Two things you need to know about me: I do not tell stories only to entertain or share my Latin American culture; I tell stories to renegotiate grounds with the audience, to exchange ideas about the world. Second, I believe that when a storyteller likes a story the story should like them back. In other words, if both do not fall in love the story will only serve to entertain (hopefully).The tale will be another story told by another storyteller. When the storyteller believes and understands the story it can become a meaningful version of the past that is sharing its light in the present.Although, it may appear that telling stories is quite simple, the tricky part is performing a story that has nothing to do with you. In other words, if the storyteller fails at delivering the originally meaning of the story and takes liberty in shaping it according to their personal beliefs, they might be contributing to distort the originally message or even worse reinforcing a cultural stereotype.
I recall a story slam where we had to bring a myth or legend from an assigned part of the world. One of the contestants brought a South American myth and this storyteller could not be more different from the average Latin person. The version of a Peruvian Myth delivered was quite entertaining. We laughed a lot, but the storyteller stereotyped the main character by portraying her as a woman of dubious reputation. To do that with the Greek gods is one thing, but with a tale of a culture that still exists and is still discriminated against is another. For instance, many Native North Americans do not like at all when the white man tells their stories, and I can understand why. Usually their stories are performed out of their original context and instead of bringing understanding on a culture it obscures it. Now I honestly do not have a problem with telling stories from other cultures, as long as the storyteller takes the time to research about it, drop their own cultural perspective, and make a sincere effort to empathize with the culture through the story.
Telling stories is a serious matter, because the power of each word and statement could be devastating and it multiplies like a virus, like a gossip that hurts reputations. Audiences might not remember the storyteller or the full story, but they will remember how they felt about the story. As stories are preserved over time, so are stereotypes. Stereotypes are the reflection of the misshaped ideas of those living on one side of the story, by the victors who wrote our history. These biased representations of the world have become strategies to form knowledge about what is different from what is commonly known, or widely accepted. In many cases, these ideas instigate cultural racism as they define and assign pejorative categories to the Other’s culture. Thus, stereotypes are anxiously repeated as a way to justify what has been done to preserve the order and what should continue to be. In Colombia and in the United States, I have often heard people that in a subtle way refer to a race or culture as inferiors to others. Some will even suggest it is the Other’s fault for their situation.
When I chose to become a storyteller, my desire was not to entertain and enrich the ears of the audience with tales from all around the world. I had a clear goal: spread the seeds of understanding because ignorance is abundant in our vast and wonderful world. The problem is certainly not only the lack of information but the assumptions made by people when that precious information is missing. As we know, assumptions lead to misunderstandings that can later become stereotypes. In other words, I wanted to unmask long accepted ideas and challenge my audiences. Thank God I haven’t been expelled yet from any theater or gathering, or have received killing looks. On the contrary, often people come after the telling to express their interest in the subject, to share their thoughts or stories, and even to thank me. I have to clarify here that no political or religious remarks have been addressed on my part. The strategy is simple, seduce the audience to fall in love with the story (or just like it), and then wait for that magical moment in which their hearts click with the culture that the story comes from.
Although I wish to have a check list of stereotypes that require attention, until now I have only focused my energy and research on the ideas of race and culture related to Native Americans from Central and South America. The Indigenous people seem to be perceived as belonging to a remote past and their beliefs part of an extinct society. When Natives are recognized to co-exist in our “modern times” they are often given negative, derogative, nostalgic, or gloomy labels. To me history has eclipsed the Native cultures because they appear not to have made any remarkable contribution to it.
Why did I choose stories from Native Americans from Central and South America?
Through time these Native Americans have become shadows when is so obvious that most of our Latin American countries have a lot to thank them for. Although most Latin Americans have an indigenous ancestor as their facial features or skin evidence, people still refer to them in a derogatory way as if the Natives had arrived late to the party. Stereotypes have influenced many of those carrying Indigenous genes to hide their racial and ethnic heritage, preferring to claim to be White instead.
Among the numerous and negative stereotypes associated with Natives, the worst label is to be called “Indians.” Not only are they not from India, but they are the first people of the Americas. “Indian” became a label to describe all that was filthy, undeveloped, superstitious, stupid, wicked, poor and/or destined to servitude. Through extensive studies I have done, many socio-cultural experts have found that the racial pyramid still exists in Latin American. Whites are at the top, followed by Mestizos while “Indians” and Afro descendants were on the bottom. In the same order, many Mestizos with native features have ascended in the social pyramid by claiming that they are White. Over time, I realized that by denying their skin color people can be granted better opportunities (jobs, education). In stories of western societies and in real life, often White people have a happy ending. As a consequence, stereotypes usually prevail and the color is in the eyes of the beholder.
