By Jack Englehardt
It is tempting to think of Latin America as a natural cultural unit, transformed by three centuries of colonialism into what José Moya calls “the largest contingent area in the world bound by similar legal practices, language, religion, naming patterns, and… urban space(s).” Yet, no less than their component nations, continents are at their core imagined communities, subject to constant revision. This reality was not lost to the generation of Spanish American intellectuals emboldened by the independence struggle, who sought to invent a fraternal continent where before there had only been fractured colonies.
The term ‘Latin America’ was first popularized in the early nineteenth century, largely by expatriate writers in Paris, to suggest a natural affinity between the young American republics and the Romance-speaking states of Catholic Europe, locked in a mutual struggle against the heightening Anglo-Saxon expansionism of Britain and the United States. It was an ideological framework which would prove remarkably malleable, used both to argue for the integration of the non-white masses (so long as they assimilated to creole culture), and simultaneously exclude them from a national project which increasingly sought to emulate the racial hierarchies of Europe. Still more eschewed Latinism altogether, and sought a more hemispheric political heritage to assert their hard-fought separation from Europe. From this intellectual crucible, a creole patriotic identity was forged, with firm roots in the romantic glories of a pre-Columbian past. The towering leaders of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca resistance, once reviled as infidels and barbarians, were recast as tragic heroes by the same creole families whose forefathers had enabled their genocide. In appropriating the cycle of colonial violence, the patriotic creole assumed the rhetorical mantle of indigenous death, re-enacting through rituals of mourning and remembrance a new mythology for the American continent.
In 1826, a novel by the name Jicoténcal was anonymously published in Philadelphia. One of the earliest historical romances written in the Spanish language, it follows the life and idealized death of the eponymous Tlascaltecan king and his faithful wife Teutila, as they together resist the Spanish incursion into their native Mesoamerica. The novel’s climax is Jictoténcal’s betrayal and execution by Hernán Cortés, witnessed by devoted countrymen who then “cut his garments into pieces, and carried them away as sacred relics.” The hero’s final plea, that his torments will “awaken your former valor (and) avenge America,” comes across as an invitation for the contemporary reader to take up arms themselves. By instilling Jicoténcal with the virtues of proto-Christianity, republicanism, and fervent American patriotism, the narrative embraces a sharp political message at a time when colonial independence still teetered in a precarious place.
Memorializing a romanticized pre-Columbian resistance allowed nineteenth-century patriots to claim indigenous death as the precursor to their own political struggle, legitimizing claims to an ancient nationhood while exorcising the Spaniard as an unwelcome foreign presence. By proclaiming themselves to be the “sons of Moctezuma, Cacamatzin, Cuahtimotzin, de Xictotencalt y de Catzonzi,” creoles assumed a continental paternity which was necessarily predicated on an original loss – a vacant indigenous space upon which creoles could enact their own vision of the land and its history. Defined only in relation to its civilizational demise, a fallen Indo-America could be commemorated and avenged, but never resurrected. Creoles had to mourn and fight on behalf of native peoples, instead of beside them.
The appropriation of the aesthetic of indigenous death was a process continuously informed by what philosopher Achille Mbembe calls ‘necropolitics,’ or how sovereign entities exercise control through the medium of human mortality. By selectively memorializing genocide through the “talisman” of the popular narrative, creoles were able to form a novel cultural and political community which could exercise collective ownership over history itself. Claiming the legacy of resistance for themselves could soften creole guilt and ease memories of complicity with the colonial project, ascribing all misdeeds to a long-dead past. Through commemorating (if not truly understanding) the sacrifice of native leaders, creoles confirmed their central trauma in a kind of patriotismo arqueológico, in which the Indian is fashioned into an artifact of history, whose material reality is displaced by the ritual of mourning. Even as they paid tribute to the stoic courage of their forbearers, few creoles actively sought to reinstate indigenous sovereignty in the Americas, or broaden cultural contact with the mestizo masses.
The cultural vampirism of creole identity was also intimately connected to the Enlightenment view of nature as a timeless, eternal, and ahistorical realm. The ageless trope of the native whisperer, living in seamless harmony with the landscape, informed a popular vision of America as a virgin country, whose identity was inexorably bound to the earth. The poetry of Martí and Rodó joins the political doctrine of Bello and Bolívar in celebrating nature as a virtuous space of historical oblivion, divorced, like time, from the tyranny of the past. As a romanticized tabula rasa, the wilderness offered creole patriots the means by which to initiate a new civilization, unencumbered by the skeletons of those who had come before. Even sympathetic accounts of natives tended to fetishize the purity and innocence which supposedly rose from a life spent in close conversation with the natural world. Rather than being appropriately represented as a people with cultural, political, and spiritual traditions of their own, Indians were reduced to a scenic milieu, swallowed by the march of modernity.The nineteenth-century project of inventing Latin America was much more than a romantic foray into the region’s pre-Columbian past. Driven by an ultimate desire to cast colonial independence as the natural successor to native sacrifice, creole intellectuals designed a lasting cultural identity built around the ritual of collective memory and mourning. The repeated act of remembering, but not restoring, indigenous heritage clarified core values, created social solidarity, drew boundaries for inclusion and exclusion, and oriented the community toward future action. This necropolitical origin myth, endowed with its own pantheon of heroic figures and holy texts, tamed native cultures into timeless, essentialised caricatures which could legitimize the post-independence state and absolve it of wrongdoing. As contemporary mass movements from Venezuela to Bolivia provide a second wind to indigenismo, we must do more than monumentalize the original trauma upon which the continent is built, and instead get to the thornier questions of how selective remembrance dislocates our patterns of belonging and obscures genuine revolution.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.
Image source: Monument to Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor, in Veracruz, Mexico. (photographer: unknown)
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