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‘La Teta Asustada’ – an overview

Un Perú que estudia es un Perú que triunfa. (A Perú that studies is a Perú that triumphs)
– widespread slogan painted on [school] walls.)

Quedaron, de este modo, bajo tutela las instituciones de la recién ganada democracia; se
alimentó la impresión de que los principios constitucionales eran ideales nobles pero
inadecuados para gobernar a un pueblo al que —en el fondo— se menospreciaba al punto de
ignorar su clamor, reiterando la vieja práctica de relegar sus memoriales al lugar al que se ha
relegado, a lo largo de nuestra historia, la voz de los humildes: el olvido.

(In this manner, institutions belonging to a young and hard-won democracy were warded off;
no resistance was given to the impression that constitutional principles were noble ideals but
inadequate for the governing of a people that – at its core – was derided, so much so that their
pleas were ignored, echoing the old custom of relegating their recollections to the same place
where, throughout our history, we have relegated the voice of the poor: oblivion.)
— Preface to the final report by the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation of Peru.

It is always encouraging to see a Peruvian movie that engages difficult but ongoing social
problems. But it isn’t surprising; Peru’s problems are quite hard to ignore. Or maybe it’s
because the Peruvian film industry is so small in relation to other Latin countries, that those
doing the financing, including the state, can only justify the investment if the movie somehow
reflects something of Peru’s ‘social reality’, a way to distinguish it both domestically and in
foreign film festivals. Either way, it should really be applauded when a movie comes along
that does so without compromising its artistic integrity; that is, does not make art the
handmaiden of moral outrage.

This cannot be stressed strongly enough, considering the latent dominance of ideologically
motivated pamphlets passing off as critical art (in a continent marked by the polemic image of
the heroic revolutionary struggle), though the real temptation probably lies in the guise of
escapist entertainment that, while claiming to reflect social realities, still relies upon the same
dominant cultural and ideological stereotypes that they pretend to criticize.

Not so Claudia Llosa’s ‘La Teta Asustada’ (‘The Milk of Sorrow’), a movie that avoids the
simple condemnation of Peru’s obvious social ills – terrorism, abuse of power by armed
forces, economic exploitation, ethnic prejudice – choosing instead to focus on the internal
experiences of one character, placing more emphasis on mood and the subjective responses of
the protagonist than on visually showing the significance of events as if they were a simple
relationship between cause and effect.

Not that these other issues do not play a role. They do, though mostly out of sight; the weight
of their presence is always felt. Instead, it is their subjective effect on individuals that the
movie depicts.

The movie’s opening immediately sets the tone. It begins in black, taking its time before
introducing the voice of a woman singing. It is in Quechua, the indigenous tongue still spoken
by a large group of peoples centered on the Andean region. A translation communicates what
the song is about. It turns out to be a harrowing description of oppression and sexual abuse
(whether at the hands of terrorists or state troops, or both, is left unsaid). While the singing
continues the black screen fades away. We then see to whom the voice belongs to: an old
woman lying on a bed. Shortly thereafter she stops singing, and another voice is introduced.
It’s from a young woman whose face gently approaches the woman from the left; she is
singing softly to her. She repositions the old woman, making her more comfortable. While
she tidies her bed, the camera angle changes and we see her standing in front of an open
window without glass, in the background the familiar scenery of unfinished one- and two-
storied adobe houses amidst an arid and sand-covered landscape— common along the coast of
Peru and the outskirts of Lima, where most immigrants from other provinces have huddled.
For a while both engage with each other through song, as in a normal conversation. When the
old woman no longer responds, the girl’s expression turns somber. Her mother has just passed
away.

As it is, the whole exchange turns out to have been the last words of a dying woman who
wanted nothing more than that her experiences, appalling and degrading as they may sound,
not be forgotten. So it is more than just a stylistic choice to have these abuses narrated in this
way. The daughter, like most spectators, had not seen what had been done to her mother – she
was in utero at the time. She was nevertheless deeply affected by it all.

Likewise, there is much that may never be known of events that transpired during the struggle
against terrorism in the 80’s and early 90’s, though governments following the Fujimori era
have made great efforts at openly documenting human rights violations and reconciling all
those involved (‘Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación’ – Commission on Truth and
Reconciliation). The problem, however, that ethnologists, anthropologists and those tasked
with the documentation of these events faced, was the unwillingness of many victims to speak
openly about their experiences; a result of fear, trauma, guilt, shame, cultural differences, or
any combination of these. This was even greater in the case of women who had been
emotionally and physically abused, though – and this is not surprising – not as much as the
silence of the men responsible of rape. Such a silence, however, tacitly condones the impunity
of these atrocities at the expense of justice and the victims.

