Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. By María Elena Cepeda.

New York: New York University Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0814716915, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0-8147-1692-2, $22. 272 pages.

Review by Sandra J. Fallon-Ludwig, Brandeis University

Although traditional forms of Latin music, such as salsa and merengue, are the subject of a large portion of musical scholarship, the impact of more commercial Latin music has received little scholarly attention. In Musical ImagiNation, María Elena Cepeda attempts to remedy this neglect in her discussion of contemporary rock en español, the evolution of the vallenato genre and the music of the female popular artist Shakira. Taking a transnational and transcultural approach to this music, Cepeda focuses on gender roles and multi-layered national influences, while also commenting on media perception of Latin artists and their commodification in the U.S. music industry.
Cepeda lays a strong foundation for her study with a chapter dedicated to Colombian history and the violence that led to the Colombian migration to New York and Miami. She also provides a vivid picture of the Miami musical scene, the dominance of the Cuban community, and the Estefans' perceived control of the music industry in Miami. The selective history of Latin music and the commercialization of Latin artists marketed as "newly discovered," despite their often long professional careers in Caribbean, Central or South American countries, are also discussed. In her first two chapters, Cepeda skillfully explores the dismantling and resemantization of popular culture as it relates to Latin and Latin-American music and artists.
After laying this foundation, Cepeda discusses three different artists and genres with a focus on the transnational and transcultural aspects of their music. She begins with Shakira, whose music reveals her Lebanese-Columbian and Caribbean-Columbian roots, and discusses her role not only as a Latina performer, but as a U.S. migrant, a female "cross-over" artist, and a popular music artist. Much of the discussion pertains to gender roles and to the sexual persona constructed by the U.S. music industry and perpetuated in the U.S. media. In her discussion of Andrea Echeverri of the rock group Aterciopelados, Cepeda provides an alternative vision of gender dynamics in the rock genre. Framed as the anti-Shakira, Echeverri was marketed in the second wave of Latin music in the United States – a wave specifically advertised as more “authentic.” Cepeda discusses individual song lyrics, the politics inherent in Echeverri's music, and how the female rocker defies the gendered representation presented to U.S. mainstream audiences. Shakira and Echeverri are presented as polar representations of the female artist, which seems inevitable given their respective genres, audiences, and industry marketing. Cepeda then returns to issues of race and national identity with her discussion of the vallenato genre and its transformation from a "low" music originating in the town of Valledupar on Colombia's Northern Atlantic to a commodified musical genre. Cepeda argues that musicians like Carlos Vives act as a cultural mediator, interpreting this music for elite (read light-skinned, upper-class audiences), and that the modern vallenato nullifies the Afro-Colombian and Afro-Caribbean contributions to the genre and to popular culture.
The weakest section of Musical ImagiNation is chapter 6, in which Cepeda discusses gender dynamics in music videos. Here, she returns to the subject of Shakira and analyzes two music videos: "La Tortura" and "Hips Don't Lie." Cepeda notes elements like belly-dance as evidence of Shakira's female-centered, Pan-Caribbean transnational identity. She then asserts that the visual imagery in each video challenges the traditional modes of gender and sexual representation usually found in the medium. However, this conclusion contradicts her earlier characterization of Shakira as an artist commodified and sexualized by the U.S. music industry and media. In chapter 2, Cepeda illustrated the ways in which Shakira succumbed to the traditional stereotypes of the Latina artist. This confusion may have been avoided if Cepeda had discussed these videos in conjunction with her previous discussion of Shakira, as she did with Andrea Echeverri in chapter 4.
Overall, Cepeda offers a valuable look at the perception of Latin and Latin-American music and the struggle to categorize and discuss this music in the current musicological scholarship. Issues of nationalism, gender, and commodification are at the forefront of her work, in which she attempts to overcome long-standing stereotypes related to Latin music and female performers in particular. Musical ImagiNation is a much-needed foray into commercial Latin music and opens the door for further discourse in this underrepresented area.
Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media By Isabel Molina-Guzmán.

New York: New York University Press, February 2010.  Paper: ISBN 978-0814757369.  $22.  256 pages.

Review by Natchee Blu Barnd, California College of the Arts

 It seems fitting that I began writing this review on the release date of Jennifer Lopez’s latest and widely berated film The Back-Up Plan.  Just as her nickname “J-Lo” suggests a shorthand familiarity, her high-profile celebrity life most readily “embodies” the contradictions of dominant discourses about Latinas in the media.  While we have become accustomed to public discussions about Lopez’s career, love life, and body parts, her construction also symbolizes the broader colonized production of Latina subjectivities. 
Dangerous Curves balances Molina-Guzmán’s confessed status as a fan and consumer of popular culture (she briefly shares her family’s keen interest in Jennifer Lopez’s appearances) with her critical eye toward the racial, gender, and nation-building projects that shape and limit representational possibilities for Latinas in US media and the larger cultural sphere.  She tackles a broad spectrum of the “mediascape,” tracking dominant discourses of Latinas (re)produced through “newspapers, television news broadcasts, ethnic and racial minority newspapers, tabloids, magazines, film, television programs” as well as considering audience reception and disruption of such discourse through “blogs, Web sites, online discussion boards, and letters to editor.”  Molina-Guzmán organizes this array of sources around five case studies, each centered on one or more important Latina media figures. 
The first chapter revisits the enormous attention given to the repatriation of one-time Cuban refugee Elián González, focusing on the representational transformation of Cuban Americans from privileged “white ethnics” to marginalized “brown immigrants” through the figures of González’s late mother Elisabet Brottons and his media darling-turned-target cousin, Marisleysis.  Chapter two examines Jennifer Lopez’s widely-observed maneuver from dangerous urban blackness toward safe middle-class whiteness most noticeably signaled by her successive marriage/love partner choices, and actively shaped by raced and gendered tabloid narratives.  Next, Molina-Guzmán reads complex transnational discourses between the US and Mexico around Latinidad and “authenticity” generated by Salma Hayek’s berated/celebrated portrayal of Frida Kahlo.  The fourth chapter takes aim at the “sublimation” of ethnoracial identity in ABC’s popular series Ugly Betty, turning critical attention to the construction of its main character, played by America Ferrera.  The final study situates two fictional films – Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Spanglish (2004) – that narrate domestic workers as romantic comedy love interests, against the real world context of the gendered and racialized global circulation of immigrant labor.
The strength of Dangerous Curves lies in its attention to multiple forms of media which (re)produce dominant colonizing discourses about Latinas and Latinidad.  In addition, Molina-Guzmán provides an excellent reading of popular culture productions such as Ugly Betty and Frida (2002) which can too easily be read as completely progressive and outside the scope of racialized and gendered discourse.  These cases studies in particular also attend to heteronormativity through a highly productive queer reading of constructions of Latinidad.  The author’s efforts to incorporate audience engagement with these media texts presents an important reminder that viewers do not simply consume media, but maintain complex and contradictory relationships that both reinforce hegemonic projects and subvert them, yet always reflect the fluidity and instability of meaning-making practices. 
For teachers, Dangerous Curves provides a solid discursive analysis that can be immediately put to use for course lectures and class discussions on popular culture and the politics of representation.  More advanced undergraduate students and those interested in Latina representation will be excited to have a resource that treats recent media productions and still-popular media figures, especially compared to the now “distant” media and figures featured in Rosa Linda Fregoso’s Bronze Screen (1993) or Clara Rodriguez’s Heroes, Lovers, and Others (2008).  Within the larger scholarship of media and Latina/os, Dangerous Curves will effectively supplement works like Arlene Davila’s Latino Spin (2008) and Latinos, Inc. (2001), Leo Chavez’s The Latino Threat (2008), and Otto Santa Ana’s Brown Tide Rising (2002). 
There were a couple points of limitation that should be noted.  For me, the first chapter feels somewhat out of place in relation to the other four case studies examined, all of which focus on Latina superstars in popular media.  Although the Elián González story occurred within reasonable temporal proximity to the popular media case studies, its “pure” news media standing makes it less recycled and therefore seem more distant and isolated.  There are numerous moments in this chapter, and others, where news media representations are too quickly passed over without providing the reader a thorough look at the actual discourse being deployed in the articles and television news coverage.  In the rush to structure her critiques/examination, Molina-Guzmán tends to quickly paraphrase what ought to be thoroughly demonstrated.  Too often, I found myself wanting for a more sustained examination of the concrete examples in the production of these discursive regimes, something slightly more akin to Santa Ana’s analysis of the Los Angeles Times.  To be fair, the treatment fared better in chapters 3-5, where the focus remained on single popular culture “sites.”  To this point, I found the final two chapters to be the strongest and the most engaging.
I also found the audience reception angle somewhat overemphasized as a methodology, or else underutilized in practice.  The biggest concern here is that Molina-Guzmán’s excellent analysis is too open to criticism by those not easily convinced of the validity of her arguments.  While I fully support the work and trust her findings, the data for audience reception seemed sparse, sometimes incorporating only a handful of statements from blog or discussion-board writers.  While the small number of writers does not and cannot dismiss their agency in generating “symbolic ruptures” in the dominant discourse, it does leave the force of their often powerful critiques feeling less substantial.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.

By Alejandro L. Madrid.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, November 2008. Cloth:

ISBN 978-1592136940, $54.50. 224 pages.

Review by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta

The work of twentieth-century Mexican painters looms large beyond the borders of Mexico. Indeed, many of the images we associate with Mexican identity were created by iconic artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. When it comes to modernist Mexican music, however, there is a rich and varied tradition that gets little attention outside its country of origin. In Mexico, meanwhile, this music has been overdetermined by the rhetoric of Mexican nationalism, according to Alejandro L. Madrid. In this book, Madrid examines the intersection of twentieth-century Mexican classical music and politics, a fertile terrain left largely unexplored by scholars. Madrid's ability to draw on theorists from anthropology, literary studies, and history lends the book breadth and depth, despite a rather jargon-laced, wordy style that bogs down the reader.What makes this terrain interesting, Madrid argues, is that Mexico produced at least three extraordinarily complex composers whose fates depended on their relationship to the emergence of a post-Revolutionary state in the 1920s. The Mexican Revolution began with the overthrow of the Europeanizing dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1911, but took so many twists and turns during the following violent decade that even scholars of the field have trouble keeping the names, dates, and factions straight. Unfortunately, Madrid does not help clarify matters, and readers are left to piece together the Mexican Revolution through outside reading. A brief overview of the Revolution would certainly have helped since, as Madrid says, the development of Mexican high culture depended upon the connections artists had to the emergence of a nationalist state that created the paradox of an "institutional revolutionary party," which would go on to dominate Mexican political life for over 50 years.

Madrid focuses on three composers, all of whom produced most of their work after the armed phase of the Revolution ended and the nationalist state consolidated its hegemony. These three composers represent different approaches to politics, aesthetics, and Mexican identity. The first, Julián Carrillo, was, perhaps, the most pro-European of the bunch. Carrillo identified his work with what he called "the glorious German music tradition." This was a tradition that was at the fore of the atonal music revolution in the early 20th century. Carrillo, with his Sonido 13, brought the atonal revolution to Mexico, while avoiding a simple mimicry of European innovations. Using Nestor Garcia Canclini's idea of hybrid cultures, Madrid argues that Carrillo was more than an imitator of Europe but that, in a chaotic society struggling with modernity and dominated by a Hispanic-Indigenous nationalism, there was no space for Carrillo. Indeed, Madrid provides a consistent critique of Mexican nationalist rhetoric in the arts. The writer-politician-educator José Vasconcelos is at the heart of this critique. Vasconcelos believed strongly in the idea of the Mexican race as a "cosmic race" and that artistic expression should reflect Mexico's "authentic" indigenous cultures. For Madrid, this quest for authenticity is an essentializing move, one that has the power to include and exclude works of art along purely ideological lines.

The one Mexican composer non-specialists may recognize is Carlos Chávez, the second of Madrid's subjects. Chávez towers over other musicians, Madrid suggests, because he was closely connected to powerful people, including Vasconcelos. Chavez attempted to synthesize Mexican folkloric music with European art music, and achieved international recognition for his works, including Energía and Exágonos. Chavez's career, in many ways, parallels that of Diego Rivera. Early on, they circulated in cosmopolitan avant-garde circles, then moved on to experiment with indigenous themes. Madrid argues that both Rivera and Chávez were canonized in official Mexican cultural history as nationalists, but their work contains "multiple identities." It is a compelling argument, but it remains unclear who is responsible for the one-dimensional legacy of these artists.

