Nationhood and the Imagination

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Nationhood and the Imagination

Latin American nations belong in their own right to the first wave of independent constitutional states that emerged from the crisis of the ancien régime. By 1825, at the end of the wars of independence, the Spanish colonial empire in America had disaggregated into eight separate polities: Mexico, the United Provinces of Central America, Grand Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, and the United Provinces of the River Plate. However, the political instability of the new states soon gave way to a larger set of independent countries. Between 1838 and 1840 the United Provinces of Central America broke up into five new republics: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In 1830 the Grand Colombia split up into Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Non-Spanish domains fared differently: A slave rebellion won Haiti its independence from France in 1804, whereas the transfer of the imperial government from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1807 and dynastic continuity in the person of Pedro I allowed Brazil to undergo a rather pacific transition to sovereignty in 1822 and preserved Portuguese America as a unified polity. The creation of new states continued during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the separation of Uruguay from Brazil in 1825 and of the Dominican Republic form Haiti in 1844; the Spanish-American War in 1898, which resulted in the independence of Cuba; the secession of Panama from Colombia in 1903; and the progressive decolonization of the British possessions in the Caribbean since the 1960s.

Yet political independence from colonial rule did not always come hand in hand with the corresponding national imagination. This was clearly the case of the countries that achieved sovereignty during the early nineteenth century. Whereas the reasons for colonial revolt and the ideologies that influenced it have been an issue of discussion, historians generally agree that nationalism did not create the first independent states in Latin America. Political independence was ultimately attained as a result of territorial and social cleavages, but it was not fought for in the name of the nation. National identity was rather the result of the efforts by political and cultural elites to represent the nation and make it meaningful to the citizens. However, the relationship between nationhood and nationalism has been a divisive issue among specialists in the field. The so-called modernist theorists of nation, such as Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm, conceived of it mainly as a political construct whose cultural meaning was brought about by modern social change—markets, urbanization, social mobility, mass literacy, and public spheres. On the contrary, advocates of a stronger ethnocultural approach, such as Anthony Smith, have insisted on the symbolic patrimony inherited from pre-modern times as a condition for the existence of modern nation-states. In the opinion of such scholars, the mobilization of cultural resources is a process beyond the reach of nationalist elites and their modernizing efforts. The discrepancy between the two approaches is less significant than it might seem at first glance: Both accept that it is impossible to imagine a national community in an entirely arbitrary way, and both concede that an ethnic social structure needs to develop a cultural imagination of its own in order to have a subjective meaning.

Historians' interpretations of nationhood must in any case be assessed when applied to Latin America. The Iberian conquistadors had encountered a heterogeneous range of peoples and polities on the continent: from the great Aztec and Inca empires in septentrional (northern) America and the Andes to the bands of hunters and gatherers of the tropical rainforests and the pampas. Empires proved easier to conquer and colonize than nomadic populations, and the territories gained were worthless without labor to exploit them. The legal status of the Indians was therefore a key issue during the first years of colonization. Bartolomé de las Casas struggled and ultimately succeeded in defending the free status of the Indians as Spanish subjects, although that did not exonerate them from paying tribute to the crown and serving forced labor in the encomienda. The decimation of native populations during the sixteenth century encouraged the use of slave labor imported from Africa, which further increased the ethnic complexity of the colonial world. But important as they were for the internal structure of colonial society, ethnic divisions played no significant role in the differentiation of the American territories under the authority of the Spanish Crown. The first batch of independent states basically reproduced the jurisdictional space of the colonial administrative bodies (viceroyalties, captaincies, and audiencias) and territorial conflicts were subsequently settled following the principle of uti possidetis (as you possess), which meant that national frontiers should follow the boundaries of the old colonial territories from which they emerged.

