“La cautiva” (1837) by Esteban Echeverría has been studied as an exemplary text of the constitution of an Argentinean nationalist discourse. It is considered a modern version of an epic poem. Even though the merits of the text are frequently recognized by scholars specializing in Southern Cone literature or in Latin American Romanticism, there is a very limited bibliography on this canonical text. Today I would like to highlight some of the studies I find useful when teaching “La cautiva”, and I will end with some suggestions on how to teach this text in a comparative Ibero-American context.
Plot summary: Brián and María are captured by Indians on the frontier. The poem narrates their struggle to escape and return back to the city. María rescues Brián, but he is too weak and dies. María dies later on, when she finds out that her son was killed by the Indians.
I. Recent studies:
Jean Franco-Historia de la literatura hispanoamericana—goes beyond the traditional reading of this text as a nationalist proposal on the future of Argentina and focuses instead on the particular characteristics of what she calls the Latin American Romanticism. In Europe, Romanticism was a urban intellectual movement. Therefore, the desire to abandon civilization, or the constraints of a civilized and urban society to go back to nature, is a common topic. Latin American Romanticism goes against this utopian vision of nature and explores the hostile forces of an animal and natural world that becomes an obstacle for the civilizing projects of early Latin American states.
Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions—Sommer mentions the poem’s innovative value in an American cultural paradigm and stresses the importance of the use of regionalisms in the poem “without setting them off by quotation marks and italics” (105). The Romantics were more interested in acknowledging the existence of an American Spanish, instead of preserving a standard Spanish. “La cautiva” is an interesting example for the study of the relationship and intersection of language, colonialism and nationalism.
Mary Louise Pratt-Imperial Eyes—This book develops three important arguments. The first one is that Echeverría is one of the few liberal intellectuals that represents in his works “the indigenous peoples of the present rather than the past” (183). Second, this narrative poem presents the failure of civilization and miscegenation, as “embodied in the triad of English man, Creole woman, and their female child” (185). Susana Rotker has questioned this reading by saying that Brián’s name is a variation of Byron, the famous Romantic English poet who was an important creative precursor for Echeverría. Rotker also points out that María is a “cuarteletera” and they have a son, not a daughter, who was killed by the Indians. However, metaphorically, Echeverría posits here a very specific project of Argentinean national consolidation that still shows the contradiction of trying to be local (Creole) and European (English) at the same time. The third contribution is that Pratt proposes a reading of “La cautiva” that could allow an important dialogue with other cultural traditions: “captivity narrative traditionally constituted a safe context in which to narrate the terrors of the contact zone because the story is told by a survivor who has returned, reaffirming European and colonial social orders. Echeverría’s Captive, despite its title, does the opposite. Narrated in the third, not the first person, it tells other story, of the ones who did not survive the encounter and did not succeed in engendering a white social order” (185). Pratt’s reading allows us to posit new questions, such as: Why is Echeverría’s narrative different? and can it be said that captivity narratives in the early Americas always tell the story of the Imperial order? Can we explain this difference by examining the narrating or producing subjectivity of this narratives in a colonial or early Ibero-American context?
Bonnie Frederick, Kirsten Silva Gruesz and Francine Masiello—(miscegenation, gender and nation formation)-- these readings trace the figure of the captive as part of a long European and American tradition that “invokes a set of deep anxieties about both national and sexual identity. Captivity not only suggests that the jurisdiction of a society can be thwarted and its borders penetrated; it also encodes the racial tensions at work in a frontier society. The captive woman represents the possibility of miscegenation —the ultimate breakdown of a culture’s integrity” (Gruesz 11). Frederick compares Latin American captivity narratives with North American ones, and she points out that in the last ones there are more texts written by captive women themselves, and this authorship shift creates a difference on the way rape, miscegenation and physical violence are portrayed. Francine Masiello, on the other hand, reads “La cautiva” and “El matadero” to trace the feminization of a masculine or virile political discourse as a way to produce a “civilized” resistance to barbarism. So one question that can come out of all these readings is if gender can be one of the categories that will allow a comparative study of Iberian and Anglo American narratives of captivity. The other could be to reconsider the meanings of gender in these texts, since Masiello’s reading re-signifies femininity as a mode of resistance to official political discourses without abandoning a masculine perspective.
Susana Rotker, Cautivas. Olvidos y memoria en la Argentina—focuses on the misreadings encouraged by Echeverría’s text. For example, the title of the poem refers to a captive woman, while the real captive here is Brián. On the other hand, it is historically known that Indians preferred to capture women rather than men, so the whole narrative proposed in this poem subverts most of the historical accounts. Finally, the poem avoids representing the body of the captive woman as that very real frontier in which the nation is defined. Even when María is not raped, rescues Brián and remains alive after her husband dies, she cannot survive the trip back home, nor can she return back to her society once she has been defined or thought as a captive. Rotker proposes that it is precisely in those misreadings, and not in the formal poetic innovations, that this poem becomes the foundation of a national literature, as it defines the internal and external limits against which the homogeneous project of the nation is defined.
