N. Michelle Murray, Akiko Tsuchiya, eds. Unsettling Colonialism: Gender and Race in the Nineteenth-Century Global Hispanic World. SUNY Series in Latin American and Iberian Thought and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019. 302 pp. $32.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4384-7647-6; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-7645-2.
Reviewed by Anderson Hagler (Duke University)
Published on H-LatAm (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
In their introduction, N. Michelle Murray and Akiko Tsuchiya note that Unsettling Colonialism probes the “entanglements of gender and race” as they relate to Spanish imperialism in the Iberian world, which has, heretofore, received scant attention from scholars of feminist postcolonial studies (p. 1). The contributors to this volume examine the ways European men and women exploited, used, and justified Spain’s colonial enterprises in far-flung places, such as Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, and the Philippines. Several of the essays show how women were directly engaged in Spain’s colonizing mission and complicit in sustaining imperialist ideologies. These authors demonstrate how colonial discourses elevated whiteness and championed racial purity amid metropolitan fears of miscegenation. Several of the authors consider the role of women in both the domestic and public spheres as Spain fretted about its dwindling hold on overseas territories in the nineteenth century.
The volume is divided into three thematic sections. Part 1, “Colonialism and Women’s Migrations,” considers how women personified Spain’s imperial schemes either as exploited laborers or as knowledge producers who sustained colonization. Benita Sampedro Vizcaya opens the book with her chapter, “The Colonial Politics of Meteorology: The West African Expedition of the Urquiola Sisters.” Vizcaya underscores the silencing and reappropriation of Manuela and Isabel Urquiola’s scientific efforts as Spain expanded its hold in Equatorial Guinea. Unfortunately for the Urquiola sisters, Manuel Iradier Bulfy, the famous explorer, personally benefited from the meteorological data gathered by Manuela and Isabel, allowing him to tour the country as a hero and lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in Madrid. Although Vizcaya reveals that European men and women joined forces to sustain imperialism, she also notes that the recovery of women, such as the Urquiola sisters, foregrounds white/Iberian forms of knowledge production over indigenous epistemologies. The efforts of locals who guided explorers, missionaries, and other Iberians in their homelands remain obscured.
In chapter 2, Lisa Surwillo illuminates how travel narratives contributed to the ideology of Hispanism and its cultural neoimperialism in Cuba. In “Eva Canel and the Gender of Hispanism,” Surwillo examines Canel’s Lo que vi en Cuba, a través de la isla (1916), which claimed to convey Cubans’ feelings toward Spain following independence. Canel interpreted the warm welcome that she personally received as a metonymical acceptance of Spain itself. Canel thus projected her fantasy of a unified empire onto the newly independent island nation.
Surwillo delves into the contradictory nature of Canel who, despite her presence in the public sphere, championed traditional gender roles for women as wives and mothers. Surwillo also highlights Canel’s idealistic, perhaps naïve, approach to race, noting that Canel believed Hispanism was not racist as it provided women of color “a sentimental and aesthetic framework with which to articulate their place in society” (p. 71). Ultimately, Canel hoped her writings would revitalize Cubans’ identification with the motherland and prevent emigrants from becoming Americanized. Yet, as Surwillo shows, Canel’s equivocal place in Spain’s canon stems from the fact that “neither side of the Atlantic has claimed her” (p. 77).
Tsuchiya’s contribution in chapter 3, “Gender, Race, and Spain’s Colonial Legacy in the Americas: Representations of White Slavery in Eugenio Flores’s Trata de blancas and Eduardo López Bago’s Carne importada,” highlights sex trafficking in the late nineteenth century as the Spanish nation lost a significant sector of its population from the impoverished regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria. Mass migrations to the Americas sparked fears among metropolitan elites about racial degeneration and gender roles, making women and their bodies the focus of medical interventions and social surveillance. The literary works examined in this chapter reveal that metropolitan men fetishized the sexual exploitation and violence of women for the “purpose of social critique and political denunciation” (p. 95). These male writers’ denunciations of sexual commerce reduced the figure of the prostitute to a trope of otherness while critiquing capitalism and fretting about the loss of empire.
Part 2, “Race, Performance, and Colonial Ideologies,” considers how fin-de-siècle literature constructed race. In chapter 4, “A Black Woman Called Blanca la extranjera in Faustina Sáez de Melgar’s Los miserables (1862-63),” Ana Mateos explores how the body relates to women and slavery through Melgar’s protagonist Alejandrina, a woman who uses blackface to disguise herself while she investigates her parents’ murder. Despite Alejandrina’s empathy toward the enslaved, Mateos shows that Los miserables’s proto-feminist and abolitionist stance actually conformed to patriarchal social norms. Although Alejandrina employed philanthropy to improve the living conditions of Madrid’s poor, her status as a noblewoman validates, rather than undermines, the colonization of the Americas. Mateos illuminates how Alejandrina perpetuated contemporary notions of female respectability and maintained a sociopolitical hierarchy that elevated whites above peoples of color.
