A Changing Perspective

When thinking about classic and traditional Mexican literature, books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate come to mind. These novels portray young girls trying to fit into American society and ultimately accepting America as their home. However, after reading Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera my belief about what what the content of Mexican literature is and can be was changed.House on mango

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a tiny novel that is packed with social critique on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, generalized views of immigrants, and consistently alludes to Aztec myths. What was most surprising about this novel was the narrator and heroine of the book, Makina.  

 

Makina challenges female gender roles in Mexican literature. Makina acts as a rebel against the society that she inhabits in the way that she acts. I had originally thought of woman in Mexican literature as meak, incapable of great acts, and domed to dwell in domestic settings. Makina is the opposite. She is trilingual, has an important job, stands up to men, and is very sexual.

I was surprised to read that Makina is a strong and assertive character. It is clear by her actions when Herrera writes,“Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so he’d know that her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he touched her with” (31).Makina.jpg

The character of Makina is also a representation of the people who have taken journeys and crossed borders. Before reading Signs Preceding the End of the World, I had a very US-centric idea about immigration and migrant workers. I had thought always thought that people wanted to come to the United States in hopes of a better life and in search of more opportunity. Now I realize how ignorant it was to take this stance.

Makina seems to want to get in and out of America as soon as possible because her whole life is in Mexico. Herrera notes, “She’d already arranged for her crossing and how to find her brother, now she had to make sure there would be a way back; she didn’t want to stay there, nor have to endure what had happened to a friend who stayed away too long” (20).While we would see her little border town as a place riddled with bullets, tunnels, and behind the times in regard to technology. However, she still calls it home.

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Hurtful Wisdom

The novel Baho! by Roland Rugero, focuses on the life of Nyamuragi who is a mute that lives in the country of Burundi. Nyamuragi finds himself in a life threatening, mob trial situation when a young woman in the river misinterpret his acting out of needing to go to the bathroom as a sexual assault. Rugero continually uses Nyamuragi’s muteness and silence is a depiction of the suffering of Burundi as a whole. By not relying on the judicial system to determine whether or not Nyamuragi is guilty on the crime of rape, Burundi presents itself as disconnected from the modern world.

One of the ways that the characters seek to find significance in the world is by relying heavily on sayings and stories from the past to give their present meaning.  The old woman in the novel is a representation of African wisdom and African existentialism. Throughout the novel she gives out little snippets of wisdom such as, “ugutanga kuzana umugisha kuruta guhabwa, giving bestows greater blessings than receiving” (67). Quotes like these are pretty self explanatory, universal, and helpful for people to adhere to.

Old African Woman

Yet, some of these stories may be destructive even though they are mildly comforting to children. The story of Inabwiza and the prince is similar to Disney princess stories that we know and love in the United States. The story tells us what our norms and expectations are about men and women. If beautiful women sit and wait for their prince to come, he will. It gives the children hope that they will be able to move up socially and economically when they get married. As a result, women feel as if they cannot or do not have to take control of their own lives to find happiness.

Rugero writes, “Often, they would fall asleep before hearing the end of the story, lulled to sleep by her mellifluous voice. A scene from childhood; an act of wisdom. In any case they knew that the story would end well…” (68).

 

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Many of us who have matured like the old woman realize how unrealistic and sometimes foolish these stories are. Nevertheless, we continue to perpetuate these gender roles as we recount stories such as the one about Inabwiza to younger generations. As a result, this keeps the women of Burundi and the United States in a subconscious state of oppression.

A Symphony of Suffering

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila focus on the everyday lives of two men, Lucien and Requiem, trying to survive in a fictional country inspired by Mujila’s home country, Democratic Republic of Congo. Lucien tries to make a living as a professional writer while it is assumed that Requiem is involved in some shady business involving pimping out baby-chicks and blackmailing tourists.

The juxtaposition of the way that these two men, born into the same station of life, go about finding a meaning and purpose is very much a social commentary that Mujila makes. In regard to the future of Africa, it seems that there are two positions:

  1. You could be like Lucien who sees a life of possibility for Africa with the help of education and the creation positive economic and social programs.
  2. You could side with Requiem who is prepared to live his life as if Africa is beyond redemption already. Requiem pessimistically observes, “The tragedy is already written. We merely preface it” (Mujila 111). 

Sadly, it seems that most tourists, politicians, and average Americans take Requiem’s stance. 

This novel is written much like a jazz musical score. As the reader, it is not necessary that you are aware of every note and nuance of the plot line. What is more important is that you listen to the overarching themes woven into the narrative of the story such as: belly politics, incompleteness, and the train as a metaphor.

Just like how a jazz piece must have instruments, Mujila sets the stage with a variety of different characters that make up the composition of the novel.  Jazz is such a key image in Tram 83 that an alternate cover of the book is illustrates this diverse cast of characters.

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While some may view jazz as a beautiful and beloved genre of music, Mujila paints a different picture of jazz as a metaphor for the suffering of his people. In the opening pages he writes:

“In the city-state, you don’t listen to jazz to get a whiff of sugar cane or reconnect with Negro consciousness or savor the beauty of the notes: you listen to jazz because you have to listen to jazz when you make your bed on banknotes, when you deliver your merchandise daily, when you manage an extraction plant, when your cousin to dissident General, when you keep a little mistress who pins you to your bed in a dizzy haze” (Mujila 11).

