Mario Bencastro

Mario Bencastro's diaspora: Salvadorans and transnational identity.

Linda J. Craft (*). MELUS. 22-Mar-05. USA.

Mario Bencastro's novel Odyssey to the North (1998) opens with the body of an unidentified immigrant on the hot cement of a Washington DC street where he has just fallen to his death while window washing. No one can or is willing to answer the paramedic's questions: Who is he? What is his name? A few bystanders conjecture that, judging by what is left of his facial features, he looks Hispanic and that he is probably Central American since many live in that barrio. "Poor devils," replies another paramedic, "They die far from home, like strangers" (3). Faceless, nameless.

The scene is emblematic of a central thread running through all of Bencastro's fiction, the question of identity. Who am I? Do I even have an identity? Am I still Salvadoran? What does it mean to be a Salvadoran living in the United States? Is it possible to be both Salvadoran and American, or must one assimilate, as did many immigrants of the past, to find success? To help answer these and other questions, it is helpful to understand terms. The word "identity" derives from the Latin identidem, an adverb meaning "repeatedly, again and again," which, of course, informs its meaning in English. Webster's defines "identity" in several ways, two of which illustrate my argument: 1) "the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions"; and 2) "the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time" (950). How then, we might ask, is a Salvadoran immigrant able to maintain "sameness" in conditions of diversity and hybridity? In this paper I will examine Bencastro's synthesis of identities as it unfolds over the course of the production of his four major texts. He concludes that identity is never fixed but fluid and that the immigrant does not need to sacrifice his past to the demands of the present.

Part of Bencastro's preoccupation with identity is personal, and so one can consider the autobiographical elements of his writing. His own transformation in the face of new circumstances mirrors that of many of the characters he depicts. He changed careers and domiciles, from an abstract painter in El Salvador to realist storyteller in Washington, DC, where he has resided for over twenty years. He confronts the dilemmas and responsibilities of the artist in a society in crisis, changing his own identity in the process to be able to document the upheavals and follow his compatriots in their displacements. In his first two books, a short story collection, The Tree of Life: Stories of Civil War (1993), and the novel, A Shot in the Cathedral (1996), Bencastro records Salvadoran myth and history in order to prevent these stories from slipping into oblivion (Hood 576). His two most recent novels, Odyssey to the North and Viaje a la tierra del abuelo (A Promise to Keep), are epics of migration of a people forging a new identity from their experience in a new land. (2) The young protagonist of Viaje completes the cycle as he travels back to El Salvador, a country he scarcely knows, in search of roots. Both these novels also highlight the continuing exchanges occurring between homeland and diaspora.

For Bencastro, literature offers salvation. Literature is a repository of human values, and he has faith that "en ultima instancia, sea la literatura la que salve a la especie del caos total" [in the last instance it will be literature that saves the human species from total chaos] (translation mine, Hernandez Martin 60). Here we might translate "especie" not only as human species, but also as a specific ethnicity. Through literature, Bencastro constructs ethnic identity by preserving myth and the memory of historical events, negotiating cultural politics, recording narratives of nostalgia, and deconstructing old assimilationist myths, following all the while processes of globalization and transnationalism. Salvadoran-ness transcends the national space, and we can state, a la Foucault, that both the nation and its diaspora constitute a "discursive formation," but one that is in constant flux. Bencastro's work undertakes what William Boelhower calls an "interpretive practice" that is "essential to ethnic narration: namely, the activity of the self in search of its lost intimacy, the very intimacy that the modern self--as citizen of the synchronic space of representative democracy--has desemioticized" (26).

Narratives of memory are important to developing a sense of personal and communal identity and to establishing a sense of intimacy and belonging. Texts such as those by Bencastro turn to memory for several reasons. They "substantiate ethnic assertion and invoke nostalgia," according to Lisa Suhair Mujaj, but they also "facilitate assimilation, ground [various] critique[s], and make possible transformative relationships to ethnicity" (266). Beyond national borders, what is the tie that binds? Shared memories and stories and a shared home-base, if no longer a shared space. It is an identity that, of necessity, must travel. Literature helps to conserve memory and create identity, and it is portable.

Both The Tree of Life and A Shot in the Cathedral invoke "home," El Salvador, the place of origin, its history, heroes, martyrs, and myths in order to ground the identity of what Benedict Anderson calls the "imagined community." The concept of home is especially important to a displaced people who truly must "imagine" their commonality when a geographic space no longer circumscribes them. Sura P. Rath defines home as place, as time, and as a third space ("virtual home"). Citing Dorinne Kondo and Gayatri Spivak, Rath observes that home is a "safe place, where there is no need to explain oneself to outsiders; it stands for community" (par. 20). While we could debate that El Salvador in this past century is a "safe place," we can accept the idea of "home" in the sense of what is known: it is a place of familiarity and intimacy, a certain comfort zone. Rath goes on to explain that home is time: "as a function of history, home is the reservoir of public myths and private memories ... the past ... a crossroads of history" (par. 20). The third space is the constructed home away from home, which will be addressed in terms of Bencastro's later novels.

His first book, The Tree of Life: Stories of Civil War, has as its point of departure the civil, political, military, and religious turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s through an intriguing assortment of myths, magical realist tales, testimonies, historical vignettes, surrealist and lyrical fiction, and soap opera. While the various stories paint a culture of death, the title story points to an underlying theme of metamorphosis and transformation which is found throughout the collection. Like Ovid's Baucis and Philemon or Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses), from whose graves sprout strong and healthy trees, Matilde and her fiance, Casiano, whom she betrayed by sleeping with his twin brother, Hermogenes, who then slays him,...

(*) Linda J. Craft teaches Literature at North Park University, Chicago. (Read complete critical essay)