American Literature’s Forgotten Latino Subjects

By John Alba CutlerJuly 2, 2014

American Literature’s Forgotten Latino Subjects

A World Not to Come by Raúl Coronado

THE VERY TITLE of Raúl Coronado’s ambitious first book — A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture — reminds us that our given history is contingent on foreclosed alternatives. We regard the writings of Mary Rowlandson, Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson — British subjects living in what would later become the United States — as the foundations of American literature. But reading A World Not to Come, one wonderswhy we don’t regard the writings of José Antonio Gutiérrez de Lara, José Álvarez de Toledo, and the forgotten women of San Antonio de Béxar with similar reverence. It may be that certain Puritan ideas and values have exerted outsized influence on American culture, but surely American culture is constituted as much by what it rejects and represses as by what it accepts and embraces. Reading British colonial writers as the sole founders of American culture lends our history a false sense of teleology, as though we were always going to end up here. One of the greatest strengths of Coronado’s book is its ability to remind us of other paths we might have taken; other worlds different “we’s” might have made.

Take, for example, the seemingly ineluctable march of Manifest Destiny in US history. The typical American high school student learns very little about the other side of that history, perhaps encountering it only in a unit about the so-called “Mexican War” of 1846–48, or a footnote to Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” (Why was it again that Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax?) Most of my students come to college under the misperception that the siege of the Alamo in 1836 was part of this conflict, a mistake stemming no doubt from the bizarre jingoism that entreats us to remember those brave soldiers who died fighting for “our” freedom. The powerful teleology of American education makes little space for these students to encounter the more complicated truth: that the Alamo’s defenders were fighting for Texas independence, and largely to ensure the continued right to practice chattel slavery.

A World Not to Come boldly challenges the dominance of the westward expansion narrative by re-centering early 19th-century American history on a seemingly unlikely point: the brief 1813 Texas rebellion against Spanish rule. Emboldened by the political chaos created after Napoleon Bonaparte unseated the Spanish Bourbon king in 1808, a group of Spanish American Creoles in San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio) declared their independence. Spanish forces quickly and brutally repressed the uprising. Coronado shows brilliantly how world historical forces converged on this remote outpost of the Spanish empire, with stakes that had lasting (if unacknowledged) consequences for the America we now experience. At once a gripping history, a dizzying synthesis of Enlightenment philosophical currents, and a breathtaking feat of original archival research, his book merits reading by anyone interested in American literature, Latina/o studies, economic history, or Western philosophy.

A World Not to Come demands that we recalibrate our sense of what “American” literary history looks like. The scare quotes around “American” are necessary because the protagonists of Coronado’s history — Creole reformists and revolutionaries of the Spanish empire — identified proudly as Americans before US citizens appropriated and restricted the term’s meaning. Coronado’s history does not limit itself to a narrow, local account of a few rebellious years in Texas history: it spirals outward temporally and spatially, stretching back to give an account of the development of Scholastic thought, and following the peregrinations of figures such as Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, who journeyed from Texas to Philadelphia and back in his attempt to drum up support for the rebellion. The final two chapters of the book reach forward to the 1850s to consider how these events in Texas history affected the possibilities of Tejano solidarity and community politics after US annexation.

Coronado’s commitments as a literary scholar shine through in his explications of key documents connected to the rebellion. (Each of these documents is included as its own appendix after the main body of the book, an invaluable resource for future scholars researching or teaching about this period.) The first of these, “Americanos,” a proclamation authored by the priest José Antonio Gutiérrez de Lara, was circulated in handwritten manuscripts in 1811. Like many inhabitants of Nuevo Santander, the Spanish colony located in what is now south Texas, Father Antonio felt that the Spanish government had neglected his province. Spurred on by Miguel Hidalgo’s rebellion in 1810, Antonio declared in his proclamation, “Yes, Americanos, the nation has been born; its name has been declared.” As Coronado argues, the appearance of the word “nation” here is significant, since previous to this time, “patria” had been the term of choice among Spanish Americans. This shift is not incidental, but rather marks the entrance of Spanish Americans into modernity: like the settlers of New England, they imagined a society organized by Enlightenment ideals of self-government. But Gutiérrez de Lara’s nationalism is distinct from other 19th-century nationalisms, not least because, as Coronado notes, it was not printed and published,but rather handwritten, copied, and declaimed “in the town square” throughout Texas. It was not, in other words, a nation of individuals reading at their desks, but a nation constituted at the level of the pueblo. 

