[H]e was considered the foremost of authorities on the Mexicans of Texas. Hank Harvey had been born in New York City some sixty years before. He had gone to grade school there and then worked in a delicatessen to make some money so he could come down to his dreamland, Texas…. After he had come to Texas with only a few years schooling, he resolved to become an authority on Texas history and folklore. In a few years he had read every book there was on the early history of Texas, it was said, and his fellow Texans accepted him as the Historical Oracle of the State. There was a slight hitch, it is true. Most early history books were written in Spanish, and K. Hank didn’t know the language. However, nobody mentioned this, and it didn’t detract from Harvey’s glory.
—Américo Paredes, George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel
What, then, does the de-colonisation of culture actually mean: the recuperation of an essential culture that existed before the historical moment of colonisation, or the idea of admitting different histories to a complex and syncretic present composed of cross-cultural transfigurations?
—Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity
“We Americans,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1883, “have yet to really learn our own antecedents . . . Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only . . . which is a very great mistake.” Whitman’s critique of the skewed understanding of the U.S. and of U.S. history viewed from the limited vantage point of the Northeastern seaboard remained pertinent well over a hundred years later. David J. Weber writing a history of the Spanish frontier of North America in the nineties found himself once again having to confront this seemingly intractable ideological stance. As he writes, “Although the United States has always been a multiethnic society most general histories of the nation have suggested that its colonial origins resided entirely in the thirteen English colonies.” Little has changed in the intervening years. In fact, at no other time has the US turned its back on Latin America so long and so blatantly as today.
As a Latin American living in New England and teaching at Dartmouth College, it has been difficult if not impossible not to notice (and ponder) the intersection between colonial past and imperialist present that is so apparent here, and to which Whitman’s critique alludes. The “new” in New England of course refers us back to a colonial history still visible today in the quaint British-style towns with their “village green” and churches mapped onto indigenous cultures. The enormous pines that were cut down in the eighteenth century to make masts for the British Royal Navy have been replaced by forests of smaller, second or third generation growth trees, reminding the newcomer that the “new” also refers to a new understanding of nature. The gloomy forests of long ago have given way to a “managed,” instrumentalized landscape. The indigenous presence, erased from the landscape and re-situated on the margins of this society, has been displaced onto the symbols of the “college on the hill” where I teach: as the kneeling Native American receiving “the Book” from a man of learning who occupies a central position (still central today, alas), and as the much-disputed “Indians” sign of the football team still adamantly worn by some students who mistake insult for resistance to change—or perhaps, even worse, intend it.
The College’s biblical VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO voices Dartmouth’s initial mission. By turning existing indigenous cultures into a wilderness, it reproduces Columbus’s gesture three hundred years earlier, of claiming populated islands in the Caribbean for the Spanish Crown by planting a flag on their shores and whispering empire-building words into the wind. In the logo VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO, colonial past and imperial present intersect: the British colonial subject, the subject created and interpellated by an empire, is in turn already intent on colonizing and/or Christianizing other subjects. Indeed, in the race between France and England for North America, evangelization (Catholic vs. Protestant) plays a crucial role. As one of the historians of the College writes: “The country able to win the allegiance of the Indians might ultimately gain the huge prize of North America.” Understanding this, Eleazar Wheelock’s lifelong goal had been that of founding a college where American Indians could be Christianized and hence also acculturated. His goal however was not devoid of imperialist ambivalence: Dartmouth College, previously known as Moor’s Indian Charity School, ended up being a missionary college where the future evangelizers of Native Americans were trained. As one account of Dartmouth’s founding has it, “The Indian charity school, which he instituted in 1755, proved reasonably successful; quite a good many Indian boys came to it, and quite a good many English youths, also on charity, came there to prepare for college. Wheelock saw that if these English youths could be induced to become missionaries to the Indians, they might be of even greater worth than the Indians themselves.” That is, Dartmouth fast became a college of paying white students and not a college for Native Americans. In fact, shortly after its founding in 1771 as the “ninth of America’s Colonial institutions of higher learning and the last to receive its charter from the Crown of England,” the Trustees in Scotland and England were “adamant in their criticism that funds intended for the schooling of Indians were being spent for whites.” In a gesture which repeated Columbus’s infantilization of the natives of the New World—and which prevails to this day in representations of the colonial and/or so-called “Third-World” subject—Wheelock justified the derailment of funds destined to Native Americans by attributing his failure to the Native American worse-than-childlike “sloth” and total unconcern with the future. Despite his growing conviction about the futility of Christianizing and educating Native Americans and because he needed to gain economic support, Wheelock’s son was teaching twenty one Native Americans in Hanover by 1774. Indeed, because of father and son’s diplomatic and educational efforts among indigenous communities, Dartmouth was the only college that did not close during the Revolution irrespective of whether the tribes in the vicinity fought for or against the British and today prides itself on its annual Pow-wow and Native American Studies Program.
