Instrument of Empire: The Spanish Language and the Global Reach of Hispanism, 1910s–40s

AHA Session 154
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room A602 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Ramón A. Gutiérrez, University of Chicago
Ramón A. Gutiérrez, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

In 1492, the renowned Spanish scholar Antonio de Nebrija authored the first-ever compendium of Spanish grammar, which he dedicated to Queen Isabella I of Castile.  Legend has it that when Nebrija presented the book to the queen, she asked, “Why should I wish to read such a book, when I already know the language?”  To this, Nebrija famously replied, “Your Majesty, language is the perfect instrument of empire.”  During more than four centuries the Castilian language proved one of Spain’s most effective tools for exercising its global power. 

Of Nebrija we might ask, What happens when empires decline?  Do imperial languages follow their demise?  Hardly. When the Spanish empire met its end in 1898, castellano remained the mother tongue of millions in lands it once claimed.  Today, half a billion people around the globe speak Spanish and more than 50 million of them reside in the United States.  In the wake of the Spanish-American War, language remained both a living reminder of Spain’s bygone influence and the durable instrument of a new kind of empire—a linguistic empire.

This panel highlights the geopolitical value and ideological uses of language as Spain grappled with its post-imperial condition.  During the early decades of the twentieth century, Spain’s preeminent scholars recognize the latent power of language and activated it to restore their nation’s image before the world.  Leveraging their expertise, they championed Hispanism: a transatlantic movement that involved the study of Spanish language and history.  Cultivating networks the world over, including at universities throughout the United States, Hispanists generated widespread appreciation of “Hispanic” culture and, in so doing, transformed how the Americans viewed the Spanish-speaking world.  Those transatlantic Hispanist networks are the focus of this panel’s three paper presentations.

Ana Varela-Lago and John Nieto-Phillips will retrace connections between prominent Spaniards and the U.S.-born counterparts during the 1910s and 1920s, as they collectively popularized the study of Spain’s linguistic and historical legacy in North America. The scholarly and pedagogic impact of Hispanists’ efforts can be measured in the pages of still-prominent journals: Hispania and the Hispanic American Historical Review. Political tumult of the 1930s, however, accentuated intellectual and ideological fissures among Hispanists, as Monste Feu will make clear in her examination of Spanish exile publications, specifically of Félix Martí Ibáñez, whose transformation from a key anarchist figure in Spain to a political exile-turned-medical authority and author embodies a history of Spanish immigration and community-building in the United States. 

By studying Hispanist networks we can learn something about the relationship between migration, ideology and transnational power in the twentieth century.  We can understand the inner workings of what Joseph Nye (1990) termed “soft power”: a state’s exercise of global power through cultural persuasion rather than political or economic coercion. As a form of soft power, Hispanism reveals ways intellectuals transformed American Hispanophobia into Hispanophilia.  That transformation remains an important yet still obscure chapter in Spanish, U.S. and Latina/o histories.  And it suggests ways “global migrations” have forged linguistic empires that span national boundaries.

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