Reinventing Identity

September 25, 2007

The history of America begins with a clash of two cultures that were not merely dissimilar, but incompatible: The values of one negated those of the other. Identity -- who we are and what culture we belong to -- has been at the heart of national debates in our hemisphere ever since.

"Identity," Webster's tells us, is the "fact of being a specific person or thing" or "being the same as someone or something assumed, described or claimed.” Ever since that initial encounter, we who are products of the clash of these two cultures have been trying to reconcile our reality with how others describe us. Unable to bear to think of ourselves as Indians -- which, in fact, we are not – we are far from being the Europeans that many have "claimed" us to be. Identity is history and, in America, ours is an alien, imposed history.

But the issue of "identity" is more than a problem of individual psychology. Without agreeing on who we are, we cannot agree on who are our allies and who our enemies. The issue of our identity as a people is inseparable from that of political, cultural or economic union among kindred people. For this reason, political interests, from both within and outside our countries, have shaped the debate over identity in America from colonial times to the present.

People seek identity at different levels of experience -- including race, class, nation and continent. "Nation" has been defined historically in two ways: by ethnicity and by territory. At the beginning of the European conquest, it was an ethnic term, applied exclusively to the aboriginal population. Tbe early Spanish chroniclers in Mexico spoke of Indian "nations," and in Chile, the Spanish soldier and poet of the conquest Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533-1594) was thinking of the Araucanian Indians when he wrote:

Chile, fertile and distinguished province of the famous antarctic region of remote nations, respected for being strong, grand andpowerful. The people that spring from it are so illustrious, haughty, bold and bellicose that never have they been ruled by king nor subject to a foreign rule.[1]

Even at the end of the colonial period, the word "nation" still referred to the aboriginals. In woodcuts, the Mexican, Honduran, Chilean or Paraguayan was represented as an Indian. In contrast, the white person born in the New World was called a "Spaniard of the Indies" or simply an "Indiano." Thus it was the indigenous element that first gave meaning to nationality, while the Spaniards, through their culture, language, and above all administration, contributed the integrative principle -- that is, it was the Spanish imperial system that held these territories together.[2]

The struggles for independence (1810 to about 1825 in most of Spanish America) tore apart that imperial system and also gave the word "nation" a much stronger emotional charge. The nation became associated with the la patria, the homeland, and thus with the "patriots" who fought for independence.

But defining this nation was problematic. As Simón Bolívar put it in 1815, at the dawn of independence, "We are not Europeans, we are not Indians, but a hybrid species between the aborigines and the Spaniards. Americans by birth and Europeans by right, we find ourselves in the conflict of disputing titles of possession with the natives and of supporting ourselves in the country where we were born, against the opposition of 'Spanish' invaders, thus making our case most extraordinary and complicated."[3] National identity would become further complicated after independence, with the arrival of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The fact is that no ready-made "assumed" or "claimed" description fit us. If we were called "Hispanic," the Italians and Eastern Europeans (tanos and rusos, in Río de la Plata slang) who crowded the poor and middle-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Montevideo smiled skeptically. If we called ourselves "Latins," the Indians, blacks and mulattoes of the Caribbean and Brazil found this hard to acept. The only thing left was to invent our own identity.

Loyalty to their patria had led the patriots to repudiate all that Spain stood for. Referring to the mother country, Bolívar said, "The hatred the Peninsula inspires in us is greater than the sea that separates us." But despite this hostility, even after independence, important elements of the integration achieved by the colonial system remained.

One of these was the feeling among the Spanish-speaking people of the Western Hemisphere that they had fundamental habits and interests in common which differentiated them from Europeans. Even before independence, people in the colonies had begun looking for a common label. The abbot Viscardo (1799) had spoken of "American Spaniards," the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) of the "Columbine Continent, alias Hispano-America" (1801), and Bolívar of “southern Americans."

