Hispanic Ecocriticism

by José Manuel Marrero Henríquez (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 252 Pages


Hispanic Ecocriticism finds a rich soil in the main topics of environmental concern in the literature of Latin America and Spain, not only as a source for renewing critical analysis and hermeneutics, but also for the benefit of global environmental awareness. In a renewed exchange of transatlantic relationships, Hispanic Ecocriticism intermingles Latin American ecocritical issues of interest — the oil industry; contamination of forests and rivers; urban ecologies; African, Andean, and Amazonian biocultural ecosystems — with those of interest in Spain — animal rights and the ecological footprints of human activity in contemporary narratives of eco-science fiction, in dystopias, and in literature inspired by natural or rural landscapes that conceal ways of life and cultures in peril of extinction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • José Manuel Marrero Henríquez: Introduction: On Hispanic Ecocriticism
  • Hispanic Ecocritical Theory
  • José Manuel Marrero Henríquez: Ecocriticism of the Anthropocene and the Poetics of Breathing
  • Jorge Marcone: Towards an Amazonian Environmental Humanities
  • Laura Barbas-Rhoden: Gendering EcoHispanisms: Knowledge, Gender, and Place in a Pluricultural Latin America
  • Spanish Ecocriticism
  • Pamela Phillips: Enlightening Nature: An Ecocritical Reading of Eighteenth-Century Spanish Literature
  • Natalia Álvarez Méndez: Subject and Landscape: Encounters with Nature in Contemporary Spanish Narrative
  • Latin American Ecocriticism
  • Scott DeVries: The Quiroga Frame: Animal Studies and Spanish American Literature
  • Arturo Arias: Indigenous Knowledges and Ecological Thought: Jak’alteko Maya Victor Montejo’s Fables
  • Beatriz Rivera-Barnes: Sadder Tropics: The Hate of Nature in Juan José Saer’s El entenado and Dorian Fernández-Moris’s film Desaparecer
  • Gisela Heffes: Exclusive Natures: Latin American Cities in Urban Ecocritical Perspectives
  • Manuel Silva-Ferrer: Petrofictions: Nature and Imaginaries of Oil in Latin America
  • Contributors

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José Manuel Marrero Henríquez

Introduction: On Hispanic Ecocriticism

In his text “The Analytic Language of John Wilkins”, Jorge Luis Borges highlights how the great virtues of natural languages are to be found in their defects. Within the story’s title, the reference to English natural philosopher and writer John Wilkins recalls the seventeenth century innovator’s attempt to remedy linguistic defects by creating a perfect language, one that would provide a sign for everything in the world, from the most abstract to the most miniscule. Not allowing for any ambiguity, Wilkin’s proposed language consisted only of precise words inserted in a grammar as accurate as the metric system in which words behave like numbers with exact meaning and self-containing definitions; however, words that act like numbers and perfect signs for perfect meanings ultimately result in nonsense. This ideal but impossible language suits one of Borges’s characters, Funes, the boy who, after an accident, develops a boundless memory capable of having a term for every occurrence: the name for the fly that is here and a different name for the same fly over there, or an expression for the leaf in the air and another for same one once back on the earth. Perfect as it appears to be, Wilkins’s language needs the common approval of his departing classification of the world, and only a memory as huge and worthless as Funes’s is able to learn it. Borges uses Wilkins’s project to praise the limitations of human beings and the imperfections of natural languages, despite their being full of inexactitudes and the illogical categories of grammatical genres, ambiguities, homonyms, synonyms, and so forth. Those same imperfections, which are able to produce an infinite quantity of messages with a limited number of signs and sounds, are also the pillars of art and literary creation.

Since its inception, Hispanic Ecocriticism has aimed to reproduce this basic condition of natural languages by making its imperfections also its virtues. On one hand, the title Hispanic Ecocriticism is too broad a designation to be able to be true, for there is no possible way to condense into one book all the literary variations and critical viewpoints that are important from an ecocritical perspective within Hispanism. On the other hand, the adjective “Hispanic” is overly restrictive inasmuch as it obscures the fact that the ecocritical topics, theoretical reflections, and critical proposals within Hispanism are also of general interest to ecocriticism as a global and transnational movement. Furthermore, the term ←9 | 10→“Hispanic” treats the adjective as if it were a pristine and crystal clear term without internal conflicts. The adjective “Hispanic” tends to avoid the reflection of its own meaning, which, without any doubt, points to the conflict of the metropolitan powers of Spain—and by extension, Portugal, England, France, the Netherlands, and other European nations—and their part in the imposition of the Spanish language and political powers over the native languages and cultures of the peoples of America.

