What does it mean to be Latin American? Can Mexican, Argentinian, or Brazilian identity be defined? Latin literature and thought seek to answer this question, expressed in a body of work as varied as the peoples of the continent. The influence of ancient cultures and different racial and national identities traverses political boundary, leading us to question what this continent is, and what it could be.
Louis Baudin saw the Inca state as a prototype for a socialist utopia; modernist revival of the past created intense cultural discussion in Latin America, leading people to want to assert their identities, as descendants of these powerful worlds, separate from their Colonial European past. Just as the Aztecs superimposed their own temples on ancient sites, so the power of the ancient, the mythical, endures. In his seminal essay ‘El Laberinto del Solitudino’, Octavio Paz explains that the power of these ‘complex and refined cities’ is always apparent: ‘Any contact with the Mexican people…reveals that the ancient beliefs and customs are still in existence beneath Western forms.’ Their singularity cannot be disputed: the metropolises of the ancient world, the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas, are present in the art, culture and literature of Latin America today. South Americans find themselves divided between the glories of the pre-Hispanic past and the world of post colonialism: in the words of Luis Nieto Degregon, we see in Latin America ‘the two faces of Janus, one looking to the past, the other looking to the future.’ In whichever way we look, it is clear that these ancient empires form the very foundation of Latin identity.
A surge of interest in examining this past was realised by Primitivism in the twentieth century. Fuelled by the desire to cultivate a ‘primitive mentality’, it sought to re-discover the role of the ancient in Latin existence. The dialectic between the past and present was explored in Ernesto Cardenel’s ‘Homage to the American Indians’, which exalted the quality of the pre-Columbian life, and the beauty of the Mayan, Incan and Nahuatl cultures, in opposition to the world of modern imperialism. Such texts allowed people to reach beyond the Colonial world, in which ‘all its creations…were reflections of Europe’. Discussions of this relationship contrasted the authenticity of the ancient versus the colonial imposition and artificiality of Europe. ‘Dying of his own death’, Pablo Neruda in his anagogic ‘From the heights of Macchu Picchu’, looks for a place where the ‘indestructible, imperishable life’ could be found, seeking an answer from the Inca people the question ‘What was man?’ Neruda calls Macchu Picchu the ‘High Reef of the human dawn’, a supernal epithet contrasting with Paz’s vision of Colonial Mexico as ‘the premature noon’. He implores: ‘‘Let there beat in me…/the old forgotten human heart.’ The premise is to become one with your past and use this to build a better future, showing his desire to restore the wisdom of the ancient people.
‘Since it is impossible to know what’s really happening,’ said Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘we Peruvians lie, invent, dream and take refuge in illusion.’
Magical realism - ‘lo real maravilloso’- is a genre closely bound to Latin literature drawing on the idea that ancient civilisations and modern indigenous tribes could attain a higher state of consciousness, in which there is an intertwining of the mythical, magical and real. Octavio Paz describes Latin America itself as existing in a ‘labyrinth of solitude’, alone in its identity. Inspired by the Aztec perception of time as cyclical and mutable, time itself is reshaped; intellectuals such as Victor Raul Haya de la Torre have questioned its relevance to Latin America: in a history seen from an Indo-American perspective, ‘what is ‘last’ in Europe may be ‘first’ in Indo-America.’ Hijo de Hombre presents cyclical time as the best explanation for why things happen; in Los Pasos Perdidos, as the voyager discovers more about the Latin past, his own experience of time becomes more aligned with the ancient, as hundreds of years are compressed in a moment.
Yet as well as this noble heritage there is, in Latin America’s past, one other unavoidable ancestor: her Iberian heritage. Ever since the first conquistadors set foot on land, there has existed a patriarchal bond with the Peninsula, and its literature has been permeated by European influence. In ‘La Urna’, Enrique Blest turns to images of nightingales - Greek, or German - and the slanted roofs of Northern Europe to express emotion, proving Borges’ belief that ‘Our tradition is all of Western culture’. But, as Mario Vargas Llosa claims: ‘in their most creative moments, Latin Americans never produced mere ‘imitations and copies’. It was in the modernismo movement that Latin American rediscovered its ancestors. The Generation of ’27 collaborated, with writers such as Neruda and Lugones working with Buñuel, Lorca, and Alberti; they fought for the Republic together, facing the same problems; of industrialisation, materialism, and the troubles of democracy in oligarchic societies. Writers were reminded of Spain’s Golden Age, its dreams and vision for America; they worried together about these promises of romantic liberation being replaced by a mechanical, mercenary society.
