Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 41     2005

"Blanca from the Block"
Whiteness and the Transnational Latina Body

By STEPHEN KNADLER

"As we Latinos redefine ourselves in America, making ourselves up and making ourselves over, we have to be careful, in taking up the promises of America, not to adopt its limiting racial paradigms."

Julia Alvarez, "A White Woman of Color"

Will Ferrell to Jennifer Lopez during her opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, "I’m deeply and totally in love" with your "jungle rump." (qtd in New York Observer, February 19, 2001).

[1] In her essay exploring the meaning of the new collective classification of the Latina/o  within U.S. culture, Julia Alvarez replaces the white woman as icon of insular national identities with the figure of the mestiza, and admits that she herself identifies, as the title of her essay discloses, as a "white woman of color."  Although in the past, as, Norma Alarcon has written, the woman’s body has often played an instrumental role in illustrating the ideals and unspoken myths of the nation, particularly the "whiteness" of the imagined national community (Alarcon 148; Schutte 71), the mestiza has emerged in recent years as the visible symbol of a liberating transnational and transracial identity that brings together various hemispheric peoples from Central, South, and North America, while, in the process, resisting U.S. culture’s dominant race and nation-based identities. Yet, just how much, I want to ask, does the "mestiza," as she is currently being imagined within various mainstream and alternative representations, really remain unassimilated to what Alvarez calls "America’s limiting racial paradigms"?  Indeed, even in her own futuristic vision of overlapping racial categories at the end of her essay on the emergent Latina/o identity, Alvarez herself can oddly echo the theories of racial whitening most notably identified with Jose Vasconcelos, the Mexican minister of education, who predicted the rise of la raza cosmica (1925), a fifth cosmic race from the confluence of "white, brown, red and yellow" (qtd in Hedrick 20).  In what follows, I want to recover the way the mestiza has become a site of contestation within current U.S. culture, and although she has often been held up as a figure of multicultural or global consciousness, many representations of the mestiza, even those coming from the margin, can preserve the strong normative function of whiteness and trivialize, if not completely erase, the mestiza’s African diasporic history and culture.

 [2] In her often cited essays from Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison has argued that the historical formation of the United States as a "white" and "male" nation depended on the constitutive shadow presence of blackness as the recognized, or more often unspoken, projected "other" of difference. While Morrison’s observations have inspired numerous investigations into the way that an "unmarked" whiteness and a "shadowing" African presence were implicit within 19th and 20th-century U.S. modes of national, gender, and class consciousness, and indeed in the rise of modernity itself (46-47), we need to become more aware, as Vron Ware and Les Back have argued, of the persistence as well as changeability of "white" definitions across specific locations and times within transnational migrations (14). The mestiza is less some final new millennial synthesis or a new hemispheric identity, than a figure always in process. As the Cuban writer Antonio Benitez-Rojo notes, echoing the sentiments voiced by Morrison, the different components of the "mestiza" or the "creole" are constantly shifting, often in unpredictable ways, and in relation to each other, based on the situation in the moment (56). Mestizaness then represents never some final transgressive liberating crossing of borders, but an on-going recombination, which changes as different social groups and economic and political forces try to shape this identity formation. Although writers about the diaspora or the borderlands tend to affirm a resistant cultural hybridity as part of transnationalism’s new modes of subjectivity, the migrant’s flexible positioning in relation to markets, governments, and cultural regimes, does not necessarily mean that she/he is free of internalized disciplinary norms, or what Foucault had referred to as the "discursive governmentality" of the home country, and thus whiteness can—and does—remain as a norm that migrant subjects carry with them from their home countries and that they re-appropriate and reshape in an U.S. context (Ong 19). As Will Ferrill’s’ satire of the protracted media buzz about Jennifer Lopez’s ample derriere, with which I started this essay attests, the Latina’s blackness when literally embodied, can provoke a primitivist fetishization and titillation, that is oddly akin to the 19th-century Anglo American society’s exhibition of another African woman, Saartjie Baartman, as the Hottentot Venus (Gilman 88). In this fascination with the otherness of the Latina’s possibly inherited black body, we see mainstream U.S. society’s struggle to define and regulate just how black the mestiza can be before she is no longer a "white woman of color."

[3] As Juleyka Lantigua notes in her opening salvo "That Latino Show" for The Progressive, February 2003: "Lately, Latinos are everywhere on television." Yet, the difficulty as Linda Alcoff, Susan Obeler, and Arlene Davila, among others have written, is what is meant by, if it even exists, this new collective identity called the "Latina/o." How and by whom has it been and will it be constituted and what different political and cultural work do these different figurations perform? While early political leaders and thinkers such as Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti called for a pan-Latin identity as an anti-colonial strategy in the 19th-century, the particular modern discursive configuration of the "Latina/o" dates from the period following the 1965 immigration act which allowed the migration of various Spanish-speaking groups from Caribbean and Latin American countries to the United States. Starting in the 1960s the media and entertainment industry increasingly addressed this population as if it were a coherent community, although like "whiteness" or "blackness," the term Hispanic or Latino is not an identity that these immigrants, used to thinking in nationalist terms, would have used to designate themselves prior to coming to the U.S. (Alcoff 28 ).  Latin American and Caribbean descent people, as well as more recent immigrants, have been divided over how to respond to this label, seeing it both as a strategic tool to mobilize collective political action and as an imposed category that erases the national and cultural allegiances that are often primary, particularly to recent immigrants. As a consequence, there have been two competing and shifting historical trajectories in response to this identity category: first to acknowledge that U.S. Latina/os have become a racialized population and to use this portrayal as a "race" (if not a homogeneous one) to fight against discrimination and to seek the inclusion of people of Spanish-speaking descent in affirmative action programs under the Equal Protection Clause (Delgado 370). And second, to resist Latina/o ness as a racial category, instead, recruiting ethnic paradigms to define Latinidad as a set of shared cultural practices, customs, and language. In Latinos, Inc: The Marketing and Making of a People, Arlene Davila studies the way that advertisers have constituted the Latino as a "nation within a nation" (83) with a set of essential commonalities that often re-inscribe older stereotypes, and render differences in class, generation, nationality among Latina/os as irrelevant. Yet, despite reservations about Latino-ness as an identity from above forcing people on census forms to choose either Latina/o or white, Latina/o or black, many among the second and third generation have embraced this category of the Latina/o as a chosen referent for a perceived historical experience, collective memory, and cultural expression that make them both American and resistant to full cultural assimilation.

[4] Few media icons have come so closely to stand in for the new Latina, I would argue, as Jennifer Lopez, rechristianed in hip hop style--reportedly by fans-- as J.Lo. Although a Puerto Rican from the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, Lopez earned celebrity status playing the Mexican American tejana singer, Selena in director Gregory Nava’s 1995 movie by the same name. When challenged about this inauthenticity in interviews, Lopez savvily positioned herself as one of the new Latinas whose shared experiences with her ethnic sisters transcend national origins.  In response to whether Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans have similar backgrounds, Lopez asserted in defense, "Being Latina in this country, that’s the parallel. Of course, there’s a lot of differences. There is the Nuyorican culture here in New York City, and there is a whole different Tejana culture. But there are parallels between us; growing up and being treated a certain way, or not being treated a certain way. Being a minority. Being a woman." While Lopez has vacillated, according to expediency, in defining herself as a Latina and as a transracial American diva, it is precisely this "plasticity" of her body (Bordo1112) that makes her most clearly the representative of the new umbrella term, Latina.  Unlike other celebrities who have been embraced by Hollywood and MTV as Latin brand names, such as Selma Hayek or Ricky Martin, J.Lo like Madonna has marketed herself as an ever fungible, complex, mediated sign, a shape-shifting performer of racial mimicry, sometimes looking darker as the star who got her start playing one of the "fly girls" on the Wayan Brothers’ comedy, "In Living Color," and who dated P. Diddy, and sometimes claiming a gentrified whiteness as the off-again, on-again fiancé of Pearl Harbor day manhood, Ben Affleck. In her entrepreneurial projects she has also deliberately situated herself as a "generic" Latina, choosing to open a Cuban restaurant, Le Madre’s, in Los Angeles, so as to be both West Coast and East Coast, Cuban and Puerto Rican. As her web site with its links to translations in fourteen different countries and languages boasts, J.Lo is the "queen of all medias," and apparently of all races and countries as well.

