During her lifetime, she was also the most widely read woman writer in Latin America . I don’t honestly know how well known she is today, but she definitely deserves attention for (among other things) her contributions to gothic literature. In this post, I’ll talk about some of Gorriti’s gothic pieces, and share a translation of a short ghost story from her later writing.
Juana Manuela Gorriti came from a politically active family in Argentina. Her father, José Ignacio de Gorriti, was a hero of the Argentine war of independence from Spain, and a supporter of the Unitarian faction of Argentine politics . When the opposing Federalist faction overthrew the Unitarian government of Argentina, the Gorriti famiily escaped to Bolivia.
In Bolivia, Juana Manuela met and married Manuel Isidro Belzu, who eventually became President of Bolivia. The marriage was not happy, and Gorriti separated from Belzu and moved to Peru, where she began her literary life. She started a school, edited journals, and published not only in Peru, but in Chile and Argentina as well. While in Lima, she began to host tertulias, or salons, which were attended by prominent cultural and literary figures of the day, both men and women–especially women, for Gorriti was a feminist and encouraged women to join in the intellectual and political life of their countries.
In 1878 she returned to Argentina, establishing herself in the literary and cultural circles of her native country, while maintaining connections with the (many) notable women writers of the period from all over South America. She died in Buenos Aires in 1892.
Gorriti’s South American Gothic
To quote Chris Baldick’s introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, gothic fiction is a reaction to “the tyranny of the past;” originally, the tyranny and abuses of the Catholic Church. Gorriti’s tales of thwarted love, death, and women driven tragically insane are explicitly in reaction to the despotic and repressive Federalist regime of Manuel de Rosas.
Rosas was overthrown in 1852; the stories discussed below were written between 1852 and 1865, when they were all included in Gorriti’s 1865 collection Suenos y Realidades (Dreams and Realities) . So one can read the madness and tragedy of these tales as metaphors for the madness and divided loyalties of Argentina in the very recent past. Much as the original British expressions of gothic literature expressed anxiety over the return of the Catholic past (and the irrationality and superstition that the British associated with it), Gorriti used gothic tropes to perhaps express anxiety over the return of the brutality and tyranny that she associated with the Federalist regime.
You can find the stories that I’m featuring in this post (and more) in English translation in Dreams and Realities: Selected Fiction of Juana Manuela Gorriti, from Oxford University Press.
La novia del muerto (translated as The Deadman’s Fiancee)
A Romeo and Juliet story set immediately before and after the Battle of La Ciudadela in 1831, when Federalist forces led by Facundo Quiroga soundly defeated the Unitarian stronghold of San Miguel de Tucumán, pretty much ending Unitarian power in Argentina for many years.
Our Romeo is the brave and handsome Unitarian soldier Horacio Ravelo, who is madly in love with Vital Avendaño, the daughter of a prominent Federalist guerrilla. The secret trysts between the two end with the arrival of Quiroga’s troops. Death and madness ensue.
Beyond the tragic melodrama, “La novia del muerto” is a paean to Tucumán’s role in Argentine independence, and a tribute to the prominent Unitarian leaders of Argentina’s early history. Thankfully, the OUP translation includes copious footnotes to explain all the many historical references that pepper the opening of the narrative. Apparently, Gorriti took a little liberty with details, to make the story of the battle more dramatic. I think she made her rhetorical point.
La hija del Mazhorquero (translated as The Mazhorquero‘s Daughter)
This story is about a different kind of tragic love. The Mazorca were Manuel de Rosa’s secret police and enforcers during his tenure as dictator of Argentina. In the story, Roque Black-Soul is the head of the Mazorca, a brutal and bloodthirsty assassin. He dearly loves his daughter Clemencia, a devout young woman who loves him dearly in return, but is horrified at her father’s deeds. Hoping to somehow spiritually redeem her father, Clemencia consecrates her life, in the name of the Virgin, to helping the widows and families of her father’s victims. Eventually, she even secretly comes to the aid of a Unitarian resistor and his lover, who is (of course) the daughter of a prominent Federalist official. This decision, unsurprisingly, has grievous consequences.
