Revisiting the Concept of Nuestra América in Latino(a) and Latin American Studies
Distinguished Service Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Women's Studies
University at Albany, SUNY
April 10, 1995
First of all I would like to thank and congratulate the Latin American Studies Program and its Chair, Professor Lowell Gudmundson, for initiating the Schomburg-Moreno Lecture Series which honors two distinguished Latinos whose work and contributions are truly worthy of our historical memory, and who represent very well some of the linkages and intersections between the various parts of the Americas that I want to emphasize in my lecture today. I would also like to thank Professor Roberto Márquez for his persuasiveness in getting me here today, as well as his own contributions to the understanding of the cultural realities of our hemisphere. I am very honored to inaugurate the Lecture Series and hope that this is the beginning of a long and successful tradition at Mount Holyoke.
What I intend to do today is introduce some stimulating ways for looking at the cultural and racial diversity of the Americas, both North and South--two multicultural and multiracial spheres where we find diverse populations bound by a shared legacy of colonialism, racism, displacement, and dispersion--trying to outline ways in which it makes sense to transcend or redefine the conventional boundaries that have constrained our study and understanding of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean vis-á-vis their counterpart populations from these regions living in the United States. Some of the fundamental issues I would like to explore in this lecture are how the two parts of the Americas are being bridged by existing transnational connections between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and their respective U.S. diasporas; by the collective forms of cultural affirmation, resistance, and hybridization taking place among Latino groups within U.S. society; and by overlapping issues of race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, and class. My efforts at examining some of the interconnections among the cultures of the Americas across time and geographic divides aim to bring fresh insights into this cultural meeting ground as much as they attempt to contribute to modifying the fragmented way in which we look both at the U.S. Latino experience and at the Latin American/Caribbean experience. In doing so, I emphasize the need to extend the cultural parameters of analysis beyond those already imposed by spurious geographic national frontiers or constructed boundaries, rather than looking at two separate, unrelated, or closed cultural spheres of analysis. I also hope in this way to encourage Latin Americanists, Caribbeanists, U.S. Latino, and American Studies specialists to move away from the monocultural, monolithic, and hegemonic conceptualizations of cultural identity, which more often than not, have been predicated upon the active suppression or exclusion of the various forms of cultural diversity that we find in all of these societies.
In an era of increasing global interconnections, interdependence, and economic integration among nations and regions, paying due attention to the U.S. Hispanic heritage, to the increasing presence of Latinos in the United States, and to the existing transnational linkages that (im)migrant groups maintain with their Latin American or Caribbean countries of origin, immediately suggests new challenges and changes in our conventional narratives of the history and culture of the Americas. For more than a century, Latin American and Caribbean intellectuals have attempted to develop continental visions of the Americas that take into consideration the common experiences that bind together the colonized peoples and cultures of the hemisphere and recognize the basic estrangement of people of color in white-dominated societies, as well as the uneven distribution of wealth and power asymmetries within their own countries and between a developed North America and the undeveloped nations South of the border.
The title of this lecture implies that I will be "revisiting" the concept of Nuestra América (Our America) developed by the Cuban writer and patriot José Martí, during the years he lived in New York City as a political émigré, that is from 1881-1895, or a total of almost 14 years. Martí came to New York when he was 28 and at 42 he went back to Cuba, where he was killed by Spanish troops shortly after his return in 1895. Thus the New York period represents a significant part of his adult life. While in New York Martí organized the Cuban independence movement and published a good portion of his major writings. He was a frequent contributor to both Latin American and U.S. newspapers and in 1892 founded Patria, the official newspaper of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. The reasons for choosing Martí as a significant point of departure in this cultural analysis of the Americas are twofold. First, it was during the time that he lived in New York that he produced the most important essays about his vision of the American continent and about the greatness and wretchedness of living in what he referred to as "las entrañas del monstruo" ("I have lived inside the monster and know its entrails," he once said). Secondly, he was an important figure during the formative years of the New York City colonia hispana--a period that is fundamental for the historical reconstruction of our U.S. Latino communities, as we learn more about the links of solidarity between Puerto Ricans and Cubans in New York and other U.S. cities during the late nineteenth century independence struggles against Spanish colonial rule and of other joint efforts in the working class struggles of the time. Similar connections, collaborations, and alliances also would flourish in the New York metropolis in subsequent decades among Spanish, other Latin American and Caribbean nationalities, and U.S. groups around a wide range of cultural, political, and social issues particularly during the years of the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the McCarthy Era, and in more recent decades, during the civil rights, ethnic revitalization, and women's movements.
From many of the writings that Martí produced while living in the New York, we learn a great deal about the class and racial conflicts of the United States; about the clashes between capital and labor; about the detrimental conditions and discrimination faced by U.S. native and Black populations; about the mighty threat of an emerging U.S. imperialism looming over Cuba and other parts of Latin America; but most importantly from our perspective today, is what we learn about Martí's continental vision--his efforts at capturing and defining the cultural elements that comprise Latin American identity, and his quest for a free and color-blind multicultural society not characterized by, as he would say, the "struggle of races" but by the "affirmation of rights."
Contrary to other intellectuals of his time, who viewed the future of Latin America in the emulation of imported "civilized" European or Anglo-American models, or who contraposed Western civilization to the purported "barbarism" of the native indigenous, Black, mestizo, or peasant populations, Martí reaffirms the need to take into account those non-Western elements which are peculiar to the peoples of the Americas, in this way validating the multiplicity of cultures and classes autochthonous to the region and those resulting from a creolization process--that unprecedented mixing of races and cultural syncretism that took place in the Americas, and which perhaps has never reached a similar magnitude in any other part of the world. Martí emphatically called "our mestizo America" "...to show itself as it is." And what is after all, the true face of Our America, if not a place depopulated by conquest and colonization and repopulated by uprooted immigrants and slaves; the stage where the Spanish/European culture in exerting its domination converged and blended with the many indigenous and African cultures producing new and striking cultural configurations. In the words of Martí:
The good governor in America is not the one who knows how government is conducted in Germany or France, but the one who knows the various elements of which a country is made, and how they can be marshalled so that by methods and institutions native to the country the desirable state may be attained...(De Onís 1953: 141).
The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught until it is known by heart, even if the archons of Greece go by the board. Our Greece must take priority to the Greece that is not ours...Let the world be grafted in our republics, but the trunk will be our own (143).
Perhaps one of Martí's most outstanding contributions to the Cuban independence struggle was his frontal attack on the racism that divided his native country and that could affect the common cause for Cuban independence. Two years before the 1892 founding in New York of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, he worked with Afro-Cuban émigrés in the City in the formation of La Liga (The League), which focused on the education and advancement of this working-class sector of the community. In this way he laid an important foundation for eradicating racism and promoting racial harmony and equality, and ameliorating social class divisions within the independence movement. When Martí declared that "Whoever foments and propagates antagonism and hate between the races, sins against Humanity" (Foner 1977: 150) or when he delivered his oration "With all, and for the good of all" (249), he was surpassing racial and class barriers in an attempt to unite the heterogeneous elements present within the independence movement. Although Martí is generally considered to be the major articulator of antiimperialist thought in Latin America, he was as wary of U.S. imperialism as he was of U.S. racism. Through his numerous essays about the two Americas--Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic--he articulates his continental political, social, and humanitarian vision about the future of the continent as much as his more specific concerns about the plight of the U.S. native and Black populations. His essays "Los indios en los Estados Unidos," "Los últimos indios," "Indios y negros," and "El problema negro" (Sorel 1968) admonish white politicians and the U.S. government for their "degrading tutelage" toward these groups, and for "a vilified system" of Indian reservations which he describes as "criaderos de hombres" (hatcheries or breeding grounds for men). He strongly criticized white ministers for violating God's law and refusing to sit next to Black ministers. Refering to the inferior condition of the Black man, he emphatically noted that: "Others may fear him: I love him. Anyone who speaks ill of him I disown, and I say to him openly: 'You lie!' (Foner 1977: 28).
The idea of equal dignity and harmony among the races was essential to Martí's concept of nation building and the future of his own country. Yet, his affirmation of a multicultural and multiracial Nuestra América also takes on great contemporary significance as we strive to put an end to European and Anglo-American ethnocentricity by decolonizing and deconstructing the cultural mythologies and received knowledge about ourselves perpetuated within the dominant Western tradition. The essentialist cultural hegemony and parochialism of the Western nations has undermined the many subaltern cultural "others" of the so called Third World, without properly acknowledging any shared system of cultural interactions, or by conceiving Western realities and accomplishments in isolation from theirs.
