Reviving Colombian Latin American Tropical Gothic

Enrique Ajuria Ibarra

Enrique Ajuria Ibarra

Gothic and Latin America feed on each other to project those monstrous and horrifying phenomena that crack mythical elaborations of Latin American identity, magic realism and exoticism.

The contributors to this special article prove that Gothic has rooted itself and speaks of cultural anxieties, such as national trauma and identity. Additionally, it motivates experimentations and regional adaptations of the negative aesthetics of the Gothic.

Such examinations also provide further anticipated evidence of what Glennis Byron suggests to be the current and evident global flow of the Gothic.

Early incorporations of Gothic motifs are noticeable in Latin American literature in the nineteenth-century.

Several Romantic and Modernist writers recurred to elements of the Gothic mode to manifest in writing their fascination with the supernatural and the uncanny.

Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodríguez suggests that writers, such as Juan Maria Montalvo Fiallos, Juana Manuela Gorriti, Horacio Ladislao Holmberg, Félix Rubén García Sarmiento and Rubén Campos, “(in) form the basis of a new corpus of writing, and although it failed to become a full-fledged literary movement, […] it has haunted and continues to haunt Latin American literature to the present-day, through the use of a twist that hybridizes and, above all, tropicalised the Gothic movement.”

Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodríguez uses the term “tropical” to refer to Gothic appropriations, adaptations and transformations in the whole of Latin America. In this sense, Gothic is not invasive or authoritative; it is rather absorbed into the practice of fictional writing with the purpose of revealing anxieties and concerns that are best imagined through the Gothic.

Additionally, Gothic’s presentation of dark, unknown and monstrous “Otherness” is given a twist in location: Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodríguez convincingly claims that “the place of origin or development of the monsters (“Others” or specters) and the supernatural situation is no longer the periphery of Europe (Eastern Europe, the Orient, the Caribbean) but Europe itself.”

Latin American nineteenth and early twentieth-century Gothic reverses “Otherness” in a cultural reconfiguration of home and the terrifying beyond. Here, the old continent is indeed old: a place of superstition, haunting and witchcraft that lingers mythically and in contrast with the new Latin American continent.

While tropical Gothic can be traced to its early literary manifestations, the term was coined more recently, and more concretely, for cinematic purposes.

Juana Suárez decides to explore Colombian filmmakers Carlos José Mayolo Velasco’s and Luis Ospina’s notion of Tropical Gothic in relation to horror, historical trauma and national identity.

Juana Suárez determines that Carlos José Mayolo Velasco’s and Luis Ospina’s horror films disrupt the Latin American magic realist tradition in favour of an appropriation of “longstanding characteristics of gothic style […] and giving them back together with elements associated with the tropics.”

Juana Suárez notices that the term also considers films that are not necessarily set in the tropics: its main characteristic then is the cinematic “presence of vampirism, supernatural, psychological and physical horror itself.” These elements thus provide a visual confirmation that the Colombian period of social and political unrest known as La Violencia is nationally perceived as “a generator of monsters […] generated by monstrous circumstances.”

Juana Suárez proposes that Gothic and horror elements in Carlos José Mayolo Velasco’s and Luis Ospina’s films are more suitable to address issues of national trauma than magic realism. In this sense, what is of interest to both Colombian directors is the centrality of haunting as a structural necessity in the elaboration of a national and cultural discourse. Thus, as a term, tropical Gothic can serve as the springboard for further evaluations of local adoptions, re-configurations and implementations of Gothic in the Latin American region.

Jonathan Risner’s study of space in Latin American horror films examines these re-configuration processes that are noticeably taking place.

More than just identifying a Gothic mode in terms of the construction of what Anthony Vidler terms “the architectural uncanny,” Jonathan Risner determines that space in Latin American horror cinema is a key element to evaluate transnational movements and relocations of the genre. Therefore, more than speaking of tropical Gothic, Jonathan Risner prefers to see regional permutations of the Gothic as exercises of diffusion of this fictional mode in local and national terms.

His focus on the Uruguayan film ‘La Casa Muda’ (‘The Silent House,’ 2010) and its apparent deconstruction of space and time may hint to how Gothic may be transposed to expose local anxieties regarding political conflict and female abuse. Nevertheless, Jonathan Risner argues that an examination of Latin American Gothic horror “should be seen as part of a transnational circuit of horror cinema in which transnational genre communities consume horror from other countries and, as evidenced in the four films examined above, filmmakers are keenly aware of the genre’s tenets such as the plasticity of space and suggested horror.”