The question of whether Latin America represents a cohesive whole or many different countries is often considered. Hypothesised by legendary revolutionary Simon Bolivar as one vast, unconstrained land of potential - ‘The character of large republics is mutability’- the imposition of political boundaries has seemed to create artificial states, leading Paz to assert that: ‘Even now, no-one can explain satisfactorily the ‘national differences’ between Argentinians and Uruguayans, Peruvians and Ecuadorians, Guatemalans and Mexicans.’ However, some writers claim that there are distinct regional identities. During the liberal period of the twentieth century, there was an eagerness to discover ‘national traits’ – that of ‘argentinidad’, ‘peruanidad’- searching again in popular tradition and ethnic lore. Yet still there exists the feeling that the countries are not separate bodies, but part of a whole race; as Lugones believes, ‘We belong to the Latin race…the most noble of civilisations.’
This carving of identity is described by Borges, in ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition.’ He is sceptical about the ‘very existence’ of racial identity, and distrusts those writers who seek to be more Argentinian through their ‘seeking out of native words, a profusion of local colour’ so that ‘a Columbian, Mexican, or Spaniard would need a dictionary in order to understand. For Borges, this artificiality it undermines the power of the Argentine intellect. As Borges exclaims: ’As if we Argentinians could only speak of orillas and estancias, and not of the universe!’
A situation even more fraught than external cohesion is the complex racial identity of the land, in societies so compromised between so many different peoples. Although in his essay ‘La Raza Cosmica’, Jose Vasconcelos envisioned an idealised ‘mestizaje’ - ‘the union of all men into a fifth universal race,’- Latin literature is far more concerned with the struggles between Vasconcelos’ sectors– ‘The black, the Indian, the Mongol and the White.’ In Clorinda Matto de Turner’s ‘Aves sin Nido’, the indigenous population is abused by authorities. The incorporation of Andean protagonists provided a place for the Andean community in Peruvian literature, supporting the indigenista movement. Similarly, José María Arguedas’ Todas las Sangres tried to portray the racial, regional, and cultural diversity of Latin America as a whole; typically of the ‘indigenismo’ genre, it also considers the effects of modernisation in the indigenous world. Indigenismo became another way by which South Americans defined their place in the world: in novels such as Doña Barbara and La Voragine, the clash between indigenous and White cultures symbolises the conflict in Latin society between their dual heritage- as described by Paz, who believed that Mexicans see themselves as ‘the children of the conquering Spanish father and the Indian mother.’
In Vargas Llosa’s El Hablador, the erosion of ‘Machiguenga’ culture – representative of all indigenous tribes existing in ‘this contradictory civilisation’- is portrayed, as the wider society fetishizes their customs and habits, asking: ‘Were they …beginning to turn into ‘’Zombies’’; caricatures of Westerners?’ Negrismo was another movement that aimed to confront Latin origins, promoting the place of Afro-Americans in Latin America. A unique cultural legacy has arisen from this strong mixed race community, the child of immigrant and slave populations. Mulatto poet Nicolás Guillén describes this America: ‘the young, the old, / Blacks and whites, all mixed.’
No clear conclusion is to be found in the abundance of thought dedicated to defining ‘latinismo’. This is a race, a continent, a band of countries without end: perhaps it is the lack of identity that so characterises the extraordinary diversity revealed by its literature. All is bound together by one desire – survival in this mystical continent. It is a world quite unlike anywhere else on Earth: the nature of ‘El Dorado’ still mercurially unravelling- or combining – into a multitude of perspectives, groups, and identities; it is Vargas Llosa’s ‘contradictory civilisation; it is Vasconcelos’ ‘cosmic race’. When literature questions what defines latinismo, we are left wondering. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful ambiguity.
 Louis Baudin, A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru, 1961
 Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Grove Press; Underlining edition (January 12, 1994).
 Pablo Neruda, Canto General, De Las Alturas de Macchu Piccu, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc; (1 Jan. 1966)
 Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, Aprismo: the ideas and doctrines of Victor Raul Haya de la Torre. / Selected, edited, and translated by Robert J. Alexander.
 Jorge Luis Borges, The Argentine Writer and Tradition, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (Penguin Modern Classics)
 Simon Bolivar, Letters from Jamaica (Summer 1815) El Libertador: Writings of Simon Bolivar (Library of Latin America) Paperback – 15 May 2003
 Leopoldo Lugones, quoted by Borges in ‘Labyrinths’.
 Jose Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race / La raza cosmica: A Bilingual Edition (Race in the Americas) Paperback – 25 Jun 1997
 Mario Vargas Llosa, El Hablador, Punto de Lectura (10 Dec. 2010)
 Nicolas Guillen, Summa Poetica, Catedra (January 1, 2006)