In Praise of “Real Books”: Velázquez and the Filtered Reality of Spain’s Siglo de Oro

This week I read a post from the Smithsonian Insider blog on Why Museums and Libraries Are More Relevant than Ever, which is an exceptional read in a time when continued funding for the arts and humanities has suddenly been jeopardized. The title of the post (and the content) echoes many of the thoughts I’ve been having over the past few years — and especially the past six months or so — about “traditional sources of information“. In this era of Google, Wikipedia, and 24/7 internet access, it’s becoming more common each year that my students are unfamiliar with or unable to find materials in the actual brick(limestone!?)-and-mortar building on campus known as the library. When I require “traditional sources” (aka – books and academic journals, not internet blogs, travel sites, or Wikipedia) for final papers and projects, I’m often met with (a) bafflement and confusion, (b) emails asking if a certain website is “ok for the final,” or (c) the hastily-arranged meeting a week before the end of the semester meant to reassure students that their purely internet-based bibliography is in fact acceptable (hint: it’s not!). But students are not the only ones who tend to over-rely on the internet for their main sources of information — I catch myself doing it at times, too! In fact, information is so readily available to us, from so many different instantaneous online sources, that it’s easy to think that we’ve “found everything” about a certain topic simply after spending 5, 10, or maybe 20 minutes perusing a variety of Google results at our desks or on our phones.

Hale Library, Kansas State University… unfortunately, a much less-visited site than Image via K-State Global Campus.

In addition to the article’s mention of libraries and museums, I also love bookstores, particularly USED bookstores, which are a treasure-trove of information created during a pre-internet world. The historical and cultural perspectives in mid- and early-twentieth century books, for example, are often dramatically different than our own contemporary views. This past summer I posted about finding an early edition of Havelock Ellis’s The Soul of Spain here in my Manhattan bookstore, The Dusty Bookshelf  (which was tragically destroyed by fire a mere 2 weeks ago). Last fall semester I stopped in again and found vintage 1969 copies of Time Life Books’ The World of Velázquez (1599-160) and The World of Goya (1746-1828), in impeccable condition with both black-and-white and color images, as well as illustrated protective sleeves. As I was paging through the Velázquez book, within the margins on one of the last pages I found this gem featuring Carlos II,  the last Habsburg ruler of Spain who left no heir to the throne. A product of generations of Habsburg endogamy (i.e. incest), Carlos II was not only impotent, but also, it is said, mentally and physically deranged — a symbol of the decline of the once-powerful Spanish Empire. Yet of all the descriptions I’ve read of this particular “Bewitched” (hechizado) Habsburg King, I definitely think this (somewhat problematic…) caption is my favorite — Dale Brown and the 1969 Time Life Books editors sure had a way with words… “ulcerated,” “scrofulous,” “ricket-ridden,” “distemper” and “misbegotten” — all in one short caption!

Carlos II, “el hechizado,” gracing page 175 of “The World of Velazquez”. Image mine, via Time Life Books.

I also discovered several other images and details that I hadn’t found anywhere online, one of which was by chance as I was procrastinating preparing for my Spanish Culture class dedicated to the legacy of “Don Quixote,” both within Spain and globally. To take a break from historical readings, I had assigned a short essay from the LA Review of Books that was published just this past December (2016) prior to the spring semester: “Oh, Sancho: The Ongoing Ride of Don Quixote in American Politics” by Colby College English professor Aaron R. Hanlon. In his essay, Hanlon discusses the relevance of the term “quixotic” (quijotesco)  in contemporary U.S. politics, asserting that it can be applied to candidates across the political spectrum, from Trump to Clinton to Stein. He identifies two reasons for this, citing articles that refer to each candidate in these particular ways:  “quixotic signals two things in particular about political actors: a foolhardy attempt to do something impossible, or a delusional comportment not compatible with the exigencies of real life.” Moreover, he proposes a third element of “quixotic,” derived from his analysis of particular episodes of the novel in which “Quixote has a way of severing rationality from fact. He represents a failure of empiricism — an unreliability arising not from the absence of rationality, but from the stubborn complexity of perception.” What I appreciated about this essay was (1) his critique of all political parties and all voters, along with his recognition of their (and his own) biases, (2) the close attention he pays to literary representation and the impact of fiction, and (3) the fact that his analysis essentially led him to predict the #AlternativeFacts  phenomenon — which now has a Wikipedia page, by the way —  before it became a media sensation in late-January.

“Dumb Quixote”, 2015

But back to my Velázquez book…. As I was paging through it, I noticed this fascinating early modern political cartoon depicting King Felipe IV and his válido Conde-Duque de Olivares as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza respectively (below). This image was also placed in the margins of the text as a somewhat tangential illustration to accompany a description of courtly life and politics when Velázquez was the official painter of the Court (1630s-40s). Since I had already selected a few Don Quixote-themed contemporary political cartoons to share in class (one above), I was excited that I happened to find one that dated to 1641… without deliberately looking for it. I am a bit curious, however, as to why the artist made Olivares resemble a lion! I’m sure there are tabloid-esque archives that could shed light on this particular “artistic” rendition of the King’s Favorite, as I know Olivares was a frequent object of ridicule for both his failed policies and lofty endeavors, as well as his increasingly unstable mental capacity later in life (he died in 1645).

Image mine, via Time Life Books, p. 62.

While I cannot decipher the entirety of the 17th-century script that appears below these sketches, the caption in the book reads as follows: “In a rare gibe at Philip IV, a political satirist based his cartoon on the most popular piece of literature of the day, Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, the adventures of an aging knight and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. The cartoon, which surreptitiously appeared in 1641, shows Philip as Don Quixote [right] and his First Minister, Olivares, as Sancho [left]. This dangerous satire — men were jailed for less — equates Philip’s costly and futile wars with Quixote’s windmill-tilting crusades” (Brown 62).  Though I take some issue with the description of Don Quixote as a picaresque novel, the caption does highlight important aspects of the social and political climate during the later years of Spain’s Siglo de Oro.

The entirety of Velazquez’s first portraits of Felipe IV – the first was painted over, and the second image is a third attempt at refining the King’s appearance. Image mine, via Time Life Books, p. 13.

Finally, I also appreciated the unique organization of different paintings throughout the book. In fact, the attention to the placement and layout is similar to one of the things I love most about museums — the way in which certain images or objects are juxtaposed with others, creating a unique narrative that is often absent from electronic sources or random Google Image-results. Above and below are two sets of images showing Velázquez’s numerous royal portraits of Felipe IV. The below set of four images shows the evolution of the King’s portraiture throughout his reign. Their side-by-side placement makes for an excellent comparison of Velázquez’s depiction of the king, particularly in terms of the artist’s evolving style. The first two images were painted when the king was only 19 years old (these are details from the full-size portraits above). In the first we see that Felipe IV “was in fact a rather ugly man” (Brown 14); in the second, Velázquez had painted over the earlier unattractive version to create a more idealized view of the king. Here, his features are narrowed and softened which, according to Brown, makes him “a handsome young ruler indeed” (14). The third image of the series is from 1626, and the caption notes the further refinement of Felipe’s features and the addition of a “luminous, pearl-like complexion with the inner glow of saintliness” (15). Finally, the last portrait dates to 1632 and, again in the dramatically poetic words of Brown and his editors, “It is not just a portrait of a man, but a vision of a king” (15). While it is relatively easy to find these images online, you will not be able to find such a carefully curated side-by-side comparison… (well, I suppose now you can, since I just posted it here…!).

Details from Velazquez’s numerous portraits of Felipe IV in the early 1600s. Image mine, via Time Life Books, pages 14-15.

In studying these images, I cannot help but think of Velázquez as providing the Royal Family with their own set of early-modern-Instagram filters… perhaps a fun class activity would be to name Velázquez “filters,” or create a social media account for Felipe IV and Olivares… hmmm, maybe next year! Now that I think of it,  Instagram seems to fit quite well within Baroque tendencies (which surged during a time of economic crisis in Spain), as  it more subtly plays with perspectives and alters our view of reality (ex: Don Quixote), rather than outright editing, deleting, or adding to what exists… like Photoshop. I think this “fun” comparison has now given me another topic to explore and research!

Still trying to improve my graphics… Image (obviously) mine.

I have not yet had time to read the entire World of Velázquez, and I have barely turned the pages of The World of Goya, but finding such useful information in this nearly 50-year-old book has already renewed my interest in acquiring older, traditional sources for use in my literature and culture classes. It also justifies my habit of buying so many books!

What are some of your favorite “traditional” resources? How do you encourage students to visit the library and avoid over-relying on the Internet?


Brown, Dale, and editors. The World of Velázquez (1599-1660). Time-Life Books, New York, 1969.

Hanlon, Aaron R. “Oh, Sancho: The Ongoing Ride of Don Quixote in American Politics.” Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), 28 December 2016.









Posted in Art, History, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matilde de la Torre and the Republican Courts in 1930s Spain

Last fall I was asked to review Las Cortes republicanas durante la Guerra Civil. Madrid 1936, Valencia 1937 y Barcelona 1938 for Feministas Unidas Inc., a non-profit Coalition of Feminist Scholars in Spanish, Spanish-American, Luso-Brazilian, Afro-Latin American, and U.S. Hispanic and Latino Studies. This book is a compilation of the written memories of influential Spanish politician and writer Matilde de la Torre (1864-1946), who was one of the first female representatives in the Republican Spanish Courts prior to and during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Torre actually penned these accounts of during her exile in Mexico after the civil war, making them a curious mixture of memoir, autobiography, and historical analysis. This  new edition was edited and organized by Francisca Vilches-de Frutos, professor of literature and history at Madrid’s Consejo Superior de Ivestigaciones Científicas, who provides a detailed and well-researched introduction to Torre’s writings.  Since my review was recently published in the Spring (2017) Feministas Unidas newsletter (which is available a a PDF from the Feministas Unidas website), I wanted to create a brief companion blog entry to summarize portions of my review and to discuss a few of my favorite parts of this book. Additionally, given my interests in the development and growth of Spanish cities in the early 20th century, especially the gendered nature of many spaces within these cities, I will also include images of the urban spaces – from the 1930s –  in which these proceedings took place. Finally, there is very little published on Matilde de la Torre in English, and I hope this post will help introduce this political and literary woman to a broader English-speaking audience.


Matilde de la Torre’s reflections on the republican court proceedings in 1930s Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona.(Catedra, 2015). Image via Amazon.







.                                                                                                  . .                                                                                                  . The recovery of Spain’s historical memory is a defining characteristic of contemporary literary, scholarly, and even popular endeavors, and the recent appearance of Torre’s Las Cortes republicanas… fits well within this trend. In fact, given that republican voices – especially those of women – were some of the first to be silenced under the Franco regime, the recovery and analysis of republican women’s literature and memoirs are of utmost importance in terms of articulating the diversity of Spain’s collective social memory. This book is divided into three sections, each of which details the court proceedings in a different city – first Madrid (1936), then Valencia (1937), and finally Barcelona (1938).  The first section, dated October 1, 1936, describes  Las Cortes de Madrid, which took place at the Congreso de los diputados (pictured below).  In the opening pages Torre relates her arrival to Madrid by train, her initial impressions of the changed city – “‘this Madrid,’ right now, so unrecognizable” – and the impassible tension and uncertainty that had become a part of daily urban life in Madrid during the way (65-70). (For images from this time, see my previous post “The Memory of War in Madrid“). From this session, Torre recalls the vote on the Basque statute (89), the “privileging” certain autonomous regions over others (90), and an impassioned speech by José Antonio Aguirre  (92-95).

Madrid: Congreso de los diputados. Bibliografia fotografia 14 July 1931. Arrival of the provisional government for the opening of the constituent courts.

Madrid: Congreso de los diputados. July, 14 1931. Arrival of the provisional government for the opening of the constituent courts. Image via

The second section of the book is dated September 30, 1937, and recounts the Courts sessions in Valencia at the Gothic style Lonja de la Seda building (pictured below), which is today a popular tourist attraction in Valencia. Before narrating these proceedings, Torre notes that this is the first time since the 19th-century Republican Courts in Cadiz that the proceedings would occur under “enemy bomb” (105). Of note from these Valencian proceedings are the pages detailing the discourse of Dolores “Pasionaria” Ibárruri, representing the communist party (124-27), and the disquieting debate as to whether Spain was truly at war or merely in “a state of alarm” (135-39), which Torre summarizes both dramatically and a bit sarcastically: “We are only alarmed. And so,then, ‘this’ is not war. ‘This’ is nothing more than human slaughter/carnage; an inhumane madness; a planetary scandal…” (139).

1932 - La Lonja, Valencia. Image via Valencia Historia Grafica:

1932 – La Lonja, Valencia. Image via Valencia Historia Grafica:

Finally, the third and longest segment outlines the Barcelona Courts session on September 30, 1938 that took place in the recently restored Monasterio de Sant Cugat (below). It is clear from the tone of Torre’s recollections in this third section that the political situation had become increasingly unnerving; fear and mistrust are perfectly captured when the politicians pause their discussions upon hearing a low humming sound that causes them to fear a possible aerial attack (193-94). While the description of these proceedings are riddled with the words “resistance” and “resist,” the chapter also contains extensive details on the architecture and restoration of the Monastery. Both before and after the proceedings, as well as during a lengthy break in the middle, Torres takes time to describe with appreciation the cultural and intellectual history evoked by the details of the building’s architecture, as well as the ironies of Republicans meeting in a church (“iglesia”).


Monasterio San Cugat, Barcelona, early 20th century. Image via Archivo Zerkowitz ( Take some time to visit that site and check out the fantastic gallery of images, especially those prior to the 1950s.

From literary and cultural perspectives, many of Torre’s least political observations are the most fascinating, revealing her personality and adding a bit of levity to what could otherwise become dry descriptions of parliamentary proceedings. For example, at one point Torre celebrates the “magnificent Rolls Royce” that chauffeured her to the palace (109), personifying the luxury car with a voice and personality: “Now I serve that woman representative, who I just left at the door of the palace” (111). Later, as one session concludes, Torre observes with admiration the new “style” of fellow diputada Margarita Nelken who, on this particular day, had exchanged her trademark hand-held spectacles for “some beautiful glasses that give her a certain doctoral look” (137).  Her wit and flare for language and writing are apparent in the Barcelona sessions when she cleverly refers to those representatives in disagreement with Juan Negrín as having been “bitten by the Negrinofobe virus” (191).


Today: Monasterio de Sant Cugat, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Image via

The interdisciplinary nature of Torre’s memoirs as primary sources will interest scholars of 20th-21st century Spain, particularly in terms of the Spanish Civil War, democracy and dictatorship, and the perspectives and experiences of republican politicians, female representatives, and exiles. And as Vilches-de Frutos states, analyses of Torre’s documents will allow us to better understand the experiences of those republicans who attended the Courts sessions between the tumultuous years of 1936 through 1938. It also affords us nuanced portraits of several of the most important republican political leaders of the time, like Juan Negrín, Diego Martínez Barrio, Indalecio Prieto, and Dolores “Pasionaria” Ibárruri. Torre’s words capture the most relevant facts of these three Courts sessions and, together with the hint of irony and humor with which she imbues her text, afford us valuable insights into individual attitudes towards democracy, the parliamentary institution, the Spanish Civil War, government actions and interventions in times of conflict, and the limits of political power.

Today: Palacio de las Cortes, Congreso de los diputados. Madrid. Image via wikipedia.

Today: Palacio de las Cortes, Congreso de los diputados. Madrid. Image via wikipedia.

If you have time, check out my full review over at Feministas Unidas, Inc and consider becoming a member of the organization, which seeks to create and sustain a national network of feminist scholars in the fields of Spanish, Spanish-American, Luso-Brazilian, Afro-Latin American, and U.S. Hispanic Studies. They publish a multidisciplinary journal, Ámbitos Feministas, each Fall. According to their website, their objectives are to join these scholars No automatic alt text available.and advocates together to strengthen the intellectual environment in which they work by means of: exchange of ideas and information; cooperative research projects; organization of conferences; preparation and presentation of papers and panels; gathering and dissemination of bibliographical data; interchange of classroom materials and methodologies; assistance with publication; career counseling and mentoring; contacts with feminist scholars in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America; and other appropriate joint intellectual endeavors. Membership is affordable at only $10 for graduate students and instructors, $15 for Assistant professors, and $20 for Assistant or Full Professors.  You can also follow Feministas Unidas updates on their Facebook page.


Chica, Miguel Angel. “Matilde de la Torre, el compromiso de una mujer pionera.” El diario, 8 October 2016.

Torre, Matilde de la. Las Cortes republicanas durante la Guerra Civil. Madrid 1936, Valencia 1937 y Barcelona 1938. Ed. Francisca Vilches-de Frutos. Madrid: FCE, Cátedra del Exilio, 2015.

Vilches-de Frutos, Francisca. “Matilde de la Torre (1864-1946) y las cortes republicanas durante la Guerra Civil Española.” Anales de la literatura española contemporánea , vol. 40, no. 1, 2015, pp. 453-478.







Posted in Feminism, First-wave spanish feminism, History, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Food, Art, and Eroticism? Gala’s Meals in Salvador Dalí’s Cookbook

Still looking for the perfect gift for someone who appreciates cooking and cookbooks, art and photography, or somewhat obscure Spanish cultural history? Good news! Just this October I learned that Taschen would publish a new edition of Salvador Dalí’s Rare, Erotic Vintage Cookbook, Les dîners de Dalí, or Gala’s Meals, released on November 20, 2016. This is the first re-printing in over 40 years and considering the high quality, it’s quite reasonably priced at $59.99; at Amazon as low as $32. I pre-ordered my copy from Barnes & Noble for about $32 + free shipping, and it arrived the first week of December in all its gold-covered, surrealist splendor. Originally published in 1973 – in a limited quantity of only 400 – this fantastic cookbook fuses Surrealist art and photography with high-end French recipes containing ingredients rare in our contemporary American cuisine, such as calf’s head, small frog legs, lung, larks, and white blood sausage. The 2016 reprint features all 136 recipes in 12 chapters, each specially illustrated by Dalí and organized by meal courses, including everyone’s favorite part of a dinner party – aphrodisiacs!? The illustrations and recipes are accompanied by Dalí’s extravagant musings on subjects such as dinner conversation, “The jaw is our best tool to grasp philosophical knowledge” (Taschen) and the smell of a simmering wine-based gravy, “Watch it! The aroma is somewhat pungent!” (Les dîners, p. 202).


Salvador Dali posing with his elaborate tablescape in one of the first few pages of Les dîners de Gala.

It was actually about a year or two ago I discovered Les dîners de Gala on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog, the post I linked to above, “Salvador Dali’s Rare, Erotic Vintage Cookbook“. Somehow, I had never seen this cookbook before, which surprised me given that I have amassed shelves upon shelves of books on Salvador Dalí, and I have visited virtually EVERY museum dedicated to him or his work – in Spain (Figueres, Cadaqués, Púbol),  London, and St. Petersburg, FL. For anyone who follows my blog, in the past three years I’ve written about Dalí’s Spanish Civil War paintings, his portrayals of the Catalonian landscape, his Christmas Cards, and his post-World War II posters warning of venereal disease. I even own a copy of the edition of Don Quijote de la Mancha that he illustrated in 1945, a work of art itself. But somehow I had never seen Les dîners de Gala, and I promptly made it my mission to find a copy. Unfortunately, before this year, the 1973 copies were extremely rare and way out of my price range. For those of you who are true bibliophiles, the Manhattan Rare Book Company has a signed first edition for “only” $4,400.00… you can also find copies on Amazon ranging from $500-1,000. Still, these prices were well beyond what a Spanish professor can afford to pay for a book, so discovering this new edition was very exciting. And like any good holiday shopper, I immediately bought it for myself!


The cover of Les dîners de Gala (Gala’s Meals), released by Taschen in Nov. 2016. Image via Amazon.


Photograph of Dali (left) from his coookbook, Les dîners de Gala. Image via Fuet Magazine.

Now that I have my own copy and have been able to examine every page and start reading the recipes and commentary, I wanted to do a bit of research to find out more about this book. Popova’s post – like almost any other Spanish or English blog post or article covering the cookbook – is largely a compilation of recipes and excerpts from the text, including several high quality images of the book’s phenomenal artwork and photography. While much of the artwork is colorful, ambiguous, and surreal in its juxtaposition of food, household objects, animals, and the human body, there are other sketches that appear a bit disturbing upon closer examination – at least for inclusion in a cookbook. Several illustrations include “creatures” that appear only partially human, leaning more toward the imaginary realm of gnomes or nymphs. Look closely – or not so closely! – and phallic imagery and nudity abound. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not accustomed to seeing artistic renditions of gnome penises when I’m preparing dinner! Not that I’m complaining (#lol) as this odd fusion of food, art, and eroticism, which Popova rightly points out in the title of her post, inspired me to do a bit more research. So, for this post, in addition to discussing Les dîners de Gala in more detail, I also want to delve into Dalí’s view of gastronomy – food, cooking, and elaborate dinner parties – as art forms aiming to capitalize on sensory pleasures.

Illustrate your cooking projects with... a frustrated gnome and his penis? Image via Brainpickings

Illustrate your cooking projects with… a frustrated gnome and his penis? Image via Brainpickings


A sample spread of Dali’s recipes – Toffee with pine cones and Fruit Cream – combined with an illustration of a half-gnome, half-hardware(?) creature, rolling atop a nude, decapitated woman. Image via Taschen.

First, I tried to find some background information on the cookbook, but there has not been much written in terms of critical articles or even general commentary in Dalí biographies. I did find a recent short review of the new edition of Les dîners de Gala by Diane Smyth,  “Taschen serves up Salvador Dalí’s characteristically queasy 1973 recipe book in all its lurid glory,” which does an excellent job of contextualizing this publication within the broader scope of Dali’s varied literary and artistic production. I was particularly struck by her description of a peculiar dinner party thrown by Dalí and Gala in California in 1941:  “Dalí and his wife Gala were known for their lavish dinners – you can find online footage of their 1941 Dizzy Dalí Dinner, when Gala bottle-fed a lion and the guests were served live frogs” (Smyth 11). Taschen’s description of the cookbook also draws attention to the artist’s “opulent dinner parties… [that] were the stuff of legend.” Of course I had to immediately search for this “Dizzy Dalí Dinner,” which I easily found on YouTube. Below is a short video of the dinner, followed by a transcript I typed up.

Transcript: Mr. Salvador Dalí gives a party. The Spanish painter of surrealism dresses Mrs. Dalí in a unicorn’s head – just to start things off. As hostess, she presides from a red velvet bed. The party is a benefit for refugee artists, and costumes are supposed to represent the guests’ bad dreams. Artist Dalí wears ear flaps, representing anatomy. A puzzled guest, Bob Hope, sees the fish course served in satin slippers… presumably the fish is sole. Soldier Jackie Coogan and Mr. Hope see the main course – the party is surrealism, but them frogs is real! [*Frogs begin to jump off Bob Hope’s dinner plate…*]

I soon discovered that the party was actually called “La noche en el bosque surrealista” or “The Night in the Surrealist Forest,” and took place in the Hotel del Monte in Monterrey, California as a benefit dinner for European artists exiled or displaced as a result of the Second World War. In addition to Smyth’s description, it’s also noteworthy that Gala was dressed as a unicorn, lounging on a velvet bed, and that guests – including celebrities like Bob Hope, Alfred Hitchcock, Bing Crosby, and Ginger Rogers – were asked to wear costumes representing their dreams (Weyers 48-49). Details and photographs of the planning and preparations for the party can be found in the short book, “A Surrealistic Night in an Enchanted Forest” by Barbara Briggs-Anderson and Julian P. Graham (2012); the first two chapters are available free with Google Books.  Below is an image and recipe from Les dîners de Gala featuring a “Bush of Crayfish in Viking herbs”, followed by a surrealist rendering of a similar pile of prawns, designed in such a way as to evoke classical Spanish art, namely Velazquez’s Las meninas or other portraits of women of the 17th century court.


Recipes from Les dîners de Gala. “Bush of Prawns.” Image via Taschen.

This illustration in Dali's cookbook is somewhat reminiscent of Velazquez's renowned Las meninas. Image via Taschen.

This illustration in Dalí’s cookbook is somewhat reminiscent of the central figure in Velazquez’s renowned 17th-century portrait, Las meninas. Image via Taschen.

