Fri 14 Jun 2019 - 10.30

The Impure Poetry of Latin America

In this instalment of our series of texts taking Urban Impulses as a point of departure, Dr Elizabeth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the British Library, weaves through some reflections on Latin American cultural history. 

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of the lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.
A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behaviour, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes
[…] Those who shun the “bad taste” of things will fall flat on the ice.

- Pablo Neruda, Towards an Impure Poetry

The ‘Idea’ of Latin America

Sebsatião Salgado has argued that there is a ‘Latin American way of seeing the world…something you can’t teach, it is part of you.’ Salgado’s comments echo what many have tried to articulate about the unique lens that the Latin American experience has produced. Far from being parochial, however, Salgado’s own ‘Latin American’ way of seeing has resonated globally – shaping our understanding of the modern condition.  Indeed, since at least the 15th century the Americas – both in localised and large-scale ways – have been at the heart of the global capitalist world. Construed at its broadest, Latin America stretches from the southern border of the United States to the southern tips of Patagonia near the Antarctic – including the Caribbean archipelago.  The paradox of an ostensibly unified region and culture characterised by the social contradictions of colonialism, slavery, racism, and revolution is the crucible of Latin America.

Rather than a physical space or uniform culture, says Walter Mignolo, Latin America is first and foremost a concept (The Idea of Latin America, 2005). And the ‘idea’ of Latin America depends on the historical production of populations that existed in a different space/time than modernity. Specifically, Christianity, the Enlightenment, and racism all ‘located’ Africans and indigenous people outside of ‘Latin America.’ Historically specific forms of knowledge were born out of this process while simultaneously silenced by the universalizing hegemony of Western thought. In the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of ‘double consciousness’ and Franz Fanon’s work on race and social alienation, Mignolo asks: ‘Could you write in English but be thinking in Aymara?’ Exposing and re-constructing the lived presence of these invisible or veiled forms of consciousness has been a key ‘problem’ for thinkers, activists, and artists of Latin America.  

Erasure and absence have also constituted salient forms of political domination in the Americas. In the words of Michel Rolph-Trouillot, ‘The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.’ (Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 1995) From the myth of European ‘discovery’, the destruction of documentation related to slavery in late 19th century Brazil, the tens of thousands of people ‘disappeared’ in the 1970s and 1980s under the dictatorships of Chile and Argentina, to the abduction and murder of women and girls in northern Mexico in the 1990s – silences have produced immense power in Latin America. 

Yet, throughout Latin American history absence and elision have been deeply interwoven with public performance and ritual. From military parades, to carnival, to syncretic Catholic/African/indigenous festivals, such as the Senhor do Bonfim festival in Brazil and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Within these spaces of mass performance, ritual, revelry and spiritual communion, colonial and neo colonial constructs of time and progress have been profoundly transgressed as well as challenged. Popular festivals are unique spaces where ‘o povo’ / ‘el pueblo’ create and take power – whether through the inversion of gender roles, the subversion of caste and racial identities through use of masks and disguise, or the transgression of public/private boundaries. These experiences are crucial elements of Latin American popular political consciousness.

Latin American popular politics historically have not fit easily into Western models of ‘class struggle’ or identity politics. At least since the turn of the 20th century, the politics of the ‘masses’ – as opposed to the party or the union – has been simultaneously courted and produced by a unique form of Latin American populism often referred to as ‘strong man’ politics or caudillismo – from Calles in Mexico, Peron in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, Castro in Cuba, and Chavez in Venezuela. The current global rise of right wing populism raises urgent questions about the limitations of democratic forms of representation, and the ideological and political power of culture. These are all historical ‘problems’ with deep roots in Latin America.  We would do well to re visit its stories, struggles, expressions and sufferings.

