Magali Roy-Fequiere. Women, Creole Identity, and Intellectual Life in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico.
To say "intellectual life in early 20th-century Puerto Rico" is to speak of those intellectuals whose contradictory subjectivities were fundamentally shaped by the conflictive socio-economic and political terrains of the first decades under US colonial rule. It is to say Generacion del '30 (the 1930's Generation). And until Magali Roy-Fequiere's book came along in 2004, it was to say male intelligentsia. In this ambitious project, Roy-Fequiere aims to illustrate the convergence of race, class, gender, and sexuality politics in the formation and scholarly production of the Puerto Rican intelligentsia. This intelligentsia intended to define the cultural parameters of the nation at a very precise historical moment, the 1920-40s. In Puerto Rico, the depression years sharpened the economic contradictions of the colonial regime: an unprecedented economic expansion in the agro-export sector (sugar, tobacco, and coffee) led to internal migration, mass unemployment, and the increasing impoverishment of the laboring classes. On the one hand, the organized labor movement responded with frequent strikes to request fundamental economic changes following a socialist logic, and the affiliates to the Nationalist Party actively demanded the termination of the colonial regime. On the other hand, the university-affiliated, middle class, and white Generacion formed their own critique of the "cultural crisis" caused by colonialism.
The Generacion del 30's critique focused on the imperative to rescue the "faulty," "lacking," and "underdeveloped" Puerto Rican nation. This Generacion believed that as an educated elite they should have a central role in island affairs. While voicing a general critique of US colonialism, they proposed to strengthen Puerto Rican culture but avoided formulating a platform that fundamentally challenged the political economic, and social structures organizing the island-colony. Like colonial rulers, they recreated race, gender, and class hierarchies that located them--"white," educated, middle-class Puerto Ricans--above the racially-mixed/black and impoverished laboring men and women.
Through a multidisciplinary approach Roy-Fequiere takes on the difficult task of examining these intellectuals' endeavors while simultaneously redefining previous understandings of the Generacion and the internal politics governing their production. The men and women whom she includes within the Generacion del 30 were members of a middle class that ironically expanded as a result of the education reforms--especially the creation of the Universidad de Puerto Rico--implemented by the US colonial government after their take-over from Spain in 1898. In this colonial scheme, the educated middle class was to provide the skilled hands and knowledgeable bureaucrats to administer the new economic development projects and to staff the problematic medical education reform programs designed by the colonial ruling classes.
One of Roy-Fequiere's main contributions is her redefinition of the Generacion del 30 in two different ways. First, she addresses the group's gender composition by placing Margot Arce de Vasquez's work squarely in the middle of the productions of the Generacion, and illuminating the work of a small group of women associated with her. Second, through her thorough analysis of the Generacion's texts in first and later editions, Roy-Fequiere identifies two major concerns in organizing their production: (a) the dramatic transformations in the gender order accelerated by US colonialism, and (b) the need to redefine Puerto Rico as Spanish (and consequently, predominantly white) at its core.
Given the gender hierarchies then at play and in the subsequent years of critical readings of Generacion del '30, it is not surprising that the most publicized and widely discussed works were those by male authors. The strong masculinist voice embedded in the new narrations about the nation also misdirected scholars' attention toward male intellectuals. In contrast, Roy-Fequiere casts a wider net to include a broader range of texts produced by educated women who also benefited from the colonial education reforms. Professional, self-identified white, anti-feminist Creole women organized influential professional associations and edited journals through which they contributed to the debates about the Spanish genealogy of the Puerto Rican nation, its current problems, and its future course. These women often coincided with their male counterparts in their race and class concerns. More often than not, to assert their authority within a masculinist academy, they crafted what Roy-Fequiere calls a "'male,' objective, and universalizing posture." Even though they opened doors for other women of their class, the endeavors of these elite women intellectuals did not substantially alter the masculinist narrations of the nation nor the reading of their own work as feminine.
Roy-Fequiere's insightful examination of works by Emilio S. Belaval and Margot Arce not only fleshes out the gender biases and racism permeating their works but, most importantly, uncovers how these intellectuals linked race and gender together. In his short stories about the experiences of Creole students enrolled at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Belaval constantly condemns women's new attention to fashion, interest in entertainment, protection of their independence, and open sexual behavior. Roy-Fequiere reads Belaval as deploring the ways that US colonialism undermined Creole womanhood. For Belaval, education was to complement women's lives as wives and mothers, not to foster their insubordination. In his fiction, Creole women's place remained at home while Creole men retained their rights to transgress sexual, class, and racial boundaries. White women at home ensured the "purity" of their class, while it was permissible for white Creole men to indulge in sexual pleasure with their working-class mulatto mistresses. In spreading their "seeds," they undertook the "necessary" task of whitening the larger population.
Margot Arce, a prolific literary critic and a central figure in Roy-Fequiere's text, shared Belaval's concerns although she expressed them quite differently. By providing a genealogy that underscored Puerto Rico's direct links to Spain, she erased the exploitation and violence embedded in the histories of conquest and colonialism, and dismissed Puerto Ricans' multiracial history. This fundamental and recurrent flaw in her scholarship is most evident in Arce's review of Pales Matos's poetry.
