This is the coast of Darien. And here the Spanish adventurer Balboa, in 1513, was told by the chief of the Indian fishermen about another sea beyond the mountains, and [he] put his men ashore and marched across to find the Pacific Ocean—and started a passionate dream, the dream of cutting a canal to join the seas, which was only fulfilled four hundred and one years later. The coast that one sees today is exactly the same as it was when he saw it: it is only one's knowledge that is different.
—David Howarth, The Golden Isthmus
Columbus did not discover Central America and its history does not begin with him. In fact, the relevance and importance of the history of aboriginal Central America does not depend on Spain or any other nation. It is the history of highly creative and successful autonomous peoples, and, as such, it deserves its own place, alongside the histories of the most important civilizations of the world.
—Robert M. Carmack, introduction to Historia General de Centroamérica, vol. 1
In my classes on Central American literatures, cultures, and histories, I often begin by giving students cutout pieces representing Central American countries and asking them to (re)construct mappings of the geographic isthmus. Often Belize and Panama fall off the map, Guatemala topples over a ragged strip of land, El Salvador acquires an Atlantic coast, Honduras borders Mexico, Nicaragua becomes an undistinguishable green expanse, and Costa Rica does not quite fit in with the others. More often than not, Central America as a whole lies suspended somewhere between amorphous masses on the north and south and the east and west. As if it were an island, Central America appears without physical, geographic, and historical ties to the rest of the western hemisphere and the world. On reading these student maps, I have pondered why, for many people, Central America figures as an unknown, nebulous zone.
In this book I explore the ever-shifting literary, cultural, and historical configurations of the Central American isthmus as an in-between discursive space linking regions, peoples, cultures, and material goods. I offer the trope of the transisthmus—an imaginary yet material space—as a spatial periodizing term and as a "cultural provision" for reading Central American literatures and cultures outside of categories that up to now have elided larger regional complexities. I read a range of texts that bring to the fore the connections among material, cultural, and literary productions in the region and across nations and the overarching economic conditions that make them possible throughout the isthmus at specific historical moments. I purposefully divide, organize, and assemble Central American texts into cultural, temporal spaces linked by social and economic flows that transcend geopolitical borders. Rather than read Central American literatures as discrete national units, I attempt to read selected texts across national divides, drawing connections between them while producing other transisthmian and transnational cultural and literary spaces. In a sense, I follow Fredric Jameson's "cultural logic" as a way to link cultural and symbolic texts with their sites of material production. Accordingly, Central American transisthmian cultural and literary production, as I understand it here, emerges from the linkages of material and symbolic capital situated in specific geographic, historic, and discursive locations. Because the material and economic basis and imaginary terrain of the isthmus is ever shifting, like the fault lines that run along the region's tectonic plates, the discursive isthmus fully lends itself to constructions of social imaginaries of Central America. The project of this book is thus to reconfigure the imaginary transisthmus through readings of texts produced in economic, political, and symbolic relationship to the physical geographic location of Central America.
To this end, I seek to provide spatial-cultural readings of Central America as a region shaped by and responding to wider global forces with locally inflected and entwined narratives. These narratives speak to the imaginary construction of Central America as an isthmian whole and Central American countries, cultures, and literatures in synecdochal relationship to one another and to the isthmus. I argue that Central American narratives transect and transcend national political boundaries and traverse the entire region, destabilizing not only insular and isolationist notions of national literatures but also integrative and holistic readings of the Central American region and its cultures and peoples. I examine Central American literary and cultural productions as linked practices emerging from overarching conditions, yet speaking from and to specific local contexts. Indeed, Sergio Ramírez, in his essay "Seis falsos golpes contra la literatura centroamericana" (Six False Blows against Central American Literature) (1985, 117-128), reminds us that Central American cultures and literatures are produced in particular locations and under special circumstances, for which perhaps hegemonic critical categories may be inappropriate, inadequate, and insufficient. He suggests that local referents (signifying realities, not one reality) and social, historical contexts hold important social functions in Central American narrative, although this may not be the case for literature produced in other postlocal sites. Despite globalizing trends in the region, Central American texts also follow local imperatives and injunctions and benefit from locally produced strategies of analysis. It is fair, then, to acknowledge the claim made by Central Americanist scholars that specific Central American contexts continue to be of significant consideration in the analysis of Central American histories, cultures, and literatures (Ramírez 1985, 1995; Beverley and Zimmerman 1990; Torres-Rivas 2006). The challenge here is to read Central American texts in relation to globalizing tendencies and local specificities.
