Unscrambling Allende’s “Dos palabras”: the self, the immigrant/writer, and social justice – Isabel Allende
Luz Maria Umpierre
I lost the world where I belonged. Now I don’t belong anywhere.–Isabel Allende (Cheever)
This paper rose out of a “request.” In 1996, for five and a half months, I worked as a resource person and teacher at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, a prestigious public school on the outskirts of Syracuse, New York. One of our Spanish teachers found out that Isabel Allende was coming to town to give a lecture. Concerned about the students’ provincialism in not knowing who Isabel Allende was, she proposed that all advanced Spanish, English, Social Studies, and History classes at the school read one of Allende’s short stories from Eva Luna, “Dos palabras,” in its English translation, and that the students be encouraged to attend the lecture by Allende in a plush conference hall in downtown Syracuse at $18 a ticket.
Mind you, even in this plush neighborhood where the school is located, not too many students were eager to pay the fee to hear a woman they had never heard of. So the teacher had another “brilliant” idea: I would give a lecture to the whole school on Isabel Allende as a sort of pep rally to get them motivated to attend the lecture.
To make a long story short, the school bureaucracy intervened to explain how it was impossible for me to give a single lecture on Allende. So a scheme was set up by which I would scramble myself, or as we say at home, become a “revoltillo.” I was to give the same lecture for seven out of the eight periods that comprised the school day. As it turned out, I saw over 450 students on that day, and in having to repeat myself, my jokes, my questions, over and over again, I came to realize that the story of “Dos palabras” was like one of those programs on TV for which the signal is scrambled so we cannot watch it without subscribing to that particular channel or paying our cable TV bill. Yes, I’ll answer your question. Most of my papers in academia are weird and shocking, but the idea of Allende playing the part of a cable TV company is one that was clear to me in this reading. It was probably because of my reading being weird that quite a number of students decided to dish out the $18 and go see Allende in person in a hall packed with over 2,000 people from a staunch conservative, Republican city in upstate New York.
I began my “lecture/reading” by explaining that in order to understand the historical underpinnings of the stories of Allende from Eva Luna, one has to understand the plight of the poor and indigenous people in Chile. To exemplify this, I explained that the main character in “Dos palabras” was born into a family so miserable that until she was twelve years old, all she could do was to try to survive hunger and fatigue. I explained that there is a high mortality rate among infants in Chile (I explained that that is so in the US, too). At one time, Belisa, the main character, had to bury four of her brothers. It is precisely her fear of dying that drives her to get away and run to the coastal lands, away from her place of birth. It is there that Belisa learns that there is something called “words”–reading, writing–in the world. Belisa learns to read because, as she explains, words are not owned by any one person, as is the case with land. I explained to my young audience that if you are not a landowner in Latin America, the next best thing, if you are an upwardly mobile privileged person, is to embark on a quest for wealth, to engage in commerce.
Belisa, although not privileged, finds a second reality in learning about words: she can trade and do commerce with them. I explained to the students that in many Latin American countries, people who can read establish themselves in public places, even on the streets, ready to write a letter, a document, a love poem, for a fee. This trade has been vividly portrayed in the film Central Station. (1) Belisa had a tent with which she established herself at fairs to offer her services just like the main female character in the film. I began to think about all the people I had helped myself to fill out documents in this country to claim health benefits, social security, and the like. It was at this point in the lecture, when I started to feel an affinity with the text, that I noticed that Belisa’s name, read unscrambled, was “Isabel.” I realized that Allende’s main writings had come after she migrated out of Chile where she, like Belisa, had had to run away from her place of birth for fear of death. It was in Venezuela that her writing of novels began. And it is at that time of starting to write that people in academia labeled Allende herself a rerun of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I even attended a conference in Costa Rica in the 1980s where Allende was accused of not being a feminist and of being a farce–a copycat. (2)
These experiences of my own had made me better realize the connection between Allende’s and Belisa’s realities in the story. Belisa at one point in her life read the dictionary, a book that she bought with her first savings, but she quickly threw it into the sea after realizing that she did not wish to sell “palabras envasadas” canned words. Well, I said to myself, Allende herself had to get rid of the Garcia Marquez “dictionary” in her life, metaphorically speaking, in order to be able to rise as a writer in her own right. By rejecting the dictionary, also, Belisa wanted to declare her independence from the commercialist enterprising world that had devastated the Chilean economy, especially the Chilean mines. Belisa does not want her trade of words to be equated with the established business class that devastated Chilean natural resources. By the same token, I thought, Allende had to disassociate herself from the main trafficker of words to whom she was being compared at that time in the 1980s in order to be taken as a bona fide writer.