[5] Yet if J.Lo like Madonna re-invents herself constantly as a woman of a thousand ethnic faces, she remains a Republican friendly and de-Africanized emblem of the new Latina. While it is unclear how much control Lopez has over her more recent Hollywood image, she is a figure, nonetheless, whose popularity as a box office draw for more mainstream audiences needs to be situated in relation to her ability to assuage turn-of-the-21st century anxieties about the decline of "white" America. During the last several Presidential elections, the press has continued to carry stories about the Republican and Democratic parties’ need to woo Latina/o voters. Behind these stories about a "rising Latino tide," to take the title of a November 18, 2002 American Prospect article, lie fears about a changing U.S. racial and ethnic demographic that could signal possible, if not inevitable, changes in the political and cultural landscape. Early 20th-century fears of "racial degeneration" find a residual echo in contemporary apocalyptic narratives about the diminution of Republican control and of the values of an unspoken "white" Middle America that it synecdochically stands for. In a 1998 National Review article, Scott McConnell sounds the clarion call that circulates and is recycled among other political pundits. Citing the example of "Hablador Newt Gingrich," McConnell writes, "the unpalatable fact is the Republican party does face a crisis over Latino immigration. The GOP is more or less the party of settled Middle America, and it is not likely to do well with Hispanics until they become more economically and culturally integrated. Indeed without cultural and economic assimilation, current trends have the Hispanic vote pushing the GOP toward minority status sometime early in the next century" (2). While there is no single Latino voter that corresponds to the specter lurking in this nativist rhetoric, the National Review article discloses that anxieties about "whiteness" have made the identity of the Latina/o a contested site in the cultural wars. The solution to wooing the Latino voter for McConnell is not just a matter of political strategy, but also of subject formation—constituting Latina/os with the white values of Middle America till finally their alien-ness, their unspoken blackness, is bleached out. While such a political discourse might seem a far cry from the celebrity of Jennifer Lopez, Hollywood has sought to mold her into a complementary, reassuring phenomenon. However, even as the marketing of Jennifer Lopez depends on her representative status as a Middle-America-friendly new Latina, her "jungle rump" acts as the displacement for a contradictory set of anxieties and desires about the "blackness" that always threatens to return and undo this identity formation.

[6] In what follows I want to use the figure of J.Lo, and her flexible identity as revealed in the 2002 Wayne Wang directed movie Maid in Manhattan, to disclose how in the contestation over the emergent discourse of the new Latina, whiteness remains, at least for many, an important part of the symbolic economy, particularly in such as way that blackness is trivialized and reduced to a politically neutral primitivism evacuated of African diasporic or Afro-genic, as Sheila Walker calls them, influences. After mapping out the particular discursive tactic imposed from above on the  21st century woman of color, one which I will call, "blanca from the block," I will turn to the counterdiscursive practices coming from below by examining two U.S Caribbean-born writers, the Dominican American Julia Alvarez and the Cuban American Cristina Garcia. Both Alvarez’s In the Name of Salome and Garcia’s The Aguero Sisters are deliberate fictional attempts to depict a transnational Latina subjectivity that repudiates the particular whitening of Latinidad by various U.S. groups, from Republican nativists, niche marketers, to ethnic nationalists. Yet, although Alvarez writes as a woman of color from the margins of U.S. culture, she imagines an alternative transracial Latina identity that does not completely reverse the Americanized racial logic embodied in the figure of "blanca from the block." In contrast, Garcia’s The Aguero Sisters flaunts the black Latina’s eccentric body to overturn and replace the white woman of color’s representativeness with a new trope of the disfigured Latina.

White Woman with Colored Assets

[7] At first glance Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 Maid in Manhattan is not a movie that would seem to require extensive feminist analysis.  A cliché-ridden Cinderella story, and an equally jingoist pledge of allegiance to the hard working immigrant success story, Maid in Manhattan is Pretty Woman II for Latinas, with an added Horatio Algiers lesson in the seven habits of highly successful hotel managers. Directed by Wayne Wang, with a screenplay by John Hughes, the writer/director responsible for the 1980s classic tales of adolescence, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day off, Maid in Manhattan is a cinematic allegory about ethnicity and assimilation in the United States for second-generation daughters. In the film, Marisa Ventura, the character played by Jennifer Lopez, captures the heart and weds the old-moneyed (think Edith Wharton) Republican senator from New York, John Marshall (Ralph Fiennes). In Wang’s allegory, Cinderella’s class mobility is replaced by a fairy-tale vision of "multicultural integration" in which Latinas can become assets to the Republican party, not just by wedding (and we assume voting for) their up and coming Senators, but also marrying Republican self-help philosophy. Although Marissa’s mother remains locked into the past and cannot accept the supposed end of racism, Marissa discovers that the only obstacle holding her back from the American dream is her mother’s–and the first generation immigrant’s–victimization ideology. In Wang’s fantasy, the all white management staff at the hotel is all too ready to embrace, as Senator Marshall sexually embraces, the Latina as the "other white" in the nation’s dream of integration. Although Wang’s earlier films such as Dim Sum took a more complicated looks at the immigrant experience, in Maid in Manhattan, an earlier Marshall’s—Thurgood Marshall’s—use of the judiciary to legislate social change, whether in terms of desegregation or affirmative action, has given way to a sentimental vision of racial friendship.

[8] By combining the immigrant story with the gendered fantasy of Cinderella, Wang’s film offers a dubious political message. But it, also, works to constitute a Latina citizenship. In using the term "citizenship" I want to invoke the way theorists such as Lauren Berlant have argued that participation in the public sphere of the democratic nation, or in this case, of the imagined community of the Latinidad, depends increasingly on a consumerist identification with a set of privatized feelings and normative behaviors rather than a critical knowledge, voice, and agency that might effect collective action, protest, and social transformation (Berlant 45).  For a "white" audience, Wang’s film represents a reassuring image of the "good Latina" (hard working, family oriented, sexually heteronormative and responsive, not assertive, and largely apolitical, or at least too busy to be politically outspoken). However, for many U.S. residents of Spanish-speaking descent, it also "interpollates" (in the Alhusserian sense) a preferred  pan-Latina identity (138).  Wang (and the writer, Hughes) clearly mark Marissa as the new pan-Latina in the way they disguise her specific nation-based ethnic origin. Although her mother noticeably speaks with a Spanish accent and refers to her daughter as mi hija, the viewer is told only that Marissa is from, and still lives in, the Bronx. Later in the movie when the "prince" Ralph Fiennes wants to search the "kingdom" of greater New York to find Marissa, he describes her to his campaign manager as a "five foot six Mediterranean looking woman." In turn this same campaign manager (played by Stanley Tucci) identifies her to his staff as "Spanish."  In a process that modifies Manthia Diawara’s observation that the African American lead in Hollywood films is depicted through a process of defamiliarization, or as disconnected and removed from the black community and its cultural milieu (68), Wang largely locates Marissa in the "multi-ethnic" world of the hotel "downstairs." Here Marissa is less associated with the white world, than an indeterminate "ethnic world," where there are other Spanish-speaking maids, an "Asian" seamstress, a Caribbean accented black man, and an African American woman (whose "Aunt Jemima" body, we should note, is clearly set apart from the Latinas). She is thus "re-familiarized" (not de-familiarized) as part of an undifferentiated world of Latinas, who no longer care about national, linguistic or cultural differences

