Odyssey of Identity: Culture and Politics in the Evolution of Latin American Nationalism, The
Roger P. Davis, "The Odyssey of Identity: Culture and Politics in the Evolution of
Latin American Nationalism, " Platte Valley Review, 15:1 (Spring, 1987),
In 1968, Victor Alba observed that "People in Europe and the United States talk
less and less about nationalism, but they talk more and more about it in Africa, Asia, and
Latin America . . ."1 Fourteen years later, at a
university commencement address in 1982, Carlos Fuentes echoed this sentiment and
amplified its significance: "Nationalism represents . . . a profound value for Latin
Americans simply because of the fact that our nationhood is still in question. In New
York, Paris, or London, no one loses sleep asking himself whether the nation exists. In
Latin America you can wake up and find that the nation is no longer there. . . .2
The validity of these observations is reflected in contemporary affairs. Over the past
thirty-six months there has been ample evidence that Latin Americans are still waking up
with concern. In a July 1986 article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled
"Venezuela Grapples with Identity Crisis," President Jaime Lusinchi lamented in
his state-of-the-union address that because of the corrupting effects of past oil wealth
"our vision was distorted," leaving Venezuelans unsure of themselves.3
In Argentina, President Raul Alfonsin, declaring that Buenos Aires was undermining
"the fundamental beliefs and concepts that gave birth to our nation," announced
proposals to move the capital six hundred miles south to Patagonia.4
In Peru President Alan Garcia declared in favor of a transfer of that nation's capital one
hundred and twenty-five miles east to the Mantaro River Valley. Lima, he concluded,
"does not have much of a future."5 In Chile, the
theatrical producers "El Nuevo Groupo" explain that their political dramas are
not anti-Pinochet polemics but calls to rediscover Chilean values, "to return to what
we Chileans were before."6 Reporting from Honduras for
the New York Review of Books, Edward Sheehan found such a mixture of helplessness
and concern over regional instability that he entitled his article, "The Country of
Nada."7 Even such stalwarts as Costa Rica and Mexico
are not free from anxiety over national viability and identity. The economic crises of
1981-1982 and the political instability surrounding Nicaragua have shaken Costa Rica's
economy and neutrality. Ex-President Luis Alberto Monge described these events as
"the most difficult and the most dangerous moment that Costa Rica has had."
Current President Oscar Arias has underscored this sense of insecurity by initiating new
efforts to reinvigorate her identity as a neutral nation.8
The crisis faced by Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party is well known, but the
larger aspects of the current stresses in Mexico go beyond the fate of the party. Jorge G.
Castaneda, writing in the fall 1986 edition of Foreign Policy, makes these
It would be illusory to dismiss the risk of national disintegration. The danger of
splitting the country into a modern, affluent integrated, relatively democratic north and
a backward, destitute, independent, and undemocratic south is real; the perception of the
danger is widespread.
Castaneda identifies the one grace that may save Mexico from these tensions as
"Mexico's cultural vigor and exceptionally strong national identity." 9
Latin American concern about nationalism goes beyond simply coping
with routine affairs of national existence. It is a concern over the legitimacy of that
existence and an uncertainty over what it means. It is a question of national identity. It
is also a question of regional identity; for no matter the distinctions between states,
the many historical, cultural and linguistic ties also provide an ambiance of
"continental nationalism," a general Latin American nationalism, that is equally
as important.10 Both the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the
Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa have recently argued, from disparate political positions, that
a crucial aspect of the Central American crisis is the threat of an imposed solution which
would jeopardize "the respect and credibility of a whole continent.' 11 Exhibiting their faith in continental nationalism, Fuentes
declared, "This is a Latin American problem and it deserves a Latin American
solution"; and from Vargas Llosa, "The battle for liberty in Latin America will
be won strictly by themselves.'' 12
Clearly nationalism, as Fuentes earlier observed, stands as a
serious element of life for Latin Americans. In New York, however, it is as yet a passe
subject. While Latin Americans are concerned with the topic, North American efforts to
analyze modern Latin America have omitted or severely limited any discussion of the theme.