One thing that stuck out to me in this video is the fact that the main fish course was served in a shoe – satin slippers. Coincidentally, I had just seen a Buzzfeed “article”, “The worst things hipsters did to food in 2016“, and there were TWO instances (#12, #13) in which American restaurants served their food in a shoe – first in a shoe-shaped serving dish, then in a glass tennis shoe. While it made me laugh to think of how many “listicles” Dalí might inspire today – “22 dreams that will blow your mind” or “18 things that should NOT have a penis” – it also made me think about how we come to label and categorize aesthetic and cultural trends or movements like “surrealism” and, um… “hipster-dom” or “hipster-ism”? Were surrealists, in fact, early hipsters? Trusty Wikipedia suggests that the hipster’s origins can be traced to the 1940s… While this comparison is still a leap, or at the very least a hasty


Gala dressed as a unicorn, accompanied by a lion cub and served by Dalí. 1941.

generalization, the two groups certainly overlap in their underlying philosophies boadting the rejection of “popular taste” or skepticism towards so-called “mainstream” or “high-culture.” Importantly, though, by the 1940s, some critics and historians argue that Dalí had strayed from surrealism in the traditional sense, moving more towards a full-fledged, self-promoting, kitschy aesthetic in which “excellent taste was the last thing that concerned a painter whose aim… was to cretinize the public” and make money by linking his name to commercial products (Gibson 430-31). Gibson’s observation holds true in terms of the California dinner party as, despite Dalí’s professed fundraising intentions, the elaborate decorations and excessive cost of the “Surrealist Night in the Enchanted Forest” caused it to be a huge economic failure, incurring a debt that cancelled out the money raised (Meyer 49).

Returning to the cookbook, as I mentioned, I have not been able to find as much background information on its production as I had hoped. Even Ian Gibson’s immense biography of Salvador Dalí, The Shameful Live of Salvador Dalí, contains no mention if its existence. In a general article on forms of artistic expression through food, however, Garcia López and Lapeña Gallego trace the evolution of “kitchen art” in modern Spanish culture, pointing out that within the surrealist movement, food was extremely present in the work of Dalí. They observe that food – especially breads, eggs, milk, fish, and meat cutlets – served as symbolic strategies or expressive metaphors meant to capture the painter’s almost obsessive fascination with gastronomy as an art form (“…su fascinación hacia la gastronomía, a la cual consideraba un arte”).  Below are three images from Dalí’s cookbook that reveal the artist’s fascination with the aesthetic and expressive potential of food.


Art from the cookbook Les dîners de Gala. Image via Fuet Magazine.


Morphing pheasants from Les dîners de Gala. Image via Taschen.


An expressive culinary collage found in Les dîners de Gala. Image via Taschen.

Finally, Euronews has a short Spanish video promoting Dalí’s “new” cookbook, featuring an interview with Michelin Chef Sergio Humada, who insists that the recipes are uncomplicated classics, many of which can be made at home (with some advanced preparation in terms of procuring rare ingredients, of course). The video ends with brief comments from Montse Aguer, the director of the Museo-Teatro Dalí in Figueras, who emphasizes the importance of food as a recurring theme in Dali’s work: “Dalí associated eating with his being (persona), the act of which gave him new meanings… he also related gastronomy to the history of art”. A Dalinian creation made by altering an anonymous Flemish painting hangs in the background as she speaks. I’m including this oil painting composite, entitledCuant cau, cau (sic) orWhen it falls, it falls,  below the final image from Dalí’s cookbook as a way of closing this post. The painting was created during the same years as the cookbook – 1972-73 – and according to the guidebook for the Teatro-Museo, “the soft (and edible) matter… converts the culinary elements of the picture into a lucid and foreboding nightmare of the physical disasters of death” (Giménez-Frontín 88-89).  This final room of the museum was meant to be an homage to Francesc Pujols, a Catalan writer (poet) and philosopher “whose baroque thought and intuition always awakened Dalí’s interest an respect” (88). In fact, the various animals carcasses, lobsters, vegetables, and long tables adorned with elaborate plates and dishes in this oil painting perfectly complement the photogenic meals and tablescapes of Les dîners de Gala. Surprisingly, I was unable to find a high quality image of this painting online, so I am including a photograph taken from my 2001 museum guide. Real paper books still serve a purpose!


Recipes from Les dîners de Gala. Image via Taschen.


“Cuant cau, cau” (sic) or “when it falls, it falls” (1972-73). Composite oil painting displayed in the Teatro Museo-Dali (Figueras, Spain). Image mine, from p. 88 of the Teatre-Museu guidebook (Tusquets/Electa Art Guides, 2001).

What are your favorite cookbooks? Do you appreciate them more for the recipes, the photography and artwork, or for the narrative? Have you read any history or criticism of “Gala’s Meals”?


Briggs-Anderson, Barbara and Julian P. Graham. Salvador Dalí’s ‘A Surrealistic Night in an Enchanted Forest. BookBaby, 2012. Google Books Preview

Dalí, Salvador. Les dîners de Gala. Trans. Captain J. Peter Moore. Taschen, 2016.

Garcia López, Antonio and Gloria Lapeña Gallego. “Arte y cocina: Nuevas formas de expresión artística a través de los alimentos.” ASRI Arte y Sociedad. Revista Investigación, no. 5, oct., 2013, n.p. PDF via Dialnet.

Gibson, Ian. The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí. Faber and Faber, 1997.

Giménez-Frontín, J. L. Teatre-Museu Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí. Tusquets/Electa, 2001.

Smyth, Diane. “Taschen serves up Salvador Dalí’s characteristically queasy 1973 recipe book in all its lurid glory.” The British Journal of Photography, Dec 2016, Vol.163 (7854), p.11. Link to December issue.

Weyers, Frank. Salvador Dalí. Vida y obra. Trans Carmen Colominas y Montserrat Sánchez. Könemann, 2000.

















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“Celebración Cervantina / Cervantes Celebration” at K-State

2016 – This year marks the 400th anniversary of the deaths of two extremely influential literary figures: renowned English playwright William Shakespeare and celebrated Spanish playwright and novelist Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who most know best as the author of one of the most famous novels ever written, El ingenioso Hidalgo de Don Quixote de la Mancha. The novel (volume I) was first published in 1605 ; ten years later, in 1615, Cervantes was compelled to publish a second volume, inspired to do so only after another writer took it upon himself to (inadequately) write a sequel to Cervantes’ pre-copyright-laws Don Quixote.  To commemorate Cervantes on the anniversary of his death, the Kansas State Spanish Club, for which I am the advisor, organized a “Celebración Cervantina / Cervantes Celebration” in order to provide the campus community with an opportunity to learn about Cervantes, Don Quixote, and 17th-century Spanish reading and writing practices.


Posing with Spanish Club officers and guest speaker Dr. Mirzam Pérez after the Nov. 10th event.

As the Folger Shakespeare Library notes, just as Shakespeare left an indelible mark on the English language, Spanish has been referred to as “la lengua de Cervantes,” – the language of Cervantes. This is due not just to the inventiveness of Cervantes’ writing, but also to its orality – a topic that our guest speaker would discuss at length. To read Don Quixote is to engage deeply with the act of storytelling in many forms, from chivalric romance, folktales, and satire, to the pastoral and the picaresque traditions.  To celebrate this influential Spanish writer, our Spanish Club organized an event which would allow Spanish students and the campus community to come together to learn, read, and discuss the reading and writing practices informing Cervantes’ Don Quixote, one of the first modern novels. The event consisted of a lecture by Dr. Mirzam Pérez, Associate Professor at Grinnell College, entitled, “Read Me a Story, Mr. Cervantes! Reading and Writing Practices in Early Modern Spain”. The presentation was followed by a Q&A session, and a brief collaborative reading activity organized by Spanish Club that gave attendees an opportunity to engage with the written text… while enjoying cookies and coffee, of course!


Dr. Pérez speaking at Kansas State’s “Celebración Cervantina / Cervantes Celebration”, Nov. 10, 2016. Here talk was titled: “Read Me a Story, Mr. Cervantes! Reading and Writing Practices in Early Modern Spain.”

Last year, 2015, marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second volume of Don Quixote (1915), and for this I published a short post about Miguel de Cervantes as a contemporary “Internet sensation”, given how frequently he had been appearing in Spanish news outlets and the social media feeds of my Spanish-professor friends. I discovered that the Spanish  National Library had digitized a first edition of the novel – Quixote Interactivoso that readers around the world can browse the digital pages as if they had a printed copy of the original text in their fingertips. I highly recommend watching the short video – which I’ll include below – before checking out the digital text; it does a great job of highlighting features that you may overlook if you try to navigate the Spanish text on your own. For example, you can choose to read the original text in centuries-old Spanish script, or you can opt to view a modernized version with updated Spanish spelling and typography. The modern version would be especially useful for teaching a course on the Quixote. The text is also searchable, and you can share or email select pages, chapters, or the entire book.

As Dr. Pérez noted in her lecture for our Cervantes Celebration, “Despite a proliferation of written texts during Cervantes’s time, a preference for the oral tradition still permeated early modern society.” Thus, she explained, authors were aware of the importance of oral traditions and were inclined to create prose works that would be heard on a large scale (rather than merely read). One of the most fascinating pieces of evidence  that Dr. Perez used to illustrate her argument was the 1611 dictionary definition of the verb “to read” – “to utter in words what is written in letters” (Tesoro de la lengua castellano, by Sebastian de Covarrubias). Below are a few photos from this even at Kansas State University last week, which was sponsored by K-State Libraries, the Student Governing Association (SGA), the Department of Modern Languages, and Spanish Club. I’ll also post the fliers made to publicize the lecture across campus. I was very proud of the officers in Spanish Club who took the time to help secure funding, create fliers and bookmarks, introduce the speaker, set up refreshments, and lead the interactive reading activity.


Dr. Pérez speaking to Kansas State students in Hale Library’s Hemisphere Room. About 100 students attended form various departments across K-State.


K-State students reading selections of Don Quixote aloud after Dr. Pérez’s lecture on reading and orality in 17th century Spanish literature.


Poster publicizing the event, designed by junior Spanish minor Kristen Jones.

Hopefully Spanish Club will be able to organize a similar event next year, although I don’t think there is a particular “noteworthy” anniversary to be celebrated in 2017… is there? Suggestions? I suppose this means we can be creative and honor the Spanish, Latin American, or Latino author of our choosing, if we decide to maintain our “literary” theme.


Frontspiece, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Via Folger Shakespeare Library.

Have you read or taught Don Quixote, in Spanish or in English? What are some of your favorite chapters or selections to teach or to read?




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Walking Around Scarecrows and Scarefishes: Surrealist Angst in Maruja Mallo and Pablo Neruda

One of the things I love about teaching and analyzing Spanish literature is that each time I (re)read a text for a new class or course, I end up interpreting it differently depending on what else I happen to be reading or researching at that time.  This week in my graduate seminar on AP Spanish American Literature (syllabus) we analyzed and discussed Pablo Neruda’s 1935 poem Walking Around.” As I had been reading quite a bit about the avant-garde Spanish painter Maruja Mallo (I wrote my previous post about her 1920s Verbenas (Carnivals)), I discovered a few fantastic connections between one of her unique series of paintings from the early 1930s and the grotesque, surrealist imagery of Neruda’s poem. As I find it especially fruitful for students to analyze poetry alongside a visual, I was particularly enthused about these similarities. I’ve done this type of analytical activity before with poetry and art dealing with the Spanish Civil War, specifically comparing a poem by Vicente Aleixandre and Picasso’s Guernica.  This time, the final lines of Neruda’s poem called to mind one of Maruja Mallo’s most well-known surrealist paintings, Espantapájaros (Scarecrows) (1930) – part of her series Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Belfries), exhibited in Paris in 1932. This series – a stark contrast to her colorful Verbenas from only four years earlier – is characterized by a dark, monochromatic aesthetic that transmits an eerily pessimistic and destructive sentiment:

"Espantapájaros" (Scarecrows), Maruja Mallo, 1930.

“Espantapájaros” (Scarecrows), Maruja Mallo, 1930.