In a recent CNN/Time Magazine interview Allende has said: “Maybe my books sound like my life.” In “Dos palabras” Allende wrote about her own life as a writer/immigrant and about the power of words to achieve social justice. In the story, Belisa becomes famous as a trader of words because of the fact that she gives each client two secret words to have as their own. The ability to empower her clients with ownership is important if we take into consideration that the people who seek her are illiterate and poor. Her fame becomes such that a military man, known as El Coronel in the story, kidnaps her in an attempt to have her work for him. El Coronel wishes to be elected President and for that he needs a “discourse”/speech that he can give to the people and incite them into voting. Even though she has been kidnapped for this task, she agrees to do it because she feels “el impulso de ayudarlo, porque percibio un palpitante calor en su pier”(14). Although he is an illiterate militia man, it is what she senses within him, his passion, his warmth, that drives her to write.
Allende herself is keenly aware of the importance of following passionate characters, especially those who don’t follow the norm. Her cousin/uncle Salvador Allende was such a man, a man who believed in socialist ideals at a time when they were being persecuted on the American continents by the United States in light of Cuba. For his passionate ideals, he lost his life and rule of his country.
After Belisa decides to compose the “discourse”/speech for El Coronel, she says that she wanted to descartar, leave out, “las palabras asperas y secas, las demasiado floridas, las que estaban destenidas por el abuso, las que ofrecian promesas improbables, las carentes de verdad y las confusas, para quedarse solo con aquellas capaces de tocar con certeza el pensamiento de los hombres y la intuicion de las mujeres” (18). In this description we see how words are being described as people. Belisa wants to leave out words that have been abused, lies, and confusing speech. In her discourse she wants to produce a statement that would make both men and women feel for what they hear out of both thought and intuition, and be touched by it.
El Coronel’s campaign around the country, repeating Belisa’s created speech, also resembles Salvador Allende’s coming to power. El Coronel wanted to go to “los pueblos mas olvidados” (19), the most forgotten places in the country. The reactions of those who listened to him resemble too the reactions given by the supporters of Salvador Allende: “estaban contagiados de su deseo tremendo de corregir los errores de la historia y alegres por primera vez en sus vidas” (19). They felt moved because they thought that the country stood its first chance to right what was wrong through socialist ideas.
Up to now we have seen how Belisa’s story resembles Isabel Allende’s own and the story of the ideals represented by Salvador Allende. It is at the crux of the success of El Coronel with Belisa’s words, however, that we see another literary mechanism come into play.
While El Coronel had been successful, he was now coming more and more under the spell of the two words that Belisa had given to him. The words become synonymous with the feeling he had when Belisa whispered them into his ear: a feeling of raw passion. His senses become possessed with the memory of “el olor montuno, el calor de incendio, el roce terrible y el aliento de yerbabuena” (20). The description allegedly is that of Belisa, but it is inescapable to think that this is also the description of a countryside. He remembers the smell of mountains, the heat of burning, the smell and touch of the yerbabuena plant. In my estimation, he has fallen in love not necessarily with Belisa, something that is obvious, but rather with the country that he has now seen.
At this point in the story, El Coronel’s right-hand man sees that he is becoming less of a political and military man and more of a person obsessed with words. In his fear of losing El Coronel, he seeks Belisa, who had already been waiting for this to happen. The two personal and secret words that she gave to El Coronel have changed his life. She takes with her “su tintero,… el lienzo”: ink and paper, the tools of her trade in following El Mulato. By empowering El Coronel with words, she has made him lose his “machismo” and gain a better sense of his country and of himself. He no longer needs “los ojos carnivoros del puma”–his fierceness for battle–but rather his “quietud,” his quiet understanding of the power of words as fighting tools (20). Belisa’s two words and her speech have also transformed his view of the nation. When he first approached Belisa, he just wanted the “discourse”/speech to be able to speak like a candidate, like a politician, and to be accepted and elected by popular vote. After repeating the speech around all comers of the country, acceptance is reached, the presidency is achievable, but this is no longer enough for him. He needs to have the country by him and with him, and the country for him is now symbolized by Belisa. Instilling, with magic words, the love of country through love of words has been Belisa’s major achievement.
In the case of Allende, it is because of her exile from Chile to Venezuela that she herself began to feel that words could capture the country and the family she had lost. Thus, she set out to write La casa de los espiritus as a way of putting in a scrapbook family memoirs or, metaphorically, making a video to remember her own country. (3)
Allende had become homeless, a woman without a country. Carole Boyce Davis paraphrases June Jordan and what was said at the “Dreaming of the Homeland: African Writers in Exile Conference” and states that:
Being homeless can also carry a privilege of the ability to move
rather than being abused, oppressed or exploited. In other
words, homelessness itself cannot be trivialized or essentialized
into a flat, monolithic category. For some writers exile is a desired
location out of which they can write. (114)
It is Belisa’s exile from her home in the short story that provokes her to devote her life to writing for those who are “analfabetas.” By comparison, it is Allende’s exile into Venezuela that brings about her need to capture the memories of her lost home in a novel for herself and those who like herself had to flee after the coup. Belisa’s exile from her home brings her closer also to the inner politics of her own country as a result of her association with El Coronel. Allende’s homelessness provokes the yearning to “remember” herself to that home by using her creative powers to write her story and that of her family. Neither Belisa nor Allende, however, write straight memoirs of their lives in their state of homelessness, but rather decide to empower others through their writing. Belisa does this by helping the illiterate and El Coronel to communicate freely and to open their imaginations to the power of words and memory with the aid of the two secret words that she bestows on her clients. Allende, by fictionalizing her life and using magic realism, constructs her story as a universal “relato” for anyone re-membering him or herself to the homeland.
