AuthorOrtega, Gema
PositionCritical essay

Mestizaje refers to the racial, cultural, and religious mixture Spanish colonization produced and regulated into a caste structure (castas) to keep colonial society hierarchized based on purity of blood and origin. Thus, mestizaje is a semiotic system, rather than a merely biological phenomenon, that has defined the identity of Latin American countries and peoples throughout the hemisphere. (1) Since the nineteenth century, Spanish American intellectuals have used the idea of mestizaje to underscore racial and cultural synthesis as the essence of Spanish America, (2) inspired and led by its three major proponents--Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, and Jose Vasconcelos. Mestizaje celebrates the uniqueness of cultural and racial syncretism, rejecting at the same time foreign models that, like US multiculturalism, center on one cultural identity and leave others at the margins and without interaction. However, this paper argues that in the context of the Spanish American nation, mestizaje has been reduced to a notion of cultural identity that is homogenizing and thus more essentialist than it appears. Mestizaje presupposes a harmonious relationship among the three main groups affected by the encounter, or encontronazo (clash), in Spanish America: Amerindian, European, and African. The presumed harmony is created by an adherence to a criollo ideology that favors and enforces the preservation of a Spanish cultural past. Thus, the essentialization of the Spanish American collective consciousness under mestizaje paradoxically silences the multiple voices of Spanish American nations from a class, racial, gender, and ethnic standpoint. Indeed, as Benedict Anderson points out, the Spanish American nation becomes a "deep, horizontal comradeship," when it is imagined from a fixed criollo location and ideology that obscures internal cleavages within a firmly bounded space. (3)

Puerto Rican scholar and writer Rosario Ferre did not explicitly denounce mestizaje. Yet her writing rejects notions of cultural and national identity that reduced diversity to an official narrative of racial harmony. She was born in Ponce in 1938. As the daughter of a wealthy businessman and the third governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, she was educated both in the United States and on the island. Rosario Ferre started her writing career by publishing articles in El Nuevo Dia. She later founded a literary magazine, Zona de Carga y Descarga, to promote the works of new writers and political ideas in Puerto Rico. Along with Ana Lydia Vega, Luis Pales Matos, and Judith Ortiz Cofer, Ferre became a prominent Puerto Rican writer of fiction, poetry, short stories, and literary criticism and feminist theory. Her work from Papeles de Pandora and Antologia Personal and her essay "La cocina de la escritura" in Sitio a Eros have been widely anthologized and translated into English, French, and German. Yet the appeal of Ferre's work on mestizaje stems from her unique tendency as a writer to apply theory to fiction that centers on the historical anecdote. The result is a "rewriting [of] history into and through literature" (4) that challenges unified official narratives that, like mestizaje, reconcile clashing viewpoints. She favored, instead, what Unamuno calls intra-history and Ginzburg calls micro-history. (5)

By retelling minor stories of the everyday lives of those at the margins of official history, Ferre exposed the monologic grand narratives that in Puerto Rico obfuscated the relationships among colonialism, nationalism, and the discourse of mestizaje. Particularly her novel Maldito amor, translated as Sweet Diamond Dust, denounces the official discourse of lo americano as mestizo for four reasons: it perpetuates the liberal myth of racial democracy, it idealizes the Spanish colonial past, it consecrates Spanish as a national language, and it bolsters the cult of la gran familia, which is the Puerto Rican way of accepting Marti's conviction that there is no racial animosity in the Caribbean because the nation is color blind. (6) Ferre thus challenged formulations of cultural identity that use the exclusive and standard paradigm of territorial, linguistic, historical, and racial criteria that characterize national discourses in the Caribbean. According to Rosario Ferre, the fixed location from which the cultural identity of the nation is formulated, be it from a criollo, male and/or any other privileged space, does not truly acknowledge the dispersion, fragmentation, and confrontation of the diverse cultural realms of the Spanish Caribbean. In place of a harmonious image endorsed by mestizaje, she emphasized ruptures, presenting a new way of envisioning the nation from the vantage point of a profound conflictedness.