Finally, there the figure of Manuel M. Ponce, known as the "paladin of musical nationalism." Ponce is best known for compositions written for the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. Ponce's connections to Europe (he also spent time studying the latest in musical modernism in France) "cross-fertilized" his interest in Mexican folklore, creating a distinct hybrid sound. Ponce believed that reorganizing and reprocessing Mexican folks songs would "dignify" and "elevate" them as art music. It is an interesting story, and one that fits within the larger context of Mexican nationalism, which, at this time, was creating an idealized Indian mythology to represent that Revolutionary state. In this chapter, Madrid makes a curious digression into a discussion of Hispanic modernismo, claiming that it shares with European modernism a "crisis of language." This is quite a stretch and one that ends up confusing, rather than contextualizing, Ponce's contributions to the Mexican cultural scene.
The most serious flaw of the book, however, is stylistic in nature. Rather than launching into a discussion of music history, Madrid constantly describes the nature of his research. It is an annoying trope that is often found in dissertations; the author tells his readers that he will perform such and such an analysis rather than simply doing it. Furthermore, the book is weighted down by unnecessary trendy jargon that will likely sound dated in ten years. The effect of so much description is such that the entire book reads like an introduction. This reviewer was reminded of the old writing workshop adage: show, don't tell. For a story as interesting and vital as Madrid's, this is especially important, since the polemics and controversies of twentieth-century Mexican art music are not well known outside of Mexico. A tighter narrative with accessible prose would have done much to rectify this problem.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture
Edited by Angie Chabram-Dernersesian and Adela de la Torre. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0-8165-2664-2, $24.95. 264 pages.
Review by Donna Shelton, Northeastern State University
Among Latinos of Mexican and Central American descent, plática is a colloquialism for a conversation between friends or family members. However, the literal meaning of the word does not convey its profound significance for female participants in a culture that highly values interpersonal relationships. Reading the narratives of Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture is like pulling up a chair at the kitchen table and listening as your sister, mother, and best friend share their personal struggles with illness and healing. The coeditors, Adela de la Torre and Angie Chabram-Dernersesian, are professors in the Chicana/o studies program at the University of California at Davis. Chabram-Dernersesian specializes in cultural studies and Chicana feminism, and she is the editor of The Chicana/o Cultural Studies Reader (2006). De la Torre is a health-policy researcher who directs both the Chicana/o studies program at Davis and the Center of Public Policy, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian created this anthology to address a need that became apparent during the course of their own conversations about the health of their aging mothers.
As noted in Chabram-Dernersesian’s introduction, the anthology attempts to bridge the seemingly disparate disciplines of Latina/o culture and health care in order to liberate Latina narratives of illness from the restrictions of established medical discourse. The twelve chapters that follow the introduction were contributed by Latinas who have experienced illness in their own lives or in the lives of female friends and family members. They share stories of dementia, arthritis, hyper/hypothyroidism, obesity, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, and diabetes, and they expose the effect illness has on their ability to meet their professional and family obligations, on their emotional wellbeing, and on their concept of self. They describe seeking Western medical care as well as traditional Latina forms of solace and healing such as the plática. The narratives