The story of Dartmouth’s founding poignantly illustrates three things: the intersection of and tension between the colonial and the imperial has to be read not only within the “new” of New England but also as the underlying ideological framework that shaped the establishment of the disciplines at Dartmouth. Unlike the history of any Latin American country which saw a pre-Columbian, colonial, and independence period and which is now struggling to surmount that legacy while at the same time facing multinational neocolonialism, the U.S.—in little over a hundred years— effected the transition from colony to empire in its own right. Partly because this transition came about so fast and partly because the “logic” of empire has dominated the present, the colonial legacy of this country, which includes the reach of Spain into most of what is today the U.S. is invariably by-passed with the one exception being to tell the foundational story of the thirteen colonies of the eastern seaboard. Wheelock’s dealings show the imbrication of education with politics or perhaps, better put, the fact that epistemologies are also always ideological—something we all know yet knowingly forget when we talk about the “Ivory Tower” or when we tell one another that academia is not the “real” world or—more seriously—when in our critical praxis, we overlook the fact that disciplines arise during different historical junctures and out of different political needs (i.e., Area Studies). Finally, the story of Dartmouth’s founding shows that the Caribbean and its complicated multi-imperial (Spanish, British, French, Dutch) colonial history were “present” in New England from the start. We must also not forget that Wheelock, also a key player in Dartmouth’s founding, was a Yale graduate and that Yale too owed its existence to the fabulous fortune its founder had made as a clerk in the East India Company and as governor of Madras. As with the official or popular history of the U.S. which erases the Spanish/Mexican colonial past of this nation, even in an Ivy League institution which would imagine itself as a near to perfect British copy, much like the relegation of the colonial and Antillean source of England’s wealth in Jane Eyre to the “attic,” the Wheelock household too, as recalled by a student, was notorious for its detestable “cookery.” Bad food stood in stark contrast to the fine “furnishings of the house, the linen sheets and pillow cases trimmed with lace . . . brought to Hanover by Wheelock’s wife, the daughter of a former governor of the island of St. Thomas.”
Likewise, the “new” in New Mexico or in New Spain (Mexico) reproduces the colonial action of making the unknown known and the foreign familiar by mapping a past and a space left behind onto a here and now. Spanish names such as California, Montana, La Florida, Los Angeles serve as an index of that previous Spanish and Mexican colonial presence just as the “new” in New England points to a former British colonial presence. However, given the preponderance of a historiography and a dominant culture shaped from the bird’s eye view of the thirteen English colonies, the Hispanic and Native American subtext of the U.S. is deleted from that history despite the fact that ¾ of what is today the U.S. was once first a part of the Spanish Empire and then independent Mexico. That historiographic and historical marginalization continues today in the form of racial and cultural discrimination. Someone born with a Hispanic or Native American surname is denied full citizenship rights in the United States regardless of how many generations their family has been here and whether or not their family had been “here” before the U.S. acquired its present boundaries in 1848 and 1898—crucial years which saw the birth of the greatest empire of modernity. The uneasy overlapping of two spaces and two times in the United States is perhaps best illustrated by the state of New Mexico’s 1990 decision to address the confusion between Mexico and New Mexico by issuing license plates that clarify: New Mexico, USA.
