Challenging Fixed Identities
Rafael Ochoa highlights the concept of “becoming other” in his literary text, Los Años Marchitos. It is important to note that to conceptualize becoming other, the theoretical framework of posthumanism is fundamental in this case along with the concepts by Deleuze, Braidotti, Barad, Derrida, and Agamben. In the story, the author allows readers to explore the concept of becoming other through the protagonist and various other characters. Furthermore, becoming other is also observed when migrants from Central America migrate to the United States and challenge socially fixed identities; thus, Ochoa’s ultimate goal is to invite readers to imagine themselves outside identities that are socially constructed.
Becoming other can mean to imagine ourselves outside identities that are socially constructed. The concept of becoming other in our society is looked down upon because it goes against social norms, identities, and categories, and most importantly, against social individualist fixed identities. But through a posthuman lens, this concept of becoming other is magnified and becomes more of a possibility. Posthumanism is defined as a person that transcends beyond social individualist fixed identities in Western liberal rigid reasoning. It is important to note that to conceptualize becoming other, posthumanism is fundamental in this case. Through examining and analyzing the literary text Los Años Marchitos, by Rafael Ochoa, the author allows one to explore the concept of becoming other through the protagonist and various other characters. Theoretical approaches by Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Rosi Braidotti, Karen Barad, Jacques Derrida, and Georgio Agamben show that people are able to dismantle identities that are socially fixed. Furthermore, becoming other is also observed when migrants from Central America migrate to the United States and challenge socially fixed identities.
Los Años Marchitos by Rafael Menjívar Ochoa provides a great example of how one can imagine continuously becoming other; within this context the writer gives specific examples. The novel begins with a radio host who is hired by the police and who can change his voice on command, arguably giving him an advantage in becoming other because he has multiple personalities and changes accordingly. However, it is clear that we do not know who the narrator of the story is. Perhaps this was done intentionally by Ochoa, to make us imagine it being any of the characters or anyone of us. Furthermore, the protagonist –who once was a radio theatre actor– is now working for the police on special assignments to reenact scenes or suspects identities. Some of these suspects or victims are sometimes deceased or missing and are only observed through photographs. The protagonist is then able to imagine what they could have once thought, spoken like, or been doing at that point in time. He imagines himself outside his own identity to become the other person. Ochoa writes, “Dije con la voz del muchacho trigueño de las fotos, una voz que jamás había escuchado, pero que ahora era la suya.” (Ochoa 113). Here we learn that death plays a key role in imaging an identity outside of what is socially constructed; a fixed identity did not stop the main character, he was able to become other. Through this posthuman lens, we can observe how people can imagine themselves being another person. This lens becomes a possibility because without death it would be very difficult in Western society to imagine becoming other against these socially constructed fixed identities.
Braidotti puts it as “Death is the ultimate transportation,” allowing us to possess imaginaries of the future (131).
Rosi Braidotti’s “Lo Posthumano” offers an approach on how posthumanism can be applied to this novel. She argues about life after death as a possibility instead of an end, and how we truly benefit from stepping away against anthropocentric views. Anthropocentric views are often regarded as Western reasoning. Braidotti states this and allows us to become other by conceptualizing posthumanism as an alternative possibility to reimagine ourselves and to give us a chance to break away from socially constructed identities. Braidotti quotes Katherine Hayles: “the post human does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human” (Braidotti 101). This conception makes reference to Western modernity, thus, emphasizing this rigid thinking. Nevertheless, posthumanism deconstructs these fixed identities that we believe exist, it offers our minds to imagine being other(s) outside these norms that exist in society today. Braidotti puts it as “Death is the ultimate transportation,” allowing us to possess imaginaries of the future (131). This is applied once again to the protagonist of Los Años Marchitos, the writer uses death as a transportation to become other, it is only with death being present that becoming other is a possibility. In the novel, as mentioned above, the protagonist did not know who he was portraying from the photograph nor had he interacted with that individual before. He must imagine himself what it would have been like to be that other person. Through clues in the photographs he is to a certain extent able to best portray the victim because at the end, it is what the narrator imagines in his mind. However, Western reasoning would state otherwise, claiming that this is not a possibility, but this novel challenges that notion.