In Taking Their Word (2007), Arturo Arias analyzes Central American literature as "'narrative textuality,' an approach that encompasses all genres (the novel, short story, testimonio, essay, and even some variants of epic poetry such as Ernesto Cardenal's El estrecho dudoso (The doubtful strait)" (xiv). He encourages us to read Central America through "the varied textual discursive production of the region, the tapestry of languages, characters, conflicts, and cultural locations of Central America" (xiv). From Arias's discussion of Central American literary and cultural production, I take to heart and task in Dividing the Isthmus the suggestion to "pay closer attention to Central American words themselves, mostly written, but some spoken and then transcribed by others," and to engage Central American narrative textuality as a meta-reflexive "symbolic comprehension of itself" (xv). As (self-)defining representations, Central American texts are not solely interpretive ends in and to themselves (though they can be in some forms of literary criticism) but may more critically serve as tools for "understanding cultural and cross-cultural practices" (xi) and for defining and assuming ideological and subjective positions in world orders, hegemonic and otherwise, as Arias recognizes in his work. In this age of the devaluation of literature and the humanities, critically reading Central American texts in various forms as signs of local realities and global tendencies remains a vital endeavor. As Arias puts it so well, Central America and its narratives can be read as an "invisible hinge between North and South" (2007, xvi) and as an intersection of bodies of knowledge, which I examine further here.
Dividing the Isthmus thus seeks to (re)assemble Central American narratives into transisthmian bodies of knowledge, connecting texts across nations of the region. It, moreover, analyzes the production of transnational literatures in different periods of Central American history. But, as cultural and literary genealogists would remind us, a term such as "transnational" cannot be used loosely and indiscriminately; thus, in this project, I use it situationally to describe Central American texts produced in ever-shifting historical trans/national configurations. Simply put, Dividing the Isthmus is about reading Central American narratives across national boundaries and about producing transnational, or rather transisthmian, "narrative textualities." Each chapter reads an assemblage of Central American texts produced across Central American countries and against insular national traditions. The reading of foundational literature, social realist novels, crisis testimonials, diasporic narratives, and other texts written under globalizing forces will show the possibilities and limits of reading Central American literatures, cultures, and histories in transisthmian and transnational fashion.
The (Re)Signifying Isthmus of Central America
The geophysical and geographic isthmus of Central America lies between the landmasses of North and South America and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It extends across seven countries: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. A relatively recent land formation, Central America acquired its present-day isthmian configuration about three million to four million years ago. Before that time, what are now the Americas North and South were separated by approximately 1,900 miles of water. An archipelago of volcanic islands consolidated into a narrow terrestrial strip, forming a land bridge between North and South America and a partition between the waters later named the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Central America is the only region in the world whose geophysical landmass is both intercontinental and interoceanic. It serves as a hemispheric land corridor and as a pathway between waters. Its narrowest lowland routes are located at Tehuantepec (southern Mexico), the waterways of the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, and the present-day canal in Panama. As a terrestrial bridge, the isthmus serves as a platform for the dispersion of plants and animals, the migration of peoples, the diffusion of cultures, and the movement of global economic capital. It is a site of unparalleled but quickly deteriorating biological and cultural diversity as manifested in its varied land formations, climate, vegetation, animal life, peoples, and cultures. The region is characterized by tropical climate, transitional flora and fauna of North and South America, long volcanic chains with extending seismic fault lines, mountain ranges that run from north to south, dividing Central America into east and west, and lowlands on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, where in some places precipitation is bountiful almost year-round. Successively, the most important agricultural and industrial products of global export economies—among them, cacao, indigo, coffee, rubber, timber, bananas, sugarcane, and cotton—have been cultivated in the isthmus. In the twenty-first century, Central America exports its greatest commodity—its people as labor migrants.
