Nuevomexicana Electras: Locating Decolonial Desire in "The Five Wounds"

 

Photo: Thom Masat, Unsplash.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s collection of short stories Night at the Fiestas presents a set of stories about, primarily but not exclusively, Nuevomexicanas/os. These characters initially appear to be stereotypical Chicanx characters, but Valdez Quade invokes a particular negativity that functions as a decolonial intervention aimed at disrupting romanticized Nuevomexicana/o dialectics in order to introduce decolonial desire, albeit heterosexual. Valdez Quade takes Chicanx literature in new directions by presenting both male and female bodies as sites of desire. Whether or not this can be interpreted as decolonial desire is the central question in many of the stories in Valdez Quade’s collection, but it is an especially relevant question in “The Five Wounds.” In this story, Amadeo is chosen to be Jesus in a penitente reenactment of the Passion of the Christ in a small northern New Mexico town when his pregnant, almost-15-year-old daughter, Angel, shows up unexpectedly. In this story, the pregnant Angel transforms into a Nuevomexicana Electra as she straddles colonial and postcolonial desire. Whereas the male body is objectified during the Lenten reenactment of the Passion as performed by the penitentes, the female body is objectified by men and simultaneously becomes a potential site of liberation from society’s expectations of a teenage New Mexican girl in rural Catholic New Mexico.

Whereas many people are accustomed to the Oedipus Complex, fewer people are familiar with the Electra Complex, derived from the Greek myth of Electra, popularized in Sophocles’s play Electra. Though there are different versions of the myth (see Euripides), in Sophocles’s version Electra is the daughter of King Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. When Agamemnon arrives home from the Trojan war with a new lover, Cassandra, Clytemnestra’s lover murders Agamemon. Electra avenges her father’s death by encouraging her brother, Orestes, to kill his mother and her lover. For this, Electra is forced to endure humiliation and is labeled crazy.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung argued over whether or not the Electra complex existed, but it was always considered as a response or rebuttal to the Oedipus complex. Whether it is Freud or Jung who correctly frames female psychosexual development, the reality is that the existence of a psychoanalytic phenomenon is not important. Literary critic Jill Scott contends that the “greatest cultural myth surrounding Electra is that there is no Electra complex per se” (8). She significance of the Electra figure is relevant to the discussion of Valdez Quade’s work. The Electra Complex can help to complicate traditional romanticized views of female sexuality and incestual relationships so as to see how female agency develops (or fails to develop) in non-traditional ways, particularly in the context of Chicanx literary production.

The trope of Electra is not foreign to Chicanx literature. Arguably, Electra is present in Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in the War Years, Ana Castillo’s My Father Was a Toltec, and Emma Pérez’s recent novel, Electra’s Complex, as well as in Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad. Twenty years before authoring the novel, Pérez examined the psychoanalytic theory for the Chicana Electra in The Decolonial Imaginary, in which she discusses the reverse Oedipus complex, never quite calling it the Electra complex. The Greek name “Electra” has been translated to mean “the unmarried” or “out of wedlock,” (see Willner), and while the Greek Electra is described as Agamemnon’s grown, virginal daughter in the Greek myths, she is neither mature nor virgin in the stories by Valdez Quade. In Sophocles’s Electra, she is both unmarried and beyond childbearing years. In “The Five Wounds,” Angel, the pregnant, teenage daughter of Amadeo, is the mythological Electra trapped inside the virgin/whore dichotomy of the Passion Christ’s crucifixion. She becomes daughter (Electra), mother (Mary), and whore (Mary Magdalene) simultaneously, representing a new Chicana triad and what I term the Nuevomexicana Electra. Angel restores her father’s honor by sacrificing her body multiple times throughout the duration of the story until finally she cries out in fear and pain as she goes into labor while her father writhes on the cross during the crucifixion scene. Memory and desire become entangled, and father and daughter are forced to contend with shared humiliation while the crowd applauds.

The desire experienced by various characters, and especially Angel and Amadeo, depends heavily on memory. In The Decolonial Imaginary, Emma Pérez asks: “How is desire possible without memory?” In short, her answer, and mine, is that it is not. She states that “The decolonial imaginary embodies the buried desires of the unconscious, living and breathing in between that which is colonialist and that which is colonized. Within that interstitial space, desire rubs against colonial repressions to construct resistant, oppositional, transformative, diasporic subjectivities that erupt and move into decolonial desires” (The Decolonial Imaginary, 110). The buried desires are related to the psychoanalytic theories of Electra, breathing between Spanish colonial frameworks and present-day working-class Chicanx struggles of northern New Mexicans. The resulting characters begin to breach colonial desires. Although problematic for other reasons, the characters transformative subjects that reflect the real, lived experiences of modern day Nuevomexicanas/os in a display of the dialectics of doubling.

