Don’t call Rafael Dumett “Latino.” To the Peruvian-born, San Francisco-based writer and professor, the loaded term, sloppily used in the media to describe a supposedly monolithic ethnic group, is inaccurate at best, damaging at its worst. The word glosses over too many of the intricacies of a people deeply varied in ethnic makeup, language and culture.
Dumett, who is of mixed indigenous and European origin, embodies the heterogeneity of the “Latino” experience. As an educator, he channels his energy into crafting work entrenched in the most complex aspects of Latin American culture and identity, like his film Both (2005), which examines the immigrant experience through the eyes of the film’s transgender protagonist.
Dumett’s most recent book, the Spanish-language El Espía del Inca (La Mula Publicaciones) is an alternative history of colonization in the form of a novel. The story focuses on an all-seeing Inca spy tasked with rescuing Emperor Atahualpa from Cajamarca, a city in the north of present-day Peru, where he is being held captive by the Spanish. Rooted in the true history of the conquest of South America, Inca raises timeless questions about the inescapability of the legacy of colonization.
In this edited online dialogue with Culturestrike, Dumett talks to Nyki Salinas-Duda about Incan history, identity, and why he probably won’t like it if you call him a “Latino” author.
Salinas-Duda: What inspired El Espía del Inca?
Rafael Dumett: There are endless reasons for writing a novel, and the writer in not necessarily conscious of them. In my case, I had just finished writing the script for Both and as we were entering the post-production stage in which I would not need to write anything, I came up with a writing project to keep busy because I cannot live without a project to work on. I was looking for something that would be relatively short and about a subject that I knew well. I decided to write a book modeled after Konstantin Stanislavski’s Building a Character, which is formatted as an actor’s journal during the rehearsals for a play. The director, who is the real protagonist of the book, proposes a series of exercises and activities geared toward stimulating the actors’ bodies and their physical imaginations—thus implicitly creating a roadmap to get closer to the character—which has left its mark on twentieth century acting.
Well, I thought I’d write something like that but with an imaginary Peruvian director who would be a combination of theater directors I admired, with whom I had worked and/or whose work I had seen and which would indirectly speak about the theater community in Peru and Peruvian actors whom I know relatively well. The problem was finding the play they would be rehearsing. I’m not sure why I got it in my head that it needed to be a historical piece about Peru, but since there wasn’t one that I found compelling, I decided to write it and add it as an annex to the novel. I remembered that one of my teachers in school had mentioned it would be interesting for someone to write about Felipillo, one of the indigenous boys who acted as an interpreter between the Spanish and the Inca.
And so, I used this character as a starting point in my research. I started reading about him and became fascinated. And through him, I got to know other very interesting characters and their universe got hold of me. I abandoned the idea of the novel and began to think about writing a 5-part series of plays that would share the same characters, with one hundred characters on scene. But it became clear to me that it would be extremely hard to produce such a play—for practical reasons—so I decided to [go back to writing] a novel, which took me about eleven years to complete.
What do you hope to achieve with El Espía del Inca? How does it challenge the discovery narrative and why do you feel it’s necessary to provide an alternative to that history?
Five or six years after I started writing the novel I realized that what I wanted to achieve with it was building a bridge to my father. My father is originally from Ayacucho, an Andean region of Peru, and his mother tongue is Quechua (he learned Spanish later). This area of Peru has a strong culture and history. The first “empire” to emerge in the Andes (the Wari empire) originated right there.
The empire of the Incas began when the Quechuas who lived in the Cuzco region were able to defeat the Chanca ethnic group, who lived in present-day Ayacucho. The independence of all of Latin America was sealed when the pro-Independence troops and the Spanish troops fought each other in Ayacucho. Later, when Peru fought against Chile in the nineteenth century, the only real nucleus of resistance was in Ayacucho. And, more recently, the Shining Path movement—one of the most lethal [guerrilla movements] in the world—started there as well.
My whole life, I had the awkward feeling that I didn’t know my father. That I did not have all the elements to be able to truly understand his behavior. That’s why the novel’s protagonist (a spy who works for the Incas as a “man who can see everything”) is not an aristocratic descendant of one of the royal lineages of Cuzco, but rather he is the son of a farmer from an area that is subjugated by the empire and who, because of his unique skills, is recruited to serve the Inca as a spy.
My father is not from Lima but from the rural town of Ayacucho, an Andean region that in ancient times was occupied by the Chanca. [They were] a very resilient and combative ethnic group that in the middle of the 15th century, lost the war against the Incas and were dominated by them. Maybe because my father is not from the capital but from the Andes–and specifically from [Ayacucho]–I can easily see things from the perspective of people that don’t belong to the center, but to the periphery, the people who are not conquerors but have a history of domination, of submission.
What in the traditional narrative of the conquest were you hoping to challenge with the novel? What about indigenous or Latin American identity did you hope to impart to readers?
I’m a bit wary of the classic story of good guys and bad guys we tend to re-tell about the conquest in which certain characters always play the role of victims. I’m fed up with focusing our anger on the Spanish who came to conquer us and destroyed our cultures, while failing to take a close look at the members of the various governing elites—Inca, as well as other ethnic groups that were subjugated to the Incas—who with their wars, social factions and alliances of convenience with the Spanish made the conquest possible, and even conspired to make the conquest possible. I am not someone who believes (as the [geography scholar and author] Jared Diamond does) that the Spanish conquest of the Incas and the Aztecs was inevitable due to their technological and immunological superiority. I believe the conquest could have been avoided, or at least delayed.
