Nature, hauntings and the gothic in Latin American literature
Ghosts, monsters and the undead appear in Latin American gothic film, literature and media in various guises and with various purposes (Casanova-Vizcaino and Ordiz 2017), but prominent among these are roles as representatives of fantasy, legends and nightmares that aim to fascinate and repel. Indeed, they are products of anxieties—of attempts to impose control over uncontrollable forces (death, human resistance, nature)—but they may also often represent political critique. In this literature, these stories involve ‘the gothic’—ghosts and magical realism—which may all give voices to the silenced and can provide critique of past and present (Armitt 2014). There is the basis here for further criminological connections, to new writings on ghost criminology and hauntology (e.g., Ferrell 2018; Fiddler 2007; Fiddler, Kindynis and Linnemann 2020; Linnemann 2015) and to Picart and Greek’s pioneering outline of a gothic criminology, where they have suggested we can conceive of this as a concern with ‘The ongoing fascination with evil, as simultaneously repellent and irresistibly attractive’ (2007: 11; South 2017).
There are many other directions and connections to pursue once we start to see how a green cultural criminology of the South can learn to explore art, film, literature and other media that intertwine ‘nature’, the spiritual and portrayals of human endeavour and human folly. We should remember that, as Stepan (2001: 15) puts it, ‘nature is always culture before it is nature’ insofar as ‘nature is not just “natural” but is created as natural by human desires and intentions’ (our emphasis). For a green cultural criminology, making connections with what might be the concerns of a Southern cultural criminology opens up a new methodology and body of data and knowledge with which to engage. It will be very fruitful to link this to the field of ‘eco-criticism’ and its connections to, and interest in, environmental injustice (see, e.g., Buell et al. 2011; Hsu 2011). As Buell and colleagues argue (2011: 418):
By themselves, creative depictions of environmental harm are unlikely to free societies from lifestyles that depend on radically transforming ecosystems. But reflecting on works of imagination may prompt intensified concern about the consequences of such choices and possible alternatives to them.
This can be accomplished in many forms of storytelling. By way of illustration, we offer two examples in the next section.
The Magic Bean Tree and The Future According to Luz series
In The Magic Bean Tree: A Legend from Argentina, Nancy Van Laan retells the story of how, in the middle of the wide Argentine pampas (a vast grassland/lowland in South America that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Andes Mountains), there once grew a magic tree. Above this tree slept the Great Bird of the Underworld—a bird so evil, it could stop the rain from falling by hiding the skies, stars and heavens behind its wings. And not far from this tree, there lived a brave Quechuan boy named Topee, who one day set out to save his village and all the creatures from dying of thirst.
In the story, geared towards children 4-8 years of age, Topee asks a once-deep river whether it has seen rain. The river responds that it has not and that it will soon dry' up and die. Topee promises to find rain and ‘bring it back’, but the river admonishes him: ‘Hide from the sun, little one. Curl up like the armadillo. Cover your head like the rhea, or you will die, too!’ Topee, however, ignores the river’s cautionary' advice and continues on until he comes to the Carob Tree, who tells him of the Great Bird of the Underworld. That night, Topee leads his people to the tree, where they attempt to scare off the Great Bird of the Underworld by ‘beat|ing| their drums, bang|ing| on sticks, rattl|ing| rattles, and rais|ing| their voices, shrieking, screaming, filling the air with such noise that the Earth shook’. By' themselves, the people cannot affect the bird, but ‘[tjhen, from all over the pampas animals cjo|me running, leaping, hopping, jumping, adding their voices to those of the people. SNORT HISS! YAP YEOW!’ Frightened by the sound of so many voices, the bird flies away. With the bird gone, the people pray' for rain, which comes, filling the rivers and turning the brown grass green. As a sign of gratitude to Topee for his bravery, the Carob Tree shakes its branches, covering the ground with golden-red beans: ‘From the beans came fodder to feed the llamas. From the beans came flour to make porridge and cake. And from the seeds of the beans grew many' more carob trees ...’.
At the most basic level, this Argentine legend conveys the importance of rain to the people of the Argentine pampas and helps explain why Argentineans believe that good luck can be found in the shade of a carob tree. But the story also raises a number of important questions, such as: to whom—or to what—do we attribute loss of environmental resources—that which we need from the Earth in order to survive? What is the role of the individual in addressing environmental problems, such as lack of sufficient, clean water? What is the role of the group or collective?
