POSTCOLONIAL ENCOUNTERS AND THE CARIBBEAN DIASPORA:
"ENCANCARANUBLADO" BY ANA LYDIA VEGA
Colorado State University
Introduction: Colonial Encounter/Postcolonial Encounter
Peter Hulme has suggested that the period of
colonial encounters between Europeans and Native Americans constituted
a privileged moment for European discourse (xiii). These representations
of encounters with the Other were important not only because they
established an ideological justification for the genocide and sacking of
the Americas, but because they reaffirmed European identity through the
use of a barbarous/civilization polarity. As examples of these encounters
Peter Hulme cites the encounters between Columbus and the "cannibals",
and the long series of representations that were derived from this meeting.
Among these representations of the colonial encounter he includes the stories
of Prospero and Caliban, John Smith and Pocahontas, Robinson Crusoe and
Friday, and Inkle and Yariko.1
The encounter that I will here refer to as
"postcolonial,"2 and is characterized by an inversion of the colonial power
relationship, constitutes a moment of extraordinary importance in the representation
of Caribbean cultural identities. These postcolonial encounters take place
within the framework of the Caribbean, as the diasporic community moves
towards the United States. When Cuban, Haitian and Dominican balseros3
reach the shores of the United States or are intercepted at sea, they have
their first encounters with the North American Coast guard or immigration
officials. In her story "Encancaranublado,"4 Ana Lydia Vega uses this postcolonial
encounter to reflect on the cultural identities of the Caribbean. In the
story, a postcolonial
situation is enacted through the interaction between three shipwrecked
Caribbeans, a Puerto Rican and a North American Official. The maritime
frontier of the Caribbean Sea continues to exist as an imperial border,
not in the sense of Bosch, but rather, because it functions as a border
between the United States and the Caribbean.5 In this article I will discuss
the problems of Caribbean cultural identity as they are revealed in the
postcolonial encounter of Ana Lydia Vega's story "Encancaranublado."
In the story, Antenor, a Haitian man has been
adrift on his raft for several days without any sight of land when he discovers
and rescues two other castaways: a Dominican and a Cuban. It is the
hope of finding better living conditions in the United States that leads
the three castaways of the story to risk the uncertain adventure of a sea
voyage. "Es como jugar al descubridor teniendo sus dudas de que la
tierra es legalmente redonda. En cualquier momento se le aparece
a uno el consabido precipicio de los monstruos" (It is like playing the
explorer, filled with doubts about whether the world is actually round.
At any moment one may be faced with the infamous precipice of the monsters)
(13),6 says the narrator in "Encancaranublado." In the second paragraph,
Ana Lydia Vega plays with the idea of the "discovery" of America.
In this sense, the allusions to the roundness of the world and the precipice
of the monsters are very explicit. This play on discovery poses a
sad parody: while the colonizers sacked the resources of the islands
and exploited their peoples, Caribbean immigrants attempt to escape the
conditions that were created by five centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism.
North Americans, as neocolonizers, substitute Europeans in the postcolonial
At first, the three illegal immigrants of
the story find solidarity with each other and lament, among other things
"la jodienda de ser antillano, negro y pobre" (how fucked it is to be Antillan,
black and poor) (14). But soon they enter into a discussion about
the economic, racial and cultural differences between their three nations.
The Cuban considers himself to be superior to the Dominican and the Haitian.
The Dominican, for his part, considers himself to be superior to the Haitian.
Each one of them resorts to cultural and historical stereotypes to denigrate
the cultures of their respective rivals. The Cuban claims that the city
of Santo Domingo looks just the same before and after having suffered a
hurricane. The Dominican, who disparagingly refers to the Haitian as "madamo,"
justifies the 1937 genocide of fifteen thousand Haitians by the dictator
Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The story of Ana Lydia Vega uses a political
allegory to represent the general conditions of the Caribbean. In
his article "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,"
Fredric Jameson claims that the allegory is one of the characteristics
of third-world literature. He says "All third-world texts are necessarily,
I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are
to be read as what I will call national allegories" (69). The raft, as
an allegory, summarizes the most acute problems of Caribbean society: overpopulation,
hunger and political violence. It is precisely these conditions that cause
the men in "Encancaranublado" to move out towards the diaspora. The raft
also represents the different racial, cultural and linguistic communities
of Caribbean countries. To a certain extent, the destinies of the three
immigrants reveal the situations that this community will have to contend
At the end of the story, the castaways are
discovered by the coast guard and brought to Miami where the "imperious"
postcolonial encounter takes place, between a North American official,
the three balseros and a Puerto Rican. The official refers pejoratively
to the Puerto Ricans as "spiks" and orders them to take care of the three
"niggers", ie. the Cuban, the Haitian and the Dominican. Two important
aspects of culture stand out in the discourse of this story; racial and
linguistic. It is the captain of the coast guard ship, described as an
"ario y apolineo lobo de mar de sonrojadas mejillas, áureos cabellos
y azulísimos ojos" (Aryan and Apollonian sea wolf with ruddy cheeks,
golden hair and intensely blue eyes). (20) who refers to the Caribbeans
as "niggers," a word that is used in North America as a pejorative term
for African Americans. It is clear from this that the disparaging captain,
who equalizes African Americans and Caribbeans by conceiving of them in
racially reductionist terms, fails to consider the racial and cultural
differences of Caribbeans.
Anna Lydia Vega uses this postcolonial encounter
to reflect upon Caribbean cultures. Despite their cultural, national, and
linguistic differences, the Cuban, the Dominican and the Haitian find themselves
equally affected by cultural and racial discrimination in their first
confrontation with a representative of North American society. The
identification that takes place between the refugees, which in the beginning
of the story takes the form of solidarity when the Haitian rescues the
Dominican, and later, when these two rescue the Cuban, is recovered at
the end of the story when they together confront the North American official.
Although the Puerto Rican who brings dry cloths to the castaways is also
black (this is indicated by the narrator), in the eyes of the official
he is relegated to the category of "spik", and as a neocolonial subject
possessing the experience of the Puerto Rican diaspora, he becomes a mediator
between the official and the castaways.
Language plays an important role in this text.
First, the title "Encancaranublado" is a word that appears in a well known
El cielo está encancaranublado.
¿Quién lo encancaranublaría?
El que lo encancaranubló
buen encancaranublador sería.
This tongue twister can be seen as a double allegory. First, it
is used as a climatic allegory for economic and political conditions. This
becomes clear when we remember that Vega's book of short stories
is divided into three sections; "Nubosidad Variable" (Variable Cloud Cover),
"Posibilidad de Lluvia" ( Possibility of Rain), and "ñapa de Vientos"
(Additional Winds and Thunderstorms). Moreover, the dedication states the
following: "for the Caribbean confederation of the future, may it rain
soon and then clear."
The second reading of the allegory relates to the
multilinguism of the Caribbean, which is the result of the colonization
of the Caribbean by different European countries. Not only do language
differences create separations within the Caribbean, they also serve, at
least among Spanish speakers, to distinguish between North American and
Latin American culture. This is why the narrator, after hearing the Puerto
Minutos después, el dominicano y el cubano tuvieron
la grata experiencia de escuchar su lengua materna, algo maltratada pero
siempre reconocible, cosa que hasta el haitiano celebró pues parecía
haberla estado oyendo desde su más tierna infancia y empezaba a
sospechar que la oiría durante el resto de sus días.
[Minutes later, the Dominican and the Cuban had the pleasant experience
of hearing their maternal tongue, somewhat mangled but always recognizable,
and even the Haitian rejoiced for it seemed to him as though he had been
hearing it since earliest childhood, and he began to suspect that he would
hear it for the rest of his days]. (20)
As a "spik" and an intermediary, the Puerto Rican speaks English
to the detriment of his Spanish. It is because of this that the narrator
refers to his language as "mangled." Because of the historical relations
between Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic, the Haitian feels
closer to Spanish, and in the United States he will come to form part of
a linguistic minority within the larger linguistic minority of Latin Americans.
As a textual strategy, language is used to establish
different levels of understanding between the characters in the story,
and between readers. Here lies the effectiveness of this postcolonial
encounter. While the mention, in English, of the "pursuit of happiness"
(to refer to the lives of immigrants in the United States), without speech
marks or italics seems unexpected and impertinent to the monolingual reader,
even more surprising are the words spoken by the North American official
during the encounter: "Get those niggers down there and let the spiks take
care of 'em." (20) It is important to point out that this declaration
constitutes what Hulme refers to as a "monological encounter". That
is to say that the official makes a judgmental statement in his own language,
English in this case, in which he both commands and denigrates. In
another language, even in Spanish, this sentence could not be answered
given the power imbalance between the official and the castaways.
Immediately after this scene,
as we were told by the narrator, the three "uneducated" cast aways could
not understand what the bilingual reader can. The castaways are told
by the Puerto Rican that the "gringos" (he uses this denigrating
word as a response to "spik") not only speak another language, a
fact that the "uneducated" castaways might very well have inferred on their
own, but that they are known to be greedy and compassionless even with
their own mothers. This constitutes a second blow to Anglo Saxon culture.
The different level of understanding between the "uneducated" characters
and the "bilingual" reader leads to an unresolved ending, one without closure.
