A gringo, in US English, is generally understood to be a white person from the United States. “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes,’” is the first recorded use in the Oxford English Dictionary, from John James Audubon’s Western Journal of an 1849 trip to the gold fields of California. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster’s agree that the word is pejorative or contemptuous.
In Spanish, gringo is a way of saying “foreigner,” applicable to whichever group is locally most numerous. In Uruguay, a gringo might be an Italian or a Russian. La Gringa, by the playwright Carmen Rivera, which has run for decades at Repertorio Español in Manhattan, tells the story of a Puerto Rican woman raised in the United States who visits the island for the first time. The dictionary of the Real Academia Española currently notes no disparaging connotation and says gringo is usually associated with English speakers, though in Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru a gringo can be anyone with fair hair and light skin. Gringo can also mean a foreign or unintelligible language. One etymological conjecture derives it from griego: Greek.
The palefaced English speaker from the US who heads south of the border is a familiar figure in the literature of the Americas. Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo (1985; translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) takes up the story of Ambrose Bierce, the midwestern journalist who, in 1913, disappeared in Mexico; it was the first Mexican novel to become a best seller in the United States. A complete literary history of the gringo would have to extend back at least a full century, to María Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don, published in San Francisco in 1885 and mostly ignored until 1992, when it was republished in the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage series by the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press.
Born to a landowning Mexican family in Baja California, María Ruiz married Henry Burton, the commander of the US troops who occupied her town in 1847. The Squatter and the Don explores, in English, a tangled web of connections between a Spanish-speaking “native Californian” family and a white family from the North who are squatting on land to which the Mexican government once granted the Californians title. Ruiz de Burton wrote the novel to push back against the negative stereotypes the squatters used to justify their land grab. Of their patriarch, Ruiz de Burton writes, “It can hardly be said that he understood himself, for he sincerely believed that he had forever renounced his ‘squatting’ propensities.” The characterization is classic: the gringo always believes, erroneously, in his own innocence. Ruiz de Burton believed in hers, too. The adjectives she most often pairs with the nameless Indian characters in The Squatter and the Don are “lazy” and “stupid.”
Ruiz de Burton was struggling to maintain title to land of her own as she wrote her novel, but the cultural territory it claims, the right to a voice and an audience within the discourse of the invading nation, was just as important to her. If the struggle for cultural territory seems to have grown particularly fierce in our day, that may be because, unlike Ruiz de Burton, some of the writers and communities now engaged in it have achieved enough clout to draw attention to their resistance. The more that pushback affects how and by whom stories are told, however, the more it is, in turn, accused of shackling us all in chains variously known as political correctness, identity politics, or cancel culture. A statement by PEN America, issued earlier this year in response to objections leveled against American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins, “categorically reject[s] rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories.” All of us, goes the general defense, should be able to write whatever we want, about whomever we want.
It’s pleasant to think of literature as a free territory where the imagination can wander at will. Kafka wrote Amerika without ever setting foot in the New World. Among contemporary Latin American writers, this maneuver is something of a trend. The Mexican-Peruvian writer and provocateur Mario Bellatin sets some of his work in Japan but has said he won’t ever go there: “I want to maintain my distorted idea of what ‘Japan’ is,” he told an interviewer in 2015—“a sort of essence, a constructed essence, fictitious and flawed.” Carlos Yushimoto, a Peruvian writer currently based in the US, situates much of his fiction in Brazil, a country he has never visited. The imaginative freedom of not knowing, or knowing only a wholly mediated entity—one’s own self, reflected from afar—can be more creatively exhilarating than any mere encounter with the real thing.
In this respect, The Gringa, a recent novel by Andrew Altschul, raises an important question: Does fiction, particularly fiction that claims to be based on history, have any responsibilities at all vis-à-vis real people and their lives, places they inhabit, truth? At a time when systematic disinformation campaigns are abetting the rise of authoritarian governments the world over, might it be unwise to discard all concepts of boundaries or dividing lines between the imaginative freedom of literary fiction and distortion or falsehood?
Successful works of fiction tend to handle history with great care, particularly where real individuals are concerned. Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988) chronicles Lee Harvey Oswald in the years leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow (2017; translated by Camilo A. Ramirez) portrays James Earl Ray on the run in Lisbon after assassinating Martin Luther King Jr; and the Bolivian novelist Rodrigo Hasbun’s Affections (2017; translated by Sophie Hughes), a terse contrapuntal interplay of voices and perspectives, evokes the Ertls, whose patriarch, Hans, the cinematographer for several of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi films, moved his family to Bolivia in 1952. Monika Ertl, Hans’s daughter, grew up among Bolivia’s ruling classes, then joined the survivors of Che Guevara’s defeated guerrilla movement, and in 1973, at age thirty-five, was killed by Bolivian security forces.
All of these novels call their protagonists by their real names and adhere, for the most part, to the known record of their lives, though that is no simple matter. One of Libra’s most celebrated insights is that in the overwhelming information overload—the “endless fact-rubble”—fact that is generated by an event like the Kennedy assassination becomes unsustainable and yields to myth. And by the time each of these books was written, Bierce, Oswald, Ray, and the Ertl family were dead, receding into myth.
Portraying the living is a more delicate question. A brilliant and enigmatic approach to the artistic adaptation of living characters is proposed by Is This a Room, which premiered in 2019 at the Kitchen in New York City. In the director Tina Satter’s staging of the FBI’s official transcript of its interrogation of now incarcerated former intelligence specialist Reality Winner, the actors perform the transcript verbatim, complete with freeze-frame pauses for the redacted passages.
Though her name does not appear in the pages of The Gringa, an initial version of the publisher’s webpage for the novel, since rewritten, announced that it is “loosely based on…controversial American activist Lori Berenson.” In any case, that is immediately clear to anyone remotely familiar with Berenson’s life story. Before getting to the novel, a review of her life is in order.
She grew up in New York City, the daughter of two college professors. In 1988, as an undergraduate at MIT, she became concerned about the unequal treatment of refugees from the cold war battlegrounds of Central America. Those fleeing left-wing violence were likely to be granted asylum by the US government; those fleeing the violence of right-wing governments were likely to be refused. After a three-month trip to El Salvador in her sophomore year, Berenson dropped out of college to work with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), then a Marxist guerrilla group combatting the Salvadoran military, now one of El Salvador’s two main political parties. She first worked with the FMLN in Washington, D.C., then moved to Nicaragua in 1990. Two years later, following the successful conclusion of a United Nations–brokered peace process, she moved to El Salvador, where she was part of a team supplying secretarial support to Salvador Sánchez Cerén, an FMLN general. (In 2014 Cerén was elected president of El Salvador and held that office for the next five years.)
Berenson arrived in Peru in November 1994, fluent in Spanish and having lived in Latin America for four years. A year later, at the age of twenty-six, she was arrested on charges of abetting a foiled plot by the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) to attack the Peruvian Congress. Berenson had rented a house where members of the MRTA were living and where, after her arrest, several MRTA members and one police officer were killed during a shootout. A sizable cache of weapons and ammunition—of which Berenson had no knowledge, or so both she and members of the MRTA attested in court—was found inside.
She spent the next fifteen years in Peruvian prisons. In 2009, while still in prison, she gave birth to a son, Salvador. When Jennifer Egan profiled her for The New York Times in 2011, while she was in the process of being paroled to spend the next five years under house arrest in Lima, Berenson told her, “I’ve always been a very private person.” A common enough thought. But Egan was struck by the extent to which she and other members of her family were “profoundly private—to an extent that seems quaint in our self-exposing era.” In 2015 she was allowed to leave Peru, and she and six-year-old Salvador flew to the United States. Meanwhile, in Peru, Alberto Fujimori, the president who made political hay out of prosecuting Berenson, was himself convicted in 2009 on charges of extensive corruption and human rights abuses that included ordering death squads to commit massacres. He remains in jail today.
You will learn little of this from The Gringa. Instead, the novel offers up an effigy it calls Leonora (“Leo”) Gelb, a gringa in Peru. Right off the bat, we learn that “Leonora Gelb hated America.” The America she hates is vaguely defined, but has one particular embodiment: the Hard Rock Café. The sight of a Hard Rock Café being constructed as part of a glittering Lima shopping mall called Vía América fills Leo with rage and disgust. When the mall is complete, she thinks, “the masses…will crawl over its glossy surface like maggots on meat.”
Anyone who’s been near a college campus or peeked at social media in the last decade will recognize Leo as a Social Justice Warrior. SJWs, according to Urbandictionary.com, are “people who claim to be fighting for social justice but are actually validating their own ego, looking for special treatment, or attention.” “Typically, an SJW is very easily brainwashed by far-left college professors.” Another SJW characteristic is to push back at negative stereotypes: SJWs are “individuals who are mad and get triggered by everything.”
The Gringa efficiently checks off each box. Raised in the suburbs of New Jersey by upper-middle-class parents, Leo graduates from Stanford, where she is radicalized by a professor whose work—“a mishmash of theory, documentary research, personal recollection, and fictionalized ‘re-enactments’”—holds that “the demands inherent to storytelling inevitably contaminate the source material, warping it into a form with no claim to historical reality.” He also has his students do fieldwork among migrant laborers, street gangs, and prostitutes. Leo is radicalized, then, by the very combination of theory and renewed attention to the marginalized that right-wing commentators since 1990 (coincidentally, the year Berenson left the United States) have spun into the “phantom enemy,” as Moira Weigel calls it, of political correctness, that “leftwing political programme…seizing control of American universities and cultural institutions.”1
Eager for its readers to join in the chortling, The Gringa doesn’t miss a chance to put Leo’s self-serving, liberal bad faith on parade. While still at Stanford, she protests the Gulf War, accompanied by a sometime lover named Marden, a mixed-race man she has met in one of the tenured radical’s classes. Like every other well-attended protest depicted here, this one soon turns violent. Cops slam nightsticks into Marden, who lies helpless in the street. Leo drops the pipe she’s carrying, rips off her balaclava, and takes refuge in Macy’s. Heading to the men’s department, she buys her father (who pays her credit card bills) a tie for his birthday. Marden never comes up again.
