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From issue: Latin American Youth ( )


In this issue:

Film Review: Family Life

Manuel Betancourt

A missing cat sparks an identity crisis in this dark Chilean comedy.

This article is adapted from AQ's print issue on youth in Latin America

Bruno and Consuelo (Blanca Lewin and Cristián Carvajal) need to shake up their marriage, and a months-long trip to France with their daughter seems like it might do the trick. A distant cousin, the morose 30-something Martín (Jorge Becker), agrees to look after the house while they’re gone. Martín has just lost his father and is struggling to keep a job. Bruno and Consuelo are doing their best to beat back a nagging complacency that has entered their relationship. Audiences of Cristián Jiménez and Alicia Scherson’s film Family Life (Vida de Familia) are encouraged to ask: What could possibly go wrong?

It doesn’t take long to find out. After Martín tires of rummaging through closets and old photo albums, he begins to take ownership of Bruno and Consuelo’s house in both comical and disturbing ways. He quickly loses track of the cat, and while trying to find it runs into — and seduces — the free-wheeling Paz (Gabriela Arancibia). Martín invites Paz to the house and presents himself as its owner, telling her the little girl’s room belongs to a daughter his ex-wife won’t allow him to see; it’s clear Martín is more comfortable playing a role than engaging in the self-reflection he needs. When his romantic relationship with Paz begins to crack, Martín’s internal isolation threatens to break him down completely.

Family Life doesn’t try to pathologize or alleviate Martín’s depression. Instead, it finds meaning and humor in his attempts to be someone else for a change. The English title of this darkly comic tale of arrested development is an apt translation for Vida de Familia. Yet Jiménez and Scherson are particularly interested in mining the grammatical indeterminacy found in their original Spanish title, which offers a slight distinction between leading a family life and the life one leads as part of a family. Becker’s deadpan performance is the key to the film, which seems intent on exposing the fabricated and performative nature of shared intimacies, especially those that turn family houses into family homes.

Family Life (Vida de Familia)
Directed by Cristián Jiménez and Alicia Scherson
Written by Alejandro Zambra
Starring Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Blanca Lewin and Cristián Carvajal
AQ's Rating: 7/10


Betancourt is a New York City-based writer and editor.


Book Review: Our Sister Republics

Russell Crandall

A new history looks at how U.S. revolutionaries supported democratic movements in the hemisphere.

This article is adapted from AQ's print issue on youth in Latin America

Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions sheds light on the ardent kinship that U.S. politicians, journalists and everyday folks felt toward Latin America’s independence movements in the 19th century.

Even before the British crown’s colonial subjects wrote the Declaration of Independence, Americans were embracing universalist notions of self-government. For Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe” and Americans needed to “prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” Once the colonists had consolidated their own revolutionary republic in the years after 1776, Fitz writes, the universalism of revolution turned its sights to Latin America. Fitz acknowledges that this spirit could be at times pro forma or self-serving, but that it was more regularly heartfelt — a “genuine affinity for their southern neighbors” fighting wars of independence off and on for a decade and a half after 1810.

This affinity was all the more surprising for the geographical and demographic distance between and among the Americas at the time. Fitz, a historian at Northwestern University, reminds readers that the United States was then “irrefutably and increasingly a white man’s republic.” And it was this white republic that — despite the real and perceived remove of places like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru — saw in the Latin American revolts their “egalitarian and universalist narrative of 1776.” The United States felt that they, well, mattered. And Yankees, being Yankees, took credit for the Latins’ (apparent) political successes vis-à-vis their Iberian controllers. The upswing of republicanism in the region appeared to corroborate the attraction and success of the U.S.’s universal founding principles.

Fitz reckons that Latin America offered a convenient “unifying language” of American singularity. That’s why myriad celebrations of Latin American independence “emerged with such frequency on (the U.S.’s) most self-consciously patriotic of holidays.” The Fourth of July became cause to celebrate American independence writ large — this in an era, after the War of 1812, when the holiday was a “sacrosanct celebration.” Fitz’s conclusion is that the throngs of citizens yelping hoorays for Latin American independence or naming their babies for the “Great Liberator” of Latin America, Simón Bolívar (by the early 1830s, upwards of 200 tykes had been so named), transcended U.S. regional factions and even, at times, gender and race.

Fitz portrays the “popular hemisphere ardor” that motivated thousands of U.S. patriots to carry the mantel of Latin American revolution and independence. U.S. merchants readily sold arms and bullets to rebel factions. The author is therefore on solid footing when she concludes that American diplomacy happened not just in official clubby offices in Washington, but also “barnacled and brackish harbors and the manure-covered heartland.” Merchants might have sent southward to rebel hands upwards of 150,000 guns, a million flints, and hundreds of tons of gunpowder and ammunition. In 1820, one committed American living in Venezuela pushed his fellow citizens to sell weapons — both for liberty and profit — in a letter published initially in Charleston’s City Gazette. The ex-pat’s letter called on “the American animated with the spirit of independence and generosity to put into the hands of his compatriots of the southern continent of his sister America, the weapons of retributive justice.”