While Martí developed the concept of Nuestra América in reference to a nineteenth century Latin America that was struggling with the evils of tyranny and exploitative economic forces even after most of the former Spanish colonies had achieved independence, he realized that the destiny of the continent was inextricably linked to the Colossus to the North. From his perspective, U.S. government imperialist aims, its expressed desire to annex Cuba and other territories, and the expansionist ambitions of U.S. wealthy investors, made Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other Latin American countries vulnerable to military and economic intervention or penetration. However, notwithstanding the man of vision that he was, Martí could not anticipate the extent to which, almost a century later, some of those economic and political forces that he so much feared are pushing the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean out of their countries and into the U.S. metropolis in unprecedented numbers. Ironically, the incursion is reversing itself and more than ever before, the citizens of Martí's Nuestra América are caught in an intricate and complex web of international (im)migration and labor flows that are causing multiple population displacements from the peripheral to the advanced capitalist nations. Coupled with the political repression that has continued to plague Latin American and Caribbean countries, the journey to the prosperous norte remains one of the few viable surviving alternatives. Nuestra América has become a very palpable presence in the United States and this dramatic diasporic reality and the ongoing and projected changes in the demographic composition of the United States population, are forcing us both to come to terms with, and expand the terms in which we see our Latino identity, or more accurately, to better understand the ways we juggle our multiple and fluid identities--those reconstituted or remolded from generation to generation from our cultural cross-connections with the native culture, with the U.S. mainstream culture that marginalizes us, and with the cultures of other marginal groups.
Hispanics, as they are identified by government agencies, or Latinos, as they generally prefer to be called, all have been lumped together under a collective label that tends to eclipse the many different nationalities, cultural experiences, and histories shared by the individual groups. Under the Hispanic category used by the U.S. Census are included the descendants of early Spanish settlers of the colonial period as well as the newcomers of our time; many were born in what is today U.S. territory and others have come here as (im)migrants or as undocumented workers. Hence, the Latino presence of the United States is an unavoidable part of the past and present realities of this nation.
The influx of Hispanics or Latinos from diverse cultural backgrounds into the United States has, therefore, a long historical tradition as much as it is a current and vital part of U.S. society. This reality is now underscored by the fact that, as the 1980 and 1990 census data demonstrate, Latinos constitute the fastest-growing minority in U.S. society.
The importance and magnitude of demographic changes in the composition of the U.S. population has been demonstrated by the 1980 and 1990 Census reports. Table 1 shows the current and projected growth in the Hispanic population of the United States. Currently numbering over 22.4 million, according to demographic projections Hispanics could well become the largest minority group in the United States in the first part of the 21st century, if prevailing growth rates continue. Table 2 illustrates the dramatic growth in the Hispanic percent of the total U.S. population from 1970 to 1990 and also shows Census projections for the next six decades. While the total non-Hispanic U.S. population grew by 7 percent between 1980-1990 and 9 percent between 1970-1980, the Hispanic population increased by 53 percent and 60 percent respectively (in other words, about 7 times more than the non-Hispanic population). Figure 3 provides the percentages of population growth for each of the major Latino groups between 1980-1990 and compares it to the non-Hispanic population. This demographic information helps us understand why most scholars agree that, because of their unprecedented growth during the last few decades and the Census future projections, more attention is being paid to the U.S. Latino experience and to this "silent invasion" from the South.
The fact that the diverse Latino nationalities may prefer not to identify themselves with the Hispanic or Latino collective panethnic label becomes less true every day. Ironically, the shorthand term is turning into a collective symbol of cultural affirmation and separate identity in a society which promoted the melting pot assimilation ideology that viewed as desirable the suppression or rejection of cultural differences in the name of a unified or homogenous American ethos. In reality, the myth of the melting pot overgeneralized the past assimilation patterns of white European immigrant groups and tended to obliterate or hide the long history of exclusion, racial discrimination, and social and civil rights struggles shared by people of color in U.S. society. The Hispanic/Latino collective panethnic label is also proving to be useful in the political articulation of the pressing socioeconomic and educational needs and priorities of the various Latino communities. Therefore, even though individual Latino groups have a different sense of their own nationality and identity, to a large extent, Latinos are finding that their commonalities provide them with a more effective political voice.
An increasing Latino panethnic consciousness within U.S. society is not, however, a contemporary phenomenon. On the contrary, it has had a long and vigorous tradition. It is not difficult to document in different historical periods many examples of the political alliances, cultural interactions, and exchanges that, although rooted in the U.S. Latino communities, achieved a broad national or continental dimension. For contemporary U.S. Latinos, learning about the pioneer communities and reconstructing a tradition within U.S. society provide a sense of continuity with the past and a vital source of collective identity and empowerment that helps to counteract the negative effects of their marginal status. This is particularly important for Latinos born or raised in the United States, who may have fewer ties or less contact with their families' countries of origin.
During the 19th century the United States, following its policies of territorial expansion, made its first incursions into Latin America by taking possession of about half of the territory that was part of the nation of Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transformed Northern Mexico into the U.S. Southwest. The contemporary Chicano playwright and filmmaker Luis Valdez summarized the disastrous outcome of this armed conflict when he stated that "We did not come to the United States at all. The United States came to us."
It was also in this century that the Colussus to the North appropriated the name America, to signify the United States. In his book The End of American History (1985), historian David Noble argues that implicit in this change in the use of the name America is a profound commitment to isolating the U.S. national culture and minimizing any major claims of cultural interdependence with other nations, when defining the country's national identity. The construction of the historical narrative of the U.S. nation was guided not only by the political independence claimed in 1776, but also by the concept of a Chosen People coming into a Promised Land that developed "a unique national culture that modified its colonial inheritance from its mother country, England...But American historians... have not used a concept that combines political independence with cultural interdependence to define our cultural identity. They have thought and written as if the United States was absolutely independent, standing apart in its uniqueness from the rest of the human experience" (7).
Noble's interpretation is particularly illuminating if we consider that the United States always has been a necessary or unavoidable point of reference for the rest of the continent, while in contrast, the importance of Latin America and the Caribbean in the United States national discourse is usually minimized or dismissed by claims about their inferior status of economic dependency and political turmoil, despite these regions' historic economic and strategic geopolitical importance. Even in its territorial expansionist enterprise, the United States separated itself from Europe. In Cultures of United States Imperialism, Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease (1993) document the absence of empire in the study of U.S. culture and how U.S. historiography has portrayed the nation as inherently antiimperialist and has been reluctant to acknowledge that the country has engaged in imperialist practices. This paradigm of denial explains the exclusion of the many histories of continental and overseas expansion, of the conquest and resistance of the original populations and settlers of the West and the Southwest, and of the over five million U.S. citizens, including Puerto Ricans, living in overseas colonial territories acquired from Spain in 1898. These prevailing standpoints in the historical narrative of the U.S. nation achieve significant contemporary relevance if we consider the current national debates around multiculturalism, described by those who oppose it as producing a state of "culture wars," clearly indicating that any claims to the sharing of the U.S. national identity that deviate from the dominant Anglo-Saxon narrative of the nation's history or the mythical melting pot, are considered disuniting, divisive, and essentially un-American.
Conventional historical accounts of the formative years of the United States tend to regard everything that preceded the establishment of the British thirteen colonies as unimportant, paying little attention to other groups, such as Native Americans and Hispanics, who occupied North American territory long before the English settlers, and whose presence is interwoven into the historical fabric of the nation. The nineteenth century westward territorial expansion of the United States from the original thirteen colonies to the Pacific Coast and South to the Rio Grande and the Gulf Coast was the fulfillment of the nation's Manifest Destiny. But this confined view of U.S. territorial expansion and the formative years of the nation, tends to fragment or obscure the entire history of the past and its links to the present, leaving us with an impoverished understanding of how other groups, such as Latinos, have been and continue to be an integral part of this country's multicultural patrimony and have at different times played a perceptible role in the shaping of U.S. history and society. Moreover, seeking to understand the larger meaning of the U.S. Latino heritage allows us to recognize how the different parts of the American hemisphere are inexorably linked, more so than U.S. and Latin American historical accounts have been willing to acknowledge. Not only must we begin to salvage these gaps in the construction of the United States's formative years as a nation, but also to acknowledge the complexity of the cultural interactions and amalgamations among indigenous populations, Spanish, British, and other European settlers, and African enslaved populations that took place in what is today U.S. territory as well as throughout the Americas.
The increased population growth and visibility of U.S. Latinos in recent decades and the work that is being produced by many Latino writers and scholars is leading us to pay more attention to the common denominators and the cultural bridges that have existed during various historical periods between the two Americas. Other non-Latino scholars have also suggested innovative ways of looking at the interconnections between the different parts of the hemisphere. For instance, Immanuel Wallerstein (1980), introduced the concept of "the extended Caribbean," suggesting the geographic linkages of the U.S. South, the Caribbean islands, and the coastal areas of Central and South America all the way down to Brazil; areas where societies supported by enslaved labor developed and thus share strong commonalities. More recently, the anthropologist Constance Sutton (1987) describes what she calls "a transnational sociocultural system" that allows Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean migrants to reconstitute their lives in New York City and affirm a separate cultural identity while maintaining strong interactions with their countries of origin. This process further creolizes Caribbean cultures and identities in both New York City and the countries of origin, challenging conventional notions of immigrant assimilation, and marking new possibilities in the struggles for social, cultural, and political empowerment of these marginal groups.
A few of the connections that I would like to highlight in the remainder of my lecture were promoted by Latinos who came to the United States and who played an active role in the cultural lives of their respective communities. Unfortunately, the historiography about the evolution of most U.S. Latino communities, particularly in the Northeast, is still scarce, and very few scholars have engaged in specific Latino community histories until recent years. Nonetheless, community microhistories along with oral histories, testimonials, memoirs, and non-mainstream periodicals are some of the major sources that are now being used to reconstruct what Eric Wolf called the forgotten histories of "the people without history."
Another major figure who, like Martí, transcended national borders in his efforts to fully disprove the notion that peoples of African descent did not have any history was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican who arrived in New York City in 1891 at age 17, where he lived until his death in 1938. In New York Schomburg joined Martí and other members of the Cuban and Puerto Rican community of intellectuals and political émigrés, who along with working-class tabaqueros (cigar makers) were engaged in the independence struggle of the two Caribbean islands. During his early years in New York, Schomburg became a founding member and secretary of the Club Dos Antillas (The Two Antilles) formed to "actively assist in the independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico." Martí's death in 1895 and the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898 changed the circumstances for the possible independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico and many of these organizations disbanded shortly thereafter. However, the fervor and devotion that Schomburg had demonstrated to the independence cause was then transferred to a different, but equally worthy, cultural endeavor to which he would make a lifelong commitment. In the decades that followed, he undertook the monumental task of collecting and preserving the heritage of the African diaspora worldwide, adhering to the ideology of Pan-Africanism promoted by some African American and Afro-Caribbean intellectuals of his time, such as Marcus Garvey. In explaining Schomburg's lifelong passion, Elinor Des Verney Sinnette (1989), one of Schomburg's biographers, refers to an anecdote about his childhood years in Puerto Rico, when a teacher is said to have told him that black people had no history, heroes, or great events to be studied, a remark that impressed upon the young Arturo a desire to learn more about his African ancestry.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg developed strong affinities and close friendships with members of the African-American community, to the extent that he eventually anglicized his name to Arthur and his presence and contributions to the New York Puerto Rican community remained generally unknown until recent decades. Schomburg, the tireless and consummate bibliophile who collected documents about the African experience around the world, ultimately became curator of his own collection which he turned over to the New York Public Library and which forms the core of today's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In an essay he wrote in 1913, Schomburg advocates the need to establish a Chair of Negro history in a U.S. university, turning into a precursor of the contemporary African American Studies movement:
We have reached the crucial period of our educational existence...The white institutions have their chair of history; it is the history of their own people, and whenever the Negro is mentioned in the text-books it dwindles down to a footnote...Cases can be shown right and left of [...] palpable omissions.
Where is our historian to give us our side [sic] view and our Chair of Negro history, to teach our people our own history? We are at the mercy of the 'flotsam and jetsam' of the white writers..."
We need in the coming dawn [someone]...who will give us the background for our future; it matters not whether...[this person]...comes from the cloisters of the university or from the rank and file of the fields (Cunard 1970: 77-78).
It is quite revealing that individuals from a self-educated working class, such as Schomburg, or for that matter, other figures of the time, such as the Puerto Rican tabaqueros Bernardo Vega and Jesús Colón who also left valuable historical legacies, clearly understood that the dominant white cultural elite would not make room for them in their official histories, and that it would be necessary for individuals like them to undertake the task of recovering and preserving their own historical legacies. Schomburg recognized the cultural bonds among the Black peoples of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa, and the pressing need for all peoples of African descent to appropriate their history, to build a body of knowledge that served as "a background for [the] future," "providing useful and inspiring models for [our] children to have before them" (Cunard 1970: 76).
There were two admirers of the legacy their fellow compatriot Arturo Schomburg had bestowed upon the African American community and whose work is informed by a consciousness of what needs to be transmitted to future generations--Bernardo Vega (1885-1965), a white Puerto Rican who came to New York in 1916, and Jesús Colón (1901-1974), an Afro-Puerto Rican who arrived in New York a year later. They were both from the tobacco-growing countryside of Cayey and after they left the island, they lived most of their adult lives in the New York metropolis. In New York, Vega became publisher of Gráfico, "semanario defensor de la raza hispana" ("a weekly defender of the Hispanic race"), published between 1927-1931. In addition to his journalistic contributions and community activism, Vega wrote his memoirs, a meticulous and detailed account of the development of the New York Puerto Rican community during the early part of the century. Vega wrote his memoirs during the 1940s, but they did not see the public light until more than a decade after his death, when in 1977 they were edited and published by Puerto Rican writer César Andreu Iglesias. In his Memorias, Vega as if trying to forge a historical record, provides valuable information about community activism and the many community organizations and publications that flourished during the early years of the colonia hispana.