In a public interview Claudia Llosa acknowledged a book titled “Entre Prójimos: El conflicto
armado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú” as a source for her interest in
this topic. Written by Kimberly Theidon – a medical anthropologist who, among other things,
has been documenting the systematic abuses that indigenous women suffered at the hands of
terrorists and state forces – the book describes the notion of ‘la teta asustada’ that was used
colloquially to describe the trauma passed on from mother to child through breast milk – a
pervasive sense of fear that is said to afflict all those born during the time of terrorism. It is
only one of the most obvious elements that Llosa borrowed from the book.

Another aspect of Theidon’s work has been to analyze and substantiate the theoretical
legitimacy of academic research like her own, the result of ongoing debates within certain
academic fields about how to approach and represent ‘non-western’ cultures (see: ‘critical
theory’). Though it would be too much to delineate the nature of these debates, or what is at
stake, the movie nonetheless brings across an aspect implicit in Theidon’s and other similar
work: that it is not enough to claim that these events remain something that Peruvians cannot
afford to ignore, but that those speaking on behalf of the victims must also beware that they
do not underestimate the power of their pleas, or risk silencing those whom they wish to
empower.


Despite this historically and politically charged background, the titular reference is not only
meant to introduce what will become the guiding motivation of the protagonist (Fausta)
during the rest of the movie; namely, to return her mother’s body to her native village. The
film eventually delves more into an equally debilitating form of oppression, a spiritual
degradation that persists long after the transgression of which it was result, making the movie
more universal in its approach than it otherwise would have been had it chosen to narrate or
depict particular abuses. (Much like a good horror movie manages to tap into an archetypal
fear simply by depicting the presence of a threat, allowing the rest to be filled in by the
imagination.) It also demonstrates that Claudia Llosa understands that the true scars that
victims must bear run deeper than we are often willing to admit. So deep that they may be
passed from generation to generation, as in the case of Fausta and her suffering of “la teta
asustada,” that in her case manifests itself as a visceral fear of being raped. As a result, her
demeanour is morose, and at times abrasive, and she is unable to open up to other people,
particularly men.

The movie therefore seeks more than just make us empathize with the protagonist. In fact, it
may not even want us to, at least not in the usual emotionally manipulative way. Throughout
most of the movie we see Fausta walk around in this mixed state of perpetual sadness and
fear, or what could just as easily be diagnosed as depression. Rarely do we see Fausta happy
or relaxed, except for brief glimpses: the short prelude with her mother; while watching TV in
Aida’s kitchen; and after Aida’s concert. This makes it difficult to identify with her; her
psychological affliction is so context-bound to her subjective experiences that finding a
common ground, particularly for most viewers, may be almost impossible.

The purpose, however, is not to demarcate some unbridgeable divide between the indigenous
experience – or that of victims of organized violence – and the rest. The source of the problem
is more general (and hence universal). After all, when dealing with someone who shows little
emotion, is in denial, or acts in ways that seem either counter-productive or counter-intuitive,
we are all forced into the position of outsider. It is a role that only those who have had a friend
or family member with similar symptoms will probably understand, regardless of their
cultural background.

If anything, it is this frustration that the movie evokes. Fausta did not, after all, herself suffer
at the hands of terrorists or state troops. Unlike her mother, she was not raped, nor forced to
witness the murder of a husband. It could even be said that, due to this omnipresent fear, she
has not yet begun to live. Likewise, we may even question the amount of energy devoted to
protecting her virginity if it keeps her from falling in love. But the limits of our empathy –
and our patience – is really put on trial as soon as we learn of the potato she inserted into her
vagina; a safety measure against rape. The most common response would be to rationalize this
as the product of ignorance, superstition, or hysteria; all common faults attributed to ethnic
minorities (and women) by the educated, such as the doctor treating Fausta. But the logic is
nevertheless sound, as is her explanation, based as it is on empirical evidence rather than on
superstition: the example of that one woman in her village that according to her mother
avoided rape, and later had her own children, all thanks to a strategically placed potato. To
most, though, it seems absurd. (This absurdity, in turn, may explain why so many reviewers
have described the movie as ‘magical-realist’: an easy category in which to place a South-
American movie that, uncharacteristically, uses a minimalist but poetic aesthetic as a medium
in service of social critique, without placing neither art nor critique as an end in and of itself.
It therefore goes without saying that describing the movie as ‘magical realist’ or ‘feminist’
without justifying such a qualification risks undermining the themes that the movie, or the
reviewer, finds important.)

