Smita Tripathi1

Los poetas se hicieron arma,
Los pintores se hicieron arma,
La voz segura se hizo arma,
La pluma honrada se hizo arma.

– Aída Cartagena Portalatín, Escalera para Electra

Often referred to by friends and family as “la Cartagena” or “doña Aída”, Aída Cartagena Portalatín (1918-1994) possessed a vast and formidable array of talents and ventures.  A poet, a founding editor of several publishing houses, a scholar and professor of art history and anthropology, a novelist, a national representative to UNESCO, she was a true pioneer in Dominican letters. Additionally, she was a very avid traveler, to places all over the world – frequently to Paris, Athens, New Delhi, London, New York, and many more. Her frequent traveling later became a source of inspiration in itself: according to Daisy Cocco de Filippis, one of the foremost scholars on Portalatín’s oeuvre: “To a younger generation of Dominican women writers, Portalatín’s travels have come to symbolize Dominican woman’s flight from her imposed surroundings, her home, and her taking on a world until then closed off from women’s experience” (DD 77-78). Interestingly, Portalatín herself credits the many peers she met on such travels – including Andre Breton, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortázar, Rosario Castellanos – for her erudition, even more so than her studies. In her last interview, she says: “I insist that, although I have had to work very hard on my intellectual formation, I have benefitted the most from my relationships with others. Take for instance my novel, Escalera para Electra” (FI 1083).

In this paper, I identify and situate Portalatín’s oeuvre and her avant-garde literary production. I then highlight certain critical and discursive elements in her novelEscalera para Electra (19692), including one detailed example, that illustrate ingenious, even revolutionary, attempts to resist authoritarian rule on the level of literary discourse. In a recent ‘dictionary of Dominican literature’, Aída Cartagena Portalatín is described thus: “Fue una de las pocas escritoras dominicanas de la primera mitad del siglo XX que logró levantar e imponer enérgicamente su voz en un medio literario predominantemente masculino” (Gutiérrez 83).  The vast majority of critics laud Portalatín in no uncertain terms and deservedly so for, given her politically engaged and socially conscious writing, Portalatín was in many ways an exemplary ‘public intellectual’. Interestingly, however, Portalatín herself eschewed political associations to her oeuvre: “There’s been a great deal of misunderstanding about me […] I am not a politician. I am a citizen of a country that is mine, and I turn my back on what’s wrong. I don’t particularly like politics. I could have been a minister or anything like that if I had wanted to” (FI 1081). Evincing a similar insistence on individualism in the context of the avant-garde group most often associated with her, La Poesía Sorprendida, she describes her involvement thus: “Actually I had been a poet on my own for quite some time before joining La Poesía Sorprendida […] In that group each person was doing his or her own thing. My poems first appeared in the group’s journal [of the same name] […] but I did not go to them to ask to join. They came to me” (FI 1085).

Published between October 1943 and May 1947, when it was prematurely shut down by Trujillo (De Filippis 76), La Poesía Sorprendida was a literary journal founded in the Dominican Republic by Eugenio Fernández Granell, an exiled Spaniard; Alberto Baeza Flores, a Chilean expatriate; and a group of young Dominican writers: Franklin Mieses Burgos, Mariano Lebrón Saviñón, and Freddy Gatón Arce (PS V3).  Aída Cartagena Portalatín joined the group in its early stages (although her name only formally appears in Issue Number 14, in early 1945, where she is listed under the “Junta de Colaboración de “La Poesía Sorpendida”, PS 248). La Poesía Sorprendidaquickly becamea vibrant ‘avant-garde’ journal which published short fiction, essays and even artwork from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States.  As one critic affirms: “Thus during the gloomiest days of the war, a new revolutionary hope was kindled” (Rosemont 122).

