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  • Landscape, Femininity, and Caribbean Discourse 1
  • Ben A. Heller

In the Caribbean the issue of national and regional identity takes on a great importance in the twentieth century, in the wake of the Spanish American War and numerous U.S. interventions in the area. Writers such as Antonio S. Pedreira and Tomás Blanco in Puerto Rico, Jorge Mañach, Fernando Ortiz, José Lezama Lima and Antonio Benítez Rojo in Cuba, Edouard Glissant in Martinique, and in the Anglophone Caribbean Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, among many others, have attempted to define the particularity of individual nations or of the Caribbean area as a whole, creating a metanarrative of identity which Glissant has named “Caribbean discourse.” 2 Many of these writers have posited a close relationship between nature and cultural identity, finding the roots of the distinguishing characteristics of Caribbean culture(s) in the surrounding environment. Some of these writers, such as Pedreira and Lezama Lima, came in contact with this line of thought through Spengler’s The Decline of the West—much in vogue during the 1930s thanks to its promotion in Ortega y Gasset’s Revista de Occidente. Yet the idea was not new, stretching back as early as the Hippocratic texts, and given currency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the writings [End Page 391] of Herder, Michelet, Taine, Sarmiento, and others. 3 A signal characteristic of Caribbean discourse has been the tendency to figure the shaping environment as female, or with qualities such as fluidity and relationality that have often been associated with women, femininity, and the female body in both patriarchal and feminist discourses—and both positive and negative effects have been ascribed to this feminized landscape. 4 The present paper attempts to trace the linkage of landscape and culture, and the femininity of both, in certain key moments of Caribbean discourse. It also examines how this gendered identity discourse is assumed and problematized by a woman Caribbean writer, the Puerto Rican Rosario Ferré, especially in her recent collection of prose and poetry, Las dos Venecias (The Two Venices). What does it mean to write as a Caribbean woman when national and regional cultural identities are founded upon a feminized social space? How does one write from a female subject position when that locus has been the object of nationalistic discourse of identity? How are these images of feminine space negotiated? And how does one insert oneself in that discourse of communal identity as author and agent when up to that point one has been a subsidiary object within it? 5


There is a rich and often conflictive history of attempts to specify the particular nature of Caribbean culture generally, and I cannot provide a comprehensive survey of those efforts here, yet certain moments are crucial to my argument because they reveal the capital importance of [End Page 392] landscape, the body, and of gender identifications to the issue of cultural identity. One of the most important for the Puerto Rican intellectual tradition is Antonio S. Pedreira’s Insularismo (Insularity) [1934], founding text of a Puerto Rican discourse of national identity. Culminating debates played out in the pages of several magazines of the teens and 1920s, a number of Puerto Rican intellectuals of the so-called Generation of the ‘30s, among them Pedreira, Tomás Blanco, Vicente Géigel Polanco, and Emilio Belaval, published a series of now canonical texts in the 1930s and 1940s which brought the issue of Puerto Rican national identity squarely to the fore. 6 In part reaction to Puerto Rico’s transition from one colonial power to another (from Spain to the U.S.), as well as to the emergence of new social sectors perceived as threatening by this intellectual elite, this discourse of national identity is also part of the larger debate on Caribbean and Latin American political and cultural autonomy, and is strongly marked by Rodó’s Ariel, particularly in its Hispanophilism, didactic rhetoric (what González Echevarría terms the magisterial voice in The Voice of the Masters), and call to intellectual action for the youth of the nation. Pedreira’s Insularismo dissects Puerto Rican society, attempting to expose what he perceives to...

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pp. 391-416
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