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Being Mexican : Identity, Location, and Rosa Nissán(IV)

Nathanial Eli Gardner

Texte intégral

Hisho que te nazca – in search of desired identity” and “Sephardic narrative in Mexico : Impact, Reception, and Nissán’s photographic eye”

A wider vision of education and employment

1After Oshinica and Lalo separate, the circumstances surrounding her attendance at the institute do change and she is now able to participate without domestic conflict. Her classmates also become a more active part of Oshinica’s life. They spend more time together and since there is no one to limit these friendships as her mother and spouse did, these friendships continue to grow and occupy a greater portion of Oshinica’s life that had been previously filled by individuals from her family and community. Their influence gradually begins to replace, although never completely, the ones previously occupied by her community and demonstrate her transition into these new spaces. This occurs mostly because Oshinica the more she becomes involved in the public sphere, the more she realizes these the individuals who occupy this space have much in common with her. As a young woman, Oshinica was portrayed as being alone in her desires to study while the rest of her friends from the community school halted their education and began to marry. Later, as the older Oshinica encounters individuals from mainstream Mexico, she begins to discover that the common ground between them is greater and they become the main part of her social and professional life.

2These characters are fascinated to learn about Oshinica’s experiences as a Jew in Mexico, because for them to learn about the protagonist’s experiences as a Jewish Mexican is almost as fresh and distinct as Oshinica’s experiencing of the mainstream. In this experience and interchange of distinct forms of mexicanidad there is also evidence that her religion also continues to marginalize the protagonist as well.

3For example, while on a trip to Acapulco unexpected cannon shots frighten Oshinica and she dives for cover thinking that they are being bombed. Her friends laugh and her claim that her reaction is due to some type of genetic paranoia caused by being Jewish as they claim that Mexico has no enemies and ; hence, a fear of being bombed is unfounded. Likewise, when Oshinica reacts to a narrow escape from a car accident her friends remind her that her near miss had no link to her religious difference, rather it was an occurrence that could have been experienced by anyone. So, while we see that her new gentile friends accept Oshinica there are still ways in which she is marginalized within the group. It is true that this treatment is no longer of the same quality as when her primary school companions threw sand at her, made the sign of the cross with their fingers, and shouted : ‘You killed Christ !’ when they were angry with Oshinica ; however, even the educated adults in Nissán’s novels seem still to lean on stereotypes in their judgment of their friend who exhibits otherness. It would appear that in the protagonist’s search for acceptance in Mexican spaces that are new to her, this acceptance is always marked by some type of difference.

  • 1 (Gardner 2003)

4In an interview Rosa Nissán explains one of the ironies of being Jewish in Mexico. She explains that in Mexico, she seems to be considered Jewish first and Mexican second ; whereas in Israel she and other of her Mexican friends are described as simply being ‘the Mexicans’ – a notion she also underlines in her novel Hisho que te vea1. It would appear that the desired identity of the individual is not given to the character in her desired location. Perhaps the inability to achieve the preferred acceptance of identity by the mainstream is why other characters are willing to remain in their subaltern group : because within the group they are accepted in as much as they fulfill the norm, whereas when they are on the outside of it they constantly appear to be subject to different classification due to their difference from the mainstream - be it religious (as in Mexico) or cultural (as in other foreign locations). The novels portray this marginalization causing a certain level of frustration for the protagonist and it does limit her ability to fully integrate in certain ways. Yet in her growing understanding of being Mexican, the character seems willing to accept these attitudes towards her and, far from being upset by the certain levels of marginalization she experiences while forming part of the mainstream, Oshinica is portrayed as being content with the advances with regard to integration that her character has experienced. She believes she is more a part of the greater mainstream Mexico and this fact brings satisfaction to this character.

5Part of the evolution of Oshinica’s character involves employment. As a youth she wanted to be able to work like the rest of the men in her community. Even so, her opinion changes as an adult. She finds commercial selling (be it in stores or market stalls) limiting in her ability to explore and experience the larger aspect of Mexican society. For that same reason she attempts to be a freelance photographer :

  • 2 (Hisho 154-55)

Mis papás y mis hermanos insisten en que busque un trabajo formal. ‘Un trabajé con horario, que entres a las diez y salgas a las siete. Un trabajo de benadam, como todo el mundo’, opinan. Para ellos eso es trabajar. Mi madre ya se aburrió de verme con la cámara. [...] Pero no, si me voy a divorciar es para hacer lo que me gusta, si no, mejor casada. Tampoco quiero dejar mi grupo de literatura, si me meto a trabajar a algún lado, no me van a dejar que falte el jueves, quiero hacerle la lucha. La fotografía es un trabajo inseguro, pero mis horarios los hago yo.2

6Once she is divorced, her family seems to have changed their attitude towards her, yet in some ways they remain the same. The family is willing to accept her working in the public space, but they then stipulate that it must be formal employment. So, even though her family seems willing to accept her presence in the public realm, they appear to want to impose their terms. The protagonist, however, is no longer interested in being a man in the way her brother, father, or grandfather were like when she was younger. Now, Nissán’s character is portrayed as wanting to negotiate her appearance in the public space in ways that will allow her to explore it as she desires. Enthralled by the discovery of the wider Mexico that surrounds her, Oshinica wishes to experience it firsthand. Having a livelihood that involves being a direct part of the mainstream Mexico and has a cultural element, appeals to Oshinica as it allows her to explore and understand Mexico on her own terms – a key freedom deemed necessary as she negotiates how she comes to terms with being Mexican.

