- Transatlantic Travels in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: European Women Pilgrims by Adriana Méndez Rodenas
Transatlantic Travels in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: European Women Pilgrims studies the writings of four European women, and the paintings of another, concerning their travel experience in Latin America during the nineteenth century. These women are the British Maria Graham (Journal of a Residence in Chile and Journal of a Voyage to Brazil, 1824), the Scottish Frances Erskine Inglis (Life in Mexico: During a Residence of Two Years in That Country, 1843), the French Flora Tristan (Peregrinations of a Pariah, 1838), the Swedish Fredrika Bremer (The Home of the New World: Impressions of America, 1853), and the British traveler, artist, photographer, and archaeologist Adela Breton.
The title of Méndez Rodenas’s book is suggestive. It is interesting to note the twist that the author gives to common uses of words that have been highly defined by critics: first, “transatlantic” for Méndez Rodenas has an original and productive meaning that captures the experience of travelers from Europe to Latin America and vice versa, leaving out of its scope the controversial object of study that conflates Spain and Latin America. As Méndez Rodenas beautifully puts it, “[to] share the comfort (and dis-ease) of inhabiting two worlds at once [is] what I call here the transatlantic perspective” (43). Next, the second non-traditional meaning of a term applies to “pilgrims”: these female travelers embark on a quest for self-discovery, but unlike traditional (religious) pilgrims their search is secular, social, and sometimes political. Third, the author defines “travel writing” as a genre, a more flexible and less codified one enabling the representation of new types of subjectivities in a constant tension between the personal and the public. Fourth, finally, there is also the nineteenth century as the century of nation formation, but through the eyes of women writing in foreign languages about the history of these countries’ independence. Unlike many male travelers and globetrotters, these women lived for extended periods in the countries they visited, becoming deeply acquainted with their customs and their people. Following Roberto I. Díaz, Méndez Rodenas argues that despite using languages different than Spanish, these women’s travel books form part of the Latin American historical archive. Their work contributes to expanding the notion of the nineteenth-century national “imagined community,” as “these travel writers expand a multilingual library interpreting Latin America from across linguistic and geographic frontiers” (23).
Although most of these female travelers have been well studied by critics such as Mary Louise Pratt, Ángela Pérez Mejía, Cristina Guiñazú, etc., Méndez Rodenas offers a reading against the grain and establishes an open and fruitful dialogue with the aforementioned critics, particularly Pratt’s definition of “imperial” encounter and “contact zone,” in her landmark book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992). While Pratt focuses on the “asymmetric power relation” between traveler and locals, Méndez [End Page 408] Rodenas argues for more complex power dynamics, as the travelers do not always maintain a position of ethnocentric superiority. They have difficulties upholding a self-assured image, since they are at the same time patently vulnerable, constantly negotiating between the demands of domesticity and the desire for adventure and a separate identity through writing, painting, observing, botanizing, collecting, and exploring the world as women.
Méndez Rodenas shows how, as contributors to the discourses of nation building, these women exhibit a “gaze of enchantment” when describing the Latin American geography. They chart the national territory through the lenses of gender and class, singling out in their narratives spaces such as the garden, the valley, the desert, and the volcano. Following Barbara T. Gates, Méndez Rodenas describes this gaze as typical of the Victorian “female sublime”: “an aesthetic approximation of Nature in which the beholder captures both the exuberance sighted as well as the limitation of the vision, while acknowledging both the sensuous aspiration—and almost inability—to fully convey the ‘incommensurability of the Nature displayed’” (47).