Destination Brazil: Immigration in Works of Nelida Pinon and Karen Tei Yamashita

By Espadas, Elizabeth | MACLAS Latin American Essays, March 1998 | Go to article overview
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Destination Brazil: Immigration in Works of Nelida Pinon and Karen Tei Yamashita


Espadas, Elizabeth, MACLAS Latin American Essays


In his study of nationalism, Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz describes the process of national awakening as a phase of nationalism as a social movement in which a new identity must be defined in terms of the country's cultural heritage and in which its respective groups are activated around new social values and principles of organization (21-22). He sees two concomitant activities as comprising this process: the work of scholars in "rediscovering" and reevaluating that nation's culture and the work of "men of letters," in giving creative expression to its distinctive individuality as a human collectivity. He suggests that the main responsibility falls on the scholars to demonstrate the antiquity and respectability of the nation by probing into its history and prehistory and by analyzing its literature and its language as a mirror of its culture. Here I would like to extend this analysis by examining the role, not of the men but of the women of letters in contributing to the probing of national consciousness, to the exposing of injustices at a national level, and to the development of viable new concepts of national identity that reaffirm a belief in the nation as moral community, in the specific context of the impact of immigration in the formation of Brazilian identity.

What made Brazil one of the three most important destinations of intercontinental immigration, receiving 36% of the 52 million immigrants to Latin America between 1824 and 1924 (Morner, 47, 50)? What particular characteristics did Brazilian immigration display? What are some of the "push" and "pull" factors at work? How does the creative artist or writer contribute to an understanding both of the phenomenon of immigration and of the process of nationbuilding that necessarily occurs as immigrants go through the various stages of assimilation? In this paper, I will explore these questions as they are addressed by two contemporary writers: Nelida Pinon and Karen Tei Yamashita, both of whom have had immediate personal and family experiences involving intercontinental immigration (Pinon's family emigrated to Brazil from Galicia and Yamashita is a Japanese-American married to a Japanese Brazilian).

Although it may be said that the political arena in Latin America has been largely the male purview historically, it must also be acknowledged that neither have political issues been totally foreign to feminine scrutiny in literature. Indeed, there are many political dimensions to the feminist manifesto outlined by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz dating back to the colonial period, while Clorinda Matto de Turner in Aves sin nido and Rosario Castellanos in Balun-Canan in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, respectively, sought to reexamine the precarious status of the indigenous populations of the Americas. Testimonial literature, such as Domitila Barrios de Chungara's Si me permiten hablar or Rigoberta Menchu's autobiography, and family chronicles with allegorical intent, such as Isabel Allende's La casa de los espiritus or Rosario Ferre's La casa de la laguna have also demonstrated women's interest in matters related to questions of national identity.

Nelida Pinon's monumental novel, A Republica dos Sonhos (1984), translated as The Republic of Dreams (1989), is both a family and a national chronicle, a record of individual lives that take on meaning in the historical process of nationbuilding. As recorded by his granddaughter Breta, Madruga's life spans the evolution of Brazil from an immediate post-colonial society still struggling with the legacy of slavery to the difficult political and economic times of the 1970s. As an industrious immigrant from a small village in Galicia, he "makes good" in the laid-back atmosphere of early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro. His life and that of his family not only parallels the national history but is closely intertwined with it, as his social, business, and political dealings necessitate a close pulse on the national rhythm, just as his childhood in Spain is a permanent part of his makeup that provides a constant counterpoint to his unfolding present in his adopted land.

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