Colonial society was internally structured along ethnic and corporative lines. Legal privileges, customs, dwelling places, and dressing codes identified the different ethnosocial groups. Relevant organizations such as guilds, militias, and cofradías (religious brotherhoods) reflected such cleavages. Limpieza de sangre (alleged blood purity) remained a prerequisite for access to the upper positions of certain corporate bodies—universities, the Church, and the army—until the end of the colony. Miscegenation did occur (mainly outside wedlock) and became a key element of social change, but it was not officially encouraged nor socially endorsed. Even if a recognizable gap separated the white settlers from the mestizos, castas (multiracial subjects of African descent), and Indians, the distance between Creole elites and lower-class whites was vast.

Geographical provenance was an additional marker within the white elite. The appointment to official positions proved to be a recurrent matter of resentment among the Creoles (born in the New World), especially since the mid-eighteenth century, when the Bourbon reforms tried to limit the selling of key bureaucratic posts and tended to favor peninsular over local candidates. But whatever the tensions between settlers and Crown officials were, Creoles and peninsulares (living in the New World but born in Spain) constituted the economic, administrative, and cultural elite of colonial society. The interplay of alliances across social and ethnic boundaries proved also to be a decisive factor during the independence revolts. Whereas Creoles usually nourished the ranks of the insurgents, this was not always the case. There were also peninsulares who supported the rebels while, on the other hand, natives and mulato groups sometimes fought on the side of the Royalists, as in the case of the Pasto Indians in Nueva Granada and the Venezuelan llaneros. This was the reason why Creole patriots had to take local, regional, and status-group identities into consideration before they could convincingly imagine the nation.


Creole political imagination had to ripen into a specific cultural and social identity before it could develop a political meaning. The first colonial texts reflected the shock of the European encounter with American native civilizations. These texts were mostly chronicles of the conquest and histories of the ancient American kingdoms gained for the glory of the European kings and emperors. Emerging from a society then ruled by the principles of status, honor, and lineage, such texts should be read as a plea by the conquistadors and their descendants for the recognition of their privileges as lords of a New World. Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492–1584), a soldier in the troop that conquered Mexico, openly claimed in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True Story of the Conquest of New Spain, 1575) a part of the honor and glory that the official chronicle of Francisco López de Gómara had mainly attributed to Hernán Cortés. But an increasing tone of resistance against Old World prejudices can soon be recognized in these kinds of texts. Creole literature subtly enhanced the dignity and pride of the Spanish subjects born overseas and embellished the deeds of conquest and the natural wonders of a land no less worthy of praise than the mother country. In the case of El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616), a son of a Spanish conquistador and a Peruvian princess, his Comentarios reales de los Incas (Royal Commentaries of the Incas, 1609) described the history of Tawantinsuyu (the Inca empire) and its conquest by Pizarro in order to vindicate his noble heritage to the Spanish authorities and public. In the same period can also be found in Portuguese America the first História do Brasil (1627), written by Vicente do Salvador, a Creole friar.

Although Garcilaso de la Vega was the only mixed-heritage chronicler to become part of the intellectual canon (except while he was banned during the late colonial era), there were a number of unrecognized indigenous and mestizo authors whose work was recovered in later centuries. In New Spain authors such as Diego Muñoz Camargo, who wrote a history of Tlaxcala (Historia de la Ciudad y República de Tlaxcala), and Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, the author of a history of the Chichimeca nation, were conversant with Nahua/Aztec culture and past. The narratives they composed offer a window into ancient Nahua concepts of the nation as well as into the mestizo national imagination. In Peru, Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, the author of a long manuscript addressed to King Philip III (Nueva corónica y buen gobierno), devised a scheme whereby Peru would remain Catholic under the authority of the Spanish monarch, but its administration would revert to Inca rule. The two Nahua/Novo-Hispanic authors were not published until the nineteenth century, and the Peruvian was not even discovered until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, these three authors (and others as well) are important receptacles of early nationalist-leaning thought.

