The underside of the carpet

Just down the street from our school, Jeff and I have found a “bistro cinema.” The viewing rooms are set up w/ old car seats; the movies are terrible old prints, displayed on t.v. screens. But we usually have the place to ourselves, and beer is served. On the somewhat inchoate and unsteady theory that the more we hear Spanish, the better able we’ll be to understand it, we’ve been seeking out only Spanish-language films. This means that we’ve mostly been watching very sad movies about the recent civil war, such as La Hija del Pumá and El Norte. I’m also just finishing a troubling collection of short stories by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, which give a strong sense of being dreamed--and that are surely also metaphors for the terror and oppression of mid-20th-century Guatemala.

Excruciating--and very hard both to learn from and make sense of—-are the stories I’m learning from these books and films, but also from newspapers and talking w/ the teachers here, about the horrific mistakes that constitute the history of this country: the invasion of the conquistadors, their enslaving the indigenous population, the many struggles for independence, from colonialism both within and without--taking the form, most recently of a 36-year-long civil war in which 1000s disappeared, a million were made homeless, and some 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. Add to that, more recently, the stripping of the landscape in ways that contribute to unspeakable floods and landslides (for only one account—not only of personal suffering, but of a huge cultural loss--see the story of what happened to an artist, Raúl Vásquez, whose museum we tried (unsuccessfully) to visit in Panajachel last weekend.

What’s been most interesting for me, amid all this, has been to recognize the ancient pattern of “la mexcla” (mixing) in this country. For instance: those gorgeous textiles woven by the Maya? The Spanish first assigned them the task of weaving, and supplied their thread; they also gave different designs to weavers in different villages, so they could tell the groups apart—and many of the designs they used were European in origin. (So: what’s authentic? I don’t think it’s possible to say…) The other day, we encountered the ultimate in “mixing”: the cult figure of Maximon (aka St. Simon).

But instead of embracing the mixing, there’s been an long and arduous attempt, on both sides, to preserve (an illusion of?) purity. Even Rigoberta Minchú, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for the work she did for indigenous rights, said in her autobiography that “White men are like their bread, they are not wholesome. The blood of our most noble ancestors was mixed with the blood of white men. They are a mixture just like their food.” And in one of the stories by Arturio Arias, an Inquisitor appears who is “a mix of Spanish and Indian which he himself could scarcely endure. The two bad smells. The two envies…the Inquisitor purified himself completely….”

About a month ago, I wrote a review of Rebecca Goldstein’s intellectual biography about Betraying Spinoza,, which points out that the impossibility of establishing "purity of blood" (since the conversation of the Jews to Christianity had been taking place over so long a period of time) fed the racist anxiety of the Inquisition. In that context, Spinoza made a radical countermove, arguing for philosophical objectivity, a “near-estrangement from one's own self.”

I wonder if that works as a description of the exercise I’m engaged in here: estranging myself from my located, particular (what Spinoza calls "accidental") identity. So much of what I’ve written about so far on this trip has been about what’s been going on on the outside—the amazingness of living in a new-to-me culture, one with a long and complicated history and a deep and complicated present that I’m trying very hard to make sense of. What I haven’t been talking much about in this public space is all the complexities of what goes on on the inside, when one does what I am doing: strips away a good deal of what one normally does (normally “is”): on sabbatical from work, from housekeeping, from in-person interactions w/ family, friends, colleagues--

What’s left? Who am I (besides a Spanish-learning machine?). One thing I continue to have, as always, are deep and vivid dreams. I dream of all I’ve left behind in the physical world (see above: work, housekeeping, family, friends, colleagues—if you’re reading this blog, I’ve probably had a dream about you in the past month). The dreams color the days: I wake from a sad visit to one of you, or emerge from an intense meeting, a langorous conversation, and wonder…

Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing here? Where is here? I woke from a powerful dream this morning, for instance, in which I was visiting a cousin and close friend. She was turning over her oriental carpets, looking for the troubling messages hidden by the weavers on the underside. She felt she had to interpret them (that is: I feel I have to interpret them). And having interpreted them, what will I know?


Ann's picture

I read this, as usual, with the lens of a daily observer of a toddler, and it makes me think about the whole process of emerging identity. Toddlers cling to the familiarity of the daily routine, while at the same time venturing out to explore the world. I am convinced that the security of something familiar gives her the ability to go farther afield. An anchor, and then a metaphorical string to find the way back to the anchor.

Which ties back to the problem that some have with mixing, where they cling to purity. Is the purity the anchor? Purity seems to be one aspect of fundamentalism, for example. But it seems to me there *can* be other types of anchors, but maybe they aren't available to everyone? I can imagine that living in a mixed identity where part of the mixture is the blood of the oppressor is ... very uncomfortable. If the anchor within is betrayed by genetic identity, then where does one turn? and how does one stretch beyond oneself, if part of the self is something to be shunned?