Another example from the book is when Ochoa writes: “Pero yo no sería el asesino, ni Juan Pablo Escudero, ni el muchacho moreno. Tal Vez ni el jefe de la ‘sección especial’, ni el policía ajedrecista ni ninguno de sus compañeros. Ellos sólo simulaban el mundo; los que lo hacían eran otros.” (116), here, the character is giving us an insight about how he truly believed he was another person. This offers an opportunity to see how the narrator was able to imagine himself being all these different types of people, he acknowledges that he truly wasn't any of these people but he at that moment in time was that other person. The protagonist of the novel was able to challenge Western reasoning by continuously becoming other; he was no longer acting, in the novel’s context, he had to become the other person during the interviews. For the police’s statements he was the other person and he had another identity because he was able to imagine himself doing so, therefore this became a possibility for the him.
For example, once the narrator described Frejas by saying: “En el café de la esquina está Guadalupe Frejas, inmensa como una bola gigante de helado de fresa” (12).
Giorgio Agamben offers another approach in “El País de los Juguetes,” where he draws a distinct parallel from play and rituals from a child's and an adult’s perspective. Agamben argues that children are able to refrain time and space from a rigid Western time dynamic through play, passing endless amount of time in this playland created by them. Adults in indigenous communities do the same when they perform rituals in which they become ghosts or ancestors and step into this land of rituals once again reframing this rigid Western timeline. He argues that there is no difference between a child and an adult, both parties are able to imagine themselves becoming other. So, if children are able to in essence become other through play and adults are able to become other through rituals, why is this notion looked down upon in Western society? This is the point in which today's societies do not allow us to become other from these socially construct fixed identities. Western modernity does not allow this space to exist, they categorize these other spaces as non-first world minds and look down upon anyone or anything becoming other. But once again, the protagonist from Los Años Marchitos is able to challenge these fixed identities by imagining himself as another person but simultaneously still being himself. Agamben’s approach can be applied to the protagonist of the novel because he himself is reframing time and space and that would go against Western modernity. When the protagonist imagines himself as another person, he is breaking away from the fixed identity that society has categorize him in.
Another example of how society imposes fixed identities on us is when the boss of a radio show puts the protagonist in the category of a “villano de los radioteatros” (12), not allowing him to become anything else but that. He says that he is not good for anything else but being a villain, he explains that if he were to do a Coca-Cola commercial, he would break Coca-Cola sales. This holds true in many categories or identities set forth by society, and once one is labeled, it is very difficult or nearly impossible to change whether one embraces it or not. This is a clear example of how the world around us labels, categorizes, and sets socially constructed identities on us and if we try to break away, we are looked down upon. We are seen as rebelling or fighting against a system that we believe to be right about how we should function as a society. When we have been labeled to a point that it is even embedded into our minds, this barrier does not allow us to become other.
Another character from the novel that challenges fixed identities is Guadalupe Frejas. We learn about Guadalupe from the narrator who knew her and worked closely with her for many years. This is an important fact to note because we do not know for certain about how Frejas actually perceived herself, we know about her only through other interactions with people, including the narrator. Nonetheless, we soon learn about how the views of a person can really influence how we view or see ourselves. For example, once the narrator described Frejas by saying: “En el café de la esquina está Guadalupe Frejas, inmensa como una bola gigante de helado de fresa” (12). Here the importance of physical appearance is noted, the narrator himself follows victim of categorizing and labeling Frejas. This is observed all throughout today's society. Just because the protagonist was able to break his own barrier in imagining himself become other, it does not mean that he stopped attributing to categorizing other people.
Guadalupe Frejas challenges these fixed identities by imagining herself being other in her skits on the radio. This knowledge is obtained through the narrator. She can get the listeners to imagine her being other as well as the narrator. The narrator falls in love with her but only confesses his love to her when she is no longer physically present. Once again applying posthumanism, it is only here when in the world of the narrator's mind, he falls in love because he is finally able to imagine Frejas the way he wants to. But even when she was alive, she was able to get her listeners to believe she was truly another person. Her groupies –as Ochoa puts it– would go so far as to value Frejas because she sounded so beautiful through the radio as she portrayed other people. The narrator states, “Lo que me gusta es como puedes hacer una voz tan diferente en cada novela. Es tu voz, pero parece que cada vez la dice una persona distinta.” (Ochoa 18), again solidifying that even the narrator was convinced that Frejas was another person. Through this one characteristic, Frejas was able to transform out of her fixed identity, but at the same time, a single characteristic could change how everything else is perceived about oneself. This holds true in the character of Frejas because she can constantly change who she is through her voice. Therefore, she changes her physical appearance in the minds of her listeners and the narrator. In the same way, she can change the space in which she physically is in. She is challenging Western reasoning and going against socially constructed fixed identities set by society and by the narrator.
