Differential Consciousness
in Despues del Terremoto

by Rosa Linda Fregoso

This article was originally published as part of "Nepantla in Gendered Subjectivity" in Bronze Screen, by Rosa Linda Fregoso. Despues del Terremoto (After the Earthquake) (1979), by Lourdes Portillo and Nina Serrano, begins with an angular, stationary shot of a modest bedroom dresser. A woman enters the room, opens a drawer, and reaches for a book entitled Vida Sexual Prematrimonial (Premarital sexual life). Clearly a self-help book for the "modern" single Latina, stored between its pages is a stack of dollar bills, which the woman takes from the book and places in her wallet. Dressed in the attire of a domestic housekeeper, Irene (Vilma Coronado) leaves the workplace for the streets of San Francisco to purchase a television set with her savings. This establishing sequence initiates the slippage of desires that thematize the narrative. A Latina's emancipation, signified by the book about sex before marriage, visually coheres with her desire for the ideologically charged commodity, the television. As the narrative unfolds, this young Latina immigrant overinvests in the value of the television set.

Influenced by the Third World internationalist spirit of Bay Area Chicano/Latino artists and activists, Lourdes Portillo and Nina Serrano made this film about a Nicaraguan woman who migrates to San Francisco after the Nicaraguan earthquake of 1976. (10) The filmmakers decided to make a different kind of film, one that was less straightforward, didactic, and programmatic -- a film that thematized the liberation of a Latina immigrant in the United States, shifting toward the attitude of "differential consciousness'' that Chela Sandoval speaks of. (11) Despues del Terremoto indeed enacts the "unique form of U.S. Third World feminism, active over the past thirty years.’’ (l2)

Despite its black-and-white format, the film's inordinate concern with detail colorfully visualizes the interstices of Latino culture in dominant U.S. culture. Not only does the film position Latino (Nicaraguan) immigrants as central subjects of narrative discourse, but figuring similarities in language, religion, and ritual Despues del Terremoto poignantly provides viewers with generalizable insights about Latinos and Latinas, and the transactions between two cultural systems, namely, U.S. and Latino cultures.

Although initially it appears that Despues del Terremoto stages the theme of gender politics in male/female binarism, its emphasis on the multiplicity of female subjectivity refreshingly undermines this simple opposition. As we have seen from my description of the establishing sequence, the film's politics are complicated by the tension between two forms of independence: sexual freedom and freedom to consume. The film's subversion of male/female binarism derives from Irene's embodiment of a "differential consciousness.'' As Sandoval explains it:

    U.S. Third World feminists . . . have long understood that one's race, culture, or class often denies comfortable or easy access to either [male/female] category, that the interactions between social categories produce other genders within the social hierarchy. (13)

The theme of gender conflict is represented in terms of the tension between male and female discourses, that is to say, between formal politics (the idea of oppression as framed by the discourse of anti-imperialism) and an informal politics (the actual experience of oppression in the daily life of a woman). Indeed, the richness of the film stems from its refusal of binary categories and ideologies, illustrating well the "praxis of U.S. Third World feminism." Sandoval points out that

    “what U.S. Third World feminism demands is a new subjectivity, a political revision that denies any one ideology as the final answer, while instead positing a tactical subjectivity with the capacity to recenter depending upon the kinds of oppression to be confronted.” (14

Irene's "tactical subjectivity" pivots on the way in which Portillo and Serrano choreograph her desires within the tension between internal and external spaces, the domestic sphere of traditional "Latino" culture and the public sphere of production. Irene is a woman who works outside the home, a woman who moves between cultures, languages, the public and the private, possessing the ability to act on multiple levels. In this respect, Irene is a prime candidate for the "kinetic and self-conscious mobility" that according to Sandoval "is utilized by U.S. Third World feminists as they identify oppositional subject positions and enact them differentially.’’ (15) More important, the film depicts a range of women in various domestic situations, thus drawing attention to the fact that Latina subjectivity is informed by a range of discourses. Spectator identification with the multiplicity of Latina identities derives from the film's meticulous imaging of cultural motifs, particularly in the domestic sphere's emphasis on ritual as a mechanism of both repression and female bonding.

The narrative action in this short twenty-four minute film takes place mainly within interior spaces. The tension between antagonistic cultural systems is captured in the spatial contrast the film sets up between younger and older generations of Latinas, as seen in three key sequential scenes. Irene anxiously anticipates an encounter with her boyfriend, who has just arrived from Nicaragua where he was imprisoned and tortured by the Somoza regime for political activism. In the first scene, Irene and her friend, Maria Amanda, are visualized in the bedroom -- the site of consummation for libidinal desires. Within this sexually charged space the younger women begin a conversation about Irene's impending meeting with her boyfriend as well as the possibility of marriage. The bed and the dresser mirror function as focal points for character action Their conversation explores poverty in Nicaragua and the impact of the earthquake on relatives, then feelings of alienation in the United States and women's autonomy as wage earners, and finally culminates in their discussion of the likelihood of marriage for Irene. The visual emphasis at this point comes to rest on a dual framing of Irene's image. While the conversation is taking place, the fractured image of Irene's backside on the screen and her mirror reflection as she is brushing her hair accentuates the extent to which internal conflicts occupy the character's thoughts. A voice calling Irene from offscreen interrupts the tension.