Fitz’s history is accessible yet serious, and her painstaking research is infused with vivid storytelling. Ironically, it might be Fitz’s expertise as a scholar of early American history that allows her to give a refreshingly disinterested, factual account of a decidedly inter-American episode — one that in less objective hands might have missed nuances in the relationships contained on her pages. For those seeking an antidote to the too-often ideological rhetoric of past and current inter-American debate, Our Sister Republics is a great place to start.

Our Siter Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions
By Caitlin Fitz
Liveright, Hardcover, 368 pages


Crandall is a professor of American foreign policy and international politics at Davidson College in North Carolina, and the author of America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (Cambridge, 2014) and The Salvador Option (Cambridge, 2016). He is writing a history of the war on drugs and is a member of AQ’s editorial board.

Book Review: Kindgom Cons

Anya Ventura

Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera's drug war parable is "its own kind of narcocorrido."

This article is adapted from AQ's print issue on youth in Latin America

The corridos of northern Mexico have been described as musical newspapers, folk histories timed to the lively wheeze of an accordion that celebrate the poor, the forgotten and the outlaws. Within the last 20 years, as the war on drugs accelerated, the subgenre of the narcocorrido has blossomed along the U.S.-Mexico border, exalting drug traffickers as latter day Robin Hoods. It is through the story of one lost corridisto named Lobo that Yuri Herrera, in his fabulist novel Kingdom Cons, examines the relationship between art and power. What is truth, he asks — historical, literary, personal — in a world of lies?

The tale begins with Lobo singing his way into the Palace, home to a local drug kingpin and his retinue. There, Lobo is transformed into the Artist, recruited as yet another archetype among archetypes — the Witch, the Girl, the Jeweler, the Journalist — that occupy the compound. Capitalist society writ small, the Palace is an enchanted prison: a kingdom of flimsy spectacles that barely conceal its brutalities. In this precarious and corrupt con game, where a savage entrepreneurialism flourishes in a vacuum of control left by the state, the Artist’s survival depends on how well his hagiographies please the honchos in power. In the Palace the Artist becomes a ghostly witness to the machinations of court life, which then provide the material for his songs.

Herrera is a jumbler of cultural forms, both literary and vernacular. Kingdom Cons is narrated with a bardic omniscience, a mythopoetic tone satisfyingly coarsened by slangy dialogue. The musicality of the prose turns the slim novel into its own kind of narcocorrido. Herrera balloons the gritty details, the stuff of conventional narco novels, into a larger allegory about the Artist’s search for integrity within the workings of power. What is the use of words in the authoritarian regime? “They are a constant light,” Herrera writes, “They are the lighthouse flare cast over stones at his command, they are a lantern that searches, then stops, and caresses the earth, and they show him the way to make the most of the service that is his to render.” Haunting the novel is this sense of complicity, the fear of selling out, of reducing language to the purely transactional.

And yet while the Artist holds a mirror to the vainglorious exploits of the Palace’s residents, he sees nothing of himself within. The mirror, rather than a tool for true reflection, is an object of vanity. Each member of the kingdom, with the exception of the prostitute with whom the Artist shares a bed, is solipsistic and blind. “I’m surprised all the courtiers don’t spend all day running into each other in the corridors,” the Doctor says as he administers an eye exam to the Artist. The Artist regaining his sight coincides with an ever-sharpening clarity and forms the crux of the novel. Afterward, the Artist absconds with his beloved, the Commoner, from the Palace to the unvarnished city, where “a light more pure was cast down on the slum, and he was privileged to be able to see it.” All at once, the false idols of the Palace lose their luster. The ultimate con, we find, is to deceive oneself.

The plot may be predictable, but Kingdom Cons is still an exquisite parable. The hero encounters vanity, violence, lust and greed, only to emerge from his journey stripped of illusions and armed with a more profound knowledge of art. If the power of language is its restitching of truths, then it is an instrument that can be wielded for both good and evil. By the novel’s romantic end, the Artist becomes Lobo again and rediscovers language liberated from authority, an art with which he “created his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” It is in these passages, in which the Artist reflects upon the meaning of words, that Herrera reaches his most poetic and sublime. “I never tell the truth,” the Commoner tells the Artist, when pressed to relinquish her story. In a dictatorship, after all, one’s truth — that inner necessity, the private and untouched reality, a place of uncolonized dreams — is a story to be protected.

Kingdom Cons
By Yuri Herrera
Translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories, Paperback, 112 pages


Ventura is a writer based in Iowa City, Iowa


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