Among the other documents Coronado examines, one stands out as the most riveting, both intellectually and emotionally: the heartbreaking “Remembrance of the Things That Took Place in Béxar in 1813 under the Tyrant Arredondo,” a memoir written collectively by the female survivors of the Spanish suppression of the rebellion. The “Remembrance” is the earliest known example of women’s writing in Texas. It records the violent repression of the Béxar uprising by Joaquín de Arredondo, the Spanish commandant general of the Eastern Interior Provinces of Texas. When word came to Béxar that Arredondo’s forces were on their way, hundreds of families attempted to flee to the United States for safety. They were caught 200 miles away at the Trinity River, and most of the men were summarily executed. The women were brought back to Béxar and imprisoned in the small colonial jail, known as the quinta, and pressed into labor, forced to grind corn and cook tortillas for more than 16 hours daily while enduring physical and verbal abuse from their captors. The story is wrenching, but also formally captivating: the “Remembrance” has no single narrative voice, but rather speaks forth in a haunting, collective “we.” This “we,” Coronado shows, works two ways. On the one hand, it emphasizes the anonymity of its brutalized authors. But on the other, it emblematizes the collective ethos at the heart of the Spanish-American republican enterprise. And this spirit of collectivity — particularly when we compare it to the individual travails that organize more familiar captivity narratives, like Mary Rowlandson’s — reveals something important about what is lost in the Anglo-centric way “American” literature is typically taught.

This is not merely an academic challenge to the constitution of the American literary syllabus. Coronado’s Enlightenment counter-history stages a conflict between two different theories of subjectivity, and hence, of sovereignty. In the West today we tend to think of selfhood as autonomous and agential — in other words, as consummately individual. Scholars of the early modern period have long reminded us that this model of subjectivity is a historical creation, a product of both the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on individual faith and the Enlightenment celebration of the mind’s capacity for reason. Nevertheless, this model has become so naturalized that today we take it mostly for granted; we can’t imagine a modern world looking differently. Coronado demonstrates that throughout the 18th century and in the decades prior to Spanish American independence, another Enlightenment took place in southern Europe and the Catholic world, one arising from Scholastic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez. As in Northern Europe and the United States, this Enlightenment entailed a gradual disenchantment from a God-centered world. But the center of the enlightened Scholastic world was not the sovereign individual. Rather, it was the corpus mysticum, or the collective body of the people. Within works of Scholastic political economy, the concept of the nation centered on the well-being of the pueblo rather than the ultimate sanctity of individual rights.

Coronado’s description of this Scholastic worldview seduces. To read about these Spanish American revolutionaries in Texas is to imagine an alternate America where good governance could have taken precedence over property as the seat of individual rights. The narrative’s elegiac, tragic tone particularly shines through in the final two chapters, which examine the Spanish-language press in Texas after 1848. Here, we see Tejano writers and publishers grappling with their place in the social hierarchy of their new nation, the United States. No longer the enlightened leaders of Spanish Texas, they are rather suddenly downtrodden and oppressed minorities. The Scholastic emphasis on the pueblo, still very much evident in the bold editorials of newspapers such as the Bejareño and Ranchero, gradually gives way before the onslaught of Anglo-American individualism. But what if it had not? What if the sovereign individual had not become the foundation of the modern nation? Surely this would have been a world capable of abolishing chattel slavery, checking the power of robber barons, or — to choose a more recent example — defeating Citizens United

Yet for all the utopian energy of this vision, the Scholastic world was not a world without hierarchy. As capacious and subtle as Coronado’s account is, it nonetheless centers on the adventures and travails of Creole elites who believed that good governance grew organically from power vested in enlightened aristocrats. (Because of the persistence of mercantilism under the Spanish crown, there was hardly a Spanish bourgeoisie to speak of at the turn of the 19th century.) There will be no literary history of the peones of Béxar, because they had no access to the tools of literacy, a dilemma that Coronado acknowledges, if not fully confronts. Still, Coronado’s book reminds us that the vaunted individualism at the heart of American literary history is only part of the story. For every Ben Franklin or Huck Finn strutting across center stage, there are a hundred women of Béxar, a thousand Caddo Indians, forgotten and invisible in the wings.