7One of the discoveries Oshinica makes while beginning to explore the realm of work is the fact that the men of her community also have a stereotype that influences them. This stereotype stipulates that men have to be successful professionals who generate significant amounts of economic wealth. As in Oshinica’s case, if the men do not conform to this stereotype, they also risk being identified as failures. This discovery is an awakening for the character and her notions of identity. Previously, the protagonist had always imagined that only women within their community were dissatisfied with their role. The notion that there are unsatisfied men in her community provides her with a new perspective on her community which she had not previously acquired. Hence, Oshinica’s entering into the public realm via work and education has led her to discover knowledge about wider Mexican identity and culture and also has offered her insights on her own community. However, it must be underlined that while this bildungsroman does show the character maturing into a woman who not only knows, loves, and better understands the wider Mexico that exists outside marginal groups within Mexico, the majority of the narrative centers on the character’s understanding of the community and family in which she has lived the majority of her life and the negotiations and interactions it might have with the Mexico that remains outside the Jewish family and community circles.

  • 3 In reality, Rosa Nissán has been one longest-standing students of the ‘Elena Poniatowska literary w (...)

8Aside from photography, the other work-related activity that fills Oshinica’s life is writing. A pursuit that began as a chance incident becomes an important element of her life and education. These classes become the only ones that she maintained on a continuous basis3. Its participants provide support and creative input as well as windows into other Mexican spheres – just as she provides them with a window into the Jewish Mexico. As Hisho que te nazca concludes we observe Oshinica begin to prepare the manuscript of Novia que te vea as a novel. In some ways this gives the narrative a stronger cyclical element as the reader views the beginning being created while we approach the end of the narrative on Oshinica. Likewise, aside from its circular nature, this section of the novel blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction as we observe the fictional character Oshinica prepare the novel which was published by Rosa Nissán. It is a metafictional twist in which she clearly reveals that the narrative we have been reading has been widely based on her own life experiences.

9We also observe the new writer symbolically rejecting her past and other aspects of it. In one of the final scenes of the second novel she onto the roof of her apartment building in order to physically burn all of the knitting materials in her home while vowing to never knit or allow herself to be bewitched by the television again.

10The rejection of both knitting and the watching of television can be interpreted in several ways. Most simplistically it can be seen as her rejection of what she considers to be activities designed to consume her time in what she feels to be activities that do not have desirable fruits – or no fruits at all. However, on a more profound level they can be interpreted as a rejection of control, of a way of life, of a system of choices, an identity imposed on her. Oshinica views these activities as repressive, stupefying activities ; yet, they appear to be more symbolic of life choices the character has rejected. Oshinica opts to follow the path of artistic creativity and liberal use of free agency over patriarchal order and any activities they, or their enforcers, might dictate. In her rejection of television and destruction of knitting materials we see how she wilfully rejects the pastimes that her mother and her ex-husband imposed on her and the hobbies of the two figures that most oppress her as she commits to allow her own free time dictate how she will satisfy her desires to use her time. She rejects them in order to adopt activities taught to her by her mentor and her friends she has met with experiencing life outside her community. It is the latter part of the narrative that evidences the fruit of her movement down this new pathway : her literary production.

  • 4 (Gardner 2003) Interview with Nissán 2003.
  • 5 But then, perhaps, the question would be if the book would still have had the impact it did ?

11It is through her writings that Oshinica is able to maintain her role as a secret teller of tales. Indeed, this element of fiction is essential to her ability to write the novels. As she explained to me in an interview when I queried as to why she simply did not want to publish an autobiography, she responded that the fictional autobiography allowed the writer more freedom. Fiction enabled her to modify the past events and situations according to her own will and desire. She could eliminate characters and change scenarios as she saw fit. Ultimately, this method offered her freedom to tell the truth and or modify it without any of the consequences of the autobiography or the biography. As Nissán explained in her own words to me : ‘no me quería tener que pegar [a la verdad]’4. During that conversation Nissán explained that she had invented some things and eliminated others. However, mostly Nissán wanted to be able to write what she preferred without having to live up to the test of scrutiny. The author explained to me in the writing of her novel that she did not want to have the pressure of creating a text in which everything would have to be verifiable. Had Elizabeth Burgos followed a similar route with her famous book Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia she would have left David Stoll little to write about5. It is in the blending of fact and fiction that we see how Nissán has learned from her teacher Elena Poniatowska, who has mixed the two in several of her publications as well. It is a powerful combination as it is possible many will tend to believe that most of what is published is truth yet it affords the writer protection from factual criticisms.