Three of the most widely used textbooks on Latin America,
particularly the modern period, are A Short History of Latin America by Keen and
Wasserman,13 Modern Latin America by Skidmore and
Smith, 14 and Latin America: Its Problems and Its
Promise, written and edited by Jan Knippers Black. 15
Keen and Wasserman and Skidmore and Smith provide admirable analysis of the modernization
processes, of distinct political, economic, and social elements of change and stability,
but there is no effort to introduce nationalism as a viable analytical concept for
understanding Latin America."16 In the Black
collection, nationalism is briefly acknowledged by one author as a "potent force
favoring change and development." Overall, however, the theme is restricted to the
realm of artistic expression in literature and the plastic arts."17 These works are not cited here for censure, but to note the
decline in the discussion of nationalism with regard to Latin America, and to suggest that
this theme, while historiographically the past for many scholars, is very much the present
in Latin reality and thus, still a viable analytical device.
Nationalism is a term with a myriad of meanings. It is a phenomenon
of concrete socioeconomic elements that are historically specific. It is an analytical
construct that has its own historiographical evolution. It is also a psychological and
metaphysical phenomenon that is as powerfully compelling as it is difficult to
In his classic critique of the scholarship of nationalism, Boyd
Shafer acknowledged nine definitions of the term. Distilling the labor of some fifty years
of research on the topic, Shafer identified a number of the criteria of nationalism. They
include territorial boundaries, common language, common social, political, and economic
institutions, and a shared historical experience. The most compelling qualifications,
however, are elements of belief, of faith, of spirit.18
Other scholars of the topic have also acknowledged the importance of these aspects of
nationalism. Hans Kohn has described these as a "group consciousness."19 Louis Snyder writes of the "national soul"20 while Karl Deutsch speaks of the evolution of a nearly
metaphysical ''people.''21 Whatever the description, the
consensus is clear that these psychological and metaphysical elements are crucial in
animating nationalism, in transforming it from an academic theory to a motivational force.
Nationalism in this form penetrates the consciousness of the individual, binds the
individual with the society at large. As Shafer observed, in a world undergoing rapid
change in a material sense, "Nationalism became the instrument of mobilization, of
retaining identity as well as fulfilling expectations."22
With regard to the significance of these qualities, the concept of identity is central to
modern nationalism. Louis Snyder has written that nationalism "may be in part a
substitute for religion and an answer to psychic needs, or it may be in part a carryover
of parent and family fixation . . . a response to the individual's need for security and
protection . . . an outlet for aggression . . . anxiety . . . or it may reflect a sense of
inferiority."23 Specifically referring to
contemporary nationalism, Anthony Smith has written that "No other ideal has been
able to reappear in so many guises, or to suffer temporary eclipse only to reemerge
stronger and more permanently. No other vision has set its stamp so thoroughly on the map
of the world and on our sense of identity."24 The
discussion of nationalism is also a discussion of political culture; not of politics in
the narrow sense of institution and political parties, but political culture as formally
defined as the aggregate of learned socially transmitted behavior and beliefs; the product
of historical experience of the whole society as well as personal experience that can
contribute to the socialization of the individual, drawing upon the elements of
psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology.25
The concept of identity and the inclusive nature of political
culture are at the heart of the evolution of nationalism in Latin America. Although now
out of vogue, the topic of nationalism did command sufficient attention in the past to
prompt a fine collection of studies specific to Latin America. Gerhard Masur's Nationalism
in Latin America: Diversity and Unity,26 Arthur
Whitaker's Nationalism in Latin America: Past and Present27
and with David Jordan Nationalism in Contemporary Latin America, 28 Samuel Bailey's Nationalism in Latin America, 29 and Victor Alba's Nationalists Without Nations 30 are among the most noteworthy. The topics of Latin American
identity and political culture have also received past attention. Significantly, these
studies were generally not designed to make a political connection or serve as
investigations of nationalism. They stood as volumes on Latin American art, literature,
philosophy, and general intellectual history. These included such stalwarts as W. Rex
Crawford's A Century of Latin American Thought,31
Harold E. Davis' Latin American Thought: A Historical Introduction, 32 and Martin S. Stabb's In Quest of Identity: Patterns in the
Spanish American Essay of Ideas.33 Two studies that
did come closer to the amalgam of culture, politics, and identity in Latin American
nationalism were Jean Franco's The Modern Culture of Latin America 34 and the Jorrin-Martz study Latin American Political Thought
Taken together, these and other contributions by authors of both
Americas depict an odyssey of identity as an essential aspect of Latin American culture,
and even more so as a key feature of the formulation of Latin American nationalism. The
crucial aspect of this observation, however, is not simply the grail of identity, but the
nature of the quest and its continuation.
