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  • A Cultural History of Cuba During the U.S. Occupation, 1898–1902
  • Reinaldo L. Román
A Cultural History of Cuba During the U.S. Occupation, 1898–1902. By Marial Iglesias Utset. Translated by Russ Davidson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 232. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $26.95 paper.

The publication of the English-language edition of Las metáforas del cambio is cause for celebration. Russ Davidson’s nimble translation captures the agility of Iglesias’s prose to deliver a text ready for adoption in English-speaking classrooms. The publication of the book in Havana in 2003 marked triumphs of a different sort. Major awards from the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (2002) and the American Historical Association (2006) recognized the author’s accomplishments. But those accolades also proclaimed the maturation of a cluster of historians whose commitment to fine-grained archival research rejuvenated Cuban historiography in the 1980s and 1990s. Viewed in light of the trying conditions of the Special Period, the prodigious archival labor behind Iglesias’s work stands out in sharp relief. Not only did she scour archival and newspaper collections in Havana, but she also assembled an impressively varied array of municipal sources; official, associational, and personal correspondence; and ephemera drawn from provincial archives, the National Archives of the United States, and Harvard University.

Revisionist impulses run through this account of Cubans’ efforts to define cubanía in the vacuum left by the end of Spanish sovereignty and the deferral of independence that followed the intervention of the United States in 1898. In this neocolonial context, the twin hopes of Cuba’s nineteenth-century insurgents—modernization and sovereignty—began to appear irreconcilable. Their challenge was precisely to arrive at an [End Page 140] articulation of Cuban-ness capable of bridging that gap. In calling attention to the fragmentation of Cuban opinion on questions of national identity, political representation, and the United States, Iglesias challenges more than one nationalist piety. She shows that Cubans’ attitudes to the “Yankee intervention” were shot through with ambiguities. Although the majority feared that American military government would prevent the consolidation of a republic, few could resist the appeal of the United States as a paragon of progress.

But Iglesias also challenges verities associated with the “imagined-communities” take on nationalism. She turns the top-down account of the primacy of print capitalists in shaping notions of cubanía on its head, demonstrating that a populist nationalism burst forth after 1898; this movement drew its legitimacy from the war against Spain and the discourse of race-transcending citizenship. Iglesias ventures beyond the capital’s circles to explore claims to national identity as dramatized in small-town parades, veterans’ funerals, celebrations of unsanctioned “national” holidays, and memorialization practices that included the patriotic renaming of streets. In those arenas, ardent nationalists confronted both those who favored Cuba’s annexation to the United States and those who sought refuge from Americanization in hispanophilia. Oral traditions and popular participation lent their imprimatur to a consensus-based vision of national community long before republican officials were in positions to issue decrees.

The consensus was not universal, nor was it accepted uniformly across the island. One of the merits of Iglesias’s narrative is that it accounts for competing claims to cubanía rooted in class, gender, race, and regional positioning. In smaller communities, where veterans of the multi-racial Liberation Army were major players, town councils and civic associations enacted populist nationalism on their own authority. Unsurprisingly, Americanization and restrictive versions of cubanía were more prevalent in Havana, the seat of neocolonial power and elite politicking. Even there, however, Cubans frustrated efforts at “linguistic colonization,” and some officials broke rank with the “annexationist cultural initiatives” of the military regime. Alexis Frye, the architect of the American-sponsored public education system, married a Cuban teacher and bankrolled the first large-scale printing of the “Bayamesa,” the insurgent hymn that was later elevated to the dignity of national anthem (p. 112).

Iglesias manages to address specialists and novices alike without veering into didacticism. Students will find a lively account of street-level politics in neocolonial Cuba, complete with...


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