Reflections: Latin American Indigeneities Workshop by Cian Warfield

As we reflect on Indigenous People’s Day (October 10, 2016), Cian has written a blog about the Latin American Indigeneities Workshop at UCC.


Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Centre for Mexican Studies, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies (UCC) in collaboration with The Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre, The Study of Religions Department (UCC).

The blueprint for this event was established weeks before I was to take the lead in organising the workshop. Both Professor Nuala Finnegan (Centre for Mexican Studies) and Dr Lidia Guzy (MEWSC) had met on a number of occasions beforehand eager to organise a workshop where the sole purpose was to explore contemporary expressions of Latin American Indigeneities. In the context of University College Cork, this had never been achieved before so there was a tangible air of excitement around establishing a workshop of this nature. As a PhD candidate in my second year of the doctorate working within this very field of study, I was quickly invited by both Professor Finnegan and Dr Guzy to take the position of lead organiser of the workshop, a position I was delighted to hold throughout the entire process even when the organisation of academic gatherings tends to involve very non-academic details (what’s the price of a cup of coffee?; when should we have coffee?; should I include wine with the meal?; oh dear, I completely forgot about supplying water, where do I purchase some last minute?).


With all of those intricacies organised and out of the way, the workshop could finally begin. Including our invited keynote speaker, Dra Patricia Torres Mejía from CIESAS in Mexico City (pictured above), there were twelve speakers in total delivering papers on Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. My aim for the workshop, from the moment I took the lead, was to ensure that not only was there a healthy balance between the number of PhD candidates and career researchers presenting at the workshop but that the event itself adopted a hemispheric approach to the study of indigeneity in Latin America, promoting cross-regional dialogue by exploring expressions of indigeneity from a variety of countries in the Americas. This aim, along with a multidisciplinary approach, was most certainly achieved.

Dra Patricia Torres Mejía from CIESAS in Mexico City is an accomplished anthropologist and academic and it was a pleasure to introduce her as the workshop’s keynote speaker and also as the first paper of the day. Audience numbers surpassed my expectations considering Latin American indigeneities is a less frequent topic of discussion in higher education in Ireland. Dra Torres’s paper was titled ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Higher Education in Mexico’ and explored the current state of intercultural education in Mexico today. Her paper was detailed and precise. This paper established significant points of debate and discussion for the remainder of the workshop including, of course, the all important division between Western thought and indigenous worldviews which continues to plague this area of study. The workshop then transition into the area of cyberculture and indigenous cyber activity and resistance, where Dr Thea Pitman (University of Leeds), whom I was delighted could accept my invitation to attend the workshop, followed with an insightful discussion on indigenous cyberculture in Brazil. Dr Pitman’s paper explored netweaving and the virtual poetics of resistance. Eva Cabrejas (PhD candidate, UCC) concluded this session on digital indigeneities providing a very concise and well thought-out paper on the online activities of Zapatista women in defending and promoting their rights including their efforts to podcast and radio broadcast as well as produce online magazines.

After lunch, the workshop resumed with Gillian Watt’s (UCC) first paper of the day which reflected on her recent field work in Latin America, this time in Peru. Gillian brought to the workshop personal reflections of her time spent in Peru with the Ashansinka and her observations of their ritualistic use of ayahusaca, an organic hallucinogenic brew. Before breaking for coffee, I, Cian Warfield (UCC), followed with a discussion on ethnopolitics in Bolivia, particularly noting the changing shape of the relationship between the indigenous and landscape and, in turn, the change in indigenous political activism in the country as a result, noting as a point of reference the construction and development of lavish neo-Andean architecture in El Alto (pictured below).


With the coffee break finished and a keen awareness that the workshop was at least thirty minutes behind schedule (nothing surprising in academic circles), the final session resumed. Dr Lidia Guzy (UCC) gave a wonderful talk on Davi Kopenawa’s monography, The Falling Sky. Her talk reflected on the book as a form of indigenous resistance in Brazil by the Yanomami indigenous group in a country where indigeneity is a backward, almost non-existent concept. The discussion that followed Dr Guzy’s paper focused on the narrative of the book itself which, while written using the personal pronoun, is in fact a co-authored book by Kopenawa and his anthropologist friend Bruce Albert. This debate on the narrative of the book fed into the wider discussion throughout this workshop; the difficult, often complicated relationship between Western academia and the wider indigenous community in Latin America around assisting the marginalised in helping them reclaim culture, language and political rights without colonising their worldview, knowledge and way of life. The final paper of the day was Gillian Watt’s (UCC) second research paper of the workshop which was a further reflection of her recent experience of field work in Latin America however, this time in Argentina. Gillian presented on the co-existence of eco-villages in north-east Argentina and local Mbya Guaraní indigenous communities emphasising the possible benefits of globalising influences or tendencies.