[9] While Wang’s film then participates in the subject construction of the new Latina, it does so only by re-appropriating age-old racist fantasies and desires. To explain Marissa’s love at first sight of Senator Marshall, the film deems it unnecessary to provide realistic motivations or attractive qualities in the prince that might have prompted such devotion. Marissa, like mythic women of color, such as Pocahontas and Madame Butterfly, immediately betrays her cultural heritage upon an initial glance at the more "civilized" white man. The film, by contrast, has to provide a more elaborate plot twist to account for the Anglo-European senator’s sudden notice of the "invisible maid."  I want to look closely now at the scene in which Marissa escapes her "invisibility" because it is symptomatic of the way that whiteness functions in the construction of the new Latina body. Although Senate candidate Marshall first meets, and forgets, Marissa when she is scrubbing the floor of his hotel bathroom, he only "sees" her when she, at the urging of friends, dresses up in the $5,000 all-white Dolce and Gabbana suit of the Anglo American socialite played by the British actress Natasha Richardson. To be noticed by the Republican senate candidate, Marissa must transform herself from a "woman of color" to a "white" Latina. In an update of the immigrant cliché that money whitens, Wang shows that, in a world in which political visibility is attained through defining the group as a marketing niche, it is commodities, or at least the purchasing power to acquire them, that whitens, and grants a representative voice. By engaging in a conspicuous consumption of status conferring commodities–commodities once marketed to an Anglo-European elite—Latina/os can achieve the only kind of enfranchisement, which according to the film, allows visibility and voice.

[10] Yet, if this scene speaks to the commodification of identity politics in a consumer republic, it also focuses on the specific role of the "white" Latina body through its self-referentiality about the tabloid press’s fetish regarding Jennifer Lopez’s "ass."  That J.Lo so easily fits into the size six pants suit of the "white" socialite Carolyn denies that there are any real bodily or class-based differences between Puerto Ricans from the Bronx and Daughters of the Revolution from the Hamptons. In Wang’s pygmalion story, J.Lo proves to be one my fair white lady, one who neither needs to change her diet, her comportment, or her elocution to "pass" as a "Carolyn" (Kennedy?). During Marissa’s walk in the park with Senate candidate Marshall, while still wearing the same "white" Dolce suit, moreover, the characters, symbolically, caution her not to sully its pure "whiteness," or the new white Latina character it confers, through "street contact." The new white Latina must dissociate herself from the streets and their "dirt," the pollution of the people; and to keep her clean image, Marissa tellingly sits on a copy of New York magazine (which largely covers the lifestyles of the rich and famous). After Marissa’s romantic interlude with the Senator, Wang includes one final scene of telling comic relief. Upon getting up from the bench, the glossy magazine sticks to Marissa’s behind, and Marshall must protect the whiteness of J.Lo’s ass by peeling off the recalcitrant magazine and declaring her prominent behind, "one fine asset." This sanctioning of the Latina’s "whiteness" by the "white male savior" becomes a turning point in the film, as his legitimacy spurs her to aspire to management. The new Latina is one, then, who will have feelings for white America and will share its "common sense" ideology of hard work, individual success, and consumerism.  She may have a little more flava, a little something extra behind her that will be a colorful "asset" (that, after all, is what makes her so appealing), but this asset will not be a baggage blocking her assimilative fit for a white Republican America.         

[11] My point in lingering over this scene is not just to underscore the white beauty standard pervasive within visual representations of the new Latina (Mawani 45). Such a privileging of normative whiteness for the Latina, but not, it is important to note, for the Latino, is pervasive even in independent films supposedly offering an alternative view of the Latino community, such as Raising Victor Vargas, which the New York Times praised for its groundbreaking "realism."  If J.Lo is the representative of the new Latina, it is precisely because she can both "pass" as "white" AND because her flavoring blackness is reduced to an "asset"–a sign that is emptied of any living history, racial trauma, or African diaspora cultural expression that might challenge U.S. nationalism’s white self-conceptualization.  In his investigation of the shifting historical discourse of "whiteness," Mathew Frye Jacobson has noted that the category of whiteness has continually expanded to include immigrant groups initially considered too foreign, colored, or ethnic–the Irish, Italians, Jews (103-110). But this largely early twentieth-century expansion of whiteness involved the simultaneous crystallization of a black/white racial dichotomy in the U.S.  One was now either "white" or "black," and historically many "Hispanic" groups, such as the Mexican American League of United Latin American Citizens, founded in Corpus Christi, 1929, as Guitierrez argues, (424) took the "other white" strategy, claiming to be as culturally and racially white as other ethnic groups, and not black. Since many Caribbean Latina/os have an obvious–or protruding – blackness and African diasporic heritage, one that cannot pass, their incorporation into an imagined "white" American presents a unique problem not faced by earlier immigrants. What makes Wang’s film such a relevant artifact of our historical moment is the way it tries to fashion a discourse to control the shift from "white" to "mestiza" nation (one that most demographic experts are predicting will happen by 2050), and, through such a strategic discourse, to preserve and regulate the hierarchical meanings of whiteness and blackness.  As Troy Duster has argued, in response to earlier calls for the abolition of whiteness, historically racial identities such as "whiteness" have had a morphing and co-opting power that has shifted but not preempted their continued discursive allure (115). While Gloria Anzaldua, among others has argued, that the Chicana (and here I put the Latina as well) has a borderland identity that destabilizes these traditional dualities of race, nation, gender, and sexuality, such a Utopian mestiza consciousness, as Wang’s film demonstrates, does not always dismantle, in its notion of a fragmented identity, racial and class hierarchies, nor does it obviate the question of "when does one become too black."

[12] At the time that the film Maid in Manhattan was released, the hip hop/pop star J.Lo had a top forty single called "Jenny from the Block." In the refrain of the song, J.Lo raps that people should not be "fooled by the rocks that I got" because "I’m still jenny from the block. . . no matter were [sic] I go I know here I came from." Responding to critics who challenged her authenticity (or her "realness") as a Puerto Rican from the Bronx now that she had achieved multimillion-dollar celebrity, J. Lo fired back that she still had, and would always have, street credibility. In her discussion of Hollywood films featuring African American middle class characters, Valerie Smith has argued, that these bourgeois achievers maintain their racial sincerity by keeping a similar "street credibility," whether by still hanging out with the homeboys from the old neighborhood or remembering their "ghetto roots" (real or imagined) by performing a street-style speech, dress or gendered behavior (68). What is interesting about J.Lo’s adaptation of this double consciousness for aspiring middle-class Latinas is that, in the end, she re-inscribes the historical racial, class and gendered hierarchies of the mainstream Anglo-European U.S. culture. Despite J.Lo’s obvious possessive investment in "whiteness," that set of character traits that George Lipsitz has argued was legally instituted as a property conferring social, economic, and political privileges, she still wants to maintain the Latina’s borderland difference. That difference, as her song "Jenny from the Block" argues, will be a memory of the ethnic neighborhood defined by a cultural expressive style of blackness emptied of historical weight.  It will not involve any complicating transnational allegiances to multiple homes.

[13] Wang’s Maid in Manhattan, it could be argued, is an extended video that tries to provide narrative shape to the racial codes of Lopez’s song about the successful "white" Latina.  While Marissa shows that she can clearly "fit into" whiteness in the film, Wang emphasizes that she still shares the values placed on these black and white racial categories.  Wang inserts this duality of her borderland character (commuting back and froth from the ethnic neighborhood of the Bronx to midtown Manhattan) in the scene when Marissa upbraids Senate candidate Marshall for his lack of "realness." Upon learning that Marshall will give a campaign speech in the Bronx simply for the photo-op, she rebukes this white crossover politician for reciting memorized platitudes when he has no actual experience of the place. Yet it is specifically the visual accompaniments to this message about the "experience" that makes the "Latina" different that is of interest to me here. In his visual shorthand to code the street credibility of Marissa’s Bronx neighborhood, Wang offers us only one picture of the "street": a shot of black men playing street basketball. While Maid in Manhattan wants to suggest that the Latina has a double consciousness that makes her different from the "white," her blackness (a protruding derriere, urban street culture, a gendered male blackness) is trivialized and de-Africanized.  In the racialized fantasy that I am calling "blanca from the bock," racial categories are clearly gendered, and a "safe" feminized color difference, one that is in the end nearly interchangeable with an Anglo American culture, is contrasted with a masculinized blackness that projects dominant U.S. society’s mass-marketed primitivist fantasies about the rawness and "realness" of the streets. In the Latina’s mestizaness, blackness is reduced to an asset, one that adds to her coolness and hipness, but one that is not revolutionary or transformative of a historically normative white (Anglo-European) culture. This blackness does not recognize an African diasporic cultural retention that would darken the reputably "white face" of the Latina acceptable to the Republican party. It equally leaves unchallenged the core hegemonic belief, as Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes, that African-ness is not an essential foundation within the supposed whiteness of U.S. mainstream culture, but something separated out into an expressive style of dance or music or b’ball (457).

