A Different Vision of My Land: Learning Latin American Politics Through Fiction
It was 7 p.m. on a warm Thursday night. Eight people had arrived to the seminar room, and we all looked as motivated as we could be. It was the first day of classes after a long summer and I was eager to see what this semester was all about. Although a lot of people talk about a sophomore slump, I was more excited and confident about beginning classes again. Yes, classes can be stressful, but at Kenyon the effort always seems to pay off.
The class was Political Science 441, “Latin American Politics in Film and Fiction.” The name of the class drew me in. A few years ago, I picked up a random book in a Caracas librería. As some sort of book geek during middle school, I enjoyed reading about Venezuelan history and politics, but I would always pick a novel every once in a while. On the title page, the words “Valle Zamuro” (“Vulture Valley”) accompanied an illustration of a few black vultures surrounding a shadowy tree. The morbid picture was joined by a description that narrated the tempestuous events in Caracas in 1989. Until then, I had seen politics and novels as oil and water: a pair of concepts that could never be brought together. I did not read the book, I devoured it. I was done in a few hours, but the book left a significant impact on me. I discovered the potential of historical fiction, and those books soon filled my shelves. When I had to choose my next courses near the end of freshman year, PSCI 441 seemed the most logical choice.
Professor Nancy Powers entered the room. As a Latin American, and political activist, I am always apprehensive when I first hear someone speak about the region. Passion and political work sometimes make me defensive when someone has a different opinion of what went down in Venezuela. I know it is not right sometimes, that in academia one must step back and see the situation more objectively, and that my opinion might not be as informed as a professor’s, but I do struggle with that. That semester, though, I reflected a lot on who I want to become and what it is to analyze different perspectives and stories. What changed my mind, challenged me, and expanded my knowledge was not a policy paper, it was works of fiction.
Professor Powers introduced herself. She had done substantial work and published papers and books analyzing peronismo in Argentina, a nationalist and ambiguous ideology that describes most of the country’s presidents since the 1950s.
Then, after a brief discussion of the plan for the class, the professor pulled down the screen, turned on the projector, and we began to watch “Bolívar Soy Yo” (“Bolívar I Am”). The film was about an actor named Santiago Miranda, who is supposed to play the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar in a telenovela. Santiago is faced with a distorted storyline that wants to show Bolívar murdered by a firing squad rather than afflicted by a disease. He rebels and refuses to participate in the scene, but in doing so, begins seeing himself as the liberator and subsequently kidnaps the Colombian president and reenacts Bolivar’s Roman Oath in a public square.
The film intrigued me. It was hilarious, violent and, though fictional, still deeply political. “Bolivar Soy Yo” was a Venezuelan-produced satirical manifesto against Hugo Chávez’s use of the image of the liberator to promote his leadership as a continuation of the wars of independence with him as a reincarnation of el libertador. In the discussion, all my peers knew what was going on, and even discovered certain elements of the characters and the history in a very productive conversation. Fiction conveyed something powerful. The comedic character Santiago Miranda was nothing at all like Chavez, and yet just like him at the same time. There was no need to mention his name or his party, or even dive deeply into the arguments of different parties in the film. The characters represented them in a brighter sense that (joined by non-fictional reading) allowed for a richer interpretation of regional politics. From then on, I knew the class would surprise me.
As the weeks went on we embarked on a path of deep analysis and dialogue. Films, novels, non-fiction reading and even a video call with one of the filmmakers filled our weekly schedule — challenging our viewpoints and ideological stances. Before the class, I had a quite simplistic vision of Chile. Cold War politics, I thought, could explain the coup against Salvador Allende and Pinochet’s dictatorship.
The reality, however, was far more complex and nuanced. Reading a set of sources that ranged from a rightwing radical group to the interpretation of communists, novels on the generational differences and historical memory, a play about a victim’s revenge from her torturer, and watching films on polarization during Allende’s government and the transition to democracy during Pinochet’s regime, we were able to gain insights into a turbulent time of Latin American history. All the perspectives seemed to have a human side and a story behind them. In the class, we were all able to understand the rationales behind Chileans’ viewpoints. The human side of fiction seemed to remove the prejudice that comes from ideological stances and enable us to submerge ourselves into the story and even question my own view on several issues in Latin American politics.
By the time we got into Venezuelan contemporary politics, I kept my passion, but decided to widen my perspective and become aware of my own biases. All seven of my classmates had become my friends by then, and hearing their views and analysis from an outsider’s perspective while reading novels on the polarization and collapse was transformational. Fiction and a Kenyon seminar allowed me to adopt a more nuanced and informed — rather than polarizing — vision of my own country, something I did not expect at the beginning of that warm Thursday night in rural Ohio.