Walking toward the kitchen space, Irene observes one of her aunts praying to Saint Anthony for a husband for Irene. The aunt places Saint Anthony in an upside-down position on the home altar -- a religious practice designed to ensure that the saint will grant the request. When the aunt leaves, Irene returns Saint Anthony to his upright position. She returns to the bedroom but not before glancing at the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Irene's facial expressions disclose an uncertainty about her relation to religious rituals and icons. Entering the bedroom again, Irene asks her friend, "¿Que piensas de la Virgen?" ("What do you think about the Virgin?"). Her friend responds, "Nada interesante, la verdad" ("The truth is, nothing interesting"). The details in this scene illuminate the range of cultural conflicts that Irene is struggling with. In contrast to Maria Amanda, Irene exhibits an ambiguity toward religious and cultural traditions. Yet, rather than rejecting cultural tradition and ritual wholeheartedly, Irene undermines their effects. Turning the saint to its upright position captures the character's ambiguous relation, not just toward the aunt's desire for a husband for her, but also in terms of her belief in the miracle of saints. For if she simply rejected cultural ritual as superstitious, Irene would not have intervened or altered her aunt's action.

The filmmakers locate the more traditional desires in the domestic space of the kitchen. In contrast to the libidinal bedroom, the kitchen represents the familial domestic space where older women are confined to the ritual of making tamales. As in the bedroom, the kitchen conversation centers on gender and politics, but in this case "las tias solteronas" or spinster aunts project their desires for marriage onto Irene. In marked contrast to the bedroom, visual imagery is more static. The frontal, stationary shots of the aunts sitting at the kitchen table connote cultural tradition, particularly because the conversation revolves around the institution of marriage. However, even this contained kitchen space is fraught with an ambiguous tension. While they are making tamales, one of the aunts resorts to a refrain in Spanish: ''No se vaya a quedar a vestir santos" (literally, "she should not end up dressing saints") -- commonly used to reference nuns and spinsters who, in the absence of conjugal relationship, give their services to the Catholic church. In a second breath, an aunt responds with another common refrain, "Mas vale vestir santos que borrachos" ("better to dress saints than drunks"). However subtle, this self-reflexive response demystifies the institution of marriage, directing our attention to its subjugating underside. Thus inflecting proverbs with Catholicism unmasks a contradiction, by upholding traditional patriarchal values and then subverting the discourse that prescribes women's position in marriage. The ritual of tamale-making opens up a space within the familial kitchen for both containment and subversion.

The liminal division between two generations of Latinas located in two distinct spaces thus accentuates difference within female subjectivity. The film attends to the task of negotiating between cultural systems by focusing on differences in linguistic use across generations. Spanish-language use predominates in these sequences, punctuated by moments of "code-switching" between English and Spanish, but a third space depicts two younger Latinas who speak only English. In this scene the two Latinas cannot communicate with Irene's boyfriend because they ask him questions in English, yet he only speaks and understands Spanish. Insofar as Despues del Terremoto depicts a range of Latina characters (young Latinas who are completely inside a U.S. cultural system; elderly tias who are inside Latino culture; and Irene, who occupies the intermediary position), the film undermines spectator notions of a singular Latina identity and subjectivity. Irene's position within these multiple narrative spaces directs our attention to the subject's production of her own identity in the world.

Resisting patriarchal discourse and tradition requires a conscious act of defiance and agency. Although it is clear that Irene is subjected to oppressive cultural and religious discourses, she also performs a significant action that turns out to have a transforming effect. Irene's situation is fraught with tensions; straddling the border, as Sonia Saldivar-Hull reminds us, means negotiating two, often antagonistic, cultural systems. (l6) In Despues del Terremoto, two events in particular suggest the complexity of negotiating between two cultural systems: the cumpleaños and the purchase of the television.

The climactic scene of the grandmother's cumpleaños (birthday party) articulates the tension between cultures, genders, political ideology, cultural tradition. The strands of the narrative converge here because the cumpleaños ritual operates as the culminating scene for making sense of the previous character actions: Irene and Maria Amanda dressing up for this event, las tías making tamales for the party, Irene's impending meeting with Roberto. Different genders, generations, ideological positions are depicted in one scene, dancing, eating, and celebrating the birthday of the matriarchal elderly Latina. The significance of the cumpleaños transcends its literal level, for the ritual-performance serves as the pretext for the articulation of more fundamental discursive positions.

The scene culminates when Roberto, who has just returned from Nicaragua, is asked to show his slides of the aftermath of the earthquake. In the first series of slides, Roberto provides general information about the earthquake, its effects on people, the casualties, the devastation of homes and schools, and so on. Roberto's tone and demeanor change from a neutral account of the events to a more political analysis of the corruption of the dictator Somoza and the repression of political activists. As we learn, he was imprisoned for stealing food from the government and giving it to the poor. As Roberto voices condemnation of U.S. support for the dictatorship, one of the tamale-making tias intervenes. As she stands up before Roberto, the slide show is transposed from the makeshift screen to her white apron, projecting images of Nicaragua onto her body. She says, "Stop this slide show. I don't want to hear anymore."

