From the Feather to the Poncho: A New Yorker Vicuña

Lila Zemborain

Photo by Oscar Monsalve.

My reflection today revolves around the concept of “the stranger” in Cecilia Vicuña’s work. A Chilean poet, artist, and “performing artist,” Vicuña has lived in New York since 1980. I refer back to Julia Kristeva’s term “the stranger” not only because it includes those who are not citizens of a country, but also because it includes those who are “strangers” to their own culture and who experiment with that strangeness within themselves. I’m interested in exploring in Vicuña’s work the experience of that strangeness, because from there Vicuña substantially changes her writing and creates a form of representation that inserts herself in a certain cultural place: a place that she chooses to occupy but that is at the same time the place assigned to her by the dominant culture. In a foreign country, Cecilia Vicuña affirms her indigenous Andean role.

As early as a text from 1982, “Choosing the feather,” Vicuña presents her indigenism as a choice that goes back to childhood. The feather becomes a symbol of race and of fighting through the act of writing. In Vicuña, indigenism not only comes from her social position, belonging to the middle class with mestizo roots, but it also comes from a poetic and political choice. Vicuña chooses to represent herself as “Indian,” the despised other, the interior other, ironically and unfairly considered a “stranger” in her own land.

At the same time that she chooses to be Indian, she also proclaims her indigenous roots in a text written in English for an American audience. This position sets out, among others, the following question: How is it that this form of representation isn’t manipulating an expected stereotype for a Latin American in the United States? For some intellectual Hispanic circles in New York, the feather symbol is unsettling. María Negroni, for example, regrets the “must be” of Latino and Latina writers. “If you are Latin American, you will be explicitly political, exotic or folkloric,” she states, and she describes a scene during a poetry reading in a New York loft:

I’ve been in poetry readings where the eventual poet (a South American), dressed as a Shaman, started his spectacle in a loft lighted by candles, with prayers in Quechua, or some other strange language that I didn’t understand, and some stones making noise in his hands. The only thing missing was the feathers! (Cuidad Gótica)

Negroni mentions the symbol of the feather with irritation, and at the same time, further down in her text she shows how the writer, in order to obtain a place in the culture, manipulates a certain American “ingenuity” that asks for the feather to satisfy a desire for exoticism that categorizes what comes from Latin America as primitive folklore. This place, given by the dominant culture, is what defines the process of representation. Terry Goldie, when she refers to the indigenous representation that has appeared since the British Empire, suggests that

the indigene is a semiotic pawn on a chess board under the control of the white signmaker. And yet the individual signmaker, the individual player, the individual writer, can move these pawns within certain prescribed areas.

These movements are, according to Goldie, sex, orality, mysticism and prehistoricity. The position of the indigenous writer is limited to the representation of the expected role. Vicuña develops that role. Her work happens within a frame that circumscribes the two meanings of orality: the oracle, or vision, and oral poetry. This choice is not a manipulation of the stereotype because Vicuña creates a poetic system so elaborate that it transcends such simplification.

In Vicuña’s first bilingual book, published in the United States in 1983, Precario/Precarious, she chooses the feather as the emblem of her poetic “I.” In the first poem, the only one from the 1970s that she includes in the collection, Vicuña asks herself:

Y si yo dedicara mi vida
a una de sus plumas
a vivir su naturaleza
serla y comprenderla
hasta el fin?

Y llegar a una época
en que mis gestos
son las mil varillas
ínfimas de la pluma
y mi silencio
los zumbidos y susurros
del viento en la pluma
y mis pensamientos
ajustados y certeros
como los no-pensamientos
de la pluma

[And if I devoted my life
to one of its feathers
to living its nature
being it understanding it
until the end

Reaching a time
when my acts
are the thousand
tiny ribs of the feather
and my silence
the humming the whispering
of wind in the feather
and my thoughts
sharp precise
as the non-thoughts
of the feather?

                 –translation by Eliot Weinberger]

The feather not only represents a race and a combat weapon but also an existential and poetic posture: she not only conveys the feather but she is the feather, she transforms herself into what the feather represents. Vicuña carries to the extreme the form of expression that she started in the 1970s, inspired by the Guaraníes’ literature, which creates a metaphoric system, relating body parts to elements of nature. In this poem, it is not only the body but also the gestures, the language through silence, and the thoughts that acquire the category of a feather. The inclusion of this poem is significant. Vicuña selects in New York one of the forms of representation that she has already started and establishes it as “her” position. Vicuña assumes her indigenous position not only at the poetic level but also at the artistic level. In Precario/Precarious, she also reproduces her art of precarious work done in Chile and other parts of the Americas, but it is her corporal image that she shows in a photograph that completes her representation: she appears walking in the mountains with two braids and covered by a poncho. The identification with the feather is complete. Cecilia Vicuña is an indigene of the Andes.

This text is part of a paper read at Hispanics, Cultural Locations: An Interdisciplinary Conference, which took place at the University of San Francisco in October 1997.

Argentinean poet LILA ZEMBORAIN has been living in New York since 1985. She is the author of eight poetry collections, two of which have been translated into English: Guardianes del secreto (2002, 2012) / Guardians of the Secret (Las Cruces: Noemi Press, 2009), and Malvas orquídeas del mar (2004) / Mauve-Sea Orchids (New York: Belladonna Books, 2007). From 2000 to 2006, she was the director and editor of the Rebel Road Series. Since 2003 she had curated the KJCC Poetry Series at NYU. From 2009 to 2012 she directed the NYU MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish, where she continues to teach. In 2007 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry.