What does it mean to feel you are Latin American? It means being aware that the territorial boundaries dividing our nations are artificial, imposed arbitrarily during the colonial years. And neither our leaders during the emancipation period nor the republican governments that followed bothered to correct that situation. In fact, they often worsened things by further separating and isolating societies whose commonalities were deeper than their petty differences. This balkanization of Latin America, unlike what took place in North America, where the Thirteen Colonies became the United States, has been one of the conspicuous factors in our underdevelopment. It has engendered nationalism, war and conflict, bleeding our nations and wasting natural resources that could have been used for modernization and progress.
Only in the cultural arena was Latin American integration a reality, the result of experience and necessity—everyone who writes, composes, paints or practices any creative endeavor discovers that what unites us is more important than what separates us. In other areas—politics and economics, especially—attempts to unify governmental actions and markets have always been thwarted by the nationalist reflexes ingrained in the continent. That is why all of the plans conceived to unite the region have failed.
National boundaries, however, do not mark the true differences that exist in Latin America. These differences thrive in the bosom of each country and, in a transverse way, encompass regions and groups of countries. There is a Westernized Latin America that speaks Spanish, Portuguese and English (in the Caribbean and in Central America) and is Catholic, Protestant, atheist or agnostic; and there is an indigenous Latin America, which in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia comprises millions of people. That Latin America retains pre-Hispanic institutions, practices and beliefs. But even indigenous culture is not homogeneous, and it constitutes yet another archipelago that experiences different levels of modernization. While some languages and traditions—Quechua and Aymara—are the patrimony of vast social conglomerations, others, like the Amazonian cultures, survive in small communities, sometimes just a handful of families.
Fortunately, mestizaje—racial mixing—extends in all directions, bringing these two worlds together. In some countries, Mexico for example, mestizaje has integrated the bulk of society both culturally and racially. It represents the greatest achievement of the Mexican Revolution—transforming the two ethnic extremes, Native Americans and Europeans, into minorities. This integration is less dynamic in the other countries, but it is still going on and it will ultimately give Latin America the distinctive identity of a mestizo continent. But let’s hope it does so without making it totally uniform and erasing its subtle differences, though that is certainly possible in this century of globalization and interdependence among nations.
What is imperative is that, sooner rather than later, liberty and legality will be conjoined, thanks to democracy. Then all Latin Americans, regardless of race, language, religion and culture, will be equal before the law, will enjoy the same rights and opportunities, and will coexist in diversity without being discriminated against or excluded. Latin America cannot renounce its cultural diversity, which is what makes it a model for the rest of the world.
Mestizaje must not be understood exclusively as the fusion of Indians and Spaniards or Portuguese, though, naturally, those are the most important ethnic and cultural components in Latin American reality. The African contribution—and in the countries of the Caribbean basin and in certain regions of Brazil, it is an essential one—is of the highest importance. Africans reached the New World at the same time as did the conquistadors, and we see their influence in all artistic and cultural manifestations, especially in music. Asia, too, has been a presence in the life of the continent since the colonial era, and there are magnificent examples of how the techniques and achievements of Far Eastern plastic and decorative arts came to our lands and were assimilated by native artists and artisans. When you dig into the Latin American past without prejudice, without assuming a party pris, you soon discover that our cultural roots are spread all over the world.
Despite Latin America’s universality, one of its recurring obsessions has been defining its identity. In my opinion, this is a useless enterprise, dangerous and impossible, because identity is something possessed by individuals and not collectivities, at least once they’ve transcended tribal conditions. Only in the most primitive communities, where the individual exists only as part of the tribe, does the idea of a collective identity have any raison d’être. But, as in other parts of the world, this mania for determining historico-social or metaphysical specificity for an agglomeration has caused oceans of Latin American ink to flow, generating ferocious diatribes as well as interminable polemics.
The most celebrated and prolonged of all is the confrontation between Hispanists, for whom Latin American history begins with the arrival of Spaniards and Portuguese and the resultant linking of the continent with the Western world, and Indigenists, for whom the genuine reality of the New World resides in the pre-Hispanic civilizations and their descendants, and not in the contemporary heirs of the conquistadors, who still today marginalize and exploit Native Americans. Though eclipsed for long periods, this schizophrenic and racist vision of Latin America will never disappear. From time to time, it resurfaces in politics because, like all Manichean simplifications, it allows demagogues to stir up collective passions and provide superficial, schematic answers to complex problems. Every attempt to fix a unique identity for Latin America requires discriminatory surgery that excludes and abolishes millions of Latin Americans, along with many forms and manifestations of its rich cultural variety.
Latin America’s wealth lies in its being many things simultaneously—so many, in fact, that it is a microcosm in which all the races and cultures of the world coexist. Five centuries after the arrival of Europeans to its shores, mountain ranges and forests, Latin Americans of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, African, Chinese or Japanese descent are as much “natives” of the continent as are those whose ancestors were the ancient Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayas, Quechuas, Aymaras or Caribes. And the mark that Africans have left on the continent, where they, too, have been living for five centuries, is ubiquitous: in people, speech, music, food, and even in certain ways of practicing religion. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is no tradition, culture, language or race that hasn’t contributed something to the phosphorescent vortex of mixtures and alliances swirling about in all orders of Latin American life. This amalgam is our greatest patrimony: to be a continent that lacks an identity because it contains all identities. And, thanks to its creators, it goes on transforming itself every day.
There could be no more persuasive demonstration of this unique condition than the extraordinary exhibition, “Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: the Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820”, mounted last year in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Mexico City. The show presented a vast, absorbingly beautiful and diverse collection of art and artisanal work produced in Latin America over the course of the three centuries between the arrival of Spaniards and Portuguese and the period when the Hispanic and Luso-American colonies became independent republics.
One of the most suggestive conclusions the visitor to the show could reach after spending two or three hours reviewing this careful selection of the best that our ancestors created in architecture, painting, sculpture, gold carving, textile weaving, decoration and all the applied arts in the 328 years when Latin America formed part of the Portuguese and Spanish empires, was that the term “colonial art” is accurate only in an historical and political sense. To define its achievements, forms and contents, it is completely inadequate.
From the first moments of the incorporation of the new continent into Western culture, this art possessed singularities, because it set itself at a distance from the European models and motifs that, on the surface at least, inspired it. It couldn’t have happened any other way. The explorers and conquistadors did not reach a virgin land, but a continent of cultures and civilizations that over many centuries had reached a high level of refinement in customs and beliefs, and in systems of social organization.
Those who painted, sculpted, carved, did feather or metal work, or wove fabric and erected temples, altars and pulpits were, in their majority, descendants of those civilizations and cultures that were destroyed and subjugated, but not eradicated with the arrival of Europeans. They survived in the shadows and went on working in the spirit of creators and artisans. The colonial system imposed new beliefs and behavior patterns that changed appearances, but could not change souls. Ancient gods, habits, devotion and mythology disappeared from view but remained in hearts and minds, despite the efforts of the artists themselves. Then, surreptitiously, those phantoms impregnated all manifestations of “colonial” Latin American art, imparting to it shades all its own which, without breaking with the prototypes brought by the colonizers, renewed them with additions or alterations linked to native idiosyncrasies. The facades of churches, their altars, pulpits, retables, frescos and sculptures, would become subtly Americanized, with an irrepressible explosion of local flowers and fruits, with virgins and angels who became Creole or Indian in their skin, their facial or body features, their clothing, colors and landscapes, the distortion of perspective and the syncretism of Christianity and the abolished religions.
It would be an error to attribute this miscegenation exclusively to indigenous artists and image-makers. Europeans transplanted to the American colonies very quickly became criollos—Europeans born or raised in the New World—as many pieces in “Tesoros” made manifest. One of its most eloquent revelations was how rapidly, though most certainly involuntarily, European art “Americanized” in Spanish and Portuguese America beginning in the 17th century and then overtly in the 18th. Though the citizens of the New World took another century or century-and-a-half to extrapolate that transformation into the political realm in order to dream of emancipation, when they painted, composed, sculpted or wrote, they stopped being European; they were already, in more than one sense, criollos, Spanish or Portuguese Americans, in their works. However, the notion of being something other than European either hadn’t occurred to them or remained nebulous. From the cultural and artistic point of view, the process of Latin American emancipation begins during the colonial era, discreetly at first but becoming more manifest with the passage of time.
One subject, only rarely acknowledged explicitly, runs through all the circuits of Latin American culture: the abysmal contradiction between its social and political reality and its literary and artistic production. On one side, income differences between poor and rich, high indices of marginalization, unemployment and poverty, corruption that undermines its institutions, dictatorial and populist governments, illiteracy, criminality and drug-trafficking, the exodus of its people—all this make Latin America the very incarnation of underdevelopment. But the same continent also boasts, and has since the colonial era, a high coefficient of literary and artistic originality.
In the field of culture, it is only possible to talk about underdevelopment in Latin America in sociological terms: the smallness of its cultural market; the fact that so little is read, and the limited sphere of artistic activity. But as soon as we talk about the production of its writers, cineasts, painters and musicians (who make the whole world dance), we realize Latin America cannot be called underdeveloped. Nor, in their time, could the artists in the “Tesoros” show. Some can be favorably compared with the most original creators in the Western world. At its highest level, the art and literature of Latin America left the picturesque and folkloric behind centuries ago and reached levels of sophistication and originality that guaranteed them a universal audience.