So though there may be legitimate medical reasons against advocating such an extreme
measure, this argument is beside the point. After all, only those who have felt the acute threat
of rape have the right to judge. Instead, it may be of more value that we recognize the
legitimacy of this fear, something that the doctor fails to do by taking for granted Fausta’s
uncle’s explanation of ‘la teta asustada’: that it is a maternally transmitted fear which
manifests itself in those children whose perturbed souls remain in the ground, the result of
their mother’s exposure to the ravages of Peru’s struggle against terrorism. For the doctor the
only important considerations are empirical, namely the physical health of Fausta, so he has
no time, nor any understanding, of alternative indigenous explanations. It is this close-minded
and narrow form of ‘education’ that, though originally meant to elevate and emancipate,
nevertheless makes it possible to ignore elements of specific value to indigenous cultures. In
this case, the educated doctor is unable to ‘see’ a link to the chthonic theme of earth as mother
– an arguably universal cultural trope – in the uncle’s description, and how this in turn can be
interpreted as more than just an atavistic metaphor of some irrelevant myth, but an
anthropological way of explaining how indigenous cultures make sense of the particular, but
unseen, bonds that exist between individuals – bonds that even an anthropologist has a hard
time understanding. Had he known this, he could have formed a better relation with his
patient, resulting in a more effective treatment. But the criticism is not a against the doctor –
who does not seem to have the time nor the resources to deal with the specific circumstances
of every patient – but the narrow mindset that often limits scientific inquiry; inquiries that
would at least make apparent the limitations of certain institutionalized methodologies, and
the detrimental effects these may have on a proper diagnosis.

On the other hand, this inadequacy may be the result of the traditional male-bias in such
academic institutions, and the illusion of objectivity that both distorts and conceals what are
ultimately sexually biased presuppositions. After all, the problem of rape does not describe a
universal predicament of mankind, but illustrates a precise instance where the inherent
difference between men and women manifests itself. Rape and the militarization of
masculinity is a problem that thousands of years of civilization have been unable to tame. At
best, we have managed to suppress the problem. But science and liberal humanitarianism,
clouded by a male-biased notion of equality, have been too quick to dismiss this fundamental
– perhaps even essential or chthonic – difference between men and women. Unfortunately,
this unwarranted forgetfulness has resulted in a general underestimation of the female
perspective and mode of experience. The same goes for non-western cultures. It is therefore
with good reason that the reconciliation process in Peru, following the example of similar
commissions in Africa, has taken to account this traditional absence of the female voice (as
has been documented by Kimberly Theidon). In this case, the silence being the result of
institutionalized male authority, from the state-level down to academic institutions, but also
including local communities themselves.

This last is exemplified by Fausta’s uncle and the certainty with which, returning from the
hospital, he explains to Fausta about how times have changed, that things are different here in
Lima, and that nobody is going to do anything to her here. He demonstrates himself to be
unable to empathize with his niece’s fear of rape, or of acknowledging the effect of the fear
itself as legitimate. His is the voice of someone standing between two distinct worlds,
supposedly culturally sensitive enough to understand his niece’s cultural baggage while
remaining aware of its shortcomings (but ignoring his own, as in his discussion with the
doctor). So he remains just a man, and an older man at that, himself struggling with his own
need to adapt; as an outsider in Lima, and as a father organizing his daughters’ wedding.
Settling on this notion of ‘la teta asustada’ as a valid explanation for Fausta’s nosebleeds and
her fainting (as he explained to the incredulous doctor), he too in turn ignores the doctor’s
observation that Fausta’s nosebleeds are a result of superficial capillary vessels, and thus need
not be a problem if treated with a simple surgical operation.

Surely the character of these two older men, too stubborn to acknowledge each other’s
explanations, is no mere coincidence. In his case, the uncle narrowly attributes everything to
‘la teta asustada,’ and as a result underestimates both the role and the significance of the
events which are its cause. The result is that, like the doctor, his skepticism undermines the
underlying reason for the potato, focusing solely on the practical consequences; a skepticism
no doubt facilitated by the fact that the patient is young, female, and (from the doctor’s
perspective) indigenous.

So it is interesting how Fausta, who was evidently annoyed by the doctor’s assessment,
asserts to her uncle that she is not ignorant, and then justifies her decision to use the potato.
She even demands that her choice be respected. Her uncle, not knowing how to breach her
niece’s vehemence, is evidently unsure about how to reply. He even seems to want to say
something, only to remain quiet at the last moment. This and other scenes show that Fausta is
not cowed by other people, including men, and that her real problem lies in herself; in this
reified fear that others first imposed on her – primarily her mother, followed by her family
and ‘society’ in general (terrorists, state, etc.) – but that she subsequently helped develop
further.

The movie is therefore efficient and very effective in its depiction of these limitations inherent
in current institutions and the reigning mindsets. In what follows, the movie posits how the
possibility of Fausta’s true emancipation will only result through a confrontation with herself
and the circumstances that she embodies and carries within her (like the metaphorical potato).

