Another modernity

By Gavin O’Toole

Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities, by Laura Lomas
Duke University Press, ISBN 978-0-8223-4325-7, 379 pp

Latino migrants were perhaps better placed than other observers to witness a critical moment in the transformation of the United States into an imperial power at the end of the nineteenth century, for it was towards their homelands that the turrets of empire were turning.

Among the most celebrated observers of how modernity was being prescribed for lesser peoples by an expansionist Washington was the Cuban poet and revolutionary José Martí, whose translation and interpretation of Anglo-American culture offers a unique perspective to explore both the metropolis and the emergent critique of it in the periphery and diasporas.

Laura Lomas explores in fine detail the translations of Martí and his interpretations of North American culture to elucidate a picture of the alternative modernity he envisaged, expressing a newly multiracial and transnational Latino community within the US that challenged the rhetoric of manifest destiny and scientific racism of the era. In this meticulously researched volume — born of her own negative experiences in El Salvador at the hands of US-trained local police — she recaptures the unique snapshot provided in Martí’s work of the “not yet readily apparent imperial project” of the US, which the poet translated for Latin American and Latino readers.

It was from the US that Martí fashioned his place in history as the apostle of Cuban Independence — by unifying the Cuban émigré community in Florida, he made a significant contribution to the success of Cuba’s anti-colonial struggle. Yet, given his extensive knowledge and experience of life in North America, Martí can also be seen as one of most important interlocutors of US modernity of his era. Lomas argues that to read the canonical literature and popular culture of the US between 1880 and 1895 through his eyes is to see afresh the trajectory of another modernity.

The seeds of this “modernist disruption” were Martí’s scholarly and quiet observations about the US empire in formation from his office in Manhattan, from where he immersed himself in US culture over the course of nearly fifteen years. She writes:

Although Martí’s journalism, literary criticism, poetry, diaries, fragmentary pieces, epistolary writing, and oratory respect the founding principles of the United States, they also observe imperial modernity working hand in hand to stratify, exclude, and circumscribe access to modernity’s key promises.

By placing these observations about the US itself and a critical reinterpretation of its culture by one of the greatest Latin Americans at the heart of her research, Lomas has taken a radical step that offers a critique of US American studies from within.

Translating Empire aims to show how indispensable Latino migrant translations have been to the imagining of American cultural and literary history. It is a task that captures in a small but convincing and eloquent way the mood of the moment, in which Barack Obama’s appeal, for example, to engage with Latin America on the basis of equality and mutual respect, a shared Americanness, appears to herald a new era of relations.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009

Gavin O’Toole is the editor of The Latin American Review of Books, where this review first appeared.