Dissident Spirits

The Post-Insular Imprint in Puerto Rican/Diasporic Literature

by Nancy I. Bird-Soto (Author)
©2018 Monographs VIII, 120 Pages


This book explores the post-insular imprint in Puerto Rican letters through a sample of authors from the island and the diaspora. From a canonical figure like Alejandro Tapia to the post-Nuyorican poet Víctor Hernández Cruz, and from the working-class feminism of Luisa Capetillo and Franca de Armiño to Virginia Sánchez Korrol’s narrative homage to the legacy of Emilia Casanova, trends such as dissidence and migration are core to the understanding of the Puerto Rican and its diasporic experiences. In Tapia’s case, his Póstumo saga offers a transmigrated subject who questions the gender binary. Regarding Capetillo and Armiño, a sample of their plays shows not only a global awareness, but also the intersection between class and gender issues to challenge patriarchal constraints. A related intersection, the one between gender and racial matters, is key in Casanova’s understanding of freedom and the pan-Antillean consciousness that Boricua historian Sánchez Korrol underscores in her novel about the Cuban activist. To conclude this examination of the post-insular imprint in works by authors in diverse canons and working in different genres, the closing chapter is dedicated to Hernández Cruz’s poetry as an unequivocal celebration of the migratory experience of the Caribbean. These writers, thus, emerge as migrants of the word in a spirit of dissidence against colonialist notions of Puerto Rico, its diaspora, and the Caribbean.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Dissident Spirts and the Case for the Post-Insular
  • Into the chapters
  • Revolutionary twists
  • Articulating trans-migrations
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 1. Spirits of Dissidence: Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s Póstumo el transmigrado and Póstumo envirginiado
  • Spiritism and other foundational matters
  • Ensisebutado
  • Envirginiado
  • Spirits of rupture
  • Conclusions: Into a new dissident order
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2. Whimsical Women: Gender and Labor in the Plays of Luisa Capetillo and Franca de Armiño
  • Margins and intersections
  • Capetillo’s contradictions
  • Into the plays: Angelina and Gloria as “whimsical women”
  • Whimsical Marina
  • For continued pondering
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3. “All in the Name of Liberation:” Feminist and Abolitionist: The Story of Emilia Casanova
  • Virginia Sánchez Korrol and a legacy of Pan-Antillean activism
  • The making of a feminist and abolitionist
  • Metafiction and epistolary expression
  • Like a lady: Cultivating the denouncement of superficiality
  • Conclusion: Repercussions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4. A Poetic Manifesto for the Caribbean: Víctor Hernández Cruz’s In the Shadow of Al-Andalus
  • The modern and postmodern Caribbean
  • The routes toward the Caribbean
  • Dust and languages
  • To Conclude
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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I would like to thank Professor Norma Valle Ferrer for her continued mentorship and for her ground-breaking work on Luisa Capetillo. I am grateful to Professor Vicky Unruh for our conversations and her interest in this project.

Thanks also to the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for its funding connected to conference travel awards.

Special thanks to Kevin A. Barnes for his loving support while I have been working on this book.

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Dissident Spirts and the Case for the Post-Insular

“Migration is the story of my body,” declares Víctor Hernández Cruz in “The Bolero of the Red Translation” which opens his poetic anthology: Red Beans (1991). In that statement, Hernández Cruz captures the course of the history of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and humanity at large. Moreover, it is an acknowledgement of the inherent impossibility of isolation when considering the complex histories of the Americas and the Caribbean. This study seeks to demonstrate the persistence of an inherent post-insular imprint in Puerto Rican letters, both from the Island and from the diaspora. In this sense, fixed demarcations within the broader scope of Puerto Rican identity are rather an anomaly. The chapters that comprise this book are devoted to selected works by the following authors: Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, Luisa Capetillo alongside Franca de Armiño, Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, and Víctor Hernández Cruz. Those works are Tapia’s Póstumo el transmigrado (1872) and Póstumo envirginiado (1882), Capetillo’s Influencias de las ideas modernas (1916), Armiño’s Los hipócritas (1933), Sánchez-Korrol’s Feminist and Abolitionist: The Story of Emilia Casanova (2012), and Hernández Cruz’s In the Shadow of Al-Andalus (2011). While their contexts, canons, and genres are varied, these works challenge inflexible sociocultural constraints, thus signaling a post-insular trajectory from diverse anchoring coordinates for these authors with Puerto Rican roots.

There is no doubt that migration has been at the core of the broader spectrum of the Puerto Rican experience and it continues to be into the twenty-first century. Nineteenth century-born writer, suffragist, and educator Ana Roqué (1853−1933) was already exalting the Puerto Rican presence around ← 1 | 2 → the globe in her short 1919 novel: Un ruso en Puerto Rico.1 While Roqué celebrates the phenomenon of a global Puerto Rican presence through her fiction, it is crucial to understand as well that migrations to and from Puerto Rico carry a complex set of connotations and historical weight. From the indigenous inhabitants to the conquistadores, and from the forced enslavement of Africans en route to the Caribbean to, more recently, the post-Hurricane María Puerto Rican exodus to Florida and other parts of the United States mainland,2 migration and often forced displacements has not only been core, but foundational and inextricably enmeshed with the colonial experience.

