Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Racial Violence, Embodied Practices, and Ethnic Transformation in Helena Maria Viramontes's "Neighbors" and Their Dogs Came with Them

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Racial Violence, Embodied Practices, and Ethnic Transformation in Helena Maria Viramontes's "Neighbors" and Their Dogs Came with Them

Article excerpt

The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.

bell hooks (2000, 103)

Helena Maria Viramontes's short story "Neighbors" from the collection The Moths and Other Stories (1995) and her 2007 novel Their Dogs Came with Them (Their Dogs) juxtapose the everyday lives of their characters against the public realm of the city, which de Certeau states is itself a "universal and anonymous subject" in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984, 94, emphasis original). Trauma shapes cultural memory as the fragmented "Neighbors" of Bixby Street and the four female protagonists of Their Dogs resort to nonlinear processes of remembering and forgetting the construction of a freeway system that destroys their working class neighborhoods. Just as intersecting freeways fragment and interrupt the physical landscape of East Los Angeles, incomplete physical patterns change the character of social relationships. In the novel, ethnic identities transform as the characters collide with the racism and sexism of the dominant culture that excludes them from belonging. I combine the theory of spatial dislocation articulated in Barrio-Logos (2000) by Raul Villa with Diana Taylor's article "Remapping Genre through Performance: From American' to 'Hemispheric' Studies" (2007, 1416). Unlike a theatrical event where the behavior of actors is staged and rehearsed, Taylor examines the interactions of everyday life as performance. That is, she evaluates the communication of persons silenced by structures of power through embodied practices and behaviors that capture the public's eye. I argue that the novel Their Dogs Came with Them takes the narrative of spatial dislocation articulated in "Neighbors" and reinterprets the quotidian violence of racial domination through a performance lens that not only promotes egalitarian social structures, but remaps culture. I draw on Taylor's theory of hemispheric discursive space to examine and evaluate both the cultural violence occurring within the contested urban spaces of East Los Angeles and the ways in which the characters in the novel seek to dismantle political and social hierarchies through their "performance" of everyday life.

"Neighbors" and Their Dogs not only interact with one another like two sides of a coin, but each remaps the history of the Southwest to transmit an alternative history that is transnational as well as local in origin. Although Viramontes situates the everyday lives of the Latina/o characters in East Los Angeles, the short story and novel resonate with racial, class, and gender groups whose civil and human rights have been violated by patriarchal hierarchies that justify institutions of white supremacy. Like other ethnic texts that engage the public in a continuous conversation with communities it characterizes as minority, "Neighbors" and Their Dogs communicate a past of traumatic loss that highlights vulnerabilities created by immigration, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, police, and domestic violence, as well as a dearth of education, employment, health care, and personal safety. In the novel and short story, space as well as people are embodied. Time and space collapse as "Neighbors" describes life from the viewpoint of two vulnerable ancianos, Aura and Fierro, following the construction of a freeway system through their undesignated East Los Angeles neighborhood. This traumatic event sets the stage for conflict over control of the public streets between Aura, the Bixby Boys, and the Los Angeles Police Department. Their Dogs takes the struggle over public space articulated in "Neighbors" one step further; it encourages its readers to interpret the story's language within a performance genre that not only transcends race, nation, and culture, but also encourages productive participation, i.e., a compassionate political response. Just as the novel challenges predetermined practices related to the allocation of urban space, it illuminates the "acts, things, and ideas" (Taylor 2007, 1417) that embody the daily interactions of its characters Turtle, Ermila, Tranquilina, and Ana. …

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