Cultural Diversity in the Development of the Americas



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Cultural Studies Series: Nº 11

Unite for Social Development Education and Culture

Organization of American States

Cultural Diversity in the Development of the Americas
Indigenous Peoples and States

in Spanish America


Rodolfo Stavenhagen
Latin America in the Multicultural World
1. In today's globalized world cultural diversity is the order of the day. There is much talk of cultural pluralism and multiculturalism, of hybrid cultures and cultural syncretism, of the right to difference, and of cultural policies designed to respect diversity and promote mutual understanding between cultures. The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity adopted by UNESCO in November 2001 affirms that cultural diversity as a reality of our world should be expressed in policies on cultural pluralism designed to ensure the inclusion and participation of all citizens.
2. And the economy does not sit on its hands. Goods manufacturing consortia and consumer services identify --and create-- cultural niches for their products and target these specific markets with their advertising, in order to boost sales and earnings. “Cultural diversity” is a strategy for conquering markets. In the United States, for instance, African-Americans and “Hispanics” are more than ethnic groups or communities -- now they are specific categories of consumers. In the great globalized cities of our hemisphere, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Arab, African, Indian, Mexican, etc. neighborhoods are spaces for “identities” maintained by and constructed on cultural traditions and practices, social relations, and symbolic worlds that are distinct but at the same time shared. However, they are also promoted by the media and super-companies. The audio and video cultural industries (radio, television, cinema) have undoubtedly had the greatest impact on these identities, and generate massive tides of sounds and images --in other words, messages-- for all tastes and peculiarities. Although they are mainly supplied by a handful of highly centralized companies, their output contains elements from many cultural and ethnic traditions, and there recipients are equally heterogeneous and diversified.
3. The newly ascribed importance of cultural heterogeneity has profound consequences for cultural and educational, as well as economic and trade, policies. There are those who say that in this globalized world we are moving towards cultural uniformity, and that at stake, as a result, are the national identities of countries; and since these are endangered, then so also is national sovereignty. How seriously should we take the prediction that soon there will be a single “universal” culture, that all countries are becoming “Americanized”, that different national cultures are bound irredeemably to disappear, or that at the end of the day the cultural dimension is, anyway, subordinate to the laws of market supply and demand? Or, conversely, what is the significance of the theory currently very much in vogue that the world is deeply divided by cultural and religious rifts that are leading inevitably to a clash of civilizations? Such predictions serve notice, rather, of the coexistence of multiple intersecting and interlacing cultural trends and movements in the world. The cultural phenomenon has many facets, and to have a clearer overview of what is at stake it requires examining it from different angles. Cultural events are complex because they involve both individual human wills and collective processes, together with the weight of structural and historical phenomena.
4. None of the above is foreign to the Americas. At the outset of the 21st century, with the new specter of religious war and associated exclusivist fundamentalism to influence the course of international relations (jihad v. crusade), cultural issues acquire renewed relevance. Neither irreducible and irreconcilable essentialism nor amorphous blending of identities and cultures has a place in the reality of our times, and the Americas, in their own way, are a good example of such contemporary problems.
5. For reasons of space I will limit my discussion in the following paragraphs to the region currently known as Latin America, an in particular to the Spanish-speaking parts of it.
The past that shadows us
6. The earliest American cultures date from around 40,000 years ago. They were peoples of nomadic hunter-gatherers, who migrated south from the north in successive migratory waves that originated on the Asian steppes before crossing the Bering Strait. Gone are the theories that once postulated the originality of an “American man”. The unity of mankind is a scientifically irrefutable fact, and the Americas were gradually populated over the course of tens of thousands of years, as were other parts of the world, starting from a common cradle of humanity, probably in Africa.
7. The sedentarization of nomadic peoples in these lands, as in other regions, was accompanied by technological progress in agriculture, construction of stone and mud buildings, development of pottery, basket-weaving, loom textiles, and, probably, social organization associated with life in permanent settlements, with religious and political manifestations of which we know little today. Around 4,000 years ago certain areas were gradually chosen for the first great historic revolution of this continent: domestication of wild plant species for food. Maize and beans in the north, and potato and quinua in the south were the basis of economic and food-producing complexes that in many ways continue to characterize ways of life, particularly those of rural populations, in Mesoamerica and the Andean region. They constitute an original and ongoing contribution of the American autochthonous peoples to human civilization. (The domestication of a variety of rice occurred later in some parts of North America). Even now maize and potato producing complexes remain the foundation of the subsistence culture of millions of peasants, a fact that none of the agricultural and rural development programs can ignore.
8. The “high civilizations” (Inca, Maya, Aztec) developed subsequently in Mesoamerica and the Andes. They were characterized by a diversified economy, impressive urban and ceremonial centers, magnificent monumental architecture, varied and rich artistic expressions, a centralized, hierarchical and theocratic state, complex polytheistic religions, military expansionism, highly specialized technical and astronomical knowledge; the beginnings of mathematics and geometry, hieroglyphic writing, use of currency as a medium of exchange and accumulation of wealth, jewelry and precious metalwork, etc.
