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Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba
The Travels of Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Condesa de Merlin

Author(s): Adriana Mendez Rodenas

Author of novels, memoirs, and travel writings, Maria de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, better known as la Condesa de Merlin (1789-1852), is arguably one of Cuba's most engaging authors; yet until now her works have gone largely ignored.

Born in colonial Havana to an aristocratic Creole family, the future countess of Merlin left Cuba for Spain at an early age. Later, her marriage to the French count Antoine Christophe Merlin and the invasion of French Napoleonic troops precipitated another move to France, where she became one of the belle dames of Paris and began her literary career. She returned only once to Cuba after the death of her husband in 1840, a journey that produced Viaje a la Habana. Upon her return to Paris, Merlin expanded this into La Havane, an ambitious three-volume account of the political, social, and economic organization of the island.

From the viewpoint of feminist and psychoanalytical theory, Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba brilliantly explores the many ways in which issues of gender have contributed to Merlin's virtual absence from the canons of literature and from the discourses on Cuban national identity. Merlin's double identity as both Cuban and French is symbolic of the Cuban exiled condition, a fact taken up by contemporary exiled Cuban writers who see the countess as an alter-ego.

Mendez Rodenas seeks to restore Merlin as the first woman writer in Cuban literary history to articulate a sense of national identity, as well as being Cuba's first female historian. She focuses on Merlin's travel writings because they examine such issues as slavery, independence, nationhood, the role of women, education, and local literature. Together her writings construct an alternative, gendered history of nineteenth-century Cuba that must be acknowledged as both functional and authentic.

By situating Merlin at the intersection of the discourses of gender and nationalism, Mendez Rodenas reveals not only her pioneering role but also the need to expand current critical categories to account for the specificity of the Latin American literary tradition. In the process of restoring Merlin to her appropriate place in the canon of Latin American literature, she broadens our understanding of colonial Cuban history and expands our knowledge of the ways in which travel writing can influence a country's national literature .


Biography of Author(s)

Adriana Mendez Rodenas is associate professor of Spanish and comparative literature at the University of Iowa. She is also the author of Severo Sarduy: el neobarroco de la transgresion, which won the National Literary Essay Prize from the Mexican Fine Arts Institute.

Reviews

  • Mendez Rodenas convincingly installs Merlin's writings--a little known collection of texts--among the most important foundational works written by both men and women in nineteenth-century Latin America.
    -- Antonio Benitez-Rojo, Amherst College
  • Adriana Mendez Rodenas is to be credited for having recovered, single-handedly, an all but forgotten Cuban nineteenth-century figure. Her book on Merlin is an illuminating reflection in which the discourses of nation-formation, cultural translation, and gender identity fruitfully intersect.
    --Sylvia Molloy, New York University