Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities

Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities


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Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities by Laura Lomas

In Translating Empire, Laura Lomas uncovers how late nineteenth-century Latino migrant writers developed a prescient critique of U.S. imperialism, one that prefigures many of the concerns about empire, race, and postcolonial subjectivity animating American studies today. During the 1880s and early 1890s, the Cuban journalist, poet, and revolutionary José Martí and other Latino migrants living in New York City translated North American literary and cultural texts into Spanish. Lomas reads the canonical literature and popular culture of the United States in the Gilded Age through the eyes of Martí and his fellow editors, activists, orators, and poets. In doing so, she reveals how, in the process of translating Anglo-American culture into a Latino-American idiom, the Latino migrant writers invented a modernist aesthetics to criticize U.S. expansionism and expose Anglo stereotypes of Latin Americans.

Lomas challenges longstanding conceptions about Martí through readings of neglected texts and reinterpretations of his major essays. Against the customary view that emphasizes his strong identification with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, the author demonstrates that over several years, Martí actually distanced himself from Emerson’s ideas and conveyed alarm at Whitman’s expansionist politics. She questions the association of Martí with pan-Americanism, pointing out that in the 1880s, the Cuban journalist warned against foreign geopolitical influence imposed through ostensibly friendly meetings and the promotion of hemispheric peace and “free” trade. Lomas finds Martí undermining racialized and sexualized representations of America in his interpretations of Buffalo Bill and other rituals of westward expansion, in his self-published translation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s popular romance novel Ramona, and in his comments on writing that stereotyped Latino/a Americans as inherently unfit for self-government. With Translating Empire, Lomas recasts the contemporary practice of American studies in light of Martí’s late-nineteenth-century radical decolonizing project.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822343257
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/02/2009
Series: New Americanists
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Laura Lomas is Assistant Professor of English Literature and American Studies at Rutgers University.

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José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4342-4

Chapter One

Latino American Postcolonial Theory from a Space In-Between

To what purpose did Cubans fly from Spanish tyranny if they were to find in an American republic its very horrors? -José Martí, "To Cuba!" Patria, 1894

MARTÍ'S ACCOUNTS of his incarceration, deportation, and migration before the age of twenty, his translations and oratory in English from the end of his life, and his manifesto on modernist poetry together demonstrate this Latino migrant writer's contributions to Latino/a, American, and post-colonial studies. To include Martí within these fields of inquiry pushes them to address the role that a subject on the edge of these disciplines-the migrant Latino-had in shaping them. Beyond a single national or linguistic tradition, Martí's travel writing, translation, and literary criticism illuminate the postcolonial urgency of his final speeches to mixed Anglo and Latino audiences. He writes from what Silviano Santiago calls the postcolonial "space in-between" (o entre-lugar) of Latin American discourse. In this chapter I argue that Martí adopted tactics of subterfuge in his criticism and translation because of his formative experiences as a deportee, a political prisoner, and a migrant in an emergent empire. I define the theoretical framework through which this book approaches Martí's "translations," and consider the sizeable debts that critics in the U.S. incur when drawing-sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly-on the rich, yet insufficiently acknowledged theoretical traditions of Latin America.


Martí's divergence from either of the governing cultures in which he lived for the longest periods-Spain and the United States-derives from his intimacy with colonialism in Cuba and then as a postcolonial migrant living and working amongst the fruit sellers, the newspaper urchins, and boarding-house renters of Gilded Age New York. Migration between the Caribbean, Europe, and New York helped Martí to claim histories of anti-colonial Amerindian rebellion and African maroonage as legacies for urban migrant organization and for postcolonial self-government. Latino migrant conditions make it possible for a light-skinned, professionally trained Cuban to identify with displaced indigenous communities, harassed Asian workers, and Africans in the grip of double consciousness in the Americas, all of which Martí gradually became cognizant of while living in the United States. The intersecting trajectories of these major cultures inform Martí's definition of his Caribbean island as an American crossroads, traversed by the world's cultures, but marginalized in New York.