To this end, the final catalyst (following her mother’s death and Aida’s betrayal) actually
turns out to be her uncle, though not in any way that we would have anticipated. In fact, as
patient and understanding, though conflicted, as he was throughout most of the movie, so
uncharacteristic is his reaction towards the end, demonstrating that he too cannot control his
anxieties (much like Aida and her ‘writer’s block’). In a scene following his daughter’s
wedding, we see him walking towards his niece while she is sleeping and grabs at her mouth
as if to stop her from breathing. When she immediately reacts and struggles to loosen his grip,
he tells her (in Quechua), while sobbing, “see how you breath! See how you want to live! You
want to live but you don’t dare!” She then gets up and runs outside, leaving her uncle standing
in the same position, sobbing, and pleading her to ‘breathe,’ but also not to leave.

Though this scene appears confusing – mostly because of the uncle’s behaviour – the setting
helps us make sense of it. To begin with, it occurs in a classroom, the locus of state-sponsored
education (and in a more abstract sense, the Enlightenment’s hope for human emancipation,
free from religious dogma and irrational beliefs). We even see on the wall, prominently
placed, the slogan “Un Perú que estudia es un Perú que triunfa,” which was commonly used
in Peru (maybe it still is), particularly in public schools. Next to Fausta are three more girls
sleeping, all seemingly exhausted by the wedding festivities. Though the night and classroom
setting conveys peace and security, her uncle’s unexpected intrusion reveals its vulnerability.
See here an interesting illustration of the way that Enlightenment values must rely upon force
and propaganda in order to propagate. It also reveals the vulnerability of democracy, maybe
civilization itself: too much faith in education and economic prosperity; disengagement from
any willingness to honestly face up to the unfettered aspects of human nature – such as the
underlying forces behind irrational behaviour, like rape – all of which undermines the illusion
of control and stability that we all take for granted (but depend so much upon). Even worse,
state-sponsored education is unavoidably myopic, giving precedence to socially accepted
conventions even when claiming some form of cultural neutrality. It is not just that it is
incapable of doing justice to other modes of experience and forms of expression, but that the
education process itself becomes an institutionalized form of forgetfulness that appropriates
other cultural narratives as objects of study but falls short of acknowledging in practice their
right to self-determination. Eventually, the problem is not so much that those narrative voices
may be ‘lost’ (the common fear of previous folklorists and ethnologists who bewailed the
intrusion of modernity into what they idealized as a pristine environment), but that the process
of self-determination becomes overtly antagonistic (cf. indigenous movements in the Andean
region, or the Chiapas in Mexico). There is therefore a fine line between emancipation and
subjugation that becomes all the more apparent in countries where neither the dominant social
class nor any particular indigenous group has fully managed to legitimize their claim to
power. The tension, and the eruption of violence that it precedes, will therefore remain an
ongoing symptom so long as its reality is ignored.

The scene in the classroom underscores this unpredictability of violence by having it come
from the uncle. His emotional appeal to Fausta to live itself leaves us confused, considering
the associations with rape and torture that his act evokes. We are left unsure whether this is a
calculated decision or an act of frustration by a person who can no longer cope having to see a
loved one slowly wither away. On the other hand, the scene takes place towards the end of the
wedding party, at a time when one would expect the wedding couple to be enjoying their
‘honey moon.’ So it is interesting to contrast the intrusion of Fausta’s uncle into this innocent
environment with the public nature of his daughter’s wedding, an event he organized
according to local convention (as is his job) – itself a mix of heterogeneous cultural elements
(cf. the Viennese waltz with the cutting of the tree).

It also reflects one of the bitter paradoxes of life: that sometimes external force is needed to
evoke real change. This is no less the case in human affairs. Whatever identity or fate one
follows, sometimes the most significant choices are preceded by an act of violence. The
problem lies in the fact that the morality of these events will often remain contentious. This
scene invokes this ambiguity.

And yet, lest it be forgotten, there is clearly a difference between the forced ideological
indoctrination of terrorists and the state – whose logic in this case culminated in the brutal
rape of innocent women – and the desperate intervention of family and friends; people who
understand and have shared similar experiences, and that respect your right to self-
determination, even when they feel the necessity to interfere. In any case, the events that
follow ignore the uncle’s intrusion, even if they are the direct result of it. We do eventually
witness Fausta achieve some form of emancipation, except that Fausta reaches it by realizing
what is legitimately hers and then claiming it.

But even this step proves too much for her alone. Luckily the gardener, with whom she could
speak in her native tongue and who shares a similar cultural background, finds Fausta and
carries her to the hospital. He actually finds her lying in the middle of a market street in broad
daylight, with a nipple exposed; apparently nobody else had bothered to help her (nor take
advantage of her either). In other words, just as one may fall victim to a sudden eruption of
violence, or be surrounded by an equally demoralizing indifference, it is just as possible that
no one takes advantage of you even when at your most vulnerable; you may even find
yourself at the receiving end of an honest act of compassion.

