U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Between Two Americas?: José Martí as a Latin American/Latino Intellectual, Part 3

(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.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post Kahlil. This is probably far outside the scope of latinidad, but I was reminded of an axiom from a novel by Samuel Delany that might take on an interesting function if thought in relation to Martí: “There is no class, race, nationality or sex that it does not help to be only half.”

    Of course all four of those categories need to be thought more specifically, and especially the question of “for what?” a measure of ‘halfness’ (abstractly, mestizaje) helps. I guess one big question would be how many times can we multiply consciousness (by dividing identity).

    • Delany, keeping it real always. Where is the quote from?

      The problem with the idea of mestizaje is that it can erase the difference of the two constructs (racial, cultural or both) that are supposedly integrated, syncretizes, etc., through it.

  2. latinidad

    Must be cool to have “identity.” All I got was this t-shirt that says E pluribus unum. Hold the unum.

    Seriously, Kahlil, I’ve enjoyed your series on Martí, and see you’ve located the potential snares and pitfalls:

    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 Martí’s case, he was deported to Spain at 18, and spent much of his short adult life in the US, as a second-class non-citizen on the streets of 19th century New York. What I’ve detected in my quick survey of his canon is an understandable alienation from his non-native US—both on the street level and the global—and a romanticization if not an imagineering of some sort of Latinidad Man not only more perfect than his American counterpart, but one better not just in degree but in kind.

    What was his relation to the reality of the Cuban people and culture besides fellow emigres in the US—and his imagination? How is latinidad different from plain old “humanity?” Perhaps this kind of thinking is unhelpful– the conceit that a personal or ethno-cultural history of getting the brown end of the stick is necessarily ennobling.

    In light of the mythbusting of Americans and Americanness we see from some intellectual historians, perhaps there’s something to be emulated there—perhaps some of Latin America’s socio-political disappointments [failures, let’s face it] have come from a sentimental belief that latinidad is somehow inherently more virtuous than the venal human nature we find everywhere else.

    If latinidad is simply a term of power relation to the US, describing oneself in relation to “the other” seems a shallow exercise. I personally will confess a chauvinism for America*, but only in the context of United States Intellectual History, and only because all peoples and races [&c., &c.] have access to “Americanism,” which I regard as still the high point of the Great Tradition from Jerusalem to Athens to Appomattox.]
    *Google gives a couple hits for “Americanidad,” but I won’t even try to BabelFish them. Were I Latin American, I’d probably use it pejoratively. [Martí himself spoke well of America’s intellectual history though not as well of America as a people or a nation. Which is fair.]

    • Mixing up some of your response, Tom, better gets at an historical truth that seems worthwhile to this discussion: “perhaps some of Latin America’s socio-political disappointments [failures, let’s face it] have come… [as a result of its lack of] power relation to the US [, its imperial bully to the north].”

    • How is latinidad different from plain old “humanity?”

      Well, some critics have read Martí from a cosmopolitan perspective, perhaps in the French republican mold. But strategically, in the face of the threat of the North, he clearly felt obliged to affirm a Latin American identity-in-process.

      Martí would have probably associated what you call the sociopolitical failures of Latin America with the region’s tradition of authoritarianism, a tradition that he traced back to the colonial era and Spanish imperialism. Also, Martí turned his cannons to the Latin American elite as much as the U.S. He vilified them for their elite provincialism, their corrupt, autocratic ways, and their acritical imitation of everything European or pertaining to the U.S., without having any actual bond with the great majority of the people that populated the young nation-states. Also it’s important to stress he did represent the U.S. working class, African Americans, and Native Americans in a generally positive light. Part of Lomas’ project is getting at this undercurrent in Martí.

      • Thx for yr reply as always, Kahlil. To business:

        in the face of the threat of the North, [Martí] clearly felt obliged
        to affirm a Latin American identity-in-process.

        Latinidad as a defense mechanism against Americhismo. I
        understand the temporizing.

        Seems a meme better left un-memed. In fact, in this respect it seems
        to combine the worst features of modernity and Roman Catholicism: the
        elevation of victimhood into virtue.

        Martí would have probably associated what you call the
        sociopolitical failures of Latin America with the region’s tradition of
        authoritarianism, a tradition that he traced back to the colonial era
        and Spanish imperialism.

