Strategic Hybridity in Carmen Boullosa’s Duerme

Laura Pirott-Quintero

College of Staten Island, CUNY

Current critical discussions of "postmodernity" often revert to the image the "hybrid" in order to articulate the cultural heterogeneity, plurality of difference, and economic globalization that defy essentializing and reductive categorizations. Cultural critics who strive to interpret culture as dynamic and dialogical view "hybridity" as a useful trope, because, in it, they perceive a successful representation of the mutual borrowings, intersections and exchanges that occur in culture. Yet in a Latin American context, the language of mixture and hybridity is not easily disentangled from a history that imbued it with negative connotations: racial classification systems implemented to secure the colonizers’ superiority. Metaphors of cultural multiplicity such as "mestizo," and "mulatto" evoke an imagery of mixture that is not easily differentiated from the more contemporary image of hybridity currently circulating within postmodern critical theory.(1)

In order to speculate on the usefulness of contemporary re-articulations of hybridity, critics must be willing to scrutinize the complex history of metaphors of mixture that circulate in Latin America, to recognize thedisparate ideological motivations in identity-formation that range from subordination, syncretism, self-affirmation, co-optation to a celebration of multiculturalism. For, as Shohat and Stam underscore, "a celebration of syncretism and hybridity per se, if not articulated with questions of historical hegemonies, risks sanctifying the fait accompli of colonial violence" (43). Contemporary articulations of hybridity often bear traces of past cultural expressions, as they rework and expand the concept to allow for more complex and dynamic representations. This is the case of the Mexican fictional narrative Duerme (1994), written by Carmen Boullosa. The protagonist, Claire, literally and figuratively incarnates the protean quality of postmodern hybridity, as she crosses gender, racial, temporal, and narrative boundaries with the unfolding of her story—which is set in sixteenth-century Mexico City. Because the setting is colonial Nueva España, the reader gets a first-hand glimpse into to the workings of the imperial bureaucracy. Racial, caste, and gender categories of the period are represented faithfully , only to be undermined and confounded by the transgressive Claire. Her body’s "hybridity" becomes a strategic trope to reconsider Mexican colonial history.

The fairytale-like "mujer varonil" is a former prostitute who abandons her profession and travels to the "New World" dressed as a man in order to enjoy new social freedoms. Adopting multiple identities along her journey, the protagonist also alters her body to correspond to her identities, thereby producing various "hybrid" or semantically complex identities throughout the narration. For example, Claire arrives to New Spain dressed as a French pirate; later she dons the role of a Spanish Count; after this, she becomes an Indian peasant; and, on another occasion she dresses as a "well-to-do" Spaniard. In each case, the protagonist adopts the appropriate gender pronouns when referring to her/himself, a gesture that underscores the fact that s/he is not dealing simply with costumes or masquerades. Claire lives out each identity vitally.

The cross-dressing that operates thematically in this text goes beyond binary divisions between masculine and feminine: the novel postulates a cultural transvestism which breaks with generic/genderic, racial, class (estamento), and historical binary models. Claire's cross-dressed body challenges the reader to reconsider institutionalized classifications such as "man," "woman," "Indian," and especially "mestizo"—the much-used term in Mexican letters that connotes racial mixing, specifically between Indians and Europeans. (2) The reconfigured, figurative "mestizaje" as pluralized hybridity presented in Duerme serves to revitalize the contemporary Mexican imaginary. Moreover, Claire's story, in many ways, also serves to "flesh out" the Mexican colonial past--opening up gaps, creating suggestive dis-junctures for its re-reading.

The novel's focal point is its strategic deployment of the figure of the transvestite, which not only serves to destabilize gender categories, but which calls into question the concept of category itself. In her study on cross-dressing, Marjorie Garber claims that:

One of the cultural functions of the transvestite is precisely to mark [...] displacement, substitution, or slippage: from class to gender, gender to class; or, equally plausibly, from gender to race or religion. The transvestite is both a signifier and that which signifies the undecidability of signification. It points toward itself--or, rather, toward the place where it is not. (36-7) Claire's transvestism functions precisely in the way that Garber describes: in deforming sexual categories, she also crosses other cultural borders. The protagonist simultaneously problematizes class distinctions, as she undermines genderic-sexual categories, producing interventions that engage both sixteenth century colonial constructions as well as contemporary cultural urgencies surrounding issues of classification.