Like Frantz Fanon's black Martiniquan, who travels to France and returns radically changed, or C. L. R. James, who said that "the first step to freedom was to go abroad," Martí and other Hispanic Caribbean migrants resident in New York shaped their perspective as translators for "the-ones-who-never-crawled-out-of-their-holes" back on the island. Making his residence for over a decade in a boarding house run by the Venezuelan Carmen Miyares for Latin Americans away from home, Martí did not merely travel through the United States, as did the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. In addition to the temporal extension of his residence, Martí labored at a translator's desk crowded with dictionaries, stacks of the day's newspapers from various countries, piles of magazines, and books in various languages and half-finished speeches or correspondence. The conditions and nature of his work as a translator and as a voracious reader shaped Martí's critical angle and the form of his writing.

To read Martí as a colonial subject, a migrant, and a translator in New York builds on a critical tradition that has focused on Martí's role in Latin American and Cuban letters. It sheds new light on his contributions to U.S. Latino and American literary history broadly understood. For acute logistical and political reasons, scholarship on Martí has faced practical political obstacles in linking Latin America to the history of exiles and immigrants in the United States. The Cuban exile community, from Martí's time to the present, has included individuals or groups ranging from José Ignacio Rodríguez in the late nineteenth century to Luis Posada Carriles in the late twentieth century, who have worked covertly or overtly in the service of representatives of the U.S. government to promote annexation or to undermine the island's self-government. On the other hand, since the 1959 revolution, unauthorized departure from the island or criticism of the Cuban government's policies has often made would-be migrants into deserters. Whereas existing research on José Martí has demonstrated his contributions to the founding of Latin American literary forms, my reading adumbrates an alternative both to U.S. assimilation narratives and to Latin American national insularism.

Lacking official citizenship papers from any American nation and facing the xenophobia of earlier waves of immigrants, Martí nevertheless challenges the assumption that Latino migrants in the U.S. are foreigners, especially because Latino ancestry and culture are often partially indigenous to America. Martí augments his claim to America by likening Cuba's nationalist struggle against both Spanish and U.S. control of the island to indigenous military and cultural rebellion. For example, in the midst of an article on aboriginal American authors, Martí disidentifies with his Spanish and Canary Islander parents and, instead, affiliates with the submerged knowledges and historical resistance of pre-Columbian civilizations to the Spanish: "What does it matter if we descend from parents with Moorish blood and white skin? The spirit of men floats on the land in which they lived and that breathes them [se le respira] still. Our fathers are from Valencia and our mothers from the Canary Islands, but in our veins rushes the warm blood of Tamanaco and Paracamoni" (Obras, 8:336). In this oblique reference to his immigrant parents from Valencia and Spanish colonies o the coast of Africa, Martí traces his skin color to Moorish or North African origins, and allies himself with the victims of European colonialism. According to his Colombian friend Román Vélez, Martí described Cuba as "a very large tomb, that guards an even greater cadaver: the murdered Amerindian race." Breathing in the vigilant ghosts of indigenous leaders, and struggling to reclaim and honor the burial grounds of countless Amerindians, this Latino migrant writer affiliated with the continent's long aboriginal history rather than make filial claims to European ancestry.

Martí and many of his interlocutors in the migrant community offer notes from native sons. A comparison of Martí to writers of the African diaspora who lived and thought outside a nationalist framework reveals the connections between racism, class exploitation, and imperialism that led Martí to disidentify with a white, Anglo, and imperial subject in formation in the United States. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, the African American interpreter of the souls of black and white folk, Martí positions himself as American while prophesying as a specter at the United States' extravagant banquet table. The historical suppression of radical postcolonial Americanist politics by the U.S. government shapes the planetary tradition of migrants, renegades, and castaways that C. L. R. James, during his pre-deportation imprisonment on Ellis Island in 1953, identified in Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. Martí's critical interpretations fore-shadow this radical "outernational" Americanist tradition as he predicted and criticized an emerging U.S. empire in the public record of Latin America's major newspapers and in Spanish-language publications in New York.

