The Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930

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Why does Argentina’s national anthem describe its citizens as sons of the Inca? Why did patriots in nineteenth-century Chile name a battleship after the Aztec emperor Montezuma? Answers to both questions lie in the tangled knot of ideas that constituted the creole imagination in nineteenth-century Spanish America. Rebecca Earle examines the place of preconquest peoples such as the Aztecs and the Incas within the sense of identity—both personal and national—expressed by Spanish American elites in the first century after independence, a time of intense focus on nation-building.

Starting with the anti-Spanish wars of independence in the early nineteenth century, Earle charts the changing importance elite nationalists ascribed to the pre-Columbian past through an analysis of a wide range of sources, including historical writings, poems and novels, postage stamps, constitutions, and public sculpture. This eclectic archive illuminates the nationalist vision of creole elites throughout Spanish America, who in different ways sought to construct meaningful national myths and histories. Traces of these efforts are scattered across nineteenth-century culture; Earle maps the significance of those traces. She also underlines the similarities in the development of nineteenth-century elite nationalism across Spanish America. By offering a comparative study focused on Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador, The Return of the Native illustrates both the common features of elite nation-building and some of the significant variations. The book ends with a consideration of the pro-indigenous indigenista movements that developed in various parts of Spanish America in the early twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Historians interested in nationalism and myth-making will find this book remarkable in its regional scope and in the details of its explanations. This is an excellent book that illuminates how pre-conquest Indians came to symbolize the national pasts from the Rio Brava to Tierra del Fuego.” - Bridget M. Chesterson, Canadian Journal of History

“[T]he achievements of this book are substantial and impressive. . . . This is a book that will stimulate new questions and debates among all historians of nineteenth century Spanish America.” - Nicola Miller, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[A] fascinating, clearly written book . . . [that] investigates the importance and use of the preconquest past and ‘indianesque nationalism’ by elites in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. . . . Highly recommended.” - M.A. Burkholder, Choice

“Rebecca Earle has produced an imaginative work. . . . [T]his book should serve as a benchmark against which to gauge the subsequent rise of populism; native and pan-native mobilizations and movements; and the development of counternarrative national discourses. As such, it deserves a wide audience in and outside academia.” - Susan E. Ramirez, The Journal of American History

“[A] fascinating and informative picture of the ways that Spanish American elites in the first century after independence appropriated the ‘Indian’ in their attempts to create national identities for the new republics. . . . Earle’s book is an important contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of the period.” - Peter Blanchard, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“[A] tour-de-force. . . a thoroughly researched and skillfully argued treatise that will reward any scholar, not just Latin Americanist geographers, interested in the ideas, and ideologies, of nationalism and nation-building, especially the distortions, exclusions, and selected borrowings that charge the project.” - W. George Lovell, Journal of Latin American Geography

“In The Return of the Native we find a clever and detailed examination of key components of Spanish American nationhood, such as ideology and power, rather than a general narrative of chronological events. In addition, by taking into consideration the “indigenismo” movement that attempted to bridge the chasm, Earle not only does justice to the genealogy of a political debate, but also shows how current this debate is.” - Héctor James, New Mexico Historical Review

“An ambitious and important contribution to Latin American cultural and intellectual history, The Return of the Native is unique in its broad, comparative focus on nationalism in Spanish America and the uses of the Amerindian past. Moreover, it is refreshing in its attention to nineteenth-century historiography and the relation between that historiography and the process of state-building.”—Raymond B. Craib, author of Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822340843
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Earle is a Reader in History at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Spain and the Independence of Colombia and the editor of Rumours of War: Civil Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Latin America and Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter Writers, 1600–1945.

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Read an Excerpt

The Return of the Native

Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930
By Rebecca Earle

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4084-3

Chapter One

Montezuma's Revenge

On 19 May 1822, ten months after Lima's declaration of independence from Spain, the city's principal theater inaugurated its new stage curtain. The Teatro de Lima, established in the eighteenth century, had recently reopened after substantial improvements, including, in addition to the new curtain, a café for the theater's patrons. The reopening was hailed as an auspicious event that augured well for the city's future. After the first performance in the refurbished building one newspaper noted proudly that "the production has improved so much that cultured visitors no longer have reason to yearn for the Europe of which they speak so highly." New Legislation stipulating a two-month prison sentence for smoking inside the theater was also expected to raise Lima's standing "in the eyes of foreigners," although in practice travelers were to complain for many decades that Limeños and Limeñas alike smoked ceaselessly during intermissions. The new curtain, specially painted to commemorate the defeat of royalist forces, depicted the "father of the Incas" emerging from behind a hill. At his side an allegorical "daughter of the wind" announced America's freedom to the indigenous Araucanian chief Lautaro, who listened appreciatively. The sun, rising above the Andes mountains, shone benevolently over the happy scene. The allegories of "peace" and "justice" completed the design.

