Posted: March 18th, 2023
A brief look into Argentinian literature
Countries in recent history have sought independence from their mother country to create a country and government for the people and by the people. This was seen in the United States, to some extent in China, and most recently in the last century in various parts of South America. Argentina, a land of constant political instability, racial discrimination, and gender issues, as seen conflict arise for two centuries. From these conflicts emerged writers who sought to show the struggle between the people of Argentina and their rising concerns with identity and development of a nation.
Amalia is a novel written by Jose Marmol, an exiled Argentinian author who wrote the story in order to criticize the ruler of Argentina from 1829 to 1852, caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas. The author placed the setting in a Bueno Aires post-colonial period done in two parts. It functions as a semi-autobiographical account of the author as he lived during Rosa’s police state. Amalia is an important novel because of its portrayal of human consciousness because it shows any city or country could become a prison of terror. Dictatorship represented in the book, a problem with structure and the eradication of personal choice and freedom that is similar to the problems faced by supporters of feminism and racial/ethnic equality.
The term “ethnicity” developed during the mid-to-late twentieth century, in which a process was named to understand groups or individuals as different or separate from others. This then became interpreted as subordination or consciousness of exclusion serving to also index social practices such as religion, language, rituals as well as other patterns of behavior that helped to define a group’s culture and its content. “Attacking justifications for racial hierarchy grounded in biology, social scientists used the concept of ethnicity as a weapon against racial thinking.” (Burgett 100) Argentina was and still is a very xenophobic country with discrimination of those that were not of European origins existing since its colonial period.
Black people, often referred to as “Negros” or in the English translation, “negroes” were mentioned fairly often in the text. Seen as the servant population, they were mentioned in “The First Dressing 25” as being arrogant and not to be trusted compared to the mulattoes. During the formation of nations from 1810 to the early part of the twentieth century, Latin American countries had to draw up constitutions, fashion their identities and engage in struggles over land and territory, debating questions of culture, ethnicity, and government. Argentina grew as a nation of servants during that time and had what some perceive was widespread in several Latin countries, a white minority with multattoes and blacks serving as the servant population.
Blacks and mulattoes were always depictured in Amalia as a servant and at times barbaric population. However, there were instances where they were also provided a more positive light. While Argentina and other Latin American countries, still remain a fairly segregated country, Amalia highlights at least intent towards integration of the different ethnicities and races through a handful of scenes in the story. “And never was audience composed of a greater variety of shades in class, color and race, than the audience here assembled. Mingled together indiscriminately are negroes and mulattos, Indians and whites, the lowest and the middle class.” (Marmol 185) Here in this scene a variety of races and ethnicities sit together, regardless of class or physical appearance, showing the author’s attempt to show the divergent standings of people from the expected and at times enforced view of race and ethnicity.
Amalia does a good job of reflecting the nature of that time well and provides several scenes where black servants were discussed and shown as a means of either providing context to the scene or providing some sort of action or rebellion. It was a realist text, depicting the conditions of society in Argentina during that time. As a representation of European interference, it gave some narrative to the status of European and other ethnicities in the country while also depicting a story of tension between “barbarism and civilization.” The racial and ethnic tension of the book served as a backdrop for other issues that plagued the characters. One of them is exploration of gender.
In the same scene with the diverse people together, a teenage-aged “negress” crosses the parlor in the scene and holds her head high, with the author making comparisons to that of a court lady who has been favored by her queen for the first time, to show the pride and perhaps self-worth the negro population had despite being servants to whites at the time. While she may have partaken in prostitution with a white man of whom a mulatto woman had summoned, the way in which the “negress” carried herself showed how even in the face of servitude, a woman, a black woman, could still feel some semblance of pride.
Showing the mulatto woman engaging in her perhaps business with a white male customer also shows the desire for women even in a repressed Argentina, to become independent and make money on her own. There is interesting female character in the story and they are often opposite of each other. As the “negress” takes on the role of a “lady of the night,” Amalia takes the role of virgin widow who falls for a young and aristocratic man (Eduardo) from the commercial capital. Women are often shown, especially in early texts as being either a saint or devil. They never fall in between. The author shows this by giving the reader Amalia, in “angel” who is still a virgin, and the “negress” who sleeps with men for money.
While Amalia does not serve any real purpose other than a plot device as she is from an agricultural province, and their love serves as a promise of a future away from dictatorship and towards a republic that stands united, she still provides some context surrounding the issues of gender equality and societal perceptions of gender. The introduction of Amalia, and her virtuousness amidst being widowed highlights the need for men to view women as virginal and pure. “And tell me, during the five months you remained in Dona Amalia’s house, what men were in the habit of visiting her in the evenings.’ ‘No one, senora. In all the time I was in her house, I never saw anyone come to visit her in the evening.'” (Marmol 190) Then the scene continues with the Dona asking if Amalia spent her time praying further providing the context that women should be pure and virtuous and abstain from anything feminist ideals would deem healthy like sexual exploration.