  • 6 There are many examples in which Nissán appeals to the autobiographical nature of her narrative ove (...)
  • 7 She did mention a lone fictionalization of the narrative to me amidst her many truths of the novel  (...)

12Nissán appeals to the truth of her narrative in the creation of her novel6. Once I asked her to identify what was fiction in the novel and she only pointed to ways in which she modified the narrative to make it more factual. She explained to me, for example, that originally her second novel only gave the protagonist two children, but later she raised it to four so that none of her four children would feel left out of the novel7. So, we can see that while the writer appeals to fiction for literary protection if you like, she also seems to strongly support the notion that that this narrative is more autobiographical than fictional.

  • 8 (38)
  • 9 (Hisho 284)
  • 10 (Hisho 290)
  • 11 (Hisho 277)

13In each one of her novels Oshinica reveals to the reader many of the lesser-known aspects of Jewish culture in her community in Mexico and her own life. If one accepts the paradigm presented in Hisho que te nazca of Oshinica writing the novel Novia que te vea, it becomes significant to remember that according to the second novel none of what the reader discovers about Oshinica’s life is written until after she has decided to divorce Lalo and free herself of her custom of always trying to make compromises with her religion and community. This agrees with Oshinica’s dream about freeing the butterfly that this chapter discussed earlier. Michael Ferber explains the important symbolism of the butterfly in literature that tie into this notion of change brought on by that dream : “Sometimes a butterfly is a messenger, a kind of angel, that brings grace or a change of heart”8. Once the protagonist/butterfly feels she is free to act is when she finds herself able to write about her life and the Mexico she has experienced. Even so, this experience does not always come as an easy task : “Está resultando muy doloroso meterme en la novela. Revivir y descubrir dolores y envidias que parecían olvidados. Escribirla con las exigencias de seguir siendo honesta como quien me estimuló a escribir. Está canijo. Duele”9. As she refers to ‘the person who stimulates me to write’ this would refer to her writing teacher who incites her to be honest in the creation of the narrative ; from this we can assume that there is an effort to create an honest portrayal of Oshinica’s life experiences. Yet she is not free of fear of what this narrative might bring once it enters the public space in its public form : “¿ Cómo recibirá mi obra la comunidad ? ¿ Cómo los de fuera ? Estoy asustada”10. Oshinica even has nightmares about the negative consequences publishing her narrative could bring her : “Anoche soñé que el libro ya estaba publicado. Encima de mi escritorio había un altero de ejemplares. El teléfono sonaba para reclamarme, del deportivo, de la comunidad... Empecé a temblar de miedo. En eso tuve la fortuna de despertar’’11. Not only does this suggest the critical eye Novia que te vea offers as a narrative but additionally we also see another of the cyclical elements of the narrative : Oshinica is afraid of what might happen to her by sharing something she believes she should not. Nonetheless, the narrative is published and permits us to experience the results of the protagonist’s understandings and meditations on being a Mexican from her particular community.

Sacred Spaces

14Ultimately, the protagonist’s nightmares do not come to pass. However, while Oshinica continues to remain Jewish, there are some ways in which she renegotiates her religious identity and her connection to her community. Being divorced is not the factor that limits her participation in her community as much as the segregation that exists between men and women. In order to overcome an element of her religion that she has questioned since her youth, Oshinica decides to attend a Bet-El synagogue in the Mexican capital where men and women are allowed to attend together, unlike the synagogue of her youth. Previously, in the character’s search for identity within Mexico, the narrative might have seemed to suggest that the main character would renounce certain religious elements of her character in her search for identity. However, her continued connection to her family and new contact with the members of this other synagogue reaffirm the protagonist’s religious identity. The Bet-El group’s philosophy with regard to religion and society allow Oshinica to feel she is able to maintain her religious identity. The narrative portrays this as an important key to allow the character to continue in her identity as a Jewish Mexican :

  • 12 (Hisho 270)

No sólo existen los fundamentalistas, ellos no van a definir qué es ser judío, no a hacerte sentir que la única fórmula para serlo es seguir sus preceptos al pie de la letra ; los humanistas buscamos entender el porqué de las cosas, además, en todas las religiones hay fundamentalistas, nosotros no somos diferentes. --¡Vaya !, esto que me dices me reconcilia con el judaísmo, quiero pertenecer a un grupo que defiende la dignidad del hombre y de la mujer.12

15This reconciliation is important to the notion of space within the narrative because as the character had become involved in the public space, the sacred space has become a lesser part of the narrative and the character felt that there were elements of her own world vision she was gaining that had become incompatible with her religious heritage. Faced with the conflict, Oshinica had begun to abandon certain aspects of her religious identity. However, as with her discovery of unsatisfied men in her community, Oshinica encounters that there are others within her religion whose viewpoint is more compatible with her own. With this new outlook, Oshinica concludes that she does not have to lay Judaism aside to pursue her notion of being Mexican and relocates the sacred again within this notion of her identity. While the novel does not comment on this with great depth, in the aspect of religion and the negotiation of Mexican identity, it would seem that Rosa Nissán has exhibited synchronizations in her personal life which blend the Mexican mainstream with her own religious identity that will be briefly commented later.

