This paper considers some New Orleans sources, parallels and intertexts of Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés o la loma del Ángel: novela de costumbres cubanas (Havana, 1839-New York, 1882) and the fact that Cuba’s national novel — also the best Spanish American novel of the 19th century according to some critics — was written over thirty years’ residence in the United States. Rodrigo Lazo (2002) has mapped some of the transnational dimensions of Cecilia Valdés, pointing out that the places of this novel’s composition and publication call into question the boundaries of “American” literature. He does not discuss its New Orleans connections, which confound such boundaries yet further. When one becomes more aware of the novel’s New Orleans and also Haitian roots and and references, the contours of the Caribbean cultural world in which Cecilia Valdés situates itself begin to take shape.
New Orleans was part of the Captaincy-General of Cuba from 1762-1802, administered from Havana, and was thus literally part of Spanish America; between 1791 and 1809 it swelled with refugees from Haiti, many of whom had come through Cuba. The first Spanish language newspaper in the United States, El Misisipi, was published from 1808-1810 for Spanish exiles from the Napoleonic invasion of the Peninsula, and the port city of New Orleans was historically an important point on the Spanish American map. Like José Martí, Benito Juárez, and other prominent Spanish Americans, Villaverde spent time in New Orleans where he published the weekly newspaper El Independiente in the 1850s.
Two novels on New Orleans history and customs related to Cecilia Valdés are George Washington Cable’s Les Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (New York, 1880) and Charles Gayarré’s Fernando de Lemos (New York, 1872). All three novels address questions of race, class, and Creole identity in the changing cities of Havana and New Orleans. Like Cecilia Valdés, Cable’s novel engages the practice of plaçage or formalized extramarital relationships between well-to-do white men and well-raised women of color. Gayarré, a New Orleanian of Spanish descent, emphasizes Spanish characters including carlista nobility in his memoir of the city. In life, he participated in the plaçage trope that is the kernel of Villaverde’s text.
Plaçage, it is said, enhanced the population of free persons of color in the city. In the world of Cecilia Valdés, it also threatens the stability of white families and whiteness itself. Recent archival research (Aslakson 2012, Clark 2013) indicates — quite surprisingly if one has been taught about it as historical fact — that plaçage is a myth, based in large part upon visitors’ misreadings of common-law and interracial relationships. From this perspective the racial politics of Cecilia Valdés become yet clearer. The plaçage trope functions both to contain and to express broader fears about racial mixture and ultimately, the end of white dominance on the island.
How these politics work, and the implications of the fact that Villaverde’s discussion of Cuban cultural processes is so strongly informed by Anglo-American misunderstandings of New Orleans life, are the issues investigated in this piece. Of particular interest is the way in which Villaverde’s narrative of national identity is constructed through a kind of double or even triple vision, where perspectives and practices from Havana and New Orleans, both Haitian-inflected from 1791 forward, and from the United States, which New Orleans had recently joined, are all presented as “Cuban customs.”