In New York Jesús Colón became an avid collector of articles, newsletters, leaflets, newspaper and magazine clippings, reports, photographs, and personal correspondence that are now part of the Jesús Colón Papers Collection at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Library in New York City. Colón's passion for writing is substantiated by his prolific output of journalistic writings during the more than five decades that he lived in New York, where he died in 1974. His work, however, was relatively unknown since it was scattered over more than thirty different newspapers, magazines, and newsletters of community, labor, and political organizations. Not being a mainstream press writer, Colón's only published book had been A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches (first published in 1961) which remained forgotten until the scholar Juan Flores brought it back to life in a 1982 edition. A few years ago, historian Virginia Sánchez Korrol and I undertook the exciting task of recovering and identifying over four hundred pieces of Colón's writing, including an unfinished manuscript entitled The Way It Was found among his papers. This manuscript was intended to be a history of the development of the New York Puerto Rican community. Some of these writings were collected and published with the support of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, a project directed by Professor Nicolás Kanellos at the University of Houston, which in the last few years has brought together about twenty Latino scholars searching for literary and historical writings by Hispanics from colonial times to the present in what is today the United States. Another aspect of the Recovery Project is the Annotated Periodical Literature Project, and the Center for Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies, which I direct at the University at Albany, is now engaged, along with Colorado College and the University of Houston, in the analysis and annotation of some of the over one thousand periodicals already identified, which were published in the Hispanic communities throughout the United States since the early part of the nineteenth century.
It is quite impossible for me to do justice in this cursury review to what this process of recovery and (re)discovery represents for the Latino community and the truth is that the project's full promise and impact will probably not be realized until many years from now. There is a plethora of information that still needs to be processed and community figures, including several women, whose writings are being recovered and still need to be studied and contextualized. The relevance of this recovery process in terms of this presentation is that many of these periodicals are proving to be quite valuable in reconstructing a chronicle of the past and in providing glimpses into the everyday life of the diverse Latino communities at different historical periods, and the linkages that previous generations of U.S. Latinos established among themselves or maintained with their diverse countries of origin. These periodicals are also facilitating, for instance, our exploration of the connections, relations, and tensions between African American and Spanish Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. Although there were other Puerto Rican or Latino colonias forming in other parts of the New York metropolis, in the 1920s East Harlem had the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in New York. These are the years when Black consciousness bourgeoned during the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that coincides with the Afro-Antillean and négritude cultural and literary movements in the Hispanic and French Caribbean, evidence of a strong continental Pan-African consciousness during the this period. Many notable figures of the Harlem Renaissance were, indeed, from the Caribbean--Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and Arthur Schomburg among others--and these connections are awaiting further examination. From Vega and Colón's testimonial accounts we have learned a great deal about the shared interethnic solidarities within the organized labor movement during the 1920s and 1930s and about a community where intellectual pursuits often went hand in hand with sociopolitical activism and prominent members of the intellectual elite often stood side by side with members of the working class in their struggles for social justice.
Two other weeklies, Pueblos hispanos, published from 1943-1944, and Liberación, published from 1946-1949, confirm the continental, international, and Latino panethnic and antiassimilation character of most of these publications, both in terms of their cultural vision reflected in many of the articles published, as well as their political goals. Pueblos hispanos, for example, describes itself as a progressive weekly at a time when the world was at war, that strived for: 1) the unification of all the Hispanic colonias in the United States to defeat Nazi-fascism and in solidarity with all democratic forces; 2) the defense of all the rights of Hispanic minorities; 3) combating prejudice against Hispanics based on race, color or creed and the denunciation of prejudice against minorities. And if this discourse has a contemporary resonance, please note that it dates back to 1943. There are several other periodical publications, such as the Revista de Artes y Letras directed and owned by Josefina Silva Cintrón from 1933-1945, which achieved international circulation and should be carefully examined from the perspective of women's concerns and the struggles of the time. These and many other periodicals injected a transnational dimension into the cultural life of the New York Latino community that clearly contradicts the image of the barrios as closed and hopeless spaces submerged into a "culture of poverty" and thus a "poverty of culture."