As a Latin American academic situated between Spanish and Portuguese, Comparative Literature, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, I was drawn, of course, to Fernando Ortiz and Angel Rama’s theorizations of transculturation as a way of countering top down models of acculturation or assimilation. And I find it more relevant to focus on the Americas hemispherically than I do to think of them in terms of discrete nations or to view the history of “Our America” in Martí’s famous formulation, in terms of this country’s English colonial history. However, I am constantly confronted with new generations of students that arrive at Dartmouth completely unaware of this country’s US Hispanic colonial legacy. While this lack of knowledge might be excusable in other parts of the country and among less educated classes, this is often the case with students hailing from the US Southwest—many of whom are Hispanic yet have never been taught that history. Increasingly too, as the country shifts ever more to the right and efforts intensify to literally whitewash its history, we are witnessing attempts to ban ethnic studies from universities in the Southwest—not to mention the “editing” of textbooks in Texas currently underway eliding the Spanish colonial period of US history. It might not be entirely hyperbolic, then, to assert that this country’s idea of the national has come to depend on the suppression of that Native American and Hispanic indigenous subtext giving the impression that “the English and Americans expanded west and south onto vacant lands, except for those held by a few wild aborigines.” Largely because of these efforts, the fact that the greater part of the territory that is today the U.S. was once first a Spanish colony and then Mexico continues to be overlooked in the American popular imagination despite all the debates regarding multiculturalism, postcolonialism, and transculturation we are having across US academia. Hence North Americans continue to celebrate “Columbus Day” as the day of “discovery” whereas Latin Americans celebrate October 12th as El Día de la Raza, that is, as the celebration of the birth of mestizaje or a new race and culture as a consequence of the conquest.
The kind of historiographical sleight of hand that creates a wilderness where there are many different cultures and peoples in fact is made possible when a whole Spanish and Mexican colonial legacy is erased turning all Hispanics into “wetbacks” just as the term “American” which until 1776 had referred to the indigenous population of the whole continent (e.g., Joseph François Lafitau’s Moeurs des savages américaines (1724) or Corneille de Pauw’s Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains 1768) came to designate “exclusively those who have “inherited” the right to the land: the European colonists who, by shedding their blood on American soil and wrenching it from the hands of the British, believe to have established themselves as its rightful owners.” Thus, all other Americans have had to adopt a minority status as evidenced by the special designations “Native” American or “Latin” American that also go hand in hand with stereotypical characterizations which arose as early as 1492. Since then, indigenous peoples have been seen either as friendly (read gullible and servile) natives or as savages/cannibals (read guerrillas today). That is, they are read as “others” whose difference is invariably weighed in negative terms and measured in terms of distance in space and time thus denying them contemporaneity or co-evalness. U.S. academia does little to contest this erasure in part because the disciplines in the U.S. have emerged in a colonial/imperial context. As Fabian points out, given that the temporal discourse of anthropology and of related disciplines “was formed decisively under the paradigm of evolutionism [and] rested on a conception of Time that was not only secularized and naturalized but also thoroughly spatialized…. ever since, anthropology’s efforts to construct relations with its Other by means of temporal devices implied affirmation of difference as distance.” Reflecting on this praxis Vine Deloria will write: “To be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical.” Today, even the term “Our America” coined by José Martí, the Cuban thinker who was so instrumental in criticizing increasing U.S. imperialism in Latin America already at the end of the nineteenth century and recuperated today by Mexican-American critics has been appropriated by the U.S. academy to designate the US exclusively.
Along with this subalternization of Latin America and the Spanish and Mexican colonial era of the U.S. comes a hierarchization in academia, which mirrors the political, economic, and racial division of the world and which belies our belief in our academic independence. In fact, the nineteenth century, as the modern/colonial period, is the moment in which European languages (English, French, and German) constitute themselves as the languages of modernity; Amsterdam replaces Seville; the “center” of Europe shifts away from the Iberian peninsula and Castilian and Portuguese; the languages of waning empires are relegated to a marginal position and came to be thought of as not well suited for “scientific and philosophical discourses.” It is no accident then, that the current debate in “postcolonial studies” is dominated by the English language: the Indian subcontinent and Africa are “central” while there is hardly any mention of either Latin American colonial theories or the Spanish and Mexican colonial legacy of this country. Superficially, the focus on British colonialism in India and Africa would seem to be attributable to the sheer intellectual prominence of thinkers like Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and others. But the main reason is obviously the preponderance of English as a theoretical lingua franca. Thus critics like many of us who fall into the new category of the “migrant” intellectual and who bring into the “center” problems of the periphery from which we stem as well an in-depth knowledge of two or more cultures, two or more languages, and hence an intrinsically transcultural critical practice do not always succeed in being heard. That ex-centric knowledge has to be translated into English and Latin American intellectuals have until recently resisted the English-only bias of US academia. Given that publishers tend to translate more from the French, it should come as no surprise that the most important French intellectuals who are transcultural as well such as Héléne Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Tzvetan Todorov, et al. all have been translated into English whereas prominent Latin American intellectuals have not until quite recently and only, seemingly, once the debate around colonialism and neocolonialism had waned.