  • 13 (Israde 1)
  • 14 (Hisho 282)

16Nissán’s novels view the support of the father as key for the protagonist’s entry into the public space. Nonetheless, the character’s entry into the public space adds new dimension to the character and her understanding of Mexican identity but does not equate to a happy ending. Rosa Nissán has noted : “No voy a hacer un cuento tipo Walt Disney : ‘Oshinica publicó su novela, se divorció y fue muy, muy feliz.’ Además ella tuvo que pagar un precio dolorosísimo”13. The Oshinica who enters the public arena must suffer many modifications to her life to enter this space and remain there. These have different effects on the character and the narrative. She is separated from both her husband and children. However, living alone allows Oshinica more opportunities she would not have otherwise. This isolation the character lives without her children allows the character to explore a new type of life as a single woman in Mexico. Her experiences in the public space open her eyes not only to mainstream Mexico but also to lives of other men in her community : “El libro del templo dice : ‘Gracias Dios mío por no haberme hecho mujer.’ Y cuando leo esto qué puedo decirle a Dios. ¿ Gracias ? ¡Sí, gracias ! Es maravilloso serlo si no me cierras las puertas como a mis antepasadas [...]”14. Oshinica comes to an understanding that women are not the only people faced with stereotypes. Ultimately, it is the exploration of these spaces and the discovery of the stereotypes as well as some of the elements behind them that make these narratives intriguing. As Oshinica questions her identity and location in Mexican society, not only is the reader able to see the viewpoint of a woman looking out onto wider Mexican society from within one of its subaltern cultures, but we the reader are also allowed to peer back into the window from which Nissán’s character is looking out on the world. It is this new glimpse of another Mexico and an new understanding of Mexican identity that composes one of the most unique elements of this narrative.

Sephardic narrative in Mexico : Impact, Reception, and Nissán’s photographic eye

  • 15 To acquire an idea about this series of public exchanges between Nissán, Hiriart and Schyfter on th (...)

17Nissán’s novels, especially Novia que te vea, were met with great success. One of the indicators of the Mexican and international interest in Nissán’s first novel is manifested by the appearance of a film by the same title soon after the novel was published. That film was produced by Guita Schyfter and her husband Hugo Hiriat. Hiriat, one of the writers affiliated with the literary workshop of which Nissán has been a part, came into contact with Nissán’s novel and showed it to his wife (a Costa Rican Jew of Eastern European heritage) who believed it would serve as a base for a film project. Indeed, from the initial credits of the novel at the beginning to the characters found within, one is easily able to perceive Nissán’s influence in the script. Schyfter’s movie makes use of Nissán’s narrative, but it also modifies it significantly - adding characters and experiences to her creative needs and telling the story of a new character Rifke (a character that might even be loosely based on the producer herself or someone from her community). It is this politically-active, and arguably liberally-minded, Ashkenazi character who ultimately takes the center stage in the film. The side-lining of Nissán’s character and many other modifications that Hugo and his wife Guita made to Nissán’s novel ultimately created a rift between the two groups to such an extent that Nissán abandoned the project and later publicly protested her treatment by the producers when they failed to mention her when the film won at the prestigious Ariel film awards. This led to several published responses between both parties which appeared in cultural mediums at that time15.

  • 16 (Foster 15)

18However, in the case of Nissán and her narrative, it is significant to note that notwithstanding any changes or modifications made to the novel, it still provided the base for what has been identified as the first Jewish-themed film to be produced in Mexico16. Likewise, it might be the only film ever produced to feature characters who speak Ladino – an element which undeniably proves Nissán’s influence on the script and brings to point the contemporary interest that Jews and others have in their Hispano-Jewish heritage that is evidenced by this language.

19While there was great interest in Novia que te vea, clear even today by its acquisition and continued republication by Booket press, Hisho que te nazca has not followed exactly the same route. Even though the second novel should not be considered a commercial or cultural failure, it has failed to achieve the same level of success of her first novel. While it continues the life story of the same character, consider the essential differences between the two narratives. The first is a coming-of-age novel that narrates the hopes and challenges of youth. It contains a different type of youth : a young Jewish girl in a predominantly Catholic country. It involves the timeless theme of the search for identity and love and the defiance of patriarchal order in the fulfilment of that love. This romance triumphs via the marriage of the two young characters. The narrative uses living examples of Ladino : a window into one of the Hispanic pasts and unknown presents. The second book narrates the failure of the protagonist’s marriage and her disenchantment with many aspects of her family, community, and culture. The protagonist exhibits the breakdown of the institution of her immediate family with her divorce and the disappointment of her friends and family. Though the individual makes these sacrifices for what she considers is the bettering of the character, the conversion of these experiences into a narrative did not translate into commercial success. It would seem that the reading public prefers romance and cultural difference over the divorce and wider mainstreaming of the character.