As we can now appreciate, the emergence of a Latino consciousness in the United States as an expression of a wider panethnic identity and bonds of solidarity among Latino groups is not a recent occurrence. Its presence in earlier periods of development of various Latino communities is now being extensively documented. The consciousness-raising decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights and women's movements, and other struggles for social justice of the time allowed Chicanos and Puerto Ricans to join African Americans in their efforts to revitalize and affirm their respective ethnic and racial identities. This was a movement of ethnic/racial minorities attempting to rid themselves of the negative self-images and stigma internalized from the racism and marginalization they had experienced within U.S. society and that denied them a collective positive identity. The results of the explosion in grassroots ethnic activism and organizing eventually reached the walls of the academy and African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American ethnic studies and bilingual education programs began to proliferate across U.S. colleges and universities.
But nothing better illustrates the cultural and literary continuity of a Latino consciousness in the United States than the work being produced by Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and other Latino writers and artists during the last few decades. Each major group has its own distinctive body of literature reflecting the interactions of their respective cultural worlds. These bodies of literature, written primarily in English, but frequently in Spanish or bilingually were, until recently, ignored by scholars of U.S. and Latin American literatures alike. The language issue, compounded by the fact that these writings often have a working-class character or that many books are published by small ethnic presses, further limit their diffusion and marketing, and hence their possibilities for critical acclaim.
Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, and Nancy Saporta Sternback in their book Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings (1989) underscore ways in which latinismo or a Latino consciousness among Latina writers constitutes a unifying element in their works that incorporates elements of solidarity with other women's liberation movements in the United States, Latin America, and other parts of the Third World. Adopting the term "women of color" reflects a wider internationalist and humanitarian consciousness and symbolic identification with the working class and other Third World women's struggles. The collections This Bridge Called My Back (1981), Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983) and Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (1987) were some of the pioneering efforts that attest to the emergence of a literary discourse based upon a cultural subjectivity of being a Latina, that recognizes the shared experiences both at an individual and panethnic level, but the discourse also transcends national origins in its spirit of solidarity and identification with other liberation movements of women and other groups oppressed because of class position, race, ethnicity or sexual preference.
Anthropologist Ruth Behar in her two volume edited collection of writings Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba (1994) juxtaposes the metaphors of "bridges," or points of connection, and "borders," or points of separation, between Cubans back on the island in her "personal quest for memory and community" (401-402). In doing so, she reveals the tensions, contradictions, and need for reconnecting to the roots, to an island community. Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez, creates the metaphor of "la guagua aérea" (the airbus), that space where we find a nation floating or commuting between two ports. After all, as the author would say: "Nueva York sería la otra capital de Puerto Rico, sino lo fuera de toda Hispanoamérica" (23) [New York would be the other capital of Puerto Rico if it were not already the capital of Spanish America].
More than any other group Latino(a) writers and artists continue to span the distance between the Americas. They, as many other Third World peoples around the globe, are caught in a state of displacement that Angelika Bammer (1994) accurately describes as "...one of the most formative experiences of our century" (xi); a displacement produced by the physical dislocation from their native cultures experienced by (im)migrants, refugees, exiles, or by the colonizing experience. From that constant commuting--el ir y venir (the back and forth movement)--of those from "here" and "there" (los de aquí y los de allá) emerge the tensions, contradictions, and reconfigurations that influence and mold the construction of our contemporary Latino identities; identities marked by absence, loss, fragmentation, estrangement, reclaiming, and an inscribing presence. The words of the poet Lourdes Casal recreates what she views as the unresolved nature of this process:
That is why I will always remain on the margins,
a stranger among the stones,
even beneath the friendly sun of a summer's day,
just as I will remain forever a foreigner,
even when I return to the city of my childhood
I carry this marginality, immune to all turning back,
too habanera to be a newyorquina,
too newyorquina to be
--even to become again--
(Lourdes Casal, "For Ana Veldford," 416)
The Puerto Rican voice of Sandra María Esteves captures the same sense of straddling between cultures and languages:
Born in the Bronx, not really jíbara
Not really hablando bien
But yet, not gringa either
(Sandra María Esteves, "Not neither," Tropical Rains)
Some Chicano writers have introduced the notion of "border cultures" described by the writer and performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña in his artistic manifesto "The Border Is" (1993):
Border culture means boycott, complot, ilegalidad, clandestinidad, contrabando, transgresión, desobediencia binacional...
But it also means transcultural friendship and collaboration among races, sexes, and generations.
But it also means to practice creative appropriation, expropriation, and subversion of dominant cultural forms.
But it also means a multiplicity of voices away from the center, different geo-cultural relations among more culturally akin regions...
But it also means regresar, volver y partir: to return and depart once again...
But it also means a new terminology for new hybrid identities and métiers constantly metamorphosizing...
But it also means to look at the past and the future at the same time (43-44).
