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Part 2: Close-Read Setting and the Language of Difference

22 July, 2019 - 09:15
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Figure 3.2 "Woman of Havana" 
Image of a woman from Havana found in Spanish, Portuguese, and American Women 

Next, teachers can direct their students to a discussion of setting and theme, considering how and why some non-fiction and fiction writers of the 19th century construct concepts of ethnic and cultural difference through a text's environment and setting. Begin by reading the following selection from Spanish, Portuguese, and American Women, written by Teodoro Guerrero in his chapter "The Woman from the Island of Cuba". Provide students with a copy of this passage, as well as the following passages mentioned in this module. Read this aloud twice. The first time, read the passage at a regular pace or have a student do so. The second time, read the passage slowly and have students underline and circle important words in the passage - for instance, circle all verbs and underline all adjectives.

The tropical sun, which beats down heavily upon the children of Cuba, heats the imagination, as seen through vivid flashes, genius rays of light. In the place where everything is poetry, everything is love, where the sky is clothed in the most beautiful colors as it bids farewell to the sun in the west, where palm trees conspicuously and gracefully sway in the air amongst the most varied and exuberant vegetation, where trees never lose their leaves, where brightly colored birds sing melodious trills, where the moon's light contests the brightness of the morning sun, where woman imprints voluptuous languor on her steps, the poet's muse should strum the mind to pluck harmonious sonnets from the mysterious lyre, the lyre with invisible strings, known as inspiration. In that place, everything sings– youths sing to relieve the fire that burns within their souls; in the villages, the guajiro sings to the sounds of his tiple 1 to delight his beloved; in the fields, the slave sings to silence his chains; the bird sings in the bower; love sings in the heart. (10)

After reading this paragraph aloud, teachers can perform a close-reading on this paragraph, asking students questions similar to those posed after the Stephen Crane passage. Teachers might guide students to the following conclusions:

  1. What type of language does this passage represent? How would you characterize the words you underlined or circled? What does this language say about Cuba? The passage's language romanticizes both Cuba and its inhabitants, casting this space as a foreign, tropical, and escapist landscape.
  1. Discuss one major feature of this description and then discuss how and if it influences our understanding of Cuba's peoples. For instance, the brightness and color of this description hauntingly lulls the songs of the slave into harmony with the songs of the heart, integrating the dark history of slavery with those of a tropical island getaway.
  1. What people are mentioned? Choose either the woman, the poet, the guajiro, or the slave. What adjectives are used to describe this figure and how is this reflected in the environment of Cuba? Cuba becomes a sexualized and exotic landscape through the "voluptuous languor" of Cuban women. The romantic language of the tropical setting blends with this portrayal of Cuban women, and paints them as sensual, animated versions of the landscape.
  1. After close-reading Cuba's landscape, teachers might ask students to finally summarize Cuba in one sentence. By reading this passage, how do you understand Cuba?
Figure 3.3 "The Woman from the Island of Cuba" 

Next, teachers can introduce this passage into a longstanding discussion of geographic mapping and environmental description. Many texts represent the nations, natives, and regions of Central and South America through strategies of "tropicalization." To "tropicalize" means to "imbue a particular space, geography, group, or nation with a set of traits, images, and values" (8). Authors that tropicalize from the position of colonizer or imperialist, do so from a place of privilege, and, thus, assert power over that space by locating it within an encompassing set of characteristics. This strategy often connects the environmental factors of regions and places to ethnic characterizations of a place's inhabitants. Often times, 19th century travelers, especially Anglo-American travelers, described the residents of tropical locales as lazy and volatile due to the heat, tropical setting, and romance of the Southern Hemisphere. This type of characterization constructs ethnic stereotypes by which ethnicity reflects climate and location. Interestingly, the different authors of Spanish, Portuguese, and American Women both encourage and resist tropes of tropicalization. For instance, Guerrero initially contradicts the stereotypes of the tropics, refuting claims that the "the excessive heat of the tropics" "weakens the spirit" and causes "indolence" in natives (7). However, he also describes Cuba as space of exotic sexuality, where women come to blend with the beauty of the landscape. For instance:

If, by good fortune, all my readers had set foot upon those far beaches, I would not have to strain myself to praise Cuban women [...J What did you expect? That women who sway like poetic palm trees, who bend their waists like sugar canes caressed by a soft breeze, who bear the sun's flames within their hearts, the moon's the brilliant paleness in their faces, and the luster of the stars in their eyes can be seen without opening the soul to great impressions? (6-7)

Despite his refutation of stereotypes, Guerrero presents Cuban women as sensual figures that blend into the tropical landscape. Teachers might discuss this passage by asking students: What is this passage about? Cuban Women or Cuba? For an in-class exercise, teachers might provide their students with a handout of this paragraph (as well as the previous one) or place this passage on a projector so that students both hear and see the words. Secondly, teachers might ask students: which words apply to Cuban women and which words apply to Cuba's landscape? Asking questions that rely on reader's response can allow for teachers to guide students to the intersection of race, gender, and place. For instance, how do we understand Cuba as this author describes it? How do we understand the women of Cuba when they are placed in the context of "soft breeze[s]" and "the sun's fames"? How is the author "praising" Cuban women? Calling students to consider these characterizations and how they reflect the basic details of a text's setting, can show the different ways racial and gender dynamics influence our sense of space, landscape, and geography. To a certain extent, this passage performs the opposite function of pathetic fallacy or personification, "a figure of speech where animals, ideas or inorganic objects are given human characteristics" (Glossary). The bodies of Cuba's women blend with the swaying palm trees, their waists become like sugar, and the sun is reflected in the passion of their hearts. Rather than attribute the landscape with human qualities, Guerrero attributes Cuban women with the qualities of Cuba's tropical landscape.

Figure 3.4 Woman of Cuba 
Another image of a Cuban woman.