II. Teaching “La cautiva” in a Comparative Ibero-American Context
I would like to suggest three possible approaches to this text that could be productive from a comparative perspective.
Miscegenation—Ibero-Anglo paradigms—Echeverría’s poem could be used to criticize some of the utopian views of Iberian colonialism that represent miscegenation as a harmonious process of fusion and confusion of races to produce a new American subject. That ideal representation of race relations contrasts with the racial imaginary in the Anglo culture, that strongly rejects miscegenation, and tends to define race through hard binary oppositions. Echeverría’s text reveals the real limits of this fantasy of harmony predominant in many studies of the colonial period in Latin America. (This same topic is further developed in studies by Robert Young, René Jara and Nicholas Spadaccini, Herman Bennett, Elizabeth Ann Kuznesof, etc.)
Narrative of captivity—as a genre with gender—It will also be interesting to follow Frederick’s suggestion and study narratives of captivity produced in the Iberian and Anglo world to trace the ways in which gender informs this particular genre. How does gender reconfigure racial and political discourses? (and here gender means social construction of both the feminine and the masculine). How does the intersection of gender and captivity rearticulate a colonial or postcolonial discourse? (Judith Butler’s work on gender could be useful here).
Romanticism, and the invention of a colonial epic—From a formal and historical point of view, “La cautiva” posits an interesting set of questions about the role of Romanticism in the invention of literary and cultural origins. For example, in the case of Latin America, it was during the XIXth century, and specifically as a part of the nationalist discourses produced by some of the leading intellectual figures of Romanticism, that colonial literature was rescued and redefined as the origin of national literatures. Therefore, the colonial period became the equivalent to the Middle Ages, and some of the texts produced in that period were seen as the local epics of the emerging Latin American nations. It would be interesting to explore this historical development of cultural discourses, and of literature as a practice and as a discipline of study, and to compare it to the Anglo and European case, using this poem as a Latin American example.
III. Useful bibliography:
Altamirano, Carlos and Breatriz Sarlo. Ensayos argentinos. De Sarmiento a la vanguardia. Buenos Aires: Ariel/Espasa-Calpe, 1997.
Bennett, Herman L. “Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, ethnicity, and regional development.” Americas, 49.1 (July 1992): 95.
---. Lovers, Family, and Friends: the Formation of Afro-Mexico, 1580-1810. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Thesis, 1993.
---. Slavery and Its Legacies. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: National Humanities Center, 1993.
Franco, Jean. Historia de la literatura hispanoamericana. Barcelona: Ariel, 1993.
Frederick, Bonnie. “Reading the Warning: The Reader and the Image of the Captive Woman.” Chasqui 18.2 (November 1989): 3-11.
Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. “Facing the Nation: The Organic Life of ‘La cautiva.’” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos [Washington University in St. Louis] 30.1 (enero 1996): 3-22.
Jara, René y Nicholas Spadaccini, eds. Amerindian Images and the Legacy of Columbus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. 1-95.
---. 1492-1992: Re/Discovering Colonial Writing. Hispanic Issues 4. Minneapolis: The Prisma Institute, 1989.
Jitrik, Noé. Esteban Echeverría. Buenos Aires: Centro Editorial de América Latina, 1967.
Kuznesof, Elizabeth Anne. “Ethnic and Gender Influences on ‘Spanish’ Creole Society in Colonial Spanish America.” Colonial Latin American Review 4.1 (1995): 153-176.
Lagmanovich, David. “Tres cautivas: Echeverría, Ascasubi, Hernández. Chasqui 8.3 (mayo 1979): 24-33.
Masiello, Francine. Between Civilization and Barbarism. Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Mayo, Carlos A. Fuentes para la historia de la frontera: declaraciones de cautivos. Mar del Plata: Universidad de Mar del Plata, 1985.
Pratt, Mary Loiuse. Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York and Londres: Routledge, 1992.
Quintero Herencia, Juan Carlos. “Los poetas en la Pampa y las ‘cantidades poéticas’ en el Facundo.” Hispamérica 62 (1992): 33-52.
Rotker, Susana. Cautivas. Olvidos y memoria en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Ariel/Espasa-Calpe, 1999.
Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions. The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Sosnowski, Saúl. “Esteban Echeverría: el intelectual ante la formación del estado.” Revista Iberoamericana 47.114-115 (enero-junio 1981): 293-300.
Young, Robert J.C. Colonial Desire. Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.