Christian Santos: Three Contemporary Women Writers in Nicaragua: Gloria Elena Espinoza de Tercero, Christian Santos y Conny Palacios
Por: Vincent Spina
Associate Professor, Clarion University of Pennsylvania
Their work intrigued me immediately since it seemed that they were expressing, in a highly successful artistic form, a theme that occurs repeatedly in the Cuadra's essays, not to mention in his poetry; namely, the duality of the Nicaraguan spirit. In one notable essay "Rubén y la dualidad" Cuadra states that by abandoning his country Darío, in truth, discovers its and his own roots. In other essays dealing with issues as diverse as the Precolumbian history of Nicaragua to the contemporary Nicaraguan's desire to travel, Cuadra reiterates this duality: That the spirit of the individual and that of the nation itself exists in a kind of dynamic tension between the desire to preserve what is autochthonous and peculiar to the nation, and the desire to experience what is new and foreign.
The theme was central to Espinoza's short novel El sueño del ángel, while Christian Santos and Conny Palacios are practically embodiments of this duality. Christian Santos, though a frequent traveler to the USA and Europe, resides and works as a writer and journalist in Nicaragua, while Conny Palacios, who returns frequently to Nicaragua, teaches at the University of Eastern Missouri.
To begin, the three main characters of El sueño del ángel are José Trejos, Augusta Catalina Méndez, and don Fito. The events of the novel occur sometime after the time period of the Chamorro government. Thus, the war between the "contras" and the Sandinista government has been over for some time, and the general feeling of the characters in the novel is that neither the Sandinistas nor the Chamorro government did much to change the situation in the country, a
situation of grinding poverty for many and little hope of employment for many others.
The first two main characters, in a sense, live persecuted by the ghosts of their past. Trejos is a successful psychiatrist with an established practice in Miami, Florida. He thus represents the Nicaraguan who leaves the country.
Espinoza introduces him to the reader on an airplane with his wife as they are returning to Nicaragua. This is their first trip back to the country after many years of absence. We encounter Trejos in an agitated state. On the one hand he is anxious to be "home" in his country and in the city of his birth, León. On the other hand, he feels strange and alienated after so many years of absence. It is true that, at one time, during the struggle between "contras" and Sandinistas, he was the main support of his family in Nicaragua which otherwise would have lost their lands. It is also true that it was through this support that he has never lost his ties with his country, yet, after the years in the United States, he has, of course, changed. He is no longer a Nicaraguan in the sense of those who remained and took part in the events of the country during the 80's and 90's.
In addition to this, he has begun to hear voices. He sees a strange cloud through the window which seems to be following the jet liner. Espinoza presents this all to the reader ironically and with a certain amount of humor, without losing sight of her character's existential predicament. He is an individual haunted by the past, regarding what he could have done, had he remained in the country vs what he has accomplished by having left.
At the same time he is quite disconcerted by the fact that he, a psychiatrist, should be hearing voices. Espinoza's treatment of Augusta Catalina Méndez is more serious or probing in its intent. Augusta is the daughter of an impoverished family which formerly occupied a high status in Nicaraguan society. She chooses, however, to ignore her roots --in truth, she is presented to us as
introspective and lonely since childhood-- and joins the Sandinista movement only to be disappointed as far as the revolution is concerned and as far as her love life is also concerned. To the extent that José Trejos hears voices and sees strange clouds, Augusta also is haunted. Her ghosts come from the past; they are friends and acquaintances she has seen die in the fighting. By extension we may say that these ghosts of her memory are embodiments of her own remorse over a life which, at least in her opinion, has encountered no meaning or significance.
The two characters knew and played with each other as children but over the course of the novel they never meet. If there is any bridge between them it must be represented in the next character, don Fito. Espinoza presents this character with a certain amount of humor and irony, much in the way we have seen within the tradition of the novela de costumbres. He is a kind of self-taught, penniless scholar who goes from household to household, philosophizing, giving advice --whether it is solicited or not--, and, in the end, hoping that they will invite him to stay to eat, which the characters in the novel, out of pity and also out of respect for his knowledge, invariably do. What sets him off from the usual characters of the costumbrista tradition is his avid though somewhat misguided enthusiasm for the computer and other modern means of communication. Thus, in so far as he recalls this tradition, he represents the Nicaraguan who stays at home. But his interest in the outside world that televisions and computers can bring to the country links him to the Nicaraguan who leaves the homeland. In terms of a scheme of time, don Fito is a link between the country's past and its future.
