Alternative Spaces,
Altering History

a congeries of thought experiments

Pablo Neruda on the Américas (in Spanish and English)

on alternative spaces and altering history:
(Toni Cade Bambara / Congo Square, New Orleans / and Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil)

Walter Benjamin on ruins, Arjun Appadurai on global multiplicities

América, No Invoco Tu Nombre En Vano

América, no invoco tu nombre en vano.
Cuando sujeto a corazón la espada,
cuando aguanto en el alma la gotera,
cuando por las ventanas
un nuevo día tuyo me penetra,
soy y estoy en la luz que me produce,
vivo en la sombra que me determina,
dueromo y despierto en tu esencial aurora:
dulce como las uvas, y terrible,
conductor del azúcar y el castigo,
empapado en esperma de tu especie,
amamantado en sangre du tu herencia.

America, I do not call your name in vain.
When I hold the sword to my heart,
when I endure the leaks in my soul,
when your new day
penetrates me through the windows,
I am and I stand in the light that produces me,
I live in the shade that makes me what I am,
I sleep and rise in your essential dawn,
sweet as grapes, and as terrible,
conductor of sugar and punishment,
soaked in the sperm of your species,
nursed on the blood of your legacy.


desde "Walking Around" [original title in English],
from Residencia en la Tierra I y II (1925-35)

Yo paseo con calma, con ojos, con zapatos,
con furia, con olvido,
paso, curzo oficinas y tiendas de ortopedia,
y patios donde hay ropas colgadas de un alambre:
calzoncillos, toallas y camisas que lloran
lentas lágrimas sucias.

from "Walking Around," in
Residence on Earth I and II (1925-35):

"I stroll around serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling."

Mardi Gras beads
Comentario de "Edward R. Escobar" escribado en el márgen de un ejemplar de Residencia que compré por 25¢ en una tienda de libros segunderos:

[commentary on the above lines written by "Edward R. Escobar" in the margin of the copy of Residencia bought for 25¢ in a used book store]:

"pasea como un ser dentro del mundo
hecho por el hombre que llora porque el hombre lo ha hecho"

rough translation:
"he walks like a being inside the world
made for the person who cries because humans have made the world like this"

Escobar's comment is a deep one. It contrasts a world made dirty by human beings with a world made for the person who can mourn such a life. Also, the first verb, pasea, is in the subjunctive, stressing that the thought in the sentence is a wish or a hope.]


desde "Enigmas":
...Yo no soy sino la red vacía que adelanta
ojos humanos, muertos en aquellas tinieblas....

--Pablo Neruda, Canto General

from "Enigmas":
...I am nothing but the empty net that has gone on ahead
of human eyes, dead in the darkness....

These translations from Residencia y Canto General combine different earlier versions done by Robert Bly and Jack Schmitt. Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems. Ed. Robert Bly. Boston: Beacon, 1971. Pablo Neruda, Canto General. Jack Schmitt, transl. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

anastomosis: the union or connection of branches, as of rivers, veins of leaves, or blood vessels.

[New Latin, from Greek "anastomosis," an outlet or opening, from "anastomoun," to furnish with a mouth]
American Heritage Dictionary, first edition (1969), p. 48

Carlos Almaraz, Tree of Life (1989)


Toni Cade Bambara:

"When I first ran across Dr. [W.E.B.] DuBois's passage [on "double-consciousness" and living "behind a veil", from Souls of Black Folk] as a girl, I had a problem straightaway. It conflicted with what I'd learned early on through Eldersay, namely, that the seventh son (or seventh son of the seventh son) who was born with a 'veil' (some said 'caul,' which I heard as 'call' as in having a calling) was enhanced by it, was gifted. . . . Second sight enabled the person to see things others couldn't see. Persons born with the veil were, if not clairvoyants, at least clear-seeing. They could see through guise and guile. They were considered wise, weird, blessed, tetched, or ancient, depending on the bent of the describer. But they were consulted in the neighborhoods, occasionally revered. . . . When I came to the bit about looking at your own self all the time through the eyes of people who either pity you or hate you, that did not sound like the second sight I'd heard of."

---Toni Cade Bambara, "Deep Sight and Rescue Missions," in Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, Gerald Early, ed. (NY, Penguin, 1993), 310-11.

[RIP, toni cade!]



"[T]he [slave] market [in Congo Square, New Orleans], which simply represented the embodiment of some of the slaves' free-day activities, enjoyed only informal recognition [by the authorities]. It is true that during the Spanish period a number of free colored vendors almost certainly came to participate in the market alongside the bondsmen and that the authorities could have subjected such free vendors to commercial regulations. But, by and large, the market remained a slave activity, and, as such, had no standing in law. Spanish administators, as much given to leaving bureaucratic paper trails to justify, and cover, their actions as their French predecessors, obviously could not officially regulate something that did not officially exist. Thus, while New Orleans's Spanish colonial records were filled with numerous, detailed regulations on the other markets and vendors of the city, none applied to the slave vendors" (16).

"The slave and free-black vendors continued to set up there [in Congo Square] on Sunday morning, and to mingle with the crowds of other slaves and free blacks who gathered on Sunday afternoons for the square's famous, and historically significant, African dances..." (36).

