Cara Anne Kinnally
While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day.
Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.
Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio
As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.