  • 17 That interview was placed in Youtube on the 12 of March 2012. Currently its link is http://www.yout (...)
  • 18 One example of the trauma affecting her life is the fact that Nissán would stop driving altogether, (...)

20Even so, once Rosa Nissán began publishing, it seems that the taste for seeing her work in print stimulated her to create even more. Elena Poniatowska’s encouragement to her writing group to write every day and to view their work as a calling had taken root in the writer. Indeed, in 2004 Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez published an article on Nissán’s work in which she describes the author as a ‘prolific’ writer. What she may not have known was that about time she was writing her article, Rosa Nissán’s personal life suffered an event that would change the writer from that point forward. As detailed in an interview, Nissán explains that she was involved in a serious automobile accident that almost took her life17. Initially, due to physical damage resulting from the crash, her production all but stopped. Physical and emotional recovery would be slow and this would affect her in many ways18. Even so, this writer has not stopped working. Her interest and love for Mexico and its culture has grown even further with the years. Curiously, in a recent interview about this incident she shows the interviewer an example of an ex-voto painting which was create to give thanks to her Angel de la Guardia for miraculously preserving her life after the terrible car accident she experienced.

Fig 1. Rosa Nissán’s ex-voto

Fig 1. Rosa Nissán’s ex-voto
  • 19 One example of this is the edition Ex-votos which was published in collaboration with Conaculta as (...)
  • 20 (Ginzberg, 20)

21The use of this medium to give thanks for what she felt was divine intervention is telling of the author and offers an example of what could possibly be interpreted as religious syncretism on her part. She takes a medium which has been imported from Catholic Europe : the use of the ex-voto ; which was adopted, modified, and popularized in Mexico to such an extent so as to have become viewed as quintessentially Mexican art (helped in part by the fascination of famous Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo of these manifestations of popular paintings)19. So we have a Jewish writer and photographer who adopts what is considered by most to be a Catholic medium to give thanks for the preservation of her life. Yet, in her ex-voto she does not thank a specific saint but rather her guardian angel - a divine figure that can be seen as overlapping both belief systems as guardian angels are found in both Christianity and Judaism20. In many ways her ex-voto painting is symbolic of Nissán. In her attempt to navigate in both mainstream circles and preserving her own specific cultural heritage, Nissán finds unique ways of blending the two, creating bridges between what some might consider incompatible systems and showing us repeatedly that indeed it is possible to be both Mexican and Jewish.

Final Thoughts…Nissán’s photographic eye

  • 21 (230)

22In Hisho que te nazca Oshinica finds her profession in photography. First she begins to take pictures for fun ; later, discovering she has talent, she begins to explore it as a hobby and finally as a profession. While in her character development we observe how she writes in order to be further involved in the world of art and to cultivate her writing skills, the truth is that professionally Oshinica is first a photographer and then a writer, mirroring the author Nissán in this aspect. This is evident as well when, on a trip Oshinica and Elena Poniatowska take together, Poniatowska introduces Oshinica as : ‘a photographer who also writes’21.

  • 22 While this might be true, she is not the only one who could make this claim. In the archives of pho (...)
  • 23 This reference is made on page 172.

23While Nissán is known in the academic world for her writing, she has lived professionally as a photographer for several decades. The quantity and quality of her photography is worth further study and merits some comment. When I met Rosa Nissán in 2002, I was impressed by the extent to which photography really was an active and important aspect of her creative work. She showed me an entire room of her spacious department in the colonia Condesa in the Mexican capital that was used as her personal photographic archive. On that occasion she spent several hours showing me many photographs from her collection. I noted the number of times that Elena Poniatowska appeared in them to which she responded that ‘she could be considered Elena’s personal photographer’22. Indeed, when I spoke to her of this project and proposed that she sent a sampling of her work to include in this study she was happy to oblige. The small collection of photographs she gave me to illustrate her work is telling. It consists of eight photos : two portraits, a picture of subaltern women who are protesting in the Zócalo, and five that deal with the theme of the market. One interpretation of this small collection of photographs allows us to draw parallels between the early narrative of the author and her photographs. Consider the self-portraits. In the first (Fig. 2 - used also as the cover for this book) we see what appears to be a younger Nissán looking out onto the outside world from behind a door with bars on it. Though this type of door is easily found in the Mexican capital (designed to allow sunlight and warmth in but keep unwanted guests out), here it adds to the sense of barrier between a young woman and the outer world by the fact that the woman is holding onto its prison-like bars. She seems to be contemplating what the quotidian public space might hold for her yet having her access blocked by the closed door of her home. Her wilted rose seems symbolic of the demise of her spousal relationship that she viewed as the future hope as portrayed in the first novel as the lady peers onto the public space from behind closed doors. There is a reference to dead roses in Hisho que te nazca as well that suggests a relationship between the dead flowers and the demise of the spousal relationship caused by marital strife23.

