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  • Passages, Transits, Flows:Thinking Central American Literature Across Space, Time, and Capital
  • Sophie Esch

For centuries, Central America has been thought of and read in relation to the particular geography of the region. The figure of the isthmus is undoubtedly the most central. Located on a narrow stretch of land that connects North and South America and separates the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the strategic location and shape of the land mass has played a crucial role in the historical-cultural development of the region now divided into seven independent nation-states—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The geography has defined the region as a place of transit. It has meant that Central America is a part of the Caribbean and the region developed in close proximity to the two colossi in the North, Mexico and the USA. Other factors such as seismic activity, climate, and agriculture have had a profound impact on the region's historical and political development, too.

The geography has left its trace on the region's literary-intellectual thought. There is Ernesto Cardenal's Estrecho dudoso, José Coronel Urtecho's Rápido tránsito, Eunice Odio's El tránsito de fuego, Sergio Ramírez's Balcanes y volcanes, and from the diaspora, Desde el EpiCentro co-edited by Karina Oliva Alvarado and Maya Chinchilla. Two academic journals dedicated to Central American literature and culture are named after the isthmus, Istmo and Revista Ístimica, and one of the most important journalistic endeavors of recent years is El Faro, a lighthouse towering above the isthmus, shedding light on the region. Within US academia, Ana Patricia Rodríguez's Dividing the Isthmus is a key book that aims "to provide spatial-cultural readings of Central America" (2). This propensity is, of course, not without problems. For once, there is certainly a risk of seeing the region's history as overdetermined by its geography (7). In addition, the dominant spatial imaginary of Central America is one that markedly comes from foreign views imposed upon the space, in particular from nineteenth-century travel writing. In this [End Page 7] view, space, time, and money became linked (I. Rodríguez 35). Members of the Central American elites often adopted or shared the outsiders' gaze upon the land and the question of the capitalization of space became central to national and regional imaginaries (33–35). Nonetheless, opposing views always existed, too, which resisted projects of commodification and modernization via infrastructure and export-oriented agriculture. Objections and polemics notwithstanding, spatial economic-cultural thought is central to Central American/ist production; it continues to structure thinking about the region.

This dossier, titled Passages: Routes of Migration and Memory in Central American Literature, takes up this spatial tradition in an effort to introduce a broader non-Central Americanist audience to it, and at the same time to expand it by thinking about Central American literature within a series of passages. A place of transit, the small region has been an important imagined, realized, and frustrated space for flows of people, goods, and ideas. This dossier analyzes Central America as a space constantly created, reimagined, expanded, and constructed through passages—literary and otherwise. Passages, transits, and routes lie at the heart of the Central American experience, the conceptualization of the region, as well as its literature. The meaning of the word "passage" ranges far and wide. It can mean "a way of exit or entrance: a road, path, channel, or course by which something passes," "the action or process of passing from one place, condition, or stage to another," "a specific act of traveling or passing especially by sea or air," "a right, liberty, or permission to pass," or "a continuous movement or flow" (Merriam Webster). This dossier highlights the interlinked dynamics of space, capital, time, and people by focusing primarily on passages and routes of migration and memory.1

Passages and Cardinal Directions

Interoceanic passageways are certainly Central America's most famed passages. The Spanish conquistadors' feverish search for a "doubtful strait" (Cardenal) soon turned into a similar fever dream of a man-made strait: an interoceanic canal. For a long time, the San Juan River and...


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