These blind spots in American literary history were reinforced for me in 2011 when I participated in a workshop at the University of California, Irvine entitled “The Latino Nineteenth Century.” (Full disclosure: Coronado and I are colleagues in the same field. He also participated in the Irvine workshop, and my name appears in the acknowledgements of his book.) The workshop attempted to synthesize and advance the last two and a half decades of scholarship — work by such scholars as Genaro Padilla, Rodrigo Lazo, Jesse Alemán, Kirsten Silva Gruesz, Marissa K. López, Juan Poblete, Robert McKee Irwin, and many others — asserting the presence and relevance of Latina/o subjects in American history and literature. Paper topics ranged from Spanish-language print culture in 19th-century New Orleans to María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s 1885 novel The Squatter and the Don to the Chilean writer Vicente Pérez Rosales’s memoir of his brief sojourn to the United States as a miner during the California Gold Rush. The breadth and richness of the Latina/o archive are staggering.

But Latina/o studies of the 19th century exist in a somewhat tenuous relationship to their contemporary counterparts, tracking alternate histories that are mismatched with our “emergent” sense of the Latino present. If Coronado’s book challenges conventional US literary histories, then it no less challenges Latina/o studies, foregrounding the tension between continuity and rupture from the 19th century to the present. One marker of this tension comes in the book’s title, with Coronado’s somewhat surprising decision to use the term Latino. As an identity marker for contemporary U.S. minorities, the term only awkwardly describes the transnational subjects of early nineteenth-century New Spain. This is a problem that all scholars in the field confront in different forms. Coronado is careful to avoid anachronism, using the term Spanish American to describe the main actors of the 1813 rebellion and Tejano to describe their intellectual descendants a generation later, after US annexation. Nevertheless, Coronado insists in the end that these are Latina/o subjects, and that this history of Texas helps clarify how the unequal racial formations of the subsequent two centuries came into existence.

Here the two halves of Coronado’s title produce some friction. “A World Not to Come” emphasizes historical contingency and rupture, producing a narrative that, in his words, “does not assume that previous generations consciously sought to arrive precisely at the world we inhabit today.” But “A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture” suggests a point of continuity. How does one identify whom “we” refers to in the phrase “the world we inhabit today?” If “we” refers in a general way to contemporary Americans, then Coronado’s approach disrupts conventional histories. But if “we” refers more specifically to Latinos, then Coronado’s implicit critique becomes even more pointed, asking “us” in contemporary Latina/o studies whether we sometimes mistakenly assume our politics are the logical continuation of the politics of past generations of Latinos, no matter how radically different their world may have been from our own. Coronado speaks so admiringly of the revolutionaries at the center of his story that it is hard not to claim them as our forebears. But their promise was never fulfilled, as the might of Spanish and then US military dominance foreclosed their worldview forever. Even scholars of Latina/o literature must admit that “we” emerge from an intellectual world dominated by Western liberalism — and that our scholarly monographs, printed and privately read, are only indirectly the descendants of the handwritten texts declaimed in and through the pueblo.

A series of difficult questions for Latina/o scholarship necessarily follow. What would it mean for the broader sweep of Latina/o literary history to pay attention not only to the 1813 Texas rebellion but also to many other worlds that never came to pass? How can we narrate a history that evades linearity, one that proceeds in fits and starts, or steps backward, or moves simultaneously on parallel or even diverging tracks? How do we pay homage to — and recognize our affiliation with — historical subjects whose worldviews were not only different from our own, but in many ways offensive to our contemporary political sensibilities?