For thousands of years, the Maya people have believed the northern isthmus to be the axis mundi, from which all life is generated and connected to the upper- and underworlds. Sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors were convinced that a waterway leading to the East Indies was located somewhere in the isthmus. For seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European profit seekers, the isthmus, especially at the key ports of Portobello and Nombre de Dios (now Panama), represented boundless treasure-hunting opportunities. In his epic poem, El estrecho dudoso (1966), the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal retraced the Spanish conquistadors' elusive search for the doubtful strait long after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had reached la mar del sur (the southern sea), the Pacific Ocean, by land in 1513. Cardenal's exhaustive use of exteriorista, or concrete, images of land, rain, mud, swamp, and other natural boundaries in El estrecho dudoso serves to represent the isthmus as an inhospitable land to be conquered and transformed by (neo)colonial powers. As David Howarth suggests in the epigraph that opens this introduction, the isthmus, or rather the neocolonial idea of the isthmus, so relentlessly represented in Cardenal's narrative poem has been used historically to authorize successive imperial and imperialist claims to the region and its wealth. Although the conquistadors did not find the elusive strait cutting through the isthmus, in their wake they left a trail of (dis)illusions that have drawn many fortune seekers to Central America throughout the centuries. Recognizing the material and signifying power of the isthmus, nineteenth-century Latin American nation builders further envisioned Central America as the crossroads of the Americas, where the capital of the western hemisphere might one day be based. In "The Jamaica Letter" (1815), Simón Bolívar writes:
The States of the Isthmus from Panama to Guatemala will perhaps form a confederation. This magnificent location between the two great oceans could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties with Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps someday the capital of the world may be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium was the capital of the ancient world. (Quoted in Leiken and Rubin 1987, 62)
Bolívar's vision of the isthmus as the "emporium of the world" and Francisco Morazán's subsequent proposal for a united transisthmian federation would prove as elusive and illusory as the long-standing struggle for autonomy, development, and progress in the region. Possessing "great strategic and commercial importance" and "a favorable situation for a city," the isthmus has been recast in the global imaginary as a land route, water canal, duty-free zone, strategic military portal, and, more recently, a series of interconnected roadways producing an extended network of dry canals.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, the imperial forces of Great Britain, the United States, and other world powers have repeatedly besieged the region, each competing relentlessly for concession rights to territory, resources, and capital. In 1850, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty granted dual custodianship over canal rights in Nicaragua to the United States and Great Britain, ensuring that "neither the one or the other will ever obtain or maintain for itself any exclusive control over the said ship-canal." The long-sought interoceanic canal, of course, would be completed by the United States in Panama in 1914, after the U.S. government orchestrated Panama's secession and independence from Colombia in 1903 (McCullough 1977; LaFeber 1989). Carolyn Hall dully asserts that for foreign powers, "la principal significación de América Central ha sido su posición interoceánica [the main significance of Central America lies in its interoceanic position]" (1985, 9). First, Spanish conquistadors and merchants transported riches from South America, especially gold from Peru, by land and sea through Panama to the Spanish metropolis. Then Great Britain and the United States competed for control over Panama and Nicaragua, each at different moments representing the two most viable sites for the construction of a canal. After the completion of the canal through Panama, the United States would come to control the ten-mile-wide and fifty-mile-long (553-square-mile) Canal Zone until December 31, 1999, as decreed by the Panama Canal Treaties, signed by General Omar Torrijos (1929-1981) and President Jimmy Carter in 1977. The biggest cut through Central America at the Canal Zone came thus to epitomize U.S. economic, military, and political intervention in Central America, which continues well into the present. Indeed, while revolutionary and popular movements might have attempted to set other courses for the region in the 1970s and 1980s, Central America at the foot of the twenty-first century is central to the expansion, consolidation, and implementation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The Isthmus as Nature and/or Culture
Perhaps because of its long history of crossings, interventions, and mediations, Central America remains anchored to its isthmian geographic, historical, and cultural location, but this is not to say that geography or even history has predetermined Central America's socioeconomic, political, and cultural conditions. As Gabriela Nouzeilles makes clear in La naturaleza en disputa (2002), there is little that is "natural" about physical configurations of nature, for nature is always perceived, conceptualized, and constructed ideologically, historically, linguistically, and culturally. Furthermore, as a field of intellectual inquiry into geophysical natural formations, geography has epistemologically shaped thinking about the world and produced various notions of space, place, and location. The idea of nature at any one time is filtered through systems of thought, culture, language, and rhetorical figures that serve as interpretive lenses through which to see the material "natural" world. Concepts and representations of nature, as in all things deemed natural, are subject to interpretive shifts and variations (16-17). As such, the significations of the Central American isthmus have varied across time. While the Maya people may well perceive the isthmus as an organic cosmic center awaiting cataclysmic change on December 21, 2012, capitalist free trade agents contemporaneously conceive the isthmus as a material site of factories, products, patents, migrants, and high-speed rail/road transportation systems otherwise known as "dry canals" ensuring the movement of high-value commodities in the present global market economy (Warpehoski n.d., 34-35). Nouzeilles's claim that representation gives shape to "empirical reality" (15) holds true for the isthmus and its people.