Luckily, the movie has even more to offer than just an analysis of the social state of affairs of
contemporary Perú. It is also a self-critical reflection on the status of art (as emancipatory or
hegemonic tool) itself. We see this in the different ways that music is treated.

To begin with, Fausta’s mother had actually bequeathed to her daughter more than just fear.
She had also taught her the art of song. This art, though, is of a different type compared to the
notion of music usually propagated by the music industry. Not because it is in Quechua, but
because it is based on a performance bound by the context of the moment, and the feelings
they are meant to express. Fausta even uses it as a sort of therapy, to make sense of her
emotions, though she could also use it to relate a story or events, like her mother on her
deathbed. It is therefore similar to the oral tradition predating the advent of writing in other
cultures.

From the introduction we can surmise that they both communicated often through singing; it
was probably a part of their local culture (much like gardening for Fausta and the gardener).
For example, at one point, after a nose bleed that causes her to run away from Aida (the
owner of the house where she works as a maid), she sings to herself “let’s sing, let’s sing, sing
pretty things, in order to hide our fear,” obviously to reassure herself, as if tapping into the
same sense of comfort that she felt with her mother. But as she explains to Aida, she never
sings the same thing twice; something that reinforces this context-bound aspect of this music.
It is clearly not meant as entertainment, and certainly not for others to ‘consume.’

This also explains her unwillingness to sing for Aida, even for money (pearls), despite the fact
that she is working as a maid for Aida precisely in order to earn enough to pay for her trip.
Aida, of course, is completely oblivious of all this. She is only interested in the melody of
Fausta’s music, not its meaning or emotional value. For example, having overheard Fausta
sing for the first time, the following night while Fausta is watching TV in the kitchen, she
asks her to sing again. Though friendly at first, she becomes annoyed by Fausta’s reticence to
comply with her request. Eventually she leaves, though not before ordering Fausta to bring
her the tea that she had initially suggested she would make for herself. She likewise never
bothered to ask her what she was singing about.

Though this may seem like a criticism of the snobbishness of landladies like Aida who
pretend to care about the help they hire, we should take into consideration that, lack of
patience notwithstanding, Aida embodies a common attitude regarding music, namely its use
as entertainment. When we hear somebody sing or hum a song, we usually assume that that
person does so because he or she enjoys that particular music, and that humming or singing
gives them pleasure. We do not, however, think that that person is singing purposefully at that
particular moment, not to enjoy the aesthetic quality of the melody, but using that intrinsic
quality to help them relive a particular memory or process some sort of trauma. Indeed, much
less than a melodic tune, Fausta’s singing appears more like an incantation – a prayer or chant
that helps her externalize her emotions, maybe so as to neutralize their effect by assuming
some form of control.

A similar thing could probably be said of Fausta’s mother, who used the singing to not only
remember what she went through, but to neutralize the dehumanizing effects of physical and
emotional abuse. Even if only a psychological mechanism of survival, her singing helps her
remember, and these memories grant her a sense of control because they are determined by
herself. In other words, though Fausta’s mother was not capable of deterring the suffering she
experienced at the hands of others, she nevertheless retained the dignity that comes with being
able to determine your own narrative: the way you want to be remembered. But this is only
possible when it is acknowledged as such, by others, which is why she sings to her own
daughter, asking her to not forget.

This bond between the memory of the deceased and the role the family undertakes to keep it
alive is beautifully illustrated in the scene where Fausta’s mother is being embalmed in order
to preserve the body, ending with a bitter-sweet lamentation by the deceased mother, who
sings: “where are you going? I’m going to Heaven, to pick flowers, to pick flowers.” But
before she can do this, her daughter needs to earn enough to bring her body back to her native
land.

The role of music is therefore fundamental in this endeavour. Indeed, it is also one of the
traditional purposes of art, which is why it is often used to commemorate significant events
that have become part of the cultural heritage. So too with Fausta. Part of her journey will
therefore be to pay tribute to her mother by returning her to her native village, even if it is also
the place where she suffered.

But there is another aspect to Fausta’s journey; she will first have to learn how to bear this
emotional burden which she inherited from her mother. Paradoxically, this burden is also a
tool; one that if she learns how to wield, will help her overcome the tasks she must face. This
is precisely what this singing represents. Much less than a fear being passed on through
maternal milk, it was passed on by the stories of abuse sung to her by her mother. It is
certainly a sign of courage to confront in such an unequivocal way the reality of such events;
to acknowledge their prominence as a defining feature of who you are, instead of ignoring
them as an unfortunate footnote that you would rather forget about.