In Duerme, the highly theorized contemporary figure of the transvestite dovetails with the Golden Age topos of the "mujer varonil." Indeed, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish literature, especially drama, formalized "the manly woman" through memorable figures such as Rosaura, from La vida es sueño by Calderón, and the Monja Alferez, among others. Melveena McKendrick in Woman and Society in Golden Age Spanish Drama: A Study of the 'Mujer Varonil' argues that the "mujer varonil" was generally not deployed to praise the figure of the strong or independent woman; rather, she was a figure which served to presage "the world turned upside down." Once patriarchal and political order was restored in the narrative, the cross-dressed woman once again took her rightful "place," donning the appropriate clothing of ther sex (McKendrick, 322-23). (3)

Duerme, however, undercuts the organizing principle of social "order" and presents a "world turned upside down" that resists reorganizing. The colonial "New Spain" represented in the text is a destabilized locus in which categories collide or become blurred. Claire, with her protean qualities, is an appropriate figure for underscoring the heterogeneity of her context. Contrary to what her literary forbears represented, however, Claire becomes a continual destabilizing element throughout the narrative. While evoking the topos of the "mujer varonil," Claire does not participate in the reestablishment of patriarchal order; on the contrary, she is an agent of colonial and aesthetic "disorder." In this regard, she can be read as a postmodern transvestite, who, as such, engages in what Judith Butler describes as performative "acts" of gender:

As the effects of a subtle and politically enforced performativity, gender is an "act," as it were, that is open to splittings, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic exhibitions of "the natural" that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status. (146-7) To become a performative and transgressive cultural agent, Claire's body is first graphically de-naturalized and de-essentialized by a metaphysical turn that lays the foundation of the narrative. Her body is re-formulated from the "inside," from her viscera: her blood is externalized, made visible, and this inversion marks and transforms her body, rendering it mythical and immortal. At the opening of the novel, the reader witnesses the operation performed by the Indian woman, Doña Inés, who bleeds Claire's body, and substitutes her blood with sacred water, which Doña Inés avows, will spare Claire from death. Doña Inés explains the meaning of the purifying ritual to which Claire is subjected: "éstas son aguas purísimas, no tocadas por las costumbres de los españoles, ni por sus caballos, ni por su basura" (28). In the course of Claire's adventures, the reader witnesses various incidents in which the efficacy of this operation is confirmed: Claire's body, indeed, is resistant to death.

Through this metaphysical turn, Claire intervenes in the discourses of lineage and genealogies. On the one hand, because Claire's body is "transfused," the narrative breaks with the imagery of blood and the signifying messiness of "blood mixture" inherent to official ideologies of mestizaje as the essential source of Mexican identity. On the other hand, because she becomes a-temporal, and refuses to be gendered as "feminine," her womb is decentralized as an indispensable source for genealogical or historical continuity. In foregoing a maternal and feminine role, Claire breaks from pre-established linear, patriarchal plots. In Duerme, Claire's femaleness is not presented as a biological issue, but rather as a signifying strategy that intercepts the mechanisms of power in order to draw attention to their effects.

The operation that grants Claire immortality is performed to allow her to impersonate the Conde Enrique de Urquiza who has been sentenced to death by hanging for conspiracy. When she escapes, she becomes a fugitive in every sense of the word: she is a recently arrived "Frenchman" attempting to hide her sex, running from the law and being at the mercy of those who have orchestrated Urquiza's impersonation. As a person in hiding, she has no stable identity, relying on costuming and verbal embustes (tales, tricks) to move from one cultural space to the next. Her being "on the run" enables a meandering narrative strategy that allows her to come in contact with other outcasts and marginal figures. Claire’s fugitive status produces a double effect: Claire is reconfigured by her context through the challenges and situations she faces. But simultaneously, she becomes a dissonant and displacing force, forming allegiances with subaltern members of her society, and thereby committing herself to political agency and transformation. In other words, at certain instances she is subjected by and through her body and at others, Claire enacts moments of resistance, indicating the extent to which she is both an effect and producer of her context.