La Poesía Sorprendida was influenced in part by Surrealism, particularly after the visit of André Breton to Santo Domingo (en route to New York).  Breton’s endorsement of the journal appeared in Issue Number 17 (1946) on a page entitled “Lealtad Ejemplar”, where it is written up as follows: “Esta labor hay que darla a conocer a Europa, nos dijo el creador del surrealismo. Pueden estar Uds. seguros que en hispanoamérica, no existe una revista de tan noble calidad. Muchos de sus colaboradores gozan de renombre universal” (PS 292).  However, despite what seems at least an affiliation with the movement spearheaded by Breton, the group had published a direct critique of it two years earlier, just a year after founding the journal (Number 12, 1944, PS 162-3). In a piece entitled “Notas Sobre la Aventura del Surrealismo”, Jorge Andrade perceives the movement as ultimately geographically limited, although interesting in its objectives. Interestingly, Andrade separates his critique of the movement from that of Breton, whom he describes as having accessed “modern magic” or “poetic priesthood”4.

The journal’s literary span quickly radiated outward from Santo Domingo: as Gatón Arce highlights in the “Introduction” to the collected volumes of La Poesía Sorprendida, its pages represented some twenty-seven countries, largely from Latin America and the Caribbean with contributions from Germany and Spain as well. Contributors included Lezama Lima, Paul Éluard, Paul Valéry, Juan Ramón Jiménez and Claribel Alegría. Two of Cartagena Portalatín’s most highly acclaimedpoemarios date from this period: Víspera del Sueño (1944) and Del sueño al mundo (1945). For many critics, including fellow writer and critic Chiqui Vicioso, this was an especially rich and suggestive period in Cartagena Portalatín’s oeuvre.

In addition to her poetry, Escalera para Electra, arguably Portalatín’s most renowned novel, offers illustrative examples of her exemplary ability5 to compress a tremendous range of signification into a few compact lines of text. An unconventionally short novel at one hundred fifty pages, it is also an experimental one that – if one is to believe its self-reflexive narrator – is in part a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s call for a ‘new type of novel’. Portalatín spent three months in Greece (LI 1085) to fully prepare for this novel, which was immediately appreciated. Carlos Fuentes, for example, commented: “A great deal of learning went into the writing of this book” (LI 1083). The novel’s title makes reference to Euripides’ play and textual excerpts from the latter continually interrupt the discursive flow of the former.  Escalera para Electra is not structured linearly or chronologically and the lines between narrators and narratives frequently blur. Interspersed throughout are references to real contemporary political and social developments in the Dominican Republic and the world, as well as imaginary letters and cablegrams sent by the protagonist of the novel. Interruptions occur discursively and visually in Portalatín’s novel as well: at times words in all capital letters disrupt the text – “Y NO” does for a large portion of the novel and then “Y SI” does as well (118-119). Another example of the use of capital letters to disrupt the discursive flow is with the names of various commercial brands interrupting the narrative reality (85).

To briefly summarize the novel, the main narrator is Hélène, who refers to herself and asserts her identity countless times in the novel, almost always identically: “YO, Helene, biógrafa de Swain […]”. Swain is the daughter of the family – corresponding to Electra in Euripides’ play.  This correspondence to contemporary Dominican reality is asserted repeatedly, such as: “Electra nació en mi pueblo. Le amplío: mi pueblo está en Dominicana, Antillas, América” (31).  Cuban scholar Luisa Campuzano describes the novel’s connection between the Dominican Republic and Greece as having contemporary political valence in addition to the same classic Greek literary referent thus:

[…] el paralelo que va desarrollando entre la vida política griega y dominicana contemporánea a través de la comparación – también irónica – de los respectivos regímenes dictatoriales – el de Trujillo y el de los coroneles – y su aparato militar, del intervencionismo norteamericano, de los parecidos grados de miseria, de la emigración, en fin, de todo lo que […] permitía una identificación de la periferia europea con el tercer mundo. (201, 2003 ed.)

The latter “identification between the European periphery and the Third World6” is an early incarnation of what today is sometimes referred to as South-South dialogue (ref. the ‘Global South’). The same critic refers to the textual “palimpsesto” (197, 2003 ed.) and emphasizes that the transgressive aspect of the novel is not just the act of rewriting the classic myth, but rather the resulting comparisons engendered between the Dominican Republic and Greece throughout (201, 206, 2003 ed.).