From Esteban Echevarria's lament in 1839, "Let us weep,
brothers: our country does not exist!"36 to Victor
Alba's echo in 1968 that "The Latin American countries are not nations . . ."37 Latin Americans have in an inverse sense tied their feeling of
political, social, and economic well being to the question of who they are. Over the last
century and a half they achieved political independence, but decried their lack of mental
emancipation. They constructed states to strike the balance of liberty and order, but
found them inauthentic and ineffective. They embraced Positivism and sociology to justify
modernization, but proclaimed a spiritual crisis and initiated a search for the soul of
their people, countries, and continent. The labors of such as Alberdi, Bello, Sarmiento,
Samper, Barreda, Rodo, Vasconcelos, Mariategui ,Ma?ach, Zea, and Paz are the testament of
that travail. From independence onward, the effort was to find "a way of shaping
national consciousness and giving a sense of tradition."38
The answers arrived at vary widely but do share a common element,
that of synthesis. Alonso Reyes once remarked that Latin America's compensation for
arriving late at "so-called Western Civilization" was that it allowed Latin
Americans to be "in the position of making a synthesis and of profiting from this,
without being limited to narrow cultural spheres."39
In this spirit Latin Americans were, and are, variously in the process of becoming:
becoming civilized through European immigration; becoming statesmen through borrowed
political theories and forms; becoming efficient social engineers and economists through
the absorption of Positivistic faith; becoming a people liberated from the crass
materialism of the West through the rediscovery of the Indian spirit in the Latin soul, or
the mestizo, or criollo, or Hispanic spirit in that soul. In his study of contemporary
nationalism in Latin America, Whitaker focused upon this evolutionary and unsettled
quality. He found that despite the numerous attempts to define national identity, "No
generally acceptable answer was found."40. Another
scholar of the problem, Kalman Silvert, agreed in his observation that
The roots of a common interest [of all Latin American nations] lie in the desires to
control the national fates: to assert sovereignty, contain multinational corporations,
promote national development, confront problems associated with population. urbanization,
and international market prices . . . the reasons for combination exist, the vessels and
the ideas are as yet embryonic.41
The nation is so embryonic a vessel in Latin America that there is not only uncertainty
about whether it will exist tomorrow but also whether it yet exists today. Silvert
concluded that Cuba stood as the sole example.42 Victor
Alba found Mexico the only state "closest to being a true nation."43
Another student of Latin America, Frederick Pike, found that
In Latin America, with the possible exception of Mexico and Cuba, the countries have
not yet become nations, political stability and economic progress sometimes serve as a
veneer, temporarily masking long unresolved and increasingly explosive conflicts over
identity, integration and destiny.44
In such an environment with such concerns, it is not surprising that
the Latin American artist and intellectual emerged as the "guide, teacher, and
conscience of his country," and of all of Latin America.45
In her study of the artist and society in Latin America, Jean Franco observed that
"An intense social concern has been the characteristic of Latin American art for the
last one hundred and fifty years. Literature--and even painting and music--have played a
social role.46 Even the national artistic inclination to
universal elements has remained grounded in local and regional reality and maintained the
artist as a spiritual arbiter and leader in Latin society.47
In the Latin context, this af fords these elites another form of leadership, of a
political nature. Alan Riding, in a recent discussion of revolution and the intellectual
in Latin America has written that
Intellectuals exercise enormous political influence in Latin America. It is
they who provide respectability to governments . . . legitimacy to re
volts . . . who articulate the ideas and contribute the images through
which Latin Americans relate to power, they who satisfy the decidedly
Latin need for a romantic and idealistic raison d'etre.48
Artists and intellectuals have exercised that influence within the
formal political structure as well as from without. They have been and currently serve
across the Latin American political landscape as presidents, ambassadors, ministers and
party leaders. It is with this sense of the odyssey of Latin American identity and the
convergence of culture and politics in that search that we return to the contrast drawn at
the beginning of this paper.
