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Discovering Resemblances: Language and Identity in Caribbean Poetry
“Hispanic” is an identification generally accepted in the Caribbean by both black and white residents of the islands. Examination of poems by several black Caribbean poets (the Puerto Ricans Mayra Santos Febres and Magaly Quiñones, the Dominicans Sherezada [Chiqui] Vicioso and Blas Jiménez, and the Cuban Escilia Saldaña) reveals how they use Spanish to communicate the life experience unique to black bearers of the cultural term “Hispanic.”
|“Hispanidad” is the term used in Spanish to identify the culture of people
of Hispanic heritage around the world. Given the growing trend across the Americas
and indeed globally in the areas of “Latin” or Hispanic pop culture and music,
a timely discussion of what constitutes Hispanic identity is both engaging
and justifiable. Today, the term “Hispanic” is being contested in varied circles
in the United States, where “latino/a” is preferred.1
In the main this is because “Hispanic” is a largely pejorative term in the United
States, although discrimination against Hispanics is in no way limited to that
country alone. Unfortunately “Hispanic” in the United States is often associated
with such negativity as poverty, low class, laziness, prostitution and drug use.
Additionally there are older forms of debates that further complicate the notion
of a Hispanic identity. For example, the historical debate about Europe’s
subjugation of a continent of Amerindian people remains relevant today because
it gives substance to the experiences of one group of Hispanic people. Cuban
American critic Jorge Gracia insists upon the differences among the groups of
people generally classified as Hispanics:
He asserts that nothing save their situation of marginalization unites
It is evident that Gracia is writing as a Cuban-American from a North American perspective. In contrast to his rejection of the label Hispanic, in the Caribbean today the term is largely accepted. In this area blacks have been marginalized more severely than members of other racial groups. If we concede that Hispanic is a blanket term covering all races of Spanish-speaking persons, we must also understand that when applied to the whole issue of blackness and black identity in the Caribbean, the erasure of blackness is almost total. Given the factors described above, it is quite ironic that in the Caribbean today, the term “Hispanic” is largely accepted as a form of self-identification and moreover as a racial grouping. Caribbean people have developed a keen sense of their “Caribbeanness” but as importantly, as we navigate the 21st century, across the Caribbean, race continues to be a divisive issue socially and even politically. Because of this, it is easier and more acceptable in the Caribbean to identify oneself as Hispanic rather than choose another racial label such as Black or African, which may carry with it a certain stigma. And this is true of the entire Caribbean. In one sense then, the maintenance of an Hispanic identity was and is able to unify the people of the three nations of the Hispanic Caribbean: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Identity is simply a way of making sense of our experiences and in the Caribbean, like elsewhere, we inherit black identity together with all the negativity of being Black. As such, many people also consciously choose an Hispanic identity which oftentimes subsumes their black identity. In the Hispanic Caribbean, “Hispanidad” is perhaps the best code of identification since it excludes no one, rich nor poor, Black nor White. Many people see “Hispanidad” as having a connection to a White European heritage, which is very desirable. For others, “hispanidad” masks a blackness (in terms of race), which they do not accept. For yet others, as there is no one race which can be called “hispanic” and because “hispanidad” by its very nature includes the notion of hybridity, then it perfectly symbolizes the unique nature of Hispanic Caribbean identity: a fragmented yet indivisible whole. Seen in this light, it can be ascertained that “Hispanidad” encompasses all of the configurations and ideals of the peoples of the Hispanic Caribbean.
Linguistic unity should also be considered in an examination of Hispanic Caribbean
identity because language is one of the principal systems of identification
among the peoples of any nation. In this sense, the peoples of the Hispanic
Caribbean do share a common language: Spanish. Alternately, Gracia argues that: “the
linguistic criterion, …is of no use”4
because, he points out, the Spanish language cannot and does not explain the
source of Hispanic identity. It simply involves too little. Yet, the theorist
Julia Kristeva has identified language as “a signifying system in which the speaking
subject makes and unmakes himself.”5
And although the Spanish language does not unify all Hispanic people, it is clear
that the linguistic commonality of the Hispanic Caribbean has resulted in a link
among the three nations within the Caribbean region. Critical theorist Satya
P. Mohanty points out that:
This argument is perhaps best supported by the fact that within the Caribbean, the Hispanic nations are seen as a community by the non-Hispanic countries. In the main, this is based on politico-historical ties as well as the linguistic criterion.7 Additionally Mohanty goes on to explain that: “There are different ways of making sense of an experience, and the way we make sense of it can in fact create a new experience” (Mohanty, p. 34) We can take this to mean that in a Caribbean context, there is a particular understanding of an Hispanic community. Normally it is one which, in some measure, excludes blackness or subsumes it, and which provides a certain cultural cohesiveness. Thus, while we must examine in more detail the role of language in the Hispanic Caribbean, we must also consider race and specifically, the invisibility of Blacks in any attempt to articulate identity in the Hispanic Caribbean. This paper attempts a close reading of several poems written by contemporary Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican poets who all articulate a shared sense of vision in the construction and representation of an Hispanic Caribbean identity. These writers are Black or Mulatto and identify themselves as writing from that subjective space. If we accept Evelyn Fisburn’s thesis that: “language [is] our means of access to reality” and that “literature, one of the most powerful vehicles for the expression of language, has a fundamental role to play in constituting our ways of thinking and establishing our cultural norms,” then poetry -- which is an expression of our self-knowledge and a means of expression which reflects the imaginative outpourings of an author’s life experience -- is the perfect tool to use in any examination of the question of identity.
