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
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.