Jamee Indigo Eriksen

Joseph Holmes

Rachel Robbins

Michael Ursell


Conflicted City: The City as Site of Conflict in Brother, I'm Dying and "Leyenda de la Tatuana"


Jamee Indigo Eriksen
San Francisco State University

"The soul is not at mercy of external forces - neither mercantilism, foreign powers, nor arbitrary governments - that try to shape and control it by their own fickleness and vice. On the contrary, Asturias is saying that human beings always have the means to recover their independence."
-René Prieto

Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias published a collection of Maya folktakes entitled Leyendas de Guatemala in 1930.  In one of these short stories, "La Leyenda de la Tatuana," Asturias explores the allegorical experience of an indigenous priest, Maestro Almendro who divides and then loses his soul. This is a surreal cautionary tale about the perils of the urban existence. In this short story, Asturias makes visible the factors underlying the city. His text deconstructs the city from the perspective of an alternate voice, one that is both Guatemalan and indigenous, the protagonist Maestro Almendro. Maestro Almendro's voice questions the hegemonic ordering of the Guatemalan city, which is built on the power structure created by the Spanish, colonial founders. The text deconstructs the colonial landscape, and in so doing illuminates the tensions between the colonial agents and the indigenous Guatemalans.

I use Asturias' text to examine the creation of the City, a symbolic gesture in which the real Guatemala City serves as an allegorical city where the tensions of land control and distribution, religion, and class dynamics between the Spanish Conquistadors and Guatemalan indigenous people are foregrounded. And second, I show how Asturias creates an escape from the City, and therefore from the colonized world.

In the second part of this paper, I use the metaphor of the city as explored through Asturias' text to examine the non-fiction novel Brother, I'm Dying by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat. "La Leyenda de la Tatuana" informs a post-colonial reading of Danticat's memoir, which I use to outline the formation of the city in Danticat's text and to explore the possible methods of liberation based on the theory of escape which I tease from the lines of Asturia's text. In both texts the tensions between colonizer/colonized exist in similar situations, specifically in the imprisonment of the indigenous protagonist by the colonial agent. Their imprisonments are both based on the need to control the bodies of the protagonist rather than on valid, legal precedent. Issues of colonial control of the homeland of each protagonist form the basis for the tension between the colonizer and the colonized protagonist, and it is in the urban city where this tension becomes illuminated in the text.

In "Leyenda de la Tatuana," the tension begins when Camino Negro, guardian of one-quarter of Maestro Almendro's soul, "se detuvo en la ciudad, atravesó la plaza y en el barrio de los mercaderes, por un ratito de descanso, dio el alma del Maestro al Mercader de Joyas sin precio" (Asturias 42) ("is detained in the city, behind the plaza and in the neighborhood of the merchants. In exchange for a small rest, he gave the Master's soul to the Merchant of Gems Without Price")1. When Maestro Almendro finds out, he takes human form, walks to the city, and attempts to bargain for his soul. He offers hundreds of pearls, giant pieces of emeralds, stones to call the water, feathers to protect against storms, marijuana for tobacco, and yet the Merchant refuses each offer (Asturias 43). "¿A qué seguir hablando?, ese pedacito de alma lo quería para cambiarlo, en un mercado de esclavas, por la esclava más bella" (Asturias 43) ("Why continue talking? I wanted this little piece of soul in order to exchange it at the slave market for the most beautiful slave"). The culture of the other, the soul, becomes a commodity in the hands of the Spanish Merchant, urbanized stand-in for the colonial agent.

Maestro Almendro continues his attempts to bargain for his soul, but "todo fue inútil, inútil que el Maestro ofreciera y dijera, tanto como lo dijo, su deseo de recobrar el alma" (Asturias 43) ("everything was useless, useless that Maestro Almendro would offer and say as much as he did, in his desire to recover his soul"). In response, Maestro Almendro turns to magic, which in Asturias' text is a symbolic representation of indigenous power that is particularly outside of the colonizer's control and influence:

Una hebra de humo de tabaco separaba la realidad del sueño, los gatos negros de los gatos blancos y al Mercader del extraño comprador, que al salir sacudió sus sandalias en el quicio de la puerta. El polva tiene maldición. (Asturias 43)
(A thread of tobacco smoke separated reality from dream, the black cats from white cats and the Merchant from the strange buyer who, upon leaving beat his sandals in the doorjamb of the door. Dust is a curse.)

Maestro Almendro's attempt to bargain according to the rules of the colonial system fail, and so he turns to the indigenous rules of his world. The tobacco smoke reflects the boundary between the worlds of the Conquistador and Maestro Almendro and through the blurring of this boundary Maestro Almendro is able to cross from the colonial space into his own world. When he curses the merchant, Maestro Almendro is punishing the merchant for attempting to own and sell his soul.

Asturias' entire story is a struggle for power; the colonized subject demands autonomy while the colonial agent vies for complete control. Each is informed by the laws of the world from which they come; the merchant adheres to the rules of capitalism and Maestro Almendro, unique in that he can navigate in both his and the merchant's worlds, works according to the social order of his indigenous space. The power dynamic that is an inherent part of the colonial world is first seen in the text and in this Asturian city in the negotiations between merchant and Maestro. The scene ends in a stalemate: the merchant is cursed, and the Maestro's soul is still fragmented.

Later in the story, the tension between the two worlds seeps into the area surrounding the city. In this scene the natural world, where Maestro Almendro governs, fulfills the curse earlier placed on the merchant. As the merchant is traveling back to the city with his entourage and the slave he purchases with Maestro Almendro, he and the thirty men of his entourage are surprised by a violent storm, which causes the Merchant's horse to stumble and hizo "rodar al Mercader al pie de un árbol, que, fulminando por el rayo en ese instante, le tomó con las raices como una mano que recoge una piedra, y le arrojó el abismo" (Asturias 45)  (caused the Merchant to fall at the foot of a tree that, striking him dead in an instant, seized him with its roots like a hand picking up a rock, and threw him into the abyss). Outside of the city, Maestro Almendro is in control. He punishes the colonial agent through his power, magic, which is outside of the control of the hegemony. Inside the city, however, Maestro Almendro's power, though still strong, is not supreme. Hence, the city becomes the site of conflict where the power of the Conquistador and the power of the Indigenous challenge each other.

This tension is illuminated by the fractured state of being of Maestro Almendro. Because he does not have complete autonomy, the theft of his soul, which he chose to divide, is possible. Although he is able to punish the merchant for his transgression, he is not able to make himself whole. Consequently,

se habia quedado en la ciudad perdido, deambulaba como loco por las calles, asustando a los niños, recogiendo basura y dirigiéndose de palabra a los asnos, a los bueyes y a los perros sin dueño, que para él formaban con el hombre la colección de bestias de mirada triste. (Asturias 45)

(stayed lost in the city, wandering the streets like a crazy man, frightening children, collecting garbage and talking to the donkeys, oxen, and ownerless dogs who, along with the man, made up the collection of the saddest looking beasts.)

Maestro Almendro's position at the city at this point in the story mirrors that of the rural Guatemalan campesinos who, believing the promises of the city's wealth, migrate to Guatemala City. Neither part of the city, nor able to leave, Maestro Almendro is doomed to wander its streets invisible and crazed. His only hope is that he will recover his soul.