The poems considered in this article are by the Puerto Ricans Mayra Santos Febres, and Magaly Quiñones, the Dominicans, Sherezada (Chiqui) Vicioso, and Blas Jiménez, and the Cuban Excilia Saldaña. The choice of these poets was predicated on the fact that their poetic production enters the racial debate and contributes to the discussion at hand. Admittedly Cuban poet Nancy Morejón (1944- ) is the most prolific Afro-Cuban poet writing today, however, her work is not here included as poets were also chosen for their relatively unknown status so as to observe whether the topic of language and identity was engaging debate generally among writers in the Hispanic Caribbean and not solely of interest to the larger world figures.8 It is therefore most noteworthy that the poets of this study all seek to privilege blackness and to revise the model by which Afro-Hispanic Caribbean identity and indeed Caribbean identity has been considered. Many of the poems are an experimental deconstruction of language and through it a reconstruction of an identity which is acceptable to the people as Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican. At the same time, they bring into consideration aspects of identity formation pertinent to Caribbean history such as race, whitening or “blanqueamiento” and hybridity. Psychoanalyst and theorist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) argues in his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, that Blacks in the Caribbean face an “arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment,”9 and further to that, language, as we have already ascertained, is central to a person’s sense of identity. Again, it is Fanon who declares that “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is”(Black Skin, p.38). Thus it can be argued that this explains the extraordinarily refined nature of language use among many Hispanic Caribbean poets. References to language among the poets of this study do not foreground the language, which they speak, as a barrier that prevents the old colonizer (Spain) and the former colonized subject (The Hispanic Caribbean) from having a shared sense of identity. Moreover, polysemy is a common device in several of these poems. The multifaceted play on words and meaning/s can be seen in one sense, as proof of having “measured up to the culture” (Black Skin, p. 39) as Fanon suggests. But an alternative interpretation might highlight it as indicative of the poets’ sense of confusion in terms of identity and race. Central to the language used by these Hispanic Caribbean poets is a keen sense of the colors and the rhythmic way of life shared by the people of the Caribbean together with an ironic questioning of the black Caribbean Self.
Mayra Santos Febres’ poem ‘Palabra en el puño’ aptly demonstrates her
opinion of the role which language plays in the creation of identity. The poem
Here Santos Febres uses images of penetration, pregnancy and reproduction
to describe the creation of Puerto Rico. She points out that language is central
to identity. It informs history. It is history. It exemplifies the generations
of violence and pain inflicted on individuals on the island. For the islander,
language can represent the noose around the neck, which can kill, but equally
it is symbolic of hope because by hanging on to it, survival can be insured.
The poet describes: “la palabra / ombligo con tentáculos” (p. 68). She
uses language to redefine herself and seems constantly wary of it as she presents
the duality which is inherent in language: “de palancas y tuercas para el amor
/ explotando la palabra” (p. 68). This duality at once presents the repressive
nature of language as well as its liberating potential. Santos Febres is concerned
for the mind of the people in the Caribbean. At times, her imagery is harsh
and suggests fear and pain. In trying to speak, to grasp the meaning of the
words in her homeland, the poet recognizes the difficulty of the job for the
colonized mind. There is so much of the past wrapped up in language and tied
to the present that any rewriting of the Self becomes an almost impossible
The words are all jumbled. The poet returns to the space of creation, the
earth, to begin again: “regresa al ombligo de las máquinas / de la tierra” (p.
68) and she assumes her indestructibility through writing and by rewriting
The poem does end with hope for the future. Santos Febres, having discovered her own place in the context of the island and that of language, finds herself forced to speak out to the people. Her words reject the past in looking ahead to a new day. She seeks to help the Caribbean people to rid themselves of the chains of history and to move forward with a sense of their right to choose their own forms of self-expression and thus to write their own identity.
