Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fernanda and the lesbian

I'm truly sorry about the lack of posts at the moment. But rather than blather on with excuses and explanations, let's seize the moment to barely-more-than-mention one of my most-favourite-ever books, US anthropologist Oscar Lewis' monumental 800-page oral history of lives in poverty in San Juan and New York, La Vida.  (1966; published in this tackily-jacketed Panther edition in 1968.) The interviews on which the book was based, all six thousand pages of them, were translated from Spanish into English by Muna Muñoz Lee, who really ought to get a co-author credit -- but then again maybe the real authors are "Fernanda" and her family. (The real names of both the family and Lewis' own research assistants are concealed.)

The jacket may be a touch exploitative, but Lewis' interviewees certainly let it all hang out. The book is a triumph of furiously exciting narrative.

Here's a taste. Fernanda is living with Erasmo and her three children. She and Erasmo have fights....


what's the matter with you?" And Erasmo answered, "Oh, the bitch I keep here bit me." Arturo said, "Good for her. You didn't have to beat her. After all, you're not her father."

Another time we had a fight and I had him arrested. I never did understand what that fight was about. I just know that he came and hit me over the right ear so hard that I felt as if the whole side of my head had exploded. I told him, "Wait a minute, if that's what you want I'll go call the cops." The cops were near and I had him arrested. They kept him in jail about seven days. I said to Arturo, "Tell him to fix the bail himself if he wants to go free, or he can stay in jail for all I care. I won't lift a finger to help him." So Erasmo sent for some money and bailed himself out. Then we made up and went on living together, but I had lost my love for him. When I love I love without limit, but when a man hits me I stop loving him at once.

It was about that time that a lesbian fell in love with me. I didn't pay any attention to her and what happened was Erasmo's fault because that Sunday he wouldn't take me to the movies and I had to go alone. Afterwards I went to a bar in La Marina and sat at a table to read the newspaper. Then that lesbian came and snatched the paper from my hands. I asked her, "Why do you do this?" And she answered, "You think you're tough, don't you?" I said, "I'm not tough but I can take on the toughest." Then she socked me, and we started to fight.

Arturo was in the bar at the time. Somebody said to him, "Look, Arturo, your sister-in-law is fighting." Arturo was very surprised because I really beat her up. She wasn't able to hurt me at all, except for one bite she gave me. I left her all scratched and practically naked. The cops came but the owner of the bar and the boy who worked there hid me. They knew I'd never fought before and they all liked me. So the cops started taking away this other woman and she kept saying, "No, I fought with a tiny woman in there and she tore all my clothes off my back."

"Why did you fight?" the policeman asked.

"Because I've always liked that woman and she's never paid any attention to me. I took the newspaper away from her to see if she'd at least talk with me. Because I like her!"

Then Arturo and some others said to her in front of the cops, "Look, that woman you're after is no lesbian. She's a woman through and through. Don't you make any mistake about that, and be careful what you do to her."

Well, she ended up fighting with the cops and they hit her and took her away. She was in jail a month. When she got out she started looking for me everywhere. She meant to cut me if I didn't accept her advances. She came to the bar with a Gem in her hand and another in her hair. When Erasmo saw her he sent for me and said, "Nanda, don't go down to the bar. That woman came in with a Gem and she's threatening to cut you up."

I said, "She is? Then I'll go down all the quicker, because I'm no coward." He insisted, "Look, you'd better not go." Erasmo has always been a sissy. He'll never stand up for anybody. I bet he was at the movies when I was having the fight.

I took my Gem and went to the bar. When they saw me there, the boys bought me a Coke so I could attack her with the bottle if I had to. Then she sent for me to talk with her alone. I sent word back that the one who was in need was the one who did the walking. And she was the one who needed me, not I her. Well, she never paid any more attention to me after that, but we are still enemies. She doesn't say a word to me, nor I to her, when we meet.

I think it's very ugly for two women to do it with each other. If I'd had a taste for that, I'd be sleeping with women and living off the fat of the land. Because women ran after me too, you know, and offered gifts and money and clothes. But I didn't accept them because I never did like that way of life.

I left Erasmo because he was drunk all the time and he kept after the kids. Any little thing the children did bothered him. He just didn't like them ....  But the real reason I left Erasmo was because of Soledad. According to what I was told, Erasmo had fallen in love with her. Soledad was nearly grown by then, and you should have seen her! ...  (pp. 138-139)


Here's a couple of pages from later on. Fernanda's daughter Soledad is speaking:

Lewis put forward the theory that poverty is an identifiable culture transcending national differences. Could be. I recognize many aspects of this La Perla life in the English council estates where I've lived.  Nor was it so very different in the days of Lazarillo de Tormes or Moll Flanders. On the other hand,  the particular poverty of western secular urbanism isn't perhaps very similar to what you'd find in e.g. fourth-world indigenous peoples.

I don't agree with people who use "the culture of poverty" as an excuse for why such a rich nation as the USA has such high levels of poverty, or as a reason for not bothering with social programs.

But the first thing, always, is to respect people, not treat them as cases. And if you respect people, then you know they are ingenious survivors and they'll remake their world the way they need to. People in similar circumstances will come up with similar solutions. In very difficult circumstances, the choices get less.



At 11:12 am, Blogger Robin said...

Bought a copy of the hardback, based on your comments and quotations -- hardback, secondhand, cheaper than paperback, from my absolutely favourite charity (for indigent scholars, though they don't put themselves forward that way) betterworldbooks (US) -- they have their own site, but also sell on Amazon, for price + £2.80 postage, and have a habit of labeling immaculate unread ex-library copies as "Acceptable"! If that's worth knowing.

Right, back to disentangling The Start as either Newgate Prison or London, as used in UK criminal argot in the 1750s, and how this turns into the New York Tombs in the US in the 1850s.

At 3:40 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I'm delighted, and hope it brings delight and instruction!

Do your argot researches ever cross paths with Rayner Heppenstall's researches in French crime? I remember once being very entranced by his Penguin Balzac translation of Splendeurs et Miseres de Courtesanes, which talked a lot about thieves' argot in the introduction. (Perversely, when I tried to re-read it years later, I found I couldn't get into it. Years later still, I don't know whether to trust the first impression or the second.)

At 12:37 am, Blogger Robin said...

I've come on odds and ends of Rayner Heppenstall's work, but not looked at anything in detail. Vidocq tends to figure largest, in various ways, then Hugo (both he and Balzac modelled, as you probably know, characters on Vidocq) -- Last Days of the Condemned was translated by Reynolds. Then there's Sue and Mysterious and Miserable Paris, which gives us a whole series of similar cities, including Ned Buntline's New York. And of course, Villon looms large in Anglophone Cant circles from about 1850 on, after he's (re)discovered by Brits and Yanks.

At the moment, I'm deep into mid 19thC America, trying to prove that George Matsell wrote a book called LEAVES FROM THE DIARY OF A CELEBRATED BURGLAR. Painfully transcribing and commenting on it. (Matsell was one of the earliest to pick up on Villon, redoing yesterday's snows in Cant in 1859.)

I'm sure there must be better things I could be doing with my time. Reading Heppenstall maybe, while I wait for a copy of La Vida to turn up through the letterbox.


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