CocoteExploring the Politics of Aesthetics (Part 2) 

Cocote (2017), a film by Dominican director Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, is a palimpsest bearing marks of translation, creolization, and intercultural cinema (see part 1 for plot).

There isn’t a translation for the word ‘cocote’ in English that is simultaneously efficient and accurate. But ‘cocote’ can be explained in English by way of versioning, an approach to translating where the translator preserves the meaning of a word or phrase at the cost of efficiency. “My activity as the translator is also informing the work, making that work something totally new in some ways,” says Mexican author and translator Cristina River Garza, describing versioning. I mention versioning before translating ‘cocote’ because ‘cocote‘ does not come from standard Spanish; ‘cocote’ is a versioning, a creolization of the Spanish word ‘cogote.’

Sources/Further Reading

  • Dorismond, Edelyn, and Edelyn Dorismond. “Creolization of Politics, Politics of Creolization: Thinking of an ‘Unthought’ in the Work of Edouard Glissant.” Sens Public, 21 Oct. 2014, Accessed 27 Apr. 2021. 

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1995. 

  • “Great Writers Inspire at Home: M. NourbeSe Philip on the Haunting of History.”  Accessed 27 Apr. 2021. 

  • Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham [U.A.] Duke Univ. Press [Ca, 2007

To understand ‘cocote’ and the creolization of a language is to denounce language as hermetic and immutable and to make the case that “linguistic ‘incompetence’ is a relative notion, indistinguishable from the cultural” (Mireille Rosello). Language carries culture; to dismiss as incorrect words that reside outside standard language is to negate different modes of Being that language gives breath to through voice.

The Martinican poet Edouard Glissant offers the following definition of creolization: “I refer to creolization as the meeting, the interference, the shock, the harmony and the disharmony between cultures, throughout the world-earth.” Creolization emerges from a Caribbean shaped by the violent imprint of the European imagination. A region that “vividly displays the recourses and the consequences of displacement, enslavement, resistance, and miscegenation” (Edouard Glissant). Creolization grounds racial miscegenation, cultural and religious syncretism, and language hybridization in an amorphous identity. Creolization is a process, not a position. And porous language emerges from the ongoing metamorphosis of culture and identity.

The many creolized languages of the Caribbean subvert the oppressive, imposing tongue of the colonizer. Mutable Spanish—responding to the specific conditions of the Dominican Republic—is generative as it gives people agency to shape language to carry their experiences. ‘Cocote’ comes from the word ‘cogote,’ which means “la parte superior y posterior del cuello, donde este se une con la cabeza,” defined by the Real Academia Española, the standard-bearer for official Spanish. This definition translates to “top and back of the neck, where it meets the head.” The efficient translation of ‘cogote’ to English would be ‘neck’ or ‘nape,’ a translation that omits the corporeal specificity important to the creole word ‘cocote.’

While the Creole word ‘cocote’ preserves aspects of the standard Spanish definition, its real meaning resides in its cultural use—the vernacular meaning of ‘cocote’ is lost without contextualizing its use within the Dominican Republic. Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, director of Cocote, explains that ‘cocote’ describes the neck of an animal. Arias explains that “when you use cocote in the Dominican Republic to describe the neck of a person, there is a violence that is implicit, that it’s something that’s going to break, kind of like the neck of a chicken.” Arias illustrates the violence embedded in the word ‘cocote’ viscerally in Cocote: tugging at the neck of a chicken before dismembering it, the local butcher explains to Alberto, “le mocharon el cocote,” when he asks the butcher how his father was murdered (see article, part 1). This phrase translates to “they chopped his neck,” “they cut his head off,” “they beheaded him.” But these verbal translations lack the desecration of humanity embedded in ‘cocote’ that the images allude to: his father was slaughtered like an animal.

Creole words in Cocote elucidate how experience and language are entangled. Arias uses sound and image and numerous filmmaking styles to translate the mestizaje that written and oral language cannot communicate alone. Rather than translate a Dominican experience into what Arias calls “the oppressive aesthetic of the mainstream film,” he develops a cinematic language that is more representative of the Dominican Republic, which the viewer must make sense of. Cinema is an audio-visual language, and there is a need to augment cinematic language to express more abundantly experiences of displacement, peripheral society, cultural hybridity, mestizaje, etc. Tobagonian poet NourbeSe Philip asks the question, “is Being sufficient or is it contingent. Is it contingent on class, race, gender, sexuality?” In commercial filmmaking, representation (one way of acknowledging Beingness) is contingent.

Modes of Being that commercial Euro-American filmmaking has misrepresented or hasn’t represented altogether find language in what scholar Laura Marks calls intercultural cinema. Intercultural cinema is “characterized by experimental styles that attempt to represent the experience of living between two or more cultural regimes of knowledge.” Narratively, Cocote explores the experience of living between different regimes of knowledge as Alberto, a practicing evangelical, contends with his family, whose identity is rooted in a syncretic religion that mixes Catholic and West African traditions. And the plurality of filmmaking styles that Cocote moves through builds a language of mestizaje that re-evaluates Dominican identity—the poetics of Cocote are in dialogue with the politics of mestizaje.

While I am using ‘creolization’ and ‘mestizaje’ interchangeably, as some Caribbean authors do, ‘creolization’ and ‘mestizaje’ are permeable concepts; their meaning can change depending on the political, cultural, and historical particularities of a country. As a political framework that shapes identity, mestizaje positions itself as anti-colonial. The miscegenation inherent to mestizaje subverts rigid theories of racial essentialism that propagate racism. Colonialism and imperialism deployed/deploy ideas of immutable ethnic and racial differences to create racial hierarchies used to enslave, exploit, oppress, and control. Edouard Glissant says of mestizaje/creolization, “cultures which I shall refer to as composite, whose creolization is somehow happening before our eyes. These cultures do not generate from Creation of the world, they do not consider the foundation myth of a Genesis.”

Creolization rejects racial essentialism and ideals of universalism that use the guise of unification to erase complex webs of identities. Historian Paul Gilroy writes that the continuous making of Creole identity—that mediate between two or more knowledge-producing systems—disarm a politics of absolutist identities and the divisive stereotypes that trail behind. “The history of the black Atlantic yields a course of lessons as to the instability and mutability of identities which are always unfinished, always being remade,” identity is fluid, always in the making, and not something fixed in hermetic categorical definitions (Paul Gilroy). But Cocote alludes to shortcomings of a politics of mestizaje, such as colorism, whereby discrimination and prejudice occur along the lines of skin tone. To end, I will pose a question for director Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias to better understand the desire for an aesthetic in dialogue with the politics of mestizaje.

From a theoretical stance, a politics of mestizaje/creolization is appealing because it challenges racist theories of race that colonialism and imperialism perpetuate. Yet, as Aijaz Ahmad points out, the term postcolonial has become omnivorous as it “ignores political relationships other than, and sometimes predating, colonial ones and maintains the binary relation between former colonizer and colonized.” In the conversation of race, mestizaje acquires a unifying/omnivorous characteristic as it positions itself against racist ideas of racial purity. In what ways do you think racism manifests in mestizaje? Does the omnivorous quality of mestizaje risk erasing cultural attributes of the less oppressive culture? What kind of commentary needs to be present in art to ensure that the meeting of two or more cultures is synthesis rather than assimilation whereby one culture contorts itself into the colonial patterns that still prevail and which are powerful?