Claire's operation at the opening of the narrative is the intervention which most overtly subjects her to a context: although it renders her immortal, Claire's agency and free will are conditioned by the fact that she is confined to stay within certain geographical limits. (4) If, for any reason, the protagonist's body leaves the valley of Mexico, she will fall into a deep slumber from which she cannot awaken, unless returned to the prescribed location. Claire is rooted in life with a double-edged fortune: on the one hand, she is condemned to remain anchored to a specific location; on the other, Claire becomes a virtual figure--in Boullosa's words, like "una bella durmiente en un cuento de hadas"--ready to be awakened with our reading. (5)

There are other instances in which Claire's agency is compromised. For example, as part of the escape plan from the gallows, Doña Inés instructs her to don "una mantilla de india." Claire adamantly replies: "--Ni loco. Yo no uso ropa de mujer...Yo visto ropa de hombre solamente" (40). Having no choice in the matter, Claire reluctantly accepts the feminine clothes, only later to discover that they open up a world to which she would not have had access: she enters the world of the Indian castes and experiences firsthand the discrimination directed at them by the Spanish elites:

Pasa un carro jalado con seis mulas, con gente de propiedad. Para indicar a los indios que han de hacerse a un lado, azotan su látigo de un lado a otro, sin cuidarse de golpearnos como a reses. Ni a sus caballos golpean así. (56) Yet another incident in which Claire is coded (or gendered) as an Indian woman marks her body irrevocably. Together with the other servants, Claire accompanies a group of the Conde de Urquiza's followers in order to rendez-vous with the fugitive Count. Upon seeing the Count, Claire is filled with envy as she longs to be "in his (masculine) shoes. " Her staring draws his attention, and after Claire's "identity" as his impersonator is explained, he proceeds to rape her, humiliating her profoundly. This rape reinforces her feelings of being a "prisionera humillada en esta vestimenta," and prompts her to leave the fantasy of the other identity behind (the fantasy of playing the Count's role): [Urquiza] espolea el caballo y veo cómo se va, con la identidad que yo había hecho para mí, perdiéndose en la distancia" (54). Experiencing this double subjection--being in the "skin" of a woman and Indian--prompts Claire to become sensitized to the plight of the subaltern Indians who care for her and whom she befriends.

One of the most complex elements of the narrative is the erotic relationship Claire develops with the writer-poet, Pedro de Ocejo. A radically different sort than the Conde de Urquiza, Ocejo nevertheless attempts to subject Claire in a different way--a path that does not involve physical violence but rather, the force of the written word.

When Claire returns from pacifying an Indian rebellion, her body is severely gashed, although her wounds do not bleed. Pedro de Ocejo nurses her back to health, entertaining her with readings of his plays while she is bedridden. When Ocejo kisses her lips (108), he acknowledges her desire on her own terms, aware and not bothered by Claire's penchant for mixing gender codes. Their mutual love confirmed, they enter into a non-traditional, seemingly egalitarian relationship, interacting as friends and companions--at times strolling the streets both dressed in masculine apparel.

However, early in the course of their friendship, Ocejo admits to Claire that he is a frustrated writer: while he has high poetic ideals, often he is forced out of financial need to write commissioned pieces for which he must sacrifice his artistic integrity. After he meets Claire, he begins to write his pièce de resistance, a neoclassical play featuring, coincidentally, a cross-dressed protagonist named Ifis. The play's strong echoes with Claire's narrative makes the reader suspicious of Ocejo's writerly intentions--particularly of the "ending" to the main narrative, Duerme, which is written in Ocejo's voice.

