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  • Stories and Politics of Hispanism
  • Alberto Medina

Hispanism, Hispanic Institute, Institito de las Españas, Federico de Onís

In 1915, just one year before Federico de Onís arrived in New York after accepting an appointment as professor at Columbia University with the mission to build a program for the teaching of Spanish language and culture—and five years before he founded the Instituto de las Españas—he was writing some of the first film criticism in Spain. He had accepted an offer by his friend Ortega y Gasset to publish periodically about the new medium in España, his new weekly magazine. It was a short commitment, soon interrupted by his move overseas. Onís was not so much interested in the present of film as in its future, what it could become. Even if the new medium was still only an initial gesture, an insinuation of something to come, its mass appeal was already evident. Its extraordinary capacity to bring together, in the same room, before the same film, people from every race, class, or cultural origin, speaking many different languages, made clear that it could only be considered a "new instrument for humanity" of extraordinary potential (Onís et al. 68). Once in the US, Onís would have the opportunity to experience first-hand the cultural and social processes that he had witnessed in film and to put them to good use. The decades-long promotion of Spanish culture in the US and Latin America that he started in 1916 required a deep knowledge of the same processes of modernity that he had admired so much in the movie industry.

Years later, after he had settled in New York, Juan Ramón Jiménez referred to him as a "Charlot Latino" (Ruiz-Manjón 15). Like the most famous actor in the world, Onís had the extraordinary capacity to be always identical to himself and yet always a successful character. The same perception was common among the many cultural visitors from Spain and Latin America whom Onís hosted through his Instituto de las Españas, which would later become the Hispanic Institute. For Moreno Villa or Concha Espina, among others, he was a constant performance of himself, systematically stressing his Spanishness both in his voice and his dress. He was not only the main cultural ambassador of Spain in the US, he was also "el más insigne modelo de nuestra raza" (Espina 142).

It was, of course, a very deliberate strategy that the film critic had the chance to learn from the screen. It was also a necessary way to make tradition modern, marketable, and popular. When he had to defend the relevance of his work in the [End Page 1] US before a Spanish audience and perhaps particularly against the strong criticism from his beloved mentor Unamuno, he chose a very Spanish icon: he was a Don Quixote in America. Far from weakening his national identity and dissolving it in the American melting pot, the contact with the US had allowed him to go deeper into an "españolismo radical" that opened every door to him (Onís, "El español" 266). His adventures in the New World allowed him to get closer to that "modelo de nuestra raza" that Concha Espina would see in him. That model was not so much a return as a projection: "Ya antes de salir de España sentía la atracción de la América española como razón última del ser histórico de España" (España en América 9). For Onís, the success of both his character and his cultural mission was not about any kind of mutual assimilation but rather a radical affirmation of difference, a fight for visibility that could only be achieved through a successful performance.

And so the timeless Don Quixote knew how to display the abilities of the modern Charlot. Onís was very conscious of the danger at the core of the success of the Spanish language in the US: if it was possible thanks to a popular demand driven by commercial ties with Latin America, the enemies of...


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