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Roberto Romano, artigo "antigo"...

How 'latin' is Latin America?

Revue Art-Press 249, septembre 1999

How 'latin' is Latin America?

Roberto Romano

Applied to the vast geographical zone that stretches from Mexico to the Caribbean and from there all the way to the south, “Latin America” is what Émile Benveniste called a “starter” term. We have plenty of evidence that the “Latinity” of South America is far from obvious and that the term is misleading as regards discourse, economics, politics, art and religion: yet, whenever a writer —even a South American— is stuck for a way of describing the continent´s cultural fabric, out comes that word ´Latin`, allowing him to start his argument.

Authors who have taken on the thankless task of studying the "Latinity" of America tend to begin in the 19th century with intra-European feuding and the rivalry between Europe and the emerging U.S. Artur Ardao cites Michel Chevalier, a French Saint-Simonian whose depiction of America cultures, published in 1836, drew on old ideas concerning hypothetical “Saxon”, “Germanic”, “Latin” or “Slav” identities. He declared that North America was Protestant and Anglo-Saxon, while the South was Catholic and Latin. (1) But here we need to consider the broader context, beyond the social utopias and doctrines formulated in the “Age of Prophets”. (2)

The term “Latin America” originated in French foreign policy and, more particularly, in Napoleon III´s attempts to gain a firm foot-hold in the Americas. For the Emperor, it was vital that the U.S. should not take control of Mexico, since it would make them dominant all the way to the West Indies and South America. “If”, Napoleon wrote to General Forey, “Mexico retains her independence and territorial integrity, and if, with the support of France, a stable governement can be established there, we will have restored its strenght and prestige to the Latin race on the ´other´ side of the Ocean […] it is our duty to intervene in Mexico and to raise our flag there”. ( 3) Analysts of Hispanic South America also signal the attempt to use French culture in the intellectual movements working for the modernization of society and the state, with a view to reducing the Spanish influence. In the case of Brazil, we should not forget that when Dom João fled there as Napoleon I ´s army advanced into Portugal, he was followed by a wave of French influences whose impact on Brazilian culture was felt all the way through to the 20th century.

In Search of the ideal colonist

It is important to realize that the name “Latin America” was the fruit of political, economic, strategic, ideological and even religious conflicts involving Europe, the U.S. and South America itself. The word “Latin” does not refer to a common culture inherited from “Latium” via Spain and Portugal, but was an invention designed to bring out the strategic difference of the southern continent with regard to the northern one. While North Americans were said to be Protestant capitalists, materialist believers in the market, South Americans, like the French, were seen as upholders of cultural and spirituals values. South Americans governments have played on this uncertanty ever since : should they assert their affinity with the political, doctrinaire and artistic forms and culture of France, or welcome U.S. hegemony ? The Organization of America States, a product of North American dominance, has always been handicapped by this dilemma: even today, its members still havent´t made up their minds as to wether it is better to accept U.S. dominance or to seek cooperation with France, which epitomizes "Latinity". It was a similar uncertainty that underlay the debates as to the kind of immigration that would be strategically most appropriate for the new nations.

Thus, in the 19th century, discussions concerning the kind of workforce that would best replace the slaves unfailingly referred to ideas about the “hardworking and disciplined” character of certain nations. Italy, France and Germany were perceived as models. Hence the large numbers of Italian and German immigrants in Brazil. The French influx was limited to the major towns and to highly qualified sectors from the arts to engineering, from agronomy or urbanism and military planning.

Thus, the recipe for ideal colonization propounded by various social doctrines at the turn of the 20th century brought together cultures that were not only in conflict but would soon the fighting each other to the death in two world wars.

In Brazil, the issue of the “ideal immigrant” was hotly debated from Empire to Republic. The positivists, purported upholders of French culture, were divided: some called for German, others for French. Miguel Lemos, the head of the Positivist Church, represented the latter position, while the former was embodied by Luis Pereira Barreto, leader of the unorthodox positivists. Lemos claimed that “Barreto´s ideal is Germanization of Brazil, and so he extols the ´noble German race´. Barreto countered this accusation of Germanophilia with demographic arguments: “if I have not recommended French immigration, it is only for reasons of common sense. I know that France does not have enough inhabitants even for her needs […] and it would be the height of folly to ask her to depopulate in order to come and populate Brazil. The most rudimentary knowledge of demography rules this out: it is well known tha the populations of Prussia and England will double over next 45 years, whereas it will take France 198 years to double its own (Bertillon)”. (4) Like many others, Barreto sought a way of setting the huge Brazilian territory with productive immigrants who would be able to break with the “backward” models of the earlier Iberian colonists.

While the ideological debate raged on, politicians pursued “practical” ways of replacing the African slaves who had sustained the country´s economic activity for hundreds of years. Thus the first liberal government made plans to import Chineses laborers, who were reputed to be “an excellent working tool”. While the positivists objected, their humanitarian approach was very much the exception. With their hegemonic position in world coffee production and trade, liberals took a pragmatict approach, seeking immigrants who would increase productivity and agricultural expertise while offering “innate” honesty and discipline. This idealized “good immigrant” —the mirror image of Rousseau´s “noble savage”— was, they argued, the only way of overcoming the handicaps afflicting large numbers of the poor, including the “desorganized and lazy” peasant farmers, the “savage and violent” natives and, last but not least, the Africans, that “impure and redoutable horde of the two million blacks, suddenly gifted with constitutional prerogatives”. Described by some prominent liberals as the “this African toxin”, blacks were perceived as threatening “the physical unity of the Nation itself, abasing the nationality level in proportion to their prominence in the mixture” (5) For such liberals it mattered little whether immigrants were Latins or Teutons: they could be anything provided they were not African, not part of the “toxin” threatening to cripple economic and social depelopment.

Thus, in accordance with this policy of substitution, governments from the Empire period to the Republic attracted immigrants of nearly every nationality. Today, in the State of São Paulo, not far from the border with Paraná, the small town originally named Núcleo Colonial Barão de Antonina remains a kind of Tropical Babel, with the descendents of Russian, Japanese, Hungarian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish and many other nationalities all living side by side. The plan had been to give these new arrivals and adaptation period to learn all about the conditions of Brazil and the land that they would soon be farming. But this was abandoned in favor of the direct implantation of the different national groups in separate regions. The Núcleo is a monument, a unique community where Russians would fraternize with Japanese and and all would tend their garden in perfect, Candide-like harmony. (6)

Why do I insist on this aspect of Brazilian immigration ? Because it played a crucial role in the “modernization” of the country´s economic life, as indeed it did throughout south America. While the black labor force was less prominent in Argentina and Chile, the political élites there were just as anxious to find “industrious and disciplined” immigrants to replace the “undesirable” Indians, the Spaniards, who were reputedly averse to hard physical work, and other “backward” groups. In the light of this doctrine, which prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it seems more than a little dubious to describe South American culture as “Latin”.

Thus, if we dig beneath the culturally homogenous topsoil of the Spanish and Portuguese languages, we find a real diversity of cultures and populations. We already know, of course, that North Americana has its own “Latin” territory in Quebec, that English is spoken in the Caribbean and that at least two Guianas are not “Latin”. To this can be added the Germanic population in the State of Espirito Santo, which is of Pomeranian origin. São Paulo too has a sizeable German colony, complete with Jewish communities that have sustained a Yiddish culture. Throughout the country one can find inhabitants of Arab origin, mainly Lebanese or Syrians, plus Turks and Armenians. In Paraná State, there are large Japanese, German, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Russian colonies. In the State of Santa Catarina you will find Germans, poles as well as Portuguese from the Azores, which has a different culture from the Portuguese mainland. There are large German and Italian contingents in Rio Grande do Sul.

Thix mix of nationalities proved highly uncomfortable for the dictator Getúlio Vargas, both before, during and after World War II. In the face of the Nazi thread, and the risk that the German and other populations might break away, his government took a number of extreme measures. A ban on vernacular languages in schools and public places was consolidated by an aggressive propaganda campaign in favor of “Brazilianness”, a fictional construct in which cultural, political, religious and racial conflicts were dissolved into a homogeneous value system founded on a mythical “racial democracy”. The reality is that all these cultures and nationalities created and continue to create their own distinct political, artistic and religious forms which are a long away from this notional “Brazilian culture”. If we look at those States without prominent Slavic or German groups, we find another negation of the country´s supposed “Latinity” : African influences. These are specially strong in Bahia´s markedly islamic religion and culture. In Pernambuco, Paraiba and other north-eastern states, vestiges of dutch culture can be detected in among the Portuguese, while the region´s intellectual history has been marked by a German influence which is perceptible even today.

