miércoles, 28 de julio de 2021

We had never seen such people before: Puerto Rican literature and the writing of the other (primera parte)


                                                                                                         Marta Aponte Alsina

A Pablo Navarro

What could the literature of Puerto Rico share with the very distinct culture of this region in Pennsylvania, itself a crossroads of peoples and cultures? Usually connections are subtle or hidden underground, like the roots of trees or the waters of underground rivers. According to certain mythologies there is a father or a mother river from which other rivers spring. There is also a tree whose roots embrace the earth. Narrations and myths are related since prehistory, when as you know, people gathered to hear stories.

In spite of their antiquity myths are very much alive. They survive and thrive in pop culture. The science of ecology also reveals the interaction between all regions of the earth. However, the cultural history of nations seems to have moved in the opposite direction, stressing difference. But we don’t have to look back into mythic origins to find a unifying story between this region of the Susquehanna River and the literature of an island in the Caribbean Sea, between the Appalachians and the Valley of Caguas, Puerto Rico.

When professor Hidalgo told me about Juan José Osuna I thought that in spite of Kipling´s verse, east and west do mix. East is East because a capitalist adventurer decided that West is West. Rather the West is one and the other, and the East is also one and the other. The same failure of binary opposition holds true for North and South. They have always mixed, in economic and cultural geography, even though the borders are policed and the lines are drawn.

This common story between a Caribbean island and Bloomsburg begins in the last decade of the 19th century. Caguas, Puerto Rico, was a sugar cane and tobacco producing region. An orphaned young man served as an apprentice at a tobacco warehouse. You can imagine his waking and sleeping hours pervaded by the acrid smell of dry tobacco leaves and cigars. He was an orphan and had to work to help support his family, a fate typical of families and communities all over the world. What was not typical was a destiny imposed by territorial imperative. In 1898 the US Army invaded the island and substituted a very short lived autonomic government under the Spanish Empire for a military government and later for a mixed electoral system with the governor appointed by the president of the United States until 1948. Cuba and Puerto Rico were the last territories in America under the Spanish flag. They also were the first territories South of Texas to be invaded by a power that still sees itself in official discourses as exceptional, according to a historian Jackson Lears, and that after its civil war, embraced its “redemptive responsibilities in the drama of world history” (Jackson Lears, Divinely Ordained, London Review of Books, 19 May 2011, p. 3). Redeeming Cubans and civilizing Puerto Ricans was part of a “manifest destiny”. Taking over the island as a coaling station and stepping stone in the control of Central and South America was, of course, seen as a right.  

But the US could not accept without doubts its imperial role. There was then the need to create an empire without seeming to do so, while carrying out a civilizing mission for countries “not prepared for democracy.” How could this be accomplished? The story was written by the judges of the Supreme Court. According to scholar Amy Kaplan, from the University of Pennsylvania, the so called insular cases, which defined Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory that belongs but is not part of the US, “turned the space of Puerto Rico into a buffer zone, a blurred borderland between the domestic and the foreign onto which project the threats of hybridity… of a phantasmic invasion of the US. The ambiguous space of Puerto Rico as “unincorporated”, as “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense”, both embodies and allays these fears of foreign bodies” (Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire, Introduction).

But this intricate political novel of the insular cases is not the common story I would like to share with you. The historical personage who was Juan José Osuna has, to my mind, a more immediate pertinence to our exchange. Osuna´s story is worth telling. Here, at Bloomsburg, we are at the university that received his papers, part of his legacy and that is remarkable. Moreover his story sets the stage for a look at the relationship between literature and its place of enunciation or the place –geographical and cultural and ideological- from where a writer writes and the mode of her or his writing the other.

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