A couple of years later, vaguely motivated by a photograph of the dead body of the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko she saw at a Peter Gabriel performance in high school and appalled by the $200 centerpieces at her investment banker brother’s wedding, Leo decamps to Peru with scant command of Spanish and no prior experience of living outside the United States. She wants to do something, to help. She believes in her own innocence. Soon enough she’ll be sobbing “Yo soy terrorista” in a freezing prison cell.
The MRTA, the group living in Lori Berenson’s rented house, was eventually held responsible for 1.5 percent of the deaths resulting from Peru’s internal conflict between 1980 and 2000.2 But the wholly fictional guerrilla group Leo gets involved with is called the Cuarta Filosofía—a name resonant with the Maoist cult known as Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, which caused 54 percent of those roughly 68,000 deaths. To underscore this tacit accusation, one of The Gringa’s epigraphs is from Abimael Guzmán, the philosophy professor who founded Sendero.
The other epigraph, from DeLillo’s Mao II (1991), sounds a lot like the garbled theory spouted by Leo’s Stanford professor, but also appears to be offered in defense of the novel’s purportedly postmodern project: “Is history possible? Is anyone serious?”
The promotional copy from The Gringa’s publisher touts it as “subversive.” Of what, exactly? Its characterization of Leonora Gelb is fully in line with such publications as the New York Post, which, upon Berenson’s return to her native city in 2015, ran an editorial that denounced her, associated her with the deaths of 50,000 people, and sneered at liberals for “lioniz[ing]” her. Lori Berenson is a single parent who has had to readjust to a country she hadn’t lived in for a quarter-century while coping with the trauma of decades of incarceration. What are the ethics of publishing a book that constructs such an ugly caricature, links it to a vulnerable, living individual (who told Egan about receiving death threats), and proceeds to elaborate upon this theme for four hundred pages? In an interview with Berenson conducted around the same time as Egan’s 2011 profile, the Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti noted that Berenson was paroled to house arrest because the Peruvian authorities determined she represented no threat to anyone. In an earlier article about her, Gorriti reminded his readers that in addition to Salvador Sánchez Cerén, two other recent democratically elected Latin American heads of state—Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Uruguay’s José Mujica—spent their younger years in militant guerrilla resistance groups. Yet the ethical premise of The Gringa—if it has one—seems to be that engagement in any way with people who were involved in armed resistance renders one fair game for any and all vilification.
In a useful recent essay titled “How to Unlearn Everything,” the novelist Alexander Chee proposes three questions for fiction writers who are thinking of depicting “people who do not look like you.” These questions, however, can only be useful to those who ask them. The Gringa remains placid in the certainty that its author, or his counterpart, a character named Andres, an expat novelist from the US who tells himself that “stories can’t hurt anyone,” is depicting someone who very much looks like himself.
If we were to pose the first of Chee’s questions—“Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?”—Andres’s answer might be that Leonora Gelb is not an oppressed person of color but, like him, a figure of white privilege, an educated, middle-class, US citizen. The many shared elements in their backgrounds appear—to Andres, at least—to offer blanket protection from any charge of cultural appropriation and grant his imagination carte blanche.
Andres, too, hates America. He not only hates but is embarrassed by it. As is Leo. On a bus ride through Lima, she listens as the radio blares news of President Clinton, “nonsense from the US—Kathleen, Paula, Monica, names out of a sorority house, or a bad sitcom—and she groans aloud at the unforgivable silliness.” (The ostensibly female Leo deplores the unforgivable silliness of women and their irredeemably womanish names.) Andres also shares Leo’s loathing for the Hard Rock Café. He prefers to party in more authentically Peruvian venues.
After seeing the photographs of Abu Ghraib in 2004, Andres gives up his meaningless job teaching writing, sells everything he owns, and abandons his homeland for the wide world of not-America, where he “didn’t have to care” about politics or anything much at all: “Everything was lovely…. Lovely and light, ultimately meaningless.” Not living in the United States and taking no interest in politics renders him innocent of the various traumas the nation inflicts upon itself and others, or so he believes. Despising consumerism, Andres furnishes his apartment sparsely and makes nightlife his personal-finance priority, spending his evenings with Peruvian women and various expat friends. Andres often depicts himself in an unflattering light and sometimes gets skewered by other characters, too, which seems intended as both exculpatory and charmingly self-deprecating. “Oh, Andres, what a monster of ego you are,” a Canadian female journalist whispers to him.
