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Taking Their Word

Literature and the Signs of Central America

Arturo Arias

Publication Year: 2007

Central Americans are one of the largest Latino population groups in the United States. Yet, Arturo Arias argues, the cultural production of Central Americans remains little known to North Americans.


In Taking Their Word, Arias complicates notions of the cultural production of Central America, from Mexico in the North to Panama in the South. He charts the literature of Central America’s liberation struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, its transformation after peace treaties were signed, the emergence of a new Maya literature that decenters Latin American literature written in Spanish, and the rise and fall of testimonio. Arias demonstrates that Central America and its literature are marked by an indigenousness that has never before been fully theorized or critically grasped. Never one to avoid controversy, Arias proffers his views of how the immigration of Central Americans to North America has changed the cultural topography of both zones.


With this groundbreaking work, Arias establishes the importance of Central American literature and provides a frame for future studies of the region’s culture.


Arturo Arias is director of Latin American studies at the University of Redlands. He is the author of six novels in Spanish and editor of The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy (Minnesota, 2001).

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Most of this book was written in Spanish over the course of the past ten years. Its point of departure was signaled by my receipt of the Martha Weeks Fellowship at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1994–95. I want to recognize the center’s belief in my work and the warmth with which it has continued to receive me throughout the years. My first thanks go there. During my “crossing...

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Introduction: Is There a Central American Literature?

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pp. ix

In an academic discussion a few years ago regarding the programmatic changes needed to accurately reflect the local Latino population at a Southern California university, a Southern Cone professor asked ironically, “But is there even such a thing as Central American literature?”At the time, the question seemed laughable, because every Latin Americanist recognized the quality of canonical Central American writers—Rubén Darío, Pablo Antonio Cuadra,...

Part I. The Outcasts of Global Citizenship

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1. Revolutionary Endgame: Globalization and the Trajectory of Narrative

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pp. 3-25

International headlines during the 1980s demonstrated a large-scale concern for Central America’s revolutionary struggles. From a metropolitan point of view, however, the region “faded from view” in the ensuing decade, once its political instability appeared to have settled. Indeed, the 1990s pointed to the beginning of a new period in Central American history, one dating from the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in February 1990. Since then, globalization has exercised a structural determinacy over the entire region....

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2. Erotic Transgression and Recodification of Values in Asturias’s Mulata

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pp. 26-48

In one of the many provocative scenes of Asturias’s novel Mulata de Tal (1963, translated as Mulata, 1967), the aged Nana Hollín covers her naked body with leftovers so that dogs can lick her.1 Even though in this orgiastically bestial act she ends up covered with dog urine and is so badly bitten on her genitals that she cannot cure herself afterward, Hollín enjoys herself as a child would because she believes that, at this stage of her life, only dogs dare...

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3. Identity or Literariness: The Emergence of a New Maya Literature

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pp. 49-82

Central American narrative textuality has been labeled an “invisible literature,” one that few people read outside of its area of origin due to techniques of market domination.1 This invisibility has a great deal to do with the circulation of cultural products from and in the peripheries, which I label the “marginality of marginality” to evoke the ways that critical disciplines and practices constitute the relevant subjects of literary production and...

Part II. Forever Menchú

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4. Authoring Ethnicized Subjects: The Performative Production of the Subaltern Self

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pp. 85-104

“Can the subaltern speak?” The question certainly was not mine.1 However, the case of Rigoberta Menchú and the attacks on the “factuality” of her mediated discourse in the testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984)2 forced me to reconsider it. Gayatri Spivak’s seminal question presupposes that once the voice of a subaltern subject has been recorded in print, he or she is no longer a subaltern subject, because the “speaking subject” must...

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5. After the Controversy: Lessons Learned about Subalternity and the Indigenous Subject

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pp. 105-123

In the United States, the debate over Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio generated by David Stoll’s book centered on whether Menchú told the “truth” regarding details of her personal life. According to her critics, her “lies” discredited her testimony and reduced the moral authority of leftist intellectuals who taught testimonial texts. This focus on verifiable facts conveniently ignored a discursive war tied to cold war politics. For this reason, in the previous chapter...

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6. Reading Truthfully: An American Reading of a Subaltern Text

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pp. 124-143

Allow me to first bring a few issues of an apparently disparate nature to view. When the Rigoberta Menchú controversy first erupted at the end of 1998, I read it as one framed primarily for an uninformed American public, closely linked to the conservative drive to impeach President Bill Clinton. It was in that light that I understood the hysterical response of individuals such as David Horowitz and his Center for the Study...

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7. The Burning of the Spanish Embassy: Máximo Cajal versus David Stoll

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pp. 144-162

In his book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, David Stoll presents, masked in allegedly objective language, a highly biased, and incorrect, account of the tragic events that took place in Guatemala City on 31 January 1980. On that date the military regime burned the Spanish embassy to the ground. This event had far-reaching implications. First, it resulted in the deaths of thirty-six people in the conflagration and one more...

Part III. Immigration, Diaspora, and Globalization

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8. The Maya Movement

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pp. 165-183

Let us begin our discussion of the Maya movement with a local issue. It could very well be a crime story. In reality, it is an event with clear political connotations. On 16 May 1998, at 7:00 p.m., two husky, armed men intimidated and threatened the life of Licenciado Ovidio Paz Bal, one of the attorneys for the Defensoría Maya (Maya Legal Defense Fund). This happened...

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9. Central American–Americans? Latino and Latin American Subjectivities

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pp. 184-200

When I was in Los Angeles in September of 1992 for the International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), a group ofMayas invited me to the Feria de San Miguel. A feria, as everyone of Latin American origin knows, is the annual celebration (like a country fair) in honor of the patron saint that names a given town, and it has become traditional in Latin America, as well as in Spain, to commemorate...

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10. American Central Americans: Invisibility and Representation in the Latino United States

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pp. 201-218

The Tattooed Soldier, the first novel written in English by a Guatemalan-American author, Hector Tobar, begins with the eviction of the main character, Antonio Bernal, from his apartment in downtown Los Angeles.1 A funny element is introduced: Antonio cannot understand his Korean landowner, because in this city both of them “could spend days and weeks speaking...

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Conclusion: Forever Modern, Forever Marginal

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pp. 219-226

In an article published in 2004 in the Radical History Review, Néstor García Canclini tells us about the difficulties of knowing what to do about Latin America’s past and future. García Canclini talks of “the disbelief about what happened and about what will come”—wondering whether this means that present-day Latin American subjects can trust only the denseness of the present moment, because there is no longer time for memory or for utopian...


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pp. 227-262


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pp. 263-278


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pp. 279-300

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About the Author

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p. 301-301

Arturo Arias is director of Latin American studies at...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816654444
E-ISBN-10: 0816654441
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816648498

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: First edition

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Central American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Central American literature -- Mayan influences.
  • National characteristics, Central American, in literature.
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