In her book Borderlands/La frontera (1987) Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa adds a gender dimension to the oscillation between two worlds and claims an emerging new consciousness: "a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer. It is a consciousness of the Borderlands" (77):
Because I, a mestiza
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am in all cultures at the same time
(Gloria Anzaldúa, "Una lucha de fronteras/A Struggle of Borders," Borderlands/La frontera, 77)
Yo soy un puente tendido
del mundo gabacho al del mojado
lo pasado me estirá pa' 'tras
y lo presente pa' 'delante.
Que la Virgen de Guadalupe me cuide
Ay ay ay, soy mexicana de este lado
(Gloria Anzaldúa, The Homeland, Aztlán," Borderlands/La frontera, 3)
Other Latino writers proclaim a new cultural synthesis that emerges from this cultural and linguistic straddling by affirming a new hybrid or syncretic identity that incorporates multiple forms of consciousness based on the multi, inter, intra, and crossconnections among the cultures shared and the multiple marginalities that arise from gender, racial, and class differences:
I am a child of the Americas
a light-skinned mestiza of the Caribbean
a child of many diaspora, born into this continent at a crossroads.
I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return.
I am not taína. Taíno is in me, but there is no way back.
I am not european. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there.
I am new. History made me. My first language was spanglish.
And I am whole.
(Aurora Levins Morales, "Child of the Americas," Getting Home Alive, 50)
At these crossroads languages also meet and Spanglish emerges as a creative force of hybrid interlinguality:
assimilated? que assimilated,
brother, yo soy asimilao,
asi mi la o sí es verdad
tengo un lado asimilao,
(Tato Laviera, "asimilao," AmeRícan, 54)
we gave birth
to a new generation
AmeRícan salutes all folklores,
european, indian, black, spanish,
and anything else compatible...
...AmeRícan defining myself my own way any way many
ways Am e Rícan, with the big R and
the accent on the í
(Tato Laviera, "AmeRícan," AmeRícan, 94)
The voices of Latino writers are powerful examples of how geographic, cultural, and language borders are being transgressed, perhaps until they become meaningless or until the American continent ceases to be not just Anglo/European, not just white, not just the place where the subaltern "other" remains at the margins.
By revisiting the more than a century-old concept of Nuestra América, I hope to also have shown the need to "reinvent" it by expanding the original meaning given to it by Martí and incorporating the cultural and historical realities and legacies bestowed upon us by those generations of Latinos who have forged their lives in the United States. The historical and cultural experience of U.S. Latinos is forcing us to transcend the barriers imposed by national frontiers and by conventionally defined parameters about what constitutes Latin American or Caribbean cultural authenticity. In our postmodern world of increasing transnational connections, it is no longer tenable to talk about the concept of Nuestra/Our America without, as I am suggesting here, including the Latino population in the United States. More than ever before, the two Americas intertwine, at a time when, paradoxically, some sectors of U.S. society view with increasing disdain and hostility the presence of minorities and (im)migrants, wishing that a high wall be erected or a deep ditch be dug along the border, engaging in a polarizing discourse which appeals to deeply ingrained prejudices and fears, and hoping to reverse many of the modest gains of recent decades in the battle against social, racial, and gender inequalities.
The decade of the 1990s brought the Quincentennial commemoration of the encounter between the Old and New Worlds. In three more years, we approach the commemoration of the Cuban-Spanish-American War, which ended Spanish imperial domination in the Americas, but established the United States as the dominant power within the hemisphere. Rather than falling into the "fin de siécle" malaise or recriminations that were so predominant in the Spanish and Latin American worlds a century ago, Latinos should take this opportunity to continue bridging the Americas, restoring the original hemispheric sense to the name America, producing emancipatory knowledge that recognizes our multiple cultural citizenships and alliances, and further promoting a liberating dialogue about the hemisphere based not on one dominant country's exceptionalism, but on the many identities most of us share. Only when we tap into the multicultural and multiracial wealth of all the American nations will we move closer to achieving the human equality and dignity treasured by so many others before us.
Total Hispanic Population26,646100.00
Central & South American3,72514.0
Note: Population Figures for non-decennial U.S. Census years are based on a
sample survey estimates or a relatively small number of cases, which often results
in an undercount of particular population groups.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census,
Current Population Survey, "Population by Ethnicity and Nativity." Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.
Table 2: Hispanic Population Growth Projections, 1970-2030
Total (in millions)9.114.622.431.341.152.665.5
% of total U.S. population4.56.49.011.413.816.318.9
Sources: Figures for years 2000-2030 are based on Current Population Reports, Series P25-1130,
"Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995-2050."
Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, 1996. See also Hispanic Americans Today. Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.
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