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Reflections on Representation in Women's Testimonial Literature in Latin America

Andy Shie Kee Wong '02

In the genre of women's testimonial literature in Latin America, the lives of individual women are frequently interpreted as reflections on collective suffering and communal struggles. In her new book, Spanish American Women's Use of the Word: Colonial Through Contemporary Narratives, Stacey Schlau contends that the lives of Latin American testifiers, like Domitila Barrios and Dominga de la Cruz, "present the voice of those previously not heard in print, of the marginalized, the poor, the indigenous" and "exemplify the resistance of Latin American women to oppression and state violence" (39). Some of the most acclaimed titles in this genre would further suggest that the testimonies imbedded within them somehow speak for "the marginalized, the poor, the indigenous": Guatemalan Women Speak; Flight from Chile: Voices of Exile; and Never Again a World Without Us: Voices of Mayan Women in Chiapas, Mexico.

While these literary works admirably relay the experiences of women often denied opportunities for representation, they are regularly interpreted in an essentialist manner that can inadvertently gloss over the multiplicity of experiences endured by whole communities of marginalized people,1 and, as a result, they can shortchange the constructive influence of testimonial literature as a purveyor of democratic culture. Ultimately, these realist views of testimonial literature extended to their uncritical extremes presume too much about the lives of Latin American women and the communities they are alleged to represent and speak for. This approach unfortunately dominates the way we understand representation in testimonial literature as readers, intermediaries, or testifiers. We attempt to interrogate this approach and offer alternative views, particularly those presented by Santiago Colás, in an effort to re-examine such literature as representational devices and to temper the prevalence of realist readings in the testimonial genre. We use the testimonial literature of Elena Poniatowska and Elvia Alvarado as case studies in our inquiry.

In "What's Wrong with Representation?" Santiago Colás shares several views of representation in testimonial literature and cites a number of literary figures and cultural theorists in an attempt to flesh out answers to his question. The realist view of representation, according to Miguel Barnet, contends that testimonial literature "seeks to establish identities: between protagonist and collective, between researcher and protagonistand consequently, between reader, researcher, protagonist, and collective, between present subject and objective history, and between written and the living, spoken language" (Colás 161). In this traditional sense, there exists a transparency whereby testimonial literature serves as a kind of open door offering unfettered access to the represented (Colás 161).

The modernist view of representation, on the other hand, suggests "every instance of representation, every occasion of it, marks nothing more strongly than the distance between these two terms, and, more specifically, the insuperability of that distance. Every representation ultimately refers to itself in that it speaks of its own inability to efface itself by closing the gap between itself and that 'other,' which it is supposed to make present, to represent" (Colás, 162). For González Echevarría, protagonists in testimonial literature can never represent the collective because they do not do many of the things that the collective did, and just as significantly, they do something that the collective does not do; namely, appear as protagonists and narrators in testimonial literature (Colás 162-163). Thus, representation in testimonial literature entails self-referentiality and offers up only the specular image of itself (Colás 162).

A postmodern view of representation undertakes an entirely radical approach to thinking about testimonial literature and almost exists beyond the boundaries of the sharp, dichotomous relationship between realism and modernism. As cultural theorist, George Yúdice, succinctly puts it: testimonial literature goes "beyond representation" (Colás 164). Challenging the realist view, Yúdice pointedly notes that there exists "no preconstituted collective identity in which testimonial literature could represent transparently" (Colás 164). Rather, he suggests that such literature serves as "a fundamental component in the practice of constituting such an identity and consciousness" (Colás 164).

Similarly, Ernesto Laclau claims that something new becomes constituted in the process of representation and that assuming total transparency between the representative and represented would make extinct this very process: "If the representative and represented constitute the same and single will, the 're-' of representation disappears since the same will is present in two different places" (Colás 169). Instead, Laclau suggests that the resistance value of testimonial literature derives itself from the tension generated from the disjuncture between a people, their representative, the interlocutor, and the foreign sympathizer (Colás 170).

This tension certainly exists in Massacre in Mexico, where Elena Poniatowska strings together several hundred voices in an effort to convey the disparate realities of a movement and a massacre.2 By displaying the diversity of public opinion during a tumultuous time in Mexican history, she underscores an even more profound reality: the promise of a democratic future in Mexico. Indeed, her work achieves its resistance value, as mentioned by Laclau, precisely because it opposes the truth, orthodoxy, and unanimity of Mexican polity, embodied in the authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with a roiling montage of dissension. Thus, what ultimately becomes represented is not clear-cut and uniform, but instead ragged at the edges and purposely so. For Poniatowska, there is something hopeful and encouraging in the dissonance represented in her work.

In this sense, Poniatowska defies the realist approach to representation in testimonial literature. She does not attempt to isolate the particular experiences of an individual and magnify those experiences as somehow representative of the entire assembly of protestors in the 1968 movement, nor does she attempt to pull together a collection of testimonials that resonate with a common voice. Her work implicitly recognizes the inability of one representative to speak for an entire student movement; this approach would have essentially shortchanged the democratic project intrinsic in Massacre in Mexico by pitting one monolith against the other (i.e. PRI vs. 1968 student movement), rather than displaying the wealth of discourse that sprang forth from the movement.