El guante negro (The Black Glove)
This differs from the previous two stories, in that it is told primarily, and somewhat sympathetically, from the perspectives of Federalist characters. One of the characters is Manuelita Rosas, the real-life daughter of Manuel de Rosas. The historic Manuela Rosas essentially filled the role of First Lady of Argentina after her mother’s death, softening her father’s image, and becoming something of a mythical figure in the public imagination. She was an often-used symbolic figure in pro-Unitarian literature, either as a conflicted innocent, like Clemencia in “La hija del Mazhorquero”, or as a conniving and sinister woman.
In this story, Manuela is in love with a childhood friend, Wenceslao Ramirez, a Federalist soldier and son of a Federalist officer. But Wenceslao is in love with Isabel, the daughter of a martyred Unitarian.
Isabel discovers the black glove that Manuela gave to Wenceslao as a token of friendship, and in a fit of jealousy, demands that Wenceslao desert and join the Unitarian forces. Wenceslao is horrified at the idea of betraying his family and values, but… this is Isabel…. Then Colonel Ramirez discovers his son’s planned defection, and decides that a dead son would be preferable to a disloyal son. But then Wenceslao’s mother discovers her husband’s intentions….
It’s like an opera, everything ends badly for everyone, except Manuela Rosas.
Si haces mal no esperes bien (If you do wrong, expect no good)
This one is not about the Rosas regime, but about the tragic and often fatal interactions between the indigenous people and the invading Europeans. This was another theme of Gorriti’s work, though her view of the indigenous people was perhaps rather romanticized. A Peruvian officer abducts a young mestiza girl from her indigenous mother. The girl is abducted from the soldiers’ custody (along with a lot of money) by highwaymen, who take the money and leave her behind. A passing French naturalist rescues the abandoned child, adopts her, and takes her back to France.
Fast forward a dozen years. The son of a prominent Peruvian official visits Paris, meets a lovely French orphan who looks remarkably like his sister (I know, I know), marries her and takes her back to Lima. But why do the Andes look so familiar to the young French bride?
Let’s just say this story makes use of another trope that was distressingly common in early gothic literature.
Gorriti’s Ghost Stories
Gorriti wrote another collection relevant to our interests, later in life: Panoramas de la vida: colección de novelas, fantasías, leyendas y descripciones americanas (Panoramas of life: a collection of novellas, fantasies, legends, and American descriptions). The pieces in this 1876 collection include a ghost story novella, El pozo del Yocci (The Yocci Well), some supernatural or supernaturalish tales, some non-supernatural tales, and various meditations and reminiscences about Peru and Argentina.
El pozo del Yocci is a bit long for me to tackle right now, but I did translate one piece, a nice old-school “told round the fire” tale that would be right at home in a collection of Victorian ghost stories: El emparedado: literally “The Walled-in Man.” I titled my translation “In the Wall.”
- You can read my translation of El emparedado (In the Wall) here, at the Ephemera blog.
- Update 8/26/2020: And the translation of El fantasma de un rencor (The Ghost of a Grudge), the followup story to El emparedado, is now up here on Ephemera
If you read Spanish, selected pieces from Panoramas de la vida are at Spanish Wikisource here. You can also find the entire thing (in Spanish, HTML format) at Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes (Tomo I) (Tomo II).
I plan to translate at least a couple more Gorriti pieces in the future. In the meantime, enjoy!
 I’m not an expert on Argentine history, but my understanding is that the Unitarian Party favored a centralized government based in Buenos Aires (with custom taxes from the Buenos Aires port remaining in Buenos Aires), while the Federalists favored a federation of autonomous governments (with the custom taxes distributed to all the provinces). (Back)
 Along with at least one other story on a similar theme, El lucero del manantial (The star of the spring), not included in the English translations. (Back)