Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.

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