9. From our current knowledge we can surmise that the technological, social, and cultural development of the native American peoples proceeded autonomously, in isolation from similar processes that took place in other regions of the world. However, we cannot rule out possible seafaring contacts between South America and Polynesia, which could have led to cultural exchanges, proof of which are elements of the material culture and linguistic aspects. It is less likely that the high Asian civilizations had any direct influence on Maya or Inca art, as some researchers have proposed in the past.
10. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Tahuantinsuyu (“Land of the Four Quarters”) stretched the length of the Andean mountain range, from southern Colombia to northern Argentina and Chile. The Inca state, with its two historical administrative centers at Cuzco and Quito, as well as numerous lesser centers, governed a complex network of economic relations among diverse ecological zones, in which people and goods circulated. The agricultural technology of terrace farming made it possible to make the most of the mountainous terrain of the Andes. The rotating system of services known as mita was the basis of the curacas power, and they, in turn, were tied through relations of reciprocity to the Inca overlords. Agriculture, livestock, and fishing produced surpluses that allowed crafts, art, politics, and religion to flourish. The food stores, under the control of the state, served to redistribute wealth and guarantee the basic well-being of the whole population. The Incas used the quipu for bookkeeping and to record historic events.
11. Further north, in the warm lands of Central America, the Maya civilization, which originated from the Olmecs, began to evolve in the third century A.D. They had ceremonial centers; and accounting system; writing, now virtually all deciphered; wood, stone, and ceramic sculpture; and renowned artistry with feathers. Perhaps it was intensive slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropical forests that gradually depleted the capacity of the land to sustain a growing population; perhaps the subjugated peasants rose up against the ruling priests in the ceremonial centers; maybe there were epidemics or other natural disasters.
12. Experts have not yet come up with a satisfactory answer, but the fact is in the 9th century, for reasons not entirely clear, the great Maya cities of the south began to be abandoned and in time the heart of the Maya culture moved to the Yucatan Peninsula, where a second Maya civilization flourished. Here monumental cities were built, connected to one another by stone roads cut through the jungle (sac'be); the calendar, mathematics, and hieroglyphic writing were perfected. The chalky and drier Yucatan lands have poor soil, and slash-and-burn agriculture was used on a fragile ecology. At the end of the 10th century the Mayas had been conquered by the Toltecs from central Mexico, and in the sixteenth century they were decimated by the Spanish conquistadors.

13. The central altiplano of Mexico, the Anáhuac region, in turn, saw the Aztec state reach the peak of its splendor in the two centuries prior to its destruction by the Spanish invaders. The Mexican civilization synthesized and incorporated the progress previously made by the other Mesoamerican cultures. Their monumental architecture and sculpture rival that of the Incas. The urban development of Tenochtitlan, the city built on a lake, surpassed everything achieved until then in town planning in other parts of the world. Chinampas agriculture, which is still practiced today, had managed high food production yields. The Aztec calendar was more accurate than the European one. The sacred codices contained all existing knowledge. The social organization was based on the local community of relatives: the calpulli, the nucleus of land ownership and economic activity (like the ayllu in the Tahuantinsuyu). In its latter stages, the theocratic and military organization of the Anáhuac, which led to its rapid territorial expansion, also enhanced its political fragility and accelerated its fall before the Spanish invaders.


14. On the periphery of the centralized state (called “empires” by European observers), as well as in the vast spaces of North America, other political and social units were consolidated. They were less structured and less technologically developed, but they also had permanent settlements, as can be seen from examples found in the southwest United States. In the Caribbean basin, village-based agricultural societies flourished that did not manage to develop urban centers or centralized and hierarchical political structures. However, they were well known for their varied artistic works in metalworking, basket weaving, and pottery. The indigenous peoples of the Antilles, Arawaks and Caribs, groups of hunters, gatherers, farmers, and fishermen, maintained relations with the peoples of the north coast of South America and with Central America.
15. The Pacific coasts sheltered a large number of sedentary societies that extended as far south as Tierra del Fuego and as far north as Canada. In the lowlands of the Atlantic side, on the plains and pampas, the deserts and estuaries, the steppes and tropical jungles of the Amazon basin, from Patagonia to the Orinoco, the vast expanse of South America was occupied by innumerable peoples with their own identity, and distinct language, traditions, and economic specialization; however they shared a very ancient cultural heritage belonging to all the autochthonous peoples of the Americas that resulted from thousands of years of endogenous development, separated from other cultural movements in other parts of the planet.
16. Little is known about the non material or spiritual culture of those peoples that inhabited the Americas, other than what has been passed down to us by some 16th-century chroniclers, whose journals and records have undoubtedly been tainted by the European ideology of the time of the conquest. Except for the Mayas and Aztecs, the other autochthonous peoples were illiterate, and although there are paintings recording historical events, inscriptions on stone monuments and sculptures, codices, fabrics and embroideries with signs and symbols, the “written” legacy of those cultures is a fragile one, and the oral tradition that in some parts has survived to this day, gradually changed with time. In any case, writing, where it did exist, was the purview of the priests of the dominant caste and it disappeared with them. Many indigenous documents were destroyed by the Spanish inquisitors in their zeal to root out idolatry.