If nationalism seems no longer viable as an analytical device for
Latin America, it may be due to the fact that the language of that nationalism is
value-laden and rich in psychological and metaphysical imagery, qualities anathema to
modern behavioralist analysis. It may also be that the most articulate spokesman for Latin
American nationalism-the painters, poets, and writers-are not accredited in terms of
contemporary models of political evaluation. Kalman Silvert correctly prophesized the
dangers of this developing contrast in an article on U.S.-Latin American relations
entitled "The Kitsch in Hemispheric Realpolitik":
The proponents of "realistic' polities invariably content themselves with the
"concrete" and the "positive" facts of social life. Natural resources,
population size, urbanization, military preparedness. and industrial development are for
them "hard" facts, the "real" ones. Ideologies, norms, values,
personal crochets, and ethics are "soft," the claptrap in utopian minds.... This
construction turns night into day; it is hardly pragmatic in the philosophical sense of
the term, and it is fiercely--if pessimistically--ideological. This idea, like many others
in our contemporary political armory, will have to be taken off its head and put back on
its feet before we can go on to make sense out of our situation.49
In a recent New York Times editorial, Luis Burstin, the
ex-Secretary of information in Costa Rica, warned against two "pervasive myths"
concerning Latin America. They are "that revolutions are caused by poverty and social
injustice and that foreign economic assistance will prevent those revolutions."
Noting that economic aid would not end Latin upheaval, he contended that "Political
reform is urgent and indispensable; without it, nothing will help."50 Recent word from Latin America also informs us that the first
three volumes of a fifty-four volume compendium on liberation theology have been released.
In addition, a series of shorter books by Leonardo Boff is being issued on how to do
Our situation, as Silvert put it, and that of Latin America is being
present at creation. The creation of a national and regional identity that is already
quite traditional in its process, predictable in its language and symbols, and reasonable
in its context. Whether it is a cosmic race, justicialismo, Indoamerica, the new Cuba, or
Nicaragua, or a new theology, the creation of "new men" and "new
societies" is at the heart of that odyssey of identity in Latin American nationalism.
1. Victor Alba, Nationalists Without Nations: The Oligarchy
Versus the People in Latin America (New York: Praeger, 1968), p. v.
2. "After the Malvinas" Wesleyan, 66:1, 1982, p. 4.
3. July 28, 1986.
4. "Proposal to Move Argentine Capital Hailed and
Condemned" Las Vegas Review- Journal, June 12, 1986.
5. "Garcia Proposes New Peru Capital." Omaha
World-Herald, September 17, 1986.
6. "Artistic Dissent Persists in Chile," Las Vegas
Review-Journal, June 8. 1986.
7. March 27, 1986.
8. "Costa Ricans Cheerfully Absorb U.S. Aid," Wall Street Journal.
September 19, 1985; "An Interview with Luis Alberto Monge, Costa Rica's
President" Caribbean Today, May, 1986; "Costa Rica's Image as Haven
Fading.-- New York Times, September 12, 1986.