Migrations to and from Puerto Rico have been integral to the sociocultural dynamics that have unfolded for several centuries. It was in the twentieth century when New York and other cities like Philadelphia and Chicago became important Puerto Rican enclaves. Thus, the case for the post-insular is rooted in the fact that said imprint has been intrinsic to Puerto Rican letters since its earlier offerings to the more contemporary and diasporic ones. While “diasporic” may or may not be replaced with “exiled” (depending on context), the choice of this term for the purposes of this book is to address the experience of Puerto Ricans characters beyond the Island (Tapia’s Póstumo/Virginia) or writers with varied connections to Puerto Rico than those born there or who live there. Thus, placed next to the concept of “Puerto Rican,” it is a lexical choice that encompasses several trans-actions, migrations—or transmigrations—in order to address what I denominate as the post-insular imprint in Puerto Rican letters. To that end, it is important to consider both the historical value and the controversy attached to Antonio S. Pedreira’s classic essay Insularismo (1934).

While insularismo (or an insular-bound framework)3 as a topic of inquiry in Puerto Rico requires addressing Pedreira’s essay, the concept of the post-insular—as subsequently elaborated—need not be tied necessarily to Pedreira’s work.4 That is, there was an already established awareness of a pan-Antillean and pan-Hispanic imaginary in the nineteenth century, at the very least, as expressed by the likes of Eugenio María de Hostos, Carmela Eulate Sanjurjo, and Alejandro Tapia y Rivera himself, to name a few. A Puerto Rican patriot and crusader for education whose tomb can be found in Santo Domingo (Hostos), a pivotal writer in the trajectory of Puerto Rican letters under the authorship of women and who passed away in Spain (Eulate), and a renowned foundational figure in Puerto Rican literature (Tapia), these three authors spent considerable amounts of time abroad. The significance of this is that it made a strong impact on how they understood their Puerto ← 2 | 3 → Rican/Antillean/Caribbeanness. This important biographical element does not conflict with their being Puerto Rican and their contributions to literature and culture. Furthermore, it is also crucial to keep in mind that a more encompassing and varied set of articulations of Puerto Rican identity and sense of nationhood had been in place well before and well after—and in spite of—the sociocultural misgivings of Insularismo.

The post-insular in Puerto Rican letters precedes and exceeds Pedreira’s essay, which means it is not necessarily a reactionary trait but an inherent characteristic.5 Still, it is relevant to take into account the contextual meaning of Pedreira’s work and its ensuing controversies, even if in a condensed fashion. As Marta Aponte remarks in her essay “La patria líquida,” we must read and consider those works that have been pivotal in the formation of a cultural awareness and/or a personal library.6 In her 2001 edition, Sobre Ínsulas Extrañas: el clásico de Pedreira anotado por Tomás Blanco, Mercedes López-Baralt places Pedreira’s essay and its value for Puerto Rican letters within the broader panorama of the Latin American essay. She meticulously contextualizes Pedreira’s contribution to the sub-category of the interpretative essay as he delves into the topic of Puerto Rican identity. In the words of López-Baralt: “el Insularismo es la obra que ha consagrado a su autor” (55). Indeed, this essay is the first one of its kind in Puerto Rican literature and has the merits of approaching the topic of identity, without overlooking its problematic biases.

Mercedes López-Baralt also examines the various controversies that Insularismo has elicited. For instance, Juan Angel Silén’s decrying of its status as the “bible” of the 1930s stands out as one of the harshest critiques to Pedreira’s stereotypical ideas and limited approach to the question of identity (López-Baralt 66). Claims such as “nuestra docilidad es permanente” (Pedreira 32), as a dead-end condition of utmost passiveness is unnerving if not ripe material for a colonialist self-fulfilling prophecy. Such indecisiveness is, according to Pedreira, attributed to the African blood, while also virtually ignoring the indigenous history. The attribution and the oversight are symptomatic of racial supremacist/hierarchical privilege. There is no doubt that a colonialist and Eurocentric approach, like the one Aníbal Quijano denounces, takes over Pedreira’s interpretation of Puerto Rican history and its social processes. The fact that this is the default setting employed in Insularismo, already points to a critical matter that deserves considerations and reconsiderations.

