"La isla de mi encanto: Nation, Language and Geography in the Literary Development of Puerto Rican Identity"

Vega, Kimberly Ann, Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, University of Virginia
Pellón, Gustavo, Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, University of Virginia

When the United States came to Puerto Rico in 1898, the Americans called it an island without history. In many respects, Puerto Rico has striven throughout the twentieth century to prove exactly the opposite. This dissertation takes an interdisciplinary approach to: 1) the development of Puerto Rican nationalism under United States’ rule and, 2) the theorization of national identity in terms of its landscape, which acts as the dominant metaphor mediating the island’s nation-state image at the both the local and global level. Puerto Rico, because it is tropical, is therefore linked to spaces of underdevelopment and cultural lack in the “First World” imagination.

The first three chapters are historical. They also attempt to demonstrate the development of Puerto Rico’s nation-state image from its conceptualization within the Spanish Empire as a “bulwark” to the U.S. takeover and subsequent theorization as “gateway” and “showcase.” Chapter 2 will focus on the greatest movement for national autonomy in Puerto Rican history and the hegemonic cultural studies text that frames Puerto Rican identity vis-à-vis “First” World interpretations of its geography: Antonio S. Pedreira’s Insularismo. Later authors will contest Pedreira’s claustrophobic yet elitist vision of island culture. For example, Ana Lydia Vega takes the Caribbean Sea as her main metaphor in Encancáranublado, thereby demonstrating Puerto Rico’s strong cultural and migratory connections to the rest of the region. Luis Rafael Sánchez shows us in La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos how popular song can unite Spanishspeaking Americans as the narrator-writer engages in a textual game of hopscotch in his pursuit of the mythical figure of Daniel Santos.

Chapter 5 is devoted to mainland Puerto Rican writers, Judith Ortiz Cofer and Esmeralda Santiago, who go to great lengths to recover the experience of their histories. In Ortiz Cofer’s The Line of the Sun, Marisol demonstrates a tremendous desire to create a female-authored history that she unconsciously seems to associate with Puerto Rico. Yet she simultaneously undermines that project by siding with the masculine influences in her life, often associated with the United States, English, and assimilation. In América’s Dream Esmeralda Santiago retells the Puerto Rican migrant’s tale that was successful in her memoir When I Was Puerto Rico, recreating the classic juxtaposition between the urban (Westchester, NY) and the bucolic (Vieques). Although both authors attempt to validate their unique construct of mainlander puertorriqueñidad, they nevertheless (like Pedreira) demonstrate internalized Anglo-American visions of an agrarian Puerto Rico that no longer exists. Moreover, they cannot evade clichés in their comparisons between the two territories: hot/cold, emotional/logical, passionate/sober, urban/rural.

Chapter 6 discusses Rosario Ferré’s The House on the Lagoon, the narrative of which revolves around numerous and overlapping constructions of binary opposites: masculine/feminine, African/Caucasian, hot/cold, passionate/sober, industrialization/ underdevelopment. Ferré’s use of stereotypes, however, is not as lamentable as one might think because she could not have created the national allegory at the heart of The House on the Lagoon without some use of the obvious. Allegory requires her to borrow images and symbols from the a generalized cultural lexicon. Furthermore, despite Ferré’s reconstruction of Puerto Rican history and migratory patterns through the house metaphor, she makes the provocative choice to be silent on the great post-World War II migration that displaced more than one-third of the population. By firmly keeping mainlanders out of the national narrative, Ferré also denies them their role in the national discourse surrounding the Puerto Rican Question.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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