Creole patriotism, a process of sentimental affirmation of local belonging whose roots can be traced back to the seventeenth century, lacked in any case the connotations usually ascribed to the modern national conscience. In an environment where the Church permeated every pore of social life, the Creoles found in religion the basic references of their shared identity. Not only were priests the main managers of cultural resources in colonial society, but they also counted themselves among the administrators of the Empire. For this reason the early imagination of Latin America was predominantly implemented by a group of intellectual clerics. The cult devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe is the clearest example of a religious icon turned into a prenational mirror of collective identity. Her purported apparition to a Mexican Indian in 1531 gave the natives their own connection to the Catholic Church and a separate dignity in the divine plan of salvation. In a tract published in 1648, Imagen de la Virgen María (Image of the Virgin Mary), Miguel Sánchez, a local priest, introduced some apocalyptic elements in the interpretation of the image of Guadalupe and presented Mexico as the predestined land for the Virgin to manifest herself. An analogous religious dignification of local affiliation by the Peruvian Creoles can be perceived in the worship of St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas. The role of guadalupanismo, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, grew so important as an agent of social cohesion that during and after the independence it became the main symbol of Mexican national identity.

Cultural vindications run at the same pace as religious ones. Although the traces of criollismo in the writings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, 1651–1695) are debatable, her defense of intellectual freedom and her mastery of the Spanish language projected an aura of cultural respectability beyond the borders of her Novohispanic homeland. Her contemporary, the polymath Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645–1700), speculated on the idea of Thomas the Apostle having evangelized the American natives before the arrival of the Spaniards and defended the political virtues of the ancient tatloanis (Aztec kings) as a model for modern princes. The allegory of Sigüenza was represented in a triumphal arch commissioned by the municipal council of Mexico in 1680 to welcome the new viceroy, the Marquis de la Laguna. Lorenzo Boturini's inclusion of the Aztec nation in the course of universal history in his Idea de una nueva historia de la América septentrional (Idea of a New History of the Septentrional America, 1746) using the new historical method of Gianbattista Vico, the envisagement of a pre-Hispanic classicism by Francisco Javier Clavijero in his Historia Antigua de México (A History of Old Mexico, 1780) and the attribution of a biblical genealogy to the Aztec religion by Servando Teresa de Mier in his famous sermon on December 12, 1794, are all milestones of a recognizable ideological process that reached its maturity during the eighteenth century: the elaboration of a specific and dignified historicity for New Spain under the approved canons of universal history.

The expulsion of the Jesuits from the Portuguese and Spanish domains in 1759 and 1767, respectively, was a crucial episode in the pre-romantic imagination of the Americas. Its relevance does not have so much to do with the alleged role of the Jesuits as precursors of Latin American independence as with the consequences of their intellectual belligerence in correcting the prejudices the Europeans maintained about the New World. The European bias against the alleged inferiority of the American continent reached its peak with the eighteenth-century naturalist writings of the Dutch philosopher Cornelius de Pauw and the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Such prejudices were not only directed against the plants, the animals, and the natives, whose natural faculties supposedly degenerated on American soil, but against the Creoles as well, who were often branded as indolent and vain. The writings of exiled Jesuits such as the Chilean Juan Ignacio Molina (1740–1829), with his essays on the natural and civil history of Chile, of the Peruvian Juan Pablo Viscardo (1748–1798), who published a widely read Letter to the Spanish Americans, or the historical essay on Mexico from Clavijero, helped to create the first Latin American intellectual community with a sense of continental identity.


The issue of representation was central during the last part of the colonial period, when the system of tacit consultation and noninstitutionalized checks and balances started to show its limitations. The traditional Spanish world was traversed by a thick network of corporative links. Between the Crown and its subjects well over a dozen intermediate bodies could be counted, but colonial institutions such as the audiencias, cabildos, and viceroyalties were hardly of a representative character. During the Habsburg period their positions had often been open to acquisition, which reinforced the oligarchic structure of overseas societies. On the bureaucratic side, the functional principles and boundaries of such institutions did not correspond to the modern patterns of what the German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864–1920) called "formal rationality"—that is, goal-attainment, specialization, and accountability—but rather to a "substantive rationality" by which particular needs were identified and met in different ways. Local administration worked through the gracious intercession of a distant king legitimated by faith and tradition. This also explains the underlying meaning of the formula "se acata pero no se cumple" (orders are obeyed but not put into practice), of which the colonial authorities so often availed themselves when they received royal instructions: the "real" goals of the Crown had to be interpreted and implemented beyond the literal and often dysfunctional content of its commands. Accordingly, the role of the viceroy was to coordinate, rather than to directly run the different administrative hierarchies. This combination of corporative privileges, juridical conventions, decentralized competencies, and functional overlapping shaped the elastic and often contradictory frame within which the interests of colonial society found their expression. The reforms introduced by the Bourbon dynasty had a limited success for the Crown's interests, but they created further grievances among its American subjects.