The title of the collection, Night at the Fiestas, refers to the title story, which appears fourth in the collection of ten. The story is set at the Fiesta de Santa Fe, which most locals refer to as the “Santa Fe Fiestas.” The Fiestas de Santa Fe is the annual reenactment of the 1692 event in which Diego de Vargas recolonized New Mexico under the power of Spain twelve years after Spanish colonizers had been driven out of the region during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The reconquista period was neither peaceful nor bloodless. This recolonial period reifies colonial desire in relation to Catholic religion, which creates a pathway to for Valdez Quade to re-imagine decolonial desire through her female characters. The Spanish colonial framework bears the weight of the colonial desire that runs throughout this collection of short stories set in New Mexico. The decolonial desire, then, is created not from the Oedipal Conquest Complex but instead from the reverse Oedipus Complex, or the Electra Complex.

If the sociopolitical and sociocultural re-enactment of New Mexico fiestas emblematizes the ultimate metaphor of colonial desire vis-à-vis Spanish colonization, then religion bolsters it. In the stories, as in real life, religion mediates Nuevomexicana/o identity, which becomes contingent on negativity. The gut-wrenching, soul-twisting story of “The Five Wounds” begins with Amadeo Padilla, who has been chosen by the hermano mayor of the local morada, Amadeo’s Tío Tíve, to play Jesus in this year’s Passion of the Christ. Thirty-three-year-old Amadeo is “not a man with ambition” (59). He lives with his mother, Yolanda, who still does his cooking and cleaning. He is “pockmarked and bad-toothed, hair shaved close to the scalp scarred from fights, roll of skin where skull meets thick neck. You name the sin, he’s done it: gluttony, sloth, fucked a second cousin on the dark bleachers at the high school” (58). Amadeo lives in Chimayó, which we know based on two descriptions: a reference to the santuario as the morada in question and the narrator’s reference to someone driving Angel to her parenting class in Española every day. Angel is Amadeo’s daughter, who appears at his house during Holy Week, the same week she will turn 15. Angel is eight-months pregnant when she enters the story. Amadeo is upset when he arrives home to find Angel waiting for him, pregnant belly bulging. He tells her: “Now is not a good time.” She asks why, to which he replies, “I’m carrying the cross this year. I’m Jesus.” She responds: “And I’m the Virgin Mary. Where’s Gramma, well?” When she learns that her grandmother, Amadeo’s mother, is in Las Vegas, Nevada, with her boyfriend, Angel laughs and says, “We’re all kinds of Virgin Mary” (original emphasis, 62). This jest immediately alerts the audience to Angel’s sarcasm and desire to mock her father. Angel embodies a weird combination of Mary the Mother of God (virgin) and Mary Magdalene (whore) throughout the story until the end when her identity as Electra solidifies a new Chicana triad.

Angel oscillates between being portrayed as a Marion figure and as a whore. She shows up at Amadeo’s house in a “[w]hite tank top, black bra, gold cross pointing the way to her breasts in case you happened to miss them. Belly as hard and round as an adobe horno” (61). Her father experiences an attraction to his daughter that befuddles him throughout his weeklong preparations for the Passion play. At various points during the week, Amadeo fantasizes about how Angel became pregnant. During his first fantasy, he is lying in bed when he hears her in the shower. The narrator says, “He flops over in his limp bed, tries not to think of her, the naked lumps of flesh, but he can’t help it” (66). He imagines the baby’s father to be an “Española cholo dealing meth from the trunk of his lowrider” (66). This characterization corresponds to an outsider’s perspective of Española residents, the stereotype of the drug-infested valley, a culture-rich and resource-poor community that is placed on display. Here, Angel’s baby’s daddy, like her father, is a tecato of the deviant class. The sense of protection by Amadeo for his daughter becomes evident, but this is only problematized by the predatory nature of his growing concern.

Pérez acknowledges that in the reverse Oedipal complex there is always a primal scene, which “is the first moment when a child witnesses sexual intercourse between her/his parents, thereby realizing her/his origin” (The Decolonial Imaginary 113). Multiple times throughout the story, Amadeo thinks of his daughter engaged in sex acts, and during the second time this occurs it is Angel who initiates the conversation, thus presenting the primal scene when she informs her father of facts she learned during parenting class. She says, “Like, did you know he had his toes before he even got his little dick? […] Weird, huh, that there’s a dick floating around in me? Do you ever think about that? How Gramma is the first girl you had your dick in?” (68). Amadeo is “horrified” to think of his daughter this way. During this primal scene, not only does Angel verbalize her concern with having her baby’s penis “inside her,” but also she transcends the thought of her own conception by thinking further back to her father’s conception. This scene blurs the lines of appropriate father/daughter conversations, but whereas Amadeo’s thoughts go straight to sexual fantasies of his daughter, Angel is evidently focused on the Lacanian jouissance associated with penis envy. This is akin to the development of the Electra complex.