In his essay "The Country and The City," Raymond Williams writes about the "myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder" (514). We find surprising parallels between the myth of England and the Industrial Revolution, and the situation in Guatemala. Exchange the English pastoral lands for the Guatemalan highlands, coastal and lowlands, substitute campesino for serf. A similar fall can be seen in Guatemala, one in which a focus on industrialization and away from the rural world can be blamed for "social suffering and disorder." However, as Williams explains in England, it is not the push to industry that created disorder, but a systematic redistribution of land away from the campesinos into the hands of the wealthy elite:

What really happened was that in the economically dynamic areas a capitalist social system was pushed through to a position of dominance, by a form of legalized seizure enacted by representatives of the beneficiary class. [. . .] It is true that many of the landless became, often with little choice, the working class of the new industrial towns, thus continuing that movement of wage labourers to the towns. (Williams 515, emphasis added)
Guatemalan land was seized by the dominant class from the rural populations, and "in 1884 alone, more than one hundred thousand acres of Maya-owned municipal lands passed into private hands" (Perera 9). As Williams writes of England, the landless became the new working class in the city, or were forced to work as serfs in the country, as Victor Perera notes in his book Unfinished Conquest:
The establishment of the social hierarchy that persists in Guatemala to this day: European (criollo) landowners and generals dominating the mixed-blood (ladino) administrators and officers, who in turn oppress the lowly Mayan campesinos, often through Indian intermediaries in the guise of labor contractors, pastors, army sergeants, and municipal officers. (5)
Perera underscores the issues that lead to the migration from the Guatemalan rural areas to the urban centers, most especially Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango, noting one of many laws that pushed campesinos into forced labor:

Jorge Ubico replaced them [debt-peonage statutes enacted in the 1870s by  President Barrios] with vagrancy laws that obligated all campesinos owning less than three manzanas (two hectares) to do manual labor for a minimum of one hundred days a year. (8-9)

The acquisition of Maestro Almendro's soul parallels the Guatemalan government's theft of campesino labor. Both actions urge migration into the city, and break apart indigenous autonomy. The fractured autonomy condemns Maestro Almendro to abandonment and forced captivity to the city, while the Guatemalan campesino is made to suffer a similar fate of forced inhabitation in the city and an inability to exist outside of the strict hegemonic social order. Williams writes against the myth of the city in part to illustrate the misplaced nostalgia critics of the city hold for the country. Neither the English nor the Guatemalan countryside were the site of perfect existence. Peace and tranquility, the myth of the country that balances the myth of oppression in the city, did not reign supreme in the space outside of the city. Nor is it my project to suggest that the country is better than the city. However, it is important to look at the city as a specifically conflicted space where the struggle between colonizer/colonized is most profound and visible.

Asturias does not leave his protagonist to ambulate, three quarters whole, in the dirty streets. Maestro Almendro walks the streets for a long time: "pasado mucho tiempo, interrogando a todos, se detuvo a la puerta del Mercader de Joyas sin precio a preguntar a la esclava, única sobreviviente de aquella tempestad"  (Asturias 45) ("questioning everyone, he stopped at the door of the Merchant of Jewels without price to question the slave, the only survivor of the storm"). When Maestro Almendro sees the face of slave, which is a "pedacito de su alma" ("piece of his soul") it is as if they are "dos amantes que han estado ausentes y se encuentran de pronto" (Asturias 45) ("two lovers who have been apart and are reunited at last"). Because they are in the city, the tension between the indigenous world of Maestro Almendro and the Conquistador disrupts the scene. The (re)union is interrupted by Catholic priests and Spanish soldiers who "Venían a prenderles en nombre de Dios y el Rey, por brujo a él y por endemoniada a ella. Entre cruces y espadas bajaron a la cárcel" (Asturias 46) ("come to seize them in the name of God and the King, him for sorcery and her for possession. Between crosses and swords they went down to prison"). The colonial agents cannot allow Maestro Almendro, who is at best a colonized subject and at worst an autonomous being whose existence challenges the colonial order, to remain intact. Thus, they are condemned to burn in the grand plaza.

Michel Foucault argues that "the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs" (549). The tension of the city is made visible on the bodies of the colonized subjects: The slave's body is traded on the market, Maestro Almendro is imprisoned in his body when part of his soul is stolen by the merchant, the slave and Maestro Almendro are physically imprisoned, and finally, the colonizer demands that the bodies of the slave and Maestro Almendro must be burned. Asturias again turns to magic for liberation.