"In addition to the various drums, gourds, sounding boxes, and banjo-like instruments that Latrobe saw, other observers noted the Congo Square musicians blowing cow-horn hunting crooks and 'quillpipes' made from reeds strung together like panpipes, playing marimbas, scraping the teeth of horses' jawbones with sticks, and having adopted European instruments such as violins, tambourines, triangles.... They described the dancers as 'dressed in a variety of wild and savage fashions . . . ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts," with "fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers' legs and arms.' The women, one onlooker reported, wore, 'each according to her means,' the 'newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, percale dresses.' And the males clothed themselves in 'oriental and Indian dress' with 'Turkish' [sic ????] turbans of red, blue, yellow, green and brown..." (40, 37).

--from Jerah Johnson, Congo Square in New Orleans (New Orleans: Louisiana Landmarks Society, 1995).

Johnson is quoting contemporary sources from the pre-Civil War era; as he notes, these testimonies are eye-witness accounts but must be read skeptically, for the writers were often Anglo-Americans new to New Orleans, fascinated but scandalized by and largely ignorant of the Congo Square activities they sought to describe.


And what is the connection of Palmares, Brazil, to Congo Square, New Orleans, for a history of the Americas?

"Zumbi, the man who inspired the current racial debate [in Brazil], has often been described ... as the Americas' first martyr for freedom.

Palmares was [an area in northeastern Brazil] formed in 1597 after some 50 slaves fled from a nearby sugar plantation and took refuge in the surrounding wooded mountains in what is today the state of Alagoas. The quilombo lasted for 97 years, covering 216 square miles, with 10 villages and as many as 30,000 inhabitants.

Palmares was not just an African village. By the time Zumbi assumed power in 1678, he ruled over a panracial community of those persecuted by 17th century Portuguese colonialism -- including Indians, poor whites, Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism.

When the Dutch invaded the northeast in 1630, the quilombo flourished while the European powers fought it out. Palmares warriors raided nearby plantations and freed hundreds of slaves from barbarous conditions. In those days, most plantation slaves lasted an average of five years before dying from a combination of overwork, accidents, poor diets, crowded living conditions and corporal punishment.

Still, the Portuguese masters never lacked for slaves. Before Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 -- the last country in the Western Hemisphere to do so -- about 4.5 million Africans had been transported in, about six times the number that entered the United States.

As military commander and Palmares' third and last king, Zumbi fought the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the slave trade for nearly two decades, until Palmares was destroyed in 1694 by Portuguese troops. Zumbi was killed a year later in an ambush.

' Zumbi believed in all or nothing, victory or death,' wrote historian Decio Freitas, author of Palmares: War of Slaves.

For many Afro-Brazilians, Zumbi is a legend.

'He's everything: peace, love, dignity,' says Cristiani Oliveira dos Santos, an 18-year-old Rio dance student who recently performed in a tribute to Zumbi....

While most Afro-Brazilians are content with Zumbi's new status, -- the city of Rio de Janeiro even declared November 20 an official holiday -- some hope the federal government will go way beyond the festivities.

'We don't need coins and stamps with Zumbi's likeness,' says Conceicao. 'We need jobs, health and education.'"

text from "Honor for a Brazilian Hero, 300 Years Late"
by Jack Epstein, Chronicle Foreign Service
The San Francisco Chronicle. Pg. Z5

  • for more, see the Palmares entry in the Africana Encylopedia
  • images below and at top of this page:

    two parts of a sculpture-box by Tom Cowman of New Orleans celebrating the Tricksters: Legba (Afro-Caribbean and US) and Hanuman (India). Cowman made a living as a cook, making these sculpture-boxes in his free time---inspired by Joseph Cornell's boxes, his knowledge of New Orleans' Afro-Caribbean-World culture and his scouring of flea markets and shops throughout the city.


    any object that projects a shadow that may be used as an indicator


    Walter Benjamin

    "Allegory is in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things." --Letter to Horkheimer, quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT, 1989), p. 165.

    Walter Benjamin's goal: "to educate the image-creating medium within us to see dimensionally, stereoscopically, into the depths of the historical shade." --Passagen-Werk, Oo, 2; quoted in Buck-Morss, p. 292.


    Arjun Appadurai,
    "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy"

    "I propose that an elementary framework for exploring such disjunctures is to look at the relationship between five dimensions of global cultural flow which can be termed: (a) ethnoscapes; (b) mediascapes; (c) technoscapes; (d) finanscapes; and (e) ideoscapes.

    The suffix -scape allows us to point to the fluid, irregular shapes of these landscapes, shapes which characterize international capital as deeply as they do international clothing styles.

    "These terms with the comon suffix -scape also indicate that these are not objectively given relations which look the same from every angle of vision, but rather that they are deeply perspectival constructs, inflected by the historical, linguistic and political situatedness of different sorts of actors: nation-states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as sub-national groupings and movements (whether religious, political or economic), and even intimate face-to-face groups, such as villages, neighbourhoods and families.

    "These landscapes thus are the building blocks of what ... I would like to call imagined worlds, that is, the multiple worlds which are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe.... An important fact of the world we live in today is that many persons on the globe live in such imagined worlds (and not just in imagined communities) and thus are able to contest and sometimes even subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind and of the entrepreneurial mentality that surround them.

    "...[A] tentative formulation about the conditions under which current global flows occur: they occur in and through the growing disjunctures between ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, mediascapes and ideoscapes. This formulation, the core of my model of global cultural flow, needs some explanation. First, people, machinery, money, images, and ideas now follow increasingly non-isomorphic paths: of course, at all periods in human history, there have been some disjunctures between the flows of these things, but the sheer speed, scale and volume of each of these flows are now so great that the disjunctures have become central to the politics of global culture."

    --Arjun Appadurai, "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy," in The Phantom Public Sphere, Ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996), pp. 275-76, 280; boldface above = italics in the original.

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