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Ismismo, tropicalismo y racismo

Badger has been blogging about her trials with a certain unreconstructed dinosaur of a Lat1n Amer1can l1terature prof at Berzerkely. (I'm using 133tsp3ak in deference to Badger.) He's been singing the glories of One Hundred Years of Solitude as the perfect novel according to a catalog of isms, the pinnacle of which Badger describes in this unconsummated exchange:

El Profe outlined "tr0picalismo": What do you think of when you think of the tropics? (dead silence, the smell of fear.) "Fruit! Lots of fruit! Everyone eats lots of fruit. That makes their skin healthy because fruit is full of...?..." (dead silence... finally a collective abashed murmur, "agua...?") "AGUA! and las morenas, las negras, they have the most beautiful skin... " (long ode to the beautiful black and coffee colored skin ensues) And they love to eat fruit, and dance - they have natural rhythm, the rhythm of the tropics... and they are poor, but happy, like La Zena1da... street vendors are not weighed down by poverty, they are always happy to see you and to chat, and are dancing with their baskets of fruit on their heads... ... and they love music! the mangos, the papayas, the music... The birds, there are lots of birds, and the heat - it is a sexual heat, and the women have a sensual beauty, a sexual freedom... it's all about excess... there is of course drink - and I'm not talking about coconut milk - who could think of Puert0 Rico without thinking of... RUM! Or M3xico without tequila? Everything is more intense in the tropics, the colors are more intense, life is more intense, food is spicier, people wear bright colors, and people have a tendency to exaggerate! The exaggeration of reality comes from the heat of the tropics and the natural geography!"

In the car all the way home I composed my speech that I am going to give next class when called upon -- we were told to have something to say about one of the isms. I am going to describe the tropical1smo of the U.S. South and its watermelon-eating beautiful sensual poor but happy people who have natural rhythm, and then I will cross out the word "trop1calismo" and write "racismo" and make everyone in the class repeat the word after me, and then I'll sit down and take the bad grade that will be sure to come my way.

I hope she does it. But I wonder if this clown of a prof isn't doing a disservice to some of the real virtues of Gabriel García Márquez's work by his caricature of tropicalismo. I personally loved Cien años. I think that being simultaneously local and universal is a great virtue, a crucial one as globalization threatens to eat up all art. I'd even speculate that perhaps for reasons of geography and history a universalist regionalism is a natural thing for writers of the Americas to grapple with (think Faulkner) before it occurs to people from other, more settled locales.

As always these days, I have Brazil on my mind. Brazil had its own tropicalismo, primarily a musical rather than a literary movement, also concerned with fusing the local with the universal. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the other Brazilian tropicalistas were a pretty sophisticated bunch and their response to el profe's cries of "fruit! fruit!" would have been hilarity. Yet they would have been the first to say that geography has a huge influence on Brazilian culture. And I can't help but think about Alma Guillermoprieto's Samba, a book-length examination of a year in one of Rio's samba schools. Her subjects are poor people with dark skin who do try to be happy by blending music, dance, sex and, yes, sometimes clothing that involves fruit. Guillermoprieto even offers some evidence that you can't dance samba properly unless you learned it at your mother's knee (nurture, not nature, but effectively making it a black thing). Badger's prof may be wack, but it seems to me that he's misinterpreting and exaggerating, not making his delusions up out of whole cloth.

books 2004.09.09 link