24We can find an echo of this narrative in the photographs. The fact that the woman is holding a wilted rose in her self-portrait can be viewed as a direct reference to the author herself as the flower in the image mimics her name. Rosa, like the plant who is trapped inside as well, is wilting as her gaze focuses on the public space. Unlike most portraits in which the subject faces the camera, in this one that represents a youthful Nissán is so absorbed in her contemplation of the public space that she turns her back on us : an act that is commonly avoided in Latin American culture for fear of being rude. In this photograph the woman portrayed is also symbolic of the character of Oshinica who views outer Mexican society from behind societal barriers with great desire.

25Consider the next portrait (Fig. 3). In this one we contemplate Rosa Nissán from the side as she walks through what appears to be the free space of a forest. The image suggests at first sight that not only has she left the domestic enclosure but also the mega metropolis of Mexico City. However, this is not so as a careful examination of the portrait reveals street signs in the background as well as cars. A piece of white urban detritus on the ground also points to the metropolitan ‘forest’ through which Nissán walks. This writer born and bred in the capital only suggests that Nissán has fled the heavily concrete Mexican capital, but it is much more probable that Nissán has not strayed much further that one of the parks in the colonia Condesa near her home or possibly even Chapultepec Park which she has also used as a photographic backdrop on occasion. Even so it is appropriate that this portrait ‘Autor-Hada’ has remained in the public space within city as this is the area her character Oshinica desired to explore. Significant too are the wings that she is wearing. To say in Mexican Spanish that someone has been ‘given wings’ (‘le dieron alas’) is symbolic of having freedom and means with which to fulfil an activity. Here we see the mature Nissán with wings. It reminds us of the Oshinica at the end of Nissán’s narrative who has freed herself from all of the institutions the protagonist felt were keeping her from developing herself in the way she desired. It also has obvious connections to the butterfly metaphor that appears repeatedly in the second novel. Likewise, the portrait of fairy/butterfly/Nissán appears to be taking advice from Oshinica as she is careful to ‘watch where she travels’ as she moves about freely within the capital yet observing where she is treading – the protagonist’s final advice to the butterfly she has freed. Hence, in commenting on both portraits of Nissán, we see that they are photographs from the author’s real life that make direct reference to that of her protagonist, reinforcing Nissán’s oft mentioned notion that this narrative is indeed fictionalized autobiography. Nissán is Oshinica.

26What might appear to be an interloper in this series of photographs are the women protesting in the Zócalo in central Mexico City (Fig. 4). Judging from the clothing the women are wearing as well as the cars in the background, this image is from some time ago when Nissán was still young in the world of arts and photography. Here the women protest poverty in Mexico. Nissán has framed them between two messages of protest. Even if the three women are not from the same family, they can easily represent three generations : grandmother, daughter, and grandchild. We see that they are unified in their protest for better conditions. Judging from their dress, it would appear that they are from the popular classes. Likewise, its title, Elotes tendidos (Ears of Corn on a Line), suggests a closeness to the popular classes in Mexico who both grow this corn and depend on it as a food base. Likewise, it is a nod to the Latin American notion which arises from the Popul Vuh : that the gods used this same material to make humans. Maize is viewed as the substance from which we have sprung forth, hence as the corn is hanging in the balance, so are the Mexicans who are protesting publically as well as many who are not. In this instance, these are the Mexicans who feel economic deficiency the hardest in Mexico’s capital and for that same reason they go into the public space (here in Mexico City’s Zócalo) to make their plight heard. While it could be said that the author’s life has never been marked by poverty in the ways these people photographed have, Nissán’s work still has elements in common with these women. Nissán feels unsatisfied with the conditions for many women within her community so she too takes her narrative of protest into the public space. She creates the story of Oshinica in order to decry what she feels are injustices in the system in which she has lived. Her photographic interest in social injustice of the wider Mexico also hints at influences from her intellectual mentor, Elena Poniatowska, who has long been known for her defence of these causes.

  • 24 Kent Klich has captured street children in the Mexican capital working in this job in his book El N (...)
  • 25 See Tina Modotti’s photograph Misery and an example of this. The negative of this photograph is hel (...)
  • 26 (Sheridan 2007)
  • 27 Francis Alÿs is a Belgian-born artist and architect who has resided in Mexico since the 1980s. Alÿs (...)