Another way people reject their ancestors besides denying their features is by embracing foreign cultures and stories as their own. I recall a conversation I had with a daughter of Mexican immigrants in the US. She stated that she was only “American1,” instead of Mexican-American, and felt bad for what her country (the United States) had done to the Natives of North America in the past. I was shocked. Why take a White perspective, when it was clear that her ancestors and present family were mixed race Mexicans, not White Americans? Not only did she look indigenous but her mother did not even speak English. What I discovered was a disconnection with her cultural roots, mainly because everyone under the American Umbrella has a better chance of success in the United States. If she admitted her Mexican heritage, people would look at her differently, possibly as an inferior. Similarly, I recall talking with a young man from Nicaragua who had come to learn English. At some point, when I asked him about the native people in his country, he referred to them as “Indios,” and it was clear that those people and he were extremely different. I could not be more surprised, he looked as Indigenous as I look.
Back in the 1980’s, private schools in my country (Colombia) were usually attended by White children, simply because minorities did not have the money to afford that kind of education. Despite this, and although I looked more Indigenous than White, I went to private schools and universities. Nevertheless, I was always treated as some kind of minority by my friends, because I looked different. Since it was offensive even to ask about it, I was never able to trace the Indigenous blood in my family linage. We were “decent and honest people,” as if the others could not be. The best evidence was that my siblings and other members of the family were White and some even had green eyes. As a result, my family discounted my dark coloring by saying I probably received too much sun as a child.
When my mother was young she was called a beautiful India, because of her exotic features. Although I inherited some of it, I was not that lucky. Remembering, I was probably 6 or 7 years old, playing a beauty contest with some friends in the playground. After all my friends were categorized by their beauty, mainly because they were White, I was told that my Indigenous features would never let me qualify for any beauty contest. That day I realized that among a hundred students in my grade I was the only one that looked indigenous. Since then I have distanced myself from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson’s stories of the world, as their female heroes where extremely different from me. According to their stories and the interpretations of these stories in the media, I was not going to have a happy ending and prince charming was certainly never going to notice me. Well, if I could not be beautiful, I decided it was best not to worry about it. There should be another way and other stories that could help to vindicate the Native inheritance running in my blood and I needed to find them.
Little by little, I discovered that I identified more with the struggles of those who were different, because people considered me so. In consequence I decided that I wanted to find stories in which the Natives were as smart, cunning, wise, heroic, passionate and brave as any other race. Stories in which, despite our color, we all could have happy and inclusive endings far from the adaptations of the Grimm’s stories. For instance, not long ago, an Afro-American friend proudly showed me a “black” version of Cinderella and told me about other White stories adapted for black audiences. I thought: if they could only realize how vast and interesting their African heritage is, they would not be coloring White stories and we would not be watching so many soap operas based in the typical Fairy Tale.
Finding the stories
Over time I also understood that every discriminatory statement has a rebellious reaction. Exclusion makes people act defensively as color has been used to classify the world and many fairy tales are not multicultural. Those stories were cruel and depicted a strange world from which natives, mestizos and other races did not receive any kindness. The plots usually had a single and common outcome, death or a cruel punishment for the dark skinned villain. People were either good or evil, Black or White, and did not seem to learn from their mistakes. They were scared and willing to destroy any apparent danger that would threaten their world.
Despite these critiques my aim is not to analyze the implications of those white fairy tales, but to bring to the spotlight on other stories that promote values and heroes that go beyond the color of the skin. I decided to research cultural stereotypes in Latin America. I wanted to find stories from the oral tradition and literature that depict Indigenous people under a better and fair light.Thus, I asked myself: What stories from Indigenous peoples in Latin America depict their cultures accurately and counter Eurocentric stereotypes while revealing the long-ignored perspectives of the Native people?
In other words, I did not want to just find romanticized stories of Indigenous heroes, but to find tales that allow me to negotiate and connect ideas from the past with the present. My aim was not only to talk about stereotypes but to understand them. I did this by researching their historical origins and identifying stereotypes in stories. For instance, I recall last year at a meeting with the mayor of a small town in Tennessee. At some point, he referred to the Mexican people living in his town: “I came to understand that those Mexicans share the same family values that we have.” In that moment I understood that “family” is a subject worth to be explored, as it links cultures. My favorite story that fit this purpose is a Peruvian story that apparently comes from the Inca people and is called “In Search of the Magic Lake.” Every time I tell it, I can see people agreeing with the main characters decisions, a little girl from the Inca culture.
Three stories to challenge three stereotypes
I believe that well nurtured arguments and evidence is what helps to build more concrete and solid knowledge. Taking assumptions as gospel or simply rejecting other ideas makes people intolerant and ignorant. If we dialogue with the ideas from the past, we will be more capable to shed an inclusive light over the present. We are all storytellers. It is one of the most natural things humans do. When we tell or retell a story we all have a responsibility to be truthful to it, to be tolerant with it, to question and challenge it. Storytelling is an artistic tool that can serve to enlighten or obscure the world. Some may say that history and stories are a thing of the past and do not reflect or affect the present. Storytellers may assume that it will not hurt anybody if they tell the story the way they want. However, since the past is constantly playing its part in our present it is our duty to be truthful with the roots of the story, with those voices that were silenced for not winning the history contest.