La víspera de la ejecución el Maestro acercosé a la esclava y con la uña le tatuó un barquito en el brazo, diciéndole: --Por virtud de este tatuaje, Tatuana, vas a huir siempre que te halles en peligro, como vas a huir hoy. Mi voluntad es que seas libre como mi pensamiento; traza este barquito en el muro, en el suelo, en el aire, donde quieras, cierra los ojos, entra en él y vete… (Asturais 46)

(The day before the execution, Master Almond Tree approached the slave and with his nail he tattooed a little ship on her arm, saying: ---By virtue of this tattoo, Tatuana, you will always escape when you find yourself in danger, like you are going to escape today. My will is that you be as free as my thoughts; trace this design on the wall, on the ground, in the air, wherever you want, close your eyes, enter in it [the design] and go away…)
Maestro Almendro frees himself and the slave through the application of an alternative form of language. The Spanish Conquistador used language, specifically court decree and Catholicism, to destroy the indigenous autonomy. In response, Maestro Almendro escapes through the subversive application of language, an act made even more significant because the language used is a drawing and not part of the hegemonic grouping of signs. Stepping out of the text, we see also that Asturias-as-author is using hegemonic language for subversive purposes on another level. He rewrites in Spanish, the Conquistador’s language, a Maya folktale transmitted through the oral tradition. 

Maestro Almendro frees himself by returning to the indigenous world: “la mañana de la ejecución los alguaciles encontraron en la carcel un árbol seco que tenía entre las ramas dos o tres florecitas de almendro, rosada todavía” (Astuias 46) ("on the morning of the execution the guards found in the prison a dry tree that had between its branches two or three small almond flowers, still pink"). The specific details of liberation for Maestro Almendro are not written because they cannot be contained in or described by language and Western logic. Magic exists outside of the colonial city. The unexplained liberation of Maestro Almendro represents the ambiguity of being other in a colonized space. In so doing, Asturias illustrates that
the soul is not at mercy of external forces—neither mercantilism, foreign powers, nor arbitrary governments—that try to shape and control it by their own fickleness and vice. On the contrary, Asturias is saying that human beings always have the means to recover their independence. (Prieto 60)
Asturias writes Guatemala City as the site of conflict between the Spanish Conquistadors and Guatemalan indigenous groups, but he also gives us the larger metaphor of the City, which is useful in the reading of Edwidge Danticat’s non-fiction memoir, Brother, I’m Dying. This is a collection of many stories that come together to form a larger story, that of Haiti and the ripples around it. Asturias’ Guatemala City was written in 1930, Danticat’s city is not a city at all. Krome Detention Center is a U.S. Immigration complex in Miami, Florida. Asturias’ story and city allow for the deconstruction of the city in Danticat and the liberation of her protagonist, Uncle Joseph. In the city of Danticat, the Spanish Colonizer becomes the United States; the soldiers and clergy are replaced by immigration and border control officers. Instead of Maestro Almendro, the prisoner is Joseph Nosius Dantica, a Haitian priest who is caught in-between Haiti and the U.S.  

