Passionate about the pueblo

The Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture
March 18, 2005

In a series of discrete but overlapping essays, the reader of this book has on hand a panorama of modern Latin American culture that, in the broadness of its approach, the high quality of its contributors and its well-balanced editing, should prove to be of great value to students and specialists.

Latin America may not be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, as Churchill said of Russia, but it has always puzzled observers by its failure to realise the potential wealth of the vast section of the globe it inhabits. Latin America has proved fertile ground for those who love to think in terms of paradoxes and, while this may be fine linguistic material well suited for the cultivation of tropes, it also constitutes the trees that impede a view of the forest. The contemporary novelist Mario Vargas Llosa warns that, culturally, Latin America is and is not Europe; it cannot be anything other than hermaphrodite. Jorge Luis Borges, with none of the diffidence for which he was noted, said that Latin America's tradition was the whole of Western culture.

There are factors in Latin American culture that bear repeating. The great ethnic mixes of the coasts, plains and mountains stand in sharp contrast to the methodical elimination of the "red men" in Anglo America. The mestizos and mulattos that crowd the social scene are not the result of racism in the modern sense. The ethnic minorities in the former colonies of Portugal and Spain were free to move up and down the social scale as economic conditions changed. It is instructive to recall in these days of turmoil in Iraq that guerrilla warfare, as introduced by the Spaniards against Napoleon, was quickly adapted by the Quechua Indians, who refused to recognise Simón Bolívar's important victory over the Spaniards in the Battle of Jun!n (1824). Hanging on the fringe of the battlefield, the guerrilla reduces the efficiency and weakens the resolve of the supposedly victorious army. Such was the role of the Spanish guerrillas against Napoleon and a hundred years later of the forces of Fidel Castro in Cuba against Fulgencio Batista.

Jason Wilson, in a section on Spanish-American narrative, makes an interesting distinction between the escapist pleasures of Anglo-American readers as opposed to their Latin American counterparts, who read to discover identity or to evaluate the novel's relation to national problems.

What had to happen for the great Latin American literary boom to take place was a sophisticated, well-read, liberal public. Translations, often wooden, or the original French, did not do the trick. Borges, discovered by the French and not Argentinians, could help a public get ready. The narrative's dizzying ascent from a ghetto world of neglect and ignorance to one of the leading literatures of the world is a chapter in the history of literature yet to be written. No One Writes to the Colonel , the title of a collection of tales by Gabriel Garc!a Márquez, could today be retitled "No One Stops Writing to the Colonel".

Students of the Iberian Peninsula never fail to remark on the strength of popular Hispanic culture. Spain was the European country of choice for romantics because they sensed deep roots in the pueblo. Many writers saw a link between landscape and literature and would have agreed with José Ortega y Gasset's contention that Spain's culture consists of what the pueblo has been able to do, and if the pueblo has been unable to do it, it has remained undone.

In the New World, the pueblo hastened to commandeer certain icons of Catholicism, notably the Virgin of Guadalupe with the Indian tone of her skin and her identification with the Indians. Popular culture now embraces mass culture: radio, cinema and, above all, the telenovelas , whose appeal extends from Moscow to Patagonia and which have been influential in creating a unified national and international market, much to the annoyance of intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, who considered popular culture superficial and fleeting.

Meanwhile, the new version of the melting pot in what used to be called the "neighbours to the north" continues as more elements enter the mix.

Arrivals from Castro's Cuba in 1958-59 have multiplied and face Chicanos, whose occupancy of the US Southwest preceded the arrival of the Mayflower .

The last chapter of this anthology, written by Ilan Stavans and pointedly titled "Hispanic USA", is one of the most fascinating. Given the speed of the media today, we are literally witnessing the rapid growth of a language in an immediate way never before experienced. There are 350 million speakers of English and 250 million speakers of Spanish, and they are all potential users of a new language developing from the contact between English and Spanish, known as el espanglés . When the Mexican poet, essayist and Nobel prizewinner Octavio Paz was asked his opinion of "fractured Spanish", he said: "It's neither good nor bad - it's awful." The purists have always fought a losing battle, but this time it seems more obvious.

Spanish is elastic and polyphonic, as Stavans points out, quick to borrow, Hispanicise and invent new combinations of words. The effortless handling of a different set of codes widens the registers available from traditional academic "purity" to puns and double-puns, handled by gifted, highly educated individuals, such as Susana Chávez-Silverman, whose memoirs ( Killer Crónicas ) are sheer bilingualisms, determined to use Spanish and English in new ways. There is still the transnational respectability of Castilian, but the Spanish born from contact with English is leading the way towards a new Romance language.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, US.

The Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture

Editor - John King
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 356
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 521 63151 3 and 63651 5

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