As an interpretative essay, the contextual biases of Pedreira’s approach are undoubtedly eloquent. In this sense, the work of Mary Louis Pratt about the androcentric mold of the Latin American essay7 is a key consideration when ← 3 | 4 → understanding the strong critiques provoked by the discursive blind spots embedded in Insularismo. Further, said androcentric mold is a reflection of a patriarchal and paternalistic sociocultural ethos—as Juan Gelpí has famously examined in the context of canonical Puerto Rican literature—and one that may have posed as a default or natural setting, but which is nonetheless an unsettling one as it denotes the grasp and reach of colonialist frames of reference. This androcentric mold is also coupled with a deeply entrenched racism and classism, thus making it unfit for a wider understanding of the Latin American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican realities beyond what the canon and the status quo have treasured and valued at the expense of other articulations of these complex realities. As the chapters in this book illustrate, several of these problematic traits ensconced in such sociocultural paradigm had already been challenged by the likes of Tapia and Capetillo and will be critically revisited by Sánchez-Korrol and Hernández Cruz. They accomplish so by incorporating the thoroughly Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and human transaction of migration, be it at the physical and/or the conceptual or metaphorical level.

Juan Flores, one of the critics included in López-Baralt’s introduction, warns against summarily dismissing Insularismo, recognizing its historical value. He also credits Pedreira as “one of the first established intellectuals to study and document Puerto Rican culture as a national culture” (55). Flores also calls for a “critical re-assessment” that may contribute “to a dialectical understanding of our social cultural history” (55). The literary production of Puerto Rican authors before and after the 1930s—from the Island and/or from the diaspora—not only reveals a more encompassing sociocultural spectrum but a strong spirit of dissidence against a fixed and limiting notion of Puerto Rican identity. Migrations, transmigrations, new gendered agreements, and self-aware dissidence—as examined in the chapters—further this dialectical understanding.

Migrations, whether voluntary, forced, and/or marked by historical contingencies, have had different doses of spirited re-articulations of the Puerto Rican as well as the Caribbean and transnational experience(s). Is that which is Puerto Rican, then, on some level inherently post-insular? In “The Bolero of the Red Translation,” Hernández Cruz elaborates more about the need for geographical movement: “In migrations, populations relieve themselves of their own heaviness” (5, 1991). Could that heaviness refer to the layers of constriction foisted upon a human collective striving to be more inclusive, less socially divided, and in tune with its wide-ranging cultural legacy? As an affirmative answer to these ponderings, I offer to qualify as post-insular ← 4 | 5 → that aspect of Puerto Rican letters (both from the Island and beyond) that resists the erasure of the diverse and vital migrations that have and continue to shape and invigorate the various dimensions of Puerto Rican identity.

In her discussion about Hernández Cruz’s poetry, Marisel Moreno highlights its transinsular aspect, as transmigration and transnationalism are conjugated not just in the post-Nuyorican poet’s cultural and life experiences, but also in what has been the history of Africa, Spain, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and of course, Puerto Rico. These experiences are infused with diasporic movement, with the very migrations that, over millennia, have manifested not only in the poet’s own body as he mentions, but also in the features that bring life to these regions and their people. The poetry of Hernández Cruz paints a landscape where “cultures are conflated” (Moreno 310) as they also dismantle “exclusionary identity discourses” that “have sought to erase African influences prior to the transatlantic African slave trade” (Moreno 310−311), considering also the strong North African and Islamic influence inherited by and from Spain. Thus, as Antonio Benítez Rojo’s concept/trope of the repeating Island, the Caribbean is in North Africa, as it is in Spain, as it is in New York, as it is in Latin America, and back again. Or, as communicated in the poem “Coming full circle” by contemporary Dominican poet, Rebeca Castellanos: “La ciudad se repite/Córdoba es una repetición de Santo Domingo/ es una repetición de Salvador es una repetición” (11−12).

Through interconnected histories, the transmigrations and experience of transnationalism—thus emphasizing movement, dynamism, trans-actions—have a marked impact on the social, cultural, economic, and political realities of the Puerto Rican subject who is constantly negotiating identity as well within a Caribbean cartography. That cartography is charted from San Juan to New York, from Africa to Spain, and from Andalusia to the Americas. Moreno remarks the transinsular in Hernández Cruz’s poetry and its role in undoing hegemonic constructs of identity in Spain, the Caribbean and/or Puerto Rico, given that those constructs focus on a more Eurocentric and static approach. In that same vein and in defiance of insularismo, whether strictly insular-bound or unquestioning of the ingrained sociocultural biases present in Pedreira’s essay, the post-insular imprint stands out as an overarching trend in Puerto Rican letters as well as a primary marker of its dissident spirit.


VIII, 120
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. VIII, 120 pp.

Biographical notes

Nancy I. Bird-Soto (Author)

Nancy I. Bird-Soto received her PhD in Hispanic literatures from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. Her most recent publications are Gendering XXI: Latinas, caribeñas y sus otros modos de ser (2017) and Los hipócritas de Franca de Armiño (2013).


Title: Dissident Spirits
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