What is the importance of challenging the norm, whether it be in concepts of gender or history?
When Lisset Barcellos, the director of the film, and I began designing the story that would later become Both, the only thing we knew was that we wanted to take up the concept of a documentary produced by Les Blanc that we had greatly enjoyed. It dealt with people of very different origins and with very diverse personalities who shared the trait of having very separated canines, and how this fact affected their lives in various ways. We wanted to assume the perspective of a person with a special trait. However, we didn’t know what that trait would be.
In the very early stages of the film script, the director discovered that she was intersexual and the film decided on its own that that was the trait we wanted to elaborate on, that we had to elaborate on. We also wanted to tell the story of immigrants, especially because we found the classic stories about immigrants who cross the border as “stowaways” to be extremely boring, and we wanted to create something different. All the other elements we found along the way. The fact that the protagonist was a stunt double in B-films. That she was bisexual. The presence of explicit sex scenes—which we saw as completely necessary and which wasn’t something we wanted to avoid as we didn’t share the [traditional] American sense of horror in regards to sex in film. The fact that all of this shocked some people did not surprise us, but it was not something we were striving for. What we wanted was to present a complex character, being respectful of the character’s complexity while tackling the themes the film deals with in a credible, serious and sensitive fashion.
How does your activism or social awareness inform your creative endeavors?
There is something exhibitionist about the term “activist” that I dislike. I much prefer the term “solidarity”. And no, I don’t think that my paltry gestures of solidarity inform my writing in any significant way. At least not in a conscious way.
What is your experience living in the Latino diaspora in North America versus in Peru? What are the differences in acceptable cultural norms?
In Peru, as in the rest of Latin America, there is no death penalty. Abimael Guzmán, the head of the terrorist group Shining Path, had been sentenced to remain in prison for life and for Peruvians, that is enough. Nobody feels (not even his direct victims) that he should be executed in order to provide closure to their grief, something I frequently hear the relatives of victims of similar crimes say in the U.S.. In Peru, we have an inadequate system of social security, but the concept of health care that is accessible to all is not foreign to us.
In the most recent presidential elections in Peru, the runner-up was a woman, and the reservations about her qualifications did not stem from the fact that she is a woman (she is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori). This is not uncommon: the current mayor of Lima is a woman and her main rival is also a woman. This does not mean that machismo isn’t present in Peruvian society. It means that we don’t have a problem with entrusting women with political roles of significance. Why should we? They are the ones who usually manage the finances in our [homes], they are in charge of raising children when fathers avoid their responsibilities. However, we lack a solid culture of democracy and any political advances of note have been a result of imposition, not debate. Abortion remains illegal. And harassment of gays is tremendous.
Do you feel your work addresses stereotypes that U.S. Latinos encounter? Does it specifically impact your community?
I have learned to become completely indifferent to the stereotypes that people around me may hold about me. I have been, in succession, a “University-educated, white-skinned limeño (native of Lima)” when I lived in Peru, a “person from a warm country” when I lived in Germany, a “non-Arab, non-black French-speaking foreigner” when I lived in France, and a “South American” or, if when said with contempt “sudaca” while traveling in Spain, prior to being “Latino” now that I live in the US.
However, I don’t really know what it means to be “Latino” beyond being someone who speaks Spanish, originates from Latin America and perhaps likes to dance salsa and appreciates good food, good drinks and good sex. (I prefer the word “Peruvian.”) It would have been exhausting to try to be aware of others’ expectations of what I ought to write while I was writing. I don’t know if what I do challenges stereotypes of any kind and it is not my place to say how my writing impacts my community.
I have written plays in which the main character is a man with a keen interest in astrophysics, an adaptation of Faust in Peru, a film in which the main character is an intersex stunt double, an erotic film script in which the main character is a water performer (which unfortunately was never produced), a spy novel set during the time of the Incas. And currently I am writing a science fiction film that takes place in the 22nd century. As you can see, to label my writing as “Latino” not only does not shed any light which will help one to understand it better, but may instead be an obstacle.
How do you process being viewed as “white” or light-skinned and also having immediate indigenous heritage via your father?
I always felt that, whatever the external perceptions could be, I was some kind of mix. But being some kind of a mix is far from being unusual in Peru. We are all mestizos in one way or another. From my early childhood I knew where I came from. My paternal grandfather was from Syria, and he came to Peru with his older cousin escaping poverty in the Middle East. He married a woman from a little town in the Andes of Ayacucho. My maternal grandfather is also from Ayacucho–which is a coincidence–and he married a woman from Cajamarca (Northern Andes) and they moved to Lima. I always liked the fact that my family came from “everywhere”. I never had a conflict at all.
What is the role of history and identity in your work?
It’s not my place to answer this question. I myself struggle to understand what people are referring to when they speak about identity. But, for reasons that elude me, I have always felt comfortable being a foreigner. Going from one language and culture to another. From one set of customs, habits and ethnic codes to another. Building, taking apart and/or reclaiming identities and roles, or modifying them. Distantly taking on the various perceptions and expectations that might exist about me and trying to play down their effects (perhaps unsuccessfully). I imagine that that comes through in my writing: for me, writing is a constant exercise in perspective.
You can read more about Dumett at his blog, Espia Inca.
Nyki Salinas-Duda is a contributing editor with the Public Media Institute.
El Espía del Inca is available in Spanish for download on Apple devices here or Amazon Kindles through its website.