Estercilia Simanca: A Writer who Makes the Desert Blossom

Wayuu writer Estercilia Simanca.

The desert is a place as magical as it is hostile. In the Colombian Guajira your gaze gets lost in the infinite horizon and the heat makes distant figures grow blurred and unreal. There, in the midst of the heat and the wind, lives the Wayuu community. The indigenous women wear comfortable blankets, loose-fitting blankets and long dresses, which allow them to overcome the intense climate of a land that is fantastic, but mortally dry. In this place of contrasts, the writer Estercilia Simanca was born and lives.

Simanca is a woman of the desert, with both the hardness and the beauty of her native Guajira. She is a powerful woman, and her strength comes to her from her ancestors—many Wayuu women are like her, beautiful and strong. Within their community, inheritance is passed through the maternal line, and grandmothers and aunts are the ones who make important decisions for their families. The mother’s side determines community belonging; for example, the children of an arijuna mother are not completely Wayuu. Nevertheless, this matriarchy—as we can read in the works of Simanca and Siosi—featured in this dossier—sometimes cannot prevent the violation of the rights of girls and women.

The Wayuu are the largest indigenous community in Colombia, and they inhabit a desert territory shared by Colombia and Venezuela on the Guajira Peninsula. The Wayuu are binational and, faithful to their wandering nature, they move constantly from ranchería to ranchería, visiting their family near and far, attending celebrations and burials on both sides of the border.

The Wayuu community has a rich culture reflected in the colorful bags and hammocks woven by women, and in the jayeechis, the traditional songs, that liven the desert afternoons, and in the stories told by the pütchipuu. Nevertheless, their culture is not only in the ancient traditions that continue today; it is also revitalized and renewed in written literature, and the three writers included in this dossier—Estercilia Simanca, Vicenta Siosi, and Vito Apüshana—are an example of the dynamism and vivacity of this new cultural tradition.

The indigenous literature of the American continent, especially from south of the United States, has privileged poetry as its creative form par excellence, and Vito Apüshana, along with poets like Fredy Chicangana and Hugo Jamioy, have established themselves as the Colombian indigenous poets with the greatest circulation and, for want of a better word, prestige. Estercilia Simanca, for her part, has preferred the short story as the privileged form of her literature, and her own career as a writer has been marked by an effort to distance herself a little from the recurring themes of indigenous poetry.

Simanca has mentioned on several occasions, in interviews as well as various publications, that the category of “indigenous writer” fences her in; she would like to be presented simply as a writer, or a Colombian or Latin American writer, and for her books to be included on the same shelf as those of great Colombian authors like García Márquez. She doesn’t want to be in a special section, and she doesn’t like the tags of “indigenous” or “woman” that sometimes seem to exclude and exoticize.

Nonetheless, Simanca’s literature is inevitably rooted in Wayuu reality. The majority of her stories emerge from real happenings and characters in her community. To give just one example, in “Manifiesta no saber firmar: Nacido 31 de diciembre”[Declares he/she cannot sign: born December 31], the author tells of her surprise when she realized as a little girl that all of her family members had been born on December 31, or at least that this is what all their identifying documents said. However, her surprise rapidly gave way to indignation when the narrator realized that the dates are placed en masse by state officials so the Wayuu would vote in elections for their candidate when it was his turn. In the same story, she denounces how the same officials, partly out of ignorance but partly also out of racism and scorn, changed the names of the Wayuu, sometimes renaming them with offensive, grotesque names.

The name, our name, not only represents our identity as individuals, but also often reflects the community to which we belong. This is especially true for indigenous communities who must often erase their identity and somehow westernize themselves in order to be admitted into the national discourse or access basic services. This situation is a part of the new forms taken on by colonization. In Simanca’s story, the author tells how some Wayuu names were simply swapped for Western names; for example, Yaya was renamed Clara and Jierrante was renamed Hilda. However, in the most perverse cases, the administrators put names on their IDs like “Cabeza” [Head], “Alka-seltzer,” and even “Cosita Rica” [Sweetcheeks]. It’s impossible to read the story without feeling Simanca’s indignation become our own, and this story is not the only one of her texts in which this takes place.

It’s worth pointing out that Estercilia Simanca is not only a writer but also a lawyer and a businesswoman, and the story “Manifiesta no saber firmar” had enormous consequences. The story was picked up by the news media, and the Colombian director Priscila Padilla, captivated and angered by the story, decided to film a documentary based on Simanca’s testimony. The writer also brought legal action against the state, seeking for the Colombian nation to rectify the names of the Wayuu and give some form of restitution to the people involved. A judge finally upheld the writer’s suit and ordered the Colombian state to provide reparations and restitution to the affected indigenous people, but for many of them the decision came too late.

The story “Manifiesta no saber firmar” is an example of the interests and themes that Estercilia Simanca has developed in all of her work. Her characters, often Wayuu women or children, are a reflection of important aspects of her culture. Others might reflect critiques of the Colombian state and its disdain for the realities of indigenous communities. In the same way, the writer also writes to denounce the practices of her own community with which she does not agree or that she considers unjust or sexist.

The community to which Simanca belongs, the Wayuu, inhabits a very special territory in the far north of Colombia. This place, bordered to the west and north by the Caribbean sea and to the east by Venezuela, possesses the magic of the desert as well as its curse: water is a scarce resource. This problem is heightened by sporadic seasons of drought, which especially affect the north of the region in what’s known as the Alta Guajira. Geographical challenges contribute to the inexistence of access routes, which, together with the disinterest of the state, means that many Wayuu communities lack basic services related to healthcare, education, and even food security. The wondrous desert of the Guajira is also a merciless enemy, and during long droughts, Wayuu children often arrive at health outposts dying of hunger and dehydration. In only the first three months of this year, sixteen children have been reported dead from malnutrition; we will never know the true numbers.