The turning point in the story is when old Manuel Garcia blackmails Angel. After seeing her in the morada with Amadeo the previous evening, Manuel convinces Angel to let him grab her breasts or risk him telling the other hermanos that Amadeo broke the treatise of not allowing women into the morada. Amadeo witnesses the entire scene from the doorway of the house, but he never interrupts or comes to his daughter’s defense. He watches as his daughter is sexually assaulted by the perverted neighbor who calls her a puta for the sake of saving his own reputation. Later that night, he “focuses on the sick sensation of his dick in his jeans, on willing it to shrivel up and fall off as the scene replays in his head. Manuel’s hands on his daughter’s body” (79). When Angel emerges in the living room and reassures her father that Manuel is not going to “tell,” she adds, “You can have your Jesus day” (79). Angel saves him from demise, and the bond between the two has been mediated with sexual favors. The scene ends with Amadeo “grateful” and “exhausted” (80). This scene demonstrates Angel’s willingness to defend her father, but it also positions her in the role of the whore.

During the crucifixion scene, Amadeo is intended to be the center of attention. He is whipped and beaten; he falls to his knees multiple times (and Angel forces him to drink water), and, finally, he has nails driven into his palms. In the background, the penitentes perform their public “conquest theater and drama” (López Pulido 69). The setting of the story, that of the Holy Week activities of the hermanos penitentes, sensationalizes the sacred Nuevomexicano brotherhood in much the same way it has been done in other literary productions. According to cultural critic Alberto López Pulido, “In these stories, penitente lore, stained by blood, crucifixions, and even murder, was part of a larger explanatory framework used by outsiders for inventing the American Southwest and transforming it into a ‘region of the imagination’” (López Pulido 36). Because Amadeo, not Angel, is the intended protagonist, the reader naturally perceives the colonial gaze being cast on Amadeo as penitente and is asked to use their imagination as nails are driven into Amadeo’s hands by the other hermanos. While this occurs, however, all attention turns to Angel.

Upon closer examination of the ending, it becomes clear that Amadeo embodies Jesus dying on the cross as Angel goes into labor. She saves her father once by sacrificing her own pregnant body to old Manuel Garcia, but in the moment that Amadeo suffers the symbolic death of Jesus at Calvario, Angel can do nothing to avenge his death at this time except give birth to a baby boy. This can be read two ways: either her giving birth represents the postcolonial rupture needed to shift the attention to the consequences of hundreds of years of colonialism, or the male baby represents the continuation of colonialism in northern New Mexico. If the Greeks were right, then the five generations of sin, which began when the Spanish brought Catholicism to New Mexico, is about to end. For Angel, the sins of the father are also the sins of the colonial forefathers. While Valdez Quade’s characters are far from ever being postcolonial, she imagines colonial spaces cracking amidst a decolonial shift that Angel initiates.

At the end of her essay, “Electra: The Dark Side of the Moon,” Sheila Powell says,

I think women have the possibility of developing beyond Electra, for the Electra complex seems to be a metaphor for a woman caught in rituals set out for the hero. Woman-as-Electra is undeveloped as a woman who can think for herself because she is enmeshed in a patriarchal culture with which she colludes by feeling that only a man can change the world for her and help her through the struggle. (171)

The reason most readers cannot see Angel as being the central character in the story is that she is underdeveloped. Although she is multidimensional in that she does not fit the standard puta/virgin dichotomy, even as Electra Angel cannot yet liberate herself from the expectations that society has for her. Amadeo is supposed to be the Christ hero who enables the penitente folk practices to continue, but we must question Angel’s agency in this colonial history. She and others like her have the possibility to develop decolonial desire, but at the end of this story, as she stands, “her face blank,” she contemplates her next move.

 

Works Cited

Castillo, Ana. My Father Was a Toltec: Poems. West End Press, 1988.

D’Cruz, Doreen. “Deconstructing the Father as Love: The Fiction of Antonia White.” Loving Subjects: Narratives of Female Desire. Peter Lang Inc., 2003. pp. 19-51.

Euripides. Electra and Other Plays. Edited by Richard Rutherford, Penguin Classics, 1999.

Heffley, Lynne. “Luis Alfaro reimagines Sophocles for today’s audiences.” USC School of Dramatic Arts, 24 Oct. 2017. https://dramaticarts.usc.edu/luis-alfaro-reimagines-sophocles-for-todays.... Accessed 17 May 2018.

López Pulido, Alberto. The Sacred World of the Penitentes. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. South End Press, 2000.

Pérez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History. U Indiana Press, 1999.

-----. Electra’s Complex. Bella Books, 2015.

Powell, Sheila. “Electra: The Dark Side of the Moon.” Journal of Analytical Psychology. 1 Apr. 1993. pp. 155-174.

Scott, Jill. Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005.

Sophocles. Electra and Other Plays. Edited by David Raeburn, Penguin Classics, 2008.

-----. The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Edited by T.N.R. Rogers, Dover Thrift, 2006.

Willner, Dorothy. “The Oedipus Complex, Antigone, and Electra: The Woman as Hero and Victim.” American Anthropologist Vol.84, No. 1 (Mar. 1982). pp. 58-78.

Valdez Quade, Kirstin. “The Five Wounds.” Night at the Fiestas. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. pp. 58-85.

Languages

LALT Number 9
Number 9

Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Samanta Schweblin

Dossier: Chicanx Literature

Indigenous Literature

Fiction

Chronicle

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene