Fe en disfraz (2009) begins with the narrator and historian, Martín Tirado, who works for Fe Vermejo, an eminent historian and museologist from the University of Chicago. She hires Martín to digitize seventeenth-and eighteenth-century petitions of enslaved women abused by their masters and their appeals to the governor, as prescribed by the slavery laws of the early Spanish colonial period and articulated in the Real Cédula of 1789.
The voice of the enslaved in Latin America is limited to Juan Francisco Manzano’s Autobiografía (written in 1835) and Esteban Montejo and Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón (1966) in Cuba. The absence of other autobiographies in Cuba and Latin America suggests a rejection of European writing and culture as expressed in the actions of runaway slaves. Nevertheless, historians are looking to enslaved documents to uncover additional representation of the marginal black voice. Gloria García Rodríguez’s Voices of the Enslaved in Nineteenth-Century Cuba, María de los Ángeles Acuña Léon’s “Mujeres esclavas en la Costa Rica del Siglo XVIII: Estrategias frente a la esclavitud,” and Elizet Paye Iglesias’ “Vendida desde el vientre de su madre: Josefa Catarina y los esclavos de Manuela de Zavaleta (1750-1835)” are three notable examples. As I have discussed elsewhere, literature serves as a counter discourse to history and narrates a story that history could not tell.1 In Santos-Febres’ novel, Fe Vermejo divulges enslaved women’s petitions.
Fe, an Afro-Venezuelan scholar, entices Martín, a white Puerto Rican, to participate in a ritual, whose origins can be traced to the Celtic rites of Sam Hain that marked the end of the harvest, that is, the end of summer and the start of winter. The ritual in antiquity transcends time and place, from its beginning, with its own culture and language, to other regions and countries with different cultural norms. These ceremonies recover a past in the present; they represent the conjunction of two or more moments outside of chronological or Western time and make projections into the future. In the opening moments of the novel, Martín states:
If we were in pagan times, the shamans would have relit the sacred fire, called the tribe together with music and songs. We, the tribe, would proceed to put out the lights in our huts and, in the dark, we would retrieve from secret places the skins of buffalo, mountain lions, boars. Our flesh would prepare to gather the scents of sacrificed animals, their essences still present in their pelts; in the disguising skins, their spirits.
…We would light the sacred pyre. In the fire would burn the pulp of unbitten fruit. Among the spirals of smoke would appear the ephemeral signs of what is to come: droughts, births, the best months to hunt. (13)
The ceremony was officialized in the tenth century and accepted by Rome in the sixteenth century. In the present it concurs with the Día de los Fieles Difuntos, Day of the Dead, in Spanish and Hispanic American cultures. November 1st is festive and November 2nd is more solemn and devoted to prayer. The day before All Saints Day, or Día de los Muertos, is marked by the Irish and Scottish holiday known as Halloween. “A rite is taking place out there… Tomorrow will be November 1. Today, the people run through the streets in disguise, hiding in the shadows of the longest night of the year” (13).
The ritual, in antiquity and in the modern period, creates a suspension in societal life, to escape from the present and return to a previous time and order. The novel is framed by Fe and Martín’s rituals during Halloween and All Saints Day. Therefore, time in the novel is not sequential or chronological, but ritualistic. The novel begins in media res, that is, after Martin and Fe meet, and Fe gives Martín a straight razor. The Prologue refers to the Ritual of Sam Hain, and Chapter I to the ritual of the straight razor Fe asks Martín to perform before they meet. Martín complies with Fe’s conditions: shower in the evening, pay attention to the pubic area, face, and nails, do not conceal your natural scent, shave the crotch… These acts also produce a feeling of excitement and anticipation.
Later in the novel, or earlier in the chronology, in Chapter XVI, after signing the agreement with the Ibero-American Foundation, Martín travels throughout the world, and meets Fe clandestinely. The novel moves backwards in time, in search of an origin of the straight razor or towards its own Carpentierian “Viaje a la semilla,” then forward towards its chronological conclusion. In Chapter XXI, Martín refers to a rite that begins during their first encounter, when Fe invites Martín to dinner. They kiss, move to the bedroom, Fe dresses the harness, whose rods pierce into her skin and leave deep scars, and she pleads with Martín to make love to her. In Chapter XXII, Martín mentions a second meeting with Fe, the dawn of October 31, before the start of November 1. And in Chapter XXIII, at the XXVII meeting of the Ibero-American Association of History in Madrid, Fe gifts Martín the navaja toledana. Fe undresses and Martín observes the keloids on her back, visible from the waist down, caused by the harness. He takes the straight razor and cuts Fe’s right cheek and his own pubic area, marking their first ritualistic encounter. At the end of the novel, Chapter XXIV, Martín anticipates their ritualistic meeting.
Early in the chronology, Fe saves the seminary, catalogues her investigation, and initiates a historical exhibition about immigrants to Chicago, to raise funds from the alumni body. In the meantime, she uncovers documents about enslaved women with Spanish and Portuguese names—some who became owners of plantations and others who denounced abuses and requested protection under the law. She focuses on the region of Minas Gerais and travels to the Recogimiento de las Macaúbas convent. In conversation with a nun, she discovers that the nun’s mother and grandmother were also members of the same religious order, representing three generations of nuns. “Even still she [her grandmother] was born, and her mother. Her whole stock was born. All tramps and whores” (24). At the Hermandad de las Mercedes she stumbles upon additional documents and, in a hidden attic, Xica da Silva’s elegant dress and harness, later sported by her daughters and Fe.
The presentation of the slavery documents continues the novel’s non-sequential or chronological order. Though Martín tells the reader of the existence of many documents, he only reproduces a handful. The first petition appears in Chapter III and is presented before Governor Alonso de Pires, in Minas Gerais, in 1785. The enslaved Diamantina files a complaint on behalf of her five children, Justo, Isidoro, Joaquín, Fernando, and Ricardo. However, in a previous petition to the governor, Diamantina accuses her owner’s wife, Doña Antonia de la Granada, of excessive punishment, because her master, Don Tomás Angueira de la Granada, had intercourse with her, at any time and in any position he desired. Diamantina petitions to free her from Antonia’s control, not for the “sexual abuses” of the master, but for his wife’s unjust castigations. Diamantina withdraws the petition when Antonia, accompanied by her confessor, Don Baldomero de la Paz, admits to her cruelties but recognizes that the law protects her as Tomás’s legal spouse. Don Pires hears the case a second time when, in a legal document, Antonia orders that Diamantina be sold after her death to cover her burial expenses. Tomás intervenes and explains that Diamantina and her five children have earned their freedom. In the third and final hearing, which gives title to the main petition, Diamantina presents a letter signed by Tomás declaring Diamantina’s children the rightful heirs of his properties. Diamantina did not denounce her master’s unwarranted rape; rather, she accused Antonia, an older and infertile spouse, of punishing her, perhaps, for sexual acts Antonia could no longer perform or Tomás no longer cared to engage in with her.
María and Petrona filed the second petition with Governor Diego de la Haya, in Costa Rica, in 1719 (Chapter V). It outlines the four-day sexual abuse that Sergeant Major Juan Francisco de Ibarra and six other soldiers perpetrate incessantly against María and Petrona. Petrona declares that on the first day, three soldiers raped María while three others forced her to watch as they raped her contra naturam. Petrona became pregnant, was separated from son, and sold to another master. When she returned nine years later to buy her son’s freedom for an agreed-upon price, her owner, Cecilia Vásquez de Coronado, increased the amount to impede the sale. Petrona petitions the governor for this injustice, but not because of the sexual attack.
María and Petrona’s case is uniquely informative and provides insight into Martín’s writings and Fe’s own intentions. The petition is featured in Acuña León’s study of enslaved women uprooted from their homeland in West Africa and taken to Central America. Of the more than eight million enslaved persons uprooted from their lands, over one third were women. Those exiting from the ports of Bonny and Calabar increased to 39.1%, and of these 4.6% were girls, a figure much lower that the 7.2% of girls kidnapped from the ports of Whydah and Porto Novo, Benin. María and Petrona testify that they were from the Sana caste, also known as Lucumí. María de Guinea had ethnic scars on her face, but María, with similar markings, did not know her origin, though it was later determined that she belonged to the Popo caste. However, Acuña León’s study of María and Petrona is substantially different from the corresponding document reproduced in Santo-Febres’ novel. Both mention the same perpetrator, Sergeant Ibarra, and the same region of residence, Bagaces, but Acuña León indicates that the two women were accompanied by four men and two women, and were sold to the same Doña Celia Vázquez de Coronado mentioned in the novel. More importantly, there is no reference to any sexual encounter, or to the soldiers who raped María and Petrona. These differences can be attributed to a reading of the archive, as we shall see later.
Unlike the previous petitions, the one in Chapter VI does not contain a heading or date. Of the documents Fe sends Martín, the first two excite him, but he focuses on the third one, of a religious nature, about the daughter of Maria da Costa and the Portuguese Caetano de Sá (born in 1731 or 1735). Doctor Don Manuel de Pires, from Arraial de Tejunco, enslaves the eleven-year-old girl to be his lover. Don Manuel confesses to his Vicar and seeks his counsel. Don Manuel owned other young girls who customarily bathed him, and whom he systematically raped through both orifices. This obsession prevented him from performing his chosen profession, and he was losing his mind. For his excesses, the Vicar reprimands Pires and orders him to make a donation to the church and find a place to flagellate himself when consumed by his thoughts.
Reading the petitions arouses Martín, even more so after he finds an attachment containing Xica da Silva’s dress. “I looked at the clothes, I looked at the skin, I looked at the girl corrupted. The image of her most hidden tear, pink and wet, came before my eyes like a vision. I couldn’t take it. My hand moved quickly. I closed my eyes” (42). Later, the girl became the lover of another master. While the above-mentioned documents may have been organized by chance, the attachment was intentional, inciting Martín to establish a connection between the girl and the dress, and both compelled him to relieve himself.
The fourth petition takes place in Cartagena de Indias, in 1743 (Chapter VIII). Ana María, age twelve, testifies before Governor Francisco del Valle that Manuela Sancho’s nephew, Manuel Joseph García, struck her on the head for talking back to him, and insisted that she was not his slave. In answer to the governor’s interrogation about her defiant tardiness, Ana María explains that the nephew assaulted her on the hacienda’s back stairs, touching her breasts and pubis, and possessing her from behind. After seeing the blood, he turned her over and continued from the front. Manuela, who enjoyed seeing the abuse, defends her nephew, asserting that, as a new initiate of the Jesuits of Cartagena, he was incapable of such actions. The governor opts to protect the girl until she can find a new master.
The last petition takes place in Venezuela, in 1645 (Chapter XII). Like the one in Chapter VI, this one is also religious in nature. Don Manuel Péres y Piñón (accompanied by his son of the same name and the Jesuit priest Ramón Hoya y Ramírez) accuses the “mulatta witch” Pascuala of preparing a medicament for his seventeen-year-old emaciated son. The potion produces in him an incontrollable desire to possess her for many months until she announces her pregnancy. Under cross-examination she confesses to recovering the semen of young men to make fertility potions for her clients. Though she was not pregnant, the Holy Members of the Inquisition confirmed that the milk from her breasts was sweet. They recommended that she be given cold baths, her nipples burned, and an iron introduced between her legs to verify her sexual affairs with the devil. The two religious petitions convey that Jesuits and other religious orders are not exempt from the sexual abuses described in the secular texts.
Martín compares past and present, the enslaved petitioners and Fe, and entertains that she is an incarnation of an enslaved woman. She wears Xica da Silva’s dress that produces the same markings on their bodies. This idea becomes more consequential when reading Fe’s own document. Chapter XVIII, “Ciudad de Maracaibo Fe Verdejo, Circa 1985,” describes Fe’s family maternal lineage. Her grandmother, Raquel Verdejo, enrolled Fe’s mother, María, age twelve, in a school for Dominican nuns to save her from becoming another “victim.” One year later, María told her mother, Raquel, that she wanted to join the religious order. At age fourteen she became pregnant, and the nuns expelled María. Raquel married María to a distant cousin twenty years her senior; Fe was the progeny of that relationship but was raised by her grandmother.
At age thirteen, Raquel sent Fe (María Fernanda) to boarding school in Maracaibo. To avoid disgracing her grandmother, Fe eluded the new seminarians, denied her strange bodily sensations, and found comfort in the library, studying the lives of model nuns. Fe survived two years without embarrassing her grandmother. Raquel continued to control all aspects of her granddaughter’s life and chose the white Aníbal Andrés as Fe’s prom date. While she admits to having kissed him first, Fe was not prepared for his frontal assault. She describes the rape:
The young man started to bite me, to scratch me, to push me open. I struggled a little, but worst of all was how my body responded to every push and every grope. It responded with blood and with heat. It responded with an intense trembling that came, unexpected, from my vagina. My whole body had a heartbeat, raw under the cloth. That was the only time I screamed, while Aníbal Andrés was delighting in my flesh.
I have to admit that I liked that defeat. That painful submission, that letting myself go. I didn’t put up much resistance. (90)
Fe’s confession of the rape, of pain and pleasure, harkens back to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, sensations also produced by Xica da Silva’s harness. The quotation does not consider black women as victims; rather, they are actors of their own feelings, just as they are in control of their narratives and the archive. From Martín’s perspective, Fe’s pain, derived from the harness, is a way of liberating herself from her body, and from historical trauma, I would add.
The novel proposes that we read all the documents together. To the earlier ones, we add Fe’s experience about her own sexual awakening, and this last record allows us to better understand the earlier ones. The molestation of enslaved women in general and girls in particular has been on-going since the beginning of the slave trade. The culprits are political and religious leaders, and even convents are havens of sexual pleasure and abuse. The petitions reveal that enslaved women knew about slavery laws, how to protest the injustices perpetrated against them, and how to construct a narrative that would help them achieve their goals.
Santos-Febres’ Fe en disfraz refers to the documents of enslaved women but also to the construction of the archive. In “Archival Fever: A Freudian Interpretation,” Derrida traces the origin of the archive to the Greek “arkhē,” which means commencement and commandment. It is a home, a physical address, and the home of political power. The archive creates a space for technological advancements, such as email, that Freud was unable to consider. Santos-Febres’ novel expands on Derrida’s ideas since, in today’s digital world, the home or the physical building has become a virtual space, just as the cloud is a virtual home, accessible to all. As I see it, the novel revisits the inner workings of the archive and supports how power rests in the home and those who oversee and control the archive. But power is also present in the voices of the petitioners recorded or archived in the same physical and virtual spaces. In other words, (black) enslaved women were conscious of the power of the archive, and also suffered from “archival fever,” and they were conscious of their own discourse and power.
Indeed, the enslaved women were aware of the slavery laws that also protected them from the abuses of their masters. They understood the power conferred to the archive, the power of the governor who heard the petition, the scribe who transcribed the testimonies, and the power of their testimonies themselves. The women described their sexual encounters with their masters and other men in excruciating and vivid detail (what in the present would be considered extreme acts of violence), as strategies to obtain and control the attention of an audience, the governor, the scribe, Martín, and the reader, all components of the archive, in their physical and virtual homes. Martín’s sexual arousal suggests that other readers will respond in a similar manner. The enslaved women underscored the sexual components of their testimony to captivate the male and female gaze. Chapters III and V repeat the word “watch,” or the act of watching, applicable to the members of the religious orders, and women like Ángela and Manuela are tied to the act of “watching.” In this regard, the archive is not an objective representation of events the way they “seemed” to unfold, but rather is composed of preconceived discourses and outcomes, including the protection of their children.
