- Islands of Empire: Pop Culture and U.S. Power by Camilla Fojas
With the triumph over Spain in 1898, the United States won control of islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Journalists, writers, and foreign correspondents [End Page 514] poured out rivers of ink about the U.S. holding power over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and their annexation of Hawai’i, thus increasing the image of the empire’s influence over very distant places and its capability to liberate populations subjugated by the European metropolis. U.S. popular culture and the press were key to the construction and reconstruction of public opinion about the islands, their landscapes, people, resources and future potential. At the same time, they extolled the drive of a nation that had fixed its gaze on Latin America, already having extended its borders into Mexico in search of greater influence and increased resources.
Camilla Fojas recounts the manner in which the five territories have remained under administrative, political, military, and economic control of the U.S. and the political opportunities under which each one gained greater visibility in popular culture after the Spanish American War. Her investigation is based on references from visual representations, mainly Hollywood films. At the same time she cites profuse ephemera, such as postcards, brochures, advertisements, and travel guides about these enclaves that have had a fluctuating relationship with the U.S. including those that have colonial or neocolonial status, those that were annexed or became protectorates, and even sovereign territories and enemies such as Cuba and its subsequent communism after the revolution in 1959.
Islands of Empire shows how the character and the imperial sensibilities of the U.S. was expressed through popular culture for more than a century and how it became a “soft power,” the agent of foreign policy and its expression of national chauvinism. In this way, the book successfully establishes itself in the sphere of investigations that, focused on Latin America, has demonstrated that U.S. popular culture has been instrumental in the ideology of control, thus helping to consolidate U.S. influence outside its borders, which was reinforced after World War II with its role as world police, and again reborn in 2001 with the war against terrorism.
The book dedicates a chapter to each country. The Philippines is analyzed by showing its ambivalent condition of sometimes aligned with Washington and at other times, opposed. Cuba, favored since the nineteenth century for its sugar industry and later as a nearby tourist destination where every pleasure was possible, gained its greatest visibility in the 1950s as a destination for the rich and powerful, movie stars, and gangsters. Havana is characterized by the U.S. with nostalgia and grief as a paradise lost, and by the Cuban exile community as a glowing example of up and coming capitalism equally lost. Hawai’i became a place of dreams in popular culture and exalted as a leisure destination, a location for lucrative investments and a paradigm of racial harmony. Interestingly, Hawai’i’s ultimate absorption by the U.S. through statehood the 1959 occurred within months of the loss of Cuba due to the Communist revolution.
Puerto Rico is represented as an alternative destination when U.S. tourism in the Caribbean was redirected there after 1959 and whose mainland communities gained visibility through the mass media highlighting their urban problems. On the other hand, Guam stayed in the shadows cast by the radiant myth of Hawai’i, gaining its popularity as a site of U.S. military operations and as a filming location for war movies. The U.S. has maintained Puerto Rico and Guam in a type of limbo by not being incorporated as states. Regardless of the fact that each of these islands has had stages of fluctuating prominence in the media, the author shows that the imagery about them has been permeated by the powerful images molded by popular culture and which have served the U.S. in the validation of foreign policy actions.
Fojas analyzes popular culture’s usual...