U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Latin Americanist in U.S. Intellectual History

(Editor’s Note: This is another in a series of weekly guest posts by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez.  — Ben Alpers)

For the last couple of months I have been writing in this blog about the possibilities of drawing connections between Latino Studies and U.S. intellectual history, emphasizing the importance of implementing an hemispheric, intercultural approach that would help us illuminate further the shaping and circulation of ideas within and across the Americas.     Before continuing these musings, I would like to insert my academic persona into the mix and come out into the open to the community here.   I have a confession to make: I am not a specialist in Latino Studies and have no pretension to speak as its representative.  For the most part, I have been trained as a scholar of Latin American literary and cultural studies; the book project I am developing (quite slowly, as my academic super ego would have it) focuses on the articulation of ideas of anticolonialism in late-nineteenth-century Puerto Rican and Cuban elite cultures, as they took form in colonial society—Cuba and Puerto Rico were last Spanish colonies along with the Philippines—and in exile communities in cities such as Madrid, New York City, and Paris.   

In thinking Cuba and Puerto Rico through a comparative lens, I am attempting to counter the insular and exceptionalist perspectives that one still often sees in Cuban and Puerto Rican Studies.  At the same time, I am trying to question nation-centric perspectives that frame the origins and development of nationalism as a telos of progressive liberation, beginning with patriotic affirmations of a differentiated cultural sensibility, and concluding with the consolidation of national sovereignty (which, according to the official discourse of the Cuban Revolution, wasn’t fully accomplished in 1898—this moment had to wait until 1959 and the subsequent nationalization of U.S. industries).  For decades now critics have been commenting on how the idea of the nation has been utilized retroactively as a transhistorical, homogeneous conception of what the national community stands for (or should stand for), incorporating and excluding particular elements—races, cultures, peoples—as the subject of enunciation sees fit, through both mechanistic and biologistic frameworks.   In thinking through the work of political revolutionaries like José Martí—who saw the colonial homeland as a sickly body that needed to cleansed from an external patria, that is, purified by the virile, civil community of revolutionary exiles—I am attempting to shine light on the fluid, unstable character of national imaginaries, and the disparate ways in which such imaginaries materialized.  How, for example, Puerto Rican reformist intellectuals such as Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, constructed passionate attachments to not only two senses of patria—Puerto Rico and the madre patria, Spain—but also the world, through cosmopolitan ideas in dialogue with Kant and universalist romantics such as Lord Byron.  Or how Cuban and Puerto Rican ideas of patriotism were cultivated within the U.S, in conversation with local political and economic traditions—from republicanism and liberalism to the jingoism of Manifest Destiny-driven foreign policy—and artistic and popular cultures. Or how members of the Cuban revolutionary annexationist movement allied themselves in the 1850s with the political filibusterism of William Walker and pro-slavery politicians in the U.S. South.

My own dialogue with U.S. intellectual history and with Latino Studies stems from this juncture, from the necessity of grasping how ideas of patriotism and anticolonial politics unfolded and circulated through alliances, filiations, and disagreements with the U.S. and its peoples.   How did U.S.-based communities of Cuban and Puerto Rican exiles shaped their worlds of identification in ways that can be traced as part of a broader Latino historical imaginary, in tension with the U.S?  And how did the U.S. interact with these emerging communities, as it expanded its economic and political expansions interventions* in Latin America?   José Martí’s invocation of a continental identity—a “raza latina” that represents more a cultural than a strictly racial form of identification—speaks to these tensions.  It is important not to forget that the ideas of a “Latin race” and of “Latin America” were a French invention, elaborated first in the 1830s by the French statesman Michel Chevalier in order to define a political project against the growing menace of the so-called Anglo-Saxon and Germanic nations. At the same time that this construct was deployed by Napoleon III to justify the invasion of Mexico in 1862, Latin American intellectuals and politicians rallied around it progressively, resignifying it to build their own political and cultural affiliations, but directed against the threat from the “North.”  Thus, the idea of latinidad carries this history of oppositions:  even as in the present day it is constructed within the U.S., latinidad took form against it, against the U.S. as its other.

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* Corrected “expansions” to “interventions” at the request of the author — BA