Catastrophe in Latin American Literature


A review of Épicas ordinarias: espacios de catástrofe y discursos intelectuales en México, Puerto Rico y Chile (1985-2005), by Judith Sierra-Rivera.

Épicas ordinarias is a study of the works of Latin American writers Carlos Monsiváis, Pedro Lemebel, and Josean Ramos, written during different moments of catastrophe. It shows how these intellectuals became mass-media public figures, addressing everyday life experiences and popular memories, listening and speaking to an affective “we.” Author Judith Sierra-Rivera analyzes the space of catastrophe in three historical moments in the context of neoliberalism: the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the transition to democracy in Chile during the 1990s, and the U.S. military recruitment of Puerto Rican soldiers after 9/11.

This dissertation is in line with scholars Aníbal Gonzalez, Susana Rotker, and Vivian Mahieux, who analyzed “crónicas” — discursive newspaper articles that were hybrids of journalism and literature. However, unlike her predecessors, Sierra-Rivera focuses on a corpus that includes not only journalistic texts, but also literary and cultural products such as essays, autobiographies, songs, photographs, and architecture. According to this study, writers Monsiváis, Lemebel and Ramos took intellectual action during catastrophic moments and reflected on them years later, historically metaphorizing utopias about those spaces and moments of disruption.

Sierra-Rivera explains that in the Latin American intellectual tradition, catastrophe takes form in the name of nature, crowd, modernization, identity exceptionalism, racial homogenization, colonialism, and “the savage”. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Latin American literary discourse had legions of voices on dichotomies: “civilización / barbarie, cosmopolitismo / autoctonismo, nacionalismo / colonialismo, identidad / subjetividades” (p. 2). The author rethinks critic Ángel Rama’s concept of everyday politics (“política cotidiana”) in order to analyze a kind of intellectual who transits between the dichotomy of the lettered city and the real city. Using Henri Lefèbvre’s and Michel de Certeau’s theories, Sierra-Rivera argues that the catastrophe metaphor operates in the works of Monsiváis, Lemebel and Ramos to show the potentiality of the materiality of everyday life. These Latin American literary figures write in a terrain that straddles the lettered city and the real city. Thus, the space of catastrophe serves to demonstrate the dissolution of the lettered city-real city dichotomy through a “pensamiento anclado en la materialidad de la vida cotidiana” (p. 3). Furthermore, catastrophe operates to reveal bodies in that space and to highlight the voids those bodies have left.

In order to move through time and space in their discourse, Sierra-Rivera points out that Monsiváis, Lemebel and Ramos used literary and artistic hybrid techniques as well as heteroglossia to (re)appropiate the meanings of catastrophe, incorporating the voices of “tú” and “ustedes” in popular songbooks, anecdotes, and photographs. These literary and artistic products occupy an “affective place” (“lugar afectivo”), meaning by this the ability to affect and be affected, to experience space and other bodies, to move and promote action, as Deleuze and Guattari first theorized.

The first chapter centers on how Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsiváis wrote about the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City. At the time, Monsiváis published “crónicas” in newspapers and magazines, which he compiled years later in a book “No sin nosotros”: los días del terremoto, 1985-2005 (2006). His texts are replete with anecdotes and sayings, particularly, “not without us” (“no sin nosotros”), which recurs throughout the text. Who is the “us” to which he refers? Who is that “us” that resists so he/she is not left out? Sierra-Rivera considers that Monsiváis’ “us” is a legion of voices that are present in all directions through past and present, projecting themselves into the future.

In Chapter 2, the author explores Puerto Rican Josean Ramos’ works, mainly his autobiography Antes de la guerra (2005), which literally means “Before the War”. Originally published in a college newspaper and eventually used as a university textbook, this work describes how during the early 2000s, the U.S. military actively recruited soldiers in Puerto Rico to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The text has two narrators, Ramos and his friend Carlos who both joined the army in the 1970s. The two men recount anecdotes and songs of Puerto Rican soldiers who participated in different American wars. What was the moment before the war like? What survives after this experience? The text invites the reader to experience a popular Caribbean songbook’s “filin” (“feeling”) that carries memories of family, friendship, and desires.

Chapter 3 explores the works of Chilean Pedro Lemebel, which were produced during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and the country’s transition to democracy. During those years, Lemebel frequented Radio Tierra, a feminist radio station, where he read “crónicas” and played popular songs. Cancionero, Lemebel’s radio show in 1994, aired stories of dictatorship, resistance and the political transition process. In 1996, he edited the book, De perlas y cicatrices which included texts he read during his broadcasts as well as images that focused on the effects of memory. Years later he aired the show again and printed a new edition of his book. Why return to these actions and texts? Why the need to re-tell those stories? Sierra-Rivera argues that a (political and loving) voice is bound to melancholy. Catastrophe in this case involves the desire for those bodies that were stolen. That voice conforms to a fluid “we,” ready to reinstate memory.

Although the word “catastrophe” connotes negative notions of destruction and misfortune, it also refers to unexpected luck. All of the cases analyzed in this dissertation examine spaces of catastrophe. The earthquake, the transition to democracy, and military recruitment are destructive processes that nevertheless open debate and the reappropiation of the use and meaning of social space. Such discussion is an opportunity to shape an affective “we,” creating a public sphere interested in “things,” or the German “Dinger” to which Bruno Latour refers to explain worries, matters of concern, or issues that people care about.

Néfer Muñoz-Solano
Facultades de Letras y Ciencias Sociales
Universidad de Costa Rica

Primary Sources

De perlas y cicatrices (1998) by Pedro Lemebel
“No sin nosotros”: los días del terremoto, 1985-2005 (2005) by Carlos Monsiváis
Antes de la guerra (2005) by Josean Ramos 

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2012. 219 pp. Primary Advisor: Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel.


Image: Navy Military Tank. Culebra, Puerto Rico, 2007. Photo by Author.

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