17. There are two elements that stand out among those varied cultural manifestations, and owing to their vitality and persistence they are expressed to this day by many indigenous peoples in the hemisphere because they underlie the entire indigenous cosmovision in the Americas. First, the cyclical concept of time, which is at odds with a linear vision of history and, at the same time, conditions the perception of present and future. A non linear vision of the passage of time contradicts the idea of “progress” and creates difficulties for modernization. Second, it is essential to underscore the special relationship between human beings and nature, particularly the earth. In the Andean world, the figure of the pachamama, the earth mother, dominates the activities of men and their relations with nature, animals, and other human beings. The earth, mother and source of all human things, is also the core element of the cosmovision of the Mayas and other autochthonous peoples of the Americas.
18. The cultural heritage of these peoples manifests itself today on two levels. On one hand, there are tens of thousands of archeological sites that bear silent witness to the vitality of those societies. Such sites contain anything from primitive villages and settlements whose origins date back four or six thousand years, to monumental cities, such as Machu Picchu and Uxmal, which existed in the sixteenth century and, in some cases -like Machu Picchu- survived the initial onslaught of the Spanish military conquest. It was only in the 20th century that some Latin American governments began systematically to explore and study the hemisphere’s ancient, through archeological exploration and ethno-historical research. In addition to the large number of remains that have been looted or destroyed, there exist many thousands of sites belonging to ancient civilizations that have not yet been explored and whose study in the future will shed new light on the pre-Columbian era.
19. Research into the indigenous past is not conducted simply out of scientific or academic interest. Indeed, some nations, like Mexico, regard exploration, preservation, and restoration of archeological zones as a cultural policy objective that strengthens the national identity of the country, which the state assumed as its duty -though not necessarily a priority- for much of the 20th century. Recognition of the valuable cultural contributions of ancient indigenous civilizations strengthens ties with the country's historical past and seeks symbolically to overcome the trauma of the conquest and colonization, and, at the same time, reinforces the discourse of a mestizo nation built on the syncretism of its native cultures. Not all the countries of Latin America view their indigenous past in the same light; however, the social and even ideological role that anthropological research has managed to play is remarkable. The conservation and revaluation of that cultural heritage is an urgent task that ought to be a cultural policy priority in the region because the pre-Hispanic cultures are a common and shared substratum of the American identity.
20. Another level of expression of the autochthonous civilizations is found in the surviving contemporary indigenous cultures of the Americas: their languages, ceremonies, festivals, dancing, music, attire, manual arts, medical and pharmacological lore, agricultural and building technology, the social and political organization of communities, customary law, philosophy, religion, and cosmovision. It is true that these cultural manifestations no longer exist in their “pure” state and have undergone many transformations in five centuries. The indigenous peoples adopted many external and foreign elements, and there has been a broad transculturalization process. However, the presence of the ancient American cultures manifest in the large number of diverse contemporary indigenous peoples is greater than is generally admitted. In spite of the dramatic disruption in the 16th century, the vitality of the authentic America throbs at the heart of the continent.
Disruption and colonial rule
21. The conquest of the Tahuantinsuyu and of Tenochtitlan at the beginning of the 16th century marked the start of Spanish imperial rule in the western hemisphere and, at the same time, announced its forthcoming and inevitable decline. Spain was the first country in the modern world to organize and eventually administer (for three centuries) a vast colonial system that operated on three levels: economic, political, and cultural. Although later supplanted by Holland, France, and England as a world power, Iberian colonization (including, of course, that of Portugal) had a lasting impact on the historical evolution of the Americas and the world, and left its indelible mark on the culture of millions of people.
22. The first lands in the Americas to come under Spanish rule were the Caribbean islands. After a short spell of colonial economic prosperity, during which Cuba and Santo Domingo also functioned as seats of colonial administration, the core of Spanish might was transferred to the mainland and the Antilles reverted practically to a subsistence economy of no great importance to the colonial system. It was not until the start of the 17th century that the Dutch, English, and French were able to take from Spain a considerable portion of its Antillean colonies and, in so doing, wrested from it naval control of the Caribbean basin. The most lasting impact of a century of Spanish rule on the Caribbean islands was the almost total extermination of their indigenous peoples, to such a degree that today the Amerindian population has all but disappeared from the Antilles.
23. To get the labor needed for the sugarcane plantation economy set up in the Antilles, the shortage of aboriginal workers was soon supplemented with African slaves. For more than two hundred years the plantation system based on slave labor was a characteristic of the English and Dutch Antilles, while the Hispanic Caribbean occupied a secondary position within the structures of the Spanish empire in the Americas. However, with the trafficking of slaves to Brazil, the African presence was also consolidated on the mainland.
24. The Spanish empire strengthened its position with the military destruction of the Aztec and Inca states in the north and south, respectively, and the gradual absorption of the peripheral peoples into the new colonial structures. Some of these peoples kept up a vigorous and permanent resistance and were never defeated by the colonial armies, as in the southern Chile and Argentina and in the Amazon region. However, many of these peoples lost their independence or were exterminated later, during the nineteenth century, with the rise of the Republican states and of the capitalist economy. The Portuguese conquest of Brazil also brought the destruction of indigenous peoples, or their expulsion to areas not then coveted by the invader. In the coastal regions, occupied by the Portuguese and Dutch colonizers, shortage of indigenous labor led, as in the Caribbean, to the mass introduction of African slaves for the sugar plantations. In consequence, the demographic and ethnic composition of “useful” Brazil in the colonial era included Europeans and Africans, but the natives, principally the tupí-guaraní people, had virtually disappeared. In southern Brazil, the bandeirantes made it their mission to enslave or exterminate the indians and conquer new lands for Portuguese colonists.
25. The Spanish invasion of continental America, that of the organized states and “high” cultures, had quite different consequences. After the military defeat of the autochthonous states, the Spanish did not take long to establish a highly centralized colonial administration to substitute the previous political structures, thereby achieving virtually uncontested control of the political and land system, both in central Mexico and in Peru. The changes were not long in coming. As a result of the arrival of the Iberians, in the first century after the Conquest the population shrank dramatically -- according to some experts, by 80%. Epidemics brought by the conquistadors decimated the population, but ecological changes imposed by the new economy, repression, and forced labor also did their part, to such a degree that the demographic collapse in the Americas is considered the first great genocide of the modern era.
26. The new colonial economy (livestock, mining, commercial agriculture) left the subsistence economy of the indigenous peoples in disarray, resulting in periodic famine. The forced labor into which the indians were pressed emptied their communities. Evangelization and imposition of a strange religion destroyed the ideological pillars of the indigenous cultures. The appropriation and concentration of the land in the hands of the colonists destroyed the ecological foundations of agrarian communities and turned the indigenous peasants into serf labor for the farmer, landowner, or the Church. In the colonial era a highly hierarchical and stratified economic and social culture was gradually developed and consolidated. That structure was maintained for more than three hundred years and its consequences are still visible at the end of the millennium. The Latin American culture of today mirrors many elements from that period.
27. There were great debates between learned theologians and jurists about the right of the Spanish crown to take possession of the vast territories of the Americas. Already conditioned by their former struggle against the “infidel moors”, whom they had expelled from the Iberian peninsula, and in defense of Christianity, the Catholic monarchs were concerned to know if the indians of the New World had souls; if they should be treated as human beings, or perhaps as children, or in any event as minors and incompetent; if there was just cause to wage war on them and submit them to their royal will; if they should be enslaved and, if so, in what circumstances; if their servitude was only legal or also “natural” because they were infidels and barbarians. Neotomism and the Counterreformation, which gained impetus in Spain from the 16th century onward, provided the necessary ideology to maintain a rigid colonial system in which the indigenous cultures were either eradicated or transformed to better serve the purposes of the colonizer. The legal doctrine of “terra nullius” justified dispossessing the Indians of their lands and resources.
28. From the beginning of the colonization there were humanist voices that saw as a great tragedy the “destruction of the Indies” by the colonizers, and who proclaimed the right of the indians not only to defend themselves but also to exist as sovereign peoples. While Bartolomé de las Casas defended the indians, he suggested that the encomenderos use African slave labor. For his part, Francisco de Vitoria, who rejected the “natural” right of the Spanish monarchs to take possession of the indians' lands (but who did justify waging a “just war” on them in given circumstances) is considered the founding father of international law. However, these voices were quelled, although they served as the basis of what later became called the “Black Legend” of Spain in the Americas. In its place a “white legend” was imposed: the ideology intended to glorify and idealize the “civilizing work” of Spain in the New World. The controversy continued throughout the colonial era, and erupted again in the 19th century among historians, philosophers, and politicians. Such were the passions aroused over almost half a millennium that the ideological struggle continues even today between “hispanists” and “indigenists”. In the preparations for the activities surrounding the fifth centenary, while some wanted to celebrate the “Discovery of the Americas”, others were calling it a “cover-up” (Leopoldo Zea), and indigenous organizations used terms like European invasion, genocide, and 500 years of resistance. After lengthy public discussions and international meetings, it was agreed to commemorate the “Meeting of Two Worlds”, a formula that satisfied neither side but which enabled the United Nations and the countries of the region solemnly to commemorate the occasion in 1992. The UN announced 1993 as the International Year of Indigenous Peoples and proclaimed the corresponding international decade (1995-2004).
29. The economic and social stratification of the Colonia caused cultural polarization; on one hand the culture of peninsular Spaniards, Spanish emigrants, and criollos, and, on the other, the various lower-class cultures of dominated ethnic groups (indigenous people, blacks, mestizos, and the various “castes” resulting from multiple racial mixes). The evangelization of the indians profoundly changes their religious life, but the indigenous popular religion ended up being a syncretism of Catholicism and the pre-Hispanic religions. In fact, it has been said that the indians adopted the formal and superficial aspects of colonial Catholicism, for obvious reasons of self-defense, but underneath kept their autochthonous practices for a long time. This syncretism is seen in ceremonies and rituals, beliefs, forms of worship, and legends and myths, including that of the indian Juan Diego and the cult to the Virgin of Guadalupe created at Cerro del Tepeyac, a holy place for the Aztec religion). Many ancient practices of the indians were proscribed and persecuted by the Church, but they have been kept alive in secret, changing and adapting to circumstances, to this day. Something similar happened in Brazil with the African religions that retain a great vitality and which give Brazilian popular culture its particular identity (candomblé, macumba, capoeira).