In 1808 the old Spanish monarchy collapsed under the joint pressure of its internal contradictions and external aggression. The French invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and the refusal of several overseas territories to recognize the new authorities fighting Napoleon undermined the customary complicities that generated political acquiescence and demolished the juridical and territorial structures of the colonial world. The vacuum of power produced by the forced abdication of Ferdinand VII, who was held prisoner in France, and the promulgation of the Cadiz constitution by Spanish and Creole patriots in 1812, ignited a process in which the dream of a Spanish transcontinental nation-state could not outlive the juridical imagination of its "founding fathers." In Spain the proclamation of national sovereignty could simply proceed by submitting the royal will to the rule of law, but state structure had to be created in the Americas from below, asserting a central authority over a series of competing elites and regional powers. Between 1810 and 1850 more than sixty constitutions were proclaimed in the new republics. Such proliferation reflected the failure to recreate political order after the end of the ancien régime. Political instability was mainly induced by internal rivalries among the new elites and power games between the officers of the victorious armies, but there was a territorial component as well, as was witnessed in the struggle between federalist and centralist projects of nation attested to for more than half a century.

The independence of Spanish America consisted of a series of concurrent and locally generated rebellious movements with countless leaders, fluctuating periods, limited coordination, and a changing ideological justification. The view of pre-existing American nations struggling to free themselves from the imperial yoke cannot therefore be accepted. The notion of Latin American independence as an enlightened southern extension of the "Atlantic revolution" should also be reconsidered. The ideological references of the Creole patriots actually covered a wide range. Miguel Hidalgo, who mobilized the Indian masses of Mexico behind the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, was a parish priest in whom scholastic and Enlightenment influences combined, whereas José San Martín was a military Creole with monarchical inclinations who developed his early career in the peninsular Royal Army before returning to his native Argentina. The ideology expressed in the colonial institutions evolved with time as well. Given the absence of the king, the audiencias and cabildos generally resorted to the traditional categories of Catholic natural law to claim the reversion of sovereignty. According to Francisco Suárez, the influential sixteenth-century Spanish scholastic philosopher, the attributes of social life do not originate in single individuals, but in the political community as a whole. The civil power of the monarch was thus vested in him through a pactum subjectionis, a conditional alienation of sovereignty by the people. It was precisely the royal abdication therefore that allowed the American juntas to invoke a state of "natural necessity" to legitimately reassume sovereignty. This was purportedly done to preserve the rights of the legitimate king while in captivity; but after the restoration of absolutism in 1814 the ideological arguments of Creole patriots turned to open rebellion.

Simón Bolívar, a member of the mantuano elite, the planters' aristocracy of Caracas, expressed himself in the political language of civic republicanism. His idea of liberty, shaded with the colors of Greco-Roman classicism, was that of the antique republics. For him the new American patrias, in order to fulfill their emancipatory duty, should be created ex nihilo, leaning exclusively on the civic virtue of their citizens. In his Jamaica Letter (1815) Bolívar recognized the ambiguities affecting the whole process of independence, for the Spanish American demos was yet to be clearly defined. Insurgent political projects very often embodied an oligarchic spirit. In his speech in Angostura in 1819, Bolívar publicized his plans for an independent republic of Venezuela, which included a life-term presidency, an indirect representative system, and a hereditary senate. This was, however, a more participative model than the one the coastal planters who first seized power in Caracas had attempted to develop in 1811. The first Venezuelan constitution, while admitting the indigenous and the pardos (free subjects of black/white mixed race) into citizenship, at the same time biased the possibilities of political influence in favor of the landed proprietors by restricting voting rights to property owners. This system of censitary suffrage marked a sharp contrast to the Mexican constitution of Apatzingán (1814), which removed caste distinctions and envisaged the unencumbered incorporation of all adult males in the body politic. In fact, one of the consequences of popular recruitment for the separatist cause during the war was the inclusion of non-white racial groups into the political process.

Compared with the ancien régime, the modern "national imagination" implied a radical change in the symbolic universe within which individuals were politically socialized. For three centuries, religion, church ceremonial, and local semifeudal institutions provided the main sources of socialization in the Latin American colonial world. The inauguration of the new "national period" and of the corresponding sentiment therefore required the creation of a "national culture"—that is, that Creoles, castas, and Indians alike ceased to identify themselves through the old corporative and ethnic molds of colonial society and started to understand themselves as Mexicans, Venezuelans, Peruvians, and so on. Such a radical change in the social imagination was mainly a state-induced phenomenon. However, for a long time the control that the new independent governments could exert on the territories and populations under their nominal jurisdiction was quite limited. One thing was the defense of the borders through occasional military campaigns and the promulgation of new legislation from the capital of the country. A different thing altogether was to be able to reach the minds and properties of the new national subjects by means of schools, taxes, and civil servants throughout vast and ill-communicated territories.

The "nationalization" of history and its diffusion through public education was a key element of this cultural process. The historias patrias (patriotic national histories) reproduced a teleological scheme in which the colonial emancipation was presented as the inevitable fate of a series of preexisting American nations. Historical texts such as those written by Bartolomé Mitre on Argentina, Diego Barros Arana on Chile, Rafael María Baralt on Venezuela, and José Manuel Restrepo on Colombia coincided in structuring national history around the primordial episode of independence. The political course of the nation was thus presented as an accumulative process toward emancipation and, after it, as the fulfillment of a particular destiny. In this context, the writing of history could not be dissociated from its political function. The Creole scholars who replaced the Catholic Church after independence as the "organic intellectuals" of the new society were recruited from a relatively homogeneous group in terms of their social origin and education. Presidents, diplomats, and parliamentary representatives, often the only ones with access to the necessary documents and archives, abounded in the first generation of Latin American historians. But beyond their social background, what nineteenth-century national histories reflect is a deep change in the meaning of historiography itself. In opposition to the traditional function of sacred history, which was aimed at the salvation of the souls, or to the old chronicles of the conquest, which sought to claim privileges and demonstrate lineages, the new national historiography built upon the romantic canons imported from Europe was driven by an edifying purpose: to present history as a school of civic virtue and a source of political wisdom. Their institutionalization turned these narratives into moral chronicles whose mission was to certify the integral fulfillment of the promises made with the proclamation of independence.

Germán Colmenares has tried to show the distorting effect that such patterns had on the self-perception of Latin American societies. The historias patrias were written in a context in which the values of colonial times had lost their prestige. The new topics imposed by the European canon, such as the search for the "noble Indian," social evolution, and scientific progress, were thus actively pursued by the Latin American historians. However, their insistence in comparing their own countries with northern Europe and the United States under circumstances that were completely different led them to envisage a congenital deficit in their inner constitution. On the other hand, their personal insertion in a class structure that was still of a colonial character moved this generation of intellectuals to adopt an elitist approach: The keys to social progress were restricted to a small learned minority. The first independent intelligentsia was thus concealing an ideological solution to a deep-rooted cultural conflict: The attempt to perform a radical break with a colonial past that systematically reemerged in the way of life of the Latin American masses. Whereas Iberoamerican baroque culture had asymmetrically, but functionally, integrated different socioethnic groups in the body of colonial society, the new elites were unable either to substitute this corporative structure for a liberal association of individuals or, by means of a hegemonic ideology, to conciliate the conflicts of the post-colonial world. The result was an exclusionary approach that divided national societies into "civilized people" and the rabble, an unassimilable and increasingly angry throng. Local intellectuals often came to represent their own societies as an alien object whose evolution responded to motives that only a select minority could interpret. This was true of Bolívar, who became frustrated by the ailing civic virtues of the emancipated Americans; of the positivists, worried by the retarded development of the continent; and of twentieth-century Marxists, disappointed by the reticent revolutionary commitment of the rural and native masses.