Andres is also the author of a published novel; Peru is supposed to provide him with something further to write about. Which brings us to the second of Chee’s questions: “Do you read writers from this community currently?” A Peruvian acquaintance recommends César Vallejo, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, and Mario Vargas Llosa to Andres, but he doesn’t like reading in Spanish, and his copy of Vargas Llosa’s Conversación en la catedral (1969), a novel about a young middle-class Peruvian man who gets involved in leftist politics, sits unread and fading on a windowsill. Though Andres also acquires a work by the Peruvian Marxist José Mariátegui as room decoration, his real literary reference points are all gringos: DeLillo, Walter Laqueur, Roth, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville. This is also largely true of his female terrorist alter ego, who lugs a copy of Moby-Dick around with her everywhere.
Andres does read a lot about Leonora Gelb, though, or so he tells us. Once he’s convinced himself she’s the subject matter Peru has thoughtfully served up for him, he becomes research-obsessed and gathers accordion files full of clippings, some of them supposedly by Gustavo Gorriti. The Gringa goes out of its way to ape the sort of archival work that fiction writers who deal carefully with history engage in—only to dismiss it all as meaningless. “I read all eight thousand pages of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s 2003 report,” Andres boasts. “None of it made sense to me…. By the end of the day I’d forgotten everything I’d read.” Leonora Gelb does not exist, so it’s no surprise that Andres’s pretend delving proves unfruitful. But the novel insists repeatedly on its grounding in fact. When Andres has a breakthrough in his writing process and excitedly calls his agent back in the States, she sees “tremendous potential”: “creative nonfiction” is very much in vogue, she says.
If gringo can be semantically slippery as it moves between Spanish and English, “American,” another term whose meaning is not limited to those from the United States, is even more so. “Don’t call me a gringa,” Leo tells a Peruvian acquaintance, apparently understanding the word as a pejorative: “I’m American.” “Somos todos americanos” (“We are all Americans”) is how Peruvians tend to reply to both Leo and Andres when they make that statement. The various historical and etymological reasons they have for doing so are not unpacked. What The Gringa itself means by “American” eventually grows clear when Leo learns, too late, that the Cuarta Filosofía infiltrator who foils her plot to blow up the Hard Rock Café claims to share her nationality. “Yes, of course, we are all Americans,” the man she once knew as “Comrade Miguel” tells her during an interrogation. “¿Sabes qué? My father’s from Baltimore. I lived there until I was nine.”
Real America, it turns out, is located back in the US, and the novel’s most duplicitous character, Comrade Miguel, is the one who claims to conjoin that Real America with Peru. The novel’s last word on what it means to be an American is offered by a Peruvian girlfriend, pregnant with Andres’s child, who pleads with him to be part of the baby’s life: “He will look up to you, his American father, and think you are like a hero, like a superhero so far away.” The child will not, himself, be an American.
Chee’s third question, “Why do you want to tell this story?,” is an easy one. Not content with making its heroine a quasi-Senderista and the mastermind of a terrorist plot, The Gringa eventually holds her metaphorically at fault for the events of September 11, 2001, and punishes her for that, too. After Leo is paroled to house arrest in Lima, a protest in front of her house turns violent and she’s shot in the chest and killed. Then, as Andres entertains implausible thoughts of becoming a better person, the novel peters out. The exciting denouement it has in mind for itself lies elsewhere.
The Gringa repeatedly evokes a video of Leo that mimics the infamous clip of Berenson that many commentators believe was what sent her to jail. Taken shortly after her arrest in January 1996, it shows her infuriated, shouting at the top of her lungs, denouncing the Peruvian government. It was a godsend to the Fujimori administration, which made that open-mouthed, raging foreign woman into the face of Peruvian terrorism. The Gringa’s highest aspiration seems to be to elicit that same reaction: to be denounced by Berenson. Controversy sells books. The novel cites a definition of terrorism, also from DeLillo’s Mao II: “The language of being noticed [is] the only language the West understands.”
The Gringa has been noticed in this essay as a symptom of our time. Its characters’ trumpeted anti-Americanism seems like a posture of the left. But what does it tell us? All protest is a form of masturbation and can only lead to violence. Attempts to help others, rectify wrongs, or create change are narcissistic, self-serving, and delusional. Knowledge and expertise are a fraud and historical fact a bauble to play with or smash at will, with no regard for the consequences to anyone. And there are just two places in the world: the United States and elsewhere—the latter useful only as a backdrop for stories about the homeland. For all the hostility toward America The Gringa depicts, its provincial exceptionalism and hunger for outrage make it right at home with the people who claim they want to make America great again.