Our America Book Essays

Hispanic American Historical Review 80.2 (2000) 345-346

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Book Review

José Martí's Our America:
From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies


José Martí'sOur America: From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies. Edited by Jeffrey Belnap and Raul Fernandez. New Americanists. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Notes. Index. viii, 344 pp. Cloth, $49.95. Paper, $17.95.

The generally intelligent and well-informed essays in this book underscore the difficulties in trying to salvage the work of the Cuban José Martí for our times in any other domain save that of literature. To read Martí as anything other than one of Spanish America's greatest writers, that is, to read him as a social commentator, or as an analyst, and even a theorist, of hemispheric affairs, is a melancholic exercise in belated recognition. Martí's life and works, it is true, foreshadowed many quintessentially "modern" experiences: among others, the artist's alienation from the masses, the plight of exiles and "stateless people" all over the world, and the rise of U.S. imperialism. However, as several of the essays in this collection show, he was not unique in this respect. The essays by Rosaura Sánchez, Beatriz Pita, and Brenda Gayle Plummer remind us that other contemporaries, such as the californiana novelist Amparo Ruiz de Burton and the Haitian Anténor Firmin, also wrote, perhaps less elegantly, about their condition as liminal subjects in the borderlands between the U.S. and Latin America, and as individuals caught in the clash between tradition and modernity. Moreover, the "canonical" founding figures of Western modernity, the trinity of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, in particular, performed similar and more openly influential analyses of modernity in a more general context. Martí indeed foresaw many things, but so did others, and their voices, unlike Martí's, were heard in their time. Thus to read Martí as a precursor of present-day trends in theory such as "border studies" or "cultural studies" risks reducing his work to a series of commonplaces.

Nevertheless, this is what most of the articles in this collection end up doing. Despite the insightful observations by Donald E. Pease about Martí's and Tocqueville's differing views of the U.S., Doris Sommer's about Martí's re-fashioning of Walt Whitman for Spanish American consumption, or Susana Rotker's about Martí and the condition of exile, to mention three instances, these essays all underscore the dearth of "theory" in Martí's text.

In fact, what Martí states eloquently but with no immediate impact in his essay "Nuestra America" ("Our America," 1891) was later said by others (such as the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó and his followers) and these ideas were in turn dismantled by subsequent generations of writers from marxist, anthropological, and deconstructive perspectives. (A useful account of the fate of Latin American ideologies of "autochthony" [End Page 345] such as those of Martí and Rodó can be found in Carlos J. Alonso's book The Spanish American Regional Novel: Modernity and Autochthony.)

Only the last essay in this collection, Oscar R. Martí's "Jose Martí and the Heroic Image," deals extensively with the issue of how Martí has been read (and misread) in this century. For Professor Martí, the key to the permanence of Jose Martí's heroic image lies in "the power of his words. . . . It is Martí the writer who rises above the politician and the apostle. He left a body of work that stood on its own merits even before the political hero was created" (p. 330). Tellingly, Professor Martí's essay closes this book in the manner of a dissenting opinion. Had the collection begun with this piece, the ones that followed would have had to come to grips more explicitly with implicit attempts to recast yet another "heroic image" of Martí, this time as a proto-theorist of Latin American as well as "Latino" cultural studies.

Anibal Gonzalez
Pennsylvania State University


On Friday, remember to go straight to the EPI-Center for a special talk by LeAlan Jones. Here is a short bio:

Mr. Jones is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago. He began his career in journalism in 1993 at the age of 13 when he collaborated with his friend Lloyd Newman and radio producer David Isay to create Ghetto Life 101. This award-winning radio diary about growing up on Chicago’s South Side aired on National Public Radio. Jones and Newman spent ten days collecting stories on tape about their day-to-day lives; the stories ranged from throwing rocks at cars to a harrowing encounter with Newman’s alcoholic father.

Two years later Jones and Newman produced another radio diary called Remorse, which examined the horrifying murder of Eric Morse, a five-year-old living in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. Again, Jones collected interviews from members of the community to produce this Peabody Award winning radio documentary.

In 1996 Jones, Newman, and Isay together wrote the book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, which was based on the previous radio programs. Today Jones works as a freelance writer for N’Digo, a weekly paper in Chicago.

Jones’s mission is stated in Our America:

"We live in a second America where the laws of the land don't apply and the laws of the street do. You must learn our America as we must learn your America, so that maybe, someday, we can become one."
Here are some questions you might think about in advance of LeAlan's visit:
  • What stories would you collect that best represent your neighborhood?
  • What are some advantages in using radio to communicate ideas as opposed to visual arts?
  • Who gets to tell the story of your life, our lives? Whose voices do not get heard?
  • What might Jones mean when he says, “We live in a second America ...”?

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