The narrative "ends" as Pedro de Ocejo, who is approaching death, struggles to return Claire's slumbering body to the valley of Mexico before she is doomed to remain unconscious for eternity. Ocejo's account of this process serves as the novel's, as well as his own "last words." He is encouraged by the illusion that he will have brought Claire "back to life" and is convinced of his instrumentality in securing Claire's future. This enigmatic narrative moment may be read as the conclusion to the tragedy that Ocejo had begun writing years before, with the added "twist" that he writes himself in as the lovelorn hero, shifting the narrative to a male-centered ending.

The attempt to reorient the narrative to his own voice suggests that Ocejo is ultimately seduced by his own textuality--by the fiction of the cross-dressed character he has created, Ifis, who metatextually echoes Claire's life. The decisive tone captured in his last words: "Aquí acaba todo" belies a desire to instill doubt in the reader that perhaps Claire has been his invention. If the reader accepts this reading and accedes the narrative's authorial last word to Ocejo, then indeed, Claire has suffered the most silencing and dramatic of subjections: the loss of agency and voice.

More suggestive, however, are the text's representations of resistance, in which Claire's plural body becomes pivotal in her refusal to remain subjected and fixed in a specific role or narrative space. For example, the key to discounting the plausible, yet "closed" reading detailed above is to recall Claire's earlier comments emphasizing that her experiences are shaped by multiple perspectives which inscribe her into plural narratives. In the third chapter, the protagonist warns the reader: "aunque parezca inverosímil artificio, me ocurren en el mismo lugar y momento tres diversos sucesos. Pero no es artificio, es la verdad" (51). Then, she adds:

Las tres las vivo al mismo tiempo, pero ¿cómo puedo contármelas? No son iguales las palabras que les pertenecen, y estas ocupan más territorio que los hechos, porque si ésos comparten, sin pertenecer a la misma trama, lugar y tiempo, éstas no caben con las otras.... Así que doy en mi voz preferencia arbitraria a uno de los tres sucederes, sin que dé a entender que éste ocurrió primero, porque repito, es él simultáneo de los dos a los que prestaré palabras después. (51) What follows are three versions or "emplotments" of the same events--all narrated by Claire--which involve the encounter with the Conde de Urquiza. (6)  Interestingly, the rape is described in only the first of the three accounts; the latter two prosaic accounts serve to deflect the reader’s temptation to fix Claire into the role of "victim." The emphasis on the number three--there are three versions, not two--serves to destabilize readerly expectations and to stifle the urge to rely on monolithic or binary interpretations. (7)  This simultaneity of point of view underscores the fact that a specific event can produce a plurality of interpretations. This suggestive scene, therefore, serves to undermine a priori the linearity of Ocejo's ending.

Indeed, Claire's insistence on plurality underscores her revolutionary zeal, which is highly opposed to the reductionism of binary logic. She laments that the colonial world is divided in two:

El mundo se divide en dos: el viejo y las tierras nuevas. La luz y la oscuridad. El silencio y los sonidos, lo blanco y lo negro. El agua y la tierra. El bien y el mal. Los hombres y las mujeres. Los europeos y los de otras razas. Esto último no lo sabe quien no deja su tierra, ahí creerá que la diversidad es amplia, que hay ingleses, franceses, flamencos, chinos, portugueses, catalanes. Reto a cualquiera que vista como yo ropa de india y luego me dirá en cuánto se dividen los seres. "En dos", me contestará, "los blancos y los indios". (57) Despite her European origins, the Indian dress codifies her as "Other"; it is out of this direct experience with discrimination that she allies herself with the subaltern and becomes a transgressor of the social order.

