The Spanish language arrived in Latin America as a tool of Iberian colonization. Indigenous languages struggled to survive under the implacable presence of an imperial tongue serving not only to make all subjects part of the Spanish Empire but also, and primarily, as a mechanism to evangelize a population considered by the conquistadors, soldiers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs as barbaric. During the age of independence (1810–1910), defined by bloody armed movements, the emerging republics in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean Basin declared their autonomy by seceding politically, economically, and legally from Spain while pushing for a vigorous nationalist agenda that shaped them as nations. Spanish was an agglutinating force toward a new collective identity, regionally and locally. Important figures like Venezuelan philologist, lexicographer, and diplomat Andrés Bello established an agenda that helped define the cultural parameters of the young republics in terms of grammar, syntax, and morphology. Followers include Rufino José Cuervo.
Various aesthetic movements, such as modernismo, led by figures like Rubén Darío and José Martí, helped consolidate a transnational sense of linguistic unity. During the 20th century, the nationalist fever spread throughout Latin America, encouraging educators to establish pedagogical patterns that emphasized the uniqueness of the language within the country’s context. The effort was supported by ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociolinguists like the Cuban Fernando Ortiz and Venezuelan Ángel Rosenblat intent on finding what was local in the language. Simultaneously, each nation developed its own idiosyncratic media, which, again, allowed for verbal peculiarities to be included while also driving toward a standardized form. In this atmosphere, the Spanish language has been used as an organ of control by the state. It is also an invaluable tool through which to understand regional, national, and cultural differences.
By the end of the millennium, a new phenomenon emerged, not in Latin America per se yet intimately linked to it: Spanglish. It is a hybrid tongue used by millions of immigrants in the United States, whose power is increasing as time goes by. Spanglish has the potential of reconfiguring the way the Spanish language is understood in the future.
The Cuban poet José María Heredia (1803–1839) spent twenty months exiled to the United States because of his involvement in pro-independence conspiracies. In that time, Heredia wrote a prodigious number of poems and letters, which are the subject of an ongoing scholarly project undertaken by Frederick Luciani of Colgate University. Luciani’s work involves more than translating these poems and letters into English—it examines Heredia’s stay in North America against the background of political and historical events, and traces the matrices of his connections with key figures, literary and otherwise, in Cuba and the United States. Questions that have surfaced through the translation process and scrutiny of this period of Heredia’s life include the relationship between Heredia’s poetry and his letters; the value of his letters as a form of travel literature; the contradictions inherent in his exilic condition; the ambiguity of his political sentiments; the nature of the networks that joined 19th-century Anglo-American and Hispanic writers, translators, and scholars; and the challenges and opportunities that Heredia’s life and work pose for readers, translators, and scholars today.