At the same time, Poniatowska does not proceed with an atomistic approach to representation. She recognizes the value in each testimonial, not as a specular image of itself, but rather as one image in a series of images that form a dazzling reflection of political and social dynamism in Mexico. In this respect, we see conciliation between realism and modernism in Massacre in Mexico, whereby one voice does not speak for the collective. However, a series of voices, a critical mass of them, can get us closer to a sense of collective identity, however fraught with discord and disunity, and maybe even serve to craft and constitute the identity itself.

This latter observation rings in harmony with Yúdice's view that testimonial literature goes "beyond representation" by serving as a mechanism for constituting identity and consciousness. There exists an interesting dialectic between discovering the collective identity of the student protestors and developing that identity in Poniatowska's work. We are left unsure about whether this collective identity existed in the first place, given the divisions among the student protestors, and yet reassured that some semblance of solidarity brought these students together into a thriving movement. Our ambivalence would lead us to believe that this is irrelevant in the overall scheme of things, returning us to Laclau's analysis that it is not so much the representation that derives meaning for testimonial literature, but rather the lines of disjuncture that develop and generate tension between the different actors who produce and partake in the literature.

In Don't Be Afraid, Gringo, Elvia Alvarado's testimony serves as a far cry from the testimonial work of Poniatowska. Alvarado's testimony is decidedly realist in that she speaks on behalf of campesinos (peasants), women, and Hondurans. For instance, Alvarado contends that campesina women are at the "bottom of the ladder" because "not only are we exploited by the other classes, but by men as well" (17). In another example, she notes "Hondurans don't want to be beggars. We're tired of begging from the United States" (106).

Modernists would contend that the very authority of Alvarado as a campesina organizer and a testifier no less distances herself from the "other" for whom she speaks and automatically abrogates her ability to serve as a representative. And yet it would seem that her position in the struggle provides her a unique vantage point with which to represent the people of Honduras, not as an embodiment of her people per se but rather as a spokesperson for them. Alvarado admittedly occupies a special status in Honduran society that disqualifies her experiences as anything typical among Honduran campesinos 3 (whether this should exist as a standard for representation remains debatable), but this simultaneously imparts her an extended knowledge of her people, through her work traveling throughout the countryside, speaking with campesinos, and struggling alongside them. These actions seem to uniquely qualify her to speak on behalf of Honduran campesinos and their land struggle. Modernist reservations seem almost trivial in light of this.

Of course, realist views are not without their own flaws. A distinction must be made in the realist camp between embodying representation of a people and speaking as a representative of a people. Alvarado's editor, Medea Benjamin, notes that Alvarado "represent[s] the hopes and dreams of the campesinos" (Alvarado p. xxii). This may be true, but Alvarado's testimony operates as representation in a wholly different fashion, emphasizing her position as an authority figure more than anything else. Her removal from campesinos, in fact, grants her testimony a degree of legitimacy that it would not otherwise possess.

In the end, representation functions as a malleable vehicle for achieving different aims. For Poniatowska's work, representation allows us to think about democratic possibilities while Alvarado's testimony takes us to the margins of Central American society and the struggles at the end of this world. However, the process of synthesizing views of representation as they apply to different testimonial work permits us to look beyond the bounds of intended purposes and provides us opportunities for producing critical and surprising insights when we actively engage women's testimonial literature in Latin America.


1 Ironically, testimonial literature often attempts to convey the diversity of such experiences by precisely lending voice to testifiers existing at the margins of society.

2 While including the voices of several women, notably Ana Ignacia Rodriguez (Nacha), Margarita Nolasco, and Mercedes Oliviera de Vázquez, Poniatowska does not exclusively rely on their testimonies in her work, nor does she attempt to gender her examination of the movement. Rather, she includes women as part of the babble of voices that make up the testimonial cacophony in Massacre in Mexico. However, these women do occasionally speak from their experiences as women in the context of the movement (i.e. mothers who are anguished by the violence inflicted upon their children, female student leaders who discover a new level of empowerment, etc.).

3 She is after all a campesina leader, someone who not only defied her gender role but also assumed a rarefied leadership position among campesinos.


Alvarado, Elvia. Don't Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart. Edited by Medea Benjamin. New York: Harper Perennial, Inc. 1987.

Colás, Santiago. "What's Wrong with Representation? Testimonio and Democratic Culture" in The Real Thing : Testimonial Discourse and Latin America. Edited by George M. Gugelberger. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 161-172.

Poniatowska, Elena. Massacre in Mexico. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Schlau, Stacey. Spanish American Women's Use of the Word: Colonial Through Contemporary Narratives. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.


Andy Shie Kee Wong currently lives in Indiana. For Wong, writing is a medieval process. He says, "I am often confined in a dark haze of chronic writer's block, so when I do make a point, it is freedom. This submission represents a period of liberation." This paper was written for Professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt's Literature 061SA: Women's Testimonial Literature of Latin America.