Like Du Bois in "The Souls of White Folk" (453), Martí demonstrates unusual clairvoyance concerning the white imperial subjectivity in formation around him. Also, like the Black Atlantic from which Du Bois writes, Martí's America is more expansive than the United States, and his group spans cultural, national, and color-marked assemblages: Martí's is "the America that speaks Spanish" (Obras, 5:97), along with other languages, and is "composed of all Spanish-speaking countries" (in English; Obras, 22:286). Like Du Bois, Martí asserts his parity in the kingdom of culture. Unable to merge doubleness into a better and truer self, as projected by Du Bois, both of these writers arrive slowly and painfully at a sense of the radical heterogeneity and unsealable fissures within the Americas and within his own fragmented subjectivity.

Martí became aware of this heterogeneity of the self and of the Americas through the extreme and interrelated experiences of colonization, incarceration, deportation, and migration. Economic necessity and conflicts with his volatile Spanish father, Don Mariano Martí Navarro, mirrored the turbulence of mid-nineteenth-century Cuba, which erupted into a ten-year civil war when Martí was fifteen. José Martí was the only son in an immigrant family of eight children, and his father had no education except working in his own father's rope factory in Spain. Don Mariano often suffered long periods of unemployment in Cuba, but mostly worked as a part of the Spanish Colonial Police. The young Martí won prizes for his studies and eventually took degrees in law, philosophy, and literature in Spain, but neither he nor his family owned their places of residence. Don Mariano struggled to support his eight children, and, after he died, his son worked to support his mother and sisters, in addition to his own small family. José Martí worked long hours at multiple white collar jobs for most of his life. Those long hours explain his reference to striking workers in Key West in May 1894 as "my fellow workingmen," in a letter written in English to the union leaders George Jackson and Salvador Herrera.

Working in colonial Cuba and living in Spain during that European country's brief experiment with republicanism sharpened Martí's anti-colonialism. After the outbreak of the first Cuban war of independence, Martí became sympathetic to the separatist cause thanks to his observations of repressive conditions in the colony and through study with his proindependence high school teacher, Rafael María de Mendive. Martí complained in a letter to his teacher, then exiled in Paris: "I work from six in the morning to eight at night and I earn four and one half ounces which I hand over to my father." Seven months of fourteen-hour days as an office boy for a Spanish merchant nearly drove Martí to suicide, he reports in this desperate letter. His experience of working in Cuba reiterated for him the contradictory nature of imperial modernity. Julio Burrel-a young Spanish journalist who met Martí briefly in Cuba while the latter awaited his possible deportation to Spain's African colony, Ceuta-recollects Martí's explanation of his radical politics: "I, who am among you an equal, a peer and a friend, am to be [in Cuba] nothing but a foreigner. I am to live in tutelage, subordinate, under suspicion. All doors are closed to my rights, were I to ask for justice, and to my ambitions, were I to legitimately pursue my ambitions." Because Martí had lived and studied in Spain, the colonial abuses contrasted all the more intensely with the metropolitan rhetoric that informed the establishment of the Spanish Republic of 1873-74, precisely when Martí was studying in Zaragoza. Martí observed firsthand the repression of the Republicans who resisted the return to monarchy in Zaragoza, among whom Simón-an Afro-Cuban who worked at the boarding house where Martí resided-stood out in Martí's mind because of his valiant fight against the anti-Republican forces (Obras, 4:391). The failure of reforms in Spain fed Martí's anticolonialism.