And now a confession. Why did Allende’s story affect me so profoundly when I was giving my lecture to the students at the high school, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper? Why did I choose to submit this paper/story on exile for publication? I have personal reasons. I myself am in exile from my homeland Puerto Rico. In “Dos palabras,” Belisa ran away from her home for fear of dying of hunger. Allende herself left Chile fearing for her life because of her association with Salvador Allende at a time of persecution. I left Puerto Rico because it had become intolerable to live in my own homeland as a Lesbian.
Shortly before the incident at the high school that provoked my initial comments for this paper, I had undergone some of the most horrific experiences that any human could go through. In 1992, I was presented with false charges by SUNY Brockport in an effort to have me fired from my tenured position because of my advocacy for Gay and Lesbian rights, my open Lesbianism, and how I had risen to defend Puerto Rican students, women, the disabled, against the injustices of one of the worst university atmospheres that I have ever witnessed in my life. Suspended without pay, for years I fought a legal battle that went up to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the federal court system. For two of those years, having lost my home, my savings, my livelihood, I was homeless myself for a period of time–literally homeless. Thus, after reconstituting myself and regaining my lost dignity by being given a job at the high school where the ideas for this paper began, I started to engage once more in the realm of my own creative writing, my own trafficking with words, my homeland.
“Language,” says Czeslaw Milosz, “is our only homeland.” And I knew then that laboring with Allende’s short story and its deciphering, its “unscrambling,” were also revealing aspects of my own exile and homelessness while I was creating my own home of words. It was after my delving into the world of Allende and Belisa that I finished my collection of poems for Christine in honor of those who had helped me to survive. My book has been described as proof of how the human spirit can survive in spite of uttermost humiliation. While homeless, I would go without eating and used the little money I had to rent computers for a few minutes in order to express my own pain and my ordeal in poems. In those minutes in which I wrote, I had a connection to the idea of a home: language was my shelter, my safe haven, my protector, my hope.
I will go back to a quote of Davies that I used previously: “Being homeless can also carry a privilege of the ability to move rather than being abused, oppressed or exploited” (114). I have found these words to be true in my own life. Exile from our home or homeland can allow us to stand in opposition to our own victimization. In my case, it was the rigidity of my parent/homeland towards Gays and Lesbians that provoked my initial exile, an exile that helped me speak about my own truths from abroad without the fear of becoming a victim of my own language and words. Even though speaking those truths and others about social justice caused me the persecutions at SUNY Brockport, I was able to survive because I had stood before alone in exile with only the power of my own words. And all of us–Allende, Belisa, myself, and those of you in exile–in seeing our societies from a distance, our homes from afar, and our homelands from abroad, we can regain the realm of words which returns us always to language, our ultimate home.
To my aunt Carmen who filled my head with stories of our people and asked me to imagine worlds into which I could transcend.
(1.) A Brazilian film nominated for the Oscar as best foreign film in 1999 that deals with the relationship between a woman and a child. The woman sits at a central station of trains and offers her services to write letters and poems, or fill out documents for anyone who can pay her.
(2.) I presented a paper in 1991 on this subject at an international conference in homage to Allende at the University of Miami. I also tried to publish, between 1984 and 1991, an article unmasking the alleged “feminist” scholar who made the assertions against Allende and her lack of “feminism.” Time after time my article was rejected on the grounds of being too political. However, the anti-Allende critic continued to be given a voice in newspapers like Suplemento en Rojo (Puerto Rico) to continue her attempt at defaming Allende.
(3.) It does not surprise me that her novel has been made into a film with Allende’s assistance. However, Allende says that watching Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in House of the Spirits, the film, she forgot that they were playing her grandparents. In my opinion, another level of distance was established in her once she saw the “representation” of her own words and life.
Allende, Isabel. “Dos palabras.” Cuentos de Eva Luna. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1990. 13-22.
Cheever, Susan. “Portrait: Isabel Allende.” s.d.
CNN/Time Magazine. Interview with Isabel Allende. 20 June 1999.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Foster, Douglas. “Isabel Allende Unveiled.” Mother Jones (December 1988): 43-49.
Milosz, Czeslaw. Poetry Reading at the M.L.A. Annual Convention, 1998.
Umpierre, Luz Maria. for Christine. North Carolina: Professional P, 1995.
Luz Maria Umpierre (Luzma) is a Puerto Rican writer, educator, and human rights advocate. In the year 2002, a congressional proclamation names her as outstanding woman of Maine although the persecutions against her in academia have continued due to her advocacy and being an open Lesbian. She has authored seven books and over one hundred articles.
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