The History of Latin America is Not a Monolithic Story
Marie Arana is a distinguished Latin American author, Peruvian in origin and universal in outlook. I met her years ago at a tribute event to the historian Miguel León Portilla that she had organized at the Library of Congress. I had published a rather critical review of her romantic biography of Simón Bolívar, but Marie did not take offense at my observations. I found the book inaccurate in its historical and biographical analyses, but exciting in its epic passages. How might I put it? Arana is something rather different from a historian: she is a novelist constrained by history, but a theorist of history, too.
Silver, Sword and Stone. Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story deepens this paradox. Her thesis—a work of historical theory—is “historicist” in the Popperian sense of the term, that is, a deterministic interpretation of history as an organic whole or an essence that is subject to laws that allow for explanation and prediction. According to Arana, three crucibles—mining (silver), “strong men” and violence (sword) and religiosity (stone)—have forged not only the Latin American character but the Latin American essence, its being, from pre-Hispanic times to the present day. The violence that these three fundamentals brought in their wake has become their epigenetic destiny.
Based on a heterogeneous bibliography that mixes historical and literary sources, contemporary studies with chronicles from the 16th century, inspired—so she writes—by the work of authors she respects (she generously refers to Carlos Fuentes and myself as “mentors”), Arana draws impressionistic sketches of five centuries of history with her customary brio. Her composition is cinematographic. Her narrative account moves from present to past, and from past to present. The device is an ingenious one: starting from an individual story from the present day, taken as a historical emblem, Arana tracks its echoes into our countries’ past, moving from one to another, skipping between centuries and experiences, sometimes going into detail, at other times speeding ahead without much time to qualify or to doubt. The thing is, the book has a thesis that seldom allows for these small details, a thesis that is not historical but metahistorical—or, as Miguel de Unamuno would have it, intra-historical: Latin America is the land of a triple condemnation: the diabolical wealth from mining (that left almost nothing), the brutal order of the sword (that destroyed almost everything), and the fanatical cult of the stone, which crushed freedom.
A woman appears at the beginning, as a metaphor for all the metaphors of this metaphorical book. She is Leonor Gonzáles, who lives in the mining town of La Rinconada, Peru, situated at an altitude of 5000 meters, “the highest human habitation in the world”. Her life story, as Arana sees it, summarizes five hundred years of history. Within her soul live three indelible presences from the past. Leonor lives enslaved to pallaqueo, that is, the process of picking out silver by hand. Leonor is a victim of the sword, as vulnerable to brute strength as her indigenous ancestors were before her. Leonor clings to the stone of her religious beliefs, as unshakeable as the stone in which the spirit of Juan Ochochoque, her deceased husband, is resting. Leonor’s story began many years ago.
Fleeing from the violence of the Shining Path, Juan Ochochoque settled in La Rinconada, where he met Leonor. The work he did in the mines is called cachorreo: thirty days without pay carrying the mineral on his back, only then, if he is lucky, to find a nugget of gold for himself. All of a sudden, an avalanche put his son’s life in danger. Juan saved him, but his lungs had been infected by the chemicals. A severely ill Juan traveled to Cuzco to make a plea for his health at the church of Santo Domingo, the very site where before the Conquest the golden Inca temple of the sun had stood. But he had come too late, the doors were closed. Juan didn’t have the money to wait till the next day, nor to come back on a different one. He was dead within the week.
From Arana’s perspective, Juan Ochochoque’s life and death becomes a metaphor for mining slavery in Latin America. His forebears—Incas, Aztecs and Mayans—covered their temples in gold. They were bound together, supposedly, by a single cosmology—isolated, fearful and eternal: Ai Apaec, who has survived under the name “El Tío” (The Uncle) in South American mining culture, and who also turns out to be the Mayans’ Kinich Ahau and the Nahuas’ Coatlicue: “A Pan-American god”. The Spaniards from Extremadura were the conquest’s main protagonists, “sons of war” who “had all inherited a strong loyalist and fighting spirit”, more adventurers than mercenaries, who did also revere their god, but, as Arana sees it, revered gold more: “If Spain demanded that priest and notaries accompany them, they would comply, but it was seizure and booty that mattered most, not missionary work or the letter of the law.”
Out of the brutal clash between Indians and Spaniards a new world was born, not a world of harmony but one of imposition. From the heartrending image of churches placed on top of the ruins of indigenous temples—which are particularly visible in the extraordinary city of Cuzco—Arana extracts her idea of colonialization. It means, in essence, “to strip locals of all power, construct churches atop their temples, palaces atop their places of government, and redirect their labor to the mines.” While the mines were, according to one priest’s contemporary description, “living images of death, black shades of eternal hell,” the palaces in the great viceregal cities like Mexico and Lima showed off the latest shipment of Chinese and Japanese art brought over on the Manila galleons.
Did this dual order change radically following independence? According to Arana, it did, but only in the surface froth of political days, not in the deep sea of history that leads to today’s Peru. Is the boom in extractive industries and raw materials not an echo of the colonial mining peak? Today’s owners are after all moved by “a blind, overriding ambition not unlike the one that fueled the dreams of Pizarro.” “No industry characterizes the Latin American story more vividly than mining.” Arana argues. In this lottery (as Adam Smith called it), Latin America’s life continues to be gambled. It is no small paradox that Spain, the vanguard of globalization in the 16th century, left in its historical wake a legacy of poverty, abuses, resentment and distrust. The Latin American character —Arana states— began to be carved out centuries ago, with that luminous wound, silver.
Silver is followed by sword. Carlos Buergos is a “marielito” who barely survives in the United States having spent eleven years in prison for drug trafficking. What is a “marielito”? A fugitive from the Cuban utopia. His childhood as A petty thief came to an end when his father sent him to the “ten million harvest” and he witnessed somebody being killed with a machete. Soon afterward he received the order to enlist to fight in Angola, where he suffered injuries to his skull and distress to his soul. On his return, sick, abandoned and unemployed, he devoted himself to the theft of horses to sell for meat. He did time in prison. Following his release, he tried to flee Cuba, an act of high treason to the country which, in retaliation, condemned him to further imprisonment. In 1980, his Calvary seemed to be at an end: the government sent him off to Florida from Mariel Harbor as one of the thousands of delinquents that Castro mixed with the more that 125 thousands exiles that fled. In the United States, Carlos worked as a waiter and dishwasher. With a bullet wound, sick, living in a neighborhood filled with drug dealers and addicts, he became one of them himself. The Calvary of violence that began in Cuba has no end.
Carlos Buergos’s Calvary is a metaphor for Cuba. The conquistadors massacred Caribs and Taínos until they had succeeded in eliminating them altogether. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (the legendary 16th-century Dominican friar that wrote numerous treatises in defense of the native populations in America and is known the “Apostle of the Indians”) is the witness to this tragedy. But those cruelties are, in turn, an echo of what the indigenous people themselves inflicted on other people prior to the conquest, not only in Cuba but in the whole broader American territory. When they are all defeated by the Spanish sword, the system it imposes does not lead to the people’s autonomy but their subjugation: it forbids certain crops, it forbids trade between colonies, it forbids the slightest freedom of conscience, it forbids printing. That is, according to Arana, the only way to explain the ferocity of the response: the rebellion of the Pueblo Indians in 1680, the rebellion de 1781 of Tomás Catari in defense of the traditional rights of the Aymara Indians, and in those same years the “Gran rebelión” of the mestizo Tupac Amaru in Perú, the greatest uprising in three centuries of Spanish rule before the wars of Independence.
Two huge settings serve as theaters of the wars of independence. South America, with the dazzling Simón Bolívar, and Mexico, with its zealous insurgent priests. Independence came, but not peace, and not prosperity. The sword was still in command. The dawn of the drugs trade in Mexico occurred when the landowners murdered the Chinese railway workers to get hold of their opium fields. “Almost the entire population outside of Mexico City was landless and indigent. And restless. They still are,” says Arana. Centuries after Hidalgo, Zapata and Villa, Mexico has never stopped being one of the most dangerous countries on earth. The sword ruled in Paraguay, with the silent tyrant Dr Francia; the sword ruled in the war of independence in Cuba; the sword ruled in the dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. How is one to explain such persistence and ubiquity? Arana concludes: by the Spanish sword: “The fundamental instability of a region defined five hundred years before by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors: the essential exploitation, the racial divisions, the extreme poverty and degradation of the vast majority . . . the corrosive culture of corruption.