Nonetheless, just as Borges affirms the limits of natural languages, these contradictions and excesses in scope, which are simultaneously reductionisms, tend to erase the historical footprints of cultural conflict in favor of harmonious images. In brief, the insufficiencies of the title are also its virtues, for not only does it allow Hispanic Ecocriticism to cover a vast array of issues that are relevant in ecocriticism as a general movement and as a Hispanic field of research, but it simultaneously facilitates recurring dialogue of complementarity and collaboration, thereby giving space to justice and encouraging Hispanism’s effort to undress its arrogant apparels and humbly accept that its language and culture can no longer be considered without the influence of indigenism, its counterpart in Latin American culture and political history.

In the diary of his first journey, Columbus, inspired by the Americas’ magnificent landscapes and the beauty of the inhabitants, wrote that he had discovered Paradise. By the second journey, however, a different imagination prevailed, one that envisioned this Garden of Eden as a profitable land of immense natural and human resources that could be acquired through the alphabetization of its people. In the years that followed, Spain capitalized on this vision, conquering and colonizing for its own benefit and for the advantage of other European countries. The transatlantic inception of Columbus’s travel diary placed the Spanish language in a complex field of conflicting interests upon which it has built its modern idiosyncrasy, encompassing multifaceted American and European identities, contending realities, and textual loci.

The Spanish language has been adapted throughout the centuries by the inhabitants and cultures of a multitude of American sites, from regions of sublime romantic wonder akin to Western imagination to distressful jungles and formidable rainforests, from cosmopolitan cities with European flavor to suburban populations of indigenous alluvial peasants, from rural lands of creole influence to Caribbean islands of African ancestry, the Andes, the Amazonia, and the remote ecosystems of Patagonia. In a restorative circle that has yet to be completed, the Spanish language places its alphabet and phonetic system at the service of the Mapuche and other American ancestral cultures to ease the written survival of their oral traditions.

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The Spanish language has enriched its European roots with American branches and fruits that are becoming prominent in what should be now a new design of the Hispanic literary tradition. Languages have a great capacity to evolve, adapt, clash, and intermingle along with the circumstances of their history, and it is in America where Spanish, imbued with its influence of European culture and the ancestral inhabitants of America, for the first time gives birth to texts able to cope with the unprecedented circumstances of the Anthropocene. First developed in Latin America and later in Spain, ecocriticism has found in this complex, ecumenical, and democratic Hispanism a rich field of research that transcends frontiers to acquire a dimension of global interest.

In a renewed exchange of transatlantic relationships, the primary ecocritical impulse within Hispanism comes from Latin America, for Spanish academia has demonstrated reticence to incorporate the environmental agenda in the Humanities. In Latin America, topics of great relevance include the oil industry and environmental contamination, the use and abuse of forests and rivers, gender and the perception of environment, urban ecology, indigenous thought about the land and its human and nonhuman inhabitants, the African factor in the perception of the environment, suburban ecosystems, and waste and social justice. In Spain, ecocriticism turns its gaze to animal rights and the ecological footprints of human activity in contemporary narratives of eco-science fiction, in dystopias, and in literature inspired by natural or rural landscapes that conceal ways of life and cultures in peril of extinction.

Old loci appear under a new light, and new loci arise. Hispanic ecocriticism has a vast agenda in building a tradition that reconnects Latin America to Spain, ancestral and contemporary knowledge, past periods of literature with new literary trends, and contemporary ecological sensibility with animal ethics. When collaboration challenges competition, technology can serve traditional agriculture and environmental health, European degrowth and slow food movements see an ally in the American sumak kawsay, and the indigenous perspectives on the American land enrich contemporary animal and landscape ethics. With a collaborative attitude, Hispanic ecocriticism finds a rich soil in the main topics of environmental concern in the literature of Latin America and Spain, not only as a source for renewing critical analysis and hermeneutics, but also for the benefit of global environmental awareness.

Under the same strength of will with which natural languages aim to give an accurate account of the reality surrounding their utterances, even if that aim is not possible to be achieved in its entirety, this manifold agenda is carried out with an inclusive, just, and democratic perspective on Hispanism. Three chapters of Hispanic Ecocriticism focus on literary theory. José Manuel Marrero Henríquez ←11 | 12→develops a “poetics of breathing” as a general ecocritical theory able to sustain a coherent ecocritical practice in a variety of cultural traditions. Whether the texts under scrutiny be American or European, part of the oral tradition or fully inserted in the literate tradition, akin to indigenous cosmogonies or Western mindsets, Marrero Henríquez’s “poetics of breathing” inspires ecocriticism to explore the transbordering possibility of how words breathe or, namely, the process by which literature proves to be the ultimate result of the natural evolution that rewards those who are able to grasp its beauty and regularities in time and space. Despite being aerial, breathing is a solid base from which to discover concomitance and find the common roots of a vast array of cultural expressions inside—and outside—Hispanism.

