, and therefore written language proves to be a therapeutic and artistic tool to understand the past. These narratives, after all, are trying to construct a cultural memory for the triumph of their revolutions, whereas they are individual or social causes.

  • [1] 2 Her poetry collection Linea de fuego (Firing Line, 1978), won the Casa de las Americas Prize, and the novel La mujer habitada (The Inhabited Woman, 1989), won the prize for the Best Political Novel of the Year in Germany.
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