Along these lines, in Transatlantic Topographies (2004), Ileana Rodríguez examines the conceptualization of physical space in the Americas, more specifically, the "representations of American space" informing colonial and postcolonial projects (xi-xix). Among other things, she draws attention to "space and the representation of space as it mutates from landscape into sugar fields, milpas into haciendas, forests into plantations, rivers and lakes into transoceanic canals" (xiv). In a key chapter titled "Banana Republics: Nineteenth-Century Geographers and Naturalists," Rodríguez discusses the early corroboration of the burgeoning fields of geography, archaeology, and ethnology and U.S. commercial expansion in the isthmus (131-162), concentrated in the construction of the interoceanic and transisthmic railroads and canals. For agents of these projects, "Central America is first represented as a metonymy, enjoining space and time contained in the proposition of trans-isthmic routes" (137). Synecdochally, the isthmus as a whole and the countries located in it would be measured according to their use value as ocean and land-crossing instruments for the United States and other world powers. The shorter the crossing span and time, the greater value the particular country or region would have for the United States. Hence the United States historically has exercised great control and power over Nicaragua and Panama (the shortest land and water routes throughout the isthmus), as well as other countries that more recently have provided the U.S. and the global economy with copious quantities of agricultural, industrial, and material resources such as bananas, coffee, and migrants. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, El Salvador, which possesses one of the largest underemployed populations concentrated in one of the smallest countries in the western hemisphere, has become a main exporter of migrant labor to the United States, providing inroads for the expansion of U.S. markets in the global economy. Against this historical context, Rodríguez judiciously claims that, for the United States, "Central America is just a geographical medium" (138) to be appropriated, divided, and exploited by those with the knowledge, technology, capital, and power to do so.
Following the work of Rodríguez and other scholars, my intention in Dividing the Isthmus is not to naturalize the relationship of Central American societies to their physical geographic location, or to essentialize geographic, spatial, and materialist readings of Central American cultures. Rather, I ponder Central America's geographic location and locution as an isthmus, giving rise to spatial-cultural metaphors, synecdochal discourses, and entwined narratives transcending national imaginaries. The conceptualizations of the isthmus that I describe in this introduction are but a few examples that cast the isthmus as a cultural space bound by real and imagined tensions, conflicts, and contradictions. As a cultural space-in-between continents, oceans, and geopolitical spheres, Central America has been imagined by world powers and those serving them as a transitional region to be conquered, civilized, cultivated, charted, mapped, modernized, and pacified (Dunkerley 1988, 1994; Benz 1997; I. Rodríguez 2004) and open to continual exploitation and expropriation of its natural resources, territories, and peoples. Alternate Central American imaginary configurations and transisthmian discursive assemblages, however, are made possible when reading texts and discourses across borders, regions, nations, languages, traditions, and genres, as this book seeks to show.
The Isthmus as Discursive Space-in-Between
Dividing the Isthmus examines cultural and literary assemblages that may allow us to look beyond the forces that have kept Central American histories, cultures, and literatures compartmentalized, isolated, and divided. In the introduction to The Location of Culture (1994), Homi K. Bhabha argues that it is in the interstitial, the liminal in-between, or, as posited here, the "transisthmian" space, that postcolonial or neocolonial cultures and literatures speak to, back, and against the unifying narratives of imperialism, neocolonialism, and globalization. Furthermore, it is in these contact zones, or spaces of cultural encounter, that "peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with one each other and establish ongoing relations" (Pratt 1992, 7). While Mary Louise Pratt speaks about the (neo)colonial encounters between colonizers and colonized, the cultural and literary contact zones of Central America may be read as spaces of internal division, as well as crossings and exchanges between Central American cultures and societies. From these spaces of intersection of diverse Central American traditions, cultures, and peoples, as Silvano Santiago suggests in The Space In-Between (2001), Central Americans produce texts that respond to, dialogue with, speak to, and write against narratives imposed on the region (31). The isthmus, to use Santiago's words, "is the space in which, although the signifier may remain the same, the signified disseminates another inverted meaning" (35) and generates liminal discourses. The isthmus, thus, concomitantly represents a cultural space of divisions and intersections, as I argue in this book.
