EsperanÃ§a Bielsa. The Latin American Urban CrÃ³nica: Between Literature and Mass Culture. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006. xv + 239 pp. $93.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-1375-2; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7391-1376-9.
Reviewed by Elda Stanco (Department of Modern Languages, Hollins University)
Published on H-Urban (March, 2007)
A Hybrid Literary Genre in a Hybrid Latin America
"Guayaquil is like those women who, covered in make up and perfume, wearing shiny dresses and standing on enormous heels are like gods from Olympus. But the hours go by and the make up smudges, sweat takes the place of scents and fragrances, wrinkles extinguish the spark of glamour. Appearances deceive, the masks fall and the other face of Guayaquil appears, the face that tourist postcards hide" (p. 133), writes Jorge Martillo, cronista (chronicler) of the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. If one wonders what Guayaquil or any major Latin American city is like today, an urban crónica is the text to read. The urban crónica is a convergence of popular culture and literature, an almost renegade and transgressive genre that does not fit neatly into high or low culture schemes. It is a uniquely Latin American hybrid genre, whose predecessors include the French fait divers and roman-feuilleton, the Spanish costumbrista sketch, and various historiographic traditions, such as the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Latin American crónicas de Indias.
The Latin American Urban Crónica: Between Literature and Mass Culture is Esperança Bielsa's examination of the history, development, and current cultural function of the distinctive urban crónica literary form. The text is an exceptional tool for any reader, providing a wealth of information for the non-specialist, and a sound review and analysis of chronicles and chronicle readership for the literary critic. Bielsa carries out a fine exploration of the urban crónica in seven chapters, which range from the high and low culture debates to individual analyses of crónicas appearing in the press of contemporary Guayaquil and Mexico City, and which conclude with a discussion of how crónica readership is distinguished today. The urban crónica in Latin America is a measure of transformations, of alternative dialogues, and of heterogeneity. As a cultural product, the urban crónica has a key position between high and low culture; thus it displays the fluidity necessary in Latin American hybrid cultures.
Chapter 1, entitled "High and Low: The Cultural Field in Europe and Latin America," starts with an examination of the sociological debate surrounding high and low culture. This assessment of the structure and characteristics of the modern cultural field in Europe is followed by a similar examination of the field in Latin America. However, Bielsa points out that the Latin American case is unique, since Latin America is the hybrid place par excellence. Since the crónica itself is a hybrid genre--standing between high (literary) and low (journalistic) culture--its maximum expression is in the hybrid Latin American zone. It is by understanding theories of cultural hybridity that the reader can expect to also gain an understanding of the crónica and its social and cultural milieu.
In "The Crónica: A Hybrid Genre from the Contact Zone," Bielsa emphasizes that the crónica is a "hybrid genre of the contact zone between high and low culture" (p. xv). This second chapter highlights the origin and development of the chronicle into what is considered its contemporary Latin American version. Bielsa traces nineteenth-century French genres to twentieth-century Latin American modernist chronicles in order to establish seven basic characteristics of today's urban crónicas. With the origins and nature established, the author then presents a historical account of chronicles, drawing on four writing formats that add to the definition of the contemporary urban crónica: historiography and crónicas de Indias, the costumbrista sketch, the crónica modernista, and New Journalism.
In order to tackle the contemporary urban Latin American chronicle, an examination of the city and urban life is necessary. Bielsa devotes sections of chapters 3 and 4, entitled "The City in Fragments" and "Writing the City," to this task. "The City in Fragments" explicates three trends in the urban crónica subject matter. Given that "it could be argued that the crónica, by virtue of its very form and structure, is a privileged medium through which the ephemeral, multifaceted and fragmented character of modern urban experience can best be represented" (p. 51), the first trend is the representation of modern urban life. The urban crónica becomes a live document through its plural registers of the cityscape and its people. Bielsa considers that a second trend stems from crónicas written in the 1970s and 1980s. The purpose of these chronicles was to "represent or give a voice to marginalized social groups and to document the emergence of collective social movements" (p. 53). Perhaps the most widespread trend that Bielsa documents is the urban crónica as product of and reaction to mass culture: "[the crónica] manifests a descriptive, but also an interpretative intention focused upon the everyday images that shape modern life, and in attempting to assess and understand their meaning is also reflecting upon itself, producing a self-interpretation" (p. 55).
