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Latin American cinema and violence against Quechua women: The Milk of Sorrow and Song Without a Name

Ms Maylen Villamañan Alba

Maylen Villamañan Alba is a PhD researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium) and an associated professor at Universidad Central de Las Villas (Cuba). Her research focuses on the popular criminology perspective on social representations of violence in Latin American films. Maylen is also a member of the project "Violence Stop: Protocols for the Care and Protection of Women and Children in Cuba" (SI Project VLIR 2022-2024).

Film and Indigenous Women: Latin America

The Amerindian civilizations have historically been the subject of cinematographic contemplation, but the portrayal of these great indigenous cultures has often been archetypal (Guamán-Pilco, 2022). The three major Mesoamerican civilizations (Inca, Maya, and Aztec) have stood out in their presence on the big screen, often portrayed following the same established patterns of the uncivilised otherness: the exotic culture, the naive savage or the cruel barbarian (Guamán-Pilco, 2022). It is only in the mid-twentieth century that the cinematography around these figures and their descendants begins to change. We then find films that alter the traditional perspective on Amerindian civilizations, focusing on social denunciation and questioning of the colonial condition that has affected Latin American indigenous peoples (Rufer, 2020). Films like Blood of Condor (1969) stand out by depicting the forced sterilizations of the Quechua populations. Other films such as Dances with Wolves (United States, 1990), Cabeza De Vaca (Mexico, 1991), or Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia, 2015) also contribute to shifting the Western colonialist perspective on Amerindian peoples (D’Argenio, 2018; Medina & Franco, 2020).

The new century brings with it new filmographic proposals, this time marked by the emergence of feminist voices. Female filmmakers and female protagonists take centre stage on the big screen. The issues of gender and the impact of colonialism are intertwined in these film proposals throughout the Americas. Documentaries, fiction films, and artisanal productions from indigenous communities adopt a decolonizing perspective, focusing on denunciation, remembrance, and the re-existence of indigenous culture, and they begin to emerge systematically. Likewise, new projects and institutions, such as the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), focus on supporting these divergent and transgressive discourses, especially those emerging from the indigenous communities, which lack sufficient resources to address their issues adequately.

We are witnessing a new line of films featuring women filmmakers portraying indigenous women and even indigenous women filming stories about their own communities. In Canada, films like Rustic Oracle (2019) by Sonia Bonspille Boileau (depicting Mohawk’s indigenous women) are emerging, shedding light on the sex trafficking network that preys on indigenous women annually. On the other side of the American continent, the Argentinian movie I am Aimé (2018), by Aymara Rovera, emerges as a biopic about Aimé Painú, an Argentine singer of Mapuche origin, which is dedicated to preserving the culture of her people. Within this cinematography, the narratives that emerge evoke silenced and invisible testimonies which are finally brought to the screen. The films portray discrimination against indigenous women, their inaccessibility and discrimination from institutional systems (World Health Organization, 2013) such as bureaucratic requirements of judicial procedures. Consequently, vulnerability, deprivation, and ethnic and gender discrimination overlap in these stories, shedding light on the social inequalities experienced by indigenous women from different regions.

Quechua Women and Cinema: Inequality and Violence

Two Peruvian films stand out for their lyricism, musicality, and narratives: The Milk of Sorrow (2009) directed by Claudia Llosa and Song Without a Name (2019) directed by Melina León. These are films by women filmmakers about indigenous women in the Quechua language. The trauma and violence in these stories are shaped by the condition of being an indigenous woman and the historical memory of the armed conflict between the Peruvian State and the Shining Path (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Peru), as well as the violence inflicted upon Quechua women (Digital Repository CDI-LUM). The conflict not only entailed political violence against dissidents, but it also stood out for its high costs in terms of sexual violence against Quechua women (Suarez, 2015, p. 178). Government forces (army, navy, and police) were responsible for 86% of the reported cases of sexual assaults (Suarez, 2015, p. 178). Mass rape, sexual mutilation, sexual slavery, and gang rape were perpetrated as a way to normalize social inequalities during the conflict (Theidon, 2009, p. 12). The women targeted were between 10 and 29 years old (Suarez, 2015, p. 174). In many instances, rape was used as a form of torture against women whose relatives or husbands were associated with the Shining Path movement. However, it was also carried out against those who were merely suspected to collaborate with the insurgents. Some militaries engaged in rapes for power and gratification. Regardless of their knowledge or connection to the guerrillas, women were always violated (Digital Repository CDI-LUM).

Both films serve as reminiscences of Peruvian and Quechua collective memory, but they also fictionalize shocking real events. The movies deal with sexual assaults and the appropriation of babies by a solid illegal market connected to the tumultuous context of the 1980s in Peru. The Milk of Sorrow (official trailer here) focuses on the systematic practices of gang rapes and rapes used as torture by Peruvian law enforcement, as seen in Perpetua’s story, the mother of protagonist Fausta.

Perpetua was a sexual violence survivor who carried with her the trauma of having been raped while pregnant. According to Quechua beliefs, Fausta suffers from the milk of sorrow, a disease resulting from her mother's rape. After the death of her mother, Perpetua, Fausta embarks on the path of restitution and healing.

Song Without a Name (official trailer here) is a fictional film based on a true story uncovered by the newspaper La República, which exposed the involvement of judges and politicians with baby trafficking operations in Peru. This business was connected to an illegal adoption market under the guise of maternity clinics supposedly helping vulnerable women in small towns. Most of these children were given up for adoption in Europe, and the whereabouts of many of them are unknown.

The film tells the story through the fictional character of Georgina, a Quechua woman who is a victim of this network. Like many other Quechua women, Georgina was attracted to a clinic with the promise of free medical assistance during their childbirth. Her daughter is stolen, and she is thrown out of the clinic. After facing the indifference of the judicial system, Georgina's search leads her to the journalist

Georgina and Pedro. Source: © 1990-2023

Pedro who will help her unmask the crime, but who will not be able to reunite her with her daughter. The pain experienced by Georgina, the protagonist of Song Without a Name, due to the loss of her baby and the isolation imposed upon her by her own family, evokes the retreat, fear, and trauma suffered by Fausta in The Milk of Sorrow. Because of the horror that Fausta’s mother endured in the past, Fausta barely speaks with strangers; she needs to be in the company of someone from her family, and she is afraid when a man is approaching.

Vulnerability and victimization of Quechua women are the result of social exclusion and deprivation of human rights. Due to their gender and ethnicity, Quechua women find themselves at the bottom of the Occidental and patriarchal society. They are in an unprotected position due to social and economic inequalities, stratification, and cultural hierarchy. The lyricism and emotional power of the Quechua language are also significant tools: the despair, trauma, and violence experienced firsthand are narrated through songs. According to Ritter (2019), songs become ways of giving testimonies, resources that Quechua women use to describe traumatic events and express their feelings and fears. In the films, they are used for the same purposes. For example, The Milk of Sorrow begins with

Fausta and Perpetua. Source: © 1990-2023

the song of Fausta’s dying mother, singing in Quechua about how she was raped and tortured while pregnant by several men associated with the conflict (likely from the army). A dialogue is sung in Quechua between mother and daughter, expressing the grief and pain caused by trauma. Fausta sings throughout the movie to give voice to their sorrows and fears. Fausta sings in front of the sea in a dialogue with her deceased mother. The song symbolizes the healing and reconstitution of herself, reflecting her new existence. Song Without a Name, begins with a celebration in the Quechua community of Georgina. Georgina sings for her joys: her husband, her family, and her unborn child. The film culminates with the protagonist, Georgina, singing in Quechua about the pain of losing her daughter and the resulting turmoil in her life, making a plea against injustice.