In “Nature's Queer Performativity” by Karen Barad, she argues her theory to explain why matter, space, and time are queer. She explains that in order to understand this notion, one must think about nature and how we are a part of it. Phrases such as acts against nature or crime against nature are ironic because they say that one performing an act is going against them very selves but how is this possible if one is part of nature? Becoming other in this space, would be classified by Western modernity as acts or crimes against nature. But in nature's queer performances –like lightning bolts, neuronal receptor cells in stingrays, a dinoflagellate animal plant life-form found in North American estuaries, atoms, and humans– she explains this theory of queer performativity and applies it to them. Karen Barad states that all these are acts of nature and that this preconceived notion of becoming other is otherwise just something that is made up in our society. In nature, there are no categories, there are no labels, and there is no one or no one thing looking down upon becoming other. With that being said, queerness is all around us, especially in nature. So, when the narrator decides to change his identity to become other or when Frejas decides it to do so, they are not doing anything wrong, in fact, they are challenging Western rigid reasoning by becoming other.
In “The Smooth and the Striated,” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue about the opposite nature of smooth and striated spaces. They provide various examples that serve to give a better understanding of the two spaces, while explaining their differences. The philosophers present a very simple example at first, they write about a quilt in which both a smooth and striated space co-exist. Just like the quilt, in the real world, both the work space and space controlled by the state co-exist. A very important point made is that both spaces are constantly being changed from one another. “And no sooner have we done that than we must remind ourselves that in fact the two spaces exist only in mixture: smooth spaces are constantly being translated, transverse into striated space: striated space is constantly being reversed, returned into a smooth space.” (Deleuze and Guattari 1). Now, with this in mind, the simple definition comes to light, a smooth space is the area in which a striated space exists; however, it is only the surface and has top and bottom limitations, similar to the surface of a quilt. Now the definition of a striated space is the fabric itself and how it intertwined with each other, it is said that at least one side needs to have an end in which the rest can go on for infinity. In this case as in the quilt, it would have an end (bottom/sides) but it could essentially go on for infinity. It is here where we note that both spaces do co-exist and are needed in order for these “spaces” to exist and define one another. This is applied to the novel through the understanding that society is the striated space in which the State imposes limitations, these limitations can be categories and labels. This defines fixed socially constructed identities that set limits on how we see ourselves, and most importantly, on how we see others. However, the smooth space also exists, it is the will power to be able to challenge this barrier of fixed identities and continuing to become other. This space has infinite possibilities, very much like the novel that challenges Western reasoning when the characters become other people through imagining themselves as others.
Similarly, in the world both spaces exist. Deleuze and Guattari make it clear that there are many other examples out there and that it is neither easy or difficult to explain or show the two kinds of spaces. Nevertheless, these spaces must co-exist, they are constantly changing from one another and we should not be comfortable or stay in place for a single space because of the constant change. “Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.” (Deleuze). The authors finish the passage with this message; it is very important and is great advice in which when critically thinking of the world and the place and space, it can shed light on what is really happening. We should not allow living in a striated space define us, but instead, we should challenge it and continue to become.
In the book A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the writers argue that we are always in the state of becoming. However, not all people are in that state of becoming. Deleuze and Guattari explain this by giving us an example of a child's imagination. Children use imagination to constantly change the space around and to change themselves, very much like what is presented in the article “El País de los Juguetes,” by Giorgio Agamben. But, do children truly grow up? Do we ever grow up? This is the state of constantly becoming, many people see it as a state only for children and they think it stops when we “grow up”. But if we are continually learning and growing and using our imagination as adults, do we ever stop becoming? Deleuze also writes about how perhaps we become once we die. The human mind is quite the same, many are limited in their thinking, they reach a wall and will never get past that. Others on the other hand, can open their minds, think far beyond and continue to become. This idea is also observed in Los Años Marchitos.
The “Choice Theory” by Sarah Gardner describes how gender is a social construct very much like all other identities made by society. Society defines what it means to be male or female. She argues that when a person is born into this world, there are already definitions and descriptions on how to be female or male. This holds true in all other aspects of identities imposed by society, but it is only individuals who can define themselves, not society. In other words, society has created this socially fixed identity constructs that do not allow us to deviate from them because if we do, we are looked down upon. In Los Años Marchitos, the characters challenge these identities by becoming others.
