Premio LAJSA 2017:

Stephen Silverstein, The Merchant of Havana: The Jew in the Cuban Abolitionist Archive (Vanderbilt University Press, 2016)


In The Merchant of Havana, Stephen Silverstein carries out a fascinating and original intersectional analysis that shows how anti-Semitic ideology and racist ideology came together in 19th century Cuba. Examining the economic and political transformation of the sugar industry, which had a huge impact on Cuban society and culture, he analyzes the phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews, taking as a case study a series of literary texts dealing with abolition that were composed by liberal Cuban authors. The “Merchant of Havana” is a Spanish slave-dealer, a reincarnation of Shylock, representing greed and evil, perceived as seeking to destroy the creole landed aristocracy in 19th century Cuba. Drawing on an interdisciplinary historical and literary perspective, Silverstein shows how the racial imbalance brought about by the increased importation of African slaves led to an uneasy sense of ambivalence about social categories as racial mixing took place. Just as lighter-skinned mulattos challenged the whiteness of creole society, Silverstein argues that Jews represented an “in-betweenness” that similarly blurred the old social boundaries of Cuban-ness and thereby proved threatening. He convincingly argues that white creoles used anti-Semitic stereotypes in order to define Cuban-ness and its boundaries. Focusing on a fresh reading of three classical works, Sab by Gertrudis de Avellaneda, La cuarterona by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, and Cecilia Valdés, by Cirilo Villaverde, Silverstein makes an important contribution to studies on anti-Semitism as well as to Cuban and Latin American Studies. He draws on an impressive amount of literature, tracing the works that served as a source of inspiration to the Cuban texts in the abolition archives, and analyzing them in relation to theories of anti-Semitism and racism. Reading across and between ideologies and representations, he shows how Jews came to be vilified before becoming a presence in Cuban society in the twentieth century. We congratulate Stephen for pushing at the boundaries between literary analysis and historical analysis and Jewish Studies and critical race studies.