Professor Explores Gender Identity in Post-Conflict Societies
Erika Almenara was 12 when the violence of the Shining Path militant group moved beyond the Andean highlands to the capital city of Lima, Peru.
A bomb exploded near her father’s store and the family walked there at night to assess the damage. Almenara saw responders pulling body parts from the wreckage and loading them into police cars. One man carried a dismembered head.
Just as troubling was the culture of uncertainty that marked the next decade of her life, said Almenara, assistant professor of Latin American Literature and Culture for the World Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
“You couldn’t trust anybody,” she said. “Your neighbor could be watched by the State, or your neighbor could report you for possibly being affiliated with the Shining Path because you had a different way of thinking. You couldn’t go to a restaurant because you didn’t know if a bomb was going to explode. We felt very vulnerable.”
The Shining Path, also known as the Communist Party of Peru, began a revolution against Peru’s government in 1980 in an effort to replace it with communist rule. The conflict lasted until 1992, when the Shining Path’s leader was captured by government forces. During the same era, neighboring Chile lived under military dictatorship following the 1973 coup that ousted the socialist government of Salvador Allende. The dictatorship ruled until 1990.
Almenara studies the aftermath of human rights abuses in Peru and in Chile, particularly as they affect gender identity. She spent four weeks in Latin America in May and June, conducting research in Lima and Santiago de Chile.
Her work uses nonofficial narratives in the form of literature, performance and film to explore the consequences of societal violence on gender image and perception. She also is interested in the relationship between gender and politics.
In Peru, the escalating conflict between government forces and the Shining Path led to abuses on both sides of the struggle. Although the members of the Shining Path committed violent acts, government-appointed forces were not exempt from the carnage. They used gang rape as a weapon of aggression against indigenous Quechua-speaking women, for example. In Chile, the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet punished dissent with torture, disappearance and death.
The use of rape and torture as means of political intimidation underscores the vulnerability of the human body in a society shaped by violence, Almenara said. A generation born of trauma came of age with their perceptions of gender impacted by this vulnerability.
“What is the role of a woman, what is the role of a man, in these societies after these periods of violence in all their particularities?” she asks in her work.
Almenara uses the figure of the transvestite to develop a broader concept of transvestitism, an alternative political language for the ambiguous realm between two known entities. Transvestites in Latin American countries often embody two distinct personas – male by day and female by night, she said. “They live in a state of constant transformation.”
Almenara studies authors and film directors who use this type of transformation in their work. She is particularly interested in a way of writing in which the narrative voice has no gender, or an in-between gender impossible to categorize. The compositional style itself often mirrors this fluidity, with a plethora of adjectives, little or no punctuation and incorrect syntax.
“This is what I call the ‘transvestite narrative,’ because it works as a transvestite does,” she said. “There is no ‘self’ that you can apprehend. You don’t know if it’s a man or a woman speaking.”
Almenara applies this idea to nations struggling to redefine themselves after decades of state-sponsored violence.
“I think that in order to talk about these periods of violence, you cannot tell the stories from only the singular self,” she said. “These languages need to be both individual and common, distinctly individual yet somehow representative of many.
“By acting in a transvestite way, these narratives destroy the notion of the self. That’s a powerful and innovative way to talk about suffering, to talk about memory, to talk about violence.”
Almenara reaches across disciplinary boundaries in her search for answers. She interviews sociologists and philosophers as well as writers, performers and film directors. Authors she interviewed this summer include Alonso Cueto Caballero, Claudia Salazar Jimenez and José Carlos Aguero.
She also engages people in the streets. “I will get into a taxi and I will talk with the driver. I will talk with people I meet, because these are the people who experienced the violence on a daily basis. Just walking and looking at a river like the Mapocho in Chile, going to museums, helps me understand more. This narrative has so many pieces. The history of violence, it’s in everything.”
A particularly poignant conversation occurred after Almenara delivered a guest lecture at the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences in Santiago de Chile. A young woman, the daughter of former Shining Path militants, questioned the assignment of blame in Peru’s past.
“One of her questions was that everybody talks about how Peruvian society has to forgive the Shining Path for all the bombs and the violence. ‘But what about us, the children of these people, who were many times killed outside the law, by the government?’ she asked. Who needs to forgive whom?”
Another woman challenged Almenara’s right to tell the story on behalf of marginalized people. Being Peruvian helps allay the suspicion of cultural appropriation, but the question remains: Is she using the suffering of others to benefit her career?
“On the one hand, I don’t feel I am telling the stories of these people. I am merely drawing attention to the narratives that already exist, bringing them into the light,” Almenara said. “But, on the other hand, I have to recognize that I come from a privileged place to do all this research.
“So what do I do with this? I think I just have to concentrate on how the stories are told, and which stories I focus on bringing forward. For me, it comes down to the ones that have no visibility: those are the stories that I want to look at. To look for the most vulnerable subjects and speak – not ‘for’ – but with them so that they can start to be seen again.”