John Alba Cutler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Latino/a literatures are constituted from the formation and collision of nations. Latino/a literary works have historically critiqued US nationalism while expressing other nationalist ideals, and Latino/a literary history can be narrated through the ebb and flow of various nationalist movements in the US and abroad. As just one example, consider the history of Cuban-American literature, which begins with nineteenth-century agitation for the formation of an independent Cuban nation (much of which took place in the US); extends through the years of the early republic, when Cuban political life was overshadowed by US influence via the Platt Amendment; and is dominated after 1959 by the conflicts among US national interests, and the differing nationalisms of Cuban American immigrant communities and the revolutionary Cuban state, conflicts that significantly influence writing by Cuban Americans such as Cristina García and Achy Obejas. It is therefore crucial to any interpretive project relative to Latino/a literatures to understand what a nation is, what nationalism is, and what forms each has taken in Latino/a history, as well as how artists and critics have evaluated nationalism’s limits and potential. To begin with, it is important to recognize that the nation is a historically specific, and relatively recent, political form. The nation form has dominated global politics so thoroughly since the nineteenth century that it can be difficult to perceive just what a young and strange creature it really is. As E.J. Hobsbawm has observed, the word “nation” does not enter the lexicons of Spanish, French, and English in its modern sense until the late nineteenth century (Hobsbawm 1990: 14-18). In Spanish, for instance, words such as tierra and patria tied a sense of peoplehood to territoriality long before nación came along to unite both with a specific kind of political unit. Nationalism is often hotly contested because it represents only one way among many of imagining the connections among peoples, lands, and governments. What then is a nation? The most influential definition comes from Benedict Anderson, who describes the nation as “an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 2006: 6). One key part of this definition is that the nation is imagined; it is neither essential nor naturally occurring. Scholars of nations and nationalism have long noted that attempts to define the nation objectively in terms of language, race, history, or culture have all failed, due to the differences among modern nations and to the heterogeneity within particular nations. This does not mean that nations are not real. As noted before, the nation is the predominant political unit of the modern world, and many nations indeed imagine their own limits along the lines of language, race, history, or culture. Calling attention to the nation’s “imagined” quality can thus be thought of as a way of emphasizing how it has been made real through any one of these discourses. Or not. After all, one of the dominant stories of nationalism in Latino/a literatures is the failure to establish a politically sovereign nation based on ties to a particular homeland, such as Mexico or Puerto Rico. This brings us to the question of nationalism. Anderson’s definition also insists on the nation as a political unit, but when discussing nationalism it is overreaching to insist that the nation be in fact sovereign. To do so is to conflate the nation with the state, and though the two often coincide (especially for specific segments of the population), they are not equivalent. It is entirely possible, and has been the case repeatedly in Latino/a history, especially in Puerto Rico, for people to imagine themselves as a nation not represented by the state in which they hold legal citizenship. Ernest Gellner defines “nationalism” as “primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent” (Gellner 1983: 1), which, combined with Anderson’s concept of the nation, means that nationalism is the imagined community’s aspiration to sovereignty. As is apparent in Latino/a literary history, however, social movements often have very different ideas of how sovereignty is constituted. Anderson and Gellner clearly have in mind the sovereignty of the state, and it seems to make sense that nationalism must as a baseline definition be an aspiration to state sovereignty if the nation is defined as a political unit. Still, nationalisms can be liberal or radical, violent or measured, popular or elitist. Indeed, Anderson’s conception of the nation has been roundly critiqued by postcolonial theorists for its assumption of a universal nation form. As Partha Chatterjee asserts, “anticolonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it begins its political battle with the imperial power.. .. In this, its true and essential domain, the nation is already sovereign, even when the state is in the hands of the colonial power” (Chatterjee 1993: 6). Particularly for the Chicano and Nuyorican movements, critics have noted the importance of cultural nationalism, especially in literature focused on promoting a kind of cultural sovereignty, celebrating Latino/a identity and promoting community empowerment as part of a larger program of social justice within the US. Keeping in mind these definitions, in this article I will briefly survey the sig- nificance of nationalism to Latino/a literature. I begin by addressing nationalism as a historical phenomenon, specifically exploring how the role nationalism has played in the formation of the three largest bodies of Latino/a literature: Chicano, CubanAmerican, and Puerto Rican literatures. Each of these literatures has its own peculiar relationship to the US and hence nationalism has taken different forms in their respective literary canons. After meditating on nationalism as a historical question, I turn my attention to the relationship between nationalism and literary form, since theorists have long posited nationalism’s symbiotic relationship with the novel and print journalism. In the final section of the essay, I consider some of the ongoing critical problems presented by nations and nationalism to the study of Latino/a literature. In particular, the nation form’s recourse to essentialism, the patriarchal organization of nationalist movements, and the development of translational categories of analysis have limited nationalism’s relevance as a political and aesthetic program among Latino artists and critics. Despite these challenges, nationalism remains a crucial category for the study and interpretation of all Latino/a literatures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781136221613
ISBN (Print)9780415666060
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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