Lines of Flight: Guillermo Cotto-Thorner’s “Manhattan Tropics,” translated from Spanish by J. Bret Maney


By Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón


817yIcfhKwLCaribbean literary archives are very much like those metaphoric sea shores where the leftovers of shipwrecks of the past constantly wash up. A few years ago, in an important anthology of Puerto Rican narrative published in Venezuela, novelist Marta Aponte Alsina put it best when she wrote that the literary critic who wishes to address Puerto Rican or any other Caribbean literature has to account, or at least acknowledge, the fact that the region’s history is characterized by the dissolving effects of various lines of flight. Emigration is, perhaps, the most evident of these fugues. But there’s also class, racial and gender antagonisms that exclude, erase, and eject works out of the many traditions that crisscross a literary field.[1] This, of course, might be true of all traditions, but in the Caribbean, this forced incompleteness is constitutive. It is for this reason that anthologists, editors, scholars and translators—readers, in short—play a key role in these traditions, daylighting works that have either been forgotten, forgiven, or forsaken by history.

So it is that Guillermo Cotto-Thorner’s 1951 novel Trópico en Manhattan, rendered as Manhattan Tropics, comes back to us, in an excellent bilingual edition, edited by J. Bret Maney and Cristina Pérez Jiménez, and translated by Maney. Cotto-Thorner’s novel is a sort of revenant from another New York and another era of identity politics, from a time before mainstream multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity when Puerto Rican communities, displaced by the flows of industrialization, political machination, and individual desire, thought of themselves as settlements, enclaves and “colonies,” rather than as diaspora or, unimaginable then, an integral part of the United States’ social tapestry.

Manhattan Tropics / Trópico en Manhattan begins with a San Juan-New York flight, with a friend crossing the city to pick up freshly arrived protagonist Juan Marcos Villalobos at the airport; and ends with a funeral and the promise of a marriage. The novel is very much a story of migration, one which gives credence to Aponte Alsina’s observation, both at the level of the plot as well as at the level of the sociological life of the text itself. Unlike Juan Marcos’ generous hosts who migrated out of necessity, or the youth who sat next to him on his flight and who saw the new city as a place where he could “make me some dough and find nice little sweetheart to keep [him] warm at night,” Juan Marcos travels out of curiosity, to work and to pursue graduate education. Despite his naïveté and his initial culture shock, Juan Marcos is a teacher and sociologist by training, and so, in the beginning, he believes he understands New York and the migration of Puerto Ricans better than most of its residents and compatriots. Cotto-Thorner writes:

As a sociologist, Juan Marcos began to investigate the causes of this situation. It didn’t take much work to find them. He soon discovered that the Boricua left his native soil for what were fundamentally economic reasons. High unemployment and poverty on the island forced many Puerto Ricans to go ‘scrape by’ on the other side of the ocean. Others crossed sea and air, abandoning their posts on the island, in search of adventures and greener pastures with the ‘gang over there’ in the United States. Others left to join their families who were already living in ill-lit, cramped, and sweltering apartments in El Barrio. Still others [like him] left to broaden their cultural knowledge in the United States; and others left—and of these too, there were many—to flee obligations incurred on the island. The New York Puerto Rican colony offered a wide field for the student of social relations. (23)

Despite the self-assuredness of his account, Juan Marcos’ stay in New York changes him and what begins very much like a travel narrative or a fictionalized ethnography, slowly begins to shift as he experiences, observes, and is humbled by the life and plight of the Puerto Rican poor in the city. The growing embeddedness of the protagonist in the city yields the two main plot lines that structure the text. On the one hand, there is Juan Marcos’ travails in his attempt to establish and govern the Club Hostos, a cultural organization dedicated to respectability politics through raising “awareness of [the] great geniuses of [Puerto Rican] culture in this foreign land,” which is constantly threatened by the radicalism of some of its members, who insist that culture should be subjected to radical politics (124). On the other, there is a romance—Juan Marcos falls for Miriam, an educated Puerto Rican woman born in New York, in whom he finds the perfect balance of their “Latin” culture and the “mainland” experience  (68)—, which promises to anchor him permanently in the community and the city at large. Both narrative threads are thickened by a handful of obstacles, political and personal. By its last chapters, though, Manhattan Tropics / Trópico en Manhattan reveals itself as a sort-of nineteenth-century foundational fiction, a nation-building narrative for a people that have abandoned theirs and are in the midst of creating a new one. If we were daring enough to say Cotto-Thorner’s novel inaugurates a genre, we could go ahead and call it the “enclave-building novel.”

Trópico en Manhattan’s transformation into Manhattan Tropics is largely seamless and J. Bret Maney is to thank for that. His translation communicates the original Spanish’s “aged” quality by recurring to a register that often reminds one of the earliest Truman Capote, while at the same time engaging creatively with Cotto-Thorner’s interest in how the language of Puerto Ricans in New York reflected their migratory experience. Where the original insisted on portraying the living language of the Puerto Rican colony in New York, integrating what today would be considered Spanglish neologisms and phrasings—and an added glossary for the uninitiated—, Maney’s Manhattan Tropics turns to the other end of Spanglish, integrating Spanish words freely into the English, much like the Latinx writers who followed Cotto-Thorner but who wrote in English decided to do. Maney’s translational gesture makes explicit not only how Manhattan Tropics / Trópico en Manhattan figures as a forgotten precursor of Nuyorican writing and contemporary Latinx literature, but also of the genealogical role to be played by translation in the reconstruction of literary history and national canons.

Manhattan Tropic’s reinsertion into the land of reading is luckily aided by scholar Cristina Pérez Jiménez. Without Pérez Jiménez’s thorough introduction, Juan Marcos’ proud middle-class moralism would strike the contemporary reader as, at best, off-putting; at worse, classist. But, as the scholar reminds the reader, Trópico en Manhattan is very much a creature of its time. She writes that, “at the time of its publication, there was no precedent for a novel that illustrated the collective experiences of Puerto Rican migrants in New York in the midst of the ongoing mass migration of Puerto Ricans from the island” (xviii). In fact, Cotto-Thorner’s work should be understood against the backdrop of his contemporaries, as a challenge to “traditional insular parameters of Puerto Rican identity” which held that “Puerto Ricans living off the island somehow cease[d] to be ‘real’ Puerto Ricans” (xvii).

Pérez Jiménez also reminds the reader that, even if the book has largely been forgotten today, the truth of the matter is that, in the years after its publication, it became one of the quintessential literary texts about the Great Migration. Along with two other now-classic works about the topic, René Marqués’ play La carreta (The Oxcart, 1953) and Pedro Juan Soto’s short story collection Spiks (1956), Trópico en Manhattan was incorporated into the “public-school curriculum as part of a newly designed twelfth-grade literature unit on the Puerto Rican migration to New York City” (xviii). Later, as political fortunes shifted in the island, the unit on migration was dropped from the curriculum. Were we to compare the fortunes of Marqués’ La carreta and Soto’s Spiks, we could well speculate that Cotto-Thorner’s disappearance was not wholly unrelated to the dissolving effect of migration; that is, his progressive physical distancing from San Juan, that self-perpetuating axis of the island’s literary field.

Precisely because literary history tends towards simplification and purification, the retreading and recuperation of its many lines of flight always merits a celebration. J.Bret Maney and Cristina Pérez Jiménez’s edition breathes new life into Trópico en Manhattan / Manhattan Tropics and releases it from its enclosure in the cold halls of graduate school reading lists and the bookshelves of eccentric antiquarians. The fact that it comes back to us in a bilingual edition is no small feat, and is a testament to the important and ethical role that can be played by engaged publishers such as Arte Público Press, which has spent the last four decades creating spaces for literatures that would otherwise remain lost at sea.

Cotto-Thorner, Guillermo. Manhattan Tropics / Trópico en Manhattan. Translated by J. Bret Maney. Arte Público Press.


Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón is a Puerto Rican writer, scholar and professor at Oberlin College. His most recent novel, Los días hábiles, will be published in April 2020 by Destino/Planeta México. His translation into Spanish of Ignacio Sánchez Prado’s Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema, 1988-2012 was published by Vanderbilt University Press in December 2019.

 


[1] Marta Aponte Alsina, “Narraciones Puertorriqueñas, 1849-1975,” in Narraciones puertorriqueñas. Ed. Marta Aponte Alsina. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2015.

 

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