Martí identified himself, his parents, and his son, Pepe, publicly as workers in a draft of a speech amongst his fragmentary writings (Obras, 22:17), in keeping with his view that the vast majority of human beings are workers. He considered "vile" that small part of the world that exploits others' labor and refuses to work (Obras, 5:104). Describing himself as being of "humble origins" (Obras, 22:286), Martí claims his preference for those who work as he does: "It is nothing, but as I work, I love those who work: I too have quarried stone" (Obras, 22:252-53). This allusion to Martí's six months of forced labor as a political prisoner in Havana suggests the extent to which this experience marked him, even after decades of working more with his head than with his hands, as a journalist, consul, translator, and teacher.

The experience of quarrying stone occured in 1870, at the age of seventeen, after Martí was found guilty of being a "declared enemy of Spain." The six months of hard labor that he served in the Presidio de San Lázaro of Havana provided Martí with an intimate sense of the modern European state's investment of its reason with violent force. Authorities had discovered a letter signed by Martí and his friend Fermín Valdés Dominguez, which criticized a classmate, Carlos de Castro y Castro, for agreeing to serve in the Spanish colonial forces. This unsent letter led to Martí's arrest and indictment. His experience in the prison, moreover, provided Martí with a reservoir of bodily memories for conceptualizing the abrogation of liberty. His head was shaved, and he was fitted with a chain that ran up from his right foot to another chain around his waist. In these chains, he had to walk four miles every morning, work for twelve hours, and returned the same distance every day, under threat of the lash.

He recounts in his prison diary how his father visited him and was moved to tears by a suppurating wound in his son's leg, which had resulted from the chain rubbing against his flesh during these long workdays. For the Spanish empire, his injuries were a mere "detail," as he indicates with bitter irony:

A repugnant detail [detalle], a detail that I also suffered, on which I, nevertheless, walked, and upon which my disconsolate father wept. And what a bitter day when he managed to see me, and I tried to keep from him the cracks in my body, ... and when he saw at last ... those purulent openings, those crushed members, that mixture of blood and dust, of matter and mud, upon which they made me prop my body and run, and run, and run! What a terribly bitter day! Clinging to that formless mass, he looked at me with horror and he hastily wrapped the bandage, he looked at me again, and at last, feverishly squeezing the fragmented leg, he broke down weeping. His tears fell into my wounds. I struggled to dry his eyes. Heart-rending sobs knotted his voice, and at that moment the work bell rang and a rough arm dragged me from there, and he remained kneeling on the ground moistened by my blood, as a stick prodded me toward the tower of boxes that would be awaiting us for the next six hours. (Obras, crit. ed., 1:71-72)

This poetic prose builds up internal rhyme to figure the cracking of the subject under the weight of the enchained body. Deformed and suffering, the speaker bitterly decries this "detalle" (part, relation, fragment), his wounded limb. The first personal pronoun, "yo," echoes in words that refer to the broken body that his father mourns: "sin embargo" (nevertheless), "desconsolado" (disconsolate), "lloró" (he cried), "vio" (he saw), "rompió" (broke), and "llanto" (weeping). This insistent detail-the mangled, fissured, and suppurating body part-becomes the prop to the speaking subject that must serve him in walking and running before the prodding driver's stick. The subject becomes openings, used and broken parts, and mixtures of elements. Yet it must perform the work of an organized system.


Excerpted from TRANSLATING EMPIRE by LAURA LOMAS Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Criticar es Amar: Translation and Self-Criticism ix

Introduction: Metropolitan Debts, Imperial Modernity, and Latino Modernism 1

1. Latino American Postcolonial Theory from a Space In-Between 41

2. La América with an Accent: North Americans, Spanish-Language Print Culture, and American Modernities 83

3. The "Evening of Emerson": Martí's Postcolonial Double Consciousness 130

4. Martí's "Mock-Congratulatory Signs": Walt Whitman's Occult Artistry 177

5. Martí's Border Writing: Infiltrative Translation, Late Nineteenth-Century "Latinness" and the Perils of Pan-Americanism 216

Conclusion. Cross-Pollinating "Dust on Butterfly's Wings": Latina/o Writing and Culture Beyond and After Martí 278

Notes 285

Bibliography 347

Index 375

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