It is important here to acknowledge the groundbreaking work of Edelberto Torres-Rivas (1980, 2006), Sergio Ramírez (1982, 1985, 1995), Héctor Pérez-Brignoli (1989), Arturo Arias (1998a, 1998b, 2007), Ralph Lee Woodward Jr. (1999), and other Central Americanists who have studied the region's history, culture, and literature as intersecting local, regional, and international productions. In La piel de Centroamérica (The Skin of Central America) (2006), Torres-Rivas recognizes that projects covering the region as a whole and as discrete units may be potentially superficially synthetic (15) but nonetheless useful for examining general tendencies converging across Central American countries. Thus he uses the metaphor of the epidermis to describe tenuous forces such as modernization on national and regional terms (16-18). For Torres-Rivas, it is important to examine what he identifies as "la piel centroamericana" (16) as an interpretive membrane or filter by which to understand historical developments in the region. Similarly, Pérez-Brignoli, in A Brief History of Central America, uses the paradigm of the puzzle to piece together Central American national histories into a regional historiography, covering the pre-Columbian period through the revolutionary apex of the 1980s. Woodward, in Central America: A Nation Divided, also engages in a comparative, regional, and transisthmian historiographic project. In the words of Woodward, such a project seeks "to provide representative examples of general trends rather than a comprehensive chronicle, while also explaining the major political, social, and economic events of the region's history" (1999, ix-x). One of the first scholars to theorize Central American comparative cultural studies, Ramírez further examines the intersections of Central American histories, cultures, and literatures in Antología del cuento centroamericano, Balcanes y volcanes y otros ensayos y trabajos, and Hatful of Tigers. According to Ramírez, Central American literary texts, like the "particular conducts" of Central American nations and peoples, not only acquire specificity but also represent "general conditions" that connect them in significant ways (1985, 14). Reading Central American literatures comparatively to reveal shared Central American traditions, Ramírez suggests that cultural texts such as short stories, music, and folk art could be read to analyze regional sociohistorical conditions, issues, and problematics. Following the work of these critics of Central American Studies and others, I explore ways of reading Central American literary and cultural production in transcultural, transnational, and transisthmian ways.
Furthermore, Magda Zavala and Seidy Araya, in La historiografía literaria en América Central (1957-1987) (1995), along with other contemporary scholars of Central American cultural and literary studies (Bolaños Varela 1988; Cortez 2000; Barbas-Rhoden 2003; Mackenbach 2004; Ortiz Wallner 2005; Leyva 2005), recognize the need to examine Central American literatures and cultures comparatively and inter- and transregionally, a project that Rafael Cuevas Molina engages critically in his Traspatio florecido (1993) and Identidad y cultura en Centroamérica (2006). Based on critical cognitive remappings of Central America, Zavala and Araya propose a regional analytic grounded on "la idea de Centroamérica, entendida como zona cultural o patria grande de los siete países del istmo [the idea of Central America, understood as a cultural zone, or supra-nation of the seven isthmian countries]" (1995, 21).
Although Zavala and Araya's idea of a Central American cultural zone would seem to allude to the nineteenth-century ideal of a federated Central American isthmian imaginary, they argue instead for the study of cultural intersections across nations, produced especially under the strain of globalizing and homogenizing epistemological projects. Dividing the Isthmus responds to Zavala and Araya's call for a transisthmian cultural criticism that enables critics to reconfigure texts and locations into new synecdochal groupings as representative of larger cultural dynamics extending across the isthmus. A regional, comparative transisthmian approach to Central American literatures and cultures can only offer new provocative ways of reading Central American texts in specific and transhistorical locations, in relation to regional, hemispheric, and global contexts, and in intertextual relation to one another. More than ever at the beginning of the twenty-first century, transisthmian critical practices are needed to respond to hegemonic (i.e., developmentalist and economist) regional cultural agendas sweeping through the isthmus. Dividing the Isthmus links cultural productions across Central America and offers critical readings of a broad range of isthmian cultural and literary productions.
Methodologically, I draw from an investigative process that I identify as fiction-finding, as opposed to the fact-finding missions that in Central America often turn out to be equally fictive. In my fiction-finding fieldwork, I have conducted interdisciplinary and intersectional research drawing from literary studies, cultural studies, feminist/gender studies, critical race theory, trauma studies, transnational migration studies, popular culture, ethnography, geography, history, politics, economics, and Latin American and U.S. Latina/o Studies, to name only a few disciplinary fields that inform my critical practice. I have conducted research in national archives, university libraries, public libraries, and private holdings and engaged colleagues and subjects through in-person and electronic discussions, papers commented on and exchanged at conferences, personal communications, interviews, oral histories, and field visits across the isthmus and beyond. I draw from a spectrum of Central American and Central Americanist scholarship that is gaining critical attention in the United States.