These movies explore ethnicity and gender discrimination topics, particularly concerning motherhood. In Song Without a Name, Quechua women were treated as baby factories, objectified bodies with an economic purpose. In The Milk of Sorrow, this objectification is further emphasized by using rape and gang rape as systematic torture. Motherhood becomes a vulnerable circumstance for direct and symbolic violence.

As an extension of the motherhood vulnerability experienced by indigenous women, in both stories, unborn and newborn children (babies of Perpetua and Georgina, respectively) also become instruments of violence against them. Furthermore, the case of the stolen babies is seen as a favour, given the disadvantaged economic position of the Quechua women. This is evident when a functionary makes this argument in response to the journalist Pedro’s insistence on the pending return of the stolen children (Song Without a Name). Colonialism and patriarchalism overlap the perpetrator practices against Quechua women as if they were culturally and structurally legitimized actions within Latin American society. Considering that state perpetrators are involved in both cases, it seems that violence against Quechua women may have been naturalized and embedded in Peruvian institutions as well. Likewise, issues to access to legal and institutional systems are evident in both films.

In The Milk of Sorrow, the non-existence of victims in the Sierra is a bureaucratic issue, since many of them, including Georgina, do not have any identity document that may be used to prove their identity. Georgina’s encounters with state authorities requesting identification, highlight the vulnerability of victims in society. Access to rights and services is not only hindered by geographical factors but also by the indifference of judicial authorities and bureaucratic procedures, such as being required to line up or must present identification documents for them (proof of existence or a condition for accessing institutional services). In other words, the authorities to whom she is reporting the crime are not considering her request. Not having an identity document means being less of a citizen than the rest, resulting in dehumanization and a lack of human rights in civil societies. This bias of social exclusion is especially pronounced for indigenous women. Facing bureaucracy and invisibility, and with no state entity interested in finding her daughter, Georgina decides to go to the press. And yet, she must yell to be listened to. Georgina’s desperate cry in the press office (“They stole my daughter, she’s only three days old!”) is a plea against social exclusion and the deprivation of rights. Even media coverage of the stolen babies focuses more on the trafficking network and corruption than on the plight of these women, who have been deprived of their children, and of the children themselves.

Voice and Image: Re-existence and Visibility

The two Peruvian films above analysed aim to make violence visible. While they unveil crimes against Quechua women, they also expose underlying inequities. The social structure resulting from the colonial and patriarchal system legitimizes and reproduces the social exclusion and violence perpetrated against Quechua women. During times of social violence, vulnerable sectors are always the most affected, and women and their children are often trapped by conflict.

Both films denounce the violence and trauma experienced by Quechua women. In these stories, they have been prevented from accessing economic and cultural resources, as well as deprived of inalienable human rights. The vulnerability presented in the films The Milk of Sorrow and Song Without a Name also connects with other films of this nature. The voice given to these silenced stories intersects with the narratives of Rustic Oracle or I am Aime. In these movies, ethnic discrimination and the condition of gender overlap and shape how the rest of civil society perceives them. Even institutional inaccessibility or societal indifference is culturally influenced by belonging to indigenous peoples. The stigmatization of indigenous peoples generates clear limitations concerning human, civil, and social rights in Latin American societies. On the contrary, a respectful acceptance of diversity is achieved through a perspective against colonialism and patriarchalism in both films.

These films seek to subvert stigmatization, violence, and trauma. Moreover, these images promote the collective memory and resilience of the Quechua women. Can they also enhance healing, reconciliation processes, and the search for re-existence? There is always a risk that touching sensitive topics with real grounds harms the survivors and reopens old wounds. However, it is legitimate to say that the endearing narratives of The Milk of Sorrow and Song Without a Name provoke awareness-raising, meaning that these films must sensitize the audience and promote critical thinking. The film images of suffering endured by indigenous women have the capacity to evoke emotions, promote critical thinking, and create shock. Healing and re-existence start with the rescue of collective memory, including traumatic events, and the denunciation of perpetuated and unnoticed inequalities.

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