27The rest of the images come from scenes taken from Mexican markets. Two are of different cargadors, possibly the lowest strata of market workers (Figs 5 and 6). These characters are the ones who move the goods from one point of the market to another. It is hard physical labor with very poor remuneration and even less recognition. Indeed, many who are involved in this work are often street children looking for a way to fill their belly24. Yet their work has often viewed as poetic by photographers and when she photographs them she follows in the footsteps of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Hector García, and Nacho López, all of whom have captured these ubiquitous characters of the Mexican market scene. While this imaging may fit thematically with the social imagery of Tina Modotti25, it was Modotti’s friend and colleague Manuel Álvarez Brazo whose image of Cargador con carretilla was printed in 193126. So, not only does her inclusion of this character show her sense of photographic history (and even recent trends as seen in the work of Francis Alÿs27) but it also allows us to see her photographic solidarity with the other subalterns of the market, again underlining her mentor’s work with the subaltern character in Mexico as well. The careful capturing of the two cargadores at rest (the first is eating whilst the second one is resting directly on his work instrument) underlines the human element of these workers as the other photographers have tended to capture these individuals while at work. Nissán’s photos answer the question of what these gentlemen do when at rest : se echan un taco o se echan una siesta. Finally, there is an interesting detail in the background of the figure five. The cargador is captured in front of a series of Christmas trees which are for sale. A quotidian element for sure during the December season, yet this Jewish photographer opts to capture it over other market elements that would have been available at that time : toys, foodstuffs, clothing, and so forth that would be widely available during the abundance of markets that appear all throughout Mexico during the Christmas season. This photographic choice to capture the Christmas trees for sale evidences Nissán’s interest in mainstream culture over that of her religious community. It is another example of the precedence of the mainstream public over the communal private.

28The rest of the pictures focus on two points I now wish to underline : color and the Mexican, or even mexicanidad is it is often called in Spanish. Nissán mentions in her second novel that the element of color in the market place is what captures Oshinica’s attention when she goes out to shoot her images. Unlike the young Oshinica who travels straight from her home to her father’s stall in La Lagunilla without offering the reader much further detail, Oshinica the photographer is enthralled by the vibrancy of the colours. Here the pictures offer more than a thousand words as we are able to witness the wide spectrum of color to which Nissán only alludes slightly in her text. They truly are wide in variety and bright in intensity. The other aspect that should be mentioned which is an important quality of Nissán’s photographic work on the markets is her focus on the Mexican elements of the goods sold within them. Consider two examples. One is of the pan de muertos (Fig. 7), beautifully decorated with colored sugar and arranged to participate in the celebrations of the Day of the Dead. This not only focuses as well on mainstream holidays in Mexico but it is also one that is closely linked to mexicanidad as this specific holiday is considered to be a holiday that is Mexican in origin and is an excellent example of syncretism in Nissán’s art as this celebration too was born of the blending of Aztec and Spanish culture. The colourful flower used to decorate the bread not only celebrates the fleeting nature of life (and the bread itself that will be quickly consumed by hungry participants in the festivities) but can also be viewed as somewhat analogous of the photographer her name also represents a flower.

  • 28 (Blazer 2012)
  • 29 Nissán is not the only to note the strong presence of color in everyday Mexican life. Many tomes ha (...)

29Following the strong theme of color in these final photographs, another (Fig. 8) is a collage of different fruits and vegetables ubiquitous in most Mexican markets. Yet another image underscores the effervescence of color in a collection of rope for sale (Fig. 9). The vivacious use of this element is obvious. Unlike many contemporary Mexican photographers such as Graciela Iturbide, Antonio Caballero, or Enrique Metinides (to name just a few) who often opt for black and white in order to oblige the viewer to underline the abstractness of an image instead of its vibrancy28, Nissán incorporates a large amount of color in her work. Indeed, her photograph celebrates it. This focus on color underlines the enthusiasm for the quotidian in Mexico by strongly underscoring it29.

30Also, and in the two photographs previously commented, Nissán has chosen to foreground items that are considered to be quintessentially Mexican foods. Jalapeños, nopales (cactus paddles), calabacines (round Mexican squash), tunas (prickley pears), and even chapulines (grasshoppers) take precedence over peas, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes (all of which are also easily found in the vegetable sections of Mexican markets). Nissán is fascinated by what makes Mexico uniquely Mexican. Her images are not dominated by her inherited religious iconography but rather she is inspired by iconic Mexican themes and subjects. When considering her photographic work exhibited here, Nissán is much more enthralled by the undeniably Mexican and the Mexican photographic legacy than by the other topics. If Nissán’s writings focus on identity, her inner-religiosity and her relationship to her community, her religious culture, and her family ; her photographic work – taken from the public sphere – moves Nissán as an artist directly into mainstream Mexican. The representation of the younger Nissán who peered out onto the street from inside is enveloped by the public sphere as a photographer and she then proceeds to celebrate the joie de vivre this spaces possesses via the subject matters she captures and her intense focus on color. If her narratives ignore the vivacity of the market places where her family made their living ; in her photography we see the electric environment of Tepito, La Lagunilla and other markets evidenced. Finally, it is through the visual that we are able to confirm that indeed not only did Nissán pass though the markets, but that these markets also passed though Rosa Nissán.

