Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea

Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea

by Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo

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“Latin America” is a concept firmly entrenched in its philosophical, moral, and historical meanings. And yet, Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo argues in this landmark book, it is an obsolescent racial-cultural idea that ought to have vanished long ago with the banishment of racial theory. Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea makes this case persuasively.

Tenorio-Trillo builds the book on three interlocking steps: first, an intellectual history of the concept of Latin America in its natural historical habitat—mid-nineteenth-century redefinitions of empire and the cultural, political, and economic intellectualism; second, a serious and uncompromising critique of the current “Latin Americanism”—which circulates in United States–based humanities and social sciences; and, third, accepting that we might actually be stuck with “Latin America,” Tenorio-Trillo charts a path forward for the writing and teaching of Latin American history. Accessible and forceful, rich in historical research and specificity, the book offers a distinctive, conceptual history of Latin America and its many connections and intersections of political and intellectual significance. Tenorio-Trillo’s book is a masterpiece of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226443232
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/13/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 986 KB

About the Author

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo is the Samuel N. Harper Professor of history at the University of Chicago and associate professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico City. He is the author of many books including I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Latin America

The Allure and Power of an Idea

By Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-44306-5


The Connotations of an Idea: On the basic connotations of the term Latin America, though said connotations are further elucidated as the essay unfolds and are only stated baldly here

De vegades, cal ser pervers per misericòrdia.

— Joan Fuster, "Aforismes i insolències" (Sagitari, 1985), in Joan Fuster, Indagacions i astúcies: Antología de textos assagístics (Barcelona: El Garbell, 1995), 111

Latin America is a modern concept. This much we know. No one but the poets of the ancient lingua franca were considered Latins in seventeenth-century New Spain or in eighteenth-century France. Also, "Latin America" is a phrase that did not occur in spoken vernacular Spanish and Portuguese until recently. And there is that other certitude: "Latin America" alludes to history, language, and culture. In fact, it constitutes a lasting confirmation of racial beliefs. Thus, as a modern, highbrow conjecture about culture, but indeed about race, the term Latin America is unable to designate a rapidly changing reality. It is not surprising that the term has undergone two centuries of semantic reincarnations. But, so far, I believe, every rebirth has been a renewal of belief in the term's ability to designate the same region, people, and phenomena as it has from the outset — the Bilbao Law for Latin America.

In fact, "Latin America," more than as a name, has served as an ossified metaphor whose lasting linguistic presence bears witness to itself — a metaphor and an institution that have captured poetically, as it were, important beliefs and empirical data whose collective meaning no single concept seems capable of capturing in various European languages. As Giambattista Vico believed, to conceive metaphors is to grasp the intricate relations of phenomena that at first sight appear dissimilar. In poetry, as María Zambrano believed, "the metaphor has a deep, prior role in culture. ... Its function is that of defining a reality unfathomable to reason, which can be captured in another way, ... a form of continuity with long-distant times and mentalities." Hence the importance and indispensability of metaphors in historical knowledge. Thus also their danger: they tend to ossify, to serve as mental routines and not as attempts at knowing or at deciphering. Ossified historical expressions that, for those in the know, truly work as vital metaphors — such as "las dos Españas," "la España invertebrada," or "the frontier in American history," "melting pot," or "community" — become a way of avoiding something that is otherwise hard to understand.

In brief, through its changing historical meanings, the metaphor of Latin America has conveyed the following meanings.

1. The encounters of modern empires. Thus it has meant imperial agendas or resistance to empire: the French Empire vs. the Anglo-Saxon; the Spanish Empire vs. the American (US); or the new race, the Cosmic one, Ariel, vs. the old races; or the notion of internal colonialism, say, in thinking of Latinos/as in the United States, or of the Guatemalan national economy, or of Nahuatl speakers within Mexico. Thus the term has incorporated the following.

— Anti-Americanism: specifically, anti-US expansionism and Catholic anti-Protestantism. Over time anti-Americanism in "Latin" latitudes has sometimes become, as in France or Spain, a form of anti- Semitism (for "everybody knows," said certain forms of nineteenth- century European Latinism, that Slavs or Germans have Jewish blood; or, "everybody knows" that the Jewish lobby controls the United States). Anti-Americanism also has been expressed as protest against something huge called "the System" (for "everybody knows" that the United States controls world capitalism and globalization). José Enrique Rodó's Ariel (1900) was for long this anti-Americanism's overused metaphor — "No se puede exigir una ingenuidad más uruguaya" (A more Uruguayan naïveté cannot be demanded), said his contemporary Julio Herrera y Reissig of Rodó's book. As early as 1926, Mexican writer (then resident in the United States) Martín Luis Guzmán already considered the Ariel trope "a set of established ideas almost always a priori ... which has been maintained over a century of practical nullity and with neither time nor calm to think."

