The Latin American Family and Community: Depictions and Representations (2014)

Moderator:      Mark L. Grover, Brigham Young University, retired
Rapporteur:     Gabriella Reznowski – Washington State University

Doug Weatherford, Brigham Young University
Populating the Margins: The Struggles of Families and Communities in The Milk of Sorrow by Claudia Llosa

Rex Nielson, Brigham Young University
Socially Rooted Authoritarianism in Lygia Fagundes Telles’ As Meninas

The panel is introduced by Mark L. Grover who provides some historical information on Brigham Young University and the Harold B. Lee Library.

Doug Weatherford, Associate Professor of Spanish at Brigham Young University, is working on a monograph related to Juan Rulfo and teaches Spanish literature and film classes at Brigham Young University. Weatherford begins by discussing the rich history of Latin American film and explains that many film industries have struggled in recent times. Despite this, a new generation of Peruvian filmmakers has emerged to contribute to a national film culture for the country.

The filmmaker that Doug Weatherford will focus on for his presentation is Claudia Llosa, who is the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa. She has produced several multinational productions, including Madeinusa (2006) and Aloft (2014). Her 2009 film, La Teta Asustada (translated as The Milk of Sorrow) was the first Peruvian film to be nominated for an academy award in 2010.

The title for the film was inspired by Harvard Anthropology professor Kimberley Theidon’s 2004 collected work of essays, Entre Projimos. In her work, Theidon explores the Andean concept of “la teta asustada” which relates to the belief that a child can inherit trauma through their mother’s breast milk, even passing it on to subsequent generations.

The film opens with a dark, silent screen which is broken by the sound of an elderly woman, Perpetua, singing in Quechua. Her song chronicles the trauma she faced when her husband was murdered and she was raped by soldiers during the war. The protagonist of the film and Perpetua’s daughter, Fausta, is an introverted, timid young lady who cares for her mother during her final days and is given the task of planning her burial. As Doug Weatherford continues his presentation, film clips demonstrate the destitution of the suburbs on the outskirts of Lima and the juxtaposition of the urban with the traditional.

As Weatherford explains, the director references Andean themes and motifs, as the protagonists are in fact in the middle of an impoverished urban world as Llosa explores the rough landscapes they inhabit. Weatherford explains that the director begs the question, “Is reconciliation and recovery is possible in these marginalized spaces?”  Through the characters who live in “Los Pueblos Jovenes” surrounding Lima, many of whom are indigenous, female, and impoverished, Llosa explores the literal and figurative marginalization experienced by many Peruvians.  At the same time, the director suggests that in spite of the economic duress suffered by inhabitants of these towns, vitality, beauty, and hope can persist within these harsh environments. Among the themes explored through the film clips, Weatherford illustrates the repeated motif of “circles” and the family as refuge, the bond of attachment, the adaptation of cultures, cultural hybridity, the commercialization of the rural as demonstrated in the wedding scenes, and ritual and celebration as a living cultural archive.

“Margins” are of interest to Llosa, who through her cinematography places Fausta in the margins of Peruvian society, as well as in the margins of her own inhabited environments. Weatherford illustrates this through a series of still-images taken from the film to show Fausta’s disembodiment from society and the internalization of her suffering. Unfinished buildings, and stairs to nowhere in the rough suburban landscape symbolize the hardships faced, both figuratively and literally, by the residents of the Pueblos Jovenes.

As Weatherford explains, Llosa’s presentation of the story is not deterministic, pessimistic, or fatalistic. There always exists the possibility of hope, redemption, and renewal.

Weatherford is followed by Rex Nielson, Assistant Professor of Portuguese at Brigham Young University. Nielson focuses on Lygia Fagundes Telles’ work  As Meninas. The work is as an example of the intellectual tradition in Brazil to fuse literary and aesthetic concerns with Brazil’s social and political realities. Fagundes Telles’ work was published in 1973 during the Brazilian military dictatorship of repression and torture that lasted from 1964 to 1985.