And what if our own worldview ends not in triumph but extinction? Perhaps most troubling for contemporary Latina/o studies, Coronado’s critique of Anglo-American liberal subjectivity cuts both ways. Though he demurs from asking the question, his book prompts us to speculate to what extent modern identity politics are founded on the very possessive individualism that he characterizes as historically contingent and, at least in its Anglo-American manifestation, rapacious. Is another model of human subjectivity — and, therefore, human rights — even imaginable to us anymore?

These questions are particularly poignant in light of the most urgent issue facing Latinos today: undocumented migration and the horrific prerogatives of the contemporary security regime. In the realm of culture, claims on behalf of migrants are most often made in terms of individual rights. Think of films that portray the hardships of immigration by focusing on heroic individuals, from Gregory Nava’s classic El Norte (1983) to more recent examples, such as María Full of Grace (2004), Sin Nombre (2009), A Better Life (2011), and Marc Silver and Gael García Bernal’s Who is Dayani Cristal? (now playing). These films attempt to drive home the injustice of our mania for enforcement by zooming in on the travails of exceptional individuals suffering the effects of that enforcement. The exceptionalism of these individuals is precisely the problem, however, as the narrative logic of the films demand that they earn our sympathy — and thus the right to have rights — through their suffering, or their triumph over it. Such films confront a crisis of representation: how to scale the human tragedies of undocumented migration from the violation of one individual’s rights to the suffering of hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals over the course of a century? 

A World Not to Come is not about citizenship per se, but it sketches a valuable portrait of transnational migration and a worldview that founds itself on grounds other than the sovereignty of the individual. This matters because, on both sides, individual rights are the pivot around which the immigration debate turns: anti-immigration US residents perceive migrants as violating their civil rights by coming into the United States and taking resources from those already here, while on the other side migrants and activists rightly claim that immigration enforcement regularly, and often spectacularly, violates human rights. But such a language breaks down in the face of recent reports of tens of thousands of undocumented children detained in the Southwest in the past year. This is a situation where the rights of any particular individual pale in comparison to the utter failure of multiple nation states to care for their most vulnerable inhabitants. 

The American literary history A World Not to Come traces shows that we need not limit ourselves to this language. To cite one example: Coronado provides an account of Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara’s journey from Texas to Philadelphia to drum up support for the insurrection. As Bernardo observed the thriving industries of the United States, he recorded his thoughts on the duties of good government. As Coronado notes, those thoughts did not include any “reference to the concept of natural rights or any specific kind of rights of man,” concepts that would have made no sense within Bernardo’s Hispanic worldview. Instead, Bernardo praises good government “not so much because it secures an individual’s rights to property and the pursuit of happiness, but rather because it seeks to provide ‘relief’ for its citizens and ‘well-being’ for the nation.” 

Perhaps our next step in advancing social justice for migrants should borrow from the Texas revolutionaries, understanding “relief” and “well-being” as the self-evident truths at the core of government. Moreover, we need only one simple, if radical, act of imagination to acknowledge that questions of legal citizenship aside, migrants are already part of the nation, with long histories within our current territorial boundaries. Coronado writes that he eschews “nationalist terminology (as only ‘Mexican American,’ for example), in order to revisit […] much older catholic senses of belonging in the Hispanic world. These were imaginaries that transcended one’s attachment to one’s province, one’s patria chica, in order to feel that one was part of a much larger world.” Perhaps we might at least partially resuscitate this worldview by remembering that the idea of “America” has always exceeded the confines of our own patrias chicas in the United States. Once that fact is established, we can begin to broaden our notion of the common good, to ask what good government of all the people of America would entail.


John Alba Cutler is an assistant professor of English and Latina/o Studies at Northwestern University.  

LARB Contributor

John Alba Cutler is an assistant professor of English and Latina/o Studies at Northwestern University. He has published essays in American Literary History, American Literature, MELUS, and Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies. His first book, Ends of Assimilation: The Formation of Chicano Literature, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


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