As the first event of its kind in UCC, it is more than safe to say that it was a complete success in what it set out to achieve; to open up a greater, multidisciplinary dialogue between researchers of indigenous studies in Latin America, to promote the unique work that is being done in this area and to foster important and necessary debate and discussion within this field of study. While these boxes where being ticked, attention turned during the post workshop dinner to the possible future collaborations now available as a result of the connections and contacts made during this workshop. As a first time academic event organiser, I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.



About: Cian Warfield is a second year PhD candidate with the Centre for Mexican Studies, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin America Studies, University College Cork. His current research focuses on a comparative analysis of contemporary forms of indigenous political representation in  both Bolivia and Mexico; a regional comparison of state and anti-state forms of ethnic politics.



‘No eres de aquí? A solo adventure to Teotihuacan’ by Harriet Smart

‘No eres de aquí, verdad?’

‘No, soy inglesa’

‘Ahhh… y viajas SOLA?’

Teo Pyramids 1

Dawn was breaking quickly over the Teotihuacan pyramids, one of Mexico’s breath-taking archaeological sites and, armed with my sister’s SLR camera, I was in a hurry to get inside its gates to capture the moment.

In keeping with my usual meticulous planning, I had sauntered out of my nearby guesthouse a few minutes before, assuming I would just wander in and around the ruins. Not so. A waiting taxi driver enthusiastically reprimanded me that the nearest gate was 30 minutes walk and I would definitely miss the sun. He would take me. I hopped in, expensive camera keenly slung around my neck.

When we reached the first of Teotihuacan’s five gates, I handed the man the last of my pesos. I was in time to get my photos! My mood quickly changed as I approached the entrance to find nobody there and the gates locked. Despondent, I gazed around.

‘Get back in, we’ll go to the second gate’.

Anxious that the disappearing morning light meant I wouldn’t get my photos, I gratefully climbed back in. I realised that my indulgence in the guesthouse’s (excellent) carnitas the night before had also now left me without any cash to pay him for this extra journey.

As we sped around the dusty recinto track, a Virgen rosary swinging around the rear-view mirror, the driver turned to me with a quizzical look. ‘You’re not from here are you?’. (I always felt a bit indignant at this refrain, as if my Spanish was clearly not good enough). ‘No, I’m from England’. The man looked a bit surprised and followed up with, ‘AND you’re travelling ALONE?’, his eyes narrowing. ‘Yes! I’m on my own’, I said faux cheerfully. Something about his manner made the camera feel heavy around my neck and I felt suddenly alone.

Before I left for six weeks PhD researching in Mexico last April many people had seemed surprised that I would travel there by myself. If I’m honest, this annoyed me. Nobody would say this to a man, I thought. And, even though Mexico has its problems, its capital is actually, as I found out, as safe as any major city.

I’m not sure if my taxi story has grown in the telling, but I do remember feeling the need to turn away from his gaze. As I studied the landscape from the window, I remembered the concerned and bemused expressions, the surprise that I would even entertain going to Mexico on my own. Let alone a deserted archaeological site…

I quickly compensated for this obvious solitude by gabbing about how many (imaginary) friends I had back in Mexico City, while he looked bemused beside me. As we arrived at the gate, I apologised feebly that I didn’t have any money. He batted his hand, amused, ‘Oh, you don’t have to pay.’ Oh.

As I neared the end of my research in an archaeological archive in Mexico City, a visit to Teotihuacan loomed large in my mind. Extolled by each person and guidebook as a ‘must do’, I couldn’t go home without a visit to one of Mexico’s most important archaeological sites. Las pirámides lie thirty minutes’ drive from the capital. It’s a honeypot for tourists who travel up on local buses, or more expensive guided tours, for the day to see the magnificent pre-Aztec city.

