The Desert-Crypt

The Desert-Crypt

Nadie atraviesa la región sin ensuciarse (2015) by Regina José Galindo
Courtesy: the artist and prometeo gallery di Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca


In several Latin American Antigones, the landscape of the desert becomes a metaphor of the crypt: the living tomb of the dissident body. In one of the earliest Antigones of the region, Leopoldo Marechal’s Antígona Vélez (1951), Antigone’s body is not buried alive. Conversely, she is ordered to ride a black horse towards the desert (where she will be killed by Indian arrows). This twist relates to Argentina’s neocolonial history and, more specifically, to the period that spans from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, when ‘The Conquest of the Desert’ became the main dogma related to the foundation of the nation-state. The very choice of the word ‘desert’ to designate the (clearly not only desertic) lands to be conquered is telling: declaring that ‘nobody was there’ (that is: beyond the Salado river at the southeast of Buenos Aires, the 19th century boundary between the colonized lands and those still controlled by the native populations), the government would justify the genocide of Argentina’s indigenous peoples.

Devised in five scenes (pictures/cuadros), Marechal’s play is set in a small ranch on the shores of a river, surrounded by the natives. The war between the two brothers is re-set here in the 19th century: it is the war between the white Creoles and the indigenous populations of Argentina. Polínices/Ignacio is a traitor because he collaborated with the Indians, and this is why his body has to remain unburied. Antigone does want to bury her brother/traitor, although she does not argue in support of his acts, neither she elaborates a critique of the genocide. What is at stake is not the authoritarian power Creon imposes to the polis, but his – almost nuptial – relationship with the still untamed land. The immense wildness of this land will substitute the living tomb of the dissident heroine.

In the fifth scene, Antigone meets Aemon/Lisandro in an Eden-like scenery, ‘immobile like a biblical couple’.  This encounter between the two lovers before death differentiates itself from Sophocles’ play, but also echoes the 3rd stasimon which is an Ode to Eros. Antigone will then appear dressed in male, black garments. Fully committed to her act, she will nonetheless appear to understand Creon’s rationale: The man who now condemns me is tough because he has reason’ (El hombre que ahora me condena es duro porque tiene razón). The chorus’ women react immediately: ‘Child, he is your executioner!’ (Niña, es tu verdugo!) Yet, Antigone explains to them that ‘He wants to populate the south with flowers’ (El quiere poblar de flores el sur) and that ‘Antígona Vélez will become the first flower in the garden he looks for’ (Antígona Vélez […] podría [ser?] la primera flor del jardin que busca). The moment of her death approaches: she and Lisandro/Aemon are bound on the rampaging horses. The two lovers will be killed by the natives’ lances. Their blood will water the sand.

Yet, when in the final scene the soldiers bring the dead bodies to Don Facundo, in opposition to Sophocles’ Creon, he will not repent. Instead, he will declare that these sacrificed lovers will leave grand-children to him: ‘All men and women who will, one day, harvest in this pampa the fruit of so much blood’ (Todos los hombres y mujeres que, algún día, cosecharán en esta pampa el fruto de tanta sangre). Inscribed in a recognizable iconography of martyrdom, the bodies of the lovers will finally fertilize the still unconquered land. Their young blood will prepare the way of the white colonizers.

The desert/crypt therefore appears as an interesting trope in Marechal’s version: if, in Sophocles, Creon decides to bury Antigone alive in a ‘caverned dwelling-place, eternal prison’ (verses 801-2), the tomb Don Facundo designs for her becomes the vastness of the untamed land, traversed by the galloping animal. To push it a bit further, if Creon needs to expel Antigone from the public space of the polis, in a society where women were deprived of civic rights, what Don Facundo wants is to sacrifice her, through the natives’ lances, in his ‘civilizing’ genocidal project. In this sense, and although the play interestingly imagines Ignacio/Polínices as opponent to the whites, the violence of Argentinian colonial history is not really questioned. Rather, it seems to be inscribed in the main national myth, to the epic of the ‘Conquest of the Desert’, although under the more all-encompassing umbrella of the Peronism.[1]We thank Moira Fradinger for her enabling comments with the occasion of this field note. Her book Antígonas: Writing from Latin America (Oxford University Press, 2023) is an indispensable source … Continue reading


The desert-crypt takes a completely different form in another Latin American Antigone, Perla de la Rosa’s Antígona; Las voces que incendian el desierto ([Antigone: The Voices That Set the Desert on Fire]; 2004). Set in contemporary Juárez, a city located at the US border in Mexico, it addresses the serial killings of local women (feminicidios) and the subsequent government indifference in acknowledging the violence and inaction in preventing it.

The desertic landscape of Juárez becomes the setting in which the female protagonists of this work are both buried and seeking refuge:

MUJER 1: Soy una mujer en esta ciudad, donde todo es arena. […] Ser mujer aquí es estar en peligro. Por ello decidimos construir refugios bajo la arena. Ampararnos bajo la arena para continuar viviendo. Se trata de ocultarnos, de desaparecer de la vista del enemigo. (Prólogo, p. 187-8)

WOMAN 1: I am a woman in this city, where everything is sand. […] Being a woman here is to be in danger. That is why we decided to build shelters under the sand. To protect ourselves under the sand to continue living. It’s about hiding, about disappearing from the enemy’s sight. [translated by the authors]

The desert here becomes a crypt but, instead of only condemning to death, it offers a hideaway, a sanctuary where all women can stay together and survive. When any form of exposure in public space is also exposing the women of Juárez to the possibility of their brutal demise, then gathering in the underground is the only viable option. Just like in the Sophoclean Antigone, the female body is expelled from the polis. But in de la Rosa’s Antígona, this expulsion is not ordered by the Creontian law in reaction to a woman’s ‘inappropriate’ dissidence. It is, instead, self-inflicted as a survival strategy to counter the immediate threat of being murdered for the mere and very fact that the Juárez women occupy a female body.

Polinices is one of these women; she is the disappeared sister whose body Antigone wants to find and bury. She is looking for it in the desert, where many other women’s bodies have been already encountered:

En el desierto varias personas realizan un rastreo, buscan cuerpos de víctimas. Antígona también se encuentra ahí. Ismene ha llegado a buscarla, la encuentra con aire delirante y desgastada por el sufrimiento. (Escena IV, p. 195)

In the desert, several people are searching for the bodies of victims. Antigone is also found there. Ismene has come to look for her. She finds her in delirium and worn out by suffering. [translated by the authors]

The desert-crypt then is both a refuge and a tomb. As Antigone proclaims to her sister Ismene:

Muchas han muerto bajo la complicidad del tirano, han aparecido destrozadas sin más tumba que este desierto, consumidas por el sol inclemente de esta ciudad de ojos muertos. (Escena IV, p. 201)

Many have died under the complicity of the tyrant, they have appeared in pieces with no other grave than this desert, consumed by the unrelenting sun of this city of dead eyes. [translated by the authors]

The Juárez women are buried under the sand, where the ones who are still alive and hidden co-exist with the already dead and disappeared. Challenging the notion of Antigone as this fearless defiant heroine, at the cost of her life, de la Rosa in her work is sensitive to the class-laden agony of countering the disposability of the undocumented, unrecognized, unprivileged female body.


Marios Chatziprokopiou and Alkisti Efthymiou


1 We thank Moira Fradinger for her enabling comments with the occasion of this field note. Her book Antígonas: Writing from Latin America (Oxford University Press, 2023) is an indispensable source for our Research Program.