Four Identity Crises: Latin America

Rufino Tamayo 'Moon Dog' 1973

In the two centuries since independence Latin American intellectuals have played critical roles in government policy as direct participants or by shaping the philosophical agenda of government action. At the same time they engaged in recurrent and remarkably consistent debate about the nature of regional identity. The dilemmas on which all sides usually agreed were the problems of economic and political development, which were (in the jargon) structural bottlenecks in the circuits of production, interest group conflicts in the circuits of distribution and consumption, and repetitive crises in the political spheres. The disagreements were about the origins of the problems, and where the solutions would be found. In his influential book The Latin Americans and Their Love-Hate Relationship With the United StatesCarlos Rangel helped identify the emotional divisions and delusions at the core:

“We Latin Americans are not happy with ourselves, with what we are. But then, what are we? And what do we want to be, what do we want to become? There is no agreement among us on these questions.”  

A central theme of Rangel’s book was that Latin America’s self-identity is largely derivative in that it emerges through perceptions of difference vis-a-vis the United States whose people and culture, depending on the ideological viewpoint, are considered inferior, superior, or equal to Latin America’s. It has often been said that the greatest bond uniting Latin Americans was their shared suspicion of the United States. That was a source of pride. But the inverse bond is also deep -- awareness of a disparity between the problem solving capabilities and self-confidence of North Americans and Latin Americans. Here the common bonds of pride collapsed into passionate angst about identities based on an idealisation of past glories or a kind of romantic death wish originally expressed by Octavio Paz, perhaps Latin America’s best known twentieth century intellectual, in his book Labyrinth of Solitude

“The [Latin American] tells lies because he delights in fantasy, because he is desperate, or because he wants to rise above the sordid facts of his life; the North American does not tell lies, but he substitutes social truth for the real truth, which is always disagreeable ... We enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions ... Lying plays a decisive role in our daily lives, our politics, our love affairs and our friendships, and since we attempt to deceive ourselves as well as others, our lies are brilliant and fertile, not like the gross inventions of other peoples.”

Latin Americans have been continuously embarrassed by their ‘realidad’ -- a sensitive contrast between long and astonishing history, culture, riches, opportunities and, on the other hand, the persistent status of comparative underdevelopment. In 1933 the Argentine writer Esquival Martínez Estrada suggested Latin American character is expressed in a “fear of ridicule”, fear of inferiority, a desire to hide truths which are profoundly “resented”, a culture of resentment. La realidad was difficult to overcome despite the vast intellectual energy invested in identifying it. 

In the nebulous areas where historical conditions, economic policy, and cultural perceptions intermingle we encounter the relevance of ‘identity’. Identities may be inconspicuous in calm times when development has an assured momentum, when the dynamism of an economy is relatively self-sustaining, and communities feel safe. On the other hand, identities manifest themselves conspicuously during instability, threats, crises. 

In his book Modernidad, Razon e Identidad En America Latina, the Chilean sociologist Jorge Larrain (who like me received his PhD at the University of Sussex) detected four major periods of crises in Latin American history during which questions of ‘identity’ were vital. The first occurred during the colonial period, which he conceives as one 300-year crisis of indigenous identity. The second was after independence from Spain during the creation of new nation states in the nineteenth century. The third crisis arrived around the time of the great depression in the 1920s and 30s when traditional landed oligarchies lost relative power and ‘indigenist’ intellectual movements sprang up. The final crisis was felt in the 1970s. Larrain seems to see this one mainly as a crisis of the political left during periods of military dictatorship stretching to the end of the cold war. As you may notice, these crises cover the whole historical span of Latin America! And by now a new one has almost certainly begun! 

Naturally enough, during conquest and colonisation the indigenous population lost their liberty and sense of “original identity”. During three centuries two cultures met on the basis of inequality and incommensurability. The Spanish colonial and religious administration interpreted and defined the nature of subordinated people who could not speak for themselves and did not understand the origins and culture of the oppressors. A new cultural model was imposed with catholic religion and force of arms. 

According to Tzvetan Todorov the discovery of America was not the beginning of Latin American identity, but rather the dawning of European identity, the beginning of the modern era and of Western genealogy. “We are all direct descendants of Columbus”, says Todorov in his book The Conquest of America. Todorov’s post-modern idea is that Europe had no idea what it was -- as an entity with an identity -- until it found America and recognised the difference of “the other”. In the instant that Europe gained an identity, America lost one.  

However, to describe the entire length of Spanish rule as an identity crisis is excessive. The indigenous masses had more serious concerns than loss of identity. They lost their lands, their autonomy, and were threatened with physical extermination through disease and over-work. Reducing colonial experience to indigenous loss of identity also idealises the unity of pre-Colombian culture or consciousness. Myths of ‘isolation’ and ‘noble savage’ conveniently ignore the cruelties and imperialism of pre-Colombian rulers.  

In other ways, 300 years of Spanish rule were extraordinarily rich in cultural formation. The meeting of Europe and America created something new, neither Spanish nor Indian, but mestizo. It is still there today in the architecture, popular art, literature, music, and religion. That newness or distinctiveness, while noticeable in the colonial period, was not yet an identity in any utilitarian sense. Latin America’s identity in so far as it had a tangible social and political dimension was Iberian. Despite their resentments and stubborn circumvention of colonial Crown authority, the emerging creole elite did not seriously question Spanish rule until provoked by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, and then initially took the side of the Spanish. They feared Indian uprisings and foreign piracy or invasion, and so sought to maintain the commercial and military protection granted them by the Crown, which was also the only source of legitimate authority they possessed in the Americas.  

Aside from an educated elite who were becoming influenced by European liberal ideas and who were increasingly self-conscious and assertive about their own distinctive creole identity, the independence spirit of most Spanish Americans was ignited as an almost accidental by-product of being forced to self-govern when Spanish authority crumbled in 1808. Still, the whole of the continent’s government, economy and society had been shaped by Iberian ‘institutions’ (the subsystems of hacienda, intendencia, audiencia, cabildo, the inquisition, padrinaje and compadrazgo ... to name but a few) with only a superficial overlay of Indian forced labour systems (yanaconaje, mita) which the Spanish had preserved for their functionality. The continent was ethnically far too divided to have ‘other’ identities beyond those that arose sporadically from sub-regional or sub-cultural struggles during the long half-century independence crisis. 

The Chilean-Australian-American historian Claudio Véliz has argued that the centralising all-embracing Baroque dome under which Latin Americans would thenceforth coexist was intrinsically Iberian. More controversially, Veliz said that differences between the English Gothic foxes and Spanish Baroque hedgehogs explain Latin America’s comparative underdevelopment. The Gothic fox loves change, the Baroque hedgehog resists it. Maybe, but I'm not convinced. You don't have to love change to change the way you live.

Michael G. Heller ©2014  

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