In fact, there are prominent Latin American intellectuals both in the U.S. and in Latin America who have been intent on thinking about colonialism, imperialism and neocolonialism and who have applied these critiques to the US academy, yet they have not even managed to be incorporated into what we now know as “postcolonial studies.” I am thinking of intellectuals such as Josefina Ludmer, José Martí, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Angel Rama, Nelly Richard, Edmundo Desnoes, Eduardo Galeano, Beatriz Sarlo, Rigoberta Menchú, Antonio Cornejo Polar, Edmundo O’Gorman, Leopoldo Zea, Paulo Freire, Edmundo Dussel—to mention but a few—who have theorized Latin America’s troubled relation to the Colossus of the North, refusing to think in terms of “post” colonialism, and who have instead highlighted the processes of globalization and transnationalization as yet another guise colonialism has taken. Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos Jáuregui’s collection of essays including and reflecting on the contributions of these thinkers has achieved quite a lot in this respect but it seems that this volume has come too late in some ways, since the raging debate around questions of coloniality has largely been superseded by current debates on globalization and transnationalism. The refusal of Spanish as a national and academic lingua franca is also to blame since the dominance of English will necessarily skew the discussion towards the English and American empires.
Indeed, Spanish—and by extension anything Hispanic such as Latino Studies—is relegated to a second-class position geopolitically as well as academically. Thus, to advocate for multiculturalism and/or interdisciplinarity without also pushing for multilingualism is merely a superficial gesture and we end up in the ridiculous position of advocating a monolingual multiculturalism. It is indeed ironic that the “English Only” movement arose precisely around the same time as the inception of NAFTA which we would have assumed, would have led to a much greater investment in language acquisition, particularly Spanish across the US. While that has indeed happened, and increasingly students enter college with 3-4 years of high school Spanish, that has been achieved thanks to students’ living in ever more bilingual contexts and despite the government’s disinvestment in schools across the nation and despite the fact that Spanish is still being called a “foreign” language. Indeed, as Mary Louise Pratt observed long ago, in the United States, to call Spanish, French, Cantonese, Italian, Japanese, Lakota, Navajo, Cree foreign languages is a misnomer (these are not “foreign” languages). Spanish, which has had a long and rich literary production before English became dominant in the U.S. is ideologically being made to become more foreign than ever by and in the publishing and film industries given the current practice of assuming an Anglophone audience.
In her introductory essay to the path breaking volume Cultures of United States Imperialism Amy Kaplan suggests there is a “denial of history” in the U.S., which cuts across English, American studies and history departments. The pattern reproduced ad absurdum is the following: “the absence of culture from the history of U.S. imperialism; the absence of empire from the study of American culture; and the absence of the United States from the postcolonial study of imperialism.” These “absences,” in fact, make it conceivable to talk about the U.S. as a world power and at the same time dismiss the notion that it is also an empire. Yet in this edition too—which is crucial, even radical—from within the context of American Studies and English departments, Kaplan starts with Perry Miller’s conception of American studies on the banks of the Congo in an attempt to reinscribe and recuperate what Toni Morrison has called “an africanist presence” as subtext to the U.S. imaginary. While Kaplan’s attempt to reinscribe Africa at the heart of America is timely and welcome—especially in relation to the vindication of African-Americans—in so far as it avoids coming to terms with the Hispanic and Native American present and past of this country as well as the African, it again only reinforces what I have been arguing. In fact, while trying to undermine the insularity of American studies which mirrors the insularity of a historiography based on/in New England, Cultures of United States Imperialism unwittingly reproduces the academic and linguistic hierarchy that literally makes impossible any kind of dialogue between American studies and Latin American studies. Significantly only 5 essays out of 26 partially relate to Latin America. Yet an even lesser ratio prevails in most publications in this country since then whether academic or popular. And while there were over three hundred movie theaters in the US showing Spanish language films, particularly Mexican films of the Golden Age in the 30s and 40s we would be hard put to find one anywhere in the US today.
