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Research

            My principal focus of research is Latin American literature from the end of the 19th Century (modernismo), but I am also interested in Latin American Literature in general, as well as more specifically in Caribbean literature.  In fact, the articles that I have published or that are already in press deal with the work of some of modernismo’s canonical writers (Jose Martí, Rubén Darío, and mainly Julián del Casal), as well as romanticism (Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido), and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda), contemporary Cuban literature and the Puerto Rican Manuel Ramos Otero, whom I consider one of our most fascinating Caribbean and Latin American writers.

            My book Julián del Casal o los pliegues del deseo (Julián Casal or the Folds of Desire) is a breakthrough contribution to the study of 19th Century Latin American modernismo. Casal is one of the figures of modernismo most neglected by Spanish American criticism, mainly because he has been considered emblematic of the writer exiled in his ivory tower and indifferent to the social preoccupations of his time.  I distance myself from this approach by demonstrating that Casal is inextricably involved in the cultural debates, and in the complex developments of urban life that took place at the turn of the 20th century.  The tendency of criticism has been to place an ethical modernismo (whose key figure is José Martí) in opposition to another, aesthetic modernismo; one whose most prominent figures would be Casal.  This aesthetic modernismo, supposedly obsessed only with the ornaments of style, is regarded as having turned its back on the social issues of its time.  By focusing my study on the politics in Casal’s writing, I challenge that reductionist perspective.  In my study, Casal’s writing, along with that of the supposed escapist modernismo, turns out to be a point of intersection between the emergent popular culture and high culture.  I re-examine Casal’s so-called “aestheticist” writing, beginning with the so-called red chronicles he wrote for a sensationalist and satirical newspaper: La Caricatura – chronicles until now mostly unknown and certainly uncollected.  This re-examination takes us to a Casal and, by extension, to a modernismo ignored by the critics: one captivated by the amalgamation of ink (stylized writing) and blood (violence), which quickly involved him in some of the most hotly debated scientific or pseudo-scientific issues of his time.

            Finally, my assestment of Casal brings to light the physicality of his writing, the impossibility of separating life and work, and, just as crucial in both, the homoeroticism that permeates them.  This homoeroticism affirms itself, not in open confession, but rather in its delight in secrecy.  The importance of this reading lies in its contribution to the debate on sexual identities developing at that time and aggressively supported by medical, anthropological, criminal, and psychiatric discourse. I demonstrate that, through the skillful construction and deconstruction of identities that the use of the first and third persons offers, Casal was able to affirm and simultaneously mask a transgressive sexuality.  My reading of Casal, one of the most complete re-evaluations of the Cuban poet until now, opens the door for new research on other neglected and yet iconic figures of modernismo.

            While I was studying modernista literature, I began to become interested in another closely related field of study modernismo, although the relationship has not been sufficiently researched: orientalism.  My growing fascination with orientalist studies has led me to a project for a book that consists of a reading of orientalism that is not restricted to Latin America’s or to the West’s views of the East.  I propose a two-way reading: from West to East and from East to West.  While most critics, like Edward Said, have emphasized an East constructed by the West for the purpose of domination, I am interested in bringing to light points of encounter – in its double meaning – as both opposite and convergent identities which mutual resentment and fascination have locked together.  I will accomplish this through the examination of texts on and from the West and the East, including Latin America.  Let us not forget that, for instance, Cuba was first Cipango (Marco Polo’s name for Japan), and the Caribbean itself was called the West Indies. 

            To give you a specific example of the intricacy of my analysis: I (de)veil the veil – so associated with the East – in order to articulate a politics of a desiring gaze that is as much oriental as it is Western.  I take as starting point Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask in which he retells his frustration when the knight he thought to be a man was, in fact, a woman: Joan of Arc.  It is ironic that the image of the western knight who captures the desire of the boy, Mishima, turns out to be a woman, particularly because here the desire is attached to the veiled body, the half-hidden face (precisely one of the most stereotyped images of the oriental).  Mishima’s memories are exactly of a mask.  Here we have an Orient in reverse, an oriental gaze that orientalizes the West.  Mishima dressed in his mother’s kimono – “the most gorgeous one,” he says – and covered his head “with a wrapping-cloth of crepe de chine.”  Then he looked at himself in the mirror, and his cheeks “flushed with wild delight when I […] saw that this improvised bandana resembled those of the pirates in Treasure Island.”  An Orient emerges that, in performing as itself, discovers on the other side, a monstrous, bi-cephalous image of its self.  The pirate, having escaped from one of the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, cross-dressed, re-dressed in a kimono of outrageous colors, could then be the antidote to the orientalist gaze, its parody. Distanced from the heroic gesture and the action, the pirate is caught up in the pleasure of contemplating himself in the mirror. But when it becomes the knight with the sword unsheathed, he will be she.  In this room filled with mirrors, what else could we find but masks, mirages, where the evil eye of desire and fear settles and unsettles identities, be it that of the West or of the East.