In the poem entitled ‘Malecón’, the Dominican poet Chiqui Vicioso presents
the idea of the torment of language and the role which it plays in the self-identification
of the individual. The poem opens with a very sexualised description: “Amurallada
en blancos pantalones / ofrece la ciudad sus orificios.”11
The city, covered in virginal white, lies spread open. This description revokes
the visual image of purity normally associated with whiteness and with it, the
mental assimilation of the language of the Whites in the Caribbean. Educated
Blacks in the Caribbean are often accused of “thinking” White. Mentally blanketed
in a White language, Vicioso presents the idea that the black individual must
strip bare in order to represent himself truthfully. Vicioso describes the country
as a place where poverty is endemic and passes from one generation to the next:
All around the country, the poet is faced with scenes of poverty and social
injustice. Even the animals are victims who suffer the same plight as their
Vicioso’s comments highlight the harshness of a country which allows its inhabitants
to suffer to this extreme with no relief in sight:
In one sense, this poem responds intertextually to the poem ‘Una realidad
nuestra’ by Vicioso’s fellow Dominican poet Blas Jiménez, in which he
questions the adequacy of the Spanish language to write of the poverty and
the suffering of Blacks in a world which has been for so long, dominated by
Whites. Jiménez describes the Caribbean as a world where: “quedaron
los llantos / esperanzado en los cambios / pensando que la palabra seriedad
He argues that Caribbean people must acknowledge their suffering and work to
effect change. Vicioso, like Jiménez, recognizes that there are limited
choices for Caribbean people. Therefore she experiments with language in order
to create her own more expressive vehicle. Vicioso uses the final eight lines
to ask two questions. First: “¿Qué pueden los poemas contra la
alcantarilla?” (p. 6). The second question is the poet’s response to the first
but at the same time, it is a reworking of language:
Here Vicioso is skilful with language use. Her words both ask and answer the question. The sea rushes in to the shore in an unceasing tidal wave of humanity in the same way that the lives of the people are awash with poverty. The sea surrounds the island and limits flight or escape. The poet queries what can be done to address these questions of deprivation and suffering. Vicioso’s play on the words “sal” and “salto” presents a beautiful image. The “salto” can be the ebbing tide. The “sal” contained in the sea is also essential to both the life of the sea and the people. Vicioso ends the poem with another play on the words “sol” and “solo”. At the end, the blistering sun remains looking down on the vast spread of the sea and it is alone. The poet’s comparison is with her own loneliness. She faces the tremendous task of the deconstruction of the language and she expresses the sense of isolation which she feels as she stands alone, one individual, asking what she can do for her country as she considers the destitution of the people, and the creeping sense of fear and isolation.
In the poem ‘Romana’, Vicioso plays on the use of colors and their context
within the space of language and successfully deconstructs their symbolism.
The poem opens with the words:
The plurality of existence by which the poet describes herself is most interesting.
She sees herself as the many and the one. She represents all the black girls
in the black woman that she has become. In the play on textures, the lightness
of smoke and the hard quality of the “piedras labradas,” Vicioso also establishes
a play on blackness and whiteness. Both are ethereal states. The smoke is black
and it surrounds the black skin of the poet as it infiltrates the air. It is
everywhere. She calls on the people to respect blackness because these are
the people on whom the nation is built and whose ancestors built the country.
They are the rock of the land:
Here Vicioso also describes the whiteness which is everywhere and which is
integral to the land. Yet she describes the unrelenting grayness of the days;
a reflection on the unceasing and relentless hardship in which the people live.
In this poem, the poet deconstructs all words; many of the lines can be read
in several ways. In the final stanza of the poem, Vicioso writes:
The poet’s words lie in the space between the smoke and the rocks. Her poetry is a medium of communication with the people, and it plays a very important role in the reconstruction of identity. With the words “re(claman)” Vicioso both demands solutions as well as protests the state of affairs in the country. This, like many of Vicioso’s poems, requires that the reader expand his/her way of thinking and look for alternative means of self-identification to fixed notions of language as well as race.
Puerto Rican poet Magaly Quiñones also suggests that language is central
to the construction of identity in her poem “La palabra es el germen.” Quiñones
is specifically concerned with the idea that language is central to all identity.
Language is what we use to create ourselves, to name ourselves, to identify
ourselves. She sees the job of the poet as one of creation, and language is
at the core of creation. As Julia Kristeva points out: “language is so intimately
linked to man and society that they are inseparable.”13
So too, Quiñones presents her writing as an obligation and the language
which she uses as an important instrument to master. In the first stanza, she
suggests that she is only “una vieja memoria que se inventa” (p. 30). In a sense,
Quiñones expounds the Borgesian idea that nothing new is being written.14
Indeed all that will be written has been written before and all that exists has
been the subject of past writing. Limited by use of the only possible tool, language,
with which she can represent her reality, Quiñones writes and constructs
her world. At the same time, she identifies the role of language in the (re)construction
of the Self:
Four lines in the poem appear in bold print, emphasizing the idea of
the centrality of language. Quiñones identifies this notion as central
to the poem and by presenting these words in bold face, she stresses the importance
of the idea to the reader. The poem’s central message is that language reflects
the world. Critic and theorist Bill Ashcroft writes:
There can be no denying that language is a technique, but it is much more than simply this; for if language is a shaper, then it also falls to language to define the Self. In the two final lines of the poem, Quiñones writes: “Ya no soy sino un verso / creando lo creado” (p. 30). With these words, Quiñones defines herself, her role as a poet and again she reinforces the central role that language plays in the self-defining process, but it is one which is undoubtedly repetitive.