31Lisboa 2012

Fig 2 – Autorretrato ventana

Fig 2 – Autorretrato ventana

Fig 3 - Autor hada

Fig 3 - Autor hada

Fig 4 - Elotes tendidos

Fig 4 - Elotes tendidos

Fig 5 - Cargador 1

Fig 5 - Cargador 1

Fig 6 - Cargador 2

Fig 6 - Cargador 2

Fig. 7 - Pan de muertos

Fig. 7 - Pan de muertos

Fig 8 - Collage Mercado

Fig 8 - Collage Mercado

Fig. 9 - Puesto hilos - escobas de colores

Fig. 9 - Puesto hilos - escobas de colores
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Notes

1 (Gardner 2003)

2 (Hisho 154-55)

3 In reality, Rosa Nissán has been one longest-standing students of the ‘Elena Poniatowska literary workshop’ having spent over two decades as an active member.

4 (Gardner 2003) Interview with Nissán 2003.

5 But then, perhaps, the question would be if the book would still have had the impact it did ?

6 There are many examples in which Nissán appeals to the autobiographical nature of her narrative over its fictional nature. Literary critic Mara García once told me that Rosa Nissán had told García during an interview : ‘Yo soy Oshinica’, underlining the allusion to truth rather than fiction (Conversation with Mara Garcia May 2000).

7 She did mention a lone fictionalization of the narrative to me amidst her many truths of the novel : that she made her father-in-law a good dancer, when the fact is that ‘he probably never ever danced’. (Gardner 2002 interview).

8 (38)

9 (Hisho 284)

10 (Hisho 290)

11 (Hisho 277)

12 (Hisho 270)

13 (Israde 1)

14 (Hisho 282)

15 To acquire an idea about this series of public exchanges between Nissán, Hiriart and Schyfter on the authorship and collaboration in the creation of the film Novia que te vea, consider the articles published between May 13 and the July 27 1994 by Gracida, Ysabel; García López, Patricia; De la Vega, Miguel; Nissán, Rosa; Ríos Alfaro, Lorena; and Salinas, Adela. The full references for these pieces are noted in the bibliography. – On an additional note, it is curious that when Elena Poniatowska’s only book to be made into a film to date Gaby Brimmer occurred, it was also accompanied by a series of problems which also led her to publicly denounce her difficulties.

16 (Foster 15)

17 That interview was placed in Youtube on the 12 of March 2012. Currently its link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNkoGjIkWmY

18 One example of the trauma affecting her life is the fact that Nissán would stop driving altogether, seriously altering the manner in which she would be able to move throughout the city and her ability to participate in public life in the Mexican capital. (Gardner 2011 – Conversación con Elena Poniatowska Nov 2011)

19 One example of this is the edition Ex-votos which was published in collaboration with Conaculta as a part of the series on Mexican art.

20 (Ginzberg, 20)

21 (230)

22 While this might be true, she is not the only one who could make this claim. In the archives of photographers Hector García and Mariana Yampolsky (or indeed, Elena’s daughter Paula Haro who is also a professional photographer) it is also extremely easy to find pictures of Elena Poniatowska. This is just another testament to the ongoing relationship this writer has with Latin American photographers.

23 This reference is made on page 172.

24 Kent Klich has captured street children in the Mexican capital working in this job in his book El Niño.

25 See Tina Modotti’s photograph Misery and an example of this. The negative of this photograph is held in the Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca, Mexico.

26 (Sheridan 2007)

27 Francis Alÿs is a Belgian-born artist and architect who has resided in Mexico since the 1980s. Alÿs has created a series of photographs called Ambulantes which mirrors many of the early cargador photographs by key Mexican photographers. While his study does not focus on Alÿs’ work and that of previous photographers, Rubén Gallo does comment Alÿs’ series in his book New Tendencies in Mexican Art.

28 (Blazer 2012)

29 Nissán is not the only to note the strong presence of color in everyday Mexican life. Many tomes have been dedicated to it. One of them being Mexican Color by the photographer Amanda Holmes.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig 1. Rosa Nissán’s ex-voto
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 400k
Titre Fig 2 – Autorretrato ventana
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 100k
Titre Fig 3 - Autor hada
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Fig 4 - Elotes tendidos
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Fig 5 - Cargador 1
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 96k
Titre Fig 6 - Cargador 2
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Fig. 7 - Pan de muertos
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 80k
Titre Fig 8 - Collage Mercado
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 420k
Titre Fig. 9 - Puesto hilos - escobas de colores
URL http://amerika.revues.org/docannexe/image/5349/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Nathanial Eli Gardner, « Being Mexican : Identity, Location, and Rosa Nissán(IV) », Amerika [En ligne], 11 | 2014, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2014, consulté le 16 août 2017. URL : http://amerika.revues.org/5349 ; DOI : 10.4000/amerika.5349

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Auteur

Nathanial Eli Gardner

University of Glasgow
g.nathanial@gmail.com

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