[14] While blackness might still be acceptable for Latino (men), and Marissa does have an Uncle Remus-like coworker at the hotel whose dark skin is matched by a strong Caribbean accent, the Latina still remains, as Norma Alarcon argued, the "race mother," only now a transnational one, responsible for the reproduction of "whiteness." Continuing to embody the myths and values of an ever-evolving "Latino/a" community, just as she previously illustrated the ideals of the imagined nation, this mestiza spitfire must be still able to enact whiteness, a whiteness that, as Ruth Frankenberg has argued, is less a complexion adhering to a biological body, than a scripted performance that locates one on a map of social, economic and political power (14).  Still the "race" mother responsible for the reproduction of the people and its culture, this emergent Latina, Maid in Manhattan suggests, should be able to raise a "racially indeterminate" child, one who, like Marissa’s son, can be a speech-quoting Nixon devotee. In such a rising tide of future Latinos, Republicans need not fear to rule and tread. As Jennifer Lopez’s Marisa demonstrates, the blanca from the block’s collective memories of her hood/home do not signal an alternative sense of belonging, affiliation or understanding; only a versatility of style that does not prevent her essential love for "white" America. Such memories of "home" certainly do not mobilize any resistance to the economic or political status quo. Modifying the words of J Lo’s song, Maid in Manhattan shows that the Latina blanca from the block depends on no longer knowing where she came from.

In the Spirit of Anti-Haitianism: Whiteness and the Transnational Dominicana

[15] At the center of Julia Alverez’s 2000 novel, In the Name of Salome, lies the official portrait of Salome Urena, which her husband, Francisco "Pancho" Henriquez, commissioned from a Parisian artist. During her lifetime, the poet Salome Urena (1856-1895) wrote patriotic hymns that often played a defining role in Dominican nationalism, and her husband, after her death, disseminates this image of his wife to represent the ideals of la patria. Yet, as Alvarez shows in her counterhistory, this mythic view of Salome Urena depends on the father’s foundational lie about his wife’s appearance and racial ancestral, and on his concomitant control over and distortion of the mother’s words, sexuality, and memory. As Salome’s daughter, Camila, comes to realize, reflecting on this "posthumous portrait," in it "Salome is pale, pretty, with a black neck band and full rosebud mouth, a beautifying and whitening of the Great Salome, another one of her father’s campaigns" (205). Although as an adolescent, Camila had "love[d] this portrait," and wanted to hear that she resembled this false representation of the ideal white mother, her aunt rebuked her for her complicitous identification with the father’s fantasy–and the imagined nation it would fashion. "That’s not what your mother looked like. . . Your mother was much darker, for one thing" (280-81).  In Camila’s refusal to repeat the lie about the "white body" of her mother, and the national icon, Salome, Alvarez clearly speaks out against Dominican nationalists’ symbolization of female identity to stand in for the purity of Spanish descent, a symbolization that robbed women of their mixed race bodies and denied their "dark" sexuality. Throughout In the Name of Salome, Camila struggles through revisionary acts of memory to liberate her mother’s, and in turn, her own body from the father’s authoritative law. If in In the Name of Salome, Alvarez asks the question how should the exile daughter remember the mother–and simultaneously–the mother country–she seems to suggest, as indicated by the opening epitaph from "White Woman of Color" that "Latinos" should be careful not to take up the "limiting racial paradigms" of Dominican or U.S. culture.    

[16] However, while In the Name of Salome asserts a counterhistory to the official patriarchal story of Salome Urena and even tries to construct a more transnational Latina subjectivity, it is equally a novel that participates, like Maid in Manhattan, in the white-faced identity politics that I’ve called "blanca from the block," even as it tries to construct a more transnational Latina subjectivity. Beginning in 1960, when Camila, the exile Dominican daughter decides to return to Cuba to serve as a teacher after Castro’s revolution, the novel subsequently cuts back and forth in time between the history of the mother and the journey of the transnational daughter. Camila, it is implied, is living out the spirit, or the "name" of Salome in this "return," a return significantly to Cuba, one of the countries of her exile, and not the Dominican Republic, because she discovers that her mother’s "spirit" sought to uplift and educate oppressed peoples throughout the Caribbean and the Americas (not simply in one nation).  Although the father had used Salome’s image and poetry to mobilize the imagined community of the single Dominican nation, Camila uses the remembered (or named) spirit of her mother to build a pan-Latin or transnational identity. As the exile daughter, Salome Camila acts out a new Latina subjectivity that is true to both components of her full name: to Salome, the name of her mother and mother country, and to Camila, the main character in Florians’s Numa Pompilius, whom the mother tells her, represents mobility, or "fleet feet," since she "could run through a field of grain and not bend a single stalk, [and] walk across the ocean and not wet her feet" (306). Significantly, the novel, which moves backward in time like Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, ends with the moment in which Camila feels that she has discovered the "truth" of her origins and identity.  Camila finally stops her story in 1897 after her mother’s death and at the time her family decided to leave Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and join her father in El Cabo, Haiti. She finds her "origins" in exile and loss.

[17] Throughout In the Name of Salome, then, Alvarez sets up a contrast between the attachment to the truth of the mother’s body outside the official portrait and the father’s language and law. Such an opposition seeks to place the mestiza (or the white woman of color, Salome Camila) against the "whiteness" of patriarchal history. Yet in the end, it is not clear that Camila’s memory of the mother’s body and spirit are actually different from the father’s naming of them, and that Alvarez’s novel does not de-Africanize the mother’s blackness, as did Maid in Manhattan, despite Camila’s telling of a supposedly counterhegemonic her-story. In her own way, Alvarez incorporates a variation of the dominant U.S. identity politics discourse that in its representation of the mestiza displaces or removes traces of an African diasporic history. We can see this "whitening" of the transnational Latina’s identity in the disjuncture between Camila’s memory of the primal scene of her emigration from the Dominican Republic and the actual history of the mother’s relocation.  While Alvarez ends the daughter’s story with her exile–her banishment to Haiti–she fails to remember here her mother’s own Haitian ancestry.  In returning to El Cabo, Camila and her family are, in one sense, reversing her mother’s grandparent’s route from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.  Her exile is, taken from the perspective of African diasporic history, as opposed to a Eurocentric nationalist one, a return as well as a departure.  Yet, Alvarez cannot make that return a part of the transnational white woman of color’s multiple "homecomings."  Salome’s Haitianism is acknowledged as a genealogy that accounts for the mother’s color (one that is darker than the father’s official portrait), but not for an alternative history or understanding of the world, which might also have shaped the "spirit" of Salome. The spirit of Haitianism, if it is acknowledged at all in In the Name of Salome, appears in the figure of the children’s "mammy" who, to frighten the temperamental son Fran, tells him "voodoo" stories of spirits and ghosts. Against the "colored" body of Salome is still the differently marked body of the "black" Mammy, and against Salome’s education is set the "superstition" of Afro-Caribbean-ness. Afrogenic culture in In the Name of Salome has no place in the migrant transnational daughter’s reciprocal cultural exchanges during her transatlantic travels.