Likewise, the willingness to share this with others may be just as courageous, if not more. It is
certainly a risk to share this with someone as impressionable as your own daughter, who may
not be ready to handle the emotional complexity that such a story inevitably carries with it.
Maybe the mother felt that she had no other choice, thinking that her daughter was already
marked by these events, and that it would be best for her to not only know of them, but to feel
their impact, in the hope that she would learn to free herself from this terrible legacy. So this
singing is more than just a means to narrate events. As any music lover knows, music has the
power to affect us at a deep emotional level, but in a way that no other medium can replicate,
maybe because it can do so directly and instantaneously; a certain melody, a change in pitch,
a repeated rhythm – music has amassed a mighty arsenal by which it can reach directly into
our souls. It is no wonder that music continues to play such a prominent role in religious and
other cultural ceremonies, a good example being its use as a trance-inducing tool in
indigenous societies around the world.
In a way, Fausta needs to recognize her own inner strength by finding her own voice, though
she can’t do this without first overcoming the yoke of her mother’s music, and through this
the power of music in general. In the end she does succeed, but not before she risks losing it
completely, and with it her identity. This occurs because of a deal she struck with Aida, who
offers Fausta a pearl for every time she sings to her. At first Fausta declines, though maybe
less out of principle than out of a sense of inappropriateness at the thought of singing when
the context does not require it; during a conversation with Aida we learn that she is
unaccustomed to singing the same thing twice. Maybe because every moment is by definition
different, and thus requires its own particular song. But because she needs the money for a
bus ticket to take her mother’s body to her native village, she tacitly accepts this deal.

Here the symbolism attached to the names of Fausta and Aida reveal several levels of
signification. To begin with they refer to widely known stories. Fausta refers to the myth of
Faust, the alchemist that struck a deal with Mephistopheles: his soul in return for knowledge
and power, and the chance to do good. In Fausta’s case, she strikes a deal with Aida in return
for money; money that she needs in order to pay for a bus trip back to her mother’s native
village, and thereby fulfill her task in honor of her mother.

However, there is another myth associated with Fausta; part of a song that she shares with
Aida, despite her misgivings.

It is similar to the story of the little mermaid who was willing to give up her voice for a
chance at love with a mortal, except in Fausta’s telling it is less about a mermaid seeking her
own destiny as it is about a siren helping fulfill the desire of musicians, and her enslavement
as a result. The story is quite significant, because it seems to describe Fausta’s own inner
turmoil. In the tale, the musicians have made an agreement with the siren that allows them to
make music as long as the contract lasts, after which she takes the musician with her into the
sea. But in order to know how long the contract will last, they must take a handful of quinoa
and give it to the siren, who must then count the grains, each representing one year. However,
as Fausta explains (attributing it to her mom), the grains of quinoa are very small, and
difficult to count. Which is how, in order to assure that they can keep making music, the
musicians realize that all they need to do is keep giving the siren enough quinoa to keep her
counting.

One way of interpreting this story is to say that in their attempt to retain the art of music, the
musicians must take advantage of the terms of their bargain with the siren. But unbeknownst
to them or not, this results in her de facto enslavement; forever counting the quinoa that she
receives. And this is what Fausta must be feeling when she sings to Aida for the first time, the
anguish that she might be selling her voice/soul in a similar [Faustian] bargain. Indeed, even
though she sings this in Spanish, Aida is unresponsive to its underlying meaning, only to the
beautiful melody that she will end up appropriating for her own artistic pursuits.

The song is therefore a good reflection of the relationship between Fausta and Aida, who
herself needs Fausta’s music to ‘fertilize’ her own dried up musical inspiration. In the way it
is represented, Fausta’s music is an echo of the cultural capital (voice/soul) of her ancestry
that she has inherited – ephemeral yet tangible in its effect, and passed on to her and her
mother through the art of singing stories. It also depicts the changing cultural landscape of her
country (e.g. she sometimes sings in Spanish, perhaps unwittingly, just as the crowd listens to
Aida, ignorant of the true source of inspiration, but nevertheless enjoying the music). It
should therefore be seen more as a new hybrid than a representation of some authentic
indigenous culture that pre-dated the colonialist intrusion. That Llosa manages to avoid the
commonly held tendency (of previous anthropological and ethnographic research) to
romanticize the indigenous experience, and presenting it as if corrupted by modernity and in
danger of being lost, demonstrates that she has incorporated the self-critical reflexivity of
recent (poststructuralist) academic research, probably due in part to works like that of
Kimberly Theidon.

