U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Between Two Americas?: José Martí as a Latin American/Latino Intellectual, Part 2

(Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, Kahlil Chaar-Pérez, will be guest-blogging for us each Sunday. This is his post for this week. — Ben Alpers)

In my previous blog post, I wrote about José Martí as a figure whose life and works embody, on one hand, the desire for an autonomous Latin American intellectual and political culture (“Our America” vs. the “tiger” of the north), and on the other, an intercultural, transnational dialogue with US society. In invoking the spirit of Martí and the productive contradictions that surround his historical legacy, my aim was to emphasize the importance of thinking about US and Latin American intellectual history jointly, beyond the limits of nationhood and from a hemispheric perspective, through what I called in my last words a “utopian vision of hemispheric relationality.”  I would like to elaborate today and in my future posts what I meant by this admittedly opaque utopia, continuing my dialogue with Martí while complicating my “utopian vision,” particularly in respect to Martí and the place of other nineteenth-century Latin American intellectuals in the field of Latina/o Studies.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that by using the words “dialogue” and “relationality” I was not proposing a celebratory framework that foregrounds harmonious, pan-American connections while concealing the role of power.  Dialogue isn’t necessarily an egalitarian practice, even when it is presented as such (i.e. the role of Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues). And needless to say, relations are often hierarchical and may implicate different kinds of violence. Martí pointed explicitly to the historically uneven relations between the two Americas, foreseeing the violent effects of the US presence in Cuba and other parts of Latin America.  But what is more interesting is how his texts perform this unevenness in their relationship to the pillars of the US canon he venerated.  It is often noted that Martí celebrated US intellectuals whose politics did not fully coincide with his republican, democratic, and anti-imperial ideals, Emerson and Whitman in particular.  From our vantage point, one would believe that this should have presented quite a conundrum for a writer like Martí.  Yet, as Laura Lomas brilliantly explains in Translating Empire.  José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities Martí’s admiration was expressed from a critical distance, writing with Cuba and Latin America in his mind, as a political exile anxiously fighting for the liberation of his patria.  Even as he honors Whitman, Martí calls attention to the bard’s imperial poetics in his long essay “Walt Whitman”: “his lines go at a gallop as if they were swallowing up the Earth with every movement.” And later: “the patriarch of the north never says [liberty] in English, but as he learned to say it from Mexicans.” The Mexicans here are of course the peoples whose territories were invaded by the US army, an expansion romanticized by Whitman in texts such as “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

Lomas suggests that in reading Martí as an “extranational migrant” caught between the America he both berated and celebrated and the autochtonous, sovereign Latin America he envisioned, we can transcend the ongoing struggles over Martí as a nationalist icon for Cuba, while counteracting “the erasure or marginalization of Latino migrant influence on the culture and theorizing of the United States and upon this country’s narratives of itself” (37). A utopian undertaking, to be sure, this is a vision with which my brief notes on a hemispheric “utopia” intersect.  But to envision this hemispheric “utopia” involves in my view another question: the possibility of thinking about the genealogy of Latina/o intellectual culture—if such a genealogy can actually be traced.  How can the cultural and social transformations experienced today by Latina/o diasporas be linked to the history of the Southwestern Spanish-speaking communities incorporated into the US through territorial expansion, and of the Cuban and Puerto Rican exiles who established themselves in cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York City throughout the nineteenth century, producing a thriving print culture while also contributing to local newspapers and journals? Can we speak of a nineteenth-century Latina/o intellectual and literary history, without erasing the historical and ethnic specificity of the actors and works we would study, their identification with their places of origin and their frequent lack of interest in identifying with the US?  And what implications would such a history have for the study of US nineteenth-century history?  These are obviously open-ended questions, but urgent ones that need to be addressed, in tandem with the political vision that Lomas and others have sketched out in appropriating figures like Martí for a Latina/o Studies canon.

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for another great post, Kahlil. I am excited about the next! Thinking through how ideas and texts are received across literal and metaphorical boundaries, especially uneven boundaries, is important and compelling work. It reminds me of some of the debates taking place about the canon in the late 80s.