Although the legend conveys the importance of courage and faith—both of which are important (albeit insufficient, by themselves, as we point out in the Conclusion to this volume) —the legend also makes three additional points with wide applicability. First, the legend suggests that in times of scarcity, there is a tendency to focus on self-preservation. Topee’s people urge him not to seek rain because he ‘might crumble like the plants’ or ‘turn into dust like the earth’. And the river, as noted above, advises Topee to focus on hrs own survival. Only by eschewing such warnings does Topee learn why there is no rain and what he must do.
Second, Topee enlists the help of his people—the very people who initially discouraged Topee from making the effort to find (the) rain. The people, by themselves, cannot solve the situation; they need the help of all the animals from the pampas. While this is not to suggest that we need to recruit non-human nature in our efforts to address environmental problems (many of which stem from human activity), the joint effort serves as a reminder that we are not the only species that relies on the Earth to support life—a point that is underscored by the way in which the beans are used not just for human consumption, but to feed the llamas.
Third, the last sentence of Van Laan’s version reminds readers that ‘it takes a carob tree a long time to grow’. This can be interpreted as a recognition that while nature is resilient and does (often) recuperate, it takes time (and patience) and that misuse of its resources may mean that recovery does not happen during human lifetimes. The image that accompanies the last page—of a small child planting a carob tree—can thus be seen as a suggestion to take steps now for the benefit of future generations—that efforts to conserve and preserve, mitigate and replenish, may well have more pronounced impacts on those who come after us.
The messages of conservation and eco-activism are presented considerably differently in The Future According to Luz—a two-book, young adult (geared to children 8—12 years of age) graphic novel series by Chilean-borne Claudia Davila. Luz Sees the Light (2011), the first of the two books, begins with a blackout and soaring gas prices. Twelve-year-old Luz (whose name means ‘light’ in Spanish) is hardly electrified by the prospects of having to walk to the mall, rather than drive. And she is more than a little unnerved when the rising cost of gas impacts the price of imported groceries, forcing her mother to buy local dairy and produce. (She balks at the thought of eating lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini from nearby farms instead of ‘Chocky cookies’ from China.) Rather than get frustrated with Luz’s sense of entitlement, Luz’s mother explains why they will have to change the way they shop:
Oil is running out and getting very expensive, so now it costs more to import goods than it used to. If we keep relying on imports, eventually we won’t be able to afford the things we need. So we should buy from local farms and businesses and produce our own stuff. Plus, if farms and factories were closer to our stores, they’d use less gas to deliver their goods. So things would become more affordable. The same should be true in other countries. And they could actually eat what they grow instead of selling it all to us!
Luz seems to understand and interjects: ‘And less transportation means less pollution, too, right?’ (2011: 34).
Or so it would seem. It takes a blackout at the mall—right as Luz discovers that the sneakers she has wanted so desperately have nearly doubled in price due to import costs—as well as the realization that her downstairs neighbours, the DeSouzas, ‘grow food and make everything they need themselves, so they don’t need to buy as much from stores’ (2011: 51), for Luz to realise the need for change.
Luz decides to be more ‘self-sufficient’, like the DeSouzas, and attempts to solicit help from her friends and other members of the community' to transform an abandoned city lot into a garden where she and her neighbours can grow their own fruits and vegetables. At first, Luz encounters little support for her project: her friends (Anika and Robert) think she is crazy, her community is dismissive and she struggles trying to remove some of the larger items that have been discarded on the lot. Gradually, however, Luz’s friends join her cause, as do other members of her community', who help remove refuse and rubbish, lay' down grass, plant trees, turn old tyres into planter boxes and build a concert area and a playground.
‘This place was a path of concrete with no sign of life’, Luz (2011: 84) explains at the opening of ‘Friendship Park’, ‘right where our neighborhood could have a place for people to hang out and play ...’.
‘... And look at birds and flowers instead of traffic and ads for things we don’t need!’ Anika continues.
Later, Luz says to Anika: ‘this park is proof that we’re not alone, and we can all work together and help each other to learn stuff and grow stuff and make stuff and build stuff ... So that in the end, whatever happens, we can rely on ourselves for the things we really' need! No more imports or giant malls!’ (2011: 85).