Espantapájaros made quite an impact in Paris in 1932, and it was in fact later purchased by André Breton, the French writer and filmmaker who essentially founded and defined the surrealist movement in 1924 with his “First Surrealist Manifesto” (Primer manifiesto surrealista -PDF).  Mallo’s Espantapájaros, while not conforming to the precise tenets of surrealism as Breton laid them out, nevertheless exhibits several surrealist traits: the juxtaposition of random, often ordinary objects, the use of dreamlike imagery (especially landscapes), and a sort of liberated chaos that results from the free, disconnected flow of the individual’s unfiltered subconscious thoughts, desires, or fears.  Mallo has stated that this series represents her only true “surrealist moment” (Mangini 171). In these paintings, the dark landscape evokes death and desolation, while the somewhat ghostly, skeletal figures demand the viewer’s attention amidst a scattered array of random, broken objects. I immediately thought of these murky, dilapidated scarecrows when I read the final stanza of Neruda’s “Walking Around” – the last four verses of the poem read:

“paso, cruzo oficinas y tiendas de ortopedia,
y patios donde hay ropas colgadas de un alambre:
calzoncillos, toallas y camisas que lloran
lentas lágrimas sucias

I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards where there is clothing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts that cry
slow dirty tears

(English translations of “Walking Around” are from Robert Bly. I’ve modified a few.)

A second, very similar painting – Espantapeces (Fish Scarers, or Scarefishes), below – also formed part of Mallo’s Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Belfries) series. This “pathetic and startling sub-aquatic scenery, composed of strips and shreds of cloth, with ruminant skulls and knives stabbing the background” (Gandara 24), received several awards in Barcelona. Like Espantapájaros, Espantapeces presents shadowy, grotesque imagery that finds parallels in “Walking Around” – specifically Mallo’s skulls, animal skeletons, and cavernous underground setting mirror Neruda’s references to death, suffering, and a dark subterranean landscape:

No quiero seguir siendo raíz en las tinieblas,
vacilante, extendido, tiritando de sueño,
hacia abajo, en las tripas moradas de la tierra,
absorbiendo y pensando, comiendo cada día.

No quiero para mí tantas desgracias.
no quiero continuar de raíz y de tumba,
de subterráneo solo, de bodega con muertos,
aterido, muriéndome de pena.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

"Espantapeces", Maruja Mallo, 1931

“Espantapeces” (Fish Scarers / “Scarefishes”), Maruja Mallo, 1931

While these two paintings – Scarecrows and Scarefish – are most similar in their depiction of decomposing, “scarecrow-like” figures covered in tattered rags, the other paintings in Mallo’s series continue to illustrate themes of death, destruction, and deterioration against a barren, gray wasteland.  Bones, skulls, and rubbish piles abound.  Antro de fósiles (Fossil Den), below, for example, is a large-scale painting featuring arcade-style arches in the background, while a pair of human skeletons stand out amidst the toads, broken barrels, and mushrooms that populate the rust-colored, toxic earth of the foreground. The arches framing the upper portion of the painting suggest an abandoned urban setting, or perhaps a forgotten civilization in ruins…

"Antro de fósiles" (Fossil Den), Maruja Mallo, 1930

“Antro de fósiles” (Fossil Den), Maruja Mallo, 1930. Image via

…which leads to yet another connection to “Walking Around,” as Neruda creates a nauseating visualization of modern city shops and locales:

Sucede que entro en las sastrerías y en los cines
marchito, impenetrable, como un cisne de fieltro
navegando en un agua de origen y ceniza.

El olor de las peluquerías me hace llorar a gritos. […]

Y me empuja a ciertos rincones, a ciertas casas húmedas,
a hospitales donde los huesos salen por la ventana,
a ciertas zapaterías con olor a vinagre,
a calles espantosas como grietas.

And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs. […]

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin

This darker, more pessimistic, and often existential vein of surrealism became especially prominent in the 1930s. This was an era marked by general social and political unrest on a global scale – the first World War had left world powers divided, social revolutions were springing up across Latin America, the stock market crash in 1929 sparked the decade-long Great Depression in the US, and Spain was suffering from great political instability an the downfall of its monarchy and dictatorship… indeed the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was looming on the horizon. Artists responded, remedying their angst and disgust by rejecting traditional aesthetic and moral values that had brought the world to its current place. Surrealism offered a perfect expressive outlet – Breton had defined it as “pure psychic automatism,” a process by which thoughts are expressed without the intervention of reason, logic, or moral or aesthetic preoccupations. Under this paradigm, chance, locura (craziness), dreams, and subconscious desires – no matter how absurd or offensive – were celebrated. Salvador Dalí’s painting, Melancolía (Melancholoy), although created later in 1945 after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, is an example of the way in which Surrealism allowed for a new way of interpreting reality that would take into account the most violent, irrational aspects of man’s psyche.


“Melancolía” (Melancholoy), Salvador Dalí, 1945. Image via

Returning to Mallo’s paintings, however, it is telling that Neruda lived in Spain from 1933-35 (Barcelona and Madrid). Having met Federico Garcia Lorca in Buenos Aires in 1933, Lorca introduced Neruda to his intellectual and artistic circle in Madrid – a group that included Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, and Miguel Hernández. As Mallo and Alberti had begun “a passionate, if Bohemian relationship” (Havard 93)  in 1926 that would last until 1931, it is likely that Neruda became familiar with Mallo’s work as well. While many have pointed to the mutual influence of Mallo and Alberti, fewer have examined connections between Mallo and other poets of this time – especially those like Neruda whose primary place or residence or study was not Spain’s cultural nucleus, Madrid. Juxtaposing Mallo’s and Neruda’s works affords us a more complete and complex understanding of those early twentieth century Spanish and Spanish American artistic movements that were becoming increasingly transatlantic in scope.

Robert Havard’s book on Rafael Alberti and the Surrealist Ethos in Spain, for example, discusses at length the ways in which Mallo and Alberti collaborated and shared similar approaches to the role of (surrealist) art in general. Considering the sordid side of Spanish surrealism, Havard’s book includes a chapter on scatology and eschatology, which itself dedicates a section to “Maruja Mallo and Eschatology” (92-104). He notes, as I have above,

"Tierra y excrementos" (Earth and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932

“Tierra y excrementos” (Earth and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932. Image via

that with Sewers and Belfries “Maruja turned from the apparent gaiety of her initial paintings to the haunting theme of left-over objects lying on the ground […] depicted in dark-toned paintings, virtually devoid of colour” (95). Two paintings in Mallo’s series, Tierra y excremento (Earth and Excremet) and Sapos y excrementos (Toads and Excrements), are explicitly named after human or animal waste, emphasizing her view that the earth and modern society, particularly the contrast between urban Madrid and the barren landscape of the city’s outskirts, were becoming veritable wastelands.

"Sapos y excrementos" (Toads and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932

“Sapos y excrementos” (Toads and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932

Havard points out similarities in Mallo’s visual representation of a rotting wasteland and Alberti’s poetic verses featuring “junk objects” (95). Both Havard and Mangini emphasize the role that the outskirts of Madrid played in influencing the pair, especially because Mallo lived at one point on the outskirts of Madrid and Alberti would visit her there. The train ride afforded them opportunities to contemplate the state of civilization and man amidst the ruinous decay outside the city: “The austere landscapes on Madrid’s outskirts inspired her, particularly the garbage, the burnt and waterlogged land, the sewers, the broken bell towers, and the rubble, all of which was undergoing the process of decomposition. In the midst of this detritus, Mallo tells us [in an essay on her work] that ‘the presence of man appears among the footprints, the suits, the skeletons and the dead’ (Mangini 163). Tellingly, two paintings in her Sewers and Belfries series were titled Basura (Garbage) and La huella (The Footprint).


“Basura” (Garbage), Maruja Mallo, 1932. Image via


“La huella” (The Footprint), Maruja Mallo, 1929





Finally, the limited palette of grays, whites, and blacks in Sewers and Belfries, together with the general sense of fragmentation, has led may critics to establish comparisons to Picasso’s 1936 Guernica (Gandara 24). Since Mallo’s paintings were created before Guernica, her influence may not have come from Picasso as much as from Spanish painters of the past – notable Francisco de Goya. In fact, in writing today’s post on Mallo’s shocking, “dark paintings” after having just written about her colorful Verbenas, I could not help but think of the way in which Goya took a similar dark, cynical turn during his prolific career – I wrote about this shift and his so-called “Black Paintings” (and the controversy surrounding them) last year. Mangini also points to Mallo’s respect for and admiration of Goya, particularly regarding Los caprichos (Caprices), which Mallo praised for their satirizing of “the corruption and superstition of his era” (164). If Goya’s nightmarish sketches were a source of inspiration for Mallo, then we might consider these surrealist landscapes to be more than mere expressions of angst and disgust; their attention to decay and ruin may be read as a similar critique of modern corruption and uneven modernization.

Several other paintings were included in Mallo’s series, but I have been unable to locate them online – one is titled “Largarto y cenizas” (Lizards and Ashes) and another “Campanario” (Belfry). Gandara describes the former as a “terrifying vision of a reptile skeleton with human hands” and the latter as a symbolic satire (24).  If any of my readers knows where to find these, I’d appreciate any help!

What other Spanish or Latin American artists could be compared to Mallo or Neruda for their creation of grotesque, dark surrealist imagery in poetry, prose, or the plastic arts?



Ballesteros Garcia, Rosa Maria. “Maruja Mallo (1902-1994). De Las cloacas al espacio sideral.” Aposta. Revista de Ciencias Sociales 13 (Dic 2004): 1-34. PDF via ApostaDigital.

Gandara, Consuelo de la. Maruja Mallo. Artistas españoles contemporáneos. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, 1978. Google Books.

Havard, Robert. The Crucified Mind. Rafael Alberti and the Surrealist Ethos in Spain. London: Tamesis, 2001. Google Books.

Mangini, Shirley. “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo.” Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Neruda, Pablo. “Walking Around” in Residencia en la tierra II (1935).
PDF for use in class: Neruda-walking-around_poema









Posted in Art, Literature, Spain, Spanish America, Surrealism, Women | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Women and the Avant-garde: Maruja Mallo’s “Verbenas” (Carnivals)

Lately I’ve been returning to the art and literature of the Spanish Avant-garde – the time period that sparked my interest in studying Spanish literary, art, and cultural history more in depth (roughly 1917-1930s). Since I received my copy of an edited volume on the Spanish and Italian Avant-garde, Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy (Routledge 2016) – to which I contributed an article on the 1929 novel La Venus mecánica (The Mechanical Venus) – I’ve been studying the contributions of my colleagues and re-visiting everything I love about this early 20th century era… the chaos, the rejection of tradition, the innovation, the creation of entirely new art forms (surrealism, cubism, futurism, etc.), and, of course, the controversy and scandal that accompanied such aesthetics. Salvador Dalí‘s paintings had always fascinated me, and I’ve written several blog posts about his Christmas cards, landscape inspiration, and public service announcements. Certainly Dalí (along with his renowned contemporaries Luis Buñuel and Federico García Lorca) is one of the most representative figures of Spanish Surrealism; however the historical focus on male artists fails to honor the legacy of the women who began to break through social and cultural barriers by forging non-traditional paths of their own (aka, any role that was not almost exclusively “wife” or “mother”) as artists, poets, and journalists.

mallo_fosiles 1931_ahorasemanal

Maruja Mallo (left) next to her painting, “Antro de fósiles” [“Fossil Den”], in 1931, alongside Josefina Carabias (right), who is considered Spain’s first full-time female journalist. Image via Ahora (

The above photograph features Maruja Mallo (1902-1995), one of the most talented and controversial painters of the Spanish surrealist scene who participated extensively in Madrid’s artistic and intellectual circles at the height of the Avant-garde. Yet her contributions are only beginning to be recognized in this context. As I continue my research on Spanish women’s literature and cultural contributions during the early decades of the 20th century, I am becoming increasingly aware of my own tendency, on this blog specifically, to write about the most celebrated, recognizable male personalities for my general audience. While I have written twice before about Carmen de Burgos’s novel  La rampa, the tragic execution of the “Thirteen Roses,” and women of the Second Republic, in terms of Avant-garde visual art, my posts have predominantly centered on male artists like Dalí and Picasso. As such, it seems I’m perpetuating the lack of attention given to female artists and the privileging of their already canonical male contemporaries. Ooops. Time for some blogging-reflection…  When a student – or anyone! –  googles “Vanguardia” or “Surrealism(o)”, for example, I’d like for them to find contributions beyond those of Dalí, Lorca, Buñuel, and their male contemporaries. There are already some excellent Spanish articles and blog posts about Mallo — Las amigas de Buñuel, Lorca y Dalí; Maruja Mallo y su ruptura con la pintura tradicional; and Maruja Mallo. Transgresion en la obra y en la vida — however there is little information available in English.

