Recovering Lost Footprints: The Emergence of Contemporary Indigenous Narratives in Abya Yala

Arturo AriasArturo

Indigenous literature is, for the most part, a rediscovery of learning as spirituality and nurture. If this knowledge is not available discursively it is only because Western genocidal practices erased it in the first place, and contemporary indigenous communities are presently reconfiguring it, rediscovering those lost footprints that remain, haunting them in dreams. Hauntology is Derrida‘s neologism,  a pun on ontology which, refers to the idea that the present exists only with respect to the past, and that societies after the collapse of Eurocentric thinking will begin to orient themselves towards ethical principles that Eurocentric modernity thought of as archaic, primitive, or discarded. That is, in the direction of those “ghosts” of the past that indigenous cosmovisions perennially rearticulate and indigenous peoples are reinscribing within modernity. Indeed, this sounds very much like the Andean concept of pachakuti, a Quechua and Aymara word meaning the disruption of the universe, as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui argues.

In a nutshell, this contradiction/opposition between Derridean and Andean terminologies is emblematic of the problem of dealing critically with indigenous discursivities. There is also an issue with language itself. With how language is configured, what it achieves, how it frames things. Most indigenous languages are not “conceptual” in the sense that Western metaphysics understand the term, roughly as tightly-disciplined abstract objects, articulating propositions mediating between thought, language, and referents. Yet this does not mean that indigenous cultures lack systemic knowledge, nor that they lack the capacity for relational thought, a framework to understand reality or physical systems.

We are also talking of many languages. We are dealing with hundreds of languages that we, cultural critics trained by Western notions of epistemological knowledge in Western-centered institutions where we also work, and whose positionings become inevitably our lookout into the world, the angle from which we see and make sense of our own beingness, are, for the most part, incapable of understanding, or speaking. At most, some Western-trained scholars speak a handful of them, perhaps a dozen, and this is a best-case scenario. Thus, we are operating, metaphorically, in the tragic conundrum of persons born blind, attempting to enunciate visual descriptions.

Their behavior evidences a simultaneous co-existence of what we Westerners would label modern and non-modern conceptions of the world, implying that “modern thought” as understood by us in the West, is not an indispensable condition for oppressed social sectors to enter the public sphere. Indigenous groups can also access modern traits through alternative projects that juxtapose secular and indigenous-centered traits. In turn this fusion, an amalgamation of elements, became itself transformative of those Western traits originally employed by Westernized urban elites to constitute the Nation-State in the first place. The subalternized knowledge that entered into this configuration cannot be explained by Western space-time coordinates. Yet it impacts the present, giving it a “thickness” that sets it apart from the horizon of expectations of modernity. This has become an epochal marker for my country and for indigenous peoples in the Americas as a whole, initiating a systematic reconversion of the very nature and viability of Latin American nation-states.

My point of origin, the one that moved me to write in the first place a three-volume series on contemporary indigenous textualities in Latin America—of which the first volume, on Maya contemporary narrativities, has just been completed—is to make indigenous strength visible.

Strength seeps from within the printed lines of their texts. It is imbued in the smell of ink and paper that still marks their printed narrative textualities. They configure complex societies with a sophisticated understanding of cosmology and spirituality, with epistemologies that impress readers with their breadth, refinement and finesse, besides the composure and elegance of the words in which they are written.

From Jaime Gomez Navarrete in Cecilio Chi’, the first-ever Yukateko novel, narrating Maya laborers whipped in henequen haciendas, to Javier Castellanos mocking Zapoteco conscription on both sides of the Mexican revolution in Relación de las hazañas del hijo del Relámpago, they all articulate a broadening chorus of powerful voices screaming out long litanies of numberless details about atrocities committed against them. Indigenous narrative textualities attempt to get past the cold abstraction of numbers and ciphers to the blood-curling everydayness of abject oppression, exploitation, racism and torture.


Arturo Arias
Tomás Rivera Professor of Spanish Language and Literature
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese
UT Austin.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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