        Sure. We’ll stipulate Andrew’s reprise of the oft-rehearsed “Post-Colonial
        Blues,” here Uncle Sam’s bullying his neighbors to the south. Yet for
        Latin America, Latin Americans, to self-identify in terms of Uncle Sam–as Ben Franklin said of the desultory effect of his deism, “I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true,
        was not very useful.”

        The authoritarian angle is the more interesting in its own right: I’m not the first to notice The Caudillo Effect, be it the strongman born of the elite or some Bolivarian Messiah. In fact, Simon Bolivar was an aristocrat, a people’s revolutionary, and then a dictator, all in turn, and there’s the rub. From the first, then and now, Latin America could use a healthy dose of Calvinistic skepticism about man.

        At this very moment, the late great Hugo C is being called “the redeemer
        Christ of the Americas,” and Argentina’s back
        to Peronism with Sra. Kirchner, the economy a shambles again and her
        making noises about the Falklands. Perhaps latinidad is a flaw, not a feature, a romantic belief in a person or a people being above human nature by some inner virtue or merely by suffering oppression. Whether it’s the enlightened
        aristocrat or the campesino risen to glory, people are people: demagogues, tyrants.

        What, after millennia where poverty was the rule, the masses will spontaneously generate wealth, then out of spontaneous latinidad
        solidarity share it?

        I’d rather try to make the case for American Exceptionalism


        for reasons previously given.

        We have touched on the rather interesting socio-economic observation [Colin McEvedy, Max Weber, Ben Franklin though I can’t find the quote] that the Catholic Southern European/Latin American countries
        were and are less vital economically than the Protestant ones. [And I say
        this as a non-Protestant. PIGS = Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. It is what it is.]

        What I’m getting at is that this “latinidad” strikes me as the sort of romantic nonsense that imprisons, not liberates: Great Man Theory or the “trust the campesinos” being equally flawed dynamics. Yes, Martí
        “turned his cannons to the Latin American elite” [as he did at Uncle Sam], but all men have the same nature–in action how like an angel, in
        apprehension how like a god, but always, always in the end with feet of clay.

        Perhaps we’ll discuss Hernando de Soto [Polar] down the line. Interesting mind, interesting thesis. I say it’s time to experiment with the rule of law, for the rule of men has consistently proven to be disastrous.

        Hugo Chavez, RIP. Your heart was in the right place. I guess.

  3. Tom, your post made me smile, and sometimes in a good way. I appreciate the biting observations, even if we do not really coincide. I am not so sure that Martí cultivated necessarily a populism of “trusting the campesinos”: contrary to more radical readings of his work, such as Lomas’ I believe there is still a firm social hierarchy going on in his project, it is more about “knowing” and “educating” them within a liberal democracy.

    Going beyond the historically specific issues of Martí’s call for shaping “our America,” I do understand your distaste for the politics of latinidad insofar it can reproduce a romanticization of an essentialist identity that blurs other forms of identification and, like Ernest Renan pointed out cannily in What is a Nation? (1882), forget other histories that have shaped local communities and cultures. Like national imaginaries, Latin American/Latino imaginaries may involve historical forgetting (and I use the word may here consciously, I do embrace the possibility of a critical/self-critical latinoamericanismo,a solidarity that crosses boundaries to connect the working class and the poor, but this is because of my romantic Marxist leanings). We can see this, as you indicate yourself, in Chávez’s resurrection of Bolivar, which erases his authoritarian ways and many contradictions (not to forget his melancholic frustration at the end of his life, as he reflected on the failures of the post-emancipation period). The US has its jingoism while Latin America has now its bolivarianismo. Regarding the figure of Chávez, I am torn and can see both the positives and negatives of his legacy. Regarding Cristina Fernández in Argentina, it would be wise not to conflate her presidency and her husband’s legacy with Chávez, the same goes for analogies with Morales and Correa, the internal politics of these countries are very different.

    • Regarding Cristina Fernández in Argentina, it would be wise not to conflate her presidency and her husband’s legacy with Chávez



      Cristina Kirchner ? @CFKArgentina

      Tu victoria también es la nuestra. La de América del Sur y el Caribe. Fuerza Hugo! Fuerza Venezuela! Fuerza Mercosur y Unasur!
      2:53 AM – 08 Oct 12

      I was simply getting at the “Caudillo Effect,” the search for a national savior. Considering the last two US elections, though, I’m not really one to talk.


      As always, Kahlil, a pleasure.

Comments are closed.