    Shortly after “Closing of the American Mind” made Allan Bloom famous, he was invited on to Oprah’s show (1988). During one segment, Bloom read a famous passage from Du Bois’s “Souls of Black Folk” about how reading great books was akin to “sitting with Shakespeare,” the implication being that classic texts transcended the constraints of circumstance, including those imposed by race. Gerald Graff, invited on the show to disagree with Bloom, countered that Du Bois read classic texts as political tools in his fight against racism. This distinction is important. I assume that Marti read the US canon in the latter way, although, as you say, he venerated it?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Andrew. Yes, this issues speak a lot to the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. Like African American/Black Studies, Puerto Rican and Chicano Studies and Latino communities played an important role in these debates. After all, these are periods that see the population explosion of Latinos in the US. A propos your Du Bois question, in her book Lomas draws connections between Martí, WEB and Latina/o Studies, by means of the notion of “double consciousness.” This is something I will talk about in my future posts, there is much good and mad in tracing these connections. If anything, I think Martí should be considered as part of a critical tradition of thinkers writing in and from the US who struggled within and against what he called “the bowels of the monster.” One can easily sketch both the ideas and aesthetics of Emerson, Whitman, and other US intellectuals in Martí’s texts, there is a veneration that as year of the Cuban Revolution approaches turns increasingly into an anti-imperial critique. In his essay on “Oscar Wilde,” whose extravagant queerness unsettled him, Martí wrote a sentence that shines light on how he viewed the act of reading dominant culture from the periphery: “The best way to liberate yourself from the tyranny of some types of literature, is to know diverse kinds” (he refers to “letras,” which includes non-literary forms of lettered production).

  3. Glad to see a transnational intellectual history post. I am working on hemispheric intellectual history, a field needing scholarly attention. The possibilities for this type of inquiry are rich and illuminating for understanding the U.S.I.H. Keep up the posts!

      • I am doing a hemispheric history of the emergence of liberation theology in the late 1960s. Black, feminist, Latin America all tied together. I bring together thinkers from across the Americas. Marti, Mariatequi, and Guevara are in there, along with Gilman, Du Bois, and Malcolm X. All moving toward a theology of liberation. Quite a mix but fun!

  4. Lilian, Have you looked at Andrew Kirkendall’s Freire book and/or Harry Vanden’s Mariatequi compilation? If so, comments? How worthwhile?

  5. I guess it depends on your purpose. I have not checked out Vanden’s compilation, but it appears to be a more recent translation of the standard Mariatequi text. So the selection is fine, the translation I can not vouch for. Try the Marjory Urguidi translation which is highly accepted for a comparison. I have not looked at the monograph by Kirkendall, which looks interesting. My research was with the main text by Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,(Pedagogia do Oprimido, in Portuguese) the most influentials with liberation theologians. The field is huge and the research endless. Thanks.

    • That sounds excellent, a very worthy endeavor, there remains much to be done in terms of spiritual/religious studies across the hemisphere. If you haven’t done so, you should check the States of Devotion blog produced by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance of Politics, it offers a wealth of info regarding spiritual and religious cultures from a hemispheric perspective. Enrique Dussel is also a key figure in post-liberation theology thought.

  6. “…then they can’t wait to tie your ass to the back bumper of a Toyota Hybrid and drag you to the Berkeley Campus and drop your carcass in front of the Fidel Castro Building for the Continuing Study of Why America Sucks.”—Richard Jeni, RIP

    FTR: Are any American tax dollars going toward any of this line of inquiry? Just axin’, you know, if we’re paying for the rope to hang us with. Because frankly, colonial/post-colonial/neo-colonial/anti-colonial Latin America has reliably sucked bigger, from human sacrifice to Hugo Chavez. No offense to Sr. Martí, but anyone who thinks things can’t get any worse has no imagination.

    And again, no offense to Sr. Martí [RIP], but he has nothing on Richard Jeni.


  7. Ok, I will bite the bait. I don’t have any qualms with critiques of what we study in Latin American and Latina/o Studies; I welcome them and tend to be critical of certain PC, acritical celebrations of everything that is Latino and Latin American, like the figure of Martí. At the same time, I do think it is necessary to educate our students, of all social and ethnic backgrounds, about these other traditions and cultures, which have understudied if not altogether marginalized from US history; by this I do not mean that these figures and histories should be glorified or sacralized, in the way the “founding fathers” of all nations tend to be, but understood in a critical counterpoint with more normative narratives of national history in the United States.

    I confess your comment unsettles me a little; by stating that Latin America “has reliably sucked bigger” you don’t leave any space for dialogue, let alone leave space for the transnational, hemispheric framework of study that I am proposing here, a perspective that would benefit our understanding of the history of ideas in the US. Yes, there is an argument to be made that a certain strain in Latin American thought and politics has produced its own monsters; but to reduce it to the “it sucks” logic is, well, not very productive or, for that matter, rational. There are people in Latin America now who say the same thing of the US, laughing at its economy and the decline of the empire. In the same way I reject your position, I also reject these reductionist representations of the US, of its history, its peoples, and its cultures, and think this line of thinking leads nowhere, except jingoism and blindsighted nationalism/regionalism.

    Btw, even though Martí embodied a profoundly moralistic politics of sacrifice in connection to Cuban revolution, it is worth noting he was fiercely critical of militaristic culture and authoritarianism of all kinds. And he admitted the problem of romanticizing revolutionary violence and recommended ways for minimizing and controlling the excesses of war–not unlike Fanon, who is unfairly pegged by Arendt as a bloodthirsty revolutionary, when he in fact was very clear about the pitfalls of violence also. Truth is, in terms of politics Martí was not far at all from radical republicans of the 1860s in the US, figures like Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner; and from groups like the Knights of Labor, and the Progressive Party later (even if they did not share the same views on race).

    • Thank you, for your reply, Kahlil, and I’ll dial it back to a gentle roar.


      First, what I could have more temperately but less entertainingly conveyed is that Che Guevara and Sendero Luminoso represent tyranny and murder, not liberty, and merit no reverence. Further, that the “shining path” of Latin American socialism has produced nothing but more ruin, as we see once again in the wreck that is post-Chavez Venezuela. If it’s true that objectivity is not synonymous with neutrality, then permit please me to offer that the seeds of ruin lie in even the best of these collectivist/communitarian schemes because of their essential incompatibility with human nature.

      As for Martí, I previously thanked you for providing occasion to read him. He does indeed have a larger view and more nuance than your average hero of radical chic. But in the end, his condemnation of Americans as soulless and greedy was no less a stereotyping than the Philadelphia Manufacturer newspaper calling Cubans lazy and effeminate. Further, if absolute power corrupts absolutely, as we see time after time when the revolutionaries come to rule the roost, then this is a universal, and it must be said that America–although not sinless–was well above average in world history for letting slip the reins of empire.

      And I did have occasion to link back to you a Miami writer who held that Martí would have opposed the Castro tyranny, which if true, accrues greatly to his credit.

      As for those who have been “marginalized,” I’m unconvinced that this Marxian approach to history tells us much. The hoi polloi of any given place and time have an unremarkable sameness: soulless, greedy, lazy and effeminate. Plus ca change.

      Thank you for the exchange. You seem to consciously resist lionizing these fellows, and I look forward to following your further adventures.

      • Well, thank you Tom for your gentle explanation.

        I sympathize with your aversion to the horrors of Sendero Luminoso and the more extremist strains of the revolutionary left in Latin America, although, as you have probably guessed, I also sympathize with parts of this tradition, from a critical and democratic perspective.

        About Martí’s stereotypes of the US, I think they have to be understood within their particular context, as strategies, rhetorical ploys used to alert Cubans and Latin Americans about the impending threat from the North. His representations of the US can be as coarse, reductive, and callous as the representations of Cubans in most US newspapers, as you point out. But there is no doubt that the relations of power in each case are, well, slightly different. By this I do not mean to justify stereotypes of this kind, but merely to understand why he opted for that language as a political activist. For Martian subtlety, you should check out his essays on Emerson and Whitman, his chronicle of the great snowstorm of New York, and his critique of Marx in his obituary.

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