Mallo documentary

Image from the documentary, “Maruja Mallo. Mitad ángel, mitad marisco”, produced by TVE (Television española:

An early sign of her love for masquerade and self-transformation, Maruja Mallo is actually a pseudonym; she was born Ana María Gómez González in 1902 in Viveiro, Galicia, Spain. When her family moved to Madrid in 1922, Mallo studied art and befriended Dalí, who introduced her to Lorca and Buñuel. In fact, in the documentary on her life, “Maruja Mallo. Mitad ángel, mitad marisco,” it is suggested that she embodied the “fourth vertex” of the famous surrealist triangle formed by the artist (Dalí), the poet and playwright (Lorca), and the filmmaker (Buñuel). The title of the documentary is taken from Dalí’s poetically surreal description of his friend: “mitad ángel, mitad marisco” – “half angel, half shellfish.”   Shirley Mangini, who has written at length about Mallo, describes this vanguardista as the most noteworthy singularity of the Spanish Avant-garde, given that she embodied the clash between traditional Spanish patriarchy and the emerging “modern woman” (“Madrid” 52). In fact, some of her antics and costumes – throughout her life – rivaled those of Dali’s in terms of “surreality,” absurdity, and scandal.


Maruja Mallo. Image via


Mallo covered in seaweed (1945)

Today Mallo’s artwork is on display across Spain, in Paris, and in New York. Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum houses “La verbena” (The Carnival, or The Street Fair), which is one of a four-part series of oil paintings exhibited in 1928 that was dedicated to capturing the chaotic, surreal, and often subversive atmosphere of Madrid’s open-air festivals. In this post I will discuss these four colorful paintings, particularly with regards to they way in which they defy the expectations and logic of Mallo’s contemporary Spanish society while exposing a multiplicity of sensations and perspectives on topics such as social class, religion, and the female form. I’ll draw much of my commentary from Shirley Mangini’s  chapter published in the aforementioned Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy, entitled “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo” (pp. 151-173). Importantly, Mallo’s Verbena scenes contain subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – sociocultural criticism and satire. These transgressive elements were key components not only of Mallo’s artistic production and the Avant-garde in general, but of her notoriously iconoclastic personality that shattered taboos and challenged the validity of traditional beliefs, values, and practices. Below is the first Verbena, painted in 1927:

Verbena-1927_Reina sofia

La Verbena (1927). [Image via Reina Sofia Museum,

While this rendition of an urban street fair features many familiar components, Mangini notes that the central focus of this painting is clearly two strong female figures: “young, muscular women in tennis dresses, obviously representing Mallo and her athletic friend, Concha Méndez, who was a competitive swimmer. Although their masquerade includes wings and halo-like party hats, their extroverted behavior, unladylike stances, and rowdiness defy these angelic artifacts,” yet their tennis attire suggests an upper-class affiliation  (“The Gendered Body” 159). Mangini’s chapter focuses on Mallo’s depiction of the female body – specifically, on her tendency to represent women as active subjects that defy the male gaze, rather than as passive subjects or muses merely admired for their beauty and sexuality. Mallo’s unique female representation expresses the freedom and autonomy that she believed women deserved – but that was often denied them – as these qualities would enable them to challenge tradition and defy patriarchal law (159). In fact, one of Mallo’s most famous paintings, “Mujer con cabra” [“Woman with goat”], created in 1929, suggests this same tendency towards female liberation in the public sphere.

mujer cabra_El pais

“Mujer con cabra” [Woman with goat] by Maruja Mallo, 1929. Image via

In a second Verbana (below), social class is apparent in the foreground of the painting. The upper-class couple seated on the right is juxtaposed with a working-class couple in costume seated at a table drinking on the left. The bourgeois couple appears stiff, smug, and bored, while their counterparts seem to be more relaxed, enjoying themselves at this particular event (Mangini, “The Gendered Body” 159). Mangini includes a quote from Maruja Mallo in which the artist explains the subversive natures of the Verbenas, or Carnivals more generally: “That is how the parties and popular fairs were… Irreverence and grace, sarcasm and the creation of a society that ascends and confronts a dominating society, converting it and representing it in a world of ghosts and puppets” (150). For Mangini, Mallo’s juxtaposition of the working and privileged classes suggests that “Spanish politics would soon be changing, that the unruly working class […] would soon dominate the public sphere” (“The Gendered Body” 159-60).

"Verbena" (Street fair), 1928. Image via Curiator

Verbena (Street fair), 1928. Image via Curiator

In Mallo’s “Verbena de Pascua” (Christmas Carnival) (below), two rather large women are again front and center, though this time they are not the focal point of the painting. Nevertheless, Mangini notes that their movements and appearance defy social mores, as their “corpulent female bodies prominently fill the space with their ungainly strides and short dresses” (159).  Their dresses – a bit short for the time – imply that they are maids or servants, thus further placing their liberated public behavior at odds with the expectations of their subservient duties within a private space. The reversal, rejection, or interruption of traditional hierarchical structures, order, and law are key concepts of Carnaval, as Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out. Curiously, Mallo’s Verbenas visually depict these same notions before they were popularized by Bakhtin, and both Mangini and Urioste point out that Mallo’s paintings are perfect pictorial representations of “el mundo al revés,” or “the world turned upside down”. With law and order suspended in Mallo’s worlds, all social classes and age groups share one public space; opposing concepts of the religious and the profane, high and low culture, and the exceptional and the insignificant coexist, and a parodic new image of contemporary society results (Urioste 205).

Verbena Pascua_LeerEs

Verbena de Pascua (Christmas Carnival), 1929. Image via

A fourth festival painting, Verbena Kermesse (below), features a celebration specifically associated with the Church. This particular brightly colored, chaotic atmosphere with a religious basis serves as an excellent illustration of Mallo’s fascination with open-air festivities. Mangini quotes and translates her explanation from Lo popular en la plástica española a través de mi obra (1928-36): “They are a pagan revelation and they express discord with the existing order… On these commemorative dates the street crowds meet. The masses take mythology and the saints as a pretext to enjoy themselves collectively. They feel no veneration for the church whatsoever; rather, they parody celestial order and the demonic hierarchies, masquerading with the elements and attributes of the divine and satanic beings” (158). From this commentary, we might assume that the entire social structure – not  merely the dominant Church-State institutions or upper classes – become the objects of Mallo’s subtle critique.


Verbena Kermesse (Street Fair in celebration of Church founding), 1929. Image via Alamy

Finally, Fernandez Utrera discusses the possible influence of Salvador Dalí‘s earlier, 1923 rendition of a Spanish Street fair near his rural village of Figueres (Catalonia) – a stark contrast to urban Madrid. While both Mallo’s and Dalí‘s paintings include typical festival attractions like circus performers, games, giant puppets and masqueraders, Fernandez Utrera argues tht the depiction of the “masses”, or the pueblo, is distinct in these artists’ paintings. In Dalí‘s Ferias de la Santa Cruz de Figueres (Santa Cruz Street Fairs in Figueres) (below), individual attendees become lost among the masses, and this homogeneous pueblo occupying nearly three fourths of the painting’s space – appears in opposition to the marginal circus performers (96). In Mallo’s Verbanas, however, Fernandez Utrera argues that the crowds, the general populace, actually disappears behind the exaggerated, parodic representations of “Official Spain”, and thus becomes secondary within, if not eliminated from, the world Mallo creates (96). In this sense, Fernandez Utrera challenges the so-called subversive nature of Mallo’s Avant-garde Verbenas by suggesting that her position as an artist-intellectual (minority) prevents her from adequately representing the vast majority of the Spanish populace.

Dali-Feria Santa Cruz-1922_SalvadorDaliOrg

Ferias de la Santa Cruz de Figueres (Santa Cruz Street Fairs in Figueres) by Salvador Dali, 1922. Image via

Regardless of the explicit or implicit social critiques of these festival paintings, a comparison of Dalí’s and Mallo’s interpretations provides opportunities for ample discussions on gender, social class, and tradition in the context of Spanish modernity. They would be excellent visuals to use in conjunction with early twentieth-century urban literature from Ramon Gomez de la Serna or Carmen de Burgos, for example. I’m planing to dedicate several upcoming posts to Maruja Mallo and other female writers and artists who are often overlooked or forgotten when it comes to the Avant-garde, or the Spanish vanguardia, and the subsequent Generation of 27. Stay tuned…

What are your favorite paintings or literary texts from the early 20th century Avant-garde movements?


Fernandez Utrera, Maria Soledad. “Esencia de verbena: sabor popular y estética de minorías en la pintura de Maruja Mallo.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispanicos 28.1 (2003): 87-102.  JSTOR:

Mangini, Shirley. “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo.” Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Mangini, Shirley. “Madrid es un Cabaret y Maruja Mallo la protagonista.” Lectures du genre. Numero 11: Genre et caberet: les loisirs nocturnes du corps (2013): 52-65. PDF: (Index, Numero 11:

Mangini, Shirley. Maruja Mallo and the Spanish Avant-Garde. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

Urioste, Carmen. “Violencia discursiva y género: El caso de Maruja Mallo.” Homenaje a la Profesora L. Teresa Valdivieso: Ensayos críticos. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2008. p. 197-209.

























Posted in Art, Spain, Surrealism, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Summer in Mexico: Monuments, Murals, and Mole, oh my!

It’s summer vacation! My third since starting this blog…  And while the past two summers I traveled to Spain primarily for professional reasons (to present at conferences), I also made sure to plan my trips to include some vacation time. In 2014 I spent time living in Madrid, blogging and exploring the Prado for several weeks before presenting on Almodovar’s La piel que habito in Santiago de Compostela. I concluded the trip by visiting a friend in Oviedo, which marked my first visit to Asturias. Last year (2015) I attended a conference on Spanish cinema in Salamanca where I presented on Las trece rosas, then traveled to Granada to visit a friend before ending the trip in my favorite city, Madrid. This year, however, I had planned a trip to Mexico for purely “recreational” purposes – no conferences, no workshops, and no research! I almost didn’t take my laptop. Since I don’t have a research paper to share this year, I thought I’d post a few pictures from my trip that relate to topics about which I have previously taught and/or blogged.

First, I picked up this fabulous poster (below) that I plan to frame and hang up in my office – Mapa artístico, turístico y cultural de la Gran República de México, designed by Jorge Escudero de Sybaris. I love the details that depict the cultural diversity and vast geographic scale of a country many students in the US, unfortunately, associate with violence, drug trafficking, and [“illegal”] immigration. If you visit Mexico City in the near future, you should be able to purchase one from one of the many kiosks selling magazines, postcards, and – my favorite – individual cigarettes. You can also order a similar poster-map here from Porrua for MX $100 pesos (or about US $5.00), plus shipping. The second image below is a more detailed look at the imagery, including prominent geographical features, states and cities, famous historical events and figures, and regional products and dress.

mapa de mexico_escudero

Image via

Details: Mapa artístico, turístico y cultural de la Gran República de México, by Jorge Escudero de Sybaris. Image mine.

Secondly, I was looking forward to visiting Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional again, specifically to see Diego Rivera’s murals. The construction of the Palace began in 1692 on the site of Moctezuma II’s “new” palace, and the building later became the site of Hernán Cortez’s home and the residences of colonial viceroys. I highly recommend taking the time to see the palace and Rivera’s murals – the structure borders the central Zócalo and admission is free; just make sure to bring your passport or government issued ID to enter. If you are new to Mexican history and Rivera’s murals, I highly recommend paying for a guided tour so that you can better appreciate the historical significance and the complexity of these representations of Mexican cultural history. Unfortunately, on my visit the massive, central mural surrounding the staircase (a triptych containing three panels: “Class Struggle” [left], “The History of Mexico” [center], and “The Legend of Quetzalcoatl” [right]) was undergoing restoration. I was still able to get a nice view of the masterpiece from the second level – but as you can see, my photograph leaves much to be desired. #Fail.

My disappointing photo of Rivera’s three-part staircase mural, including the central “The History of Mexico”, undergoing restoration work.

The above Getty image shows the left portion (“Class Struggle”) and the central pane (“The History of Mexico”). The YouTube video below does a nice job of describing the different sections of this mural and many of the smaller murals lining the Palace’s upstairs hallway. Additionally, this website provides a detailed but brief introduction to all the murals by Diego Rivera that adorn the interior walls of the Palacio Nacional.

