The Zamani Reader

On West Africa, Britain, and the West Indies in the Eighteenth Century


Latin America

The Sensuality of Sustenance: The Embodiment of Food, Life, and Sex in Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower

Citation: NATALIA TOLEDO, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” In The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems. Trans. from the Spanish and the Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan. Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2015. Pp. xi, 244. $16.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-939419-46-0.

Image credit: The designs of Natalia Toledo’s poems on amate paper that are featured as images in this post were designed by Mexico City Lit.


“You open your legs wide,” writes Natalia Toledo, “when you sit down in the hammock/so that the chocolate chili of your man/may enter your calabash.” In select poems like this one, “Chocolate Chili Pepper,” Toledo puts the erotic dimensions of her poetry on full display. She constructs intimate pieces that are short and sweet, and descend into palpable meaning like water falling over cliff sides. Throughout, she scatters poignant comparisons between food and sex like rocks on the falls, throwing them into the water’s path to create a confusing and entangled fall of sensuality and sustenance. The reader is left like many subjects of these poems, feeling both hungry and aroused. They crave food and they desire orgasm. Most importantly, they question the very idea of artificial boundaries between two of the most primal activities of human life. One is the ritual crafting of food that resurrects life in its subsequent consumption; the other is the intimate crafting of actual people that reproduces life through the cycle of sex, cooking in the womb, and then birth.[1]

The following essay is a short piece that explores select themes from one section of Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower, a translated compilation of her poetry from 2015. The essay begins with a biographical section on Toledo which is intended to provide context for those who have not heard of her work. The essay will then discuss the interwoven themes of food, life, and sex in her section of poems, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” Meanwhile, it will draw upon language from the “Embodiments” track of the Performance Studies discipline. The discipline describes this track in one of its statements by writing that it “deals with questions of representation and documentation of bodies in performance that will encompass not only artist/practitioners but also those working in discursive fields such as literature and languages.” The language of the track also refers to the interaction of “bodies in space” and “bodies in motion.” In the sections of Black Flower relevant to this essay, we will explore how Toledo uses the vehicle of her native language and the themes of food, life, and sex to explore the body as a physical site of sensuality and sustenance, as well as the idea of the “body in motion” as it creates and sustains life.[2]

Continue reading “The Sensuality of Sustenance: The Embodiment of Food, Life, and Sex in Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower”

Shifting Focus: A Review of Six Works on the El Salvadoran Civil War, 1983 – 2010

The second half of our graduate seminar course, “Social Movements and Radical Politics in the Americas,” has moved us out of the United States and to the small, tropical Central American country of El Salvador. Our objective has been to understand “the emergence and afterlife of radical subjectivity” during the Salvadoran Civil War, which took place from 1980 to 1992. The war was a brutal conflict which, by the estimation of one of our authors, took the lives of 75,000 people, disappeared another 7,000 and displaced as many as 500,000. Over the past five weeks, we have learned about the war through an evolving process that began with an impressionistic overview by a journalist and ended with a detailed ethnography by an anthropologist. As a result of this process, we have greatly expanded our understanding of the men and women who “filled the ranks” of the forces that opposed the Salvadoran oligarchy. Moreover, our knowledge of the conflict has grown in such a way as to mirror the understanding of US academics, who have also built on one another’s work. Nonetheless, the job of understanding El Salvador during the Civil War era is far from over. As this review will address in its closing, there are still a few subjects left to be explored.[1]

Continue reading “Shifting Focus: A Review of Six Works on the El Salvadoran Civil War, 1983 – 2010”

A Political Scientist on the El Salvadoran Civil War: A Review of Elisabeth Jean Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action

ELISABETH JEAN WOOD. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 308. Paperback $39.99. ISBN: 9780521010504.

Summary. Insurgent Collective Action is the second book written by political scientist and international studies scholar, Elisabeth Jean Wood. The work is an analysis of rural, insurgent collective action among campesinos in “five case-study areas” of north-central and southeastern El Salvador before, during, and after that country’s brutal Civil War. In the text, Wood attempts to answer two main research questions: “Why did many poor people run extraordinarily high risks to support insurgency?” and “Why did others decline to do so?”[1]

Defining Concepts. Wood defines campesinos as “a person who engages in agricultural activities” but who is not the owner of a property responsible for hiring wage laborers. A campesino “may be a landless day laborer, a permanent wage employee, or a farmer working a small holding.” Wood defines “support for the insurgency” as “the provision to the insurgents of information and supplies beyond the contribution necessary to remain in contested areas, and the refusal to give information and supplies to government forces beyond the necessary contribution.” By “the insurgents,” Wood means the FMLN, a composite of five leftist guerilla factions that fought the Salvadoran Army.[2]

Continue reading “A Political Scientist on the El Salvadoran Civil War: A Review of Elisabeth Jean Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action”

Two American Journalists on the El Salvadoran Civil War: A Review of Mark Danner’s “The Truth of El Mozote” and Joan Didion’s Salvador

MARK DANNER. “The Truth of El Mozote.” The New Yorker (December 6, 1993).

JOAN DIDION. Salvador. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Pp. 108. Paperback $12.95. ISBN: 1862078688.

Summary. The readings for this week in my course HIS 201I, “Social Movements and Radical Politics in the Americas,” are exposé-style portrayals of the Central American country of El Salvador during its brutal Civil War, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. Both of these pieces were written by US journalists who visited El Salvador as reporters, and they originally appeared in mainstream American periodicals. The following review will discuss several aspects of these two works–including their summaries, sources, audience, and arguments–before offering a few pointed criticisms.

The first work is Salvador, a short, broad, and impressionistic portrait of life in the country during the early summer of 1982; the book was written by the iconic American journalist Joan Didion, who spent two weeks at the Hotel Camino Real in the nation’s capital of San Salvador with her husband in mid-June of that same year. Like much of Didion’s other work, the piece sensationalizes its main subject, emphasizing the country of El Salvador as an exceptional place in the world, overflowing with a sense of profound moral and social depravity. More specifically, Didion employs the twin themes of an ineffable society and an atmosphere of transcendent terror in order to summarize her observations of the country during its violent Civil War.

Mark Danner’s feature-length article, “The Truth of El Mozote,” is an in-depth analysis of a brutal massacre that occurred in the rural town of El Mozote in the Morazán Department of northern El Salvdador, on the country’s mountainous border with Honduras. The massacre happened in mid-December of 1981; it was perpetuated by a counter-insurgency regiment of the Government’s Salvadoran Army, called the Atlacatl Battalion, against innocent peasants of El Mozote and several surrounding hamlets; somewhere between 733 and 926 people were systematically slaughtered during the incident. In his history of the massacre, Danner foregrounds the political and transnational context of the late Cold War. He tells the story of how the massacre first came to light in the American press, and how and why the grotesque event “came to be denied” by members of the US government and the journalistic community.

Continue reading “Two American Journalists on the El Salvadoran Civil War: A Review of Mark Danner’s “The Truth of El Mozote” and Joan Didion’s Salvador”

Review of The Black Middle by Matthew Restall

MATTHEW RESTALL. The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 456. $29.95.


The Black Middle is the twelfth book by the colonial Latin Americanist and current Professor of History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University, Matthew Restall. It is the first work to undertake the history of Africans and people of African descent in Yucatán—a peninsular province of New Spain—during its colonial era, approximately 1541-1829. Borrowing the “black middle” thesis from historians like Philip Morgan, Restall positions “Afro-Yucatecans” as social, economic, and political intermediaries between Mayas and Spaniards. Continue reading “Review of The Black Middle by Matthew Restall”

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: