*Spanish American Essay



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Spanish American Essay

The essay, a protean form that Alfonso Reyes deemed the centaur of the genres, has assumed many shapes and roles in Latin America. Most critics agree that the literary essay was born in Spanish America toward the end of the 18th century as the voice of the Independence movements. The form it acquired did not faithfully follow its European precursors but assumed a sui generis model that reflected the realities of the new world.
The Spanish American literary essay is the axis which has aligned the history of every country on the continent. Thus, intellectuals have utilized it as a means to examine, explicate, and theorize about the fate of the Spanish Americas as a whole. In the 20th century it has been instrumental in defining a distinctive Spanish American identity and the ethos of most countries. This does not imply that other types of essay have not been cultivated; however, the literary essay that ideologically follows the genesis of Spanish America is the most representative of the genre. Furthermore, most Latin American literati bring into their writing an eciectic intellectual baggage because of the multiple roles they play within the framework of their countries’ circumstances: i.e. they are statesmen, physicians, professors, engineers, or philosophers whose work reflects their background. As a consequence, the literary essay can have, for example, strong philosophical or scientific overtones, in either style or content.
The first essayistic texts that dealt with ideals of independence date from the last decades of the 18th century. American and French revolutionary texts were smuggled in by educated criollos (Spaniards born in America), who translated and published them clandestinely. The news about the American and French revolutions and the Enlightenment ideals behind them created social and political unrest, which was reflected in the literature of the time. In exile, the Peruvian Jesuit Juan Pablo Vizcardo (1748–98) wrote Carta dirijida a los españoles americanos por uno de sus compatriotas (1792.;
Letter directed to the American Spaniards by one of their compatriots), in which he expressed his urgent conviction for an independent America. In Colombia, Camilo Torres (1766–1816) wrote El memorial de agravios (1809; A brief of offenses) against the Spaniards, and the Argentine Mariano Moreno (1778–1811), one of the translators of Rousseau’s Contrat social, defended free trade in Representación a nombre de los hacendados (1809; Representation in the name of the ranchers). Two Mexican writers come to mind in this period: José Servando Teresa de Mier (1763–1827), a Dominican, patriot, and adventurer, and José Joaqufn Fernández de Lizardi (1776–1827). Teresa de Mier was persecuted by the Spaniards throughout his life because of his liberal thought and writings. He published Relación de lo que sucedió en Europa al Doctor Don Servando Teresa de Mier después que fue trasladado allá por resultas de lo actuado contra él en Mexico, desde julio de 1795 hasta octubre de 1805 (1820; Report of what happened to Doctor Don Servando Tere sa de Mier after he was sent there as a consequence of what was done against him in Mexico from July 1795 to October 1805), Apología (1820; Apology), and Memorias (1820; Memoirs). The last was written in Spain and reflects Teresa de Mier’s intense nationalism. Fernández de Lizardi wrote under the pen name of El Pensador Mexicano (The Mexican thinker). He founded various newspapers, including El Pensador Mexicano (1812–14), Alacena de Frioleras (1815– 16; Cupboard of trinkets), El Conductor Eléctrico (1820; The electric conductor), and Conversaciones del Payo y el Sacristán (1824–25; Conversations between the peasant and the sacristan). Throughout his writings, Fernández de Lizardi disseminated the new ideals of independence as he criticized the political and social situations of the day. In Chile, the friar Camilo Henríquez (1769–1825) started the newspapers La Aurora de
Chile (1812; The dawn of Chile) and El Monitor Araucano (1813; The Araucan monitor), in which he offered liberal reflections. Once exiled in Argentina, he published Ensayo (Essay), about demarcated radicalism, and “El catecismo de los patriotas” (1812; The patriots’ catechism), in which he expressed his deep trust in reason as the means to eliminate ignorance and superstition in the colonies.
Another outstanding personality of this period is the Ecuadorian Javier Eugenio de Santa Cruz y Espejo (1747–95), son of an Indian and a mestizo woman. An erudite physician and liberal patriot, he was the subject of racial discrimination. Santa Cruz y Espejo devoted his life’s work to denouncing the inequalities and injustices that plagued the colonies. He wrote political speeches and social criticism in a sarcastic style, as well as dialogues and scientific articles. Some appeared in the newspaper he founded, Primicias de la cultura de Quito (1792; First fruits of culture in Quito). Other works include El nuevo Luciano de Quito o despertador de los ingenios (1779; The new Luciano of Quito or the one who awakens talents), Marco Porcio Catón (1780), Reflexiones…acerca de un método seguro para preservar a los pueblos de las viruelas (1785; Reflections…on a safe method to protect people from smallpox), and Defensa de los curas de Riobamba (1786; Defense of the priests from Riobamba). Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the Venezuelan liberator of Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, left a great essayistic legacy. Among his most important texts are “Record of the Enemy’s Crimes and Reasons for Total War” (1813), a reflection about his mission of freedom, “Manifiesto de Cartagena” (1812; Cartagena manifesto), “Carta de Jamaica” (1815; Jamaica Letter), and “Discurso en el Congreso de Angostura” (1819; Speech at the Congress of Angostura). In these works, Bolívar examined how the course of Spanish American history shifted from a potential future full of hope and enthusiasm to one of disillusion and dismay as internal wars in the newly independent Venezuela and Colombia threatened to halt the liberation of South America before it was accomplished. Bolívar believed that Enlightenment principles and ideals conflicted with the idiosyncrasy of the new nations by reason of their ethnic composition and past history. In “Carta de Jamaica” Bolívar confesses: “Good and perfectly representative institutions are not suitable for our nature, customs and present intelligence.” In “Discurso en el Congreso de Angostura” he offers this caution: “Let us keep in mind that our people is not the European, nor the North American, but a composition of Africa and America rather than an emanation of Europe; since even Spain itself is not really European because of its African ascent, its institutions and their nature.” Bolívar’s solution to the reigning anarchy was the implementation of an authoritarian and despotic government. His a priori condemnation to failure of the new republics, because of a biological and historical determinism, became a recurrent motif in Latin American thought which has persisted to the modern day.
Another Venezuelan, Andrés Bello (1781–1865), devoted his life to the intellectual development and education of the new republics. In London he founded the literary magazines Biblioteca Americana (1823; American library) and El Repertorio Americano (1826–27; American repertoire), through which he tried to elaborate an Americanist cultural program. An adoptive son of Chile—where he spent most of his life—Bello wrote some of his most important works there: Gramática de la lengua castellana, destinada al uso de los americanos (1847; A Spanish grammar designed to be used by Americans), Principios de derecho de gentes (1832; Principles of international law), Codigo civil de la republica de Chile (1855; Civil code of Chile), and Filosofía del entendimiento (1881; Philosophy of the Understanding).
Early in the second half of the 19th century, the failure of the independent regimes was evident. Freedom had only changed the surface of an infrastructure that had taken the Spaniards three centuries to build. The Romantic wave of the i^th century brought with it an infusion of liberalism, love for what was autochthonous, and a firm commitment to change the Spanish American reality through popular education and progress. The United States provided an example of a republican system, at least until its imperialistic intentions were revealed. Argentina was the first country to have a serious literary circle, Asociación de Mayo (May association), formed by young liberal intellectuals, most of them educated in Paris. Among this group was Esteban Echeverría (1805–51), who imported to the new continent the Romantic ideology from France even before it had reached Spain. Another member, Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810–84), anti-Romantic but an Americanist at heart, advocated the institution of laws that responded to the unique needs of Argentina and that were not imitations of foreign laws. He authored Bases y puntos departida para la organizacióZn poíitica de la Reública Argentina (1852.; Foundations and points of departure for the political organization of the Argentine republic), El crimen de la guerra (wr. c. 1880s, pub. 1915; The Crime of War), Estudios económicos (1916; Economic studies), and Cartas Quillotanas (1853; Quillotanas letters).
The most important intellectual among the Argentine Romantics was undoubtedly Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811–88). Not only did he become the president of his country, but his works influenced future essayists throughout the continent. Sarmiento was a fervent admirer of the U.S. democratic system, writing biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. When Sarmiento lived in Chile, he started El Progreso
(early 18405; Progress), in which he interpreted Argentina’s past and present circumstances. He firmly believed that education was the key to progress and that the Spanish heritage, as well as the American natives, greatly impeded development. Recent critical readings of Civilización y barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1845; Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or Civilization and Barbarism) show that Sarmiento discriminated against the native elements of his country by outlining the quest for progress in Argentina as “a struggle between the European civilization and the Indian savagery, between intelligence and matter.” In 1849 he wrote De la educación popular: Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina (Of popular education: foundations and starting points for the political organization of Argentina). In one of his last works, Conflictos y armonía de las razas en América (1883; Conflict and harmony of the races in America), Sarmiento examined the racial characteristics of Spanish America from a positivist point of view.
José Victorino Lastarria (1817–88) represented Romantic thought in Chile. For Lastarria, literature was the best medium for intellectuals to identify the true national ethos, and he passionately advocated a national literature. His Investigaciones sobre la influencia social de la conquista y del sistema colonial de los españoles en Chile (1844; Research on the social influence and colonial system of the Spaniards in Chile) attacked the feudal system that the Spaniards imposed on the new continent for three centuries, and specifically targeted its major representatives: the Church and the army. In the texts Lastarria published under the title Misceldnea histórica y literaria (1868; Historical and literary miscellany), he argued that progress required the modernization of every aspect of the complex organism that comprises a country. Chile, therefore, needed a drastic change from the past, a total awakening of consciousness, education, and spiritual evolution in order to succeed in the future. Another Chilean intellectual who shared Lastarria’s ideas was Francisco Bilbao (182.3–65). Sociabilidad chilena (1844; Chilean sociability) examined the benefits of a liberal system as opposed to a conservative one;
Chile was under a conservative regime for two decades during Bilbao’s lifetime. Other works by Bilbao included La América en peligro (1862.; America in danger), and El evangelio americano (1864; American gospel). He always tried to demonstrate that the conservatism inherited from colonial times would only lead to backwardness.
Within the northern countries in South America, the Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo (1832–89) stands out as a major man of letters and eminent essayist. He spent most of his life in exile in Colombia, Panama, and Europe as a result of his ferocious and open denunciation of two of the presidents of his country: Gabriel García Moreno and Ignacio de Veintimilla. Montalvo is considered one of the best examples of the Spanish American essayist, achieving a perfect balance between analysis, feeling, and imagination. His work exposed the ills that afflicted his country, and expressed his political and social creed. From the pages of the newspapers he founded, El Cosmopolita (1866–69; The cosmopolitan) and £/ Regenerador (1876–78; The regenerator), he lashed out against the despots, clergy included, who ruled his country. A rebel, Montalvo was unafraid of polemics. Once, when he came back from one of his forced exiles to Europe, he wrote to the president of Ecuador, Gabriel García Moreno: “A few years living away from my beloved country, in the process of learning about and abhorring the despots in Europe, have taught me, at the same time, to know and scorn the petty tyrants of Spanish America. If for some reason I decide to take part in our poor dealings, you, and any other whose conduct would be hostile to the freedom and rights of a country, would have in me an enemy, and not a meek one.” His most important works are Siete tratados (1882–83;
Seven treatises), Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (1895; Chapters that Cervantes forgot), Geometría moral (1902; Moral geometry), published after his death, and the periodical Las Catilinarias (1880–82; Catilinarians), written against the Ecuadorian president Ignacio de Veintimilla.
In Mexico José María Luis Mora (1794–1850) published liberal, anti-clerical, and antimilitary essays. He held the colonial powers responsible for the rampant backwardness and ignorance of Mexico; he advocated popular education, civil rights, and, overall, progress, as long as it was pursued on nonviolent terms. Some of Mora’s publications include Mexíco y sus revoluciones (1836; Mexico and its revolutions) and Obras sueltas
(1837; Miscellaneous works). Cuba is represented during this period by Jose Antonio Saco (1797–1879) and José de la Luz y Caballero (1800–62), the latter a disciple of the former. Both devoted themselves to education. The podium was for them a vehicle for their nationalistic and liberal ideas, since Cuba had not yet obtained its independence.
Saco published the three-volume Colección de papeles científicos, históricos, políticos, y de otros ramos (1858–59; A collection of scientific, historical, political, and other papers), and an unfinished work, Historia de la esclavitud (1875–77; History of slavery).
Luz y Caballero’s life production was compiled in Escritos literarios (Literary writings) in 1946.
The intellectuals’ neoclassic and Romantic ideas did little to pull Spanish America out of chaos, and disillusion reigned among them. The aversion to the Spanish legacy proved insufficient to eradicate its idiosyncrasy. The positivisim of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer proved more effective. Mexican statesman and physician Gabino Barrera (1818–81) applied Comte’s three states to Mexican history. The theological state was the colonial era, the metaphysical state was the period of independence and the years that followed, and the positivist state was the present. Religious beliefs, spirituality, and intuition were replaced by a deep faith in scientism. Although there were definite liberal changes, like those of Benito Juarez in Mexico, progress was viewed from the perspective of a privileged social class. The Indian, African, and mestizo groups were at the periphery of progress. In Mexico, positivist thought was represented by Justo Sierra (1848–1912.). A historian, statesman, and poet, Sierra also advocated development through public education. Some of his works are the “Prólogo” he wrote to Poesías by Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (1896), México, su evolución social (1900–02; Mexico, Its Social Evolutiori), and Juárez, su obra y su tiempo (1905; Juarez, his work and his times).
A major intellectual who held a more humanist view of positivism was the Puerto Rican Eugenio Maria de Hostos (1839–1903). Though he was born on the island, his work was committed to the continent. He participated in the political life of Spain, but when he realized that the independence of the Antilles was not an issue there, he returned to the U.S., where he traveled extensively, spreading a message of freedom, civilization, and independence for Puerto Rico. He established himself in Chile until his death. Hostos published Moral social (Social morality) in 1888. His style tends to be positivist devoid of feeling and following a logical structure—but his speeches, the most renowned in Spanish America, were more lyrical. The speech given in 1884 at the Escuela Normal of Santo Domingo has been called by Antonio Caso “a masterpiece of moral thought in Spanish America.”
The Cuban sociologist, educator, philosopher, and literary critic Enrique José Varona (1849–1933) yearned, as Hostos did, for the independence of his country. Unlike Hostos, Varona witnessed the liberation of the island, but also the disenchantment that came later.
Some of his works are compiled in Conferencias filosóficas (1880; Philosophical lectures), Discursos literarios y filosóficos (1883; Literary and philosophical studies), Seis conferencias (1885; Six lectures), Artículos y discursos (1891; Articles and speeches), Desde mi belvedere (1907; From my belvedere), and Violetas y ortigas (1917; Violets and nettles).
In Peru, the poet and writer Manuel González Prada (1848–1918) was prominent during this time, becoming a public figure after Peru’s disastrous defeat at the hands of Chile in the Pacific War. His speeches harangued his compatriots to wake up to their reality. González Prada was a positivist in that he believed only science could alleviate the ills inherited from the Colony. His prose is devoid of intimacy and strongly rejects the purity of Castilian Spanish, following the usage in Peru. González Prada was also the first to call attention to the absence of the Indian population in the national plans. A defender of the underdog and an enemy of Peruvian conservatism, he did not find much support in his country. Some of his major works are Páfinas libres (1894; Free pages), Horas de lucha (1908; Hours of struggle), and El tonel de Diogenes (1945; The barrel of Diogenes).
The Colombian Carlos Arturo Torres (1867–1911), an educator, statesman, journalist, literary critic, and poet, left behind an essayistic body of work with strong positivist overtones. In Idola fori (1910), he discussed in a scientific manner the consequences of the transplantation of European ideas to Latin America. Other essays are Literatura de ideas (1911; Literature of ideas), Estudios de crítica moderna (1917; Studies on modern criticism), and Estudios ingleses (1907; English studies).
Positivism was later joined by socioanthropological ideas that claimed to interpret the social and cultural development of a race according to their biological grouping. One of the European racial theorists who was widely read in Latin America, Gustave Le Bon, maintained that, just as there were physical racial traits, there were immutable psychosomatic traits that shaped the make-up of a national character. Thus, the concept of superior and inferior races emerged. An inferior race could experience positive but superficial changes through education and refinement, but the essence of its inferiority would never change. The explicit racism of this branch of sociology and social evolutionism found ready followers in Spanish America. Indian and African groups were considered pernicious elements that blocked progress in their countries, and those of mixed race were considered even worse. The only solution to this “malady” was a greater European migration to counteract the other two races. Deploying medical terminology, the essayists diagnosed the “sickness” of the continent. In Argentina, Agustin Álvarez (1857–1914), published his Manual de patologia politica (1899; Handbook of political pathology). That same year, the Venezuelan Cesar Zumeta (1860–1955) published El continente enfermo (The sick continent). In 1903 the Argentine Carlos Octavio Bunge
(1875–1918) literally followed Le Bon’s ideas, applying them to the continent in Nuestra América (Our America). In 1905, his compatriot Manuel Ugarte (1878–1951) authored Enfermedades sociales (Social maladies). Ironically, most of the rest of his extensive essay production expressed strong socialist tendencies. In 1909, the Bolivian Alcides
Arguedas (1879–1946) condemned Bolivia in Pueblo enfermo: Contribucion a la psicologia de los pueblos hispanoamericanos (1909; Sick country: contribution to the psychology of the Spanish American countries). In his last edition of 1934, Arguedas agreed that pedagogy was Bolivia’s only salvation, though it would never make illustrious men out of the Indians. Francisco Garcia Calderón (1883–1953) was a Peruvian writer who concurred with the intellectuals mentioned above and who published mostly in French. His main piece, Les Démocraties latines de I’Amérique (1912; The Latin democracies of America), focused on the question of race, taking for granted that the non-European groups were inferior to those from the old continent. The racism and snobbism of this work should not cloud his other more humanist essays. Another prolific thinker of this school was the Argentine José Ingenieros (1877–1925), who, though a socialist, persisted in explaining the ills of Spanish America through the heterogeneity of superior and inferior races peopling it. He wrote La simulación en la lucha por la vida (1903; The simulation in the struggle for life), El hombre mediocre (1913; The mediocre man), and Psicología genética (1911; Genetic psychology).
Almost simultaneous with this somber and depressing view of Spanish America, a more spiritualist and aestheticist movement arose, highlighting humanist values, intuition, spiritualism, and a new respect for the Latin-Spanish tradition. The Peruvian Ricardo Palma (1833–1919) glorified the colonial era in La bohemia de mi tiempo (1887; The bohemian of my time) and the Mexican Guillermo Prieto (1818–97) recalled the past in Memorias de mis tiempos 1828–1853 (1906; Memoirs of my times 1828–53). Spiritualist tendencies made room for a literary movement called Modernismo (Modernism; not to be confused with the European Modernism), in which language and form bloomed anew.
Even though poetry was the primary Modernist genre, the essay was invigorated stylistically and ideologically. The Cuban José Martí (1853–95) is considered the precursor of this movement, an outstanding representative of this humanist reaction to the problems of Spanish America and a hero to his country. He cultivated all genres, including journalism and translation. A renovator of Spanish prose and verse, he wrote in renowned newspapers like La Nación of Buenos Aires, El Partido Liberal (The liberal party) in Mexico and La Opinión Nacional of Caracas among others. Concern for his country and its independence was the main thread of key articles collected in El presidio político en Cuba (1871; The political prison in Cuba), La república española ante la revolución cubana (1873; The Spanish republic in view of the Cuban revolution), and in Martí’s war journal. Guatemala (1878) represents a more mature prose—rhythmic and chromatic—and Poema del Niágara (1882; Poem to Niagara) laments the spiritual destitution and the constant change humanity undergoes. In “Nuestra América” (1891;
Our America), he left behind the immortal words: “There is no battle between civilization and savagery, but between false erudition and nature.” True to his convictions, Martí joined the Cuban army and soon died in a skirmish.
The Mexican poet Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (1859–95), a prominent member of the Modernista (Modernist) movement like Martí, created the chronicle, a type of refined, mundane, frivolous, and poetic conversation published in the major newspapers of Mexico. He began the Revista Azul (Blue review), whose articles were paradigms of the French Belle Epoque. The Uruguayan poet Julián J.Casal (1889–1954) wrote journalistic articles on literary and artistic topics, as well as contributing to the chronicle. The Nicaraguan Rubén Darío (1867–1916) founded the Modernista movement. A true aesthete, Darío was a poet and fiction writer, as well as a journalist. His journalistic work, published in major newspapers in various cities, was gathered later. Los raros (1896; The rare ones) is a collection of essays about literary personalities. His various trips in Europe and Spanish America allowed him to write Peregrinaciones (1901; Peregrinations).
Besides aesthetic thematics, Darío was also concerned with the U.S. imperialist attitude toward the continent. Many countries had succumbed: Mexico, the Central American countries, Colombia, and the coup fatal, the Spanish-American war that determined the destiny of the Antilles. His last essays—included in two of his final collections, La caravana pasa (1902; The caravan goes by) and Tierras solares (1904; Solar lands)—are permeated with melancholy and disillusion.
The Uruguayan writer and professor José Enrique Rodó (1871–1917) was the greatest representative of the Modernist essay. His readings of the classics and the philosophers of his time allowed him to develop a theory of meritocracy, although talent, as a measure of superiority, did not take into account the pyramidal structure of the Spanish American societies where the underprivileged were deprived of any education. Rodó had unyielding faith in a free and protean spirit. In his masterpiece Ariel (1900), he defended Spanish American spiritualism over the United States’ pragmatic perspective on life. His philosophy was to return to Latin roots and to the humanist legacy the Spaniards brought to America. He coined the phrase “the colossus of the north” to refer to the United States.
Other works are Motivos de Proteo (1909; The Motives of Proteus), El mirador de Próspero (1913; The outlook of Prospero), and El camino de Paros (1918; The way to Paros). Other Modernista writers include Rodó’s disciple Carlos Nin Frías (1882–1937), the Colombians Carlos Arturo Torres and Baldomero Sanín Cano (1861–1957), the Guatemalan Enrique Gómez Carrillo (1873–1927), and the Venezuelans Manuel Díaz Rodríguez (1871–1927) and Rufino Blanco Fombona (1874–1944), the latter a multifaceted writer who later became a critic of this movement.
Two other ideological currents reacted against positivism. A group of young Mexican writers—Ateneo de la Juventud (Atheneum of youth)—looked for new answers under the guidance of the Dominican Pedro Henríquez Ureña (1884–1946). Hostos’ follower and Rodó’s admirer, Henríquez Ureña led the group in the study of the irrationalists. He believed that in every historical crisis Spanish America faced, its spirit remained unharmed and sound. The continent could become its own utopia, for it was only beginning to forge its future. Henríquez Ureña’s message to the Ateneo de la Juventud could be summarized in his own words:
The universal man we dream of, the kind our America aspires to, will not be an outcast, will enjoy everything, will appreciate all hues, but will belong to his land; his land and not others’, the land will give him the intense flavor of what is native, and that will be his best preparation to taste that which has a genuine flavor and a true character. Universality does not mean being an outcast: in a utopian world, character differences born of the climate, language and traditions should not disappear; but all of these differences, instead of signifying division and discordance, should be combined into diverse hues of human unity. Never uniformity, the ideal of sterile imperialistic systems; yes to unity, as a harmony of the multi-unanimous peoples’ voices. (La utopía de América: Patria de la justicia [1925; America’s utopia: country of justice]) His major works are Ensayos críticos (1905; Critical essays), Literary Currents in Latin America (1945), Historia de la cultura en la América Hispana (1947; A history of Spanish American culture), and his most notorious text, Seis ensayos en busca de nuestra
expresión (1928; Six essays in search of our expression).
Great essayists and philosophers followed Henríquez Ureña: the Mexican Alfonso Reyes (1889–1959), for example, ranked by many as the best prose writer of the continent. Some of his outstanding collections of essays are Visión de Anáhuac (1917; Vision of Anahuac), Ancorajes (1951; Anchorages), El cazador (1921; The hunter), Última Tule (1942; Last Tule), Discursos por Virgilio (1931; Discourses about Virgil), and Letras de la Nueva España (1948; Letters of the New Spain). Antonio Caso (1883– 1946) is remembered as the keen philosopher of the Ateneo and for his masterpiece, La existencia como economía, como desinterés y como caridad (1919; Existence as economy, as selflessness and as charity). He also published Discursos a la nación mexicana (1922; Speeches to the Mexican nation) and El peligro del hombre (1942; The danger of man). José Vasconcelos (1882–1959), the essayist most influenced by the Mexican Revolution, dreamed of a cosmic, Spanish American conglomerate of races.
Absorbed in the triumph of the revolution, and in the energy that emanates from aestheticism, he believed it would be the fifth and most superior race. These ideas are expressed in La raza cósmica (1925; The cosmic race), Indología (1927; Indianology— Vasconcelos’ term), and Ulises criollo (1935–39; A Mexican Ulysses).
In the Andean countries, a spiritualist movement instilled with telluric overtones was the response to the racism of scientism. In Bolivia, Franz Tamayo (1879–1956) rejected Alcides Arguedas’ predeterminism and exalted the individual will in Creación de la pedagogía nacional (1910; The creation of a national pedagogy). Fernando Díez de Medina (1908–90), statesman, journalist, and writer, was active in the nationalization of the mines (Bolivia’s main export was tin) and helped design the agrarian reform. He defended the Indian character and the magical powers that the earth exercises on humans.
His major essays are Nayjama (1950) and El velero nacional (1935; The national sailing vessel). In Thunupa (1947), based on an Aymaran legend, Díez de Medina described the main god’s son as a cosmogonic numen, the regenerative spirit of the Andean peoples.
Guillermo Francovich’s (1901–90) Pachamama (1942.) also exalted the telluric forces of the earth and their influence on humans. In Argentina, Ricardo Rojas (1882–1957), in La restauración nacionalista (1909; The national restoration), La argentinidad (1916; The Argentine ethos), and Eurindia (1924) followed the idealism of Martí, Rodó, and Vasconcelos, and constructed an aesthetic foundation for the Argentine culture. Rojas’ solution for Argentina, and for the rest of the continent, was a synthesis of the different traditions that coexisted into a firmer, more cohesive one. Another Argentine, Manuel Gálvez (1882–1962), followed Rojas’ ideas in El diario de Gabriel Quiroga (1910; The diary of Gabriel Quiroga), El solar de la raza (1913; The ancestral home of the race), and Este pueblo necesita…(1934; This country needs…).
In Peru, Marxist beliefs were entangled with the idealism of the irrationalists. The most important figure is José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), who, following González Prada’s indigenismo, advocated Indian human and civil rights. He founded Amauta (1926–30; Wise man), the best radical and influential magazine on the continent. In his Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928; Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality), Mariátegui found in the Inca civilization a harmonious paradigm of religion, economy, culture, and government for Peru. Antenor Orrego (1892–1960) was the founder and director of El Norte (1922; The north), a left-oriented newspaper from Trujillo, and a regular collaborator of Amauta. He wrote El pueblo continente (1939; The people of the continent), where he emphasized the need to learn every aspect of the evolution of the Spanish American world, so as to differentiate it better from the European one. Luis E. Valcárcel (1891–?) followed the same tenets in three essays: Del ayllu al imperio (1925; From the Ayllu to the empire), Tempestad en los Andes (1927; Storm in the Andes), and Ruta cultural del Perú (1945; Cultural route of Peru).
Toward the second half of the century, the essay focused on the individual. Influenced by psychoanalysis, the Spanish American intelligentsia examined man as a microcosm of his country. At the same time it regarded him from a universal perspective, as a citizen of the world. As Emilio Uranga says in Análisis del ser del mexicano (1952; Analysis of the Mexican being): “It is not a question of interpreting that which is Mexican, that which gives us our identity as human, but rather the reverse—of interpreting that which is human as Mexican.” The Mexican Samuel Ramos (1897–1959) authored El perfil del hombre y la cultura en México (1934; Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico), a deep analysis of the national “personality” stemming from its “childhood” experiences or the experiences related to the traumatic encounter between the Indians and the conquistadores. Octavio Paz (1914), in one of his most famous essays, El laberinto de la soledad (1950; The Labyrinth of Solitude), analyzed the Mexican ethos by reinterpreting history. The Mexican man, a product of his history, is an orphan, devoid of reality, covered with masks that constantly redefine him. He is alone: “We are finally alone. As all men are. Like them, we live in a world of violence, of simulation and of the self-effacing: that which is a tight solitude, if it defends us it oppresses us, and when it hides us it disfigures and mutilates us. If we tear away these masks, if we open up, if, ultimately, we confront ourselves, we start to live and to truly think… There, in the open solitude, hands of other solitary fellow men await us, and for the first time, in our history, we are contemporaries of all men.” Many essays in the same vein as Labyrinth followed, some published in the famous review Filosofía y Letras: Emilio Uranga’s “Análisis del ser mexicano” (Analysis of the Mexican being), Jorge Carrión’s “Mito y magia del mexicano” (1952; The Mexican’s myth and magic) and “De la raíz a la flor del mexicano” (1952; From the Mexican’s root to the flower). Carlos Fuentes (1928–) wrote
París: La revolución de mayo (1968; Paris: the May revolution) on the Mexican army’s massacre of students at Tlatelolco, Tiempo mexicano (1971; Mexican time), and Nuevo tiempo mexicano (1994; A new time for Mexico), among others.
Guatemala, las líneas de su mano (1955; Guatemala, the lines in her hand) by Luis Cardoza y Aragón (1904–92) explored and interpreted the history of his country in a passionate, lyrical, and objective manner. In Cuba, Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969) started his literary career with a positivist approach, but later, in Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azúcar (1940; Cuban counterpoint between tobacco and sugar), he presented a complete analysis of the economic and social structures of Cuba. He coined the term “transculturation,” which signified the clash between diverse cultures and their interpenetration at an equal level. The founding of the leftist review Avance (1927) brought together essays like Jorge Mañach Robato’s (1898–1961) “Indagación del choteo” (1928; Inquiry about choteo), in which he analyzed the Cuban character, as well as Juan Marinello’s (1899–1977) “Sobre la inquietud cubana” (1929; About Cuban anxiety) and “Americanismo y cubanismo literario” (1932; Americanism and literary Cubanism). The Puerto Rican Antonio S.Pedreira (1899–1939) stated in Insularismo (1934) that the Puerto Rican soul, fragmented by its history, sought integration. However, his essay is heavily tinted with geographical and biological determinism. In Colombia, Eduardo Caballero Calderón (1910–) published Suramérica, tierra del hombre (1944;
South America, land of man) and Americanos y europeos (1957; Americans and Europeans), in which he questioned Latin American identity. Germán Arciniegas (1900–) was a prolific essayist deeply involved with the continent’s destiny. Some of his collections include El estudiante de la mesa redonda (1932; The round table student), América, tierra firme (1937; America, inland), Biografía del Caribe (1945; A biography of the Caribbean), and El continente de los siete colores (1965; The seven-colored continent).
The Venezuelan Mariano Picón-Salas (1901–65) was one of the first essayists to point out the weaknesses of scientism in Buscando el camino (1920; In search of a path).
His major essays are Intuición de Chile y otros ensayos en busca de una conciencia histórica (1935; An intuition of Chile and other essays in search of a historical conscience), De la Conquista a la Independencia (1944; A Cultural History of Spanish America, from Conquest to Independence), Comprensión de Venezuela (1949;
Understanding Venezuela), and Europa—America, preguntas a la esfinge de la cultura (1947; Europe—America; questions for the sphinx of culture). The Ecuadorian Jorge Carrera Andrade (1903–78) followed the same path in Viajes por países y libros (1965;
Travels through countries and books) and El volcán y el colibrí (1970; The volcano and the hummingbird). In Chile two major essayists deal with this theme: Benjamín Subercaseaux (1902–73) with Chile o una loca geografía (1940; Chile or a crazy geography), and Luis Durand (1895–1954) in Presencia de Chile (1942; Chile’s presence). Sebastián Salazar Bondy’s (1924–1965) Lima la horrible (1964) is a systematic and poignant analysis of Lima as perpetuator of the ills of the Colonial period in Peru. Mario Vargas Llosa’s (1936–) essays Políticos peruanos: Palabras, palabras, palabras, 1820–1989 (1989; Peruvian politicians: words, words, words, 1820–1989) and Desafíos a la libertad (1994; Challenges to freedom) reflect on the destiny of Peru.
Existentialism was a definite influence on the Argentine essays written by a generation concerned with the essence of human beings and the Argentine ethos. A great pessimism permeated their work. Among the most important of these essayists is Ezequiel Martínez Estrada (1895–1964), whose socialist perspective, tinted with existentialism, perceived a failing Argentina. He considered his country to be invisible and inauthentic.
Its nature was hostile, its citizens hid behind masks, and Buenos Aires was a corrupt capital which grew too fast. Its artificial world alienated humans from what was true and natural. His most important essays are Radiografía de la pampa (1933; X-Ray of the Pampa), La cabeza de Goliat (1940; The head of Goliath), and Muerte y transfiguración de Martín Fierro (1948; The death and transfiguration of Martin Fierro). Carlos Alberto Erro (1903–68) did not share Martínez Estrada’s bleakness, but he tried to define criollismo (that which is representative of the culture), argentinidad, and eventually, americanidad as universal concepts. Eduardo Mallea (1903–82.), an agonist but not a pessimist, believed there were two Argentinas: a visible one which was superficial, selfish, cruel, and held false values, and an invisible one which believed in true values and was honest and generous. This dichotomy could be seen in human beings as well as in the land. His major works are Conocimiento y expresión de la Argentina (1935;
Knowledge and expression of Argentina), Historia de una pasión argentina (1937;
History of an Argentine passion), and El sayal y la púrpura (1941; The rough cloth and the imperial cloth). Héctor A.Murena (1923–75) concludes this existentialist interpretation with El pecado original de América (1954; The original sin of America).
Murena asserted that the Spanish American, dispossessed of a history, was alienated from Western history and tried to find his place in someone else’s world. A postmodernist, Julio Cortázar (1911–84), was a major innovator of the Spanish American essay. Within his oeuvre, the collections La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (1967; Around tbe Day in Eighty Worlds) and Último round (1969; Last round), as well as Nicaragua, tan violentamente dulce (1983; Nicaraguan Sketches), are the most representative of the ideological essay. Silvina Bullrich (1915), also Argentinean, penned La Argentina contradictoria (1986; Argentina, the contradiction).
The Cuban revolution left a profound impression on the Spanish American intelligentsia. The Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano (1940–) analyzed the history of the continent following the method of dialectical materialism in Las venas abiertas de América Latina (1971; The Open Veins of Latin America). He wrote: “Underdevelopment is not a stage of development. It is its consequence. The Latin American underdevelopment arises from a foreign development, and continues to feed it.
Powerless, and agonizing since it was born, the system’s role is that of international servitude…” Another Uruguayan, Mario Benedetti (1920–), who has lived most of his life in Cuba, believed Latin America is a political term not defined by a language or a culture, but by whatever is not of the United States. He wrote El país de la cola de paja (1960; The country with the straw tail) and Crónicas del 71 (1972; Chronicles of 1971).
In Calibán: Apuntes sobre la cultura en nuestra América (1971; Caliban and Other Essays), the Cuban Roberto Fernández Retamar (1930–) analyzed the exploitation of Latin America by imperialist powers. The Bolivian Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz (1931– 80), who was assassinated by a repressive military government, wrote Desarrollo con soberanía (1967; Development with sovereignty), Lo que no debemos callar (1968; What we cannot say), and most importantly, El saqueo de Bolivia (1973; Bolivia’s plundering).
The antithesis of these essays is Del buen salvaje al buen revoludonario (1976; From the good savage to the good revolutionary, translated as The Latin Americans, Their Love- Hate Relationship with the United States) by the Venezuelan Carlos Rangel (1929–), who returned to the idea that Spanish American history was one of total failure. Comparing Spanish America’s progress to that of the United States, he attributed the difference to the attitude toward the native population of America: the Anglo culture alienated Native Americans while the Spaniards incorporated the Indian and black ethnic groups into their society, making them the major work force.
Women have not figured largely in the history of the Latin American literary essay, perhaps because of their disenfranchisement from the source of political and economic power. While several women writers have written exemplary essays, their concerns are often gender politics, education, and literary issues rather than the question of Latin American identity per se. Among women writers whose oeuvre includes outstanding essays are the Mexicans Yolanda Oreamuno (1916–56), Rosario Castellanos (1925–74), Elena Poniatowska (1933–), and Margo Glantz (1930–); the Argentines Victoria Ocampo (1890–1979) and Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938); the Chileans Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957) and Julieta Kirkwood; the Peruvians Flora Tristan (1803–44) and Magda Portal (1901–89); the Venezuelan Teresa de la Parra (1889–1936); the Costa Rican Carmen Naranjo (1931–); the Cuban Lydia Cabrera (1900–91); and the Puerto Rican Rosio Ferré (1938–).
The literary essay that chronicles the birth and development of the Spanish American countries is a unique form born of the realities of the continent. Although it adheres to the literary currents that were cultivated in the Western hemisphere, the essay acquired a shape of its own by becoming the political, social, and literary mouthpiece of the young continent. As the 21st century approaches, the Spanish American essayist is no longer so concerned with defining the essence of the Latin American people, now that its universality is irrefutable; as a genre, the essay continues to be the best tool for selfexamination and self-criticism for a continent that is constantly redefining itself.
According to Mario Vargas Llosa (in an interview with José Oviedo, Mexican TV, March 1997), Latin American writers would be irresponsible if they were not concerned with the political fabric of their homelands. As privileged citizens of countries where a large sector of the population is illiterate, they should participate directly or indirectly in the political life of the nation. Some essayists who continue to act as witnesses of their national and continental reality include the Mexicans Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Monsiváis (1938–), the Chilean Ariel Dorfman (1942–), the Argentines Joan José Sebreli (1930–), Blas Matamoro (1941–), and María Elena Rodríguez de Magis, and the Peruvian Julio Ortega (1942–).


El ensayo hispanoamericano del siglo XX, edited by John Skirius, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994 (original edition, 1981)
Rereading the Spanish American Essay: Translations of 19th and 20th Century Women’s Essays, edited by Doris Meyer, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995

Further Reading
Castañón, Adolfo,“La ausencia ubicua de Montaigne: Ideas para una historia del ensayo hispanoamericano,” Vuelta 16, no. 184 (March 1992): 35–38
Chachagua, Freddy, and Gleider Hernandez, “El discurso crítico hegemónico y crítico marginal en la genealogia del ensayo hispanoamericano,” Confluencia 8–9, nos. 1–2 (Spring-Fall 1993): 63–79
Concejo, Pilar, “Localismo y universalidad en el ensayo hispanoamericano,” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 387 (September 1982): 631–38
Earle, Peter G., “El ensayo hispanoamericano: Del modernismo a la modernidad,” Revista Iberoamericana 48, nos. 118–19 (January–June 1982): 47–57
Earle, Peter G., and Robert G.Mead, Historia del ensayo hispanoamericano, Mexico City: Andrea, 1973
Fernández, Teodosio, Los géneros ensayísticos hispanoamericanos, Madrid: Taurus, 1990
Fernández Retamar, Roberto, “Para una teoría de la literatura hispanoamerica,” in his Para una teoria de la literatura hispanoamericana y otras aproximaciones, Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1975
Gómez Martínez, Jose Luis, Teoría del ensayo, Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1981
Levy, Kurt, and Ellis Keith, editors, El ensayo y la crítica literaria en Iberoamérica, Toronto: University of Toronto, 1970
Marichal, Juan, Teoría e historia del ensayismo hispánico, Madrid: Alianza, 1984
Martínez-Echazabal, Lourdes, “Positivismo y racismo en el ensayo hispanoamericano,” Cuadernos Americanos 2, no. 3 (1988): 121–29
Meyer, Doris, editor, Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995
Oviedo, José Miguel, “The Modern Essay in Spanish America,” in The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, volume 2: The Twentieth Century, edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996:365–424
Ripoll, Carlos, Conciencia intelectual de América: Antología del ensayo
hispanoamericano, New York: Torres, 1974 (original edition, 1966)
Sacoto, Antonio, “El ensayo como género,” in El indio en el ensayo de la América española, New York: Las Américas, 1971
Sacoto, Antonio, “El ensayo hispanoamericano contemporaneo,” Cuadernos Americanos 2, no. 3 (1988): 107–20
Shumway, Nicolas, “The Essay in Spanish South America: 1800 to Modernismo,” in The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, volume 1: Discovery to Modernism, edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker, Cambridge and
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996:556–89
Stabb, Martin S., In Quest of Identity: Patterns in the Spanish American Essay of Ideas, 1890–1960, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967
Stabb, Martin S., The Dissenting Voice: The New Essay of Spanish America, 1960–1985, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994
Stabb, Martin S., “The Essay of Nineteenth-Century Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean,” in The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, volume 1: Discovery to Modernism, edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo- Walker, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 590–607
Urrello, Antonio, Verosimilitud y estrategia textual en el ensayo hispanoamericano, Mexico City: Premiá, 1986
Zum Felde, Alberto, El problema de la cultura americana, Buenos Aires: Losada, 1943
Zum Felde, Alberto, Indice crítico de la literatura hispanoamerica: Los ensayistas, Mexico City: Guarania, 1954

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