The refurbished Teatro de Lima addressed several concerns of Lima's new republican elite. The improved facilities and production reassured them that their city possessed the civilized infrastructure characteristic of a true (European) nation. At the same time, it reminded them that Peru, although a newcomer-or a mere aspirant-to the ranks of nation, nonetheless enjoyed a long and distinguished history, to which the curtain alluded through the figures of the Inca and the Araucanian. An independent Lima was therefore both up to date and steeped in history. Nonetheless, the particular history commemorated on the curtain may seem peculiar. Lautaro, the indigenous hero of a sixteenth-century epic recounting Spain's conquest of central Chile, possessed no specific links to Lima, or indeed to Peru, and his place within a Peruvian nationalist iconography is not immediately apparent. The Incas, although indisputably Peruvian, have often been described as the patrimony not of Lima or of Peru as a whole but rather of Cuzco, the seat of the former Inca empire. Nonetheless, Lautaro and a paternal Inca featured prominently on the new curtain, which was praised alongside the improved theatrical performances and the smoking ban as evidence for Lima's bright future. In this chapter and in the one following I explain both the peculiar contours of Lima's Inca romance and, more broadly, the role of the preconquest past within the insurgent ideology that constituted independent Spanish America's first model of elite nationalist discourse.


The significance of the pre-Columbian past to independence-era rhetoric has long been recognized in the case of Mexico, where what David Brading has called "creole patriotism" enjoyed an early development. There, an autochthonous patriotism, an affirmation of a distinct Mexican-creole identity, had begun to develop in the seventeenth century. By the late eighteenth century it was in full flower, encouraged by the hostility with which the Spanish crown generally viewed the political and social ambitions of creoles, who responded with a vociferous articulation of their own merits. Savants and poets elaborated a rich discourse that emphasized the wealth of Mexico's distinctive heritage and the special providence that God had designed for Mexico, as revealed in the Virgin of Guadalupe's apparition on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531. The preconquest, and more specifically Aztec, past played an important role within creole patriotism, alongside the celebration of Mexico's unique Catholic destiny. From the first decades of the seventeenth century, creole writers were praising the glories of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán and lamenting indigenous mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish. As early as 1615 Juan de Torquemada's Monarquía indiana had compared the Aztecs with the ancient Greeks and Romans, clearly implying, as John Leddy Phelan observed, "that Aztec society was the 'classical antiquity' of Mexico." Other works, such as Mariano Veytia's Historia antigua de México and the varied writings of Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, developed the correlation between the Aztecs and the cultures of European classical antiquity. Francisco Xavier Clavijero, the greatest eighteenth-century exponent of creole patriotism, further elaborated this thesis in his Historia antigua de México (1780-81), in which he also challenged the assertions of certain European scholars that America's preconquest peoples, from the Aztecs to the Incas, had been mere savages devoid of culture. Such rhetoric further stressed that the true heirs of the Aztecs were the scholarly creoles themselves, rather than contemporary indigenous people. As Anthony Pagden notes, creole patriotism sought to "appropriate the past of the ancient Indian empires ... for the glorification of a white American-born élite." This appropriation of preconquest history was accompanied by increasing calls for greater political rights to be accorded to the viceroyalty's creole population. Their authority, forged in the conquest and developed over generations, was, creoles claimed, unjustly thwarted by second-rate Spaniards who monopolized all official posts and discriminated against more worthy creoles.