As the novel proceeds this connection between the individual who stays at home and the one who travels, as well as the link between past and future, becomes gradually more central to the novel's development. For indeed, as we see, Augusta, while representing the individual who remains, has become alienated from the very homeland she fought for. At the same time, it is the very history of the country that haunts her in the form of the war dead. As for José, it is not only his sense of alienation caused by his absence that haunts, but the voices he hears. As the novel develops, Augusta, with the help of an old time friend who, incidentally is another person who has left Nicaragua and now returned, is able to confront her ghosts and achieve some peace of mind. José is also made to understand that his very absence from Nicaragua saved his country, since his practice in the United States provided him with the financial means to save his family's land holdings in Nicaragua. As for the voices he has been hearing, in a more humorous way, this becomes a way of resolving a problem of what the future may hold. For as it turns out, the voices are those of an angel sent to guard the spirit of José's yet unborn grandson in Florida.
CHRISTIAN SANTOS is a journalist, the author of two books of poetry --Agualuna and Huella de amor --, and a novel --El tigre junto al río, which has just gone into a second printing. Her works have been translated into various languages, German and Italian among them. And David Miller of the North American Union of Writers has completed a translation of the book of poetry, Agualuna. Naturally, in the course of her career, she has traveled, but it is interesting and relevant to note that she resides mainly in Nicaragua and, in this respect, she represents the individual who does not leave the homeland.
Though the themes of her poetry vary, there is a strong preference for the subject of love. But no matter what the theme, her focus is noteworthy since it so often centers on her nation, as seen in its physical presence or in its history. We can see this in the poem "Trilogía de vida en el amor," which I would like to quote (I should mention that vos meaning tú is used in Nicaragua and what might seem to be first person singular preterites are really the command form of third conjugation verbs):
Diosa Madre Cipaltonalt
bendicí los amaneceres de mi vida
con el movimiento de las aguas en mis ojos
para que la fuerza de la pantera
esté conmigo cuando bañe su piel con la mirada.
Madre mía de mi vida bendecí mi atardecer
para que mis pechos como dos luceros
enciendan el fuego que ilumine el corazón del amado.
Diosa Madre abrí en mi seno las compuertas del cielo
para que la pasión y la ternura arrullen relámpagos y
treunos cuando descubra sus alas la noche.
The allusion to the pantera, the lightening, and the thunder in the poem, in a sense recalls the tropical jungles of Nicaragua while the supplication to the goddess Cipaltonalt links the poet to her indigenous past. Another link to this same past exists on a more complex level. It is to be remembered the strong role the goddesses play in the creation and other indigenous myths throughout the Americas. These myths tend to place little or no censorship on female sexuality. On the contrary, they glorify it in its capacity as a necessary force within the process of creation. In turn this affirmation of the feminine as a positive source of creation explains the frank eroticism of much of Santos' poetry. Within the indigenous world there is no shame attached to womanhood, thus the female voice of these poems is free not only to glorify love, but openly to revel in the part her body plays in the act of love.
In another poem "Quiñentos años de esta historia" from Agualuna Santos defiantly protests against what the Western Conquest has done to indigenous women:
Ellos vinieron y se apropiaron
de cada fisura de mi cuerpo
matando mis deseos de mujer
obligándome en nombre de Dios
a parirles hijos de sus hijos
que serían mis Dioses
y verdugos a la vez.
The outrage of having been enslaved is obvious. But two elements in the poem make it even more effective. The line "They took possession of each fissure of my body", places the outrage on a very basic and carnal level, far different from merely stating that the woman has been enslaved. The
second element is more implied: The narrator is aware that she now has a new God to obey, that she has been robbed of her own deities, and finally, that her own flesh; i.e, her children are now not only servants of this new God and, thus, have not only been robbed from, but also have become her
Finally, as we have noted, these images of love and outrage are generated from within the Nicaraguan homeland and experience. They are, of course, universalized because they reach down to the level of all being: love and pain.
CONNY PALACIOS received her doctorate from the University of Miami and she now teaches at the University of Eastern Missouri. She is the author of one novel, En carne viva, and three books of poetry, Exorcismo del absurdo, Percepción fractal, and her latest, Radiografía del silencio.