— Violence. Latin America as a concept has not only included violence as part of its history (what history escapes this characterization?), but has incorporated a fascination with redemptive violence. That is, it is not that Latin America was or is violent, but that Latin America means love for some kind of violence — which is so visible in the acceptable Spanish loan-words in English that resonate with the Latin in "Latin America": pistola, cacique, caudillo, sombrero, cojones, guerrilla, junta, desperado, cañón, capo, narco, desaparecido, incommunicado. Violence was part and parcel of the Bolivarian dream as much as of the fascination with the Che Guevara–like Latin America or with the current praise for the "struggle" of anti-system protesters, whether indigenous people or new revolutionary hipsters.

— Latin America has meant support for the very large (i.e., Latin America itself, the empire of the Cosmic Race, a Latin or Iberian empire, hispanidad, or a federation of indigenous people) through the defense of the very small (i.e., local mores, "communities," languages, powers, privileges, traditions). This has implied belief in the unchanging nature of what is defined as local, authentic, and real, or at least belief in a very slow pace of change. This assumes a locality that nevertheless, through the very use of the term Latin America, does not need to be specifically demarcated historically, geographically, or politically.

2. From its old meaning as an alternative West, latinidad as applied to America (the continent) has come to mean non-Western. Thus Latin America has meant "imitation of the West" or a radical non-Western ontology; a different, non-Western, non-modern, anticapitalist notion of time and space, or an "alternative modernity"; or a postcolonial reality (not as in the United States or Canada, but as in India). Also, as "China" was often used in English or German, "Latin America" has meant a sort of "state of nature" used to illustrate fossilized (in time and space) forms of primitive communism, oriental despotism, or, also, ideal community. Regardless of the morals drawn, the assumption remains the same: in the 1870s, amateur anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan (1818–1881), assisted by Adolph Bandelier (1840–1914), concluded that the Aztecs were a communitarian "gens," which had no notion of private property, forming a primitive democracy. Morgan inspired Marx's oriental communism and Engels's take on the origins of private property. This was an evolutionary view that, to be sure, does not resonate with any current view; but the same utopian equalitarianism and communitarianism is maintained nowadays, for instance, by "coloniality" studies of Latin America.

3. Latin America has meant the endemic collective failure of modernization; in other words, backwardness als Beruf — what Juan Villoro called "la utopía del atraso" (the utopia of backwardness). Over the course of the twentieth century, Latin America became the other name for underdevelopment, the example of the world's experiments in modernization par excellence, and the enduring triumph of backwardness — either because of these countries' failure to become new nations like the United States, or because of their endemic violence and inability to overcome "path-dependent" sins against modernization. "Latin" thus has come to mean crony capitalism or fake liberalism.

— Until recently, Latin America has often embodied either very old or very new forms of modern antidemocratic thought: a defense of one oligarchy or another — criollos against stupid pardos who fought for their masters, as in Simón Bolívar's case; or the rule of the enlightened philosophers of the Cosmic Race, as in José Vasconcelos's case; or the elitism of masters of Spanish eloquence, as in Rubén Darío or José Enrique Rodó; or the leadership of the Communist parties against petit-bourgeois, anti-revolutionary peasants and Indians. As a proxy of antiliberal democracy, the term has also meant US Latin Americanism and NGO idealization of indigenous "usos y costumbres" vis-à-vis dirty party politics in modern democracies. The founder of twentieth-century Latin American Studies in the United States, Frank Tannenbaum, for all his support of the Mexican Revolution, his love of the bucolic, authentic, Indian Mexico, thought that democracy was not for Mexicans or "Latin" people. He welcomed Lázaro Cardenas's corporatism as a Mexican solution for Mexican problems — nothing to do with alien models of democracy. Even in the 1970s, no form of liberation theology, Víctor Jara– or Che Guevara–style Latin Americanism considered liberal democracy to be worth a rat's tail. Thus the transformation of the term in the 1990s: from "Latin" cum oligarchy or relentless populism (rarely democratic) to Latinoamérica cum the failure of democracy or the return of the authentic (indigenous, antiliberal) democracies.

— Nonetheless, Latin America has gradually and recently implied a form of not necessarily liberal and not always republican democracy. For the term has carried over a strong sense of communitarianism derived from its history, which blended old notions of the Catholic community (pity, solidarity, and compassion), Masonic thought, nineteenth-century French Catholic redefinitions of revolutionary fraternité, Iberian federalism and municipalism, and domestic struggles for local autonomy. At times, in speaking of Latin America these fraternal trends have been developed as local anti-elitism, anti-imperialism, and solidarity beyond certain classes and certain races — as in Martí and Bilbao. Other times, the fraternity intrinsic to Latin America has been used — as fraternity was used in Pan-Germanism or Pan-Latinism à la Italian — for quasi-fascist notions of the continental working class–as in Peronismo and Vargismo. And always fraternity and Latin America, thus conjoined, have implied an anti–Anglo-Saxon brotherhood. In sum, that Latin America has not often meant liberal democracy does not imply that it has not connoted one or another democratic experiment — understood as a form of social inclusion, opportunities, redistribution, or fraternity. The problem has been that intellectuals and scholars have tried to frame every democratic experiment either as Latin American — and thus brought in all the rest of the term's connotations — or as fake democracy, not truly liberal. I suspect, thus, that any truly new democratic stand from the left in the region would have to be indifferent to the idea of Latin America. To de-Latin- Americanize democratic experiments would allow embracing the practical — often unpleasant — nuances of ruling that lie beyond overused ideas of ethnic or cultural utopias. It would also demystify the ideal of a spotless liberal democracy. Fully embracing the term Latin America — from the left or the right — by exaggerating the element of fraternité in its content would be like fully adopting Pan-Germanism, Pan-Anglo-Saxonism, or the Cuban Revolution only because of their undeniably popular aspects.