30. At the start of the colonial period, the Catholic missionaries studied the native languages and used them for evangelization purposes. Primers, missals, and dictionaries were published in the main native languages, which were also taught at high colleges to which the descendants of the former rulers had access, as a temporary indigenous “aristocracy” at the service of the colonizer. In Paraguay, guaraní even became the national everyday language. However, in 1770 Charles III of Spain issued a decree permanently banning the indigenous language from use in civil and religious affairs, and they were consigned to the sphere of everyday family life and indian communities. This increased the polarization of the culture into two clearly defined social strata: dominant and dominated.
31. In many parts of the hemisphere resistance to the colonizer never ceased, or only did so much later. After the demographic calamity of the 16th century, the indigenous population gradually made a piecemeal recovery. Regardless, it always represented the numerical majority. The oral tradition, clandestine religious cults (harshly suppressed by the Inquisition whenever they were discovered), the image of once majestic cities now in ruins, kept alive for many indigenous peoples the memory of their lost freedom and sovereignty. Combined with the colonial injustices, oppression, and exploitation, these memories were fertile ground for the generation of millenarian myths that gave rise throughout the colonial period to restoration and messianic movements and rebellions that were a living hope and sometimes succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of followers, but invariably were brutally put down by the colonial government. The most well-known and important movement of this kind was that of Tupac Amaru in Peru; however, there were many others about which the histories written by the victors say little.
32. The official culture during the colonial period was expressed in the language of the colonizer, the first printing presses in the hemisphere, sacred music, incipient literature, religious painting, majestic civil and ecclesiastical architecture, and the early universities. Various institutions, through their educational, cultural, and communication policies have played an important part in the formation of the Latin American cultures. In the earliest days of the Latin American identity (to draw distinction with the ethnic identities of the indigenous peoples in the pre-colonial era) the Catholic Church played a central role by carrying out the compulsory conversion of the indigenous population and physical destruction of indigenous cultural manifestations (codices, temples, centers of learning). The first stage of the meeting of two worlds or “dialogue between civilizations” involved the invader decapitating the indigenous cultures in the name of the new universal religion. Thereafter, the Church, as the spiritual arm of the Conquest developed a solid education and evangelization system for the indigenous elite, in order to incorporate them in the new dominant culture. This “culture of conquest” (Foster) differed from the traditional Iberian culture and gradually changed as it came into contact with the indigenous cultures. Although, in religious terms, the transformation of the indigenous cultures was profound, in other respects the modifications and adjustments were slow and diffuse, and on many levels the indigenous cultures developed resistance and protection mechanisms that enabled them to preserve their identities, though changed, to the present day.
Independence and identity
33. Toward the end of the 18th century the ideas of European Enlightenment reached the Americas, in particular French encyclopedism and British liberalism. In spite of censorship and bans imposed by the Crown, some members of the criollo elite agreed with the libertarian ideas of the bourgeois revolution that was brewing across the ocean. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic invasions, and the revolutions in Spain, hastened the rise in political awareness of the criollos in the American colonies, from whose ranks arose some of the insurgent leaders of the Independence. As has happened time and again throughout history, the masses that rose up in response to the call of the liberators reaped no benefits from the defeat of the Spanish empire. The local dominant classes quickly managed to transform political independence into a victory over the working clauses.
34. Although Simón Bolívar, who saw his dream of American unity vanish, acknowledged the role played by indians and blacks in the creation of the new, independent Latin American nations, they quickly disappeared from the National plans that came after the struggle for independence, which were taken over by the landowning oligarchy and the emerging criollo urban bourgeoisie. Once expelled, the Spanish were soon replaced by English, French, and German traders, who, along with their goods and capital, also brought with them their European cultural models.
35. Political independence posed a gigantic task for the new governors: how to form new nations; how to put together coherent societies; how to be accepted by the “civilized nations” of the Old World; how to govern heterogeneous populations scattered across a vast hostile geography. The answer was the development of a nationalist political philosophy with a romanticist and idealist slant that characterized the political thinking and education systems of Latin America until the 20th century.
36. Barring the odd exception, indians do not figure in the founding discourses of the Spanish American nations. The eager search for the national essence: “Mexican-ness”, “Peruvian-ness”, “Argentine-ness”, etc., a task to which philosophers, politicians, writers, psychologists, and even soldiers have earnestly devoted themselves, by and large excluded indigenous peoples (as it did black people, and later Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and other immigrants). In Latin America the intention was to build new nations without the indigenous peoples and behind their backs. That is why the nation-building processes in this part of the world, begun almost two centuries ago, remain unfinished.
37. Soon the need was proposed for a second independence: “mental emancipation”. It was argued that the Americas had inherited from the Spanish empire retrograde, medieval, and obscurantist ways of thinking of which they had to rid themselves. The new nations had to cast off the shroud of the colonial system and religious obscurantism, and embrace progress and the world of the civilized countries now headed by the new, dynamic North American nation. The past, some said, was represented by the tough rural world and tyrannical forms of government, imbued with the retrograde values of Catholic, colonial Spain, while a democratic future and progress were both to be found in the modern and libertarian cities. No one expressed this polarization better than Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Civilización y Barbarie, a book that had a huge influence on generations of Latin Americans.