Take how the landlady’s name – Aida – is easily associated with the famous opera by Verdi, a
prime example of colonialist art. The opera, which takes place in Egypt, was originally
commissioned by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt at the time, and premiered in Cairo in
1871, eight years before he was deposed by the British. Written by the French archeologist
August Mariette, the story is strongly imbued with an imperialist ethos and a colonialist
perspective that romanticizes elements of an indigenous culture for its own aesthetic purposes.
This is not surprising, since it was ultimately written for European consumption, or at the very
least, for European tastes, a predilection Ismail Pasha himself identified with, and was greatly
interesting in fostering. He even commissioned the construction of the Opera House primarily
to stage Verdi’s opera. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Driven by a zeal to modernize
Egypt, and make it more independent of Ottoman rule, he also co-financed the building of the
Suez Canal, converted the Delta for the specific production of a few export products, and
renovated large portions of Cairo according to European tastes (he even hired the same
landscape artist responsible for the Bois de Boulogne and the Champs de Mars). Not only did
all this inevitably result in an enormous increase in public debt, it also made Egypt ever more
dependent on European capital, and the political interests they ultimately served.

Beyond reflecting this deferral to the West through image and form, Aida also demonstrates
another aspect of Ismail’s notion of modernization; that by watching Aida, one completely
forgets of the presence of Arab and Muslim culture in 19th century Egypt, an incongruity no
doubt compounded if watched in Cairo’s Opera House. Consider Edward Said’s discerning
evaluation:

Aida, for most of Egypt, was an imperial article de luxe purchased by credit for a tiny clientele
whose entertainment was incidental to their real purposes. Verdi thought of it as monument to his
art; Ismail and Mariette, for diverse purposes, lavished on it their surplus energy and restless will.
Despite its shortcomings, Aida can be enjoyed and interpreted as a kind of curatorial art, whose
rigour and unbending frame recall, with relentlessly mortuary logic, a precise historical moment
and a specifically dated aesthetic form, an imperial spectacle designed to alienate and impress an
almost exclusively European audience.

Adding to the logic of imperialism from which it sprung, there was also a body of academic
research – not least of which was Champollion’s deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
– from which Mariette the archeologist prodigiously borrowed from, and to which he also
contributed. Academic research that itself would not have come about without the full weight
of the imperial machinery that Napoleon unsheathed in service of French grandeur and
prestige. It is thanks to such examples of entrepreneurial steadfastness, coupled with a narrow
disregard of all else, that a direct access to an ancient culture that could no longer speak for
itself was made possible, even if it meant effectively silencing the voices of those who had
most at stake in its diffusion. Instead, the legitimacy of such representations lay in the hands
of European scholars and their audience, the sort of people that Ismail wanted to attract in
order to help modernize his country, without understanding the consequences. It’s probably
not much of a stretch to state that Egypt was tamed before it was occupied by the British. In
this context, Aida is an excellent example of how art can effectively undermine the host
country the dignity that comes with being able to determine one’s own identity, particularly in
its relation to its own cultural heritage.

Not only is this basically what Fausta’s mother expresses through her dying song, but it is
also what Aida almost ends up doing by effectively stealing Fausta’s music without properly
acknowledging its source. A source, it must be noted, she did not properly understand, having
never bothered to ask Fausta about the lyrics. Fausta, of course, was unaware that Aida would
use her music – interpreting it in her own way – for a concert, so when she first recognizes her
own melody while waiting backstage, she at first appears distressed. But by the time she
makes her way to the side of the stage, and Aida is bringing to a close her finale, Fausta is
clearly beginning to enjoy what she hears. So when she looks upon the enthusiastic public’s
reaction, it must be with a mixture of pride, even if she’d never thought of the idea that
someone else, apart from Aida, would want to listen her music, let alone like it. After all,
Aida herself had never praised Fausta nor encouraged her to sing for others.

Even in the car, when she remarks that “all of Lima was there” to her son, Aida shows that
she is more interested in basking in the glory of her performance than acknowledging Fausta’s
contribution. She would have forgotten all about Fausta – who was also clearly enjoying the
moment – had Fausta not uncharacteristically shared her bemusement about the public’s
enthusiasm. Unfortunately for Fausta, Aida was not prepared to share this moment of glory
with her, and may have even worried that she would be unmasked in front of her son. She
therefore forces Fausta to step out of the car to make her own way back to her house. It is
unclear whether this is meant to be a one-time incident, or whether it effectively means that
Fausta is fired, but while the car drives away we see Fausta, bewildered and scared, shout to
the car (in Quechua), wondering what to do now, and asking out loud about their deal,
probably realizing that her own deal with her uncle, to remove her mother’s body before her
cousin’s wedding tomorrow, would also be compromised.

But we do not see Aida’s reaction to Fausta’s pleas; no expression of guilt or indifference. Up
to this point, Aida’s betrayal could be interpreted as emblematic of the expropriation of
indigenous culture. But with no visual emotional cue (even Fausta’s reaction is witnessed
from inside the car), Llosa interrupts the immediate temptation to judge. In fact, we never see
Aida again; only her hand on the side of the bed when Fausta takes the pearls she has
rightfully earned.