The founders of new postcolonial states have often faced an uneasy choice when adopting an official cultural pattern for the purpose of nation-building. This is what the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926–2006) branded the essentialism-versus-epochalism dilemma: the choice between the mobilization of autochthonous culture and the promotion of a more developed but usually foreign one. The dynastic crisis that ignited Latin American independence soon revealed the deep divisions than ran through the new republics. In fact, the social structure inherited from the colony would last much longer than the ideologies used to scorn it. During the nineteenth-century struggles between liberals and conservatives, the landed and the commercial interests, the city and the countryside, the coast and the inland, it became clear that the social order of the colony still held deep roots in important segments of the independent societies. The obstinate resistance of the newly emancipated citizens to behave in accordance with the civic patterns of Greco-Roman antiquity was a constant motive of frustration for modern republicans. Bolívar saw in it a lack of political character caused by three centuries of colonial despotism, and also a reason to institute dictatorship as a means of implementing the general will against the spirit of factionalism. A later liberalism, such as that held by Juan Bautista Alberdi in Argentina, would resort to the language of commercial humanism to transform the art of government into demographic planning. Under the banner of gobernar es poblar (to govern is to populate), he sought to import political virtue through massive immigration and to introduce "civilized" forms of life in the scarcely inhabited, and therefore "barbarian," pampas. Ultimately this would also be the argument used to legitimate the genocide of the Indian population during the Conquest of the Desert in Argentina's southern territories.

The early debates of the Latin American intelligentsia after the dissolution of the political links with the metropolis reflect a division over the value of the Spanish heritage. What is known as the Generation of 1837 in Argentina was particularly explicit in its rejection. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a member of this group, not only avowed during his exile in Chile—fleeing from the dictatorship of Juan Manuel Rosas—the orthographic reform of the Spanish language according to the Latin American phonetic, but also scandalized the local public by declaring Spanish itself as a dead language for the cause of civilization. This was a motive of dispute with Andrés Bello, the respected Venezuelan pensador living in Chile, who warned against the dangers of losing a common language by the arrival of (mainly French) neologisms that altered its structure and might reproduce with American Spanish the process of corruption the Latin language suffered in medieval Europe.

The animosity against the Spanish cultural heritage was generally shared, although in different tones, by the intellectuals of a liberal inclination, such as the Argentine Alberdi, the Chileans José Victorino Lastarria and Francisco Bilbao Barquín, José María Samper in Colombia, and Carlos María de Bustamante in Mexico. It was not only the social legacy of the colonial period they questioned; they also deemed a spiritual legacy responsible for the historical backwardness of the hemisphere. Nothing reflects this view better than the essay for which Lastarria was given an award by the University of Chile in 1843: Investigaciones sobre la influencia social de la conquista y del sistema colonial de los Españoles en Chile (Research on the Social Influence of the Spanish Conquest and Colonial System in Chile). In this republican tract, Lastarria asserted that the Chilean people, before independence, were morally degraded by the submissive character of colonial institutions, which were designed "to breed slaves." In one way or another, all these intellectuals proposed to abandon the Spanish tradition as the fastest way for their countries to access the cultural, political, and economic modernity then envisaged in France, England, and the United States. Spain, as they saw it, had simply isolated itself from the process of modern culture and could no longer offer solutions to the new problems.

There were, however, authors such as Lucas Alamán in México, Sergio Arboleda in Colombia, and Bello in Chile who, while criticizing the Spanish colonial domination, nevertheless defended the right of the Spanish Americans to participate in a common heritage held valuable for the development of the incipient national institutions. In this context, the Spanish legacy functioned as a cultural refuge for the social groups more closely attached to the traditional order. It is not surprising then that, by the end of the nineteenth century, Latin American conservatism took hispanophilia, and particularly the ideas imported from Spanish Catholic traditionalism, and made it an instrument of political resistance. Gabriel García Moreno, president of Ecuador between 1859 and 1875, constitutes the best example of a Catholic ultramontane government in Latin America. But it is the Colombian period known as the Regeneración (1880–1899) that best illustrates the intellectual features of political Catholicism during the nineteenth century. The Regeneration consisted of a series of institutional reforms carried out under the auspices of a group of conservative Catholic intellectuals. Their leader was Miguel Antonio Caro, who settled the doctrinal bases of the Colombian constitution of 1886. The constitution declared God as the source of all forms of authority and established Colombia as a confessional state. In his writings Caro also vindicated the Spanish heritage, which together with the Catholic religion, the Spanish language, and a strong central power, would constitute the pillars of Colombian nationhood.


The challenge of integrating the different socio-ethnic groups of colonial society into a unified national culture has been a permanent matter of political concern in Latin America since independence. But nationalism has traditionally had to compete in this realm with other kinds of supranational ideologies. Bolívar himself dreamed of an American federation of sovereign states, for which a congress was summoned in Panama, without much success, in 1826. Since then Latinoamericanism has been a powerful rhetorical resource in the politics of the region. During the twentieth century, however, it had to rival the pan-American initiatives of several U.S. governments and the Catholic ideology of the hispanidad, the belief in a common Hispanic character molded by history and religion.

Ariel, the famous essay published in 1900 by the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó, and the intellectual movement that it initiated, are usually signaled as the starting point of a new Latin American cultural conscience and of the vindication of its Greco-Latin values against Anglo-Saxon purported utilitarianism. The truth is, however, that by the end of the nineteenth century, liberalism, with its view of modern society as a contract of free individuals, had given way to positivism and its idea of the nation as a homogeneous social body endowed with a common destiny. Ethnic cleavages, now under the aegis of a biologistic interpretation of social behavior, reentered the political agenda of the independent nations. In countries with a small proportion of indigenous population, native American culture played no significant role in the national imagination. Argentine positivists such as José Ingenieros and Carlos Octavio Bunge drew on social Darwinism, and on the tradition formerly set by Sarmiento and Alberdi, in considering miscegenation as a process conducive to the physical and moral degeneration of society. On the contrary, a positivist historian such as Manoel Bomfim conceived of Brazil's nation-building "not as a mere social, political, civic and moral development, but as a deep and prolonged physio-psychological process" (1997, p. 327; author's translation) in which the different races combined their energies and traditions.

In other countries the positivist concern with "racial quality" produced different ideological outcomes. The political assumptions of indigenismo, understood as a public policy for integrating the Indians into mainstream society, differed with time and place, but in general its aim was the social dilution of the indigenous peoples through miscegenation and acculturation. In his essay Pueblo enfermo (A Sick People, 1909) and in the novel Raza de bronce (A Race of Bronze, 1919), Alcides Arguedas depicted the exploitation of Bolivian Indians by the local landowners, and also his pessimism about the country's ability to escape its historical prostration. Andrés Molina Enríquez, an early mentor of Mexican indigenism, also saw racial heterogeneity as the main obstacle to national development, but envisioned a long term solution in the turning of the Indians into mestizos. José Vasconcelos Calderón developed such a view into a full-fledged nationalist ideology according to which a new "cosmic race" would ultimately become the subject of the Mexican nationhood fashioned by the 1910 revolution. Around the same time, socialist theorists Raúl Haya de la Torre and José Carlos Mariátegui in Peru made the connection between indigenism and Marxism by recognizing the specificity of surviving pre-Columbian cultures: The Indians could after all not be equated to the Western industrial proletariat and deserved special consideration in the strategy for a Latin American socialist revolution.