The second legacy was the basic administrative division. The colonial empire had been highly centralized with a vertical command structure, but divided into territorial administrations which, in 300 years, had generated loyalties to one's particular, administratively defined place. These viceroyaltics, governorships and captaincy-generals now became the boundaries of the new nations The tenacity of these colonial divisions would impede efforts for a wider, continent-wide integration.

Thirdly, despite these jurisdictional divisions, there still remained a feeling of cultural unity, of the "greater patria" embracing all the former colonies. This would be the starting point for efforts to reunite them.

The first proponent of integration of the American republics was Bolívar, who wrote the Argentine general Juan Martín de Pueyrredón: "One only should be the homeland of all Americans, since in everything we have had perfect unity." To create an institutional framework for this homeland, he convened a "Congress of Deputies" (Congreso Anfictiónico) in Panama on June 15, 1826. There he proposed a treaty of perpetual union and confederation, courts of arbitration and the establishment of common armed forces.[4]

During the nineteenth century, the concept of "nation" became associated not only with patriotism, but with progress: The nation was conceived as being made up of the "civilized" people, those with an urban culture and at least rudimentary book learning. The others, the unschooled masses in the towns and, especially, the countryside were "barbarians."

The most famous exponent of this idea was the Argentine writer and politician, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888, president of Argentina 1868-1874). In his book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, written in 1845 while Argentina was torn by civil war,he wrote that before independence, "there were two distinct societies in the Argentine Republic, rival and incompatible: two different civilizations. One was Spanish, European, civilized; the other barbarian, American. almost indigenous," He saw the conflict of identities as reflected in the clothing: It was the civil war between the swallow-tailed coat and the poncho.[5]

After Argentina was finally united, the national bourgeoisie, influenced by Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884), set out to "civilize," that is, Europeanize the country. This program precluded alliances with neighboring countries with large indigenous populations, who were assumed to be incapable of progress.

Besides civil wars, wars between the new countries undermined sentiments of continental solidarity. Especially damaging were the War of the Pacific (Chile versus Peru and Bolivia, 1879-1883) and the War of the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil against Paraguay, 1865-1870).

On the other hand, interventions by the industrialized countries in search of raw materials or other commercial advantages tended to stimulate feelings of Hispanic American solidarity against the aggressors: the U.S. interventions in Mexico (1845-1848) and Nicaragua (William Walker's expedition, 1855-1860), and the French in Mexico (1861-1867). In a war between Spain and Peru (1864-1866), the former Spanish Colonies of Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia joined on the side of Peru in the name of Hispanic American solidarity.[6]

The name Latin Ameica was first launched by the Chilean writer and sociologist Francisco Bilbao (1823-1865), as a formula for unity against "Saxon America," or the United States. In a speech read in Paris, June 22, 1865, he said that "union is the true patriotism of the Americans of the South.... This union which takes the form of a confederation of the South, watered by the Amazon and the Plata and shaded by the Andes, is the picture of the American and Latin identity, which will perpetuate the race and permit the creation of the great American nation.... Only this union...can hold back the imperialism of the United States of the North, which believes in its empire as Rome believed in its own.”[7]

The name "Latin America" was popularized in France in the 1860s, as part of the Pan-Latin euphoria during the reign of Napoleon III. According to the geopolitical conceptions of the time, the main world struggles were between cultural blocs, including the "Latins" versus the "Saxons," and France sought hegemony over the Latins. In America many intellectuals felt threatened by the expansion of "Saxon" power -- represented by England and especially the United States -- and looked to France to halt it. On the basis of this supposed "Latin" solidarity, France justified its invasion of Mexico.[8] It was the sort of solidarity expressed by Lewis Carroll's walrus, which wept as it swallowed the oysters.

