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Evolution of Genres in Latin American Literature: The Birth of the Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative)

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Coral A. Walker

April 15, 2011


Webpaper #3


Evolution of Genres in Latin American Literature:

The Birth of the Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative)


Genres in literature are the result of changes in the social and political spectrum; literature is a form of discourse used to reorder the social instability — and a new genre is the product of this literary discourses. Literature is often used as a way to naturalize political ideology, and it is often “produced by members of the dominant classes in society who tend to represent and naturalize differences as it is seen from their social and cultural position” (Gugelberger & Kearney 1991, 3). Latin American history is characterized by turmoil, exploitation and political/social instability. Indigenous and peasant groups in Latin America have suffered the worst mistreatment, being exploited, harmed, and even eliminated by colonization, political regimes, neoliberalism, etc. During the era of colonization most authors wrote from a skewed perspective that only represented the superior class, while subaltern people (indigenous groups, peasants, etc.) were left unable to represent themselves through most literature. Through this exclusive form of literature the status quo was maintained, and enforced. This literature constructs a discourse which allows for distinguishing between the colonized (subaltern people) and the colonizer (superior classes). During these eras there was a lot of social and political violent repression both from the dominant class as well as the repressive regimes.  

               In the recent decades there has been a new immergence in Latin American literature, testimonial literature, or the testimonio. Testimonial literature is “an authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of a situation (e.g., war, oppression, revolution, etc.). Emphasizing popular oral discourse, the witness portrays his or her own experience as a representative of a collective memory and identity. Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation of exploitation and oppression or exorcising and setting aright official history” (Yúdice 1985).  This literature emerged as a backlash to the mainstream Latin American literature, it was a way to write back and correct the mainstream literature. These narratives dipher from a biography or autobiography, because in most cases the author interviews an individual from a subaltern group, transcribing it to tell the accounts in a first person format, giving the reader the sense the individual is recounting the story orally. In some ways this form of narrative is similar to an ethnographic work, but it emerges from a need to create social awareness and consciousness to marginalized groups and the exploitations they face. This narrative is an attempt to create a “global reordering of a social and economic context of power/differences within which “literature” is produced and consumed” (Gugelberger & Kearney 1991, 6). It is an attempt to restructure and challenge mainstream literature, and adding the real perspective and discourse of the “other”, marginalized groups, and create a consciousness of their existence and importance in the greater society.  By challenging the mainstream canon it affected the concept of “natural” and accepted status quo, not only in the country produced but in gather global attention allowing the question of the exploitation and marginalization of subaltern groups.

The first testimonial narrative emerged in 1966 by the Cuban Miguel Barnet, Biografía de un Cimarron (Biography of a Runaway Slave), it told the story of, Esteban Montejo, a Cuban man of African descent and his hardships as a slave, a fugitive slave and a soldier during the Cuban War for Independence. This narrative worked to tell the story of an individual belonging to a marginalized group, while others work as an even greater social call to criticize and publicize the wrong doings of a social class or political movement. A popular example is I, Rigoberta Menchu edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, this testimony is the story of a young Guatemalan Quiche Indian woman and the tragic experiences Indian communities in Latin America, dealing with military oppression, moral endurance and the struggle for justice. This testimonial narrative caught so much global interest that Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, for her efforts to end oppression of the indigenous people in Guatemala. The first few sentences of the narrative simply sum up the purpose of the testimonial narrative and it takes into account that a testimony can encompass more than just the story of one individual, but rather it is the story of a marginalized group. Menchú says: “This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone. I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people… The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: my story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people” (1984, 1). She verbalizes the meaning of a testimonial narrative, it is to tell the story of a marginalized group, and call for awareness and global consciousness of the oppression and violence committed to these groups.

During the eras after dictatorial regimes there has been a different emergence of testimonial like narratives, these involve a form of fictional narrative. This form of literature works to denounce the repression during the regimes, and use a fictional narrative to captivate a greater audience and possibly to protect the author’s personal safety. Many of the Latin American authors that wrote within this genre wrote from exile. Some authors and novels include Mario Vargas Llosa, who wrote The Feast of the Goat (2000) about Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in Dominican Republic, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende who wrote The House of Spirits (1982) about Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez who wrote Cien Años de Soledad, an endless narrative of a fictional town in Latin America called Macondo that endures all forms of unconceivable events in the spectrum of a hundred years, many of these events can be interpreted to represent events of oppression and exploitation in most Latin American countries, and the list is endless.  

Literature goes through an evolutionary process and in Latin American literature has taken a turn towards the testimonial narrative. The testimonial narrative was a mutation in literature as a means to adapt to the social and political situation of Latin America at the time. The birth of the testimonial narrative as a genre was the least bit random, it was inevitable, it was bound to happen, especially within the context of Latin America an area that has faced and continued to face all forms of repression from the time of colonization, to dictatorial regimes, and the new emergent neoliberal movements. The testimonial narrative within itself has evolved from being the narrative a single individual telling the story of a marginalized group, to a fictional narrative that denounces the social situation for the indigenous, the peasants and other exploited classes. These narratives function as a way to create an evolutionary process to the social situation, it is not only a movement in a literary genre but it is also a call for change in the social and political situation.  



Gugelberger, G., and M. Kearney. "Voices for the Voiceless: Testimonial Literature in Latin America." Latin American Perspectives 18.3 (1991): 3-14. Print.

Menchu, Rigoberta, and Greg Grandin. I, Rigoberta Menchu. ; An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Verso, 1984. Print.