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Translated Woman, by Ruth Behar.

January 27, 2014

Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Experanza’s Story, by Ruth Behar.  Beacon Press (2003), Edition: Second Edition, Paperback, 400 pages.


 A brilliant book containing the story of a woman living in rural Mexico and the reflections of the anthropologist who hears and records her life history.

 Esperanza is a proud, though poor, woman living in Mexquitic, near San Luis Potosi, Mexico.  Her life, as she tells it, has been full of pain and suffering, but she retains a upbeat attitude.   Her husband beat her regularly and she believed that the rage she had toward him caused the deaths of six of her babies.  Leaving him, she took on the roles of both father and mother by working as a peddler to support her living children.   Strong and independent, she declares she does not need a man. She distrusts even her sons who in turn betray her and her daughters.  Within a religious cult, she finds healing and strength.  Challenging the stereotype of Mexican women as passive, she is an assertive, independent woman.

Ruth Behar is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan and has been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Grant. She has published poetry and autobiographical writings in addition to her scholarly writing.  Although she is viewed as a rich gringa by the residents of Esperanza’s village, she was born in Cuba and came to the USA as a child.  She and her anthropologist husband spent long periods of time in Mexquitic each doing separate research.  Although it was not her original intention, Behar became fascinated with Esperanza.  Listening to her “histories” of her life, she promised to bring them back to the “other side” and share them as Esperanza desired. In doing so she takes great pains to be true to Esperanza’s shaping of her life.

 Translated Woman contains the translation and editing of the oral histories that Behar collected from Esperanza.  These are scrupulously told with an attempt to be true to the concepts with which Esperanza thought about her life, rather than use the categories of academia.  Later in the book, Behar discusses the accounts, pointing out the major themes of suffering, martyrdom, rage, and redemption with which Esperanza structures her story.  She notes the importance of the silences which Esperanza dealt with topics like sexuality.  Particularly interesting for me was the religious cult in which Esperanza found strength, a cult based on the spirit of the macho figure of Pancho Villa, who enters the woman leading the service.  Behar discussed how he appealed to women like Esperanza who found themselves needing support for their own gender flexibility.

 In the final section of the book, Behar self-consciously examines how she came to be an academic authoritatively poised to interview and translate another woman’s life.  Following the example of Latina writers like Gloria Anzaldua she expresses lyrically what it is like to live in physical and symbolic borderlands.  Well versed in current post-modern thought, she also uses it to understand her own position as a woman privileged with money and professional authority to collect Esperanza’s story but with her own outsider status. As Behar realizes in the final section, her own history is also that of a “translated woman,” an outsider in academia as a Cuban woman.  Whatever hurdles she has overcome, she is still a “literary wetback,” who has all the right papers but does not feel that she belongs.

For me, Behar’s examination of the differences and meetings points between her and Esperanza were engaging.  I have not read widely in the theoretical discussions within academia about storytelling and writing, but I understood almost instinctively the issues Behar addresses.    As often with such writing, I was caught up in the abstractions, but I remain ambivalent and not always sure I am grasping the point.  I wonder if the abstractions and jargon really help us listen carefully and deeply to what those unlike ourselves are saying.  Perhaps such conceptualization is most useful in helping us face our own unexamined assumptions and contradictions with which we all live.

I strongly recommend Translated Woman to those curious about the lives of rural Mexican women and women in academia in the USA.  Those interested in what it means to listen to the stories of other women, unlike ourselves, will find this particularly valuable.  But be ready for some theory.

A related book that I have read and recommend is Kayang and Me, by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown (my review), in which Scott explores many of the same questions as Behar but without post-modern theory.

Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico, by Vania Smith-Oka (my review) also explores the lives of rural Mexican women in a slightly more conventional way.

 What suggestions does anyone have for me to begin exploring the theories regarding storytelling?  I know something of debates around the construction of race and gender, but would like something not overly dense about the meaning of telling stories.

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