By sketching the contours of an alternative history distinct from that of the Peninsula, creole patriotism provided a language for nationalists seeking independence from Spain. Many scholars have noted how creole patriotism governed the rhetoric of the Mexican independence movement that developed after 1810. The rebellion led not only to substantial popular mobilization but also to the articulation of an explicitly anti-Spanish ideology that justified independence and excoriated colonial rule within a framework laid down by the tenets of creole patriotism. The view that Mexican history predated the Spanish conquest was expressed in insurgent speeches, poems, festivals, proclamations, and legislation. Because it was based on the unjust overthrow of the legitimate Aztec empire, Spanish rule was declared to be wholly illegitimate, "three hundred years of tyranny," during which the Indians, "our fathers," had been miserably oppressed by the Spanish. This interpretation of the past is implied in the very titles of such pro-independence works as Fray Servando Teresa de Mier's History of the Revolution in New Spain Anciently Known as Anáhuac, for Anáhuac was the supposed name of the former Aztec empire. As Mier's title suggests (and as Brading has observed), the new state envisioned by Mexican insurgents traced its ancestry back to preconquest times. It had suffered under three centuries of Spanish oppression, but now it would free itself. In thus seeking to end Spanish rule, republican leaders explained, they were but asserting the natural rights of the sovereign state of Mexico. They were not innovators but renovators; not revolutionaries but liberators; not traitors but patriots.

By endowing Mexico with an ancient history, creole patriotism also provided a pantheon of "national" heroes in the form of the Aztec emperors who had resisted the Spanish conquest. These men made regular appearances in insurgent discourse, where they endorsed independence and execrated the Spanish. "In the silence of the night Moctezuma's shade ceaselessly demands that you exact vengeance for his gods and for those innocent victims whom [the conquistador Pedro de] Alvarado sacrificed in the temple of Huitzilopochtli," insisted Carlos María de Bustamante, a tireless advocate of Mexican independence and later the publisher of many historical works. When Bustamante composed the address to be delivered at the opening of the insurgent Congress of Chilpancingo, he invoked the spirits of the great Aztec leaders to bless the assembly: "Spirits of Moctehuzoma, Cacamatzín, Cuauhtimotzín, Xicotencatl and Cantzonzi ... celebrate this happy moment in which your sons have united to avenge the crimes and outrages committed against you, and to free yourselves from the claws of tyranny and fanaticism that were going to grasp them for ever. To 12 August 1521 [the date of Hernán Cortés's capture of the Aztec capital] there succeeds 14 September 1813. In that day the chains of our serfdom were fastened in Mexico-Tenochtitlán, in this day in the happy village of Chilpancingo they are broken forever." In this speech, as Brading has noted, "we encounter a clear affirmation of a Mexican nation, already in existence before the conquest, now about to recover its Independence." Through such affirmations, revolutionary Mexicans sought to endow an independent Mexico with what Benedict Anderson called the "image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of the nation."

In the case of Mexico, we can see clearly how the well-developed creole sense of separateness helped shape the distinctive nationalism (which I call indianesque nationalism) of the movement for independence. Yet the emergence of creole patriotism, incontrovertible for Mexico, did not occur everywhere in Spanish America. Peru, it has been argued, experienced a somewhat analogous development, but the existence of a fully developed sense of creole identity, or indeed of a partially developed sense of creole identity, is less clear for areas such as Río de la Plata or Colombia. In these regions there were far less coherent creole traditions of separate identity, as well as less obvious examples of prevenient indigenous empires crushed by the conquistadors on which to draw. Typically, the exuberant invocation of the Indian past is seen as a uniquely Mexican phenomenon. Thus the historian Anthony McFarlane has asserted that, with the exception of Mexico, "when creoles sought to define their new condition in proclamations and written constitutions, they were rarely intent on locating an historic 'nation' to legitimate projects for independent states. Indeed, in many regions, creoles had no myths of a glorious Indian past to which to turn." Nonetheless, even in those areas that might appear to offer little scope for celebrating the indigenous past, creole insurgents adopted indianesque rhetoric because it provided a versatile and robust justification of independence. In regions as diverse as Río de la Plata, Colombia, Chile, and Peru, creole revolutionaries exalted preconquest America by proclaiming it, rather than the colonial era, the true point of national origin. This was the sentiment that animated the design on the Teatro de Lima's stage curtain. This rhetoric had everything in common with the language used by Mexican revolutionaries. As in Mexico, the existence of sovereign preconquest empires was affirmed. Insurgents in Colombia thus hailed the capital's revolt against colonial rule as a resumption of the independence lost with the conquest, when the indigenous Muiscas had been overthrown by the Spanish and their ruler, the Zipa, replaced by foreign tyrants. As in Mexico, the Edenic nature of pre-Columbian civilizations was celebrated in poems, speeches, and drama. Before the conquest, the insurgent priest Pedro Ignacio de Castro Barros told his listeners in 1815 Tucumán, "the Americans tranquilly enjoyed the great benefits of their patria and swam contentedly in a broad ocean of happiness." Preconquest America, such remarks made clear, was a terrestrial paradise peopled by prelapsarian patriots. Crushed by three centuries of Spanish tyranny, their nations had languished. Now, under the leadership of the revolutionaries, who presented themselves as the legitimate heirs to these ancient indigenous kingdoms, they would free themselves from Spanish oppression. In language highly reminiscent of Bustamante's speech for the Congress of Chilpancingo, the Chilean official Mariano Egaña celebrated the insurgent general José de San Martín's entry into Lima by invoking the conquest-era Araucanian chiefs Caupolicán, Colocolo, and Lautaro, the hero of Lima's theater curtain: "Caupolicán, Lautaro and Colocolo seem to revive to congratulate their sons for the happy fate of our continent. Realized today the hopes that they held at the time of their death, they see not only their patria independent and the wrongs they suffered avenged, but their patria's freedom sustained by the independence of neighboring countries. The successors of Manco [Capac, the first Inca], sent forth from their tombs, seem to accompany the triumph of General San Martín and introduce him into the capital of the empire that Spanish tyranny established on the ruins of that of the Incas, and from the plains of Cajamarca the shade of [the Inca] Atahualpa arises to conduct the hero to place the banner of independence over the throne of the viceroys." In this dense passage Egaña simultaneously described insurgents as the sons of conquest-era indigenous heroes, labeled a postcolonial Peru the continuation of an Araucanian state, and saluted independence for avenging the unjust overthrow of the Inca monarchy. Indianesque rhetoric was nothing if not versatile.