Teo Pyramids 2

I was nervous for the journey because a friend had warned me of a person boarding his bus at the Estación del Norte, taking photos of the passengers; a record ‘in case the bus was taken hostage’. I put this tale to the back of my mind and I booked my tickets. I would go on a local bus (much cheaper, more authentic) and stay in the guesthouse (with pool!) to make the most of the cooler mornings and dawn light. Everything would be fine.

The night before my trip I googled ‘Teotihuacan’ to check the metro stop for the bus and ‘Teotihuacan armed robbery’ popped up as suggested search. Of course, it would have been sensible just to ignore these posts but, of course, I spent hours engrossed in a succession of horrifying tales of armed robberies on the D.F. – Pirámides route. My Airbnb host, perhaps keen to get rid of me for the weekend, assured me it would be totally fine, everyone went to the pyramids, but maybe take the camera to hand over in case of a heist. Reassuring…!

In the end, of course, the bus journey was completely fine – no hostage photos or robberies – and I was even serenaded by some very enjoyable mariachi music for most of the way. But what I mean is, by the time I hopped into the taxi the next morning, I couldn’t help but feel nervous and vulnerable.

In another planning failure, I had pitched up without a hat, something which every single person had advised me to take: ‘it is a desert there, Harriet’. Luckily, the Teotihuacan locals had this covered and I bought a beautiful, overpriced hat by the kiosk.

It was a privilege to see the pyramids in the morning light. For a few moments, I was the only person inside the Teotihuacan precinct. It’s hard to describe the sight without resorting to cliché – so I hope these photos I took can show you what I saw.


The main feature of Teotihuacan is the Avenue of the Dead, or in Nahuatl, Miccoatli. On its eastern flank rises the astonishing Pirámide del Sol and straight ahead is the smaller, but no less impressive, Pirámide de la Luna.

I spent the morning climbing the sections which are open to the public. The whole experience was incredible and the views are just stunning. As the sun rose higher and higher, more people bussed into the huge site and I realised how lucky I had been to experience this atmospheric place on my own.

By mid-afternoon, I made my way to the bus stop. So far so good, I thought. In the scare stories I had consumed, armed robberies happened on those buses which stopped off at Teotihuacan rather than departing from there. As the bus rolled in having come from the town of San Juan Teotihuacán, I thought well, it’s either this bus or stay at Teo for the rest of my life. I climbed aboard, nervous.

All was going fine – disappointingly, no mariachi this time – until we pulled over in the motorway. A large man climbed on board with a huge plastic bag. Oh here we go, I thought, resigning myself to at worse, death, or at best, just losing my (my sister’s) camera. He reached into the bag and pulled out a huge box – of herbal tea to sell.

I arrived back at the Airbnb a few hours later, fully versed in the health benefits of green tea.

‘So how was it?’ asked Diego.

‘Yes! Great – I got some good pictures’

‘And it was ok on your own?’

‘Yeah it was totally fine’.

Harriet - Teo (1)

Harriet is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her research explores the relationship between state and local Nahua rituals during the time of the Aztec empire, with particular emphasis on underexplored non-elite and private ceremonial.

She is organising a conference on indigenous languages and cultures at the University of Sheffield which will take place in September. Please read more about that here. 

Thank F*** for the Riff Raff!

IMG_3685Last week New Orleans-based indie folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff, came to the Norwich Arts Center giving myself, and fellow SALSA Collective co-creator Eilidh, a wonderful opportunity to reunite after several months apart and to say goodbye before my big move back to the United States. And wow! What a way to honour a beautiful friendship; not least because the band produces some incredible music but because Eilidh and I have been very inspired by the band’s Puerto Rican front-woman, Alynda Lee Segarra.

It is not purely Alynda’s musical talents that had us enthralled from the start but the powerful and at times sombre messages embedded within her music. Songs on the latest album, Small Town Heroes, acknowledge violence against women’s bodies (The Body Electric), persistent gun violence in New Orleans (St. Roch Blues), feminism (Nothin Gonna Change This Girl), and the love for ones community–whatever and wherever that may be (Blue Ridge Mountain). And because her story, presence, and music is so moving, we thought we’d share a little about our experience getting to see and meet her (yes, that’s right meet her!)!  If you haven’t given the band a listen yet, this is your official invitation to do so right now! I promise, we are doing you a great service.