The book concludes with a bonus chapter or short vignette in which ‘Gord’, a doomsdayer member of the community who warns of future blackouts early' on in the book and who stockpiles canned foods, teaches Luz how to make compost for the food garden. Luz learns which items can go in the compost and how to aerate the pile to make new soil, reminding her that ‘[ijn nature there’s no such thing as waste’ (2011: 96).
While Luz Sees the Light is compelling because Luz is appealing—a fearless, fiery', intelligent, resourceful and spunky' heroine—the book is persuasive because it operates on a number of different levels. First, more than one environmental problem is presented—or, to put it another way—multiple dimensions of a particular environmental issue—in this case, fossil-fuel dependency—are unpacked. The blackouts are caused by' high demand for electricity; at the same time, mounting gas prices impact everything from the cost of food (a need) and sneakers (a want) to transportation decisions. As a result, young adult/preteen readers come to understand the interconnectedness of environmental issues in ways that some other books intended for this age readership do not.
Second, while the plot in Luz Sees the Light builds towards the communal effort to transform the rundown city lot, over the course of the book we encounter other efforts to affect positive environmental change. At one juncture, after Luz’s mother refuses to drive her to the mall, Luz uses public transportation and admits to Anika, ‘Man, why didn’t 1 think of taking the bus on the way' to the mall?’—to which Anika replies, ‘Ha-ha! Yeah, good thing they run even during blackouts’ (2011: 43). Later, Gord explains to Luz and Robert that he has been ‘biking instead of driving because gas is a problem and biking is free ... ’ (2011: 48)—a statement that foreshadows Gord’s successful attempt to gain city approval for ‘Car-Free Sundays’ (2011: 79). In other words, not only are the efforts to steer a community’/ neighbourhood/society towards (self-)sustainability not undertaken solely' by' one individual— as is often the case in The Magic Bean Tree and other literature for children and young adults—
but the changes that transpire occur throughout the book. This feature helps to illuminate eco-consciousness and environmentally beneficial behaviour as habitual, on-going, quotidian, rather than epiphanous.
Third, Luz tries to change the world—or, at least, change her locality—by soliciting the help of her neighbours to create a more sustainable community. What is important here is not just that she has to overcome resistance from her friends and neighbours—a point alluded to above—but that the book describes her very willingness to marshal public support. All too often, stories of environmental harm suggest that the solutions must be—or are— individualistic. Davila’s approach here reflects the Quechua peoples’ of the Andes notion of sumak katvsay or buen vivir (in Spanish), which loosely translates as ‘good living’ or ‘well living’, although, as Gudynas (mentioned above) points out, such translations veer too close to Western ideas of ‘wellbeing’ or ‘welfare’ and these, he claims, ‘are not equivalents at all. With buen vivir, the subject of wellbeing is not ¡about the] individual, but the individual in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation’ (quoted in Balch 2013). As Balch (2013), citing Gudynas, explains, ‘harmony’ is a defining characteristic of buen vivir—‘harmony between human beings, and also between human beings and nature’. ‘A related theme’, Balch (2013) continues,
is a sense of the collective. Capitalism is a great promoter of individual rights: the right to own, to sell, to keep, to have. But this alternative paradigm from South America subjugates the rights of the individual to those of peoples, communities and nature.
This is a theme that runs through Luz Sees the Light—not just at the end, when the community comes together to create ‘Friendship Park’, but during the blackouts earlier in the book. Indeed, Davila seems to invoke ideas that humans are stewards, rather than owners of the Earth and its resources, as well as notions of‘collaborative consumption’ (see Bristow 2011)—without ever using the terms sumak katvsay or buen vivir.