The legitimacy of independence thus derived in part from the legitimacy of the preconquest civilizations that had governed America before the arrival of the Spanish. Spanish rule, in contrast, was nothing more than an unjustified "usurpation," and Spain a "vile usurper." The colonial period itself was dismissed as a time of darkness and three centuries of barbarism. As the historian Hans-Joachim König has shown, the phrase "three hundred years of slavery" became a slogan of the independence movement in many parts of Spanish America. For example, the Peruvian national anthem, composed in 1821, condemned the colonial era's "three centuries of horror." In his opening address to the Buenos Aires Patriotic Society in 1812, the insurgent lawyer Bernardo de Monteagudo lamented that "for the space of more than three hundred years humanity in this part of the world has groaned with no comfort other than suffering, and no consolation other than waiting for death, and seeking in the ashes of the tomb asylum from oppression." The phrase's importance as a slogan is demonstrated indirectly by the efforts that royalist propagandists took to debunk it. The Colombian royalist José Antonio Torres y Peña satirized the insurgents' constant repetition of the expression, complaining that it was used even by men whose own fathers held lucrative colonial posts, and who therefore could scarcely claim to be victims of Spanish oppression. (I will return to the ambiguities of insurgent rhetoric later in this chapter.) As in Mexico, evidence that colonial rule had truly been three hundred years of slavery was found particularly in the mistreatment of the indigenous population. The abuse had begun with the conquest, as the constitution of the United Provinces of South America insisted: "Since the Spanish seized these countries, their preferred system of domination was extermination, destruction and humiliation. The plans for this devastation were put into action and have continued without intermission for the space of three hundred years. They began by assassinating the monarchs of Peru and then did the same with the other princes and primates they encountered." (Preconquest America thus consisted of legitimate monarchies governed by princes, rather than savage tribes ruled by chieftains, as many royalists claimed.)

For revolutionaries in South America as in Mexico, independence was therefore a resumption of ancient rights lost in the conquest. A "national song" published in a Lima newspaper in , a year after the city's conversion to the insurgent cause, expressed that view clearly:

Now revives the beloved patria of the Incas, the sons of the sun, the empire of the great Moctezuma, [and] the ancient nation of the Zipas. Indian heroes, all America salutes you with hymns of love, and offers you, in just homage, the broken sceptre of the cruel Spaniard. (Continues...)

Excerpted from The Return of the Native by Rebecca Earle Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: On "Indians"     1
Montezuma's Revenge     21
Representing the Nation     47
"Padres de la Patria": Nations and Ancestors     79
Patriotic History and the Pre-Columbian Past     100
Archaeology, Museums, and Heritage     133
Citizenship and Civilization: The "Indian Problem"     161
Indigenismo: The Return of the Native?     184
Epilogue     213
Abolishing the Indian?     217
A Note on Sources     221
Notes     223
Bibliography     301
Index     353
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