A Little About Alynda Lee and HFTRR














Alynda left home at age 17, riding trains around the U.S. with fellow teenage runaways honing her musical craft before ending up in New Orleans, a city which serves as a major influence on the band’s folky and southern sounds. Alynda even sings with a southern twang that is organic and appropriate for the American roots genre. While Hurray for the Riff Raff is a New Orleans based band, Alynda is a Bronx-raised Puerto Rican. The intersectionality of these identities (and many more) is a complexity that is included in the band’s sound, lyrics, and in Alynda’s stage presence. She invites us into her heart and mind introducing the circumstances that inspired each song before she dazzles you with her music, her politics, and her voice. And just in case you miss her lyrical advocacy for  women’s rights, the LGBTQ community, and/or her ties to Puerto Rico, she pays tribute to them by displaying the Puerto Rican flag and Rainbow flag unapologetically on stage and in some cases on the band’s album covers.


Becky and Alynda Lee of Hurray from the Riff Raff

Proud, and perhaps overwhelmed, at seeing a fellow Latina on stage (this is Norwich, England after all), I could not help but express some kind of solidarity. I needed to communicate how honored I was to be in her presence; how thrilled I was to have her voice and perspectives included in this typically male and white dominated genre. So I gave a good and literal shout out to ¡Puerto Rico! And as if the gig wasn’t incredible enough, Alynda herself was fabulously humble and charming. Even as I rushed her at the meet and greet table babbling, ‘I’m the one who screamed ¡Puerto Rico! I’m Latina too!’ Ever cool and collected, Alynda appeared genuinely excited to meet me and gave me a button that read: Latin People Power. And it is this nod to her roots and to the empowerment of marginalised communities more generally that makes the music and her presence so captivating. She ended the set with a simple and yet provocative message: “The world is pretty messed up, let’s make it better.”

If you’d like to learn more about Hurray for the Riff Raff check out their website included in the links above. Alternatively, Alynda is featured in an interview with Latino USA that you can listen to here. If you are not subscribed to their podcast already do it! The band is also on Twitter at @HFTRR.


Iron Maiden, the Book of Souls, and the Ancient Maya – Guest Blog by Suzanne Nolan

Of all the film stars, celebrities, and bands I expected to be next in line to use the ancient Maya in their art and marketing, Iron Maiden did not reach high on my list. In 2011 and 2012, I presented numerous papers on the ancient Maya and the so-called ‘end of the world’ event. In that research, I delved deeper into the use of ancient Maya imagery, language, and culture in contemporary popular culture (an example of which can be found here). Since then, I have continued to note examples, and think about why ancient cultures are so used and misrepresented in popular culture and marketing today.

Iron Maiden jet

In April this year, I was surprised to see another resurgence of Maya imagery, this time adorning the tailplane of Iron Maiden’s very own 747 jet – ‘Ed Force One’ (if you know nothing of Iron Maiden: ‘Eddie the Head’ is their… ‘mascot’). A friend, and huge fan of Iron Maiden, approached me rather sheepishly to ask if I had seen it, and would I get annoyed every time I saw them wearing the accompanying t-shirt? Would I come with him to see them play live? I gave a rather non-committal answer, and said I would investigate.

The problem is, when you are known as an expert in a particular topic, you gain a reputation. Groaning at poor journalism (That kid didn’t find a lost Maya city, by Dr Yates), cringing at terrible references in movies (I’ve never been able to decide which I hate the most: 2012 or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or laughing every time I see the Aztec calendar stone being used as a generic ‘ancient Maya’ image. I am sure scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, Hindu, or Chinese find themselves similarly afflicted when they watch television, head to the movies, or open a magazine.

So investigate I did… and what did I find? Book of Souls, the sixteenth studio album released by Iron Maiden, is themed around the concept of souls. Fairly self-explanatory. The ancient Maya, well known for their belief in souls (of all living, and many non-living things), and that souls continued to hold a person’s ‘essence’  after death, seemed like a logical choice for the art and styling to follow.

Imagine my happy shock, then, that upon deciding such, not only did they contact an actual academic on the topic, Simon Martin, but they requested that he actually translate some of their song titles, and write out the ancient Maya hieroglyphs for them.