themselves are the public counterparts of these intimate conversations and are another form of the therapeutic speech that the editors see as an essential healing strategy in Latina/o culture (163). Following the narratives are not one but two conclusions. The first, on which the coeditors collaborated, clearly identifies and analyzes the common themes of the narratives, dedicating sections to the relationship between illness and work, genetic predispositions to disease, conventional and alternative treatment options, the importance of community, and identity formation. In the second conclusion, de la Torre provides a well-structured overview of the major medical problems faced by Latinas based on data from government sources and academic and medical studies, and she also examines Latina access to health care.
The anthology’s greatest strengths are its transdisciplinary format and the emotional power of the narratives. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian describe medical discourse in the US as emphasizing very controlled forms of communication between the health care practitioner and the individual patient and also between the practitioner and the medical community as a whole (11). This discourse focuses on the physical aspects of illness only and disregards its impact on relationships and identity. The narratives give voice to the Latina’s full experience of illness, treatment, and healing, and they express emotions that range from anguish to rebellion to dark humor. At the same time, the volume also provides the empirical data necessary for an objective understanding of the health care issues of Latinas living in the US.
The reader should be aware of certain, perhaps unavoidable, limitations of perspective that arise from the identity of the narrators of the volume’s chapters. Chabram-Dernersesian and de la Torre do not describe how they chose the contributors to the anthology; the introduction mentions only that they invited Latinas going through an illness experience to write without specific guidelines or censorship from the editors (7). The volume includes professional profiles of all of the contributors who did not write anonymously. Of the twelve narratives, ten (including one by de la Torre herself) were written by academics or medical professionals, some of whom work in the California university system that employs the editors. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian point out that most of the contributors are from working-class backgrounds and are immigrants or first- or second-generation residents of the US (10). The narratives demonstrate that the women do indeed seek out the systems of care available to them through Latina/o culture as healing strategies. However, their evident level of education and their socioeconomic status imply an enhanced ability to navigate the healthcare system and act as their own advocates compared to that of Latinas without these advantages, which suggests that their illness experiences may not be representative of the experiences of all Latinas.
Another consideration is the use of the term Latina. As Chabram-Dernersesian comments in the introduction: “We adopt the designation Latinas as a way to highlight pan-ethnic solidarity—here, meaning a strategic set of health alliances among underrepresented Latinas” (12). The adjectives Latino and Latina are generally used to refer to individuals of Latin American background, without specifying a particular country of origin. However, in this anthology, with one exception, all the contributors are Mexican-American or Mexican (12). Latinas from other Spanish-speaking countries do not necessarily perceive illness and health in the same manner as Mexican-Americans.
These limitations do not detract from the deeply moving voices of the Latinas who speak to the reader through the extended plática of these narratives. Speaking from the Body is an anthology of considerable significance for anyone interested in Latina/o or Chicana/o studies or gender studies and for health care practitioners or social service personnel who want to communicate and provide treatment in a culturally sensitive manner.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968

By Anthony Macías. Durham: Duke University Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0822343394, $89.95; paper: ISBN 978-0822343226, $24.95. 408 pages.

Review by Darius V. Echeverría, Rutgers University

During the late nineteenth century and running through the Great Depression, xenophobic ideas and practices began to exert greater force throughout America. People were defined ever more sharply on the basis of their nationality, language, religion, and phenotype. They were incrementally limited in their legal status, voting privileges, and the jobs they could obtain. Indeed, degrading images of legally vulnerable groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and various Latino/a subgroups, especially Mexican Americans, became part of popular culture in the songs people sang, in the products people bought, and the illustrations they saw in books, magazines, and media imagery. Thus, many Americans remained outside of meaningful mainstream culture, thereby relegated to second-class citizenship and the underbelly of the U.S. economy. Indeed, Mexican Americans found themselves in the anomalous position of living in a land of plenty to which they were denied access. A small but influential handful, however, notably from the “Mexican American generation,” rejected second-class citizenship, thereby “transform[ing] Los Angeles and enrich[ing] American culture” (2). In this spirit, the author’s thoroughly researched book makes an important contribution in providing an overview of how Mexican Americans throughout Los Angeles embraced cultural pride to counter patterns of prejudice. In doing so, Mexican Americans drew on popular music, dance, language, and a style that was both Mexican and American to reevaluate their worth in a society that only accepted upward mobility through “whiteness.” This hybrid of “Mexican” and “American” ethos peppered with African American popular cultural traditions fostered a subculture whose arrangement was unique, and whose amalgamation was distinctive from either “Mexican” or “American” cultures. Equipped with this empowering “mojo” that was predicated more on a bicultural identity rather than Mexican nationalism, Mexican Americans challenged the standard for measuring acceptability and cultural worth. This was accomplished by not only separating from Anglo American identity, but through creating ethnic Mexican diverse modes of celebratory expressions. Inevitably Mexican American Angelenos developed a unique social acclimatization experience because of their day-to-day encounters with racializing prejudice. These experiences compelled many to find refuge in music, running the gamut from jazz, to rhythm and blues, to rock and roll. The book is carefully organized into five chapters supported by a tightly woven introduction and conclusion. With the exception of chapter five, which in part serves as a synthesizing section, the material is arranged in chronological order. Chapter one is crucial to the overall work because it demonstrates that Mexican Americans not only appreciated traditional music, but were just like any other American music lovers, enjoying swing music and dancing the jitterbug. Chapter two is valuable for several reasons, but none more important than exploring how 1940s African American cultural expressions influenced evolving Mexican American music, dance, and urban life. Chapter three builds on chapter two by providing a greater understanding of how indirect and direct cultural forces among and between Chicanos/as and African Americans changed forever how each respective community dealt with an unfriendly urban world. Engaging with and exchanging ideas among a range of communities in dance halls, ballrooms, and auditoriums encouraged a growing respect for differences. In particular, pockets of Mexican American and African American communities overlooked their workforce rivalry in an effort to build a bridge toward tolerance and understanding. Notwithstanding, Mexican Americans, like Asian Indians and African Americans during this period, recognized that rejecting non-white culture while associating with Anglo identity was advantageous for securing better job opportunities. Although Macías provides a cursory discussion of this daily reality, greater depth and inclusion of other comparable communities would have given sections of the work more force and variety. Nevertheless, chapter three also introduces actors that affected the trajectory of the marriage between seemingly distinct musical cultural domains. This dynamic helped shape and guide the aforementioned communities’ political ideology, identity maturation, organizational support, and socio-economic outlook. Chapter four delves deeper into Mexican American musical tastes and tunes throughout the rock and roll era. The final chapter illustrates the widespread acceptability and increasing aptitude of Chicano music subgenres while underscoring its importance in challenging institutions that discouraged and devalued Mexican American thought, culture, and heritage. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Mexican American Mojo is how Macías skillfully blends the oral testimony of key artists to the larger framework of urban culture. These rich interviews add clarity and continuity to scholarship on music and movements. Focusing on specific localities, events, and high schools, Macías, a California university professor, cogently reveals how Chicanos/as established strong bonds of community solidarity and companionship in order to confront anti-Mexican sentiment. In turn, scores of Mexican Americans summoned the courage to break through Eastside Los Angeles, and by extension, the Jim Crow geography of much of the American southwest. As a result, acculturation and assimilation rates among Mexican Americans increased. The author appreciates this point, so a thoughtful conversation with the former is expressed throughout which demonstrates that assimilation was a complex process fueled by countervailing factors such as popular music and fashion trends. Similar to claiming cultural citizenship, Mexican Americans made their mark on U.S. popular culture by appropriating big band swing music, jitterbug dancing, and many more public forums of expressions. The circumstances of poor health, inordinate dropout rates, hard work for low wages, high unemployment, police brutality, societal stereotyping, ethnic Mexican deportation drives, urban renewal, political exclusion, anti-miscegenation policies, and real estate redlining created an unstable social position for Mexican Americans, inspiring many to redefine themselves in order to break the cycle their parents experienced. As noted, the author raises numerous intersections between African Americans, Latinos/as, and Japanese Americans. One hopes that more scholarship in Chicano/a Studies will explore the patterns of competition and cohesion among Mexican Americans and other groups. By challenging some assumptions of the roles played by Mexican Americans in cultural maintenance, this case study builds not only on popular culture scholarship, but helps put civil rights struggles in proper interracial context. In scope and significance, this work is a model for a community’s popular culture history.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer. By Stephen Dando-Collins. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-306-81607, $26. 384 pages.