By the 1930s new ideologies linked to ethnicity entered the political arena. In the Caribbean, Afro-centric creeds proved particularly prolific. The idea of négritude (blackness), developed in the French-speaking realm by Senegalese president Léopold Senghor, the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guyanese writer León Damas, expressed the rejection by Third World black intellectuals of Western neocolonial domination. But whereas indigenism emerged and consolidated in some countries as a state policy, négritude remained as a mainly cultural and literary movement that soon found in Nicolás Guillén and the Cuban negrismo a Spanish-speaking equivalent. In the English Caribbean and the United States, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey promoted a current of black nationalism that encouraged the return to Africa as a way of redemption from the legacy of slavery. Garvey's vision was contested by other African-American leaders and did not render long-term political results; but it was rapidly incorporated into the symbolic structure of Rastafarianism, and his image has since been preserved as a cultural icon in Anglo-Caribbean popular imagination.

Different as they are, all these pan-ethnicist movements coincided in considering the nation-state as an insufficient frame for political action. This is by no means an exclusive attribute of regional identity politics, but a familiar feature in Latin American ideologies pushed by an emancipatory and anticolonial spirit. In the 1950s the implementation of the United Nations development plans through the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) planted the seeds for what later would come to be known as dependency theory. Although developed in Latin America by CEPAL economists such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, some of its prescriptions, like the import-substitution program, were readily applied in several African and Asian developing countries. Dependency theory can be summarily described as a center-periphery critical approach to the economic relations between advanced capitalist countries and the Third World. The structure of such relations was accused of systematically undermining the economic autonomy of the developing countries, and the implicit political corollary was the encouragement of Latin American nationalism as a way to escape underdevelopment.

Postcoloniality and its related poststructuralist theories, such as subaltern studies, can be considered the latest academic paradigm applied to the understanding of Latin American political imagination. To a large extent they have come to occupy the gap left by the decline of Marxism as a critical knowledge. According to this new perspective, the traditional alienation of Latin American elites from their own societies—the political and intellectual syndrome produced by a never-to-be-achieved modernity—was the product of a neocolonial cultural logic that since the nineteenth century condemned a series of nonhegemonic subjects—women, Indians, blacks, homosexuals, peasants, and so on—to a structurally subaltern condition. The postmodern agenda for emancipatory politics in Latin America should therefore address more restricted social categories, rely on subaltern forms of self-knowledge, and adopt a new postnational general outline.

See alsoAlamán, Lucas; Alberdi, Juan Bautista; Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, Fernando; Arguedas, Alcides; Baralt, Rafael María; Bello, Andrés; Bilbao Barquín, Francisco; Bolívar, Simón; Bunge, Carlos Octavio; Bustamante, Carlos María de; Cardoso, Fernando Henrique; Caro, Miguel Antonio; Césaire, Aimé; Clavigero, Francisco Javier; Conquest of the Desert; Dependency Theory; Díaz del Castillo, Bernal; García Moreno, Gabriel; Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca; Garvey, Marcus; Guadalupe, Virgin of; Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe; Guillén, Nicolás; Haya de la Torre, Víctor Raúl; Indianismo; Indigenismo; Ingenieros, José; Jesuits; Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor; Lastarria, José Victorino; Mariátegui, José Carlos; Mitre, Bartolomé; Muñoz Camargo, Diego; Négritude; Peninsular; Peru: Peru Since Independence; Positivism; Restrepo, José Manuel; Rodó, José Enrique; Rosa de Lima; Rosas, Juan Manuel de; Salvador, Vicente do; Samper, José María; Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino; Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de; Tlatoani; Vasconcelos Calderón, José; Viscardo y Guzmán, Juan Pablo.


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                        Francisco Colom GonzÁlez

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Nationhood and the Imagination

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Nationhood and the Imagination