French publications enthusiastically promoted the new label. The Revue du Monde Colonial gave early expression to the idea in 1867: "Latin America covers, besides Brazil, the most important and most populous of its states, the republics of Chile, Rio de la Plata [the Argentine Provinces plus Paraguay and Uruguay], Peru, Bolivia. Ecuador, New Granada, Venezuela, Central America and Mexico." The Revue de Races Latines, published in Paris from 1857 to 1861, raised an argument that would have important consequences in Latin American thought: that although the Anglo-Saxons might be better at constructing a technical civilization, the Latins had a superior culture.[9]

Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó (1872-1917) picked up this idea for his famous book, Ariel, first published in 1900.[10] Borrowing characters from William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he made the spirit Ariel represent Hispanic American spiritualism, against the monster Calibán as the materialism of North America. A variant of the theme was the theory of Mexican author and educational reformer José Vasconcelos (1881-1959) that Latin Americans were the "cosmic race," a synthesis of all the world's peoples, whereas the "Saxons" sought the exclusive dominion of the white race.[11]

Toward the end of the nineteenth century another notion appeared, Pan-Americanism, which is a project for integration without identity. (Nowadays, the only thing "Pan American" is the Pan American highway.)[12] The idea was that America should be united, but under the hegemony of the United States. Pan Americanism is a radically imperialist conception that is founded on the old idea of "Manifest Destiny," developed especially by Jefferson, which implied nothing but the right of the United States to construct a colonial empire.

For Cuban writer and revolutionary José Marí (1853-1895), Pan-Americanism meant the "union of the condor and the lanib."[13] Martí introduced instead the concept of "Our America" (Nuestra América), meaning the America of the Spanish-speaking peoples. He envisioned a multi-racial, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist society, which he also expressed as "workers' America," united from "the Rio Grande to the Straits of Magellan."

Yet another term, "Ibero-America," was launched in Spain with the publication of the review Unión Iberoamericana in 1904, in the wake of the Spanish defeat in the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1895-1898.[14 ] If Pan-Americanism was an attempt at integration without identity, Ibero-America represented identity without integration. It was designed, first, to describe Spain's institutions for cooperation with its former colonies and, second, to counter the term "Latin America," which Spanish intellectuals of the "Generation of' 98" rejected huffily.[16]

There wre, however, both indigenous and African Americans who did not consider themselves "Ibero-,” “Latin," or “Hispanic," but sought new labels based on Indianness or Negritude. In Peru, three concepts of Indo-America arose in the early 1900s. Teodoro Valcárcel (1900-1942) mystically conceived of an Indian America led by the people of Cuzco, ancient capital of the Incas. Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, founder of APRA, proposed the creation of an Indo-American bourgeoisie, as the only force capable of resisting imperialism.[16] And for the Marxist intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui, "The Indian is the foundation of our nationality in formation," Before America could be united against imperialism, he argued, countries like Peru would have to establish their own nationality, which meant resolving the conflicts between Creole and Indian society. "The possibilities for the Indian to raise himself materially and intellectually," he wrote, "are not determined by race, but by economics and politics."

In the 1950s, the idea of Latin America began to reappear in discussions of economic development, among both social scientists and revolutionaries. The aim of the U.N.'s Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA), as voiced by Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, was to create national and continental bourgeoisies and promote economic integration; harmonious development was supposed to occur through a policy of import substitution The idea of Latin America is also associated with regional economic pacts like the 1960 "Treaty of Montevideo."

An important shift in thinking in those years was the emphasis on socio-economic inter-dependency rather than language as a basis for unity among nations. This was especially evident in the work of the Brazilians Mauro Marini and Darcy Ribeiro.[17] Ribeiro asked whether "Latin America" exists. It does not, he answered, unless we understand by culture "a complex and fluid entity that does not correspond to a given form, but to a tendency in quest of an authenticity that has never been achieved.” Identity, in his view, is a process and unity a product."[18]