I read the isthmus as central to the discourses of the Americas from the end of the nineteenth century through the beginning of the twenty-first century. This book covers a little over one hundred years, 1899-2007, of modern cultural and literary production and modern empire building in Central America. In my analysis of the Central American context, 1899 and 2007 represent key years in the history of Central America, as well as periodizing concepts in Central American literary and cultural production. In 1899, the ubiquitous United Fruit Company (UFCO) was officially incorporated in Boston, Massachusetts, not only branding an era of economic, diplomatic, and economic interventions in the region but also marking the inception of the struggle for economic, political, and cultural autonomy in Central America, as (re)presented in Máximo Soto Hall's novel, aptly titled El problema, published in 1899, which I analyze in chapter 1. The epilogue reads a series of Central American texts produced through the year 2007, when the Costa Rican government ratified the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, despite wide opposition by the citizenry of Costa Rica. (On May 28, 2004, leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua met with President George W. Bush to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement without the presence of Costa Rica. In January 2004, the Dominican Republic entered into the Free Trade Agreement. Subsequently, on July 28, 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives ratified DR-CAFTA by a narrow midnight vote of 217 to 215, and Bush signed the agreement into law [P.L. 109-053] on August 2, 2005. By the end of 2006, DR-CAFTA had been approved in the Dominican Republic and the Central American countries, with the exception of Costa Rica, which finally entered the agreement on October 7, 2007.) The years 1899 and 2007, thus, mark over one hundred years of continued (U.S.) foreign intervention and local resistance to empire building in the isthmus. With the United States as its neighbor, Central America has responded to foreign interventions and homegrown inequities, injustices, and impunities in creative and critical ways, which this book explores in specific chapters organized chronologically, thematically, and spatially as transisthmian configurations.
In his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize in literature, "The Solitude of Latin America" (1982), Gabriel García Márquez described "the outsized reality" of Latin America given U.S. hegemony in the Americas and paid homage to Central America, which has been subject to multiple U.S. interventions throughout the years. He spoke of countless massacres, genocides, dictatorships, and seemingly larger-than-life events and figures, often interpreted by "patterns not our very own" and deemed magical, exotic, and supra-real. These extreme realities in Central America, according to García Márquez, include the actions of "General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who had thirty thousand peasants slaughtered in a savage massacre," and the "diabolic dictator [Efraín Ríos Montt?] who [in 1982 was] carrying out, in God's name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time" (García Márquez 1982). In the 1980s Central Americans lived through a period of destructive civil wars in the isthmus; in the twenty-first century they face even greater levels of violence as the region plunges into greater poverty, scarcity, and migrancy. All this can be read as part of the "outsized realities" of Central America and as what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has called "the age of extremes" (1994). Dividing the Isthmus draws attention to the more than one hundred years of "outsized realities" and extreme (hi)stories of Central America as represented in selected works by Central American writers and artists. This book is thus an exercise in (re)reading Central American texts in and against extreme realities and grand narratives.
Rewriting the Isthmus: The Next Chapters
Each chapter of Dividing the Isthmus focuses on the grand narratives of (anti)imperialism, revolution, subalterity, globalization, and transnational migration, as well as other discursive, historical, and material configurations of the region. In Central America, the neocolonial capitalist production of cacao, coffee, indigo, bananas, canals, waste, and excess migrant labor has shaped the production of what I identify here as a transisthmian cultural and literary production.
Geoculturally, Dividing the Isthmus examines texts produced in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama and their extraterritorial, transnational extensions in the United States. I do not examine Belizean cultural production at great length, although I can only hope that my work incites scholars to write about Belizean and other Central American cultures and literatures. I do not use one interpretive lens, critical framework, or theoretical language but draw from various critical interpretive lenses, or membranes, as Torres-Rivas would have it, to produce a bricolage of interdisciplinary materials and provisional readings of the transisthmus, always subject to reelaboration, reinterpretation, and interrogation. Each chapter may be read as a discursive "splice," or intersectional study, of the isthmus, generically, historically, and otherwise analyzing texts from one or more Central American countries. The material and cultural production of cacao, indigo, coffee, bananas, canals, waste, and "disposable workers" (Harvey 2005, 169-170) central to each chapter serves as the "glue" holding the transisthmian bricolage together. In my analysis of Central America, these material and symbolic products are key to the discussion of the relationship of culture and nature and are deployed as cultural metaphors giving interpretive coherency to Central American conditions of cultural production. The nation- and empire-building narratives, social protest novels, testimonios, diasporic and immigrant stories, and other narrative textualities discussed in Dividing the Isthmus are cultural responses to local historical and material conditions, as well as global, "general trends" in Central America, as Sergio Ramírez and others have suggested.