Bielsa's chapter "Writing the City" details the role of the chronicler as an inhabitant of the gray area between literature and journalism. Many of the chroniclers Bielsa studies have at one point written literary fiction, and almost all of these chroniclers enjoy privileged positions in the journalistic field. Some chroniclers even participate frequently in radio and TV programs. The chronicler's position in society is flexible, and the author concludes that the task of the cronista may be "one of bringing the peripheral and the marginal into the center-stage, of offering a report from unofficial culture" (p. 105), that encourages the construction of a plural, everyday history of the city.
The scope of Bielsa's study is quite extensive, and the specific crónicas that she analyzes vary from the humorous to the socially conscious. A particular focus is given to the chronicles of Emiliano Pérez Cruz and Jorge Martillo. Pérez Cruz's work consists of book collections of testimonials on life in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, a peripheral community of Mexico City. These writings detail everyday life with dark, witty humor, reminding the reader of the comical yet biting Spanish picaresque tradition. For example, the central character in Pérez Cruz's Borracho no vale (Drunken Talk Doesn't Count) (1988), is an alcoholic whose adventures and misadventures reveal the thorny lives of the inhabitants of the shantytown of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl. In contrast to Pérez Cruz's vision of Mexico City, Bielsa looks at the crónicas of Ecuadorian Jorge Martillo in the following chapter. In his chronicles, Martillo adopts various dandy types who through their strolls in Guayaquil portray vignettes of city life and city types. These particular urban crónicas follow the Latin American modernismo tradition, and are filled with dark humor despite their delicate style. Besides the in-depth study of the works of Pérez Cruz and Martillo, Bielsa also devotes part of chapter 3 to a diverse sampler of present day, well-known chroniclers in Mexico City and Guayaquil. The seventh and final chapter is "Reading Crónicas," and it presents the viewpoint of the reader--or consumer--of urban crónicas. Perhaps here lies the only fault in the book: Bielsa sets out to capture the reception and cultural consumption of the chronicles she has studied, but only devotes a mere three pages to Pierre Bourdieu's sociological theories of taste and cultural consumption, and to their relationship with Hans Robert Jauss's literary hermeneutics. While representing a good launch for a final look at chronicles from our own perspectives as readers, a more in-depth account of the Bourdieu-Jauss link as applied to Latin American chronicles would be in order. It is a minor fault, however, and the author goes on to thoroughly describe the worlds of chronicle readers. Martin Barbero's scheme for reading the roman-feuilleton is applied to the Latin American urban crónica, revealing that crónicas are seductive, easily consumed texts that allow readers to engage their own world through a "sense of immediacy with a known urban reality which exists outside the text" (p. 161). Bielsa also incorporates the results from questionnaires and focus group discussions as empirical evidence of actual reading practices today.
Bielsa's book includes two appendices. The first appendix contains the complete unedited crónicas the author carefully and selectively analyzed in previous chapters, especially in chapter 3. The chronicles are first presented in the original Spanish, followed by the English translations. The second appendix is titled "Individual Profiles of Crónica Readers," and it is a brief yet quite representative collection of five profiles of the chronicle readers who participated in the reading practices studies of chapter 7. These profiles provide a fascinating look at who is reading the popular hybrid urban crónicas, why they are reading them and what they think about the crónicas.
Bielsa, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick, considers that the recent rise in critical studies on the crónica marks a renewed recognition of the genre in the context of wider cultural transformations. Given its in-between status, the urban crónica can expose the reader to news of everyday reality, or to permanent accounts of city characters and life. Bielsa's study is permeated with precisely this aide memoire: the crónica can be a plural discourse written in everyday language, it can be a sophisticated and lettered text, and it can be anything in-between these extremes. The Latin American urban crónica, according to Bielsa and other specialists in the field, is a crossroads, a contact zone that reveals the rich and diverse cultural traditions of Latin America, and, as Néstor García Canclini terms it, Latin America's multitemporal heterogeneity. Through the Latin American urban crónica the reader can understand that the gray zone between high and low culture is composed of constant crossings and borrowings, of heterogeneity and alternative dialogues that borrow from both sides, of overlaps that can be navigated once one understands the fluidity and hybridity of Latin America, its cities, and its cultural production.
. Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); Spanish edition: Culturas híbridas (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1990).
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Elda Stanco. Review of Bielsa, EsperanÃ§a, The Latin American Urban CrÃ³nica: Between Literature and Mass Culture.
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