A film decidedly sympathetic to anti-imperialist struggles, Despues del Terremoto opts for depicting conflict and divisions within the Nicaraguan immigrant community. As this pivotal moment of the film demonstrates, peoples from the diaspora, displaced and uprooted from their homeland, are affected individually in variable ways. An elderly woman's daily life ("I'm afraid," she adds) forces her to be conservative and cautious in a foreign context, whereas a recently arrived younger man is more inclined to engage in revolutionary political activism. This didactic moment in the film masks a more complex strategy, however, namely to envision the extent to which a formalized political discourse elides the question of gender.

As Irene and Roberto leave the party, walking outdoors, she broaches her uncertainty about marriage by bringing up the subject of the purchase of a television set. In order to understand broader implications of this event, and the conflicts between these individuals, it is important to examine Roberto's positioning in the film His resistance to Irene's desire stems from two sites: his location in traditional Latino culture and his position as the subject of a formalized discourse of radical politics. From the perspective of Third World internationalism, especially during this period, the problem c f cultural imperialism transverses the television. Given the widespread dissemination of U.S. programming in Latin America, "Third World" internationalism defined the TV as the icon of U.S. imperialism As media critics often indicate, the world comes to know and to desire the United States primarily through the international marketing and distribution of U.S. advertising and television programs. (17)

In Latin America, then, the television represents U.S. cultural imperialism. Within the United States, though, the television is known historically for assimilating and acculturating immigrant communities. Domestically, the television functions instrumentally, instilling American values, homogenizing audiences, organizing viewers as markets for the culture of consumption. What television programming and advertising do most efficiently is to inculcate immigrant communities with the ethic and logic of consumerism as a route to becoming "American." For many lower-income workers, earning enough wages to purchase a television registers their successful incorporation into U.S. culture as consumers. Because success or "making it" in this country is measured by consumption, access to television discourse symbolically marks the effective incorporation of immigrants in the naturalized and commodified world of consumerism offered by television.

For an informed political activist like Roberto, the television signifies the primary mechanism in the reproduction of capitalist propaganda, securing passivity and conformity among viewers. From this politically informed ideology Roberto reacts negatively to Irene's purchase of a television set. Yet the television's embodiment of the illusion of freedom through commodities magnifies the form of complex transactions between two cultural systems. Earlier I noted the contradictory location, the slippage of desires between sexual freedom and freedom to consume, embodied in the television. The filmmakers brilliantly use the television, transforming it into an icon of gender conflict. In the logic of the film's narrative the television appears as a polymorphous object, signifying something else for the main subject. Irene transforms the television into the emblem of her independence and autonomy. She strategically invokes the television purchase as a way to mark her distance from Roberto, displaying that she is well aware of its multiple significations:

    Irene: I bought a television set.

    Roberto: How much did it cost you?

    Irene: Four hundred dollars.

    Roberto: That's enough money to feed two families for one year in Nicaragua!

    Irene: I live in the U S.

It is precisely this contradictory subject who draws attention to what Norma Alarcón terms the preference for "multiple-voiced subjectivity.’’ (18) Despues del Terremoto assigns multiple discursive registers to the female subject's quest for her identity as a woman, enacting a "politics of identity that is flexible enough to encompass the ironies and contradiction of the modern world system.’’ (19) This is what Chela Sandoval identifies as U.S. Third World feminism's "differential consciousness":

    Differential consciousness requires grace, flexibility, and strength: enough strength to confidently commit to a well-defined structure of identity for one hour, day, week, month, year; enough flexibility to self-consciously transform that identity according to the requisites of another oppositional ideological tactic if readings of power formation require it; enough grace to recognize alliance with others committed to egalitarian social relations of race, gender, and class justice, when readings of power call for alternative oppositional stands. (20)

Living in the United States, Irene operates in the public sphere, working as a domestic housekeeper, as a wage earner within an advanced capitalist economy. Her other option is clear: her marriage to Roberto may very well signal her dependency as a wife within traditional Latino culture. However uncomfortably, the filmmakers raise the question of gender politics from a Latina's position in the dynamics between two cultural systems, visualizing the informal discourse of a counterpoised consciousness resulting from a woman's daily-lived experience of oppression. Despues del Terremoto visualizes a woman who is aware of the sexual, gender, and cultural structures that formed her and who has made a decisive and deliberate break with those structures.

By giving narrative voice to a contradictory Latina subject, Portillo and Serrano image the process that recognizes that knowledge of Latina subjectivity, as Norma Alarcón indicates, "cannot be arrived at through a single discursive register.’’ (21) Formally refusing to tie up the fiction's threads, to achieve narrative closure, opting instead for the ending with the intertitle, "y empezó así . . . " ("and so it began . . ."), filmmakers Portillo and Serrano open a critical space for the viewer to weave his or her own ending to this ongoing struggle of gender politics. Roberto, the masculinist proponent of revolutionary ideology, and Irene, the corporeal image of a budding feminist counterdiscourse, decide to discuss their conflicts over "un cafecito."