Was it not possible that the sword might be replaced by the law? Arana doesn’t think so. The different caudillos (Santa Anna, Rosas, Bolívar), put somehow into the same category, abandoned their liberal ideas to become dictators. In Mexico, according to Arana, little came out of the liberal Reform generation that in 1857 drafted a constitution. The long Porfirio Díaz period (1876-1911) was a nightmare: “Corruption, repression, rapacious profiteering became Díaz’s trademark, even resorting to the old Spanish practice of shaking down the masses where funds where short”. But the Díaz case is emblematic: dictators like him were plentiful in the region in the 19th century, and they “were all too willing to auction their countries to the highest bidder.” The sword, finally, comes back in the Mexican revolution, which Arana describes as “a fierce race war” that left hundreds of thousands dead.
The sword ruled in Latin America. The sword ripped apart Somoza’s Nicaragua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic. The sword is origin and destiny, the sword is in people’s genes: “the region is overwhelmingly, numbingly, homicidal.” Tina Rosenberg—cited by Arana—has put it like this: “Quantity is not the whole issue. Violence in Latin America is significant in part because so much of it is political: planned, deliberate. It is different from the purposeless, random, individual violence of the United States. It is more evil.”
But what are the passions that take up the sword? “The triumvirate of race, class and poverty are almost always at the root of things in Latin America,” Arana argues. “It is why the culture of violence persists”. Even in the most peaceful countries in the region, she writes, “political climates in these volatile nations could flip, demagoguery could return, and the people would be sent barreling through the cycle again.” In Arana’s analysis, Latin America is unable to deal with the violence due to corruption and impunity, as rampant in colonial times as they are today. Even democracy (such as the long-standing and stable democracy found in Colombia) does not seem to help. The war against organized crime in Mexico with its slipstream of hundreds of thousands of deaths is the most recent proof of the dark historical fate.
After silver and the sword comes the stone. Its incarnation is the Catalan Jesuit Xavier Albó, a missionary in South America. His father was killed in the Civil War by the republicans, his town destroyed by Francoist planes. He arrived at the continent very young, he learned Quechua perfectly in Cochabamba, at a time in Bolivia when great social changes were taking place (Paz Estenssoro’s coming to power, the nationalizing of the mines). What Albó found in the New World is in a way the same things his ancestors saw there, Arana writes: “a faithful vastly more attuned to nature, their cosmic orientation tied keenly to the land beneath their feet, the sun overhead, the rains in between.” In Bolivia he finds himself in a country with a racial and linguistic “apartheid”, where only the “whites and near-whites” prospered. Albó lived in Ecuador, Piura and Lima. Everywhere he found indigenous people and even mestizos who were intimidated, condemned to resignation. Though he got along with some Liberation Theology priests (such as his friend Luis Espinal, who was murdered by the Banzer dictatorship), he remained apolitical. Albó, Arana reminds, was at one point an adviser to Evo Morales, but when he witnessed him turning into a despot, he became his critic instead. According to him, this society could only heal if supported by three pillars: economic justice, social equality and educational opportunity—simple, but hard to attain.
The Stone of faith. It was a consolation, in a way. “Indeed,” Arana writes, “the sanctity of Stone seems to have united the spiritual life of the indigenous throughout the hemisphere.” Stones of churches, stones of temples. But if we are talking about stones and about faith, not only does the conquest condemn us, but the pre-Columbian world, too. It was with stones, and upon stones, that human sacrifices were performed, including those of children. The American peoples did not invent these things, it’s true, but they practiced them thousands of years after they had been forgotten in the Old World.