Chapter 1 begins with a study of nation- and empire-building novels written in Central America at the turn of the twentieth century. Costa Rica is of particular interest here since, in 1830, it was one of the first countries in the isthmus to produce coffee for export and has since served as the model of a now highly contested exceptional Central American nation. In Costa Rica and elsewhere in the coffee-producing regions of the isthmus, the golden grain came to symbolize the positivist aspirations of Central American nations seeking modernization, industrialization, and progress. On the grounds of coffee, the oligarchy and intellectual elite class sought to fashion Costa Rica into an exemplary "coffee republic" to be replicated across the isthmus. In various period pieces, transisthmian writers such as the Nicaraguan Ruben Darío, the Guatemalan Máximo Soto Hall, the Cuban José Martí, and the Costa Rican Carlos Gagini examined the predicament of Costa Rica and Central America in the modern era and on the eve of its imaginary annexation to the United States. The Central American caficulture intelligentsia would respond with a contradictory blend of anti-imperialist, nation-building novels, true to modern aspirations, patriotic ideals, and liberal economic agendas at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Chapter 2 revisits a corpus of social realist texts associated with the production of bananas and the construction of the Panama Canal, most of which were published between 1930 and 1960. During this thirty-year period, foreign powers, national oligarchies, and military forces forged alliances with multinational corporations across the isthmus. Produced by some of the most outspoken, progressive, and militant writers of Central America, the social protest literature challenged not only the corporate order but also national rule and foreign economic intervention in the isthmus. In their writings, the Panamanian Joaquín Beleño, the Costa Rican Carmen Lyra, the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias, and the Honduran Ramón Amaya Amador scrutinized the impact of U.S. intervention on local populations, as well as the realignment of race, class, and gender relations in the isthmus. No stone was left unturned or unthrown by writers of this genre that up to now has not been examined as a significant unifying discursive force across the isthmus.
Chapter 3 provides a case study in the wide production of testimonial narrative transecting the Central American isthmus during the civil war period and thereafter. Specifically, this chapter examines the significance of testimonial literature in El Salvador within the larger production of narratives of decolonization, resistance, and revolution in Central America in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Rather than elaborate a comparative study of different testimonial texts produced in various sites in Central America, this chapter focuses on the production of testimonial narrative in one site of convergence—El Salvador—where I argue the Foucaldian will to give testimony and to retell history informed various narrative practices, including the production of testimonios per se, testimonial novels, life and oral narratives, television and radio programming, graffiti, academic writing, school projects, and even university theses. In El Salvador, testimonio became a life practice that could not be silenced or obscured. Produced locally across Central American in the 1980s and 1990s, testimonio thus may be read as a veritable transisthmian narrative textuality, as Arturo Arias proposes (2007), with local inflections such as those manifested in Manlio Argueta's works. Through an in-depth reading of Argueta's novel Cuzcatlán donde bate la mar del sur (1987) and Roque Dalton's heteroglossic historiography titled El Salvador (Monografía) (1979), this chapter examines the deep structures of testimonial narrative and the grand narrative of (neo)colonialism in Central America as codified by the sign of indigo (añil) in these texts. This chapter willfully reads testimonial literature as a transisthmian cultural phenomenon coming into scrutiny as a consequence of the so-called Rigoberta Menchú controversy. It examines the transformation of testimonial narrative into a historiographic record of neocolonialism in the isthmus, hence its enduring vitality and significance.
The remaining chapters and epilogue of the book examine Central American cultural production and practices as they expand and extend beyond the geophysical isthmus, all the while relocating, transforming, and negotiating new contradictions and realities in other sites. Chapter 4 revisits the effects of posttrauma and war in the diasporic novels Return of the Maya by the Maya Q'anjob'al writer Gaspar Pedro González and The Tattooed Soldier by the U.S. Guatemalan writer Héctor Tobar. Published originally in 1998, these novels may be read as literary companions to the Truth Commission's Report, Guatemala, Never Again! REHMI (Recovery of Historical Memory Project in The Official Report of Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala) (1999), whose Spanish version was also published in 1998. The REHMI compiles data on human rights violations committed during the Guatemalan Civil War (1954-1996) and documents survivor testimonios gathered after the signing of the Peace Accords in Guatemala. In this chapter, fiction and fact become indistinguishable in the telling of the larger (his)story of violence, trauma, and diaspora in and outside of the isthmus. The migrant, or disposable worker (Harvey 2005), figures in both novels as the sign of the inhumane treatment of Central Americans in the late twentieth century.