Interestingly, the influence of the English language is an important factor
in the study of Hispanic Caribbean poetry. English is the language which most
threatens the culture of all of the Caribbean, given the strong US influence
on all areas of life. This would seem most obvious in the case of Puerto Rico,
which forms a part of the English-speaking United States, and the latter’s
influence on the small Caribbean nation is incontrovertible. Undeniably though,
the political sway of the USA in the region is seen as an unequivocal risk,
and many of the poets thus use their poetry to warn the people of this infiltration.
In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the cultural invasion of the countries
via American television and popular music is aggressive. Duncan Green writes:
Americanisms infiltrate the popular street language in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and Spanglish,18 in the past more common to New York and Miami, has found its way into popular use on the streets of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Given the political tie with the United States, Puerto Rican poetry obviously stands out among the three Hispanic Caribbean countries as the one in which an English influence is expectedly the strongest, although the island continues to maintain a separate Caribbean cultural identity. Like the Puerto Ricans, Dominican and Cuban poets have also begun to write between English and Spanish. Of the poets in this study, this is especially the case with Mayra Santos Febres and Chiqui Vicioso. All of the poems in Vicioso’s anthology Internamiento experiment with the use of both Spanish and Spanglish. However the influence of English on all of the writers is marked. In the poems this can take several forms: from the overt practice of code-switching, to the more subtle form in which one or two English words are interwoven into a poem or used as the title, to the publication of bilingual works which access a wider readership across the Caribbean.
With regard to code-switching, numerous texts have sought to define this well-known
phenomenon. It is a rapid switch between languages, which can occur from word
to word or line to line:
Code switching is extremely common in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,
thus it is natural that the societies’ use of the languages is reflected in
the poetry. An example can be found in Chiqui Vicioso’s defiant poem “Convalescencia.” Vicioso
dedicates the poem to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who saw life from the depths
of turmoil, reflected this despair in much of her poetry and eventually found
release in suicide. The poem opens with her name and Vicioso plays on sounds
Vicioso makes a shocking image out of the reconstruction of simple words.
The poet empathizes with Plath as a woman whose angst in life points to the
release of suicide. The stanza continues:
The switch in languages is unexpected and creative. As Vicioso is quoting
from the writing of Plath herself, the switch in languages is used in two contexts.
It brings home to the reader the importance of English especially in a social
context in the Dominican Republic, while at the same time the poet signals
a similarity between the pessimism of the two worlds: that of Plath and that
of Vivioso who, as a Dominican, is struggling with the type of language that
most represents “lo dominicano”. Vicioso uses code-switching as a strategic
device which strikes the reader forcefully. Throughout the poem the Spanish
(Vicioso’s voice) alternating with the English (Plath’s words echoed by Vicioso)
is at once surprising and compelling to the reader. Simultaneously, the two
languages foreshadow and mirror each other. Vicioso writes:
The suggestion is that no matter what language is used, the problems common to Blacks, to women and to Caribbean people remain timeless. The switching between English and Spanish allows Vicioso to comment on the role of the poet within the discourse of criticism and revolution in Hispanic Caribbean society. She examines her role as a Black Hispanic woman yet her comparison is of herself with Plath, a White Bostonian of German parentage. That both Vicioso and Plath should feel a rootlessness is not surprising, and the comparison with a naked Cleopatra links them both as women who are struggling with the physicality of time and who are linked between cultures.
The less overt form of Anglicisms is noted in the poets’ insertion of an English
word or phrase for cultural reference. This is found in poems in which the
poet deals with an issue of particular importance in the Hispanic Caribbean
and which is referenced to the USA, usually the target for much criticism.
In addition, the poets use this technique in an attempt to point out similarities
between the other Caribbean countries and the Hispanic Caribbean. One example
of this is Mayra Santos Febres’ poem “En Carolina.” This poem is dedicated
to the Puerto Rican Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), known in the regions as a “poeta
Here Santos Febres presents a veiled appreciation of the town and the countryside.
The rurality of the area contrasts with the encroaching development. Santos
Febres skillfully enters the debate on the divide which is the heritage of
the entire Caribbean and which still plagues the region up to the present day.
The rural way of life must make way for urbanization which is the model of
the developed world. In the poem, the water, which gives life, is also the
taker of life, in the form of the river. This echoes the reality of the Caribbean
setting, where the waters which surround the countries of the Caribbean are
heavily patrolled by the United States and thus dominated by them. In the second
stanza, she writes:
Santos Febres points out that despite the apparent liberation, the Caribbean
remains bedevilled by a cycle of dependency (on corporate USA) which is both
economical and psychological. The take-over by the USA is made complete by
industrialization and commerce. Santos Febres identifies by name the American
mega chain stores, which in a sense invade the countries of the region from
top to bottom. Santos Febres, like de Burgos, is aware of the need for a reconfirmation
of a positive and strong Caribbean identity flowing from its peoples and she
enforces this idea in her poetry:
Julia de Burgos learned from earliest childhood the complexity of life. She
was a Black woman who came from a poor Puerto Rican family. She grew up in
a small rural town through which a river ran. The possibilities for comparison
are countless. In Carolina, de Burgos, like Santos Febres much later, would
have learned the contradictions of Puerto Rican society: Black versus White,
poor versus rich, urban life versus rural life, the accepting attitude inherent
in the colonial mentality versus the power and dominance of the metropolis,
that is New York. However Julia de Burgos never accepted a lesser position
as a woman, a poet, or someone from the Caribbean. On the day of her death,
she was taken by ambulance to the Mayflower Hospital in New York, less than
two blocks from where she collapsed, but was refused treatment because she
was Black, and was therefore dispatched to one in Harlem. Of this, Chiqui Vicioso
What de Burgos establishes in her poetry is a strong sense of solidarity with
the other nations of the Caribbean. Thus, her acute sense of Caribbean identity
is a part of what makes her whole. Some of these other Caribbean nations, she
visited; others barred her entry because of the political views expressed in
her poetry. Santos Febres reminds the reader of this in the final stanza of
Santos Febres sees in Julia de Burgos a Puerto Rico personified, and at the same time, the voice of humanity. Julia de Burgos never gave up on life and was always willing to speak out through her poetry. Above all, she felt a strong moral obligation to write as a Caribbean woman and this commitment is echoed by Santos Febres. The title of the anthology in which this poem “En Carolina” appears is Anamú y Manigua. The poem appears in the section “conjuro de manigua.” Santos Febres demands that the people of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean not let themselves be swamped by this “anamú” (the United States) and that they protest, by taking flight (manigua) if necessary, as did the maroons historically, or even cast spells (conjuro). She points out that not even in death was Burgos’s voice stilled. In death, as in life, her words continue to ring out: Burgos’s life was one of resistance by word and Santos Febres is carrying on this tradition as she urges the people of the Caribbean to unite in (re)gaining control over their own lives. Indeed what we have seen is that Santos Febres, like Chiqui Vicioso, criticizes the infiltration and the influence of the North Americans in the Caribbean region. They both argue that it is a domination that the people of the region (Cuba in the past) have accepted. They repeatedly warn the people against an acceptance and an internalisation of US values, which in turn leads to a culture of dependency.
There has been no suggestion on the political or literary level that “castellano” is not an acceptable literary language in all of the nations of the Hispanic Caribbean. Cuba is the country where the main influence of Blacks is most noticeable and where there has been a marked influence by Blacks on the language. Nicolás Guillén employed the use of dicharacho (a type of refrain) in his poetry in the 1930s and he wrote several poems in such a way as to capture the rhythm of language use among Blacks. However, Guillén was writing at a time when the AfroCuban culture and people were invisible in the context of Cuban letters and Cuban society, and he charged himself with the obligation to redress this situation. Today, AfroCuban as well as other Black writers of the Hispanic Caribbean do not write to raise awareness of the existence of the Black community. Rather, their poetry questions the Hispanic Caribbean identity which today exists for the Black population, reflects the social conditions which prevail, challenges the status quo where Blacks, as a social grouping, remain at the bottom of the society, and marks out a nascent Caribbean identity which reveals the similarities among the nations in the region. In addition, it must be noted that, in the Hispanic Caribbean, language is not seen as an ethnically identifying marker.
The colonised nation which seeks to assert its nationalism usually employs its own language to reject the imposed language and the colonialist mentality which is adopted by the local people. Thus language can be used as a tool to demonstrate independence. The Spanish language remains the language of communication and identification among the peoples of the Hispanic Caribbean and moreover no dialects exist which are perceived as a threat to the Spanish language and which separate or differentiate the people from the Hispanic Caribbean who are dialect speakers (usually Blacks) from the non-dialect speakers (usually non-Blacks). In the three nations alike, the language of the people, and that of creative writing is significantly the same as the language of the former colonizers. Importantly too, none of the poems of this study are written in dialect.
This situation is unlike that of the English-speaking nations of the Caribbean where the English language is constantly under threat because of the dialect of the particular country. However, it must be emphasized that the poems of this study, although not written in any particular dialect, nevertheless speak directly to the people through a medium that in no way falsifies the experiences described. Their commentary on the condition of Black people in the Hispanic Caribbean talks directly to the people who share and understand the experience. Moreover, their very use of the Spanish language legitimizes and establishes that language as one in which they can talk to each other about each other with no perception of threat as is the case in some countries, where for example, dialect is used as the language of the people to condemn the former colonizers.