Returning to our summary of the novel, Swain is the daughter of don Plácido, a typically despotic patriarch. When he finds out that his wife, Rosario, whom he treats with the utmost scorn, has been having an affair with a laborer named el Chano, he kills the latter. He also ships off his two sons to his mother, suddenly unsure if he is even their father. Then he forces his wife to have sexual relations and from that violent act Swain is conceived. Her name is given by a maid who worked with an American family during the Occupation and the choice of name has interesting gendered signification for Swain is (somewhat antiquated) English for a male servant. As one critic insightfully argues: “The project of defamiliarization is announced in the masculine-sounding name, Swain, that the author confers on her female protagonist, who, like her fictive writer, Hélène, bears a non-Hispanic-sounding name that implies a redefinition of the universal” (Williams 220). This discursive ‘universalization’ can be seen as a parallel to the earlier one between the socio-political and cultural contexts of the Dominican Republic and Greece as well.

Don Plácido has an incestuous relationship with Swain when she is older. Interestingly, all this while, the mother, Rosario, has been almost entirely silent in the novel, seeming to eschew any exercise of her agency. When a laborer sees Don Plácido and Swain together, and brings Rosario to see them too, the latter then kills Don Plácido. After that, Swain starts having one sexual relation after another while Rosario falls in love with her doctor, with whom she is soon pregnant. Intensely jealous of the doctor, Ernesto, because of explicit comparisons made between him and her father, don Plácido, Swain tries to seduce Ernesto unsuccessfully. Enacting vengeance on her mother in the most violent manner possible, Swain watches her mother and unborn sibling bleed to death and refuses to help them after they have an ‘accident’ – it is unclear if Swain deliberately placed a wooden log in her mother’s way, causing her to trip and fall and then hemorrhage to death. Swain and her one surviving brother, Ramón César, then join together in a relationship that is highly suggestively incestuous as well.

The novel is fascinating because it offers such a range of signification on so many discursive levels. To give one particularly suggestive example, let us look at the “CAPÍTULO SIN NÚMERO.” Between Chapters 13 and 14 lies this intriguing two-page “CAPÍTULO SIN NÚMERO” seemingly dedicated to Sartre’s meditations on the novel: “Sartre habla sobre la novela” (51).  The following page exhibits an interesting, unconventional layout that interrupts the linear chapter-based structure of this novel.  First, there is a quote from an interview with Alejo Carpentier dated 1960, and it is placed at an angle (about 45 degrees) that dominates the top half of the page.  The words presented at an angle are those of Sartre:

-SARTRE: El problema de escribir otra novela. Es evidente que nuestra visión del hombre actual, en función de sus distintos contextos – en lo social, en lo colectivo, en lo sub-consciente; en su voluntad de decir sí o de decir no a cuanto lo circunda… – reclama un nuevo tipo de novela. Todavía seguimos presos en las mallas de la novela psicológica del siglo XIX.  Busco otra manera de decir las cosas, pero aún no la he encontrado. [Entrevista con Alejo Carpentier. Cuba, 1960]. (52)

By citing this particular quotation of Sartre and in this way, Cartagena-Portalatín’s narrator – Helene – is engaging with it. Escalera para Electra is itself an experimental novel but the angular presentation is almost as if to say that this experimenting is not in simple response to Sartre’s call for a “new type of novel”.  In fact, Portalatín’s novel takes on Sartre’s thoughts on the novel ‘at an angle’.  In other words, it does not simply apply or reply to Sartre’s comment but rather, places it half-way on its head quite literally.  The result is an engagement between the narrator and Sartre but also an interrogation of the latter by the former.  In addition to the narrator, the reader is also drawn into the dynamic of questioning discourse.