We find Joseph help captive in U.S. Customs and Immigration, the gate through which one enters the City. In Asturias, the Conquistador controls the body and soul of Maestro Almendro; in Danticat, the immigration officers take away Joseph’s medication and, when as a result Jospeh has a seizure, the immigration  medic says “ ‘I think he’s faking,’ [. . . ] To prove his point, the medic grabbed my uncle’s head and moved it up and down” (Danticat 233). In Asturias, the Conquistador arrived in Guatemala, grabbed the indigenous landholdings, and forced them to labor. Danticat writes that
as World War I dawned and the French, British and Germans, who controlled Haiti’s international shipping, rallied their gunboats to protect their interests, President Woodrow Wilson, whose interests included, among others, the United Fruit Company and 40 percent of the stock of the Haitian national bank, ordered an invasion. [. . .] U.S. Marines landed in Haiti in July 1915 for what would become a nineteen-year occupation. (29)
After this first invasion, the U.S. continues to dismantle Haiti’s autonomy. Joseph enters the custody of U.S. immigration in October of 2004, just three months after
July 15, 2004, the fifty-first birthday of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice-elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristride was [then] spending his birthday in exile in South Africa. (Danticat 24)
These months in 2004 are a time of chaos and extreme political unrest in Haiti. The United States played a significant role in the events and history leading up to the 2004 coup d’état, as a result of which Uncle Joseph was forced to flee from Haiti. Like the other Haitians, Danticat tells us that Joseph spent his
entire life watching the strong arm of authority in action, be it the American marines who’d been occupying the country when [he] was born or the brutal local army they’d trained and left behind to prop up, then topple, the puppet governments of their  choice. And when the governments fell, United Nations soldiers, so-called peacekeepers, would ultimately have to step in,  and even at the cost of innocent lives attempt to restore order. (171)
The restoration of order by the UN led to Joseph’s political exile. “The UN soldiers had stormed the neighborhood, flattening makeshift barricades with bulldozers. They’d knocked down walls on corner buildings that could be used to shield snipers, cleared away piles of torched cars that had been blocking traffic for weeks” (172). Joseph and his church are put in the middle of the fighting. What followed is the real danger, the backlash of the gang members who believed that Joseph intentionally allowed the UN to use his home for cover as they sent bullets through the streets. In order to save Joseph’s life from his own community, a church member sends her daughter to warn Joseph after the UN soldiers leave:
“Pastor,” said Anne, “my aunt told me to tell you she heard that fifteen people were killed when they were shooting from your  roof and the neighbors are saying that they’re going to bring the corpses to you so you can pay for their funerals. If you don’t pay, and if you don’t pay for the people who are hurt and need to go to the hospital, they say they’ll kill you and cut your  head off so that you won’t even be recognized at your own funeral.” (Danticat 178)
When Joseph arrives in the United States, he is held at the Krome Detention Center, the essential city, the place where the “compact model of the disciplinary mechanism” of Foucault’s plague-ridden city operates at its strongest. In Asturias, the solution to Spanish control is the application of alternative language and magic. But in Danticat, language is strictly controlled and there is no magic language that can free Joseph’s body. “At 7:00 p.m., after more than twenty hours of no food and sugarless IV fluids, my [diabetic] uncle was sweating profusely and complained of weakness." At 8:30 p.m., “the next note on his chart shows that he was found pulseless and unresponsive by an immigration guard” (Danticat 239). Joseph’s death is the result of the system of power in the City, predicated upon racism, as Danticat explains:
My uncle was treated according to a biased immigration policy dating back from the early 1980s when Haitians began arriving in Florida in large numbers by boat. In Florida, where Cuban refugees are, as long as they’re able to step foot on dry land, immediately processed and released to their families, Haitian asylum seekers are disproportionately detained, then deported. While Hondurans and Nicaraguans have continued to receive protected status for nearly ten years since Hurricane Mitch struck their homelands, Haitians were deported to the flood zones weeks after Tropical Storm Jeanne blanketed an entire city in water the way Hurricane Katrina did parts of New Orleans. [. . .] If he [Joseph] were white, Cuban, anything other than Haitian, would he have been going to Krome? (223)
Racist policies inform the language that enables the hegemony. In Danticat’s text, racism is woven into the language of U.S. immigration through immigration quotas, general bias influenced by the post 9/11 climate of fear, form-letter interviews, and immigration officials who lack knowledge of the language of the people they imprison (they don’t speak French, but they speak Spanish; nor do they have a French or Haitian-Creole translator available, despite the proximity of Haiti to Florida and the frequency of Haitians detained at Krome). 

In Asturias, the application of alternative language results in liberation. In Danticat, Joseph dies. Danticat takes the colonizer’s language, in the form of official documents and standard U.S. English, and uses these for the subversive of escape. Danticat stitches together a true story of Uncle Joseph in which he is vindicated and the colonial system that kills him held responsible. In so doing she liberates Joseph from Krome and the margins of “official” history. As Asturias uses writing to liberate Maestro Almendro, so Danticat liberates Joseph through writing.  

