Pilgrimage as Opposition in Latin American Women's Literature

Article excerpt

In the last decade, one of the most interesting and under-examined characteristics of Latin American novels authored by women is the recourse to representations of secular spiritual practices as a form of resistance to patriarchal authority. Authors Laura Restrepo, Luisa Valenzuela, Giaconda Belli, Mayra Montero, Carmen Bullosa, Elizabeth Subercaseaux, and the lesser-known authors Alicia Yanez Cossio and Alina Diaconu, all explore unusual spiritual experiences and endeavours that effect profound personal transformation and interfere with forms of patriarchal order. This engagement of secular spirituality is new but not surprising. As Latin America has faced dramatic changes with post-Cold War political, economic, and militaristic rearrangements, spiritual life has not only attracted new followers but also evoked conversions. Over the last four decades, large sectors of the poor have abandoned Catholicism and converted to evangelical Protestantism. On a much smaller scale, Buddhism has been adopted amongst sectors of the middle class, and feminist theology has emerged as a spiritual and political movement on the continent and in the Caribbean (Aquino 15; Sigmund 2). Francine Masiello has suggested in "Las politicas del texto" that the need to infuse individual life with greater spiritual meaning emerges from the division of spirit and matter. As a result of this division of spirit and matter, she suggests, subjects are seeking out meaning "in the crevices of the sensory world, in the interstitial zone between bodies and social referents" (312). Although she describes this division as the remaining scar of dictatorship and genocide in Argentina, her model is applicable to other Latin American regions where the combined effects of militarization, repression, persecution, and betrayal on the part of the nation-state over the past three decades has evoked comparable states of existential depression.

The two experimental novels, El penultimo viaje (set in Argentina) by Alina Diaconu and Dulce compania (set in Colombia) by Laura Restrepo, are examples of this recent turn. In both, the loss of and search for spiritual connection in the human world result from the experience of corporeal repression and pressures to conform to the status quo. In El penultimo viaje, this repression extends from militant patriarchal regimes that exert complete control over the corporeal behaviour and mobility of its subjects. In Dulce compania, repression is produced by a gendered regime shaped by Catholic constructions of social difference as well as an apocalyptic, militarized environment. Overwhelmed by pressures to conform to physical and spiritual practices that maintain and stabilize the militarist, patriarchal regime, the women protagonists in both novels lose hope that they can build a meaningful future life. As I argue here, both novels foreground the secular pilgrimage as an "oppositional practice" (Chambers 6) that restores this lost meaning and hope. In these representations, pilgrimage is structurally reformulated. It involves a spiritual inward turn and a cathartic corporeal experience that in its most profound moment constitutes the recognition of the other within. In both novels, this personal use of pilgrimage prompts significant subjective transformation and leads the protagonist to dwell and form oppositional alliances in the marginal interstices and frontiers of the nation-state.

The novels of Diaconu and Restrepo represent several important departures from canonical Latin American literary projects that have used the form of the travel narrative to imagine oppositional identities. In the past, definitive Latin American travel narratives, including Alejo Carpentier's prologue to El reino de este mundo, Juan Rulfo's "Talpa," or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The Very Old Man With," amongst many others, have introduced new aesthetic or cultural concepts of regional or national identity by uncovering popular spiritual practices. …