Before looking specifically at two Latin American children’s writers who engage with the literary representation and problematics of children’s play, it is useful to provide some context, first in regard to the formal international understanding of the importance of play and how that understanding has been rearticulated as the result of postcolonial theory, and second, in terms of Latin America’s unique position within the postcolonial debate. Right about the time that Franz Fanon was beginning to question the assumptions supporting colonialism, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted its first “Declaration of the Rights of the Child” (1959). This initial document established a list of ten fundamental principles specific to children: among them, the right to an identity, to care and protection from parents through various social and legal means, and the right to an education. Play, an activity we invariably associate with children, was not really contemplated by the Declaration and was mentioned only briefly in principle seven as an extension of the right to an education: “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education.” Those “purposes,” according to the UN Declaration, were to promote the child’s “general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgment, and his sense of moral and social responsibility,” that is, “to become a useful member of society.” While parents were primarily charged with the responsibility for seeing that children received an early education, according to the UN Declaration, “society and the public authorities” were charged with making sure a child could enjoy the right to play as part of his moral and social development.
The subtext of the 1959 UN Declaration is that play, as long as it serves the overriding goals of education, is not only good for children; it is good for the community. Thus, it would stand to reason that it should be promoted [End Page 163] by the very entity that stands to benefit the most, society itself. Play, within the limits of the 1959 Declaration, is conceived of, then, as a way of learning, in keeping with much of the twentieth-century attention to “children’s play as a form of progress.”1 Thus, playing for fun, entertainment, or diversion is not specifically a right guaranteed or protected by this early version of the UN Declaration, only play that extends education and will, therefore, serve to create useful citizens.
Postcolonial societies, however, see a fundamental problem with this alignment of play and education, particularly with its subtext of progress, in that it folds the notion of play into the civilizing mission of empire. If formal education is, as Louis Althusser posits, a state ideological apparatus,2 then play becomes one more activity that the center uses to promote and protect its interests in the periphery. Play, like other educational activities, is regulated, structured, supervised, organized, and even limited or eliminated when and if it comes into conflict with “progress” and the imposition of “civilization.” In Latin America, in particular, when writers talk about children’s play, there can be much more at stake than just a game. In the specific cases of Carlos Rubio and Augusto Roa Bastos, the two writers to be discussed below, the act of playing can be read as a political and oppositional statement, a metaphor for rebellion and resistance to power and dominance.
By the time the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted, the United Nations had clearly become aware of the implied colonial logic linking play to education in the earlier version and, consequently, separated the right to play Article 31 from the right to education Article 29. In so doing, the more recent convention makes a new and interesting link between recreational play and a child’s right “to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” The first proposition under Article 31 states specifically: “Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and...