Iron Maiden tale

These same glyphs, translated by Martin and penned by his expert hand, now decorate the band’s plane. He even got a diecast model of the plane as a thank you.

This was perhaps the biggest shock. Not only had Iron Maiden sought out Martin and his expertise, but they actually used it – and it looks great. TV shows are known for hiring historians and then ignoring their advice. Tudors springs to mind. But this heavy metal band took it upon themselves to offer something new to the world – an accurate portrayal of the culture they re-appropriated.

For me, this is vitally important – there is no need to sensationalise or distort ancient culture. There is no need to misrepresent it as bloodier, or sexier, or with more intrigue then there ever really was. There is no need because it is already fascinating. Because it already excites and enthrals – that is the whole point of becoming an academic.

The learned scholar will look at the Book of Souls art and see a curious adaption of Maya hieroglyphics, but there will be nothing insulting or angering about it. It has not over-simplified the Maya to a barbaric or cartoonish peoples. The glyphs are clear, accurate, and beautifully worked. Importantly, too, the non-specialist will look and see something that might interest them for the right reasons – and when they go looking for more information, they will not be put off by the wholly different representations in books.

Needless to say, I returned to my friend, smile on my face, and gave him every blessing to wear his new t-shirt in front of me. And I’m looking forward to seeing them live… I might even overlook that they are using the Aztec Sun Disk as a set piece.

Photos courtesy Iron Maiden

Thanks so much to Suzanne for sharing this Mayan metal story with us!

You can follow her on Twitter @ZannPhD and read more about her work at her blog:

English con SALSA


English con SALSA

Gina Valdés, ‘English con salsa,’ Revista Chicana-Riqueña/The Americas Review, 21 (1993)

The SALSA panel at this year’s IAAS and BAAS conference addressed the ways in which Spanish (as well as other languages) is used in contemporary American/Américan fiction and sought to challenge the often Anglo-centric direction of such discussions at American Studies conferences on this side of the Atlantic.

As Kiron stated when pulling together this panel, since its inception, American Studies in Ireland and the UK has had to acknowledge an Anglophone bias in its approach to the U.S.—permissible largely because of the U.S.’s own Anglophone bias. Yet, with the U.S. Census Bureau presenting ever more complex snapshots of the country’s current and projected language use, it is becoming increasingly important to ask whether it is possible to understand the U.S. imagination monolingually. How can we accurately study contemporary U.S. culture without attentiveness to the more than 148% increase in domestic use of languages other than English since 1980? Without a multilingual approach, what is American Studies letting slip? The Census Bureau has noted that the increase actually disguises a major decline in speakers of Polish, German, and Italian—and that the projected growth in Spanish speakers will arise from U.S. births rather than new immigrant arrivals. Without multilingualism, is American Studies implicated in an assimilationist Anglocentrism?

Our panel, sponsored by us here at the SALSA Collective, aimed to build on the growing interest in U.S. multilingualism by addressing the role of Spanish in contemporary U.S. writing. The four panellists presented their research on writing in English, Spanish, and Spanglish, and discuss how approaching contemporary U.S. culture with a sensitivity to multiple languages can provide new and vital insights that monolingualism risks occluding.

I provided an introduction to the panel by discussing the gendering of language – explicitly in Spanish with the a/o/@/x endings and implicitly, but just as pervasively, in English. I also gave some examples of the ways in which Chicana feminists destabilise the patriarchal script in their writing through the use of multiple languages. This lead interestingly into Kiron’s talk about Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and his compelling argument to read the work bilingually: his reading opens up the text to a more nuanced understanding of Silko’s work.


Maria then spoke to us about multilingualism in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, discussing the ways in which Díaz’s writing is influenced by and influences the ‘linguiscape’ – the linguistic environment – of the United States. Finally, Leona’s paper explored Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters and Massacre of the Dreamers and traced connections and disconnections between these two works. Leona not only discussed the bilingualism of Castillo’s works, but also argued that the disruption of narrative forms is a means of resistance.

We were truly grateful to Zalfa for chairing our panel – especially after her excellent paper on border thinking that spoke to many of themes and ideas that were presented in papers and in the super interesting questions and discussion after the papers.


Gracias a toda/o/@/x la gente who came to listen and engage in this wonderful discussion.