As a result, the scene may serve as a warning to indigenous members (or anyone else for that
matter) from too quickly ‘selling out’ either for necessity or for the sake of entertainment; to
realize that one’s voice/soul is in part determined by one’s experiences, that one’s strength
also stems from this shared experience, and that only by virtue of being a member of such a
community can one speak on its behalf. Tradition, or cultural heritage, may not be monolithic,
nor the property of any one person, group, or movement, but because of the legitimacy it can
grant to any claim to power, it is always at risk of being appropriated for political purposes. It
is by virtue of such struggles that the world’s religions were born and have survived, more
often than not narrowly consolidating their power in the process. It is the reason why such
ideals as democracy, capitalism, and liberalism, rooted in European struggles against
established powers, but ultimately giving weight to claims in favour of individual rights as the
ultimate source of political and moral legitimacy – a universal claim that was appropriated
from the Christian credo of a ‘universal brotherhood of man’ – have had such a wide appeal
around the world, especially with individuals and groups struggling against whatever
dominant power whose legitimacy they contest.
This struggle can be fought at the group level as in the individual level; in each case there will
always exist a tension between established conventions and the desire to make new ones;
whether it is to influence others, or determine one’s own space. Any attempt at self-
determination, whether through art or other social activities (including politics and religion) is
by definition a potential challenge against the established order, depending on how much one
identifies with established conventions. However, new art, like new legislation, will always
provoke a reaction, for it is by definition a challenge against ‘tradition.’ The risk therefore lies
in allowing others to take custody of the power of any such cultural form of expression
without first determining for yourself your own sense of identity. This is essentially the core
of the struggle that Fausta becomes entangled in: her need to find her own voice must
eventually find a balance between her cultural background (her and her mother’s heritage),
her new environment (contemporary Lima, itself a hybrid of different elements), her own
experiences (including the influence of her mother’s stories), and her personal desires.

And what about Claudia Llosa herself? Is she not guilty of appropriating the voice of these
victims?

The answer may lie in the fact that we never learn what it is that Fausta wants of herself.
From the very beginning of the movie, we see Fausta only concerned with her mother. So it is
a testament to Magaly Solier’s acting that we are not completely estranged from Fausta’s
character, who we learn so little about and whose lack of emotion makes it so difficult to
empathize with.

Both the beginning and the ending of the movie bring up an interesting contrast. In both cases
we see a close-up of Fausta’s face appear from the left of the screen: in the beginning when
singing gently to her mother, and in the end to smell the flower of a potato someone left
standing in front of her door. In the beginning, she is still inhaling the breath of her
background just as her mother is exhaling her last breath, while in the end she is inhaling the
fruit of her own struggles. What she does from hence on is for her to determine. The movie,
Claudia Llosa’s own song, leaves this open.

Mucho se ha escrito sobre la discriminación cultural, social y económica persistentes en la sociedad


peruana. Poco han hecho las autoridades del Estado o los ciudadanos corrientes para combatir ese
estigma de nuestra comunidad. Este informe muestra al país y al mundo que es imposible convivir con el
desprecio, que éste es una enfermedad que acarrea daños muy tangibles. Desde hoy, el nombre de miles
de muertos y desaparecidos estará aquí, en estas páginas, para recordárnoslo.

Nadie se debe escudar en los defectos de nuestra sociedad ni en los rigores de nuestra historia para
evadir sus responsabilidades. Es cierto —y esa es una lección mayor de este informe— que existe una
culpa general, la culpa de la omisión, que involucra a todos los que dejamos hacer sin preguntar en los
años de la violencia. Somos los primeros en señalarlo así. Pero al mismo tiempo advertimos que existen
responsabilidades concretas que afrontar y que el Perú —como toda sociedad que haya vivido una
experiencia como ésta— no puede permitir la impunidad. La impunidad es incompatible con la dignidad
de toda nación democrática.
— Preface to the final report by the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation of Peru.

One must remember, too, that when one belongs to the more powerful side in the imperial and colonial
encounter, it is quite possible to overlook, forget, or ignore the unpleasant aspects of what went on ‘out
there’. The cultural machinery – of spectacles like Aida, of the genuinely interesting books written by
travelers, novelists, and scholars, of fascinating photographs and exotic paintings – has had an
anaesthetic as well as informative effect on European audiences. Things stay remarkably unchanged
when such distancing and aestheticizing cultural practices are employed, for they split and then
anaesthetize the metropolitan consciousness.
— Edward Said, ‘Culture and Imperialism’

Kristiaan Rodrigo Knoester