Roy-Fequiere introduces the poetry of Pales Matos both through his own work and through critical readings of it by Arce and others. Roy-Fequiere's examination of Pales Matos's oeuvre and its reviewers is, in our opinion, the highlight of her book. Through this analysis, she most effectively exposes the many literary means--dismissal erasure, silence, marginalization, and misrepresentation--by which this intelligentsia excised blackness from the islanders. Pales Matos cannot escape his roots even as he argues for a Caribbean poetry affirming of the "mulatto... [as] the vital accent of the three islands." To construct, in image and in practice, a racially harmonious, nonthreatening presentist Puerto Rico, these scholars ignored reality to encourage the national ideal. In the course of examining Arce's studies of Pales, Roy-Fequiere notes the many editorial changes made to later editions (1950 and 1970) of her work presumably with the intention to minimize the impact of the racist statements in the original critique (1933). While Roy-Fequiere explains that these changes perhaps aimed to reach a new generation of readers, she leaves us wondering about the historical forces that shaped the receptivity of these latter generations of readers and why they would have rejected the racial language in the original version.
Roy-Fequiere's reading of Pales Matos as well as of Tomas Blanco and Maria Cadilla de Martinez demonstrates that members of the Generacion were not all equally anxious about the preservation of the race and gender order. Matos, Cadilla de Martinez, and Blanco were willing to explore the social hierarchies at play, but their texts reveal serious shortcomings. Many fail--once again--to wrestle with the pervasive exploitation and violence that shaped the multiracial histories of the island. In uncovering the gender and race dynamics of the Generacion, Roy-Fequiere unveils a much broader, contentious, and complex intellectual field than previously conceived by scholars. Her Generacion del 30 is indeed a tension-ridden cluster of voices.
Its focus on the Generacion is both the strength and the weakness of this book, especially when it comes to Afro Puerto Rican women. By focusing on the production of these intellectuals, Roy-Fequiere can provide only a very limited voice for black women. The portrayals of black women published by white intellectuals sustain the view of women of color as committed caretakers or sexualized creatures. Apart from these portrayals, the work of black women is only twice mentioned, and both times briefly: in discussions of Afro Puerto Rican poet Carmen Maria Colon Pellot (249-50) and of Afro Cuban performer Eusebia Cosme (225-26). Thus, the "women" in Women, Creole Identity, and Intellectual Life in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico form a very small and select group. The focus on the university-based intelligentsia excludes sectors of the intellectual life in Puerto Rico more aligned with economic and health concerns; sectors that include more women, more nonwhite Puerto Ricans, and more diversity of class origins than did the Generacion. However, the location of the Generacion in the University of Puerto Rico ensured that their scholarship constituted the canon in Puerto Rican studies until the 1970s; moreover, many of their postulates still permeate current works.
In Women, Creole Identity, and Intellectual Life in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico, Roy-Fequiere carefully assesses a large body of works, the first three chapters of the book especially make for an exhausting read. Although the author occasionally reiterates the main tenets of the book, one easily gets lost in the sea of details about the multiple texts under scrutiny, often missing the subtle but important distinctions among them. Roy-Fequiere's constant references to "colonial modernity" to describe the rapid material and cultural transformations in early 20th-century Puerto Rico are problematic. Within this framework, modernity emerges as a phenomenon imposed from the outside (viz., the US colonial rule), with a specific temporality (post-1898), and consequently a deficient and incomplete phenomenon (a colonial version of something originated in the metropole). The multiplicity of subjectivities that one encounters among Puerto Ricans in the early twentieth century is not the sole result of post-1898 changes but had been engendered throughout the many centuries of struggles and negotiations within local, regional, and international circuits of power. We would have preferred a focus on how colonialism in early twentieth century shaped the Generacion del '30's understandings of what it meant to be a "modern" subject, what they deemed necessary to become modern, and what they believed were the dangers of change. Changing the focus from colonial modernity as a phenomenon to the Generacion's understandings of change according to their perception of self in reference to other Puerto Ricans and Spanish/US colonial rulers, would have avoided the appearance of reifying modernity as a well-defined and long-term event, or an ideology.
Still, we admire the depth of the analysis and the breath of works examined here by Roy-Fequiere. A comprehensive examination of the construction of whiteness by the leading intellectual class in early-20th century Puerto Rico was long overdue. Roy-Fequiere's research advances this scholarship by unearthing the historical contexts and the multiple and overlapping techniques through which that particular Puerto Rican intelligentsia constructed a white imaginary of the nation. Through this study, one also uncovers that these Puerto Rican intellectuals were always in conversation with, borrowed from, and, at times, rejected elements from Spanish literary production, the growing Indigenista literatures in the nation-states of continental Latin America, and the anti-colonial black thought from other Caribbean colonies. The matters of race, nation, and anti-colonial struggle formed a complicated equation in Puerto Rico that at times converged but more often followed a different path from that of its neighbors in the Americas.
Scholars interested in race in Puerto Rico will find in this book's examination of the formation of Creole identity a nuanced interpretation of what an influential group of the academic elite in Puerto Rico considered foundational. However, an analysis centered on the intellectual production of the Generacion cannot take into consideration the many ways in which subaltern classes negotiated and challenged the racial paradigms that these elites wanted to reproduce. Therefore, the contestations around race found among the Generacion del '30 pale in comparison to those found in the island as a whole, and should not be read as representing the investments of the majority of Puerto Ricans then or now. Hence, Magali Roy-Fequiere's Women, Creole Identity, and Intellectual Life in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico is a welcome addition not only to Puerto Rican scholarship but also to that scholarship's regional and global connections to the fields of Latin America and Caribbean studies.
Ileana M. Rodriguez-Silva & Angela Ginorio
University of Washington
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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