Amalia and other instances of female behavior like the “negress” servant, provide some understanding of the expectations of women and people of color at the time as well as how they were seen by the author. They also represent perhaps a small sort of rebellion as to what society perceived and what in actuality is. Daniel, Amalia’s cousin, the hero of the story, is friends to the man that marries Amalia and serves as a means of providing hope and renewal for republic as the regime of Argentina’s then dictatorship reaches a peak. Manuel Belgrano, the hero of independence for Unitarians, represents the Unitarians ideal and expectations for the future all put into the character of Eduardo, his nephew.
What are Unitarians? They represented opposition to the Argentine Federalists and were supporters of a centralized government during the civil wars in Argentina and following its Declaration of Independence in 1816. They had gained control of Argentina shortly before the rise of Rosas and eventually succumbed to defeat and were exiled during his regime. It was after the civil conflicts that former Unitarians came back to form a new government within the country.
Eduardo in the story, seen as practically superhuman, fighting mazoqueros with fervor and skill, is saved by Daniel, Amalia’s cousin. Daniel Bello represents a lot of things to author. Some of which deal strictly with the obsession with France and the desire to mimic France and its culture. From clandestine excursions to Montevideo where Daniel attempts to negotiate alliances between French sympathizers and exile leaders to his choice of weapon, Marmol tries to show much like American writers during colonial and post-colonial times the desire to connect with Europe and its way of living and resist the change of being that the Federalists and Rosas brought.
However, with everything that represented the Unitarians front, Marmol also sought to be above the conflict of the two parties with Bello. Daniel Bello for Marmol, represented a trace of the country’s young intelligentsia that attempted to exist between Federalists and Unitarians. These youths desired a country and community with no party and just a country independent from influence and extremes. China has had several instances in its multi-millennia existence that showed change and desire for escape from not just political regimes, but also exploration of gender roles and societal expectations.
Neo-Confucianism had originated from ideas developed by Zhu Xi during China’s Song Dynasty meant to revitalize and rejuvenate Confucianism in the nation. Neo-Confucianism helped herald an altered version of a once popular view to South East Asia and China with focus on the ending of suffering of others, while helping people build a productive and responsible life. Numerous distinguished figures including the likes of Zhu Xi, promoted Confucianism-themed messages in order to instill in others, the significance of a two millennia long philosophy.
This revamped philosophy, while viewed as the opposite of feminism by some feminists, provided the framework for which many Chinese women cultivated a new sense of identity and worth. “Confucianism would appear to be the most important cultural resource for self-rectification, were rectified Confucianism is also a newly hybrid feminist ethical theory for women’s liberation.” (Rosenlee 152) Confucian feminism much like the muted feminism in Argentina, emerged from cultural imperatives. In Confucian feminism, there was a need for ancestor worship, familial virtue of filial piety, and concern for the society. This coupled with the need self-cultivation, inspired women to see themselves as not just a part of a machine, meant to fuel existence, but also a person that needs to form identity and cultivate self in order to function and exist within the world.
Neo-Confucianism invited women to examine the mind, human nature, and the cultivation of the inner life to understand existence and their role within society. The Analects, a classic doctrine which contain the words of Confucius documented by his direct disciples, continued to be fundamental in providing the foundation for feminism to emerge from Confucianism. It was here also that political change came to be as the philosophy and its long-standing existence in China sought to provide the seeds of change within the country.
Going back to Amalia, the story and the struggle between the Unitarians and Federalists, similar to China and neo-Confucianism, the story of Amalia served as the foundation and framework for what would be the current state of Argentina today. While this book is not a tale of feminism or racial equality, it serves as the seeds from which that change can take place. The story, meat to show the reality of the Rosas regime and the author’s time during the dictatorship, provides insight into the reality of that day, the condition from which people had to live in, and how things manifested into what would be change in the future.
Amalia is regarded by many in Argentina as a national book of significance, read in classrooms and explored by those outside of Argentina for historical context. While it is in some regard a liberating text to the various causes mentioned, it mainly has to deal with self-liberation from the existence of everything at that time. The character of Daniel wanted to be above all the conflict and so in some way did Marmol. Regardless of how things resulted and certain characters portrayed, it was a tale of resistance and of a desire to break free from regime and society.
Just like China and its own struggles with independence, autonomy, and identity, Argentina faced a period of great upheaval in order to understand itself. Marmol’s novel represents that yearning for self-exploration and identification of condition. To include the state of his country at the time in its objective form is a way to show that the world is not one way, but exists in several ways. From scenes of black servitude to a scene of racial unity, Marmol provides the complexity that is needed to see the reality of life.
Burgett, Bruce. Keywords For American Cultural Studies, Second Edition. 2nd ed. New York City: NYU Press, 2014. Print.
Ma rmol, Jose, Helen R Lane, and Doris Sommer. Amalia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Rosenlee, Li-Hsiang Lisa. Confucianism And Women. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Print.
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