Remapping Spaces of Nationhood and US Latina Identity

Maya Socolovsky, Troubling Nationhood in US Latina Literature: Explorations of Place and Belonging (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013); 244 pp; ISBN 978-0813561172 (paperback)

• November 2015

Maya Socolovsky’s Troubling Nationhood in US Latina Literature: Explorations of Place and Belonging examines the work of six US Latina writers published between 1989 and 2004, demonstrating how their repositioning of the United States as part of a broader Latin America challenges conventional ideas about American nationhood and national identity. Analyzing both widely read and critically overlooked works, Socolovsky intervenes in an ongoing dialogue about the ways US Latino/a literature “talks back” to the dominant culture, focusing on questions of space and place, and specifically how these concepts shape ideas about collective identity. Rather than reinforce the notion that the nation is both a physical location and a political entity, Socolovsky encourages “a rethinking of the space and ‘place’ of the United States” (5) that highlights the intersectionality of land and lived experience. Her work illustrates how by imagining new forms of transnational “belonging,” the selected authors perform literary acts of resistance that challenge the rhetoric of cultural “unbelonging” and revise American national identity to include Latin American experience.

Drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s fundamental work, Borderlands / La frontera, many critical studies of US Latinidad acknowledge the importance of the border as a site of racialized identity formation.1 Socolovsky makes a unique intervention in the field by extending the border(lands) to comprise a broader America where Latino/a identity is often defined both collectively and within spatial interstices. As exemplified by the work of Nicholas De Genova, whom Socolovsky cites, it can be advantageous to study Latino groups within a transnational framework so as to understand how historically and politically specific relationships between the United States and Latin America have contributed to notions of US Latino/a identity. Socolovsky asserts that such a transnational framework also helps us to consider US Latino/a citizenship beyond the parameters of national-origin groups’ lived experiences, which are often reductively collectivized in the national imagination. She imparts a keen awareness of how this framework reveals racialized constructions of citizenship in the United States, often socioculturally transferred from specific national-original groups onto Latino/as as a cultural collective.

Socolovsky contributes to our reconceptualization of space as crucial to national identity and belonging. The space the authors she studies are writing into, over, and through is that of the US nation-space, imagined as a geographical, political, and cultural entity separate and distinct from its neighbors, particularly Central and South America. The nation-space specters in mainstream narratives depict Latinos in the United States as “other” and emphasize their “unbelonging.” Socolovsky argues that the selected Latina writers reimagine the conventional nation-space by making the United States part of a larger space of collective belonging that also includes Latin America. As Socolovsky explains in her introduction, her work builds on the work of Mary Pat Brady, Juan Flores, Jose David Saldívar, Edward Soja, and Ilan Stevens. Socolovsky explores how the selected works affirm a vision of the nation-space that Jose Martí once called “Nuestra América,” a transnational Latin America in which geographical and political borders are relaxed in favor of creating community. Such transnational and transhemispheric connectivity, argues Socolovsky, creates new expressions of US nationhood that legitimate US Latina identity. She shows how these contemporary Latina narratives resist imperialist ideas about US nationhood, affirming belonging within exclusionary or at times even threatening spaces. Her analysis of these works fosters a reimagining of the United States as both a literal and figurative place that includes and depends on cultural intersections and transnational community building.

Socolovsky’s five chapters group the selected Latina writers according to both national origins and transnational experience. The first two chapters examine the ways Mexican American narratives rewrite national identity in the Southwest and Midwest by deconstructing geographical and political borders as well as those involving cultural history and memory. Chapter 1 explores how Denise Chavez’s novels, The Last of the Menu Girls (2004) and Face of an Angel (1994), reimagine the American Southwest, spanning both Mexico and the United States as a physically and metaphorically wounded mestizo body, a colonized space marked by what Socolovsky calls “a geography of dislocation” (24; emphasis in original). For Mexican Americans, Socolovsky writes, the Southwest constitutes a colonized “space of dislocation, unease, and disease” (29), which manifests itself in cultural anxiety and discomfort that can only be healed through (real and imagined) border-crossings and affirmation of Mexican American memories and experiences. Socolovsky asserts that such healing practices disrupt traditional ideas about national identity and affirm belonging. Chapter 2 extends this argument to the Midwest, examining Ana Castillo’s Sapagonia (1990) and Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2002). Socolovsky suggests that both Castillo and Cisneros rewrite national identity by privileging interdependence between Latin America and the United States. Castillo’s Sapagonia is a place where mestizaje calls citizenship into question. Cisneros’s Caramelo complicates notions of belonging by positioning its protagonist (in history, experience, and memory) as perpetually in-between the United States and Mexico. Caramelo presents Mexican American cultural history as a pastiche of transnational memories whose boundaries are historicized and mythologized. For Socolovsky, both Castillo and Cisneros imagine forms of belonging that transcend commonly accepted national boundaries.

Chapters 3 and 4 analyze works by Puerto Rican authors Judith Ortiz Cofer and Esmeralda Santiago, showing how they challenge and overwrite the rhetoric of “unbelonging” resulting from neocolonialism. Coupling Michel Foucault’s theory of transgression with the critical work of Juan Flores, Socolovsky reads these narratives as collective acts of transgression that resist colonial identity and affirm national belonging. Chapter 3 shows how Ortiz Cofer’s The Line of the Sun (1989) and The Meaning of Consuelo (2003) resist a fractured national identity emanating from Spanish colonialism and US imperialism. Socolovsky examines the ways the novels show community building out of and in spite of such fractured identity. Here, acts of resistance become acts of recovery and healing, as transgression affirms inclusion, disrupting the cultural landscape of both Puerto Rico and the United States. Chapter 4 looks at the influence of US imperialism on personal identity and belonging in Esmeralda Santiago’s memoirs, When I Was Puerto Rican (1994), Almost a Woman (1999), and The Turkish Lover (2004). While legacies of colonization color Santiago’s sense of dislocation in the first memoir, her later writings illustrate the creation of a resistant authorial voice that affirms her belonging within the United States. Furthermore, Socolovsky posits, the commercial success of Santiago’s works has helped her renegotiate her national identity. Her works thus trouble nationhood by rescripting the Puerto Rican body within real and imagined US spaces.

Turning to a Cuban American author, chapter 5 focuses on the critically unexamined novel Princess Papaya (2004) by Himilce Novas. Novas’s work creates a palimpsest out of national identity and, perhaps more clearly than any of the aforementioned texts, evinces Socolovsky’s arguments about disturbing nationhood by imagining an alternative US Latino/a ethnic identity. In Princess Papaya, postrevolutionary Cuba is reimagined as a socialist regime and a site of trauma extending into the United States. Healing and recovery of Latina identity occur only through the implementation of a new American socialist system that privileges the nontraditional family. Challenging normative family structures legitimates underrepresented citizens and engenders their belonging in US and Cuban geographical, political, and cultural spaces. Thus, Socolovsky proves, Novas’s novel imagines US Latina belonging as a collective and experiential practice that transcends traditional boundaries of identity and nationhood.

Socolovsky’s analysis of the selected works suggests that US culture and identity cannot be understood or imagined apart from Latin America. In her postscript, Socolovsky connects her arguments to current debates about immigration and citizenship, which, like her readings, underscore questions about national inclusion and belonging. She points to political and cultural narratives that interpellate Latino/as in the United States as potentially threatening, criminal, or illegal to show how the rhetoric of cultural “unbelonging” continues to gain traction in the public sphere. Here, Socolovsky extends the relevance of her work to contemporary discussions about racial control and “crimmigration.” Regardless of national origin, Latinos/as are often collectively marked as “illegal” in national debates about immigration and law enforcement. The affirmation of transnational belonging she describes as an act of resistance challenges such narratives and validates the Latino/a presence as an integral part of the US nation-space.


Carolina Villalba is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Miami and managing editor of Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. Her current research examines representations of selfhood, space, and resistance in US prison literature. Her dissertation explores how autobiographical prison narratives illustrate racialized processes of criminalization and rewrite penal concepts like rehabilitation and reform.


Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987).