If much of Christian Santos' poetry evokes the Nicaraguan landscape and its Native American heritage, Palacios' work seems rooted in other sources of inspiration. She makes frequent reference to the sea and to traveling. At the same time the presence of ancient Greece is obvious. This is most true, of course, in her prose poem, "Lo que Homero no contó", from Percepción fractal. The poem is too long to be quoted here in its entirety. But it adopts the point of view of Calypso after Ulysses has abandoned her to return to Penelope. From the male point of view, the episode defines the new Greek ethos with respect to meaning of home and marriage. At the same time it is impossible to avoid the sense of tragedy with regard to ultimate human destiny if we recall that in rejecting Calypso Ulysses, in effect, chooses mortality over eternal youth which the goddess has offered him. But from the female point of view, the episode is even more nuanced with respect to both this new ethos and its consequences for Calypso, the individual goddess herself. Ulysses, at least, has the consolation of his wife, son, and kingdom. Calypso is left with nothing. Palacios thus writes:
Exhausta le volví a ofrecer la inmortalidad en mis versos por
segunda vez, le di
a beber la música y la magia oculta de mis poemas. Fui miel y
colmena sólo por él... Pero, Ay, no pude detenerlo y
comprendí que el amor no siempre se cumple
en la posesión del ser amado. Entonces abrí los pétalos de mis
manos y lo
dejé ir y se me fue como agua entre los dedos... El resto ya lo
The rest being her death, of course, which the poet makes us feel even more deeply through the shear understatement of her emotions and the stoicism with which she accepts her fate in the last few words of the poem. The feeling of abandonment and betrayal in "Quiñentos años..." and "Lo que Homero no contó" demonstrate the solidarity of emotion content between the two poets. But the points of reference, may perhaps reflect the difference between their pproaches. While Santos reaches a sense of universality through a reliance on images taken from her Nicaraguan experience, Palacios begins with an episode known throughout the Western world to arrive at the image of an individual woman who is left abandoned. In a second poem "Espejismo es la tierra prometida", published in Radiografía del silencio" the point of view shifts from the inhabitant of an island to the traveler who may well be Ulysses himself, though it can be any traveler who can only feel the deep sense of his or her "strangeness" and alienation when away from home:
Levanté el ancla
y como vigía avezado
me abracé por muchas lunas
al alto mástil de mi barco,
oteando en la distancia
Inútil ha sido el ansia encabritada en el pecho...
Ineficaces mis cabellos que nos saben enredar otras melodías...
Improductivos mis dedos que no saben tocar la canción de otras
Estéril ha sido esta sal que cubre mis llagas...
Infecundo el horizonte que no florece en paisajes...
Inservible este cansancio, que ya me dobla...
Sólo el grtio de los cormoranes
y el agua que amenaza con hundirme...
es la Tierra Prometida.
If we now compare the feeling of loss expressed in this poem of the traveler to Santos' "Trilogía de vida en el amor", the differences are stark. While "Trilogía..." is a promise of abundance, hope becomes a mere mirage for Palacios' narrator. On the other hand, the promise expressed in "Trilogía...", in the long run, may also be a mirage if we recall the second poem by Santos, "Quiñentos años de esta historia" in which the very Earth mother to whom "Trilogía"... is addressed becomes the victim of the travelers who land on her shores. In turn, this theme of the traveler who lands on a foreign shore brings us full circle back to "Lo que Homero no contó". If we study both poems we see that though one relies on autochthonous elements for its imagery and the other, on Classical Greece, they both turn around the theme of the abandoned woman, as though alienation and abandonment were the only possible end. And if "Quiñentos años..." is a metaphor for Nicaragua and its people after so many bad governments and North American violent incursions are we to assume that both in the case of the individual who remains at home and the one who travels the end result is alienation? In the two poets it may seem so, though I must add that the artistic production of both these authors deal with a wide gamut of human experience, and what I have outlined here refers to only one aspect of their works.
At the same time, El sueño del ángel, even in the case of the Nicaraguan who travels and the one who remains at home, implies a certain amount of self fulfillment for both, which brings us back to Pablo Antonio Cuadra himself.
Pablo Antonio Cuadra considered duality to be inherent in the nature of the Nicaraguan people. He attempted to trace it back to its Native American origins, in his essay "Hijos de septiembre" in which he recalls the Indian statues of his youth depicting an animal fused to the head or the shoulders of a human being. He asked himself if this may not have been the aboriginal's way of expressing the dual human/animal nature found in all men. He notes that the Spanish Conquest only added to this problem of duality. Finally, he wondered what effect this duality would have on the sense of self of his countrymen. Was the individual always to be at cross purposes with himself, or would he become a kind of incessant effort at fusion and dialogue? The writings of these three women certainly raise these questions again, at the same time they imply that perhaps there is no one final answer, rather only the quest for an answer which, in the long run, may be more important than an answer itself, as long as it expands our horizons and points to new facets of our humanity as, indeed, these writings do.
-- Presentada en “Popular Culture Conference”, San Antonio, Texas (April 2004). 1 abril 2004