Blas Jiménez is the only poet of the study who touches on this issue
of the language of the colonizer as not being a suitable language for the expression
of Black Hispanic culture. In the poem ‘Otra vez....Aquí’, his central
premise is that for the person living in a black skin, in the Hispanic Caribbean,
it is difficult to construct oneself from a platform of “Hispanidad” or “lo
because the Spanish language has been imposed upon the Black. Using anaphoric
structure to hammer home the point, seven of the poem’s eight stanzas begin with
the line “En este pueblo español” (p. 54). It suggests that in the poet’s
opinion, this is the identity to which Dominicans aspire. For Jiménez
any aspiration to “Hispanidad” thus indicates a desire to construct oneself along
the lines of whiteness, and this is an absolute impossibility for the Blacks
in the country. In the seventh stanza, Jiménez focuses on language and
its link to the construction of identity:
Here, Jiménez centers more on the social situation of most Blacks at the lower end of the economic scale rather than on the loss of the original languages of the African brought unwillingly to the New World. Ironically, there is no regret at the loss of an African language, but the Spanish language is one which the poet suggests is not his own. Psychologically he simply does not feel the language, nor is he a part of the collective consciousness, which he should be as an Hispanic. This verse is more the lament of the Hispanic Caribbean Black whose vibrant and expressive use of word and rhythm is at times limited by the restraints of European language structures. In addition, the poet feels himself locked in by language when he attempts to write of the social problems experienced by so many Blacks.
Historically in the Hispanic Caribbean, as in the English-speaking Caribbean countries, writers have imitated those of the European tradition. Characteristically, most of the poets of this study use language in an unconventional way and develop a unique thematic content, peculiar to their own situation. Yet, Blas Jiménez strongly urges self-acceptance by way of the maintenance and the uplifting of Caribbean culture. He indicates through notes to the reader that his poem “Ese hombre rasta” was written from his observations in Puerto España, Trinidad and “Identificación” was written while he was in Kingston, Jamaica. The poems deal with issues of identity, which are of concern to the Dominican as much as to the Trinidadian or Jamaican peoples. Poems like these incorporate themes that are relevant across the entire Caribbean: identity, US domination in the region, and racial unification throughout the Caribbean. Haiti appears, for example, as the title of a poem by Vicioso and for Jiménez, Haiti symbolises black strength in withstanding adversity. The music and rhythm of Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad are all present in poems by Jiménez and Santos Febres.
To (re)present Africanness, the poets rely on rhythm and sound; to describe
the social order of life for Black people in the Hispanic Caribbean, many of
the poets make use of color and vivid descriptions. In the poem “Schonried,” Chiqui
Vicioso identifies the power of language by (re)presenting and thus questioning
the interpretation which has always been attributed to color. In the three
stanzas of this poem the poet uses color and the usual interpretation of color
as the standpoint from which she effects a (re)reading of Caribbean society.
In the opening stanza, Vicioso writes:
The image of the grass snakes, which opens the description, is alluring as
the reader is immediately caught up in the world of the tropics. The sights,
sounds and smells are here presented with vivid words and images, which filter
precipitately into the imagination. The first stanza continues:
In these lines Vicioso captures the magnificent beauty of the tropical setting
with all the vivid colors of nature and the glistening droplets of water sprinkled
over everything after a heavy downpour. The rain, when it arrives, purifies
both the air and the land. In the second stanza, the poet moves from the land
to the water. She writes:
In one sense, Vicioso compares the destruction of nature with the isolation
and despair inherent in Caribbean life:
Like the revitalization which can take place in nature, the poet too can be
refreshed. This stanza reinforces the idea of the rejuvenation of both the
self and of nature. Vicioso writes:
The play on color is interesting. Of course, blue and yellow when mixed make green; however, it is also likely that the poet is presenting the idea that images of color, like those of beauty, are constantly changing. Thus, a society that apportions beauty to certain colors is making a mistake. Colors, like the self, are no longer ascribed meaning. According to Vicioso, the visible is an illusion. As such, what matters or what should matter is not what is seen but what remains unseen. At the same time, the poet resists limitation by raising the idea that our reality is what we make of it. Consequently we can argue that what Vicioso skillfully presents here is the notion that, in the Caribbean, we can re-define the thus far limited boundaries of the Black experience, but it all has to begin in the minds of Afro-Dominican people.