As background for the book, Nielson explains that since 1916, Brazil had been governed by an old civil code. In August 2001, the Brazilian National Congress voted to abolish the old code in favor of a new code that employs gender-neutral language and places husband and wife as equal partners.  Despite the adoption of a new civil code, researchers, including Oxford University Political Scientist, Timothy J. Power, have pointed to a “lingering conservatism” inherent in Brazilian society through deep-seated moral attitudes, suggesting that the old civil code is still entrenched in a political and legal culture entrenched in economies of power, authority, and obedience.

Nielson explains that Brazilian patriarchal family values have their root in the colonial family structure and plantation-based economy where the “senhor de engenho”, or plantation master acted as a disciplinary instrument, not only governing family members, but also a broad network of plantation affiliates, including slaves, mistresses, and illegitimate children. As a result of urbanization and industrialization, family oligarchies began to lose power in early 20th century Brazil. By 1945, some had declared the family as no longer important as a political force.  Despite this, patriarchal constructs of power, authority, and obedience persist and continue to impact Brazilian culture.  Family values and bonds in-line with obedience and conformity were clung to as Brazil struggled to find its identity. In the 1930s, president Getulio Vargas rose to power, leading Brazil for 18 years. Vargas relied heavily on the rhetoric of the family, portraying himself in a fatherly role as the head of Brazil, as he governed the entire country as his family. Ten years after Vargas, the military dictatorship of 1964 invoked patriarchal power to establish its authority, casting dissidents as prodigals through injustice, torture and exile.

Set in the 1960s, As Meninas explores the lives of three young women who are affected by the culture of patriarchy that continued in Brazil during the period of the dictatorship. Through her work, Fagundes Telles explores the family as social group, but also as a system of complex social networks, where people might share proximity but remain emotionally and psychologically isolated.  While fathers are not prominent in the novel, patriarchal shadows lurk in the lives of the three protagonists, Lorena, Lia, and Ana Clara. As Nielson explains, the work is a literary response to Brazil’s systems of patriarchal hierarchy, both as a product of it and as a reaction to it. Even so, the novel avoids explicit critiques of the government.  During this period, authors were careful to avoid reprieve by the government, and the media, in fact, self-censors to conform to government standards. The oppressive effects of long-term media censorship created a cultural void, a gap that literary writers attempted to alleviate as they engaged in social and political criticism through their works. Nielson highlights As Meninas as a form of resistance, highlighting the importance of women’s roles, agency, personal dreams and desires, explaining that the text is the most important work of its time that stands as a challenge to the existing dictatorship.

Rex Nielson asks a question of Doug Weatherford. Nielson’s presentation examined the family in Brazil as an undemocratic institution, while Weatherford’s presentation highlights the family as a source for hope and the future. Weatherford explains that the family is in fact seen as a space of refuge in La Teta Asustada where the extended family protects an individual who has inherited trauma from her mother.


Angela Kinney (Library of Congress) asked Doug Weatherford (BYU) to elaborate on the relationship between the protagonist, Fausta, and the woman she works for, Aida. Aida represents the continuation of the abuse of power that began with the arrival of the Spaniards. Aida exerts economic control over Fausta by granting her one pearl from her necklace for every song she sings in Quechua, echoing the conquest by the Spanish explorers who traded beads for items of value.

Julio Marchena of Libros Peruanos asks both Doug Weatherford and Rex Nielson about the notion of reconciliation in the context of the wars and terrorism in the 1980s. Rex Nielson explains that the film The Year My Parents went on Vacation, explores the tension between the desire to remember and the desire to forget. Nielson also highlights Symphony in White as an example of a Brazilian work that explores “deep forgetting”, or forgetfulness as a form of healing. Weatherford explains that La Teta Asustada does not force any one reading and remains apolitical by focusing on the suffering of the protagonists verses the people who bear responsibility for their suffering.