Review by Daniel Gerling, University of Texas at Austin

Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer by Stephen Dando-Collins is a well-written and compelling story about an oft-overlooked chapter in U.S. history, but is perhaps titled inappropriately. First of all, the book is predominantly about the military exploits of the Tennessean filibuster William Walker in Nicaragua in the mid-1850s. Coverage of Vanderbilt during this time period takes a back seat to the vivid stories of Walker’s numerous battles. Second, Dando-Collins doesn’t convince the reader that Vanderbilt was the key—or even a necessary factor—in Walker’s defeat in 1857. Still, Tycoon’s War is a creative work, well worth the attention of those interested in the nineteenth century. As one might expect from an author of both fiction and history, including several sagas about the politics and warfare of the Roman Empire, the Australian author has here written a narrative history about a young man (Walker) inspired by his own reading of Caesar’s military strategy.
Walker, a man who would be nearly forgotten today in the U.S. if not for Alex Cox’s anachronistic 1987 film and a handful of historical works, certainly deserves a place alongside—or perhaps in front of—Vanderbilt in this work. A prodigious child growing up in Nashville, Walker (1824–1860) finished college at the age of fourteen, received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania by eighteen, and found time to travel through Europe, serving in the Medical Faculty at the University of Paris and honing his combat skills in fencing contests. During this time he also gained fluency (in addition to Greek and Latin) in French, German, and Spanish—the latter a language that would aid him tremendously during his exploits as an adventurer. After brief stints back in Nashville as a doctor and in New Orleans as a lawyer and abolitionist newspaper editor, Walker headed to San Francisco, from where he would launch his freebooting adventures.
At 29, he led an unsuccessful expedition to Baja California and Sonora. After several months, Walker and his men were chased back across the border and wasted no time preparing to participate in the civil war that had just broken out in Nicaragua. It was there that Walker cleverly maneuvered his way into a position to attack and win the Nicaraguan capital, Granada. From here he installed himself as commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Army, and supported a puppet president, Don Patricio Rivas.
Meanwhile, “Commodore” Vanderbilt was busy seeking revenge against his former business allies Cornelius Garrison and Charles Morgan, who hijacked the Accessory Transit Company, the steamship company taking passengers from one coast to another via Nicaragua, from Vanderbilt while he was on vacation. It was to these two men that Vanderbilt penned his famous line, “Gentlemen, you have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you. Yours Truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt.” Vanderbilt then turned his vengefulness toward Walker when he discovered that Walker had made a deal with Morgan and Garrison to cut Vanderbilt out of the profitable Nicaragua passage.
With the rest of Central America ready to mobilize against Walker out of fear that the Tennessean’s ambitions extended beyond the Nicaraguan borders, Vanderbilt was more than willing to supply the alliance with money and weapons. After less than two years in control of the country, as commander of the army and then as president, Walker was defeated in 1857 by the Central American alliance with the aid of Vanderbilt and the British. However, very little evidence is provided to support the claim in the subtitle that “Vanderbilt invaded a country to overthrow” Walker. Walker was allowed to return to the U.S., but led three more unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his leadership in Nicaragua. On the final attempt he was captured and shot by a firing squad. Dando-Collins makes the excellent point that although Walker is barely known in the U.S., he is a notorious and widely-reviled figure in Central America—though this fact didn’t stop President Reagan from appointing William G. Walker as ambassador to El Salvador.
Another note Dando-Collins makes, and perhaps the book’s most significant contribution to the historical record, is about Walker’s motivation for controlling Nicaragua in the first place—or rather, what wasn’t Walker’s motivation. Contrary to popular belief and several histories on the subject, Walker did not go down to Central America in order to create slave states. Only when Louisianan Pierre Soulé convinced Walker in 1856 that more support would arrive from the southern U.S. if slavery was allowed did Walker overturn Nicaragua’s 1838 law banning it. What, then, did motivate Walker? Dando-Collins writes that the answer is “empire-building,” and then leaves it at that. Unfortunately, as important a matter as this is, Walker’s motivation is unelaborated and relegated to a brief section after the Epilogue. The book would have benefitted from a fuller treatment of his motivation woven into the narrative
Tycoon’s War is very sparsely footnoted, which, in addition to its narrative style, will most certainly frustrate some readers seeking a well-documented, definitive history of Walker’s exploits. The book also misses the opportunity to surround the story with the rich contexts of adventuring, U.S. politics of the 1850s, U.S. foreign relations, and Nicaraguan history. Notably missing from the bibliography are the works of Robert May, particularly Manifest Destiny’s Underworld and The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854–1861.
Nevertheless, the combination of industrial capitalism, mercenaries, greed, excess, and genius—combined with Dando-Collins’ storytelling capabilities—make this a very absorbing story, and one worth retelling. The author also deserves credit for the unique storytelling structure. By placing Vanderbilt and Walker next to each other in this way, the reader is forced to contrast the two characters. This task is not a difficult one since the two men had so little in common. But in the end, the Vanderbilt-Walker conflict makes clear that imperialism is a matter for wealthy businessmen and the State Department, not individuals.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

from University of Texas Press
There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture
by Domino Renee Perez
under review by Annette M. Rodriguez, University of New Mexico