Several of the poets write about the art of the poet and the skill necessary
to the construction of a poem. It is useful to single out what these poets
have to say of themselves as poets, not only because they are writing to construct
images of blackness but also because they are formulating descriptions of their
identities. In the poem ‘Mi Oficio,’ Magaly Quiñones writes:
The poem begins with Quiñones’
contemplation of her “oficio” or role in life. She meditates on her situation
as a woman, wife, and mother and she ponders the drudgery and the repetitive
tasks of that role. She examines all of the things that made her into what she
Quiñones suggests that she grows as a writer with the acceptance of
her present self, as she is now, and of her past self/selves. This is what
gives her the strength to continue. She lives in the knowledge that “Nada me
puede herir” (p. 54) or rather that “nada más que la vida / que la dura
expresión de la vida en medio del recuerdo / me mata” (p. 54). She points
out that life in the Hispanic Caribbean is extremely difficult and she indicates
that what is needed is strength through self-affirmation. Symbolically, she
suggests that the only thing that can hurt her is life itself. Yet she sees
the solution as lying within her, by the very act of living. She writes:
Quiñones the poet must be the witness who documents the lives of the
Hispanic Caribbean people. She makes direct comparisons between the harshness
of life for Blacks during the time of slavery and that of Caribbean life today.
Her vivid description of the shackles of oppression historically ties her to
the past of her people. She writes to cleanse the dishonor heaped on Puerto
Rican and Caribbean people. She perceives herself as seer, one who is able
to present a positive description for the future of Hispanic Caribbean identity.
In equal measure, Quiñones presents a positive image of her self-acceptance
to the reader:
Here the poet’s love of her self and her country are all that she needs to validate her identity and her place in the Caribbean. To communicate her life experiences, she uses everyday language, language she describes in the poem “La Promesa” with the words: “Los que, más que deseo, traemos el osario del deseo / en lenguaje de piedra.” (p. 7) The poet emphasizes the difficulty of creating her own poetic voice with the implied comparison of herself as poet to a sculptress who must chisel a “language of stone.” For Quiñones, the immense task of the Caribbean poet in rewriting the self is also one of liberation, and it helps her to reaffirm her Caribbean Self.
In the Hispanic Caribbean, the role of the writer is often interpreted as
that of educator: this role is especially important given the need for dialogue
with history, which must be undertaken if the role of Blacks in society is
to be re-examined. There is strong consensus among Black critics that the task
of rewriting the image of Blacks must fall to Black writers because they speak
most directly to the black peoples of the Caribbean and they share the black
experience, knowledge and sense of identity. The use of language as a means
to vindicate a people is a key concept expounded by African-American critics.
They center on the idea that language itself is loaded against Black people
in colonialist and postcolonialist societies. Henry Louis Gates Jr. asks two
critical questions which demonstrate this position:
Here Gates Jr.’s argument centers on the English speaking USA but its main
ideas echo across the Hispanic Caribbean. It can be argued that if the literary
language of blackness is negative, then the representations of Blacks within
that society will be interpreted negatively. Given the distilled language used
in poetry, it is understandable that a negative image of Blacks can be intensified
in poetry. In actively redressing this, many African-American poets choose
to use their language and the images created to reconstruct images of blackness
in the USA in a positive light. Many such examples are found in the poetry
of the African-American poet Langston Hughes. In the poem “A New Song”
the poet opens with the defiant words: “I speak in the name of black millions
/ Let all others keep silent a moment.”23
In demanding the silence of all others, Hughes ascribes to himself the role of
the voice of African-Americans. The poem later continues:
Hughes gives a positive connotation to the dark and by extension to all things
black. He takes the blackness of the earth, with all its mineral riches, and
compares it to his black hands and body. This is a reversing of the negative
imagery normally associated with blackness. By comparing the black skin of
the protagonist with the dark earth that yields such goodness, Hughes positively
reinvents blackness by using a different construct to that normally used in
the language of the United States and the English-speaking world. Thus, the
poet, as an African-American man, is able to (re)construct the world in which
he lives and to “free” himself.
At that time, it was mainly the work of Cubans that demonstrated an interest in Blacks. One such poet was the Afro-Cuban Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (1804-1844), known as “Plácido”. Such poets were among the first to accord to Blacks not only the position of literary speaking subject but also that of authenticity. Richard L. Jackson argues that those writers who were the first to champion sincerely the cause of Blacks must be praised because they present the Black “authentically, talking his own language, expressing his own thoughts, and singing his own songs”.26 However one century later, the job is far from complete. The Black poets of the Hispanic Caribbean included in this study write to redress a past history in the Hispanic Caribbean in which the role of the Black has been substantially diminished, and through their poetry, they have made great strides towards restoring the value of Black people and Black identity. These poets, writing from within, use images which do not (mis)represent Blacks in a stereotypical way. Their language presents Blacks and the Black identity quite positively.
Excilia Saldaña uses exquisite imagery to write of Blacks and presents
blackness as a beautiful concept. In the poem “—¿Soy yo, abuela, sólo
carne” she describes herself in the following words:
The grandmother’s response,
“—Eres más. Eres la tierra” (p. 198), expands the poet’s definition of
herself: she is a human being who encompasses all the dignity that the term affords.
