(Editor’s Note: This is Kahlil Chaar-Pérez guest post for this week, which continues his exploration of José Martí. — Ben Alpers)
As the title of these posts underscores, my intention has been to reflect on the figure of José Martí as both a Latin American and a Latino intellectual, particularly by calling attention to his critical reception of U.S. culture, a fraught relation that blended admiration and antagonism towards the rising Northern “tiger” and its cultural pantheon. In preserving both labels to describe him, I mean to signal the productive tensions—the conceptual promises as well as the epistemological challenges—that surface from thinking Martí and other analogous nineteenth-century Latin American figures within a genealogy of Latina/o culture(s) that travels into a time much earlier than the actual emergence of Latina/o practices of identification in the 1960s and 70s.
The recent publication of the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2011), edited by Ilan Stavans, exemplifies this trend of thought in the humanities: it constructs a history that goes through not only the works of Martí, other Latin American exiles, and Southwestern Hispanic writers from the nineteenth century, but also incorporates texts from the colonial era in Latin America, such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his nightmarish travel to Florida (1542). In the preface, Stavans states that the texts and pasts he has chosen for the anthology intersect as a narrative of belonging; they narrate the “constant mutation” embodied by latinidad : “At its core, Latino literature is about the tension between double attachments to place, to language, and to identity” (liii). Yet, as Kirsten Silva-Gruezs establishes in a wonderful y trenchant intervention (“What Was Latino Literature?”), Stavans’ justification of the book’s sweeping, wide-ranging scope rests in an ahistorical conception of Latina/o identity. While it offers a wealth of indispensable documents for studying the history and prehistory of Latina/o cultures, especially from an intellectual lens, the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature avoids addressing the historical formation and periodization of such cultures.
In a future post, I will dig deeper into the problems presented by Stavans’ prologue and the Norton Anthology, in connection to Silva Gruezs’ critique. For now, I would like to stress what may be obvious but is worth reiterating: how the retroactive process of building a Latina/o canon runs the risk—as in all processes of canon formation—of distorting the historical coordinates from which such cultural production unfolded. Scholars interested in the possibility of framing nineteenth-century Latin American cultural forms in the U.S. through a Latina/o genealogy, such as myself, should proceed with caution when imposing these frameworks on the subjects of study. In resignifying figures like Martí through a U.S. centric narrative, we may end up overlooking the relations such individuals and their communities continued to have with Latin America, not to mention the practices of identification that tied them affectively, culturally, and politically to their places of origin (in the case of Martí, one can point to his revolutionary discourse of a race-less Cuban nationality and his mestizo conception of a Latin American identity in “Our America”). My emphasis on maintaining the epistemological oscillation between the Latino and the Latin American in the nineteenth century represents a way to articulate this hemispheric relationality: the act of reading the North from the South and the South from the North, in dialectical fashion.
One can witness this dilemma unveil itself in Laura Lomas’ shrewd resignification of Martí as a “migrant Latino subject” in Translating Empire. On one hand, Lomas’ project of reading Martí “from and for the United States” (xiii) shines light on how the Cuban intellectual’s often ambivalent dialogue with U.S. hegemonic culture-produced from a self-consciously marginal position—encapsulates the condition of “Latino migrants,” a people who “straddle statelessness and an incipient nationality, empire and colony, and ‘early’ and ‘late’ temporalities assigned by timekeepers in the metropolitan center” (49). For Lomas, the possibility of a critique of “imperial modernity” emerges from this condition of constant negotiation and errantry, as exemplified by Martí’s essays on figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman (as I pointed out in my previous post, the Cuban revolutionary celebrates the latter’s mastery of the poetic form, which inspired his own post-Romantic verses, but he also represents Whitman’s poetry as a totalizing rhetoric of the self, utilizing images that echo his negative appraisal of U.S. expansionism). At the same time, Martí fully embraced more radical figures, such as Peter Cooper and Wendell Phillips, incorporating them into his republicanist vision of social freedom and equality (interestingly, in a note published in the journal La América, George William Curtis lauds Martí’s obituary on Phillips, a fact that suggests the existence of actual exchanges between Latino intellectuals in the U.S. and their Anglo-American peers in the time of Martí). Through her reading of his involvement in the New York print culture of the 1880s and 90s, of the wide circulation of his texts throughout Latin America, and his ongoing conversation with U.S. “imperial modernity,” Lomas repositions Martí within a counter-modern intellectual tradition that not only includes Latina/o thinkers like Gloria Anzaldúa, but goes beyond the marker of latinidad, linking Martí to W.E.B. Dubois and his analysis of an African-American “double consciousness.”
Yet, in tracing these continuities and resignifying Martí as “a migrant Latino subject,” Lomas understates the extent to which his prolific writing spoke to the South, to the Cuban revolutionary cause and to Latin American elites. By choosing the category of “migrant” over “exile,” Lomas curiously minimizes how Martí formed part of a community of political exiles (from Puerto Rico as well as Cuba) that viewed and utilized the U.S. as a springboard to launch the revolution against Spain (it is also curious that she does not engage with his profuse writings in the New York-based official daily of the Cuban Revolutionary Party). Lomas argues that this label “permits of a long-standing and counterproductive mutual exclusion between the immigrant and the exile, between the admirer of Abraham Lincoln and critic of the annexationist leader Augustus K. Cutting…” (35), but as scholars such as Edward Said have established, the figure of the exile certainly oscillates between critique and admiration towards the new “home.” In my next post, I will continue to develop these questions in relation to the idea of latinidad and Martí’s self-construction as “un americano sin patria,” reflecting on what implications these issues have for the articulation of a nineteenth-century Latino/Latin American intellectual history.