Joseph Nosius Danticat is taken into custody and becomes “Alien 27041999” (Danticat 214). U.S. immigration strips him of his name in order to splinter his autonomy. Like Maestro Almendro in Asturias, part of Joseph’s soul is taken from him. Like Tatuana in Asturias, Joseph becomes nameless. "There is a form called a Discretionary Authority Checklist for Alien Applicants, which is meant to assist examining Customs and Border Protection officers in deciding whether to detain or release a person like my uncle" (Danticat 221-222).

The immigration officer, acting agent of the colonizer, follows the form, which includes questions about age and health that affect the release or detainment of a person.
In spite of my uncle’s eighty-one years and his being a survivor of throat cancer, which was obvious from his voice box and tracheotomy, when answering whether there were age and health factors to be taken into consideration, Officer Reyes checked No. (Danticat 223)
Joseph is kept in custody after the immigration official incorrectly answers the following:
Is the applicant a well-known public figure?
Congressional or media interest?
Does the applicant have a legitimate reason for entering the U.S.?
Is the applicant’s reason for entry based on an emergency?
No.                                            (Danticat 223)

When answering the question “Would the applicant be admissible if s/he had a valid passport and/or visa?” (Joseph had both) the answer was: “Yes” (223). Joseph, like Maestro Almendro, remains imprisoned.  

The immigration agent answers incorrectly (lies) on the Discretionary Authority Checklist, and thereby maintains control over Joseph. At this point one must wonder what is the point of the rules, of the forms and checklists if legitimacy is unnecessary? The forms represent “the basic functioning of a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms” (Foucault 557). Through these processes the United States reassures itself of its own legitimacy. 

Danticat takes this same language of the colonizer and uses it to tell a different story. Like Maryse Conde in I, Tituba, Danticat pulls Joseph from the shadows of a concrete cell where the colonizer leaves him to die and tells his story. Danticat uses the evidence collected by the U.S. government and illuminates the structure of control behind colonialism, exposing the fractures in its machinery. Instead of the myth of terrorism created by the language of fear, Danticat tells the story of a man oppressed and killed by the U.S. hierarchy. She uses the system that kills Joseph to tell his story, and in that he is liberated from captivity.   

In Asturias’ text the metaphor of the City is constructed when Asturias reveals the machinations of the Spanish colonial system in Guatemala City. Both the allegorical Asturian City and the literal city give us a model that is useful in certain contemporary settings, like Krome Detention Center. When we pay close attention to the ways in which Asturias subverts the hierarchy of power in his 1930s Guatemala, we can learn to do the same in certain small spheres of our larger 21st century world.  Thus, René Prieto is correct in writing that “The soul is not at mercy of external forces,” and both Asturias and Danticat show that “human beings always have the means to recover their independence.”   


Works Cited

Arias, Arturo. “Constructing Ethnic Bodies and Identities in Miguel Angel Asturias
         and Rigoberta Menchu.” Postmodern Culture. 2006 

Asturias, Miguel Angel. “La Leyenda de la Tatuana.” Leyendas De Guatemala.
        Madrid:Alianza Editorial. 2005

Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Knopf. 2007.

Foucaut, Michel. “Discipline and Punish.” In Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd
Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
        2004. 533-566.

Lund, Joshua; Wainwright, Joel. “Miguel Angel Asturias and the Aporia of
        Postcolonial Geography”. Interventions. U of Pittsburg and Ohio State
        Univ; 1 July 2008.

Perera, Victor. Unfinished Conquest: the Guatemalan Tragedy. Berkeley:
        Univ. of California Press.1993.

Prieto, René. Miguel Angel Asturias’s Archaeology of Return. New York:
        Cambridge UP. 1993.

Williams, Raymond. “The Country and The City.” In Literary Theory: An
        Anthology 2nd Edition..
Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden:
        Blackwell Publishing. 2004. 508-532.


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