In chapter 5, Mar Soria analyzes the comical staging of blackface through the genre known as género chico—mass produced one-and two-act plays—which reified Spain’s cultural superiority over its colonies. Consequently, “Colonial Imaginings on the Stage: Blackface, Gender, and the Economics of Empire in Spanish and Catalan Popular Theater” brings to light how blackface mocked nonwhite peoples. The racial demographics of Cuba so worried metropolitans precisely because the island was an important source of wealth. Soria makes a significant intervention by demonstrating the role that Catalan merchants and playwrights had in perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade. Soria notes that the comedy Las Carolinas (1886) written by Antoni Ferrer i Codina—one of the first authors to bring género chico to Catalan—echoed Spanish conservative opinions, “which considered antislavery supporters unpatriotic and at the service of foreign interests” (p. 142). Spanish playwrights thus employed género chico to justify colonization, reinforcing their sense of self, nationhood, and imperial pride.
The four essays that comprise part 3, “Gender and Colonialism in Literary and Political Debates,” further explore the gender dynamics of imperial and colonial discourses. In chapter 6, “Becoming Useless: Masculinity, Able-Bodiedness, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Spain,” Julia Chang considers how Spanish soldiers functioned as an extension of imperial power. The discursive side of military recruitment shaped notions of masculine utility and beauty. Building on feminist and queer scholarship, as well as Michel Foucault’s theories of biopower and disciplinary bodies, Chang illuminates how the Spanish military produced both the oppressor and the oppressed as the overriding concern for military conscription was to enlist beautiful, able-bodied men. Indeed, Chang breaks new ground in Iberian studies by juxtaposing útil with inútil, destabilizing the corporeal fixity of Spanish colonizers.
Chapter 7, “From Imperial Boots to Naked Feet: Clarín’s Views on Cuban Freedom and Female Independence in La Regenta,” written by Nuria Godón, examines the discourses of colonialism and domination in Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta (1884-85). Alas, also known as Clarín, did not wish for an entirely independent Cuba. Instead, Clarín favored autonomy from Spain similar to that already established in Galicia and Catalonia. Godón emphasizes Clarín’s moderate, rather than revolutionary, stance on Cuban women. Although Clarín defended women’s autonomy and their right to marry for love, he rejected the total emancipation of women. By connecting familial honor to the nation, Clarín reinforced a common patriarchal paradigm that linked honor to political and sexual conquest.
Joyce Tolliver’s fascinating essay in chapter 8, “Dalagas and Ilustrados: Gender, Language, and Indigeneity in the Philippine Colonies,” examines a tense period of transition in the Philippines as the nation gained independence from Spain only to be dominated by another foreign power—the United States. Tolliver combines her analysis of José Rizal’s letter, “Message to the Young Women of Malolos” (1889) with that of Pedro Paterno’s tale, “La dalaga virtuosa” (1910), to show how idealized notions of indigeneity and sexual purity excluded Filipina women from the public sphere. In December 1888, a group of twenty young women from the city of Malolos petitioned the governor general to establish a Spanish-language school for women in their town. By petitioning the governor general directly, these women bypassed the friar curates who, until then, had maintained “iron control over the colonized peoples of the Philippines” (p. 233). In response to this petition, José Rizal (1861-96), the polyglot physician and martyred national hero, wrote an open letter in Tagalog to the women, attaching their pleas for education to his own cause. Tolliver shows that the decision to write in Tagalog rather than Spanish placed Rizal in the same position of authority as the friars, transforming these Filipinas into passive recipients of Rizal’s wisdom. Similarly, Paterno wrote morality tales that emphasized the need to control women’s sexuality. In “La dalaga virtuosa,” a beautiful maiden is rewarded for renouncing her sexual desire, implying that all Filipinas should follow her example. Because he dedicated his collection to schools in Manila, Paterno presented himself as a benevolent source of moral guidance. In sum, Tolliver compares the Philippine national hero with the nation’s antihero, demonstrating that both icons didactically constructed foundational fictions of female purity.
In chapter 9, “The Spanish Carceral Archipelago: Concepción Arenal against Penitentiary Colonization,” Aurélie Vialette illuminates how penal colonies were intended to save the Spanish Empire from complete dissolution. Building on Foucault’s theory of biopower and Giorgio Agamben’s spaces of exception, Vialette argues that overseas penal colonies merely created the illusion of rehabilitation. The metropole never intended for these convicts-cum-citizens to return to Iberia. Vialette’s inclusion of Concepción Arenal, a Galician lawyer and anthropologist who railed against the establishment of penal colonies, reveals “how a woman could participate in the legal debates connecting prison reform and neocolonial movements to keep the Spanish empire alive” (p. 258). The role of redemption was of utmost importance because the rehabilitation that, supposedly, occurred in the penal colony facilitated the rebirth of Spain’s colonial power. That Arenal’s critique was taken seriously by her contemporaries shows how a woman, in a field otherwise dominated by men, participated in legal debates regarding prison reform and the state of the Spanish Empire.
The delightful contributions that comprise Unsettling Colonialism reveal the complex gender and racial dynamics of Spain’s overseas enterprises as the nation faced staggering imperial losses. The authors’ analyses of women and colonized subjects in literary, historical, and cultural narratives unsettles colonialism by exposing how marginalized individuals identified potential spaces of resistance within the prevailing discourses of imperial expansion. Readers of this engaging anthology will benefit from a greater awareness of the legacies of the Spanish Empire within the nineteenth-century Hispanic world.
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Anderson Hagler. Review of Murray, N. Michelle; Tsuchiya, Akiko, eds., Unsettling Colonialism: Gender and Race in the Nineteenth-Century Global Hispanic World.
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