What a great conference – thanks to everyone who organised this year’s IAAS and BAAS conference! Check out #IBAAS16 to see what everyone was talking about on Twitter.

I was so thrilled with the SALSA panel: ¡fue un gran éxito!

I would also like to thank the Trustees at The Fran Trust for supporting my attendance at this conference – they are a fantastic organisation and I am truly grateful for their help.

Find out more at:

The Subversive Form and Content of Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters

As part of the SALSA Collective’s panel at next month’s IBAAS conference, I will be discussing prolific Chicana author Ana Castillo’s first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986). Reading the text through the lens of Castillo’s theoretical writings on Xicanisma (the author’s coinage for Chicana feminism), I will explore how the novel’s form and content work together to challenge patriarchal and eurocentric perceptions and will also consider the bilingualism in The Mixquiahuala Letters – or, rather, the relative lack thereof compared with the author’s more linguistically nuanced later novels.

The Mixquiahuala Letters is an epistolary novel comprised of forty letters written by the Chicana narrator-protagonist, Teresa, to her friend, Alicia. The novel is perhaps most remarkable for its unconventional structure which is strikingly reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), which played with traditional linearity by permitting the reader to “hopscotch” his/her way through the 155 chapters. Likewise, from the outset of The Mixquiahuala Letters, Castillo warns her reader that it is not a novel to be read in the usual manner and she proposes three different reading sequences in which to read the letters. A separate reading plan is dedicated to the “Cynic”, the “Conformist”, and the “Quixotic”, depending on how the reader decides to label him/herself, and each of these sequences lead to radically different endings.


While the commonalities between Castillo and Cortázar’s works are undeniable, many critics have perhaps overestimated the latter’s influence on Castillo’s work, a fact undoubtedly encouraged by the novel’s epigraph which reads: ‘In memory of the master of the game, Julio Cortázar’. In a 1993 MELUS interview with Elsa Saeta, however, Castillo clarifies the extent to which Cortázar influenced her structural experimentation:

When I decided to write The Mixquiahuala Letters I was 23. I had all of these stories that I wanted to tell and I started to write them down. I didn’t know how to, but I had very grandiose ideas about how I wanted to do it. So I decided I was going to play with time, I was going to do time shift, tense shift, all this kind of stuff. One day I was talking with a friend about what I was going to do with this project and he said, “That’s already been done.” He took me to the library and pulled Rayuela off the shelf and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve already been plagiarized! Twenty years before, when I was five years old, my idea was already taken.” (p. 136)

Rather than being an explicit acknowledgment of his influence on her work, the novel’s dedication to Cortázar, she asserts, was meant as a homage to the author after his death:

The year that I finished it, in 1984 just as I finished it, he died. It was not because I saw the book, or read the book, or was influenced directly by Julio Cortázar that I dedicated the book to him, but because he was another person that I felt was the master in the particular form of writing that I was aspiring to. He had done it and had been brilliant. […] So I gave him the dedication. Obviously people would at some point see the association and wonder about it. So I think it’s better to be up front and acknowledge the credit. That’s why I acknowledged it. (p. 136)

As I will suggest in my upcoming paper at IBAAS, Castillo’s decision to adopt this unconventional literary form can be read as simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal/eurocentric literary standards by making them work to convey her own feminist message. The key to this subversion lies in the relation between the novel’s form and content: while the adoption of such a form on its own could be perceived as conforming to male/western narratives, the three different reading sequences permit Castillo to offer various alternative but equally valid fates for her protagonists, ultimately presenting a nuanced, non-essentialised vision of what it means to be a Chicana.


Thanks so much to Leona for getting us prepared for her talk at IBAAS 2016. I can’t wait to discuss all things Castillo with a fellow aficionada!


Spanish in an Anglophone Novel: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead

As part of SALSA’s panel on ‘Español in Contemporary Fiction’ at the forthcoming Irish and British Associations for American Studies conference in Belfast (IBAAS), I’ll be asking how we can open up Leslie M. Silko’s notoriously difficult Almanac of the Dead (1992) by reading it bilingually—with an ear to both the English in which it is written and the Spanish to which it occasionally draws its readers’ attention.