Even though it may be possible to speak of Latin American Gothic, Jonathan Risner claims it is more relevant to explore the transnational flows these horror films are allowed to be part of by means of well-known Gothic and horror conventions.

This sense of transnational Gothic is further reflected in Jennifer Donahue’s assessment of ‘The Brief’ and ‘Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,’ by Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz.

Jennifer Donahue examines the novel’s exposition of a national identity crisis that inevitably revisits the national traumatic wound Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina inflicted on this Caribbean country during his term in power.

Although the novel may not be immediately associated with the Gothic, Jennifer Donahue identifies brief Gothic suggestions that further enhance the protagonist’s identity crisis, not just in terms of his geographic dislocation, but also in terms of his sexual and intellectual identity. By recovering the local notion of the fukú curse, the novel explores the determinations of a national haunting.

For Jennifer Donahue, “[Junot] Díaz invokes spectres through the Gothic.” The persistence of the supernatural curse envelops the narrative in a sense that is far detached from magic realism. Indeed, even though Jennifer Donahue claims that “in utilizing the supernatural as a means of exploring fukú, [Junot] Díaz proffers a shift in the understanding of Dominican identity that moves beyond essentialist, physical markers of identity to ones rooted in the mystical and collective.”

It is once again this centrality of haunted national trauma that allows for a more Gothic expression in Junot Díaz’s novel. The Gothic in this transnational and Latin American narrative is incorporated as a means to understand personal, regional and national identities rooted in traditional beliefs that are eminently spectral.

Finally, the Gothic’s sense of the transnational or the global is further elucidated in Zoila Clark’s analysis of Andrés Muschietti’s film ‘Mama’ (2012). Here, the Gothic mode explores monstrous maternity by appropriating a local Mexican legend and incorporating it in the configuration of spectral ‘Mama’ in a multinational film production.

Zoila Clark identifies useful associations between the film’s ghost and the legendary “La Llorona” as a means to redeem the cultural abjection of motherhood and nature. Zoila Clark proposes the relationship between ‘Mama’ and “Mother Nature” by means of an Aristotelian syllogism to then examine the film’s narrative confrontations and connections with the mythical “Mother.”

The explorations of a Jungian collective unconscious further reveal a rooted attraction and dread of the material, which is surmounted in the film by a subject ruled by social and cultural discourses. Thus, Zoila Clark argues that “this film shows that the tales we are told as children are in part memories of real historical events.

Both stories and histories are memories constructed out of facts and fiction, and when they are put into a narrative, whether linguistically or visually, they are at once individual, collective, and as much a part of the past as they are part of the present.”

For Zoila Clark, the fictional presentation of a monstrous and spectral mother taps into legendary and mythical configurations of social and personal history. The collapsing of past and present cultural beliefs that are suggested in the transnational adaptation of a local horror legend proves once more that the Gothic is indeed fluid, as Glennis Byron suggests, in the incorporation and transmission of regional varieties of horror into the global mainstream.

‘Mama’ and La Llorona is an amalgamation that is essentially more uncanny than abject, as it discloses the structure of the cultural myth of motherhood and nature.

Latin America should be considered a focal point for the evaluation of the Gothic movement. Antonio Alcalá González claims that “Gothic conventions reappear in many contexts where human certainties about identity and reality are questioned.”

His explorations of the Gothic narratives of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes Macías prove that this fictional mode is able to transcend location and be incorporated in works whose chief concern is to understand the vicissitudes of time, the self and the “Other.”

It seems as if the relationship between Gothic and Latin America hints at a two-way interchange of myths, concepts, narrative structures and perceptions of horror.

While Latin America is enriched by more powerful manifestations of the uncanny, the abject, national trauma and haunting, the Gothic allows for specific regional narrations to be of interest to a wider, world audience.

The presence of Gothic in Latin America is far from being new or simply fortuitous; on the contrary, perceptions, adaptations and transformations are evident for more than one hundred and fifty years.

It is due time for an incursion into the dark side of Latin America to unveil further features of the mobility of this Gothic world.

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