The grandmother goes on throughout the poem to specify: “eres el agua,” “ el
aire,” “el fuego” and “el amor” (pp. 198-199). Three of the four elements as
well as the emotion of love combine in the creation of the little girl. Here
Saldaña shapes existence as a positive experience. She presents life as
cyclical. The poem ends with the grandmother telling the little girl that with
the passing of time, another little girl (this time her own grand-daughter) will
in turn ask her (the little girl, by then herself a grandmother) the same question.
The passing on of ideas on identity is very important in Saldaña’s poetry.
In her poetry, Saldaña’s general tone is optimistic. Love and hope, understanding and acceptance, life and dreams are interwoven in descriptions of the people. Saldaña expresses her ideas in a language free from negative associations of Blacks and presents them, like all people, with a sense of hope.
In employing a language not previously used to represent Blacks, these Hispanic Caribbean poets address the preconceived notion of the Caribbean that exists across the world and to do so, they consciously use a language thas-t addresses stereotypical images of the Caribbean as well as the people. The Caribbean is frequently represented mythically by images of indolent tropical days which are seemingly filled with nothing more than sun, sea, sand and sex. The people, it is often intimated, do little work, especially the Black ones. One poet in particular, who strongly challenges these stereotypical ideas, is Blas Jiménez. In the poem ‘Humedad tropical’, every negative stereotype is challenged, from the Caribbean way of life which is seen as slow and lazy “lenta, espaciada, pegajosa” (p. 75), to the women with “cuerpos de guitarras” (p. 75). Jiménez presents the idea that this is an environment with a “naturaleza harangana” (p. 75) and it is seen by many as only producing people who are themselves vagabonds.
Of all of the poets in the study, Jiménez is the only one who specifically
alludes to the difficulty of (re)constructing a positive Black identity using
the language of the master, that is, a language which at its base invokes negative
images of blackness. He invokes the wisdom of the elders as well as the language
of the master to retell the tale in a sort of search like Fernández
Retamar’s Caliban. The language of the master is not used to curse him per
se but rather to alter the negative images that occur in the Hispanic Caribbean
because of the colonialists. In the poem entitled “Escribiendo atado aún
escribiendo,” Jiménez tells the reader of the need to write which completely
overwhelms him. The poem opens with the stanza:
Here the poet’s intention is to point out the force which drives him to carry
out what for him is a calling in life. He equates the need to write with hunger.
Yet Jiménez is faced with a dilemma. The choices that are open to him
are writing in the western European mode or with his own perhaps more unconventional
style. He describes the power of the European intellectuals who frame the world
of literature and poetry. He writes:
However, Jiménez indicates that he is unable to subscribe to this ideology.
This trend of thought leads him to question his role as a poet and his need
to change the colonialist ideologies. Because he refuses to allow himself to
be dominated, his task is to rewrite the Caribbean as he sees fit. This task,
he suggests is gargantuan. He writes:
He tells the reader that he could follow the trend to fame and perhaps fortune
in literature by imitating the Eurocentrism which is advocated in the Caribbean
to write of the self as well as the imperialist presence. He does not conform.
This is a type of subversion as the poet uses the same language of the colonizer
to rewrite the rules. Jiménez points out that he is writing in:
Jiménez takes it upon himself to do this rewriting. He suggests that he cannot assume the beliefs of Europeans knowing the negativity of their import to the people of the Caribbean. As much as he admonishes himself for writing, three times he repeats: “No debo hacerlo [escribir]” (pp. 78-79), he realizes that he cannot stop and that in continuing to do so, he goes against the grain of accepted Eurocentric thought in the society. He always returns to reason and points out that he is prepared to take a stance alone “porque no escucho a nadie en mi camino (al triunfo)” (p. 79), so as to show the people the irrationality of living and trying to emulate a White colonialist past tradition which was not theirs in the first instance and which never spoke truthfully of them.
In conclusion, we have seen that Self-definition is an important part of the
poetry of contemporary Afro-Hispanic poets because it is central to the question
of identity. Although they each present differing shades and strengths of opinions
on Black identity, they all write of personal experiences with a collective
voice. They see themselves as seers and in the role of reality definers. Mixing
artistic messages with social voice, they collectively seek to present a consciously
Black Hispanic Caribbean poetry. In addition, the importance of these poems
lies in the commentary that they make on life in general, and on the condition
of Blacks in the Hispanic Caribbean because their writing, as we have seen,
reflects one subject: the Black Hispanic individual’s experiences over the
20th century. These poets speak directly to the people so as to convey their
personal experiences. This is a lived reality. Their confusion, their social
situation, their endurance and their resistance are all debated. Repeatedly,
and regardless of the country of their origin, the poets emphasize that the
situation of discrimination inherited by the Blacks in the Hispanic Caribbean
can change, but only when the Blacks themselves take a major role in the redefining
of their identity. This is undoubtedly a process being carried out by these
Hispanic Caribbean poets.
August 21, 2004