— As a paradise of tradition, Latin America has included strong doses of anti-individualism. That is, belonging to the real Latin America meant, and still means, showing not individual interests (Bilbao) but some form of corporate, collective passions or desires (preferably ethnic, but in other flavors as well). Thus we find the odd characters often invoked in US Latin Americanism: "Latin Americans want this and are that," or "Latin American subalterns do this and that." What made art and letters Latin American, said Jean Franco in the 1960s, is that they were not individualistic forms of art; rather, they were concerned with collectivity. Thus Latin America has been the involuntary and unfair complement of the avant-gardes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: a mainstream artist can mock or destroy any sense of identity, tradition, or canon; but a "Latin American" artist who mocks or destroys everything, including the notion of Latin America, is a fake.

— Latin America seems to be synonymous with a proclivity for economic failure; thus the term came to mean the failure of nineteenth- century development, and it means the same today, in spite of the fact that the region includes two or three of the largest industrial economies in the world. Regardless of economic models — Keynesian welfare states or market-oriented policies — Latin means failure, and a collective failure.

4. In cultural terms, to use Eugeni d'Ors's description of himself, Latin America has come to mean a "vocación de abismo"(taste for the abyss). That is, the term has borne contradictory assumptions about identity, authenticity, and history. These have involved the following.

— A form of antimodernism, anticapitalism, or anti- mechanization, commonly expressed in some version of "spiritual superiority," either of the Latin people or of the native people; either of the hybrid races or of "all the good guys together."

— A moral imperative: victimhood; that is, evil is somewhere else, not in what genuinely constitutes Latin America.

— A bizarre appropriation of promiscuity as the patrimony of Latin America, a timeless and spaceless identity; thus, mestizaje, hybridity, and mixture have generally been considered to be the meaning of Latin America. The tropics are lusty, and so ... Over time, as did the concept of "America" (the United States), the term has sanctioned one mythical way of controlling the uncontrollable: the unstoppable mixture of people, of ideas, of everything together at once. Thus Latin America has at times meant anti-black mestizophilia, as expressed by early twentieth-century defenders of continental "Latin" thought. But Latin America has also meant a sort of lasting Las Casas–like defense of the purity and innocence of the natives and thus a strong anti-miscegenation trend (purity and authenticity ought not to be spoiled by "alien" mestizo and European ideas or people).

— An addiction to authenticity and thus to the endless "Tepoztlán-like" existence of a region immune to change, often expressed through the formula that Latin means resistance — to modernization, imitation, assimilation, and impersonation. Latin is being what we really are, responding to our real circumstances, being faithful to our origins. It is authenticity not understood as intellectual responsibility and accountability (Kierkegaard) but as the genuineness possible only for unsophisticated but real people whose only Dasein is being what they are, were, and always will be. The obsession with authenticity, wrote the Portuguese poet Jorge de Sena in 1961, was "the cautious and conventional survival of the romantic appeal of the exceptional and of the morbid as morbid." This is the enduring, and always laboriously renewed, belief in a profound uniqueness (ethnic, cultural, historical) and difference vis-à-vis United States, the West, all that is not Latin. "This desire for originality," said Witold Gombrowicz in Buenos Aires, "is also an imitation of Europe." More recently, Brazilian historian Evaldo Cabral de Mello has described all notions of authenticity and identity as fetishes: "The notion of identity is an anthropological fetish that polluted history and the humanities, but that is just a vestige of an eleatic revival in a globalized world that, realizing itself to be so, global, strenuously seeks differences that could save it." This is difficult to maintain because, as the region was radically transformed economically, politically, and socially during more than half a millennium, it became harder and harder to construct and reconstruct an ontology of radical — that is, authentic — difference for the Latin part of the Americas. Thus the other implication of the term Latin America, namely, a sort of historical genetics — the assumption that Latin America implies that some historical layers are fake, some people are inauthentic, and this is so because the recessive genes of authenticity in the term Latin America are always there, ready to appear at any moment, regardless of history. Hence any social movement or demand in any present can potentially be traced back to some paradise of authenticity in illo tempore.


Excerpted from Latin America by Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


ONE / The Basic Connotations of an Idea
TWO / Iberismo and Latinité
THREE / The Question of Brazil
FOUR / Latino/a and Latin America
FIVE / Singing Latinoamérica
SIX / US-Centered Latin America—Part 1
SEVEN / US-Centered Latin America—Part 2
EIGHT / “Latin America” Abides: But How Should Historians Speak It?


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