Unscrambling Allende's "Dos Palabras": The Self, the Immigrant/writer, and Social Justice

By Umpierre, Luz Maria | MELUS, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Unscrambling Allende's "Dos Palabras": The Self, the Immigrant/writer, and Social Justice


Umpierre, Luz Maria, MELUS


I lost the world where I belonged. Now I don't belong anywhere.--Isabel Allende (Cheever)

This paper rose out of a "request." In 1996, for five and a half months, I worked as a resource person and teacher at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, a prestigious public school on the outskirts of Syracuse, New York. One of our Spanish teachers found out that Isabel Allende was coming to town to give a lecture. Concerned about the students' provincialism in not knowing who Isabel Allende was, she proposed that all advanced Spanish, English, Social Studies, and History classes at the school read one of Allende's short stories from Eva Luna, "Dos palabras," in its English translation, and that the students be encouraged to attend the lecture by Allende in a plush conference hall in downtown Syracuse at $18 a ticket.

Mind you, even in this plush neighborhood where the school is located, not too many students were eager to pay the fee to hear a woman they had never heard of. So the teacher had another "brilliant" idea: I would give a lecture to the whole school on Isabel Allende as a sort of pep rally to get them motivated to attend the lecture.

To make a long story short, the school bureaucracy intervened to explain how it was impossible for me to give a single lecture on Allende. So a scheme was set up by which I would scramble myself, or as we say at home, become a "revoltillo." I was to give the same lecture for seven out of the eight periods that comprised the school day. As it turned out, I saw over 450 students on that day, and in having to repeat myself, my jokes, my questions, over and over again, I came to realize that the story of "Dos palabras" was like one of those programs on TV for which the signal is scrambled so we cannot watch it without subscribing to that particular channel or paying our cable TV bill. Yes, I'll answer your question. Most of my papers in academia are weird and shocking, but the idea of Allende playing the part of a cable TV company is one that was clear to me in this reading. It was probably because of my reading being weird that quite a number of students decided to dish out the $18 and go see Allende in person in a hall packed with over 2,000 people from a staunch conservative, Republican city in upstate New York.

I began my "lecture/reading" by explaining that in order to understand the historical underpinnings of the stories of Allende from Eva Luna, one has to understand the plight of the poor and indigenous people in Chile. To exemplify this, I explained that the main character in "Dos palabras" was born into a family so miserable that until she was twelve years old, all she could do was to try to survive hunger and fatigue. I explained that there is a high mortality rate among infants in Chile (I explained that that is so in the US, too). At one time, Belisa, the main character, had to bury four of her brothers. It is precisely her fear of dying that drives her to get away and run to the coastal lands, away from her place of birth. It is there that Belisa learns that there is something called "words"--reading, writing--in the world. Belisa learns to read because, as she explains, words are not owned by any one person, as is the case with land. I explained to my young audience that if you are not a landowner in Latin America, the next best thing, if you are an upwardly mobile privileged person, is to embark on a quest for wealth, to engage in commerce.

Belisa, although not privileged, finds a second reality in learning about words: she can trade and do commerce with them. I explained to the students that in many Latin American countries, people who can read establish themselves in public places, even on the streets, ready to write a letter, a document, a love poem, for a fee. This trade has been vividly portrayed in the film Central Station. (1) Belisa had a tent with which she established herself at fairs to offer her services just like the main female character in the film. …

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