Specifically, Claire infiltrates and disrupts the colonial sumptuary laws mandated by the Viceroy:

....el Virrey ha pensado la disposición de prohibir los carros de más de cuatro mulas en México. Se ha dicho en Palacio que todo aquello que distinga al indio del español debe permitirse, y que en cambio el escándalo de las indias con guantes y vestidos castellanos debiera impedirse, y el Virrey ha contestado que la prohibición será usar las calzadas y calles de la ciudad con carros jalados por más de cuatro mulas.... (78) The protagonist chooses to ignore these rigid hierarchical distinctions between Spaniard and Indian when, in her Indian clothes, she challenges a Spanish soldier to a duel, and wounds him: --Y serás un cobarde si no aceptas que tú eres hombre, soldado, fuerte, y yo no soy sino india y mujer.
--Tú no eres india, a mí no me engañas. Pero sí sé que eres mujer, ¿cómo voy a aceptar tu reto? (83)
It is noteworthy that she insists on her identity as Indian, even as the soldier does not believe her. Claire is detained by the Spanish authorities precisely for being an indian: "El indio que empuñe un arma, bien se puede dar por muerto. Y más contra un soldado..."(84). This exchange is highly ironic because it points to the absurd logic of this particular colonial law. The soldier's humiliation is grounded in the fact that he has been wounded by a woman, an obvious blow to his machismo; however, his humiliation is avenged by a soldier-comrade who takes recourse to sumptuary rhetoric in order to have Claire detained: "Indians are forbidden to carry arms." But, the last word is Claire's. In the audience with the Viceroy, she resorts to a hybridized discourse in order to restore her "good name." The protagonist invokes and mixes various semantic fields in order to manipulate the King's representative: Y me arrodillo a los pies de ambos. Sigo con las faldas arremangadas como calzones.
--Peleáis bien con la espada. Demasiado bien para tan hermosa mujer.
--Buena estaría mi espada si pudiera defender a Vuesía, que por lo demás me avergüenza haberla usado, así fuera, como ha ocurrido, para defender mi honor. Vuestra Excelencia, si mi querido padre me enseñó a usarla fue sólo para defender los intereses del Rey de España. Ya que Vuesía es representante de los Reyes a quienes mi padre me enseñó a obedecer desde la cuna, y a cuyo servicio antepuso siempre cualquier lealtad, así fuera la que él debía a mi madre....
--¿Cómo es eso?
Don Pedro me arrebataba la palabra.
--Que su padre se vio obligado a dejar a su señora por ser ésta fervorosa amante del Rey de Francia. Tomó a la niña para no regalar un súbdito más a los franceses y buscó de los Católicos el servicio...
Al Virrey se le corre la baba con nuestros embustes. (85-6)

In this scene, Claire recurs to a distorted language of filial servitude in which she is alternately soldier, vassal and damsel whose honor needs to be defended. Moreover, the "embustes" (tales) she tells the Viceroy also rely on a rhetoric of pater familias and on a clear understanding of the feuds of the times among the various European Crowns. This orphaned French woman creates an intricate tale in which her fictional father becomes a hero, the epitome of filial loyalty. Sworn to uphold the honor of the Spanish Crown, he kidnaps his own daughter (Claire) from her French mother's hands in order to secure yet another devoted subject for the King. Therefore, this cross-dressed incident between soldier and Indian, escalates to the breaking of a sumptuary law and culminates in a scene in which various discourses of the period are parodied and interwoven in a pastiche. The protagonist's body, then, becomes the catalyst for this discursive "hybrid" layering. Claire deliberately alters the codes by which the other characters "read" her identity both externally through her gestures and the clothes she dons, and verbally through the fictions she creates.

Moreover, Claire's revolutionary and utopian zeal carries over as a futuristic promise of social engagement. Claire's commitment to the oppressed classes is registered in her goals, to be enacted in a time yet to come:

En la casa, al llegar la noche, entran y salen indios. Ella les da dinero para comprar armas, y los organiza. Ahora me ha explicado todo: "Tengo tantos preparados para dar el golpe, que someteremos a los españoles, sin que nos sientan. Primero México después Veracruz, Puebla, Querétaro, Zacatecas, Potosí[... ]. No pagaremos un céntimo de tributo al Rey, ni diezmo a la Iglesia. Todos los españoles desaparecerán de estas tierras como si se los hubiera tragado la tierra [...]. Yo seré el hombre más rico del orbe, y mis dominios sabrán que yo les he devuelto lo que es de ellos, que he tirado a los usurpadores, que he espantado a los zánganos de las tierras nuevas. Seremos la mejor nación, ejemplar entre todas..." (145) Claire's political plans for organizing a revolutionary uprising evoke specific events of the Mexican Revolution. In this regard, the protagonist rewrites future historical events from a subaltern viewpoint. She underscores the urgency of forming allegiances with the subaltern. Because in her body lies the promise of an immortal future, her "story" is not finished, as Ocejo, declares--but is reactivated and continued each time the reader "awakens" her with her reading.

The text's aesthetic and political re-formative gestures expose the "logics of power" which have given shape to the official discourses of the Mexican State. More importantly, Duerme also proposes a strategy of transformative agency that goes beyond reactionary politics that focus on subjection. Her character calls into question certain reified discourses of mestizaje which nostalgically look back to the Conquest as the cause of the country's "bastardization," and the incongruous revolutionary rhetoric of a century ago. Indeed, this poeticized variation of the historical novel invites a re-thinking of the past, present and future of Mexico. From a protean and hybrid perspective, Duerme opens up some of the lacunae created by the dictates of nationalism and invites heterogeneity, difference, and alternative articulations of Mexican history and identity.


(1). As Shohat and Stam assert, "as a descriptive catch-all term, ‘hybridity" fails to discriminate between the diverse modalitites of hybridity: colonial impositions, obligatory assimilation, political co-optation, cultural mimicry, and so forth.[. . .] Hybridity, in other words, is power-laden and asymmetrical" (43).

(2). Mestizaje, in Mexico has been the topic of heated debates. Octavio Paz’s Laberinto de la soledad records the violent mythology of mestizaje in the essay entitled, "Los hijos de la Malinche." It is important to note that the discourse of racial mixture has been co-opted by the Mexican State as an official articulation of national identity, thereby discouraging alternative articulations.

(3). Anne Cruz declares: "While Golden Age literature cannot be considered a mere reflection of historical reality, the depiction of women in Golden Age fiction through both its negative and positive images, and its omissions as well as its distortions, reveals the pervasiveness of the patriarchal system in male-authored texts" (203). In other words, the purpose of representing a "world-turned-upside-down" was to restore it to order-- to the status quo. The cross-dressed woman, therefore, properly had to return to her "rightful place."

(4). In using the verb "to subject," I am evoking Judith Butler's definition of "subjection": "Subjection is, literally, the making of a subject, the principle of regulation according to which a subject is formulated or produced. This notion of subjection is a kind of power that not only unilaterally acts on a given individual as a form of domination, but also activates or forms the subject" in "Subjection, Resistance and Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault," The Identity in Question. Ed. John Rajchman (New York: Routledge, 1995) 230.

(5). Carmen Boullosa, talk given at Brown University, 16 February 1995.

(6). "Emplotment" for Hayden White refers to the narrative strategy of ordering events in a historiographic text; this strategy is what makes it possible for "a story of a particular kind" to be recounted. Discursive motivation is a deciding factor in giving shape to a particular "emplotment" or plotting of events. See The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

(7). Homi Bhabha in the essay entitled "The Third Space" undertakes a compelling analysis of the implications of the third as a hybrid space: "[...] for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the 'third space' which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom" (211).

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. "The Third Space: Inteview with Homi Bhabha." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence Wishart, 1990.

Boullosa, Carmen. Duerme. México. Alfaguara, 1994.

Butler, Judith. "Subjection, Resistance and Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault," The Identity in Question. Ed. John Rajchman. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Cruz, Anne J.. "Studying Gender in the Spanish Golden Age." Cultural and Historical Grounding for Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Hernán Vidal. Minneapolis: The Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literatures, 1989.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1992.

McKendrick, Melveena. Woman and Society in the Spanish Drama of the Golden Age: a Study of the ‘Mujer Varonil.’ London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991.

Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.

White, Hayden. The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.