The second half of the page is dominated by another quote from an interview with Sartre dated 1956.  This time, the citation appears in traditional horizontal, left-to-right format.  While refusing to respond directly to the interviewer, Abelardo Arias, Sartre still inserts his thoughts on intellectual and political commitment  as well as what a novel ‘should be’:

-¿Entonces, usted es lo que se llama un progresista, pero no pertenece a ningún partido político?  SARTRE: Exactamente; no pertenezco a ningún partido; pero creo que un intelectual debe ser un hombre de izquierda, un progresista. -¿Y la novela contemporánea debe estar, en su opinión, impregnada de la misma preocupación social? SARTRE: No, creo que la novela debe representar un aspecto total del hombre, de su vida; que no debe limitarse a la faz política, social o psicológica, sino abarcar todos sus aspectos. [Segunda entrevista con Abelardo Arias. <Mundo Argentino>, 23 de mayo de 1956.] (52)

What could the difference in angular presentation mean about the two quotes?  I suggest that the first one, presented at an angle, is meant to symbolize engagement but also an interrogation – of Sartre’s idea of what the ‘new novel’ should be – by the narrator Helene and/or Portalatín herself.  The second citation is rather more straight-forward so it takes the ‘normal’ position on the page that is accorded to textual representation. Perhaps the narrator’s insistence that the story of Electra could have happened in “Dominicana” is a symbolic way of “representar un aspecto total del hombre” (not that this novel ‘applies’ Sartre but rather that it uses Sartre’s statement to illustrate its own purpose). Separating the two block quotations are 4 fragments of text, physically located towards the right of the page and in between the top and bottom halves of the page.  They appear to be from a fragment of another interview but not enough is textually present to decipher the original content7. This fascinating pause in the meta-narrative of the novel to reflect precisely on the function and composition of the novel-as-genre is particularly illustrative of the type of ingenious, even revolutionary, discursive elements that punctuate Portalatín’s oeuvre.

In terms of how gender operates in the novel, and keeping in mind the possibility of a feminist lens for reading this text, one critic has an interesting take: “[…] Cartagena’s narrative also displaces existing paradigms, because it conforms to neither the psychoanalytical nor the anthropological model of gender identity. Swain survives her mother’s death, but she remains an empty signifier: she does not replace her mother as the ground of social order and continuity, because she neither marries nor chooses to have children” (Williams 226). The same critic then accurately ties that narrative twist to the author’s own life: “For the story of the social constraints on two twentieth-century Dominican women [Hélène and Swain] is told by a woman [Portalatín] who, while occupying the position of daughter and sister, remains beyond confinement within the patriarchal family” (226). The latter is a reference to Portalatín never becoming a wife or a mother. Cartagena Portalatín’s work is of a clearly feminist positionality and yet, she may not have overtly referred to herself as one. The question, however, becomes: what would it have meant for her to be one, given that the contemporary Acción Feminista Dominicana was forced to espouse a conciliatory politics of homebound wifedom-as-feminism, particularly under Trujillo (Winds of Change).

Portalatín’s oeuvre transcends even hemispheric bounds, as can be seen in her recodification of the classic Greek play by Euripides in Escalera para Electra and a similar recodification in her other novel, La tarde en que murió Estefanía. Thus, there is a seeming insistence on the universal aspects of much of her subject matter. One example from Escalera is a line of text that traces a (Judeo-Christian) genealogy of all women since the beginning of time, using all capital letters: “EVA-CLITEMENESTRA-ELECTRA-ROSAURA-SWAIN” (86).  At the same time, however, there is also an insistence on the particularity of national belonging to “her” Dominican Republic or “mi pueblo”, which repeats frequently in the novel. In one such moment, although the novel rests on a fundamental connection traced between Greece and the Dominican Republic (symbolized in the use of Euripides’ play), “mi pueblo” remains a source of ancient origins as well. “[…] señora Helene, deje a los griegos tranquilos con sus tesoros arcaicos. También usted tiene en su país tesoros arcaicos y maravillosos trabajados por los indígenas taínos” (142).

This tension between the universal and the particular operates in the politics of publication and the circuits of commodity exchange as well. Witness the reflexive musings of the main narrator – Hélène – on, for example, the politics of publishing that affected Portalatín herself: “Qué tengo yo para ganar o perder con este libro que no encontrará editores, porque dirán que no es una novela […] Que Hélène no es retórica […] Que la señora Hélène es antilógica porque no se quedó pegada como una traza a la tradición inmemorial” (100). Going beyond what is literally conveyed, there is much to unpack in just three short sentences. When she wrote Escalera para Electra, a friend sent the manuscript in to the Seix Barral contest in Spain. Though it was a finalist, and despite the support of other writers like Carlos Fuentes, Don Carlos Barral objected to her getting the award because the novel was so short (LI 1083). Hence “porque dirán que no es una novela”. The reference to being “antilógica porque no se quedó pegada como una traza a la tradición inmemorial” is likely a reference to the fact that, in her own words, Portalatín “broke with traditional poetry with La Tierra Escrita [1967]. It was a scandal” (LI 1081).  This novel was first published just three years later. This quote was just one example of the hyper-signification of the textual discourse deployed in this novel. There are countless others, the elucidation of which has unfortunately not yet been undertaken thoroughly8.