In one of Simanca’s stories, “Jamü,” published in her latest book, Por las valles de arena dorada [In the valleys of golden sand] (Bogotá: Loqueleo, 2017), we listen to the voice of Jamü Epinayu Pushaina, a Wayuu boy who has died of hunger. The story follows the boy’s wandering soul, still feeling his hunger, which continues to beg for food even after his death. The boy walks by his mother’s house and spies on the lives of his siblings and friends who, after surviving a childhood full of hardships, now have their own children, also malnourished and thirsty.

The drama of Jamü is sharpened by the fact that his mother left him at a hospital, and when she returned to collect him, his dead body had already been buried in a mass grave along with seven other Wayuu children, meaning they could not identify him. This story, with shades of Juan Rulfo, has an additional component that makes it even more tragic: the importance of burial for the Wayuu.

According to the funerary traditions of the community, they practice two burials. In the first, it is not so important where the body is buried: the burial can take place wherever the person dies, as in the story of Jamü. In this first burial, the wake is traditionally a big party in which food, games, and chirrinche must be present in abundance. This wake is a celebration that can last several days, or even weeks or months. Nonetheless, this is not the most transcendental part of the ritual. Ten to fifteen days later comes the second burial, which finally closes the life cycle and allows the soul of the dead to undertake its final journey. In the second burial, the bones of the dead person are disinterred, cleaned, and moved to the traditional territory of their family. The second burial is, in a way, the more intimate and profound ritual, since the bones are carried to their place of origin, back to their family. This place of comfort, this peaceful dream is refused to Jamü, who is buried only once alongside strangers, meaning he will never be able to return home to rest forever.

The story of Jamü is as sad as his name itself. The word jamü means “hunger” in Wayuunaiki. This is another text in which Estercilia Simanca strikes us with reality and forces the reader to reflect on the social situation of her community.

To conclude, I’d like to point out the special role played by women and girls in Simanca’s work. Although the author is not especially interested in classifying her work as a vindication of gender, the women in her texts are marvelous beings, strong and resilient as a faithful reflection of real Wayuu women. Within this group of feminine characters are women who decide to take the reins in their own lives, girls married against their will, and successful women. These women, who are mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, wives, etc., construct a feminine space in which the beautiful and the terrible come together.

One of these feminine characters is Primeria, the protagonist of the short story “Julamia.” The word julamia refers, according to Simanca, to single, virginal women who, due to their wealth, cannot be married. This is because the Wayuu maintain the tradition of dowry; that is, when a couple wants to get married, the man must offer the bride’s family goats, necklaces, sheep, calves, and, in the final stages, even cash. The idea is that the man should demonstrate how valuable the woman is for him and also thank her family for looking after her until the moment of marriage. The subject of the dowry is increasingly controversial, since it can end up becoming an economic transaction—a process narrated by Simanca herself. Some men who are substantially older and have economic status can offer dowries to poor families in order to take very young women, sometimes even little girls.

These cases can be even more problematic due to the fact that masculine polygamy is common: a man can marry as many times as his wealth allows. This practice, which has also been narrated by Vicenta Siosi, levies an even greater responsibility upon Wayuu women. They are tasked with preserving their traditions and customs, as well as their language and their sense of belonging to their lands, while men can move from ranchería to ranchería, so to speak, with fewer concerns. This aspect of Wayuu culture is not unique to this community in Colombia and Venezuela; as Aili Mari Tripp explains in The Politics Of Women's Rights and Cultural Diversity In Uganda (2008), it is common in many communities where practices that oppress or abuse women are preserved under the facade of safeguarding culture.

Returning to “Julamia,” the story also makes reference to another Wayuu tradition concerning women that also affects dowry: confinement. In this rite of passage, young Wayuu women who have started menstruation are literally confined for a time, placed out of sight of any person besides their closest family members. This confinement, which can last from a couple of weeks to several years, prepares the girls to face their adult life; for example, in confinement, they learn how to weave. At the end of the confinement, the family normally throws a party in which the new woman dances the yonna, the traditional Wayuu dance, and offers the guests food and gifts she has woven. This tradition, which might seem sexist to an arijuna, is narrated from a very respectful perspective by Simanca in several of her stories. It is also important to mention that this tradition has been practiced less and less in recent years.

The confinement and celebration of a young Wayuu woman form part of the story of “Julamia,” who bitterly remembers her own confinement and how she has not been able to get married. However, in her story, a sort of investment occurs. First, since she is so rich, she has no suitors since no one can offer a dowry suitable for her own wealth. Over the course of the story, she grows frustrated by her situation and waits in vain to be married year after year, or, as time is measured in the story, rainy season after rainy season. At the end of the story, her family decides to give her the freedom to pay her own dowry and choose her own husband. Julamia becomes aware of the power she holds and decides to search for the best and most attractive Wayuu man to marry.

This story, and Estercilia Simanca’s work in general, is a sort of window that allows the reader to taste the rich and complex Wayuu culture. At the same  time, it is a fundamental contribution to contemporary literature. Her work, anchored in reality but free from the constrictions of the essay, transports us as readers to the Guajira and leaves our mouths dry from a season in the desert. In Simanca, Latin American indigenous literature has one of its most important protagonists. Her vision, raw and poetic all at once, converges into a literary work that demands our attention.

Ana María Ferriera

Translated by Arthur Dixon

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LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

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