The story is directed to Latinos who
reside in the United Stated, and Puerto Ricans who reside in the United
States or Puerto Rico, that is to say, to readers that are implicated in
the immigration problems, and the racial and cultural discrimination of
the United States. Read by a monolingual reader, who is unaware of
these problems, the story is not as effective.The Puerto Rican character
is presented as equivalent to the narrative voice, in the sense that both
are bilingual. As an author, the multilinguism of Ana Lydia Vega
allows her to situate herself in the different linguistic and cultural
perspectives of the four Caribbean characters and the North American official.
She expresses herself in the Cuban and Dominican dialects of Spanish, in
Haitian Creole, in the "mangled" Spanish of the Puerto Rican, and in the
insulting English of the Cost Guard official.
Thanks to the declaration of the coast
guard official, the postcolonial encounter in Ana Lydia Vega's story
is left without a resolution. There are many possible consequences
that can be inferred by this declaration. In her article "We are (not)
in This Together" The Caribbean Imaginary in 'Encancaranublado' by
Ana Lydia Vega," Diana Vélez poses the following questions about
the future status of the three immigrants in the United States:
Speaking extratextually, does the racism they will face in
the U.S. operate as a unifying factor as it does in the story? If
we read beyond the ending, are all three men going to face the same kind
of prejudice once on land? Won't the Haitian be the most likely to
be sent back given his "economic refugee" status and the definition of
him as "black" rather than Hispanic or better still, as Cuban?
These questions are of crucial importance, in so far as they reflect
upon the political and cultural conditions of Caribbean societies. I would
like to add a couple of observations. First, the official discriminates
equally against the Caribbeans because he is completely ignorant of the
cultural and racial differences between Caribbean countries. Even if the
characters in the story seem unaware of this fact, the Latin American reader,
who is well aware of these differences, is hit hard by the officer's insensitivity.
Second, although we are not told what the fates of these characters will
be, we can assume that given the racism and the convenient immigration
policies of the United States, the Haitian and the Dominican will be deported
whereas the Cuban will be granted political asylum. These immigration practices
were in effect until President Clinton signed a bill that forces all balseros,
without exception, to return to their countries of origin.
For the bilingual Latino reader in the United States
and for the three immigrants in the story (given a scenario in which they
reside permanently in the United States), this encounter has an important
impact on the development of cultural identity. Being considered
as the Other from the North American perspective forces the characters
and the reader alike to "discover" their Caribbeanness from the outside
and in opposition to Anglo Saxon subjectivity. As Angel Rama suggests,
a unified cultural space is formed in opposition to the Other:
[L]a unidad implica un sistema de diferenciaciones con las
culturas externas (incluso las progenitoras)
y sobre todo con el sector anglosajón (Estados Unidos y Canadá)
que fue el primero que sirvió de término opuesto para la
autodefinición de quienes, entonces, resolvieron llamarse latinoamericanos.
[Unity implies a system of differentiating between one's culture, and
other cultures (including the engendering cultures), and even more important,
that which forms part of the Anglo Saxon sector (United States and Canada)
which first served as an oppositional term for the self definition of those
who came to call themselves Latin Americans.] (59)
While Latin America defines itself in relationship to its Anglo
Saxon neighbors, the Caribbean exists as a cultural space that defines
itself in relation to both Latin American and the United States. According
to some anthropologists,7 the unity of the Caribbean as a differentiated
cultural space is undeniable, given its historical, racial and economic
development. The process of differentiation, which Rama has called macroregionalism,
is related to a certain exteriority, or an external perspective that is
used as a means of handling a specific cultural space that is both diverse
Conversely, microregionalism, which is the process
of differentiation within a cultural region, necessarily implies an internal
perspective. It is this type of cultural difference that is discussed
by the characters in the story. Using other words, Stuart Hall also comments
on this when he says:
Visiting the French Caribbean for the first time, I also saw
at once how different Martinique is from, say Jamaica: and this is
not mere difference of topography or climate. It is a profound difference
of culture and history. And the difference matters. It positions Martiniquains
and Jamaicans as both the same and different. (396, italics taken
from the original)
The Dominican, the Haitian, and the Cuban are the same, but different.
Despite this, the Anglo Saxon official in the story cannot perceive the
cultural differences between the Caribbeans. Instead, he can only see them
in racially reductionist terms, which is why he is able to refer to them
disparagingly as three "niggers." The North American official uses a racial
polarization to erase cultural diversity, a common practice in the United
States which does not recognize the diverse racial blendings of Mestizo
Through their experience with exteriority
and in the face of Anglo Saxon rejection, the characters in the story,
with all of their differences, will discover their identities as Caribbeans.
The affirmation by the Puerto Rican that the "gringos no le dan na gratis
ni a su mai" (that the gringos don't give anything for free, even to their
mothers) functions to establish a basis of cultural difference between
Caribbeans and Anglo Saxons. This gesture strengthens the Latino perception
that the mainstays of Anglo Saxon culture are stinginess, individualism
and familial disfunction.
