(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.