He asserts that the jazz music which fills the city and Tram 83 is what connects all walks of life together. However, this is all because their country and economy is continuously exploited by the structures put in place by foreigners aiming to capitalize on the rich mineral reserves that the city-state has to offer.

More subtly, Mujila creates musical effects through words and rhythm of the language he uses. Phrases like, “Do you have the time?” and “”The station whose metal structure was unfinished…” are prevalent all throughout the novel. These tremolos pronounce prominent overtones of post colonialism and the constant power struggle that exists in this world in order to stay alive. Image result for tremolo                                             Example of a tremolo in music

Jazz was not born out of just one time, place, or person. Similarly, not just one variable is to blame for how the DRC became so corrupt, impoverished, violent, and exploited. However, like jazz, Mujila artfully depicts that Africa can be continuously reborn in a moment.

 

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Border Patrol

While barely a hundred pages, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World provides readers with an in depth look at the struggles that Mexican immigrants and migrants face when coming to America. There is not much that the reader knows about Makina other than she is a smart, strong, independent, teenage woman in search of her brother. I think that Herrera purposely leaves her character so vague because she is a representation of the 170,000 people who illegally cross the border each year. Many of these individuals are woman traveling with children.

A question that stays at the forefront of the reader’s mind when reading is: What are the defining characteristics of a border? Typically, a border is defined as a line separating two political or geographical areas, especially countries. In the novel, the main border that Makina must verse is the Mexico-United States border of the Rio Grande.

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Furthermore, when Makina’s brother tells the story of how easy it was for the American family to get up and leave to Europe, Herrera points out a double standard. That family had the financial resources to leave the U.S. and create a new life for themselves without any issues or negative stigmas. Yet, Mexican migrants and immigrants find it so difficult to come to America. They pay steep prices, may have to get involved with cartels, must have connections, and may sometimes die despite all this.

There are also mental borders that Mikina must face. Yuri Herrera covers several interconnected and controversial topics including: nativism, racism, and profiling. These ideologies are best illustrated when Makina is confronted by the police officer.

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Commonly, we think of police officers as “patriots” and the embodiment of all that is right with America. They stand for justice, maintain public order, and enforce the laws of the land. Still, here is where Herrera uses the policeman’s attitude towards immigrants as an exaggeration of American values and how the country negatively views them. A common phrase that we hear in politics today can be heard in the lines, “Civilized, that’s the way we do things around here! We don’t jump fences and we don’t dig tunnels” (97).

The officer views the immigrants as uncivilized, uneducated, and bad for America in general. The fact that he feels that they need to ask him for permission to do anything (from going to the doctor to getting a job) is a way to keep them down as a minority.

It is these types of mental borders that keep ignorance and hateful rhetoric alive today. It is unclear if Makina helped the officer transcend his mental border. However, it appears that she was able to assist him in understanding how foolish he truly sounded.

Like many Americans, the officer doesn’t understand that sometimes leaving their native country is in fact, as daunting as the end of the world.

Utopia: “U.S.” Versus “Them”

After diving into the first few pages of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia, it is clear to see that this society is anything but.

Focusing on the lives of two young boys, the reader is given a chilling account of a dystopian society where the rich get richer in wealth, but not morals. Concurrently, the poorer class is forced into a dehumanizing environment full of poverty outside the walls of Utopia.

My mother once told me that the most dangerous, yet compelling method of earning political support is to create a “them” and an “us.” Once the economic structure of the Middle East collapsed because of the U.S’s invention of bioil, the rich took it upon themselves to divide two classes even further physically, economically, and socially by creating Utopia.

Utopia is set in Egypt 2023, however similar tactics in political speeches are what made Donald Trump so successful in the 2016 election: Donald Trump: Them vs. Us Video

It seems that Towfik shares in my mother’s sentiment. Twofik’s own opinions on such issues are artfully interwoven between the plot line and the narrator’s thoughts. Adding depth as well as historical context, Towfik comments “A society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion” (108).

Based in realistic science and statistics of the present, Towfik depicts a grim picture of what Egypt and the world could become (or already is?) in the near future. In Utopia, parents have no control over their children and an entire generation has turned their backs on those who cannot afford adequate healthcare.

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As the reader continues on, one can draw several contentions between futuristic Utopia and contemporary America.

Hypocrisy is a predominant and reoccurring theme in Utopia. The religious hypocrisy of the religious right seems to be the focus of Towfik’s criticism. Through the eyes of Gerber he muses, “They are very particular about slaughtering chickens but they aren’t so particular about slaughtering us” (112). It can be noted that the religious right in the United States seems particularly hypocritical when assessing their stance for war and against abortion.

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Utopia may seem like just a place in a far off future, but in reality that’s not true at all. What makes reading Utopia so compelling is that it is derived from a very plausible reality which we may already be unknowingly living in.

The question is: how will our own story end?