Luz Makes a Splash (2012), the second book in The Future According to Luz, follows a similar pattern, only here the environmental problem is water scarcity, stemming not only from ‘the hottest summer on record’ and a ‘record-breaking drought’ (2012: 4) in ‘Petro-ville’, but from a multinational corporation’s acquisition of a local water source to make its soda. Friendship Park is suffering, as is ‘Spring Pond’—‘the watering hole just outside of town’ (2012: 12). Luz is already more environmentally conscious and aware than in Luz Sees the Light (as evidenced, for example, by the fact that Luz, Anika and Robert take public transportation to the pond). Other differences include the identification of a corporate actor responsible for environmental degradation (‘Top Cola’) and a multi-pronged solution that involves, inter alia, engagement with the political process: at one juncture, Luz’s mother states, ‘I’m going to call city council and our local Sierra Club. If what you say is true, we’re going to boycott Top Cola!’ (2012: 21), and later she explains to Luz that ‘[w]e need to campaign against them [Top Cola| draining the groundwater and wrecking Spring Pond’ (2012: 35), while Anika’s father declares, ‘|w]e’re also starting an online petition. We want to get this from every angle!’
As in Luz Sees the Light (2011), Luz Makes a Splash (2012) offers readers an explanation of how an ecological process interacts with socio-political dynamics. As Mr DeSouza explains to Luz,
In nature, there is always water deep underground. Rivers and streams trickle into the soil along with rainwater. It spreads all over, and plants can drink it up through their roots to keep healthy and growing. So plants get watered by rain above, as well as from 632
below! But in the city, there’s very little groundwater—instead, we have basements and subways and sewers. When it rains, water can’t land on the soil because buildings and roads cover the ground! Rain is lost into sewer pipes.
Mr DeSouza’s description of the relationship of groundwater and rainwater eventually leads Luz and her neighbours to set up rain barrels, as well as hoses and a bathtub ‘mini-marsh’ to filter greywater from local businesses for gardens. And in the bonus chapter at the end, Gord teaches Luz about xeriscaping and creating a ‘water-wise’ lawn.
One could argue that Luz Makes a Splash (2012) is a slightly less convincing book than Luz Sees the Light (2011) on the grounds that the company, Top Cola, responds to public pressure. As Anika proclaims at the end: ‘See this? “Top Cola has announced its Spring Pond Initiative. The company will slow production to help replenish groundwater levels ... It will also restore the pond habitat near its production plant by reintroducing flora and fauna’” (2012: 83). Gudynas reminds us, however, that, in the context of corporate social responsibility, ‘CSR ... is a good strategy for improving the brand of a company, but that it doesn’t have much impact on the social performance of the sector’ (quoted in Balch 201.3). Corporations, Gudynas continues, ‘aren’t made to be responsible ... They are made to generate profits’ (quoted in Balch 2013). Admittedly, then, Top Cola’s response renders the book a little less believable, but it is important to remember that Luz Makes a Splash is geared towards young adult readers and that there may be some benefit to leaving open for them the possibility that corporations can change.
While Luz Makes a Splash may seem a bit shallow with respect to its depiction of corporate responsibility (i.e., it is to its shareholders, not the environment), the book deserves praise for connecting the problems Luz and her community face to others in different locations. When Luz reports to her mother and grandmother (abuela) that Spring Pond has dried up because Top Cola has used the pond’s spring to make soft drinks, her grandmother replies, ‘This happened in our homeland. A mining company bought land and pumped water out of the ground. Many people suffered without clean water’ (2012: 20). Later, Anika’s father recounts a similar experience: ‘This is outrageous! A giant textiles company did that in my homeland, too. Not only did our town end up with no water, the company pumped out polluted waste, too!’ (2012: 28). These shared experiences lead Anika’s father and Luz’s mother to locate examples of other communities that have filed complaints against Top Cola and to Took for other cases of water rights abuses around the world’ (2012: 34).
Herein, then, lies one of the strengths of Luz Makes a Splash and of the series—The Future According to Luz—more generally. Not only do the books describe how environmental problems are often interrelated and multifactorial—and thus require multidimensional responses and solutions—but they accentuate that the issues are not peculiar to one place. From a narrative perspective, this allows readers to identify more closely with Luz. From a green cultural criminological perspective, this allows us to underscore the spatial and geographic aspects, components and commonalities of environmental crimes, harms and hazards. When green cultural criminology opens itself up to examples of cultural narratives of human-environment relationships from the Global South, this allows it to develop not only a deeper and more elaborate understanding of the construction of environmental crimes, harms and disasters in popular cultural forms, but an opportunity to learn about new problems, draw connections to similar concerns and gain exposure to new paradigms for responses.