Fe sends Martín documents in a particular order to captivate and stimulate his interest. As narrator, reader, writer, and digitizer of the archive, Martín has his own section, Chapter XX, “Isla de Puerto Rico, Aldea de Río Piedras, Circa 1984,” that chronologically precedes Fe’s Chapter XVIII, dated 1985. Martín refers to his passion for history and the academic life. In the evenings he surfs the web and explored his other interests, such as pornography. Martín is not an alpha-male and is more interested in hiding behind the computer screen. As he reflects on his life as a university student, on a Halloween night, dressed as Don Juan Tenorio, he meets another student in a Marie Antoinette costume. Their attire transforms them into the characters they portray. And the blood on the sheets of Martín’s bed conveys that she, him, or both were virgins. Just as Martín hides behind the costume, he also hides behind the computer, and Fe wears the harness and gives into her bodily sensations.
Chapter XXIII narrates the straight razor Fe gives Martin in Madrid, but it also recalls Chapter XX, when he is dressed as Juan Tenorio. Although the two chapters are situated in a different time and space, they come together syntactically and semantically and mirror each other. The earlier chapter refers to an encounter between Don Juan and Marie (Antoinette); in the morning she leaves, and he finds blood stains on the sheets, not knowing if the blood is hers or his. In the later chapter, after Martín cuts Fe, they fall asleep. Like Marie Antoinette, she leaves before Martín wakes. Then he finds that, “On the nightstand there still lay the Toledan knife with a stain of dry blood, I don’t know if Fe’s, I don’t know if mine, sullying its blade” (111, my emphasis). One chapter mirrors the other and both participate in a ritualistic time in which Martín is Don Juan and Fe (María) is Marie. The blood is also present when Martín cuts Fe’s buttock and his own genitalia. Blood is mentioned often, and blood is part of the rituals of many early cultures. In Fe en disfraz, blood links history with rituals and the novel. Structurally, the novel comes full circle and ends as it began, with Martín’s own voice.
Chapter XXIV contains a heading reminiscent of Fe’s own testimony, and by extension the other enslaved documents: “Chicago, Illinois Encuentro con Fe Verdejo.” The end of the novel takes us back to the beginning and the origin of the straight razor. In the beginning, Martín follows Fe’s indications as he prepares himself to meet her. In the end, Martín plans to arrive at Fe’s residence at 9:00pm, and the concluding paragraphs are narrated in the future tense as he anticipates what they will do.
Chronologically, the novel ends with Fe’s chapter and voice. While Martín narrates the story, Fe controls the action—that is, what Martín reads, the order in which he reads, and his reactions to the readings. She also controls all aspects of their ritual. If a conventional perspective places the power in men, Fe en disfraz inverts the order and underscores that Fe, and by extension the petitioners and other black women, are in control; they are one and the same, their experiences and skin are mutable and transcend time and space. Martín states:
I imagine, for instance, how I will see Fe changing shape before my eyes. She will become a Haitian courtesan from the times of Henri Christophe, Xica Da Silva herself, all those black women, transplanted by a strange course of fate (and of History) to that garb, to that other skin. I will see her too as Fe Verdejo, the distinguished historian, a slave to her torments. (113)
Fe’s harness is a metaphor for her black skin, which produces pain and pleasure, with historically and historical physical and psychological keloids. Fe is a manifestation of all the girls and the many Marías who were raped in and outside narrative fiction, and they all culminate with Fe, who is also María. In the past, enslaved women were unable to choose their partners, but this statement should not be interpreted as not having control. Fe selects Martín, a modern embodiment of the white master, as a way of reversing and healing historical injustices. The novel affirms that power has always resided in the hands of black women. And the power of the archive is embedded in their discourse and in their black skin.