Scholar-Elect Briseyda Barrientos Ariza on how her MPhil will explore the role of story-telling in expressing Central America's traumatic history.
Stories, and how we tell them, dictate our literary understandings, and moreover, our own conceptions of reality. It is language that constructs our experience, and alternatively, allows us to see reality differently.Briseyda Barrientos Ariza
When she was growing up, Briseyda Barrientos Ariza  spent her childhood summers in rural Guatemala, visiting her grandparents. In the evenings she would listen to her grandfather, a man who couldn’t read or write, tell intricate stories about his and others’ encounters with female folkloric figures.
Two stood out in particular: La Llorona and La Siguanaba. La Llorona is a weeping woman who murdered her children and was sentenced to mourn them eternally. La Siguanaba is a seductive being who lures men to isolated places and disguises herself as a man’s wife or lover. Once she has them on their own, she transforms into a horse-faced monster with hooves and murders, maddens or mutes men. Briseyda’s grandfather would, like many others in his community, tell stories about his encounters with La Llorona and about the family members and friends who had seen La Siguanaba.
“The stories are not unique. They have been told and retold across the Latin American community,” says Briseyda. “Even then, I knew there was something behind them and that I needed to understand them and their significance within my culture and community. These stories have a two-fold function: to address the unresolved colonial trauma and as a form of rhetorical resistance to dominant colonial narratives, for instance, that genocide didn’t occur in Guatemala or that sexual violence only occurs in certain areas and to certain people.”
As an undergraduate, Briseyda returned to the stories of her girlhood and did a research project on La Llorona and La Siguanaba based on the oral histories she collected, translated and transcribed in three Guatemalan regions: Pueblo Nuevo Tiquisate, Jutiapa and Guatemala City. Now, she wants to broaden her focus to encompass the entire Central American region and its diaspora. She says: “Stories, and how we tell them, dictate our literary understandings, and moreover, our own conceptions of reality. It is language that constructs our experience, and alternatively, allows us to see reality differently.”
Briseyda was born and raised in Hyattsville, Maryland, but spent the summers of her childhood years in rural Guatemala, exploring the outdoors, cutting fruit from trees, milking cows, and riding her grandfather’s horses. Her maternal grandparents owned a farm which at one point had 300 cows. Her grandfather would show her how to look after the animals and how to care for the land. From an early age she was aware of different ways of life, of the privileges she had growing up in the US and of the diasporic life she had experienced.
Briseyda has two older brothers. Her parents are now retired, but her father worked in construction as a machine operator while her mother was a dinner lady, having been a teacher in Guatemala. At school, Briseyda was fairly bookish. In middle school she started leaning towards the humanities, especially literature and languages. She began to play the violin and joined the orchestra of the visual performing arts programme which she auditioned for at her high school. Briseyda did a lot of performing and advanced placement work in literature, composition and language. She also ventured outside the humanities in her role as the Vice President of the Maths Honours Society and played varsity lacrosse – which had just been introduced in the public system – in regional competitions. She felt that, as a first-generation university applicant, being able to demonstrate she was well rounded would help her chances of success.
She didn’t know what subject to apply for, however. “I knew I loved learning and wanted to continue learning, but I had no idea what university would entail. I knew I cared about people and their stories and that I wanted to understand people better. I was committed to add to the study of literature as I felt that, as a discipline, it didn’t always capture the whole human experience – at least, not the one I knew to be true.”
Briseyda was helped to apply for a university place through her high school English teacher and joined the Peer Forward programme for marginalised communities where she became a peer leader, helping others to apply to university. She applied to Towson University because it was relatively local and could help with her tuition fees. She says: “I made the right decision. They gave me a lot of support,” she says. “At another university, I might have got lost because of the larger class sizes. Towson is very good at identifying students who have potential and encouraging them.”
Briseyda at first considered many subjects, but ended up majoring in English literature and Psychology, starting in 2018.
At Towson she has worked a number of jobs, many of them aimed at increasing access for underrepresented students. They include being a writing centre tutor and resident assistant, helping to build the student community, and working as a teaching assistant on the Honors Literature of Violence and Reconciliation course and the English Modern Literary Theory course.
She was the sole student organiser for the university’s first anti-racist pedagogy symposium which drew 200 global attendees and became a nationally awarded and published poet via her university’s literary magazine. She has also been involved in Latin American student groups and founded the Honorables of Color organisation, which serves Students of Color in the Honors College and annually offers underrepresented students a scholarship of $1K. Briseyda has also come full circle in her time at university and is now a freshman admissions counsellor, focusing on Baltimore County, especially Hispanic students and their communities, and helping prospective students like her through the admissions process.
In the course of her studies, Briseyda won a Leadership for Public Good Fellowship to do a research thesis, having been encouraged by two of her professors to apply after she told them she wanted to research female folkloric figures in Guatemala. The fellowship enabled her to conduct a self-designed, 10-week oral history research project about two figures in particular: La Llorona, who Briseyda argues is symptomatic of traumatic child loss, and La Siguanaba, who is a symptom of the traumatic sexual violence Guatemalan women have endured.
For her research, Briseyda spoke to people ranging from adolescents to elders in the three different regions of Guatemala. She describes the research as being based on a series of ‘platicas’ or organic conversations. “I did not want to impose Western understandings of interviews onto the research,” she says. She took 21 oral histories about different people’s encounters with the two folkloric figures and translated them to use as central texts for her honours undergraduate thesis, drawing on other material such as Jayro Bustamante’s Guatemalan directed and written La Llorona, a 2019 film which retells the Guatemalan genocide in fictionalised form using La Llorona as a symbol of its victims. Briseyda says similar stories emerged from the different settings.
For her MPhil in European, Latin American, and Comparative Literatures and Cultures at Cambridge she will expand her research scope to encompass Central America and its diaspora in the UK and US.
Using the theoretical frameworks of orature, counterstory and trauma, Briseyda’s work will study how the orature of La Llorona and La Siguanaba and the associated literary/oral/visual texts that derive from experienced atrocities reveal, symptomatically, the manner in which these stories disrupt and challenge hegemonic colonial narratives, calling attention to the haunting trauma of colonialism and its iterations, and disavowing colonialism as past for Central Americans.
“Focusing predominantly on the stories of oppressed and excluded communities, my work stands on the imperative call for a re-reckoning of narratives no matter where or how they appear because we cannot afford to miss the possibilities of language and meaning-making that inform our lives – that allow us to believe in the creation of a better world,” Briseyda says.
She was encouraged to apply to Cambridge by the director of competitive fellowships and awards at Towson. “I was so overwhelmed that someone from my background, lived experiences and identities was being advised to apply to Cambridge. It was never on my horizon before that fated conversation,” says Briseyda.
She contacted Dr Carlos Fonseca, a fellow Central American professor and scholar at Trinity College, as a prospective supervisor to help her understand how her studies might unfold and advance at Cambridge. She says her whole community is very proud and excited about her achievement. “I could not be more thankful,” she says: “This is a love letter to my entire Central American community.”