Trauma and Memory in The Milk of Sorrow

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The Milk of Sorrow (2009) tells the story of Fausta, a young woman who is afflicted by an illness passed through the breastmilk of women who have been raped during pregnancy. Because of this, Fausta lives in a constant state of fear but when her mother dies she has to face these challenges in order to break the cycle.

Fujimori and Modern Peru

Alberto Fujimori

For years, Peru was plagued by violence. The 1990 Peruvian elections saw even the renowned writer, Mario Vargas Llosa run for president as a center-right candidate in order to end it, but it was Alberto Fujimori who would win. Fujimori engaged in “shock treatment” of the Peruvian economy, an austerity program he considered necessary to reduce inflation and fiscal deficit, and thus to align internal prices with international prices. As expected, prices increased. In April 1992, he staged what has been called an auto-coup by aligning with the military, he suspended the constitution and shut down congress, the judiciary, and regional governments.

Due to international pressure, Fujimori had to announce elections for a new congress with a new constitution that allowed presidents to be reelected.  Then, in September 1992, the national police finally captured the Sendero Luminoso leader Abimael Guzman and his closest followers. With this political capital, Fujimori began to fiercely privatize public enterprises, between 1991, and 1998, the sale of state-owned enterprises and bonds to private buyers amounted to $8.65 billion. 

The 1996 Lima Hostage Crisis

By 1995, there were 6,872 highland and Amazon native communities, who possessed 32.5% of the cultivable land, when a new law allowed peasant communities to sell their land. In December 1996, a year after Fujimori’s reelection, MRTA guerrillas captured and occupied the official residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima, taking hostage 452 people including Fujimori’s brother and several other high ranking officials. After several months of negotiations, Fujimori ordered an attack on the embassy in April 1997. All terrorists were killed and all the hostages rescued, save for one man who died of a heart attack. That triumph reinvigorated his popularity but couldn’t do the same for the economy. Just when Fujimori seemed on the brink of a third term, his hold on power began to crumble. In September 2000, the Peruvian public was treated to the broadcast of a stolen videotape that showed Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of the National Intelligence Service, bribing a congressman in a move that was designed to help cover up the sale of arms to Colombian guerillas. 

In November 2000, while in Asia for a meeting of national leaders, Fujimori diverted his trip to Japan, where he claimed residence based on his parents’ Japanese citizenship and faxed his letter of resignation to congress. He was finally arrested in 2008 and continues to serve his sentence. Shortly after, Alejandro Toledo became the first Indian president of Peru. While the economy began to grow under his administration, the many jobs he promised did not show up and many Peruvians also opposed his closeness to the IMF. Peruvian farmers, teachers, public employees, and healthcare workers went on strike demanding salary increases from the government. In June, Toledo declared a state of emergency and sent troops to put out the protests and his approval rating fell to 11% and barely any change was gained.

Alejandro Toledo

By 2006, Alan Garcia was elected president again but violence for indigenous people did not end. In June 2009, at least 54 people were killed in clashes in the Amazon between security forces and indigenous people protesting against land ownership laws opening up oil and gas resources to foreign companies. History was repeating itself.

Aida & Fausta

It’s important to know that though the illness “la teta asustada” may seem unreal, it is a phenomenon taken straight out of Kimberly Theidon’s book Entre projimos: El conflicto armado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú. Theidon, a Harvard anthropologist, gives an account of various indigenous women who were victims of rape in Peru during the conflict. Some victims were pregnant during their assault and they began to believe that they transmitted the evil of their own nemesis through macharisca ñuñu (Quechuan for sad breast). This illness is a Peruvian one which creates a sense of communal trauma. It seems as though every indigenous Peruvian is afflicted by the trauma of the civil war whether they lived through it or not. This is not so for the rest of Peru’s population and that dichotomy is expressed thoroughly through the relationship between Fausta and the rich woman whose house she cleans, Aida. Because of their differences in experience, they have completely different types of memory. 

The Milk of Sorrow

Aida’s memory is entirely individual. During one interaction with Fausta in a garden, they find an old doll Aida’s parents had buried. They told her the earth would take it, which it didn’t, so Aida declares them to be liars. Clearly, her memory of events is entirely different than her parents’ memory of the doll’s burial. Fausta, on the other hand, claims that she even remembers her mom’s rapes while she was still in the womb. It’s clear that it is Aida’s privilege that allows her to create her own memory. For her, her family simply represents a lineage stuck in the past. She uses a power drill to stick frames of these deceased relatives to her wall, where they will stay forever. They won’t interact with her, they’ll just stay on a wall. Fausta’s relation to her ancestors is much more cyclical. Though her mother dies, she still keeps a potato inside her vagina which comes to represent the fears that her mother has passed down to her. Her mother never really died and the injustices of the past continue to plague Fausta and not Aida. Though Aida appears to be a much more morally dubious character than Fausta, she will never have to endure that kind of haunting. The rich in Peru never do.

The Potato

Early in the film, it is revealed that Fausta has inserted a potato in her vagina. She asserts that she is not stupid, she knows that it is not proper birth control. She had heard of a woman who, during the conflict, inserted a potato in her vagina and it prevented her from getting raped. Later, she was able to have a healthy, happy family and did not pass on the trauma. The potato keeps her safe from the supposed rapists that lurk outside her door, The potato also serves as a kind of mourning process, albeit a very unhealthy one. When her mother dies, the family is unable to bury her because they don’t have the money. This also means that her mother stays in the house, under her bed. As long as she is unable to say goodbye to her mother’s body which still remains in her own house, the potato will remain inside her body. The presence of the potato reminds us that Fausta is still living in a constant state of fear. When the buds fall from her body or her face contorts due to the discomfort it brings, we remember just how much fear lingers within her. Though the potato is also an ambiguous symbol. 

The Milk of Sorrow

During one scene, her cousin peels a potato in one go and her uncle declares that that is a sign of good fortune and a long life. From that moment on, we know that the potato does not have to remain bad. It all changes for Fausta when her uncle forces her to understand that she has to stop living in fear. She goes to Aida’s male gardener who has always been kind to her. He takes her to the hospital and she finally gets the potato out of her. Shortly after, she buries her mother near the ocean. The fear no longer has an oppressive presence in her life. This is cemented when the gardener sends her a potato plant which she lovingly sniffs in the last shot of the film. She has not forgotten her mother and will sniff the plant whenever she wants to show her love for her. It also cements one of the first healthy friendships with a man that Fausta has had in her life. Fausta can now embark on a new stage in her life without forgetting the people who made her.

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