[18] In In the Name of Salome, Alvarez addresses most directly in her "counterhistories" of the Dominican Republic, the "anti-haitianismo," which Ernesto Sagas has argued functioned as a key part of Dominican nation building (4). Between 1822 and 1844 the Haitians invaded and occupied the other half of the Caribbean island of Hispanola, and when Alvarez’s novel begins in the 1850s, many Dominicans still feared Haitian control of the island. As a young girl, Salome recalls how her father shared the nationalists’ fear of this political takeover. When the Dominican elite agreed to be restored as a Spanish colony (1861), though they had earlier fought for their independence, her father announces that "I’d rather be Spanish than Haitian. We are not ready to be patria yet" (30). Yet anti-haitianismo was not just about the fear of lost sovereignty. As Sagas notes, the Dominican elite continued to define a Dominican national cultural identity against the Haitian "other"–this "NonWestern" opposite which was defined as savage, uncivilized and backwards because of its African cultural retentions perceived as mere "superstitions" and "voodoo." Dominican nation building depended than on manipulating racist fears in the process of invoking the memory of Haitian occupation (22). In its ethnic fabrication of Dominican "racial democracy," moreover, this elite embraced an "indio" or indigenous past that made them a mestiza culture different from the European Spanish, but still resisted acknowledging an "unassimilable" blackness. During his dictatorship, Trujillo would appeal to this racist nationalism to unite the country and ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitian immigrants and descendants in 1937 to "whiten" the country (Johnson 78). Such a history of direct oppression and murder the transnational daughter strongly denounces in her antipathy toward her uncle Max who served in Trujillo’s government and thus shares the culpability for this Holocaust: As Camila tells her brother Pedro, "It’s more than hardheartedness. That Haitian business was a disgrace. Twenty pesos for each dead soul. . . . History will never forgive him" (122).

[19] While the transnational mestiza daughter can condemn the atrocity of the Haitian massacre, however, she cannot free herself fully of the set of social and cultural prejudices that are an extension of this anti-haitianismo. Haitianism, to put it another way, cannot be a part of the spirit of Salome, or at least more than a skin "color" or "asset" like J.Lo’s derriere, adding to her beauty, and thus Camila ends up still seeing herself "hailed" in another version of the father’s de-Africanized portrait of the "mother" Salome. The novel’s own homologous "whitening" of the "spirit" of Salome—one that finds its "re-embodiment" in the transnational mestiza daughter-- is most clearly seen in the mother’s relation to Eugenio Maria de Hostos, the Puerto Rican born philosopher and social reformer who introduced positivism to the Dominican Republic. Latin American positivism, as Harold Eugene Davis asserts, was based on two key theories from Auguste Comte: first, that positive principles, which could be scientifically investigated, underlie social structures, and, second, that history was evolving toward a rational humanism, a process that, though inevitable, could be furthered by education. As a consequence of these two basic principles, positivism served both radical and reactionary functions. For men such as Eugenio Maria de Hostos, as Alvarez shows, it challenged a Church-led political conservatism. Yet in its belief in gradualism, positivism also reassured the elite that working class protest and revolution were politically unnecessary and pernicious and, thus, they need not dread their degeneration or decline as the result of a feared "racial warfare" (Davis 106). While in the nineteenth-century, the inevitability of a linked moral and racial evolution helped to maintain the status quo, during the early twentieth-century modern period, positivism worked more subtly to foster what Nancy Stepan and Jerry Davilia have called a "eugenic nationalism."  In promoting modernization, many positivists preached the idea that being forward looking meant breaking one’s ties to one’s past, in most cases an indigenous or Afro-diasporic past now seen as savage and backwards (Stepan 15, Davilia 9). While the Dominican Republic under Trujillo actively encouraged immigration from Europe to "whiten the race," as did Cuba and Brazil in the first part of the 20th-century, whiteness remained, for the most part unmarked and transparent through the way it was invoked under the language of modernity, social progress, and consumerism. In words that adumbrate Vasconcelos’s fifth cosmic race, for example, Hostos declaimed in his speech, "Temas Cubanos," that the new man would combine "the native virtues of the Latin race . . . [and] those that make the Anglo Saxon the part of humanity that is most useful to civilization" (qtd in Alba, 130). Although positivist reformers such as Hostos might claim that all races are equal, white people were still associated with the only civilized and sophisticated, modern modes of cultural, social, and economic practices. Hostos’s theory of the "new man" that would inspire Salome, thus, combined brown and white, not black, into a new perfect "higher" state for all.

[20] Alvarez’s attraction to the figure of Hostos as the soul mate of Salome is not hard to understand. Hostos was a reformer who believed, like Salome, in an activist service towards others, and he championed a pan-American federation among Caribbean and some South American nations (Alba 123). As the forerunner of a transnational "Latino" identity, Hostos stands in the company of Bolivar and Marti. Yet, his words that inspire Salome are not innocent of the racial logic pervasive within positivist thought, and which I would argue, are repeated even today in futuristic visions of the mestizo nation.  When Salome discovers her true soul mate upon meeting Hostos, her language describing her attraction to Hostos is telling and suggests her recognition of her identity in the mirror of the transnational educational reformer rather than her nationalist husband.  When listening to Hostos, Salome confesses that "I was in moral love–does that make sense? A moral love that took over my senses and lightly touched my whole body with an exquisite excitement whenever the apostle was in the room!" (172-73). By describing this putative cerebral attraction in erotically charged language, Salome discloses the repressed female sexuality that is not part of her husband’s image for her. Yet this language of sexual possession also has overtones of colonial conquest: he takes over her "whole body," shaping and reconstituting it within his language and beliefs. As a positivist, Hostos tells Salome that he espouses the idea of progress, that "mankind [is] evolving toward a higher perfect state," and that it should be the goal of the reformer through education to create a "new man for a new nation" (175). While Salome, inspired by Hostos’s prompting, will begin the first school for girls that will offer them a modern, scientific education to create a "new woman for the nation," she does not question Hostos’s vision of what this woman should be. Certainly these new women will be different from the ornamental ladies that could not even read and who graduated from the sisters Bobadilla’s church school. Yet this ideal woman for the Dominican nation is also one who will share in a universal progress that will involve an Oedipal break with the mother’s African past–one that like the break with Haiti—will not be mourned .

[21] Although African diasporic history is erased from the mother’s, and her daughter’s story, blackness does resurface, as in Wang’s Maid in Manhattan, through the invocation of primitivist myths that recapitulate a history of racialized sexualities. This reliance on an unmarked or transparent white norm set against a black "other" can most clearly be seen in Camila’s brief affair with the sculptor Domingo who asks Camila to sit for him so that he can find in her the impression of her recently deceased father’s face. As his name and his physical description underscore, Domingo stands in for the "lure and loathing" of blackness, and he invokes the "spirit of Domingo (Haiti)," which was used to incite revolutionary protest, as Eric Sundquist notes, among many African diasporic people through the Caribbean and the hemispheres. On first meeting Domingo, Camila recalls, she was surprised to find a "large mulatto with a handsome, big-featured face and body that, because she had been printing placards, she instantly thinks of as ‘all in capital letters’"(148). Domingo’s bigness and his connection to language are repeated when later she recalls that in her daydreams, she had "written his name DOMINGO in large, back capital letters" (150). In many ways these scenes with Domingo serve as a contrasting mirroring scene to the one I discussed earlier in which Camila sees herself being "hailed" in the father’s portrait of her mother. Domingo offers Camila a different language—big black words—in which to see herself represented, and she is so represented in his colored sculpture of her. In her conversations with Domingo Camila even acknowledges that she felt free for the first time to talk of and acknowledge her mother’s race (160). Yet, if the language of Domingo, the language of the Haitian revolution and its fathers such as Touissant d’Overture, might modify and replace the language of the Spanish-descent father, Pancho, Camila closes off this possibility in fear of the primitive other.

