June 30, 2008 — María-Inés Lagos understands what it means to straddle two cultures. She was born in Santiago, Chile, but has spent her professional life in the United States, now chairing the University of Virginia's Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Her dual perspective has taught her that the image one culture has of another is not always accurate.
"All too often, people in the United States see Latin America in terms of one-dimensional stereotypes," she said. "They identify the area with poverty, dictatorships, drugs and illegal immigration, and its literature with magic realism."
One of her goals as a teacher and scholar is to correct this impression of Latin America, using its rich and varied literature to convey a fully three-dimensional impression of the region and its people. For her, this is the first step toward wisdom and a fuller understanding of life.
Lagos approaches stereotypes from the perspective of people who are stereotyped. This pursuit has drawn her to the works of Latin American women writers who explore this issue using female characters.
"I'm interested in how these authors depict the dialectic between society's construct of women and how women construct themselves," she said. "In these works, society wants women to conform, but women as individuals negotiate their own détente with social constraints."
In Lagos' view, these works — though set in a specific time and place — can be a source of insight for people regardless of their culture. Lagos cites the work of Chilean author Diamela Eltit, who had to find a way to write without inciting the ire of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and who reproduces that dilemma in her fiction. "Her characters are independent agents in regard to their own lives," Lagos says, "but they have to come to an accommodation with the way people in power control the values of society."
Other writers, like Isabel Allende of Chile, focus on the experience of women in exile. Allende's characters find themselves suddenly without the familiar constraints that have limited them, but also without the familiar context that provides a convenient foundation for self-definition. In these circumstances, embracing transformation and self-actualization can be liberating, but it is also difficult.
Lagos is now interested in exploring the consequences of this transformation across generations, particularly between mothers who have moved to a new country and their daughters who are born there, a situation that echoes her own. Lagos feels confident that she will find valuable reflections in the work of Latina writers in the United States and Latin America who have considered this topic.
Although Lagos is drawn to the works of Latin America's great women writers because they reflect her experience, their ultimate value lies in their capacity to transcend cultures. "When they read them, my students see reflected in them issues that relate to their own lives," she said.
— By Charlie Feigenoff