Polarized societies, fragmented cultures
38. Spanish American “thinkers” bent to the task of inventing and building their national cultures on the ruins of the Spanish empire and based on fragmented regional micro-societies assembled into new republics that did not yet constitute well-rounded, integrated nations. Liberals and positivists looked to the United States and northern Europe for inspiration; conservatives and traditionalists were still inclined toward Spain and the colonial legacy. In common between both sectors, however, was that they were spokespersons for minority ruling classes who shared an elitist, blinkered vision of society. The ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of the Latin American nations was regarded as an obstacle to national integration and progress. The collapse of the colonial administration and economy had contributed to the fragmentation and disintegration of social spaces; reincorporation in the world market would come years later, toward the end of the 19th century, with the rise of capitalism. Despite having adopted the democratic political institutions of the United States and Europe, the Spanish American societies remained highly stratified economically and socially speaking. The landowning oligarchy strengthened their hold through monopolization of land ownership, which increased with the cultivation of new commodity crops for export and exploitation of rural labor. The promises and hopes of liberation of the independence struggle had been dashed. Under the new system, the popular classes, and indigenous peoples in particular, were simply left as “imaginary citizens”. Caudillismo and clientelism were set up as forms of political and social control, and eventually became a fixture, even today, of the political culture in Latin America.
39. Intellectuals despaired at the contradictions between the “official” and the “real country”. Soon a racist ideology appeared that sought to blame the perennial instability and backwardness of the nations on the ethnic characteristics of the indigenous stratum of the population, which constitutes the majority in most republics. Liberals and conservatives agreed that the indigenous peoples and cultures that still existed in the Americas should disappear since the plans for nationhood that were being laid excluded the indian peoples. In the countries of the Southern Cone this vision led to genocidal campaigns waged by armies at the service of the landowning oligarchies. In other regions, the official language and culture were imposed through the religious education system and state schools, positive law was implanted as the only legal system, and the institutions and political authorities of indigenous communities were not recognized -- nor were their communal lands. The attempts to force the rapid assimilation and incorporation of these peoples into the new, emerging nations, hastened the destruction of the remaining indigenous cultures. In the new national culture invented and shaped by the urban elites there was no place for the cultures of the native, autochthonous peoples of the Americas.

40. The process was also given a strong helping hand from the policies on European immigration fostered by some governments, which coincided with the expansion of agricultural and livestock frontiers, and the introduction of commodity crops, such as coffee and cotton, for overseas markets. Immigration would also serve to “whiten” local populations, in keeping with the European racist theories then the fashion.


41. In Brazil the aristocratic and slavocratic society had remained in place until the end of the 19th century. After the abolition of slavery and faced with a growing demand for labor, Brazil also opened its doors to European immigration, and gradually changed into a multiethnic country, though always in the framework of a highly stratified and hereditary society. The social structure of rural Brazil was captured by chroniclers, novelists, and scholars. The importance of the sertão and it messianic and millenarian social movements had been underscored in the already classic work by Euclides da Cunha. Gilberto Freyre described -and no doubt idealized- the rigid slave structure of the sugarcane-growing areas in Casa Grande e Senzala. Freyre himself coined the term “lusotropicalism” to refer to the cultural and spiritual unity that the countries colonized by Portugal in the Americas and Africa sought to create.
Latin America Emerges
42. The term Latin America, invented by a French publicist in the employ of Napoleon III, came into use in the mid-19th century. To the extent that this concept signaled the presumed unity of the Latin-based language-speaking countries and their distinction from Anglo-Saxon America, the need arose to define Latin America in the world and to affirm the unique identity of the region. The concept underwent an ideological and political development process. On one hand, a separation was clearly defined from the panamericanist tendencies that were progressively imposed throughout the 20th century under the guidance of the United States, and, on the other, there was also a distancing from the ideology of Spanishness that Franco's Spain went to great lengths to promote for a time. Eventually a unique personality was acquired that in some measure expressed nationalist and anti-imperialist tendencies in the region.
43. Being the first to suggest the need to create a uniquely Latin American culture, a culture of “our America” that was nationalistic, hemispheric and anti-imperialist, was precisely what made José Martí's thinking original and his actions revolutionary. These proposals charted a new course for Latin American political and social thinking. In 1900, the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó electrified several generations of young Latin Americans by proposing in Ariel and other works a spiritual Latin Americanism that would stand up to not only to the materialism and utilitarianism of Anglo-Saxon America, but also all the foreignizing hegemonies and ideologies, dismissed as “Northern mania”.
44. The quest for identity pervades Latin American cultural expression in the 20th century, particularly literature and other arts. Analysts and critics of the Latin American novel and essay, of musical forms, of pictorial and sculptural expression, underline over and over this unifying thread in contemporary Latin American culture: the search for identity. This quest takes place both at the national level, and at the regional and hemispheric levels. On one hand, the “essence” of things Mexican, things Peruvian, etc. are explored; on the other hand, the unity of Latin America is reaffirmed as surpassing national borders, and it is proclaimed that real nationalism is not confined by political boundaries, but is also a Latin American regional nationalism.