[22] In a key scene that ends the first half of the novel, Camila appears late at Domingo’s house understanding that he will recognize that she has consented to give herself sexually to him. Never having yet been with a man, and unsure that she wants the heterosexual relations that would please her brother Pedro, Camila tellingly turns to "blackness" or its black male representative, who stereotypically embodies an abjected sexuality. Although, on one level, challenging her father’s myths of pure "white" femininity, Camila has still internalized the problematic racial logic of "blanca from the block": she reduces her African diasporic heritage to a masculinized blackness associated with sexual freedom and virulent heterosexuality. While in this scene, Alvarez’s novel does disrupt norms of gender and sexuality, for indeed Camila does learn that she does not really desire to consummate her father’s and her brother’s heterosexual myth of intimacy, we need to restore the racial overtures of this scene. In describing her revulsion, Camila recollects, "She is revolted by his big hands, his hardness pressing against her thigh. The word become flesh is not always an appealing creature"(166). Although initially in this "friendship/romance," the law of Domingo (and the historical spirit of San Domingo) might have served as a complementary representation to the Spirit of Salome in which Camila might come to know herself, the language of "big black words" resembles all too closely the white woman’s peril at the hands of the hyperphallic black rapist. Fears of Haitian penetration still lie as part of the transnational daughter’s sexual fears and fantasies. Although Camila goes through with the sexual act in order to break "free from the old life" (166), she has once again kept in play part of her nationalist father’s anti-Haitianism: the primitivist myth of black sexuality, and, as importantly, the reduction of the multi-layered Afro-Caribbean heritage within mestiza-ness to a commodified male sexuality. The spirit of San Domingo, which might inspire revolutionary possibilities in Camila, becomes re-imagined as a thing of horror, an undesirable sexual advance as violating as "rape."

[23] By outing a "tabooed" same sex eroticism in the transnational Latina daughter, Alvarez challenges, as she does in her discussion of the mother’s official portrait, the symbolization of the white woman in the imagined nation. She frees the Latina’s body from its sexual control within a patriarchal order. Yet, while Alvarez has Camila break free of the regulation of the Dominicana’s normative gender and sexual performance, she still leaves in play an unmarked whiteness defined by its difference from a "demonized" blackness. In taking up the name of "Salome," Camila does so only after rejecting the violent and "violating" blackness of the spirit of (San) Domingo, which would exceed the racial double consciousness of "blanca from the block." In In the Name of Salome, anti-haitianism, an anti-haitianism, it is important to note, reconfigured and re-affirmed within the discourse of U.S. whiteness, still remains as the disciplining norm of the Latina’s her-story despite her border-crossing migration. In the end, the transnational Latina’s blackness is only a skin-deep color that she gets from her mother. Camila can not, will not, author herself in "big black words."

Disfigurement and the Crime of Whiteness

[24] As in Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salome, Cristina Garcia’s The Aguero Sisters is a novel built around the father’s lies. Over the course of the novel, the two estranged Aguero sisters are reconciled when the secrets of their family’s past are disclosed: that their father, while on an ecological forging mission out in the Zapata Swamp, had shot their mother so as to keep her as another of his taxidermal specimens over whom he had complete control (Socolovsky 9). As part of this multi-generational saga about family secrets and sibling trauma, however, Garcia includes a revisionary account of twentieth-century history that contrasts pre and post-Revolutionary Cuba. In her contrast of Cuba before and after the Castro revolution, Garcia depicts the liberation of a new Cubana (Reina) from the sexual and gender oppression inherited from the colonial past, but she also reveals, in the other sister Constancia’s story, the troubling persistence of norms of whiteness disguised within myths of Cuba’s exceptionalism as a country of  "racial fraternity and democracy." Left unexamined, these myths of Cuban racial origins, Garcia implies, can resurface (as they literally do in Constancia’s case) as a ghostly re-embodiment in the transnational or exile daughter's subjectivity.

[25] After the revolution that brought the independence of Cuba from Spain (1898), as Alejandro de la Fuente argues, Cuban nationalists instituted the myth of the island’s racial fraternity and democracy. In this national ideology of exceptionalism, Cuba, unlike the U.S., was a nation for all, one that embraced its multi-racial heritage and sought to fulfill Jose Marti’s idea of a heterogeneous culture. Yet, despite its professed egalitarianism, this ideology of racial fraternity often functioned as a tactic used by the elite to justify the current social order (9). Within a presumptive integration, elite Conservatives continued to push for the "whitening" of Cuban national identity and to disparage African descent peoples as savages who were not fit for self-government and even more so for political citizenship (41). During the election of the Conservative Tomas Estrada Palma, in particular, as de la Fuente writes, the campaign was fought over the "true" representation of an inclusive Cubanness and the legacy of Marti. Later in 1904, when Garcia’s novel begins, President Estrada Palma ended a heated political debate by refusing the United Fruit Company permission to introduce Jamaican laborers in Oriente, and instead encouraged immigration from Spain to whiten the allegedly "mestiza" democracy of Cuba.

[26] In her family saga, Garcia specifically associates the father "Ignacio" with this historical controversy over the "whiteness" of Cuban identity and the turn-of-the-century immigration of Spaniards to strengthen the country’s European cultural allegiance. When Ignacio is born in 1904, in a scene of symbolic resonance, an owl flies through the open shutters of the bedroom to steal the placenta and to rain the "birthing blood all over President Palma’s parade" (29). Through the owl’s umbilical linking of Ignacio’s birth and the ceremony honoring Palma, The Aguero Sisters implies that there is a similar genealogical connection between the future naturalist’s scientific projects and Palma’s nation building project based on racial narratives of whiteness.  As Ignacio himself remarks in the diaries that he keeps as a legacy for his daughters, "it was science, not politics or economics, that held the key to conquering the universe" (118). In turning to naturalism, Ignacio continues the work of defending and upholding the Spanish colonial culture enacted by his own father, who emigrated from Spain as part of Cuba’s whitening campaign and had become a "lecturer" in the El Cid cigar factory. As a "lecturer," Ignacio’s father had read from the Spanish and Greco-Roman classics (Don Quixote, El Cid) and he had passed along his "favorite recipes from Spain" (32). Although a seemingly unambitious scholar, Ignacio’s unnamed father felt his reading gave him "a heightened sense of purpose" (32). This purpose was the preservation of Spanish culture in the new world, an act of imperial imposition built around the "white lie" that there was a pure indigenous or Spanish culture that could be saved from racial degeneration and miscegenation with a "foreign" blackness.

[27] While Ignacio’s culpable lie that breaks up his family is presumably about the murder of his wife, this crime only compounds and extends the everyday prevarications that had been on ongoing part of his naturalist history. In Garcia’s novel, science in pre-Revolutionary Cuba worked as a key apparatus for inventing an effective racial and cultural etiology for a Eurocentric history. Although Ignacio insisted to his daughter that "Evolution . . . is more precise than history" (46), Ignacio reveals in his diaries that he was not above manipulating, withholding, or even killing to preserve inherited views of the biological exigencies of Cuba’s origins. As a young naturalist, Ignacio’s key discovery was of a leatherback turtle, who lay her nest on the coast of the Isle de Pines. These leatherbacks, as Ignacio knew, "breed primarily off the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa" (93), and thus the mother leatherback’s presence here suggested an African diasporic ancestry as central to Cuba’s environmental evolution. Having discovered this key to Cuba’s natural history, however, Ignacio represses it. Likewise, in other projects seeking to trace out the "facts" of Cuba’s environmental history, Ignacio continues to "naturalize" a preferred version of Cuba’s racial evolution. When Ignacio becomes fascinated with the Andaraz, the rats of Oriente, once again his investigations recall the political rhetoric surrounding the province of Oriente, the predominantly black province of Cuba, where Antillean immigrants settled and were blamed for the spread of diseases and infestations. Behind all of Ignacio’s investigations is, therefore, the unspoken lure and loathing of blackness, which is at once made known and then displaced from his accounts of the evolution of plants, animals, and by extension, people.

