It is a good moment for the revival of a classic fictional examination of Afro-Latin American identity
Changó, the Biggest Badass
Manuel Zapata Olivella, translated by Jonathan Tittler
2010, Texas Tech University Press
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
NEVER WAS there a better time to revive a book such as Changó, the Biggest Badass, even when it has been around for 27 years.
Defining cultural identity has been one of – if not the main preoccupation – in Latin American thinking since the 1920s, but currently, as the world experiences greater population displacements and relocation, this question is all-pervading.
In the modern era, Latin American literature became distinctive among other things for daring to experiment with and integrate the language and myths of people long considered “inferior” (indigenous groups and all darker and lighter shades of the descendants of African slaves), in opposition to the more formal tendencies dictated by white writing.
As a result, Latin American writing initiated a transgressive discourse that can still be seen today. In the case of Changó, the Biggest Badass, the author sought to extend the transgression to the study of 500 years of history.
For Manuel Zapata Olivella, son of a free-thinking man in love with Diderot, Voltaire and Darwin, and a woman well versed in African popular traditions, the two decisive childhood events that shaped his future were finding the sea for the first time, and – while in Cartagena digging in the sand – discovering a human bone attached to a piece of chain. But the hidden knowledge his father did not teach him, he learned from his mother, sister and aunties.
Indeed, Zapata Olivella’s own story could have merited a book as epic as Changó, the Biggest Badass (Changó, el gran putas): a non-conformist doctor who dumped his profession because he disagreed with its perception of the origins of diseases, who travelled by foot across Central America, twice becoming a wetback (once crossing Mexico, and again crossing the US), and who was variously rubbish collector, nurse, wrestler, doctor, tramp and finally a journalist who could use his personal experiences to write.
Before Changó, el gran putas, which was first published in 1983, Zapata Olivella had written a number of books with the common thread of exploring the identity of the descendants of African slaves and where this fits into the territory of the Amerindians colonised by Europeans. It is, indeed, a complicated subject, but for Zapata Olivella the material was closer to him as Colombia is one country in this diverse continent comprised by all three of these ethnic groups.
The author’s thesis was that the American continent’s blacks, even when they have African roots, differ greatly from African blacks, and that all blacks on the American continent (of Latin or Anglo-Saxon cultural formation) have an affinity. Therefore, Zapata Olivella imagined the origin, destiny and redemption of the African peoples of the Americas in the style of the Popol Vuh, the Greek myths or even the Bible, where spiritual forces sometimes materialise into human heroes.
Irreverently, he chose the character of Changó (the Orisha god of fire, war and thunder, which represents super macho power and sexuality – and hence the nickname of Gran Putas, Badass) – as the transgressive energy that compels multiple voices and forces to renew and energise the American continent’s melting pot against the ruling power.
The point of departure is where African slaves were stolen from their native land in order to exploit the newly discovered continent.
Historical figures such as Simón Bolívar (of whom it has been said that his only historical mistake was not to proclaim freedom for the slaves), the revolutionary priest José María Morelos in Mexico, the Colombian general José Prudencio Padilla, the Haitian revolutionary François-Dominique Toussaint L’ouverture and even Malcolm X in the modern US are recruited and given supernatural abilities, forging a direct connection with the wonderful universe of their African ancestors in order to vindicate the causes of those races humiliated and dispossessed for centuries by the legacy of colonisation. Benkos Biojo, Agnes Brown and Angela Davis in the US, for example, were born under Elegba. Biojo carried in his body the imprint of two snakes eating each other, and the rest of the above mentioned will carry some of this in them.
According to this novel, the revolutionary leaders and freedom fighters in question did not carry out political actions only as mere human beings, but were destined to do so by Orisha ancestors. Toussaint L’ouverture, for example, carries the voice of Nagó.
The novel has been written in the epic poetic style of a Greek tragedy, where different voices intentionally animate and add mystery to the tale. Through 500 pages, the reader will read an ode to racial integration, black heritage in the Latin American arts, and an exaltation to cultural freedom. Small wonder this book was awarded the Casa de las Américas, Simón Bolívar and Paris Human Rights prizes.