45. In the 19th century the figure of the gaucho appeared in Argentine popular culture and literature, perhaps as the first genuinely American literary human type, idealized, mythicized, endowed with virtues and characteristics that are said to express the Argentine national soul. Later the subject of the indigenous population caught the imagination of many Latin American novelists (Ciro Alegría, José María Arguedas in Peru, Jorge Icaza in Ecuador, Miguel Angel Asturias in Guatemala, and Gregorio López y Fuentes and Francisco Rojas González in Mexico), who developed the indigenist narrative.
46. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 profoundly affected Latin American thinking. The ideas generated by this agrarian and indigenist popular social movement, termed “revolutionary nationalism”, spread to other countries and are echoed in the constitution of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, as well as in the ideology of the Bolivian revolution of 1952.
47. In terms of programmatic objectives, the Mexican and Bolivian revolutions, as well as other similar movements, raised two main issues that were relevant in Latin America for much of the 20th century. On one hand, the reality of peasant society and the agrarian reform movement, an issue that had a profound influence on the political and intellectual affairs of many nations in the hemisphere. In second place, indigenism, that great ideological and cultural current that has left its mark on all Indoamerican countries with a large indigenous population, both in terms of educational and cultural policies, and of intellectual creativity.
48. The ethnic diversity of Latin American cultures led to the process of biological and cultural mixing known as mestizaje. Contact between the three main ethnic branches in the region (European, in particular its Iberian and Mediterranean sides, indigenous, and African) resulted in the creation of a new ethnic group, namely the mestizos. Mestizaje signifies not only mixing between men and women of different races and cultures, but also the emergence of human types and, more importantly, essentially different cultures shaped by their original roots. Through this mestizaje process, a new Latin American culture was gradually formed that is neither exclusively European, nor indigenous, nor African; rather, it includes basic elements from these diverse origins but is at the same time something different.
49. The cultural syncretism embodied by mestizaje manifests itself at all levels of human and social affairs. If Europeans brought the official language and religion, laws, arms, and political institutions, indians supplied agricultural technology, eating habits, popular beliefs, handcrafts; and Africans their music and popular religion. It would be an idle exercise to draw up lists of separate cultural elements and attribute them to this or that origin, although for the cultural history of a people this would not be unimportant. The main thing is to recognize that, while one culture (the European) imposed itself on the indigenous culture, and while the African groups suffered a process of deculturalization because of the very nature of their enforced migration, the result of these processes has been the emergence in Latin America of a new syncretic culture that is fed by its European, indigenous, and African roots, but has developed unique elements that distinguish it from its forerunners.
50. The mestizo segment of the population, which during the colonial period and at the beginning of the Republican era was looked down on and sidelined, was now regarded as a new and dynamic element of society, a factor of political and social stability, identified with the progressive and enterprising “middle class”, and transformed into a symbol of the new nationality. Many nations in the region regard themselves as mestizo societies. The very concept of nation sometimes rests on its mestizo composition. As to the indigenous component, it is sometimes rescued from oblivion and glorified as another of the pillars of nationality, even though the contemporary, living indian continues to be a victim of discrimination and exclusion: the cruel and racist distinction between the “living indian and the dead indian”. In the 20th century the new national culture was heralded as the synthesis of the two original cultures --Hispanic and indigenous. The essence of Latin America, as the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos said in the 1920's, would be mestizo, a new “cosmic race” for which the philosopher augured all sorts of possibilities.
51. However, as the mestizaje process has advanced and the “myth of the mestizo” has become established, on another level the collision and conflicts between the different peoples that have comprised Latin America has given rise over the course of half a millennium to highly segmented, fragmented, and stratified societies in which discrimination, ethnic exclusivism, racism more or less latent or overt, ethnocentrism, disavowal, distrust, and mutual fear still prevail. The dialectic of historical social change has produced in Latin American societies a simultaneous process of ethnic integration and mestizaje on one hand, and ethnic and cultural segmentation and stratification on the other.
52. A social system built on such foundations remains stable for a long time but it is not immutable. Furthermore, it generates resistances and opposing forces. The history of Latin America is peppered with popular rebellions, revolutions, and social movements that time and again have raised questions about the prevailing structures and have given rise to liberation and other alternative ideologies. Among them I should mention the millenarian or messianic movements associated with popular beliefs and representations, which produce utopias and promises that are frustrated but always renewed and recreated.
53. Religious thinking has not been impervious to these concerns. Long written off as “scholastic”, dogmatic, and irrelevant to the contemporary problems of Latin American culture, Catholic thinking has tried in recent decades to make up ground in the cultural arena. For one thing, new missionary activities have emerged, such as that of “evangelizing culture”; and, for another, the importance has been rediscovered of popular religiousness as a cultural and sociological phenomenon. One of the most significant religious movements, liberation theology, is a renovating and liberating current of traditional Christianity associated with popular social struggles in Latin America. One well-known variant, indian theology, had a strong influence on the social movements in Chiapas, which culminated in the rising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in 1994. Furthermore, the increasing activity and numerical size of evangelical churches in traditionally Catholic countries poses challenges for students of cultural change in the region and is not without political significance in some countries.
