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  • Framing the Body:Imperialism and Visual Discourse in María Cristina Mena's Short Fiction
  • Margaret A. Toth

In 1913, Century magazine commissioned Mexican American writer María Cristina Mena, only twenty years old and unknown at the time, to write a series of stories about life in Mexico. Over the course of the next few years, these stories were published in Century, while several others appeared in journals like American Magazine. When Mena's final short story was printed in Household Magazine in 1931, the periodical billed her as "the foremost interpreter of Mexican life" (Mena, The Collected Stories 137).1 Largely forgotten today, Mena carved a distinct, if modest, space for herself on the early-twentieth-century US cultural landscape. She cultivated professional friendships with such literary figures as D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, published numerous short stories in well-known periodicals (most appearing between 1913 and 1916), and, later in life, authored several children's books.2 Recently, critics have revisited Mena's stories, interrogating, among other things, the author's tricksteresque discourse, gender politics, and role as cultural interpreter.3 In this essay, I adopt a new interpretive lens through which to read Mena's work, as I situate her short fiction within a framework attentive to the colonialist dynamics at work in early-twentieth-century US-Mexico relations. Broadly speaking, Mena's stories provide a sustained, if at times veiled, commentary on the imperialist interests of the United States in Mexico. More specifically, they think through how this particular imperialist drama plays itself out in and on subaltern bodies. By engaging both theoretical questions about imperialist visual production and pragmatic ones about living within the shadow of US colonialism, Mena asks us to see how bodies of people of color are shaped not only figuratively, within the imperialist imaginary, but also literally, by the daily realities of imperialism.4

To argue these claims, I turn first to stories in which Mena grapples with [End Page 92] broad, conceptual questions about imperialist visual practices.5 In the opening section of this essay, I illustrate that Mena's stories, themselves steeped in ocular language, respond in complex ways to imperialist art's construction of the other. In their discussion of colonialist photography, Eleanor M. Hight and Gary D. Sampson maintain that the genre relies on "[t]he colonial constructions of racial, cultural, and geographic difference" (2). This emphasis on and often production of difference in colonialist photography, and in imperialist visual texts more generally, abets imperialist political projects, fueled as they are by a power distribution that requires maintaining a distance between colonizer and colonized. Imperialist images of human subjects, in particular, turn upon a self/other dichotomy, with the separating bar representing an insurmountable difference: On the one side, we have the normative white, western, imperialist subject; on the other, the colonized, exoticized, and racialized other, emptied of subjectivity.

Images grounded in this ideology were popular in early-twentieth-century US publications, including Century. Yet Mena's stories, published alongside exoticizing pieces like the photo-essay "Unfamiliar Mexico," which I will discuss below, challenge images that position Mexicans' bodies as ineradicably other. In the first part of this article, I examine two stories, "The Vine-Leaf" and "The Gold Vanity Set," in order to show how Mena undermines such imperialist practices. In these stories, Mena implicitly destabilizes the status of the image as bearer of truth. That is, she exposes images—including the photograph, which tends to carry an objective truth value—as manipulable, biased, and, therefore, suspect.

Yet while Mena debunks exoticizing myths—those that would emphasize the difference of Mexicans, representing them, whether textually or visually, as other—she is more overtly concerned with the threat of sameness inherent in the tangible processes of imperialism and globalization. The characters in her stories consistently confront the infiltration of US values and market goods—including the imported, generic white Anglo body itself—into their daily lives, and this confrontation sets in motion a renegotiation of identity, both psychological and corporeal. Therefore, in the second half of this essay, I will shift gears, turning to stories in which Mena articulates this danger of sameness. This issue...


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