27 February 2012
Identity Crisis In Our Contradictory Country: The Search For Identity and Understanding In Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, and Jose Davila Semprit’s “The United States”
The feeling of not knowing one’s own identity, or of not having one results in an issue that many immigrants (and nonimmigrants) struggle with when relocating to another country or migrating. Often in the case with immigrants, they have to deal with a foreign culture when they settle somewhere new—complete with new value systems, practices and traditions—and as a result these immigrants may often feel uprooted or conflicted with their original identity and this new identity they have to consider. In Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, Fulano—a character from one of the book’s stories, “Identity”—although not an immigrant, experiences struggles with his own lack of identity and importance in his life. Fulano’s predicament, though exaggerated for effect, could be taken as a symbol for what immigrants (and even the subsequent generations after) attempt to understand about themselves:
And once more he saw Toledo covering its hills like a petrified forest of centuries. It was absurd. With all useful justification of its existence gone, the city sat there like a dead emperor upon his wrecked throne, yet greater in his downfall than in his glory. There lay the corpse of a city draped upon a forgotten hill, history written in every deep furrow of its broken countenance, its limbs hanging down the banks to be buried under the waters of a relentless river. (Alfau 515)
The city of Toledo serves as a metaphor for Fulano’s failings. Alfau describes the city with many human body part imagery such as “the dead emperor,” “corpse,” and “limbs.” These human parts serve to personify the city as a human dejected without an identity to keep its “existence” “justified.” This also describes Fulano, who resorts to actual suicide because he no longer has any real superficial identity after his experiment to find an internal identity. Much of Alfau’s diction suggest a hopelessness in those without identities (ie. the city Toledo, Fulano) through the words “petrified,” “gone,” “dead,” “wrecked,” “downfall,” “lay,” “draped,” “forgotten,” broken,” “hanging,” and “buried.” Many of these words, like “petrified,” “gone,” “lay,” “draped,” “hanging,” “buried,” suggest a motionlessness, a listlessness that consumes those without identities. The lack of action and motivation in the words suggests that those without identities will similarly lose willpower and initiative, preferring to “lay” “wrecked” and “dead.” Furthermore the image of the city as a corpse foreshadows Fulano’s decision to jump after failing in his quest to find his identity. It seems that Alfau hints that an identity serves as a core motivator for life and living—which seems true with the human condition. Not having an identity causes an agonizing experience for those suffering. As an ironic note, the quote “greater in his downfall than in his glory” sums up Fulano’s quest. Fulano’s death, not his living, becomes the source of his recognition. While I don’t think Alfau advocates this method to obtain an identity, he uses Fulano’s example to show how agonizing the experience of not having an identity can be and how far one may go to establish one. Fulano’s case exemplifies an exaggerated example of this loss of identity, but the feelings he goes through and the meaning of it rings true for many immigrants dealing with their native identity, having it challenged as an immigrant in a new country, encountering a new radically different culture, and the struggle to reconcile the conflicts that arise.
Many of the immigrants who come to the United States face immense obstacles in the form of prejudice, loss of identity, communication barriers, exploitation, and assimilation (amongst many others). Many who come to the United States end up very happy with their experience, but just as many who come to the United States end up with a more negative experience. The reason for this disparity can vary per case, but a lot of it can be attributed to the duality of American values and concerns. A part of America supports and rallies for freedom and independence, but another part of America acts out on its selfish and abusive desires (ie. imperialism, capitalism) and this tension creates these varying experiences for a lot of immigrants (Stavans 516). In his poem “The United States,” Jose Davila Semprit writes of this tension:
A sublime document that proclaims
the rights of man,
a star-spangled banner,
history that begins
with roaring rebelliousness
and ends up smelling of imperialism, (Semprit 516)
In this excerpt, Semprit speaks of the irony of the “document,” a reference to the Declaration of Independence written in 1776 declaring US independence from Britain. The declaration that “began” our country started out with idealistic hopes and a genuine proclamation of human rights, yet later on this same country participated in imperialism and actions that took advantage of other human beings. The document evokes descriptions such as “sublime,” meaning “noble” or “grand” but the actions the States partake in after such a grand beginning moves far from it. The alliteration in “roaring rebelliousness” lends emphasis to the powerful and promising start the United States began with. “Roaring” brings to mind an image of power and confidence, and “rebelliousness” suggests free-thinking and nonconformity, but the United States followed the very same footsteps of the country they rebelled and fought against. In these lines, Semprit argues that the United States fought its way out from being under another country’s rule with “roaring rebelliousness” only to exact that same rule and oppression on other countries—forgetting the values the country was founded upon. The use of the word “ends” suggests that the United States’ reputation became tainted and can no longer be corrected and irreparable. The sarcasm and disbelief in Semprit’s tone can be read in the last line of the stanza when he ends it by crying “United States!” (14). The exclamation mark can be read as a cry of lament, or a mock of the cheer or nationalistic chant of “USA! USA!”
Alfau, Felipe. “From Locos: A Comedy of Gesturesy.” The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 505-515. Print.
Semprit, Jose Davila. “The United States.” Trans. Edna Acosta-Belen and Susan Liberis-Hill. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 516-518. Print.
Stavans, Ilan. “Jose Davila Semprit.” The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 516-518. Print.
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