Almanac has become infamous among scholars of contemporary fiction and Native American writing: weighing in at 763 pages, it takes as its subject nothing less than ‘depravity and cruelty’ in the Americas since European occupation began in 1492, and works to prophesy the ‘eventual disappearance of all things European’ (Almanac, 317, 570). Amidst over seventy characters and litanies of horror that range from police torture to child abuse to bestiality, Almanac is a novel that poses serious challenges to its readers, overawing and alienating them in equal measure.

Silko herself has been remarkably candid about Almanac’s complex, decade-long genesis while she lived in Tucson, Arizona. In an essay in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, she remembers the point at which Almanac began to make her anxious:

In the fall of 1985, I began to feel nervous about finishing Almanac by the time the MacArthur Prize Fellowship ran out. The novel was over one thousand pages in manuscript by then, but I still felt I was only halfway, although I did not dare tell anyone the truth. My first novel, Ceremony, had been published in 1977, and naturally colleagues, friends, enemies, and family were all beginning to wonder. What did I do all day long locked in my office? I can remember a poet advising me that the second novel should be something short and simple in order to avoid the terrible jinx of ‘the second novel.’

Why hadn’t I taken the poet’s advice? (‘Notes,’ 141-2)

As she wrestled to ‘get control’ of her novel, and a new cast of ‘Mexican Indians from the Maya country’ found their way into her story, Silko found herself drawn to a new, seemingly unrelated project:

At this time, Arizona politics outraged me enough that I took a can of spray paint outside and painted graffiti on the wall of a building visible from Stone Avenue. Recall Mechem. Impeach him. Indict him. Eat more politicians, end war, end taxes. My landlord…let the graffiti stay on the wall until Mechem was recalled. After the wall had been whitewashed I decided to paint something nice for the people of the neighbourhood, who had endured the graffiti. The urge to paint the wall became stronger than the urge to sit at my typewriter and wrestle with the new characters…I decided I would paint and just let the novel sit for a few weeks. (‘Notes,’ 142-3)

As will be familiar to anyone who has read her memoir, The Turquoise Ledge, or any of her interviews,[1] Silko’s relationship with her creative process always seems exceptionally instinctual and unconscious. This seems to have been exactly the case with her mural on Stone Avenue:

I don’t know why, maybe because the wall was so long, but I walked outside one day with my paint and I outlined the figure of a rattlesnake thirty feet long. I liked the snake so much that I didn’t want to stop with just the snake figure. I kept painting. The longer I worked on the mural, the better I felt about the novel. I worked some days on the novel, other days painting my mural, which eventually measured forty by twelve feet. As the mural began to work out beautifully, I realized it was somehow a sign to me that the novel would work out also, and I would be able to complete it successfully. (‘Notes,’ 143)



Leslie Marmon Silko, ‘Stone Avenue Mural,’ Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, pp. 150-1.

Silko goes on to suggest that painting the mural helped her pull together a number of ideas about Almanac, and to regain control over her monster-novel:

Gradually, in 1988, I began to realize the relationship between the mural of the snake and the latter part of my novel. The snake in my mural is a messenger. He emerges out of a rainstorm and is surrounded by flowers, birds, and other creatures. His belly is full of skulls. Above the snake I painted words in Spanish as if they had blossomed out of the flowers and plants that grew around the giant snake. The words are in Spanish and this is what they say: ‘The people are hungry. The people are cold. The rich have stolen the land. The rich have stolen freedom. The people demand justice. Otherwise, Revolution.’[2] (‘Notes,’ 143-4)

Our panel at IBAAS takes as its central gambit the idea that it is not possible to understand the American imagination monolingually. It is with this in mind that my research on Almanac considers what it might mean that Silko needed her mural’s message to be in Spanish: if Silko had to imagine in Spanish to finish her Anglophone novel, what happens when we approach it bilingually? What if the source of the novel’s reputed difficulty is less its Cormac McCarthy-esque violence and more that it is, like Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, using a form of bilingualism to stare down our Eurocentric tendencies? At IBAAS I will be thinking through these questions by reading bilingually those ‘Mexican Indians from the Maya country’ (‘Notes,’ 143) who found their way into Silko’s Almanac.

Thanks to Kiron for getting us started in preparation for the IBAAS conference in Belfast. Can’t wait to talk about this in more depth!


[1] See particularly Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko (ed. Ellen L. Arnold) and Howling for Justice: New Perspectives on Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (ed. Rebecca Tillett).