The German cultural heritage is particularly strong in Chile, especially in the army. There is also an obvious German presence in Paraguay and Peru, which has a prominent Japanese community. The Anglophilia of the Argentinean upper classes has become something of a joke to their neighbors, while powerful movements in Chile and even Brazil have tried to strenghthen the German cultural and economic presence in these countries. (7) A similar phenomenon has occurred in Uruguay. In contrast, countries to the north, such as Venezuela, have assimalet Northe American cultural models more throughly than their neighbors.

It is undeniable that French culture has had a decisive influence on the official and unofficial culture of many countries. This was the case in Brazil, from the Empire periodo through to World War I, when the arts, politics, economics, science and even the military were indebt to Gallic models and products. Only after World War II did the army begin to model its techniques and strategies on those of the United States. In recent decades howeverm Brazilian interest in French culture has waned somewahat, largerly through fault of the French government itself, which has failed to maintain its connection in the region. Among university freshmen, those with a basica grasp of French are outnumbered by both English and the German speakers.

From the above, it follows that while political considerations (and, therefore, the concept of “Latinity”) will be central to South America´s cultural self-definition and global positioning in the coming century, it would be a mistake to overlook the minority cultural “pockets” that are so much a part of the national fabric. Some of these communicate with one another, others remain obstinately isolated. Nowadays it is not so uncommun for former German colonies to attempt to forge new links with the motherland. The same has happened with Italy, Spain, Portugal and, to a lesser degree, France. Since it is possible to claim the former nationality of one´s grandparents, many citizens are trying to add an Asian or European nationality to their South one, while developing their links with the linguistic, social, scientific and cultural practices of the old country. This phenomenon is recent, but developing fast. And while most grandchildren of European immigrants (particularly those from Ukrainem Germany, Hungary, Poland and Russia) studying in universities in the Brazilian Souths still don´t speak their ancestral languages, European countries are trying to change this situation.

Cultural Globalization

The “Latinity” of south America is thus a universal abstraction, an increasingly square peg in the round hole of social, political and economic reality —all the more so since the growing cultural influence of the U.S. renders impossible the kind of “Latin hegemony” that could be envisaged in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At a time when adoption of the US dollar as the national currency is increasingly seen as the only bulkwark against economic collapse, when cable TV and the internet are the new and highly efficient agents of an imperial style Pan-americanism. It is important to redefine the real meaning of this “Latinity” which almost automatically disapears in the analysis of South American cultural and social diversity.


(1) A. Ardao : Panamericanismo y Latinoamericanismo. America Latina en sus ideas. (Mexico City: Siglo Veintino Editores, 1986).

(2) Refer to Paul Benichou´s well-know analysis: Le Temps des Prophètes. Doctrines de l´age romantique. (Paris, Gallimard, 1977).

(3) Letter dated july 3, 1862. Cf. M. Rojas, Los Cien Nombres de America. Eso que Descrubio Colón (Barcelona: Lumen, 1991).

(4) Cf. Ivan Lins, História do Positivismo no Brasil (São Paulo, CECEd. 1991).

(5) Julio de Mesquita Filho: A Crise nacional. Reflexões em torno de uma data (São Paulo, Seção de Obras de O Estado de São Paulo, 1925). Cf. Roberto Romano: Brasil, Igreja contra Estado (São Paulo, Kayrós Ed. 1979).

(6) More informations avaiables:

(7) Brepohl de Magalhães, M.D. : “Os Pangermanistas Na Argentina, No Brasil e No Chile.” In: E. G. Dayrell; Zilda Iokoi. (Org.). América Latina Contemporânea: desafios e perspectivas (São Paulo, Ed. Expressão e Cultura, 1996), páginas 212.

Roberto Romano
Translation from the French, C. Penwarden.

Roberto Romano teaches political philosophy at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas. His publications include Lux in tenebris, Silence et bruit and others books and articles.

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