In his theoretical proposal on the Amazonia, Jorge Marcone considers the systematic absence of Amazonian texts in the canon of every Andean nation as a symptom of the insufficiencies of the academic acceptance of transcultural theories in countries characterized by the coexistence of a plurality of ontological worlds. As a departure point for his study, Marcone refers to the fact that the Amazon and its denizens have been considered by the Regionalist novel as a site for exploitation and the “Other” in contrast to the European and criollo. From this perspective, Marcone studies how Amazonian ontologies have contributed to the ecocritical debates on the status of nonhuman beings and how these ontologies promote a challenging revision of the linguistic consideration of these beings whose very enunciation could be thought of as more-than-human. The very notion of text in literary theory ventures beyond the split between nature and society and human and nonhuman, and the foundation of discursive elaborations on literary history is questioned.

Like the notion of text, that of gender becomes a powerful dynamic category, especially when it intersects with humanity, ethnicity, race, class, age, and geopolitical location. Laura Barbas-Rhoden studies gender as a theoretical means to prevent the pluricultural context of Latin America from being blurred or obscured in journalistic and academic discourses. Barbas-Rhoden centers her attention on the interpretation of Latin American cultural texts and makes of gender and ecocriticism tools that illuminate every cultural artifact, not only those signed by a gendered qualification, as it happens, for example, with explicitly feminist production, but also key topics of Latin American culture such as that of civilization and barbarism.

Oppositions are a powerful hermeneutical tool and a habit of the intellectual mind. They have existed and exist, but they may be reread under new lights, lights that are able to raise doubts on the clear and well-defined drawing of their borders. This effect happens not only in ecocritical theory, when Marrero ←12 | 13→Henríquez introduces a binding poetics of breathing, when Marcone reevaluates Amazonian ontologies or when Barbas-Rhoden multiplies Latin American gender cultural overtones, but also occurs in ecocritical practice, such as when Pamela Phillips studies Enlightenment and examines its influence on Spanish literature. In historical terms, literature of the Enlightenment has been marginalized as a second-class period in which nature appears as an object progressively controlled by humankind. Nonetheless, Pamela Phillips not only studies the aesthetic value of nature in Spanish literature of the Enlightenment, but also sees in this period the beginning of the acknowledgement of nature as a limited resource. Phillips proposes Enlightenment as a valuable literary period for ecocritical consideration and dialogue with contemporary Spanish literature of the twenty-first century both within Hispanism and as a general ecocritical issue. Through her reading of Jovellanos, Feijoo, and eighteenth century Spanish poetry, Pamela Phillips studies the ecological concerns of Spanish Enlightenment that are of great relevance to contemporary ecocritical thought.

It is precisely in the respect for nature and return to rural life that Natalia Álvarez Méndez finds a common ground for a significant number of Spanish novels from recent decades. Rurality appears in the works of Llamazares, Mateo Díez, Merino, Jenn Díaz, Manuel Darriba, Lara Moreno, Iván Repila, and other authors as a challenge to the failure of modernity and its economic and moral crisis. Rural life develops apart from consumerism and allows for the depiction of agricultural landscapes, the description of life and work in small villages, and the denouncement of the ecological destruction of nature. Natalia Álvarez Méndez’s landscapes are, like animals, biological beings threatened by capitalism, consumerism, and destructive industrialization and can serve as a bridge to Phillips’s study of eighteenth century Spanish poets.

On Latin American shores and under the spotlight of contemporary debates on animal ethics, Scott DeVries centers his work on the study of animal representation as a way to reconsider the historical system in which Latin American literature is studied and classified. DeVries explores the representation of animals in fiction and poetry from the major Latin American literary periods, the nineteenth century to contemporary narrative, from Faustino Sarmiento to Luis R. Sepúlveda and Fernando Raga, in light of animal ethics and the concerns of present debates on animal studies. DeVries’s chapter demonstrates how his “fauna-criticism” is not only a study of animal representation in Latin American literature, but also allows a reframing of Latin American literary history according to the animal-centered ethical position of poetry and fictional prose.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (October)
Hispanism Ecocritical Studies Poetics of Breathing Transatlantic Studies Amazonian Studies Indigenous Cultures Spanish Literature Latin American Literature Andean Literature Caribbean Literature Petrofiction Urban Ecology Animal Studies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 252 pp., 3 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

José Manuel Marrero Henríquez (Volume editor)

José Manuel Marrero Henríquez is a key figure in Hispanic and European ecocriticism. Poet, writer, essayist, and tenured professor of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, he has published extensively on landscape and animal representation in literature and on a variety of topics and authors of the Spanish and Latin American literary traditions.


Title: Hispanic Ecocriticism
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254 pages