Crossing the Zócalo, directly across from the Palacio Nacional, gold and silver shops line the plaza and surrounding streets. In these stores you can purchase (or sell) all sorts of gold and silver jewelry, chains, watches, etc. Among the religious pendants of crucifixes and the Virgin of Guadalupe, I was struck by several flashy gold representations of “Santa Muerte”. I’ve written on my blog about Santa Muerte as a controversial folk saint of death, so these particular pieces fascinated me. The first one below is holding the scales of justice, in addition to the death scythe and a rather large, “diamond”-studded semi-automatic weapon. There were four different varieties of Santa Muerte for sale at this particular store, and they retailed for 600 pesos, or about US $33.00. As I type this and caption my pictures, I’m starting to regret  not purchasing one… (some pricey ones are available on Amazon).

Four different versions of “Santa Muerte” to go with any ensemble. Image mine.

During our first full day in Mexico City, we walked about 3 miles from the historic center down the Paseo de la Reforma to the Castillo de Chapultapec (Chapultapec Castle). The Castle is surrounded by a large park (Bosque de Chapultapec) and sits on a hill, offering beautiful views of the city in any direction. Each time I visit Chapultapec I think about Rodolfo Usigli’s play, Corona de sombra, which I have taught in introduction to Hispanic literature courses. If I have the opportunity to take students to Mexico in the future, I’d love to design a course on Mexican history that would include this literary text, combined with a visit to Chapultapec, as a means of approaching 19th-20th century Mexican history in Mexico City from the unique “anti-historical” perspective Usigli’s drama offers.

View of Mexico City from Chapultapec Palace. Image mine.

Inside the palace are several amazing murals by renowned Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco — Photographer Margaret Metcalfe has a wonderful site with beautiful photographs of these Chapultapec murals. However, Gabriel Flores Garcia –  who is much less ‘famous’ than Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera – painted the mural that boasts the most dramatic placement on the ceiling above the main stairwell. This mural is dedicated to six young cadets – teenage soldiers between the ages of 14-19  referred to as Los niños héroes – who died defending Mexico City in a battle against the US during the Mexican-American war in 1847.

Chapultapec Castle’s impressive stairwell. A portion of Gabriel Flores Garcia’s ceiling-mural honoring the Heroic Boy Soldiers (Los niños héroes) who died defending Mexico City in 1847 is above; to the left is a portion of Orozco’s mural of the Mexican Revolution. Image mine.

On our second day in Mexico City we decided to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan, about a 45 minute bus trip outside the city. We ended up taking a tour that included several stops – first, the Plaza de las tres culturas (Three Cultures Plaza), then the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and finally Teotihuacan. There are many places in Mexico City offering such guided tours and they tend to cost between US $25-50, plus tips. We took a tour offered through the youth hostel off the Zócalo, just behind the Cathedral (Mexico City Hostel).


Plaza de las tres culturas. Here are the remains of an Aztec temple (pre-Colombian culture), a Spanish church (Spanish colonial era), and large modern housing complexes surrounding the square (independent ‘mestizo’ nation). Image mine.


Entering Teotihuacan – view of the Pyramid of the Sun. Image mine.

Archaeologists date the origins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, located about 30 miles outside of Mexico City, to somewhere between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D. The city owes its Nahuatl name – meaning “Place of the Gods” – to the Aztecs, who came upon the abandoned city and its impressive structures in the 14th century. The original Mesoamerican city was an immense urban center, thought to have contained a multi-ethnic population of about 200,000 at its peak (375-500 A.D.). However, archaeologist are still uncertain as to the precise civilization that actually built the city. Regardless, the city’s art, architecture, and religion would influence  all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Aztec Empire. Today, the ancient urban center is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and it is a must-see if you visit central Mexico. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, at 75 meters, or 245 feet high (although, this is only slightly over half the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, which is over 140 meters tall). The smaller Pyramid of the Moon is about 43 meters, or 141 feet tall, and the two structures are connected by a wide boulevard known as the Avenue of the Dead. I’m linking to two websites that provide excellent information about the Teotihuacan and its history: and The Ancient History Encyclopedia. I used images of Teotihuacan when teaching Julio Cortázar’s “La noche boca arriba,” a short story in which the Aztec practice of human sacrifice atop stone temples features prominently.


View of the Pyramid of the Moon from inside the city ‘streets’. Image mine.


Close-up view of the Pyramid of the Moon from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Image mine.


Awkward academics celebrating from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun – after climbing up 283 quite irregular stone steps! View of the Pyramid of the Moon and the “Avenue of the Dead” behind us. Image mine.

And last but certainly not least….I was able to eat so much MOLE!!!! The sheer variety of mole created in Mexico is astounding, and every restaurant has a different recipe. Below is  my meal from “La casa de las enchiladas,” where you can build your own enchiladas – just pick the tortilla, filling, sauce, and toppings. My three chicken enchiladas, wrapped in blue corn tortillas, were topped with Mole Poblano, Mole Verde, and salsa Encacahuatada, which is a mild chile and peanut sauce. All three enchiladas are topped with onions, cilantro, Oaxacan cheese, and sesame seeds. Combined with a Michelada after our long walk to and through Chapultapec, this was one of my favorite meals in Mexico City.

Lunch from La casa de las enchiladas. Image mine.

Now that I’ve managed some productive procrastination, I suppose it’s time to get back to work planning this weeks’ classes and assignments for my summer literature course.

Have you traveled to Mexico City with students (study abroad), for a conference or workshop, or simply for fun? What are some of your favorite places?
































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Discovering “The Soul of Spain”… in Kansas!

Since my hectic, teaching-heavy spring semester is finally over, I now have some time to start easing back into a few of my research projects. But first, of course, I needed some time to relax and not think about anything related to academia – or so I thought. It happens that whenever I have the time to do something seemingly unrelated to academic work, it ends up transforming into an entirely new type of learning and research.  Last week I stopped in to look around The Dusty Bookshelf here in Aggieville (Manhattan, KS), and I ended up finding quite the gem to add to my book collection – The Soul of Spain, written in 1908 by [Henry] Havelock Ellis, an English physician, sexologist, essayist, and progressive intellectual.  This particular book caught my attention not simply because it dealt with early 20th century Spain, but because I had read about Havelock Ellis and his research, specifically his significant influence on and connections to several Spanish intellectuals at this time who were involved with research on human sexuality and sexual reforms.  The book I purchased – for only $7.00 –  is a later edition, published in 1937. It also includes 12 illustrations (absent from the original and earlier editions) and Ellis’ new Introduction, in which he reflects on his numerous visits to Spain and on the early stages of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Towards the end of this post I have included a sample of the images and vintage photographs found in the book.

Havelock Ellis cph.3b08675.jpg

Henry Havelock Ellis (1912). Image via Wikipedia.

Soul of Spain

My instagram-worthy $7.00 purchase









Before I discuss The Soul of Spain, it’s worth mentioning a few key details about Havelock Ellis’ life and career. In turn of the century England, his work challenged traditional taboos surrounding sexuality, and he examined topics such as homosexuality, masturbation, the physiology of sexual behavior, and eugenics. He was also one of the first physicians to study transgender phenomena, and his work was quite controversial. His 1897 essay on homosexuality (which he termed “sexual inversion”) was banned in England for being obscene. Nevertheless, in the early 20th century, his research found a ready audience when Spanish translations arrived in the peninsula (Zubiaurre). For example, the young Spanish prodigy Hildegart Rodríguez corresponded with Ellis regarding his research on human sexual behavior and eugenics, and she advocated many of his theories on sexual reform in her essays and public lectures (see Sinclair for the letters between Ellis and Rodríguez; see my posts on the life and death of 17-year-old Hildegart here and here).  The fact that Spanish intellectuals read and engaged with Ellis’ research was perhaps an additional quality that drove the physician to further explore a land and a people that he found “singularly fascinating” (Ellis vi).

So… I wondered, what exactly does a controversial British sexologist write about when he sets out to capture the “soul of Spain” in the early 1900s? Curiously, the New York Times gave The Soul of Spain a glowing review in 1908, calling it “a book which clears away many delusions regarding an enigmatical land and people” and “one of the best and most enlightening books on Spain and the Spaniards that have ever appeared”. A quick glance at the Table of Contents reveals the most obvious objects of Ellis’ largely observational study:

La marquesa de las Mercedes - Francisco De Goya y Lucientes -

“La marquesa de las Mercedes”, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

1. Introduction
2. The Spanish People
3. The Women of Spain
4. The Art of Spain
5. Velázquez
6. Spanish Dancing
7. Ramón Lull at Palma
8. ‘Don Quixote’
9. Juan Valera
10. Santa María del Mar
11. The Gardens of Granada
12. Segovia
13. Seville in Spring
14. Seville Cathedral
15. Monserrat
16. Spanish Ideals of To-day

This list includes many of the most “classic” themes associated with Spanish Culture, as anyone who has ever taught an introductory or survey course on the topic can attest – Don Quixote and Cervantes, Velázquez, the cities and architecture of Andalucía. But what caught my attention immediately is the fact that Ellis devotes two chapters to the Spanish population: one to the Spanish People and another to the Women of Spain. Were women not people in 1908?!? (Wait, don’t answer that…) In his defense, though, Ellis does also set Velázquez off in his own chapter instead of discussing the renowned painter in the section on  Spanish Art, which might actually be considered complimentary. In any case, I want to discuss a bit more of what I read in the chapter on Spanish women, since it most closely relates to my general research focus on gender and women’s representations.

This chapter dedicated to Spanish women is preceded by a late 18th-century painting by Francisco de Goya (above), La marquesa de las Mercedes. This is a fitting illustration, as Goya and other Spanish artists “created an image of the native woman that projected an Iberian ‘authenticity’” (Zanardi n.p.). Moreover, a woman’s dress was often the primary means by which Goya conveyed her particularly Spanish persona (Zanardi). In his search for the “Soul of Spain”, Ellis also focuses his observations on the Spanish woman’s appearance – both her physical beauty and her wardrobe. As he notes, “The distinguished qualities of Spanish women can scarcely be questioned. Their beauty and grace are a theme for rhapsody to every tourist” (65). He begins the chapter with through descriptions of the beautiful Spanish women in traditional dress who populate the city of Sevilla during the annual Feria de Sevilla (65-69). Ellis emphasizes her hair, adorned with combs and flowers, as well as her mantilla (lace shawl), folded and worn in an oblong (not triangular) shape. His praise of the Spanish woman’s distinctly feminine beauty is expressed in terms of her difference from other European women, notably the “fashionable” French women of Paris: “…for a Spanish woman in a Parisian costume is nearly always badly dressed, while in her native costume her distinction is perfect” (66). He goes on to “eloquently” describe the entire ensemble as “a kind of coquettish war-paint, the appanage of youth and vigour” (67). Below is an image of modern Spanish women donning this traditional attire for 2016’s Feria de Sevilla.

It is in this chapter on women that I found Ellis’ interest and expertise in modern eugenics to be most evident in his discourse, as words and phrases such as “better-bred,” “racial Iberian trait, “dignified, silent, and intense race” appear on nearly every page. While such vocabulary is evident in many parts of the book, it is especially prominent here as he details Spanish women’s “interesting peculiarities” – their stature, the shape of their chests and breast (including a footnote on nipple size!), the curvature of her spine, the manner in which she walks, her face, complexion, nose, and mouth – in over 15 pages (69-84)! His male gaze was clearly working overtime during his visits to Spain, as he provides no such meticulous physical descriptions of Spanish men… I  mean, Spanish people.

Below are a few of the most notable quotes regarding “the soul of Spain” as Ellis perceives it in Spanish women – I’ve divided them into six general categories:

(1) Regarding the “heightened” curves of the Spanish woman’s spine (what he terms an “Iberian saddle-back”) and the way they impact her movement:  “This gait… is the erect dignified carriage, with restrained movement, of a priestess who is bearing the sacred vessels. At the same time, the walk of Spanish women, while not lacking in proud human dignity, has in it something of the gracious quality of a feline animal, whose whole body is alive and in restrained movement, yet without any restless or meaningless excess of movement” (72-73).


In this image, film star Gene Tierney (c. 1946) is shown posed as the notorious 19th century Irish cabaret dancer Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, who reinvented herself and her history under the stage name Lola Montez. Tierney plays up the coquettish spirit for which the “Spanish Dancer” was known, thus illustrating the most performative aspects of physical feminine beauty on which Ellis focuses in his book. Image via Grapefruit Moon Gallery:

(2)  Regarding her face: “The face varies greatly in outline… the lower part of the face, though often as beautiful as could be desired, is the part  most liable to be unsatisfactory; it may become somewhat coarse and thick. The nose also is sometimes defective” (73-74).