...migrantes challenge this notion of illegality by constantly becoming other.
In the article, “Who are the ‘Illegals’? The Social Construction of Illegality in the United States,” by Rene Flores and Ariela Schachter, the writers describe how illegality in the United States is a social construct. This type of illegality is observed throughout the US because traits like “occupation or national-origin may trigger illegality suspicions” (Flores and Schacter 839). This is true because along with physical appearance, clothes and culture can also have an effect on how migrants are perceived. When people migrate to the United States there are already descriptions about how a person is seen as an illegal. It does not matter if a person sharing the same characteristics as a migrant or a person who is a citizen are different because there is no fine line, they both would be considered illegal until proven legal not only in the eyes of society but the law as well. This is important because when migrants come to the U.S., they are limited in these identities, especially migrantes from Central America.
Migrants challenge this construct of illegality and the Western rigid reasoning when they move to transnational spaces and continue to be their very own while still assimilating to the world around them. This all comes down to how one views oneself and what one decides to convey to the rest of the world. It is important to note that society and –more importantly– peers have an effect on how we perceive ourselves and how we want to be perceived. So, in their space, home life, and in their society, migrantes challenge this notion of illegality by constantly becoming other. This holds also true in the breaking of the transnational barriers set forth by the State. Migrants are able to assimilate or adapt to their surroundings, thus changing how they are perceived and or looked at by society. At the same time, they change how they may view themselves in this space. Similar to Frejas in the novel, migrants also can change the minds of others about their physical appearance, with one characteristic: their voice. With a simple phone call back to their motherland, it can have an effect on how they are perceived. For the recipient of the phone call this person might still be their son, wearing the same clothes, the same haircut, the same stance, the same shoes in which they remember them. Thus, breaking the barriers of how the state perceives and categorizes a person. In the phone call, they are in two spaces at once and are constantly becoming.
This challenges the idea of socially fixed identities in the U.S. and in society all around us. It also challenges the idea that becoming is almost nonexistent. Most people are contempt with their lives and with the state of being the same, in the U.S. we see this through many examples. In politics, people choose to be democrat or republican and stay that for the rest of their lives. They base their decision on family history or because their mind is not able to wrap around becoming something else despite what their party believes in. Another example is seen in national identity, in the idea of defining oneself as being American, Mexican American, Guatemalan American, or from other nationalities that categorize us and that set individualistic fixed identities.
In the end, it is truly up to us who we define ourselves to be. It is not up to the State or society around us. We need to imagine ourselves as that child we once were, where we could imagine ourselves to be anything or do anything. If we are able to apply this concept to our daily lives, we could continue to become in all aspects. Perhaps categorizing, labeling, and stereotyping people could come to an end, and in the case of the migrantes, probably the dehumanization of our fellow human beings could end. We could live in a world where everyone is constantly becoming, we do not need a posthuman lens like the one in Los Años Marchitos to understand or apply this to our everyday lives. The novel along with all other theorists in this paper offer an important insight about becoming other, about challenging Western rigid reasonings and challenging fixed identities.
Agamben Giorgio, “El País de los Juguetes.” Infancia e Historia, El País de los Juguetes. Adriana Hidalgo, 2001.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801–831. Braidotti, Rosi. “The Posthuman.” PolityPress, 2013.
Flores, René D., and Ariela Schachter. “Who Are the ‘Illegals’? The Social Construction of Illegality in the United States.” American Sociological Review, vol. 83, no. 5, Oct. 2018, pp. 839-868, doi:10.1177/0003122418794635.
Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guatari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Gardner, Sarah. “Choice Theory: Gender Roles and Identity.” International Journal of Choice Theory & Reality Therapy, vol. 35, no. 1, Fall 2015, pp. 31–36. EBSCOhost, libproxy.csun.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN= 110445169&site=ehost-live.
Ochoa, Rafael Menjivar. “Los Años Marchitos: Coleccion Séptimo día.” Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1991.
Padilla, Yajaira M. "The Central American Transnational Imaginary: Defining the Transnational and Gendered Contours of Central American Immigrant Experience." Latino Studies, 2013, pp.150-66. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
Roque Baldovinos, Ricardo. "El derecho a la ficción". Niños de un planeta extraño. San Salvador: Editorial Universidad Don Bosco, 2012, pp. 151-155.
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