There is also a significant critical engagement with the question of race in the Dominican Republic in Portalatín’s work. In the anthology Surrealist Women, she is credited as being “[…] a major proponent of Négritude in the Spanish-speaking world […]” (Rosemont 122). Thus, in this aspect of her discursive production, too, she was a pioneer. One critic describes it thus: “a courageous blow for Dominican racial identity, until recently linked to the European not to the African ancestor […] for the first time in Dominican poetry, a poet faces her own racial identity without having to resort to euphemisms or justifications” (DD 81).  Her work went further than national borders by evoking the African American context in the United States as well. For example, one short poem denounces the senseless murder of four young African-American girls in the US (DD 82). As an avid traveler, Portalatín had a very global cultural perspective. Pausing for a moment on her engagement with the U.S., one sees that in addition to being explicitly critical of the U.S. Occupations (and the deep capitalist penetration of the Caribbean more generally), Portalatín also tackled issues of race, as we have seen, and culture. “A Passion for Donna Summer” is a short story that Portalatín mentions was more profitable for her than much of her poetry because it was published in English translation many times (LI 1084).

Although an influence on younger writers in the Dominican Republic (ref. Cocco de Filippis, see earlier), Portalatín appears to not have been very optimistic about contemporary literary contributions. When the interviewer asks her opinion on the “poets coming up” in the Dominican Republic, her response is: “There are poets coming up?” (FI 1085) Similarly, talking about “younger [Dominican] authors”, she says: “[…] none of them have produced anything worthwhile yet or done anything else for their country. I’m old fashioned about something. I think that for writers there is a certain level of maturity that cannot be improvised, and I don’t see that in newer writers” (LI 1085).

This paper has attempted to give a brief overview of a writer who labored tirelessly on many discursive fronts, writing poetry, short stories and novels; who traveled the world, cultivating innumerable valuable friendships with contemporary writers and artists; who taught art history and anthropology, and conducted original research (e.g. cataloging Taíno cultural artefacts), and who founded various editorials and journals to present both her own writing and that of her peers. Her avant-garde style and choice of themes, her resistance to authoritarianism via surrealist techniques, her awareness of universal referents rooted in a particular national identity and her explicit engagement with issues of race, whether at home or abroad, comprise some of the axes of critical engagement that made Aída Cartagena Portalatín a truly pioneering femme de lettres and public intellectual.

1 This paper is a preliminary analysis the work of Dominican writer, Aída Cartagena Portalatín, which will be developed into one chapter of my dissertation: “‘Rebeldes con causa’: Towards a Feminist Intellectual History of the Caribbean” . My dissertation constructs a literary history of four avant-garde women writers in the Caribbean whose foundational participation in their respective cultural milieus has often been misread, marginalized, erased, suppressed or neglected. Remarkable in their personal, professional and political commitments, the literary production of these writers (1930s-1970s) was marked by an urgency that responded to their respective authoritarian contexts. The title of my dissertation refers to one of Portalatín’s books: Las culturas africanas – rebeldes con causa (1986).

2 Originally published in 1969, the author completely rejected the first edition when she edited a second one in 1975. On the copyright page of the latter is written: “La autora rechaza la primera edición de esta novela por las múltiples erratas que dañan el texto.” I cite from the 1975 edition.

3 PS refers to the collected writings of La Poesía Sorprendida alongside several posterior critical essays on the group and its journal. Arce, Freddy Gatón, ed. Publicaciones y opinions de la Poesía Sorprendida. San Pedro de Macorís, República Dominicana: Ediciones de la Universidad Central del Este (UCE), 1988.