(3) Her hair: “The hair, again, thought sometimes considered a special beauty of the Spanish woman, does not, to me at least, stand in the first rank of her charms; it is not comparable, for instance, to the beautiful and abundant hair which one sees so often among Polish women in the streets of Warsaw” (74).

(4) Her eyes:  “It is usual to say that the Spanish woman’s eyes are large and black, sometimes, it is added, and bold… but it is by no beans the ‘black’ eye which is in chief honour. The black eye is plebeian, and it is usually associated with a plebeian style of beauty. The Spaniard, whatever region of the country he belongs to, has nearly always admired the ‘mixed’ eye, that of medium pigmentation… green. Calderon, it is true, associated black eyes with beauty, but in the Celestina green eyes with long lashes are one of the chief markers of supreme beauty…” (74-76). Ellis goes on to cite Don Quixote’s description of Dulcinea’s eyes as “green emeralds”, and similar references in the the literature of Juan Valera and Vicente Blasco Ibañez. In fact, throughout the book he uses literary references to buttress his observational claims, demonstrating his familiarity with Spanish literary and cultural history. In the chapter on women, he impressively references Calderón, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, La Celestina), Franciso Delicado, Santa Teresa (St. Theresa), Valera, Blasco Ibañez, Concepción Arenal, Emilia Pardo Bazán, and Benito Pérez Galdós .

mujeres del quijote

Image via Casa del Libro

(5) Regarding women’s complexion, Ellis again employs literature to support his claim that “the Spanish skin is the most perfect in Europe, and there is no need to hide it, as was once the Spanish custom, by rouge, and now by the unpleasant use of powder” (76). He continues: “There is a quality about the skin of a beautiful Spanish woman which always instinctively suggests… the quality of the finest and most exquisitely wrought metals. This had not escaped Cervantes. ‘Senor Don Quixote,’ asked the duenna, ‘ have you observed the comeliness of my lady the Duchess, that smooth complexion of hers like a burnished polished sword?'” (77).

(6) Finally, Ellis observes the Spanish woman’s general attitude towards men: “[Her] manner towards a man, gracious as it may be, is always cool and self-possessed… All the old Spanish traditions show that the women of this race required much wooing; a certain chastity corresponding to their extreme sobriety seems to lie in the temperament of the people. This proud reticence, the absence of any easy erethic response to masculine advances, is the probable source of that erotic superiority of women, the sexual subjection of men, which has often been noted as characteristic of Spain, and is indeed symbolised in the profound Spanish adoration for the Virgin Mary. It is probably very primitive” (83-84).

This connection of Spanish womanhood to the Virgin Mary is a perfect place to continue including images from The Soul of Spain – starting with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “Madonna and Child (1638), a prime example of Spanish Baroque painting.  In his discussion of Spanish art, Ellis suggests that Murillo was “once counted as more than the peer of Velázquez, [but] has fallen from his high estate in critical estimation… Murillo was lacking in original force… He was an artist of feminine and receptive temperament, a realist indeed, but with no virile force, inapt to express the vigorous dramatic qualities which most natively find expression in Spanish art” (125).

Madonna and Child_Murillo-wikiart

“Madonna and Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1638). Image via Wikiart.

In the above quote on Murillo’s “feminine” temperament that lacked “virile force”, we can clearly see the way in which Ellis genders the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish people, whether discussing talented Spanish artists of the past or ordinary citizens of his present-day. Feminine traits are associated with weakness and deference; masculine traits with strength and authority. Yet paradoxically, Ellis justifies his dedication of an entire chapter to Spanish women as a consequence of their superiority to men: “The Spaniards, if we take their history as a whole, have been a peculiarly virile people, yet at the present day one is tempted to think that the women of Spain are on the average superior to the men” (61).  He notes three causes of this purported “depletion of manhood” in Spain, or three factors that have “tended to crush Spain’s manhood”: centuries of war, the Inquisition, and the vast colonial empire (64). War, he declares, eliminated the most energetic and virile soldiers; the Inquisition the most intellectual thinkers; and the colonial empire the most entrepreneurial spirits.

Overall, The Soul of Spain is a fascinating read for (1) the elements of its discourse that today seem rather antiquated (i.e., racist, sexist, and classist!) and (2) for the manner in which a physician/scientist is so willing to engage with art, literature, and cultural history. The 1908 New York Times review highlighted the cross-disciplinary nature of the resulting study, referring to Ellis as “that rare combination, a scientist who is also a poet”.  Below, I’ve included a sample of the images that appear in the 1937 edition of the text.  The first image included in the book is the Frontispiece, a black and white photograph of a dramatic mural painted by American artist John Singer Sargent in 1882 – “El jaleo. I was not familiar with this painting or artist, so it was a welcome discovery.


“El jaleo” (1882), by American artist John Singer Sargent. Image via wikipedia.

“Jaleo” is the name of a popular Andalusian dance, Jaleo de Jerez, and the word itself can be translated as “boisterous amusement or fun,” or “din, commotion, ruckus.” The full color images available online today are stunning, and the stark contrasts between the light and dark make Sargent’s depiction of the Spanish gitano  (gypsy) dancers especially compelling. At 12-feet wide, the large scale of the mural was meant to suggest a “stage” to the viewer, thus emphasizing the performative aspect – the theatricality –  inherent in the Spanish Gypsy’s dancing (see wikipedia for a fairly detailed analysis).

Segovia-alcazar For two images, I was actually able to find digital copies of the identical photographs  in the book, which seem to date from the 1920s.

To the left is an image of the Alcázar (Castle) at Segovia, a small, medieval town about an hour northwest of Madrid. Ellis poetically describes it as a “‘dead city,’ still serenely sleeping, in a dream of which the spell has been broken neither by… the tourist crowd, nor… commercial activity, nor by any native anxiety for self-exploitation. How deeply Segovia sleeps…” (322).

Below is a photograph of the great Cathedral in Sevilla/Seville, which Ellis affirms is “the largest of all Gothic churches, and indeed, after St. Peter’s at Rome, the largest church in Christendom” (355).


Now that I’ve spent some time reading through The Soul of Spain, I’m anxious to get back to work on an article dealing with print literature in early 20th-century Madrid. I also want to make time to visit The Dusty Bookshelf more frequently, as their inventory is constantly changing and I’ve been impressed with what I have found so far.

What vintage books have you found in libraries or local bookstores? Have you come across any unusual discoveries?



Ellis, [Henry] Havelock. The Soul of Spain(New Edition with an Introductory Essay on the Spanish Civil War). Boston: Houghton Mifflin [The Riverside Press, Cambridge], 1937.
Online version of first edition via Hathi Trust Digital Library (and the University of Michigan) – this edition does not contain illustrations:;view=1up;seq=19

Review: Havelock Ellis’s Soul of Spain.New York Times. 9 May 1908.
Online via New York Times TimesMachine:

Sinclair, Alison. Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain. Hildegart Rodriguez and the World League of Sexual Reform. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2007.

Zanardi, Tara.Framing Majismo: Art and Royal Identity in Eighteenth-Century Spain.” University Park: Penn State U P, 2016. Google Books preview here.

Zubiaurre, Maite. Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939. Nashville: Vanderbilt U P, 2012.
—. A Virtual Wunderkammer. Early Twentieth Century Erotica in Spain. Companion site with image gallery and PDFs of Spanish essays from the 1920s-30s:
(See my post on this book and its “Virtual Wunderkammar” here).




Posted in Art, History, Literature, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Photography and the Chromatic Language of Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban

With the Obamas’ recent trip to Cuba (March 2016), the Caribbean island has been appearing frequently across social media and in a variety of US news outlets – from the New York Times to Buzzfeed. National Geographic featured a piece on How Tourism Will Change Cuba; TeleSur aimed to reveal the hypocrisy of the United States with regards to human rights abuses in Cuba; and even Buzzfeed capitalized on the president’s visit to provide readers with an 11-item listicle (of course) on What to Know Before Planning Your Trip To Cuba… a list that includes the pearl of wisdom:  “10. The Food is Very Fresh” (seriously). But the most powerful pieces are often photographic series aiming to provide glimpses into the “real” lives of the Cuban people; to capture the beauty and intrigue associated with the stark contrasts of modern(izing) Cuban life. For example, a series from the New York Times, Cuba on the Edge of Change, presents Cuba asa land of endless waiting and palpable erosion.” The short introduction to the New York Times series goes on to emphasize the contrasts of the isolated island, seemingly abandoned by the world amidst the continued passage of time:

“Cuba at times can feel like a nation abandoned. The aching disrepair of its cities, the untamed foliage of its countryside, the orphaned coastlines — a half-century of isolation has wrapped the country in decay. Yet few places in the world brim with as much life as Cuba, a contrast drawn sharper amid its faded grandeur.”

The flurry of all-things-Cuba in my Twitter feed over the past few weeks gave me the extra push I needed to read Cristina García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, which had been on my list for quite some time. With a conveniently timed Spring Break and recommendations from two of my former students at K-State (who had coincidentally *just* read the book in their Latino Literature course), I had several reasons to read something “for fun” as I traveled to give a talk and visit friends and family over the break. Since a large portion of my research interests lie within the realms of women’s literature, the literary and cinematic representations of motherhood, and (women’s) inter-generational relationships, I was hoping this book might fit well in a future transatlantic Hispanic women’s literature class. I’ve written before about incorporating Latino Literature into traditional Hispanic Literature courses, and I plan to continue expanding my knowledge and familiarity with the vast, diverse body of work produced by Latino writers.

Dreaming in Cuban traces the lives of three generations of the Puente family and, in the process, explores the strain and aftermath of leaving Cuba, beginning a new life in the United States, and what happens to those left behind. The novel’s chapters are narrated by or focalized through different family members and the story crosses both geographical  (New York City, Miami, Cuba) and temporal (1930s-1970s) spaces. The majority of the chapters feature an omniscient third-person narrator, but the younger generation of grandchildren represented by Pilar, Ivanito, and Luz present their experiences and observations in a more personal, first-person narration. García’s shifting narrative allows her to present a complex, kaleidoscopic image of the Puente family and their relationship to Cuba – to the island’s culture politics, and history.

The matriarch of the Puente family is Abuela Celia, who has never left Cuba. She and her husband Jorge had three children – Lourdes, Felicia, and Jorge.  Lourdes, her husband Rufino, and their daughter Pilar live in New York City; Felicia and her three children – twins Luz and Milagro, and son, Ivanito – remained in Cuba; and Jorge married in Europe, then settled there with his wife and young daughter. García provides a family tree (below) at the onset of the novel, which is an extremely useful reference to help familiarize readers with the characters. Many critics suggest that Celia’s granddaughter, Pilar, is the  protagonist of the novel, given that she provides readers with a first-person account of her experience as a first-generation Cuban-American growing up in New York City (thus providing several autobiographical links to García, the author). However, in her article on trauma and exile in the novel, Inger Pettersson argues that Lourdes is the true protagonist of the novel: “Without Lourdes, Dreaming in Cuban would not be about representing differences, with the possibility of understanding them. Without Lourdes, there might be nothing more than dreaming” (60). Pettersson highlights the different subjective experiences of Cuban immigrants and exiles to the United States, which is particularly relevant to Lourdes and her husband Rufino (54-55). Lourdes considers herself an immigrant to the United States, pursuing and American Dream that would have been impossible in Castro’s Cuba; Rufino, on the contrary, feels that he has been exiled from his homeland. The novel explores this complicated relationship to national identity by following various characters in Cuba, Miami, and New York, between 1959-1980.

Dreaming in Cuban_Family tree

The Puente family tree ( from Dreaming in Cuban)

Rocío Davis’s article, “Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, further explores the way in which language and mother-daughter bonds serve to (re)connect and/or sever the connections to one’s home, family, and history. For Davis, “the question of language and exile metaphorically dramatizes the mother-daughter relationships… [and] García turns to family, language, and motherland to develop and analyze sources of personal identity and creative expression” (67). I appreciated Davis’s analysis of the mother-daughter and mother-son relationships, however she does not delve deeper into the implications of this female-centered transmission of culture and identity and how it compares to that which occurs in the traditional patriarchal family. For example, the absence of traditional father-son relationships and the dysfunctional, even debilitating nature of the mother-son relationships presented (Celia-Jorge; Abuelo Jorge and his mother; Felicia-Ivanito) suggests a broader critique of patriarchal customs and social organization. I’m planning to explore this topic further, as I have only begun to read the (many!) critical articles written on this novel.

