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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 23-54



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Elián, Iola Leroy, and Other Reluctant Citizens

Russ Castronovo
University of Miami


CITIZENSHIP, IT WOULD SEEM, OPERATES VIA FORMAL STRICTURES OF EXCLUsion and inclusion that tally with the well-defined geopolitical borders of the nation-state. 1 Persons born on U.S. soil, for instance, fall under the purview of jus soli and thereby are entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship—although blacks in the era of the 1857Dred Scott decision that exempted Africans and their descendants from political membership could have supplied a far different history. 2 Despite the comprehensiveness of juridical maps of citizenship, the hyphenated space between nation and state marks a zone of uncertainty, a crack in the official logic of citizenship that unveils citizens as subjects who entertain competing loyalties and cherish conflicting memories. Many people travel pathways of nations that do not line up with states, moving through spaces and histories that are displaced by diaspora and crisscrossed by psychological, cultural, and political territories not administered by the state or its institutions.

The protections of formal personhood refuse such complex maps of identity, preferring the creation of citizenship as a calculable, generic, and ultimately depoliticized terrain. In this manner, citizenship dominates both [End Page 23] the political horizon and foreground: at one moment, it appears as the height of politics and thus beyond the realm of the political and, at the next, it provides the fundamental ground of political identity and thus seems prior to all political processes. This essay explores and connects two figures who drift between nation and state as a means of interrogating this political category whose foundational status frequently guarantees it a "natural" identity that is immune to critique. The first figure is a five-year-old boy found on Thanksgiving Day 1999 clinging to an inner-tube in the ocean off the Florida coast. This boy, Elián González, soon became the focal point of national and international controversies that tested the meanings of naturalization and federal jurisdiction. A related set of issues had surfaced the previous century for African Americans who, in the wake of the Civil War and Emancipation, also seemed at sea, neither wholly bound up with the administrative imaginary of the American state nor with the cultural imaginary of diasporic Africa. Frances Harper's Iola Leroy, a figure taken up in subsequent sections of this essay, represents a newly enfranchised black subject who exhibits ambivalence about belonging as a citizen to a nation that enslaved her and her people. I contend that the link between Elián and Iola illuminates their momentarily ambivalent status as reluctant citizens whose desire not to suffer amnesia conflicts with the longing to be protected by state identity.

The connections between these figures are at once literal and literary, as well as historical and historically fictive. While worlds of difference and fact still separate Elián and Iola, a deathly logic of citizenship regulates the social, political, and cultural identity of each. To achieve a formally recognizable existence graced by the sanctity of the nation-state, Elián and Iola must consent to be no more than generic persons. Elements of subjectivity that are not formally recognized—say, ties to a father back in Cuba or memories of a mother lost to slavery—are treated as if they were dead, cast away as heterogeneous scraps leftover from the process of patterning a citizen. In effect, citizens are left no option by this logic: as a supremely natural event, death makes citizenship inevitable. [End Page 24]

Burial at Sea

Elisabet Brotons, Elián's mother, was among the 11 people who drowned when a makeshift boat that left Cárdenas, Cuba, broke up and sank. Elián also lost his father at that moment, not to the sea, but to the U.S. nation-state and exile Cuban nationalism. "My life ended that day," said Juan Miguel González of the day when he realized that Brotons had left with their son to attempt the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 23-54
Launched on MUSE
2003-12-25
Open Access
No
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