Dialogue is a very powerful force. Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher, knew the power of dialogue when he described it as a tool for uncovering the truth. Discussions and debates lead us to change our beliefs and questioning our deeply held assumptions.
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In her novel Song of the Hummingbird, Limon provides the reader with an account of a dialogue that shows how discussion and narrative can be the source of hope for the powerless. In the novel, the main character’s ability to use a narrative form of the dominant culture and undermine it with her story shows how the structure of domination of one culture over the other can be disturbed through something as basic as a dialogue.
First, it is important to discuss the historical context that would explain the relationship of domination between the Spanish culture and the native Mexican civilization. As is known, the Spanish colonized most of the Central and South America almost immediately after Colombo’s discovery of the continent (Bakewell and Holler 104).
However, on the territory of today’s Mexico, they had a lot of trouble as the native populations organized to resist the aggression. In 1517, the territory of Mexico was first explored, and then in 1519, it was brutally conquered by the Spanish forces (Bakewell and Holler 104).
The church played an enormous role in these conquests primarily because the Spanish had realized that they could control the native population far more easily if it conformed to their culture and ideology.
Moreover, some historians believe that churches had an additional function apart from the functions generally associated with churches. Namely, based on the architecture of many churches in Mexico that were built around the time of the conquest, many historians argue that these churches also served as shelters or fortresses for the Spanish ruling elite in cases when a popular uprising would take place (Bakewell and Holler 289).
In sum, the Catholic Church was at the forefront of both the ideological and military conquest. In this sense, the fact that Huitzitzilan is conversing with Father Benito, a representative of the Catholic Church makes it very interesting to examine their dialogue as a symbolic representation of the relationship between the two cultures that are taking place in the context of military domination.
Before diving into the actual argument, it is necessary to point out that its implications go directly against one of the major currents in theoretical approaches to the relationships of cultures in hierarchical systems of power. In 1988, Gayatri Spivak published her extremely influential essay called “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
In that essay, her main thesis is that global hierarchical systems are such that cultures that dominate other cultures economically and militarily build their institutions in such a way as to prevent the oppressed groups from entering them and undermining them. These institutions include religion, academia, politics, etc. Those who are not allowed to participate are called the “subaltern” in Spivak’s terminology.
Precisely because those institutions are built with the purpose of excluding the oppressed, the oppressed simply cannot “speak” as her metaphor suggests. In other words, the culture of power is both blind and deaf to the existence of the oppressed. Spivak (104) writes, “The subaltern cannot speak.
There is no virtue in global laundry lists with “woman” as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish”. What this entails is that while the oppressed cannot penetrate the institutions of power, they can, in a way, be represented by radical intellectuals who mediate between the hegemonic power and the oppressed individuals.
In the novel Song of the Hummingbird, Huitzitzilin’s discussion with the priest has a rather interesting dynamic. It is certainly not true that she is unable to communicate with him. Quite to the contrary, she makes a powerful impression on him. Hsu et al. (42) argue that her success in delivering her message is in that she engages in a traditional Western genre and undermines it.
Namely, Huitzitzilin starts her story as a confession, namely one of the canonical narrative genres in the Western culture, but then the content of her narrative begins to undermine not just the narrative framework but also the very tenets of an ideology that upholds that culture. From the start, Father Benito is aware that Huitzitzilin is not interested in a formal confession, but rather has a special agenda that she wants to fulfill.
In the process, she manages to tackle some of the central philosophical dogmas of Christianity and the situations and moral choices from her life seem to go directly against the doctrine. For example, when the priest is appalled by her description of the dance she performed for her husband before the marriage, she instantly attacks the idea that there might have been something immoral in the act. She says, “how foolish you all are!
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It was only a dance, I tell you. Nothing more, nothing less. It had nothing to do with your wicked Satan.” (Limon 49). It is interesting how she refers to Satan as “his” immediately distancing herself from the idea. More importantly, even, she provides a compelling argument against the categorical stance of the Catholic Church against abortion.
When discussing her own decision to ask a witch to help her to remove her baby, she argues that she did so to save her own life. She says, “I would have been killed if he had discovered it…
He would have had my heart cut out for deceiving him with another man. So you see it was the life of the unborn child or mine…. I would do it again because it meant my life” (Limon, 31). Even the father’s intuition forces him to question his assumption about the universally immoral nature of abortion.
The fact that Huitzitzilin makes a powerful impression on the father of the church community, in general, is confirmed by the reaction of other clergymen to Father Benito’s mention of their discussion. Anselmo, one of the other priests in Mexico, responds to Benito’s dilemmas about Huitzitzilin’s narrative in the following way, “Father, please! Never, never repeat that to anyone, even if you do believe it!” (Limon 58).
This response clearly illustrates the seismic effect that a narrative as powerful as the one offered by Huitzitzilin can have on an official ideology or religion. Finally, in a symbolic triumph of this powerful woman, Father Benito decides to include the insights about the native culture that he gained from Huitzitzilin into an official history thereby reshaping the Western lore under her influence.
When thinking about the relationship between the argument that Limon seems to be making and the claim by Spivak that the oppressed nations cannot communicate their grievances to the powerful, one can perhaps think that they are not completely hostile to one another. As Limon is a literary and cultural critic herself and the famous essay by Spivak was published years before the novel Songs of Hummingbird, Limon was familiar with Spivak’s argument.
What one can do to reconcile the argument that emerges from Limon’s novel and the one offered by Spivak is to stipulate that Limon wanted to present Huitzitzilin as a kind of proto-intellectual who knew how to communicate with power.
If one interprets Spivak’s essay in a way that allows for a looser definition of an intellectual that would include any person able to use the main narrative genres of the dominant culture and to undermine and broaden them to accommodate for voices of the oppressed, then one can argue that Huitzitzilin certainly meets all the criteria for an intellectual in that sense.
Indeed, there is no reason to opt for a formal definition of an intellectual as a professor or a scientist about Spivak’s essay. Rather, one can only think of a person who is close enough to centers of power so that they can learn to communicate to them.
Huitzitzilin was certainly such a person as she was a concubine of one Spanish master. Therefore, it might well be the case that Limon simply wanted to explore the foundations of the theory offered by Spivak and to undermine the formal definition of an intellectual with this broader notion that would correspond to something like a mediator.
In conclusion, the novel Song of Hummingbird provides a powerful account of the relationship between the Spanish and Aztec cultures. It shows how a powerful woman can use the discourse of a dominant culture to undermine its ideology and give voice to her people.
This view might seem contrary to the idea that oppressed nations are not able to “speak” to power. However, if we understand Huitzitzilin as a mediator, someone who knows how to communicate in and undermine the discourse practices of the dominant culture, we can see her as a proto-intellectual or a person who can represent the powerless and give them a voice.
Bakewell, P. J., and Jacqueline Zuzann Holler. A history of Latin America to 1825. 3rd ed. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.
Hsu, Ruth, Cynthia G. Franklin, and Suzanne Kosanke. Re-placing America: conversations and contestations : selected essays. Honolulu: College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature, University of Hawaiʻi and the East-West Center ;, 2000. Print.
Limón, Graciela. Song of the hummingbird. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1996. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1988. N. pag. Print.