Born of ‘Blood and Fire’

The story of Latin America’s encounters and conquest began in the late 15th century. The gold and silver mines of Peru and Mexico, and the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean are considered the earliest examples of commodity production on an industrial scale. Fuelled by the forced labour of indigenous peoples and Africans, the colonial Latin American society were profoundly shaped by revolt and rebellions, such as the Túpac Amaru (1571-1572) and the Malê revolt (1835).

By the early 19th century grassroots popular resistance to both colonial rule and slavery converged with elite mobilisation for political independence. Anti-colonial fighting and rebellion broke out across the continent and by 1830 most European colonies in Latin America had become independent and abolished slavery. (Cuba and Brazil did not abolish slavery, however, until 1886 and 1888 respectively.) The meaning of independence and freedom for the majority of people was not self-evident. Newly formed post-colonial Latin American nations inherited societies racially stratified for centuries, with a ruling political and economic oligarchy of creole elites with European heritage, born in Latin America and educated on the continent. What customs, social norms, labour conditions, and public life would exist in the newly formed nations that had just severed their ties with Europe? Post-colonial social tensions at times descended into civil war, as was the case in Colombia in 1860.

The late 19th century saw the steady rise of industrialisation and urbanisation. The philosophies of positivism and liberalism captured the hearts and minds of Latin American elites and middle classes. Yet their ambivalent relationship with Europe, the U.S., and Western hegemony more broadly, continued. Both the U.S. and Britain exerted increasing power across the region by the turn of the 20th century investing in the expansion of railroads, mining, and agriculture. The end of WWI marked a critical change in the self-perception of Latin American ethnic and cultural identity.  Most members of the Latin American intelligentsia and elites classes had abandoned Eurocentric beliefs and become champions of nationalism. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the artistic and social movements that followed – including the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – embodied this broader shift.

The cultural and ‘racial’ mixture that was once looked upon with disdain was heralded as Latin America’s unique gift to humanity. Texts such as José Vaconcelos’ La raza cósmica (1925), Gilberto Freyre’s Casa Grande e Senzala (1933) and Fernando Ortiz’s Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (1940) remain crucial building blocks of Latin American political culture. On the one hand the re-valuation of African and indigenous heritage constituted a clear break with Euro-centric concepts of nationhood and political sovereignty. It also reflected a new agency among the popular classes to express and define themselves. However, ‘mestizaje’/’mestiçagem’ was also used to white wash the systematic historical violence that produced ‘mestizo’ populations, and often contributed to the myth of ‘racial democracy’ in 20th century Latin American societies.

The wave of left wing anti-Western nationalism growing across the region found its clearest expression in the Cuban Revolution. At the turn of the 20th century Cuba had fought and won a bloody and protracted war for independence from Spain. The intervention of the US in the war and its subsequent military and political control of the island was a festering wound in Cuban society. In January 1959 Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their revolutionary forces entered Havana – ushering in a new era not only for Cuba but also for Latin American society more generally. The Cuban revolution inspired revolutionaries around the world and became a focal point of social and cultural experimentation.

At the time of the Cuban Revolution Latin American was in the process of becoming an overwhelmingly urban society. Once dominated by agriculture and rural life Latin America was now home to heaving ‘mega cities’ such as Mexico City, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Lima. Latin American economies in the 1960s and early 70s experienced rapid growth and inflation. The sudden and rapid movement of people from the countryside to cities also produced some of the largest shanty-towns in the world.

Urbanisation and economic growth went hand in hand with violent struggles over political rights and social recognition – one of the starkest examples being the 1968 massacre of students in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. The Cold War was far more than a backdrop to these changes and struggles taking place in Latin America. The U.S. actively intervened economically, politically, culturally and militarily across the region – from overthrowing elected governments in Guatemala, to aiding the overthrow of elected president Salvador Allende in Chile, to training Argentina’s military. More recently, neo liberalism and globalisation have been the determining forces shaping the lives of Latin Americans. And, as ever, the region has produced some of the most eloquent critiques of their injustices such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). The Zapatista declaration of a ‘non-violent war’ on neoliberalism’s destruction of humanity may well epitomise the Latin American ‘way of seeing’: simultaneously forward and backward looking, whilst eminently presentist, utopic, vernacular, indigenous and global.

‘Fragments of Epic Memory’

The soul of the Latin American condition finds its expression most powerfully in art. Memory, history, paradox, utopia, loss, impossibility, longing, love, bricolage – these are the currents and the forces within Latin American artistic and expressive culture. It’s an art that is inherently subversive because, in the words of Eduardo Galeano, ‘All memory is subversive, because it is different, and likewise any program for the future […] in the history of humankind every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation.’ (Open Veins of Latin America, 1973). Yet, far from moralistic, it’s an art that explores, embraces, and engages ambiguity, subjectivity, ambivalence and loss.

Like the histories that the region was constructed out of, ‘Latin American’ art has always been an inherently dynamic fusion of the ideas and experiences of the varied communities that populated the region since the arrival of European colonizers in the 16th century. The relationship between creation/destruction, and the coexistence of past/present/future are fundamental forces in Latin American artistic and creative practices, from pre-Columbian ritual sites, 16th century codices, 18th century religious paintings, the mid 20th century murals of Orozco and Siqueiros, or the radical mail art of Clemente Padín in the 1970s. At least since the 1930s the arts of Latin America took a decisive anti- and post-colonial turn, leading the way globally in expressions of futures that immanently contained critiques of Eurocentrism and the relations of power produced by centuries of global imperialism. The representations of Latin America produced by Europeans and Americans have also resonated and shaped Latin American’s own ideas about themselves – from the detailed, often idyllic, paintings of Brazilian slave society by Debret, to the iconic drawings of Mayan ‘ruins ‘ by Catherwood, to Vidal’s portraits of the Argentine ‘Gaucho.’ 

The multiplicities and contradictions that characterise Latin American art are not, however, exclusive to its historical context or content. From its inception Latin American art forms have also transversed and transgressed mediums. The exploration of text, vision and consciousness in the Brazilian concrete poetry movement; the poetry, photography and painting of Frank Walter; and the modern ritualistic uses of the ancient Incan ‘quipu’ form of accounting and calendars are only a few examples of this. More broadly, at least since the 20th century, Latin American art has always been a dialogue among practitioners and mediums. The boundaries between literature, film, music, dance, poetry, photography, painting, sculpture have been fluid, and indeed exploring the interstices and overlaps between them has formed a crucial part of many artists’ practices. Recently, there has been intense artistic and theoretical work done on the aesthetics of precariousness. For example, the Eloísa Cartonera artists books born out of the ashes of global economic crises such as the of Buenos Aires, and the Ediciones Vigía artists books from Matanzas, Cuba. Economic survival, political insecurity, and struggles for social recognition – artists and curators alike are engaging with the ways these are forces that can be harnessed creatively. From that which has been broken, violated, distorted and disappeared comes the ‘impure poetry’ of Latin America.

Dr Elizabeth Cooper is the Curator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the British Library.  Her research and publications focus on the inter-related histories of colonialism and slavery, race and capitalism, and popular political consciousness in the Atlantic World from the 18th through the mid 20th century. She was also the Lead Curator of the critically acclaimed 2018 exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land at the British Library.

Further reading:

O País do Carnaval, Jorge Amadao (1931)
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño (2007)
A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in 20th Century Cuba, Alejandro De La Fuente (2001)
Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, Martín Espada ed. (1994)
Memory of Fire (Trilogy), Eduardo Galeano (1982)
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1970)
The Caribbean: A History of the Region and its Peoples, Palmié and Scarano eds. (2011)
The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz (1950)
Massacre in Mexico, Elena Poniatowski (1991)
Latin America: Its Cities and Its Ideas, José Luis Romero (1999)
The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Derek Walcott (1992)