(Editor’s Note: This is Kahlil Chaar-Pérez guest post for this week. — Ben Alpers)
In this post, I want to address more directly the implications of producing a Latina/o history of ideas, especially in connection to the discipline of U.S. intellectual history. In a manner not too different from their colleagues in American Studies, scholars of intellectual history continue to engage actively with the enduring impact of the so-called linguistic and cultural turns and how they relate to the politics of higher education and contemporary U.S. culture at large. Trenchant interventions such as Daniel T. Rodgers’ The Age of Fracture, Andrew Hartman’s project on the culture wars, and Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory, which just two weeks ago produced an animated debate in the pages of this blog, exemplify an ongoing interest in historicizing and probing the reception of structural and post-structural theories in U.S. academia and the simultaneous interdisciplinary interest in ethnic, race, gender, and sexuality studies that supplemented the emergence of multiculturalism in the 1980s and early 1990s.
This interest has manifested itself in the humanities through an increase in scholarship on marginalized social voices and practices in the U.S., especially Latina/o peoples, who, as their numbers continue to grow, have become more visible in mainstream culture (think Junot Díaz, Sonia Sotomayor, and Marco Rubio). The inclusionary impulse has enabled the creation of new corpuses and archives (for instance, the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project), that validate the swelling irruption of the Latina/o other into the public sphere, often resorting to two overlapping U.S. master narratives of progress: the “American dream” and the “melting pot.” In an interview where he discusses the release of the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, its general editor, Ilan Stavans, turns to this dual narrative of individual achievement and collective inclusion in order to publicize the anthology: “It is a book that all middle-class Latinos need, proof that we’ve made it: We’ve arrived.” As literary historian Kirsten Silva-Gruesz has argued in “What was Latino Literature?,” Stavans’ words are characteristic of the “marketing of ethnic heritage outside the academy and the way it is often abetted by the tools of our trade” (340). Silva-Gruesz points implicitly to what is probably the biggest conundrum facing the study of Latina/o cultures: the mass circulation of Latina/o identities as objects of consumption, a process of commodification that lumps all communities of Latin American descent into a homogeneous identity that effaces how they negotiate in different ways not only with ethnic and racial difference, but also with their national origin.1
At the same time, this opening of the canon holds the promise of a critical reimagining of the history of the U.S. beyond the master narratives I mentioned, building on the valuable work that has came out of the heyday of “histories from below” and cultural history, as well as the ongoing “attention to international communities of discourse” that David A. Hollinger sees in the field of U.S. intellectual history.2 The book I have commented on in my previous posts, Translating Empire, exemplifies this drive to an extent. Through it, Laura Lomas strives to read the figure of José Martí not only as a crucial precursor to Latina/o cultural and political criticism, but also alongside a transnational genealogy of non-Latina/o thinkers who have positioned themselves against the dominant discourse and exploitative practices in the U.S., from Martin Delany and Wendell Phillips to W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James. Lomas is perhaps most successful in framing Martí within this undercurrent, a critical tradition of U.S.-based thought that envisions the possibility of “alternative modernities” outside the assimilationist / developmentalist model suggested by Stavans, yet still in relation to the United States.
My question is then how this aspiration can translate into the field of U.S. intellectual history. Curiously, while the last three decades have witnessed the publication of several anthologies of Latina/o literature, studies and so forth, we are still waiting for a similar anthology under the umbrella of intellectual history. This absence can also be read in the pages of the current edition of Hollinger and Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition, which does not include a Latina/o text. The former edition did contain an extract from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera, but this text was replaced with a selection from Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified. In “What is Our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of their Field,” Hollinger explains that the reason behind this substitution was that the Anzaldúa piece was “said to be obscurantist in prose style and proved even less appreciated than [Judith] Butler” (193). For a textbook intended for a non-specialist audience, especially undergraduate students, this explanation seems reasonable enough and importance of MacKinnon’s work for gender studies is unquestionable. But what is more interesting is that, in an article on canonicity produced by a scholar who has written extensively about ethnicity and race, Anzaldúa’s identity as a Latina writer is never addressed: she is essentially considered as a feminist thinker that can be replaced with another feminist. Indeed, the lack of any Latina/o intellectuals is not considered at all in Hollinger’s assessment of the canon of U.S. intellectual history.
I would like to stress that these observations are not necessarily driven by the wish to see Anzaldúa reinstated in the anthology or to have another Latina/o intellectual included (although there is certainly an argument to be made in both respects). Instead of liberal gestures of tokenism, I am more interested in understanding these absences, what do they speak to, and how can we interpret them from a Latino/Latin American framework and within U.S. intellectual history. If, as Hollinger states, the purpose behind The American Intellectual Tradition is to focus on what he calls “leading intellectuals, the people who made history by arguing,” what ideas of U.S. history are constructed by leaving out Latina/o voices from its “intellectual tradition”? What constitutes a U.S. “leading intellectual”? Who are “the people who [make] history by arguing” in the U.S.? How would the inclusion of Latina/o voices reconfigure conventional notions of U.S. intellectual history, if it would? And what other “American” intellectual traditions can one trace beyond the genealogy offered by Hollinger and Capper?
1 Juan Flores’ landmark book From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000) remains in an indispensable analysis of the meanings of latinidad and the practice of Latina/o Studies, especially the essays “Life Off the Hyphen. Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions,” “The Latino Imaginary. Meanings of Community and Identity” and “Latino Studies. New Contexts, New Contexts.” Arlene Dávila’s Latinos Inc. The Making and Marketing of a People (2001) also offers a useful examination of the role of media and advertising culture in the construction of Latina/o identities.
2 David A. Hollinger, “American Intellectual History, 1907-2007,” OAH Magazine of History, 21.2: 14-17.