TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS
3: Lillian Guerra, 11-21-05
Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman
Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, Yale University
Areas of Research: Latin American & Caribbean History, History of Cuba and Puerto Rico
Education: Ph.D. 2000, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Latin American Studies
Major Publications: Popular Expression and National Identity in Puerto Rico (University of Florida Press, 1998) and The Myth of José Martí : Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Twentieth Century Cuba (University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Guerra has also published two books of Spanish-language poetry on themes of displacement and Latino identity: Revelaciones exóticas (UNEAC, the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba, 2004); Cuentos y Fragmentos de Aquí y Allá : Poemas with Claudia Aburto Guzmán, (Quito, Ecuador: Editorial El Conejo, 2002).
Awards: Best Dissertation Prize, New England Council of Latin American Studies (NECLAS), 2000-2001. Woodrow Wilson Fdn.-Andrew W. Mellon Career Enhancement Fellowship (2004-05) rescinded
Additional Info: Guerra was the curator of Manuel López Oliva: Cuba and the Theatre of Desire at Bates College Museum of Art (August 22 to October 5, 2003), and co-coordinator and curator, Ars Poética, with Arelys Hernández Plasencia, Galeriá Ruben Martínez Villena, Plaza de Armas, Havana, Cuba (May 25-June 18, 2004).
The most challenging part of graduate study was the process of writing the dissertation and for me, it was definitely, monastic. (Living in Wisconsin where the winters don’t require one to find excuses to stay home and work certainly helped! ) I recall feeling as if no-one in the world had any idea of what I had discovered in Cuban archives and feeling that the ghosts of Cuba’s past were my only intellectual company. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I became something of a believer in the intervention of spirits while researching my dissertation in Cuba as well as writing it: some of the historical figures whose concerns seemed far from the ones that I was actually researching just simply would not go away or leave me alone! They kept emerging in the documents, appearing in sources that I picked up, always by “coincidence” and in the end, I surrendered to doing work on topics that would otherwise have remained at the margins of my study-topics like cigar makers’ strikes, state terror tactics during an early republican regime or the life of a black civil rights activist (named Evaristo Estenoz) about whom specialists believed we already knew “everything.” In the end, I realized that what all these historical figures who kept pursuing me had in common was the experience of having been unjustly killed or morally discredited in popular memory and published accounts. I came to develop a personal relationship with the men and women whose hopes, dreams and failings filled the pages that no-one else cared to read and they became three-dimensional people every time I sat down to write. I came to believe that writing history is about recreating a universe of experience and emotion that is otherwise lost to us. That’s where my passion for history comes from-from the conviction that it matters, both to those who lived it and are long dead, as well as to those who take up their legacies.
I spent four years teaching Latin American and Caribbean history at what many people might consider “a historically white college” in Maine, Bates College. While I loved teaching Bates students for their high degree of enthusiasm and motivation, I found myself facing all-“white” classes most of the time and having to confront the myth of Latin American “exoticism” on a daily basis. I often felt that I was retracing steps in the development of my own political consciousness much too often, being drained of intellectual energies that in a different, more diverse setting, would have gone toward greater creativity, inside the classroom and out. At Yale, all of my undergraduate courses are packed with Latino, Latin American and Caribbean students and the difference is palpable: regardless of whether or not they are history majors or even humanities students, they contribute a passion for knowledge to the “community culture” of the class that is born of the need for self-discovery, self-knowledge and explanations to the myriad questions that they have confronted all of their lives. They refuse to take any moment for granted since most of them, even those from the Caribbean itself, have had few, if any, opportunities to learn about their own history as migrants or their society’s history—even in their home countries. There is a great excitement to the atmosphere in the classroom at times, and all of the students benefit from it. I have never felt that those students with little or no connection to Latin America experienced alienation; on the contrary, they identify with the history all the more because they see, literally, how relevant it is to their classmates. If there is something that I love about being here, it is feeling that my work is “needed” by many students in this personal way. It is the greatest reward.
With regard to writing my second book, here’s all I have to say about its publication: “YAHOOO!!!” Yes, I was brought up in a small farming town in Kansas by Cubans from the countryside, so I am not ashamed about expressing such raw relief and enthusiasm. While writing the dissertation was exciting, re-writing it several times was, well, less exciting, to say the least. I am pleased, in many ways, because as a Cuban, I know the work seeks to deal with some of our greatest myths—about unity, utopia and our many failed struggles to achieve them. I hope that it serves to explain what these things mean and why, as a people and a culture, they have been a part of our identity for so long. José Martí, the nationalist intellectual whose process of mythification forms the core of the book, has been a central part of my life for almost a decade now, so it is good to finally put him to rest! I am also free now to work on what is proving to be the greatest challenge, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and I am loving it.
By Lillian Guerra
- “As a historian, I knew that I would never find a single answer. As a Cuban (at least by desire, if not by birth), I felt I knew the origin of the question, Would the Republic and Cuba’s twentieth-century history have been different if Martí had lived? To me, the question derived from a profound sense, highly promoted in the works of Martí, that Cubans should always be united. Yet, today as yesterday, it seemed to me that we never were. Cubans in the 1895 War had not fought Spain just as Cubans in the Republic had not fought each other for the same, unified vision of nation. Rather, they had fought, sometimes in alliance across race and class, sometimes divided by race and class, for multiple visions of nation. The coexistence of conflicting, multiple images of Martí in the Republic typified the emergence and struggle among Cubans for multiple images of nation.” — Lillian Guerra in The Myth of José Martí
About Lillian Guerra
- “Based on an impressive array of archival and printed sources, this superb study uncovers with subtlety and deep understanding how José Martí’s image and discourse of social unity came to embody conflicting visions of the Cuban nation shortly after his death in 1895-visions that still divide Cubans today.” — Aline Helg, author of Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912
- “One of the best professors I’ve ever had. An incredible mind, a wonderful teaching style, and a deep commitment to her field. I had her at Bates but she’s since moved on to Yale. I was so sad to hear it, though she always seemed destined for bigger things.” — Anonymous former student
Posted on Saturday, November 19, 2005 at 11:46 PM