9. "Mexico's Coming Challenges," No. 64, p. 138.
10. Arthur Whitaker and David C. Jordan, Nationalism in
Contemporary Latin America (New York: Free Press, 1966), p. 161.
11. Carlos Fuentes, "Approaches to the Americas: Reagan's
Nicaragua Obsession Puts All The Hemisphere at Risk," Los Angeles Times, April
12. Ibid., and "Latin America: A Media Stereotype," Atlantic
Monthly, January, 1964.
13. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 2nd ed.
14. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).
15. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984).
16. Keen and Wasserman do acknowledge a "nationalist
temper" (p. 253) and do note that Latin scholars, writers, and artists see their work
as an instrument of social and political change (p. 496), but they segregate that
observation to a critique of Latin American literature from 1930-1983. Skidmore and Smith
note that "cultural influences . . . are not merely adornments or superstructures;
they have important effects on the perceptions, attitudes. and actions of the people who
make history" (p. 12). Yet regarding Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge
Amado and Jorge Luis Borges. the context remains literature in Latin America (p. 384).
17. E. Bradford Burns, "The Continuity of the National
Period," p. 71. The essays on art, literature and ironically, "Nationalism and
Modern Latin American Art" are segregated from polities and economies in "Part
Three: Cultural Expression."
18. Faces of Nationalism: New Realities and Old Myths (New
York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972) pp. 3, 4, 9, 17-20.
19. Cited in Whitaker, Nationalism, p. 3.
20. Louis L. Snyder, The Meaning of Nationalism (New York:
Greenwood Press, 1968), p. 189.
21. Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Its Alternatives (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969). pp. 14-15.
22. Shafer, Faces of Nationalism, p. 293.
23. Snyder, Meaning of Nationalism, p. 110.
24. Anthony D.S. Smith, Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (New
York: New York University, 1979), p. 1.
25. Jack Plano; et. al. The Dictionary of Political Analysis (Oxford:
ABC Clio, 1982) 2nd. ed. p. 100.
26. (New York: MacMillan, 1966).
27. (Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 19621.
28. (New York: Free Press, 1966).
29. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1971).
30. (New York: Praeger, 1968).
31. (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1963).
32. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U.. 1972).
33. (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1967).
34. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 19701.
35. (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1970).
36. Crawford, Latin American Thought, p. 12.
37. Nationalists Without Nations, p. 16.
38. Franco, Modern Culture, p. 19.
39. Ibid., p. 192.
40. Nationalism, p. 166.
41. "The Kitsch in Hemispheric Realpolitik" in Essays
in Understanding Latin America (Philadelphia: Institute for Study of Human Issues,
1977), p. 146.
42. "Fate, Chance. and Faith" in Essays ,p. 90).
43. Nationalists Without Nations, p. 16.
44. Frederick B. Pike, ed., Latin American History: Select
Problems: Identity, Integration, and Nationhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace. and World,
1969) p. ix.
45. Franco, Modern Culture, p. 11.
47. Ibid., pp. 191-192. A dissenting voice in this regard is that
of Victor Alba, who contends that the universalist aspirations of these elites
disenfranchise them. He writes, "Latin American artists and intellectuals are
isolated from their own country and know nothing of its problems." As allies of the
oligarchy, Alba condemns them for using nationalist themes only as "an opium for
their conscience." Nationalists Without Nations. Chapter 7, pp. 147 185.
48. "Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin America," New
York Times Magazine, March 13, 1983, p. 30. For a contrary opinion by an English
journalist see The Unrevolutionary Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) by John
Mander. He states that "Except perhaps in the Liberal heyday of Sarmiento and Juarez
intellectuals have not enjoyed the political influence in Latin American that foreigners
imagine" (p. 121).
49. Essays, p. 147.
50. "Economic Aid Won't End Latin Upheavals," Arizona
Daily Star .February 13, 1984.
51."Resources," Latinamerica Press, 18:31, August
28, 1986, p. 4.