Today, we welcome a guest post from Dalia Antonia Muller, author of Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World.
During the violent years of war marking Cuba’s final push for independence from Spain, over 3,000 Cuban émigrés, men and women, rich and poor, fled to Mexico. But more than a safe haven, Mexico was a key site, Dalia Antonia Muller argues, from which the expatriates helped launch a mobile and politically active Cuban diaspora around the Gulf of Mexico. Offering a new transnational vantage on Cuba’s struggle for nationhood, Muller traces the stories of three hundred of these Cuban émigrés and explores the impact of their lives of exile, service to the revolution and independence, and circum-Caribbean solidarities.
Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World is available now in both print and e-book editions.
Our America? Whose América?: What We Have to Learn from Nineteenth-Century Inter-American transnational solidarities
Primitive and modern, simple and complex,
With something of Washington and more of Nimrod
You are the United States
You are the future invader
Of naïve America…
That America that trembles with hurricanes and lives on love
Men with saxon eyes and barbarous souls, she lives.
–Rubén Dario, To Roosevelt, 1904.
The Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario comes to mind as I contemplate the misplaced and ill-informed disdain with which some U.S. Americans perceive the men, women and children who cross “our” southern border. In a poem dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, at a time when the United States was rapidly extending its power and influence in the Caribbean and across the Pacific, Dario highlighted the central paradox of our existence as a nation: The United States, was at once the epitome of modernity and progress, and also fundamentally barbarous, brutal and willfully ignorant. I want to draw attention to the persistence of this particular mix of brutality and ignorance in our political culture, for our current president’s plan to “make America great again” hinges on it. During his campaign and in his first year in power, President Donald Trump has given voice to a widespread callous contempt for immigrants and asylum-seekers perceived, among other things, as criminals, rapists and terrorists—“bad hombres.” The policies the administration is putting into place as an answer to the mis-perceived threat posed by “hoards” of border-crossers are having brutal effects for vulnerable peoples and families, while the xenophobic and racist rhetoric that emanates from Washington legitimizes hate and intolerance.
While Dario’s poem lambastes the U.S government in the person of Roosevelt for its cruel ignorance, readers might be surprised that his answer to Roosevelt’s barbarism was Walt Whitman’s grace– “it is with the verse of Walt Whitman/ that I must reach you, hunter.” We should not be surprised for Dario was not the first to draw a firm and clear distinction between the U.S. government and its people.
Like Dario, the Mexicans, Cubans and other Latin Americans whose stories populate my book, Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World acknowledged this complexity. Tracing the solidarities that were built in the late nineteenth century between Cuban émigrés and Mexicans agricultural laborers, railroad and textile workers, students, journalists and statesmen, Cuban Émigrés shows how men and women in the south redefined what they called América. Their vision of the hemisphere was expansive, capacious and anti-colonial. They championed the Monroe Doctrine while firmly rejecting the idea that the United States’ bore any unique responsibility for defend the continent or had a right to colonize it. Deep advocates of inter-American solidarity, they called into being a radical vision of América years before Rubén Dario addressed Roosevelt. Their América was a place where mutual respect and collaboration between everyday citizens across borders might serve as a basis for international cooperation.
But just as Dario’s poem recognized the dualing selves of America, so too does it recognize the complexities of Latin America. His América is not a conglomeration of backward republics as U.S. statesmen in the nineteenth century believed and that others in the twenty-first century continue to believe. The América of Dario’s poem which “trembles with hurricanes and lives on love” is also a land of great poets, scientists, philosophers, politicians and jurists. By 1904, Latin Americans were celebrating nearly a century of innovations in the realm of international relations. From the Haitian republic’s early efforts to combat international slavery to Simón Bolivar’s 1826 Panama Congress and the myriad conferences, congresses and institutes that followed, Latin American political elites, intellectuals and everyday citizens offered the United States multiple visions of what freedom and democracy, as well as hemispheric relations based on mutual respect might look like. But the myriad intellectual contributions and political innovations pioneered by our southern neighbors have largely been ignored by U.S. leaders bent as they are on dismissing the region as backward and underdeveloped.
The Latin American working people and intellectuals who populate the pages of my book recognized and affirmed the greatness of their individual nations and the collective potential of a unified América. Ultimately, the calls for solidarity of those Cuban and Mexican men and women whose voices and actions fill the pages of my book would become faint echoes lost in the halls of power in Mexico, in Spain and in the United States. But not for that should we stop straining to hear them today. In fact, it is imperative that we listen closely to past echoes and allow them to shape our understanding of the present. Perhaps if we do so we will be less indifferent and less hostile to our southern neighbors. It is time for us to revive the visions of América that originated in the south and that were steeped in a language of inclusivity and connection, for this language can serve as a bulwark against the ignorance and anger nourished by policies and ideologies of intolerance and hatred.
Dalia Antonia Muller is assistant professor of history at the University at Buffalo.