How can we explain this paradox? We might consider the great contrasts in Latin American reality, where all geographies, ethnicities, religions and customs coexist with all historical eras. This is the phenomenon Alejo Carpentier imaginatively re-creates in The Lost Steps (1953), a novelistic voyage in space from the most modern urban-industrial center to the most primitive rural life, a species of literary time travel from present to past and back again. While the cultural elites modernized, opened themselves to the world, and renewed themselves thanks to a constant comparison with the great centers of thought and contemporary cultural creation, political life remained anchored in a past of caudillos and cliques that exercised despotism, looted public resources and kept economic life frozen in feudalism and mercantilism. There was a divorce: The citadels of cultural life—spaces of freedom abandoned to their fate by a political power generally disdainful of culture—found themselves in contact with modernity and evolved. And out of those bastions emerged high-level writers and artists, while the rest of society, for all intents and purposes, remained immobilized in a self-destructive anachronism.
It is impossible to understand Latin America without leaving it and observing it from afar with your own eyes, noting at the same time the myths and stereotypes that have been constructed about it abroad. That mythical dimension is inseparable from the historical reality of the community: Latin America has itself assimilated and metabolized many of those myths and stereotypes, often laboring to be what for ideological and folkloric reasons many Europeans and North Americans have said it was and wanted it to be. We could begin with the colonial chronicle writer Antonio León Pinelo, who “proved” that the Earthly Paradise was in the Amazon region. Our America was never a paradise, but by the same token it was never a hell, though something of both may be found scattered throughout its contradictory reality.
Another question has also been (and continues to be) the object of impassioned polemics: Is Latin America part of the West, culturally speaking, or is it something essentially different, like China, India or Japan? Latin America is an overseas projection of the West that, from colonial times, has acquired its own distinctive features. Those traits, without severing it from the tree from which it sprouts, give it a specific personality. Mind you, that opinion is not held by all Latin Americans. Far from it. It is often refuted with the argument that if it were really the case that Latin America derives from the West, then in its culture and art it would be nothing more than an epigone, an ancillary derivation of Europe.
Those who think that way, at times without noticing it themselves, are nationalists convinced that each people or nation has a unique mental and metaphysical configuration of which its culture is an expression. This is just not so. Culturally speaking, Latin America is so many dissimilar things that only by fragmenting it and excluding a good number of those fragments that make up its reality could it be possible to determine a specific trait valid for the entire continent which, since the arrival at its shores of Columbus’ three ships, articulated its history with that of the rest of the world. Its diversity, compatible in its case with a subterranean unity that is its characteristic condition, is in good measure a consequence of the Western sources that nurture it.
It is for that reason Latin Americans express themselves in the main in Spanish, English, Portuguese and French. It is for that reason Latin Americans are Catholics, Protestants, atheists or agnostics. And those who are atheists or agnostics are the way they are based on what they learned from the West, as is the case for Latin America’s reactionaries and revolutionaries, its democrats and liberals, its traditionalist or avant-garde artists, its romantics, classicists or postmodernists.
But in their most creative moments, Latin Americans never produced mere “imitations and copies” of what they took from Western culture. The expression calco y copia (“imitations and copies”) was coined by José Carlos Mariátegui, one of the very rare Latin American Marxists who did not merely repeat like some ventriloquist’s dummy the ideas of the European Marxists in whose pages he was educated. He used those lessons to make an original, if not always accurate, analysis of America’s social and economic problematic.
Another interesting example of what I’m trying to illustrate is the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, who in Os Sertões (“Revolt in the Backlands”) (1902) carefully scrutinized what took place in the war at Canudos, in the Brazilian northeast, at the end of the 19th century, making use of all the sociological and philosophical theories current in the Europe of his time. The result of his investigation was exactly the opposite of what he himself had foreseen: Instead of enabling him to disinter the profound meaning of that war unleashed by a messianic movement, he learned that those European conceptual constructs were inadequate for explaining the conflict, which was born from a deep distortion of certain religious values and doctrines that, in the primitive world of Bahía, were transformed into their opposites.
Mariátegui and da Cunha are two examples among many of the way in which Latin America departed from European sources to find its own music, music that sets it apart without placing it at odds with the voices of the Old World. The artistic accomplishments realized by its creators would have been impossible without the skill and the mastery of techniques that American artists learned how to acclimate to their world. Is that not the most valuable trait of what we call Western culture? The perpetual renovation of forms and ideas reacting to criticism and self-criticism. The constant assimilation of imported values and principles that enrich those we already possess. All of it within a coexistence of the differences that only liberty, critical spirit and a vocation for universality make possible.
Those who have tried their utmost to distance Latin America from the West have been those Western writers, thinkers or artists who, disillusioned with their own culture, venture forth in search of others to satisfy their appetite for exoticism, primitivism, magic, irrationality and the innocence of Rousseau’s noble savage—and have made Latin America the goal of their utopias. This has produced excellent literary fruit, though, in general, catastrophic political confusion. Like that of those cataclysm lovers for whom Latin America would appear to have no other reason for being than as a scenario for romantic fantasies that European space, with its boring democracies, no longer tolerates at home. The gravest aspect of this is that Latin America has often striven to represent those fictions Europeans invented for it. That utopian vocation has also impregnated American art, the best testimony to the elusive personality, made of unity and dispersion, of Latin America.