Chapter 5 examines a corpus of transnational solidarity literature produced by Central American refugees, Latinos/as, and others in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. It focuses on texts written by U.S. Latina/o writers, including Ana Castillo (Sapogonia, 1990), Alejandro Murguía (Southern Front, 1990), Demetria Martínez (Mother Tongue, 1994), and Maya Chinchilla ("Solidarity Baby," 2007). Fleeing the civil wars in the isthmus and seeking refuge in the United States in the 1980s, Central Americans joined an increasing critical mass of Latinas/os, who were also transformed by the presence of Central Americans. In these Latino contact zones, solidarity networks, sanctuary sites, political activism, and the immigrant rights movement were reignited, benefiting not only Central American asylum seekers but also the U.S. Latino/a population as a whole who connected with the plight of the isthmus. Aligning with the struggles of Central Americans during the 1980s, a score of authors began to produce a Latino transnational literature mobilized against the wars and interventions in Central America.
Chapter 6 focuses on the transnational migration of Salvadorans and their production of cultural and literary space in Washington, D.C., a major destination for a growing number of Salvadoran immigrants. The Salvadoran media have identified Salvadorans residing outside of the isthmus as "Departamento 15." This chapter traces Central American migratory experiences after the 1990s and explores the cultural production of District of Columbia "wachintonians" Quique Avilés, Mario Bencastro, Lilo González, and Karla Rodas, and others. In their work, the transisthmian divide takes yet a new turn as Central American communities occupy other spatial and cultural locations beyond Central America. The Salvadoran nation occupies not only San Salvador but also, among other sites, San José, Nuevo Laredo, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. From these translocal sites, Salvadorans like other Central American diasporic subjects, produce transisthmian narratives.
Chapter 7 returns to a dystopic Central America still recuperating from past and future wars. The sign of waste (garbage), a constant in this reconstruction literature, represents the consumptive and tropicalized state of Central America within the neoliberal order. Through interlinked readings of Carmen Naranjo's story "And We Sold the Rain" (1989), Fernando Contreras Castro's Única mirando al mar (1994), Manlio Argueta's Milagro de la Paz (1994), and Gioconda Belli's Waslala: Memorial del futuro (1996), this chapter grapples with the devastating imaginary state of postwar Central America.
If literature can be said to incubate the political unconscious of a society and its greatest anxieties, as some critics have argued, then the texts examined in the epilogue represent a Central America grappling with its own tenuous future as the FTAA and the DR-CAFTA reconfigure yet again the isthmus according to intervening interests. In her groundbreaking work, Beatriz Cortez (2000) has identified these texts as narratives of disenchantment and discontent, for what else is left to take from Central America but the fighting spirit of its people. We can only hope that Central America will weather this latest intervention, as it has weathered previous ones. In these latest texts published across the isthmus, however, injury, dispossession, homelessness, hunger, suicide, homicide, and crime prevail. The living carnage and the undifferentiated multitude of Central America lay exposed, for example, in Werner Mackenbach's edited volume Cicatrices (Scars) (2004), Daniel Joya's Sueños de un callejero (2003), Sergio Muñoz Chacon's Urbanos (2003) and Los Dorados (2000), Claudia Hernández's Mediodía de frontera (2002), Waldina Mejía Medina's La Tía Sofi y los otros cuentos (2002), Rocío Tábora's Guardarropa (2001), and Franz Galich's Managua Salsa City (!Devórame otra vez!) (2001), among other texts. I read these texts as red flags for Central America(ns), signaling the escalation of global violence, the uncurbed expansion of free markets, the careening race or push of local populations to the very depths of the global economy.
To understand (and challenge) the troubled narrative of Central America unraveling before our very eyes, I have written Dividing the Isthmus, for I wish finally to read beyond the endings that would ultimately seek to erase, silence, destroy, and scatter to the winds the narratives, cultures, and peoples of Central America. I believe that it is never too late to reconfigure and reimagine the isthmus along other coordinates and story lines; therein lies the power of the latest disenchanted narrative textuality of Central America, where imaginary characters live out the extreme realities that García Márquez sought to elucidate. Perhaps we can learn from these prescient Central American narratives and reinvent the isthmus for present and future generations. The devolving course of Central America's future history, as Gioconda Belli forewarns in Waslala, can be reversed and redirected, if and when we read the past judiciously, critically, and creatively to produce alternate, viable narrative scripts premised on literary drafts of the isthmus. In the chapters that follow, I retrace the history of Central America by examining its narrative life. As such, readers can begin at the beginning or at the end. For in the end all chapters lead to the same place, the reconfiguration, reelaborationi, and reinterpretation of Central American histories, cultures, and literatures. It is my hope, as the author of this book, that we may gain greater understanding and respect for Central America by reading its signs and (his)stories in local, regional, and transisthmian configurations.