The stories I chose to research and tell have become mediums through which find common grounds among cultures, defy stereotypes or understand the outcomes of history. As an example, when I first read “The Legend of La Tatuana” by Miguel Angel Asturias, it was clear that there was an important historical element the author wanted us to see but it was not obvious to me. I only began to understand the meaning of the story after I had researched the history of the Mayan people during colonial times. The Mayans lost their lands and this catastrophic event meant the fracture of a long-lasting and strong relationship they had with the land. Part of this sad event is metaphorically depicted in “The Legend of La Tatuana.”
The stories I chose to present for this article are: “The Pongo’s Dream,” “The Legend of La Tatuana,” and “The Legend of El Dorado.”
The Pongo’s Dream by José María Arguedas2 (Perú) depicting Serfdom and that “Indians” are Good but Naturally Stupid
The relationship of Master-Servant exists in several Latin American countries. This relationship has often evolved into discriminatory and abusive behaviors, although is considered a natural situation and is widely accepted and reproduced by society and media (Lazcano & Muñoz, 2012, p. 6). The definition of a pongo in Perú is a poor, all ragged, and insignificant “Indian” man, whose fate is to serve the master’s desires. In addition, by the mid-nineteenth century in Guatemala, “the Indio was considered naturally stupid by most of the first two classes, little better than an animal – able to work long hours in the sun under conditions that would kill a White man, but lazy unless watched” (Reed, 2001, p. 22). Reed also mentions that because the Indians had the exasperating habit of never giving a direct answer, they were considered stupid and lazy, however despite these the “Indio” was also known for his honesty, discipline, and humility, “above all, he was docile” (Reed, 2001, p. 22). Watch video:
The Legend of La Tatuana (Guatemala) by Miguel Angel Asturias3, depicting The Vicious “Indio”
By the sixteenth century, Europeans thought that nature was part of the vices and/or virtues of those inhabiting a region. Tropical areas implied extravagance, extremes, and passions that led to uncontrolled feelings and vices; while a moderate climate, like the European weather, allowed a balance of emotions. In this manner, the physical environment determined social and moral behaviors, as well as the state of evolution of the inhabitants. Therefore, it was urgent to subdue and dominate barbaric customs, like the native belief that Nature and the subjects living in it had a strong connection. Despite a concerted effort to force a disconnection by the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the Indigenous peoples’ relationship with nature had not changed (Ulloa, 2005, p. 92). Syncretism, a mixture of beliefs, came to be a useful resource for many Natives, as the only way to keep their traditions hidden from the White man. In “The Legend of La Tatuana” Maestro Almendro is a Mayan shaman that from time to time gives his soul to the four caminos (roads), a metaphor of the spiritual journey performed by shamans, a journey that can only be done with the aid of psychotropic herbs. Watch video:
The Legend of El Dorado (Colombia) depicting La Malicia Indigena/The Wicked Indians
The term is known as an adaptive mechanism that helps to shorten the distance with the others in power; and/or serves to overpass them. It is like an ace hidden under the sleeve, rooted in the past and with dyes of revenge. La Malicia Indigena is a combination of creativity, cunning, discretion, and hypocrisy. It ekes out underdevelopment, poverty, and government neglect. It is thought to be a potential of the Amerindian people that were suppressed during the conquest and in colonial times (Morales, 1998, p. 42). The Indigenous people during the colonial time had to look for defensive strategies, including lies and fear induction, in order to protect themselves, their communities, and their land. This stereotype is reflected in “The Legend of El Dorado.” When the Spanish conquistador realizes that the message he received by Tundama is a trick, he calls the “Indians” wicked. Tundama’s trick reflects a defense and survival strategy. Although it is not a true story, it helps to explain in a poetic way the disappearance of the Chibcha people in Colombia. Watch video:
1 Another cultural misunderstanding, US citizens are as Americans as any other person born or adopted by a country located in the continent of America.
2 Arguedas (1911 – 1969) was only three years old when his stepmother sent him to the kitchen where the Indians would take care of him. There he grew up learning about their worldview and language (Quechua), until he was sent to a religious school when he was a teenager. Arguedas’ obsession was the fear of watching the Indian culture being destroyed. His dilemma was: translating into Castellano the mindset and ways of the Indians that only spoke Quechua (Shaw, 2002). He also wrote about the challenges of migration and modernity.
3 Miguel Angel Asturias (1899 – 1974) always believed that since he was a Mestizo, his Indian side and his Spanish side were always in constant battle. Between 1923 and 1928, Asturias finished his Legends of Guatemala, a book that later led to the Realismo Mágico. The surrealism and the oral tradition heard and inherited, with the aid of the Popul Vuh and the Anales of Xahil, were the driving forces and the great liberators of unimagined worlds. In 1973, Asturias said: “For us the surrealism represented finding us, not the European, but the Indigenous and the American” (Shaw, 2002, p. 72-78).