            It is no surprise then that the book in which I will deal with orientalist discourse focuses on one of the images most persistently associated with the Orient: the veil.  Tentatively, I have titled this manuscript on which I am already working, Veils, Masks and Ski Masks: Orientalism and the politics of the gaze. If the veil has been associated with a feminized image of the Orient – sexually and geographically open to the penetration of the West – my investigation proposes, in the first place, an opposite reading: the veil – and through it a politics of the gaze, of the desire/fear related to the act of veiling/unveiling – that, it can be said, is inextricablely tied to the Western imaginary.  This is why my reading moves from East to the West, and back again.  This research includes literary texts and travel narratives from the East and West – Honoré de Balzac, Yukio Mishima, Enrique Gómez Carrillo, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Loti, Yasunari Kawabata, Junichirō Tanizaki, Marco Polo, Al-Gazal, Ibn Ŷubayr, Rómulo Gallegos, Rubén Darío – as well as figures that as much in the so-called high as in the popular culture have continued to fascinate to us: from Salomé, to the characters of comic strips like Lone Ranger, Batman, Zorro, and Spider Man, and in the cinema not only the films with a more obviously orientalist theme, but also Westerns, as well as, in a more specific way, the give and take between the so-called Spaghetti Westerns and the films about samurai, and even the political figure of  subcomandante Marcos.  My central argument is that the image of the veil is of such a metaphorical density that its association with the East has much to tell us about the fears and desires of the West itself, prone indeed to the hide and seek game of seduction.

Several reasons could be added to explain my growing enthusiasm and the broadening of my research on this subject; primarily, my own personal history.  My paternal grandfather was a Chinese coolie who was taken to Cuba, like many other coolies, with deceptive employment contracts.  I still remember a beautiful photograph of him that time had turned sepia, in which he appears seated in a chair of high-backed chair gazing fixedly at the camera.  Also a distant relative, Carlos Morán, was of both Chinese and black origin, and came to be known as the “chino Morán” (Morán, the Chinese). He was one of the most pretigious Cuban baseball players ever.  Later I learned that another Morán used to write a column, precisely on baseball, in La Habana Elegante.  This magazine was not other than the one whose director considered Casal its very soul, for he published in La Habana Elegante most of his works, both in prose and in poetry. I can see now that old these paths (Julián del Casal, La Habana Elegante, modernismo, on one hand, and orientalism, on the other, could not but converge in my reaserch. 
       
            My personal story placed me at a crossroad of contesting identities. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that another reason that I could point to is I grew more and more interest in how identities are shaped and re-shaped and on the impact of politics of identities in marginalizing the other, but also on the other’s agency to challenge those maneuvers. My research on modernismo as much as on orientalism is doubtlessly linked to my academic interest in the politics of race, gender and nationalism.  These preoccupations have become more and more urgent for me because of their intimate linking with the defense of the human rights, basically starting with the ethical dilemma of how we perceive and how we relate to the Other.  This single question suggests the possibility of imagining a radical otherness, which my research defies time and time again. My studies on modernismo and orientalism do not seek so much, then, to emphasize the divergences of identities – whose existence on the other hand I do not deny, since it is the affirmation of difference which, in the first place, allows one to affirm identity – but its convergences, its intimate interactions.  
              
            My second project is also a book, and it will focus on the figure of José Martí, a Cuban writer whose American experience I want to deal with. Martí lived in New York for many years, and wrote extensively on the labor and anarchist movements in the United States. What I am looking to demonstrate, in the first place, is that Martí’s journalistic work belongs as much to the United States as to Latin America - that is American in the broadest sense.  On the other hand, this study is an investigation of Martí’s place as a politically committed intellectual, an immigrant and a journalist, faced with workers’ struggles and the debates on immigration in the United States at the end of the 19th Century.  

            As a general rule, Latin American critics have emphasized his anti-imperialist position and Martí’s solidarity with the dispossessed and the victims of discrimination: the worker, the woman, the native American, the black, the farmer. Although my intention is far from discrediting this reading – which Martí’s writings and life themselves confirm – what interests me is that that many critics have preferred to ignore, to neglect, or simply to reject as "ambiguities" in Martí’s writings. I will demonstrate in my research that, at the very center of Martí’s emancipatory discourse, deep contradictions live; that, to state it briefly, in Martí’s writings we also find the authoritarian, repressive and discriminatory gesture towards the same subjects that deserve his respect and whose defense he wanted to champion.