What was the conquest of Mexico? According to Arana, “Without the hordes of Christianized Indians who marched with Cortés against the Aztec capital, Spanish would not be spoken in Mexico today.” Cortés and Moctezuma inhabited worlds that were defined by faith. But in the order of things, religion was not number one—number one was gold. “Montezuma’s high priests were lulled into believing that [Cortés’s] true gods were gold and silver.” Which was why Arana contends that the Indians found Cortés’s reverence for the first Franciscans so strange. The unlucky indigenous people, blind to their misfortune, “had not factored entirely that, with the advent of twelve humble men, the last shred of their civilization would be taken from them.” The cross and the sword. Corrupt, simoniacal and bureaucratic, the church colluded with the crown: one to recover believers, the other to exploit the silver.
As she deals with the Stone of this faith, this third angle of oppression, Arana does suitably qualify her thesis. It was not all gloom in the spiritual conquest. Bartolomé de las Casas managed to achieve a recognition of the Indians’ humanity. The laws were ignored by the conquistadors, but at least the encomiendas (land and people allotted as property to the conquistadores) were suppressed. The work of evangelization was entrusted entirely to the friars. One chapter of this convergence of indigenous people and friars stands out, and deservedly so: the Arcadia that the Jesuits built with the Guaraní people in the jungles of Paraguay until their expulsion in 1767.
Although the church had, according to Arana, “grown skilled at glorifying itself and lining its pockets, it had also accomplished considerable good” (Indian courts, missions, hospitals, etc.). As John H. Elliot has convincingly demonstrated, Arana points out that Anglo-America never produced characters like Motolinía, Las Casas or Sahagún, and even the debate over the Indians’ humanity is notable for having taken place and having been convened by a king. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon colonization, the Spaniards absorbed the Indians, a process that was partial but not inconsequential.
Those syncretic peoples received the Jesuit Xavier Albó in the mid-20th century. The priests never stopped catechizing them. The protestant ministers also promised them a life of “miracles, signs and wonders,” Arana writes. Liberation theology understands that “if Latin America’s most pressing wound was injustice—its gaping abyss between rich and poor, white and brown, privilege and neglect—it was incumbent upon the Church as God’s champion to address this flagrantly un-Christian state of affairs,” Arana says. This is why the spirit of Las Casas is embodied in the bishop Samuel Ruiz and his apostolic relationship to the Zapatistas. Sometimes the stone genuinely does seek some redemption.
The lives of Juan Ochochoque, Carlos Buergos and Xavier Albó are individual tales. Each one apart is emblematic of the historic suffering endured by millions of people on the American subcontinent. But when connected to one another in a novel or a Netflix series, they don’t work. They are significant stories, and deeply moving in themselves, but not in relation to the other stories and of course not in relation to their own past, with which they connect in such a general way as to become artificial, forced and, sometimes, false. The storyteller in Arana obscures the novelist.
This is clearly visible in specific examples. There are countless of them. To a theorist of history, who flies like an eagle over the whole continent and over centuries, these inexactitudes, exaggerations or falsities might seem trivial. So broad and generous is the canvas she paints that it might seem mean to point them out. But to a historian—who, after all, ought at least to try to serve particular truth—these mistakes stain the canvas, they distort it.
Here is a selection. I’m sure an Argentine, Chilean, Uruguayan or Colombian historian would have similar objections to those I have about how Mexico is dealt with. There was no “pan-American God” among the indigenous people of America. The Aztec empire was very different from a mere “agglomeration of tribes,” as she describes it. The shipwrecked conquistador Jerónimo de Aguilar was not a priest, only a friar. His companion Gonzalo Guerrero was neither priest nor friar, so would have been unlikely to be ashamed to reveal himself to Cortés’s men as a “fallen Franciscan,” as Arana writes, for having a Mayan wife and children. Religious fervor was as genuine among the Conquistadors as their thirst for glory and riches. The Franciscans did not snatch away from the Indians the “last shred of their civilization,” rather they saved it for posterity in important works like the Florentine Codex.
