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Silvia Spitta. Between Two Waters: Narratives of Transculturation in Latin America. Houston: Rice UP, 1995. xxi + 246 pp.

Silvia Spitta’s new book came out of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oregon, and a timely text it is. The book’s seven chapters are divided into a theoretical introduction, with chapters 2–4 dealing with colonial topics, while the last three focus on contemporary literature. Despite the broad sweep of its chronology and topics, Between Two Waters maintains its inner cohesion because Spitta establishes a constant interplay between colonial and contemporary times.

Chapter 1 defines for us what Spitta means by transculturation: as opposed to “acculturation” which implies a loss of culture, transculturaltion takes into account the mutual changes which colonizer and colonized effect upon each other as each culture reshapes and recreates itself in contact with the other. “Transculturation can . . . be understood as the complex processes of adjustment and recreation—cultural, literary, linguistic, and personal—that allow for new, vital, and viable configurations to arise out of the clash of cultures and the violence of colonial and neo-colonial appropriations.”

Spitta’s construction of her theoretical underpinnings begins with an examination of Cuban or Caribbean theories of transculturation (Fernando Ortiz, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Gustavo Pérez Firmat). She makes it clear which aspects of these theories she considers valid and useful, and which she does not, then splices them onto theories by Angel Rama, Jean Franco, and, most importantly, José María Arguedas, [End Page 492] as Between Two Waters has a decidedly Andean, specifically Peruvian focus. Spitta is emphatic in resisting the temptation to see postmodern aspects in Latin American literature from its very origins, as she considers postmodernism a Western theory and thus “yet another unacknowledged Western cannibalization of the ‘third world.’” She concludes this initial chapter by establishing three of her principal concerns: to look at transculturation from its origins in the Colony to writing in the present, to examine a variety of processes of transculturation in different settings, and to “see the colony as a space that has given rise to an extreme ambiguity of signs and symbols.” For her the transculturated subject is always in a state of flux, always negotiating what Spitta aptly terms “a continuum of mestizaje.”

As was stated above, the following three chapters focus on aspects of colonial culture. Chapter 2 deals with Cabeza de Vaca’s failed conquest, which was, however, a triumph of transculturation. Cabeza de Vaca and his comrades were unusual conquistadores in that they had lived for many years among the Amerindians of the South and Southwest of the United States and thus were able to distance themselves so far from the Eurocentric view of their contemporaries that the subject pronouns of “us” and “them” acquired new meanings in his chronicle. Chapter 3 examines the problems faced by Catholic priests in the process of Christianizing the Andean Indians. As autochthonous religious practices were literally invisible to European eyes, the priests were forced to become ethnographers in order to achieve their goals of reading the native culture. Spitta—like Guamán Poma and Clorinda Matto de Turner—points out the many abuses of the village priests, who replaced the local caciques and appropriated their privileges.

Chapter 4 is different from the other chapters in that it examines the visual arts, principally painting and drawing of the Cuzco school. The Catholic Church had always used visual images to persuade illiterate populations of its beliefs, but in Cuzco traditional images were not only rendered but also read differently by the native population. Spitta discusses a variety of such images: the mountain-shaped Virgins, Guamán Poma’s drawings, the evolution of Santiago Matamoros to Mataindios. Since I share Spitta’s love of the visual arts, I particularly enjoyed this chapter, though I offer two suggestions in the discussions of Guamán Poma: one is some biographical background, and the other [End Page 493] is an explanation of the terms “left” and “right” (visual vs. conceptual) in the analysis of his drawings.

Chapters 5–7 deal with contemporary writers: José María Arguedas, Elena Garro, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Arguedas, a truly...

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