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Latin American Literature: Overlapping Identities

Camilo Ucrós By Camilo Ucrós Published on August 5, 2016

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This article was updated on December 1, 2016

The Spanish colonial ventures in the Americas sought to establish a system that would recreate and improve the Spanish cosmology in the newfound paradise. In an attempt to exert political and religious authority, they broke up the existing structures and institutions set up by the Indians, and managed to conquer their minds while undermining local identity. They changed the Indians’ names through baptisms, and inserted themselves into pre-Columbian history by writing their own codices in the style of Mesoamerican cultures. Ever since, Latin America has gone through a slow process of self-redefinition, a process that has left its mark in multiple literary texts, especially those produced after independence in the 1820s.

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This amounts to a corpus of works classified as Latin American Literature, a subset of Hispanic Literature. For this definition to stand, Latin American authors have had to develop and reflect on their own sense of identity, choosing from a pool of competing affiliations. Their identities emerged not only from an artificial nationalism, but also from the immediate realities surrounding groups and individuals, allowing them to define themselves in terms of region, race, gender, or political views.

These competing narratives for identity have been recorded in Latin American literature. One of the earliest attempts to identify as a people comes from Juan Domingo Sarmiento who wrote Facundo in 1845. Facundo explores the tension between civilization and barbarism, advocating the former as the road that the Argentinian people should take in order to achieve progress.

In 1872, José Hernández wrote Martín Fierro, projecting an opposing idea that glorifies the Argentinian gaucho as an outlaw fighting for survival. Martín Fierro is now considered Argentina’s national book. Borges lamented this, arguing that if, instead of canonizing Fierro as their founding book, Argentinians had chosen Facundo, Argentinian history would have been different, more collaborative and less clandestine.

The Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío, on the other hand, sought a basis for identity by viewing Latin America as a whole that should remain together in opposition to external forces. In his poem To Columbus (1892), he laments the ongoing wars between Latin American countries, results of a shared inheritance of Spanish avarice and Indian pride. Nevertheless, in his poem To Roosevelt (1904), he shows a united Latin America, a product of mestizaje, that is fierce and proud and will defend against the imperial ambitions of the north. It is interesting that the Spanish here are not referred to as conquerors, but as the fathers of the Latin American cubs, with the Indian culture as their mother. He lays claim to both cultures, but stands alone, independent of each. 

Jumping forward to the 20th century, the southern cone was home to some of the most sensitive female voices in America. Alfonsina Storni wrote about the angst caused by gender roles in Argentina, the submissive role that women should take in order to please men who did not seek to reciprocate and understand. Her poem Voy a dormir was sung by Mercedes Sosa in later years as an homage to Storni, reasserting that her struggle was still relevant. In Chile Lucila Godoy, better known by her pen name Gabriela Mistral, taught in schools throughout the country, experiencing life in its different regions. She incorporated her work and geographical references as metaphors in her poetry, details that influenced her being awarded the first Nobel Prize for a Latin American author in 1945.

Further north, Nicolas Guillén depicted the island life in pre-revolutionary Cuba. His poetry stands out for its allusions to music, guitars, and drums, as well as the onomatopoeia he used to imitate their sounds. His deconstruction of the Spanish language to better reflect the parlance of the island is equally striking. All of this was embedded in the context of the toughness and loneliness of the black man in particular and of humanity in general, and the tools to find a meaningful place in society.

Jumping through time and space again, we return to Chile, home of another Nobel Laureate, Neftalí Reyes, or Pablo Neruda. Besides his gifted pen, with which it’s said he could tell a woman to shut up such that she would say thank you, his experience is also one of the intersection of literature and politics. He saw the commonalities of the struggles of the Latin American masses, and advocated ideas of Pan-Americanism. Disdainful as he was of foreign influence, he was one of Salvador Allende’s main supporters. The fear of how his prose could inspire revolt in his readers is exemplified by the fact that the Pinochet government looted his house immediately after his death.

One underreported theme of Latin American literature is the place of the Indian in the nation. For the most part, they had been marginalized in resguardos or haciendas. Some authors sought to shed light on these historical silences, most notably Miguel Ángel Asturias with Hombres de Maíz, which seeks to demystify their image as noble savages and to situate them in history through their interactions with whites and mestizos during the processes of modernization of the countries. Jorge Icaza tried a similar experiment in Ecuador and Ciro Alegría in Peru.

Latin American literature reached its peak with the boom of the 1960s and 70s. This was a period of innovative literary production that coincided with the Cold War, Castro’s ascent to power, and the struggle of Latin American nations to develop their own agendas for progress.

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Some of the boom’s best known authors are García Márquez, Cortázar, and Borges. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to simplify magical realism with a single author, when the movement spanned the continent, and Juan Rulfo encapsulated post-revolutionary Mexico in a more desolate frontier than Macondo, or Alejo Carpentier who gave one of the most marvellously truthful accounts of the Haitian revolution, in which François Mackandal uses black magic to poison Europeans and then transforms into different animals to elude the colonial authorities. It was Carpentier who appropriated the magical-real as natural heritage of Latin America.

Sabato’s existentialist novel El Túnel is an example of the growing dialogue between Latin American intelligentsia and foreign schools of thought. This was made possible by the thorough exploration of the self in Latin American literature, allowing and authorizing authors to explore the stories of other continents, like Vargas Llosa exploring the history of rubber in Congo, or Borges spinning Cervantes’ Don Quijote on his head, returning to foreign literature not to copy it, but to reconstruct it or deconstruct it completely.

Exploring the self is a never-ending quest, as the social realities of the continent are in a state of permanent flux. The boundaries of what is Latin American have also shifted somewhat; now, Latin America is also an integral part of the United States, a theme that Junot Díaz, Sandra Cisneros, and Julia García explore with the Dominican migrations to North America and the boundaries that telecommunications have opened to create global interests.

Latin American literature has developed its identity, separate from its Spanish heritage, through the exploration of the different identities that each author in each time carries with them. Many of the authors described above do not explore a single characteristic of their existence, but they might as well explore what it’s like to be an Indian boy studying in a military academy in Lima, or to participate in the Mexican Revolution and then sell the country to the gringos.

Some of these novelists explore identity implicitly by choosing a setting, a set of characters, or by drawing inspiration from their own lives. Some would argue that this process of acquiring self-awareness is quite obvious and expected, but the means by which it happened follow the specific domestic realities of the local histories. The corpus of Latin American literature produced serves to enrich both the forms and the essence of the Spanish language beyond the boundaries of what any Iberian author could have ever envisaged. 

History teacher based in Ecuador. Enjoys literature, discovering new music and the stories history tells. Follow on twitter @camucros

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