Latin American sentiment was prominent in the 1950s in the works of those writers calling themselves "committed.” Julio Cortázar argued that the Latin American is a "historical person, alienated and subordinated by the underdevelopment in which capitalism and imperialism keep him." Literature was destined to break those barriers -- but onlyif it were free from prejudgments as to any particular revolutionary style."[19]

The revolutionary ideal of America was broadened in the 1960s to include not only anti-imperialism but also the liquidation of capitalism, the creation of a "new man”, and a new society. Che Guevara presented a heraldic image of revolutionary Latin America: a total confrontation within a worldwide confrontation. In the same spirit, the Second Declaration of Havana of 1975 reaffirmed, like Augusto César Sandino in his time, armed unity against imperialism and capitalism.

Salvador Allende carried the idea further in his phrase "Pueblo Continente" or "Continental People." For him the task before this people was its liberation from poverty, which could be achieved only in the "socialist homeland." As in all the previous discourses, the identity of this "Continental People" was defined by the struggle against the common adversary: imperialism.

Allende proposed concrete measures of integration. He advocated strengthening regional pacts and was convinced that the Inter-American system had to be replaced by a system that defended the Latin American peoples. He envisioned schools on the national borders that would “conjugate a Latin American language," a "statue of the American man," and a system of social security for all Latin Americans in any country of the continent. The aim, as he put it, was "to feel ourselves, really, men of the same people, without losing our nationality. Latin America must be made into a Continental People.”[20]

The quest for identity, as Bolívar, Bilbao, Mariátegui, Allende and others have understood, is not an archaeological enterprise, an attempt to find ourselves in the past. Rather, it is a common project, defined by our common struggle. The history of our definitions of our identity, whether as "Creoles" and "Indians," "Hispanic Americans," "Indo-" or "African Americans," "Pan-Americans," "Latin Americans" or "Continental People" is a record of our commitments to unity on particular bases. The quest for identity is not about the past, but about the future we choose to construct.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Miguel Rojas Mix, formerly director of the Latin American Art Institute in his native Chile, now teaches at the University of Paris VIII and in the Institute of Advanced Studies of Latin America at the Sorbonne.

NOTES 1.Chile fértil provincia señalada/de la región antártica famosa/de remotas naciones respetada/por fuerte, principal y poderosa./La gente que produce es tan granada,/tan soberbia, gallarda y belicosa/que no ha sido por rey jamás regida/ni a dominio extranjero sometida. 2. Immediately after independence, the Creoles would deny the sense of nationality to the aborigines. For the Argentine politician and writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (see below), the Araucanians not only were not Chile, but its enemy. Referring to the Auraucanian chiefs who led the resistance to the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, he wrote, "For us, Colocolo, Lautaro and Caupolicán, regardless of the noble and civilized garb in which Ercilla cloaked them, were nothing but so many filthy Indians, whom we would have ordered hanged now, if they reappeared in a war of Araucanians against Chile, which has nothing to do with such scum." Conflicto y armonía de las razas en América. 3. "Carta de Jamaica," in Simón Bolívarz: Escritos polos (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1971), p. 69. Bolívar (1783-1830) would return to this subject again and again, most notably in his speech to pro-independence forces at the Congress of Angostura (Venezuela), February 15, 1819. Ibid., pp. 127-140. 4. The Congress was attended by delegates from Colombia (then comprising what are today modernColombia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador), Peru, Mexico and Guatemala. They were not empowered, nor were their home governments stable enough, to enact Bolivar's visionary proposals. In the early independence period, the Andean countries -- Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador. and Colombia -- were the most interested in unity. Brazil was too busy constructing an empire, and in any case its colonial heritage made it look more toward Portuguese-speaking Africa than to its neighbors. And Argentina, was preoccupied by its civil wars from the late 1820s until 1852. 5. The target of Sarmiento's attack, the gaucho caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835). known as the "Tiger of the Plains," was an ally of Juan Manuel de Rosas. Quiroga was ten years dead (murdered in an ambush) by the time Sarmiento's book appeared, in 1845, but by attacking him Sarmiento was really attacking Rosas. The book was first translated into English by Sarmiento's friend, the American educator Mary T. Mann, as Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants, or Civilization and Barbarism. Facsimile edition, Library of Classics Series, No. 2 (New York: Hafner). 6. Other milestones toward integration were the several congresses in the tradition of the one convened by Bolívar in Panama in 1826: the First Congress of Lima, 1847-48, the Continental Congress of Santiago de Chile in 1856, and the Second Congress of Lima of 1864-65. 7. "Iniciativa de la América. Idea de un congreso federal de las Repúblicas." In La América en peligro (Santiago de Chile: Ercilla, 1941), p. 138. Cf. Miguel Rojas Mix, "Bilbao y el hallazgo de América Latina: Unión continental, socialista y libertaria." Caravelle: Cahiers du monde hispanique et luso-bresilien No. 46, 1986. Bilbao's proposals for Latin American unity included the formation of a Latin American congress, standardization of weights and measures throughout the region, colonization of the wilderness, universal education and civilization of the "barbarians," abolition of customs duties, an international tribunal, a Latin American publishing house and university, a daily newspaper and common armed forces. 8. Ostensibly, Emperor Napoleon III was responding to a request for assistance from conservative Mexicans opposed to Benito Juárez. 9. This notion of Latin spirituality was publicized in France by Ernest Renan (1823-1892). 10. Widely reprinted, including a paperback edition with notes and commentary (Buenos Aires: Clásicos de Ayer y Hoy, 1969). 11. José Vasconcelos, La raza cósmica, 1925. 12. Although the name "Pan Americanism" did not arise until the First International American Conference in 1889, the origins of the concept go back to the declaration by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823, which originally appeared as a principle of "non-intervention." After the Second World War, Pan-Americanism was transformed at the Bogota Conference in 1948 into Inter-Americanism, a form for the United States to dominate relations with its neighbors to the south. 13. Or as Juan José Arévalo, president of Guatemala (19451951). would put it many years later, "the fable of the shark and the sardines."Juan Jose Arévalo, Fábula del tiburón y las sardinas (América Latina estrangulada). Buenos Aires: Editorial Palestra, 1959. Originally published in 1956. 14. The loss of Spain's last colonies in the New World, Cuba and Puerto Rico, in 1898 gave Spaniards their own identity crisis and inspired much new thinking. Among the intellectuals associated with the so-called "Generation of ‘98" were Miguel de Unamuno, Azorín (pseudonym of José Martínez Ruíz), Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, Paroja, Antonio Machado, Ramiro de Maeztu, Jacinto Benavente. 15. The Spanish diplomat and novelist Juan Valera y Alcalá Galiano (1824-1905) said this term "Latin America" offended him as it would a father whose son denied his name. During the First World War, the Spanish philologist Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869-1968) launched a campaign to prohibit the term in the press. In 1921, the Congress of Hispano-American History and Geography in Seville agreed that the proper term to cover Spain, Portugal and Spanish and Portuguese America was "Hispanic." 16. Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, founded in 1924. Victor Raúl Haya de laTorre (1895-1979), founder of APRA and several times candidate for the presidency of Peru, was probably the originator of the concept of "Indo-America." 17. Ray Mauro Marini, "Interdependencia e integración continental," América Latina en sus ideas. UNESCO, in Cultures, vol. 5, no. 3 ("L'Amerique latine et les Caraibes"), 1978. 18. Darcy Ribeiro, "La cultura latinoamericana." Latinoamérica. Anuario de estudios latinoamericanos. Mexico: UNAM, 19786, no. 9, pp. 9-89. 19. Oscar Collazos, Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa, Literatura en la revolución y revolución en la literatura (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1970) 20. Salvador Allende, Discursos (Havana, 1975)

Tags: quincentennary, identity, conquest, patria, naming

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