Liberation culture in the Caribbean
54. In the Caribbean, the long colonial night of the sugarcane plantation economy built on slave labor, limited any significant cultural development until the 19th century. The independence of Haiti, the first free country of Latin America, where former African slaves decided to take their fate into their own hands, released social energies that would later have repercussions throughout the Antilles as well as South America. In the mid-nineteenth century there was already great intellectual unrest in Cuba that was later channeled into anti-imperialist struggle, first against Spain and then the United States, the new dominant power. In Puerto Rico, Emeterio Betances raised the banner of “Antilleanness” in the 1860's.
55. In the Antilles, anti-colonialist sentiment acquired a racial slant in the 20th century as a result of the discrimination and oppression of which the Antillean peoples of African origin were victims. Garveyism proposed a return to Africa in the 1920's and the movement had great influence in the region as well as in the United States. Subsequently the black literary and political movement emerged, which combined ideological, cultural, and racial considerations, and involved figures of the stature of Jacques Roumain and René Depestre (Haiti), Aimé Césaire (Guadeloupe), Walter Rodney (Guyana), Frantz Fanon (Trinidad), Nicolás Guillén (Cuba), and even Léopoldo Sedar Senghor in far-off Senegal. Years later this Antillean movement would inspire the black power movement in the United States. The struggle against colonialism and for human dignity was also expressed in the Antilles through new cultural forms, such as Rasfarianism, an ethnic and religious movement that emerged in Jamaica with Ethiopian inspiration and spread among the black population of the United States and United Kingdom, as well as other parts of the world. In music, calypso and reggae became musical movements with a universal reach, with their elements of protest, social critique, and ethnic pride. In the Caribbean, as in Latin America, cultural creativity (narrative, poetry, music, plastic arts) cannot be taken out of the context of the great economic and social problems facing the region's national societies.
The immigration age
56. The cultural contribution of African slaves has been fundamental in the region. Originally from diverse peoples on the African continent and converted into the merchandise, dehumanized, deculturalized, their contribution to the colonial economy was crucial over the centuries. The black American culture retains its African roots and can be regarded as one of the many oppressed and resistant cultures in the Americas of our times. For a long time they were ignored and underestimated by the dominant groups and excluded from official national culture. However in several countries, movements have appeared to revitalize the identities of Afro-Latin Americans.

57. In the 19th century the region began to receive millions of European immigrants (20 million between 1821 and 1932 alone), together with large numbers also from Asian countries and the Middle East. Their diverse contributions to Latin American culture have been considerable, and those contributions have been enriched with the many groups of political refugees that arrived in the 20th century.


58. In sum, the various migration flows that converged on Latin America since the colonial period have contributed to the mestizaje process and the formation of a new Latin American culture. These migration and mestizaje processes occurred in contexts of violence and social and economic conflict and, generally speaking, a framework of rigid and hierarchical social structures, as well as oligarchic and authoritarian political systems. In spite of the foregoing, however, they contributed to the birth of new and different cultural identities
Indigenous peoples and cultures
59. The Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro talks about the different peoples that today make up the Latin American region. On one hand, he mentions the “testimony peoples” directly descended from the great pre-Hispanic civilizations, and still possessed today of strong indigenous cultural traits. It is true that today their cultures have been profoundly altered by conquest, colonization, evangelization, linguistic assimilation, and subordination to state political power; however, with their strong cultural personality, the “testimony peoples” represent an vibrant force that demands recognition of its cultural rights and legitimate place in the cultural constellation of Latin America.
60. Second, Ribeiro mentions the “new peoples that have emerged from the conjunction, deculturalization, and merging of African, European, and indigenous patterns”, which comprise ethnic entities distinct from their constituent patterns, as a byproduct of European colonial plans. He refers, of course, to Brazil and the Caribbean region. Finally, there are in Latin America the “transplanted peoples” of modern nations, such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, created by the migration of populations from other continents.
61. Without question, in Continental Spanish America the indigenous ethnic element is the most important after the Iberian one. But who are the indians and how many are there in Latin America? Although the criteria used in definitions vary from one country to another, and census data are not very unreliable, it is estimated that there are more than 400 identifiable indigenous groups, with a total population in excess of 40 million, from the small jungle tribes of the Amazon, who are numerically insignificant and almost extinct, to the peasant societies of the Andes, who add up to several million inhabitants. Mexico’s indigenous population (around 15 million) is larger than that of Latin America and accounts for 15% of the population. In contrast, the indians of Guatemala and Bolivia comprise the majority of the national population, while in Peru and Ecuador they number almost half. In Brazil, indians represent less than 0.5% of the total population, but as the original inhabitants of the Amazon basin they have been pivotal in the resistance to the plundering of their lands, demanding respect for their territorial rights and political representation, battling for the preservation of the Amazonian environment, and ensuring their inclusion in the most recent Brazilian Constitution adopted in 1988. In some regions and in a very large number of municipalities indigenous peoples comprise over half the population.

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