The historical anecdote in Sweet Diamond Dust focuses on a criollo family of Puerto Rican landowners. Echoing the national romances of nineteenth-century Latin America, the De La Valle family serves to demystify the idealization of racial and class harmony those novels conveyed. Homogeneity and harmony were necessary elements of nineteenth-century romances; these were the values Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti championed in order to legitimize the power of the criollo elite to form viable, independent nations that would resemble European models. Their discourse erased racial conflicts and postulated a peaceful coexistence that ignored the lives and voices of those on the periphery. Arcadio Diaz Quinones argues that for these official histories, the discourse of mestizaje was the best proof of an absence of racial prejudice and conflict among the multiple sectors of Spanish American societies. (7) As it pertains to Puerto Rico, the homogenizing narrative of "la gran familia puertorriquena" (the great and large Puerto Rican family) acknowledges the mixed cultural heritage of the island as threefold: indigenous, African, and Spanish. Yet the nationalist character of the discourse ignored and reduced the indigenous past and silenced the African voice, folding both into the "Hispanophilia, anti-Americanism, racism, androcentrism, homophobia, and more recently xenophobia" of white criollos. (8) Ferre's Sweet Diamond Dust actively engages in the dismantling of official discourses that, under the umbrella term of mestizaje, strengthened the myth of a racial utopia in the Hispanic Caribbean. As Lee Skinner notes, the novel "undertakes the task of questioning the privileged nature of historical discourse and embarks upon a thorough interrogation of both traditional and contestatory history." (9)

Ferre's contestation of official narratives of mestizaje opens with a description of the Guamani region in Puerto Rico from the perspective of a member of the patriarchal oligarchy of the island, Don Hermenegildo. His project consists of writing a history of the De la Valle family in a reminiscing, omniscient, and androcentric voice that sings the glories of the former hero of Puerto Rico, Ubaldino de la Valle. Ubaldino's epic deed, according to Don Hermenegildo, was to save the nation from the fierce capitalism and colonial ambitions of the United States. Don Hermenegildo's text is embedded in quotation marks, indicating that it belongs to a larger discourse about the past of the island and its mythical, yet vanished, paradise. His account also follows the model of national romances, for it idealizes the unions between the Spanish oligarchy (hacendados) with criollas and jibaras, Dona Elvira and Dona Laura, respectively. These heroes become the representation of strong national progress and authentic Puerto Rican values because they claim to be the leading members of the ethnic and racial complexity of the "gran familia puertoriquena." Don Hermenegildo constructs a totalizing narrative of a mythical time and place in the past of Puerto Rico that can be characterized as "epic" in a Bakhtinian sense. Don Hermenegildo claims that "in the past the people of Guamani used to be proud of their town and their valley." (10) According to Bakhtin, the authorial position from which the epic world is narrated corresponds to "a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descendant." (11)

Don Hermenegildo is that man. He looks at the past of Puerto Rico with an "absolute epic distance" in order to recreate and establish the remote beginnings of the Puerto Rican nation from a criollo standpoint. (12) Thus, he presents an idyllic and paradisiacal picture of the island in which everything is in perfect order and is valued to its maximum extent. "Sparkling clean streets," "a bird of paradise," "the most beautiful,"--the nation is represented in its essential goodness and in a primordial state that is still uncorrupted by foreign elements. (13) However, Don Hermenegildo's absolute voice is not devoid of ideological baggage. In fact, as Bakhtin might note, the "absolute past" used in epic narratives is "a specifically evaluating (hierarchical category)." He adds, "In the epic world view, 'beginning,' 'first,' 'founder,' 'ancestor,' 'that which occurred earlier' and so forth are not merely temporal categories but valorized temporal categories, and valorized to an extreme degree." (14) Don Hermenegildo describes Puerto Rico from the vantage point of the privileged criollo landowners who, like himself, considered themselves to be the heirs and keepers of a tradition that was threatened by foreign elements. Thus, they establish themselves as founders, fathers, and ancestors of everything that is worth preserving on the island. They also separated themselves from other classes, races, and cultures by the same epic distance attributed to the past. (15)

And it wasn't just the lushness of our valley that made us feel proud and content.... At that time Guamanenos of the upper crust all belonged to the same clan. There were blood ties among the most distant families, and we always gave one another financial and moral support.... Our...

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