While these themes of mother-daughter relationships, national identity, and language are present throughout the novel, another aspect that caught my attention was the way in which García imbues her prose with extremely visual, chromatic language. Perhaps I noticed this as a result of having seen so many photos of Havana and Cuba (like the one above, from a website titled Besieged by Color in Havana) featuring the prismatic colors of antique automobiles and the vibrantly painted buildings that, even when weathered with age and neglect, nevertheless cast an artistic glow over the urban Caribbean landscape. Or perhaps it was because photographer Omar Robles’s Ballet Dancers Practicing in the Streets of Cuba had made numerous recent appearances on my Instagram and Facebook feeds. Regardless, I wanted to highlight some of Dreaming in Cuban‘s beautiful narrative descriptions and connect them to an image – perfect for the informal, visual nature of blogging! First, the description of Palmas Street repeatedly emphasizes the bright, perhaps unusually striking YELLOW paint:

“The driver turns left on Palmas Street with its matched rows of closely set two-story houses, all painted a flamboyant yellow. Last fall, the line at the hardware store snaked around the bock for the surplus paint, left over from a hospital project on the other side of Havana. Felicia bought the maximum amount allowed, eight gallons, and spent two Saturdays painting the house with borrowed brushes an ladders. “After all, she said, “you could die waiting for the right shade of blue” (García 38-39).

During my search for images, I came across photographer Michael Eastman’s series Colors of Cuba. Many of his images portray the decrepit, interior walls of Cuban homes or businesses through an intriguing monochromatic palette. Below are a few of his images, coupled with a sample of the novel’s prose.


from Colors of Cuba by Michael Eastman. Image via


“When Celia returns from the fields, she finds her daughter’s condition has declined. Felicia’s skin appears enameled in pinks like the wallpaper of Old Havana inns. The blue roses of her flannel nightgown adhere to her damp filth” (García 45).







In García’s novel, GREENS and BLUES are especially prominent – not entirely surprising for a story taking place in the Caribbean. While green is associated with the lush, tropical landscape of Cuba, it is also intrinsically connected to a sensation or psychology of instability, discontent, and madness. Such associations are made visible through the characterization of Celia’s second daughter, Felicia, who suffers from an apparent mental illness:

“Felicia del Pino doesn’t know what brings on her delusions. She knows only that suddenly she can hear things very vividly… The colors, too, escape their objects. The red floats above the carnations on her windowsill. The blues rise from the chipped tiles in the kitchen. Even the greens, her favorite shades of greens, flee from the trees and assault her with luminosity. Nothing is slid until she touches it” (García 75).

from Colors of Cuba by Michael Eastman. Image via


from Colors of Cuba by Michael Eastman. Image via

“They play a game with colors as they walk. ‘Let’s speak in green,’ his mother says, and they talk about everything that makes them feel green. They do the same with blues and reds and yellows.” (García 84)

“Later, they passed colorful handkerchiefs over Felicia’s body, all the while grieving in low voices to purify her corpse. By the time they finished, the terrible lumps on Felicia’s head had disappeared, and her skin was as smooth as the pink linking of a conch. Here eyes, too, had regained their original green (García 214).


Towards the end of the novel, when Pilar and Lourdes finally return to Cuba to be with their grandmother and mother, Celia, blues begin to dominate the descriptions of the setting, the characters, and their moods. Blue was also a prominent color at the beginning of the novel, when Celia swims in the ocean with her clothes on and, in a sort of magical realist fashion, a blue light emanates from (Abuelo) Jorge’s hospital room in New York just after he dies. But the blues that end the novel contain an additional aesthetic dimension – their literary presence is accompanied with a pictorial counterpart, as art student Pilar paints a portrait of her Abuela Celia on the porch of her coastal Cuban home:

“I paint Abuela Celia just the way she wants – dancing flamenco with whirling red skirts and castanets and a tight satin bodice… Mostly, though, I paint her in blue. Until I returned to Cuba, I never realized how many blues exist. The aquamarines near the shoreline, the azures of deeper waters, the eggshell blues beneath my grandmother’s eyes, the fragile indigos tracking her hands. There’s a blue, too, in the curve of the palms, an the edges of the words we speak, a blue tinge to the sand and the seashells and the plump gulls on the beach. The mole by Abuela’s mouth is also blue, a vanishing blue”
(García 233).

For me, Pilar’s description of her grandmother’s blue-tinged portrait brings to mind the haunting, melancholic style of Picasso’s early twentieth-century Blue Period, especially when Abuela Celia questions her granddaughter as to why she looks “so unhappy” (García 233). It is interesting, then, that Dreaming in Cuban ends with such muted tones, especially after two-hundred pages of vibrant, and decidedly multicolored visuals of the people, places, and feelings associated with Cuban – and Cuban-American – identity.

Woman with Folded Arms (Picasso, 1901-02). Image via Wikipedia

Melancholy Woman (Picasso, 1902-03). Image via Wikipedia and The Detroit Museum of Art, PD-US,













Have you read or taught Dreaming in Cuban? What other resources would you recommend for teaching courses on Cuba, Latino Literature, or Caribbean culture and history?



Davis, Rocío G. “Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” World Literature Today 74.1  (2000): 60-68. [Article preview]

García, Cristina.  Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Pettersson, Inger. “Telling it to the Dead: Borderless Communication and Scars of Trauma in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” Journal of Literary Studies 2 (2013): 44-61. [Abstract]






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Teaching Spanish America: From the Conquest to Contemporary Film

This semester at Kansas State I’m teaching a 500-level Spanish American Literature survey course, and I decided to experiment a bit with the way I structured the content. Survey-style courses are always challenging to design, given their vast scope — Spanish literature covers more than a millennium of texts produced in the Iberian peninsula; Spanish American literature covers well over 500 years and twenty countries spanning across two continents and the Caribbean.  For this course, rather than take a chronological approach to Spanish American literature like I did with Spanish literature last semester, I divided the course into four units: (1) Discourses of the Conquest, (2) Women’s Voices, (3) The Nation, Land, and People in Narrative, and  (4) 20th Century Poetry. The first four weeks have so far been dedicated to discussing the heterogeneity of Spanish America – in terms of culture, worldviews, and geography. I began the course on day one with Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García’s inverted map of South America – “America invertida” (1943) –  which has proven to be an excellent visual and touchstone for the course thus far.

América invertida (1943), by Joaquín Torres García (Uruguay). Image via

After beginning the semester with selections of the Popol Vuh, nahuatl and quechua poetry, Christopher Columbus‘ letters, Bartolomé de Las Casas‘ chronicles, and Inca Garcilaso‘s “Commentaries,” I wanted students to understand the process of the Spanish Conquest and Colonization in terms of the lasting discourses they produced. After reading these varied texts, I assigned the 2010 film, También la lluvia (Even the Rain), hoping that the often difficult and seemingly antiquated texts of these early explorers would take on new relevance with a contemporary connection. I had seen this film a few years ago after it was released, and I thought it would be excellent for a Latin American Literature or culture course… whenever I might happen to teach one.  The entire film WAS available on Vimeo in Spanish, both with and without Spanish subtitles, which made it easy for my students to access it and view for homework. Unfortunately, as of January 2017 it’s no longer available, and I have still not found a free streaming version with English subtitles; the link below is to the US trailer, with Spanish subtitles.

The film is based on events that occurred in Bolivia between 1999-2000, and I wanted my class to understand the context of the events depicted before viewing the film. “The Water Wars”, or “La guerra de agua,” is the name given to the protests in Cochabomba, Bolivia’s third-largest city located high in the Andes mountains, after the takeover of the regional water supply by the San Francisco based Bechtel Corporation. The dramatic increase (300%) in water rates as a result of privatization sparked local protests that culminated in a civilian march of tens of thousands of citizens that led to violent confrontation with police. These “Water Wars” between this Bolivian city and the powerful Bechtel corporation are a feature of the 2002 Canadian documentary, The Corporationwhich explores the exploitation of human rights by powerful multinational corporations such as IBM, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto. Prior to their viewing the film, I required that my students conduct a brief search for information on the “guerra de agua” in Cochabomba, and I provided them with this 2002 Frontline article that details the events and their consequences. I also gave them a short English YouTube video (below) that begins with this crisis in Bolivia and points to potential future disputes over water as a global commodity.

To briefly summarize the plot: A Spanish film company is shooting a movie about the Spanish Conquest, or the “Discovery of the Americas,” in Cochabomba, Bolivia. They hire and cast local residents in order to save money and give an aura of “authenticity” to their film. While filming, the Bolivian extras launch a protest against the privatization of their water supply, and their modern-day protests parallel the Spanish conquest and exploitation of the New World… the precise historic event that the Spanish film company is attempting to recreate from a “new” perspective, more sympathetic to indigenous populations.

As part of their homework (link at the end of this post), students selected one of the main characters and analyzed their representation and evolution. It was a fairly even split between Costa, Sebastian, and Daniel (about 3-4-3).  I also asked that they select a scene that they found most thought-provoking or forceful. I have a small class of ten students, and several selected the scene in which indigenous women – working as extras who are paid only $2.00/day by the Spanish film company making a movie about the Spanish Conquest – are asked to “drown their children” in the river. Despite reassurance from the directors that the children will be replaced with dolls and that their babies will not be harmed, the women cannot even fathom experiencing anything as terrible as drowning their own children, even out of fear, desperation, or self-preservation. This is a powerful scene on many levels, especially given the uncomfortable way in which these 21st century Bolivian indigenous women are asked by foreign (Spanish) filmmakers to recreate a disturbing scene of subjugation and abuse that has come to form a part of their cultural conscience. It also serves as a point of convergence that helps communicate the parallels between the exploitation of both the 16th and 21st century indigenous populations by foreign nations (or companies) who value only their own economic gains.

As a film, También la lluvia is especially useful in a literature course because of its complex structure – particularly the staging of a “movie-within-a-movie.” This allows for more direct comparisons to literary narratives, and also serves to emphasize the parallels and similarities that exist between the exploitation of indigenous peoples by sixteenth century conquistadors and modern day foreign filmmakers and global corporations (like the scene with the women and children mentioned above). To identify the narrative structure, we drew a box-framework similar to that used in describing frame narratives – “cajas chinas” (Chinese boxes) or “cuentos intercalados” (interspersed stories). I drew the diagram on the board in class based on my students’ descriptions and analyses, and from there we were able to identify elements of each of these narratives – scenes, characters, language, props – that functioned to communicate the same narrative of exploitation as the initial Spanish Conquest within the various levels of the film. Below is an example of the chart we created and one of the parallels identified (in yellow).  For example, the “commodity” – or the item of economic value that allows the powerful to exploit the weak – that appears in each respective narrative is gold (16th century) and money (salaries) and water in the 21st.

narrative_tambien la lluvia

always improving my graphics…!

My students also drew parallels between Sebastian/Costa (the fictional filmmakers and directors), Columbus/Las Casas, and the Bechtel Corporation and Bolivian politicians in the film, and we added these characters to their respective narratives.  The above “design” would work well as an in-class collaborative activity (worksheet), especially if you had time to dedicate more than one class to discussing and analyzing the film.  After having read samples of Columbus’ letters and selections of Las Casas’ chronicles, my students were able to easily follow the film’s historical references and consider the lasting effects of the Spanish Conquest on contemporary Spanish American nations – so they didn’t have any problems identifying obvious connections and, from there, considering more complicated or subtle points of convergence as a group. I will definitely use this film again, especially because my class genuinely seemed to enjoy it and none of them had heard of the Bolivian Water Wars (which makes sense, given most of the were barely 10 years old at the time!). In the future, as I mentioned, I think it would work well to dedicate the first class to discussing the film, the characters, and the narrative structure, and then use a second class for analyzing the composition of particular scenes (the staging, lighting, set, use of props, music, etc.)

Have you taught this film in a Latin American Literature, Culture, or film course? What other contemporary films or narratives function well in conjunction with the (often difficult) centuries-old chronicles of the Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization of the Americas?


Textbook: I’m using the 3rd edition of Voces de Hispanoamérica in my course this semester (since we will work with only about 1/4 of the textbook, I wanted to keep costs low by using the older edition. Many texts we will read this semester are not in Voces – especially women’s literature – and I provide students with these texts as PDFs as much as possible).


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