4 “[…] Bretón, cuyos descubrimientos tienen algo de modrena magia o de sacerdocio poético que se nutre de desconocidas reveleaciones […]” (PS 163).

5 To give a sense of Portalatín’s work, I will briefly cite a few lines from arguably her most famous poem, “Una mujer está sola” (1953). “Una mujer está sola” has been called the “first feminist manifesto” of the Dominican Republic by Chiqui Vicioso (cited in DD 79), another noted scholar of Portalatín’s work . The poem begins truly unforgettably: “Una mujer está sola. Sola con su estatura. Con los ojos abiertos. Con los brazos abiertos. Con el corazón abierto como un silencio ancho.” (A woman is alone, Alone with herself, With open eyes and open arms, With a heart opened by a wide silence – trans. Cocco de Filippis & cited in DD 79). “A woman is alone” but by no means is this solitude a hopeless, helpless condition, for a woman also has “open eyes”, with which she sees everything, and “open arms”, with which she welcomes everyone, and finally, she has a “heart open like a deep silence”**. The discursive absence there – the “deep silence” – appears to indicate and even invite a dialogue. “Una mujer está sola” and Cartagena Portalatín’s other writings in the 1950s and 1960s set into motion what Cocco de Filippis calls “the demythification of the role of women in the literature of the Dominican Republic” (DD 79). ** my translation.

6 Translation mine.

7 The above-mentioned statements refer to the 1975 edition of Escalera para Electra, which took the place of the first edition for the author.  Interestingly, the 2003 edition of the novel displays this page (60) very differently – the first block quote appears horizontally (although the first sentence is divided seemingly arbitrarily) while the second one appears at an angle.  In this version, the four lines of undecipherable text make more ‘sense’ as they are physically presented as a scrap torn off along with the rest of the quotation (2nd block quote above) and positioned spatially on the page.  What is intriguing is that the 1975 edition removes all trace of a newspaper or magazine cutting so it appears to have been written that way by the author.  The 2003 edition makes it look like someone cut out and pasted on the quotation haphazardly, hence the angle and the fragment from another interview.  This edition also shows corrections made in text alongside the original where the 1975 edition contains the errors alone.  Thus, a different edition alone can create a different frame of meaning and interpretation altogether.

8 For example, there is a critique of capitalism (70, 85), a critique of Marxism (69), references to the American occupation (11, 69, 73), to Trujillo (69), modifications to Freud via Malinowski (28), etc.

Campuzano, Luisa. “Electra en Quisqueya” Hispanista: Primera Revista Electrónica de los 
Hispanistas de Brasil, no. 11http://www.hispanista.com.br/revista/artigo96.htm. ** This essay was republished in the 2003 edition of Escalera para Electra and originally appeared online in Hispanista.

Cartagena Portalatín, Aída. Escalera para Electra. 2nd ed. Santo Domingo: Editora Taller, 1975.
González, Carolina. “A Poet on Her Own: Aída Cartagena Portalatín’s Final Interview.”
Callaloo 23(3)(Summer 2000): 1080-1085. ** In-line citation appears as FI (Final Interview).

Gutiérrez, Franklin. “Cartagena Portalatín, Aída.” Diccionario de la literatura dominicana.
Santo Domingo: Editora Búho, 2004. 83-86.

De Filippis, Daisy Cocco. “Aída Cartagena Portalatín: A Literary Life. Moca, Dominican
Republic, 1918-94.” Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers. Ed. Miriam DeCosta-Willis. Kingston, Miami: Ian Randle Publishers, 2003. 76-87. ** In-line citation appears as DD (Daughters of the Diaspora).

Mena, Miguel D. “Sobre la presente edición de <<Escalera para Electra>>.” Escalera para 
Electra. Ed. Miguel D. Mena. Santo Domingo, Berlín: Ediciones del Cielonaranja, 2003.

Rosemont, Penelope. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1998.

Stinchcomb, Dawn F. The Development of Literary Blackness in the Dominican Republic.
Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Williams, Lorna. “The Inscription of Sexual Identity in Aída Cartagena’s Escalera para 
Electra” MLN 112 (1997): 219-231.



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