Mexican Gothic Part Two

Posted by Ilse Marie Bussing on February 07, 2009 in Blog tagged with


   In my last blog I addressed the topic of degeneration in the very specific context of Carlos Fuentes’s Gothic story “Calixta Brand.” On this occasion, I would like to point out another main characteristic of this Mexican author’s treatment of the Gothic genre. I will discuss the topic of the clash between Mexican indigenous, Spanish and Moorish cultures and how it is transported into and transformed by the Gothic sphere. For clarity’s sake, I will employ the same literary text (a plot summary is available in the last blog). A main topic that runs throughout this story is that of power struggles between cultures.

   To begin with, the narrator and male protagonist, Esteban, is a rich Mexican landowner, descendant of Spanish conquistadores, who themselves had Moorish blood, since Spain was occupied by the Moors for seven hundred years. His last names prove the Mexican-Arab duality, and are simultaneously linked and separated by a hyphen: Durán-Mendizábal. The female protagonist, Calixta Brand, is American, an outsider who marries Esteban. There are various instances within the tale in which Esteban systematically undermines (or tries to undermine) Calixta’s power, and one of the reasons is her being American, a member of a nation that holds an imperialistic relationship with Mexico. On several occasions, he calls her “la gringuita,” clearly a derogatory term in Latin America, but especially in Mexico. Incidentally, her last name “brand” suggests American consumerism and the source of its economic power (a discussion of Calixta, and its classical references may be undertaken, but this would make me stray from the immediate discussion).

   One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is how it mentions the cultural hybridity of Mexico and the ensuing tensions that result from it. The hacienda where Esteban and Calixta live, just like the haunted house in many Gothic tales, reflects this rich mixture. For instance, we are told that the hacienda was located in the town of Huejotzingo, clearly an indigenous name, and that there is a native legend related to its volcanoes and mountains. Furthermore, Fuentes says that in 1529 Huejotzingo became a Spanish town and that it reflected both the “productive rage” of the Spanish conquistadores who defeated the Aztecs, and the indolence of the Moorish Andalucians who came with them. The hacienda has clear components of these three groups, and these aspects come alive in a Magic-Realist kind of way, but also in a very Gothic manner. For instance, the Indian servants seem to be not completely alive, and rather to be extensions of the house itself. These servants are completely passive towards Esteban, but also tyrannical against his American wife; their attitude towards both reflects their different relationship with the Mexican landowning class and with the Americans. Furthermore, the Moorish component of the house is central in the story, and it comes alive through the portrait of a mysterious Arab (which is restored gradually by an expert) and through the character of Miguel Asmá, a beautiful and mystical youth who restores Calixta’s health and the garden which she had worked so hard to restore in the hacienda. The portrait gradually begins to look more like this youth, and they both have a healing and spiritual influence on Calixta, whose health had deteriorated and who was the constant victim of neglect and abuse by her envious husband.

   The hacienda mirrors the different components of Mexican life, and the tense and unexpected outcome of different encounters and struggles. “Calixta Brand” is an incredibly complex story, and my rushed accounts of it probably do not do it full justice. The only way to appreciate the story, and the masterful use of the language is to read it, in Spanish, of course. However, my intention in these two blogs was to present characteristics that I believe to be crucial when approaching Latin American texts. In this piece, I have concentrated on the issue of cultural encounters and clashes and in how this topic is addressed by the Gothic genre. In Latin America, a place of recent and ongoing conquest and colonisation, the Gothic genre thrives by exploiting the undermining of cultural and ethnic hegemony. Gothic has always been concerned with subverting roles and power positions, and Latin America is fertile ground for this kind of dynamic. In my next pieces, I will explore other Latin American authors who are writing within this dimension, and hopefully some kind of rough description of Latin American Gothic will begin emerging.

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