Beyond Nationalism: Reply to Professor Ngai

Beyond Nationalism: Reply to Professor Ngai

Professor Ngai goes to the heart of the matter when she alludes to a literature on colonialism that takes issue with an essentializing nationalism. In my work on Degetau and on other figures of the intellectual elite of the American imperial periphery, I seek to offer an alternative to the nationalist perspective that has long dominated post-colonial historiography, in which the only legitimate anti-imperialist or “decolonizing” move belongs to the nationalist. Not only does this ignore the multiplicity of views that exist and engage with each other in the colonial periphery; it replaces them with the guilty fantasy of a liberal metropolitan intelligentsia, which, in a fit of vicarious repentance on behalf of its forebears, takes sides with the uncompromising nationalist. He alone (yes, he) can expiate the sins of empire with his strong arm, armed if needs be—and in the process take the whole mess off our hands. This bien pensant program for the remaking of the colonial world has caused as many catastrophes as it has resolved. Maybe more.

Then again, the historians of the metropole did not invent this maneuver all by themselves (nor of course do they deserve all the credit and/or blame for the phenomenon of nationalism). Degetau himself spent a great deal of his life fighting this essentializing move—and what concerned him most was the manipulation of nationalist discourse by his own generation of Puerto Rican political leaders, many of whom became increasingly enamored of the idea of “Puerto Ricanness” as the central organizing principle of political life on the island. They all started out as liberals and as “autonomists,” who confronted the Spanish government repeatedly with their demands for greater self-government for Puerto Rico, and who frequently cited the model of Canadian autonomy under the British North America Act. But Spain’s repeated rejection of their pleas for political reform had the unintended consequence of sharpening an emergent sense of Puerto Rican national identity—precisely what Spain foolishly hoped to prevent with its recalcitrance—and, inspired by this nascent sense of a distinct Puerto Rican identity, a segment of the late nineteenth century Puerto Rican autonomist leadership eventually turned against Canadian-style autonomy, and began calling with increasing stridency for a newly ethno-regional political regime. We are not Canadian autonomists, they declared; we are Puerto Rican autonomists.

Degetau was not among them. He and other like-minded autonomist leaders remained deeply skeptical of the suggestion that the political regime for which they were all struggling should have a defined ethnic content. An article published in the Puerto Rican newspaper El País on 3 November 1897 captures their reaction to the novel assertion that Puerto Rico must have “Puerto Rican” autonomy: “We don’t get it: we are Autonomist Spaniards; and because being Spanish is inherent in us, whatever form of autonomy we receive cannot alter that condition: if they give us a regime identical to the one enjoyed by Canada… will that somehow undermine what we are by our very nature—Spaniards?” (translated from the Spanish, emphasis added).

The split between the two autonomist factions not only persisted after the transfer of sovereignty to the United States, it became aggravated by the resistance of the United States to the idea of Puerto Rican statehood, a rejection which even further heightened the sense among the advocates of a specifically Puerto Rican autonomy that nothing but Puerto Rican autonomy would do. But Degetau and his colleagues persisted in their view that the goal was the implementation on the island not of Puerto Ricanness, but of liberal ideals, and that those ideals would become “Puerto Rican” if Puerto Ricans enjoyed the benefit of them. The same conviction informed Degetau’s arguments with respect to U.S. citizenship: he believed that, if they were going to live under U.S. sovereignty, then Puerto Ricans deserved U.S. citizenship quite as much as other Americans did, and he remained confident always that becoming U.S. citizens would not cost Puerto Ricans their Puerto Ricannness. Rather, it would simply make U.S. citizenship as consistent with “Puerto Ricanness” as it was with any ethnic identity. As it should be.

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