While we pride ourselves, then, in the (apparent) breakdown of the insularity of the disciplines in the last twenty years—an era characterized by the development of multicultural and cross-disciplinary curricula—and hence once again potentially open to Bolton’s seminal idea of a “Greater America” we nevertheless have not managed to transcend the parochial historical vision criticized by Whitman. Whereas a Chicano performance artist like Guillermo Gómez Peña will argue that every encounter between two people taking place here today constitutes a “border experience,” the lack of a connection between the Spanish/Mexican colonial past of this country and its present Latinization is accompanied by the increasing rigidity of conceptions of the border as well as the literal transformation of a once fluid border into a new iteration of the Berlin Wall. Despite the fact, then, that “the signifier Latin American itself now refers also to significant social forces within the United States”  and that people do not tire of pointing out that New York is the largest Puerto Rican and Dominican metropolis and Los Angeles the second-largest Mexican metropolis (not to mention Chicago and other cities increasingly becoming Latin American centers in the heartland of the US), indeed, given the increasing Latinization of the US one would expect that it would no longer be possible to erase the Spanish/Mexican colonial legacy of this country —not to speak of the presence of Latinos. But that is unfortunately not so given the power of the media, the English only approach of the publishing industry, as well as the academic reproduction of archaic epistemological and disciplinary hierarchies. Symptomatic of these times, a senior administrator at Dartmouth College recently justified gross inequality in pay scales among male and female full professors at the College in the following manner: “Determining salaries varies by individual, … so the range of salaries among full professors is relatively large. …For example, computer science and economics will typically pay more than Spanish literature.” While he is stating the obvious, that he chose Spanish (and not French or German or even English) as his example for pay disparities across the disciplines is telling.
As is implicit in the theory of transculturation, we have to recuperate the past in all its fullness and radical heterogeneity in order to create the conditions for the possibility of finally establishing a true transcultural politics and epistemology. For, even if submerged and/or banished to the margins, our intellectual praxis should entail a mere shifting of accents, for colonization in effect only means “that dominant views of languages, of recording the past, and of charting territories become synonymous with the real by obstructing possible alternatives.” Transcultural critics have therefore opted to study continuums such as Plantation America, the Black Atlantic, the Pacific Rim, and the indigenous continuum across the Americas as is perhaps best evidenced by Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in which the Native American interfaces with the Latino on both sides of the border. This new hemispheric, transcultural and transborder understanding is of course undermined by the powers of globalization to continue all that 1492 has signified historically, culturally, and economically—only by other means. Indeed, as Masao Miyoshi argued in the nineties at the height of the debate around postcolonialism, our preoccupation with questions of post-colonialism and multiculturalism, look “suspiciously like another alibi to conceal the actuality of global politics [given that] colonialism is even more active now in the form of transnational corporations.” He forgot to mention the actuality of global politics in US academia’s reproducing ad nauseam the epistemological biases that arose when the US transitioned from colony to empire and which lies at the heart of the disciplines here, now, still.
- Quoted by David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992) 1.
- Weber, 5.
- Ralph Nading Hill, ed., College on the Hill, “The Historic College,” Ralph Nading Hill (Hanover: Dartmouth Publications, 1964), 23-4.
- Francis Lane Child, A Dartmouth History Lesson for Freshmen” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine (1957) p. 2.
- Nading, 39.
- Nading, 42.
- Cf. Gauri Viswanathan, “The Naming of Yale College: British Imperialism and American Higher Education,” in Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993) 86.
- Nading, 49.
- Weber, 5.
- Susanne Zantop, unpublished essay submitted to my collection of essays on postcolonialism viewed from within Latin America Towards a New American Imaginary” Heterogeneity and Transculturation for which I was unable to find a publisher.
- Edmundo Desnoes, “Cuba Made Me So” in On Signs
- Cf. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (NY: Columbia UP, 1983) 16.
- Vine Deloria Jr., Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (New York: Aron, 1969). In light of this history, Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman proposed, as counterpart to Said’s Occidentalism, that of “tropicalization” as “the system of ideological fictions with which the dominant (Anglo and European) cultures trope Latin America and U.S. Latino/a identities and cultures.” Cf. Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997) 1.
- For the appropriation of Martí’s “Our America” see Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).
- Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995) viii.
- Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, Carlos Júaregui, Coloniality at Large (Durham: Duke UP, 2008).
- Mary Louise Pratt quoted in Werner Sollors, “For a Multilingual Turn in American Studies,” ASA Newsletter, June 1997.
- Amy Kaplan, “‘Left Alone With America:’ The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture.” In Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham: Duke UP, 1993) 11.
- Toni Morrison quoted as epigraph to Amy Kaplan, “‘Left Alone With America,” 3.
- “Founding Statement. Latin American Subaltern Studies Group,” in The Postmodern Debate in Latin America, John Beverley, José Oviedo, and Michael Arona, eds. (Durham: Duke UP, 1995) 141, 143.
- Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 5
- Masao Miyoshi, “A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Summer 1993): 726-751, 728.