[28] While, in contrast to Alvarez, Garcia thus foregrounds the role of positivist science in fashioning the nation's imagined racial history, she also ties this instrumental naturalism to Ignacio’s complementary desire to control his wife's body. Continually Garcia links the natural history of Cuba and the story of "Blanca," the mother, whose sexual autonomy and gender deviance must be regulated—and finally stopped—so that she does not fail to reproduce both biologically and culturally, a pre-revolutionary Cuban elite’s favored representation as a European descent bourgeois culture.  In his fascination with the rats of Oriente, we later learn that Ignacio had been investigating the "feared" black other that might be invading his marriage bed. On his honeymoon, even more significantly, Ignacio returns with Blanca to the Isle of Pines to show her the elusive "leatherback, which has disappeared. By replacing the mother turtle of West Africa with the human mother Blanca, Ignacio tries to reverse the racial evolution of Cuba. While swimming with his wife in the rivers of Las Casas where earlier he had met the leatherback, Ignacio impregnates Blanca, who is symbolically bitten on her heel by river rat or snake (the actual perpetrator in this Edenic "fall" never being identified). Although Blanca urged her husband to give into the river—to its natural freedom—he is unable to let go of his "civilized" inhibitions and is more importantly unable to see his wife as more than a "possession" (223). Despite his wife’s desire to return to nature, Ignacio wants to preserve Blanca—and the race mother-- apart from the evolutionary cycles of the very natural world, which he knows has a propensity for miscegenation.

[29] Like the leatherback turtle that she replaces as Ignacio’s discovery, Blanca serves as a sign of an alternative Cuban history. Despite her name, Blanca is the only daughter of a mulatta mother whose ancestors "fled Haiti after the slave revolt of 1791" (187). In giving her daughter the name of "Blanca," therefore, her mother Dona Eugenia had asserted her colonial ancestry at the expense of her confluent African diasporic heritage. In a scene of magic realism in which natural history once again serves to stand in for the lies of political myth, Dona Eugenia is crushed to death by stampeding pigs—"savage creatures"--that do the work that her ancestors feared would be executed by the former slaves of Haiti. Although the father has these "revolting" pigs slaughtered, in an ironic re-appropriation, the villagers begin to worship Dona Eugenia as a beatified martyr, one depicted in murals as reminiscent of the Virgin de Caridad or Guadalupe. In this story of the mulatta mother, Garcia also includes one other telling historical allusion that becomes central to the racial allegory. All that remains to Blanca of her mother after the "freak accident" is a "fragment of bone in a worn flannel pouch on her belt" (186), a bone which Constancia on her return to Cuba exhumes along with her father’s papers. This bone fragment recalls the controversy over the "bone of the Inca," which allegedly resolved the cultural battle over the racial identity of the mulatto, Antonio Maceo, one of the heroes of Cuban independence. In 1930 President Geraldo Machado declared the date of Maceo’s death a national holiday to win Afro-Cuban support, giving official recognition to the way he had become a revered symbol of an Afro-centric version of Cuba’s mixed racial fraternity. Yet, in the years immediately after Maceo’s death in battle in 1897 during the war for Cuban independence, there was a struggle over the racial identity of this military hero. To end the controversy, Maceo’s remains were exhumed and he was declared to have the "bone of the Inca"—the wrist bone that was said to have an extra bump (de la Fuente 39). Yet this forensic exhumation did not end the controversy over Maceo’s "image," and other anthropological studies, while acknowledging that Maceo was a mulatto, declared that he was closer to white. Most drawings of the independence leader, especially among the Conservative elite, continued to render him as nearly white. By holding onto her mother’s bones, Blanca, like many other Cubans of African descent, sought to resist the whitening of Cuban history and national identity.

[30] Yet in uncovering the murderous lies that preserved a normative whiteness within pre-revolutionary Cuba’s myths of racial democracy, ones that were tied specifically to control of female identity and sexuality, Garcia suggests that this same "whitening" is occurring in contemporary formations of Cubana/Latina identities. Unlike Alvarez’s In the Name of Salome, Garcia’s novel works to disrupt these contemporary formations of the Latina as a "white woman with colored assets." Alvarez’s working out of these racial issues can be seen in her contrast between the two Aguero sisters, Constancia and Reina, and what they represent. As her name would suggest, Constancia is constant to her mother’s memory, or at least to her father’s telling of it. Yet, if Constancia cannot forget the mother who "accidentally" died, she literally seeks to re-embody this figure of the mother. When Constancia moves from New York City to Miami to live among the prosperous exile community, she undergoes an identity dissolution. This dissolution Garcia dramatizes within the ghostly implausibilities of magic realism as the taking on her "mother’s face" (106). While at first, Constancia (and the reader) assume that Constancia is hallucinating, her sister Reina and others confirm that she now has become her mother. The Aguero Sisters makes literal Freud’s observations that in mourning, the individual often tries to deal with her or his grief by identifying with and becoming the lost object of desire (Eng 6).

[31] Although at first, Constancia responds with horror when she sees her mother’s face in the mirror, she soon begins to welcome her transformation: "Last month, she awoke and discovered that her mother’s face had replaced her own. . . . She finds the soft stretch of Mama’s flesh over hers oddly sustaining, as if she were buoyed by a warm tidal power" (130). While before Constancia had felt "adrift" as a daughter (and an immigrant) who had lost her mother and her mother country, in recreating in herself her mother’s identity, she now finds herself "sustained." Having been re-energized by this identification with her mother, Constancia even launches a line of beauty products with her mother’s whitened face as the company logo and actively markets this "Latina" identity to other Cubanas as well as other Hispanics. After the success of her initial eye repair cream, Ojos de Cuba, Constancia imagines that she will "make-over" the entire body of the Cuban woman:

Constancia intends to launch a full complement of face and body products for every glorious inch of Cuban womanhood: Cuello de Cuba, Senos de Cuba, Codoes de Cuba, Muslos de Cuba, and so one. Each item in her Cuerpo de Cuba line will embody the exalted image Cuban women have of themselves as passionate, self-sacrificing, and deserving of every luxury.(131)

By using her mother’s image in her ads, Constancia feels that she will invoke her clients’ memories: "they feel more cubana after using her products, that they recall long forgotten details of their childhoods" (132). Yet, Constancia’s attempt to preserve the mother as beauty myth recapitulates her father’s preservation of her mother as taxidermal specimen over whose story he maintains complete control. In The Aguero Sisters, Garcia complicates the notion that a Cuban Americana or Latina identity can be authored through a memory of the mother country. Not only are memories not mimetic, but they can be, as they are here, rehearsals of the same scripted lies that the father told.  Blanca was a woman who rebelled against normative feminine traits of sentimentalism, self-sacrifice and passive consumption. She fled her home to defy her entrapment as such a "kept woman," and she prized her black Afro-Cuban genealogy, carrying the "bone" of her mulatta mother. By remembering her mother as part of the contemporary immigrant story, Constancia simplifies the way that the mother exists only as a textual memory controlled by patriarchal history, and thus her sentimental idealizations of the mother ignore the truth buried beneath the father’s "naturalized" history and preserve an engendered whiteness within a "mestiza" or Latinidad consciousness.

[32] Constancia’s marketing of her mother Blanca returns us once again to the discourse that I traced out earlier in speaking of Wang’s Maid in Manhattan, and which I called "blanca from the block." What keeps this Latina distinct is her double consciousness, but in this transracial and transnational identity, the consumption of mass marketed racial narratives supplants cultural sensibilities and alternative understandings. Since the blanca from the block’s memory of where she came from is actually  a commodified  street credibility, her invented memories, as we have seen in Wang’s film and now in Garcia’s story of Constancia, can not incorporate the presence of an African diasporic heritage, experience, or world view. In returning to Cuba to recover a sense of "wholeness," Constancia must not just discover the truth of  her father’s crime (as revealed in his papers) but also the heritage of the mulatta’s "little bone" which "she will take home to her sister" (298). To heal her sense of fragmentation and dislocation, Constancia had wanted to create a new narrative of Cuban Americana identity that would reconnect her with the father’s imagined "white" mother. Yet such a nostalgic look backward only took her further and further from the full routes (roots), to borrow Paul Gilroy’s phrase, of a revolutionary Haitian and African diasporic history that her mother loved and carried in her bone(s).