Cortés’s personal dominions did not stretch “from the sands of the Sonora Desert to the jungles of Lacandon,” since he possessed towns and villages that were scattered without any geographical continuity over a much less extensive area, between Michoacán and Oaxaca. Far from seeking to “strip locals of all power,” the Spanish crown relied substantially on the indigenous nobles and chiefs in the establishing of the new order. The “rigid caste system that Spain had created” was surprisingly flexible, at least in Mexico. The Archbishop of Mexico never sent “warrior priests” against the insurgent priest Miguel Hidalgo. Our Reforma was not a racial fight between “the old white élite” and “the darker race,” but a conflict for the country’s political liberties and economic modernization. What characterized the decade of the Restored Republic was not “turmoil and civil unrest” so much as the flourishing of civil liberties. The Porfirio Díaz government did not resort “to the old Spanish practice of shaking down the masses where funds were short,” but rather presided over a long period of material progress, which has been documented by the most critical liberal historians, such as Daniel Cosío Villegas. The Mexican revolution was not in any sense a race war, it had its origins in the struggle for democracy and rural land ownership. The plundering of the Chinese opium trade was not connected to the railways, and nor was it the work of the “landowners,” but of the Mexican mafias.
But the problem really gets serious when in between the storyteller and the novelist there appears the theorist of history, the historicist or geneticist of the Latin American soul. Most of Arana’s generalizations are unsustainable. Perhaps the fundamental problem with this book resides in the extrapolation of the specific Peruvian history to the general history of the Iberoamerican peoples. Latin America is not homogenous; very important features like mestizaje—racial miscegenation—vary from Argentina to Bolivia to Mexico. This mestizaje was not a process in which “there was no choice,” since the Anglo-Saxon case shows that there was indeed a cruel alternative: containment and annihilation. Mestizaje is not contemptible: in it we find the greatest Latin American (and especially Mexican) contribution to global culture. Spanish colonialism cannot be reduced only to the extraction of wealth, slavery, racism and oppression: it was also a rich and complex cultural endeavor. Throughout, Arana deemphasizes the catastrophic effect of epidemics on Indigenous peoples, ascribing demographic collapse almost exclusively to acts of genocide. The three centuries of peace experienced by the Viceroyalty of New Spain—which until its final years did not have a formal army—cannot be denied by the marginal rebellion of the Pueblo Indians. Mexico has not lived through continuous generalized violence since its independence, but rather has enjoyed long and sustained periods of peace that encouraged the building up of solid social and economic institutions. In countries like Venezuela, wars have had an unmistakable racial component at their root, but internal conflicts in Mexico have almost always had different causes: the separation of religious and civil power, a lack of democracy, freedom, social justice.
Latin America is no more “overwhelmingly, numbingly, homicidal” than Europe with its two world wars, China with its “Great Leap Forward,” Russia with the Soviet purges and the Armenian genocide of 1915, the United States with its countless wars, not to mention the Jewish holocaust. It is impossible to claim as Arana does that “no industry characterizes the Latin American story more vividly than mining” without excluding from this history countries as vast as Argentina or such productive periods such as the industrial, manufacturing and agricultural development that Mexico has experienced since the liberalization of its economy in the 1990s. The history of Brazil is also quite different from the pattern that Arana describes. The impact of European immigration in the region since the 19th-century left another huge imprint that doesn’t fit in the general scheme. And last but not least, the role of liberal thought in this continent has been much more real and active than Arana’s perspective acknowledges. Bello, Mora, Alberdi, Sarmiento, Montalvo, Justo Sierra are not mere footnotes in Latin America’s history. Nor are the arts, which have had remarkable exponents in the region since pre-hispanic times. These creators have not ignored the afflictions of our history, but nor can their work be reduced to them.
Is violence inscribed in the Latin American genes? Is brutality so profoundly imprinted in those people that it is accepted as a norm, as a way of life? Arana thinks so: transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, DNA that is marked by the abuses and horrors of the parents and grandparents. Something that is at least debatable, becomes the main explanation of life and people in the whole of Latin America. “We believe failure is bred in the bone,” Arana writes. This is why Latin American history is a constant pendulum between street violence and government violence. It’s all in the our genes! The clinical conclusion is a strange one, in truth: until Latin America understands how silver, sword and stone have shaped its historical physiology, it cannot have salvation.
As apocalyptic fantasies go, it’s not bad. As a historical analysis, it’s unacceptable. There was more, much more, in the plural, complex, profound, diverse history of this vast universe that for convenience we call Latin America. Much more than silver, sword and stone. There was and is more, so much more.
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