The mother, becomes a code that exposes the
opposite culture values of Anglos and Latinos. It is not accidental that
in the story the castaways express their joy at hearing their "mother"
tongue. The "maternal" functions simultaneously as a bond of cultural identity
between the Caribbean (as their mutual symbol of home), in order
to caricature North American culture. This is also why we are told
that "los antillanos fueron cargados sin ternura hasta la cala del barco"
(the Antillans were roughly loaded into the boats hull) (20), which suggests
a dichotomy between the mother tongue (familiar) and English (commercial).
The reference to the North American as an ungrateful son, to the absence
of the mother tongue, and to the absence of the mother tongue and tenderness,
constitute an image of exile and the cold personal relationships facing
poor Caribbean immigrants in the United States.
Unlike the colonial encounters between
Europeans and Native Americans that I referred to in the beginning of this
paper, the postcolonial encounter between North Americans and Caribbean
in Ana Lydia Vega story provokes reflection upon the Caribbean diaspora
and its cultural identities. This postcolonial encounter, as a textual
correlative to the colonial encounter, traces an arch that spans centuries
of colonialism. The postcolonial encounter reveals power relations between
North Americans (as substitutes for European colonizers) and Caribbean
immigrants, since it is the same conditions that are created by colonialism
and neocolonialism alike that cast them into the sea in search of a better
life. Ultimately, they are forbidden the riches that they create. "The
infamous precipice of the monsters" that the narrator refers to in the
story is an allegory for the profound differences and for the dangers that
are implied in crossing the imperial border.
Translated by Shanna Lorenz
I want to express my gratitude to my colleagues Jaume Martí-Olivella,
Alvaro Félix Bolaños and Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé for reading
this manuscript and giving me their helpful comments and suggestions. A
version of this article was read at the XXVI Conference of the Canadian
Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies held in Toronto in
1. Each chapter of Peter Hulme's book Colonial Encounters deals with
one of these encounters.
2. I base my notion of "Post-colonial encounters"
on the ideas in Peter Hulme's book. The "Post-colonial encounter"
takes place in a post-colonial context. The power relationship inversion
that I refer to involves the ironic representation of the Caribbean
balseros as conquerors by the narrator, when in fact they have none
of the power that is usually ascribed to conquerors.
3. The Spanish term balseros, which literally translate
as "rafters," is used to refer to refugees who come to the
United States in makeshift sea vessels such as home made rafts.
4. Ana Lydia Vega's second book, which takes its
name from the short story "Encancaranublado," won First Prize in
the Casa de las Américas in 1982.
5. Juan Bosch calls the Caribbean an "Imperial Frontier"
because the Caribbean was the space where the European Empires struggled
for four centuries for the control of the colonies. The United States
entered into the struggle during the Spanish-American War at the end of
the last century. As the result of this war, Spain lost its last
two colonies in the continent: Cuba and Puerto Rico.
6. All translations of Vega's short story were made
by the translator of this article.
7. In his book, Transculturación Narrativa en America
Latina, Angel Rama includes Charles Wagley's and Darcy Ribeiro's
classifications of Latin America in cultural regions. According to Wagley,
the Caribbean belongs to a region called Afro-America. This region is characterized
by plantation economy, slavery, African cultural heritage , and the
wide spread genocide of Indigenous communities. In Ribeiro's classification,
the Caribbean belongs to a region called Pueblos-nuevos, which is a melting
pot of European, African and Indigenous cultures.
Bosch, Juan. De Cristóbal Colón a Fidel Castro: el
Caribe, Frontera Imperial.
Madrid: Alfaguara, 1970.
Emmanuelli-Huerta, Johanna. "Antillanos, Náufragos, Míseros
y Trashumantes: A un
siglo del Toque de Queda de Martí."
3.1 (Fall 1987): 101-104.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." In Colonial Discourse
Post-Colonial Theory. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1994.
Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters. New York: Methuen, 1986.
Jameson, Fredric. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational
Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
Maríñez, Pablo. El Caribe bajo las Redes de la Política
Domingo: Editora Universitaria de la
Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo,
Rama, Angel. "Regiones, Culturas y Literaturas." In Transculturación
América Latina. Mexico
City: Siglo XXI, 1987.
Vega, Ana Lydia. Encancaranublado. Río Piedras: Editorial
Vélez, Diana. "We are (not) in This Together: The Caribbean
Encancaranublado' by Ana Lydia
Vega." Callaloo 17.3 (Summer 1994):
Williams, Patrick & Laura Chrisman. Ed. Colonial Discourse and
Theory. New York: Columbia University
Last Updated: 9/3/99