[33] This bone, it should be noted, stands in sharp contrast to the prettified commodified reality of Latina-ness in the consumer republic—one that Constancia would make similar in design to the white Dolce and Gabbana suit in Maid in Manhattan. Indeed, it stands witness against the father’s positivist science with its mystifying reports. In symbolizing the Aguero sister’s "blackness"  as a bone retained as a saint’s relic, Garcia suggests that, like a relic, its power lies outside scientific verification. The value of the bone fragment lies in the textual memories associate with it, in the interpretations of a past, which future generations bring to it, but which are no longer visibly present. Constancia’s discovery then does not finally once and for all lay to rest the mystery of her mother’s identity (or of her own). Instead, it initiates the ongoing process that is at the core of a "mestiza" identity, an identity which is never fully realized in some final synthesis or product, but must be recreated by each generation of transnational daughters who journey to discover and re-connect with the truth of their mothers and ancestors in the context of their own lived experience.

[34] In her essay, "Eccentric Bodies, " Carla Peterson argues that historically African American women responded to the cultural perceptions about the black woman’s body in one of several ways (xv). While nineteenth-century writers pushed for the black woman’s assimilation by decorporalizing or normalizing the black woman’s different body in their representations, others sought to "flaunt" the grotesque, eccentric body that served as the "other" to a normal (white) womanhood. In The Aguero Sisters, Garcia takes a similar tactic of "flaunting" an eccentric, or "grotesque" Latina body in her portrayal of the sister Reina as the new cubana, who resists a normative whiteness. As the half sister to Constancia, Reina is the child resulting from Blanca’s affair with an unnamed giant mulatto. When Reina encounters him at her mother’s grave, she describes him as "with skin a flawless evening black" (194), and he in turn hails her as "mi hija" (194). Like her mother, Reina has a wildness that refuses to be domesticated and made over into the tamed "cuerpo de Cuba," and indeed when Constancia offers her sister some of her beauty products, she uses them as lubricants for her tools. In coming to Key Biscaye, Reina, who is described as an "Amazon queen," disrupts the order there with her defiance of domestic piety and her open avowal of sexuality: "every inch of her body . . . is an invitation to pleasure" (196). When chastised by her older sister, she refuses to assume the Cubana’s modesty, decrying that "civilization she feels kills every original thirst" (200). Neither in her looks nor in her behavior does Reina embody her sister’s ideas of the cuerpo de Cuba.

[35] In her portrayal of Reina, Garcia suggests the new role allowed women in a post-revolutionary Cuba. As a campanera who is a competent electrician, a self-confident and assertive lover, and an independent political thinker, Reina is eccentric or outside the norms of femininity that her father tried to impose on her mother in pre-revolutionary Cuba. But Reina is also an "eccentric" or "grotesque" character in Petersen’s terms, because she represents an alternative embodiment of the transnational "mestiza"—one defined by her disfigurement, not a preservation of feminine norms of whiteness. Literally, Reina is a "grotesque" character because her body is a patchwork of skin grafts and different racial histories. For Reina, African diasporic history is not merely a colorful "asset" or a commodified style to be worn on the weekend. It is a scar, one that Reina carries on her body, as a witness to her past and experience. 

[36] Her blackness, moreover, Garcia highlights, is also not reducible to a renewed primitivist fantasy, but is associated with the revolutionary spirit and name of slave ancestors, which Alvarez could not make a part of the Spirit of Salome. While working as an electrician in the El Cobre mines, the site of a slave revolt that ended with the mutineers gaining their freedom, Reina is burned when an earthquake and the resultant mud slides ignite a fire. After her body is badly burned, Reina receives skin grafts from her lover Pepin, her daughter, as well as other anonymous volunteers. Her body literally becomes a palimpsest of the many different people, voices, histories and ideas within post-revolutionary Cuba.  Transformed by her encounter with a slave past, Reina is resurrected as a different kind of mestiza, one who is not just black or white, but truly multiple, fed by many signs that still carry the weight of history.  When Reina first notices the disfiguration and itching of the grafts in the hospital, Pepin tells her, speaking with a figurative resonance, that she must accept this "disfigurement" as the "condition of survival" (37). And indeed this "eccentric" "disfigured" body in contrast to Constancia’s cuerpo de Cuba does give Reina a remarkable strength and beauty, one that affords her not only a new self-presence, but also allows her to survive—and indeed thrive—in her transnational migration.  During the  conflagration at the El Cobre mines, Reina had burned into her the spirit and strength of her slave ancestors. And it is precisely this power that gives Reina, in contrast to Constancia, the ability to hold onto the stuffed birds, specimens, antique volumes and other artifacts of her adopted father (and Spanish-speaking fatherland) to pass down to the granddaughter Raku. She does not fear a disintegration of self, no matter where she may travel, even amidst the Cuba exile community of Miami that might try to restore a pre-Revolutionary past.  In this disfigured cuerpo de Cuba, one that is a patchwork of "grafts" without clear origins, Garcia imagines a mestiza who can pull from both her mother’s and her father’s many racial pasts. She is no white woman of color, or colored woman with whiteness, but an eccentric Amazon that resists such easy racial hierarchies and gender and national classifications. She looms as the nightmare, not the Hollywood palliative, within Middle America’s fantasy because her Afro-diasporic history is burned into her flesh in distinct patches. 

[37] As Claudia Sadowski-Smith notes, abstract theories of the borderland or transnational mestiza identities that see hybridity as liberating marginalized groups from oppressive nation, race or gender based forms can ignore how markers of identity are embedded in historical context and thus can run the danger of re-inscribing the very identity boundaries they seek to transcend. In recovering the figure of the mestiza as "blanca from the block" in turn-of-the-21st-century discourse, I have tried to argue that popular versions of the mestiza Latina that are marketed by Hollywood and MTV can and do re-establish racial borders to create a Republican friendly U.S. multiculturalism. But rather than evaluating the mestiza consciousness of the new Latina/o as finally either freeing or restrictive, I have tried to foreground the figure of the Latina as a site of contestation, as a fluid, syncretic identification over which various groups in our contemporary society are struggling for authorizing control. In their novels, both Julia Alvarez and Cristina Garcia begin the important work of showing how whiteness can still retain a strong normative function within contemporary formations of the transnational mestiza. Yet, while both In the Name of Salome and The Aguero Sisters are interventions into the ongoing, new millennial debate about how to represent and think about the emergent subjectivity of the Latina, Alvarez’s novel assimilates the Americanized race logic of unmarked whiteness that I have called "blanca from the block," and reproduces the ideological falsehood of the mestiza as unscarred by an African diasporic cultural legacy that is more than a "commodified asset" adding color to the "white woman." Despite predictions of the abolition of whiteness in a new Utopian U.S. borderland consciousness, we continue to struggle with what Morrison described as the "black presence" in an emerging transnational American culture. In her figure of Reina, Cristina Garcia, however, begins the work of imagining a different kind of mestiza, one who can serve as an important counter to the blanca from the block. This disfigured mestiza will always carry the scar of her complex history and thus retains the "blackness" (and brownness and yellowness) trivialized within an abstract borderland theory. In the figure of Reina, Garcia points out the need to expand theories of transnationalism: Just as we have begun to re-conceive displacement and exile as also opportunities for multiple sites of belonging, affiliation and cultural agency, a paradoxically "enabling" disfigurement, Garcia implies, may--metaphorically speaking--be just what the mestiza Latina needs to end the migrant’s internalization and embodiment of  the white lies of the father.


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Contributor’s Note:

Stephen Knadler is an associate professor of English at Spelman College, where he teaches US literature and cultural studies. He is the author of The Fugitive Race: Minority Writers Resisting Whiteness (U Press of Mississippi, 2002), and his recent essays on gender and violence in the Harlem Renaissance have appeared in Modern Fiction and African American Review. Currently, he is working on an NEH-funded project exploring the transnationalism of nineteenth-century “African American” culture.

 

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Ann Kibbey.

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